“Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!”: Philip Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers

Sometime in the mid-90s, Philip Marsden spends a winter in Moscow, researching the Cossacks and the Old Believers—dreaming, in other words, of the Caucasus.

When spring comes Marsden goes to Rostov. There he begins the meandering journey across the land between the Black and Caspian seas that is the subject of The Spirit-Wrestlers. Marsden describes the territory as “Russia’s Vendée, where serfs and schismatics fled to become Cossacks … where the perennial urge to conformity seems at its weakest—the place where the sea-like flatness of the steppe breaks against the Caucasus and all its scatterings of non-Russian peoples.”

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Some of these people are long-vanished, like the Scythians, whom the Cossacks have styled as their forbearers (a claim Marsden dismisses as nonsense), and the Alans, another vanished Steppe group famous for its warrior temperament, and whose descendants are likely today’s Ossetians. In addition to sojourns among Cossacks, Ossetians, Georgians, and Armenians, Marsden also tracks down some more obscure peoples, like the Molokans (the milk drinkers, named after an epistle from Peter that describes believers desiring the Word as babies do milk), whose numbers at one point reached a million and were important in the movement to abolish serfdom in the 19th century, and one of whose subgroups were the first to call themselves “communists” after pooling their resources.

The people he’s most interested in, though, are the Doukhobors (the “spirit-wrestlers” of the title). Their origins—like those of pretty much every group in this book and, indeed, the world—are unclear, but they date to the late 18th century. The sect’s adherents distanced themselves from what they saw as the corruption of the Church; instead they “tried to live in the way most likely to release the spark that lives in each individual.” In the 19th Century their most famous leader was imprisoned in Siberia and the rest were exiled to the southern edge of the empire. Above all it was their pacifism that got them in trouble—they refused to serve in the army—but this was what brought them to the attention of Tolstoy, who donated the proceeds from his last novel, Resurrection, to them, which allowed many Doukhobors to emigrate to Canada in the early 20th century. (They settled in the prairies, and flitted on the periphery of my childhood, but only as a kind of joke: their reputation for espousing a kind of hippie millenarianism stemmed from their tendency to avow nudism. I remember them being portrayed to me as something like grubby Hutterites. It was useful—and not a little shaming—to learn the meaningful context for people and practices I’d only known as derisive.)

Yet as its division into parts named Steppe and Mountain suggests, The Spirit-Wrestlers is as much about landscape—sometimes verdant, sometimes stony, always seemingly inexhaustible—as about the stormy co-existence of religious and ethnic groups.

Last year I read Marsden’s The Bronski House, about a similarly contested border region in Eastern Europe, this time to the north-west of Russia (Poland, Lithuania, Belarus). I loved it. But I think I might like The Spirit-Wrestlers even more. Which surprises me, since the subject matter isn’t immediately appealing to me. I’m not really that religious a person, and non-Abrahamic religions interest me least of all. (Many of the people Marsden interacts with are Christians, but they are typically dissenters: the Doukhobors, for example, do not recognize the authority of the Church.) Yet despite its concern with spiritualism, Marsden’s true interest is ordinary material life, in all its pains and pleasures.

That dogma is his enemy is clear throughout. But in his final pages, Marsden allows himself to editorialize a little. In Armenia he goes looking the Yezidi, a group that recognizes evil as an integral part of creation. He concludes:

Our universe is naturally flawed, they say, and to deny it is to miss an elemental truth. I could not help being drawn to this idea. It was a riposte to all those dreamers—from Christians to Communists—who clog their thinking with the way things should be and ignore the way they are, who gaze for too long at their own glittering visions and fail to see the glories in the twists and bumps that make up the real world.

The Yezidi—the long history of whose suffering took a further, terrible turn a few years ago when they were genocidally persecuted by ISIS—don’t try to purge the world of evil. They just try to avoid it. In so doing, Marsden argues, “they sidestep one of the great paradoxes of our earthly existence. For as any dictator learns, it is precisely what you try to purge that becomes your downfall.”

These conclusions explain Marsden’s epigraph, attributed to Russian villagers, who, when camels were brought to their collective farms, exclaimed: “Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!” The joke might at first seem to be on the villagers, rubes who can’t tell a horse from a camel. But really it’s on the Bolsheviks, and anyone who tries to mash square pegs into round holes. Or, more painfully, on those who take on the role of the pegs, who suffer the murderous grandiosity of conviction forced on life from on high. Can we even call it a joke? So much pain lies behind it: a classic if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry scenario.

