Deathless (Leningrad Diptych #1) by Catherynne M. Valente

There’s no denying that this is a beautifully written book. Catherynne M Valente takes Russian and Slavic folktales and melds them with Russian, particularly Leningrad, history of the early 20th century. Her descriptions of falling in love and of the secret languages and compromises of marriage make for compelling, wholly believable and empathetic reading.

And yet, and yet. When I find myself disliking a book but not actually able to elucidate why, I tend to turn to other reviewers to see if they felt similarly but had an easier time of describing their discomfort. In the case of this book, especially, that helped a lot. Many other reviewers, especially those of a Russian/Slavic heritage, brought up the issue of cultural appropriation. I can’t really speak to the authenticity of her work, to how Russian it really is (a bit more on that later) but I can tell you that when she talks about life and power, my entire being rebels at the ideas she’s presenting as, if not somehow good and aspirational, at least acceptable, even romantic.

I’m not even sure if the rest of this discussion counts as spoiler-y because Deathless is less a story than a whole lot of metaphors layered and strung together. Quite artistically, granted: there’s no doubt that Ms Valente writes beautifully. Essentially, a young woman — no. A girl in Leningrad falls in love with Koschei the Deathless, who here is presented as the Tsar of Life, a god/archetype who represents the long, grinding, materially rich but ultimately despairing fate of all mortals: to succumb to his brother, the Tsar of Death. Life is presented not as a gift but as a burden, not as a source of joy but a font of pain. It is made out to be grotesque. And yes, it is all these things, but it’s also so much more. Life is endless possibilities and hope and renewal, but that is rarely (if ever!) brought up in this book. To a certain extent, Deathless was very much like a long discussion with my depressive Bulgarian friend, Slav: he and I are not unfamiliar with the trope of the Eastern European as nihilist, one he occasionally propagandizes for all he’s worth. But his lived experience is not the only kind of Slavic experience, and that lack of diversity in a book that claims to retell the folklore of the region is, at best, disquieting.

That was my issue with her representation of Life. Now we get to the even more problematic representation of Power. Politically, I thought she did a good job, but when it came to the personal relationships, I was, once more, aghast. The creepiness of the romance between Marya and Koschei aside (honestly, it felt a lot like a better written, more explicitly fairy tale version of 50 Shades Of Grey,) I really, really hated the oft-bandied idea that the main concern in marriage is “Who rules?” I’ve been married for 7 years now, more or less successfully: my husband and I get along quite well, and we have three wonderful children we’re devoted to. We have never engaged in the insane power struggles that define the romantic relationship at the heart of this book. Our marriage recognizes each other as individuals, and we try to be good to one another while still honoring our own needs. We don’t make threats and ultimatums like Marya and Koschei (and later Ivan) do because that is all toxic bullshit. We’re not a perfect couple by any means, but we’re in a far, far healthier place than the self-destructive insanity of the main romances depicted in this book.

And it’s not like I think bad marriages shouldn’t be depicted in popular culture. I loved the dysfunctional marriage at the heart of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because it was never romanticized. Marriage can be a shitshow, but representations of such should be considered a cautionary tale, not a love for the ages. Which is why it was even more perplexing when Ms Valente would write so movingly about the compromises of matrimony. Any relationship involves a push and pull, but the healthy ones aren’t about controlling your partner: two vastly differing concepts that Ms Valente never reconciled in this book.

And then the book just sort of ended, and I was all “Ugh, I have to read another book to get an actual story out of this?” Maaaaaybe I will, eventually? There’s no denying that Ms Valente has some great ideas and a lovely style, but her endorsement of mentally unhealthy attitudes (wrapped up in a vaguely “oh but this is just how Russians are” veneer) really bothers me. I really wanted to like this book, but instead I’m kinda grossed out.

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  1. Does she locate the story in a particular part of Leningrad’s history? Because the time of the NEP is really different from the Purges is really different from the War, etc. I’m not even sure how you combine Leningrad and timelessness because the name itself is so temporally bound. Even if maybe the Brezhnev years sometimes felt as if time had stopped.

    Or is she riffing off of how the supernatural sometimes just wanders into modern Russian lit? Bulgakov, most famously. Fully agreeing that there isn’t any one way of being Russian, and hoping that she doesn’t write as if there were.

    The Wolfhound Century trilogy is a good example of a non-Russian writer setting a story in a very Russia-like place, with depth and sympathy and interest. Higgins’ books also start out as a police procedural in a fantastical world, which is still another thing. “Cultural appropriation” worries me; on the one hand, I know some of the history that’s being referenced with the term; on the other, I can see it lending itself to a lot of boundary policing, and at the end of the train of thought is a station that says writers can only write about things they know directly, or at a stretch, about groups they belong to. And if that holds, where will we get our sentimental Victorian novels about cannibalistic dragons?

  2. So I’ve read the first book of The Wolfhound Century, and I definitely didn’t have the issues I had with this book. Maybe because TWC was written primarily as one man’s struggle in a place that is Russian-flavored but not explicitly Russia. It’s not written as a blanket “hello, here is Russia” as Deathless is. Valente takes the folklore and history of Leningrad throughout all those eras you mention (yes, all) and melds them together, and since my primary source of information about that place and those times was a v excellent Russian cookbook/memoir (Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen, which goes from 1910 to present day Russia,) I’m quite willing to have her mastery of the facts stand unchallenged. But it really annoyed me that every shitty thing in the book felt passed off as “well, that’s just how Russia is.” I fully understand the complaints of people who say she took their heritage and legends and stomped on them in order to profit herself <-- which is pretty much the textbook description of cultural appropriation. One criticism that especially stuck with me is how the Marya Morevna of legend is a huge badass, but the Marya of this book is a fairy tale Anastasia Steele. It's a curious ratcheting down of the awesome to fit a depressive, nihilist Slavic stereotype for the consumption of the Western masses. And I agree with you that "cultural appropriation" is a term that gets thrown about way too easily -- I prolly wouldn't feel comfortable using it here seeing as I am not Eastern European myself if I wasn't 100% certain that people of actual Russian/Slavic heritage were offended by her use of their heritage for her book. But writers shouldn't be impervious to criticism, and cultural appropriation is certainly a valid one. Boundary policing isn't the issue here, however (and I'm not convinced that it's the slippery slope you fear): no one is saying she shouldn't be writing about Russia, only that they don't like what she's written because, for all her excellent style, she's written a surprisingly un-nuanced look at what it means to be Russian (compounding this injury by dressing it up in Russian folklore, no less.) I'm not even sure she meant to write a book about Russian identity, but that's the risk inherent in using cultural archetypes: it takes an extremely wise and talented author to separate these representations of a people from the people themselves, especially when you're trying to write a more intimate story as she is here. I've been contrasting it in my head with Dick's The Man In The High Castle, which was at once an excellent study of life in an Asian colony and how people adapt to that, and yet very much averse to being representative of all American and Japanese culture, fantastical or otherwise. And it makes me want to read American Gods soon, as I know that's in somewhat the same vein but not really (tho I've never been much of a Gaiman fan, so I'm going into it rather warily.) Anyway, I'm curious to hear your thoughts should you pick up Deathless. I wouldn't ordinarily recommend this book to the average reader, but I know it touches on a lot of your interests, and I always enjoy reading your opinions.

  3. Idk why my reply is devoid of paragraph breaks. They were certainly there when I hit to button to post!

  4. If I read them, then I’ll definitely wait until both are available, since I still haven’t read either her last Fairyland book or Radiance.

    Ok, I can definitely see taking a blanket “here is Russia” approach as problematic. Though I think “blanket” is doing most of the work there. If you can write “here are some Russians” and even “here are people doing some things that have been characteristically Russian,” then that should be fine, even if you are an outsider.

    I admit to feeling uneasy about The Tsar of Love and Techno, not so much for the blanket approach, but for making something beautiful and so exquisitely crafted out of things as ugly as Russia’s war in Chechnya and life in the far north. But I’m not sure what the alternative is. The word that keeps coming back to me is “unearned,” but (a) I am not sure what I would mean by “earned,” (b) if it’s great art, I am not sure the creator’s actual background should matter, and (c) I want there to be space for people to write about cultures that are not the ones they come from.

    It’s also on my mind because stories from Georgia’s history would be great to tell to an audience outside of Georgia. But I also know that there is determined boundary policing there, from people very determined that Georgian history means only one thing. I see that in the States a lot, too. Less so in Germany, for fairly obvious reasons.

