Le Figaro Livres: The Angel and the Possessed
Astrid de LARMINAT
A grand Russian novel where the hero is a husband tortured by the demons of jealousy.
One day a man walks into Nikolai’s apartment — a small two room Khrushchev-era flat where he lives with his wife Vera. Well turned out, smiling, the man pays Vera a visit. They speak in hushed voices, he furtively kisses her hands. Nikolai sees them but doesn’t say anything. Sergeant Bertrand, the visitor, comes back two, three times. Nikolai can’t take it any more. He questions his wife, she denies everything and does not understand what he is talking about. So Nikolai hits her.
“Vera was crying and he could barely hold back from striking her again. He lifted her from the floor by her hair, clenching his teeth. She was so beautiful. He loved her so much. If she could only — just for a moment — imagine the infinite agony of his love for her…’
Alexander Skorobogatov forces the reader to change his ideas of compassion. From the start he puts him in the shoes of a husband who beats his completely innocent wife. This is great art: seized with fear, we still suffer with the tormenter of this young woman, who is trusting, patient, sweet and only has one defect: her beauty, a heavenly beauty which drives the baser instincts wild.
A dangerous beauty
Vera is an actress and spends her days at the theatre. Her salary supports the household. Nikolai stays at home and drinks. He is tortured, he waits for his wife to come back and imagines the worst. Sometimes Sergeant Bertrand turns up and keeps him company. In fact from the beginning Sergeant Bertrand came to see Nikolai, not Vera. He talks to Nikolai about his wife, and evokes her dangerous beauty. He drools, and laughs and laughs. As the novel progresses and sinks into the dark shadows of the character, this laugh becomes more invasive as if the whole world was an atrocious farce.
Nikolai is mad of course. There are some attenuating circumstances: finally he witnesses the murder of a school girl he was in love with; it seems he has provoked the death of his son… he is mad, but his hallucinations end up coming true. At least that is what the author would have us believe as he ceaselessly slides from vision or dream into reality, manipulating the reader just as Sergeant Bertrand manipulates poor Nikolai. You end up not being able to distinguish reality from fantasy. This distinction is only secondary. The fight between good and evil passes onto the front line. The novel becomes the stage for drama where Nikolai and Vera are only toys, a theatre of dead souls wandering on the earth, looking for victims among the living, preferably the most harmless, injured lads, angelic young women. With this beautiful tragic novel, the 45-year old Skorobogatov has carved a place for himself in the grand Russian tradition.