Tag: The Pretender

Tsars and gods

 

 

History, Karl Marx said, repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

This year sees the centenary of the assassination of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, Olga, Marie, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexis, who were shot and bayoneted to death by a Bolshevik firing squad in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg, on July 16, 1918.

Fiction writers have always been drawn to the story of the last Romanovs. Anastasia was the subject of my novel, The Pretender, which has recently been reissued as an e-book by Jonathan Cape, while Irish writer John Boyne wrote of the royal family’s last days in his 2009 novel,  The House of Special Purpose. (This was how local commissars referred chillingly to the Ipatiev House.)

Ironically, the reputation of Nicholas has enjoyed a rehabilitation under Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin. The process started in August 2000 when the once reviled Nicholas (his moniker was Nicholas the Bloody) and his family were proclaimed martyrs and saints by the Russian Orthodox Church with whom Putin has developed an increasingly symbiotic relationship. He received a special blessing from the church’s Patriarch Kyrill after his inauguration as president in May.

The problem with deifying – or in this case re-deifying Nicholas – is that it sets him once again on a pedestal. Martyrs, surely, can do no wrong.  Not so, according to a lavish new historical drama, Matilda, which brings to the screen the story of Nicholas’s affair with prima ballerina Matilda Kschsinskaya in the 1890s.

The affair – in that great royal tradition – was an open secret in imperial circles at the time, so the $25m  film, partly sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Culture, was not revealing anything new.  But its steamy sex scenes and nudity (Matilda, apparently, has a wardrobe malfunction with her tutu in the middle of Swan Lake) has given scandal to Russian Orthrodox believers and excited accusations of blasphemy.  When trailers of the film were shown in Ekaterinburg  there was an arson attack on the cinema in question. The studio which produced it was fire-bombed. Protesters flung 30 pieces of silver at one of the actors at the Moscow premiere.  One of their placards read – “Matilda slanders the anointed”.

These sentiments were echoed by Russian MP Natalia Poklonskaya who spearheaded the campaign to have the film banned.  In a TV interview she said: “You can’t show saints having sex.”

Nicholas is an unlikely choice as a racy romantic lead.  He was devoted – or some would say – enslaved to his German-born wife, and her dodgy political opinions formed by her association with the mad monk Rasputin. But apart from his pre-marital affair with Kschsinskaya, he was a faithful family man.  As a leader, however, he was disastrously weak and indecisive, while also believing in his divine right to rule. It was a deadly combination. Writer and activist China Miéville, author of  October: The Story of a Revolution, described the last official Tsar of Russia as a “well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu” and given to “bovine placidity”.

He was also the subject of the 1977 British biopic, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Romanov myth has excited Hollywood’s interest in the past. Ingrid Bergman played Anastasia in 1956 in the film of the same name, and Disney reprised it with an animated version in 1997.

The fascination with the Russian royals is not just the stuff of film lore. Mr Putin has a personal and political interest in the lost leader since he sees himself as part of Russia’s imperial legacy. Two stated aims of his presidency are to re-establish the pre-eminence Russia enjoyed under Tsarist rule, and to exhort Russians to return to their Orthodox church roots. (This is a far cry from the 1970s  when the Ipatiev House seen as a rallying point for monarchists was demolished on the orders of the then local Communist Party boss, Boris Yeltsin.)

Mr Putin has not commented on the film bar noting the director’s Alexei Uchitel’s patriotism.  Romantic melodrama aside, Uchitel’s contention is that if the young Tsar in waiting had run off with Kschsinskaya instead of marrying Alexandra and taking on the burden of leadership, Russia’s history might have been very different.

Despite the protests, and Poklonskaya’s vocal campaign, Matilda went on general release in Russia last October and was shown on UK screens in April.

As to the film itself, Viv Groskop writing in the Guardian, described it as “a delightfully watchable romp with many unintentionally funny subplots. (Especially the eccentric German shaman /scientist who appears to be channelling the Nazi commander in Raiders of the Lost Ark.)”.

Now I really want to see it!

