Paul Russell on a forgotten Nabokov ... and the writing life

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According to Paul Russell, "There were certainly moments when I paused and asked myself: Why am I doing this? Why am I essentially forging a dead man's memoirs? ... And every time I was ready to abandon the project, I remembered that Vladimir had done everything he could to erase Sergey's existence. I would think, Damn it, I'm going to give this silenced brother a voice."

"Vladimir" in the above quote is Vladimir Nabokov. "Sergey" is Nabokov's practically forgotten younger brother, who died in a German concentration camp near the close of World War II. And that forged memoir is The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov (Cleis Press), the latest novel from Paul Russell, native Memphian and for nearly 30 years a faculty member at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

It's been several months since The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov appeared. It's been several weeks since I spoke to Paul Russell by phone from his house in Rosendale, New York, and highlights from that conversation are below. But first, let it be said:

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Russell's latest work is more than the imaginative retelling of a life scarcely remembered today. More than the vivid re-creation of an individual and his times — tsarist Russia and revolutionary Russia; high-modernist Paris and war-ravaged Berlin. It deals most movingly in themes that preoccupied Vladimir Nabokov, themes perhaps inspired by the life of Sergey. And in fictionalized form, it rescues Sergey Nabokov — an exile on multiple fronts — from oblivion. The Washington Post was right to name it among the 50 best works of fiction of 2011.

For what little we know of the real life of Sergey Nabokov, see Lev Grossman's essential essay, "The Gay Nabokov," which appeared on Salon in 2000. No reason to rehearse the facts laid out by Grossman here, but here is Paul Russell on the importance of Grossman's findings and on Russell's timetable for his novel: "Lev's essay in 2000 put the idea into my head to write about Sergey. I spent 2003 doing the initial research. I started writing in 2004. And the book was originally slated to come out in 2010."

But it came out in 2011, from Cleis, a press I've never heard of.
Paul Russell: They're essentially a lesbian/feminist press out of Berkeley, and oddly enough, they'd done an AIDS benefit cookbook years ago and I'd given them a recipe, so I'd been published by them before. Working with them has been terrific.

Frederique Delacoste, my editor … she's an old-fashioned editor in the Max Perkins vein, the kind of editor you thought had gone extinct, a real hands-on editor with a clear vision for the book. She tinkered with practically every sentence. She took about 150 pages out of the book. In less skillful hands, that could feel like a horrible violation. I was in awe of how skillfully she shaped it.

Doing the research for the book was huge fun. People's diaries and journals were the most useful … people who recorded what they had for dinner, what they saw at the theater ... ephemeral details that get lost to time.

And you visited St. Petersburg, where the early parts of the novel are set?
No, I never went to St. Petersburg, because the St. Petersburg of the 21st century wouldn't have given me what I needed to know. To walk down the Nevsky Prospect today is not going to tell me what kinds of restaurants were there, what kinds of automobiles were on the street in the early 20th century. I needed a time machine, not an airplane ticket.

I did talk to Lev Grossman, though. He said everything he'd learned about Sergey Nabokov he put in that essay on Salon. There's nothing else around. There's not much out there. But a branch of the family does have some of Sergey's letters in Paris.

One of the main problems is that there are very few people left alive who would have known Sergey. One of Lev's primary sources, for example, died in 2002. The resources are disappearing.

Would you then call much of this book "speculation"?
Absolutely … but informed speculation. For example, I do know Sergey was very close friends with Jean Cocteau in Paris. I don't know if Sergey ever slept with Cocteau. I don't know if Sergey smoked opium with Cocteau. But I know that when Vladimir saw Sergey in the early 1930s in Paris, Vladimir was shocked by the glassy look in Sergey's eyes and how distracted Sergey seemed. That's where my opium speculation came from.

And I know that Sergey converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926. That's the year Cocteau made his celebrated return to the church. Many of Cocteau's young men embraced the church too at that time. It may be a coincidence that Sergey converted in 1926. But for my purposes, I'm assuming that Sergey's conversion had something to do with Cocteau's.

The scenes between the two brothers, Vladimir and Sergey: How free did you feel writing those scenes? How responsible to their memory?
I certainly felt a responsibility throughout this novel. There were moments when I paused and asked myself: Why am I doing this? Why am I essentially forging a dead man's memoirs?

That's a Nabokovian notion.
The whole project was Nabokovian. That's what encouraged me to keep at it. And every time I was ready to abandon the project, I remembered that Vladimir had done everything he could to erase Sergey's existence. I would think, Damn it, I'm going to give this silenced brother a voice. That's why I was doing it.

By the 1920s, the immediate Nabokov family lived in exile from Russia. Your doctoral dissertation was on the theme of exile in Vladimir Nabokov's work. Does exile have a special significance for you?
I don't think I was thinking of myself at all, though I suppose one could say I'm an exiled Southerner.

