In A Woman Loved (Graywolf Press), Russian-born French author Andreï Makine uses one writer’s obsession with Catherine the Great to ask how history affects individuals, and if it is possible to escape its pressures. After a first short film receives favor from the Politburo, screenwriter Oleg Erdmann throws himself into his new project, a movie about Catherine, with a monomaniacal fervor. The challenge is immense: how to capture the struggles for political dominion and her succession of lovers within a condensed time span, and without running afoul of the censors who will control the project’s viability? Oleg researches her life obsessively, surrounding himself with charts outlining the metrics of her 36-year rule as tsarina and alienating his lover Lessya in the process. Catherine’s overthrow of her husband in a coup and her many dalliances, vetted first as they were for sexual health and rewarded generously for their service in her bed, makes her particularly ripe for sensationalism even as her amorous exploits were no more extreme than those of her contemporary Louis XV. Yet each lover seems to have been truly adored, even as the affection they return is more based on worldly considerations than on romance. The vision of a more private Catherine, a woman desperate to feel loved, beckons to Oleg from the shadows of history.
Of German origin himself, he feels connected to the young German princess who would later morph into the Enlightenment era figure who seems so hard to grasp. Not just the history of Catherine but his own family’s history seems at stake here. His own future as a writer hangs in the balance as well, including whether or not he will ever escape life in a communal apartment enlivened only by occasional shifts at the slaughterhouse to fund his research. Lessya’s contempt comes not only from her sense that the subject matter is too unwieldy for a movie but also from her desire to choose a partner who can find success or notoriety, depending on whether they work with or against the authorities. Success and what it costs is a running theme in the novel: every epoch demand a certain type of behavior, which necessarily involves sacrificing other values on the journey.
Finally vetted by the State Committee for Cinematic Art, filming is assigned to a veteran director and the scenes of Catherine’s life are transposed against the history of the times she lived in, portrayed with as much balance and sensitivity as Soviet politics will allow. No longer is Oleg waiting for his depressive flat mate to finish boiling her tea before he can make coffee; now he has his own apartment and his lead actress, Dina, as a girlfriend. Oleg also strikes up a romance-tinged friendship with the German playing the older Catherine, an actress named Eva Sander who shares his vision of the tsarina. All seems to be falling in place, until the sudden death of Brezhnev throws Oleg out of favor as the technocrats on the SCCA try to read the way the wind is blowing. The Soviet world has begun to end, but the novel skips over its unwinding to jump twelve years forward, from 1982 to 1994. The device has the effect of throwing the reader into a dizzying world of change, approximating what the citizens of the former USSR must have felt themselves at the abrupt transition.
Part III begins in the hospital, with Oleg recovering from an attack after the small magazine where he worked is raided by thugs whose bosses are unhappy with how they have been represented in its pages. Gone is the repressive SCCA, but gone too are ready funds for filmmaking, or even government money for painkillers in the hospital wards, unless a cash bribe can make them flow. Oleg looks back at the intervening years with rising disgust: his time filming videos commissioned by oligarchs to celebrate their rise to wealth, the death in poverty of his former director, Dina’s steady appearance in crass commercials in order to support her former orphanage. On his discharge, he recommits himself to Catherine; not any longer to capture each event, but to find somewhere a space where she can be outside history. There was one lover, Lanskoy, who Eva theorized did truly love the Empress, perhaps even to the point of finding a way to travel in secret together abroad. Oleg digs for proof, avoiding this time the urge to ennoble the wars and intrigues around the tsarina with a larger purpose. The unremarked death of a former flat mate crystallizes his desire to seek out only intimate, private moments, but in this harsh new world intimacy lacks the ability to stand up to assault, and Oleg spirals down into alcohol and illness.
He is only brought back from the brink by an encounter with an old SCCA ally who went through imprisonment with Oleg’s father, and then by reuniting with an old slaughterhouse colleague, Zhurbin. Newly wealthy and looking to start a successful TV program with the money from his ventures, he ropes Oleg into writing a series on the life of Catherine. Sensationalism and its profits have taken the place of ideology, with ratings as inflexible a master as the former regime was. Like Dina, Zhurbin has bartered a compromise, trading seriousness of tone for the ability to send his innocent young daughter away to a boarding school where she will be sheltered. While Oleg balks at the increasingly scandalous tone and even briefly resigns, the impending arrest of Zhurbin on trumped-up tax fraud charges causes him to come back on board. He uses the opportunity to apply for a trip to Germany, and once there visits Eva Sander. What might have been between them reawakens when they discuss Lanskoy and the slim possibility that Catherine was able to escape her role as stateswoman to travel with him. Almost without discussion, Eva and Oleg agree to trace the steps of the couple’s putative journey, searching also for the lost unfinished film of Catherine’s life that Eva worked on long ago with an Italian director. With Eva Oleg finds at last a measure of calm, outside of the struggle to succeed or the temptation to give up entirely; like Catherine, he too ultimately desires only to be loved.
Dizzying scenarios fly at the reader from the very first lines, and they hardly slow down over the course of the novel. And yet despite grappling with a vast amount of information and addressing serious questions about history, the novel manages to never feel overwhelming or over-burdened. Its tone switches from an initially formalist intellectual discussion of how to create art and understand history to a searching investigation of how to create personal meaning in a world that demands compromise at every turn. Complex and tender without sentimentality, it is quite a feat. It is perhaps Makine’s own experience of morphing from a homeless political refugee into an acclaimed writer that gives his depiction of Oleg’s ascent to fame and subsequent disenchantment its clear-eyed compassion, just as Makine’s cosmopolitan background gives him the ability to telescope out on two wildly different historical periods. The skilled work of his long-time translator Geoffrey Strachan is another asset. Taken together, it turns what would in other hands be a novel of almost labyrinthine complexity into a masterful, wise romance whose ultimate purity stems from its rejection of the distracting corruptions of power.
Andreï Makine is a Russian-born French author whose novels include Dreams of My Russian Summers (1995) which won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis.
Geoffrey Strachan was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize for his translation of Dreams of My Russian Summers. He has translated all of Andreï Makine’s novels for publication in Britain and the United States.
Nora Rawn works in publishing and lives in Brooklyn.