Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Ends: Paul Russell's The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov

I didn't intend to finish Paul Russell's novel about the life of Vladimir Nabokov's gay brother Sergey on Palm Sunday.  In fact, when I began The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov (Berkeley: Cleis, 2011) a number of days ago, I had no intention at all of connecting Sergey's story to Holy Week and the passion of Christ.

But now that I've read the novel--and perhaps even more because I finished it on Palm Sunday--I find it hard to get the image of Sergey Nabokov as alter Christus out of my head.  Russell has rich material to work with as he tells Sergey's story--to be specific, as he lifts Sergey out of the obscurity of history, and shows us that the celebrated author Vladimir Nabokov had a gay brother who played a significant if unacknowledged role in Nabokov's life.  And who died in a German work camp at Neungamme in 1945 while his famous and successful sibling was basking in fame in the United States, teaching at Wellesley, collecting butterflies for Harvard, summering on Cape Cod and hobnobbing with the likes of Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy.

As Russell has acknowledged, by beginning the process of historical retrieval, Lev Grossman with his seminal essay about Sergey at Salon in May 2000 opened a door for Russell to recreate this story of two brothers, one adored and privileged, the other pushed always into the shadows.  One heterosexual, the other gay--and this is hardly unrelated to the question of who got the privilege and who was shoved to the sidelines.  Grossman's essay also helpfully frames this story of two brothers as a story of doubles, of opposites, of conjoined twins--themes that fascinated Vladimir Nabokov throughout his work.

As did the topic of homosexuality, a topic about which Nabokov held decided opinions.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Nabokov did not like gay folks.  Homosexuality made him uncomfortable.  It was a subject that perhaps cut rather close to his bone, given that he had not merely a gay brother but a gay uncle on either side of his family.  And so the blood that produced his brother (or, as Nabokov himself put it, resulted in Sergey's "hereditary illness") ran also in Nabokov's veins.  

Sergey presented to his brother Vladimir, it seems, a mirror in which Vladimir saw a hidden, repressed possibility of a twin self that he wished to shove from himself as brutally as possible.  And so throughout their entire lives, Vladimir shunned and ridiculed his brother Sergey, who lacked his brother's pyrotechnic verbal facility (but who nonetheless had the potential to be an accomplished writer, given half a chance), who was socially outrĂ©, who stuttered and could not have disguised or hidden his gay self if his life had depended on it.

One life leads from victory to victory, even through the dispossession of the Russian revolution and the hardships of exile.  The other leads ineluctably to the very special kind of calvary the Nazi system produced for gay men: it led to the arrest of Sergey and his beloved husband Hermann Thieme, to Hermann's assignment to the front lines in Africa and Sergey's imprisonment at Neuengamme, where he died of a combination of dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion after having, per the testimony of prisoners who survived the work-camp experience, persistently given away food and clothes his family sent him in order to assist those who had less than he himself had.

This is a story that will interest many different readers for a world of different reasons.  The tale it tells of life in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg--in the privileged aristocratic circles of St. Petersburg--is engrossing, as is the story of the family members' lives in exile in Prague, Paris, and Berlin.  While Vladimir suffers terribly after the connection with Mother Russia is broken, Sergey enjoys rare years of freedom in the happening circles of Paris's dazzling multicultural pre-war arts scene.  He succumbs to the opium-fueled wiles of Cocteau, lives with painter Pavel Tchelitchew and Tchelitchew's lover Allen Tanner, attends glittering parties with the likes of Picasso, Diaghilev, Cole Porter, and Stravinsky, endures the prejudices and pronouncements of a salon-enthroned Gertrude Stein and her minion Alice B. Toklas, and goes to balls at which nubile young men dress in dazzling gowns to effect liaisons with high-ranking military officers and government officials.

(Confession time: I find descriptions of the secret societies of privileged gay men in pre-World War II Europe tedious in the extreme.  I also dislike and have always disliked Vladimir Nabokov.  The only book of his I can remember having read to the end was Speak, Memory, and that was many years ago.  I may be constitutionally tone deaf to grand Russian literature.  I dutifully read the classics in college but would not dream of picking any of them up again--except perhaps Oblomov, which tickled my fancy for some reason.  I have always felt, when I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, that I am missing something important I'm obliged to see in them.  I vastly prefer reading about them than reading their work.  I thought A.N. Wilson's biography of Tolstoy was brilliant.  

I can stomach Chekhov and Pushkin far more than the grand novelists, because I get the point of the tiny details on which everything hangs for them far more than I understand the grand ideas that are thought, in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to move history.  I am unmoved by novels about ideas.  I appear to have, woven into the Anglo fiber of my being, a preference for stories about people and their tiny foibles, their turns of phrase.  I die for novels of manners, for Austen and Dickens and their numerous progeny. 

