Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Woman Who Waited

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

I'm a little late coming to the The Slaves of Golconda's discussion of Andrei Makine's The Woman Who Waited. I'm not entirely sure I can add anything new to the posts already found on the group blog, but I'll go ahead and add my thoughts anyway. I might give away a few spoilers, so if you plan on reading this novel, please beware.

The Woman Who Waited almost seems to be less about Vera, the woman who indeed has been waiting, than about the unnamed narrator who looks back on his experiences as a young man when he encountered this lovely woman. The narrator tells us his story from the space of many years later and at least as much distance, since he was able to flee to the West from Russia. As a young man of 26, however, he left Leningrad to travel north in order to record folk music and traditions of smaller villages. He was a young, hip intellectual, and my first impression wasn't particularly positive.

The village of Mirnoe where he takes up residence is populated with elderly women. They are women who lost their husbands and sons in the Second World War, and all that is left for them now is to wait for death. Amongst these women he encounters a much younger, and beautiful woman who is also waiting. When Vera was 16 in 1945 her lover went off to war never to return. She vowed to wait for him, and wait she did--30 years later she is still waiting. What initially irritated me about the narrator were his many assumptions about Vera. I don't know how much of any author's writing is autobiographical, but I had this feeling all through the book that in some way the narrator mirrored in some small way Makine's own life experiences. The narrator would write his ideas about Vera down in a notebook. He had seen her quite literally in all her nakedness, but we come to know later that he may have seen her body, but he didn't see inside her soul. As the story unfolded we see just how few of his assumptions about Vera were true. As a matter of fact, the more he learns about her, the more three dimensional she becomes.

It seems the greatest wish the narrator has is to quite literally possess Vera. She is this lovely woman, made to love and be loved, yet here she is with these old women, in her cavalry greatcoat, closed off to the world. The narrator begins his story:

"She is a woman so intensely destined for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being), and yet she has chosen, almost casually, it seems, solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to

Always be careful of what you wish for. When Vera finally accedes to his desires, a series of events causes the narrator to fear that he's now going to be strapped with her. The first flush of conquest fades quickly as he realizes the repercussions of his actions and all he can think of is leaving. His return to Leningrad, which he had put off for so long, is now foremost in his mind. In the end it is Vera herself who sees him off, and to his surprise she is not the clinging, weeping woman he expected her to be, but "...she is utterly brimming with a fresh, vibrant youthfulness that is in the process of being born...".

Makine's prose is gorgeous. This is just the sort of book, slender though it may be, that I feel like the first read is for content solely. I can give you a description of what occurred in the novel (and sorry, as that actually feels patchy at best), but I feel like I need to read it again to unravel all its secrets and truly enjoy the imagery, and this novel is chock full of beautiful imagery. Makine was born in the Soviet Union, but he defected to France in 1987. He writes in French. I'll be digging out his previous novels from my bookshelves, which have sat unread for far too long. Many thanks to Litlove for selecting this book!

The Woman Who Waited

Thank you, Litlove, for recommending this book to us! Andrei Makine’s The Woman Who Waited was the Slaves of Golconda group read this time around; it’s a short novel about a woman, Vera, waiting in a small Russian village for her lover to return from the war. She’s been waiting for 30 years. Actually, what the novel is really about is the unnamed narrator’s attempts to tell Vera’s life story. The Woman Who Waited is the story of how he tries to understand who she is and why she has waited so long, instead of leaving the decaying town and forging a life elsewhere. She’s a mystery the narrative dances around.

The narrator has come to Vera’s town, Mirnoe, on a research project; he is supposed to write reports on “local habits and customs.” His instructions are to “go and jot down a few fibs about the gnomes in their forests” and on the side he will gather material for an “anti-Soviet satire.” And so, befitting this project, he comes to the town with a detached and ironic attitude, ready to observe and pass judgment on the simple villagers clinging to their old ways.

When he arrives in Mirnoe, however, he quickly finds that the reality of the place will not let him keep his distance or maintain his ironic pose. In one episode, the narrator and Vera travel to a nearby village to persuade its last inhabitant to leave her home and move to Mirnoe. The narrator finds himself shaken by what he sees:

I went over to them, offered my help. I saw they both had slightly reddened eyes. I reflected on my ironic reaction just now when reading that sentence about Stalin ordering the defence of Leningrad. Such had been the sarcastic tone prevalent in our dissident intellectual circle. A humour that provided real mental comfort, for it placed us above the fray. Now, observing these two women who had just shed a few tears as they reached their decision, I sensed that our irony was in collision with something that went beyond it.

He sees the real human suffering that lies behind historical events, events he had only understood before in their broad sweep.

