Woman in Chains: Before and During by Vladimir Sharov

Before and During
Vladimir Sharov (Translated by Oliver Ready)
Dedalus Books: 348pp.: £12.99 rrp.

As a child you’re a liar, as an adult, you’re a novelist went a recent New York Times article. Ironically, there is some truth in this, like there is truth in our stories. Stories conceal, but truth prevails in some way. Concealment though occurs even when think we are telling the truth, sometimes conscious, sometimes not; think of the unreliable narrator who is doing more than telling a story, he is keeping the true story to himself, yet in doing so, he is telling a truth about himself. But the stories we tell persist, not just what we tell ourselves but in our cultures, and only when we get to a certain age do we see the darker malice of a wolf dressing up as a girl’s grandmother, or do we realise that hanging flags from our windows is not such a benign act of patriotism.

Thanks to the debates involved within postmodernity, stories about stories are often treated as such – postmodern constructions – and any truth evoked is only another form of fiction. Vladimir Sharov said that “Russian history is, In fact, a commentary on the bible”. Comments like these are not taken too well in authoritarian societies but he is invoking there two of the most formidable ‘carriers’ of a story in culture – religion and history, and it seems he is willing to go beyond these postmodern debates. History and religion can operate in parallel; a succession of great men ‘creating’ their political gardens of Edens, all promising that their way of life is the best way? Both are imposing and perhaps Sharov is saying that it might not necessarily be a choice as to which we choose…

Before and During’s protagnoist Alyosha (one of the many nods to other Russian literature) is entering a psychiatric hospital, willingly it seems. He suffers from ‘blackouts’, and as he settles in, he decides that he is going to create his ‘Memorial Book’ and record the lives of the people he has known, in and out of the institution. He writes and recreates their stories. Some of these people have disconcerting resemblances to ‘real-life’ people like Tolstoy and Stalin, and sometimes they are the real people themselves like the composer Alexander Scriabin. One of these real-not-real persons is Madame de Stael who becomes a central aspect of Alyosha’s Memory Book. The question of why she does so is an important one. Ifraimov, another patient, is recounting the story of de Stael, so it is already embellished, but Alyosha’s blackouts are not just device for him to be an unquestioning believer of what he is told, but also the reader as well.

Madame de Stael begins love affairs with the philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov and Alexander Scriabin; she gives birth to Stalin, but in real life, de Stael was famous for her stance against Napoleon. She was taken by the ideas of Rousseau. Perhaps it is also ironic that de Stael’s maiden name is Necker, shared by the inventor of the famous visual illusion, because that is what the novel in effect becomes; like a hall of mirrors, except the mirror reflects other distorted reflections onto a different mirror, so that the original, true source is not known.

As a result, Before and During is complex, layered and replete with references. There does seem to be an unacknowledged reference to another notable Russian thinker though, Alexander Herzen, who said, “the death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow.” This idea of a ‘pregnant widow’ is the abiding image of the book. Herzen’s thought was apparently influential in the emancipation of the Serfs, and developing socialist thought in Russia. It is down to the reader how much they interpret this as political, but metaphorically, it is a pertinent representation of the story of de Stael.

The title of the book seems to allude to this idea; this is a book about beginnings, not endings, it is pregnant with potentials. It’s an anxious search for a resolution – isn’t the end of pregnancy the actual beginning of something? Beginnings and endings are not such a simple linearity so now one can see Sharov’s earlier comments take an ulterior tone. There is certainly a large Oedipal presence throughout the text of which de Stael is representative of, but it’s also the idea of motherhood and birth that is important. At the start we get a sense that Alyosha is indebted to his mother (“Waiting for my next fit to strike had worn her down, as had the fact that she could never let me go off anywhere on my own”), and a sense of him wanting to break, but unable to, her bond.

Think how this feeds into the story of religion though. Biblical imagery isn’t just prevalent, it’s profuse. The way Ifraimov begins his story of de Stael, appears entwined with the beginning of Christendom.