But the film itself is almost beside the point, except for those who get their history exclusively via the big screen.  The real wonder is that a disgraced and defunct monarchy is still exerting political influence and ruling public opinion in Russia a hundred years after its demise. Lenin will be turning in his grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An empire going up in smoke

tsar and anastasia

A father and daughter joshing for the camera, the father giving the daughter a “go” of his pipe. Not the sort of thing we would celebrate in the politically correct 21st century.  But this is a 20th century image, probably taken around 1913 and the father in the photograph is Tsar Nicholas 11, known as bloody Nicholas for his inept handling of the Russian empire, pictured with his daughter,the then 12-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia.

(Anastasia was the subject of my novel, The Pretender, which has just been reissued as an e-book by Jonathan Cape.)

The Romanov family were inveterate photograph-takers – Nicholas himself was an amateur snapper – and this image belongs to a time just before the outbreak of the First World War when the Tsar’s hold on power began to unravel. (As the above photo demonstrates, Nicholas was a devoted family man, though a weak, deluded and vacillating ruler.)

The experience of war for Russians was catastrophic. Millions of men were removed to the front, farms began to fail and what food there was, was being used to fuel the army. Prices rose, and there was famine in the winter of 1916/17.

The military handling of the war led to huge Russian defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes and matters took a turn for the worse when in late 1915, Nicholas insisted on taking personal charge of the army, leaving government affairs in the hands of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra.  (The Tsar had reluctantly agreed to the setting-up of an elected legislative body, the Duma, in 1906.)  The religious Tsarina, however, was completely under the sway of the disreputable, self-proclaimed monk, Rasputin, whom she fervently believed could save their son, Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia. This concatination of the personal and political was ruinous.

In March 1917, workers in St Petersburg went on strike protesting against the war and the prevailing conditions.  The marches turned into full-scale riots in which over 1,000 people were killed.  At first troops fired on the crowds, but after several days they mutinied and joined the rioters.   The Duma, under Alexander Kerensky, took power into their own hands and set up a ‘provisional government’.

The Tsar, hoping to wrest back control, left the front for St Petersburg but his train was stopped en route by members of the Duma who forced him to abdicate in March 1917.

Despite the abolition of the monarchy, the provisional government came under pressure almost immediately because of its decision to carry on with the war.  In April, the exiled Bolshevik leader Lenin returned to Russia and promised the people ‘Peace, Bread and Land’; by September the Bolsheviks could claim two million members and the stage was set for revolution.

Meanwhile, the Romanovs had been detained at the Alexander Palace, their summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo on the outskirts of St Petersburg.   Their life in captivity was a far cry from their previous gilded existence as an imperial family.  Under armed guard, they spent their time, according to family sources, in religious activities and walks in the grounds of the palace.

Some photos from this time are believed to have been taken by Pierre Gilliard, the royal children’s tutor, and are accompanied by a narrative that describes the Romanovs’ daily life from March to August 1917 at Tsarskoe Selo.

“On the 13th day of May,” Pierre Gilliard wrote, “the family decided to change the lawn, near the residence, into a kitchen garden. All were enthusiastic and everybody, family retinue, servants, and even several soldiers of the guard joined the work. . . . In June, the results of their labour were clearly shown, for all kinds of vegetables had grown, including 500 cabbages.”

romaovs tsarkoe selo
In captivity at Tsarskoe Selo – the Grand Duchesses Tatiana, Anastasia and Marie and the Tsarevich Alexei.

However, their existence in the Alexander Palace – built for Catherine the Great, in 1796, and considered one of the finest neo-classical buildings in Russia – if constrained and more pared back than what they had been used to, was a great deal more comfortable than what was to come and they still had the benefit of a large household staff and a certain civility from their captors.

As law and order began to break down outside the palace walls, however, and the provisional government faltered, it was decided to move the Romanovs out of St Petersburg because, as Kerensky informed the Tsar, he could no longer guarantee the family’s safety.

A hundred years ago this month, they began their fateful journey eastwards. On August 14, at 6.10 in the morning, they set out for Tobolsk in Siberia.   It took two trains to accommodate the retinue (53 in all), their baggage, the government representatives, the jailers and soldiers. The trip took five days –  by rail to Tiumen, and then by river steamer to Tobolsk.

Ironically, on August 18, the boat passed Pokrovskoie, the birthplace of Rasputin, where they could see clearly the humble house where the so-called holy man had been raised. Rasputin was, by this stage, dead. He had been murdered in December 1916 by distant relations of the Tsar’s, but years previously he had warned the Tsarina – “My death will be your death”  –  words that must have haunted this most superstitious of women standing on the boat deck.