But it is the narrator’s changing feelings toward Vera that really shake him out of his detachment (some spoilers ahead). He cannot understand what motivates her to continue waiting; he cannot pierce the mystery that he sees whenever he observes her. And much of the novel is exactly that — the narrator watching Vera, following her every move, trying to figure out what she is doing, where she is going, what she is feeling and thinking. The novel’s opening portrays his attempts to understand her and the way that language fails him; we first get a sentence of description in quotation marks, as though it’s from a journal or an essay, followed by this:

This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have another person’s measure (this woman, Vera’s). Up to that point all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of their hidden depths. But once their secret has been decoded, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorizing … The other one’s mystery has been tamed.

The statement and commentary that comprise the novel’s first page show the limits of language one encounters when trying to understand another human being. The novel is a kind of unraveling, moving from this certainty toward uncertainty and surprise. The narrator never does really understand Vera, and he tries in many ways, spending time with her, talking with her, stalking her, finally becoming her lover. She always eludes him, and ultimately she proves herself to be much more sophisticated, rational, and in control than he could ever be. She may seem foolish and pathetic for having spent her life waiting for a lover who will never return, and yet she has found peace and beauty and a kind of contentment.

The novel’s writing is beautiful, spare and suggestive; it captures the landscape of northern Russia with its forests, lakes, and snow. It makes me long to be there. I must admit that this is one of those books that I’m liking more and more as I write about it; at first my reaction was admiring but a little dispassionate. The more I think about it, though, the more I appreciate what a wonderful creation Vera is and what a powerful evocation Makine has given us of one person’s fumbling attempts to grapple with the mystery of another life.

Luminous Prose

The Woman Who Waited, by Andrei Makine

Life, the narrator tells us, is a constant mixture of genres. He is writing an anti-Soviet satire while simultaneously recording legends and myths of village life, and this novel is an autobiographical product of it all. From the first page of this book, we were reminded of the fiction of Milan Kundera, whose novels are less about characters and events than they are about the author writing the novel about those characters and events. The Woman Who Waited purports to be about a woman who's been waiting thirty years for the man she loves to return from the war; it is more about the narrator who writes about her.

Vera waits for the man she loves because she is convinced he will return; otherwise, love will mean nothing more than the satisfaction of a carnal instinct. She sits at the end of a bench in her house where she can look out the window across the fields to the crossroads where she could see anyone approaching. She waits for the man she loves, and she watches for him too, and at times a dark figure appears and then disappears again. She waits for him and sees him in her mind the way Heathcliff did Cathy.

Here is what Makine does best, writing what the narrator calls "luminous moments rescued from time," something very similar to Proust's privileged moment:
A very thin layer of ice had formed at the bottom of the well. (I had just caught up with Vera, who was drawing water.) As the ice broke, it sounded like a harpsichord. We looked at one another. We were each about to remark on the beauty of this tinkling sound, then thought better of it. The resonance of the harpsichord had faded into the radiance of the air, it blended with the wistfully repeated notes of an oriole, with the scent of a wood fire coming from the nearby izba. The beauty of that moment was quite simply becoming our life.
The narrator and Vera are drawn to one another by the sharing of these accumulated moments. She finally gives herself to him, and their encounter ends abruptly at the sound of a door or window. She rushes to the window to watch outside for the man she loves, perhaps fearful that she has waited for thirty years and now, when she finally allows herself the embrace of another, the man she loves returns to find she has stopped waiting for him.

First the narrator feels pride at being able to seduce this woman so intent on waiting for another. Then he feels shame. Finally, he fears that he will now be the center of Vera's life, that she will cling to him, and that he will owe it to her. And then she shows him the way out of town. He has not taken the place of the man she loves, and he has not released her from waiting. Instead, Vera has learned that the emotion between them was an illusion of love, and that the ghostly figure she sees outside, the dream she waits for, is the reality of love. The narrator has renewed her ability to wait once more, forever more, for the man she loves.

There is great emphasis in this novel on time. In the village of Mirnoe, the narrator discovers a floating, suspended time. There is a collective forgetting of the past. Vera, however, remembers the past exclusively--it is the present and the future that she forgets. And each evening the narrator prepares to leave the village, but each morning he stays, as if replaying the same day over and over. He finds time is completely absent from the village, history has been eradicated, and all that remains is the essence of things.

The only thing more historically founded than Soviet life is Christianity. The ten days that shook the world, the rise of the proletariat, the dissolution of the state all happen, or were meant to happen, in historical time. Vera lives, physically and emotionally, in a place beyond time. And even though thirty years pass while she waits, the essence of life remains. The Woman Who Waited is the narrator's satire, ridiculing the historical failure that is Soviet life.

This was our first experience reading Makine, and it was enjoyable. To the comparisons with Kundera and Proust, we can add Nabokov and Kadare. Indeed, there seems to be an impressive strain running through eastern European fiction of illuminating a privileged moment, of uncovering the essence of life that most American fiction lacks. We would certainly recommend The Woman Who Waited. It doesn't matter if you already know the plot, the enjoyment comes in sharing the experience of the luminous moments.

