The Real Life of Sergey Nabokov

The Real Life of Sergey Nabokov


“But, my dear, how did you ever get such a wild thought into your head?” chimed Princess Zinaida Shakhovskaya.

Princess Zinaida reminded me of Martita Hunt playing the Grand Duchess Elise Lupavinova in Anastasia. She was such a flighty thing—full of gossip.

“Why, after all, my dear, one could write—I don’t know—say, about the life of so many other gay Russian émigrés?”

She paused a moment—looking up at the ceiling. Her elegant cigarette-holder was long and slender—designed by Erte with black onyx, mother of pearl, gold trim and small diamonds. She breathed it in ever so gently—hardly enough to inhale the absinthe-soaked hashish lavender cigarette.

“Don’t you agree, Dmitri?” she asked. “Something more in the orbit of a nice young male Lolita-type perhaps—a young beautiful thing like that young Prince Youssoupoff immediately comes to one’s mind?”

Princess Zinaida Shakhovskaya motioned to her brother Prince Dmitri Shakhovskaya the new Archbishop of San Francisco to close the door and get her another drink. I intrigued her—that and she was simply dying with sheer, utter and complete boredom. She always needed something gay and scandalous in her life—something to help her avoid the usual tiring Parisian soirees. The same old White Russian émigrés and tiresome non-entities.

“Tell me now—why Sergey? Why Sergey Vladimirovich Nabokov? After all these years, my dear, I can barely remember him—he was very handsome and gay but rather elusive.”

Princess Zinaida was genuinely intrigued by presence—her Erte necklace gave it away. Her pearl, pink tourmaline, amethyst and diamond necklace had seemed to come life again—the Madeira and exquisite champagne citrines were glowing again like they did those beautiful nights back in the palaces and gay parties in St. Petersburg. I could even sense the crystal chandelier trembling above us—like svelte stilettos of an icy stillicide. The lights dimmed at the mere mention of Sergey—they flickered ever so delicately… Was I the only one to notice—was there an unseen visitor with us in the room?”

“Dmitri tells me you’re a writer,” Princess Zinaida finally said, peering over her cards at me.

I couldn’t help but notice her long thin Monte Carlo earrings so gracefully dangling from her old wrinkled earlobes. They were sterling 14K Erte compositions—with tiny shimmering diamonds,

Princess Zinaida must have noticed how much I admired her jewelry—staring at her art deco “Love’s Enchantment Pendant” with its gold, silver, diamonds, black onyx and mother of pearl profile. She was used to it though—in fact she expected it from young louche American writers like me. Louche and helplessly gauche—that’s how I felt around her.

Even more stunning and charming though—her amazing gold/diamonds and onyx “Follies Necklace” epitomizing Erte’s work in both theater and fashion. Based on a cover design for Harper’s Bazaar Magazine—the necklace was truly unique and stunning.

It was as if Princess Zinaida wasn’t a real person at all—she was actually a very sophisticated creation by Erte himself. Her life was simply an extension of his stylish jewelry—it was all she could get out of Russia as the rude Revolution descended on her life. It was all the rich and famous had left—suitcases of smuggled jewelry, some mildewy Romanov memories and the Russian language itself to comfort them in their exile.

Somewhere in the background somebody was playing the piano—various melodies I simply loathed. The instruction to the artificial flowers in Faust (…dites-lui qu’elle est belle…) and Vladimir Lenshi’s wail (…“Koo-dah, koo-dah, kood-dah vi udalilis’...). Was it Sergey playing the grand piano in the other room—or was I just imagining it? It must have been the decadent cigarette smoke—it was growing increasingly oppressive. Yet I couldn’t help but breathe it in—paying attention to tiny details that otherwise would remain hiding in the purple shadows.

The aging sepia gloom of the old apartment in midwinter was deepening into an oppressive Bolshevik blackness—every once in awhile I caught the slight gleam of a bronzed angle, a surface of glass or polished mahogany shimmer here and there in the darkness. They reflected the odds and ends of light from the street where traffic was coming and going—as my drifting mind was already diffusing itself into a somewhat slightly lunar lucidity.

She took a much longer drag on her elegant cigarette-holder this time—and handed it to me. I simply loathed aphrodisiacs and cheap hallucinogenic divagations—but I went ahead and forced myself to take a long toke. Then in the mausoleum stillness of the moment, I felt my nerves shudder as I heard the delicate sound of a single chrysanthemum petal falling onto the marble surface of a nearby table with all the rumbling and crumbling and startling reverberation of a giant boulder falling down from mighty Mt. Olympus onto my poor throbbing head…

“Yes, Princess Zinaida—I’m a writer.” I managed to say it rather aloofly and calmly—although it seemed like somebody else was doing the talking.