The next day, August 19, 1917, they arrived in Tobolsk.  They would be held there in the Governor’s Mansion behind a stockade, until April 1918, when they were moved for the last time – to the site of their execution.

Under the influence

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Although I’ve never met the American novelist Julianna Baggott, she has championed my work from afar and blurbed my most recent novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, enthusiastically.  Here’s a blog she wrote about discovering a hardback US edition of my first novel, Mother of Pearl, by fluke in a New England campground. A lucky coincidence, as it happens, and not the first time it’s happened.

She generously credits  Mother of Pearl with influencing the writing of her recently published novel, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, which for any writer is a great tribute.

Julianna’s  done me another favour by introducing me to the AGNI blog, where this post first appeared.  It’s a site that boasts an eclectic mix of writerly concerns, founded as a magazine way back in the 1970s. I’m now an avid follower.

Meanwhile, I’m glad to report that both Mother of Pearl and The Pretender will shortly be available as e-books and in print on demand editions from Jonathan Cape.

A Bookish Love Story

by Julianna Baggott

My relationship with Mary Morrissy’s little-known debut novel, Mother of Pearl, is starting to feel like a love affair—a chance meeting, a lost love, then we find each other again. Or perhaps, I could put it more simply: girl finds book; girl loses book; girl gets book back again when she least expects it.

Morrissy’s novel first found me completely by chance, following me home from a London book-tour. This weekend, fourteen years later, it found me again by chance in a campground rec hall in North Egremont, Massachusetts.

This is how it began. In 2001, I was on tour for my first novel, giving an interview at a London publishing house. My husband Dave was with me and, while I answered questions, Dave was left to wander around and take any book he liked. The offices were lined with bookshelves with thousands of books on display.

My interview went long, and when I found Dave again, he had taken a ridiculous amount of books. I would have been embarrassed by his greed at a New York City publishing house, but was completely humiliated among the ever-polite British editors who seemed nervously bemused by the situation. Dave was beaming.

As we left, I let off steam and then eventually asked the obvious: how the hell are you going to pack all of these books and get them home?

I remember watching, for the first time, the British television show The Weakest Link, while, as a point of pride, Dave shoved every last book into our suitcases, which we hauled around for another week or so.

Once home, it took me a while to warm up to the books. But, eventually, I looked through them. One, in particular, caught my attention—Mary Morrissy’s  Mother of Pearl. There are a bunch of novels with this title, including one Oprah pick, but to get to Morrissy’s Mother of Pearl on Amazon, you have to misspell her name, Morrissey. It was not widely circulated. It didn’t receive broad review attention in the U.S.. It didn’t pop up on any bestsellers lists.

I loved the first sentence. “It had started as a shadow as Irene Rivers’ lung.” Then I disliked a word in the first paragraph (cheekily—she was describing the wind). I was a very picky reader back then, harsher than I am now, and almost put the book down. But I kept going and I loved every word thereafter. In fact, Morrissy’s Mother of Pearl became one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It formed my foundation as a novelist.

A half dozen years later, I was teaching a novel seminar to graduate students and assigned the book. The students quickly brought to my attention that it was out of print and very hard to find. I held tight to my sole paperback, which by now was dog-eared and underlined madly.

I started mentioning Morrissy’s novel to my editors along the way, hoping one would want to reprint it. When I heard of presses doing reprints, I’d mention the novel to them.

Eventually, I decided to track down Morrissy herself. I found her on LinkedIn in 2010. I never use LinkedIn, by the way, but she wrote me back the next day. “Many thanks for your message—so YOU are my reader out there!” We corresponded some in 2010. I was urging her to get the book in print again and connecting her here and there along the way. Again, we connected in 2013 and I blurbed her new novel, The Rising of Bella Casey.

Over the last eight years, my husband and I and our kids have lived in six houses. I lost track of my paperback, sadly. In our last big move, I suffered a Buddhist impulse to give the vast majority of my collection of books back to the universe. Then there was some confusion about my priority numbering system of boxing books and many of my most cherished novels were also given away. I can’t even talk about how much I miss my specific copies of so many books. Just last night, I was rereading King of the Jews and The Hours, two books that have stayed with me, and it’s fascinating to see the open pages at the beginnings and endings cluttered with notes about the characters I’ve worked on over the years while turning to Epstein and Cunningham. And then the notes in which you can see how I’m teaching myself how to write. Notes in the margins are lessons in how to do ambivalence, how to do absurd image in realism, how to love your characters, or, more vaguely, a note that reads, simply, “time.”

