New East Digital Archive

8 Eastern European summer love novels to make your heart flutter

8 Eastern European summer love novels to make your heart flutter
Beach in Batumi, Georgia. Image: Ruslan Petrov, via Unsplash

From Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel on his first love to modern tales of entanglement, we’ve got your literary summer romance covered

25 June 2020

If you believe the movies, falling in love in the summer is the easiest thing in the world. Overcrowded body of water? Check. Suitably retro car? Check. 80s synth-pop? You’re on your way. As hackneyed as these depictions are, there are good reasons that romance and its sultry lover, summer, are often hanging on each other’s arms.

Summer, like love, doesn’t always reflect our idealised visions — a reality we are experiencing globally, as we ease out of lockdown across the world. And love, like the summer, can sometimes vanish in an instant, leaving only the torturous scent of something that was but no longer is.

We all strive for the kind of love that Vladimir Nabokov wrote about in his letters to his lifelong companion, Véra: “You came into my life — not as one comes to visit (you know, “not taking one’s hat off”) — but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.” But rarely does it fall so gracefully into place.

With this in mind, we look at eight books that complicate the neat tableau of summer love. These are love stories — romantic and familial — of shaky beginnings and uncertain ends, love stories where heat is found not only in bodily intimacy but in political turmoil and the violence of war, where solitude is as necessary as contact. From Baku to Berlin, Latvia to Dagestan, these love stories remind us that love is not a product to be bought when summer comes around once more, but something that manifests in infinitely unexpected ways which, just like summer, produces blistering moments of joy.

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

In the foreword to the English translation of his debut novel Mary, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov describes the eponymous Mary as a “twin sister” of Tamara, the pseudonym of Nabokov’s real-life first love, Mary. If Tamara is Mary, then Nabokov, in the book Mary, is Ganin, a Russian emigré living in a humdrum boarding house in Berlin, who, upon seeing a photo of his first love, plunges into a vortex of nostalgia. Exploring some of French philosopher Henri Bergson’s ideas on pure and habitual memory, Ganin is faced with an existential question: live in the comfortable illusion of the past, or mourn what is lost and move on? Written shortly after Nabokov’s own exile from Bolshevik Russia, this tension between mourning and melancholia appears as political, as it is personal.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said

The identity of Kurban Said is one of the literary world’s great mysteries. Though competing theories still exist, it is widely considered that Said is the nom de plume of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish writer who grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, who also posed as an Arab noble in Weimar Germany under a second false identity, Essad Bey. Authorship concerns aside, Ali and Nino is an enchanting tale of a noble Azerbaijani boy and a Georgian princess, who fall in love in the years leading up to Baku’s capture by the Bolsheviks. A story of love and its inexorable obstacles, it equally reads as a devastating love letter to Said’s vanished city and vanquished childhood home.

The Flight by Gaito Gazdanov

Come for the surrealist cover image, stay for the heady glamour of the French Riviera. The setting of Russian author Gaito Gazdanov’s summertime masterpiece The Flight is greatly at odds with the dreary Kafkaesque Paris of his novels The Buddha’s Return and The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, for which he is best known. Centred around the young Seryozha, who falls for his aunt Liza, also his father’s mistress, the book’s quasi-Oedipal plot plays out in the lush foothills overlooking Cannes. Gazdanov’s primary concern, however, is not the Provençal landscape, but rather the changing inner topography of his characters, which he evokes with his lyrical, attentive prose, and the occasional éclat of French chit-chat.

Days in the Caucasus by Banine

“To accept the world and love it just as it is — herein lies the glory of mankind,” writes Azerbaijani author Ummulbanu Asadullayeva in her book Days in the Caucasus, first published in French in 1945 under the pseudonym, Banine. This is easier said than done, however, particularly when the man you fall in love with is a Soviet commissar, and you are the daughter of an imprisoned Azerbaijani oil tycoon. Even more so, when you are then married off to a man you don’t love. Days in the Caucasus is a memoir with a poetic temperament, offering an exquisite portrait of an idealistic young girl in oil-rich Baku, caught up in the terror of revolution and war.

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci

My Cat Yugoslavia follows the parallel lives of Bekim, a lonely student in present-day Finland, and his mother, Emine, who fled the Balkans during the 1990s. This is no ordinary story, however. Upon meeting a Tina Turner-singing cat in a gay nightclub, Bekim strikes up a relationship with this charismatic creature, further complicated by Bekim’s live-in boa constrictor. As a lively counterpoint plays out between these characters — each marginalised and trapped, in their own way — Statovci traces the unhappy union of his mother Emine and her husband Bajram, neatly joining these two worlds with an admixture of sorrow and hope.

Read our review of My Cat Yugoslavia here.

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Soviet Milk is narrated by two nameless women, a mother and a daughter, as they struggle to survive in Soviet Latvia. This is a book about the personal effects of political oppression: “My milk was bitter: the milk of incomprehension, of extinction. I protected my child from it,” says the mother. Soviet Milk is an unsettling novel, asking what it means to raise a child into a culture of fear and terror, while offering a tender portrait of the mother-daughter bond through a beautifully crafted mirroring of their lives.

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva

A bride and a groom – simple right? But Alisa Ganieva, who won Russia’s Debut Prize in 2009 under a male pseudonym, doesn’t do simple. Nor do Marat and Patya, the protagonists of her novel Bride and Groom, as they negotiate high-flying careers in Moscow, and the domestic expectations of their families in Dagestan. As the characters navigate personal ambition and the weight of cultural tradition, Ganieva shows the difficult task of nurturing love in the context of oppressive binaries, an idea with relevance that extends well beyond the balmy hills of this mountainous republic.

Read an extract of Bride and Groom here.

Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan

You’re never too old to fall in love, and neither is Anatolia Sevoyants, who, at the beginning of Three Apples Fell from the Sky, lays down to “breathe her last”. A tale of Sleeping Beauty, however, this is not. Rather, Russian-Armenian author Narine Abgaryan tells a story of transgenerational trauma through multiple women who live in the village of Maran in the Armenian highlands. While remote and off-the-gird, Maran is afflicted by a series of strange phenomena, seemingly of cosmic origin. Against a backdrop of loss and grief, Three Apples bristles with a sense that hope is never lost.

Read our review of Three Apples Fell from the Sky here.

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