Beauty on the beach: Isolde, by Irina Odoevtseva, reviewed

6 July 2019

9:00 AM

6 July 2019

9:00 AM

France was to blame. Yes, France was most definitely to blame. He was never like this at home. So thinks an English boy, Cromwell, as he lies on a beach at Biarritz, contrasting the green fields of Scotland and Eton with the state he is now in, perpetually waiting and haunted by the ‘constant premonition of love’. Looking out over the rose-tinged waves of the rushing ocean, he thinks of Tristan and Isolde, and then sees the piercingly beautiful Isolde herself walking towards him. The fact that she’s a teenage Russian girl, Liza, staying with her mother and brother Nikolai near by, doesn’t bother Cromwell a bit. He is immediately infatuated.

Isolde, written in Russian in 1931 and now translated for the first time into English, is a lovely but also ominous, even discordant novel of teenage longing and betrayal. It portrays a lost generation of Russian émigrés in Biarritz and Paris in the 1920s; mothers dreaming of love and resurrection; men chasing impossible ideals; but above all Liza, her Russian boyfriend Andrei, her brother, and Cromwell, the English outsider who is drawn into their world of intrigue and
erotic menace.

Irina Odoevtseva (1895–1990), a celebrity in Paris after the Russian revolution, shocked the Russian literary community with Isolde, which was seen as too daring, too direct about teenage desire and, worst of all, a world away from the high moral seriousness of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The novel is indeed playful and amoral, its characters hell-bent on following their hearts, often at the expense of society’s rules and even of friendship; the narrator never intrudes with an overarching judgment.

The main focus throughout remains Liza, and the attraction she holds for so many of the men, including Cromwell’s stuffy older relative, who tries to entice her with the prospect of English country-house life. He assures her she’ll lose her Russian accent soon enough if she continues practising English — though he is relieved to discover that some of her relatives were senior Russian military commanders. That’s something, at least.

The way in which the story chops and changes from love to underhand scheming, from Cromwell’s heart-on-sleeve proclamations to Liza’s hidden fears and nostalgia for the Russia of her childhood make for wonderful and unexpected reading. Isolde is a gem of a novel, intensely attractive and bitter at the same time.

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