The pen might be mightier than the sword, but the typewriter is a loaded bomb.
Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer tells the story of the Governor of St Petersburg and his family following his decision to close the state university due to student unrest during the early twentieth century. The family soon receives a death threat, so they hire a bodyguard for the Governor – but even the bodyguard has a secret agenda, and it may cost the Governor his life.
The Last Summer is a novel made up completely of letters sent between the family members, and from Lyu, the young bodyguard to his friend Konstantin. The choice to structure the novel like this was surprising at first, but a unique way of telling a story such as this. Most novels I have read surrounding the early stirrings of the Russian Revolution have relied on action and dialogue, but to have this story completely rendered through letters gave a depth of insight into each character that I have not encountered in a novel about political and social unrest as this.
I haven’t read an epistolary novel like this in a long time, and even then, most of the epistolary novels I have read have only been framed by letters, rather than told completely by them. The short format of this novel allows for these letters to tell the whole story uninterrupted without seeming too dense, and I think that is why this story works so well. If the novel had been longer, I don’t think that this format would have worked, but the concise writing and cleverly hid details show that Huch really knew what she was doing.
I won’t lie – this book still requires serious concentration while reading it. Part of this is because of the book’s reliance on correspondence to tell the story, and unless you are really paying attention, you can easily forget who is writing to whom and why the little details they share with each other are important. But if I am going to be honest, part of the reason I needed to concentrate so hard was due to the characters’ unfamiliar names. Given that I am not so great at picking up Russian names, I found the letters hard to follow in some places, simply because I was confused as to who was who, but once I picked it up, I had no issues whatsoever.
Whilst this is a novel that centres on the aftermath of highly charged political events in the early twentieth century, it is clear that this novel is largely about people – how they interact with one another, how families are changed by individual action and how they choose their loyalties. This theme comes through particularly strong with Lyu, who despite his goals, quickly became my favourite character. Although we hear from Lyu less frequently than the family he has infiltrated, it is him we see most often, and by seeing him through the eyes of others, we get the greatest picture of him. Whilst he is ultimately plotting the assassination of the Governor, it is clear that in his plotting, he deeply cares for the family. He is one of the most flawed yet most empathetic characters I have come across, and it was strange to feel such empathy for the character committing the novel’s bad deeds. Unlike most books about class clashes, neither the Governor’s upper class family or the students and their supporters are written as the ‘bad guys’, and it is exactly this sentiment that underpins the novel. It is impossible to choose a side in the novel simply because we know both sides too well to see the other as undeniably wrong. Both sides are incredibly complexly constructed, forcing the reader to confront the complexity of human behaviour and action. It reminds me of something author John Green is known for saying – “We have to imagine people complexly” – and Huch has succeeded in making her readers notice how incredibly complex human relationships and loyalties are in the grand scheme of human behaviour.
Towards the end of the novel, Lyu writes perhaps my favourite line in the whole novel:
“We have as little power over people as we do over the stars; we see them rise and set according to their engrained laws.”
For me, that is exactly what The Last Summer is about – trying to understand the people around you and realising that you have precisely no power to do so. It is amazing that in such a short novel, Huch has accomplished something that many authors take hundreds of pages to say. People are complex creatures, and nothing is quite clear about them except that they only become more complex the closer you look.
The Last Summer is available in all good bookstores, or directly from Peirene Press. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores and support independent press.
Thank you once again to Peirene Press for sending me a copy of The Last Summer. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.
© Hayley New 2017