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Lost & Found: Irina Reyn

Irina Reyn helps us kick off Valentine’s Day week with this L&F on Anastasya Verbitskaya’s Keys To Happiness, an early iteration of the romance novel for academics from those otherwise-dark days before The English Patient.

Like many a bookish teenager who thrills equally to both classic and “lowbrow” literature, I used to gulp down not only Dickens and Pushkin but also the oeuvre of the bodice-ripping, best-selling author Beatrice Small, whose spirited young protagonists spent much of the novel folded over a man’s body like a crepe.  But many years later, when I enrolled in a PhD program in Russian literature, I decided to remain focused and serious, immersing myself in Tolstoy and Gogol and Babel, getting better acquainted with Russian writers I might have already studied had I never emigrated from Moscow at the age of seven. Imagine my guilty pleasure, then, at discovering, among the Dostoyevskys and Bulgakovs, an author who spearheaded the modern Russian best seller, the Judith Krantz of fin de siècle Russia—Anastasya Verbitskaya.

I rushed through assigned novels like What Is to Be Done? and Poor Liza in order to slip more quickly into Keys to Happiness, eager to return to the adventures of a woman who believes art comes before love or familial and social responsibility, who refuses to marry but enjoys guilt-free sex with multiple partners and proudly raises an illegitimate child. I was tired of female characters who were self-sacrificing wives or socialists, doomed adulterers or martyred prostitutes. Anna Karenina as a New Woman? I loved it.

Keys to Happiness was originally a six-volume, fourteen-hundred-page tome published in serial form between 1909 and 1913 (now helpfully translated and abridged by scholars Beth Holmgren and Helena Goscilo). The book was received so enthusiastically that the 1913 silent-movie adaptation (a two-parter that required two separate tickets!) is commonly regarded as one of the earliest spectacular successes of Russian cinema.

The novel depicts the coming-of-age of one Manya Yeltsova, a budding dancer and free spirit. Saddled with a mad mother and an impoverished upbrining, Manya grows up to be a tempestuous young woman who realizes that marriage, for turn-of-the-century women at least, is a pretty raw deal. After Yan, her first anarchist love, dies while saving a child from drowning, Manya, like any good potboiler heroine, finds herself torn between her passion for two men: Steinbach, the wealthy Jewish businessman, and Nelidov, a conservative nobleman. Breathlessly, Manya alternates between them, unable to resist carnal temptation when she is in their presence. She is honest with each one about sleeping with the other, and when one disappoints her, his rival tends to be waiting in the wings. “Men…don’t marry women like you,” Nelidov remarks, but he proposes to her anyway. Manya rejects his offer of marriage (she is to be a famous dancer, after all, not a subjugated wife!) but suggests they consider a future in the bedroom, inviting Nelidov, instead, for a secret rendezvous: “We’ll forget about conventions and be like gods!” No wonder the book and the movie were blockbuster hits in prerevolutionary Russia.

To enjoy Keys to Happiness, the reader must first overlook a relentless tone of heightened emotion, several overt instances of anti-Semitism, and a meandering plot. But it is this very lack of narrative arc that keeps us reading. Who will Manya love next? The resolution to this question winds up being all the plot we need. And as might be expected, Verbitskaya’s novel is far from mindless; it engages with the intellectual ideas of the day—her characters, all well-read in Russian and European literature, debate socialist politics, philosophy, and the role of art—but puts the importance of utopia strictly behind that of passion and instinct and individual freedom.  By dancing in the improvisatory style of Isadora Duncan and loving like a man, Manya is true to her body, revolution and socialism be damned!

For those who equate Russian novels with the usual canonical suspects, Verbitskaya’s work reminds us that our understanding of a country’s literature should be broadened to encompass both its “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture. This novel gives us a sense of how art, culture, and possibly even feminism (a word still often sneered at in Russia) could have evolved, if not for the events of 1917. When one looks past the often histrionic writing, what comes across is a real sense of a woman’s battle for respect and autonomy in a patriarchal, somewhat backward society. “A serious woman should forget girlish dreams,” Manya is told. “No, Nikolenka!” she exclaims. “If I betray my dreams, my joy and my laughter will die.”

Manya’s convictions may have reverberated with me; I made it only as far as my master’s degree. With exams looming, I should have been brushing up on Maksim Gorky’s Mother or Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. I should have been taking proper steps toward an academic career, but instead I began to write fiction. I was heeding Yan’s words to Manya, the keys to happiness he offers her: “Once you’ve understood yourself, when you’ve realized your own calling, it’s too late! You can’t begin again! And you apathetically walk along the path laid out for you, fatally repeating others’ mistakes. And when you suddenly look around, your youth is gone. Your strength has disappeared. Such is life.” Now that I’m a writer, I longer have to sneak around. My Verbitskaya sits on the shelf, side by side with my Tolstoy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Irina Reyn is the author of the novel What Happened to Anna K..

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