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Suffering also explains the importance of food in the book, for food, Marsden suggests, is the preeminent way of bringing people together peacefully. In the steppe and the mountains, food (and peace) has so often been in short supply. When Marsden talks to old people he hears terrible stories of starvation, mostly due to Stalin’s forced collectivism. They remember eating grass and birch bark, boiling leather shoes for a desperate soup, devouring the seed-corn. These stories are from long ago, but they resonate into the present. In Maikop, in the Russian Adygei Republic, a fraught conversation about ethnic nationalism is brought to a peaceful conclusion only when it’s time for lunch:

The whole subject was too serious to be taken seriously in public. They unpacked more food, and with the food the harmless chatter resumed; in Russia there is no anxiety so great that it cannot find relief in a full table.

As this passage suggests, food matters less for its own sake (the book is pre-Foodie, thank God) and more for its ability to bring people together.

Rather unusually for a travel writer, Marsden likes people. He’s curious about everyone and everything, without being credulous. He stays just the right side of folksy in his observations, some of which are quite funny:

I left Fyodor Mikhailovich sitting on a bench outside his gate. He was waiting for something to happen so that he could watch it. Nothing had happened yet and it probably wouldn’t that day.

In South Ossetia he meets a doctor nicknamed Pushkin, “a tireless walker, not fast, but who walked without really being aware he was walking.” They discuss the famously long-lived people of the Caucasus, people who lived not just into their 120s but, apparently, into their 170s. Why aren’t there such people anymore? We eat yeast, Pushkin says, adding, “Everything’s different now.”

The doctor, who visits tiny villages on foot, bringing only the comfort of his presence (he hasn’t had medicine since the fall of the Soviet Union), experiences change only as loss:

To Pushkin, these elongated lives were just one of the vanished riches of the Soviet past, like a full medicine cabinet, like the kolkhoz sheep, like peace between the peoples of the union.

But the Union brought pain, too. In Kidlovodsk, a spa town in the mountains, he rents a room from Natalya Petrovna, a “teacher of ideology” who is at first presented almost as a figure of fun, an eccentric anyway: “She was also an expert on local buses.” He sleeps on her balcony, under “a canopy of fresh walnut leaves.” In the morning he listens to Natalya toss “scraps of bread to the dogs in the yard: ‘Maronchik! Sobachka!’” She spends her days working in the garden at her dacha, which she reaches by taking the Number 52 to the post office, then changing to the Number 10. It’s all gentle and sweet. Then we learn about her two sons, who appear “loose-hipped and laughing” in a photo on the kitchen wall.

They had gone to Afghanistan together. They had written long letters home. They had sent photographs of themselves in uniform. Natalya’s sons had returned separately, each one in a box.

The tone darkens all in a moment. The life of the lonely woman suddenly seems different: the precision of the bus routes becomes a way of salvaging sense from senselessness. And her repeated lament “They’ve drunk Russia away…” becomes not a quixotic railing against the Russian national pastime but fury at the generals who stole her boys.

As these examples suggest, Marsden isn’t a showy writer. But he’s a good one. That “loose-hipped and laughing” is a fine example. “Loose-hipped”: I’d never have thought of it, but I can just see it. Or take this description of a sudden rainstorm: “Women scuttled into doorways with handbags over their heads; dogs ran flat-furred through the water.” I love that “flat-furred.” Marsden’s good with dogs. In Armenia, “warm Asiatic winds were blowing unchecked across [the land’s] grassy tracts, flicking the neck-fur of the dogs.”

Marsden is like his style: impressive but modest. He keeps to the edge of the story. We learn almost nothing about him. (By comparison The Bronski House is practically an autobiography.) He cuts an appealing figure: modest, uncomplaining, able to find a place for himself no matter where he goes. When things go wrong, as they always do, he doesn’t fuss. I especially wondered what language he speaks to the people he meets, many of whom have little formal education. (Which of course isn’t incompatible with the ability to speak several languages.) It’s clear his Russian is excellent, and that’s presumably the language of choice. But did that work in Ossetia, Georgia, and Armenia?

Similarly, I wondered what such a trip would be like now. Even more difficult to accomplish, I assume. Marsden is kicked off a bus by Russian security forces the first time he tries to get to Georgia, and he worries about being shot at night in Tbilisi. But I suspect these places are even more dangerous for Westerners now. I would imagine the rise of Islam in the area has changed things a lot (Marsden only meets one Muslim, a convert who is the source of bemused contempt by his family.) Wherever he goes, he records everyday examples of Islamophobia (plus the casual anti-Semitism you’d expect).

