Womanhood in a Coarse Time: On Janet Fitch’s “Chimes of a Lost Cathedral”
By Ani KokoboboSeptember 30, 2019
Chimes of a Lost Cathedral by Janet Fitch
There are few “burzhui niceties” at the novel’s start, when we find Marina in the outskirts of Russia, in Tikhvin, some 200 kilometers away from St. Petersburg. Here she hides in plain sight, pretending to be just another proletarian girl, while concealing her status as “barynya, granddaughter of landowners.” It is hard to imagine a pregnant woman in a more chaotic space, but Marina, in Fitch’s earlier volume, has shown us that she can turn her vulnerability into her strength. Despite the feminist cause so often proclaimed by women Bolsheviks of the period, like Alexandra Kollontai, in parts of the novel it seems that Marina’s sole strength is her sexuality, a power she has wielded and continues to wield expertly.
When she gets thrown out of her living quarters, it is her ability to get a good proletarian man to desire her, despite her expanding pregnant belly, that furnished Marina with a new home in a cramped Soviet society. It is sheer need and the coarseness of Soviet existence that push Marina to share a bed with the likes of Styopa Radulovich, the mechanic. And when he stares at her naked back, tracing a scar put there in the previous volume by Arkady von Princip, the Archangel, we are immediately reminded that Marina enters this new book not as an innocent young girl, but as a woman with her share of experience — and of trauma.
And trauma is by no means a thing of the past for Marina. Giving birth can be traumatic for a young woman under any circumstance, but Marina finds herself doing so in conditions that are far less than ideal. In a Russian village house, with proletarian poet Genya at her bedside, she finds that her “labor was becoming permanent.” Eventually, a baby girl she calls Iskra — Russian for “spark” — is brought into the world. It takes little effort to see this painful process in a village hut as paralleling the painful rebirth that Russia itself is undergoing in the book, with each new scar and mortal wound shaping a new and imperfect Soviet identity.
At some point, old faces from the past emerge to pull Marina out of her drab proletarian life and back to the former tsarist capital. It is clear that Fitch, like her heroine, is fond of “Peter’s creation,” as Russia’s foremost poet, Alexander Pushkin, called St. Petersburg; her depictions of it are loving and lavish. Those who enjoyed the seductive, sexually explicit relationship between Marina and the horrifying Arkady von Princip, from the previous volume, will find more of them here, as the terrifying yet alluring master smuggler of St. Petersburg remains on the lookout for young Marina. For that matter, so do other enemies, like the former friend and spurned lover Varvara, whose fortunes have risen through her involvement with the Cheka and other branches of the budding Soviet government.
And, of course, the famed poetic circles of St. Petersburg are still thriving too, despite the Revolution and ongoing Civil War. Marina finds a place among Russia’s literary legends of the period: the poets Aleksandr Blok, Andrei Bely, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, and others. These portions of the book add another strand to the narrative, and to Marina’s developing character: the lyrical is joined to the historical and the erotic. In violent St. Petersburg, the young protagonist finds her voice as a poet, finally coming to terms with her own talent, both by reciting poetry for audiences and by publishing books of poems, like This Transparent Hour. Indeed, at one point, Marina is introduced as “one of [the] most promising young poet” by none other than the father of Soviet Socialist Realism, Maxim Gorky.
By showing us Marina’s visits to various St. Petersburg literary salons, Fitch beautifully captures the fragility of that world and its cast of characters. Marina admires and grows close to Russian poet Aleksandr Blok, whose cult-like status does not mitigate the fact that he seems to be slowly disappearing from the new Soviet world. “He looked up and saw me,” thinks Marina about Blok, “[a]nd death slipped away from his features, and he became himself again. Not quite dead, his smile seemed to say.” Blok, Nikolai Gumilev, and others seem to be teetering at the edge of Soviet reality, for a time still allowed to continue living, but not fully present.
Gorky, with his status as the “link between [the Soviet] world and that of Gogol and Dostoyevsky,” grows into a mentor of sorts for Marina, helping her find her moral core within the ethical liminality of Lenin’s new society. “Was I a moral person? Or was this a ridiculous time to think of morality?” Marina asks herself. As Gorky explains — thus also illuminating for us a significant theme of Fitch’s dilogy — preserving oneself, one’s moral standing and human dignity, is the most that can be hoped for in times of violent flux. “Look at Gumilev,” says Gorky to Marina about her fellow poet. “Much as I despise the man, you have to admit, he doesn’t bow his head. He doesn’t stuff his mouth with dirt. He lives like a man. And if necessary, he’ll die like a man. His courage gives courage to others.” The implication in these words is that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person, and that death can also be a saving grace, at times more acceptable than other fates. Readers of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, which capture the dehumanization of the Soviet gulag, will find similar messages there.
Marina is tested many times, and once even weighs suicide as a viable option so as not to succumb to the indignities of the new system. It is Gorky’s support and his urging to keep going, because suicide is always the last resort, that help her persist. And somewhere in the midst of the terrible pain and suffering in the novel, as Gumilev is executed and Aleksandr Blok’s heart gives out, Marina’s old lover, Kolya, emerges from the shadows. The two come together, first consummating their passion in a cemetery and then forming an uneasy union despite the times. For the readers who have followed Marina and Fitch on this long, eventful journey, the ending feels satisfying. To Marina, it feels like divine intervention — a signal of the possibility of life and happiness despite everything. As Gorky tells her, “The important thing is […] [n]ot to disappear without a trace. How brave are you, Marina?” Fitch makes the answer clear: Marina is remarkably brave. Her saga should inspire us all to be braver.
Ani Kokobobo is associate professor and chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, where she teaches Russian literature and culture.
LARB Staff Recommendations
One Story: A Conversation with Janet Fitch About “The Revolution of Marina M.” and “Chimes of a Lost Cathedral”
Boris Dralyuk asks Janet Fitch about poetry, film, and her latest novel, “Chimes of a Lost Cathedral,” the continuation of “The Revolution of Marina M.”...
Anastasiya Osipova argues that the translators of “Kolyma Stories” by Varlam Shalamov have often obscured the author’s literary and political intent....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.