One Story: A Conversation with Janet Fitch About “The Revolution of Marina M.” and “Chimes of a Lost Cathedral”

September 18, 2019   •   By Boris Dralyuk

SHORTLY AFTER the publication of Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. — which traces a young poet’s journey through the chaos of Russia in the late 1910s — she and I spoke about that sweeping, riveting work of novelistic imagination and painstaking research. I tried to avoid asking Fitch about her future projects, although I knew that Marina’s revolution was far from over; like LARB’s reviewer, Ani Kokobobo, I was “itching for the next installment.” This summer has brought us what we’ve been waiting for: Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. I used the occasion to pose a few more questions to Fitch, which she has answered with her usual openness, eloquence, and generosity.


BORIS DRALYUK: Chimes of a Lost Cathedral isn’t exactly a sequel, it’s a continuation of The Revolution of Marina M. Could you tell us about the relationship between the first and second volumes of Marina’s odyssey? Did you envision it as a work in two parts, and did you know where your heroine’s journey would lead?

JANET FITCH: No, I’d never imagined a work in two parts. I originally thought it would be a small novel-in-verse. I wrote 17 chapters of that book before I realized I would need all my prose-writer skills to write this novel. When it became evident to everyone it would be more than one volume, there was some discussion as to whether it would be published as two or three. But the publisher, my editor, and I eventually agreed that the story divided pretty clearly into the coming of age of my young protagonist, Marina Makarova, who is 16 at the start of The Revolution of Marina M. — and her story as a more seasoned, complex young woman, a rising poet, in The Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.

I had no idea where the story would lead me. All I knew was that the novel would cover this young poet’s coming of age in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was called at the time) during the revolution, and follow the timeline and events of the revolution, starting from its gestation during World War I — I picked 1916 — to the Kronstadt revolt of 1921, which to my mind permanently finished off the revolution and its ideals. I knew that Marina was born at the turn of the century and that her development would mirror and incorporate the history of the revolution and the literary history of the time as well — whom she admired, whom she would emulate. And that was basically all. The rest grew organically, moving back and forth, between her individuation as a woman, an artist, and a maturing moral entity, and the unfolding of the revolution — an intricately linked micro and macro story.

Oddly enough, I’ve learned from readers that the books can be read satisfyingly in either direction — as novel and prequel or novel and sequel. I was adamant about including a cast of characters, explaining where we left them, at the beginning of the second book, in case people wanted to read them that way. But the duet was conceived as one story.

Marina’s world is filled with poetry — both her own and that of others. What role does poetry play in the book?

Poetry is a great river running under and around the events of the book. As a lively aspiring poet, young Marina is obsessed with the poets she admires. She hangs out in front of the famous Stray Dog Café, hoping to catch sight of her literary idol, Anna Akhmatova. It was a poetic generation, and the awe we hold for pop singers or basketball stars was then lavished upon the great poets. Marina grows up in the heart of literary Russia, St. Petersburg — city of Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Blok, of Andrey Bely, of Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, a city in a certain sense built of poetry. And Marina’s era, the revolutionary and immediately pre-revolutionary moment, was the Silver Age of Russian poetry. And I don’t think there is a culture that reveres its poets more passionately — and imprisons them more frequently — than Russia.

Not only does Marina know her poets, she is steeped in verse. And as our narrator, her thoughts add a prismatic dimension to the events. People steeped in poetry think in poetry. Something happens and a line or a stanza of verse springs to mind, and sometimes forms a motif. Russian schoolchildren did — and still do, if I’m not mistaken — memorize hundreds of lines of verse, and as a budding poet and daughter of the intelligentsia, Marina knows thousands of lines by heart. Her grandmother would pay her a silver ruble to perfectly recite long rafts of verse. Even today, Russian poets recite their work from memory. And historically, whenever Russians found themselves in dire circumstances, the poetry was there — to console, to give strength, to humanize one’s experience.

There are scenes in which Marina finds herself psychologically and physically embattled, and her only companion — saving her sanity — is the poetry she knows by heart. I believe this to be true about human life. Poetry will save you. I remember when America was reeling after 9/11, or when the economy looked like it was going to collapse in 2008. Suddenly people were reading poetry, volumes of classic American verse. Extreme circumstances breed a need to go back to what is deepest in the culture, to remind ourselves of the strength and solace of that common bond. When Marina is in a sniper nest during the White Army’s advance on Petrograd in 1920, she recites stanzas by 19th-century poets Fyodor Tyutchev and Evgeny Baratynsky to her fellow sniper. Nothing can encapsulate a human emotion as concisely and purely as a poem.

I also show how Marina changes by means of the changing subject matter and style of her poetry. And the discussions of poetry in her radical poet circle bring up issues being discussed right now: Does one have to write revolutionary subject matter — political poetry — to be properly revolutionary? Is there a place for the personal in times of high polarization? How accessible should poetry be? Is it elitist to be concerned with form, or write work that isn’t immediately accessible to the average person? 

But what I like best is how my fictional poets’ verse comments on the action of the book. It’s a doorway into the creative process as well as their own psychic state. Those poems often become a motif for later sections of the book.

