|Prince Felix Yusupov.|
Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett
I never stop being fascinated by the inexhaustible appetite of Western writers — and readers — for Russia's Northern capital. When asking my friends why there is so much interest in Leningrad/St.Petersburg and not, say, Moscow, I get all sorts of answers. One friend, a writer and a big fan of Russian literature, said, ‘Obviously, it’s first of all a window on Russia that is more or less comprehensible. There is fatalism but there is also a sense of infinity. Like nowhere else.’
Vanora Bennett’s new novel Midnight in St Petersburg (link to Amazon) is a story of a young Jewish Russian girl Inna Feldman whose relatives flee to Palestine and abandon her in the South of Russia, within the Pale of Settlement. It is 1911, the Russian tsardom feels it has re-established its authority over the Empire after the turmoil and hope of the first revolution of 1905-1907. And it smells of pogrom everywhere.
Inna steals a passport to go to Petersburg and find distant relatives to start a new life. On the train a roaming monk with piercing blue eyes stops anti-Semitic banter by berating the passengers for being un-Christian hate mongers. The monk asks a gypsy woman in the carriage to read his and Inna’s hands. They both have lifelines that peter out too quickly.
The monk, who turns out to be Rasputin, befriends Inna and, in Petersburg, escorts her to her relatives. He wanders off to rise to become the tsar’s family ‘holy man’, and die in a brutal assasination. Inna finds a new life with the help of the family of violin makers and an Englishman, Horace Wallick, who works for Fabergé painting miniatures for rich customers. But not before cutting the lifeline on her hands in a desperate attempt to change her fate.
From here Bennett takes us on a whirlwind tour of Russia in 1911, jumping then to 1916-1917 with the murder of Rasputin, the fall of the Romanovs and the revolution, and then jumping again to 1918-1919 with aristocracy and intelligentsia fleeing the bolshevik regime at the height of the civil war.
It’s not just Rasputin we meet but his assassin Felix Yusupov; Karl Fabergé; the great poet Anna Akhmatova, and, in fleeting episodes, Bryusov, Mayakovsky, Shaliapin; the top aristocrats and the top revolutionaries, including a glimpse of Lenin and the founder of Cheka Dzerzhinsky. The gallery includes Maxim, the thinly disguised writer Gorky, who helps the desperate intellectuals to survive or escape. I started rolling my eyes when I realised the span of ‘things Russian’ in the book, but as I read along I warmed up to Bennett’s knack for making it all credible. It’s not a matryoshka nesting doll with laquered curiosities jumping one out of another. Historic and cultural details are very well-researched and as reliable as an academic work. Then the bits all fall into place to form a convincing mosaic of Russian life at the time.
The main story line of Inna’s tug of love between the pensive selfless Horace Wallick and the passionate Yasha Kagan, I thought, is captivating in that it is free from moralising, it is just, well, as love is: you never know where it will take you without you even knowing.
There is a wonderful ‘sex scene’ between Inna and Yasha, when they play their violins each in their own rooms separated by a thin partition. (see excerpt below) Even if you don’t know much about violins, violin making or music, you’d love Bennett’s guiding the reader from a chunk of wood to a semi-finished shape, to a varnished piece, and then to the first sound of a new-born instrument. And, the wonder of wonders, the Stradivarius.
In a hilarious scene, Prince Felix Yusupov, the richest man in pre-revolutionary Russia, asks Horace Wallick to find someone to restore his broken Stradivarius. Yusupov admits nonchalantly that, when boys, he and his brother got bored with violin lessons and used their instruments for fencing instead. Now, that the bolsheviks are strengthening their grip on Russia, he needs to take all the valuables he can and run. Here the story twists and turns in a dramatic way, with the priceless Stradivarius playing a crucial part.
One obstacle when writing about foreign countries is how to deal with strange foreign words. Vanora Bennet lived in Russia for a long time and discovered a charming way of translating Russian names and phrases into English without explaining too much, and no footnotes. The Lemans, the violin makers’ family, for example, are busy preparing their favourite dish, ‘darling doves’ — cabbage leaf parcels with mincemeat inside, similar to dolma. But why darling doves? Because it’s the literal translation of the Russian word for the dish — ‘golubtsy’. I thought it’s brilliant. Readers may want to find out more about the doves or they may not, the writer is free not to burden them.
The same technique works with placenames. I didn’t know there was Haymarket or Merchant’s Yard in St.Petersburg. Then I realised they were Sennaya and Gostiny Dvor!
And don’t skip the Afterword, there is a very romantic surprise disclosure there.
Picture: Felix Yusupov in 1903, o/c by Valentin Serov.
Yasha and Inna's love competition:
Yasha and Inna's love competition:
He played on; but a part of him was listening, through the thin party wall, to Inna moving around her room; putting things down; the creak of bedsprings; a scrape.
He was playing for her, he realized. Trying to play away her fear. Showing her the place they both came from, and that he could help her rediscover.
He swooped from one string to the next, losing himself in the melody.
All at once, he heard the answering sound of a violin from behind the wall: a long, quiet, open A, played alone, then with a D, which he could hear being carefully tuned, then the G, and ﬁnally the E.
He paused. He didn’t remember that old violin sounding so pure. He hadn’t done a bad job on it, considering how green he’d been. Not a bad job at all.
He was already feeling the beginning of elation.
His playing had encouraged her, but it was only when he heard the next sounds to come through the wall that he realized it wasn’t going to be as simple as he’d imagined.
Inna began with a quiet, disciplined G major scale, a ﬂuid run of quavers from the bottom to the top of the violin and back. He paused. Next, she moved up to A-ﬂat major, then A, then B-ﬂat. Her playing got gradually louder over the next few scales, up through D to E-ﬂat.
She’s not joining in, he thought, with disappointment. She’s just drowning me out. Using music as a weapon. Making war.
E, F, she played, pressing on the strings.
He picked up his instrument again. He answered, with his own louder, more extravagant howl of pained catgut.
Well, if that’s what she wants, he thought, pressing as hard as he could on the strings in his turn, I can give as good as I get, any day.
But he didn’t have Inna’s stamina, or her technique, or her sheer breadth of repertoire. As Tchaikovsky and Wieniawski succeeded Rimsky-Korsakov from behind the wall, he felt as though she was marshalling an unstoppable, unforgiving Slavic musical army behind her. He ﬁnally gave up. He shook his head, bafﬂed and defeated, put his violin down and slunk out, retreating to the workshop with the box of leaﬂets he still hadn’t taken round to young Kremer’s.