The Duke in His Castle
by Vera Nazarian, 2008
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
“What makes me so different from the Deity? he thinks in bitter rage. I can call up life. And with a flick of the finger I can cast down all of creation…What makes me different? Is it that someone else can come along and affect my living artwork?”
Sacrifice,” from The Duke in His Castle
Feminist fantasy within the Western tradition has had to grapple with Western fantasy’s basis in feudal European culture, overwhelmingly concerned with the inheritance of property and thus with marriage and propagation. It has left a large gap among the images of women that are available to Western feminist fantasists, especially considering that so much Western fantasy has its roots in the tales of aristocracy that preoccupied medieval storytellers. There is little about adulthood in its sexual prime. The characters in feminist fantasy are anywhere from fourteen to twenty and then suddenly become crones, with passing references at best to all that happens in the middle. Magic, as a trope for power, comes to be largely concerned with coming of age, encouraging the Jungian misapprehension that magic is about tests of maturity and life lessons rather than the human lust for power at all ages.
The absence of adult women is a commonplace in stories the world over. But the role property has had in European culture, with women as a form of property that can jump borders, has done a great deal to encourage the skip from The Tombs of Atuan to Tehanu. Our two great female writers of middle-aged patriarchal fantasy, Isak Dinesen and Marguerite Yourcenar, lived in circumstances by which they escaped the requirement that adult women of power must imitate men whether or not it makes them like men, in both senses of the word “like.” Isak Dinesen had her fling in colonial Africa and was celibate the rest of her life, mortified by syphilis contracted from her legal husband (who made her a baroness). Yourcenar was a male-identified lesbian. Both were aristocrats with a measure of independent wealth that allowed them to marry whom they chose or forego it. Today we have no shortage of feminist fantasy working with Western European tropes, but a majority of it remains limited by the absence of characters who have successfully come of age and are experimenting with adult relationships. Too often, the woman seeking grownup adventures has to disguise herself as a gendered male and the empowerment that is available to her is restricted to a successful aping of the male.
Vera Nazarian bounced down the throat of this trope in Salt of the Air, with surprising success and one story after another of androgynous or male-identified women giving men their comeuppance. She is the heir of two much-conquered Eastern Christian peoples with folk traditions in which property has had a very different role than in the European mythos. With The Duke in His Castle she has suspended her interest in androgynous women and turned, if not to urban fantasy, then to the early twentieth century’s strongly gendered equivalent of urban fantasy in the stories of Andrei Bely, the poetry of Aleksandr Blok and the spirituality of Dmitri Merezhkovsky and Vladimir Soloviev. All of these and The Duke in His Castle play the ideal of spiritual chivalry off against the complications of decadence, that is, an obsessive and aimless concern with the self. “A saucy, spiritual and sexy fable about doll fetishism and necrophilia” doesn’t quite sound right, though that is exactly what The Duke in His Castle is.
More seriously, it’s about the consequences of idolizing a love object and of fetishism in a larger sense. It owes something to the Russian idea of chivalry, which is relatively recent in Russian culture: noblewomen were kept outside the Russian royal court in separate quarters, the terem, until Peter the Great noticed their importance to Western politics. Thus Western-style chivalric imagery and idealization of women was a novelty until quite recent times and drawn on as such by Russian artists. The poet Aleksandr Blok placed his wife at the center of his mystical interpretation of Russian Orthodoxy, representing both love and spiritual wisdom (the Sophia of the Eastern church), as a nearly unattainable figure called the Prekrasnoi Dame (Beautiful Lady).
