An unsung classic of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Karolina Pavlova's A Double Life alternates prose and poetry to offer a wry picture of Russian aristocratic society and vivid dreams of escaping its strictures.
Heldt’s translation beautifully conveys the prose narrator’s astringent tone as well as the emotional intensity of the dreamworld’s poetry ... Pavlova’s tightly constructed novel sheds light not only on Cecily’s double life, of which the heroine is unaware, but also on the double life of a society that conceals greed and ambition beneath a veneer of propriety ... The verse section of the final chapter shows the doubtful yet defiant prose narrator reflecting on her own ability to put her innermost thoughts into words that have 'crossed over to the outer world.' Her ambivalent feelings about her poetic gift are explained in Heldt’s succinct and lucid introduction: Pavlova herself was repeatedly ridiculed as unwomanly for demonstrating her devotion to her art.
How do you write a novel about boredom without being boring? A Double Life chooses a reliable strategy: a narrator who is wiser and smarter than any of the characters comments sardonically on the threadbare opulence of Cecily’s life ... The other solution this novel offers lies in the most striking aspect of its design, that is, its formally innovative combination of prose and verse ... What sets A Double Life apart is how this interpolated poetry realizes the novel’s central conceit of a woman poet’s duality ... The novel extends no promise that either art or love can provide a lasting refuge or grant meaningful freedom. Instead, it offers just a hint of that other life, just enough, perhaps, to leave a lingering sense that there is something wrong with this one.
Pavlova excels in the topography of social relations: who sits near whom and who walks with whom determine whole years of a character’s life. The breaking of a blossom or closing of the latch on a jeweled bracelet symbolizes a future life broken or encircled ... Pavlova, as unabashedly as any of the nineteenth-century male writers that were her contemporaries, makes clear in her fiction her own preferences and values in life. Thus, the novel’s attitude toward poetry is the measure of the society of the novel. When a poet suffers and is ridiculed, society is condemned ... Pavlova possesses a romanticism that is characteristic of her time but mixed with an ironic sense of reality ... The strength of this novel, as of Pavlova’s view of life, is that both merge these romantic concepts into an ultimately clear realism. The countless ironic touches...prevent the reader from becoming too lost in the enjoyment of the details of how rich aristocrats live. Similarly, as much as we could wish a happier ending for Cecily, Pavlova leaves her, and us, with the one weapon against life that does not destroy life: consciousness. The double awareness that this is the way things are and ought not to be, and the high quality of Pavlova’s narrative and poetic style, are themselves a vivid protest against the destiny of women.