By Joshua Balicki
The historical novel The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch, grapples with class power, poetic0 aspirations, love complications, economic struggle, insurgent politics, and one rapidly changing country. In dead of winter, radical poet Marina Makarova stands as a witness to the Bolshevik Revolution.
Throughout this intimate and harrowing tale, we learn that life is not inevitable, rebellion is rarely self-evident, and freedom takes more than it provides.
Marina M. encourages us to reconcile with age-old questions, endure with dignity, and remember our history. Fitch says the novel is about a girl becoming a woman when she starts to see the consequences of her choices.
Fitch will read at Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., at 7 p.m. today.
“Marina was a character in a failed novel prior to Paint It Black,” Fitch said. “I always liked her as a character. That led to my short story about her set in Los Angeles in the 1920s. I realized that I did not know enough about her background to give her thoughts, and dreams, and memories. I knew I had to go back into her girlhood. This led me to the Russian Revolution.”
Fitch’s father grew up in Council Bluffs, where his parents owned a grocery store. At the Council Bluffs free library, her father was known as the, “wanderer,” and he came home with stacks of books. Decades later, he was the first to introduce Fitch to Russian literature. He gave his seventh-grade daughter a copy of Crime and Punishment. It was her first idea of what a novel should be.
“It was such an exciting — intense — angst-filled novel that related to me so strongly that I studied more,” Fitch said. “The scope and depth of Russian history and the personalities involved captivated me.”
Fitch lectured in the apartment in which Dostoevsky composed his works. At the Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial, she spoke about her research for The Revolution of Marina M. Although Dostoevsky is one of her early literary influences, there are distinct differences in their prose.
Fitch studied the Russian language in high school, majored in Russian history in college, and researched in Russia on two separate occasions. This contributed to the novel’s rich sense of time and space.
“My imagination springs from place, and it is important for me to know where things are,” Fitch said. “To go back to St. Petersburg and see the roughness on the Neva River — the wind coming in all four directions — there was no place to tuck yourself in and be safe. To me, the wind was such a metaphor for the revolution.”
This firsthand experience paired well with her extensive memoir and autobiographical-based research.
“Woman memoirs seem to be more attentive to the details of everyday life, which is really helpful for me as a novelist, whereas historians are looking for the broad shape of things,” Fitch said.
There were not a lot of books written about the Russian Revolution. Fitch felt that was the case because the Russian Revolution “was a complex situation, and unlike Stalingrad or the siege of Leningrad, the strains of good and bad were not clear.”
It never occurred to Fitch that she would write historical fiction. It was one thing to study what occurred, but it was another thing to inhabit the lives of the characters who lived the history.
“It was a novel I was fated to write, but I had never imagined I would write a historical novel,” Fitch said. “History was a sublimated desire to write fiction. Part of writing history is living within it. You do not know how things will turn out.”
Fitch said that Marina’s father was the hardest character to write. As a political liberal of the intelligentsia class, she had a hard time getting into his character, because he seemed stiff and self-oppressed.
“The more I worked with him, the more I saw his stability, and idealism, and his love for his daughter,” Fitch said. “It brought a whole layer to the book. He was not just an obstacle in the book but a very living person for me.”
The easiest character for her to write was Varvara. Fitch related to the ideological Bolshevik within her. Varvara led Fitch to examine the concept that all ideals have repercussions. This is seen in an emotional romantic such as Marina and a wound-up pragmatist such as Varvara.
The novel ends on a coming-of-age note. A sequel is in the works that will take Marina “all of the way through the revolution,” Fitch said. “It ends in a place where her coming-of-age has really come to roost — where she is no longer looking to family, or lovers, or friends to shelter her. She will be entirely responsible for herself.”
Fitch said every book she writes puts her back at the beginning again. All of the tools learned in one book are useless in another. Her rigorous drafting process helped transform Marina M. from lyrical verse to prose. It was a process different from anything she had done before.
“I could depict things with a large quick brush that would give an impression,” Fitch said. “It allowed a way into a very intricate and scary project with a little more lightness. It took me 17 chapters to realize that it needed to be prose.”
Fitch has a long-standing tradition of having bookstores sign her touring copy. Prairie Lights signed the touring copy of her first novel, White Oleander, at her reading in 2000. White Oleander was an Oprah Book Club pick and a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. It was later adapted into an award-winning feature film.
Prairie Lights also signed her touring copy of Paint It Black when she made her second appearance at the bookstore. She is excited about making her first appearance at the Iowa City Public Library, through Prairie Lights.
“It is a fabulous bookstore, and it is a real honor for a writer to be invited to Prairie Lights,” Fitch said.
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn