Deathless by Catherynne Valente

October 14, 2011 § 4 Comments

Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

Not all the reviews I’ll write on this blog will be so glowing as what you’re about to read, but I figured, let’s start strong.

I’ve just finished the most wonderful book. One of those reads that hardly lets you up for air, and when it does—or when you go against its wishes and come up for air regardless—you wonder how knew, what strange goblins they have working there who put that book on the “Others Who Bought Such-N-Such” List. And you wonder, too, who these Others are, so you can seek them out, and you can clasp hands and be so glad to meet them at last, at last, at last.

I never saw Deathless on any bestselling shelves, or recommended by Barnes and Noble’s intrepid staff of hand-written card-writers. It wasn’t given to me by a friend or fellow writer—it came out of the blue—or O.O.T.B, as one of my professors liked to write next to passages of confusing prose. I can’t even remember what I must have been purchasing when Amazon threw it out there. And it’s marvelous.

It combines items from a long list of things I’ve wanted to incorporate in my own writing (but never did, and may never do, nearly so well), and things that I love reading—darkly appropriated folklore, clever historical revision, an intense and complicated (oh! So complicated) female protagonist, and bare-knuckled recklessness in the face of genre and market tropes, frank sexuality, and gorgeous, spilling-over lyrical prose. Well, ok, occasionally the prose gets a tad too fancy for some tastes, but it’s in the service of a stylistic folk tale retelling, so a certain brazenness with language has to be forgiven.

Deathless makes loose work of the Russian tale of Marya Morevna, who is pursued by two “men”: the immortal Koschei and the brave (if a little dim) Ivan, the ever-hero of Russian tales. In so far as following the tale exactly, Valente includes the marriage of the sisters to birds, but they are Marya’s sisters, not Ivan’s. Valente includes the witch of all witches, Baba Yaga, but it is Marya who receives Baba’s help as well as her threats, not Ivan. Marya is met by Ivan on a field of battle, true—but not before Valente details her history with her dark and terrible husband, Koschei—a history that the tales never give us, as we’re meant to assume that Marya must want to escape such a being as Koschei from the get-go. It’s Marya’s bond to Koschei , established long before Ivan strolls over in his shiny boots, which makes this retelling so fascinating and raw.

"Koschei the Deathless 2" by NegativeAllied at Deviant Art

Koschei, whose “death” is a thing separate from him, hidden away in an egg, is just as terrifying as I remember him being in that Russian Folklore seminar I took in grad school, but he’s also alluring and sensual and, in the most opportune moments, vulnerable. Their love, which, in Valente’s novel, spans decades, is both abusive and transcendent—they attack each other because they are terrified of being without one another. Koschei is not human, but feels human pain as Marya’s lover, and Marya, who begins the novel as an innocent girl, becomes a woman who has power over him that she is not afraid to use. She works her power because she is afraid of being too far away from him and his world, even when she succumbs (as the story demands that she does) to Ivan, who has no clue what he’s in for. The novel lends itself to clever self-reference on this point, when a dying Gamayun tells Ivan his fate before he even meets Marya:

“The boyars always shave their beards. The Church always splits. The Ukraine always withers in a poison wind. But I still want to hear the world tell (the stories) the way only it can tell them. I want to quiver when the world imitates a wolf. It still has to happen for it to happen. You have already gone into that tent. You have already made off with her. You have already lost her…You will always lose her. You will always be a fool. You will always be dead, in a city of ice, snow falling into your ear.”

The novel spans Russia’s transition into a communist state in the early 20th Century, and takes us from Marya’s “Young Pioneer” youth to the siege of Leningrad. The historical background serves as a meeting place of two worlds which Marya feels pulled between—the “real” Soviet Union, and the world of magic, of the “great war” between Viy, the Tsar of Death, and Marya’s skeletal lover Koschei, the Tsar of Life. She weaves between these two worlds at her choosing, which is a refreshing change for a female fairy tale heroine—she chooses when she is carried off, so to speak—and she experiences war, tragedy, and starvation as well as passion and plenty. She becomes a soldier in both worlds and a wife in both, and thus she experiences twice the ache.

I would love to go from here and tell you everything that happens, but my real goal is to get you to read the book, so I have someone—someone!—to talk to about it. So I’ll say no more about the plot, just about a few things I found interesting, especially in this book’s relation to the genre of fairy tale retelling as it exists out there.

