This book came from a period in the early nineties when for a time it appeared that I was going to become an internationally famous author with a project called Lara’s Child. It ran into legal problems and came to nothing very much, but it caused me to become – as I joked at the time – “The Greatest Living Nineteenth Century Russian Author Writing in English”. The failure of the project caused the manuscript of the present book to be put in a drawer for twenty years while I wrote a series of other books. I suspect most authors have unpublished manuscripts with their own histories.
My favourite novels, such as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, attempt to describe the long arc of an entire life rather than resolve the problems posed by a particular incident or situation as a thriller writer might do. Somewhat to my own surprise, Irina’s Story is the only instance where I have attempted this form of novel. I suspect it is because an entire life is a more vaguely bounded concept by comparison with the more sharply drawn scenarios that frame most plots, and so appropriate themes come less readily to mind.
The book posed three major technical problems and the Reader may want to consider how well I deal with them,
The first is that there is a large cast of characters, each of whom has a personal history that interacts with those of the other characters and with the overall historical timeline. Under those circumstances, you may have expected that I would have worked out all these histories and interactions schematically before embarking on the writing, but in fact that isn’t so. Instead I allowed the histories to emerge organically, each incident arising because it seemed to me the natural consequence of what had gone before. You must understand that it was only by creating the characters that I got to know them.
The second technical problem was the demanding research encompassing many areas. “Twentieth century Russian history” is not a just description of the requirement because the detail goes beyond that found in general histories. Among the subjects I had to study in detail were the last decade of the Autocracy, the opening military campaign of the First World War, the Revolution, the Terror, the siege of Leningrad and, most obscurely, the communities of Old Believers in Siberia. Ideally I would like to thank and acknowledge the authors and historians whose work provided me with this information, but unfortunately, after a lapse of twenty years, I simply cannot remember where I got all this stuff from. My gratitude remains real.
Concerning research, some authors – William Boyd for example – do theirs as a prelude to writing. I did not and never have. Once I have come by an idea that enthuses me, I want to get on with the writing, and the research necessarily goes hand in hand with the development of the book. The other obstacle to doing advance research is uncertainty as to where the story will ultimately go. An example in this case is Nikolai’s stay among the Siberian Old Believers. When I began I had no knowledge of the Old Believers’ fate after the eighteenth century. It was a book that I read out of general interest that introduced me to the fascinating tale of their communities in Siberia, and only later did I realise that the logic of Nikolai’s character and history made it plausible that this was where his life would end.
One question for the Reader is whether you think the book is under-researched or over-researched. In general I believe that nine tenths of what one discovers should be ignored in favour of the sparse use of telling details: certainly when it comes to creating settings and atmosphere. The characters have to exist naturally in their background, and over-use of information can create the impression that one is getting the guided tour rather than seeing people living in a familiar environment. History is a different matter and poses the problem of what level of Reader knowledge should be assumed, given that it varies between individuals. Recently – for fun – I was reading a historical novel written by Dennis Wheatley. A feature of his technique is very heavy research, but – to my mind – he exercises little discrimination in using it and sections of his narrative read as if lifted from a school text book. To my mind this approach detracts from the author’s credibility because it conveys the impression that he does not really know all this stuff and his characters are moving on a stage rather than in the world. That said, Wheatley was enormously successful – so what do I know?
The last major problem was to create a Russian feel to the book, i.e. not merely to do the research but to apply it in a convincing way. I confess immediately that my personal knowledge is very limited. In this respect there are subtle traps. One example is the use of names. They are replete with clues as to period and class which are not obvious to outsiders. Diana, Duchess of Devonshire, is genuine and convincing. Sharon, Duchess of Wigan, is neither. An American acquaintance once recommended a fellow countrywoman to me as having a wonderful way of creating convincing British scenes. However she had her detective go into a London pub and pay for a pint with a fifty pound note, which evoked no comment (let alone a punch on the nose). I fear that someone well-versed in Russian language and culture would laugh at some of my errors. Sorry.
Most of the major characters in Irina’s Story, including the Narrator are female and, in addition to their personal histories, I have tried to describe their interior world: their thoughts, fears and aspirations as women. This is something I was to return to in later books, particularly The English Lady Murderers’ Society, but the present book is the first time I attempted the feat on a large scale. Male authors are often criticised for creating implausible women, who are mere adjuncts to the plot with no feeling of authenticity. I think the Reader should judge whether my writing is subject to the same limitation. If it is, then I would consider it a significant failing.
On re-reading the manuscript I was struck how, pretty much without exception, the women are disappointed in love and that it is because of the limitations of men. I can’t say if this is a general truth. On reflection, and bearing in mind the motivation behind my treatment of women in later books, I think that my reasons for taking this approach are personal. In life, and not merely in art, I am concerned that I should not only love but actively cherish my wife and female friends and that it is important to the happiness of men that they should study relationships and try to see things imaginatively from a female perspective. Since I have been happily married for fifty years there may be something in this. On the other hand I may be a complete idiot with a wonderfully loving and tolerant wife. So my wife tells me – and smiles as she says it.
Finally I should say something about the general ideas and ways of looking at the world expressed by the various characters. They do not represent thought-out positions that I hold to. Writing is a long and lonely business and I find myself playing with ideas and setting them down not because they are true but because I find them interesting. They are a light-hearted debate, not a conclusion.
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