I first came across Charlotte Hobson when I was a student, deeply fascinated by Eastern European history, culture and politics. She had just published Black Earth City, an account of her year spent as a student in Russia.
Though it has been quite some time since I read it – and I think I see a re-read on the horizon this summer – I do remember being absolutely drawn into her writing and devouring the book in one sitting. There might have been vodka involved too 😉 I love how even now, looking at a book spine can bring back such intense memories. Because of this experience, I was really excited to read Hobson’s first fiction book, The Vanishing Futurist, which was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It has been discussed by many of the lovely booktubers I follow and what emerged was very much a love/hate divide. I loved it.
First a warning: The Vanishing Futurist asks a lot of the reader, I think it certainly requires a passion for Russian history and politics as it is full to the brim with political comment. For me it was a perfect fit and I really enjoyed exercising my brain, remembering everything I have researched over the years. The October Revolution, and the following years, saw people actually trying to break the mould of social political thinking and I find this truly fascinating.
The story is of a young English woman, desperate to break away from the restrictions facing her in post Edwardian England, ready for freedom and an adventure of her own. She takes on a role as governess for an aristocratic family in Russia and not long after she arrives, the October Revolution happens. Gerty falls in love with a socialist revolutionary inventor named Slavkin and becomes part of a socialist commune- the Institute for Revolutionary Transformation – where its inhabitants strive to transform into true socialists. The book then tracks Gerty’s experiences, the development of communism with its many layers and Slavkin’s weird and wonderful invention of a time machine, initially constructed to bring true communism forward, combating the hardships of war as well as the often-questionable actions of the government.
I loved the portrayal of the commune in its early stages very much. The youthful, sincere passion for true social and political change, for art, for life itself, really struck a chord with my younger self. The feeling of endless possibilities and faith in the future of humanity were delicious. I also thought that the contrasting reality of the commune was excellently portrayed with selfishness, arguments, class divides, extreme poverty and sometimes hilariously absurd inclinations thrown into the mix. We see these young people as glorious yet at the same time very naïve human beings, trying to find their own sense of belonging.
The darker developments within communism are very apparent to the reader throughout the book and Hobson has an immense knowledge, which she shares in great depth with us. The sense of foreboding, of an immerging totalitarian undercurrent, is incredibly well written in my opinion. Censorship, manipulation of power and the loss of promised equality are explored intelligently; Hobson contrasts episodes of humour with devastating, stark reality for a powerful effect. Having said all this, I also believe that Hobson writes with a deep love for Russia, there is such warmth and fondness prevalent in her descriptions of the mannerisms, traditions and history of the Russian people. This book was clearly a labour of love and I know it took her years to write.
Hobson is also very keen to explore the idea of art and censorship and in the afterword, she talks about the Futurist movement at the beginning of Russia’s period of socialism. Slavkin’s creations are abstract and quite hard for a reader of today to understand. As well as the time machine, there is a propaganda machine, where a person enters and is transformed by intense images, sounds, smells and movement until they come back out a true communist. I think this makes a statement about the methods of political manipulation in itself but its farcical nature is true to the imaginings of artists at the time, wanting to break the rules and constraints previously placed upon them, opening themselves up completely to experimentation and the unknown. There is a wonderfully captured sense of freedom there, which was monumental after decades of traditionalist rule.
I also believe that Slavkin’s more and more abstract way of thinking and acting can be seen as portrayal of a man struggling with his mental health and society’s response to this. I really like how Hobson adds many layers to her writing for us to interpret and as always, I think that the intelligent exploration of mental illness is a very important thing indeed.
I admit that the plot is at times difficult to engage with, such as a rather lengthy science lecture given by Slavkin or some of the weird and wonderful methods the commune test out in order to ‘transform’ themselves into true socialists. However, for me these sections didn’t affect my overall connection with the characters or the plot, although I know for other readers this style was very dry and distant.
Aside from the politics, I loved that at this book’s heart is the very universal theme of first love with all its intense highs and lows. It also looks at unrequited love, of the power love holds and how it can be manipulated as well as how love can save you when you least expect it. I found that the final third of the book had much more of a traditional, character driven story telling element to it, it branches away from the intense political observation and social comment. It felt like Hobson was saying that in the end the art of being human prevails and is indeed the deciding factor in this crazy world.
I will leave you with Gerty’s thoughts on change when, as an old woman, she reflects on her time in Russia, followed by a memory of Slavkin talking, both of which I find poignant in our current political climate: