Mr. Rossolowsky, who considered himself the last Russian artist on earth, fit in nicely
[on Congress Street in Portland], being poor, elderly, and a painter of landscapes and
That’s how Edgar Allen Beem helps set the stage in chapter 1, “Tranquility Man (Fall 1975),” of his novel The Russian Lesson. Serge Rossolowsky is a Russian émigré artist with a life story he dearly wants to tell. Lucky for him, the empathetic and youthful librarian Anne takes on his cause, recording his memories—and even finding him a typewriter with a Cyrillic keyboard.
While the painter hopes to be the next Solzhenitsyn, Anne lives in the thrall of Doctor Zhivago. A line she repeats to herself from Pasternak’s famous novel relates to her caring attitude toward Rossolowsky: “Man does not die in a ditch like a dog—but at home in history.”
In the course of the narrative Beem covers the twists and turns of Rossolowsky’s tumultuous life in Russia. In extended flashbacks, we accompany him through the Russian Revolution, Stalinist concentration camps, World War II on the Western front, forced labor under the Nazis, and emigration to the United States in 1951.
The painter is haunted by his past. At one point, in a spell of delusion, he imagines a “turbaned Mongol warrior” leading an army of “small hairy horses” trying to enter his hospital room. Sedatives and Anne’s comforting presence save him from a deeper psychosis.
Anne comes to the rescue on several occasions when medical issues arise or her friend has communication problems. Beem does an admirable job of rendering Rossolowsky’s hybrid Russian/German/French/English—and provides a helpful guide early on.
Anne’s take on Rossolowsky’s life story reflects an American perspective. When he describes a Red Army patrol looking for White Army sympathizers, she imagines a “Republican posse roaming her state killing Democrats.” She is sympathetic: “The intuition of our own individual death,” she muses while listening to Rossolowsky’s near-fatal experiences, “is . . . a hot, fleeting flash that pierces all thought and all sensation, stunning us with its power of reduction.”
Beem relates Anne’s life as a librarian, rather unhappily married to a clueless sports reporter with little interest in the life of a Russian painter. In the days of handwritten circulation cards, her hands cramp. She recognizes a young Stephen King, a sometime visitor to the library, with his “thick glasses and shaggy simian head.” At one point, she deals with a zealot bent on removing Kurt Vonnegut from the stacks.
Beem, who writes about political and social issues in addition to his art criticism, throws in the occasional commentary. “These days [the 1970s],” Anne ruminates at one point, “people didn’t believe in history. They believed in ghosts, werewolves, witches, mind readers, and fortune-tellers. The front page of the local paper was devoted to stories about swine flu and missing seals.”
Beem provides a bit of Russian art history in describing his character’s paintings. “What Anne had seen of Mr. Rossolowsky’s art seemed frozen in the 1950s, European street scenes and recollected Russian landscapes of Ilya Repin and Isaak Levitan. His own teacher was Alexander Villevalde.” Google these three painters and you will find examples of classic turn-of-the-20th-century Russian history paintings, portraiture, and landscape.
In another scene, Anne appraises two of Rossolowsky’s paintings. This is Edgar Allen Beem, cherished art critic, doing his thing:
They were European cityscapes in bright, free colors. His art seemed as much a product of the underlying primitivism of the Russian soul as of his impressionist training. French impressionist paintings were wonderful confections of broken color. American impressionist paintings lent the airy style a democratic freedom through the rendering of figures and muscular geographies. Mr. Rossolowsky’s impressionism used random colors to cover otherwise bleak scenes in much the way that gilt-framed pictures cover frontier walls.
The writing throughout is engaging, be it the narrative of Rossolowsky’s often desperate life in Russia or the lively dialogue—and there’s a cameo by Russian dissident poet Anna Akhmatova and a splendid retelling of the Russian fairy tale “The Firebird.” The ending brought to mind James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” where snow falls “on all the living and the dead.”
At Rossolowsky’s memorial service Anna reads a Pasternak poem that begins with these lines, “Seest thou, the passing of the ages is like a parable/and in its passing, it may burst to flame.” The Russian Lesson captures that passing, indelibly.
The Russian Lesson is based on the life of Serge Rossolowsky (1895–1976), whom Beem befriended while working at the Portland Public Library in the 1970s. In an article in Yankee Magazine, he pays tribute to a man “who had every reason to be bitter” and wasn’t. “Knowing him was a lesson in the resilience of the human spirit,” Beem wrote. “He lived a brutal life, beaten up by history, losing his freedom every time he turned around, losing his parents to the Bolsheviks and his wife and daughter to Stalin.” The two men became friends when Beem volunteered to help Rossolowsky write what the artist called “My Terrible History.” The Russian Lesson is that history. You can find out more about Rossolowsky and see some of his work on Kevin Daniel’s website (under “New England Artists”; scroll way down). Daniel includes the artist’s obituary and a review in the Portland Evening Express of an exhibition in February 1964 of Rossolowsky’s acrylic paintings at the YWCA. In an interview with the Express newspaper reporter Harrison Brown, the artist said he loved Maine. “The air, he explained, is much better than New York and easier on the lungs. And despite his long experience as a prisoner with the cruel Russian winters he still loves winter in Maine. ‘No more moving for me,’ Rossolowsky said. ‘I finish my life in Maine.’” The painter left no relatives; he is buried in Forest City Cemetery.
In a column titled “Conspicuously Unpublished” in The Portland Phoenix in February, Beem took a retrospective look at his life as a writer, focusing on works that never saw the light of print. Among his efforts in fiction, The Russian Lesson is the sole title to be published. After working on the book off and on for more than 40 years, and unable to find a publisher, he decided to bring it out himself. It is available online.
Image at top: Cover by Hannah Blackburn of The Russian Lesson by Edgar Allen Beem.