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NOTE: Per Petterson was WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007 for Out Stealing Horses, WINNER of the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2009, and WINNER of many other prizes for his work.

“Dad has a face that Arvid loved to watch, and at the same time made him nervous as it wasn’t just a face but also a rock in the forest with its furrows and hollows, at least if he squinted when he looked.  Of course you can be a bit unsettled if you look at your dad and suddenly there is a large rock where his head used to be.”

Norwegian author Per Petterson dedicates the ten short stories of Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes (1987) to his own father in his first published book, creating a lovely and loving portrait of a father, his young son, and a few other members of their family as they go about their everyday lives in 1960s Norway  Main character Arvid, who will go on to star in some later books by Petterson, is six years old in the collection’s opening story, growing to the age of ten by its conclusion, a hypersensitive child who notices and cares about the family around him even as he is also aware of how much he depends on them.  Arvid’s unique point of view, his life, and his reactions to events in these stories, though perhaps more emotional than what most other children his age experience, are nevertheless so plausible and filled with heart that one cannot help believing that many of the happenings here were real and that the stories are somewhat autobiographical.  Seeming to breathe on their own, they need very little exposition to work their magic and draw in the reader, to whom they feel somehow familiar, no matter how the time, setting, and action may differ from our own.

With the reader sharing the early life of an especially observant child, the author chooses his details carefully and writes in an especially concise style, with no wordiness to slow down the action, no grand statements, and, ultimately no need to explain the action or embellish it. The opening story sets the tone, as Arvid learns that his father has lost his job as foreman of a shoe factory and must soon take a succession of lesser jobs in places as far away as Denmark, for six months, in order to stay employed in the declining shoe business, which he loves.  As the story develops, the action also shows the tense relationship between Arvid’s father and his brother Rolf, and eventually his father’s humiliation when he finally does obtain another job in another field of work.  Arvid, at age six, understands his father’s situation primarily through the parallels he sees on a TV program, but Arvid’s own lack of enthusiasm for his father’s new, much more mundane job adds to his father’s sense of failure.  In a mere ten pages, Petterson conveys much about the family’s dynamics, his father’s sense of pride, and, most importantly, Arvid’s own identification with his father.

Arvid's father and Uncle Rolf inherited their father's red log cabin on the Bunne Fjord, a place where the father encouraged Arvid to become more assertive.

Additional stories expand the information about Arvid’s family and their interrelationships:  His mother’s patience with him as he walks in his sleep and has nightmares and night-time “accidents” is matched by his father’s intrinsic understanding of how to make him feel better without embarrassing him, most of this shown through actions rather than words and dialogue in “Ashes in his Mouth.” Uncle Rolf and the origins of the continuing tension between him and Arvid’s father are shown in several stories.   The brothers’ relationship with Arvid’s grandfather and Arvid’s feelings toward him become clear in “The King is Dead,” a story in which Arvid sees parallels between the death of the King of Norway and his grandfather’s death, a story which also shows the weaknesses of Uncle Rolf and the strength of his mother.   Dissension in the marriage of Arvid’s father and mother affects Arvid personally in “Like a Tiger in a Cage.”

Norwegian fjord photo by Sverre Hjornevik, perhaps similar to the Bunne Fjord, where Arvid's family has a red log cabin.

His relationship with the outside world is seen in his confrontation with an adult next-door neighbor known as “Fatso” who uses Arvid and then reveals his own weaknesses in a dramatic ending which leads Arvid to avoid him forever afterward.  Mocked for his innocence by other students when he is eight, Arvid reacts emotionally in “People are Not Animals” when the older boys try to joke about sexual mechanics with him, and he eventually decides how he will avoid such issues in the future.  “Today You Must Pray to God,” a statement made by Arvid’s teacher to Arvid’s class at the time that she also announces that “Today there may be nuclear war,” introduces some of the world tensions of the day and leads to serious concerns for Arvid’s emotional health, while “Before the War,” the last story in the collection, shares his father’s experiences during World War II and his father’s efforts to toughen Arvid up at the vacation cabin that his father and Uncle Rolf jointly own. Arvid’s sudden awareness of what is important in life is a fitting conclusion to the novel.

