I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about a blog post as much as I’ve had occasion to think about this one. For a long time it’s been a distant speck on the horizon, the post I would write when I was well enough to do so; and then all of last week I was testing my desire to write against my capacity to do so. But what repeatedly quickened my pulse and compelled me towards the keyboard was the subject matter of this novel by Andrei Makine. Waiting to get well when you have ME is a dreary, dull affair; your heart pumps less blood than the average person’s, your digestion fails to derive the benefit it should from food, and you have exhausted your reserves of adrenalin, a surprisingly vital element in so many processes. It’s like trying to drive a car with a leaky battery, insufficient fuel and no oil, and all that can be done is wait until the body slowly restores some form of equilibrium. As stimulation without adrenalin is simply painful, you have to live in a tomb-like atmosphere, meditation and light sleep rather than books or television or conversation. I think of it as a life beyond death. But if only I had read Makine’s novel earlier! I might have been able to make something more dignified, more stately, more meaningful of my endless waiting, for in this novel waiting becomes an existential art form, possessed of an exquisite and enigmatic kind of beauty. I suspect, however, that an English village is not the ideal setting for proper literary waiting, and that one needs the icy wastes of a Russian hamlet abandoned by history and freezing itself slowly into winter to really embrace suspended animation.
I’m not entirely sure I was supposed to, but I fell in love with the pure, chilly landscape of rural Russia and the representation of life pared down to its fundamental simplicity. Makine creates the most gorgeous images to evoke this static, frozen world; the ice breaking on the lake with the sound of a harpsichord as a rowing boat is pushed out into it, ‘the fragile lace of early morning hoar-frost on the rim of a well, the fall of an apple from a bare branch in a silence so limpid you could hear the rustle of the grass beneath the fallen fruit.’ Such vivid perception is the advantage of a life in which there is nothing to do beyond the simple tasks of survival, nothing to cloud the senses, which are free to soak up the glory of an otherwise desolate scene. But into this serene emptiness a very specific kind of waiting is inserted, and it is this which fascinates the narrator and provides the heart of the tale. Mirnoe is a Russian hamlet full of abandoned women, whose men all fell in the Second World War. Whilst most are old and awaiting only death, the still beautiful Vera has been waiting for the past 30 years for the return of her soldier lover. Our narrator, a callow youth in his twenties, (although he writes from the perspective of an older man recalling this episode) is obsessed by Vera’s unreasonable fidelity and longs to crack her as if she were a particularly complicated code.
So if all novels focus their elements around a central issue, in this novel the problem to be solved is that of desire. It’s a profoundly sensual narrative, written from the perspective of a young man entranced by sexuality but a stranger still to love, and the beauty of the descriptions often arises from the odd juxtaposition of their deathly stillness and his vibrant sensuality. Desire, by rights, should bring things to life; desire is what compels us into headlong flights and passionate graspings and overwhelming needs. How can Vera possibly live her desire for her soldier as if it were a trance, a state of zen? How can she have allowed her lost love to dominate her lost life? How can she possess a ‘body capable of giving itself, of taking pleasure, directly, naturally’ and not use it? Whilst on the one hand these speculations award Vera an iconic status in the narrator’s mind, it is not long before he is determined to break her self-elected celibacy by imposing his own youthful and desiring body upon her.
[Spoilers ahead, if you don’t want to know what happens.] One of my favourite moments in the narrative is when the narrator and Vera head deep into the forest to rescue an elderly woman, Katarina, who is living in complete isolation. When they finally find her, she is living in the strangest house, or izba, for within the ruins of a larger dwelling she has created a miniature izba, a kind of doll’s house. This image is symbolic, I think, of the narrator’s relationship to Vera’s desire (as he fantasizes it). The narrator wants to insert himself into Vera’s desire like the tiny house as it huddles within the larger framework. He wants to put himself within her desire to see what it feels like, but before he achieves this goal, he imagines that it will not disrupt the overarching desire for the lost soldier. However, once he and Vera have slept together, the rapid, panicky oscillations of his desire are almost comic, and wonderfully offset by Vera’s continued enigmatic calm. His conqueror’s triumph is swiftly replaced by fear that he will now bear the whole burden of her imagined longings, and his excuses to remain in Mirnoe are instantly replaced with a very ungentlemanly imperative to run away. But Vera not only has the last laugh, she also retains her beautifully serene integrity. When she meets him on the morning of his departure, it is not to make a scene but to row him across the lake to help him on his way. Our narrator finds himself on the other side of their affair and none the wiser; it seems that Vera’s desire was far easier to satisfy than he had imagined, and far more complex and enigmatic than he had ever guessed.
Ah what a wonderfully French book this was! It may seem ultimately a light concoction, whipped up out of gorgeous prose, and about nothing more weighty than whether an older woman will take a younger man as a lover. But Makine has a good European eye for the vagaries of desire, which is always the place where we reveal ourselves in all our intransigence, where we will be endlessly surprised and wrong-footed, and where the most intimate knowledge of a stranger turns out to be both tenderly precious and entirely useless. Desire is where we will find a kind of bedrock of the self, but it will always be opaque and mysterious, and it will lead us into transactions with others that are rewarding and perplexing in equal measure. And we can wait as long as we like for answers to the questions it poses without ever finding them. Maybe waiting itself is what tames desire, but the lovely Vera suggests by the end of this novel, that this both is and is not true.