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But Serezha could not sleep: he was only pretending to be asleep. Outside, the whole house was moving through the twilight into the evening. To the material slave-song of the floors and buckets, Serezha was thinking how unrecognizable everything would become in the light when all this movement was over. He would feel as if he had arrived a second time and, what was more important, well rested into the bargain.
Ah the Russians! What a people. The hallmark of a would-be teenage intellectual is a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky - though of course the French also have Sartre and Camus on offer, but really to my mind Notes from the Underground is required reading for the budding existentialist. The Russians nailed this philosophy of distancing oneself from life itself as an unromantic process before Frenchmen had even begun to enrage clerics with their secular pontifications (while donning the necessary turtle neck, puffing on a Gauloises and simpering in impressionable girls’ ears as well!).
As Lydia Slater points out in the introduction to this novel, Russians have the same word for pity as they do for love – zhalet, which may provide a clue as to why Russian literature enjoys such a reputation for philosophical depth. While I was reading the introduction I was alarmed at the degree of emotion expressed regarding the international reception of Pasternak‘s work following the phenomenal success of Doctor Zhivago. It was only later that I realized the introduction was written by the author’s sister.
Where family is concerned, perhaps it is difficult even for Russians to maintain that literary hauteur.
The story of The Last Summer concerns Serezha’s reflections on the events of the previous year in Moscow. The war is still ongoing. His mother has passed away and numbed with shock, he has only just managed to complete his university exams. He travels to visit his sister Natasha and her family. Exhausted from his journey an too tired to indulge his sister’s curiousity about events in the war, he falls into bed and thinks back on the summer just gone.
Following the completion of his studies, Serezha was hired as a private tutor to the son of a family named Fresteln. He is given a room at their mansion, is well-paid and finds the work not to taxing. In the evenings he joins the family for dinner and afterward wanders the city streets till well into the morning. Serezha is a curiously intense and romantic sort. He spends most of his evenings with prostitutes, even developing an obsession with them, convinced that it falls to him to ‘save’, them by dispersing large sums of money to each of the Muscovite street-walkers.
Of course, work itself is not the solution. Work enslaves and provides small financial reward. He hits instead upon the scheme of writing a play for an acquaintance, Kovalenko and with the proceeds liberating these women with whom he feels a kindred spirit.
However, the main focus of Serezha’s romantic interest is a fellow employee of the Fresteln household, a Danish maidservant named Anna Arild Tornskjold. Though she is referred to as the ‘companion’, of Mrs Freteln, when Anna speaks to Serezha she complains that she was recruited under false pretences. Her husband had only just died during a stay in Berlin when she accepted the notice and travelled all this way to discover the role was more menial than described. The two converse in a mixture of German and English, with the intimacy of their talks encouraging Serezha’s interest in the widow.
I have squeezed what little plot there could be said to be found in these pages, but do not take from that that this is a slight novel. Pasternak’s prose is a revelation of descriptive power and private musings. A morning start is described as ‘tangled threads of sultry heat, as nightmarish as crumbs in the beard of a corpse’. This is more poetry than prose, with heavy hints of semi-autobiographical reflection.
Pasternak appears to be describing the death-throes of romance itself in the wake of The Great War. His desire to save not just the prostitutes, but Anna herself, indeed all women, speaks to a peculiar messianism. Serezha’s concerns are far too bound up with his own thoughts. There is a beautiful moment when, having propositioned Anna, she finds him at the appointed meeting time furiously writing a draft of his proposed play. Quietly she retreats, leaving him to his private enthusiasms.
A master of language, beautifully written.
There was still everything to do – one saw that at a glance. But Ashley saw things differently from his father and grandfather. They had always had in mind a picture they had brought from ‘home’, orderly fields divided by hedgerows, to which the present landscape, by planning and shaping, might one day be made to approximate. But for Ashley this was the first landscape he had known and he did not impose that other, greener one upon it; it was itself.
I am constantly amazed by this country and its incredible flora & fauna. I have spoken here before about how much I enjoy just sitting on the porch watching the birds. The other morning I found a number of baby Huntsman spiders in the house. Considering I have developed a sudden fear of spiders since coming here – well they’re bigger and poisonous unlike their European cousins – I found the little creatures surprisingly cute. However, a lot of Australia is also familiar. After all it was colonized by Britain over two hundred years ago and has kept pace culturally. Here I am on the other side of the world drinking Dr. Pepper.
The two protagonists of this novel, Ashley and Jim, view Australia’s natural state as a privilege, its untamed landscape something that should be preserved. The two men are both descended from English colonists, yet divided by class. Still they possess an equal fascination for the land they think of as they own.
Ashley encounters Jim during an afternoon ride through his ‘property’, and is inspired to hire the young man (though there are only three years difference between them) to identify the different species of birds who inhabit the area. He declares the land to be a sanctuary, a refuge for the wildlife that they find there, not to be tilled, shaped into gardens, or plots.
While Ashley is a ‘to the manor born’, product of wealth, having studied in Cambridge and Germany and become accustomed to a life of leisure, Jim’s fascination with the land is the result of his desire to escape his violent father. Secretly he fears that he has inherited the family lust for violence. The monitoring of birds proves to be his dream job, a calming and meditative activity. Imogen Harcourt, a fellow naturalist, becomes the final piece of the trio, helping Jim catalogue the species of birds with her detailed photography.
The second half of the novel disrupts this quiet sense of calm, with the call to war in Europe dragging both Ashley and Jim across to the other side of the world, the one to officer class, with his employee sent into the trenches around Armentières. The horrors of war transform Jim’s perception of the world. Where previously he could lose himself in the wonders of nature, his posting on the frontline causes him to envision a future defined by the industry of war itself. Everything free and natural that he loves will be so much collateral damage in the territorial conflicts of man.
David Malouf’s writing is both poetical and elegiac in its descriptions of two men’s growing awareness of the transience of nature and human experience. Jim’s thoughts in particular are beautifully captured. Malouf even finds strange comedy amidst the chaos of war, with a German soldier earning the nickname ‘Parapet Joe’, for his habit of shooting his machine-gun to jazz rhythms. This is later followed by a stunning vision of the afterlife, with the Australian Diggers living up to their name for all eternity.
Malouf’s story is also one of ‘refugees’, with Imogen and Jim sighting a bird native to England that has made it all the way to Queensland. Whereas Jim thinks he has discovered a new species, to Imogen it symbolizes everything she has left behind. Jim and Ashley insist on they’re being ‘native Australians’, with Aboriginals appearing only briefly during the course of the novel. They do not realize how they themselves are refugees. When the war in Europe overtakes them it is only they fading memory of the beautiful landscape they have left behind that gives them hope.
This is a delicately moving and beautifully phrased novel.