One of Arvid's most vivid memories is of a bullfinch which he held in his hand when he found it lying on the ground, feeling its heartbeat. Photograph by Grahame Thompson

Arranged chronologically to give a sense of their interconnections from beginning to end, Petterson’s stories contain both dramatic action and psychological acuity.  One of the most unusual aspects of the book occurs in the sudden endings to many of the stories.  One reviewer complained about this, noting that many of these stories “just end,” instead of having a recognizable finale to give a few clues to the author’s purpose in writing them.  Sometimes lacking the obvious thematic statements which so often accompany conclusions of stories by other writers, these stories with their well drawn, innocent point of view seem to draw a reader into Arvid’s life through his stories and some symbols while inspiring the reader’s own memories and feelings  – an experience that for me made them fun to read and enlightening, too; simultaneously casual and realistic in tone and style; both unpretentious and highly literary; and both unique and seemingly familiar.  A very small book, with very short stories, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes carries a disproportionately large impact, a debut which clearly presages the enormous success this author would eventually have in the literary world.

ALSO by Petterson:  I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME,        I REFUSE,        IT’S FINE BY ME, and      TO SIBERIA

Photos, in order: The author’s photo may be found on http://www.aftenbladet.no/

The Red Log Cabin, similar to one which Arvid’s father and uncle owned, is located  at the open-air museum Skansen in Stockholm.  It is posted on https://www.pinterest.com by  byggnadsvardsnytt.wordpress.com

This prize-winning photo of a Norwegian fjord, by Sverre Hjørnevik is from http://bestof.fjordnorway.com

One of Arvid’s most vivid memories is of finding a Northern Bullfinch on the ground, picking it up and holding it in his hand, feeling its heartbeat.  Photo by Grahame Thompson for http://www.thewesternisles.co.uk/

“We don’t need to have just one favorite…Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular stage in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They’re always with us. We just sort of accumulate them.” — Lloyd Alexander

Author photo by Heath Missen.

Like so many others who read voraciously – all kinds of books, from experimental modern fiction to the classics, from thoughtful novels of ideas to thrillers, and from analytical non-fiction to other-worldly fantasy – I have often been asked to name my favorite author, as if it were possible to choose just one.  And as Lloyd Alexander points out above, I tend to read according to mood and what appeals at different stages of my life.  My all-time favorite books, however, tend to be those which deal with ideas in a unique way, capturing my imagination at the same time that they convey a new slant on a universal theme.  If they are also written with a touch of humor, so much the better. Among my long-time, special favorites are several authors who are little known in the United States, authors whose unique work has continually entertained and surprised me, often moving me to tears at the same time that it has left me with a smile on my face.

Tim Winton was a student of Elizabeth Jolley at Curtin University on the west coast of Australia. Photo by Denise Fitch.

One such author is Australian author Elizabeth Jolley (1923 – 2007).   Born in England, Elizabeth Jolley moved to western Australia with her husband in 1959, raised her children, and in 1976, at the age of fifty-three, finally saw the publication of her first novel.  It was not until 1983, when she was sixty, however, that her writing began to receive recognition, and once it did, she experienced non-stop success, with fifteen novels, three short story collections, three plays, and three books of non-fiction, published to great acclaim within twenty-one years.  Winner of over a dozen literary prizes and awards including Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award, she was made a member of the Order of Australia for Services to Literature, and in 1997, was declared an Australian Living Treasure.  Though she achieved enormous literary recognition, Jolley’s personal life was complicated, but I will save that story until I review her biography in the next few weeks.

SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH BOOKS contains reviews of three of her novels which show in detail what I like best about her work, and the brief summaries I provide in this present post list these books in my order of preference.  All are now available in new editions released by Persea Books.  I hope some readers who have never read Jolley will be inspired to do so now.

