Saturday, 31 March 2012

Book Review: Nine of Russia's Foremost Women Writers

"To serve, just to serve, to have no meaning, to stand in the common ranks, to assert nothing, to deny nothing, to keep out of the big picture, never to speak on a platform or lead anyone into battle – the most ordinary existence, which can hardly be to anyone’s credit."

So writes Natalia Smirnova, one of the nine female writers in the Glas collection, in the introduction to her story ‘The Women and the Shoemakers’, but it could be applied to almost all of the characters, real or imagined, featured in both of these fascinating books. They are all essentially ordinary people leading ordinary lives, yet it is in this that the fascination and strength of these acutely observed tales lies. Smirnova frames her story with a discussion of what makes a literary hero or heroine, and emphasises that very few of us are Madame Bovary, nor might wish to be, yet in the very ordinariness of life we might still find or achieve something remarkable. Here it is the dressmaking skills of the three generations of women (who seem to live in some epitome of a Socialist Realist world), that make them the most incredibly well-dressed people for miles around, their skill as seamstresses being the calm centre amid the vortex of their lives.

Svetlana Alexiyevich also writes about everyday, ordinary people and their lives, but chooses to highlight the moments of love and passion, torment and despair in them; and acknowledges that they are often affected by the bigger picture, for example, by mothers or husband who have spent time in the camps. By deriving her narratives from interviews with real people, her ‘live voices’ as she calls them, these stories become all the more poignant. These are women who get up, make breakfast, look after the children, go to work in the rush hour, do the shopping, struggle home, make dinner, do the chores, and eventually collapse into a dreamless six hours of sleep. As one of the protagonists says:

‘I’m an appliance, a machine, not a woman. … Where’s the joy?’

The themes of their lives are love, infidelity, and the idea of the Russian dusha [soul] and its alleged love of and desire for suffering. This is generally seen to manifest itself in a sense of pity and responsibility for their menfolk – a desire to take care of them and protect them financially, emotionally and socially. Russian men do not emerge too favourably in a lot of these stories, but especially in Alexiyevich’s work, where they are invariably drunk, lazy and incapable of working either in the house or outside it – but always charming! There is an overwhelming sense that Russian woman thinks her man is ‘part hero and part child [and] she is his rescuer’, thereby collaborating in his infantilisation.

Although the majority of the pieces by these nine female writers reflect primarily on women’s roles as daughters, wives, mothers, grandmothers and sisters, they also touch, perhaps inevitably, on the changing role of men. It is suggested that in Soviet times all men were equal, and would happily sit around each other’s kitchen tables drinking vodka, setting the world to rights. In the post-Soviet world they are alienated individuals who have to struggle to survive, but who refuse to bear the ‘shame’ of taking a job beneath them or not in their field, or of capitulating to a less traditional role. The degree of infidelity and drunkenness remains the same these writers tell us, but men’s existence is now altogether a more lonely, shameful one. The other implication is that they all enjoyed an unspoken power over women, which has latterly been challenged, leading them to feel denigrated and emasculated. However, no real blame is attributed to either sex, things are merely represented as they are; although there is a recurring suggestion that women’s own lack of expectation colludes with men’s treatment of them, and is thereby a factor in their unhappiness. Bleak as the idea that this is how things are, have been and always will be may seem, it is often tempered by rare moments of beauty and joy – a kind word; familial love; a beautiful fur coat or a woman’s hair.

Ludmila Petrushevskaya, author of the internationally-renowned Immortal Love: Stories, Cinzano and Time: Night, is probably one of the best known contemporary Russian writers in the West, male or female. She is represented here with two stories.  The first,‘Waterloo Bridge’, concerns an old lady’s discovery of the joys of cinema rather late in life, and her subsequent rebirth. Granny Olya is an archetypal strong Socialist Realist Soviet woman who gives up her ‘frivolous’ career as a brilliant opera singer to support her husband while he writes his dissertation. When the husband later leaves her, abandoning her to a grim life with their harsh, uncaring daughter who has also been abandoned by her own husband, Olya becomes an insurance agent. As an escape from her dull, drab, joyless life she decides to take an afternoon trip to the cinema where, in the 1950s British film Waterloo Bridge, she sees a snapshot of her life as it should have been. Gradually becoming increasingly obsessed with the cinema, but moreover with the actor Robert Taylor, Granny Olya conceives a mission to bring similar joy to the lives of her female clients and even sets up a ‘Robbie’ fan club, bringing much joy to the lives of women who have little. This is one of those perfectly honed stories that Petrushevskaya does so well and, for me, is perhaps the highlight of the collection.

It is perhaps inevitable with Russian writing that the political element is never far away, and such is the case here, not only with Granny Olya and the townspeople of ‘The Women and the Shoemakers’, who are almost pastiches of Soviet Socialist Realism. Margarita Sharapova’s and Nina Gorlanova’s both satirise ill-fated Communism, the former Soviet Union and the ‘new’ Russia to great effect in their stories. The former has her two protagonists and their huge St Bernard dog embarking on an epic journey across the countryside, a slow progression through various towns and encounters with local people which echoes the picaresque and farcical elements of Gogol’s Dead Souls (Penguin Classics). Whilst Gorlanova’s ‘How Lake Jolly Came About’ bears some comparison to Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (Vintage Classics), with a woman giving birth in a hospital which hasn’t existed for five years and apparently living at the bottom of a lake, as the hostel which is her home was ‘officially’ demolished the year before.

This collection gives a fascinating insight into both the political and the personal aspects of the lives of Russian women.  A must-read for anyone wanting to understand the role of women in Russia, past, present and future.

(This review was originally published in The East-West Review, the journal of The Great Britain-Russia Society.)

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