The French feminist Hélène Cixous once said that women must write as if there is no one to correct them. In the post #MeToo reality, it feels as if we are getting closer to the time when there would be no need to remind ourselves of that. In the meantime, Yelena Moskovich keeps this line close to her when she writes, and it shows.
To call Moskovich’s latest book, Virtuoso, a feminist novel, or an LGBTQ+ novel, or a political, immigrant, or phantasmagorical novel, would be to strip it of all other layers. It is all that and much more. Above everything else, it is a woman’s world, and not one of cosy yoga retreats or glossy magazines or Mumsnet but of the unspoken permission that Moskovich’s characters give themselves to be whatever they want.
Virtuoso’s cast is diverse: Aimee, a French medical secretary, who is married to Dominique, a not-too-successful actor. Zorka and Jana, two girls growing up in the last years of the dying communist regime in Prague, who find each other again in Paris. Amy, an isolated and bullied teenager from Wisconsin, and an Eastern European housewife Dominika, who fall in love in a lesbian chat room. Stranger characters and concepts make an appearance, too. Homesick children who may or may not be real but who seem to enter a person’s consciousness through their anus, which at some point is referred to as a muscle that, just like the heart, exists in order to exercise love. A newly-invented mattress that can sustain a patient between life and death, and its distributor who seems keen to assemble the cast at a mysterious Parisian bar at Rue de Prague. They bring an element of absurdity to the novel, and in a genius way keep the reader guessing long after the last line. Without this phantasmagorical element, Virtuoso would still be a brilliant read. The relationships between the women, as well as between them and their environments, are enough to sustain the reader’s interest, but it is the weird stuff that brings the extra depth. Done so subtly that one can read on without paying too much attention to it until the very end, when it explodes in our faces, the fantastical parts of the novel are what lingers, and also what creates the most confusion, causing the reader to reconsider everything that has just happened.
Moskovich was born and spent some of her childhood in the Soviet Union, before immigrating with her parents to Wisconsin in 1991. This other life is reflected in the characters of the Eastern Europeans who populate the novel, homesick for the countries that don’t exist anymore, stuck between their imagined Europe and the Soviet mentality that still tries to keep a hold on them. The duality of Moskovich’s native Russian and her adopted English creates a language that is rich, sensual and, in its lingering Russianness, blunt and precise.
The structure of the novel, circular with a regular refrain that accumulates everything that has happened previously, creates the impression of a folk song, or a nightmarish suspension that happens when we are half-asleep, caught in a repeating pattern of our brain’s making. This creates layers of meaning and possible connections. If you have ever experienced a semi-nightmare and then spent days or months thinking back to it, guessing at what’s beneath the surface of your consciousness, you will recognise the feeling that comes from reading Virtuoso.
Any Cop?: Virtuoso is a powerful read, strange enough to linger and raw in its beautifully precise, evocative language.