Mr. Scobie’s Riddle (1983): Martin Scobie, David Hughes, and Fred Privett, all age eighty-five, have just been admitted to the nursing home of St. Christopher and St. Jude following the bizarre crash of their three separate ambulances at the intersection in front of the facility. Admitted for their recuperation, they must share a small single room in which the light switch can only be reached by leaning across one bed. Some furniture has been removed to accommodate the extra beds, and the wardrobe, blocking a window, is inaccessible because of the third bed. Even if they had a view through that window, however, their view would be compromised. “Immediately outside the window was a mass of dusty green foliage of the kind which grows outside kitchens and hotel toilets…The leaves, moving in endless trembling toward and away from one another, gave an impression of trying to speak or to listen but always turning away before any tiny

A man who might have been Mr. Scobie

message could either be given or heard,” a detail emblematic of all life at this nursing home, which specializes in non-communication. As Australian author Elizabeth Jolley develops this relentlessly dark-humored and totally absorbing novel, she also displays enormous talent for developing sensitive character sketches of the sad, elderly patients. Jolley is a world class author, capable of creating serious questions and developing the biggest of the world’s themes within small settings and scenes.  The dark ironies help keep the emotion under control, though older readers will feel Mr. Scobie’s frustration with added poignancy.

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1984): Elizabeth Jolley’s portraits of elderly characters are unparalleled in their depth and in the sly amusement she brings to their creation.  Here she gives life to Dorothy Peabody – or as much life as this quiet, fearful, and unimaginative woman can be said to possess, until that moment in which her life suddenly takes wing through her correspondence with author Diana Hopewell. Jolley also creates additional, vibrant and often surprising characters – other middle-aged single women – who are the protagonists of the new novel-in-progress which author Diana Hopewell shares in her correspondence with Miss Peabody.

The story within Diana Hopewell's novel takes place at a polite girls' school in Western Australia. Photo by Michelle Mossop.

As the point of view moves back and forth between Miss Peabody’s life in Weybridge, outside of London, and Diana Hopewell’s novel-in-progress, which takes place in a polite boarding school in western Australia, Elizabeth Jolley keeps the humor and surprise at a high level, while also commenting on the nature of writing and the role of the novelist. With her wry, often poignant descriptions, and her ability to reveal her characters’ deepest yearnings through subtle and beautifully developed scenes and dialogue, Elizabeth Jolley is a writer of formidable talents and remarkable insights.

Foxybaby (1985): The earlier books that I have read by Australian author Elizabeth Jolley, while a bit more boisterous in some ways than the works of her contemporaries back in England during the period, still seem to fit comfortably into the niche occupied by authors like Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Lively, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Alice Thomas Ellis, and Jane Gardam, despite Jolley’s unconventional (and some might say outrageous) private life.

With Foxybaby (1985), which follows Mr. Scobie… (1983) and Miss Peabody… (1984), however, Jolley permanently separates herself from her peers back in England, writing a book in which nothing is sacred.  Here her characters, sometimes crazy, usually self-absorbed and unashamedly earthy, are also bawdy. She is realistic, if not enthusiastic, in her depiction of sex in all its variations as salve for the souls of the lonely – and the sometimes bored. Nothing about this book is dainty or subtle. Jolley obviously has great fun here enjoying the freer, more forgiving attitudes of Australia as she creates this over-the-top novel, filled with wild characters who “let it all hang out.”

Wheatfields for miles were the only scenery for Porch as she traveled west to Trinity College. Photo by MarcoSun

Simultaneously daring and subtle, insightful and bold, sensitive and sometimes sexy, Jolley’s novels are absorbing and satisfying on many levels, and I hope I’ll persuade a few who are unfamiliar with her to take a look at her novels. Sometime soon, I will begin to review the Vera Wright Trilogy, also available from Persea Books, and I expect to review Jolley’s biography, written by her stepdaughter, in the next few weeks.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo by Heath Missen appears on http://www.theage.com.au/

Tim Winton, one of Elizabeth Jolley’s students, has, himself, become an award-winning writer, one of Australia’s best, in recent years.  His photo here is by Denise Fitch:  http://svc061.wic050p.server-web.com

The photo of a man who might resemble Mr. Scobie is on http://aichberger.de/10E-god.htm

The photo of Australian schoolgirls, by Michelle Mossop, is from http://aichberger.de/

Wheatfields in western Australia, the only scenery for Porch on her travels to Trinity, photo by MarcoSun, are on https://markosun.wordpress.com

Note: Richard Wagamese was WINNER of Canada’s National Aboriginal Achievement Award for 2012.