“Please don’t call me Princess, young man,” she said rather abruptly.

Zinaida Shakhovskaya's forthcoming death would not made big news in Moscow—except for a radio announcement and a brief Lenta-Ru notice. Apparently, she was always correcting those who called her knyaginya Shakhovskaya—that is, a prince’s wife. She explained that she used to be knyazhna Shakhovskaya—a prince's unmarried daughter. Both words were "Princess" in English—but in Russian there were different kinds of princesses, duchesses and queens. It must have been the last straw for her—in her Lenta-Ru obituary—when she was called knyaginya Shakhovskaya…

I apologized profusely and had another toke. I couldn’t help myself—I was getting totally enamored with her lovely Erte jewelry. Princess Zinaida’s golden minaret ring, for example, with its glowing rubies and yellow sapphires—the jewels were strangely pulsating there on her left index finger as she held her cards somewhat carelessly.

I knew it was rude and uncouth to gawk and stare—but this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ogle to my heart’s content. Just look at that lovely stealthy serpent ring I said to myself—that one really caught my attention. It was an Erte masterpiece of stylishly-crafted exquisite silver coils encircling her dainty little pinkie. It had green onyx eyes that glowed in the dark—and tiny little diamonds along its sides as it tried to slither off her skinny withered finger. Her Salome brooch pendant leered back at me—exuding an evil truly pleasing hauteur to my envious eyes. Never had I seen such a beautiful brooch—not at Tiffany’s or even in the famous ancient Roman Brooch Factory Museum there in gay Naples.

“Yes, I’m doing a biography of Sergey Nabokov, Madam Shakhovskaya,” I said. “My contention is that Sergey was Vladimir’s homoerotic lover—or at least his gay double. I think Sergey blew the whistle on Uncle Ruka’s love affair with the chicken Vladimir—that’s why he willed two million dollars and his estates to the young Volodya and not Sergey.”

I paused a moment—the elegant Erte cigarette holder guiding my thoughts like the baton of some maestro. I shared with Princess Zinaida my thoughts about the two young Nabokov aristocrats—how they like all adolescent boys were caught up in a kind of gay sibling rivalry there in Rozhestveno, Berlin, Paris, Cambridge—and even for heaven’s sake there at Wordsmith College in New Wye Appalachia.

I elucidated magnificently on my projected magnificent gay opus—delineating how Vladimir had done the same thing with Lolita, Pale Fire, The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, Despair and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

It was as if somebody else was giving the long and convoluted lecture—as if the card deck itself were saying it. In fact, I had the distinct sensation the deck I was shuffling was actually alive—I wasn’t shuffling it but rather it was shuffling me. I also sensed the deck was a woman—she was the one doing the talking. The strange deck of cards was crooked and it had a real name—her name was Adelaida Ivanovna. She was bored with Bridge—she preferred tavern games with young ruffians, thieves and crooks. Young handsome types with long slang skaz names like Zamukhryshkinseems and Zakhmuryshkin. There was an air of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and “The Gamblers” in the room—I even noticed Princess Zinaida’s nose was getting larger and larger. I even told them the real identity of Gogol’s Nose—they looked at me in dazed shock and amazement. I could tell they were thinking they’d underestimated me—I wasn’t a young writer at all. I was a Dostoyevsky madman—surely I was an insane Zemblan con-artist in disguise?

“Sergey was Vladimir’s shadowy doppelganger—his better queer half. Vladimir spent the rest of his life—wrestling down by the river like Jacob with his Angel. Sergey was the dark Angel—Vladimir’s bruised thigh was his oeuvre of dark troubling novels.” That’s how I concluded my literary discussion—I paused quietly, examining their faces.

Princess Zinaida Shakhovskaya smiled…

Prince Dmitri the Archbishop of San Francisco also smiled knowingly—mentioning how Sergey showed up at Mass in full drag with mascara and eye-shadow. Dmitri was no blue-nose—he knew secrets about the Vatican and Taormina that would make even Jacob’s angel blush.

“Well said, my dear boy—which is to say the very least—exquisitely enigmatic,” remarked the other guest. He was Professor Boydovitch—a well-known University Distinguished Botkin Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Gawkland.

Professor Boydovitch sipped his martini—playing nonchalantly with his talking cards. He was working on a new book himself—about Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the poem of Vladislav Khodasevich inside it. It was the “Ballada” poem—the one that Nabokov had translated for New Directions back it 1941. Nabokov admired Khodasevich very much—both as a sympathetic reviewer of The Defense and as a fellow poet. By alluding to Khodasevich in Pale Fire—the grateful Vladimir was insuring that “Ballada” and Khodasevich’s poetry would survive longer than most émigré literature within the confines of the 999 lines of the Shade poem.

