Kathryn Harrison’s ‘Enchantments’ Examines the Lives of the Last Russian Royals
Posted Sunday, May 13, 2012 4:54 PM
Kathryn Harrison is best known for her memoir The Kiss, which describes her incestuous relationship with her father. In that work, she pushes the confessional memoir to maximum squeamishness, relating the horrifying in prose so elegantly that it both evades and deepens the difficulty of the tale it tells. Harrison wrote three novels, Thicker Than Water (1992), Exposure (1993), and Poison (1995), before writing The Kiss (1997), whose subject matter makes explicit many of the themes that lived more implicitly in the earlier fiction, her ability to finally address them slowly working its way through fiction toward memoir.
Her latest novel, Enchantments, is interested again in fathers and daughters, but this time through the lens of history -- specifically, Tsarist Russia, the fall of the Romanovs, and the life of Rasputin’s daughter, Masha. Masha serves as the narrator of the novel, and she is positioned as both historical personage—Rasputin’s actual daughter—as well as the book’s embedded raconteur. It is in this latter function that Masha flourishes, as she becomes a ward of the final Russian tsar and is ‘asked’ to entertain and play companion to Nicholas’s heir, Alyosha, who suffers from hemophilia. From this rather fixed terrain, Masha uses her talents as a storyteller to lift her companion, herself, and her readers up out of history and into the mythic realms it gestures toward. Indeed, even the book itself begins with a gesture to the world-creating powers of the word:
“Behold: in the beginning there was everything, just as there is now. The giant slap of a thunderclap and, bang, it’s raining talking snakes … A greater light to rule the day, a lesser light to rule the night, swarming water and restless air.”
In this manner, Harrison builds a series of tales—enchantments—around the fecund (and devastating) portion of history she wishes to unfold. The move toward tsarist Russia is hardly arbitrary; indeed, it seems to have always been with Harrison, and her rich evocation of the period both grounds and allows room for her imaginative enhancements. As she writes of her interest in this period of history:
“When I first arrived in prerevolutionary Russia, my guide to that world was Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. It was an odd book for an eleven-year-old to fasten on; yet I reread it several times as a teenager…Upon discovering, in middle age, that Grigory Rasputin had a daughter whose career as a lion tamer ended in 1935 in Peru, Indiana, where she was mauled by a black bear and nearly bled to death, my excitement didn’t fade but began, slowly, to eclipse other interests.”
Historical fiction is a reasonable choice for an author who began with novels and then achieved considerable notice in memoir: Historical fiction, after all, blends the real and the imagined, asking of readers (and authors) an ability to entertain truth with a surplus, or, said another way, to see the imagined as rooted in the real. This hybridity can produce some clumsy creations, but Harrison manages to exploit the virtues of the form to excellent effect. For instance, the novel’s early evocation of Rasputin’s death hews closely to historically acknowledged facts, while lifting beyond them:
“The day they pulled father’s body out from under the ice, the first day of the new year, 1917, my sister, Varya, and I became wards of Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov and were moved, under imperial guard, from the apartment at 64 Gorokhovaya Street to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the royal family’s private village outside the capital. Eighteen years old, I hardly felt I needed a new set of parents, even if they were a tsar and tsarina. But every week brought more strikes and increasing violence to St. Petersburg. Revolution, anarchy, marshal law: we didn’t know what to dread, only that we were accelerating—hurtling—toward it, whatever it was. And, as the tsar’s officers pointed out, having summoned Varya and me from our beds before dawn, banging at the door with the butts of their rifles, anyone with a name as inflammatory as Rasputin would be an idiot to try to leave St. Petersburg unaided and without protection. As long as the Romanovs remained in power, they represented our only possibility of escaping Russia before it was too late to get out.”
Here, Rasputin’s daughter, Masha, is describing the death of her father, and the subsequent chaos of the country—and her own life—in the wake of that death. Following this scene, Harrison, further marrying history to the explorative reaches of her novelistic form, gives a remarkable description of the hole in the ice through which the body was thrown, and from which it was pulled, a site of death that becomes something of a pilgrimage locale—a cite of life—for the faithful.
Once taken to the Palace, Masha’s life becomes, like the book itself, a series of enchantments – stories she tells to the tsar’s heir, to amuse, delight, and edify him. In this turn the novel becomes a meta-work, with its central narrator herself spinning tales to keep her own audience, and us, charmed.
Russia itself is a character within Harrison’s book, putting it, of course, in brave and grand company. (Harrison even acknowledges Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita directly.) Some of the book’s strongest points are the evocations of Russia’s (beloved) nature:
“As soon as you cross over the Urals, I told Alyosha, the temperature drops and the world appears unlike any you’ve seen. Sky and earth: each holding a mirror to the other, stretching without limit in every direction. The wind moves over the steppes as it does over water; the grasses ripple at its passing, they lean this way and that. Sometimes it looks as if the land under your feet is racing back toward the horizon, and then the wind dies, it eddies back. If you think you don’t have time to waste on watching, the wind will show you otherwise.”
Memoir is obviously closely related to the novel form. The chief difference is not so much that memoir tells the ‘truth’—though Oprahland made that criterion large enough—but that it erases the gap between narrator and author. What a memoir is, or is supposed to be, is the author speaking directly to us, without the distance of a narrator interceding between author and reader. That is something of a loss, since the creation of a narrator—even one who shares the author’s name and story—is one that lets the author detach from self, and in so doing makes a space for the reader in the work. In memoir we overhear, but in the novel we co-create.
Enchantments, as a piece of historical fiction, unloosens itself from fact while adding the surplus of Harrison’s authorial vision, which, like light, adds nothing to a room but itself.
Trevor Laurence Jockims, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, teaches English literature at Hunter College, City University of New York. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Anderbo, Kino Kultura, Connotations, and elsewhere.
Photos: Kathryn Harrison by David Shankbone, Wikipedia; the Romanovs: From the Murray Hill Museum website and The Telegraph.