“Jimmy said Starlight was the name given to them that got teachin’s from Star People. Long ago. Way back. Legend goes that they came outta the stars on a night like this. Clear night. Sat with the people and told ‘em stuff. Stories mostly, about the way of things…Our people. Starlights. We’re meant to be teachers and storytellers. They say nights like this bring them teachin’s and stories back and that’s when they oughta be passed on again.”—Eldon Starlight, the father

On a magnificent, clear night, perfect for passing on stories about people and their heritage, Franklin Starlight, age sixteen, and his father Eldon, from whom he has been estranged for nearly all of his life, sit smoking around a campfire in the mountains, as their stories, often sad, emerge to be shared.  Eldon, an alcoholic who is just days away from death, has persuaded his son-in-name-only to accompany him on his final trip “beyond the ridge.”  Riding Franklin’s horse, to which he eventually needs to be tied hand and foot as he sinks in and out of consciousness, Eldon shares his life story, and stories involving other people around him, in a final effort to connect with his son and to reconcile himself with his own guilt about actions that have haunted his past.  Young Franklin has been brought up by “the old man,” a white man, no kin, who has devoted his life to him, while Eldon Starlight, his real father, has lived many miles away and avoided all sense of responsibility since Franklin’s birth, losing himself in drink instead.  The old white man has taught Franklin everything he knows – about being resourceful on the farm, thoughtful toward others, respectful toward the land and its animals, and resolute in his actions – the Indian way – and, unlike the disengaged Eldon Starlight, the boy and the old man love and honor each other through their actions.

The novel that Ojibway author and storyteller Richard Wagamese creates from this outline is thoughtful and full of heart – and so gripping that it is hard to imagine any reader not being left breathless from the sheer drama of the writing and its overwhelming message.  It is a wondrous novel about stories, their importance in our lives and memories, their ability to help us reconcile the past with the present, and ultimately their power to teach us the nature of the world and our relationship to it.  Without didacticism or preachiness, Wagamese depicts the last few days in the life of Eldon Starlight whose stories lead to an unusual coming-of-age for son Franklin – at the same time that they may be a uniquely life-affirming experience for his irresponsible father. Stories about the natural beauty on the mountain and their respect for it accompany Franklin’s always-successful search for food as he leads his father “over the ridge.” Stories about Eldon’s past, including his relationship with Franklin’s mother, also emerge as Eldon tries to cope with the terrible aftereffects of the Korean War and his life afterward.

A boom man keeping the logs moving so they do not getting tangled.

Eldon Starlight’s best friend Jimmy Weaseltail is his constant companion from the age of thirteen, when Eldon’s own father dies and Eldon has to drop out of school and to work with fruit pickers, wood cutters, fish gutters, and tree planters. After work, he and Jimmy both love to listen to Eldon’s mother read to them – Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson – authors from whom they get most of their “book learning” when their formal schooling ends early.  Ultimately, Eldon and Jimmy work as “boom men,” helping to guide dangerous flotillas of logs down the river during logging season. Later, when Eldon and Jimmy sense that it is time to move on, they sign up for a Royal Canadian regiment.  After training across the country at Camp Petawawa, they head for the Korean War and their own battles at Pusan, a turning point for both of them.

Iconic photo of men dealing with the horrors of the Korean War

Since the reader already knows the outcome of Eldon’s death journey from the earliest pages of the novel, Wagamese performs an almost magical feat of keeping the reader intensely interested in the characters and their lives through the creation of parallel narratives.  These unpretentious and straightforward stories carry the novel in several different directions simultaneously.  The author focuses on five separate life-lines:  The on-going life story of Eldon Starlight, Franklin’s father, in the days leading up to their final journey;  Franklin’s early life as a child growing up on a farm with his white foster father, who has tried to teach him all the Indian lore he knows;  the day-to-day story of Franklin and Eldon as they journey through the mountains to Eldon’s chosen resting place, absorbing the lessons nature has to offer along the way; the experiences of Eldon and Jimmy in Pusan during the Korean War; and ultimately, Eldon’s life after the war and his first connection with Franklin’s mother.  Wagamese keeps all five plot lines moving forward smoothly without confusing the reader, at the same time that he withholds key information to develop considerable, on-going suspense about immediate outcomes.

Photo by C. J. Foxcroft, showing a nine-foot grizzly, relative to the size of an average man. Franklin must deal with a grizzly by himself during his journey.