Princess Zinaida was no slacker herself—her naughty long-awaited tell-all biography—In Search of Uncle Ruka—had been published by La Presse Libre in Russian V poiskakh Uncle Ruka in 1979. Professor Boydovitch had done an exquisite translation of the book—it was full of revealing photos, letters and postcards from Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov to young Vladimir over the years. Suppressed Egyptian ones, for example.

The first shocking chapters had come out in The New Yorker. Professor Boydyshevski—also the author of an extensively large twelve-tome biography of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev—nodding knowingly when I mentioned the fascinating influence of Uncle Ruka and Vladimir’s early literary interests (see Speak, Memory). As well as Uncle Ruka’s (Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov) influence on Sergey’s life as well—despite Vladimir’s insistence that Uncle Ruka wasn’t interested in Sergey. They went to operas together and concerts—Sergey played the piano and Vasiliy sang long Proustian romances to the amber vineyards below and the empurpled mountains in the distance. Flights of doves striating the tender sky—a hush falling over the terrace at his Pau castle. Uncle Ruka even taught Sergey to stutter better—and how to do it stylishly.

But Vladimir had to be the favorite with not only his gay uncle—but his parents as well. The question was why and how—and what for? One of my sources said that the Nabokov’s first child was stillborn—that’s why they spoiled Vladimir who himself had an early sickly boyhood. Sergey had a Caesarian birth—making him older-appearing and more mature than Vladimir? Two boys—and the difficult years were yet to come.

But all that was detail work—I had more research to do in the morning. I needed to track down the “doll-house” apartment that Sergey and Pavel Tchelitchev lived in during their productive days in Paris designing sets for Diaghilev and Stravinsky. Then I had to catch a flight to Innsbruck Austria—and Schloss Weissenstein.

Princess Zinaida pretended to be in mock-boredom most of the time—it was just a tiny little aristocratic facade she put up like a Japanese fan to obscure her actual conniving decadent schemings. Soon we got down to the dirty details—the kind of gossip that only queer cognoscenti know and share…

We discussed Sergei Nabokov and his handsome young lover Hermann Thieme—and their hauntingly tragic love affair. Even Vladimir liked Hermann—perhaps too much. Princess Zinaida filled me in on the dirt, excuse me, the juicy gossip.

It was quite revealing to the Princess one evening in Paris—when Vladimir turned to Hermann and winked knowingly at him. He felt him up and called him Sergey’s well-endowed “husband.” For a brief romantic panicky second Hermann was suddenly caught sexually between two worlds—the two worlds of this fascinating pair of stunningly goodlooking young aristocrats exiled from a life of Russian wealth and untold luxury.

Both of them so very talented and charming in exquisitely different ways. One arrogant and aloof—the other resigned and gay. Both calmly smoking cigarettes—both of them coolly examining him there in Pavel Tchelitchev’s apartment. The Nabokov boys were like two facets in a Erte snake-ring of black onyx, gold & diamonds—the sunlight catching the sleek ring’s stylish double-headed Russian eagle with the last golden burst of a dying empire’s sunset rays.


“Where Rubloo’s colors ooze from the icons”
—Nikolay Klyvev

Dearest Hermann—

How I miss you—words cannot describe my loneliness.

The long summer days we spent together lounging around the castle—playing tennis and bridge with your parents.

It was so gay—compared with Berlin. I still feel simply exquisitely suffocated with love—your lovely embrace a moonlight sonata on the terrace beneath the stars….

The nights we spent together in your bedroom—listening to the strains of The Firebird coming through the window at Schloss Weinssenstein.

Can such a fairy tale really be true—was I just dreaming I was in love?

The tiny Alpine village of Matrei im Osttirol near Innsbruck—I can still see it now. Visiting the taverns—all the cute blondes! Then playing tennis—wearing tuxedos for dinner.

Your charming face—the way you kissed me on the staircase beneath Apollo’s gaze.

I keep a photo of you on my nightstand—Berlin just doesn’t seem so bleak and threatening that way. I’ll be joining Tchelitchev in Paris this weekend.

Please hurry—Diaghilev is getting impatient to finally meet you.

Wishing you were here with me—my dearest Hermann.

Your abject Russian serf—



“Ah, it’s good when the twilight mocks us”
—Sergei Esenin

Dearest Sergey,

There are people like Vladimir who don’t understand us. .
They never will—even though they want to know the secret to our happiness.

They find completely incomprehensible the kind of love we have for each other.

