Tag Archives: displacement

In the Garden of the Fugitives: Ceridwen Dovey

“If the person you want can never be yours, what else is there to do but learn to be alone?”

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives is an epistolary novel between a wealthy dying American man and a 39-year-old woman who originally hailed from South Africa but now lives in Australia. It’s been 17 years since they last had contact, and now the relationship is re-awakened by the imminent death of 70 year-old Royce. Royce’s compulsion to write to Vita is fueled by an admitted “craven need for absolution.” For her part, Vita acknowledges that Royce is “one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me.” It would seem that the novel’s focus will be what occurred between them, and while that’s true, that aspect of the novel is overshadowed by their individual pasts. At first the letters are packed with recrimination and vitriol on Vita’s side while Royce takes a position of humility. Soon the correspondence slips into two narratives with both characters wrestling with demons of guilt, regret and obsession, but this is also a novel about power: the power of youth and beauty, the power of money, the power of class and race, and the power to do whatever it takes to get what you want.

So how did these two seemingly disparate characters establish a relationship in the first place? Vita’s family (her father was an activist) left South Africa and moved to Australia. Vita attended university in Boston and very quickly latched onto a desire to be a documentary filmmaker. This goal seemed within her grasp when she won a Lushington Foundation fellowship. This is how she met Royce. The Fellowship was his to give, and it was founded in memory of Kitty Lushington a woman he loved and followed to Pompeii. She died in an accident on Vesuvius.

In the garden of the fugitives

As the exchanges unfold, the two correspondents may occasionally answer some issue in a previous letter (actually long e-mails, but don’t let that put you off), but mostly they tell their own stories. Royce’s story is painful, and also unreliable. As for Vita: she struggles with identity, displacement, guilt, a stalled career, and finally an obsession. Where did her documentary film making career go? We know she lives in the small town of Mudgee working on an olive farm. What went wrong?

As we try to nail down the truth of exactly what happened to both of these people, the book is, at times, a slippery read. Royce admits:

We can fill in each other’s gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves. Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues-photos, scrapbooks, journals–or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else’s past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization.

We follow Royce as he recalls, through his letters, how he tagged along to Pompeii, puppylike at Kitty’s heels. At first he professes that it’s enough to just be in her presence, but later, he hopes to catch her when, and if, she falls from another relationship. Through Royce’s letters, we see the ephemeral Kitty obsess on the plants found in Pompeii’s Garden of the Fugitives, and underlying the archaeological aspects of the novel is a delicate thread concerning the dangers of placing our own narratives onto others. We also begin to see why Royce was attracted to Vita in the first place as there are definite similarities between the two women, and it would seem that Royce who lost Kitty, perhaps hopes that he found someone to replace her.

While Royce’s letters are packed with details about Pompeii, Vita’s letters are full of details of her attempts to make documentaries. Vita’s films say more about her life than she realises, and while she films landscapes and various processes of production, she struggles with putting people into her films. Vita’s struggles ultimately reveal how the male-female dynamic enters her career:

In a class on feminism my second year at college, the teaching assistant a woman in her mid-forties, had asked all us peachy-faced girls in her study section if we’d ever felt discriminated against as women. Not a single one of us put up a hand, and we refrained defiantly, with a hit of swagger: things had changed, the world belonged to us, we had always been treated as equals.

The assistant, who had been raised in a commune set up in permanent protest outside a weapons factory in Sweden, looked at us sadly. “Mark my words,” she said, “the doors will start to slam shut in your faces the day you are no longer considered youthful. Only then will you see how misguided you were to equate being young and female with being empowered. You may turn  your back on feminism now, think you don’t need it, but by god you’ll need to once you start to age. The opportunities you thought were based on merit will dry up just as you do.”

I’d looked around the classroom and seen on the faces of my fellow female students no alarm, nothing but the pity  I too was feeling for her. We all believed that her prediction was the product of personal disappointment and we felt safe in the conviction that for us it would be different.

