Translated by Thomas J. Kitson
Reviewed by Karen Langley
The early 20th century was a time of great change and upheaval; it produced wars and revolutions, but also a great flowering of experimentation in the creative arts. The whole of Europe was affected, but a particularly distinctive strand was seen in Russia, and the avant garde in that country was known for its art, poetry and literature. The decades that came after saw the crushing of individuality and many writers, in particular, got lost in the repression; they’re still emerging from that obscurity nowadays, and a recent name to be added to that list is Ilia Zdanevich, known by the simple pseudonym Iliazd.
Iliazd (1894 –1975) came from an interesting time and place; born in Tbilisi, Georgia to Polish/Georgian parents, he studied Law in St. Petersburg and fell in with the avant garde art movements of the time. He worked with artists such as Goncharova and Larionov, as well as becoming involved in Futurism, Dada and surrealism. Leaving his home country and moving to France in the early 1920s, he reinvented himself, working through a career in writing and the visual arts, eventually becoming an innovator in typography and design. In fact, it’s for these latter two that he’s most remembered, so it’s fascinating to see his early experimental novel from 1930 make it into English for the first time.
Rapture tells the story of Laurence, a young man who escapes to the mountains to avoid being drafted. Here, his life takes a different turn, as he stumbles upon a penitent monk and murders him, for no real reason apart from the fact that the Brother annoys him. Laurence then takes up a life of crime, forming a band of brigands and demanding obeisance from the locals. And a strange lot these are, particularly a group of ‘wennies’ living in a village with a name no-one can pronounce and singing a song with words no-one can understand. However, a chance encounter with Ivlita, the beautiful daughter of a forester who lives in seclusion in a carved mahogany house, changes his course. He whisks Ivlita away, depositing her in the mountains, and makes for the big city to steal money and jewels with which to worship her. Here, he falls into a completely different milieu, becoming subordinated by Basilisk, a cold politico with hypnotic eyes; and the kind of crimes he undertakes are very different from simple theft. Will Laurence escape from the city and make it back to Ivlita and the mountains? Has Ivlita remained faithful? And what will the future bring for both of them?
And gradually it dawned on the young man that words were to blame for everything, and that words, which had raised him to the dignity of a bandit, were now standing guard over him and suffocating him, and he needed a new word to ward off failure, a spell that undoubtedly only the wenny knew and could teach.
That rather simplistic plot summary belies the complexity of Iliazd’s novel, which is brimming with imagery, allusion and fantastic elements. Angels appear, dead monks seem to come back to life, nature itself is a living entity. These rather spellbinding effects appear throughout the sections of the book set in the flatland or the highland; by contrast, the city is portrayed as a very different place, full of the contradictions between rich and poor, glamour and degradation.
In fact, contrasts abound throughout the book: the clash between city and country; the differences between the highlanders and the flatlanders; the ugliness of the wennies compared with the beauty of Ivlita. The difference between Basilisk and Laurence is striking, and the latter is very much out of his depth when dealing with the educated city men; this could be read as a comment on how easily the ‘simple folk’ were influenced by the professional revolutionaries during the fall of the Romanov dynasty. But Iliazd has no time for the ruling classes either, with the emperor being portrayed as an idiot, controlled and manipulated by the secret police who create plots and assassinations for their own ends.
Rapture is an intriguing, complex work, with odd experimental touches (for example, there are no full stops at all at the end of paragraphs). The mix of two very different settings is fascinating although at times I felt the two locations did not sit altogether comfortably together. The book, however, did seem to me to draw on earlier works and authors; the village sections, with the cretins singing mindlessly and the credulous and shifty locals, brought to mind Saltykov-Shchedrin’s satires; whilst the political shenanigans and assassination attempts were reminiscent of Bely’s Petersburg or Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Basilisk in particular is a cleverly-named and sinister character, manipulating Laurence from behind the scenes; and there is ambiguity about his final fate (like much in this book!) as it is unclear whether what Laurence thinks happened to Basilisk actually did or whether it’s imaginary. The book does suffer a little in that it reflects the usual unsatisfactory attitude to women that prevailed in so many of the avant garde movements of the early 20th century; we are back to the Madonna-whore cliché and Ivlita has to either be pure or a slut, which is a shame.
But Rapture really is a mixture of slapstick and philosophy; it abounds with scatological references (truly, the author seems to have had a thing about excrement and the obscene!) and the translator must have had great fun rendering them into the vernacular. The language is dazzling, the action picaresque, but beneath the surface Rapture asks a lot of questions. The concept of rapture itself, which seems to be fleeting and necessary and after which the characters seem to be chasing, is somewhat undefined and is different for each person; for example, Ivlita seems only really happy when communing with nature. Laurence is torn between his obsession with Ivlita and his desire for freedom. And religion seems no real answer, nor does politics so I ended up thinking we might all be happier singing mindless songs like the wennies!
Translator Kitson provides an excellent introduction which discusses Iliazd’s life, as well as putting this book into the context of his times and surroundings, whilst discussing its deeper meanings. According to him, it contains many sly portrayals of key figures in the various movements to which Iliazd belonged, although I confess I didn’t pick these up. I don’t think that matters, however; as what is here is an adventurous, experimental and thought-provoking novel which most definitely deserves more attention than it’s received over the years.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and often fancies heading for the hills (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Iliazd, Rapture (Columbia University Press, 2017). 978-0231180832, 188pp, paperback.
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