Cover Image: Isolde


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''So what? What do we care about the future?''

Liza, a girl of fourteen, the ''Isolde'' of the title, lives the ''good life'' in Biarritz, in the shadow of her mother who cares for nothing and no one except her good-for-nothing lover. But they live on borrowed time and borrowed money. Lisa believes that life is sunshine, car rides, and handsome boys. When she meets an English teenager, she is caught in her brother's web while Andrei, her Russian boyfriend, is watching and waiting...

''It was nothing to do with him. It was someone else's grief.''

Written in the 1920s, this is the story of a generation wasted, a generation lost, forced to abandon Russia for a sunny place somewhere in Western Europe. A temporary sunshine that hides the decadence, hypocrisy and ephemeral entertainment that swallows the youth's soul and mind. And even if the dream of returning to Moscow and St. Petersburg is always alive, it requires money. Money is nowhere to be found. Unless you steal. Unless you turn into a whore. 

''But somewhere in the background she can hear the bitterness and the sadness.''

Liza smiles and dances and falls in love too easily. She is fourteen, practically motherless, fascinating and enticing. She is ''a nun and a witch in one''. She captivates and lures but never loses her innocence or her kindness. For some strange, it is exactly her contradictory nature that puts her in danger. This is an example of the battle of the sexes that starts at an early age, the willingness of a man to utilize the woman's potential fragility once he understands that she has fallen in love. 

The spirit of the era, the antithesis between Paris and Moscow, the frenetic time that dictates a wild, carefree attitude, the sensuality, seductiveness and the underlying sorrow and desperation are masterfully depicted. 
But I have to say that one needs to understand the female soul to fully appreciate Odoevtseva's pen. To the superficial reader- and God knows they are many- the writing may seem melodramatic and meaningless. No. Despite the ''light'' atmosphere and the lack of ground-breaking events, Isolde is an excellent study of an era full of uncertainty and contradictions and characters that knew no family, no present and future was just a remote possibility. 

If you take the time to fully engage and search beyond the glamour and teenage love troubles, you will understand why Irina Odoevtseva is now considered one of the ''lost'' great female authors in Russian Literature. Thank God for Pushkin Press.

''And over by Kuznetsky Bridge, down on the ice, lives a white polar bear, and the sky sparkles pink all  night long with dancing Northern Lights.''

Many thanks to Pushkin Press, NetGalley and Edelweiss for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Apart from a (very good) short story in Bryan Karetnyk’s excellent anthology “Russian Emigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”, I’d never come across Irina Odoevtseva before, in spite of her being considered by some to be a “major” Russian writer. Isolde is her first novel to be translated into English and I was delighted to discover the book and the writer herself. Kudos to Pushkin Press for continually bringing out these previously undiscovered gems. Although in this case I’m not so sure it is all that much of a gem – more perhaps a literary curiosity. First published in Paris, where Odoevtseva was in exile, in 1929, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale about a family coming to terms with a new life in France having fled Bolshevik Russia. Liza and her brother Nikolai, with their friends Andrei and the English Cromwell are pretty much left to their own devices whilst on holiday in Biarritz. The story is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Liza who finds herself in a web of intrigue that she is ill-prepared to either handle or indeed fully understand. She’s intelligent, even precocious, but at the same time curiously naïve. Inevitably comparisons will be made between Isolde and Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles which happened to come out in the same year, and it also looks forward to Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, but I didn’t feel it had the coherence of either of these two novels. It’s a book of heightened emotions, of melodrama, of teenage angst leading to disastrous consequences, but at the same time it felt strangely unemotional with the characters displaying little depth or nuance.  It’s an atmospheric portrayal of displacement and the émigré life, but I failed to truly engage with Liza and the whole story seemed rather pointless to me, especially with the unsatisfying ending. So well worth reading, but not a novel I warmed to or particularly enjoyed.
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I made several attempts to read this. Each time I struggled to 'buy' into the story. The writing was painfully simple, and I'm unsure whether this is due to the writer's actual writing style or to the translations. The humour and eccentricity feel forced and the dialogues are awkward. It reads very much like a fist draft.
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First published in 1929, this book reads just as well today as I am sure it did then. I wasn't over the moon with it, but it was still a pleasurable way to spend an afternoon.
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This is the first English translation of this 1929 Russian novel. And though it definitely has a bit of an "old" feel to it--no cell phones, trains not planes, etc--it really doesn't feel that old.

