Russian-born French author Andreï Makine’s novel A Woman Loved is an exploration of limitations: the limits of our capacity to fully understand another person’s inner life, the limits of art to faithfully portray it, and how we compensate for these constraints by creating narratives.
Oleg Erdmann, a screenwriter living in 1980s Moscow, is obsessed with the subject of his latest film, Russia’s Catherine the Great. He knows every detail about his muse, from the way she washed her face in the morning to how she preferred her coffee. But he becomes frustrated as he reads the many historical accounts of her life. In all of them, Catherine is two-dimensional, a ruler who wields immense power and who possesses many sexual partners. For Oleg, the history books miss something fundamental; they fail to capture Catherine’s emotional life, her essence, and it is this authentic Catherine Oleg wants to depict in his film: “And it is the tsarina, entombed in her sarcophagus of words, of whom we are totally ignorant, for not one of these volumes captures the freshness of a winter’s morning as Catherine one day lived it.”
Oleg’s desire to understand what inspired Catherine, what provided her joy and solace, inadvertently precipitates a period of self-discovery. Her life becomes a portal through which he considers his own life, a process that is facilitated by the things they share in common. Oleg, like Catherine, is ethnically German but feels fully Russian. Oleg carries an emptiness from the disappointments of moving from one romantic partner to the next but never finding love, an emptiness he believes that Catherine also felt. One thing that Oleg does not share with Catherine is power. He is the victim of the Soviet censors who stop his work on mercurial ideological grounds and of the women in his life who thoughtlessly abandon him when they find a better companion to share their bed.
Oleg believes that the ability of art to depict a life depends upon the artist’s capacity to look beyond the surface, beyond the obvious. The unexposed areas are the artist’s springboard to imagine what his subject was truly like. These imagined perceptions of the artist are distilled into a depiction that is more concentrated, more exaggerated, than reality. And Oleg puts his theory into practice. He imagines that Catherine finds true love with Lanskoy, one of her many suitors, and together they make secret plans for an escape to Italy. In this way, Oleg creates his own version of Catherine, one relatable to his own life. The Catherine of Oleg’s “imagined reality” is not only hard and conquering but also vulnerable and romantic, a woman whose actions control the fates of peoples and nations but who desires nothing more than to love and to be loved in return: “Catherine negotiates with Gustav III while the Russian armies are fighting close to the Caspian Sea. But amid all this how does she live? What is the flavor of the hours, what sun shines on the seasons that give a rhythm to her love for Lanskoy?”
Naturally, this “created” Catherine is an interpretation, a reflection of Oleg’s state of mind and his subconscious quest to understand himself. Eva, an actor who plays the role of the mature Catherine in Oleg’s film, encourages his imagined version of Catherine. And Oleg is romantically attracted to Eva in her role as Catherine, the Eva that is the personification of his muse. Only years later does Oleg reflect on his feelings for the real Eva when he travels to see her in East Berlin, now no longer an actor but just an ordinary person faced with the daily struggles of living and working under Communism. Eva is no longer Oleg’s Catherine; the romance of the stage has collided with reality. Oleg’s imagination cannot overcome the facts that are Eva’s life, and he struggles with his feelings for this de-romanticized Eva.
While a primary theme in A Woman Loved is how another’s life is imagined in the pursuit of art, Makine’s novel also invites us to contemplate the more prosaic creation of self-narrative. Like Oleg with his Catherine, each of us creates a story, a branding, so to speak, of who we are that reflects the way that we want the world to see us. Our self-narrative is a combination of truth, our memories, and our interpreted experiences. Naturally, we hide many of the unflattering aspects of our characters, those acts and emotions that do not fit the narrative that we are creating, and we emphasize the positive, the things that are consistent with the way that we want to be seen. Our self-narrative may be close to or far from actuality, but taken too far, the deceits result in self-denial and hypocrisy. Oleg wants the world to see him as someone who creates art worthy of respect, someone who is in control of his career and his work. When this control proves to be illusory, Oleg undergoes an emotional crisis that leads him to compromise his artistic integrity.
How we go about making sense of others’ lives and our own is the subject of many literary novels. It is to Makine’s credit that this idea feels fresh through the prism of Oleg’s creative process, though there are times when the novel’s themes could have been conveyed more subtly rather than by repetition and a somewhat didactic tone.
A Woman Loved achieves that fine and too rare balance: a novel of ideas that sustains a satisfying narrative momentum. Makine’s writing is accessible and has moments of calm, spare beauty, superbly captured in Geoffrey Strachan’s translation: “To exclude the noise in the room they have drawn closer – the consistency of the space between them, now restricted, has changed: it has the density of a shared revelation.“
Like the facets of a diamond, not all of the angles of our interior lives can be seen at once; the nuances that are discernable at any given time depend upon the light under which we view them. A Woman Loved encourages us not to be constrained by these limitations but rather to seize the opportunity to interpret the empty spaces—and, in doing so, empathize with the people in our lives and come to a clearer understanding of ourselves.