These changes notwithstanding The Spirit-Wrestlers didn’t seem dated, despite being written twenty years ago. Not that its concerns are timeless. But the battle between idealism and ordinary life (which I admit I am romanticizing, as, perhaps, does Marsden) is endless. And it’s clear Marsden has influenced later writers. The Spirit-Wrestlers, for example, reminded me of Kapka Kassabova’s Border, a similarly intelligent and sensuous investigation of a place where cultures collide, in that case Thrace and the Rhodope.

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If I haven’t already enticed you to give The Spirit-Wrestlers a try, I’ll add two last notes. One, it’s got a great map. Who doesn’t love a map? Two, it’s a perfect summer book, filled with descriptions of people sitting outside late into the night eating and, especially, drinking. And with a new set of true believers causing trouble all across the world what’s not to like about that?

Five Years Later

I posted my first review here at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau five years ago last week. A satisfying milestone, especially as more people visited last year than ever before. And surely not all of them are trying to plan a trip to Switzerland…

In preparing these comments, I looked back at last year’s anniversary post. Most of the things I said there remain true. Most of all I still wish I wrote more regularly. But I’m doing better about not beating myself up about it. And overall I’m feeling more optimistic about lit blogs in general. I know there was that recent piece about how book blogs are dead, and I know some smart bloggers wrote rebuttals. I’m grateful to my comrades for doing so, but I confess I didn’t read either the original take or the responses. Maybe some people think blogs are over, but that’s not the way it feels to me. There are still plenty of people out there, ploughing their various fields, and giving me all kinds of new things to think about and titles to hunt down. (I’ve said it before, but I swear to God the first thing I’m going to do this summer is add a blog roll.) Without exception, the people I’ve come to know through the online lit community have been smart, funny, warm, and generous. And best of all, they are real readers. Although I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few in person, most I know only in the spectral way of the internet. And yet I do feel I know them. At a time in my life when I don’t interact with many readers on a daily basis (which might surprise you, given that I’m an academic, but there you have it), I really cherish that community.

As for the coming year on the blog, I suspect it will be much like the last: a series of too occasional, too long meditations on stuff I’ve been reading. I plan to add a few things. For example, I’m writing monthly round-up posts. I’ve pledged to host a group reading of a long nineteenth-century Danish novel in May (please join!). And when the semester ends I will try, as I did last year, to write a few essayistic pieces.

Until I re-read the plans I made last year, I’d forgotten I suggested coordinating a celebration of Primo Levi’s centenary. (I’m puzzled that no one seems to be talking about this milestone.) Having committed to the Big Danish Novel in what is prime reading and writing time (just when the semester ends) I’m not sure when this going to happen, but I think it’s important to commemorate this wonderful writer, so I will devise some kind of plan, however modest. Let me know if you have suggestions. In fact, if you would like to help me (primarily by keeping me accountable) I would be ecstatic. Levi’s hardly forgotten, but his oeuvre is more varied than you might think. Plus, as a writer of witness, and as a person who found the worlds of science and literature mutually enlivening rather than entirely separate, he remains as relevant as ever.

And then there’s Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, which I have sadly neglected after such a strong start. I hope to get back to it. But I know the siren-song of another giant NYRB release will be calling my name come summer.

If I can get my act together, the long-suffering Keith and I will continue our slow tour through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. I’ve loved sharing Keith’s writing, as I have Nat’s. Reading Olivia Manning with Scott was typically satisfying. If you’re looking for a (very modest) platform for your bookish writing, let me know. I’d love to have more contributors here, either regularly or as a one-off.

Before I close, let me list a few highlights from the past year:

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who stopped by the site this year. Your interest and support mean so much.

Onwards! That book mountain isn’t going to climb itself.

2018 Year in Reading

At first, I thought my 2018 reading was good but not great. But then I looked over my list and I kept remembering books that had left an impression. Maybe not a lot of books for all time, but plenty of high-quality stuff.

I read 126 books in 2019 (and abandoned a lot of others). Of these, 67 were by women and 59 by men; 99 were originally written in English and 27 in translation. 17 were audio books; 14 were re-reads.

Some highlights:

Kapka Kassabova, Border. A book I keep coming back to, and if it weren’t for a certain gargantuan novel (more below) this would be my book of the year. Border, as I wrote for #BulgarianLitMonth, is “about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.” Kassabova’s journeys through Thrace (the intersection of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) is filled with indelible portraits; it is the rare travelogue that is more about the people the writer meets than the writer herself.

