Reviews

How She Left the Russian Forest: 'Enchantments'

If you had no idea that Russian mystic / charlatan / healer / pretender Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, aka the Mad Monk, had a wife and two daughters, you are not alone.


Enchantments

Publisher: Random House
Length: 314 pages
Author: Kathryn Harrison
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03
Amazon

If you had no idea that Russian mystic / charlatan / healer / pretender Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, aka the Mad Monk, had a wife and two daughters, you are not alone. In Kathryn Harrison’s latest novel, Enchantments, we get a fictionalized account of Rasputin’s eldest daughter, Matryona Grigorievna Rasputin, here called Masha.

Harrison is a nimble writer, perhaps best known for her autobiographical accounts of her parents, including 1997’s notorious The Kiss, an account of her incestuous relationship with her father. Harrison’s nonfiction extends beyond her parentage; she contributed a biography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to the terrific Penguin Lives series, published The Road to Santiago, a journal of her religious pilgrimage on the Camino De Santiago, and the unsettling true crime account While They Slept.

On the fictional front, Harrison’s work ranges from the semi-autobiographical novels Thicker than Water and Exposure, to historical works like Poison, The Binding Chair, and her latest work, Enchantments. The Seal Wife, published in 2002, comfortably balances the historical with the diversions of a fine novel. By any measure, Harrison’s range is formidable, her writing, (save 2005’s Envy, the one stinker amidst a shelf of otherwise lovely works) the kind reviewers trot out the jewelry analogies for: luminous, crystalline, faceted. In context, these adjectives indicate sentences writers labor over until no extraneous word mars the forward plot movement. Consider Harrison’s description of the River Neva flooding:

“Nearly every other fall, the Neva overflowed her pink-granite-lined banks and tried to scrub a layer or two of the city’s populace off her dirty face.”

Of Rasputin’s travels to the Holy Land via automobile:

“Around the Black Sea he tore. Odessa to Varna, he sped southward in a cloud of dragonflies the size of hawks. The sky was red, the earth was yellow: three hundred miles without a flat tire. Varna to Istanbul. the Blue Mosque’s swordlike minarets scratching at the heavens...”

Some sentences belong in museums.

When we meet Matryona Grigorievna Rasputin, she has just learned of her father’s death, which required great efforts on the part of his assassins: a meal laced with cyanide having failed, Russian aristocrat Felix Yusupov and his henchmen are reduced to beating Rasputin about the head, then tossing him into the frozen River Neva. The year is 1917, and Russia is in upheaval. Rasputin, known to many as a saintly healer, is revered by the peasantry and Tsar Nikolay and his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. But those planning his demise see him as too close to the Tsar and Tsarina, a man seeking power.

Masha fervently believes in him, recounting his selfless acts of healing, his enormous physical strength, his sexual prowess, the unshakable constitution making him nearly impossible to assassinate. In Masha’s eyes, her father is a beatified peasant, a man unable to read but quick with a sketchpad. He's a seer, aware of his death and who will kill him. He can hear the grass, the insects, the howl of a tree as it's cut down. He's given to religious visions of the Holy Mother.

But most importantly, he alone can heal the Tsar and Tsarina’s son, the tsarevich Alyosha, a hemophiliac.

Hemophilia, or lack of blood clotting factor, ran in Queen Victoria’s family. Alexandra, the English queen’s granddaughter, was a carrier whose only son inherited the damaged gene. In the early 20th century, treatment of this then-fatal disease was primitive. Thus Alyosha was cosseted, bundled, protected at all times by two guards.

This wasn’t enough to prevent the mishaps common in childhood, or, worse, internal bleeding in his joints. Fearing addiction to opiates, the Romanov family refused give their son morphine during bleeding episodes. Harrison’s descriptions of Alyosha’s screams of pain as blood leaked into his extremities, then died from lack of circulation, verges on the grotesque and is certain to make all but the most callous shudder. Instead, Tsarina Alexandra prays, begging God to pass her son’s disease to her. Harrison’s evocation of a son’s illness is autobiographical, harkening to 2004’s The Mother Knot, where she writes candidly of a depressive episode worsened by her son Walker’s abrupt onset severe asthma.