Odoevstseva's Liza is a  14-year-old who really just wants and needs her mother's attention. She floats through these pages, a lost and lonely waif of a girl looking for attention but unable to get the mother's love she needs. She and her 16-year-old brother Nikolai are in Biarritz with their mother and Kolya's friend Andrei. After their father's death they came to France from Russia, and they are no longer permitted to call their mother Mama--she is Natasha. Natasha is trying to find either a second husband or a sugar daddy. She leaves the kids to their own devices, often with little money (which she is always trying to get from various men) or food. Liza thinks she is falling for Andrei, but then she meets Cromwell, and English teen with a car, visiting with his widowed mother. They all meet again when they all head to Paris. 

There, Natasha leaves the kids in their rented place in Paris, and does not return, pushing back her return date and not sending enough money. The kids stop attending school and instead make plans to return to Russia, but need funds. Kolya and Andrei make plans without Liza, leaving her more lost and vulnerable than ever before.

In some ways this novel feel like Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, but while Sagan's Cecile is a 17-year-old hedonist, 14-year-old Liza is a lost and overwhelmingly sad child.
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This was just an ok read for me.  I am not sure if something was lost in the translation of this book or if it was the book itself, but I had a hard time getting into it.  There were some parts that were good, but overall it was just ok.
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This was great; readable, and a real page turner.  I really found myself intrigued from the first.  A great read, and one which I would recommend.
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First published in 1929, Irina Odoevtseva's then-shocking novel, Isolde, was republished by Pushkin Press in a new English translation this summer and I am thrilled to have had the chance to read this book. I loved the story which I thought felt very fresh and modern in its style even while it is also absolutely of its time. Odoevtseva was a Russian-Latvian emigrant exiled in France - just like her fictional Liza - and this sense of being apart from one's homeland is one of the major themes of the book. Odoevtseva also explores the shallow callousness of teenagers through the exploits of Liza and her elder brother Nikolai who are frequently bored, but able to cadge money and then left, fatefully, to their own devices. I could see elements of a French-style The Great Gatsby mixed up with Rebel Without A Cause!

I loved the characters of Liza and of her mother, Natasha, even though neither are actually particularly likeable characters. Liza is in her mid-teens and flips between precocious childishness and mimicking adult behaviour in a way which felt authentic. She is desperate for parental love and guidance, but Natasha cares only for herself and her own romantic entanglements, even going so far as to insist her children are orphaned cousins. Natasha's neglect forces aspect of adulthood onto her children way before they are mature enough to cope. I didn't think the male character portrayals were as fully developed, perhaps with the exception of gullible Bunny, but that made a refreshing change!

Odoevtseva caused outrage with Isolde in the late 1920s and I could easily see why, although the shock effect is muted when seen by present-day standards. She never veers into graphic description though and I appreciated the use of Liza's naivete which allows readers to understand the dark actions being carried out around the girl, while she herself is only belatedly aware. Isolde would certainly be suitable for New Adult audience and I hope this new translation rekindles popularity for the story. In my eyes, Isolde deserves to be a classic.
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This translated story of young and beguiling Liza who wraps a series of boys and men around her fingers and whose true allegiance is misplaced and murky at best, was considered taboo and out there when it was first published in 1931; still today, the teenaged main characters are shocking for their unchaperoned intoxication and debauchery. I gather this is a variation of the 12th century adultery tale of Tristan and Isolde, but since nobody's married I'm just guessing Liza's cheating on her crush Andrei with British Cromwell whom she meets at the beach? Her mother, who she and her brother are instructed to refer to as Natalia Vladimirovna and never "Mama," is the world's worst role model ever, conniving and stealing and shirking responsibility and treating people like garbage. Cromwell's mother also parents strangely, and there is a running theme of loving children, loving babies, babying ones lover, etc. The whole Russia initiative was very confusing for me, why would Cromwell want to leave his rich and happy life for Russia? It's interesting how the Russian emphasis on exterior beauty hasn't dimmed any in all these many years.

The more I read about the author Irina Odoevtseva, the less absurd I find Isolde. Celebrated late in life as a legend of Russian émigré literature, born to a German-speaking Ukrainian father, having lived all over Europe and pined for Mother Russia, Odoevtseva's real life was pretty out there too. Wikipedia includes this quote by a French writer who invited her to a dinner party in December 1937, "Just as we had planned, the dinner proved no less wild than the wind blowing that day. Odoevtseva, naked, began to vomit."