This past weekend, I found myself in an old New England rec hall at a campground. All four of my kids were with me and Dave and my folks. Amid the chewed up ping pong table and the whirring air hockey, there were a few shelves of used books. I headed over to them just to see what was there; I love the strange stain left from  random collections. As I was looking through, I saw Mother of Pearl written on a dark binding. 

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It couldn’t be Morrissy’s book. Not possible. I pulled it out and found that it was, in fact, her book in hardback, which I’d never seen before. It was wrapped in a library-use protective jacket and had once been part of the Ardsley Public Library’s collection then seemingly sold off, it became part of the BookCrossing.com program, which encourages people to label then let loose a book into the wilds after which they can follow it, virtually, wherever it goes. On Tuesday March 10th, 2009, someone from Wingdale, New York, set Mother of Pearl free and, one way or another, this copy landed with me, possibly the most ardent Mary Morrissy fan in the country.

I’m not one to over-hype coincidence, to read life’s quirkiness as signs from the universe, but this feels like an opportunity to take stock. Now, with some distance, I can see why Morrissy’s debut novel was so important and influential to me. Mother-daughter relationships are enduring themes in my work and the obsessive theme in Mother of Pearl. Her novel opens in an Irish sanatorium in 1947, a place Irene refuses to leave because of her fear of the outside world even after she’s cured of tuberculosis. And it is my most recent novel, which I started working on eighteen years ago, Harriet Wolf’s 7th Book of Wonders, that is the most closely tied to Mother of Pearl. Opening in 1900, my main character, Harriet Wolf, grows up in a place that was known as The Maryland School for Feeble-minded Children and spends some time in the psychiatric hospital, Sheppard Pratt. After an illustrious career as a novelist, she becomes a recluse once again later in life, and her granddaughter, Tilton, also lives in fear of the outside world, much like Irene.

However, the more important influence of Morrissy’s novel happens line by line. Morrissy’s language is what moved me. Her vocabulary is unapologetically rich. And the beauty in her most brutal imagery is something I’ve strived for in so many of my novels. I’ve never been able to come close to her ability to expose the vivid interior imaginations of her characters, the worlds within that go unexpressed.

Now looking at this pristine copy—free from the marginalia of the earlier versions of my writerly self—I get to sit down with this novel again, hoping that I’m stirred anew while rediscovering what once tethered me more tightly to my craft. I begin again with a shadow on a lung.

https://agnimag.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/a-bookish-love-story/

Sister in the shadows

Caroline Kennedy Photograph: nycprowler.com
Caroline Kennedy Photograph: nycprowler.com

Christina Hunt Mahoney reviewed The Rising of Bella Casey in last week’s Irish Times.  Here’s her take on the novel complete with Caroline Kennedy reference!

O’Brien Press continues its impressive revival of the Brandon imprint with Mary Morrissy’s first novel in more than a decade. The Rising of Bella Casey is the imaginative afterlife of an historical person, not the first time Morrissy has constructed such a fiction. The Pretender is the postmodern tale of a Polish factory worker who claimed to have been the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Morrissy’s new book partakes of a related tradition: a fictive life of a family member who was a satellite to a great writer. We’ve had Rameau’s Niece, by Cathleen Schine, and several incarnations of Shakespeare’s sister, so why not an Irish entry into the genre?

Morrissy’s oeuvre is small but fine, also including the metafictional Mother of Pearl and a disturbing collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye (the protagonist of the title story, in a timely detail, envies Caroline Kennedy’s good fortune to have had a father worthy of assassination). Morrissy’s work has been recognised with a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library and a prestigious Lannan Literary Award. She is truly a writer’s writer, but one with an avid following.

Isabella Casey was Seán O’Casey’s sister, a minor figure in his multivolume autobiography. Fifteen years her brother Jack’s senior, Bella was a second mother to the boy who would “rise” to fame years later. The real Bella married beneath her and seems to have fallen out of the family narrative. Morrissy recreates for her a life that fills the gaps in her story.

