Irina Odoyevtseva’s first novel, The Angel of Death, came out in 1927 to huge acclaim from both the reading public and influential foreign press: ‘The novel creates a sophisticated and charming ambiance that defies description’ (The Times). ‘The book by Odoyevtseva bears an unmistakeable stamp of real genius. We would even dare place her besides Chekhov...’ (Gastonia Gazette). Her second novel, Isolde, was published in 1929, and the third one, The Mirror – in 1939. After the Second World War Odoyevtseva found fame. Here she was, working herself into the ground, composing plays, scripts, novels in French, and publishing in 1948 a book in the genre of the social novel – Abandon Hope Forever (came out in French in 1948, in English and Spanish – in 1949, and in Russian – in 1954). The author was saying in an interview, ‘My writing career includes, among others, a political novel whereby I described, among other things, Stalin’s death and the reaction of the nation. Events of the March of 1953 proved me right in my forecasts.’ Her last novel – A Year in Your Life – was published in 1953.
After her husband’s demise Odoyevtseva lived for 20 years in the old people’s home near Paris where quite a few Russian writers were spending their twilight years. She was found there, in 1987, at the age of 92, by a Russian journalist Anna Kolonitskaya. In the same year Odoyevtseva returned to the city of her youth – St Petersburg. She died in 1990, aged 95. Her memoirs served to make her, in the eyes of our contemporaries, a ‘mirror of our century’.
Regrettably, by the time Odoyevtseva’s books started coming out in many-thousand-strong print-runs in Russia her name had been profoundly forgotten in the West – along with many other Russian authors whose names are only now making their gradual return to the reading public (Gaito Gazdanov, M. Ageyev’s Affair with Cocaine, Boris Zaitsev, Alexei Remizov, Mikhail Osorgin, Mark Aldanov and many others).
THE ANGEL OF DEATH
Odoyevtseva’s first novel attracted immediate attention. It was translated sufficiently promptly into several foreign languages while the English version by Donia Nachshen received a literary prize. The enthusiasm of the English public is evident in those snippets taken from the English and American press of the day:
‘The Angel of Death has such a subtle and delicate texture that can only be compared to the most aerial short stories by Catherine Mansfield.’ (Manchester Guardian)
‘The novel bears a slight resemblance to Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening but while the German drama is heavy-handed and deliberate the tragedy of youth in Odoyevtseva’s novel is narrated with extreme subtlety. Odoyevtseva’s delivery is miraculous: what could have become unspeakable has been transformed into something full of wonder and sophistication. The book is full of tragic beauty...’ (Evening Post, Chicago)
‘It is a novel of youth, full of dreams, horror, charm and exquisite loveliness. Odoyevtseva has created a work of unforgettable beauty.’ (New Statesman)
‘The book by Odoyevtseva is a prominent event of the American book season. It will be successful, it will attract attention, will spark discussion. It is one of the best books translated from its native Russian in the recent decade.’ (Canonsburg Notes)
‘The refined and lovely flavour of the novel defies description. The book is very witty and has a most interesting structure. Each phrase is full of tragic meaning...’ (The Times)
‘The reader’s heart is bursting with compassion for both female protagonists. Their tragedy lingers after the last soul-stirring page is turned over. It is a book that is hard to forget.’ (Sat-Right)
‘It is a magical, one-of-a-kind book of the highest artistic merit. It is a grim testimonial which is simultaneously full of indelible sweetness. A rare genuine event in the world of the books...’ (B. Monical)
‘The dangerous subject has been treated with amazing tenderness and grace. Herein lies the guarantee of the book’s longevity... (Birmingham Post)
‘Odoyevtseva’s book bears the unmistakable stamp of real genius. We would even go so far as to place it on the same level as Chekhov. No amount of praise feels excessive here...’ (Gastonia Gazette)
Although the book employs the third-person narrative all events are shown as perceived by the novel’s main character, Liuka – a 14-year-old adolescent girl. Unlike any other ‘coming-of-age’ novels, the child’s perceptions are not corrected by a mental voice-over coming from the same character in adulthood when childhood is often idealised. Liuka is going through a veritable drama of growing up: ‘half-child, half-woman, half-French, half-Russian, she is deprived of solid ground, of clear cultural indicators (which is, by the way, a trait shared by all Odoyevtseva’s young female characters), a fully functional family.’ (Maria Rubins, lecturer of Slavic Studies at the University of London). Very early in the novel Liuka says, ‘So the childhood is over. Well, good riddance. I am not sorry. This talk of “golden childhood” is complete tosh.’
Liuka is in love, but the object of her passion, Arseny, unbeknownst to Liuka, is conducting an affair with Liuka’s older sister. He is invading her dreams as the angel of death (a clear reference to the famous Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov). Liuka’s sister is pregnant by Arseny, and to conceal this scandal, she marries somebody very wealthy but extremely boring. Liuka, who has no inkling of the relationship between her sister and Arseny, comes to his room at night. When the sister walks in on them, she and her unborn child both die. The simplicity of the storyline does not convey all the drama inherent in going through the rites of passage.