It’s so natural for both of us—it’s like breathing in and out or flying to the moon.

They’re jealous fools—especially your brother Vladimir.

You and Vladimir—how could two brothers be so different?

Both of you so extremely handsome—could I have fallen in love with Volodya too?

How could I knowing you’re the real one—Volodya is just your shadow.

His neurosis is so telling—are all poets that way?

You worry too much that I’ll break your heart, dear one.
Innsbruck is insufferable without you.

I will always love you, dearest Sergey—but you must be brave.

My dearest Russian prince—I am forever your loving



“I have Sebastian’s aversion to postal phenomena.”
—The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Dear Professor Charles Kinbote,

Thank you for your recent letter in regard to Sergey Nabokov.

As an esteemed English professor at the University of Zembla, I’m sure you sense my hesitation in even attempting to describe Sergey’s love-life with any kind of academically methodical continuity since it would be utterly impossible—something normally achievable only if Sergey Nabokov were a character of fiction.

Even if I attempted such an impossible task as a fictional biography of Sergey, I would surely end up with one of those atrocious gay “biographies romancées” which are simply the worst kind of bourgeois literature imaginable. Sergey’s life would make pulp fiction blush—his was a classy “poshlust” princess gone bad. And there would be those I’m sure who would point the finger of doubt in my direction—saying I was truly the one to be blamed. An unforgivably louche and sullen unreliable narrator on many levels and within many worlds. I’d be the first to admit it—I’m worse than Miss Gogol…

Sergey was somewhat fond of a few of the books lingering in my modest oeuvre—Albinos in Black, The Doubtful Asphodel and The Prismatic Bezel. They were among his favorites I’ve been told—although I know he was also fond of Miss Proust, Madame Cocteau and the usual Gide-esque French gay intelligentsia back then.

I do happen to have some letters between Sergey and Pavel Tchelitchev dated 1923 Paris—along with a few photos of Tchelitchev’s lover Allen Tanner. I’ll send you a copy of them.

The rest mostly sketches of set designs for Diaghilev—for instance the set and costumes for Ode Charreuse(choreography by Leonide Massine) which had its premiere in Paris in June 1928. That was before Charles Henri Ford showed up—the bright-eyed Mississippi boy (and future editor of View) who, according to Kirstein, possessed a "provocative coltishness, kaleidoscopic curiosity, and faun-faced sharpness.”

It was through Tchelitchev and his cousin Nicolas that Sergey met Diaghilev and Virgil Thomson. I myself was at a literary soiree once with Sergey and Pavel at Gertrude Stein’s salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Tchelitchev was there too—going on and on about himself. I even developed a taste Alice B. Toklas’ famed brownies—although they made me rather dizzy and ill.

I kept gazing at a portrait of Edith Sitwell by Tchelitchev on the wall. They were lovers—or rather they were lovers in love with themselves. Sitwell, according to Lincoln Kirstein, "fell madly, head-over-heels in love with herself, the passion of her life. She was to be Michelangelo to her own throbbing Vittoria Colonna.”

Miss Picasso was there too—leering at anything with two legs. I wisely stayed away from him—his mistress having already forewarned me about the vile little reprobate and his disgusting artistic guilty pleasures. “First he’ll gore you—then he’ll do your portrait,” she said.

I was disgusted with the possibility—being fucked over twice. His poor mistresses—I sympathized with their terrible plight. Picasso was always trying to put the make on Gertrude—she’d give him an elbow or a “get-lost” dyke sneer. Two tops—not a very good combination. Or were they bottoms?

Other than that, my dear Professor Kinbote, I simply don’t have too many other recollections about Sergey other than he was a charming young man who loved music and opera—unlike his tone-deaf but cute older brother Vladimir.

Sergey was a bit of a dandy, an aesthete and balletomane—very tall, blond. Plus he had a charming stutter like his Uncle Ruka—the only time he didn’t stutter was when he was reciting some memorized poetry. I found him rather sexy—especially when he was playing tennis. He never seemed like a disillusioned émigré to me—he fit very nicely into the gay scene in Berlin and Paris… He never looked back—unlike his brother.

I agree with your theory that perhaps Vladimir was consumed with guilt and remorse about his younger brother Sergey—a rather odd form of literary confession to make to the world but who knows what really happened between them.