”Inevitably, I strayed from the medical jargon of corporate websites into the hysteria of chat rooms... reciting helpless prayers—to fate, to whatever power might keep a child from harm, to a God whose presence I couldn’t feel. At bedtime I kneeled beside my son in the dark and silently invited his disease into my body.

After Rasputin’s murder, Masha and her sister, Varya, are rushed to the Romanov’s countryside estate, the Tsarkoe Selo, where the royal family have fled the city’s unrest. Masha is immediately summoned to the Tsarina’s quarters.

Known to the peasantry as “Mamochka”, or Little Mother, Alexandra forsook her English birthright and ardent Lutheranism in favor of Tsar Nikolay and the Russian Orthodox Church. She has little interest in court manners, cultivating hers just enough to get by. Now she implores Masha to carry on the task Rasputin could not finish: healing Alyosha.

Masha is well aware of her limitations. Unlike her father, she is no mystic healer. Her gifts lie with equines and a knack for storytelling. As the Revolution lurches forward and the Romanovs shift from Royalty to prisoners in Tsarkoe Selo, Masha becomes a variant Scheherazade, saving nobody’s life but offering Alyosha crucial distraction from the inevitable.

Harrison’s portrait of Rasputin and the Romanovs is surprisingly sympathetic and winning. Even as resentment and class hatred grow around this wealthy family, her Romanovs are people detached from the citizenry. They are not unkind, simply oblivious, a situation those close to them are happy to maintain. As the walls close in, they are less angry than bewildered. Tsar Nikolay, for his part, never wanted to lead Russia: his passions lay performing military exercises—marching maneuvers rather than war—and vigorous outdoor exertion. He is content to leave the serious decision making to his four meddling uncles.

Alexandra prefers reading and prayer to court antics. Their four daughters, so close they use the singular “OTMA” a distillation of their names, are given to prayer and lessons in flower arranging. Harrison mentions Anastasia as the brains of the outfit; in the larger world, she is the sole Romanov suspected to have escaped assassination by Red Army soldiers. Only Alyosha, a history buff whose illness has matured him beyond age 13, grasps the truth. He is disgusted by his father’s indifference.

Masha begins spending her days with Alyosha, who is hungry for stories: of her life in Siberia, of her father’s many miraculous healings, of fantastical events invented for a boy so fragile he is not permitted a bicycle. The stories of Siberia and Rasputin’s early life serve both Alyosha and the reader, explaining both the background and reasons an illiterate peasant with dirty fingernails become a seer and healer, while the more fantastical notions give Harrison license to venture into magical realism, a new place in her work. In one story, Alyosha wins a bicycle race around the moon against Chronos; in imagining the Tsar’s coronation ceremony, Harrison allows countless religious ikons to detach themselves from church walls and take to the streets and skies, where they squabble childishly.

The devil and his retinue also make an appearance during coronation, wreaking havoc. The Tsarina Alexandra often appears under a pink cloud, “making her own weather”, something her compatriots dismiss as related to her frail English blood. Yet the scenes work, for we are already inhabiting an arguably fantastical realm, a place outside reality—the Russian Revolution, where starvation, violence, and death are rampant. Closer to home, they address Harrison’s ongoing fascination with fathers, transcendence, blood, and transporting religious experience, written about in The Kiss, The Road to Santiago and Seeking Rapture.

Despite the difference in their ages—Alyosha's 13 to Masha’s 18—Alyosha is soon pressing Masha for more than stories. A proper young woman, Masha concedes very little, even as Alyosha points out his inevitable early demise.

When that demise arrives, Masha and Varya manage to escape it, but at a price. “No one escaped Russia with his or heart intact” Harrison writes. Even as Masha moves from country to country, her former high status reduced to trading on her name, she cannot forget Alyosha, and what might have been.

At a time when the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has widened possibly irreparably, with its attendant, sickening violence, Enchantments is more than a charming novel. It is a way to see the Other, to understand him, and, perhaps, to peaceably co-exist.

8
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image