Composer Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to Vladimir and Sergei, paints much the same double portrait:
Rarely have I seen two brothers as different as Volodya and Seryozha. The older one, the writer and poet, was lean, dark, handsome, a sportsman, with a face resembling his mother’s. Seryozha … was not a sportsman. White-blond with a reddish tint to his face, he had an incurable stutter. But he was gay, a bit indolent, and highly sensitive (and therefore an easy butt for teasing sports).
When the brothers graduated in 1922, they joined their family in Berlin, which had become the social and cultural center of the Russian diaspora. Sergei fit easily into the growing gay community there, and he was friendly with German activist Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the world’s first gay tolerance organization. Sergei and Vladimir went to work at a bank, but the 9-to-5 routine didn’t suit them: Sergei quit after a week, Vladimir in a matter of hours. Vladimir remained in Berlin, where he met and married his wife, Vira, but Sergei moved on to Paris.
Paris in the ’20s meant the legendary Paris of expatriates, the Paris of modernists and the avant-garde, of Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and the surrealists. Sergei would spend much of the next two decades there. While Vladimir never stopped mourning the Russia of his youth, Sergei most likely felt at home for the first time in a city that celebrated art and music, and that took his gayness in stride.
It becomes more difficult to track Sergei when he passed out of his brother’s exhaustively documented life, but some details of his time in Paris survive. We know that in the winter of 1923 Nicolas introduced him to painter Pavel Tchelitchev, whose work now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and who painted sets for Sergei Diaghilev. Tchelitchev was also gay and also a Russian imigri, and the two of them shared an apartment with Tchelitchev’s lover, Allen Tanner.
The flat was so tiny that when Tchelitchev saw it he remarked, “We are to live in a doll’s house!” It had no electricity and no bath — they had to wash themselves in a zinc tub using water heated on a gas stove. Sergei survived by giving lessons in English and Russian. His circumstances may have been straitened, but the cultural scene in which Sergei found himself was rich beyond all measure. According to Andrew Field, Nabokov’s first biographer, Sergei was good friends with Jean Cocteau, and he was also connected, through Tchelitchev and his cousin Nicolas, to Diaghilev, to composer Virgil Thomson, to those aristocratic aesthetes the Sitwells and even to the legendary salons conducted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at 27 Rue de Fleurus.
He must have cut quite a figure. Sergei was an incorrigible dandy, and he wore a bow tie at all times. According to one story, told by a former archbishop of San Francisco, he was notorious for attending Mass in full makeup. Nicolas’ son Ivan is now in his 60s, too young to really remember Sergei, but he remembers his mother’s account of him. According to her, Sergei was “the nicest of all the Nabokovs … a sweet, funny man … much nicer, much more dependable and much funnier than all the rest of them.”
According to Ledkovsky, Sergei was deeply kind, “always a gentleman,” devoted to music but also steeped in Russian, French and English poetry — all languages that, along with German, he spoke fluently. “He could recite anything by heart, and when he recited poetry, he would not stutter at all.” He was also himself a poet, in her opinion a good one, though none of his work survives. “He was a very talented, brilliant man,” says Ledkovsky. “If he were not so timid and shy, if he didn’t feel so … out of place, who knows? He might have been the equal of Vladimir.”
The story of Sergei’s life in Paris has a Cinderella ending. Sometime in the late ’20s or early ’30s he met and fell in love with a wealthy, aristocratic Austrian, whom Nabokov’s biographies have heretofore referred to as “Hermann.” After a great deal of research, he emerges as one Hermann Thieme.
Charming, handsome, something of a dilettante, Thieme was the son of an insurance magnate. His family owned (and still owns) Schloss Weissenstein, a magnificent 12th century castle in the tiny Alpine village of Matrei im Osttirol near Innsbruck, Austria. During the ’30s Hermann and Sergei often retreated to Schloss Weissenstein. Iva Formigoni, Hermann’s niece, now lives in Milan, Italy, but she still remembers the two of them lounging around the castle grounds together and playing tennis and bridge with her and her parents. When Sergei came to stay with Ledkovsky’s family in Berlin, he kept a picture of Hermann on his night table. (“I immediately noticed him,” she says, “because he was so extremely good-looking!”)
In a letter that Sergei wrote to his mother, he describes the joy his relationship with Hermann gave him. “It’s all such a strange story, sometimes even I don’t understand how it happened … I’m just suffocating with happiness.” Some of Sergei’s shyness seems finally to have left him. “There are people,” he wrote, “who would not understand this, to whom such things would be completely incomprehensible. They would rather see me in Paris, barely surviving by giving lessons, and in the end a deeply unhappy creature. There is talk about my ‘reputation’ and so on. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me.”
