Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov III

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov III

"I believe Nabokov
was quite homophobic.
It behooves his fans
and admirers to admit
it—and also to regret it."
—Gay Diment, Pniniad:
Vladimir Nabokov & Marc Szeftel

The subject of a suffering gay writer is a cliché. The subject of a suffering homophobic closet case, on the other hand, is more unknown & less written about.

Often, in politics, real life & literature—the worst witch-burners are gay themselves. Closet cases know the routine—the drill of playing straight in the gay closet. One could say such hypocrisy is a “closet cliché”—and, after reading Michael Maar’s revealing “Speak, Nabokov” expose, I think I can say that yes, indeed, Vladimir Nabokov is a “homophobic closet case.”

According to Andrew Field, Nabokov’s first biographer, Nabokov considered homosexuality to be a hereditary illness. And with his younger brother & maternal uncle being gay—it’s easy to see how uneasy Vladimir Nabokov might feel & act about his own “supposed” heterosexuality. Often such closet-gays protest too much—giving themselves away.

One strategy of closet-cases is to bluff their way out of it—like Roy Cohn going after gays during the McCarthy period. “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” is a play about a closeted gay lawyer, based on real life Roy Cohn. It’s a play in two parts by American playwright Tony Kushner. It has been made into both a television miniseries and an opera by Peter Eötvös.

More recent examples of contemporary political closet-cases—“Ken Mehlman Has Not Had Sex With Anyone, Ever” and “How Did Ken Mehlman Get the D.C. Press Corps To Hide His Secret?” are regular headliners on Queerity: Free of that Agenda, Except the Queer One.”

What about closetry & Nabokov? Was Vladimir Nabokov a closet-case posing as a jaded Roman Polanski “Lolita” lover?

“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."—Lev Grossman, “The Gay Nabokov,” Salon

One might think Vlad protests too much, says Michael Maar in his recent collection of lit crit essays, ” Speak, Nabokov”(2009). Nabokov “seeks clarity about his deviance” endlessly not just with his novel “Lolita”—but with many of his short stories & novels.

Maar remarks that “what is most striking is not even that Lolita has forerunners—it’s that she has successors…” Which preoccupy Nabokov up to his last novel, TOOL (“The Original of Laura”). He brings up the idea of “Lolitology” = publications dealing with Nabokov’s “Lolita” theme in all its variations.

Not only including “The Original of Laura”—but also Ada & Eugene Onegin as well as The Gift, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, Pale Fire, King, Queen, Knave etc. etc. Nabokov rambles on & on. You’d think he’d give it a rest?

Over & over again—migrating from short story Lolita avatars into full-blown novel prima donnas, femme fatales, Snow Queens etc. What gives?

“I’m no ravisher. I’m a pickpocket, not a burglar. Although, perhaps, on a circular island, with my little female Friday…” opines Nabokov in “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.”

Imho, Nabokov can’t help himself—he’s a raving homophobic closet-case. And like the Blues Brothers—Vlad’s on a mission to prove he ain’t what he is.

After all, the Krug-Paduk relationship lasted a long time. Since they were schoolboys together. If those days were like Graham Greene's experience with the British school system ("Childhood is life under a dictatorship") that I've read about in various places like :

And especially in Michael Shelden's Graham Greene: The Man Within. William Heinemann. Random House ed., 1995, which sheds some light on the Krug-Toad relationship in the British school system and perhaps the Russian and Euro-version as well.

Betrayal plays a role in Shelden's version of Greene's schooldays, something like Holly Martins' betrayal by Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). Vladimir blew the whistle on Sergey's gay crush during their schooldays, so such Krug-Toad boyhood betrayals and love-play are really nothing new. Well, maybe new in terms of the American school system, but "fagging" is nothing new to the Europeans.

It's an interesting twist to the "bend" of Bend Sinister. Does the new Sergey book help us out with these brotherly homoerotic matters?

Paul Russell's The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, a meticulously researched roman a clef covering the life of the "forgotten" younger brother of Vladimir Nabokov—from wealth and position in pre-revolutionary Russia, to the halls of Cambridge, salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, long-standing friendship with Cocteau (among others) and ultimate isolation in war-torn Berlin. And death in Hamburg.

I think that Nabokov felt the same way. He wrote another similar disengaged and indecisive novel about it earlier: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight written from late 1938 to early 1939, and published in 1941 by New Directions Publishers.

"Through biographical research, V comes to trace, understand and repeat the "moves" (in the chess sense) made by his sibling. As an academic project transformed into what Charles Kinbote would call "the monstrous semblance of a novel," Sebastian Knight operates as a kind of trial run of the author's later novel Pale Fire."

Seeing Sergey as a "chess problem" I suppose is one way to become more klug about Sergey.

Another way might be to write another novel about Sergey after his death:

“It's a question worthy of a Nabokov novel: How could the lives of two brothers, both brilliant and talented, both rich and handsome, have led to two such different places: one to literary immortality, the other to the hell of a Nazi concentration camp?”

I don't think Vladimir ever resolved the problem of his brother Sergey and his lifestyle. No matter how many novels he wrote, alluding to their sibling relationship. But it was obviously problematic to Vladimir or he wouldn't have fictionalized it so many times in various novels.

Some essential ingredient of Nabokov's usually brilliant style was missing. The question then becomes: what was it, my dear?

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