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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: The Madonnas of Leningrad

Yesterday, the group met to discuss The Madonnas of Leningrad (2006) by Debra Dean.  Here is the plot summary from the publisher:
One of the most talked about books of the year . . . Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.
In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city's inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls—a symbol of the artworks' eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe's bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brushstroke by brushstroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a "memory palace," a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . .

Seamlessly moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a searing portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer beauty, grace, and hope in the face of overwhelming despair. Gripping, touching, and heartbreaking, it marks the debut of Debra Dean, a bold new voice in American fiction.
On to the discussion:
  • 10 people liked the book, 4 were so-so, and 1 disliked it.
  • This dislike person said it was just too sad for her.  She was old enough to remember seeing the newsreels of the siege and the starving Russians.  She also wished the story had included some of Marina's good years, which she obviously had had in her life in America.  The story only focused on the siege and the final years of her life.  Another person agreed with this participants points, but said that Dean was able to counterweight the sadness by introducing us to Dima (Marina's husband) as an old man caring for her very early in the story.  This helped this reader to know the couple would find one and other in the end, and lighted the heaviness of the story for her.
  • Those who liked it had many different reasons. Here are some comments:
    • I loved how the paintings, and the descriptions of them helped to tell the story.
    • Normally I do not like when the book moves back and forth in time, but here I liked it.  It made a good juxtaposition of the horrible siege with the happiness of Marina's granddaughter's wedding.
    • I loved how memory itself was a character here.
    • I loved the historical fiction part of the book. I felt like I was there with them in the museum.
    • I had read this book when it first came out and didn't like it; but reading it again, years later, I was captivated.
    • I liked how the dementia angle was portrayed.  It was very intriguing to see how Marina was calm and knew exactly what she was doing in her own mind, but those around her were confused by her behavior.
    • Marina is why I loved this book.  She was generous, had dignity and integrity, and was able to understand the importance of art even when she was literally starving.
  • We moved onto a general discussion of the characters.  We began with Helen, with whom many of the participants felt a connection.  One said, Helen was an accurate portrayal of a 50 something woman who had not had her dreams fulfilled.  She was in the emotional roller coaster that is menopause (although this was never stated in the book, but as one lady said, "We all know what was happening with her body there.") They thought she showed a different view of disruption and uncertainty in life from Marina's extreme view.  Many were touched when she began drawing Marina; her art began to come out.  Still more mentioned how much they liked seeing Marina through Helen's eyes.
  • Marina of course took up a lot of our time.  I will list a few of the more memorable comments/discussion points here:
    • The way she took the young cadets through the empty museum recreating the paintings with their descriptions brought me to tears.
    • She took you through starvation at such a personal level.
    • Marina's life was traumatic, may be even too traumatic to remember until her memory is going.  This could explain why she did not let anyone in her family know what she went through.  People shared personal experiences with their own families and how these stories of life in the old country are often lost forever.
    • Marina became one of the Madonnas of Leningrad
  • We talked about all of the "miracles" in this book
    • Marina and Dima finding each other after the war, hiding their identities from Stalin, and making it to the new world with their son
    • The miracle of art and the power of its beauty.  Literally, the need to preserve a "memory palace" of the paintings kept Marina alive through the long winter.
    • The miracle of her baby being born just fine despite starvation conditions while she was pregnant.
    • It is mentioned that it is a miracle that Anya, who was so frail, and the one who taught Marina to memorize and save the paintings, survived the siege.
    • The miracles that imagination and memory can provide.
  • I purposely left out Marina's conception of her child in this list.  Marina imagines an immaculate conception for herself, but it could easily have been from her coupling with Dima before he was sent to the front.  But it could also just as easily have been a rape by a German solider at some point.  It is mentioned that the boy had golden curls which Dima did not. Young Marina dismisses her immaculate conception vision as a hallucination, but old Marina thinks Zeus is her son's father.  What is so interesting is that her vision is an embodiment of the Madonna paintings she is preserving in her memory, but as a non-Catholic herself, she turns to an explanation from a painting where Zeus is coming to a woman in bed.  I asked the group if it mattered that we do not ever find out who the father of Marina's miracle child is.  The group liked that we don't know.  It was said that it enhances the memory theme; that is doesn't matter if the real and the memory match up perfectly.
  • On a quick side note about the son.  Many people agreed that they did not like how Marina introduces Dima to their son when the two meet up again. We all wanted more here.
  • As mentioned throughout these notes, "MEMORY" is an important theme in this novel:
    • At the end, Marina's life has come full circle and she is remembering the people in the paintings as her friends.  Although this is technically wrong, how wrong is it really? They got her through the toughest point in her life.  That's what friends do.
    • Many of the mature women in my group agreed that as you age you cannot remember what you did yesterday but years ago is crystal clear.
    • "Memory is a coping mechanism for aging" This is why "retro" things are so popular.
    • The dichotomy between her past and the joy and abundance of her granddaughter's wedding in the present was too much for her damaged brain.  It forced her deeper into the past.
    • The memory palace, her drive to memorize every painting in the empty Hermitage, was her safe zone.  It gave her comfort and allowed her to transcend the short comings of her present.
    • As her memory gets worse at the end, the time frame and pov switches become less clear in the novel itself.  The confusion and overlapping in the storytelling was an appreciated writing choice. It made us as readers more muddled and confused; we stood in Marina's shoes, if only briefly.
  • The ending--there are really 2 endings here.  The first is the cadet tour she gives back in the 1940s story.  Marina is finally given the chance to see if her memory palace worked as she gives the cadets a tour of a museum with no paintings on its walls.  She is seeing the beauty of the paintings and passing it on.  The cadets can see the paintings and are moved by them based solely on her descriptions.  This is the culminating moment in her life.  Her reason for living through the siege is confirmed.  This ending to the 1940s story is coupled with the old Marina being found in a half finished home (reminiscent of a bombed out building in her state), and showing the carpenter who finds her the beauty all around them.  Whether it is the beauty of the art in her head or the amazing natural vista before them, she is right, it is all beautiful.  We all appreciated the double ending and through that it reconciled and unified Marina's story as told in the novel as a whole.
  • Finally, here are the words the group threw out at the end to describe the book:
    • selfless
    • memory
    • beauty
    • the power of art/the artist
    • miracles
    • imagination
    • survival
    • resilience
    • transcendence
    • teachers/guides