Was his own brother one of those strangers? After Vladimir met Hermann for the first time, he described the scene to his wife in a letter: “The husband, I must admit, is very pleasant, quiet, not at all the pederast type, attractive face and manner. All the same I felt rather uncomfortable, especially when one of their friends came up, red-lipped and curly.”
Nabokov simply didn’t like homosexuals. Even after Sergei’s death, Nabokov used homophobic slurs that make the modern reader cringe. In one letter he describes Taos, N.M., where he spent a summer, as “a dismal hole full of third-rate painters and faded pansies.” And he referred to gay Russian critic Georgy Adamovich as “Sodomovich.”
According to Andrew Field, his first biographer, Nabokov considered homosexuality to be a hereditary illness. Nabokov’s homophobia is in fact one of the dirty little secrets of 20th century literature, on a par with T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism. “I believe Nabokov was quite homophobic,” says Galya Diment, vice president of the Nabokov Society and a professor in the Slavic department at the University of Washington. “It behooves his fans and admirers to admit it — and also to regret it.”
Where did this prejudice come from, in a man who spoke out vehemently against both racism and anti-Semitism (his wife was Jewish)? Nabokov’s father, also named Vladimir, was a politician, and he was deeply involved in legislative debates over homosexuality. In pre-revolutionary Russia consensual homosexual intercourse was a crime (as it still is in parts of the United States), and although V.D. Nabokov, as he was known, argued for the decriminalization of sodomy, his attitude toward homosexuality was complicated: He made it abundantly clear that his legislative arguments were based on purely constitutional grounds, on abstract notions of freedom and privacy, and that he personally considered homosexuality to be “deeply repugnant” to any “healthy and normal” person. V.D. Nabokov died in 1922 in Berlin, shot in the chest while breaking up the attempted assassination of a visiting Russian dignitary. Nabokov’s diary records that in their last conversation, the night before, Vladimir and his father had discussed Sergei’s “strange, abnormal inclinations.”
Abnormal or not, homosexuality was actually an important part of life in the Nabokov family. In “Speak, Memory,” we meet little Vladimir’s beloved governess, “lovely, black-haired, aquamarine-eyed Miss Norcott,” who “was asked to leave at once, one night at Abbazia.” What grown-up Vladimir doesn’t tell us is that Miss Norcott was dismissed because she was a lesbian. Nabokov also had no fewer than two gay uncles. Konstantin Nabokov, his father’s brother, was chargi d’affaires at the Russian Embassy in London. Vasily Rukavishnikov, Vladimir’s maternal uncle, was also a diplomat, though a less successful one. He did succeed, however, in making an indelible impression on his young nephew.
Uncle Ruka, as he was universally known, was a wealthy, eccentric dilettante, and there’s every indication that he was in love with the young Nabokov; certainly his attachment to his favorite nephew went beyond what was appropriate. He appears to have subjected Nabokov to a mild form of sexual abuse: “When I was eight or nine,” Nabokov writes in “Speak, Memory,” “he would invariably take me upon his knee after lunch and (while two young footmen were clearing the table in the empty dining room) fondle me, with crooning sounds and fancy endearments.” In his biography of Nabokov, Boyd notes “Humbert’s first feignedly nonchalant fumbles with Lolita,” and suggests that “the adult Nabokov’s disapproval of homosexuals and his solicitude for childhood innocence may all have their origins here.”
Like Sergei, Uncle Ruka was gay, stuttered and loved music passionately. He considered his greatest achievement to be an original poem that he set to his own accompaniment, but of all the Nabokovs it was Sergei who learned to play it by heart. Of course, Uncle Ruka paid no attention to him. When he died in 1916 he left his entire estate — a mansion, 2,000 acres of land and a fortune in rubles — to his favorite nephew, Vladimir, who was a wealthy 17-year-old for a year before the Russian Revolution took it all away again.
Since Nabokov’s death in 1977, the responsibility for managing his posthumous reputation has fallen to his son Dmitri, who is fiercely protective of his father’s public image: One member of the Nabokov family interviewed for this article later asked to retract her statements, for fear of incurring Dmitri’s wrath. Dmitri himself declined to be interviewed — “out of respect for his uncle,” according to his literary agent — but in 1997 he did take part in a revealing exchange on the Internet.
