An Education

(In Stalinist

The pivotal character in this novel is a Frenchwoman, Alexandra, trapped for life in the Volga region of the Soviet Union by the accidents of 20th century history.

The high point of her life was a brief, passionate love affair with a French pilot, Jacques Dorme, who was passing through the Volga region on his way to serve as a volunteer pilot in Siberia.

There, Jacques flies the dangerous Alaska-Siberia route, through which thousands of American warplanes were contributed to the Soviet forces fighting the Nazis.

Jacques sees both the best and worst of the Soviet world during the war, becomes a squadron leader, ferries 300 planes to reinforce the Soviet airforce, and late in the war he dies in a crash.

As in much of Makine's writing, this story is transmitted to the narrator at second hand. The narrator himself is a young Russian whose parents disappeared in the endless purges, and who grew up in an orphanage. Through his connection with Alexandra, the boy learns the French language, the story of Jacques Dorme, and becomes acquainted with French literature.

And from this he also learns the fantastic idea of a very different, cultivated outside world, far away from the unremitting dreariness, regimentation, and pain of Soviet life. This is much the same territory that Makine worked in his Dreams of My Russian Summers. The book has the same combination of irony and lyricism, drenched in an elegiac tone.

There is much fine writing, which is sometimes a little too self-consciously fine. Yet some passages, like many in that wonderful earlier novel, lodge in one's mind. Here is an example, somewhat elided.

§     §     §

A novelist's way of evoking this apprenticeship would no doubt link together a series of boyhood surprises in order to relate the story of an education française. But in reality the most surprising thing was the natural way in which, having arrived at the big wooden house, I would climb its dark staircases, open Alexandra's door, put my bag down on a chair....

My French education resembled the efforts of a paleontologist to reconstruct a vanished world, starting from discovered bones. The isolation in which our country lived at that time turned the French universe into a landscape as mysterious as that of the Cretaceous or the Carboniferous eras. Every novel on Alexandra's shelves became the vestigial remains of a vanished --- not to say extraterrestrial --- civilization, a fossil, a droplet of amber that held within it not an imprisoned insect but some character, a French town, a district of Paris.

In the ensuing years Alexandra made me read some of the classics, but it was thanks to the little sealed-off room that my sense of being engaged in exploration was at its most vivid. I found many French books there, some of them eaten away by damp and now unreadable.

In one of these abandoned volumes I came across an anecdote that made a greater impression on me (I have long been ashamed to admit) than the work of many a famous novelist. It concerned the actress Madeleine Brohant, celebrated in her day but who lived out her last years in great penury, lodging on the fifth floor of an ancient apartment building in the rue de Rivoli. One of the rare friends who remained faithful to her complained breathlessly one day about the exhausting climb. "But my dear friend," replied the actress, "this staircase is all I have now to make men's hearts beat faster!"

My memory only retains a handful of moments or apparently unconnected insights. Madeleine Brohant's remark and also that day in the troubled and tempestuous life of the Duchesse de Longeville. When they brought her a glass of water, the adventuress, parched with thirst, hurled herself upon it and declared, with a voluptuous sigh: "Such a shame this is not a sin!"

And yet there was a connection, all the same, between these fragments preserved in the memory. The art of eloquence and epigram, the cult of sense turned on its head, wordplay that made reality less absolute and judgments less predictable. At that time Russian life still resonated with the echoes of Stalin's day: "enemy of the People" and "traitor to the country" were not really out of current use. At the orphanage, indeed, despite our daydreams of heroes, we knew that our fathers had been described in precisely those terms. Once poured into the mold of propaganda, words had the hardness of steel, the heaviness of lead.

Unconsciously, perhaps, I drew a parallel between this steely language and the lightness of the glass of water that became a sin on the Duchesse de Longeville's lips, or the airy sweetness of an arduous staircase that caused hearts to beat faster. Words that killed and words that, when used in a certain way, liberated.

This contrast had led me one day to Alphonse Martinville. My fingers grimy with soot, I was laying out volumes that often fell to pieces in my hands. The doorway of the abandoned room framed a spring sky, tender and luminous, and yet the pages of the book I had discovered beneath a bundle of old newspapers quivered with Jacobinic fury and the clatter of the guillotine.

It was Year II of the Revolution and the crowd thirsted for blood. One day, it was the fifteenth of the month of Ventôse, the March rain streamed down the blade of the machine onto the scaffold there had been no time to wash down. A young condemned man appeared: "Stand before us, Alphonse de Martinville!" ordered the Presiding Judge. Surprised to be awarded an aristocratic "de", the young man retorted with a desperado's courage: "But I have come here to be made shorter --- not longer." This repartee won over the crowd and pleased the tribunal. A cry went up: "Citizens! Release him!" The rejoicing was general. Martinville was acquitted.

--- From The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme
Andreï Makine
Geoffrey Strachan, Translator
©2003, Arcade Publishing
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