    So yeah, I have thoughts, but they are not settled.

    (Now let’s see if my paragraph breaks fare any better than yours.)

  5. Oh certainly. One is always welcome to discuss one’s lived experiences, or even imagined ones (alluding back to your concern regarding boundary policing,) but to pretend that such are universal experiences for a real culture one is not a part of makes me go naw. But we’re arguing interpretations of a book you haven’t read yet, and I’m confident that once you do, you’ll have a better idea of why I found it such uncomfortable reading. And in the long list of problems I had with the book, purported cultural appropriation certainly wasn’t at the top (tho I did really hate how she passed off really shitty concepts with the blanket “that’s just Russia.” It’s one thing to go “that’s just shitty Russians” but her tone was distinctly monolithic, which lends further strength to the arguments of those claiming cultural appropriation.) I mean, a good example of a book set in a culture that was similarly adopted by the author, that uses archetypes without presenting the book as “this is all Arabs” was G. Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen. I had problems with that book for several reasons, but cultural appropriation was not one of them as she was clearly very respectful of the culture and didn’t use it as a convenient cover for flaws in her craft.

    I haven’t read The Tsar Of Love And Techno, but if we’re talking about good writing prettying up abhorrent subject matter, one of my favorite books of all time is Nabokov’s Lolita, in large part due to his authorial voice making it clear that pedophilia is wrong, the sympathetic narrator being a pedophile notwithstanding. Good writing depends just as much on authorial attitude as it does words, I feel. It’s why Valente has been roundly accused of appropriation but Wilson not at all.

    I’m curious to know more about this boundary policing you describe with respect to Georgian and American history and culture. And your paragraph breaks are a thing of beauty: I have no idea why mine vanish so.

  6. Well, in Tbilisi some of the ultra-Orthodox went around and beat up people wearing costumes on Halloween. Holy Mother Georgia did not need that kind of Western decadence. Not all of the boundary policing there is quite as literal or as violent, but there is definitely that aspect to it.

    In America, I see it as right-of-center claiming sole possession of the nation’s history and symbols, and trying to present it as an unbroken stream of triumphs. Probably less so in books and major media, but I grew up in south Louisiana, and go back to family in Texas these days, so there’s a lot of push-back on the notion that America is anything less than perfect. For example, I’m right in the middle of a debate with a friend-of-a-friend over something as firmly established as the fact that the Red Army is who really defeated the Wehrmacht. And he’s all “Yeah, but who liberated France?” (It started over congratulating Macron.) So, monopolizing the narrative, not tolerating the slightest different perspective. Is boundary policing the right term for that?

    I was surprised to find out that Ben H. Winters, author of Underground Airlines, is not black. Maybe that just shows how little I know.

    I think nowadays I would worry about an author who said something was a universal experience of a culture, whether or not the author was a part of it. As the narrator of Underground Airlines says numerous times, “Everything happens.” (Even orderly paragraph breaks.)

  7. Lol, I’m inclined to think that’s less boundary policing and more people being stridently ignorant. It’s dreadful when that spills over into violence, but horrible people are going to find any excuse to be horrible, and one of the hardest things to argue against is nationalism, or patriotism if you’d prefer, which is why they choose that banner to wrap themselves in, to deflect criticism that they know deep down is well-deserved.

    I thought of another way to describe cultural appropriation that might help explain it better. Writing is like tourism. Most right-minded people love tourism for bringing in needed income and exposure to places that might otherwise have difficulty thriving. But no one wants visitors to come stomping around, disrespecting the locals and traditions, and then telling lies about what they’ve seen. So it’s one thing for people to come and take pictures and describe experiences, but quite another for someone to say “oh, I know better than you people so I’m going to do it my way,” disregarding the truth and common courtesy in pursuit of personal profit. Poetic license can only morally go so far. Of course, you’ve got your narrow subset of crappy people who complain about any perceived slight to their culture, such as the ultra-orthodox Georgians you mentioned earlier, but their extreme reactions don’t invalidate the fact that cultural appropriation is a legitimate problem. I haven’t read American Gods yet, but imagine if Neil Gaiman, an Englishman, had written a bunch of crappy stereotypes about America and excused his choice of depicting relentlessly horrible interpersonal relationships (let’s say, for example, that all the dudes have daddy issues) as just his characters “being American.” Now you and I both know that tho many Americans may have daddy issues, it’s not what defines us as a nation. But say his book implied that the Revolution was just an acting out against Daddy King George that molded our cultural psyche, culminating years later in us supporting Dubya in bombing Iraq to impress Bush Senior, because that’s just how Americans “are.” I’m pretty sure you’d find that offensive on quite a few levels. Not enough to beat someone up over, but definitely in our roles as critics enough to speak out against.