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You grew up in Raleigh, a suburb of Memphis. Your father was Jack Russell, who taught for many years at Southwestern at Memphis, today Rhodes College.
Yes, my dad, who died in 1981, taught mathematics. He was also a big reader. When I was a kid, he read me The Iliad and The Odyssey before I went to bed at night … maybe a simplified version of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I have vivid memories of him reading Homer to me. So I guess literature was instilled in me fairly literally.

This is embarrassing, but I started writing my first novel because my father told me to. I was in college at Oberlin … the summer between freshman and sophomore years. I was at loose ends. One afternoon, my father said, "You need a project. Why don't your write a novel or something?"

Obedient child that I was, I immediately went to my room and started writing a novel. I spent the next six months working on the first page of it, until it was the most beautifully polished first page of a novel ever written ... trying to disguise the fact that I had no idea what was going to happen on page two.

I did finish that novel while in college, and I wrote a second one. I made every mistake it's possible to make in writing a novel in those two manuscripts. But I got those mistakes out of my system.

You continued to write fiction in graduate school?
I did, but I switched to short stories. After my M.A., I was insanely pursuing both an M.F.A. and a Ph.D., which I wouldn't recommend to anybody. I realized I needed to work in a shorter fictional form.

I started sending those stories out, and they were accepted and published. I got the job at Vassar, because, basically, I think they thought they were getting two people for the price of one. Starting in 1983, I could teach literature and creative writing.

When I arrived at Vassar, they told me very generously that they wanted me to be productive as a writer. It didn't particularly matter what kind of writing. If I wanted to do scholarship, I could. If I wanted to write fiction, I could. I took them at their word. I wrote novels. Turned out, they meant what they said.

Those novels have been marketed as gay fiction. What is that market like today? It's now folded into general fiction?
People ask all the time: What's the liability of being pigeonholed as a gay writer? The big liability is that you are ghettoized to some extent. The good side is that you have a kind of built-in readership. There is a literate and loyal gay readership. It may not be huge, but it can be counted on.

So, a certain number of copies of my books were guaranteed to sell. I've watched straight friends publish their literary novels, and they do fall into a black hole. There's no constituency. Success is sheer luck. Without that built-in readership, it's easy for a book to get totally lost.

What's the attitude now among the major publishing houses toward novels that focus on a gay character or characters and that are written by gay authors?
They're less willing to go with a gay author now than they were 10 years ago. St. Martin's, where I published my last two books: They had a very strong field of gay titles, but they've discontinued that. Same thing with Dutton, which is where I was before St. Martin's.

Most of the big publishing houses will have one or two high-profile gay writers in their stable … an Edmund White or an Alan Hollinghurst. Then they'll take on a few newcomers, because publishers love fresh meat and because newcomers have no track record. Publishers can take chances on them. The mid-list gay writers … corporate publishers aren't interested in them anymore.

From the information on your website, the novel you're at work on now is set in West Tennessee.
I've finished the draft of it, but my agent hated it. Told me it would be professional suicide for me to publish it, which is probably the wrong thing for him to say.

It's a Tennessee novel about a right-wing family-values congressman who gets caught up in a sex scandal and is brought low. What I wanted to do with it … I wanted to create a scoundrel who was nonetheless sympathetic. My congressman is not a hypocrite even though his soul is embattled. He's a good person who always does the wrong thing for various complicated, psychological reasons.

My agent said, "When you told me about this novel, I thought you were going to expose right-wing Republicans. Instead, you've done something else. Nobody wants to read a sympathetic book about right-wing assholes."

So … I don't know.

I have two choices: abandon the novel or abandon my long-term agent, which I'm reluctant to do. But I'm reluctant to abandon the project, because I do think there's a complex portrait in there. I'll work on it, do a rewrite. I'm not going to give it up without giving it another shot.

Over the years in your writing, have you drawn much from your childhood in Memphis?
Part of my second novel takes place in Memphis. In part of the third, the characters go to Memphis occasionally.

But you haven't been, you aren't under the influence of great Southern writers? Or you have been, you are?
I'm not. When I was in college and like too many Southern writers, Faulkner was looming over everything. In some ways, Faulkner is the worst thing that ever happened to Southern writing, because everyone wants to imitate him, and you can't. I realized, at some point, that was going nowhere.

Sounds liberating.
I had to liberate myself not only from Faulkner but from the territory itself. My first novel takes place in Poughkeepsie. I had to set a novel in Poughkeepsie, before I could return to the South.

Your brother is local sculptor Brian Russell. Do you return to the South, to Memphis often?
I do get back. Not often. No, now, New York state ... it's home.

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