Review: 'A Double Life' by Karolina Pavlova, trans. by Barbara Heldt

My "mission" when starting this blog was to spread my literary horizons and read more authors from other countries and cultures. A large part of this has been reading novels in translation and publishers liek Columbia University Press and Pushkin Press have been incredible helpful to me in spreading my wings. The latest translated read was A Double Life and it had an incredibly impact on me. Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/06/2019
Publisher: Columbia University Press
A classic of Russian women's writing that combines poetry and prose
An unsung classic of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life alternates prose and poetry to offer a wry picture of Russian aristocratic society and vivid dreams of escaping its strictures. Pavlova combines rich narrative prose that details balls, tea parties, and horseback rides with poetic interludes that depict her protagonist’s inner world—and biting irony that pervades a seemingly romantic description of a young woman who has everything. 
A Double Life tells the story of Cecily, who is being trapped into marriage by her well-meaning mother; her best friend, Olga; and Olga’s mother, who means to clear the way for a wealthier suitor for her own daughter by marrying off Cecily first. Cecily’s privileged upbringing makes her oblivious to the havoc that is being wreaked around her. Only in the seclusion of her bedroom is her imagination freed: each day of deception is followed by a night of dreams described in soaring verse. Pavlova subtly speaks against the limitations placed on women and especially women writers, which translator Barbara Heldt highlights in a critical introduction. Among the greatest works of literature by a Russian woman writer, A Double Life is worthy of a central place in the Russian canon. 
Karolina Pavlova, born Karolina Jaenisch in 1807, was a Russian poet and translator and presided over a famous Moscow literary salon. She died in Dresden in 1893, having abandoned Russia not because of tsarist oppression but because of hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life. A Double Life is her major work. 
Barbara Heldt is professor emerita of Russian at the University of British Columbia. Her books include Koz’ma Prutkov: The Art of Parody(1973) and Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature (1987). 
As this translation comes from Columbia University Press, it has a solid introduction which is great. Karolina Pavlova was a fascinating poet and author who has not received the kind of praise she deserves. From an early age she showed incredible talent and, after her marriage, hosted a literary saloon at her home, gathering there with brilliant authors from both Western and Eastern European countries. After her marriage ended she first lived in what is now Estonia, and then Dresden, Germany, continuing to write and translate Russian fiction. Throughout her life she struggled against the criticism she received, not for her poems but for being a female poet. Poetry and literature belonged to the men and so they critiqued her publicly and viciously, even if they privately admired her work. And so she disappeared from the list of of great Russian writers of the 19th century. A Double Life seems to rise from a lot of Pavlova's own experiences, but above all her love for poetry.

In A Double Life we get to know Cecily von Lindenborn, a girl growing up in the Russian elite. Her world has been so restricted to make her proper that to us she seems an almost stunted creature. As Pavlova writes:
'Now, at eighteen, she was so used to wearing her mind in a corset that she felt it no more than she did the silk undergarments that she took off only at night.'
She can only do as she has been told, except at night, when her mind unravels itself and spreads out in the most beautiful poetry. See, in A Double Life Pavlova brings together both prose and poetry, the latter used solely for Cecily's dreams. It is at night that she can rise out of her restraints and her dreams warn her of what is truly happening around her, how she is being played with and how truly unprepared she is for it. Initially I looked at Cecily as a silly girl, distracted and naive, until Pavlova's truth really hit home. This is how we raise girls, not knowing how restrained they are, unaware of the tests they're being set up to fail. A Double Life is heartbreaking, as Cecily's mind clamors at night while completely barred away during the day. She is set up for pain and doesn't seem to realize it until it is way to late. A Double Life is a feminist novel, even if that may not have been Pavlova's attention in mid-1800s. It's message that women suffer under repression, not just physically but especially mentally and emotionally. That not allowing them to express themselves truly cuts off a part of them. That having a daughter only to marry her off is cruel. And we know these things, but the fact that it hurts to read it means it is as true as ever.

Pavlova is a masterful writer. Although A Double Life is typical in many ways, following a young girl in love as she moves between social engagements towards a marriage, it goes much deeper. There is a sharp analysis of the society she is describing. An especially painful passage looks at the poorer relatives kept around as servants, desperate to stay near the glow of the rich. Pavlova finds that sore spot most of us have and isn't afraid to press it, which makes it even more outrageous her work was described as clinical and cold by her contemporaries. There is anger here, and pain, and a thirst for freedom of mind. A Double Life is a novel I will be rereading, often. From the soaring poetry to the honest prose, this is a brilliant, feminist even, novel that should be much more prominent than it is.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

A Double Life blew me away in a way I hadn't expected. Set aside the dresses, the mansions and the carriages and you have a story about a girl who's mind is rebelling and in pain, who is unaware of what path she is on because she has never been taught to think of her life critically. A Double Life is an important and beautiful novel I would recommend to everyone.


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