I realized as I read Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, a novel that re-imagines Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna as husband and wife during the Soviet era, that I seem to enjoy the idea of folk tales more than I enjoy folk tales themselves. I love looking at Vladimir Propp’s list of fairytale motifs and, though I probably shouldn’t admit this, I’d much rather read Valente’s book – or Anna Starobinets’s Sanctuary 3/9, which I enjoyed so much in 2009 – than a book of straight-ahead fairytales or folk stories.
Not that I’m committing a horrible literary sin: folk tales are all about variation, and one of the main points of Propp’s work and Valente’s novel is that plot turns and characters in folk stories repeat. And repeat. Valente emphasizes this in Deathless, as when Baba Yaga tells Marya, “Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”
We meet Marya Morevna in the first paragraph of Deathless:
In a city by the sea that was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.
Marya waits years for her future husband to show up, first witnessing the arrivals of her three sisters’ suitors, who fly to a tree as birds, fall to the ground, and become humans who claim their wives with words specific to their times. The passages involving Marya’s sisters were some of my favorite in the book: Valente’s lovely language and use of fairytale-inspired repetition fit together beautifully. I also thought the sadness of Soviet-era communal living in the long, thin house worked nicely, when Marya has twelve mothers and meets the building’s domovye, house spirits.
I was less enthusiastic about Marya’s life after Koschei, the bird-then-husband whose last name is Bessmertmyi, or Deathless, takes her to Buyan. There we meet many other folk tale characters including Baba Yaga, Koschei’s sister, who smokes cigarillos and danced on Lenin’s coffin; she’s definitely not the Baba Yaga I met in Jack and Jill magazine as a child. Some of Baba Yaga’s comments felt a little shticky to me – “Husbands lie, Masha. I should know; I’ve eaten my share.” – but others felt suitably mean, and she tests Marya before her wedding to make sure Marya can rule her husband. Control is a big theme here.
Though I enjoyed Deathless as a way to fill in some of the holes in my knowledge of Russian tales and even found myself missing it a little when I finished – it was my bedtime story – I agree with a Goodreads reader who wrote just one sentence about the book: “Fairy tales without character development cannot be sustained for an entire novel.” Deathless’s characters, most of whom are variations on folk tale figures, aren’t as richly developed as their surroundings and situations, which meant, for me at least, that the element of fear was far less palpable than in Sanctuary 3/9. Scariness in Deathless felt abstract in the fairytale and Soviet worlds, through, for example, Koschei’s endless reincarnations and even parallels between wars in the Soviet Union and the fantasy world. That’s not to say Valente doesn’t create some vivid scenes: she does, particularly when Marya lives in Leningrad during the blockade. In the end, of course, death is, says one character, “the only story.”
One other thing: I think Deathless may be a book that “reads” best in audio. Hearing Valente read at a local bookstore was a more satisfying experience than reading Deathless on the page. That’s not just because Longfellow Books offered tasty little cupcakes: I think Valente’s language and story lend themselves to listening, which makes the most of her writing. It also seems thoroughly fitting, given the oral roots of folk and fairytales.
Up Next: Oleg Pavlov’s Казенная сказка, which I’ll just call A Barracks Tale for now.
Image credit: Ivan Bilibin (1901), via Al3xil and Wikipedia.