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Irina Odoevtseva: Изольда (Isolde)

The Russian émigré novel had just as strict rules as the Russian novel. In short, it had to be moral and wholesome. In the eyes of the Russian émigré community, this novel was neither. It was accused of being deplorable, tasteless and immoral. Nabokov was one of many critics who did not like it. In the words of the translator, it was all much too modern, much too European, much too explicit, much too close to the bone. It contained both adolescent sex and nihilism. (You could probably say the same about Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, though both are far more toned down in Turgenev; and of course, Mikhail Artsybashev‘s Санин (Sanine) was condemned as pornographic). Undoubtedly, the fact that this book was by a woman coloured some of the judgements.

Our heroine is not called Isolde but Liza. However, our hero is called Cromwell (his first name). He is an young Englishman. He is visiting Biarritz. He has been given a Buick for passing his exams. He is also reading a book about Tristan and Isolde when he first sees Liza and immediately calls her Isolde. She had never heard of Isolde.

Though she has a boyfriend, Andrei, in Paris (she is fourteen, so it is not as yet very serious), she is interested in Cromwell, though not as interested as he is in her. Liza has a brother, Nikolai. The pair live with their mother, Natalia Vladimirovna (Natasha – her modern children are told to call her by her first name, as it makes her seem younger).

Natasha has fallen on hard times since her husband was killed in the Revolution, and has had to work in a shop. She supplements her income by having boyfriends. Her problem is that she loves Boris but he does not love her and, indeed, tries to fleece her of what money he can. Abraham Vikentievich Rochlin, known as Bunny, is in love with her but she does not love him in the slightest and uses him for money. Though she does not know this, he is rapidly running out of money and is stealing his wife’s last remaining jewellery to finance his affair.

The main story, however, involves the relationship between Andrei, Nikolai, Isolde and Cromwell. Cromwell pursues Isolde but she soon heads off to Paris with her family, where Andrei is, though he turns out to be sick. The four of them return to Biarritz and the strange, sexually charged relationship between the four starts. Indeed, they are left on their own. Natasha rushes off to chase Boris, leaving them with only a little money which they soon spend. Cromwell is broke, his mother refusing to finance him further. This causes particular problems as it was Cromwell that had been financing the excursions of the four.

Matters get worse when Nikolai and Liza stop going to school and Andrei and Nikolai hatch a plot to get money. Liza, meanwhile, dreams of going back to Russia, which she has suddenly started missing and, indeed, is prepared to run away to get there. Inevitably, it goes wrong.

It is interesting to make a comparison with another novel published the same year as this book, Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants terribles (Children of the Game (UK); The Holy Terrors (US); Les enfants terribles). The books are very different but both are about adolescents who live part of the time without parental supervision and who therefore behave somewhat irresponsibly, with strong sexual undertones pervasive in both books. I do not know whether Odoevtseva knew Cocteau but it seems highly likely, as both were in Paris and moving in the same artistic circles at that time.

Russian émigré literature of the 1920 and 1930s is not well known in the English-speaking world, with the obvious exception of Nabokov. Writers such as Joseph Brodsky, Bunin, Berberova, Gazdanov and a few others have been translated into English. Indeed, two of Odoevtseva’s previous novels have been translated into English but are long since out of print. With more focus on later émigré writes such as Solzhenitsyn and, now, post-Soviet Russian literature, the earlier work is fading away, so it is good, albeit ninety years after first publication, to have a work in English not only of a Russian émigré novelist but of a relatively rare woman Russian émigré writer and, moreover, one who breaks the rules.

Publishing history

First published by Moskva in 1929
First English publication by Pushkin Press in 2019
Translator: Bryan Karetnyk