The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp
Russian Winter and The True Memoirs of Little K are linked in my head, like most pairings I look at in my Literary Horizon posts. While they’re set at different times, both focus on aging Russian ballerinas looking back at their lives. Russian Winter was ultimately just okay, so I was hoping for The True Memoirs of Little K to be better or, at the very least, more entertaining. Sadly, however, it turned out to be worse than Russian Winter. Yeesh.
The True Memoirs of Little K is a fictionalized account of the life of Matilde Kschessinska. On the day of her graduation performance, Kschessinska meets the tsarevich, Nicholas II, and decides to pursue him as her patron and lover. While she succeeds and begins to daydream about marrying him, reality comes crashing in when Nicholas marries Alix of Hesse after the death of his father and sets aside Kschessinska, who turns to Sergei Mikhailovich to support her. But when Alix bears daughter after daughter, Nicholas comes back to Kschessinska, complicating her life even as she delights in the attention. But when revolution comes to Russia, everything changes.
I’m not even sure where to start—there’s a lot of disappointing ground to cover. I guess the historical inaccuracies are as good a place to start as any. I’m fine with historical inaccuracies—hello, I loved The Social Network—but they have to serve the story the writer is trying to tell or, at the very least, entertain me.
By starting her novel on the day Kschessinska meets Nicholas and rushing through everything else as soon as he steps out of the picture, Sharp gives the reader the distinct impression that she thinks Kschessinska is only important or interesting because she slept with Nicholas. In fact, she invented the second round of the affair; historically speaking, their relationship apparently lasted three years in their youth before Kschessinska turned her attention to Sergei Mikhailovich and the man she eventually married, Andrei Vladimirovich. Sergei is presented as the actual love of Kschessinska’s life as a hesitant afterthought, and Andrei, who barely appears, as a dominated mama’s boy. And, for a novel about a prima ballerina assoluta—the highest and rarest honor given to ballerinas, if I understand correctly—there’s precious little about the ballet. While Sharp does glance over the politics of the theater and some of Kschessinska’s greatest feuds (rendered with no impact at all), it’s all just to fill time until Nicholas turns up at the theater or in Kschessinska’s life. Because these scenes are so flat and distracted, I was floored to discover that Sharp herself was trained as a ballerina, granting her more access to that peculiar world than the average Jane. All of this leads me to conclude that Sharp actually wanted to write a novel about Nicholas II and his family, but for whatever reason, felt she could only approach it through Kschessinska’s eyes, despite the fact that, well, fact makes Kschessinska ill-suited for a novel solely about Nicholas II. By forging ahead with it, she has mistreated Kschessinska, who, based on a cursory look into her life, appears to have been an interesting figure all on her own.
All of this is made worse by the way Sharp tells this story. Kschessinska, an old woman living in Paris in the 1970s (to be fair, the way she scowls at hippies is hilarious), sits at home and thinks over her life—her true life, since her 1960 autobiography is filled with lies. I almost admire Sharp’s disregard for the actual facts here; I mean, she’s going against what the woman she’s writing about actually said! Because of this frame narrative, The True Memoirs of Little K is not a memoir-style historical novel, but a distracted one. Worst of all, there’s a minority of dialogue and even specific scenes. You can go for pages without hearing a voice other than the elderly Kschessinska essentially outlining her life. In fact, outline is the right word—it feels less like a novel and more like a bloated outline run out of control. Other than Kschessinska and her son, Vova (take a wild guess who Sharp thinks his dad is!), you don’t get a feel for characters except what Kschessinska explicitly tells you, and she’s not a reliable narrator. I wanted to like Kschessinska, I really did; she was open about her opportunism, to the point that she explicitly mentions that she admires an Anastasia impersonator for her own. But despite her clear-eyed and greedy intentions at first, she, of course, falls head over heels for Nicholas and that relationship dominates her entire life in this novel, to the point that she hates Alix with a venom she doesn’t deserve and constantly wonders what life would have been like had she married Nicholas. (At one point, she laughably claims that she could have saved him.) She’s just not entertaining or enlightening to spend time with. And with the way this book is written and how Sharp mangles history for little to no gain, this is a book to avoid.
Bottom line: Reading The True Memoirs of Little K, which is essentially a bloated outline rather than an actual novel, can only lead the reader to one conclusion—Adrienne Sharp wanted to write a novel about Nicholas II. Why else would she only focus on the interesting prima ballerina assoluta Matilde Kschessinska when she’s sleeping with him, even when she has to twist history to keep him in her life? It’s a disservice to the woman and a disservice to the reader. Avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.