When I see a book that is clearly a retelling of a fairy tale, I automatically assume, in today’s market, that it’s a young adult book. No matter, I think, I’ll enjoy it anyway. And what tends to happen in the more contemporary retellings I’ve read (or seen, for oh, the fairy tale is making its way back to the screen in a big way), is that the retellings usually end up being as formulaic as the tales they are attempting to add nuance to.

What so pleasantly surprised me about reading Valente’s novel is that the further in I got, the more it separated itself from those assumptions. Deathless is less a part of the Catherine Hardewick zeitgeist, and more akin to the world of Angela Carter, the British writer who died too soon, but not before giving us gems like The Bloody Chamber, to inspire fans of the darker fairy tale for years to come. Like Carter, Valente allows her heroine to be sexual (and like it) and strong, and allows the beauty of her imagined world to grow out of blood and fur—Buyan, Koschei’s island of Life, is made up of huts constructed of human skin and hair, and rather than recoiling from this threatening landscape, Marya embraces it. What’s more important is that Valente does not allow her story to follow any formula—we are always somewhere we did not expect, despite the feeling of rightness, of familiarity that resonates throughout Marya’s journey. No tame YA novel here—and you don’t really need Baba Yaga using the C-word to clue you in.

So then, who is this book for? I couldn’t help but wonder who, besides myself, was reading this. Fairy tale retellings and fantasy are largely sold to the younger crowds, and all I ever hear from the likes of Kate Bernheimer, fairy tale expert extraordinaire, is that the readership of fairy tales in the grown-up world is diminishing, that the fairy tale needs saving. Could Deathless save it? Perhaps—but not if it only shows up, O.O.T.B on obscure recommended lists, and not on the bestseller’s shelves.

So much I could say—I despaired that I couldn’t bend the pages of this library copy, so I stuck pieces of paper throughout it, marking the places that made me weep and the places that made me remember the original story and marvel at Valente’s use of the original lines and tropes. For example, here’s an excerpt from the original fairy tale:

”Prince Ivan has come and carried Maria Morevna away,” the horse said.

”Then can we overtake them?” Koschei asked.

”You could sow barley, wait for it to grow, you could harvest and thresh it, brew beer from it, drink the beer till you were drunk, sleep it off completely and then ride in pursuit: and still we would catch them.”

And the same line in the novel (spoiler alert):

“Don’t worry,” Marya whispered, kissing his forehead. “My old bones will follow yours soon enough.”

“Wife, you could sow wheat in the rocks of Dzerzhinskaya Street, wait for it to grow, reap it, thresh it, grind it into flour, bake it into bread, and eat the bread and share it round, and even then, you could not catch me.”

And then Ivan died in her arms, his last breath spiraling up to the ceiling like cigarette smoke.

The role reversal! The catharsis!

But I won’t go on. I’ll just say this: Deathless is epic, beautiful and surprising, and full of all the best kind of aches. It stuck with me all the while I read it, and it is still sticking with me days afterward. Read it. Then find me. I want to discuss.

An excerpt:

Another (more brief) review: (A note: this reviewer mentions that in the original tale Ivan and Marya are brother and sister, which is not true, though he can be pardoned for his mistake, since one of Ivan’s sisters is indeed named Maria (Marya), but it is not the same woman.)


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§ 4 Responses to Deathless by Catherynne Valente

  • Emily says:

    I’ve only read the first three paragraphs, and the last, of this post — but that’s because you sold me so completely that I don’t want to risk spoiling the fun. I’ll see if I can find it at the trusty CML!

  • Deathless was my second attempt to read a book by Valente and, unlike the first, I did manage to finish it. We can agree her writing is impressive but I find the narratives fail to impress. In this case, I think she forgot what she had initially planned to write about, namely Russian fairy tales. About halfway through she takes off into the broader landscape of politics, subverting the feminist fantasy by an interrogation of whether communism can be as successful as capitalism. The residual feminism and political analysis then become didactic and somewhat tedious. It’s a shame really. I have found one short story by her where the narrative is as good as the writing but I think I will pass on her work from now on.

  • […] of Koschei the Deathless, set during the siege of Leningrad (you can read my full review of that here). In 2014, we’ll be treated to Matroyshka, a companion novel, which I can only hope means […]

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