I’ve been on something of a Slavic fantasy kick lately. I just finished reading The Winter of the Witch, the final novel of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, which takes place in a fantastic version of 14th-century Russia. Before that, I read Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko and translated by Julia Meitov Hersey. This is about a young woman who is recruited to study at a horrific school of magic. My last blog post was a fan letter to the translator of Karel Jaromír Erben’s Kytice. This pattern doesn’t show any sign of stopping, as I’ve got Leena Likitalo’s Sisters of the Crescent Empress (part of a duology inspired by the Russian Revolution) on my to-read pile, and David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother on my Kindle.
Nothing about this kick is really surprising. I’ve been into Russian and Slavic culture since I started getting into opera three years ago. Tchaikovsky’s Onegin led me to read Pushkin’s, which led me to write Sternendach, my novel in verse. I saw the most recent Met Rusalka in a movie theater and, last summer, I made a trek out to New York to see a great production of Rubenstein’s The Demon at Bard College.
What’s the attraction? Stories and anthropology, I think. I love folk and fairy tales, and this is another universe to explore, with new creatures and stories and magic. But besides the magical stuff, they let me learn more about people.
I was fortunate a few weeks ago to attend a talk given by Katherine Andersen and Julia Meitov Hersey in Boston. They talked about their goals and challenges in creating each work which, as a writer, I appreciated a lot. But I think my favorite parts of the evening were when Andersen described her two years living in Moscow, learning the language and customs.
Meitov Hersey explained something that has been nagging me for a while. In Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, there’s a boisterous dance number in which Anatole makes preparations to elope with/kidnap Natasha. In the middle of the mayhem he stops the song cold, insisting that everyone sit down for a moment. “It’s a Russian custom,” he says. Then the song begins again. Apparently, the custom is to sit down for five minutes before leaving on a journey, to trick any evil spirits into thinking you’re not going. I was in the front row for the talk, and I hope that Meitov Hersey was not distracted by me elbowing my husband in the ribs, my eyes bugging out, during her explanation.
Like any good story, these novels and tales give me connections to other people and a window into their lives, showing me what they believe and what they do because they believe it. I’ve still got some Russian stuff to enjoy, but I can’t wait to see where my reading takes me next.