Thursday, February 16, 2012

Love and Tragedy

I find it interesting how we are drawn to tragedy in art and literature (and life?). And tragedy and romance are so often entwined. WW2-Romance is a thriving genre and I've read a bunch that range along the scale of conventionality from 22 Britannia Road to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to Coming Home. They are super popular but it hardly started there. Not to state the bleeding obvious or anything but Romeo and Juliet. Love in a time of (gang) war and turmoil - love and death - liebestod. Definitive love, definitive death. The originals are more absolute than contemporary popular fiction but they still have things in common. I guess they represent times and states of heightened emotion. We are more aware of the good because the bad is so obvious? Do we love more fiercely under the influence of fear or is the same love simply illuminated more brightly in contrast? And why do we read these things? What is it that we crave from them? Perhaps reading about danger is comforting because it reminds us that we are (comparatively) safe. Perhaps it is a thrill - perhaps in our perfectly padded, air-conditioned office/supermarket/sofa world, where all our material needs are more or less met, we need to read about death and risk to feel alive. Maybe it is tragedy as catharsis. We all need to cry and these stories offer a safe and 'legitimate' opportunity to do so. Or are we jealous? Jealous of that love in the face of death, love until the death, death defying love? It is ridiculous and possibly immoral to be jealous of people who live with tragedy and war and horror and yet the love and the proof... Most of us will (I hope) never have to face these kind of situations; are loves will (I hope) never be put to these kinds of test. We will (I hope) carry on in relative peace and obscurity and die quietly in our old age of natural causes. Well, that is a bit optimistic, there will be cancer and car crashes and cheating and children or no children, there will be a thousand tiny cuts. But there will also be Sunday afternoons and washing up and video nights and long drawn out discussions about everything and nothing in particular. And that is a joy, a special, lasting kind of bliss, yet we'll never know for sure. We can't know for certain what we would do. Could we die for the person we loved? Would they die for us? What would we do, who would we be, what if, what if? We want to know and we want to believe that our love would pass these tests.

Well, I do. A tiny part of me. Obviously the vast majority of me (approx 99.99%) knows that this is ridiculous and wants 0.001% to simmer down and stop asking for trouble. 99.99% knows that tragedy is a BAD idea and mundane, suburban happiness is where it's at. But 0.001% can't help but feel curious when it reads books like Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay which is partially set in Soviet Russia. Why aren't more books set in post-war Russia? (Or maybe there is loads of brilliant fiction set in Communist Russia - please forward books/recommendations my way). It was so awful and we need to remember it and re-imagine it more often lest we forget. Really I wish more of Russian Winter was set in Russia, it was the most interesting part of the novel. The novel is split (mostly) between Russia in the late 1940s to early 1950s and contemporary Boston. Personally I could have lived without the Boston section but I see how you need it for perspective. At the centre of the book is Nina, an octogenarian ex-ballet dancer who defected from the USSR in the 1950s with diamonds in her cold cream, which she is now auctioning for charity. Ok, there are a lot of buzz words going down, specifically 'BALLET', 'RUSSIA', 'DIAMONDS'. The combined effect is rather sparkly; sleek ballet buns and pointe shoes gleam, sequin embroidered tutus sparkle; Russian fur coats gleam, Russian white winters sparkle; Baltic amber (a plot device) gleams, pre-Revolution diamonds sparkle. All of these words and ideas are immediately turning you on to or off the book. While I'm not such a purist as to be against any of these things individually together I find them cloying. It makes me feel like I'm being marketed at - women like ballet and fur and diamonds, so pretty so sparkly, BUY THIS. And you should never realise you are being marketed at, that is bad marketing. And there is a dusty pink cover with an attractive woman staring wistfully into the middle distance. Seriously, wistful stare-y women are the worst, please stop putting them on covers Publishy People. They make me embarrassed to be seen on the Tube with your book!

And it's particularly irritating and reductive marketing because the book isn't all pretty pink and sparkly. Yes, there is a boring contemporary romance that ends happily but there is also a powerful representation of what it is to be in an artist in a totalitarian state. Nina is a lead dancer in the Bolshoi Ballet, her husband is a poet and his best friend is a composer. They had to be registered and could only create art for 'the people' - they couldn't even obliquely criticise the Party or be influenced by 'bourgeois' art (i.e. all other art). How can you create art if you don't have intellectual or physical freedom? Art and totalitarianism are fundamentally incompatible and watching artists trying to maintain creative integrity while bowing to political restrictions is heart-breaking. And the surveillance, the constant fear and lack of trust. Kalotay shows how relationships first between the individual and the state and then between neighbours and colleagues and then between friends and then between family slowly crumble under the constant pressure of distrust and scrutiny. People are constantly 'disappearing' or being threatened with punishment if they don't hand others in. A misplaced word in anger or jealousy or pride can have deadly consequences and what of human relationships within this environment? The arc of Nina's marriage feels very honest and considered and tragic. That gets me specifically back to romance/tragedy. The decisions she has to make are awful. And captivating. Why? Why? So hard, so necessary. I was actually quite impressed that Kalotay resisted the urge to tie things up neatly at the end of the book. Soviet Russia was messy and it would have been wrong to present it otherwise. Questions are left unanswered, things are left unsaid and judgements are suspended and I think that is appropriate.

It amazes me that anyone survived Stalin's reign. The hunger, the pain, the cult of personality... It is horrendous and baffling and we should remember it more.

Chuck x


  1. First off, fantastic review. Secondly, ugh, don't get me started on the stupid and plain insulting 'marketing' of books toward women. Apparently we're all like little girls: we like pink, shiny things and cupcakes. Thirdly, I haven't read this book, so I have no opinion to offer on the narrative itself. But, you've intrigued me, maybe I'll pick up a copy.

  2. Your first paragraph is totally spot on... and I do hate covers like that!

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I love books like this, because they're so much more true to life. How many times do things in life tie up in a nice neat bow? Hardly ever, I think.

  4. I would love to read this book very much. I don't think there are actually many books about Russia (I read The Bronze Horseman long time ago and it was good), but there are a few good movies you may like.

  5. I have no words other than what a bloody brilliant post x

  6. Oh my, I have a lot I want to say so this might be rather lengthy!

    First, I absolutely hate it when book marketing is so unbearably obvious. I hate it even more when what I find important about a book is not at all even hinted at in the cover art (from the cover of this novel I'd have been hard pressed to pick it up myself). That's why I tend to find myself picking up used copies of hard cover books so I can slip off the dust jackets and read without having a constant reminder of the cover art (not that cover art is ALWAYS bad, of course).

    Second, the concept of post-war Russia (or of artists in a totalitarian society) isn't something I've had much exposure too. I've had the natural educational history thoughts but I've never read a fictional work depicting either. If anything, your mention of this in your review certainly piqued my interest.

    Third, I think I am in love with your blog! This post was so excellent and I checked out a few older posts. Brilliant. You're brilliant. I think I'll follow for future doses of engaging writing!

  7. I may have to check this one out for our next book club!