Russia Diary: Charlotte Mendelson FT Weekend 24 September 2016
On a visit to Russia, the novelist makes new intellectual friends and wants to cry as she sees so much beauty
Poor British Council; little did it realise the passion it was about to unleash. “Was there any chance,”the creative director politely inquired, “that I could attend the inaugural British Literature Today seminar in Russia? At Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate? It would be quite a commitment. Was there any chance at all?”
I had been waiting for this moment all my life. While other teenagers experimented with drugs and novelty eyeliner, my teenage frolics were with Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Gogol, leaving me longing to visit Russia: a land of ice and silver birches and soulful poets as miserable as I was. Tolstoy was my favourite; I was beside myself. This trip could only be a terrible disappointment.
My sole preparation was rereading War and Peace, so arriving at Domodedovo airport on Tuesday was confusing. Where was the beardy coachman? The samovar? The snow? The British Council Russia representatives, female, beardless, led us into Moscow: a dazzle of six-lane boulevards, beaming men dressed as Stalin, basement supermarkets, Putin T-shirts, red stars and golden onion domes, headscarves, Olympic tracksuit-shops and extraordinarily stylish pensioners.
While my fellow authors acclimatised, I ate: Georgian dumplings and cheesy khachapuri, borscht, miscellaneous meat in aspic, cabbage pies and slightly too much herring. Then it was time for our first cultural exchange: in the Duma basement bar my fellow authors and I dazedly discussed fiction with scores of beautiful young Muscovites, all of whom had read far more British literature than we had and spoke much better English. That was nothing: the following morning, the real work began. A minibus brought us via Chekhov’s house and a roadside café, where we were presented with two large smoked fish in brown paper, along an endless wooded motorway into deepest Tula Region. Our hotel, in the grounds of the estate, was capacious and modern; the food, for nearly 100 visitors, fantastic: kasha, still-warm baked apples from Tolstoy’s trees, cucumber with garlic and dill, stews that reminded me of my grandmother’s most dramatically Hungarian cooking.
But we were there to work: to build bridges at a sticky time for Anglo-Russian relations with those brave translators and literature teachers who had travelled unimaginable distances to discuss the (fortunately) changed face of modern British fiction. My fifth novel stagnated in my unopened laptop; Pierre and Natasha waited in limbo, utterly ignored. In the rare moments when we weren’t giving readings, or being befriended by Siberian delegates over beetroot buns during the coffee breaks, we were on stage, being asked terrifyingly precise questions: how, exactly, might our regional variations (Louise Welsh: Scottish; Sunjeev Sahota: Anglo-Sikh; Owen Sheers: Welsh; Nicola Barker: Barkerland) be evident in our texts? Which literature would we recommend for teenage readers? Did I think a man could translate my novels? At one point I tested their English; the only word these extraordinarily cultured Russians didn’t know was “earwig”.
For respite we were shown round the estate: the house itself (two grand pianos; a small table for “serious conversation only”; houseplants tended by Sophia Tolstoya, when not bearing the great man’s 13 children; Tolstoy’s own miniature desk-chair and paperweights and dumbbells, his picture of Charles Dickens, his cardigan); 100 acres of orchards; paths on which Russian brides paraded for photographs and Chinese tourists took selfies; a discreet grassy mound in an unremarkable clearing, in which we suddenly realised Tolstoy was buried. Then more talking, more questions, and a visit with Youlya Vronskaya, head of international projects, to the vegetable garden and fir woods: so much beauty that I wanted to cry. I arrived late for my workshop in muddy boots, with small fragments of silver birch bark and apples concealed in my pockets: permanently changed.
The trip was exhausting, mind-expanding, gloriously well-organised and a tribute to both the British Council, in London and Moscow, and the unforgettably fabulous Yasnaya Polyana. The same cannot be said of our penultimate night, when a splinter-group failed to turn up to the scheduled screening of Brooklyn and persuaded one of the cooks to let us go to a banya, an extensive sauna/plunge-pool arrangement in the suburban shed of a tired-looking man in full camouflage. If you are ever in Russia and banyas are mentioned, do not flinch. Yes, compulsory seminudity with acquaintances is not the British way. We dislike extremes of temperature; we rarely round off our evenings with violently smoked bream, strings of salted Georgian cheese, vodka, unlabelled beer and a mysterious bacony substance known as “chickenandchips”. It took almost more courage than I had to get in the taxi; then to sweat shyly beside my courageous, passionate and terrifyingly intelligent new best friends before leaping into icy water but, by God, I did. And it was wonderful.
Home, violently sleep-deprived, to my own disappointingly orchardless garden and the launch of Rhapsody in Green, my memoir about being a novelist caught in a vegetable-growing obsession.
“Whatever you do,” I’d said to my family, “don’t forget to water. And pick. Please, don’t forget.”
While I was making friends with cheery intellectuals, hungry for any scrap of British literature, London experienced the hottest day and most violent storm in recent history. My tiny garden had become a jungle: purple Cosse Violette beans and splitting orange tomatoes, Japanese shiso-leaves and Italian chicory had sprouted and fattened and been left unpicked. I don’t care. At this very moment, I should be choosing my dress for the launch; I can’t be bothered. The party begins in two hours but my mind is full of Tolstoy’s garden, his currant bushes and pumpkins. I seem to be lost, somewhere among the fir and birch forests, the yellow apples, the bridge over the bulrushes in bright sunlight. And I don’t know how to come back.