Review 1554: The Vanishing Futurist

Right before the start of World War I, Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to be a governess for the Kobelev family. There she falls in love with one of Pasha Kobelev’s friends, Nikita Slavkin, a brilliant, idealistic scientist and revolutionary. Although Gerty is not political, she eagerly embraces the life of a communard in a commune Slavkin founds in the Kobelev’s house after the revolution. With them are Pasha and his sister Sonya and a few other young people.

Slavkin’s mission becomes to invent a machine that will change people’s cellular structure making them perfect Communists. Eventually, he comes to believe that he can make a machine that will transport a person into another dimension where perfect Communism is possible. Certainly, it doesn’t seem possible in the present one.

Hobson’s novel skillfully depicts the idealist euphoria and immense creativity of the early days of the Russian revolution as well as the hardships, the inevitable disintegration of communal life, and the craziness of those days as the revolution begins to turn in on itself. It makes really interesting reading and seems to much more authentically depict the time than any of the recent novels I’ve read about it.

I read this book for my Walter Scott Prize project and really enjoyed it.

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Review 1357: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

In the early 20th century, Teffi was Russia’s most famous writer, a journalist, short story writer, and playwright. In 1918, after the October Revolution, an impresario persuaded her to travel to Odessa along with a troupe of actors and other performers to give some readings. She ended up four years later in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life. This book relates the beginning of her journey.

The dangers of revolutionary Moscow convinced her to leave, but she never meant the move to be more than temporary. People had been disappearing from the city, and it wasn’t clear whether they left voluntarily, were killed, or were deported to Siberia.

The journey to Odessa was harrowing. Conditions were chaotic. At one stop in Ukraine, only their status as performers saved them from the authorities, who were murdering train passengers to take their valuables.

In Odessa, Teffi found almost a holiday atmosphere, meeting some of the people who had disappeared from Moscow. Soon, though, everyone was panicking at the approach of the Bolshevik army.

This book is written in a lively, quirky style with a great deal of humor. Although Teffi herself is sometimes naive, she observes events with a satirical eye. Yet, at times, she is lyrical in her longing for her homeland.

I put this book on my Classics Club list because I was unfamiliar with it and it sounded interesting. Then it came up for my Classics Club Spin. I am glad to have read it. I am interested in Russia, and it gives a much more accurate idea of the effects of the Russian revolution than books likeĀ A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Review 1307: The Revolution of Marina M.

Cover for The Revolution of Marina M.The first thing readers should know before plunging into this 800-page novel is that it is the first of at least two books. There was no hint of this in any of the reviews I read of the book. Still, I was such a fan of Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander, that I probably would have read it anyway.

Marina Makarova is at sixteen a child of privilege, the daughter of a member of the Russian Duma. She has a rebellious streak, though, which she exercises with her friend Varvara, who is working toward the revolution. She also begins an affair with Kolya, a dashing young officer.

Marina is sympathetic towards the plight of the working people, especially the starving families of soldiers at the front. So, she gets involved in revolutionary work without regard to what will happen to the bourgeousie, including her family. Soon, she is excited to be witnessing historic events.

In truth, Marina is not very likable. She is a lousy friend and family member. She throws herself into one situation after another, making one bad decision after another, usually swayed by whoever her lover or closest friend is. She marries a proletariat poet, Genya, only to throw him over as soon as Kolya reappears. She snatches Kolya back out of the arms of her friend Mina. Under Varvara’s influence, she betrays her father to the Bolsheviks.

And that’s part of the problem with this novel. Marina is supposed to be a modern, liberated woman, but she is tossed from one situation to another without much control of her own. She goes from schoolgirl to factory worker to sex slave of a criminal, and takes on the disguise of a boy, a photographer’s assistant, lives with a group of elderly astronomers, pretends to be a peasant wife, and then lives in a commune of a cult. The reviewer from theĀ Chicago Tribune questioned the point of all this. I’m not sure if Fitch is presenting us with an adventure odyssey with a female protagonist or maybe trying to show the effect of the revolution on every strata society (or what?). In any case, all of this happens before Marina’s 20th birthday.

The book has some more problems. Sex is extremely important to Marina, and we get to hear about it in excruciating detail, particularly excruciating when she is imprisoned by a sadistic criminal (a situation that she walked right into). The writing is also over-burdened with metaphors—Fitch never uses one when three will do. Then there is the poetry (ala Doctor Zhivago?). There is lots of it. I am no judge, but it doesn’t seem to be very good.

Strangely, however, despite these flaws, the novel kept me interested, even the part about the cult, although I found parts of that boring. Whether it was interesting enough for me to read part two, though, I doubt. Maybe that will depend upon whether its last words are “End of Part 2.”

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Day 476: The House of Special Purpose

Cover for The House of Special PurposeThe House of Special Purpose is an alternative history novel that looks at the end of the Russian monarchy with just a slightly different twist. It’s a familiar one, though, that Grand Duchess Anastasia escaped the execution of the royal family. Why is it always Anastasia, I wonder? This information is not a spoiler, for it is evident early on.

Most alternative histories start with the change to history and show how things would be different. This one is the portrait of Anastasia’s relationship with the main character, Georgy Danilovich Jachmenev. In fact, history isn’t changed in this novel except for that of a couple of people.

Unfortunately for my enjoyment of this novel, I could not suspend my disbelief for two of the foundations of the plot. The first is that the Tsar would appoint a peasant’s son, Georgy, to guard the Tsarevich Alexei on the basis of one incident, misunderstood as bravery. The second, even more vitally, is that Anastasia would give a boy with this background, and presumably no education (although oddly well spoken), the time of day. That she would throw herself into a love affair with him almost at first sight is utterly unbelievable. It is unlikely that he would even have been allowed to talk to her.

I’m not sure why Boyne had to stretch our disbelief so far. He could have made our hero a minor member of nobility or even a middle class boy and I would have bought it. Think me elitist if you will, but I don’t believe Boyne has any idea what life was like in the Russian peasantry.

With this problem always in mind, it was difficult for me to enjoy the novel, which, except for journeys back to the past, is about a fairly complex marriage. But again, it doesn’t deal with, for example, any difficulties Anastasia—or Zoya as she is called through most of the novel—might have had coping with the problems of a normal, even impoverished life. We skim over things like that, as well as how effortlessly Georgy seems to adjust to life in the Winter Palace. Or whether in post-revolutionary Russia, any couple could just jump on a train and travel to Paris without identity papers.

So, on the one hand I was absorbed by the novel at times, on the other it seemed too unrealistic. It is well written, and Georgy and Zoya are appealing characters, but it does not, in the end, constitute a convincing story.