The archaeological details about Pompeii were fascinating, but I didn’t quite connect with the massive national guilt felt by Vita (perhaps you have to be South African to understand), but Vita’s feelings of displacement, “caught between identities,” were powerfully conveyed. Vita’s displacement, which was buried when she lived in America, floats to the surface when she returns to South Africa and she finds herself “still outside the country looking in” despite being incorporated into a white South African family who’ve managed to morph with the new political reality.

This is not a fast read and requires patience as the stories unfold. I mentioned in the first paragraph that this is a story about guilt, obsession, and regret, but it’s power that connects Royce and Vita–he has the money, the position, the influence, but she also has power which she has yet to understand. The thread concerning the power of placing our own narratives on to other people (easy to do when they are dead), is amplified through the stories of the dead at Pompeii, but it’s also a potential hazard when making documentaries which include human narratives. In one scene, two female student filmmakers naively film a BDSM segment in which the subject subverts their power and control, but conversely, there’s a scene in which Vita hesitates to place a black worker in the frame when making a film about wine-making. On some level, I suspect, she understands that making a film in which workers feature steals a certain power from her subjects. They participate, but do they choose to participate? And interestingly Vita’s relationships all seem to pivot on power.

This is an exquisitely written, cerebral, intelligent novel, bitter-sweet in its exploration of how we discover truths about ourselves when it’s often too late.

Review copy

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The Ladies from St Petersburg by Nina Berberova

I recently searched the internet for information about Russian Silver Age authors, and this led me to the topic of Russian emigre literature. I read a few articles that stated that while Nabokov is considered the greatest Russian emigre writer, Nina Berberova is also one of the greats. Last year, I’d read Berberova’s The Accompanist which I liked but didn’t love, and so I decided it was time to read another Berberova. This time I reached for The Ladies From St Petersburg which is actually three stories combined together under one title.

ladies from St PetersburgThe Ladies from St Petersburg is published by New Directions and translated by Marian Schwartz. Schwartz is the Berberova translator, and by that I mean that Marian Schwartz has translated a number of Berberova novels (The Accompanist, Billancourt Tales, The Cape of Storms, The Book of Happiness, The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories) , and after reading the foreword (also by Schwartz) it’s clear that the two women–writer and translator–had quite a relationship.

 Berberova was born in 1901, emigrated in 1922 and died in 1993, a professor emeritus at Princeton University. berberovaAccording to Schwartz, Berberova is the “classic neglected writer” and she defines that by this description: “despite her literary excellence, readers and critics overlooked her, mostly due to circumstances beyond her control (revolution, war, social prejudice).” Just reading Schwartz’s foreword is enough to make any sensitive reader intensely curious to read the work of Berberova.

The first story, The Ladies From St Petersburg gives the book its title. Although there are no dates given, there are clues that it’s 1917. Middle-aged Varvara Ivanovna and her daughter Margarita have travelled from St Petersburg by train for a long-arranged holiday in the country at a genteel boarding house owned by Dr. Byrdin. To the other houseguests cut off from the news of events taking place in the cities, the new arrivals represent a chance to get updates about the unrest. No one yet grasps the magnitude of the events taking place, and while the guests feel uneasy at the news of shootings, uprisings, and shortages, Dr Byrdin downplays the idea of a revolution:

“I assure you that all this revolution business will fizzle out very quickly. We here are all agreed that the Bolsheviks have no chance whatsoever of success.”

But it’s through tragedy that the radical change taking place in Russia becomes glaringly apparent when Byrdin accompanies Margarita to negotiate with a peasant for his services. This chilling story then records, with deceptive simplicity, the startling social encounters Margarita and Dr. Byrdin endure on their brief journey outside of the cocoon of the boarding house . But again, although shocked, neither Margarita nor Doctor Byrdin really absorb the enormity of what is taking place: 

“How crude people have become,” Margarita said pensively.

And the doctor reassures her:

Not for long. Everything will fall back into place again.”

And then seven years later Margarita returns to the area and witnesses exactly how “everything” has fallen “back into place again.”

