Volume 15 (2012)

Review: Stephanie de Montalk. «The Fountain of Tears»

Stephanie de Montalk. The Fountain of Tears. Victoria University Press, Victoria University of Wellington. Wellington, 2006. 240 p. ISBN 0-86473-531-6.

 

     The Fountain of Tears is a high-quality work of intellectual fiction, a novel about the relation of personal consciousness and imagination to reality (temporal, spatial, human). It is also an elaborate and intimate dialogue between the author and Alexander Pushkin, interwoven with two other important dialogues: one between the author and the archetypal myth of Philomela, the other with the imaginary figure of Maria Potocka, the heroine of Pushkin’s Fountain of Bakhchisarai. The novel explores the twists and turns of the interrelationship between subconscious impulses and conscious decisions as these play out in struggles for personal and creative identity in the face of hard realities.

     The novel will have strong aesthetic and psychological appeal for the contemporary intellectual reader. Largely open-ended, it is written in a synthetic form that combines prose and verse, with principles of écriture féminine. essential components of the psychological, the historical, and the mythological novel, and distinct features of the Künstleroman. De Montalk also skillfully—and without taking sides—plays with elements taken from different layers of Western “collective consciousness,” among them ideas of the Orient as a world with “other” values, beliefs, traditions and “truths;” historical data on the Crimean Khanate and on the Russian Empire’s southward expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; biographical information on Pushkin’s Southern “exile” and his writing of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai in the period between 1821 and 1823; and material taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in particular the story of Philomela and Procne, from Aristotle’s Poetics, and from the works of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī (“Rumi”), Nikolai Karamzin and the Polish King Jan Sobieski.

     The powerful and compelling recreation of two parallel situations and personages that forms the foundation of the novel is based on identities and contrasts between the feminine image of the heroine, Maria Potocka, and the masculine image of the hero, Alexander Pushkin; between the past ‘present’ of Maria’s abduction and confinement and the more recent ‘present’ of Pushkin’s exile and seclusion; between the impossibility of Maria’s love for Khan Guirey and Pushkin’s longing for the love of another Potocka, Sofia. These contrasts are balanced by unities in biographical and mythological contexts and by the clearly arranged rhythm of images and motifs.

     Biographically speaking, these parallel situations are united by Pushkin’s actual acquaintance (and infatuation) with Sofia Potocka and her story of the unfortunate Maria Potocka, a member of the same clan, which she addresses to Pushkin, as well as by Pushkin’s trip to Bakhchisarai and his composition of the narrative poem The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. On a mythological plane, both story lines—though with varying degrees of lucidity—are projected against Ovid’s ‘archetypal’ narrative about Philomela, Tereus and Procne and through it linked to the crucial theme of transformation in the process of creation, and to that of submission, inward and outward, to spatial, temporal and personal realities. The myth itself is recreated and reshaped: intertwined with descriptions of Maria’s dreams, fears and longings, clearly (and contrastively) Christian at their basis, it is also compared to the complex and highly individual cluster of reactions with which Pushkin responded to humiliating experiences in his life, namely an unhappy childhood, unrequited love, his exile, his status as an impoverished nobleman and insignificant burocrat, his dubious position as Poet. Alternating narratives about Maria Potocka and Alexander Pushkin combine with recurring images of and references to Philomela and her tapestry, Polish opposition to the Crimean Tatars, Potemkin’s eighteenth-century conquests in the region: with this rich context, Maria’s dreams and embroidery, as well as Pushkin’s life in Petersburg, his love for Sofia and his creative impulses intertwine and interact to give the novel its polyphonic formal and thematic rhythm.

     The novel’s solidly scholarly foundation ensures its historical veracity, or rather the imaginary probability of the events and situations depicted. De Montalk’s interpretation of actual history is often quite precise, and such precision is employed here in a particular way: the book is permeated with exact quotations from different sources, ‘other’ voices through which we approach an understanding of the ‘other’ personality, tradition, and epoch. This aesthetic and documentary treatment of the ‘other’ is obviously one of the novel’s primary aims. The novel’s Afterword and Foreword reflect this tendency toward citation in a concentrated way, although, as one can expect from any historical novel, “occasionally dates and events have been adjusted for fictional purposes” (p. 236).  At the same time, the author makes mistakes in the form of two Russian names mentioned in the novel: the name of poet and Decembrist Kondraty Ryleev is written as ‘Kindraty’ (p. 234), for example, and the name of the historian and writer Karamzin becomes ‘Mikhaylovich Nikolay’ instead of ‘Nikolay Mikhaylovich’ (p. 93).

     As precise and interesting as it is, at some points the book provokes a critic’s doubts. One of the most provocative themes in this respect is the author’s interpretation of Pushkin’s creative personality. Here De Montalk inclines toward emphasizing negative aspects of Pushkin’s life and predominant emotional state. During his Southern exile, for example, the poet is depicted as constantly ill with ‘fever’; and a sense of ‘pain’ (p. 115), of ‘blame’ and ‘bitterness’ (p. 169), of ‘rejection’, ‘aloneness’ (p. 161) and ‘betrayal’ (p. 196) is hardly ever blended in the narrative with signs of his more positive feelings. The author’s approach may reflect the influence of the various scholars mentioned in the Afterword and Acknowledgements; her list, unfortunately, does not include Iu. M. Lotman’s Pushkin. Biographiia pisatel’a (1982) and L. P. Grossman’s U istokov “Bakhisaraiskogo fontana” (1960), which could have been especially helpful. Another doubt is raised by de Montalk’s “rendering of Pushkin’s” (p. 240) The Fountain at Bakhchisarai in the final part of the book. It is not at all clear why the poet’s iambic tetrameter should be transformed into a vers libre, or why the poem’s Romantic images and language, influenced by Byron and connected with a network of historical, cultural and literary events and of social reactions to them in Russia, should be replaced by the author’s modern images and personal poetic style.

     Still, Stephanie de Montalk’s novel The Fountain of Tears is doubtlessly a valuable work, an excellent intellectual historical novel, rich in biographical, psychological and mythological contexts, precise in many details concerning both Pushkin’s childhood and youth and the complex phenomena of Eastern European history and culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and profound in its exploration of the themes of creativity, of responses to surrounding reality, and of the (re)creation of one’s personality in letters, dreams, life and art.

 

Svetlana Klimova
Linguistic University of Nizhnii Novgorod

 


Download: Klimova, Svetlana. Rev. of Stephanie de Montalk, The Fountain of Tears. Pushkin Review 15 (2012): 165-67.