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.