I’m a total sucker for books and stories about historical Russia. When was a kid I loved the cartoon movie Anastasia and devoured non-fiction titles about the Romanov family. I really, really wanted Anastasia to be alive and not murdered with her family.
So I snatched up The Lost Season of Love and Snow, by Jennifer Laam. Set in 1837 (pre-dead Romanov family), it explores the relationship between poet Alexander Pushkin and his young, beautiful wife Natalya Goncharova. It’s a tragic story (probably because that’s the Russian way). They fall in love and get married. Natalya is much younger and exquisitely beautiful. Pushkin, although a celebrated poet, gambles and fritters away their money. They are happy—for awhile, until court intrigues and the Tsar himself starts to interfere in their relationship. Pushkin, being a man, cannot resist a duel with another man who is rumoured to be pursuing his wife. Pushkin is fatally wounded. I’m glad men resort to fist fights over women these days, rather than duels. Also: stop fighting over women. We’re humans, not the last pizza slice.
Natalya was villainized for causing the death of Russia’s most beloved poet. Laam sets out to paint her in a different light, which is nice considering Natalya was basically property and her history was undoubtedly tainted by the perspective of male historians and Pushkin supporters. I can’t say I’m entirely sympathetic to either Pushkin or Natalya. I’m rather bored of the celebrated male genius trope (real or fictional) and and beleaguered wife doing the best she can to protect the family interests. I wonder if the appeal of historical fiction will wane or grow as we move into a period of examining history through a more faceted lens, rather than accepting what is promoted via textbooks written by the victors.
I’ve no doubt that writing historical fiction is a fine balancing act. You need loads of facts and realism, you can’t wander too far away from what is known about the character’s you’re portraying and you have to consider the society context about which you are writing. You also have to make it fun, fast paced and read like an interesting novel. I bet it’s hard. As a reader, I’m sometimes bored because I think about the ways the story could go if there weren’t those pesky facts hanging about.
A lot of historical fiction is supported by source documents: letters exchanged between lovers or family members. Pushkin’s letters to his wife still exist. What are writers going to do in a hundred years? Troll through old Facebook posts? Commandeer old phones to look at emoji text messages? It’s an interesting creative problem to ponder. How is technology going to impact the creative arts and how things are produced?
Since we’re considering love this month, I always wonder what these formerly real people would think if they knew how their love stories were interpreted and regurgitated for entertainment. Love is complicated. Would they be offended about how wrongly we’ve assessed theirs? Or would they laugh at how we’ve construed their affections?