ISOLDE by Irina Odoevtseva
translated from the Russian by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg
Pushkin Press, November 5, 2019
originally published in 1929
Isolde was my introduction to Irina Odoevtseva – a fascinating woman whose life and work is contextualized brilliantly in the introduction to this Pushkin Press edition, the first ever translation of Isolde into English, almost a century after its 1929 publication. Isolde is a delightful, sparse, and sad book set in early twentieth century France, where fourteen-year-old Liza and her brother Nikolai are essentially left to their own devices by an extremely neglectful mother who insists on pretending in public (and often even in private) that she is their older cousin. On holiday in Biarritz, Liza meets a slightly older boy, Cromwell, who becomes enchanted by her and declares that her new name will be Isolde. The story then follows this trio – Liza, Cromwell, and Nikolai – back to Paris, where they’re abandoned altogether by their mother, with disastrous results.
As explained in the introduction, Odoevtseva herself was Russian and living in exile at the time of writing Isolde, and these circumstances are reflected in her narrative. The absence of Liza and Nikolai’s home country plays heavily on their imaginations – a naive, idealistic image of Russia only grows when abandoned by their mother in Paris. After some head hopping, the focus of the novel ultimately zeroes in on Liza, whose burgeoning sexuality, parental neglect, and nebulous national identity all shape the story which is driven less by a coherent plot and more by snapshots of Liza’s adolescence.
I found this thoroughly enjoyable, at times quite dark, and altogether unexpectedly modern. Not overly modern in language – the translation by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg was excellent – but in terms of content; there’s a focus on Liza’s autonomy over her sexuality, and it rather subverts expectations in more ways than one. (There’s also a rather inconsequential scene where a character is talking about how she’s kissed other girls but she can’t imagine kissing a man.) It’s a really solid gem of a book and I’m looking forward to checking out more by Irina Odoevtseva, as well as more from Pushkin’s modern classics series.
Thank you to Netgalley and Pushkin for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
You can pick up a copy of Isolde here on Book Depository.