I laughed out loud at her description of Christmas Eve "exhausted shoppers demanding things from exhausted shop assistants, like one great cheerful hell."
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Isolde was an enjoyable read. She was a fascinating character who was, in many ways, hard to pin down, perhaps because she was still too young to really know herself. However, she reminded me of Lolita in some ways, as she clearly was aware of the effect she had on men and how to use that to best advantage. Once or twice, I did wonder why the men in the tale were so obsessed with her. She could be annoying, so I guess it must have come down solely to looks. I don't want to risk spoilers, but the story did take a direction I hadn't expected at the outset, and that helped hold my interest from start to finish. This is not so much a book with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Rather it's a snapshot of a formative period in a young girl's life. Where she goes once the final page is turned is left to the reader's imagination.
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Disappointing despite being described as an iconic Russian author and poet. Set between the wars, this fictionalization of her early life is bland and cliched. Then again, some fault may lie in the translation. Still, weak.
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At times a little jumbled in its telling, but an interesting and evocative look into a young girl’s life in 1930s Paris, as a Russian exile. 

Liza, or as one young man calls her, Isolde, is a mystifying, naïve, lively, and passionate young girl of 14. On a beach vacation with her family, she meets a young British man, Cromwell, and what begins is just barely a love affair, and mostly a jumble of feelings felt and left behind by two young teenagers trying to figure out how to live in the world. 

Liza knows how she should act as a girl, but desires to be more. To be a young woman, an adult, who can occupy space, show desire and love, and be worthy of knowledge and respect. As the book goes on, and we follow an at-times wandering plot, made slightly more confusing by the telling, where setting and time period can jump rather quickly and without much notice. Odoevtseva's writing style is simple—she writes what Liza feels, and plops us in the center of her mind, which flits from topic to topic. I've not read any other Russian literature from the period, so I don't know if this is a common characteristic. Regardless, while Odoevtseva's writing could have created a better sense of place (for my tastes) she is expert at characterizing Liza, our heroine, and helping us understand the psyche of a young girl, left to her own devices. 

While Liza masquerades as an adult, it is clear to see that she is still in the midst of growing up, no matter how mature she might think she is. As she witnesses this absurd turn of events, we witness her own attempt at growing up and inhabiting the adult world. And in the end, we see her almost settle into her youth, almost coming to an understanding of where she is in life, and embracing her situation.

This is a very interesting read, in part for the very bizarre plot twist, which you kind of see coming, but in the best way possible, where you don't want to believe it's true until it's over. Also to see a glimpse into what life was like for some of the Russian exiles after the Revolution, and to relive the flimsy and flitting aspects of girlhood in both the simple and the extravagant. While this novel wasn't my favorite, I still value the time I spent with it, and if you're at all curious, I'd give it a try!
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A Russian schoolgirl on a beach in Biarritz meets a wealthy young Englishman, Cromwell, who decides that she is Isolde, the golden-haired mythical girl of his dreams. While they are on the beach, a young girl of drowns and is carried past Crom, who thinks, “It was nothing to do with him.”

Liza is an expatriate with a father who died during the Revolution and a neglectful mother named Natasha who is in love with an abusive man named Boris (really). Liza is perfectly willing to be any mythical character Crom pleases, since he owns a Buick. The novel is loaded with overt mercenary motives. From her mother, Liza has learned that to get men to worship you is a quick route out of poverty.

The novel is very blunt, and was thought shocking in 1929. Liza, who is only 14, wants to party and get drunk and kiss boys. She is a typical teenager, dreaming of being a martyr to the Fatherland one minute and gripped with terror the next. She is vain and sometimes cruel. As for sex, Liza simply hasn’t thought ahead that far. 

Every man in the novel, without exception, is either a predator or a despicable weakling who projects his own insecurities onto Liza. She’s being pushed to grow up much too fast. Her brother is greedy and shallow, if not evil. Liza misses her father. She longs for her mother, who is jealous of Liza’s beauty and considers her daughter a rival. Liza’s love for her mother is the only emotion that rings true.

There are no admirable characters, but I’ve come to expect that of Russian literature. The novel’s weakness is that the pattern repeats itself too many times. One man or another seems to have Liza trapped in some way until it becomes tedious for the reader. Even her brother Nikolai chops off her hair while she sleeps—yes, the symbolism is that obvious. Let’s all mythologize, trick, use, hide, buy, bribe, or weaken the beautiful young girl.

