First published in 1929 but only just translated into English, Russian novelist/poet/playwrite/memoirist Odoevtseva’s arresting tale of teenage Russian expats living in France is as dark as it is dreamy.
The book was not an instant hit when it was first published in Paris, where Odoevtseva, like her characters, had fled to escape the Russian Revolution. Among the critical charges against it: It abused “sexual spice”; it was “dry”; it stereotyped the English; it had lesbian overtones. It was, co-translator Karetnyk writes in his engaging introduction, “all much too modern, much too European, much too explicit, much too close to the bone.” Indeed, it is all of those things, which is exactly what makes it great; the setting may be dated, but the writing, as translated by Karetnyk and Steinberg, is arrestingly contemporary. When we first meet 14-year-old Liza, the heart and center of the novel, it is on the beach in Biarritz, and we see her through the eyes of a wealthy British boy named Cromwell, who falls in love with her immediately and renames her Isolde, to his Tristan. Men fall in love with Liza—it’s just what they do—though except for declaring their devotion, they rarely engage with who she is. Cromwell, the most earnest of the bunch, is a pleasant distraction for both her and her plotting older brother, Nikolai, both of whom bask in his affections and his cash. When the family returns to Paris in the fall, Liza reunites with her boyfriend, Andrei—Cromwell, after all, was just a sweet diversion—but finds herself increasingly uneasy, on the cusp of adulthood, longing still for the half-imaginary Moscow of her youth. When Nikolai and Andrei hatch a plot, using naïve Liza as a pawn, the doom that has been hovering over the novel comes to violent fruition, although the real action all takes place offstage. The novel might have been a moralistic tale about an abandoned generation; instead, because of Liza, it is captivating: Underneath her shallow mania is real complexity, and while Odoevtseva’s portrait of adolescence is disturbing, it is also very funny, a ray of light cutting through the misery of an otherwise dark world.
A chilling pleasure.