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Review | Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer | Book of the Week

We aged a hundred years, and this
Happened in a single hour:
The short summer had already died
The body of the ploughed plains smoked.

Anna Akhmatova

Letter-writing may be a lost art today, since we tend to email rather than sit down and write longhand to a loved one or a friend, however epistolary novels have been with us for centuries  — from Montesquiou’s Persian Letters, Choderlos de Laclos Dangerous Liaisons and Bram Stoker’s Dracula; to Stephen King’s Carrie and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple — and are still popular. To read personal, private correspondence smacks of voyeurism, (etiquette dictates that to do so is unacceptable), hence the frisson of pleasure it affords. Suspense is created by what is revealed and concealed. The letters are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and dramatic irony keeps the reader hooked until the very end: Will ‘it’ or won’t ‘it’ happen? The Last Summer, superbly translated by Jamie Bulloch, is a welcome discovery thanks to Peirene Press.

Crime & Punishment

Lyu, a brilliant young philosopher, is hired by Mrs von Rasimkara to “divert all poisons, weapons, sticks of dynamite and other mishaps” away from her beloved husband who is a governor of the Tsarist regime. The family leaves St Petersburg, (the Russian capital until 1918), to take refuge on its country Estate at Kremskoye. The colleges have been closed and the students’ trial is due to start at the beginning of August. The governor — “a splendid example of his kind” — is adamant that “if the university had restricted itself to imparting knowledge the government would have respected it, but by interfering in public affairs and taking sides, it had forfeited its right to inviolability.” A stalwart of the Tsarist regime, he is utterly blind to the fact that the social unrest in the capital heralds not only the February 1917 Revolution, but the October 1917 Revolution, ushering in Lenin’s Bolsheviks who seized power in the name of the workers, peasants and soldiers.

The son of the house, Velya, is handsome and feckless; and is destined to pursue a diplomatic career. His twenty-something sisters Jessika and Katya, are “sweet, blonde creatures.” One falls in love with Lyu, while the other grows to dislike him and “his strange grey eyes which seem to penetrate everything” — rightly so, since he is anything but the family’s “guardian angel”.

Letters are exchanged between the siblings and relatives — notably Aunt Tatyana and her son Peter, who is in love with one of the two sisters — giving insights into domestic life, and their private thoughts. A fearful sense of unease grows beneath the surface of a seemingly rose-drenched idyllic summer. Not only are the governor and his wife oblivious to the significance of outside events, but to the reality closer to home: that they have welcomed a cuckoo into their cosy nest. (Particularly ironic given their mistrust of strangers.)

Russian Revolution on the horizon

Lyu’s letters to co-conspirator, Konstantin, show him to be a revolutionary and would-be murderer, intent on finding a way to blow up his proud, immovable employer, (the students are likely to be executed, and the governor is unrelenting). More moderate socialist than fanatic anarchist, Lyu writes, “We wanted to achieve our goal without risking our lives, our freedom, maybe even our reputations, for we have more to achieve and we know that we are difficult to replace.” He is adamant that, “The government was the agitator and lawless barbarian, whereas the so called revolutionaries were the guardians of justice.” All the while he builds up a relationship of trust with the family, even driving their new ‘toy’, a motor car, about the country lanes, much to the irritation of the often-drunk coachman, Ivan, who worships his master with a serf-like devotion, and loathes the young philosopher, sensing that he is dangerous. Something hideous is about to happen, but the letter-writers are clueless . . .

A taut psychological drama, the power of The Last Summer lies in its timeless portrayal of the human condition, and that oh-so-human tendency to be completely blind to what is right in front of the nose. The Russian Revolution swept away not only a political system, but a whole civilization. There are disturbing parallels with what is going on now, as ruling liberal elites tumble to be replaced by a new form of right-wing, anti-intellectual populism. A century on, Mrs von Rasimkara’s words resonate: “Fear is the worst. I think that fear has unnerved me so much that I can no longer take pleasure in anything, nor can I even summon any from myself. I am permanently afraid, day and night, even when I’m asleep.”

Historian, novelist and philosopher, Ricarda Huch (1864-1947), should be up there alongside the Mann brothers and Hermann Hesse, yet is largely unknown in the English-reading world. She stood up to the Nazis, was the first woman to receive the Goethe Prize, and to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. I long to read more . . .

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch | Peirene Press, East and West Series | 24 February 2017 £12 120pp PB | ISBN: 978-1-908670-34-2 | eISBN 978-1-908670-35-9

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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