In the second story, it’s December 1917 and Zoya Andreyevna arrives by train in Rostov. She has been evacuated from Kharkov due to the threat of the Bolshevik onslaught.  A few years earlier Zoya left a husband she no longer loved and defied societal standards of behaviour by living openly with her lover. The lover, a soldier with the White Army, has remained behind in Kharkov with his regiment to fight the Bolsheviks. Zoya is waiting in Rostov for her lover to arrive.

In The Ladies From St Petersburg, Dr. Byrdin and their guests had no idea that life as they knew it was about to be swept away, and in Zoya Andreyevna, Zoya is just part of a vast wave of people who’ve suddenly, unknowingly become refugees:

“People surged by in herds, the majority of them strangers to this large provincial town. The refugees, who had seen epidemics, devastation, and war at close hand, filled the town with horror and despair. They too surged by, these people, from northwest to southeast–from Kiev, Kharkov, and Poltava, through this cold and dusty town to the overflowing districts of Ekaterinodar and typhus-ridden Novorossiisk, only to turn back westward later, but this time to the shores of the devastated Crimea, where they entrusted their nomadic lives to small vessels that hurled wrenching but futile SOS’s into the dark expanses of the Black Sea.”

Zoya, whose clothes indicate she’s a member of the privileged classes, takes a room in a shabby boarding house while she waits for the lover who will probably never arrive. The house is owned by Maria Petronova, and other residents include her sister Anna, a male student and a woman called Tamara. While the student is largely oblivious to Zoya’s presence, the women in the boarding house resent her and begin to spy on her every move. As the days pass, mild teasing of Zoya turns into spiteful resentment, and the atmosphere in the house grows increasingly hostile. Anna and Maria feel begin to feel emboldened:

 “in the general displacement, the universal alarm, the time had come for them, too, to live and act. Just as everyone around them was filled with anticipation of the end, so they had begun to anticipate. Something told them that there were not two or three or four of them but no end to the people, no counting them–whether they had a needle or a slotted spoon in hand–gripped by the general hatred and vindictiveness.”

The third story The Big City is much more elusive. It’s post WWII, a nameless Russian emigre with an unknown past arrives in an unidentified American city (a thinly disguised New York). We are told nothing of the man’s history except that he’s left a lover behind in Europe, and now like a piece of flotsam and jetsam, he arrives in America and after renting a room in a high rise building, he once more begins a new life.

In The Big City Berberova very cleverly strips her character of details of his past, and she offers us a glimpse at exactly what it is like to arrive in America for the optimistic term ‘the fresh start.”  Of course the man, who once fled Russia to Europe, and now fled Europe to America has a very convoluted past, probably full of tragedy, but washed up in America, he is just another refugee: lonely, desperate and forced to begin again. Arriving with just the clothes on his back and perhaps a battered suitcase, the man’s fragmented experience of the past is invisible. In this story Berberova perfectly captures the levelling of the refugee experience. 

The brilliant selection of these particular stories combined under one cover can be no accident, for we see the stages range of the revolution through a handful of characters. The Ladies From St Petersburg offers a brief, painful view of a society on the brink of destruction. In Zoya  Andreyevna, Russian society is in freefall. Maria, Anna, and Tamara form a vicious pack against a woman they view as their class enemy, and their behaviour is an eerie prototype of Stalin’s purges. In The Big City, the lack of indentifying markers of this main character serve only to poignantly underscore the refugee’s anonymity.  There are no longer concerns about where to bury a relative or how to keep a few personal possessions, the tattered remnants of a former life. But the absence of identification is perhaps also symbolic of the erasure of Russian culture. Instead there are memories. Just memories and survival, and that is all.

“I am in the centre of a thousand possibilities, and a thousand responsibilities, and a thousand unknowns. The horrors and misfortunes of my age have helped me, the Revolution liberated me, exile tempered me, World War Two pushed me into another dimension”

–from The Italics Are Mine, Nina Berberova’s autobiography

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