Georgy Adamovich wrote about the novel: ‘The Angel of Death is charmingly conceived and masterfully executed. As it frequently happens with Odoyevtseva, it is a story of an adolescent girl who does not know it all yet but guesses a lot. It is a history of the soul that is still looking back at the past reveries of childhood but is already eager to plunge into the future life. Odoyevtseva does not analyse her Liuka’s experiences. All she does is highlight her existence through a series of short flashes. She uses short, abrupt words to convey her conversations, her contradictory desires, her thoughts that are still physiologically obscure, almost dormant... Such a playfully careless, naively cruel, innocently wanton teenager is a new phenomenon in our literature. This is a novel theme, worthy of close attention.’
It is curious that Vladimir Nabokov, author of the acid-tongued review of Odoyevtseva’s second novel – Isolde (where the main characters are also teenagers) based his Lolita largely on Liuka. On the other hand, Nabokov never wrote positive reviews and hated the guts of Odoyevtseva’s husband.
The book’s protagonist, Lisa, although of the same age as Liuka, is not at all a gangly child but a lovely young woman who knows how to turn on the charm for conquering hearts. Paris and Biarritz are places where life is full of fun, which takes money. ‘Our epoch is famously out of joint. Famous dancing halls, cocktails, abundance of make-up. Add in the predictable pathos shared by émigrés, and voilà, you have the setting.’ (Sirin –aka Nabokov)
In order to seem younger, Lisa’s mother insists that her children address her only by name – in order to pass them off as her cousins. She is even jealous of her daughter on account of her lover. She has an affair with two men simultaneously, and uses the money of one to keep the other. Lisa’s own world is a small cheerful microcosm where people dance, have drinks, race cars and party but outside this tiny world all is darkness and inevitable death. Like Liuka, Lisa harbours no bright hopes towards her impending adulthood. ‘I keep thinking that life must be hard and disgusting if the best there is is childhood. It is only going to get worse.’
In Biarritz, Lisa meets an Englishman by the name of Cromwell, an offspring of rich parents. At this very time he is reading Tristan and Isolde and – right on cue – spots Lisa, his Isolde. His is a clear, stable and comfortable world but his meeting with Lisa injects it with a sense of something irrational that distorts the traditional attitudes of his ‘cardboard soul’, yet it is something so attractively disastrous that he has no power to resist it. Gradually Cromwell comes to realise that he is allowed to share Lisa’s world only for as long as he can afford to indulge her and her friends. Having spent all his money he steals his mother’s jewels, after which Nikolai and Andrei (Lisa’s brother and lover) murder him – very much à la Dostoyevsky.
Lisa hopes that there is some other life out there, she naively believes her brother Nikolai when he insists that it is possible to cross the Soviet border illegally, and that they are destined for heroic deeds. (It is curious that three years later Sirin (Nabokov) brought out a novel, Deed, where the young protagonist, inspired by the same ideals, goes to Russia.) In Lisa’s dreams, the snowbound Moscow is the place of palm trees and ostriches while Paris suddenly seems an ‘alien, bizarre and weird city’ where streets are roamed by ghosts.
Nikolai is caught in Brussels, pearl necklace and all, while Lisa and Andrei commit suicide during their first night of love.
Early in the narrative Lisa tells Andrei, ‘You know, as Tristan lay dying, he was calling Isolde but she was too late. She came by boat. And he was already dead. So she lied down next to him, put her arms round him and died too. Close your eyes. Snuggle up to me. Be quiet. There. This is how they lied there, dead.’ This scene is like a prophetic rehearsal of their last date when Lisa turns on the gas and comes back to bed where Andrei is asleep. ‘She put her head against his shoulder and blissfully closed her eyes. Somewhere close by a car trumpeted. But by now not a thing out of this hostile, scary and alien world could do them any harm.’ ‘It is, of course, not the all-engulfing passion but the vulnerable tenderness of orphans, comraderie in the face of misery, weakness and doom. Lisa, of course, is not Andrei’s lover but a “sister of his sorrow and shame”. Still, this defenceless love gives a kind of an answer, a kind of triumph over fate for it casts, into the world of cruelty and darkness, the light of compassion and mercy.’ (Maria Rubens)
Many critics were shocked by the fact that the novel was openly discussing questions considered taboo for the ‘lofty Russian literature’. There is an opinion that Odoyevtseva was not universally acclaimed for she was writing ahead of her time. ‘In those years, the psychology of semi-children and growing pains experienced by teenagers were not considered worthy of proper attention.’ Yet she was popular with the young writers of Paris. Vladimir Varshavsky wrote in his review that ‘up until now all there has been in literature was a woman as seen through the eyes of men, not the life and the world as seen through the mysterious eyes of a woman. Of course there were lady writers but hardly any one among them wrote about what they saw with their own eyes when looking around closely. They always used intellectual assumptions shared by men, more often than not – invented by men, in a word, it was as if they were playing out their role in a theatre established by men. In The Angel of Death and Isolde, Irina Odoyevtseva charts out a new course for women’s literature. The story of a 14-year-old girl’s attitude to life, and the female image thus emerging, reveal to us something hitherto unknown.’