There are two milieus in which poetry, personal life, and the revolution all come together in the two books. In the first book, Marina lives in the Poverty Artel (an artel is a small factory), as part of the Transrational Interlocutors of the Terrestrial Now — a fictional gang of young poets through whom I explore many of the issues of early revolutionary living and its poetry. In the second book, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, Marina eventually comes to live at the historical House of Arts, where she interacts not only with fictional poets but with the very real poets and writers of the day: Blok, Bely, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Nikolai Gumilev, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Kuzmin, and many others. That was really thrilling to write, and I’m happy to say nobody’s complained that I’ve portrayed these people incorrectly.

Poetry was part of the revolutionary conversation, and the House of Arts was a true Noah’s Ark. Maxim Gorky, who took on a great deal of official responsibility in the early days of Soviet power, saved the Russian intelligentsia by establishing an institution, in one building, where writers could live, receive rations, teach classes, translate, and do other kinds of work, fending off likely starvation. It was a beehive of literary ferment, a sanctuary for their physical life and the life of the mind during the hungriest days of the revolution.

So poetry was never divorced from history and political life in the revolution, and when people had stopped freely airing their opinions, the poets continued to do so. Russian poets have always taken great risks to protect what the poet Blok called their “inner freedom.” That’s definitely the soul of the second book.

Many of the characters in the book are historical figures. Are any of the fictional characters also drawn from life, as it were? Are there real-life inspirations for Marina, her parents, her lovers?

Even the historical figures, people in political and cultural life, are amalgams of what I had researched and then how I imagined them as living breathing human beings. But the fictional characters are always amalgamations — based on historical or literary figures, people I know, actors or characters, plus pieces of myself, in various measures.

The character of Marina was certainly inspired by the fiery poet Marina Tsvetaeva, but also based partly on the writer Nina Berberova, her exact peer, as was Vladimir Nabokov. The poet Bella Akhmadulina reminded me of Marina both physically and in her work. And I saw her in the actress Franka Potente in The Bourne Identityyes! Like that — as well as in certain aspects of myself.

I often pick actors who help me visualize my characters. It helps me to describe them physically, to give a sense of the way they express mood. So is that real life or literary? Hard to say.

Marina’s father, Dmitri Ivanovich Makarov, combined elements of Ingmar Bergman’s great star Erland Josephson — charming but arrogant, high-minded but also very sensual — with biographical aspects of Nabokov’s father, a member of the Provisional Government and the Kadet Party. The crime boss, Arkady von Princip, I always saw as the actor Max von Sydow, plus aspects of someone I actually knew. I saw him in photographs from the Deborah Turbeville collection Studio St. Petersburg, and caught hints of him in characters from certain crime movies.

A very few of the characters were taken directly from life. Marina’s great love, Kolya. The ideologue, Varvara — definitely based on someone I knew, a Sontag-like young woman, a great intellectual. Marina’s poet-husband, Genya, was based on Mayakovsky, with that kind of intensity, and style of poetry, and physical stature, and masochism, and grandiosity, as well as his work as a propagandist for the Bolsheviks — plus a bit of early Gérard Depardieu, and, increasingly, Brando — that tendency to sulk, the surprising tenderness, the sudden violence.

More than one reviewer has noted that Marina’s journey is “cinematic”: a riveting plot replete with twists and turns, a great variety of characters, a lush, vividly rendered setting. Were you thinking in filmic terms as you wrote?

It’s all storytelling. If filmic means visually rich, then yes, I try for that. Although you cannot portray the inner life on the screen — unless you have some kind of funky voice-over. In that sense, it’s not exactly filmic. Yet people do find my work cinematic. I’ve had two books adapted for the screen. I think it’s because I describe things in such a way that the reader can enter the book, can touch and hear and smell and feel things as well as see them. It’s that richness, I think, that translates as “cinematic.” Also the wide variety of scenes, from intimate to epic, that people associate with big-screen films. I almost never have two people just talking over a table. These are event-filled novels, very romantic, and some of the big historical scenes would definitely fill the widescreen.

Beyond the visual impact, I’d say what is most cinematic about Marina’s story is my taste for the dramatic. My work is always about the conflict between people — and there are all kinds of relationships and conflicts. Certainly there are scenes where Marina is on her own, struggling internally, but even those scenes are dramatic — they accomplish a purpose, there is tension and a sense of the heightened moment.

I’ve definitely been influenced by film. As a kid, both my parents worked, and I used to regularly fake sickness, so I could stay home and read and watch movies all day. It was my refuge, my paradise. When I went to the movies, I always sat right in front. I never wanted to see the edge of the screen, I wanted to be inside the movie.

My taste for the Gothic, the lyrical, the dramatic, was shaped by Tennessee Williams, through the movies of his work: Streetcar, Night of the Iguana, Suddenly, Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, all those doomed romantics … and Bergman. That super-intense interpersonal drama: Persona, Face to Face, Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers. My novel Paint It Black was an homage to Persona.

And I do have a taste for big-screen dramas. I saw Doctor Zhivago at 10 and I don’t think I ever got over it. You might say that my interest in Russia started there. And I love the gritty filmmaking of the 1970s — the first two Godfather movies, and Apocalypse Now … I went to film school to become Francis Ford Coppola. Or Bergman. Fortunately or unfortunately, it didn’t take. I’m not that good at collaborating. I’d rather be god of my own planet.


Boris Dralyuk is the executive editor of LARB and the translator, most recently, of Leo Tolstoy’s Lives and Deaths: Essential Stories (Pushkin Press, 2019).