Readalikes: Let me first start with some author suggestions:
  • If you liked Dean's incorporation of art into a historical story, than you should try Susan Vreeland who is excellent in this respect
  • If you like Dean's intimate story telling technique-- how she made a huge moment in history very personal, you should try Geraldine Brooks.
  • Finally, if you like historical fiction set in Russia (which also describes Dean's new 2012 novel, The Mirrored World) you should try Robert Alexander.
In terms of specific title to title matches I have a few suggested directions to go here:
  • For those interested in more detail on the siege of Leningrad from a nonfiction viewpoint, I would suggest Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones.
  • For those who want more historical fiction looks at the siege, I have 2 options.  First a book I read and loved, City of Thieves by David Benioff. This novel is also set during the siege of Leningrad, but does not fluctuate to the present and our protagonists are young boys. Click here and scroll down a bit to see my full review. Second, many resources suggest, The Siege by Helen Dunmore.  From NoveList: "Set against the turbulent backdrop of Leningrad in 1941, a novel of love and war follows the Levin family — twenty-two-year-old Anna, her young brother Kilya, and their father, Mikhail — as they struggle to survive during the German siege."  Both novels listed here like Madonnas of Leningrad were single out in multiple end of the year "Best Lists" when they first came out.
  • Finally, in the book format, I want to mention what happens to be our next book for book club, Still Alice by Lisa Genova.  Here the story is set only in the present. Alice is a Harvard psychologist who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.  The novel follows her as she deals with the news, and slowly loses her memory.
People who want to see the art at the Hermitage should head over to their website.  You can choose English on the first page.

Finally, check out the award winning film, Russian Ark which was shot in the Hermitage.  2 people in the group had seen it and highly recommended it.  Here is the review from Amazon:
Russian master Alexander Sokurov has tapped into the very flow of history itself for this flabbergasting film. Thanks to the miracles of digital video, Sokurov (and cinematographer Tilman Buttner) uses a single, unbroken, 90-minute shot to wind his way through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg--the repository of Russian art and the former home to royalty. Gliding through time, we glimpse Catherine II, modern-day museumgoers, and the doomed family of Nicholas II. History collapses on itself, as the opulence of the past and the horrors of the 20th century collide, and each door that opens onto yet another breathtaking gallery is another century to be heard from. The movie climaxes with a grand ball and thousands of extras, prompting thoughts of just how crazy Sokurov had to be to try a technical challenge like this--and how far a distance we've traveled, both physically and spiritually, since the movie began.
We do own this film in VHS at the BPL.

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