Makine: The Art of Waiting

I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about a blog post as much as I’ve had occasion to think about this one. For a long time it’s been a distant speck on the horizon, the post I would write when I was well enough to do so; and then all of last week I was testing my desire to write against my capacity to do so. But what repeatedly quickened my pulse and compelled me towards the keyboard was the subject matter of this novel by Andrei Makine. Waiting to get well when you have ME is a dreary, dull affair; your heart pumps less blood than the average person’s, your digestion fails to derive the benefit it should from food, and you have exhausted your reserves of adrenalin, a surprisingly vital element in so many processes. It’s like trying to drive a car with a leaky battery, insufficient fuel and no oil, and all that can be done is wait until the body slowly restores some form of equilibrium. As stimulation without adrenalin is simply painful, you have to live in a tomb-like atmosphere, meditation and light sleep rather than books or television or conversation. I think of it as a life beyond death. But if only I had read Makine’s novel, The Woman who Waited, earlier! I might have been able to make something more dignified, more stately, more meaningful of my endless waiting, for in this novel waiting becomes an existential art form, possessed of an exquisite and enigmatic kind of beauty. I suspect, however, that an English village is not the ideal setting for proper literary waiting, and that one needs the icy wastes of a Russian hamlet abandoned by history and freezing itself slowly into winter to really embrace suspended animation.

I’m not entirely sure I was supposed to, but I fell in love with the pure, chilly landscape of rural Russia and the representation of life pared down to its fundamental simplicity. Makine creates the most gorgeous images to evoke this static, frozen world; the ice breaking on the lake with the sound of a harpsichord as a rowing boat is pushed out into it, ‘the fragile lace of early morning hoar-frost on the rim of a well, the fall of an apple from a bare branch in a silence so limpid you could hear the rustle of the grass beneath the fallen fruit.’ Such vivid perception is the advantage of a life in which there is nothing to do beyond the simple tasks of survival, nothing to cloud the senses, which are free to soak up the glory of an otherwise desolate scene. But into this serene emptiness a very specific kind of waiting is inserted, and it is this which fascinates the narrator and provides the heart of the tale. Mirnoe is a Russian hamlet full of abandoned women, whose men all fell in the Second World War. Whilst most are old and awaiting only death, the still beautiful Vera has been waiting for the past 30 years for the return of her soldier lover. Our narrator, a callow youth in his twenties, (although he writes from the perspective of an older man recalling this episode) is obsessed by Vera’s unreasonable fidelity and longs to crack her as if she were a particularly complicated code.

So if all novels focus their elements around a central issue, in this novel the problem to be solved is that of desire. It’s a profoundly sensual narrative, written from the perspective of a young man entranced by sexuality but a stranger still to love, and the beauty of the descriptions often arises from the odd juxtaposition of their deathly stillness and his vibrant sensuality. Desire, by rights, should bring things to life; desire is what compels us into headlong flights and passionate graspings and overwhelming needs. How can Vera possibly live her desire for her soldier as if it were a trance, a state of zen? How can she have allowed her lost love to dominate her lost life? How can she possess a ‘body capable of giving itself, of taking pleasure, directly, naturally’ and not use it? Whilst on the one hand these speculations award Vera an iconic status in the narrator’s mind, it is not long before he is determined to break her self-elected celibacy by imposing his own youthful and desiring body upon her.

[Spoilers ahead, if you don’t want to know what happens.] One of my favourite moments in the narrative is when the narrator and Vera head deep into the forest to rescue an elderly woman, Katarina, who is living in complete isolation. When they finally find her, she is living in the strangest house, or izba, for within the ruins of a larger dwelling she has created a miniature izba, a kind of doll’s house. This image is symbolic, I think, of the narrator’s relationship to Vera’s desire (as he fantasizes it). The narrator wants to insert himself into Vera’s desire like the tiny house as it huddles within the larger framework. He wants to put himself within her desire to see what it feels like, but before he achieves this goal, he imagines that it will not disrupt the overarching desire for the lost soldier. However, once he and Vera have slept together, the rapid, panicky oscillations of his desire are almost comic, and wonderfully offset by Vera’s continued enigmatic calm. His conqueror’s triumph is swiftly replaced by fear that he will now bear the whole burden of her imagined longings, and his excuses to remain in Mirnoe are instantly replaced with a very ungentlemanly imperative to run away. But Vera not only has the last laugh, she also retains her beautifully serene integrity. When she meets him on the morning of his departure, it is not to make a scene but to row him across the lake to help him on his way. Our narrator finds himself on the other side of their affair and none the wiser; it seems that Vera’s desire was far easier to satisfy than he had imagined, and far more complex and enigmatic than he had ever guessed.

Ah, what a wonderfully French book this was! It may seem ultimately a light concoction, whipped up out of gorgeous prose, and about nothing more weighty than whether an older woman will take a younger man as a lover. But Makine has a good European eye for the vagaries of desire, which is always the place where we reveal ourselves in all our intransigence, where we will be endlessly surprised and wrong-footed, and where the most intimate knowledge of a stranger turns out to be both tenderly precious and entirely useless. Desire is where we will find a kind of bedrock of the self, but it will always be opaque and mysterious, and it will lead us into transactions with others that are rewarding and perplexing in equal measure. And we can wait as long as we like for answers to the questions it poses without ever finding them. Maybe waiting itself is what tames desire, but the lovely Vera suggests by the end of this novel, that this both is and is not true.


Cross posted at Slaves of Golconda.

24 thoughts on “Makine: The Art of Waiting

  1. Are you speaking about The Woman Who Waited???

    I have read all but two of Makine’s books, those two are not translated from the French. He is masterful and brilliant.