The novel resurrects many characteristic features of the culture and aesthetics of the interwar decades, the time that later came to be called the Jazz Age, les années folles (the insane years) or the Art Deco – with its enhanced ostentatiousness, eclecticism, artfulness and frivolity. The young were striving to put the horrors of war behind them, forget the post-war crisis and plunge into the life of luxury, dances, partying and travel. Cinema became the defining element of mass culture in the 1920s. The beloved topic was melodrama, with a gamine femme fatale in the lead: half-boy, half-girl, striking make-up, urchin haircut, invariably – a cigarette.
This life of glamour is filling the dreams of The Mirror’s principal character. Her humdrum existence with a loving but dull husband is turned upside down when along comes a famous film director, Thierry Rivoir, who promises Liuka stardom. She is already dreaming of conquering Paris, oblivious to the fact that the main attraction for Rivoir is not her acting abilities but her ‘face – new as if fresh from the shop shelf, the face that is not yet rumpled, soiled by life or reminiscences.’
Rivoir is the embodiment of those ‘artificial’ times. The author is constantly calling him ‘eclectic’: his smile is eclectic and as soon as he is awake he switches on like an electric implement. Rivoir has no vitality, no genuine creative impulses; he has a vampire-like craving for other people’s energy. He proves to be a useless director of both Liuka’s life and his own. On learning of the curse placed by Liuka’s dead sister, he leaves her. In the final scene of the film the heroine dies and ascends to the sky as a winged angel, and Liuka, desperate and miserable, gives, for the first time ever, a talented performance: she is playing herself who is about to commit suicide. Rivoir sees the scene and realises that he did love and still loves her. He shoots himself.
Technically, it is a melodrama. The book is based on the laws governing the famous melodramas of the 1930s. This surmise is further confirmed by the use of short, truncated phrases reminiscent of the language used in a script (which was noticed by Gazdanov). However, the similarity is superficial and deceptive. It is not for nothing that the novel is called The Mirror. The illusory, lifeless and affected nature of the world around characters is conveyed through the metaphor of a mirror. In his review, Vasily Yanovsky put it thus: ‘All the events in the novel take place as if in a looking glass... Art usually strives to reproduce and reconstruct our perceptions, things refracted by our little “magic crystal”. Odoyevtseva does the opposite: she pumps out all the life-giving air, eliminates all traces of reality, she is building her Mirror wherein some silhouettes, done to the same scale and double-removed, move around, glide and suffer in the “flood of electric lights”.’
‘The Mirror is a book about futility, mortality, emptiness. The glamorous, super-modern, so to say, “aerodynamic” world where Liuka lives seems real only at first sight. In truth, it is a phantom; there is nothing there to hold onto. Everything is elusive, it dissolves and disappears... The resulting book is not only a work of talent; it is a work of horror.’ (Kirill Elita-Vilchkovsky)
‘The “glimmering otherworldliness of the mirrored world” in the novel stems from one perfectly concrete source: books by Lewis Carroll. The novel repeatedly features the charmed woods where Liuka sees herself haunted by monsters. She fantasises that she can animate birds on the wallpaper and “charm the trees, the lightning, and the beasts so that they would do no evil”. She is constantly dreaming up some fairy tales that temporarily replace reality. Liuka sees the world of cinema as a wonderland full of most unusual images and delights. The author drops another broad hint: as Liuka is having dinner with Rivoir in a little out-of-town restaurant where the chef plays the flute, she says to her companion, admiring his beaming smile, “You know, when I was a child I read this English fairy tale about a smiling cat. He was smiling and glowing. One couldn’t even see him because of this glow. He would run away and the glow would linger. This is how you smile...” On the same evening Liuka finds herself “behind the looking glass”: “she sees her own reflection, the reflection of Rivoir, and the bed, and the chandelier... She sees it all but feels nothing.” In the novel’s finale, as Liuka is wondering aimlessly around Paris, dropping in and out of cafes and shops, making some automatic purchases and exchanging phrases with those around her, the world feels distorted and absurdly fragmented. This reminds us of the “stream of consciousness” employed by Tolstoy to portray the feelings of Anna Karenina on the day of her suicide. What surrounds Liuka is some mock Paris which is not just a backdrop but a reflection of her insufferable grief, something like a broken mirror. These scenes offset the opening passages where Liuka’s perception of Paris is described as “a spot of sunlight”.’(Maria Rubins)