Much of it probably had to do with something both ancient and quite natural—the very serious business of sibling rivalry. It goes back all the way back to Cain and Mable, my dear—and probably even further than that. Like Cain perhaps Vladimir blamed himself for Sergey’s death—maybe it was the Mark of Cain that made him such a great writer. Who knows what goes on in the hearts of straight men—only their Shadows know…

Some say it went deeper than that—that Uncle Ruka was perhaps overly fond of the young chicken Vladimir. Invariably taking him on his knee after lunch—while his two young handsome footmen were clearing the table in the empty dining room. Uncle Ruka was always spoiling Vladimir with exotic gifts from his travels, precious books to entertain him, even fondling him sometimes in the coach—whispering sweet nothings into his ear with crooning sounds and fancy French endearments. In his will Ruka left his estates, his possesstions and millions of dollars to Vladimir not Sergey. All of it lost to the Revolution, of course. Was such a relationship the true beginnings of Lolita—did it really start that way ?

I find the photos of Uncle Ruka (Vasily Rukavishnikov) in Speak, Memory to be very revealing—he reminds me a little bit of a gay aristocratic Humbert Humbert. A wealthy, eccentric dilettante—feigning sickness and fainting-spells on the dining room floor after dinner.

Everybody thought his angina and mock heart-attacks were fake—but in the end they weren’t. He died alone in Paris—without anybody to say goodbye. He caressed his young nephew nonchalantly in his mansion after lunch—or in the elegant carriage with its incredibly cute coachman taking long rides in the countryside.

The photos of young Vladimir are simply stunning—for example, the one with his father when he was 9 and the one when he was sixteen. What a cute little St. Petersburg dream-boat Vladimir Nabokov was!!! I can see why Uncle Ruka was infatuated with him—along with all the other queens in Berlin and Paris. Perhaps this close involvement with his gay uncle explains Vladimir’s later ambivalence to homosexuality—and his aloofness toward his gay brother?

I sense a certain homoerotic voyeurisme at work here—with Vladimir’s obvious fascination with satire, parody, mock-authorial game-playing and chess-gaming going on throughout his novels and short stories. His poetry is very playful too—much of his juvenilia I find rather titillating. Not often do we find such a chicken—with a silver spoon born in his mouth. Just ask poor Verlaine—what he went through with young Rimbaud…

As I’m sure you’re quite aware, Dr. Kinbote, there are some rather notable literary critics and esteemed academicians who say that the center of Nabokov’s narrative—the eye of the hurricane, you might say—was indeed his brother Sergey Nabokov. They say Vladimir was truly troubled by both Sergey and Uncle Ruka—they were truly his troublesome Doppelgangers. What would you do if you had a gay Doppelganger shadow—hanging around in your head all the time? If I were straight—it could be very distracting I'd think. If I were gay—it would probably distract me even more.

That’s what Vladimir seems to say about Sergey—he dissipates himself pretending to be Sergey worse than

Sergey does. Squandering his talents on music, ballet, Paris nightlife. Vladimir had only the bleakest of recollections associated with Paris—his relief at leaving was over-whelming. Sergey came by to find an empty apartment—only to be left stuttering his astonishment to an indifferent concierge. Yet didn’t Vladimir always have a portrait up there in the attic? Wasn’t he always projecting his gay brother constantly into all sorts of characters in his novels?

Why, my dear Kinbote?

Some say the pale lavender flame that burned in Sergey—was the same pale fire that burned in Vladimir too. Even now the pale fire still hovers around them and through all the novels and short stories—they’re like the double-headed Russian eagle facing in opposite directions. But then who are we to say—we’re not exactly the most reliable narrators are we?

They say, Dr. Kinbote, that you’ve never really existed—anymore than I have either. They say you’re only the figment of Professor Shade’s poetic imagination—or visa versa that Professor Shade is your creation and that all of Zembla is in your head. I must admit that it makes me feel rather queer to be fictional—and getting a rather professional letter from a fellow fictional character. Even though we’re both the creations of fictional biographies—I still find it charming that one novel has reached out to another novel. Should we call it intertextual discourse—or something more gauche and rude like “skazzy” intercourse?

Forgive me but for a moment I got caught up in a game of words and worlds—thanks to Vladimir Nabokov’s dark imagination. Being Sebastian Knight has been rather difficult for me—but surely not as difficult as your life of Charles Kinbote. The Queen of Zembla—what a challenging thought.

And yet neither one of us would probably exist at all—if it weren’t for Vladimir’s endearing and troublesome love and guilt over Sergey.

Well, my dear, I doubt if I’ve been very helpful to you in regard to your Zemblan research—one of these days I will read your fascinating new novel The Queen of Zembla and perhaps then I’ll understand this world-within-a-world we’re both caught up in.

I trust you’ll have a very fruitful fall semester at Wordsmith College this coming academic year—and I look forward to seeing more of your college-boy stable

table tennis photos.

Sincerely yours,
Sebastian Knight

No comments: