January 20, 2019

Revolution Spurs Young Woman’s Evolution in ‘Marina M.’

Marina Dmitrievna Makarova, whom we meet in the opening pages of “The Revolution of Marina M.” by Janet Fitch (Little, Brown) is both a passionate young woman and a privileged member of the intelligentsia of imperial Russia. At 16, she already is a published poet, and yet she still is capable of a girlish thrill at the prospect of a kiss (and much more than that) from a handsome suitor. She also is vividly aware of the world-shattering conflicts that exist outside the confines of her parents’ comfortable home. “History was emerging from its shell,” Fitch writes, “like a chick from an egg.”

Strictly speaking, the novel is set in Petrograd at the height of World War I, the same city that was called St. Petersburg when it was founded by Peter the Great and Leningrad during the Soviet era. That attention to detail is characteristic of Fitch’s approach to storytelling, which is rooted in the hard facts of history but also penetrates the heart and soul of her characters. Like Marina herself, Fitch is a poet, and one of the glories of her new novel is the shimmering beauty of language.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to peel back the petals of the future,” muses Marina as she thinks back to New Year’s Eve in 1916. “It will be here soon enough, and it won’t be quite the bloom you expect. Just stay there, in that precious moment, at the hinge of time … but I was in love with the Future, in love with the idea of Fate. There’s nothing more romantic to the young — until its dogs sink their teeth into your calf and pull you to the ground.”

Marina’s privileged life soon is overtaken by the shockwaves of war and revolution. She may be susceptible to the charms of a gallant soldier, but she also sees with her own eyes what combat does to the human body: “Charm couldn’t dissuade bullets or bayonets, land mines or poison gas.” And when she hears the chants of the street demonstrators under the sword-blows of the mounted Cossacks — “Bread and justice!” — she is stirred to action. This prompts the officer who has become her lover to retort: “So it’s the workers you love now, not Kolya and his rapier?” with a sly reference to his own anatomy. “Do I address you as Comrade Marina?”

Fitch is faithful to the Tolstoyan traditions of the Russian novel.

Mina, one of Marina’s closest friends, is Jewish, and so is the photographer named Solomon Moiseivich, who has captured the images of “writers, actresses, singers, the most famous artists in Russia,” but St. Petersburg was mostly off limits to Jews under the czars. Marina sees the anti-Semitism for herself when she volunteers as a nurse in a military hospital and meets a Jewish soldier whose inability to secure an officer’s commission is explained by one of his comrades: “Who’d follow him anywhere except to the pawnshop?”

Marina is an eyewitness to all of the upheavals of the Russian Revolution, and an active participant in some of the more consequential ones: “Everyone was part of the revolution now … all moving forward together on the same great ship, which had finally left port.” Fitch displays a mastery of the nuances of revolutionary politics, but she also shows us what life is like for the men and women whose lives are depicted against the tableau of history.

Above all, Fitch is faithful to the Tolstoyan traditions of the Russian novel, writing about heroic events on an equally heroic scale. Remarkably, Fitch catches and holds our interest through 800 pages, rewarding us with rich and provocative stories, compelling characters and literary prose of the very highest order.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.