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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! ๐Ÿ˜€ 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 โ€œThe Life of Madame Duclosโ€ 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 โ€“ 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 โ€“ 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! ๐Ÿ˜€ 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! ๐Ÿ˜€

August – a month where I *actually* undertake some challenges??? ;D @Read_WIT #AllViragoAllAugust @kitcaless @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K @FitzcarraldoEds

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I’m breathing little sigh of relief as I’ve actually managed to make it to the summer break from work – phew! Life has been pretty manic lately so I could do with a bit of space to regroup – and catch up with the reading. I’ve failed, of course, to make it through any kind of challenge floating around in the book blogsphere, but I don’t mind really – I tend to plough my own furrow when it comes to reading! However, August does bring a couple of reading events in which I always like to take part, and I’m hoping this year will be no different.

I’m also painfully aware that I’ve been reading a *lot* of books by men recently and that’s perhaps unusual as I *have* tended to read a lot more women authors in the past – perhaps it’s just the way the books have fallen. However, I’d like to redress that this month and to be specific I hope to read at least these four lovelies if nothing else!

All four are by women authors and all sound fascinating, although they don’t all fall into the challenge categories – nevertheless, I want to read them all this month! ๐Ÿ˜€

Let’s start with “Plastic Emotions”:

which is a very pretty looking book (sorry to be superficial there…) It’s neither a Virago nor a translated work; but it’s by a woman author and about a pioneering woman architect, so I’m going to count it in for getting back to reading more women. The subject of the book is Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva, an inspirational woman who I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of before. So I’m looking forward to finding out more about her via Shiromi Pinto’s intriguing-sounding book.

Next up is a book for All Virago/All August (which I never stick to – I couldn’t restrict myself to one publisher for a month!)

Although not a Virago edition, it’s a Virago author in the shape of Vita Sackville-West. I’ve read and loved her work (though much of it pre-blog), and when Simon wrote about “The Death of Noble Godavary” recently and mentioned it was reminiscent of Vita’s book “The Heir” I was sold. Looking forward to this one!

There are two books in translation by women in the pile above, and first up is this from Fizcarraldo Editions:

Again, I’m intrigued and excited about this one. The Vivian of the title is the American photographer, Vivian Maier (who oddly enough featured in the wonderful “Selfies” which I reviewed a while back); and the author is from Denmark and apparently regarded as one of the country’s most inventive and radical novelists. Sounds fab! ๐Ÿ˜€

Finally, where would we be on the Ramblings without a Russian?!

There has been a flood of wonderful translations of Russian emigrรฉ literature recently, much of it from the lovely Pushkin Press; and this one has just recently been issued. It’s the first time this author’s been translated into English (thank you Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg!) and it’s described as a disturbing portrait of a lost generation of Russian exiles. Sounds amazing, frankly!

So. I have plans for August. Modest ones, I think, as I shall be on a break from work and also going off on my travels to visit the Aging Parent and the Offspring; which gives extra time for reading, especially whilst on trains… The question is, will I *actually* read the books planned?? I have to say that the hardest thing at the moment, looking at these four lovelies, is making a decision as to which one to pick up first…. =:o

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