Sunday, February 2, 2014

Avoiding Existential Dread: Masha Regina

I’ve been dreading writing about Vadim Levental’s Маша Регина (Masha Regina) for months now, even using a whole arsenal of procrastination techniques (from focusing on award news to telling myself I’m just too darn tired to blog) to avoid this post, all because some books are scary as hell to write about. Particularly books I enjoy and respect as much as Masha Regina, which is, by way of brief summary, a beautiful, tightly structured character sketch of a novel—in my experience, it’s rare to find “character sketch” and “novel” combine so well—about a young woman who comes to Leningrad from a small city and becomes a film director.

There are lots of themes, threads, and subplots I could describe and analyze for pages and pages—Masha’s love interests, studies, use of her life and family as cinematic material, outsiderness, ambitions, temperament, wishes for immortality, and so on and so forth—but it’s the immortality I’ve seemed to fixate on, first as I read, later as I translated excerpts, and now, too, months after finishing the book. One of my favorite phrases in the book refers to work (труд, often translated as labor) as “единственная возможность сбежать от экзистенциального ужаса,” or “the only option for escaping existential horror/dread.” Masha’s immortality may be anchored in celluloid (and/or digital zeroes and ones, hmm, I don’t remember) but Masha Regina begins, appropriately enough, with Easter, the ultimate celebration of immortality, and a subsequent “Christ is risen from the dead,” and then, shortly thereafter, a brief description of teenage Masha’s desire for immortality.

Underlying Masha’s quest for immortality are all sorts of other circumstances that produce everyday dreadfulness worthy of escape: a father who drinks, a dull and empty city, and a fear of getting stuck in a life she doesn’t want. It’s no wonder Masha draws things as she sees them, even as a little girl, whether it’s a cross-section of a river or a bird with four wings. Of course Masha is stuck in her old life despite leaving it—I suppose we all are, in some way—because she keeps coming back cinematically, which raises lots of questions about ethics and representation. Masha truly is a queen, and she’s also that rare literary character who’s simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic: ambitious, ruthless, damaged, regal, and also, in many ways, untouchable. Her life looks more painful than glamorous despite all her success and awards.

I think my dread of writing about Masha Regina came about largely because I found the book so inexplicably satisfying and indescribable. I mentioned months ago that when a friend and I met for coffee we realized we were both reading Masha Regina… and agreed the book would read along very nicely for a chapter or so, feel for a while like it might get dull, but then become thoroughly engrossing again. A little like life, I suppose, which may explain why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s a book about art, life, and existential dread (my favorite!) that actually feels like an inexplicably satisfying slice of art, life, and existential dread.

Disclosures: The usual. I read an electronic copy of Masha Regina that I requested from Levental’s literary agency after the book was shortlisted for the Big Book Award; I later translated excerpts of the novel.

Up Next: Marina Stepnova’s The Surgeon.


  1. Lisa, which format/app do you use to read Russian ebooks? I've fallen to KyBook (app) and fb2 (format) on the iPad but am always looking for something better. In-app translations from Lingvo are always a plus.

    1. Thank you for asking this question, Chris T.! I read on a Nook Tablet and seem to prefer PDFs that look just like a printed book page. I like seeing a page that looks like a page.

      I read Masha Regina as a regular page PDF, though, a format I'm not wild about, though it worked okay for this particular book. I sometimes use epub, which I'm also not wild about.

      Your question reminds me of a piece in yesterday's New York Times, "Scribbling in the Margins," which gets at the reason I still much, much prefer books on paper. I can highlight, underline, and make notes on my PDF files but flipping through electronic pages just isn't the same as flipping through paper pages!

    2. Language Hat posted about that article, and I commented that a book back in the early 2000s converted me to marking up my books, which I did with fervor for a long time. Now that I read almost everything in electronic format, jotting down marginalia is a lot less attractive.

    3. It's funny: I saw that Language Hat post and your comment a few minutes after I'd responded to your comment here! I agree with you about electronic marginalia. I've always written in my books and the notes are very useful when I write about books for the blog. Unfortunately, electronic margins and marginalia just feel too virtual!

  2. Although I read nearly half my books on kindle and I do love the highlighting feature, the note taking feature is rubbish and as a result my notes are sketchy if written at all.

    I have really enjoyed reading Eugene Onegin for being able to scribble away to my hearts content in the margins and it's made for quite a different kind of review, not having to wrack my brain for thoughts, because they are all there captured as I read.

    I assume this book isn't yet available in English, it sounds fascinating.

    1. Thanks for your comment, clairemca. Last things first, you're correct: the book is not available in English. I loved it and hope it will be translated soon.

      As for reading modes, I think "rubbish" is a good way to describe all the e-reader note-taking features I've used, too! They work and some of them can make lists of notes but it's just not the same as those notes in books. That said, I do find the Nook extremely helpful for reading through final drafts of translations: I make an epub file, load it up, read, and inserts notes or highlighting where I need to make changes.

      Finally, I'm so glad to see how much you are enjoying Onegin! I remember enjoying it way, way back... and keep promising myself I'll read it again.