I’m not very good at air travel and tend to use trains for most of my holidays (I’ve just come back from a trip to Florence via Zürich and Turin all done by train). Obviously some of this is down to not being a very good passenger on planes but some is also down to environmental concerns – and of course the longer, slightly slower journey is (usually) much more relaxing and gives me lots of time to read. I think you know me well enough by now to know which of these things is most important to me? Of course, this does mean that I am slightly limited to the nearer bits of Europe, unless I take much longer holidays, but again I don’t have a problem with that. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy have all done me proud on food, drink and art and I don’t ask for much more than that in life. There are other places I would like to visit – including Russia (but I suspect more for art and history than for the food and drink: I don’t like vodka…) and more of Scandinavia (to see if they are all as quirky as their novels suggest!).
One of the appeals of Russia would be the art – from the architecture of the cathedrals, through the glittering icons and the contents of the Hermitage and, particularly, the art produced after the 1917 revolution. And it is this avant-garde art which features so strongly in Charlotte Hobson’s novel. The story centres around Gerty Freely, a young Englishwoman who travels to Moscow to escape her family and to work as a governess in the months just before the outbreak of the Great War. She is welcomed into the Kobelev family, who seem warm, modern and intellectual – you soon see that they are the family Gerty wants rather than her own dictatorial father and dismissive mother. Of course war soon makes itself felt, but not so much for the relatively wealthy and well-connected Kobelevs, and then the revolution. This is a far more sweeping event and the horrors of those early years, the hunger, fear and panic, are well described. The other key character is the vanishing futurist of the title – Nikita Slavkin – who combines the avant-garde with new discoveries in physics.
This is a love story but also, it seems, a fairly accurate historical description of what it could have been like to live in those dangerous days. I was certainly left contemplating the differences between Communism (which seems to me to make absolute equality its key factor) and more modern Socialism (which for me is mainly concerned with fairness rather than mere equality) – but it is a very interesting book which draws you in with the story but leaves you with a head buzzing with art, philosophy and political thought. Even if I don’t make it Russia I am going to be investigating the art produced there in the early years of the 20th century.