Monday, May 30, 2011

Memories of making art in Stalinist Russia (Books - Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay)

When the Ragazzo and I were up in Kent,Connecticut to get married, we came across a little bookstore (fancy that). The woman behind the counter recommended Daphne Kalotay's new novel Russian Winter. I'm a sucker for personal recommendations in indy bookstores if they seem honest and, I must admit, I probably would not have read this heartfelt debut novel otherwise.

Russian Winter
is set alternately in post-World War II Russia and contemporary Boston and is structured around the auction of the jewelry of a now-retired prima ballerina of Russia's Bolshoi ballet, Nina Revskaya. A description of the featured jewels and their price, as might appear in an auction catalog, head each chapter. Of particular interest is a set of amber jewels. Although Nina offers what she believes is a complete set, an anonymous donor donates a last piece, not so much because he wishes to be generous but because he knows that the origin of these jewels holds the secret of his parentage, of which he is ignorant. Unfortunately, this story is so painful Nina, that she refuses to meet him. The plot of Russian Winter is the uncovering of this secret, and in doing so offers an historical novel of Stalin's Russia, a touching story about family origins and love, and a mystery whose solution I thought I had, but the complete details were a surprise to me.

This is a lot to take on in a debut novel and occasionally the seams show. The details around dance rehearsals and performance sometime read like a well researched list of technical terms, I couldn't smell that mixture of rosin, old sprung wood floors, and sweat. I felt that Kalotay lived inside the details of what it was like to be an artist in Stalinist USSR much more completely. The lack of privacy in shared living quarters, the summer dacha and banya, what people ate, what they wore, what it was like to tour. One of the novel's most vivid sections is when three dancers on tour in East Berlin looking for makeup and tights in accidentally cross to the West.
They emerge from the subway to a bustling street, oddly bright though the sky is as gray and cold as before. Shop windows glow with neon signs, and above them, big and clean, are billboards such as Nina has never seen, colorful and spotlit even though it is daytime. People everywhere; even their coats and hats look brighter, somehow. "That's why everyone had to get off." Nina says it even though it is clear from Polina's and Vera's faces that they too understand.

"We're not supposed to be here," Polina says.

"We didn't know," Vera whispers, eyes wide as she takes in the scene before them, the people walking at an easy clip, unworried, and the buildings that, while still somewhat derelict, are cleaner and free of rubble, with lights illuminating their windows...

In front of them is a vegetable kiosk. And there, heaped at the end, like something out of a fairy tale, is a stack of bright yellow bananas.

Polina and Vera too stare, as Nina allows herself to fully take in the scene around her...
I love the sense Kalotay went after of Dorothy emerging into colorful Oz following the drab sepia of Kansas, but the bananas are her "money shot." Unfortunately, Kalotay sometimes relies on explaining a little more than she needs to. I wish she had had a few more bananas.

Another strength of this novel is its marvelously detailed secondary characters. Nina's mother-in-law, a member of the defunct aristocracy, embittered by her decline in status, with whom Nina must live once she is married. Fellow dancer, Polina, whose conflict about being a good friend or a good citizen by informing on her colleagues so torments her that she breaks on in a horrible skin rash. These characters really inhabited flesh.

The sub-plot of Gershstein (Gersh), a soviet composer, who is hounded and eventually imprisoned because of Stalin's paranoid anti-Semitism, and his wife, Zoya whose desperate optimism keeps her trying to be the model party member throughout his imprisonment, was particularly engrossing. It integrates factual historical research, with a sense of living in a summer dacha, and all the while Gersh and Viktor, Nina's husband and a successful poet, debate for whom the artists works in Stalinist Russia.
"You sound like Zoya!" Gersh says, as Viktor surely expects him to. He can mention her today, because Vera has gone off one one of her long walks, gathering mushrooms. By the gate, her hand resting on the iron fence, Nina moves through her daily barre exercises. She hasn't skipped a day of training. Even a week of missed practice could mean bruised toes and aching limbs when her muscles are forced to work again.

"This utilitarian view of art makes my insides squirm," Gersh says. "You know that, of course."

"Why do you put up with her, anyway?" Nina calls.

"Who?"

"Zoya!"

"She makes me look good, don't you think?" Gersh says in his teasing voice. In a lisping imitation, he adds, "Upright citizen. Party spirit and all that. Perfectly commendable, actually."

Nina doesn't laugh; even in his mocking, Gersh seems uncomfortable. Perhaps Zoya really does feel to him like some kind of badge of approval. There has been more anti-Semetic commentary: editorials in the press, even another swipe at Gersh himself by one particularly belligerent critic whom Viktor has nicknamed "the Rottweiler." More than once Nina has glimpsed the slogan "Down with the Cosmopolites!" Maybe Gersh really does see Zoya as a protector of sorts.

"I'm not joking," Viktor says. "I mean what I said. About reaching the people. There's a reason front-row seats cost only three rubles at your theater, Nina. Life is hard, people are tired. You bring them beauty. You make them proud. You remind us of all we're capable of - that we ourselves are a work in progress, creating a great new society. Why do you think our Iosef Vissarionovich himself prefers the biggest, most colorful productions? He knows it's the monumental stuff - the most colorful scenery, the brightest costumes - that has the strongest impact."

"Exactly," Gersh says, "this is exactly the problem! There's no room for complexity, for sensitivity, for anything the slightest bit challenging. Instead we're supposed to pander to the audience. When, really, how are they every going to learn to appreciate anything truly profound? Everything always has to be exaggerated. And you know why: because people need to be cued. They need to be told what they're supposed to think.
What Kalotay does beautifully here in terms of setting is capture that breadth of life that Chekhov's plays or Mikhailkov's films capture - everyone is going about their lives and simultaneously talking. However, although the subject of the debate is perfect, it does not seem a part of the character's larger lives. It reads to me like an explanation for the reader of a key argument of the time which Kalotay researched. A composer and a poet who live and work in the mileu of other artists would talk about their own or other's specific works, an artistic problem they are solving, what someone did or did not do in the rehearsal, such and such a painting, they would be unlikely to have a discussion about "pandering to the audience" and "reaching the people" in this general and illustrative way. This aspect of Russian Winter was not entirely satisfying for me.

Luckily Kalotay is passionate about her subject matter, her interest clearly comes from some personal place. I was fascinated by the setting, and after any quibbles I might have about living in the details, the plotting was excellent and kept me reading with genuine interest. Kalotay also writes two poems in the voice of Viktor that I found lovely and convincing. Russian Winter's multiple layers of memory create a wholeness that enveloped me.

2 comments:

C.B. James said...

I'm also a 'sucker' for personal recommendations by bookstore clerks, record store clerks, too, back when where was such a thing.

It's funny that you mention bananas in the accidental visit to West Berlin. I've a friend who lived in West Berlin, now she lives in the former Eastern Section. When the wall came down, she told me, you couldn't find a banana in Berlin for weeks. They were one of the first things the East German bought, having seen them on television, but never in real life.

Ted said...

Cool story. Have you been to Berlin since the renaissance? Extraordinary place! BTW, if you're making your way to the NYC area again this summer, you should let me know!