A Woman Loved, by Andrei Makine, is the type of book you should read when you’re having a bad day. Maybe you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped on an essay, or your phone’s not working, or anything really; pick up this book. No matter what’s wrong, the characters in the story have it worse than you. Markine has created dark, poetic story about a man who devotes his life to making a movie about Catherine the Great.
The fact that the novel has been translated may provide a reason for Makine’s rather long syntaxes. They’re strung together with ellipses heightening the novel’s stream of conscious quality of documenting an artist’s (the protagonist, Oleg) life.
The narrator in A Woman Loved is obsessive and the plot mirrors his obsession. Plot points and scenes are told multiple times. Oleg’s fascinated to a point of manic frenzy by Catherine the Great. His father convinced him at a young age that all the problems that Russia (and Germany) face in the twentieth century are because of “that littler girl from Germany who became Catherine the Great.” This observation forces Oleg to make it his life’s work to understand Catherine the Great. He’s distant from his father, and his mother died when he was young, so his obsession with Catherine is understood to be a means of becoming closer to his parents. Not only that, but Catherine’s reputation of being a highly sexual being is a remarkable notion to Oleg. He’s an artist who’s convinced he’s already failed at all he does before he’s even begun.
A good portion of the novel then is Oleg imagining what Catherine would have worn, what she would have eaten, how she would have spoken, and what he spends the most time thinking about, how she would have had sex. It can get a bit uncomfortable. It’s definitely graphic. Oleg’s passion for describing sex, flirtation and mundane conversation does not focus solely on Catherine. As the story progresses, Oleg projects Catherine’s life and emotions onto his own life. He becomes absorbed with a series of lovers of his own. He becomes attached to them for a while as long as they are equally obsessed with Catherine and/or his cinematic adaptation of her life. He thinks nothing of his many sexual affairs until the end when he realises he let the one girl he truly cared about go, just as Catherine has done in her own life.
Cheesy? Perhaps; but the text is so dense that understanding that point feels like a major accomplishment when you reach the end. The story seems fulfilling, rather than a typical soap opera. A Woman Loved is a complex, but gratifying read that fuses historical facts with human emotion.
Image: William Hoiles/Wikicommons