Phillip Marsden, The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. Back in June I described this book as “a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.”

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13. I think about this book all the time, even though I listened to the (gorgeous) audio book way back in March. A novel about the passing of time as marked by the rhythms of the natural world. I’m considering adding it to my Experimental British Fiction class for its brilliant use of passive voice (except the last thing that class needs is another book by a white guy).

Laura Lippman, Sunburn. Brilliant noir that subverts the genre’s misogyny. (I think it’s a response to Double Indemnity.) At one point I made a few notes for an essay, abandoned for now, about what life was like before the Internet, when serendipity seemed to structure what we knew, and many things were hard to know. This book is set in the 90s, not just for the backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings, which it uses to good effect, but because not knowing, or barely knowing, or needing to find someone who knows what you need to know is central to the plot.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Michael Hofman’s translation is a triumph (his afterword is fascinating); he makes Döblin’s collage of idioms and styles live for English-language readers. Not a book to love, for me at least, but certainly one to admire. Even more fun than writing about it was reading what Nat had to say.

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina & Liana Finck, Passing for Human. My two favourite comics in a year of good ones. (Honourable mention to Jason Lutes, for his satisfying conclusion to the Berlin trilogy). At first glance, these books have nothing in common, but they’re both dark and troubling, and they use the form in such interesting ways. I wrote about Sabrina here. You’ll hear more from me about Finck.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk. Even though this book felt a bit misshapen and truncated (it was her last and I’m sure her health was bad as she was completing it), it’s stayed with me much more than I expected. I wrote a bit about it here. I’ll read more Dunmore this year, starting with The Siege. If you have other favourites, let me know.

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage & Crooked Heart—One of this year’s many blogging regrets is that I never made time to write about these two novels. I read Old Baggage (2018) on the recommendation of various Twitter friends, and then tracked down Crooked Heart (2014) at my local library. This reverse order turned out just fine, as Baggage is a prequel to Crooked; knowing what has happened to get the child protagonist to the situation he’s in at the beginning of Crooked makes the earlier book even more poignant. If you’re allergic to poignancy, though, don’t worry. Evans is funny (in real life, too—follow her on Twitter) and anything but sanctimonious or sentimental. Which could have been a real risk: each of these books, set in England during the 1920s-40s, describes a boy’s relationship with two older women, ersatz parents. Even though each is in her own way a social misfit, the women have a lot to teach the child, whether it’s how to make a speech or how to pull a con. I loved both books, but preferred Baggage because the child plays second fiddle to the indelible Mattie Simpkin, a former Suffragette leader who, in her declining years, challenges herself to galvanize a generation of young women who are taking for granted the gains made by their elders. (As far as they’re concerned, Mattie and her ilk are just “old baggage.”) What happens, Evans asks, when the movement you’ve devoted your life to fades away? As great as Mattie is, she’s not even the best character: that would be her friend and sometime amanuensis, nicknamed The Flea, so kind, so loving, so long-suffering, so surprising. Old Baggage is a quick read, but it’s packed with things to think about and enjoy. You’ll have to get it from the UK but it’s worth it.

Jessie Greengrass, Sight. Smart novel/essay about the pleasures and pains of making the invisible visible.

Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. Scott and I wrote about these wonderful books. Maybe not quite as amazing as their predecessors, The Balkan Trilogy, but there’s one scene in the first volume that is such a stunner.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter. I hate almost all contemporary novels about the Holocaust. But Seiffert won me over, partly by emphasizing the Shoah by bullets (the murderous movement of the SS Einsatzgruppen across the Soviet Union in 1941-2), partly by focusing on victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, and complicating those seemingly separate categories, and partly by her thoughtfulness about the relationship between assimilation and survival. I even forgave the book for being written mostly in first person, a pet peeve of mine. (Long live the past perfect, I say.) I also read her first book, The Dark Room, also about the war years: also good, though not as light on its feet as Boy.

Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance. Seventies books are the best books.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside. This book is a wonder, so still and careful and joyous. It’s about a woman who survives some sort of apocalypse that leaves her trapped in a lovely, though also punishing alpine valley, with only various animals for companionship. I reveled in the details of the narrator’s survival and the suggestion that it might take a complete rupture for women to find their place in the world. John Self says the rest of Haushofer’s (small) body of work is good, too.