Even the one man whom Liza defies ends up stashing her away in the woods somewhere until she gets old enough to marry (ick). I knew the ending was foreshadowed about ten different ways, but I was still hoping Liza would find a way to be the strong woman she wanted to be.
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This a recent translation of Odoevtseva’s novel first published in 1929. She was of course one of the more outstanding and controversial writers of the post revolution Russian writers. This, an early work, carries strong semi-autobiographical tropes of a family struggling with life in exile. It is located in both Biarritz and Paris in the early 1920s. The themes of exile, lack of stability and secure income run through the tale
To name the novel and the main character as Isolde might hint that things will not come out well. The original Isolde of myth is young and beautiful, is marrying for pragmatic reasons, but will love elsewhere and die young. So the possibility of disaster underlies this tale from the first. Young beauty it becomes clear may not always be a benefit as it triggers unrealistic and often immediate declarations of “love” in males. In this case based on a complete lack of understanding of the young Liza – yes Liza not Isolde.
The tale opens with Liza on the beach – there she will be spotted by Cromwell an older British teenager, but seemingly with wealth. He will be drawn into Liza’s circle of her brother Kolya and friend Andrei – well as long as his money lasts. But another significant n Liza’s life is her mother (her father is dead). Mother cannot be “mama” as she is posing as a younger relative as she supports the family with income from an admirer. This admirer Bunny – who loves her deeply - is married and cannot support her lifestyle as well as his own household. Particularly as she gambles. Another problem that will come to a head is that she “loves” younger Boris a hard hearted gigolo who in his turn is sponging off her.  Not only does this mean that money is tight for all the family, but that mama is not there for the children – who it increasingly becomes clear are incredibly young (14 and 17) and lacking direction. Short of money Kolya will try and acquire it by crime – and the next phase of disaster will unravel.
Liza, in the main, will tell the tale. Young, intelligent but neglected her emotions will be running high as she tries to match her desires and dreams with the realities of her life. She is undoubtedly damaged. With no clear guidance and sensible support she is heading for disaster. Kolya has no positive male role model and mama “Natasha” is struggling too between the needs of her “love" and practical life and lives elsewhere, unable to return.
This story bowls along at pace with a good sense of place with Odoevtseva creating believable characters that are revealed piece by piece. It is a measure of her skill that what should be an unlikely tale is ultimately believable – and that in spite of swathes of Liza’s mental meanderings and dreams. These reveal even before the tale does exactly how young she is and lacking a life of proper care – even when others would think they are providing it.
A very clever novel on a dysfunctional family, reflecting the difficulties caused by coping with the trauma occasioned by wildly disrupting historical changes. How people seemingly cope, but can then become unravelled. Some might not be too enamoured of the streams of teenage consciousness and over charged emotions, but looking beyond these to a picture of family coping in an unravelling crisis it could be a good book club choice.
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I wanted to enjoy this more than I did.  I think I expected it to feel more Russian than it did.  But perhaps that is the point.  Liza, her mother and brother have a financially precarious existence in exile in France.  At fourteen, Liza has been moved from one place to another for years and has only a hazy, idealised notion of her home country and what it would be like to live there, to be properly Russian.  Her home life is so awful with a monstrous, self-absorbed, neglectful mother and a manipulative, cruel older brother, she yearns for the warmth and stability she imagines a return to Russia might offer her.  She is naive and emotionally vulnerable to a dangerous degree.  

Her coming-of-age could be set anywhere really and the events that take place seem very familiar in modern fiction.  The fact that this was published in 1929 is by far the most interesting thing about it.  The author was ahead of her time for sure in terms of content.  I’m pleased to have been introduced to an author new to me, but I’m not sure I’d particularly recommend this to a modern audience.
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I can see why readers were scandalized by this book when the author wrote it. It pushes boundaries even by today's standards, but it was a privilege this title newly translated into English. The plot, description, and foreshadowing kept me intrigued; I read it all the way through in a day. I could see this book on a women's literature reading list because of the mother-daughter dynamic and how the two main female characters interact with the males in their world. As a reader of historical fiction, I liked all of the references to how the main character styled herself (hair, lipstick, stockings, etc.). The characters do not have many redeeming qualities (this is an understatement), but they held my attention. The mother would not even acknowledge her own children so that suitors would not be put off by her true age. No wonder the daughter struggled to find some footing in life; the reader does feel some sympathy for the daughter. The mother and daughter's suitors were led astray so easily. The end is very depressing -- definitely a tragedy.
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Originally published in 1929, it is gut-wrenching and tragic. It's mostly about Liza, who is just fourteen years old at the novel's start. That summer in Biarritz, Cromwell falls in love with her, and christens her Isolde after the novel he's reading. She adores the attention, and her brother Nikolai is quick to recognize the opportunity to milk Cromwell for extravagant evenings at the casino and the use of his car. When they return to Paris, Liza's boyfriend Andrei joins in the excesses.