In unaffected and straightforward language, Wagamese draws the reader into the lives of Franklin and his father Eldon, both lives quite different from what most readers have experienced, yet we feel involved and caring because of the universal values which Wagamese clearly believes unite us all.  At the same time, he also describes specifically Indian ways of life for Franklin, who “hears symphonies in wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon.  He was Indian.”  In riding to meet his father, forty miles away, he tells us that his horse “knew the smell of cougar and bear so he was content to let her walk while he sat and smoked and watched the land.”  His descriptions of catching trout without a fishing rod, and thanking nature for its bounty, are balanced by irony when he first sees his father, “his buttocks like small lumps of dough and the rest of him all juts and pokes and seams of bone under sallow skin.”  Ultimately, as Franklin accompanies the horse carrying his father through the mountains, he tells his father something he learned from “the old man”:  “Everything a guy would need is here if you want it and know how to look for it…You gotta spend time gatherin’ what you need.  What you need to keep you strong.  He called it a medicine walk,” to which his unredeemed father comments, “Hand us that crock.”

An Ojibwe boy named "Boy Chief," painted by George Catlin in 1843. Mellon Collection

A novel which satisfies on every level, Medicine Walk does honor to its author and to the culture he is describing at the same time that he is brutally honest.  A magnificent novel – one of the best of the year.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://lakefieldliteraryfestival.com

The painting of a “boom man” may be found here:  http://tim-ber.blogspot.com/

The horrors of the Korean War are seen in this iconic photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/

C. J. Foxcroft’s photo of a nine-foot grizzly bear, relative to the height of an average man, is from https://www.pinterest.com

George Catlin painted a portrait of an Ojibway “Boy Chief”  in 1843.  It is part of the Mellon Collection.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Note:  WINNER of many literary awards during a distinguished career, William Boyd was SHORTLISTED for the IMPAC Dublin Award for Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart in 2004.

“We keep a journal to entrap the collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being…[but] the true journal…doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyse.”

Life, as understood by Logan Mountstuart, is a series of random events, not events which are fated, controlled by a higher power, or the result of carefully made decisions. There’s nothing and no one to blame for whatever good or bad luck we may have in life. A person may choose to enjoy the good times, seek out happiness wherever possible, and live life to the fullest or sit back passively and just endure whatever happens. Logan Mountstuart is one of the former types, a man who recognizes that “Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary–it is the respective proportions of those categories that make life appear interesting.”

But Mountstuart also believes that one can look for and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. Through his personal journals, begun in 1923, when he is seventeen, and continuing to the time of his death in 1991, we come to know Mountstuart intimately, both as an individual, growing and changing, and as an Everyman, someone who participates in and is affected by the seminal events of the 20th century, after World War I. Because he is a writer, he is able to travel and to know other writers and artists of the period. When he meets Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway (whom he confuses with F. Scott Fitzgerald), Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, and Ian Fleming, the reader has the vicarious fun of being there and meeting them, too, since Mountstuart, as a person, appears to be very much like the rest of us.

Portrait of Picasso by Juan Gris, 1912, now in Art Institute of Chicago

He buys early paintings by Paul Klee and Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso draws a quick portrait of him and signs it. He engages in intellectual discussions about Braque, James Joyce,  the Bloomsbury group and others and keeps the reader aware of literary and artistic achievements of the era.  It is in his depiction of the historical moment that Boyd shines. By describing events through Mountstuart’s experience, he is able to give a human face to people and circumstances which have influenced our history, and his choice of small details, often unique, offers a new slant on some familiar events. Boyd is particularly good at showing simultaneous events–Franco at the gates of Barcelona while Hitler is entering Prague–and his explanation of Neville Chamberlain’s giving up of the Sudetenland resonates as an honest and even logical attempt to avoid the desperation of war.

Royal Navy Commander Ian Fleming, in His Majesty's Secret Service

When Ian Fleming, who works for the Secret Service, gets Mountstuart a job in Naval Intelligence, the reader is introduced to the colorful world of the Duke of Windsor, as Mountstuart “spies” on him to make sure that the Duke’s German sympathies do not make him a pawn of the enemy.  As these passages about the Duke and his wife, the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, live and breathe their rarefied air, Mountstuart eventually comes to believe that the Duke and Duchess and/or their friends have arranged a nasty form of punishment especially for him, near the end of the war.  Post-war, Mountstuart continues to be involved with the world of artists and writers–and world events–eventually living in Nigeria before retiring to France.  His sojourn in New York City is most interesting for the “contact” he makes with artist “Nat Tate,” the subject of his previous novel, Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928 – 1960, which was Boyd’s experiment with an art hoax.

