NOVEMBER 5, 2019
SARA WHEELER IS a canny, first-class travel writer. Mud and Stars, her tour of 19th-century Russian writers’ homes, marks her return to Russia, the upper ends of which she covered so well in The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle (2011). Wheeler mostly keeps her assessments of Russian literature modest. Rather than trying to match the exuberance and wit of Viv Groskop’s The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, she seems to tamp down her arch personality, and as patiently as a cat allows her co-travelers, guides, and hosts to reveal themselves:
Sasha had worked as a tour guide in Moscow. She regularly conducted groups around Stalin’s grave […] “I remember,” she told me, “taking an old woman round. She recounted that she used to work in a thread factory, and stole some thread to make clothes for her brothers and sisters. For this crime she went to the gulag for seven years. ‘But,’ this old woman said, ‘it taught me not to steal, so that was a good thing.’” It was difficult to know what to take from this anecdote. Sasha was like a machine which, once set in motion, lost control of its brakes.
Traveling in Russia daunts but never deters Wheeler. With her husband and sons (ages 11 and 15), she ventures to the Caucasus and Sochi to catch up with the great Romantic novelist and poet Mikhail Lermontov’s ghost. Solo, she takes the train partway across Siberia in winter. She had wanted to reach the island of Sakhalin by following in the footsteps of Chekhov, but he went across Siberia in summer, much of the way by cart. (Chekhov is her favorite writer, and she had already shown her appreciation for him in The Magnetic North; here she even recycles a few pages from that book.)
Indeed, Wheeler sometimes seems the intrepid star of a comic travel show. On the Siberian taiga,
We stopped for the driver, Sergei, to take a bathroom break in the woods. He had taken a dislike to me. “What would you have done,” he asked, “if it were minus thirty, which it might well have been, and you were wearing those light trousers?” I said that the fabric was high-tech and I had worn the trousers in the Arctic, and showed him my merino leggings underneath, and two pairs of thermal socks. At this news he changed tack. “Far too much for this mild weather.”
The estates and homes she visits are for the most part outside of the cities, and what she finds is attractive: “The state has preserved [Pushkin’s Trigorskoye] house and opened it to the public. Russians revere the role of the writer — he or she occupies a kind of vatic position — and their record on such matters as the preservation of writers’ houses is commendable.”
Just as Ian Frazier so supremely does in Travels in Siberia, Wheeler time travels back and forth from present to past. The present, though, is always the more immediate, livelier, more chaotic environment in her book. She declares: “There is no such thing as the Russian soul, or perhaps even Russian culture — it’s too big a country: one-sixth of the earth’s landmass, and it’s too diverse and too socially divided.” Even so, she happily generalizes all over the place: “Russians can seem unfriendly, and rarely ask questions (a Greek will have details of your divorce out of you in five minutes). But they are often generous.”
She can take in and do seemingly anything and have it all stick together. Here, for instance, are her funny and inspired notes on taking language courses in London and Moscow:
I had been making slow progress learning Russian, and was apt to get demoralised. Following my euphoric discovery that there was only one past tense, my tutor hit me with the concept of aspect (whether an action, event, or state denoted by a verb is specific and finite or not, and whether or not it brings about a change of state. Yikes). “To go” had four versions: going by foot and by transport were different, as were going repeatedly and going in a way that was already over and done with after one journey. A cauchemar, as they say in French and Russian.
She is just as amusing, and illuminating, when describing the meals she encounters on her travels and then tries to recreate at home: “I was missing Russia and struggling with my work, so in the dreary evenings of a London winter I turned again to cooking a la russe,” a practice which eventually annoys her sons. “Made beef stroganoff. After spending £9 on fillet of beef I misread the recipe and put too much butter in the sauce, then put too much flour in to counteract it, then more butter to counteract that, and so it went on.”
There are a couple of moments when she, a 30-year veteran of writing about her distant travels, knows she has found kindred spirits in the Russian geniuses. In Dostoyevsky she sees “a tender man”: “[W]hen separated from the family he could not bear to see other people’s children playing in the street. The worst part of travel is the sight of ordinary people doing ordinary things, like paying bills or watching their children kick a football.” She speaks from experience. Wheeler has written insightfully about her profession in Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2010, but now she finds that Nikolai Leskov, author of the great novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, has given her the perfect image to describe it: “At the outset of his story ‘The Pearl Necklace’ he reflects on the way travel generates writing material. ‘There’s simply no getting away from impressions. And they sit thick in you, like yesterday’s kasha…’”
As for Tolstoy, my own favorite, with whom Wheeler concludes her tour, I think she must have been a little weary at Yasnaya Polyana; she stumbles over a few details and lets glibness get the better of her: “In fact, Tolstoy didn’t like women very much — though you could say he didn’t like anyone.” No, you really couldn’t say that. However misogynistic Tolstoy could sound, he had a range of loves and adored his friends, Chekhov among them.
Wheeler doesn’t date her trips, but she says that there was a two-year gap where she wasn’t doing any writing. Aside from the fact that her husband became her ex-, nothing is explained. She merely writes: “These pages give form to the vanished years. I was in the mud, and my writers were the stars.” (The line, and the book’s title, are derived from Ivan Turgenev’s story “Enough”: “Sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars.”) She’s less apt now to assert her persona than in her earlier writings, and I like her even more for it. In her 30s and 40s, she was for me like that occasionally too-loud friend whose remarks you would prefer to remain at the volume of intimate conversation.
She’s happiest, and so are we, when she’s on a train:
They were typical fellow passengers (as I was to learn): frosty at first, they quickly thawed. I offered picnic contributions, and the three of us talked while eating piroshki (small meat turnovers), kolbasa sausage and of course cucumber, as the butterscotch light of a late midsummer evening settled over Zelenograd, a Russian silicon valley, and after that on swatches of forest, the odd factory, and sharp-roofed chalets set in fields of purple flowers. The train continued to move slowly, often stopping for long periods. I didn’t care. What could be more agreeable than watching Russia roll by?
Maddening personal corrections by the Russians she meets and the lack of courteous restraint make for very funny moments. In Moscow, having visited the most excellent house-museum of Gogol, Wheeler returns to her homestay nearby and proudly tells her hostess Tamara (presumably in Russian), “I have been to Gogol’s house.”
We were sitting in the kitchen drinking tea and watching a quiz show. A row of soft toys sat atop the humpbacked TV.
“No, you haven’t. Museums are closed on a Monday.”
“I was lucky that this particular museum is open on a Monday.”
“It must have been Gorky’s house.”
“No, it wasn’t.” I got out my ticket, date-stamped, and several cards I had purchased.
Tamara is still unconvinced; after they watch on Wheeler’s computer a 1926 silent movie of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat,” “she produced a spiral-bound street map of Moscow, with an index at which she was pointing. ‘Look, there is no Gogol house. Here is a Gorky house.’ I lay down on the kitchen lino, and closed my eyes.”
Wheeler is wonderful company. I hope Mud and Stars inspires hardy souls to visit these literary sites. “I will not say the holiday was easy to organize,” she cautions. “Like anything off the beaten path in Russia, it was not for the faint-hearted.” I’ll second that. So either learn Russian (it’s fun but terribly difficult!) or hire a guide, and I’ll meet you there.