Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg

… and as we limp towards the end of the summer and #WITMonth (well, at least I do!), I have read the final book I planned to for this month – which is actually something of an achievement. Go, me! 😀 The book is “Isolde” by Irina Odoevtseva, and it was recently published by the lovely Pushkin Press (who seem to be specialising in translations of Russian emigre writers – more of which later…) I’ve encountered the author before, as pieces by she and her husband, poet Georgy ivanov, were featured in “Russian Emigre Short Stories”, masterminded by translator Bryan Karetnyk. Her story “The Life of Madame Duclos” was one I found to be particularly memorable, and so I was very keen to read her novel – which has very shockingly never been translated into English before.

“Isolde” was published in 1929 and is set in the France of the 1920s. The book opens in Biarritz where fourteen year old Russian exile Liza is staying with her brother Nikolai and mother Natalia Vladimirovna. However, it’s clear from the start that this is something of a disfunctional family; the father was killed in the Revolution, and mother Natasha is in pursuit of lovers and money (no doubt the only practical way for her to survive in exile). She refuses to publicly acknowledge that she’s the children’s mother, instead pretending they’re cousins; and while she follows her own inclinations, Liza and Nikolai are very much left to their own devices, with devastating results… On the beach, Liza encounters the slightly older English boy, Cromwell; the latter is dazzled by Liza, christening her Isolde, and pursuing her. As he has money and a car, the neglected siblings are happy to hang around with him (even though Liza claims to be in love with a fellow Russian, Andrei, who’s back in Paris); and the three have a fine time with restaurants, jazz bars and plenty of champagne. And back in Paris the three Russians continue to sponge off Cromwell, until his mother cuts off the funding. At the same time, the distant and disinterested Natasha takes off, leaving her children with little money and no support; and dark forces begin to tempt the Russians towards dramatic acts, exacerbated by drink and lack of cash. The consequences are explosive…

Co-translator Bryan Karetnyk provides an excellent introduction which puts “Isolde” firmly into context, and it’s not hard to understand how controversial it was when it was issued. As he points out, it inhabits the same milieu as Coctea’s “Les Enfants Terribles” (which I love), a book that was published the same year and which features another pair of isolated siblings. Underlying both stories is the stress of adolescence and the effects of the changes the characters are going through; what perhaps makes “Isolde” stand apart is its frank acknowledgement of the burgeoning sexuality of Liza in particular. I can’t help thinking there’s a tendency nowadays to forget that teenagers are beset by all sorts of new desires and needs that they don’t quite understand and which they don’t know how to deal with; cotton wooling them isn’t going to help… Odoevtseva captures the undercurrents brilliantly in her portraits of the youngsters, driven by forces they can’t really control and without anyone there to guide them. And that is I think one of the most important points in the book; these are teenagers, in effect abandoned and left without guardians or help, and exiled from their country of birth. They’re susceptible to all sorts of influences, which at one point allows what is perhaps a little dig at Dostoevsky and his effect on young and impressionable minds. The young people have no moral compass and what happens to them, the actions they take, are tragic but inevitable.

Liza went through to her room and sat down on the light blue divan. Outside, wet auburn leaves spun silently down – like wet dead butterflies. The trees’ thin, dark branches quivered pitifully. Rain hit the windows at an angle and ran down the panes in thin streams. The wet, shiny glass made this familiar scene appear strange – cruel and hopeless.

It’s particularly clear from Odoevtseva’s wonderful writing that Liza suffers dreadfully from the lack of maternal love, and there are passages of genuine anguish where she shows how the girl has been damaged by the indifference of her mother-who-would-be-her-cousin. The unsettled state she finds herself in, the lack of a sense of belonging, and her failure to grasp what’s going on around her, lead her to build up the idea of Russia and returning there in her mind in very naive ways which allows her to be persuaded into foolish actions. Her youth and vulnerability are made clear at several points; she is in danger of becoming prey of men like her mother’s lover Boris, or Cromwell’s older cousin. However, in the end her naivety is exploited in a different way bringing tragedy to all. The end of the book is heartbreaking, and it reminds you that these are in the end just children who have been set adrift and lost.

Irina Odoevtseva – via Wikimedia Commons

“Isolde” is a marvellous and moving read, and a wonderful addition to the range of new emigre translations Pushkin have been bringing out. The blurb for the book describes it as a portrait of “a lost generation of Russian exiles”; it certainly does seem that there is a whole range of authors who wrote whilst banished from their country of birth and whose work has been lost since. I have to applaud the translators, and particularly Bryan Karetnyk who seems to be on a one man crusade to bring us the cream of Russian emigre literature – well done that man! 😀 I have to confess to ending my read of “Isolde” very emotionally affected by the story, and I hope more of Odoevtseva’s works make it into English!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! Kudos to both translators for their work on the book; I’ve mentioned Bryan Karetnyk’s contributions above, but want to acknowledge too Irina Steinberg, who also co-translated two wonderful Teffi volumes from Pushkin Press! 😀