Émile Zola—Some of the year’s greatest reading moments came from the project Keith and I launched to make our way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle. We read three novels this year (at this rate, our kids are going to be in college before we’re done) and it was such a pleasure thinking about them with him. The Fortune of the Rougons was tough sledding, but The Belly of Paris and The Kill were great. I’m obsessed with Zola’s use of description, and how that tendency threatens to derail the aims of the naturalist project (if we in fact take those aims seriously; Tom cautioned me not to) and even the idea of narrative itself. We’re committed to continuing with Zola in 2019—maybe I can get my act in gear to read and write a little faster.

And my reading experience of the year: Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated (heroically) by Charlotte Mandell.

I’m sad I never made time to write about this, the longest (900+ pages) book I read in 2018. I read 20-50 pages each day in June, and as soon as I finished we left on our long Canada vacation and the moment for writing about it passed. But I have thoughts! This extraordinary novel of the Holocaust is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer who experiences most of the significant moments of the war and the Final Solution: he’s in Paris in the summer of 1940, and at Stalingrad two years later. He’s with the Einsatzgruppen as they extinguish Jewish life in the Ukraine (including a horrifying set piece describing the events at Babi Yar), he’s in the Caucasus, he’s in Vichy France, he’s in Pomerania as the Red Army overruns the Germans. It’s amazing how Littel makes Aue’s peregrinations seem plausible rather than a Forest Gump-like gimmick. Early on, I found the novel so grim and distasteful that I could only read 20 pages at a time—I asked Mandell, always so gracious on Twitter, how she could stand to translate it, and she told me it was hard, and even worse when she started to dreamed about it. Aue is not a nice man, but he’s smart and erudite and a compelling storyteller. He’s so much more reasonable, though I shudder to put it this way, in his extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables than most of the men he works with, and he has the decency to make himself sick over what he’s done that occasionally we forget what the hell is really going on and even look on him kindly. Quite a trick how Littel pulls us towards accepting or at least understanding the intellectual underpinnings of fascism while never letting us forget what a failure it would be to really be seduced. There’s an utterly engrossing lengthy section in which Aue and various other officials discuss whether the Mountain Jews of the Caucuses (descendants of Persian Jews) are racially or “only” ritually Jewish; that is, whether they ought to be exterminated or not. The cold-bloodedness and ethnographic hairsplitting of the conversation offer a powerful example of how men can set notions of decency or morality aside.

The Kindly Ones is ultimately a flawed book: alongside the political/ideological explanations, Littel gives Aue another motivation for his actions—his incestuous love for his sister. (This is the strand that references the Orestia, the last volume of which gives the novel its name.) Littel never reconciles these political and personal strands, so that in the end all of his work at showing the all-too-human motivations for genocide is undone by the psychopathic aspects of this second strand. But the accomplishment here is tremendous. I don’t know if anyone less obsessed with the Holocaust than me could ever enjoy—well, let’s say value—such a book, but I was very taken with it, especially because the book wanted me to feel gross about feeling that way.

Some bests and worsts:

Best new (to me) series: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott books. A little bloated, but Galbraith knows how to tell a story. From the classic meet cute in the first pages of the first volume, Galbraith pushes my buttons and I don’t care. The plots are genuinely suspenseful, and the “will they/won’t they” storyline between the private detective and his temp-become-full-fledged assistant is catnip. I recommend the audio books.

Best Holocaust texts: Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (beautiful essay on some photographs the author took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau); Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (the story of how Applebaum survived the war is incredible, as is the cognitive dissonance between that text and her postwar memoir, also included in this volume); Nechama Tec, Dry Tears (I will be writing about this memoir soon).

Best book by Dorothy B. Hughes: I read four Hughes novels this year. The Expendable Man, her last, was my favourite, and I think it’s a genuinely great book because it implicates readers in its cultural criticism. I enjoyed the more famous In a Lonely Place, but I preferred the first half of the earlier The Blackbirder. Hughes isn’t a conventional suspense writer: plot isn’t her strength. What she’s brilliant at is describing how people deal with threats they know about but can’t escape. That skill is evident from the first page of The So Blue Marble, her first and mostly utterly preposterous novel. Even though Hughes’s protagonists aren’t always women, she writes from a position women know only too well: being victimized not by some unknown person, but by someone close to them—someone the rest of the world is slow to suspect. This accounts for the atmosphere of desperation and fear that characterizes her work. I’ll hunt down more Hughes in 2019.

Best essay about prison libraries hiding inside what pretends to be a crime novel: George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown.

