A moving, utterly captivating love story: Romeo and Juliet as if told by Chekhov or Dostoevsky. In a remote Russian village a woman waits, as she has waited for almost three decades, for the man she loves to return. Near the end of World War II, nineteen-year-old Boris Koptek left the village to join the Russian army, swearing to the sixteen-year-old love of his life, Vera, that as soon as he returned they would marry. Young Boris, who with his engineering battalion fought his way almost to Berlin, was reported killed in action crossing the Spree River. But Vera refuses to believe he is dead, and each day, all these years later, faithfully awaits his return. Then one day the narrator arrives in the village, a twenty-six-year-old native of Leningrad, who is fascinated both by the still-beautiful woman and her exemplary story, and little by little he falls madly in love with her. But how can he compete with a ghost that will not die? Beautifully, delicately, but always powerfully, Andreď Makine delineates in masterly prose the movements and madness that constitute the dance of pure love.
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Andreď Makine was born in Russia in 1957 and emigrated to France in 1987. In 1995 his novel Dreams of My Russian Summers won the Goncourt Prize and the Médicis Prize, France’s two most prestigious literary awards.From The Washington Post:
Short stories contrive to use a single incident to illuminate a whole life: They aim for a short, sharp shock. Novels, those famously loose and baggy monsters, frequently transcribe entire biographies, reveal cross sections of society or show us the interaction of several generations: They contain multitudes. In between lies that most beautiful of fiction's forms, the novella or nouvelle. Here, the writer aims for the compression that produces both intensity and resonance. By focusing on just two or three characters, the short novel can achieve a kind of artistic perfection, elegant in form yet wide in implication. The closest analogue may be Aeschylean tragedy -- two actors on an almost bare stage, ripped by the torments of the human heart.
Certainly this description matches Andrei Makine's The Woman Who Waited. In structure, polish and theme the novel may be likened to one of Turgenev's novellas -- think of The Torrents of Spring or First Love -- in which a middle-aged man suddenly recalls an episode from his youth. Unexpectedly overwhelmed by the vacuity of his life, no matter how filled with apparent success, he happens to unearth an old letter or a faded flower and with it come flooding back the memories of . . . what? He cannot quite say. Romantic illusions? Or perhaps the one chance for real happiness, now gone forever?
As with other books by Russian-born, French-speaking Makine (such as the widely admired Dreams of My Russian Summers), The Woman Who Waited reads like a memoir. An unnamed Russian, now living in western Europe, thinks back to the mid- 1970s and that era when he was a feckless young man of 26. "It must have been during those September days . . . ." Back then he and his Leningrad friends, university-educated and hip, listen to American music, hope to be successful poets and painters, freely engage in casual sex at drunken parties. They have nothing but contempt for the Party, the bureaucratic apparatchiks, the older generation with its outmoded beliefs and morals. But after this young man accepts a research assignment to record vanishing folk beliefs, he suddenly finds himself at a settlement named Mirnoe.
It's a nothing village populated mainly by old women in their eighties. Except for one, Vera. "She is a woman so intensely destined for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being), and yet she has chosen, almost casually, it seems, solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to love." So the narrator tells us in the first sentence of his reminiscence. He goes on to add that he wrote this down in his notebook "at that crucial moment when we believe we have sized up another person." That "believe" hints at the possibility of misjudgment, and on this hinges the novel's subsequent development. For our narrator is nothing if not a novelist in the making. Given any set of odd facts or circumstances, he begins to spin out plots and scenarios to fit. All too often, as he realizes much later, "we would rather deal with a verbal construct than a living person."
Vera's story is this: Back in 1945 she was 16, in love with a young man who was sent off to be a soldier. She promised to wait for him. He never came back, but she's still waiting, 30 years later. To those around her she stands as a being apart -- a saint who cares for decrepit widows, an example of fidelity that inspires awe even in lechers, a woman who has never betrayed her belief in true love. While the young girls in Leningrad are climbing out of their clothes at parties, Vera trudges through life in a weathered military greatcoat, often carrying heavy buckets of water to the sick or tending the graves of the dead. None of this would probably matter much to our narrator were it not for one detail: Vera is as beautiful as she is good.
As the book progresses, Makine enlarges its scope, making clear the contrast between two generations, that of World War II, represented principally by the old village women whose men went off to fight and never returned, and that of the narrator whose restless friends "could no longer bear to wait." Increasingly, though, Makine's alter ego comes to respect those who built their lives on the conviction that their husbands and brothers didn't die in vain. Belief, after all, is sometimes what counts, not its truth or even its falsehood but simply its power to give meaning to life.
In this sense, the narrator sees Vera as essentially "a woman who has waited thirty years," and he duly respects this fidelity to her absent soldier almost as much as he desires her person. For it grows obvious that he is falling in love. He spends more and more time in her company, their scenes together reminiscent of 19th-century romantic fiction: rowing on the lake, gathering mushrooms, visiting the village school where she teaches. But Vera is the woman who has waited, who continues to wait. Nonetheless, a young man of 26 cannot shake off the accidental glimpses of her body, or the night when he spied on her at the bathhouse. Makine's narrative is suffused throughout with carnal imagery, but here it grows lyrical:
"The soft radiance of the moon made of her a statue of bluish glass, revealing even the molding of collarbones, the roundness of breasts, the curve of hips, on which drops of water glistened. . . . She breathed in greedily, baring her body to the moon, offering it to the night, to the dark expanse of the lake.
"In the face of this dazzling, naked, physical presence, all I had thought about this woman hitherto, all I had written about her life, seemed trifling. A body capable of giving itself, of taking pleasure, directly, naturally. Nothing stood in the way of this, apart from that ancient, almost mythical vow: the wait for the vanished soldier. A ghost from the past versus a woman ready to love and be loved."
Note that telltale phrase: "all I had written about her." Even though this is a real woman, the narrator persists in viewing her as a character in a story. He sees Vera through the lens of fiction, if only the fiction he himself so readily makes up. Yet a young man's imagination is all too often egotistic, tritely sentimental and reductive. Real life, we eventually learn, is a mixed genre. What if Vera turns out to be somewhat other than what he imagines or expects? "Nothing," the narrator sets down with youthful callowness, "wounds more bitterly than conventional sexuality in a woman one has idealized."
Oh, yes there is. For the final chapters of The Woman Who Waited deliver several far more serious and bitter wounds. In the end, though, Vera accepts her life and her decisions with admirable simplicity, even if the men around her seldom behave anywhere near as well. That, alas, does seem true to the usual relations between the sexes.
As a form, the novella frequently sustains a tone of poignancy -- think of such contemporary examples as Philip Roth's The Dying Animal and James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime or Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. All of them are, in some sense, about vanished happiness, happiness lost because of age or fear or misjudgment. However, Andrei Makine's The Woman Who Waited quite deliberately avoids breaking your heart. It just comes very, very close. Vera is perceived only through the eyes of the narrator, but she is clearly more than just the woman who waits: Only a fool would fail to understand that she's also the kind of woman worth waiting for, and far kinder and wiser than any romantic fiction.
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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