NABOKV-L post 0018628, Sat, 3 Oct 2009 11:43:57 -0700

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Re: [NABOKOV-L] [QUERY: SPEAK MEMORY]
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As I'm sure many have now already pointed out, Sergei was homosexual. For Nabokov's strained relationship to him you should read Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov, The Russian Years. Sergei was not a family favorite like Vladimir, was twitchy and stuttered. I believe somewhere in Speak Memory Nabokov speaks of finding either Sergei's diary or some letters, coyly describing how he discovered Sergei's "secret", which he immediately showed to their governess (?) causing a huge horrible scene. The lines you quote, which have been called a tribute, of course aren't really much of a tribute. Nabokov is saying that he had always, correctly had a feeling of contempt for his brother (because Nabokov disdained homosexuality) and that only too late was he forced to realize that, even though his brother was a "pansy" (to use the expression N and Wilson casually use for it in their correspondence), his life wasn't entirely worthless. The passage seems so passively and
uncomfortably worded that Nabokov doesn't really seem entirely convinced. There's a kind of guilty shrug in the shoulders of this sentence: "Maybe it's true," the sentence seems to say, "but how could I have known?" 

"It is one of those lives that hopelessly
claim a belated something - compassion, understanding, no matter what - which
the mere recognition of such a want can neither replace nor redeem."
This sentence, I've always thought, was rather unsettling and ugly, as were the words written to Wilson you quote. Nabokov simply could not transcend his bigoted feelings about his brother's sexuality and so his tributes are cutting and condescending at the same time as they try to express regret. MIchael Wood in his discussion of Speak Memory makes much of these lines, and Nabokov's unworked out feelings of guilt over Sergei.

To be fair to Nabokov though, Stacy Schiff revealed in her biography of Vera that Sergei probably looked down on N's marriage to Vera because she was a Jew and that he (Sergei) and Vera never got on; Sergei wished N had married his first fiance, Svetlana Siewert (I think that's right) a devout catholic whose family made her break with him because his money prospects, as a struggling writer, were so poor (which influenced the the portrayal of the family of Luzhin's fiance in The Defense). In fact, I believe that Boyd says that Nabokov had at first jumped to the conclusion that Sergei had collaborated with the Nazis and was getting ready to denounce him as such when he discovered Sergei had spoken out against Hitler at his place of employment, been informed upon, arrested, and then died. This would have been a lot for Nabokov to come to terms with, even if he had been given to airing his dirty laundry, so the vague congested tone of the passage is hardly
surprising.
 

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