NAT TATE, Boyd's previous novel, about a character who appears in this book, was an elaborate art hoax, and a delightful novel to read. See link below.

Entertaining and fast-paced, the novel’s more than five hundred pages, including nine diaries and a twelve-page index, speed along on the energy of the personal stories and the color of the world events in which Mountstuart and his acquaintances participate.  His belief that “life is just the aggregate of one’s good luck and bad luck”–that things simply happen–leads, of necessity, to a story which is not organized by a hidden, underlying theme. Befitting its philosophy, it is episodic and random, using the passage of time as its primary framework. Mountstuart himself accepts what happens to him, though it often saddens him, and he does not agonize over what he might have done differently–he does not believe that he could have changed things. In that regard he remains one-dimensional, but, in many ways an Everyman for the history of the times.  Fun to read, the book offers a new “take” on events which have shaped our own times, offering few, if any, lessons for the future, other than to live life, despite its ups and downs. As Mountstuart himself points out, life ultimately is a yo-yo, “a jerking, spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child.”

ALSO by William Boyd, reviewed here:  WAITING FOR SUNRISE and     NAT TATE, AN AMERICAN ARTIST

Photos, in order: The book cover for this edition of this book, by Megan Wilson, is part of the Book Cover Archive:  http://bookcoverarchive.com/

The author’s photo is from  http://www.voanews.com/

The photo of Juan Gris’s portrait of Pablo Picasso is now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Ian Fleming, who appears in this novel, was a Royal Navy Commander in His Majesty’s Secret Service, and he recruited Logan Mountstuart to help keep tabs on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were Nazi sympathizers.  http://www.combatreform.org/

The cover for the Nat Tate book, reviewed here, appears on https://en.wikipedia.org/

Note: Andrei Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers was WINNER of both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis.

“[Oleg] knew [Catherine]’s political views, what she read, the personalities of the people she corresponded with, her carnal cravings (the ‘uterine rage’ derided by so many biographers)…her preference for riding astride a horse rather than side-saddle…Everything…except that often this ‘everything’ seemed strangely incomplete.  Perhaps the key to the enigma could be found in [her] naïve observation that: ‘The real problem in my life is that my heart cannot survive for a single moment without love.’ ”  –Filmmaker Oleg Erdmann on his film subject, Catherine the Great.

In a metafictional novel which ranges widely over almost three centuries of Russian history, author Andrei Makine, a Russian émigré who has lived in France since 1987, recreates the life of a young Russian author/filmmaker who finds that the concept of creativity in the world in which he lives must always bend to the will of someone else – the censors, a hired director, or the tastes of the public – if his work is to survive.   Oleg Erdmann, his author/main character, is the son of German parents who emigrated to Russia, where Oleg was born.  His father was never able to cope with the difficulties he faced as the head of an immigrant family in a country which did not admit him into its mainstream, and he spent most of his spare time escaping his personal problems by painstakingly creating a detailed model of a giant castle, elaborate and reminiscent of the castles from the eras of Peter the Great and his successors – the Peterhof, the Winter Palace, and the Oranienbaum.  Whenever serious problems would arise in his daily life, his father would say, softly, “This is all happening to me because of that little German girl who became Catherine the Great.”

Determined to write a screenplay about Catherine the Great, years later, Oleg goes way beyond the limits of the usual biography, questioning not only Catherine’s life and her decisions but also the very nature of love and how one achieves it, using Catherine’s lengthy affairs with over a dozen men to expand the scope of his screenplay into an examination of reality and imagination in life, love, and art.  To accomplish this, author Makine creates an experimental novel, its nature clear from the opening chapter in which a scene created by Erdman is being filmed for TV.  A great mirror divides a salon from the alcove behind it, and it is raised and lowered by a lever controlled by Catherine herself.  On the salon side, Catherine conducts audiences at her  desk, pen in hand, meeting and conducting royal business with the chancellor, ambassadors, field marshals, kings, and writers.  On the other side waits her naked lover of the hour.  The instant her audience is over, Catherine raises the lever (and mirror) and rushes to greet her lover, enjoying his favors, then scurrying back behind the mirror to the salon with split-second precision before her next audience begins and a new lover makes his way secretly behind the mirror.  As one envisions the timing necessary, the scene resembles a slapstick bedroom comedy.