I have long been absolutely horrified by Gertrude Stein, especially by her whitewashing of the Nazis and their anti-semitism and her seeming exploitation of Alice Toklas, and Russell's depiction of her only made me shudder all the more.  His wicked, dead-on satirical reconstruction of her hopelessly pedestrian, absurdly ponderous, going-nowhere written and oral ex cathedra pronouncements amused me no end.)

And then there's this: in the midst of the glitter, the ball dresses, the opium dreams, the one-pretty-young-man-after-another, Sergey Nabokov discovers God.  Or does he?  He discovers a spiritual hole in his life, and claims that God has filled that hole, and, with Cocteau and his coterie of gay enfants trailing in his wake, Sergey hies himself to a Catholic church in Paris and is confirmed.

And from this central turning point in the narrative, it seems to me there's an intentional (and provocative) ambiguity in the story Russell tells up to the point of Sergey's death at Neuengamme.  On the rare occasions after his Catholic confirmation when Sergey meets his brother Vladimir, they talk about the turn to God, and Vladimir suggests that pitiful gay half-men such as Sergey naturally turn to religion--especially to the drama and theater of Catholic liturgy--for consolation.  For some meaning in an otherwise tortured existence in which they will never lead meaningful or fulfilled lives apart from the jeweled monstrances, the wafts of incense, the priests who know but claim not to know what goes on in these men's lives outside the walls of the church.

And there's a sense in which Vladimir's analysis here is absolutely correct.  It is difficult in the extreme to believe that Cocteau's devotion can be rock-solid when his Mass-going is preceded by a pipe of opium and a cuddle in bed with his boy du jour.  There is, one is tempted to conclude, something entirely theatrical about the kind of demonstrative, liturgically effusive Catholicism to which the gay partygoers of pre-World War II Paris cling for salvation, just as the curtains of doom begin to ring down all around their ears.

Above all, there is something, one is tempted to conclude, entirely theatrical about the collusion of closeted, non-self affirming gay priests with these hidden gay men whose "suffering" is not in the least inherent in their natures, but is socially crafted for them--and socially crafted for them by the very institution that claims to be offering them mercy and redemption through liturgical theater, shining jeweled monstrances, the wafts of incense that substitute ecclesial theater for cross-dressing pederastic theater.  It is hard to see the reality of the redemption offered here.  It is hard for me, I should say, to see the reality of the redemption here.

Since any real redemption in stories of this sort lies, to my way of thinking, in honesty about the fact that God makes some of us gay, and that what God makes is good.  That the gift of homosexual orientation among some of us is a divinely offered gift to the human race and the church, and is to be celebrated.  Not relegated to the shadows.  And to my way of thinking, the narrative line of redemption in this story requires the Catholic church to relinquish the cruelty that impels it, with its tiers and tiers of closeted gay hierarchs, to make the lives of gay and lesbian human beings as difficult, as inhumane, as possible.  So that the church can then reach out in "pity," "mercy," and "redemption" to salvage these human wrecks it has created and shore up its message about itself as an institution full of pity and mercy and redemptive love by feeding on the misery of the gay wretches it deliberately produces through its malicious teachings.

That's one side of the story.  But the other side of the story, which makes the narrative line more ambiguous than the either-or alternative I'm sketching here, is that Sergey actually does exhibit powerfully transformative love following his conversion experience.  It is that experience that grounds his decision to remain with Hermann in Europe even when they both can see the handwriting on the wall: when they both can see that their lives will almost certainly end up in suicide missions on the African front or in work camps designed to kill social undesirables.

It is that same redemptive love--and how can we doubt this, given the testimony of those who survived the Neuengamme camp?--that impels Sergey to give his cloak to those without a cloak and and his bread to whose who lack bread.  And so something about the conversion that Sergey experiences in his years in the brittle, whirling circles of gay Parisian society prior to the war rings true.

And this leaves me wondering as this Holy Week proceeds precisely how those of us who are gay can find anything redemptive at all in churches that do everything in their power to obscure our human faces.  And which, in the process, obscure the human-divine face of Christ for us and for many others.

The profound crisis of faith in which many Catholics now find themselves at this point in history does not have primarily to do with doubt about the central tenets of Christianity.  It has everything to do with the fact that we increasingly find it impossible to see the face of Christ in anything the church proclaims or does, when its leaders have for some years now so obliterated all traces of salvific, all-encompassing love in the central symbols and proclamations of our faith that we can find that salvific and all-encompassing love only by deliberately repudiating the church itself.  Because it has become not the vehicle to salvation that it professes to be, but an impediment to salvation.  The church and its leaders have become a countersign to the gospels and to Jesus.

And the questions that this reality provokes, which are very personal for me and others at this point in the 21st century, are not at all divorced from the story of Vladimir Nabokov's gay brother Sergey, who is becoming for me, as I think about his story in light of the Holy Week drama, a story about an alter Christus I am not likely to meet in any Catholic church, as long as the human faces of gay and lesbian men and women have to be hidden in one way or another in almost any Catholic church anywhere in the world.  Or, if not entirely obliterated, apologized for.  Which is to say the same thing . . . . 

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