A Woman Loved, by Andreï Makine: dreams of an empress

Review: A struggling film-maker attempts to penetrate the maneater mystique of Catherine the Great in this majestic novel by a visionary writer

A Woman Loved
A Woman Loved
Author: Andreï Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan
ISBN-13: 978-0857059925
Publisher: Maclehose Press
Guideline Price: £16.99

Oleg Erdmann, a young film-maker, dreams of recreating the life of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia. He wants to present the real woman, not the man-hungry caricature who suffered a fatal stroke on the toilet at 67. Yet for all his ideas, Erdmann finds himself working in a Leningrad abattoir, hefting carcasses: “ . . . the air thick with blood, the flaccid feel of the meat, the equanimity of the workers as they slaughter, eviscerate, cut up . . . Working there one night out of three earned him enough to live on and time for writing.”

Erdmann’s head is full of potential images (“That ray of light from the setting sun slowly fading on the faces of the statues at the Winter Palace”) and he believes in the drama of a single shot. There is also history to be consulted; he has assembled all the facts. They obsess him. Also preoccupying him is a failed relationship.

Squeezing in the cramped margins of his thoughts is his first short film, released the previous year, of which “the criticisms were disproportionately violent, given that it was a modest 35-minute film”. The Ministry of Defence became his defender. While its reaction to some extent saved Erdmann, it also made clear to him that the government “belonged to another era”. Small wonder he has difficulty sleeping.

A Woman Loved, Andreï Makine's majestic new novel, is slow to take shape and as faltering as complex projects tend to be. It sets out to painstakingly evoke the ebb and flow of the creative process. In addition to the individual doubts an artist must confront are the practical realities of commercial expectations and the inevitable loudmouths pushing louder agendas.


Depravity sells

Erdmann endures it all, and the character convincingly emerges as an artist battling the ever-changing capriciousness of the powers that control the arts. Depraved behaviour sells, or so he is repeatedly assured; the more extreme the better, and in the case of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), the mythologised sexual appetite, including alleged congress with stallions, dominates the popular imagination – and any “successful” television treatment.

In a career that effectively began with his fourth novel, Le Testament Francais (1995), which was the first book to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, Makine has become one of the most admired literary writers. He has been compared with Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Proust. His work is graceful, limpid and elegiac. It continues to be profoundly bound to the history of Russia, which is his passion and inspiration.

Makine was born in Siberia and while a teacher went on an exchange programme to France. There he sought asylum and settled in Paris. He writes in French yet, to convince publishers to accept his first books, he claimed they were written first in Russian.

In the age of the slick soundbite, Makine is a true artist. It may sound banal, but the simple truth is that his work is beautiful, seductive in tone and deliberate in intent. He is a truth teller. One of his major influences, Ivan Bunin (1870-1953), was the first Russian laureate to the Nobel Prize. There have been four to date; Makine could well be the fifth, and few writers currently at work are more deserving.

Heart of an empress

Oleg Erdmann aspires to find the truth about the lonely empress. For him the challenge is depicting her emotional heart. He is not alone in this. Early in the novel, Lessya, his soon-to-be-former girlfriend, appears to put his thoughts into words.

“What would be interesting to film is what Catherine was not . . . No. What her life really was like. An evening like this, the mist, the last mild weather before winter sets in . . . There must have been times in her life that allowed her to be herself. She wasn’t just a machine for signing decrees, writing to Voltaire and devouring her lovers . . . ”

Erdmann gets his opportunity to write a screenplay. Just when it seems that the material suggests he create Catherine, flanked by her advisers Potemkin and Orlov, as a monster, he makes a painful discovery. The sight of his girlfriend in her new lover’s embrace inspires him to think differently. Lingering in his imagination are the words of Bassov, his former film teacher and mentor, who had cautioned him against offering “an animated cartoon”.

Bassov has his own problems: he, too, has been betrayed (betrayal is a major theme) and he also makes several shrewd comments such as referring to Catherine the Great as “a cat among the pigeons of Russian history”. He also quotes Bulgakov’s famous dictum that “manuscripts don’t burn” when offering some comfort as Erdmann experiences several rejections.

A Woman Loved abounds in conversations, the ambivalence of interpretation and the difficulty of balancing the facts of history with the people who lived it. Is Catherine a tyrant, a lonely woman in search of love, or both? Makine conveys a sense of many different theories about the empress held by a number of the characters, most of whom are intrigued and bewildered.

Throughout, Erdmann, his mind on fire, returns to the prevailing image of Catherine as a little German princess being despatched to Russia for marriage to Peter III, who is later assassinated. Intent in his pursuit of historical ghosts, he also has a few of his own, most notably his father, a German. Erdmann’s back story is characteristicallypoignant.

Ever aware of his mixed cultural legacy, Erdmann in the course of working on a film project meets up with Eva, a German actress – a subtle and alluring presence. His first glimpse of her as a figure walking in the mist is another motif that resonates through the novel.

Narrative cohesion

From a tentative beginning, Makine carefully draws the narrative ever closer to a satisfying cohesion. It is an unusual novel, rich in ideas, speculation, uncertainty. For all the dead ends and frustrations, Erdmann is also provided with many tantalising insights. His experiences working on a crazed TV serial about Catherine, controlled by a producer who is clearly under official pressure, are quite comic. Yet Erdmann is also fortunate: he absorbs the wisdom of others.

“I’m no screenwriter” admits Luria, an historian called in to check historical accuracy, “but I’d begin like this: the start of winter, a German town, a coach and four about to depart. Standing in front of the carriage, a young man of twenty-four and a young girl of fourteen. The future Catherine the Great and her uncle Georg Ludwig, her first love. History separates them: the girl will go on to win the throne of Russia.

“Her beloved departs for Italy. Snow, the sound of hoofbeats, and in the girl’s imagination we see the road Georg Ludwig will follow, valleys, mountains, sleepy villages and, finally, on the far side of the Alps, the first breath of spring is in Italy. The light of a country she will never see during her glorious reign.”

The visionary Makine has written yet another remarkable novel. A Woman Loved is about art, film-making, an artist's search for expression and a woman's desperate if despotic search for love. It is also about how ideas give life meaning. Above all, it is about Russia, past and present.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times