Saturday, 11 January 2014

Childhood reading, part 10: Romance

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As I mentioned, one of the attractions of adventure and historical fiction was romance, “about love”. There wasn't any trashy romance available so you had to find it wherever you could. There was one book that ruined generations of Russian girls' expectations of romantic love, because we all waited, not for a prince on a white horse, but a prince under scarlet sails. This is the title, Scarlet Sails. It's about a girl with a strange, exotic name, Assol, who grows up with her father, a former sailor, now a toymaker. One day Assol is taking some toys to sell in a shop in town and on the way plays with a toy boat with scarlet sails. She meets an old storyteller who is inspired by a pretty innocent child with a toy boat and tells her that when she grows up a prince will come in a boat with scarlet sails. Many years later a rich young skipper comes to the town, hears the story, equips his boat with scarlet sails and collects the girl from the beach. Presumbably, they live happily ever after. Of course, after this story, who would be satisfied with anything less?

There was, however, a counterweight, which I think was the only Russian book from that time I would call a teenage novel, called Wild Dog Dingo, or The Story of First Love. I haven't re-read it so I probably should before I say something about it, but my memory is of piercing sorrow and despair. Except for the title, the word love isn't used much if at all, but we witness how the main character, fifteen-year-old Tanya, falls in love with a boy whom she is furmly determined to hate, while she fails to notice the faithful admiration of a classmate and old friend. And because nothing is said explicitly, the reader is just as confused as Tanya: why doesn't the story follow the familiar script, why is love unrequitted, why is it so painful. As I say, I need to re-read it, but as I remember it, it is one of the great novels of adolescence ever.

Because there were no teenage novels, by the age of twelve I was reading adult fiction, particularly Turgenev, which is all “about love”, but different from Dingo because Turgenev's characters were grown-ups, while Tanya's story made us believe that love can happen when you are fifteen, and then maybe even earlier? I read War and Peace at thirteen, again, looking for love and skipping war, and generally not getting much out of it. I read Dickens at the same time, and there was enough of love there as well. For some reason, I never read Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte; perhaps because my snobbish mother disapproved of them. (Many years later she saw my husband read Pride and Prejudice and sneered at him for reading “girls' books”). But she gave me Gone with the Wind for my sixteenth birthday, because she knew I wanted it desperately. And it wasn't just ordering it from amazon: it had to be smuggled to Russia from the West and cost a small forture at the black market.

The status of Gone with the Wind in the Soviet Union is a separate story which I will tell one day (it was, for instance, President Gorbachov's wife's favourite book). My history teacher, an intelligent and educated man, referred to it as the American War and Peace and recommended it warmly as complementary reading about the American Civil War (!). This may contradict what I said above about smuggling, but life in the Soviet Union was full of contradictions.

My English was good enough to enjoy Gone with the Wind, and after that I read lots of romance in English, such as Forever Amber, again smuggled in by privileged travellers. This stream also brought Salinger and Vonnegut, but these go beyond childhood reading, so I think I'd better stop here.

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