To Russia, with Love - a novelette - Part 1

To Russia, with Love - a novelette - Part 1 - by P.K.Odendaal - January 2012 
Amended February 2013

To me is all, I to myself am lost,
Who the immortals' fav'rite erst was thought;
They, tempting, sent Pandoras to my cost,
So rich in wealth, with danger far more fraught;
They urged me to those lips, with rapture crown'd,
Deserted me, and hurl'd me to the ground.

Goethe, Marienbad Elegy, the last stanza, translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring
This poem was written by Goethe when he was 73 years old and in love with a woman of 18 years, to whom he proposed via a friend and got turned down. This theme of Goethe was later incorporated in a book and later in the film: 'Death in Venice' where Gustav von Aschenbach, an artist, author and philosopher, in his early fifties, falls in love with a young man, about 13 years old.
Over the next days and weeks, Aschenbach's interest in the beautiful boy develops into an obsession. He watches him constantly, and secretly follows him around Venice. One evening, the boy directs a charming smile at him, looking, Aschenbach thinks, like Narcissus smiling at his own reflection. Disconcerted, Aschenbach rushes outside, and in the empty garden whispers aloud, "I love you!" Though he never speaks to the boy, much less touches him, the writer finds himself drawn deep into ruinous inward passion.

The theme of the story is a theme we all experience, struggle with and fight each day of our lives - it is the struggle between restraint and shaping form, as against excess and passion.
It is 04h00 and I can't sleep, because the muse has descended on me as powerfully as never before. I have to write, and I know exactly what to write, but I know that it will be hard to get the right words and the sentences will emanate from my soul with the ease that a woman travails in birth. I know there will be joy and tears, as these two are never separated.
I am a dreamer and an idealist by avocation. These two traits have poisoned my life for more decades than I care to remember - and I know that I am not alone in this. Leo Tolstoi was the same. In fact, for many years I had thought that these were noble traits, but as I now look back upon the devastation it has caused in my life, I am sorry that I ever allowed those two imposters into it.
And yet ... it was exactly these two impostors which kept me alive - which kept life burning within me. Which gave me hope, when hope was almost gone - which let me hang in there, when all around me there was conflict, doubt and vicious emotional storms. Maybe they are not such scoundrels as I presently take them to be. Time will tell - the same Time which also smoothes out the jagged edges of pain in our memory of things which were.
The words of the beautiful song: 'Isle of inisfree', at its most beautiful when sung by Finbar Wright, comes back to me and haunts me often.
I've met some folks
Who say that I'm a dreamer
And I've no doubt
There's truth in what they say
But sure a body's bound to be a dreamer
When all the things he loves are far away

And precious things
Are dreams unto an exile
They take him o'er
The land across the sea
Especially when it happens he's an exile
From that dear lovely Isle of Inisfree

And when the moonlight
Peeps across the rooftops
Of this great city
Wondrous though it be
I scarcely feel its wonder or laughter
I'm once again back home in Inisfree

... But dreams don't last
Though dreams are not forgotten
And soon I'm back
To stern reality
But though they pave
The footways here with gold dust
I still would choose
My Isle of Inisfree.
I know I am an exile in this world, as most of us should be, longing for that paradise we can only imagine.
What brought this latest malady on? It was a dream!
A few weeks ago I dreamed that I had this wonderful friend, called Anna Karenina. Of course, everybody knows about her, but why I, now at this stage, whilst I am almost closing my life story and writing 'The End' to many previously enjoyed pastimes and story threads.
I meditated on this as I mediate on all my dreams, and wondered when I have had too much meat for dinner, to have to confront this dream, and possibly follow its thread into paradise - even though it may turn out to be a fool's one. She was never in my thoughts, except that I regarded her as a not to be attained goal, during my excursions into literature and history. Being such a realist, I am not into novels - in fact very alienated from them. War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary will stand on my bookshelves unread until the afterlife, when I might look at them in more detail, but also hoping to miss the opportunity of reading them ever.
I had to settle the after effects of this dream, because for me, dreams and reality is one and the same thing. And so it happened unexpectedly that Charlie Rose recently interviewed Keira Knightley, who played the role of Anna Karenina in the newly released film based on that novel. So I pick up the novel Anna Karenina with a heavy heart to read those seemingly thousands of pages. So, I will just have to fight through the lives of Levin the purist, Stiva, the pragmatist, Vronsky, the dreamer and Anna ... what was she? And just to see Keira was worth the dream.
I also suddenly realised that I was approaching forbidden territory. Although the histories of Russia and South Africa are very similar, the one having a long sad and sorry history and the other a short sad and sorry history, for a South African, like myself, Russia was the personification of Evil at it most exemplary level attainable on earth. But ... I studied the history of World War II and Stalin, and I realised that what was evil, was only the face of Russia as portrayed by its politicians and media, and that the people of Russia were as oppressed as the peoples of South Africa were - Russians were really people like us.
I then also suddenly realise that my affair with Russia has indeed started fifty years ago when 'Barlasch of the Guard' by H.S. Merrimen, was my prescribed English Literature book for matric. The book describes the life of a few people during the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812, and places like Berezina and Borodino started welling up in my memory again. Why is the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky so rapturously beautiful? Did he perhaps sense the agony and joy of the Russian people during that time so intensely, that it inspired him to write that overture?
To the rest of the world, Russia is a no-go subject and territory - not even part of this planet. A thing we do not see, cannot see or will not see. But it is there, and it is real.
So, it is with trepidation and expectation that I set out to address the dichotomy which is Russia in the next parts.
I will do it in the form of a novella - or really a novelette - in which the protagonist is Paul von Aschenbach - an engineer, author, philosopher and intellectual. Let us say he is about sixty years of age. He admires Anna Karenina for her youth and beauty - yes, why can't she be in Tolstoy's novel and in mine?
Until next time ...

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