The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
In the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve developed a real passion for smaller, independent presses. So many of my favourite books in recent years have been published by people like Pushkin and Alma; but a more recently discovery, and a publisher bringing out some real gems, is Peirene Press. As I mentioned in my review of “Sea of Ink” (my first Peirene) the books are designed to be read in one sitting, which is a great idea. Also, each year’s releases are themed and those for 2017 have the title “East and West”. The first release of the year is one that could have been chosen for me, as it was published in 1910, and deals with the lives of Russians during the early part of the 20th century; so I was delighted to receive a review copy from the publishers!
Ricarda Huch is an author new to me, but it seems that she was a bit of a trail blazer. A historian, novelist and philosopher, she was one of the first women to study at the University of Zürich and was the first female writer to become a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Apparently there’s even an asteroid named after her.
“TLS” is a purely epistolary novel, telling its story entirely in letter form. These missives are written by various members of the family involved and gradually tell the tale brilliantly. It is summer; the family of Yegor von Rasimkara are in the country, having left St. Petersburg for the summer. Yegor is the Governor of Petersburg and has caused controversy by closing the city’s university and putting some revolutionary students on trial. His wife Lusinya fears for his life, and a bodyguard has been hired in the form of a young man, Lyu. However, as we learn from the very start, Lyu is on the side of the students and has been planted on the family to carry out an assassination.
Things are complicated by the presence of the two daughters of the family, Katya and Jessika, as well as the son of the house, Velya. Correspondence takes place between Lyu and his outside contact, as well as the children and their cousin Peter, and Peter’s mother Tatyana. Gradually a picture builds up of the people concerned and the events taking place and it is clear that Lyu is not going to find it easy to carry out the killing; despite disagreeing with Yegor’s views, he likes the man, and indeed the whole family. Things get more difficult as both daughters are attracted to Lyu, and Velya likes him as well. As the summer wears on, time is running out before the students are brought to trial and Lyu will have to act soon if he is going to act at all…
The fact that everything, by virtue of coming into existence, is doomed to pass – that is the sole tragedy of life, for it is the nature of life, for life so constructed is the only one that can ever be ours.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot as the tension as the story develops is palpable! Huch’s writing is superb and she gradually builds up a picture of all the main protagonists from the letters; whether their own, where they reveal themselves, or seeing them from the viewpoint of their family members in other letters. Each personality is fully realised and believable and this has to be one of the most effective uses of this format I’ve ever read.
One of the most chilling elements is seeing how ideology can divide people; Lyu and the family all like each other very much, but all of their viewpoints are very different. The children of the family actually disagree with their father and sympathise with the students, so much so that the adults consider sending them abroad to study and travel and widen their outlook, and also to avoid familial conflict. Lyu gets on well with both Yegor and his wife, yet his belief in, and commitment to, revolution and assassination is more important than a human connection. In some ways, the book reminded me a little of Conrad’s “Secret Agent” in that not all of the characters allowed ideology to completely get in the way of their humanity, although the ones that do are completely committed. And although initially it might seem that this is just a minor matter of student dissent, later on in the book it becomes clear that those protesting students will be executed; the contrast between Yegor the family man, and Yegor the unquestioning functionary is quite startling.
The book builds to a tense and shocking climax, and it left me a little breathless. Certainly a book dealing with the terrorist impulse is a timely one, and it just goes to show that not much has changed. People will still do anything for a cause they believe in, humanity goes out of the window when belief becomes more important that real life humans, and we all need to stand back and remember we are all people, all living together on this little planet and we need to have more tolerance and learn to get on. “The Last Summer” is a gripping and chilling work, an excellent addition to the Peirene stable and very highly recommended.
(“The Last Summer” is published today. Review copy kindly provided by Peirene Press, for which many thanks)