Is the American novel in a slump? Are the British novelists losing their drive? Contemporary fiction seems ultra-light and slight after reading Dostoevsky’s The Demons and Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? Yes, you may laugh: what doesn’t seem slight after Dostoevsky? But after returning to the classics for a decade, it is tough to find a worthwhile new novel.
I have a new strategy, and so far it works. Avoid the books that are touted in every review publication simultaneously, because promotional frenzy has clouded critical judgment. Instead, go directly for the odd, interesting novels that exasperate cranky reviewers. They might not be great books, but they might be more compelling than the latest tidy little “literary” novel.
Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. is such an underrated book. Mainstream reviewers were curmudgeonly, complaining that at 816 pages the book was as long as War and Peace or Infinite Jest (actually, it is not!). Hm, I thought. Would it be long enough for me?
I am so glad I picked it up. This beautifully-written, well-researched historical novel, set during World War I and the Russian Revolution, is one of the smartest books I’ve read this year. It is the story of Marina, an intense young poet who hopes to escape the constraints of her aristocratic family life and mingle in the society of her favorite poets, Blok, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva.
The worker’s rallies, political riots, and the starvation wrought by war postpone Marina’s dreams. She is caught up in the revolution, encouraged by her Bolshevik friend, Varvara, who actually incites a riot in a bread line. After Marina is expelled from her family, she lives in squalor with her lover, a poet, and several of his friends in one room. She works in a knitting factory and learns to clean and delouse beds. But soon she also becomes savvy about the corruption of the various revolutionary parties, and when she tries to support her starving mother and old nurse in one room of their formerly luxurious apartment, she descends into hell as neighbors turn on neighbors to find food and fuel.
I have read 65% of the book, and it is a very good read. Are there some Perils of Pauline moments? Yes, and so what? It’s a wonderful read.
And the writing is often gorgeous. When Marina briefly finds refuge with a former lover who is involved with the black market, she relaxes..
I hadn’t realized how tired I was. Tired of queues and district soviets and frozen potatoes, tired of the communal squalor of the Poverty Artel, tired of the daily terrors and having to be a grown-up every day, tired of thinking and fighting and waiting my turn, while the real me was left unknown. I sat on the fragrant bed and watched the snow fall outside the windows. I should go and tell Genya what had happened. The knowledge tugged at me, but it seemed too far away. As any child can tell you, you must not leave an enchanted place or it will be lost to you forever. All that will remain will be a ribbon or a slipper, an enameled bracelet on your arm, the smell of honey and Floris Limes in your hair.
Am really loving this, and apparently a second volume is to be published. I can’t wait!
And here is a link to a rave review in The Los Angeles Review of Books.