“Young men admired me. My parents adored me. I had a horse fathered by a stallion from the desert.”
This is the life of Maria Potocka, a young Polish countess, before she was captured during a slave raid in 1752 by a Tatar khan and made part of his Crimean harem. This is the life Maria pines for, while desperately delaying the inevitable night she will have to spend with the khan. Waited upon, but imprisoned, Maria seeks solace by writing a journal in verse, keeping a caged nightingale (a poor substitute for her horse, but a fitting metaphor for her own situation) and embroidering the complicated and tragic tale of Philomela (also an appropriate symbol of Maria’s plight).
But this novel is not solely Maria’s; it also belongs to Alexander Pushkin, a poet spurned by a woman and in trouble with the government (as so many of them were in early nineteenth century) – in exile, in fact. Pushkin’s story spans one long evening in Odessa, shortly after a visit from his unrequited lover, Sofia Potocka (a distant relative of Maria). Having told Sofia of his travel to the palace of the Tatar khans, Pushkin is reminded of The Fountain of Tears, a monument in memorial of Maria, who died before she could learn to love the khan. This story of imprisonment and unrequited love resonated with the unfortunate Pushkin, who sat down to write a 600-line verse tale about the beautiful yet sorry situation.
I am surprised that Stephanie de Montalk is the first (as far as I know) to put this rich, romantic material to good use, in the form of a novel generously interspersed with verse. De Montalk’s experience as a poet and biographer makes her the ideal author for such a pursuit, which evidently has required both assiduous research and poetic prowess. My favourite elements of this book are the details that are so historically specific they can’t have been made up, and the lines of verse that are so precise they must have had a poet behind them, particularly de Montalk’s own rendering of Puskin’s The Tale of Bakhchisaray: A Tale of Tavrida, which she has included in a separate section at the end of the book. I found these passages of verse and sprigs of historic detail brought both Maria and Pushkin to life at times, when their dialogue and behaviour revealed more their situation than their character.
Structured along two chronologies that weave through each other, chapter about, the pace of this novel relies on the activity of its two protagonists. As Maria is imprisoned and living a monotonous life (the end of which we are already privy to, due to Pushkin’s poem), and as Pushkin’s is spending one long night reminiscing about his lack of success with a woman and other troubles, the momentum was, for me, a little laboured, improving slightly at the end, as Maria’s fate approached. I realise that this aspect will not bother many readers, who will revel in de Montalk’s ornate prose (which, throughout the book, appears to celebrate the style and language of Pushkin’s poem) and will not expect the story to move any more swiftly than it does.
Another thing I found, reading through this novel, was a frequent urge to skip to the Afterword and Acknowledgements. How much, I kept wondering, of this story, and of this poetry, is real and how much has de Montalk created herself? I wondered if the Afterword should have been a Foreword.
But I won’t end this review on such a trivial note. Instead I will recommend this book for its historical curiosity and expert verse.
STEPHANIE DE MONTALK