I’ve written about Andreï Makine before, and doubtless I’ll do it again. I may be repeating myself; in my reading experience he’s unique. He’s an extraordinary writer who has just had a fantastic novel published; he’s a fantastic novelist who has just produced an extraordinary new book. It keeps happening, but, despite being reviewed well, because they are translations – he’s a Russian émigré who writes in French, a good story in itself – he has little to no visibility in bookshops or libraries in the UK, and you will only find his work in mega-bookstores if you’re lucky.
A woman loved (2013; translated by Geoffrey Strachan – UK: Maclehose Press /US: Graywolf Press, 2015) is the latest of Makine’s books to be published in the UK. The woman of the title is Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, and the novel is ostensibly about a man – Oleg – trying to tell her story in film, firstly for the Soviet cinema, and subsequently for post-communist, free market, Russian television.
Here’s a quote from A woman loved that is pure essence of Makine:
Several years later Oleg will still remember that lunch with Eva. The USSR will no longer exist, the Berlin Wall will have come down. But when he tries to define what has not changed since then he will call to mind the silvery gleam over the fields, the autumn sunlight on the bare forests, and the tender look in the eyes of a woman smiling and talking about tea leaves.
This is what he does. He captures powerful moments of stillness and beauty outside of history, often arising from the direst of circumstances. He’s a magician, he takes you there, enriches you, and he does it time and time again. You finish the book and just want to start all over again.
A woman loved is concerned with many things, all in the context of Oleg’s struggle. It is special within Makine’s oeuvre in that the life a historical character is woven into the narrative. This is one of his longer books (UK edition 304 pages, US 243) but one of his great qualities – and I do mean this in the best possible way – is to make you think you have read a much longer book, so much is going on:
- Catherine the Great: I knew practically nothing about her but she’s a fascinating subject, a German princess brought to Russia as a young girl for an arranged marriage into the Romanov dynasty. Her unpopular (and impotent) husband was deposed and she became a reforming Empress, furthering the European shift of Russian society, flirting with the works of progressive pre-Revolution French intellectuals.
- She did a lot more than flirt with many men at court; her favourites were well rewarded, so what becomes problematic is the notion of love – what was she loved for? For access to power and preferment? – was she ever really loved? Did she ever truly love? The book’s title works both ways. One of the key events in the novel (if it ever happened … the evidence is pursued in the plot) was the possibility of one genuine love affair which seems to have been different, to have offered a simple more … “a secret journey to Italy“?
- Her sexual appetite is the stuff of legend, though the notion that she did it with horses is pure propaganda. Which leads us to…
- What is history, how can it be written? Whatever the ideological interpretations at play, the grand historical narratives – the theatre of history, of biography – miss the personal, what really went on in the (secret) real life spaces in between, even with the lead ‘actors’? Could she, did she, as one reading of the title suggests, have a real love? “Film what Catherine was not,” as one of Oleg’s girlfriends says. As opposed to “the chronicles of wars, rebellions, and political intrigues, the tangle of bloody, brilliant vanities that goes by the name of History …”
- And what does it mean when you are in a position of absolute power and responsibility? ““She lived up to the limits of the games humans play, at the peak of what you and I can imagine in terms of power, riches, sexual pleasure. These limits were her daily fare. So she must certainly have wanted to go beyond them and …”
“Escape!” They say it as one.”
- Then there’s Russian history in general:”the time when the last days of socialism still guaranteed a certain economic security and the capitalism people dreamed of seemed like a cost-free Disneyland“; elsewhere “Violence plus utopia, a very Russian formula“.
- and the specifics of life under Communism and the rampant capitalism that came after. It’s quite clear from Makine’s previous two books (the outstanding The life of an unknown man and Brief loves that live forever) that while he left Russia because of the lack of freedom, he’s appalled at what has been lost by the mass of the people in what has followed, and almost certainly won’t be going back for any length of time. His contempt for the oligarchs and their pals shines out. Interestingly he sees the glamour of success as portrayed in Hollywood movies as having fuelled and polluted Russian visions of the good life. Which leads us nicely on to …
- Film making, the mechanics, politics and economics thereof, and by extension the whole struggle to make art, either smuggling dissidence past the Soviet state censors, or fighting against the gross mass market imperatives that ‘freedom’ brings. We first meet Oleg, the film maker, hauling carcasses around a meat factory to subsidise his film studies. With the fall of communism he’s a drunken mess. Until he meets an old buddy from the meat factory who’s made minor oligarch status, runs a TV production company and wants a whole series. Who also wants an episode bringing the horse legend to life as part of the package.
- So Oleg, why the fascination, nay obsession, with Catherine the Great’s story? That drives A woman loved? Because there’s a German branch in his ancestry, and a family saying blaming Catherine for them being where they are; an ancestor came to Russia with the young princess. Oleg’s life is inevitably entangled with this intellectual pursuit. His own love life even involves at least a couple of the actresses who play Catherine at various stages in her and his life.
- This bit should be a footnote really, but I’ll let it lie here: There is a parallel in Makine’s biography; he had a French grandmother, which makes all the more intriguing Oleg’s discovery, near the end, of a feeling that is “utterly new to him, [that] he passionately wants to explain to Eva. Tell her how the sense he has carried with him since childhood of being torn between his Russian and German identities is slipping away and he is going to learn to live without thinking about it.”
- And even if we forget about the film-making and Catherine for a moment, Oleg’s life, echoing some of Makine’s earlier short novels about life under postwar Soviet communism as it does, is still a riveting experience. And, telling us about how it felt in Russia, he never preaches.
A woman loved succeeds on all these levels. There is a glorious road trip at the end, the route taken from what has gone before narratively. It’s another tour de force from Andreï Makine. It sings. I urge you to read him; he will enrich your life.
A postscript on book jackets
Top left is the US edition, ny favourite; a touch of class in the way it references older classic French book design. To its right the – obviously – French edition, suggesting costume and scenery and longing (there’s always plenty of frost and snow in a Makine novel); they’ve moved on graphically. And underneath the disappointingly corny old UK contribution. Hey – it’s a film!
Here on Lillabullero I have tabulated Andreï Makine‘s works to make sense of the variant titles that have cropped up with UK and US editions, and collected my diverse comments on all his translated works here. He has no great web presence beyond book reviews and the rare interview; the hits I get on these pages – top of the second page in Google when I looked, and it’s been higher – are testimony to that. He deserves far greater recognition.