Liza and Kolya's mother, meanwhile, is mostly absent. She insists they call her Natasha, never Mama, as she presents herself as their aunt charged with the orphans' care. She is always on the lookout for a man to fund her lifestyle. One such lover is the hapless Bunny – married and irresponsible, driving his own family to the poorhouse for Natasha's sake. He has difficulty accepting that Natasha prefers another, and that she has no use for him with his money gone:

His desperation and pain had disappeared. He felt quiet, calm and light. He felt like it wasn't Fanny lying next to him, not his wife, but his grandmother, and they had wrapped themselves up in her chequered shawl. It smelt of cinnamon and onions. And it wasn't Fanny sighing and sobbing at his ear, but his grandmother teaching him in her monotone voice:

"Man must not lie. Man has a small head. He'll lie and then he'll forget what he's lied about. Not like a horse. A horse has a big head. A horse can lie if it wants to."
(Oh, the foolish men, who never consider the consequences.)

Even while Liza condemns her mother's behaviour, she emulates it. Sadly, Natasha begins to see Liza's youth and beauty as a threat. And she leaves with her lover for Nice, never to be seen again.

There's probably a thesis in here about women's age and sexuality — the women are grandmothers and asexual, or caretakers and asexual, or they are young, beautiful, and privileged and burgeoning with sexuality. We encounter Cromwell's mother only two or three times, but have a very clear picture of the kind of woman she is:

She got back into bed. As she pulled up the cover, her hand brushed her naked breast and immediately recoiled in disgust, as if she had touched a toad, so repulsive was her naked body to her.
About midway through the novel, we flash back to Liza's early childhood. I felt this section lagged a little. On the whole, Natasha's motivations are already quite clear; this background made me mildly more sympathetic toward her. But this section goes a long way toward explaining Liza's relationship with Russia and some of her actions later in the book.

Liza is itching to grow up, but she still longs to be mothered. How differently she might've fared if her mother had not abandoned her.

She reaches out a hand and plucks an apple from the fruit bowl.

She no longer has a heart in her breast. It's empty and silent there. Her heart is this red apple. This is it — her heart. It's sitting in the palm of her hand. It's exposed, it's beating, it flutters and it loves. It feels everything. She squeezes it with her fingers, and her heart feels pain. What should she do with it? What should she do with her heart?

She holds the apple out to Andrei.

"Eat this Andrei, it's a gift from me to you."

Andrei takes the apple indifferently, rubs it on his sleeve and then digs his strong white teeth into it, taking a big bite.

"This pain is going to be horrible," Liza thinks. "He's eating my heart." She clenches her fists to stifle a cry of pain. But it doesn't hurt at all. She looks at Andrei in surprise and watches his white teeth chomp on the apple. And it doesn't hurt at all. "It's not my heart. I'm just drunk. Drop it. Don't eat it, Andrei."

Andrei throws the apple core on the floor.
She doesn't love Cromwell, or his cousin. She doesn't know Russia enough to love her, but she loves the idea of Russia. I think she loves Andrei in a similar way, for what he represents. And Liza's heart is eaten alive.

"You know, Andrei, I keep thinking," she said slowly. "I keep thinking how difficult and dreary life must be if childhood is as good as it gets. And if it's all downhill from here, I don't want to grow up." She shook her head. "And, you know, I don't think I ever will." 

"Nonsense, Liza. It's only because you're fourteen. Fourteen is the worst age. You'll be fifteen in March and it will all be much easier then."

She shook her head again.

"Oh, no, no. I don't believe that. It won't get any easier, or any better."
It doesn't get any better.
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Teens, parents, relationships. This book works on many levels and could even be set in the present time.
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This is a fascinating look inside the author’s mind as a Russian emigrant in the 1930s- the feelings she experienced are clearly marked out in the experiences of the youthful protagonists of her novel. Liza, naive and green, lost in sadness and deprived of the chance to locate an adequate identity, her brother and supposed boyfriend, and the enigmatic Cromwell, an Englishman she meets on holiday in Biarritz, are cast together into tragedy in a world where adults are a constant letdown, where home is too far away and where a young woman can never know her value. In its time, I can see how this was shocking and controversial- but even in 2019, it’s an enjoyable read and loaded with messages that are still valid.
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This 1929 Russian novel is newly translated into English by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg. A grim portrayal of the waywardness, excess, and decadence of the Russian white émigrés in Europe. Parental neglect, sexuality, and rootlessness make for an interesting book, but while I typically love gloom and doom and misery (especially among the rich and miserable), I found the writing (or translation, or both) wanting. It lacked psychological depth and acuity. The writing seemed both melodramatic and abrupt. 

I could sympathise with poor Liza (the "Isolde" of this story), used and misused and young and confused, and definitely could relate to her having raptures while reading Dostoyevsky, but beyond that the characters were cardboard thin. The use of the Tristan and Iseult myth seemed pretty superficial and tacked on, as it were, to elevate the story into something symbolic instead of allowing the symbolism to arise organically from the story.
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