  2. Makine has given us quite a thought-provoking novel…touching on life choices…the emotional aspect of our choices…and the logical aspect of our choices, and the borders that are crossed with both choices. Some of us choose with our hearts, while others choose the logical (or what seems to be logical) path to live our lives.

    The 26-year old narrator in this novel is given an opportunity to travel to a remote area of Russia near the White Sea, in order to write about the culture and traditions of the women in the town of Mirnoe, a town that is a dot on the geographical map, and also a dot on the map of time. He arrives with preconceived notions, and a sense that the small town, borders on the edge of limbo, and is inhabited by those with simple minds.

    It is a town that has stood still, has not moved forward…one with barely enough children to fill a one-room schoolhouse…and a town whose residents are mainly women…who have lost the men in their lives, to war. These women all have one common ground…they wait for their loved ones to return. The wait outlasts their lives. The women are aging…and dying quickly…and one woman…Vera…is committed to overseeing their burials…out of respect for their determination, and out of a deep-rooted sense of obligation.

    Vera, herself, is in the same situation…waiting for her sweetheart to return from war…waiting for 30-years…from the time she was 16-years old. She made a verbal committment to him that she would wait for him, and wait for him, she does. She has built her entire life upon his return..including the placement of the chair to her dining table…which faces the window that overlooks the path he would have to walk upon his return…she wants to be able to see him immediately. She has become a creature of habit, within her world, a world that the narrator sees as simple, ridiculous, illogical, and a world full of surprises that opens his eyes, and awakens him, eventually. She has chosen to emotionally survive, in the best way she can. She is not the sum of her exterior, not the sum of her desire and need to wait for a man who has not yet returned…she is much more complex, than this 26-year old narrator ever imagined.

    Deep within her is a vibrant soul, and a woman of great substance, dignity, intelligence, intensity, confidence and fear.
    She is literally, a woman of beauty, from the inside out. Her choices have been thought out, concise and clear, and she has knowingly made them, realizing that they might not be logical to others, and even at times to herself. She has chosen to live where she does for reasons in addition to the waiting for her sweetheart. I will not divulge the contents of the book, in order to explain those reasons.

    The narrator makes many assumptions about Vera, unfounded assumptions not based on fact. The narrator, himself is waiting, in a sense, waiting for the woman he loves to acknowledge him. But, he does not see that he is basically in the same situation as Vera, due to his shallow emotional shell. His life is based upon superficial behavior, as an artistic person, his lifestyle borders on the theory of passion, lust and the bizarre. The narrator eventually begins to see Vera for the complete person she is…and he falls in love with her.

    The end has a surprise or two…and the novel is completely realized. Emotions or logic, you decide which is the better path, or if life is a blend of both.

  3. Sorry folks! Brain still addled, obviously. Yes it is, The Woman Who Waited by Andrei Makine. I’ll edit the post to make this clear.

    And jewwishes – wow! fantastic reading. I love what you say about the narrator waiting for acknowledgement. That’s spot on, I think.

  4. Dreams of My Russian Summers made me wish I could read French… impelled me, despite my years, to make a late dash (no doubt impelled by a passing infatuation with someone whose mother tongue was the same as Makine’s adopted language)to learn, at least to read, in French.

    I’ve not read anything else of Makine, but will put this one on my growing fall-winter stack.

    Thank you for the fine review.

  5. I’m glad that you’re back!

    For me, the most difficult part about waiting to get well is when you have a good day, so you think you’re just about better, and the you crash again. 😦

    I have Makine’s Dreams of my Russian Summer on my shelves…after this review, I’m more excited than ever about it!

  6. Welcome back, and thanks for the wonderful review. I haven’t finished the book yet, but am enjoying it immensely! Like Eva, I’ve got Dreams of My Russian Summers on my night table, so I plan to read it when I finish The Woman Who Waited…

  7. So glad you’re back. What a wonderful review – as always I wish I could start reading that book now – I can’t wait (well of course I’ll have to, but you know what I mean).

  8. Such a wonderful review, litlove. I am glad you were feeling up to this post ! You’ve inspired me to get the Makine off the shelf downstairs and dive in. Bon courage until you are feeling much much better.

  9. Oh I’m so GLAD you feel better. It must be so difficult being in that twilight place, shut down and waiting to get going again. I kept wondering how you were while you were gone, and hoping all was well. I’m really, really glad all is indeed well, but really think you should not worry too much about doing TOO much. Be lazy, okay? (But thank you so much for this elegant review, one that illuminates a writer I don’t know about, and makes me think about how lovely Russia is, and how much I want to read this book. You’re a treasure, dear litlove.)

  10. Missed you! I was so thrilled to see your comment this morning and got over here as soon as I could to see how you’re doing. I hope you’re feeling much, much better.

  11. Welcome back, you were missed by many! (I’m in the throes of my old ‘fall disease,’ so I empathize.) I read Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers, which I absolutely adored.The prose is beautiful. I recommend it heartily. And I will look into The Woman Who Waited.

  12. My dear blogging friends! How lovely to hear from you all – thank you so much for your kind wishes and it is wonderful to be back with you!I’ll only be posting a couple of times a week while I convalesce, but oh it is such a delight to hear from you. And DO read the Makine – it’s a little gem.

  13. It’s wonderful to hear that you are feeling better, Litlove. Please do take good care and pamper yourself a little. As always, I’ve learned a great deal from your post today and am grateful to you for all the insight and information you share so generously. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

  14. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 « Tales from the Reading Room

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s