...cross-posted at Necessary Acts of Devotion.

What is She Waiting For?

Emerson is postponed until tomorrow due to the Slaves of Golconda discussion of Andreï Makine's novel The Woman Who Waited beginning today.

There is not much of a plot to this book, character is the thing here. But there has to be some kind of plot for character development and it is this: near the end of World War II, nineteen-year-old Boris Koptek of the small Russian village of Mirnoe is sent off to a war that is winding down. He promises sixteen-year-old Vera that he will marry her when he returns. He doesn't return. He is reported killed in action but Vera does not believe it. She believes that Koptek is still alive and will return for her like he promised. The novel begins thirty years after their parting. Vera is living in Mirnoe, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse several miles away. She has also taken it upon herself to care for the old women of Mirnoe and the surrounding hamlets and villages as they and their way of life die out.

Onto the scene arrives a twenty-six-year-old cynical researcher from Leningrad who has come to record the old stories and rituals before there is no one left to tell them or perform them. But Vera captures his imagination. The novel is told from the point of view of the narrator and as time passes he puts forth various theories as to who Vera is and why she is waiting.

Because Vera does not talk about why she is waiting, everyone is free to make up their own reasons and the reasons they come up with say more about themselves than they do about Vera. The narrator tries to explain Vera by determining that waiting was not her choice, she was simply caught in an era. He blames the villagers. He blames Vera, assumes she is uneducated but eventually finds out that Vera went to university and is all but dissertation on a Ph.D in linguistics. She chose not to finish because life in Leningrad felt artificial in spite of how exciting it all was. This it seems to me is the crux of the situation.

Vera could leave. And Vera did leave for a number of years but chose to return. Her life in Mirnoe is straightforward, simple. Her life is real, without pretensions, no one to impress, she is simply and always herself which gives a depth and meaning to her life that she did not find in Leningrad. Throughout the novel we are able to contrast Vera's life with that of the narrator's. His life in Leningrad is filled with casual and meaningless sex. He attends dissident meetings at the Wigwam where they elevate themselves as intellectuals and write political poetry of questionable merit. When a perceived intellectual from the West visits, they all try to impress him and jockey for recognition.

The narrator's arrival in Mirnoe is, he admits, an escape:
I had come to escape from people who found our times too slow. But what I was really fleeing was myself, since I differed very little from them.
As he tries to figure out Vera, he digs through the artificiality of himself to what is real. At one point he even tries to use literature as a means to understand Vera's life,
But this unbelievable wait of thirty years (I was a mere twenty-six myself) struck me as too monstrous, too unarguable, to give rise to any moral debate. And, above all, much too improbable to feature in a book. A period of waiting far too long, too grievously real, for any work of fiction.
And eventually the narrator realizes the smug cynicism and irony from which he operates only serves to protect him from the real and cut him off from a life of meaning:
Such had been the sarcastic tone prevalent in our dissident circle. A humor that provided real mental comfort, for it placed us above the fray. Now, observing these two women who had just shed a few tears as they reached their decision, I sensed that our irony was in collision with something that went beyond it. "Rustic sentimentality," would have been our sneering comment at the Wigwam. "Les mis&#233rables, Soviet style..." Such mockery would have been wide of the mark, I now knew. What was essential was these women's hands loading the totality of a human being's material existence onto the little cart.
But in spite of all the narrator learns, after he ever so briefly becomes real, he shrinks back, afraid. He decides to depart, to leave Vera with whom he has fallen in love to return to his safe and artificial life in Leningrad. Leaving is not as easy as he thought:
One could stop, melt into this time where there are no hours. I look back: a faint hint of smoke hovers above the chimney of the house I have just left. Poignant gratitude, fear of not being able to tear oneself away from this beauty.
He is afraid too of seeing Vera, of the scene she might make over his leaving. Of course he runs smack into her and is once again startled by her matter-of-fact and unruffled calm.

It is a sad story but it isn't Vera and her waiting that makes it sad, it is the narrator. We only know slightly more about Vera at the end than we do when we start the book. The narrator makes a journey both physically and emotionally. I found myself wishing he would stay in Mirnoe and when he doesn't, when he decides to give up a life of meaning and depth to return to the protection of irony, I was sad. I hope that he will be a different person because of his experience. The novel is written from an unidentified present about the past and the narrator's present is as ambiguous to the reader as Vera's life was to him in the past. And I am still wondering, did he learn something?

I loved the book. Makine has a gorgeous prose style and the tone is soft and understated. Though it appears I have said a lot about the book, there is much I have left out so in case you haven't read it, nothing is ruined for you. And I would recommend that you read it. I had never heard of Makine before now. This will definitely not be the last of his books I read.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Makine: The Art of Waiting

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.