Dodging bullets

As the novel opens, on Easter Monday, 1916, we see an obsessed, middle-aged Bella risking her life, and that of her young son, dodging bullets on Dublin’s streets to drag an abandoned piano back to their house. (This is a book in which keyboard instruments come and go, indicating changes in the family’s fortunes.) Bella’s rescue of the piano is a symbolic act, restitution for years of deprivation with an abusive English soldier. The novel then returns to Bella’s early days as the promising scholarship girl, the proud new teacher in Dominick Street, and finally the victim of the violent act that brought an end to her dreams.

The geography shifts twice to England – signalled by a change in font – and the reader encounters a blocked Seán, working on his life’s story, first in Battersea and later in Totnes. Here the novel becomes more complex, also more akin to the writer’s earlier style. Not only is she creating Bella’s lost years, she is simultaneously crafting a fiction to explain Seán’s reluctance to deal with Bella’s life in print, told from his perspective. O’Casey, in Morrissy’s rendering, is a complex portrait, part socialist activist, part judgmental Edwardian brother.

His character is also hampered by being in possession of only some of the “facts” of Bella’s downfall, facts that are totally of Morrissy’s devising. There is thus something of a Chinese puzzle here, suitably couched in the melodramatic rhetoric of the period. The tone mimics some of O’Casey’s own writerly language, influenced as it was by his early exposure to the music hall and popular theatre. His characters also appear regularly, and he is given to thinking of his sister’s life as theatre.

Bella’s predicament is Dickensian, down to Morrissy’s decision to name the villain of the piece Reverend Leeper. Dickens or no, the crime committed within her pages is so brutal the nearly comical name and representation of Leeper seems to undercut the author’s intent. Similarly, with so many women in the novel who seem perfectly capable of defending themselves, one wonders at Bella’s continued naivete, pretension and timidity.

But The Rising of Bella Casey is a welcome volume, especially as we commemorate a formative stage in Ireland’s history and those who helped to make that history.

. . . then we take Berlin

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I have come to a sense of place in my writing very slowly.  When I started to write – back in the 1970s – I was intent on removing all traces of the “local” from my work.  I was afraid of being parochial and I was out of sympathy with the brand of Irish fiction that maundered on about the landscape, the bogs and the mountains.  I had grown up in a Dublin suburb and felt there was nothing specifically “Irish” about it – as far as I was concerned, it was like any other suburb in the Western world; a place of quiet desperation where nothing happened.

My debut collection of stories, A Lazy Eye, was shorn of place-names, or where there were names, they were neutralized, generic-sounding. The real names of Irish places didn’t seem “real” to me then; they seemed inauthentic, too Oirishy.  Perhaps that was some kind of post-colonial cultural cringe on my behalf.  Who knows?

Mother of Pearl, my first novel, continued the trend.  Based on a real-life kidnapping in Dublin in the 1950s, I set the action in a made-up city divided by a sectarian conflict – I envisaged the north of the city being Belfast and the south being Dublin.  Because the story had a mythic quality I didn’t want it to be grounded too closely in political realities; hence the disguise.

But, I discovered, historical fiction is merciless in its demands about place. With my second novel, The Pretender, set during the First World War and based on the story of Anna Anderson who claimed, falsely, to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, the chickens came home to roost, if I can mix my metaphors.  Now I was duty-bound to real places – Berlin, Posnan, Charlottesville, Virginia – albeit not home territory, and places altered by time and war.  But real places, nonetheless, and demanding faithful re-creation.

Now I’ve come full circle. The Rising of Bella Casey – just published − which dramatizes the life of the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, placed me firmly back on home turf.  My own city, Dublin, immortalized by the city’s stage laureate O’Casey in the early 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history. There could be no reaching for disguise this time. The novel is littered with place names – Dorset Street, Dominick Street, Mary Street, East Wall, Mountjoy Square, Fitzgibbon Street, Rutland Place and many more locations with strong O’Casey associations. These names no longer sound fake to me – have I changed, or have they?

I will be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey and discussing a sense of place in fiction as part of the Dublin Books Festival during a Reader’s Day event with Alison Jameson and Jennifer Johnston at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, on Saturday, November 16, at 10 a.m. See http://www.dublinbookfestival.com