Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"Man must not lie. Man has a small head."

He tossed the book away and turned over to lie on his back.

France was to blame. Yes, France was most definitely to blame. He was never like this at home.

[...] Here in Biarritz life was completely different — mad, fun, even a little seedy. Yes, that was the word: seedy. And there was the perpetual rush of the ocean. And the bracing air. And these stupid books. And the eternal waiting, the constant premonition of love...
Isolde, by Irina Odoevsteva, is a gem of a book, unexpected and a page-turner. Originally published in 1929, it is gut-wrenching and tragic. It's mostly about Liza, who is just fourteen years old at the novel's start. That summer in Biarritz, Cromwell falls in love with her, and christens her Isolde after the novel he's reading. She adores the attention, and her brother Nikolai is quick to recognize the opportunity to milk Cromwell for extravagant evenings at the casino and the use of his car. When they return to Paris, Liza's boyfriend Andrei joins in the excesses.

Liza and Kolya's mother, meanwhile, is mostly absent. She insists they call her Natasha, never Mama, as she presents herself as their aunt charged with the orphans' care. She is always on the lookout for a man to fund her lifestyle. One such lover is the hapless Bunny – married and irresponsible, driving his own family to the poorhouse for Natasha's sake. He has difficulty accepting that Natasha prefers another, and that she has no use for him with his money gone:
His desperation and pain had disappeared. He felt quiet, calm and light. He felt like it wasn't Fanny lying next to him, not his wife, but his grandmother, and they had wrapped themselves up in her chequered shawl. It smelt of cinnamon and onions. And it wasn't Fanny sighing and sobbing at his ear, but his grandmother teaching him in her monotone voice:

"Man must not lie. Man has a small head. He'll lie and then he'll forget what he's lied about. Not like a horse. A horse has a big head. A horse can lie if it wants to."
(Oh, the foolish men, who never consider the consequences.)

Even while Liza condemns her mother's behaviour, she emulates it. Sadly, Natasha begins to see Liza's youth and beauty as a threat. And she leaves with her lover for Nice, never to be seen again.

There's probably a thesis in here about women's age and sexuality — the women are grandmothers and asexual, or caretakers and asexual, or they are young, beautiful, and privileged and burgeoning with sexuality. We encounter Cromwell's mother only two or three times, but have a very clear picture of the kind of woman she is:
She got back into bed. As she pulled up the cover, her hand brushed her naked breast and immediately recoiled in disgust, as if she had touched a toad, so repulsive was her naked body to her.
About midway through the novel, we flash back to Liza's early childhood. I felt this section lagged a little. On the whole, Natasha's motivations are already quite clear; this background made me mildly more sympathetic toward her. But this section goes a long way toward explaining Liza's relationship with Russia and some of her actions later in the book.

Liza is itching to grow up, but she still longs to be mothered. How differently she might've fared if her mother had not abandoned her.
She reaches out a hand and plucks an apple from the fruit bowl.

She no longer has a heart in her breast. It's empty and silent there. Her heart is this red apple. This is it — her heart. It's sitting in the palm of her hand. It's exposed, it's beating, it flutters and it loves. It feels everything. She squeezes it with her fingers, and her heart feels pain. What should she do with it? What should she do with her heart?

She holds the apple out to Andrei.

"Eat this Andrei, it's a gift from me to you."

Andrei takes the apple indifferently, rubs it on his sleeve and then digs his strong white teeth into it, taking a big bite.

"This pain is going to be horrible," Liza thinks. "He's eating my heart." She clenches her fists to stifle a cry of pain. But it doesn't hurt at all. She looks at Andrei in surprise and watches his white teeth chomp on the apple. And it doesn't hurt at all. "It's not my heart. I'm just drunk. Drop it. Don't eat it, Andrei."

Andrei throws the apple core on the floor.
She doesn't love Cromwell, or his cousin. She doesn't know Russia enough to love her, but she loves the idea of Russia. I think she loves Andrei in a similar way, for what he represents. And Liza's heart is eaten alive.
"You know, Andrei, I keep thinking," she said slowly. "I keep thinking how difficult and dreary life must be if childhood is as good as it gets. And if it's all downhill from here, I don't want to grow up." She shook her head. "And, you know, I don't think I ever will."

"Nonsense, Liza. It's only because you're fourteen. Fourteen is the worst age. You'll be fifteen in March and it will all be much easier then."

She shook her head again.

"Oh, no, no. I don't believe that. It won't get any easier, or any better."
It doesn't get any better.

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