“When man was driven out of paradise,” he said, “the tree of knowledge was banned as well as with plenty of other trees….Essentially every tree repeats, as it were, the fate of the human race. It, too, is conceived in Heaven, where its seeds ripen and gather strength and sap, before plummeting to the Earth like Adam. But their womb is in the sky, and it is to the sky they long to return…And yet dying and enfeebled, the tree, in the last summer of its allotted span, brings forth in the sky a fruit as pure and chaste as a child born of the most sinful woman.”

Ifraimov’s tree of knowledge embodies both male and female aspects. To call it ‘Mother Nature’ would be treading a cliché, but notably its “womb is in the sky, and it is the sky they long to return”. This is an idea we see often throughout Before and During, which often never reaches its fulfilment (this is only Before and During no?), because it always broken or prohibited before it can be done so. Above is one of the many descriptions of splitting; there is the split between the distinction of man and woman, from the notion of heaven and earth, and from the child and mother, and when the child is split from the mother, in biblical terms at least, purity is split from the sin, or the person with history. A page later Ifraimov says“the world of God is the world of questions. Only questions are commensurable with the complexity of His world,”- but – “answers have no place in God’s world”. If the world is overwhelmed with these two dogmas of politics and religion, ones that believe they have all the answers, what’s the point in living if all our answers are catered for?

What is eternal though, what are we leaving behind with all these stories? Is truth a fiction that merely has a truthful end? Anxiety may prevail, unanswered questions, but when we’ve created, we have creations. Stories promote unity and cohesion, but our great stories embedded in religion and history are rife with ‘splits’. Genesis presents itself as a story of unity but look how often somebody is split apart, deferred or banished from that passage above. The mother is split from the child, and in the case of religion, sin seems unavoidable, but the baby is born pure (think back to the description of Pearl in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). What then is the desire and drive to tell a story, if it is not to unite? There is a lot of love in Before and During and this is why I think Madame de Stael becomes so important – she challenged Napoleon’s form of revolution, and his authoritarianism. She takes it upon herself to split then; symbolically, here, she fashions herself a glass coffin in which she sleeps. When she meets her lover Fyodorov they cannot make love so de Stael, after Fyodorov had fallen asleep:

“she unable to take any more of it, would lift herself up off the couch and, with her pubis, touch the glass he had warmed with his stomach and his groin, where he had made the glass not just warm, but hot, and moving her body this way and that she drove herself into a frenzy.”

The frenzy above appears to be satisfying in some way rather than frustrating or perhaps it’s just a frenzy about the frenzy? It is difficult to understand in which way this is a ‘satisfying’ experience. But further on:

“Besides, she valued Fyodorov just as he was, she liked lying beneath the crystal glass, liked being the Sleeping Princess, and she didn’t want to lose any of this. In other words, she’d have been happy to make him her lover but only on condition that nothing else in their relationship changed: the way he looked at her, the way he sat with her, the way she lay beneath him, close but inaccessible, unattainable. She liked the innocence of their relationship no less than before, and how this could be combined with him becoming her lover was beyond her comprehension.”

She is the Sleeping Princess, a ‘real person’ rendered mythical. But is that relationship she’s preserving more than sexual? Sanctified almost? The relationship that of a mother to her son? Asmuch as love is about unification it is about separation and being apart. Different types of love complicate relationships (above, sex and lust getting in the way of unconditional love). Love needs revolutions sometimes. Revolutions and politics, sometimes one must break with the old orders, much as we do in our relationships. Perhaps I’m saying too much, but the tension between creation and reproduction, and the sense of re-creating develops, intermingling with these ideas of sex and politics.

Oddly, it reminded me of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (2015), which I reviewed last year, in the sense of grappling with the source of the story and questioning whether there really is one, true source, and who ‘benefits’ from the story. As Luiselli suggests, it could be an ideological idea that there is one true great creator behind each work and both of the works share a scepticism, and it’s easy in postmodernity to forget that just because you mention the telling of a story, it doesn’t mean your work is any more self-conscious than something by Balzac or Zola. Think to the openings of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, or Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or how deeply suffused Dicken’s work was with his voice – they made their readers well aware that they were reading a story of their own work. Take lessons from religion and history though, we should never take it at face value or accept the surface narrative, because one thing they don’t do, and as Sharov teaches us, they forget and undermine women and femininity: man may be born free but everywhere in chains, as is the woman. That is the unfortunate truth about religion and history.