Books, Film, Music

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral

In a sweeping fiction by Janet Fitch ’78, a young woman comes of age amidst the tumult of the Russian Revolution.

Angie Jabine ’79 | July 19, 2019

"Only in Russia is poetry respected. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" —Osip Mandelstam, 1891-1938

Eleven years in the making, Janet Fitch's sprawling 2018 novel The Revolution of Marina M. drew a range of critical responses but most agreed that, even at 800 pages, it was a rollercoaster of a novel. This year's sequel, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral (Little Brown), is nearly as long and in many ways even more engrossing. We rejoin the teenage poet Marina Makarova in spring 1919. She has survived the first two years of the Russian Revolution—barely. She has cheered on the Bolsheviks' war with the White Russians, even as they have laid waste to her beloved St. Petersburg (aka Petrograd) and shattered her secure existence. Married in haste to a rebel poet, she's on the run from a sadistic crime lord and still pining for her first love, an opportunistic dandy from a bourgeois family like her own.

Now pregnant, she is working in a small-town boardinghouse and shacking up with a one-armed railroad man when the Red October agitprop train rolls into town with her poet husband aboard. Reunited, they criss-cross Russia's boundless plains, performing revolutionary sketches at every whistle-stop before he abandons her in a remote hamlet. Out of options, she returns to Petrograd with her infant girl Iskra ("spark") and finds work in an orphanage where she can keep Iskra by her side.

Temporarily free from the threat of freezing to death, dying of starvation, or being tracked down by the enemies she has made (one of them a ranking officer in the leather-clad Cheka, the Soviet secret police), she seeks out the poets she once knew. Her own verses are well received, and she takes her place among such esteemed (real-life) literary figures as Mandelstam, Gorky, Blok, and Akhmatova. She runs into her acquaintance Emma Goldman at a workers' protest. The encounter is mildly amusing ("She took my gloved hand, patting it as if it were a small dog") until the soldiers' bullets send them running.

Against all the evidence, Marina retains a glimmer of hope for the Bolshevik regime, but her counterrevolutionary "individualist" tendencies—in plain words, her disdain for propaganda—make her as much a target for the secret police as the other poets she so deeply admires.

The tumult of the era and Marina's own impulses thrust her into one desperate situation after another. Her fecklessness could become exasperating if she weren't such a gifted chronicler of all that she sees and feels, the mundane and sublime all swirling together. Chimes runs more than 700 pages and I found myself slowing as the end approached, wanting to inhabit Marina's world just a little longer.

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