    And that’s what Valente does to Russia: every first- and second- tier Russian character in Deathless ascribes to a life of grotesque misery coupled with really crappy marriages, which would be forgiveable in a novel about individuals but feels like a gross misrepresentation when involving folkloric archetypes, especially since the heroine’s fate is tied to the city of Leningrad’s through the ages. Again, you really have to see how she does understand what the problem is, if you’ve never seen it firsthand.

    Also, I’m not saying you have to be a foreigner in order to misrepresent a culture, but being a foreigner is no excuse for misrepresenting a culture. Writers should write about their interests, but it’s important when they’re writing also about the interests of other people that they not gloss over multitudes in narcissistic service to their story.

    I’ve heard good things about Underground Airlines and have been meaning to read it (but I am drowning in books, as always. Regardless, I’ve placed a hold for it at the library because you mentioned it and because I’m a glutton.) I wasn’t aware the author wasn’t black either. Another good example of a white man writing as a black protagonist and not being a shitty cultural appropriator is Ben Aaronovitch writing Peter Grant in the Rivers Of London series. I recommend those books wholeheartedly.

    But now to the greater mystery: will we have paragraph breaks? I won’t know till I hit the button!

  8. That’s a useful analogy, thanks!

    Any place to start with Rivers of London? There’s that Best Series Hugo this year, and I don’t really know how to approach it very well. I will be doing very well to read the fiction and substantial chunks of the Related Works. Speaking of drowning in books. But it’s a lovely way to go, isn’t it?

  9. Start with The Hanging Tree, and then I think it just follows the novels until Book 5, after which you should also read the graphic novels (which I haven’t, argh) and then come back to book 6. I was quite intrigued by your Hugo challenge and wish I had the time! Says the person who just bought far too many books here:

    I think I have a problem. That isn’t, lately, line breaks!

  10. Humble Bundles are one way I make sure I never run out of books on my phone. I’m still going through the one I picked up two or three years back; 2300 pages of Jack Vance, w00t! And then I got the one featuring Women in Science Fiction because what a deal on books from Octavia Butler (and everyone else of course). And then there was the one on unicorns, because Peter S. Beagle…

    Infallible Wikipedia(tm) tells me that The Hanging Tree is the sixth book. Should I really start there?

    I’m going to need a different way to deal with the series nominations, I think, especially if the reader packet (presuming there is one) contains the books in Best Related Work, all of which interest me. Six novels by mid-July, definitely; I’ll probably even be able to write about all of them. Six more books for Related Work, maybe. But even denting the material in Best Series is beyond the scope of what I am likely to read. Hm.

    I also got the thirty-squazillion-word compilation of work from authors who are eligible for the Campbell, so presumably there is something from each finalist in there, too. It was free! But it’s also ginormous, makes me glad it fits in my phone.

  11. Dur, I r dum: start with Midnight Riot, or whatever it’s called in Europe (I think they had a different title for the States, but I’m so dreadfully tired, I can’t be arsed to look it up right now.) Oh, here is the Goodreads page that actually does a v good job of telling you the chronology: I envy you the ability to enjoy this all at once.

    Hahaha, yes, before the Nebula bundle, I bought the huge compilation/short stories/SFWA bundle but virtuously resisted getting anything else till just recently. I really want to dip into the collection on the Great Jones Street app, too, but there aren’t enough hours in the day!

    I want to know more about these reader packets etc. but I’m afraid they’ll draw me down a dark road of reading more books apart from ones I already own and I simply must not! Organizing my Kindle the other day was an exercise in guilt from all the books I’ve forgotten I’ve purchased: I must make a dent in them sometime sooooooon.

  1. […] by a black person, and it certainly doesn’t perpetuate awful monolithic stereotypes like Catherynne M Valente’s Deathless (which was the book that kicked off this discussion) […]

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