Catherine the Great in her late thirties. Portrait by a follower of Giovanni Battista Lampi.

With no transition between this and other early scenes, new characters are added to the mix.  Catherine’s  list of accomplishments and her equally long list of lovers between 1752, when she was twenty-three and 1786, when she was fifty-seven, are inserted in the next chapter, followed by references to Oleg’s first film, his period spent on the blacklist, then the surprising rehabilitation of his reputation.  His current work, which is not identified by time period, but which we learn in Part IV is probably during the time of Brezhnev, creates a maelstrom of action and characters, all swirling, providing bits and pieces of information needed to put the entire novel into perspective, as Catherine rules through sex and violence – at least in Oleg’s film series, now being presented on Russian public television.  Just as the reader may become confused by the lack of a clear time frame for the various episodes at the beginning of the novel, Oleg fears that “his detailed research into the labyrinths of History was [also] making Catherine’s life seem impenetrable, ambiguous.” Still, he  “continued to hope that from the murky confusion of the archives a shining light would burst forth – some thrilling truth that went beyond History itself!”

The green Winter Palace in winter, where Catherine was most often in residence.

The death of Catherine’s husband, Peter III, estranged since the beginning of their ill-fated marriage when she was fourteen and he was sixteen, remains a mystery throughout, as does the paternity of her son Paul.  Was Tsar Peter III, murdered?  A bulletin issued by Catherine reads, “On the seventh day of our accession to the throne we were advised that the former Tsar, Peter III,  suffered another of his hemorrhoidal attacks…Aware of our Christian duty, we issued orders for him to be given the necessary medical attention…To our great sorrow, we learned that God’s will had put an end to his life.”  Later, the reader learns that “Peter III loves ice cream, and it is by promising him this dessert that his murderers lure him into the trap.”  Hemorrhoids or ice cream?  Take your choice.

When Catherine goes to visit the Crimea, Potemkin makes sure that the dilapidated buildings there look better than they really are by building inexpensive facades over the ruination. In 2013, the Russian village of Susdal (above) created a "Potemkin village" using Photoshop and plastic sheeting because President Putin was coming to visit.

Gradually, the background and the foreground come together  as the reader gains insights into Makine’s thinking while he continues both Oleg’s and Catherine’s stories.  Catherine’s entrapment within the duties of Tsarina, and her inability ever to leave Russia, fade into the background as Oleg and Eva Sander, who is playing the part of “the older Catherine” in the wildly successful TV series, become close and he begins to share his own background.  Reality vs. imagination merge as a main idea once again when Eva questions Oleg:  “You said that for the tsarina love was simply a theatrical performance.”  To which he responds that it was “a drama she acts in and applauds at the same time: I love and I am loved?  Age will make her more humble…[Her] whole life took place in this ‘as if’…no man ever loved her.” Eventually, Oleg and Eva travel from Russia through Germany and Switzerland into Italy, following the maps of Lanskoy, Catherine’s greatest love, as all the plot lines of the novel come together.  Both romantic and thoughtful, A Woman Loved stretches the boundaries of chronology and of the novel itself to make a final statement about fantasy and truth in matters of life, love and art.  (Gracefully translated by Geoffrey Strachan)

ALSO reviewed here: Makine’s  THE LIFE OF AN UNKNOWN MAN

Another Photoshopped covering in the "Potemkin village" created in the town of Susdal when Vladimir Putin was scheduled to visit in 2013.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://lechouandesvilles.over-blog.com

Catherine the Great, in her thirties, painted by a follower of  Giovanni Batista Lampi:  http://www.gogmsite.net/

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was Catherine’s primary place of residence.  http://stpetersburg-guide.com/

When Catherine goes to visit the Crimea, Potemkin makes sure that the dilapidated buildings there look better than they really are by building inexpensive facades over the ruination. In 2013, the village of Susdal in Russia created a “Potemkin village” using Photoshop and plastic because President Putin was coming for a visit.    http://imgur.com/

The photo of the facade with the cat in the Potemkin village of Susdal is from http://destinationeconomy.com

ARC:  Graywolf Press

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