Vladimir Nabokov wrote about the world in which he lived. His world was the first half of the twenty first century, and was filled with mistrust and double standards. His world was one of death and the darker side of human nature. It is this side of human nature that intrigued Nabokov and also something that his life had led him to experience first hand. In a world at war one is surrounded by death and death was a central theme of Nabokov's work. Nabokov's work reflected the world in which he lived. Nabokov uses stereotypical references to paint a clear picture of life during World War II."
Many consider Nabokov to be a literary genius who weaves complex plots and rich characters together in ways that can seem incomprehensible at times. No one will argue with his clever command of the English language. Upon close examination of his work, aside from the apparent literary genius, we gain a feeling of the social attitudes and norms prevalent in various societies during World War II. Nabokov's works are not only literary masterpieces, but that they can be considered a historical work as well. They lack dull facts and figures about the war, however, Nabokov reflects an accurate description of major happenings as viewed through his characters.
Nabokov's family fervently denies that Vladimir's works are an attempt to reconcile his own feelings about his brother. There are two sides to this argument. Many point out the similarities of Nabokov's characters to Sergei in many of his works. His family may be denying that Vladimir was capable of harboring such feelings about homosexuality as are expressed in his works. Vladimir's prejudice may be as much of an embarrassment to them as Sergei's gay tendencies. It is not likely that even if the family knew the true origins of Vladimir's sinister characters that they would publicly acknowledge them. Despite, the family's denial of the issue, this paper will present references and examples which develop and undeniable connections between Sergei and the characters in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov's literary style builds rich characters in a short period of time. We get to know their inner thoughts with very few words. Nabokov gives us a brief, but in depth look into a particular moment in his character's lives. His style is soft and flowing until the very last sentence, when he very abruptly slips in a plot twist in the last line. "Revenge" and "Conversation Piece, 1945" are works which illustrate this style clearly.
Little is known about Nabokov's brother except that he was gay. At this time in Nazi Germany it was unlawful to exhibit gay behavior (Boyd, 1999). The theme of doppelgangers appears prevalently. In this piece the supposed doppelganger is the opposite of the main character. In his mind, he paints an evil picture of his doppelganger. When he finally gets to meet him, the description of the handshake is a clue that the doppelganger may be a representation of Nabokov's gay brother. He uses stereotypical imagery to allude to this. He describes the hand shake as "of which I had found to be incredibly limp and moist," a characteristic commonly associated with feminine men.
In the year following the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Nabokov posed with his sisters and brothers for a photograph as a present for their mother. The children had grown up in St. Petersburg amid great wealth. This photo was taken when they were in exile in Yalta following the revolution. In this picture is Vladimir's brother, 11 months younger than Vladimir, Sergei Nabokov (Grossman, 2000). Vladimir was strong and serious, a good leader. His brother Sergei lacked the leadership qualities of his older brother and his family tried to cover up the fact that he even existed at all. Vladimir was strong and masculine. In photos Sergei took on more feminine poses and stances.
Vladimir's brother was gay, which brought great shame to the Nabokov family. The Nabokovs had a long lineage of aristocrats and homosexuality was not accepted as normal. The Gay Rights Movement was far into the future at that time. Sergei dies in a Nazi concentration camp because of his homosexuality. Vladimir and his brother were complete opposites. Vladimir resented his brother for being gay and the shame that it brought to the family.
The Nabokov family suspected for a long time that Sergei was gay. When Sergei was 15, Vladimir found his diary open and read it. It confirmed what the family had suspected all along. Vladimir showed it to their teacher, who in turn showed it to their father (Grossman, 2000). Sergei attended Teneshev, an all-boys school and left due to "unhappy romances." His family tended to respond quietly and did not speak of Sergei's tendencies.
In 1917, the Nabokovs fled Russia. Vladimir's mother and father settled in Berlin, but Vladimir attended Cambridge University in England. Sergei attended Oxford, but later moved to Cambridge to join his brother (Boyd, 1999). They played tennis together and took identical courses of studies, but other than that were complete opposites. Vladimir was lean, dark and handsome. Sergei was tall, thin and blonde with one lock that always fell over his eye.
In 1922 the brothers graduated and joined their family in Berlin. Berlin was the home of the first gay activist, Magnus Hirschfield. Sergei found camaraderie in Berlin (Grossman, 2000). The brothers tried working in a bank, but were unable to tolerate the 9-5 routine. Sergei moved to Paris and Vladimir remained in Berlin. Sergei met other gay artists while in Paris. Sergei socialized with the social elite of Paris. Sergei met a partner in Paris named Hermann Thieme (Grossman, 2000). He lived the rest of his days in Paris, spending time with Hermann at his families' country estate.
Vladimir was known to make many comments which would indicate that he was homophobic. Even after Sergei's death he made some colorful remarks of this nature. In a letter written in a summer in Taos, New Mexico, he describes the place as "a dismal hole full of third-rate painters and faded pansies" (Grossman, 2000). In addition, he referred to the gay Russian critic George Adamovich as "Sodomovich" (Grossman, 2000). Nabokov held a popular belief at the time, which was that homosexuality was a hereditary illness (Grossman, 2000).
Nabokov's wife was Jewish and he spoke out adamantly against anti-Semitism and racism. It would seem ironic for Vladimir to be so fervently homophobic. But we must remember that he grew up in Russia during the revolution. Prior to the revolution there was a law which made consensual homosexuality a crime (Grossman, 2000).
Nabokov's father's attitudes towards homosexuality were complex. On one hand he described the act as "deeply repugnant" to a "healthy and normal" person (Grossman, 2000). However, he was a supporter of the movement to decriminalize homosexuality. Although he declared that his interest in the issue was purely from a constitutional standpoint. His father was shot in the chest in 1922 (Grossman, 2000). The Nabokovs had several relatives that were gay. However, it is also known that they dismissed a governess when it was discovered that she was lesbian.
Sergei had a marked stutter in his speech. His other gay relatives also had this same stutter to their speech. Sergei was an accomplished and persistent pianist, though he never pursued it as a profession (Grossman, 2000).
In "The real Life of Sebastian Knight" Nabokov has many hidden references to his brother, Sergei. Including Sebastian's failures at sports, to a series of uncomfortable meetings in Paris that closely resemble those of the two brothers. Nabokov is torn between a love for his brother and contempt for his behavior as well. This conflict is one, which Vladimir must resolve in his mind. He used his writing as an instrument to resolve his own feelings about Sergei.
At the time of his brothers death in a Nazi concentration camp, Nabokov was writing "Bend Sinister" about a gay activist who spoke against the Nazi regime. Like his brother Sergei, the main character dies for his outspoken attitude. Nabokov's last novel, "Ada" is about two sisters which closely resemble the personalities of Sergei and himself (Boyd, 1999). In the end, the frail Lucette is driven to despair and jumps off a ship. Nabokov had difficulty speaking about his brother and instead chose to maintain a stern, unmovable public image that could appear harsh at times.
In the spring of 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris and began rounding up homosexuals and Jews. Vladimir and the rest of his family went to America. However, Sergei stayed in Paris and rarely saw Hermann in order to keep from being detected (Boyd, 1999). Sergei took a job in Berlin as a translator. In 1941 Sergei was arrested on suspicion of homosexuality (Grossman, 2000). He was released four months later, placed on tight surveillance. Sergei began to speak out about the injustices of the Third Reich and served as best…