When his father’s attitude toward homosexuality came up on NABOKV-L, a public e-mail list devoted to Nabokov’s work, Dmitri leapt into the fray. “I knew it was only a matter of time before the sexual-preference police would go to town on my father,” he wrote. He summed up Nabokov’s ambivalence perfectly: “He had a sense of justice, a homosexual brother, and not one but two homosexual uncles. Among the writers he admired there were plenty of homosexuals, from Proust to Edmund White. He had a number of homosexual friends. I also know he would have been less than happy had his son inherited those genes.”
After Sergei’s death, Vladimir described him in a letter to Edmund Wilson as “a harmless, indolent, pathetic person who spent his life vaguely shuttling between the Quartier Latin and a castle in Austria.” Nabokov rarely mentioned Sergei in print — at least not by name. It wasn’t until the third published version of his “Speak, Memory” that Nabokov even felt able to include an account of Sergei’s life. In an early piece of autobiography, recently published in the New Yorker, Nabokov describes his brother “drifting in a hedonistic haze, among the cosmopolitan Montparnassian crowd that has been so often depicted by a certain type of American writer. His linguistic and musical gifts dissolved in the indolence of his nature.”
At no point did Nabokov, who in “Lolita” would wring pathos from the sufferings of a child molester, ever have the courage to publicly state that his brother was gay. “It may be a kind of prudery,” muses Michael Wood, author of a book on Nabokov, “The Magician’s Doubts,” and chairman of Princeton University’s English department. “He obviously had a terrific affection for his brother. He also had a fixed distaste for homosexuality.”
But however distasteful he found it as a person, Nabokov as a writer found homosexuality perversely irresistible, and gay characters turn up in almost every one of his 17 novels. There’s invariably something strangely wooden about them. Nabokov was the archenemy of clichi, a writer passionately committed to overturning tired literary conventions through careful observation of the real world, but his homosexual characters are as a rule egregiously stereotyped.
From the giggly ballet dancers of Nabokov’s first novel, “Mary,” to the ghastly Gaston Godin, Humbert Humbert’s neighbor in “Lolita,” to the egomaniacal narrator of “Pale Fire,” they are vain, silly, usually effeminate — he uses the word “mincing” a lot — shallow, intellectually trivial and ineffectual, and the narrator generally introduces them with a nudge and a wink and a snigger. Many of them are pedophiles. Not once did Nabokov, the master observer, describe an instance of mature love between adults of the same sex — even though a glowing example of that love was right before his eyes.
Although Nabokov’s gay characters are two-dimensional at best, Sergei found other, more interesting ways to haunt his brother’s fiction. In “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” Nabokov’s fictional account of a man’s attempt to write the life of his mysterious half-brother, one finds uncanny references to Sergei everywhere, from the title character’s name, which alliterates with Sergei’s, to his foppishness and his failures at sports, to a series of uneasy meetings between the brothers in Paris that closely parallels those of the real-life Nabokov brothers. “The similarities of Sebastian and Sergei fit so well together, it’s an aspect of the work that you really have to consider,” says Michael Begnal, an English professor at Wesleyan University who writes on Nabokov. “My impression was that he had to put the whole Sergei situation to rest in his own mind, and in a way that’s what he’s trying to do.”
When he learned of Sergei’s death in 1945, Nabokov was in the middle of writing “Bend Sinister,” his most political novel. Like Sergei, the hero of “Bend Sinister” speaks out against a brutally repressive regime, and like Sergei, he would pay for his courage with his life. But Nabokov’s feelings about his brother were never simple: In “Bend Sinister” it’s not the hero who’s gay but the dictator who orders his death. In 1967, when he finally told the story of Sergei’s life, Nabokov’s writing conveys a sense of unspoken strain and remorse: “For various reasons,” he writes, “I find it inordinately hard to speak about my other brother.”
In “Ada,” his longest novel and one of his last, Nabokov made his best and final attempt to come to terms with his feelings about his brother in print. “Ada” is the story of an incestuous love affair between Van Veen and Ada Veen, brother and sister. Their younger sister, Lucette, is also passionately in love with Van, and she spends most of the novel trailing around after the couple, getting in the way and generally making a pest of herself. Van’s indifference drives Lucette to despair, and toward the end of the book she throws herself from a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic.
Brian Boyd, who is probably the single greatest living authority on Nabokov, believes that the real inspiration for Lucette was Sergei. “The centrality of Lucette in ‘Ada,’” he argues in an e-mail, “in some ways seems to reflect Nabokov’s sense of Sergei: the non-favorite, the frail one beside his confident sibling, the concentration camp victim … the one we’re invited to ignore, and even want to dismiss from the story, but eventually realize we should never have overlooked.”