Best crime discovery (I): Anthony Horowitz, who I’ve in fact been enjoying for years as a longtime fan of (a.k.a. total suck for) Foyle’s War. The Word is Murder is pure genius: Horowitz puts himself in the story, uses the oldest odd-couple idea in the book, and still makes it work. Clever and fun. Afterwards, I read the earlier Magpie Murders, similarly clever and fun, though not quite as genius as Murder, which, I am delighted to see, looks like it will become a series.

Best crime discovery (II): Lou Berney, who lives just down Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City and isn’t afraid to write about it. The Long and Faraway Gone was good, but November Road is great, and I say that as someone allergic to anything to do with the Kennedy assassination.

Book I had to stay up all night to finish: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves. Indigenous Canadian dystopian YA—will follow her career with interest.

Best thriller—Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, by a mile. His first, The Night of Wenceslas, is weaker, but the guy can write a chase scene.

Best SF-alternate history-who knows what genre this is and who cares: Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land. Tidhar hasn’t always been to my taste, but he’s always worth thinking with, and here he delivers a compelling story that imagines a Jewish homeland in Africa. (Modelled of course on one of the many such plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) A thoughtful book about borders, as sad as any book about that topic must be, and as such relevant to everyone.

Most vexing: P. G. Wodehouse, Thank you, Jeeves. It is delightful! But can it be delightful with a minstrelsy sub-plot?

Interesting, but I don’t quite get the fuss: Oyinkan Brathwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer; Anna Kavan, Ice. I wrote about my struggle to teach the latter.

Books I liked at the time but have sunk without a trace: Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a good dog book and a book about a good dog. As I recall, it seems to be suggesting autofiction is intrinsically good at portraying grief, which is interesting. But although I enjoyed it a lot at the time, I never think of it now. I should be the target audience for Maybe Esther (Trans. Shelley Frisch), Katya Petrowskaya’s investigation into and speculation about the fate of her family in the Ukraine during WWII. And it really has its moments (there’s a great bit near the beginning about a ficus plant). But somehow it didn’t add up for me. I might like it a lot more on a re-read—do you ever feel that way about a book?

Disappointments: Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (not terrible, and on the face of it the sort of thing I like best—Gothic country house, unreliable narrator—but underwhelming; maybe Our Endless Numbered Days was a one-off?); Ian Reid, Foe (fair bit of buzz about this quasi-SF, quasi-philosophical novel concerning humans and replicants, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it seemed to think it was).

Lousy: Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny (histrionic); Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (overwrought); Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow Killer (losing his way, I fear).

Reliable pleasures: Tana French (Witch Elm deserves a better fate: it’s typically gorgeous and tricksy, but for the first time French concentrates on an individual rather than a relationship; I’ve read some grumbling about it, and I don’t get it); Jeanne Birdsall (Penderwicks 4eva!); John Harvey (the new book is his last and it is very sad); Ellis Peters (check out Levi Stahl’s lovely piece); Ian Rankin (came back to Rebus after many years away, and am catching up—sometimes the writing is bad, but he’s good at weaving subplots, and at knowing when a book is long enough); Phillip Kerr (making my way through the Bernie Guenther’s and they’re evocative, suspenseful, and damn funny: hard to pull off).

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My big regret for 2018 is that I wrote almost nothing for publication. I was tired after a few very busy years. And I was scared to pitch new venues after some of the journals I’d been most associated with folded in 2017. I’m aiming to write more in 2019. Here on the blog, I would love to write more frequently and less longwindedly, but I’m coming to realize that over-long, close-reading analyses are what I do best (or what I do, anyway). I’m going to try something new, though, as a way to say a little something about more of the books I read: at the end of each month, I’ll write a round-up post, something like Elisa Gabbert’s magnificent year-end piece. I don’t have her lightness or ease, but I think it will be an exciting challenge.

As always, I’ve loved reading and writing with friends this past year. For the first time I even included a post about a book I’ve never even read (thanks, Nat!). I’d love to have more contributions from other readers and writers. If you want to suggest something to read with me, just let me know. And if you just want a place to share your thoughts about a book, say the word. I do have one concrete suggestion: join me and others to read a long Danish novel about canals and Jews! And I know I will be avidly reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad when it comes out this summer. And I will make it back to Anniversaries, I promise. Other than that, I’ll probably keep reading as waywardly and haphazardly as always. Although a hedgehog in personality, I am a fox when it comes to reading.

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting in 2018—I hope you’ll stick around for more in 2019. After all, the blog is turning 5 next month! And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017.

 

“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.