Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Catherine Le Grande

I just finished reading "Catherine the Great" by Henri Troyat.  It was an absolutely compelling biography, the sort that you can't put down, because it reads more like a novel than a scholarly work.  Occasionally, this can work against a book, and it was vexing to me that M. Troyat failed to include endnotes.  Somehow, failure to have either endnotes or footnotes always smacks of scholarly sloppiness, to me.  Otherwise, the book was thoroughly enjoyable.  This is, in large part, due to the masterful translation wrought by Joan Pinkham.

I read the book in less than 36 hours.  Of course, since I'm essentially bedridden at present, there's not much more than read that I can do.  Regardless, 36 hours to read a rather weighty and politically fraught biography is, in my mind, impressive, particularly when under the influence of powerful sedative painkillers.

M. Troyat/Mme. Pinkham succeed in bringing the reader into the world of Catherine the Great: her triumphs, her setbacks, her uncertainty.  Her mother is painted as a self-promoter and would-be political schemestress who almost ruined the marriage of Catherine to Peter III.

Through all the books' twists and turns, I think what most fascinated me was the fact that Peter III, after Catherine staged her coup d'etat, essentially rolled over and accepted his fate.  He rebelled against his usurping wife surprisingly little, particularly given his mania for all things military.

Written, by a man, "Catherine the Great" doesn't paint Catherine's strong sexuality in a particularly flattering manner, but Troyat also refrains from giving full rein to the gossipy speculation that I was subjected to in high school.  There is no mention here of the theory that she was crushed to death while attempting to have intercourse with a horse, thank goodness, although the image of Catherine lying comatose on her bathroom floor, having had an aneurysm while relieving herself, is no more flattering.  Troyat opts for the high road, in deciding not to pass moral judgment on Catherine.

I was personally surprised, not so much at the number of lovers Catherine took during her lifetime, but by their acceptance in court and by the public relationships she had with them.  I can't imagine, in all the biographies I've read, another instance when a woman was able to carry out romantic liasons publicly without fear of censure from her peers.  Perhaps because her husband was so universally loathed, it was more acceptable?

The supposition that the Empress Elizabeth encouraged her to take a lover in order to ensure that she would provide the Romanovs with an heir is astounding.  In England, at the same time, if the royal consort took a lover, it was considered treason because it jeopardized the succession. The fact that the last czar of Russia was obsessed with his Romanov heritage renders him a ridiculous character since, after Catherine, there was more than likely no Romanov blood left in the royal line.

I enjoyed the book, immensely.  Given the assumption that Mme. Pinkham translated the book from the original French in a faithful spirit, one must commend M. Troyat on his literary abilities.  That being said, Mme. Pinkham does an excellent job of drawing the reader into the book and holding him there.  Her descriptions are lively, never giving in to the tendency so many authors have of simply cataloguing things.  M. Troyat provides her an excellent basis with which to work by delving into the issues of serfdom, political revolution, and class difference that weighed so heavily on European and Western Asiatic societies at the time.  All in all, a well-rounded portrait of Catherine Le Grand and her times.

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