If Boyd is right, “Ada” gives us a last glimpse of Nabokov thinking about Sergei — and maybe, at last, starting to think about him in a new light. “I think that Nabokov often tries to be inhumanly secure, and confident, and happy, and unregretful,” Wood observes. “If he pulled that off, he would be a monster. It’s a fine thing to try — and an even finer thing to fail.”
Whatever peace Nabokov may have made with Sergei in fiction, it came long after Sergei’s death in fact. Did the two brothers ever bridge the gap between them? “Absolutely not” is the firm answer from Sikorski, their sister. “Perhaps the last years of his life they were closer, but otherwise never.” It can’t have helped that by all accounts Sergei didn’t get along with Vira, Nabokov’s wife.
Still, in the late ’30s, when both brothers were living in Paris, there were signs of warmth. Vladimir writes in “Speak, Memory” that they were “on quite amiable terms” at the time. When their mother died in Prague in 1939, and Vladimir was unable to get away from Paris, Sergei described the funeral for him in a letter. Writing on the spare, elegant stationery of Schloss Weissenstein, he closed the letter affectionately: “I want you to know that I am with you with all of my heart.”
If they had any last words to offer each other, Sergei and Vladimir never got to say them. In the spring of 1940 Hitler invaded France, and by May the Germans were bombing Paris. Vladimir and his family left for America on the last boat out of St. Nazaire, but Sergei was away in the countryside at the time. He returned to Paris to find their apartment suddenly empty.
He chose to stay in Europe with Hermann. The Nazis were already rounding up homosexuals as actively as they were Jews, and to avoid attracting suspicion Sergei and Hermann saw each other only rarely. Sergei took a job as a translator in Berlin, but he had no stomach for war, and the Allied bombings frightened him horribly. “He was just so terrified, poor thing,” Ledkovsky remembers. “Even my mother was consoling him.” The fighting grew more intense, and flight became impossible; Sergei had almost no money, and as a refugee from czarist Russia his only travel document was a flimsy Nansen passport.
In 1941 the Gestapo arrested Sergei on charges of homosexuality. It released him four months later, but he was placed under constant surveillance. It’s ironic that at that moment, after a lifetime of shyness and stuttering, Sergei could not keep silent. He began to speak out vehemently against the injustices of the Third Reich to his friends and colleagues. On Nov. 24, 1943, he served as best man at Ledkovsky’s wedding. Three weeks later he was arrested for the second time.
The file that the police kept on Sergei accuses him of “staatsfeindlichen Au_erungen” — subversive statements. There may have been more to the story: Princess Zinaida Shachovskaya, a fellow Russian imigri (whose relations with the Nabokov family have sometimes been strained), has written an as yet untranslated memoir in which she asserts that Sergei was in fact involved in a plot to hide an escaped prisoner of war, a former Cambridge friend who had become a pilot and been shot down over Germany.
After his arrest Sergei was taken to Neuengamme, a large labor camp near Hamburg, where he became prisoner No. 28631. Conditions were brutal: The camp was a center for medical experimentation, and the Nazis used the prisoners to conduct research on tuberculosis. Of the approximately 106,000 inmates who passed through Neuengamme, fewer than half survived, and as a rule, the guards singled out homosexuals for particularly harsh treatment.
Sergei’s conduct in the camp was nothing less than heroic. Nicolas Nabokov’s son Ivan says that after the war, survivors from Neuengamme would telephone his family out of the blue — they were the only Nabokovs in the book — just to talk about Sergei. “They said he was extraordinary. He gave away lots of packages he was getting, of clothes and food, to people who were really suffering.” Meanwhile, Hermann had also been arrested, but he was sent to fight on the front lines in Africa. He would survive. He spent his later life at Schloss Weissenstein, without a career, caring for his invalid sister. He died in 1972.
In America, Vladimir was beginning a triumphant new life. While Sergei was at Neuengamme, he spent the summer of 1944 sunning himself in Wellfleet, Mass., with Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. That fall he collected butterflies for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, enjoyed the benefits of American dentistry and taught Russian to Wellesley College undergraduates, with whom he flirted shamelessly. The New Yorker was beginning to print his poems. He became the first person under 40 to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. He knew nothing of what was happening to his brother in Europe.
In “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” the narrator has a dream the night before Sebastian dies. He imagines that his half-brother’s hand has been horribly maimed in an accident. In the early fall of 1945, in his apartment in Cambridge, Mass., Nabokov dreamed of his brother Sergei. He saw him lying on a bunk in a German concentration camp, in terrible pain. The next day he received a letter from a family member in Prague. According to camp records, “Sergej Nabokoff” had died on Jan. 9, 1945, of a combination of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion. Neuengamme was liberated four months later.