In Nazarian’s story, the love of the eponymous Duke, Lord Rossian, for Nairis, an idealized and spiritual beauty, is a way for Rossian to love what he himself becomes in adoring her: “He has been transfigured by his arcane act of making, made receptive, sensitive.” The point of chivalry was in part to tame the male. But Russian-style chivalry is different from courtly love in the Western tradition. The adoration from a distance ends in possession and when need be in violence. The alternative to that is mastery on the part of the female, quite literal. This most male-dominated of cultures is teeming with folkloric images of females whose power is identical to that of the most awe-inspiring men in the country of Potemkin and Ivan Grozny. The Tsar-Maiden and Mariya Morevna (“These are the slain of Mariya Morevna”) exemplify an image of women that is expressed more subtly in the masochism of Blok’s devotion to the Prekrasnoi Dame, expressed as distant longing because if they met he might have to prove the master. Blok’s move toward masochism and decadence is undergirded by the permanently idealized relevance of Western chivalry to Russian culture, given that the Tsar’s rule was absolute and so the Western culture of honor and obedience to a local hereditary ruler carried less weight; the chivalric effort must be asked of the self by the self. The Prekrasnoi Dame is not to be won from a real castle but from another aspect of the self.
One form of subversion, present in existing fairy tales but not much used in literary pastiche, is transference of the possessive impetus from its original object to someone else whose existence calls it into question. In The Duke in His Castle, the other main character, Izelle, serves this purpose. Izelle is not beautiful and comes dressed in motley. If Nairis is Blok’s Prekrasnoi Dame, Izelle is his Neznakomka or Unknown Woman. She is not unattractive, but this-worldly, as Oliver Onions contrasted the Fair One to Oleron’s frowzy girlfriend Elsie. Izelle’s patchwork costume is significant for reasons other than her failure to resemble the idealized Nairis. Rossian and other Lords represent primary colors. Rossian is the Duke of Violet, and Izelle claims to be a form of the Duchess of White. She is unique among the “blue bloods” (teasingly, it is indicated that the term might be literal) in that she can leave her castle. The other blue bloods, Rossian included, are imprisoned by an unexplained forcefield. (Nazarian’s interest in bondage-via-elements, or colors, is also quite Russian. Whether intentionally or not, it quotes tropes in Russian Symbolism. Aleksandr Blok divided his poetry into categories of white, blue, and crimson, according to their subject, and used colors in the poems as signifiers of values and mental states.)
Much of our suspense in reading The Duke in His Castle comes from the preconceptions we already have about what kind of story this is and the parallels in other literature that we run through, as through a rotary file, adding to the overall sense of misrule and reversal. Izelle masquerades as Jane, the Duchess of White. Thus Izelle could be Jane Eyre but she isn’t; Nairis is not the madwoman in the attic. She is literally more like Galatea to Rossian’s Pygmalion, but she isn’t that either: “Far from being the sculptor of legend who creates a statue of a beauty, falls in love with her, and in the course of love brings marble to life, no–he is an artist locked in his studio with an intricate finished canvas over which he suddenly pours random globs of pigments in an elemental burst of creation-fury.” The phallic lust with which the Duke awakens Nairis fails to comprehend her true identity, which is complex. But sexual possession is more reprehensible in Nazarian’s world than violence. Violence is an ever-present possibility and it is always a relief in this novella that the story proceeds without violent cruelty, though there is plenty of manipulation. The prototypes for this story often do end violently. There is an obvious parallel with the story of Bluebeard, especially Béla Bartók’s version of it in his one-act opera. That it is the Duke rather than Izelle or Nairis who is to be awakened is by now a well-worn twist on patriarchal narratives of sexual awakening, but it’s relatively rare to find it applied to a story in which there is some real risk to the female. The Duke slowly comes to realize that he owns nothing. Izelle turns out to have tricked the Duke into reviving Nairis for her own purposes, and at the end of the story there is some hint that Izelle herself is the Duke’s creation.
By Nazarian’s standards this is a fast-paced story, though her droll voice and beautiful imagery are as leisurely as ever. The feeling of speed comes from the efficiency with which Nazarian handles a few characters and a round robin of archetypical romantic situations. In contrast to the enigmas of Salt of the Air and the verbal storytelling power of Dreams of the Compass Rose, The Duke in His Castle is quite cinematic. This is in part due to its debts to urban fantasy. Characters have names like Jane and Molly in addition to Nairis and Izelle; one is supposed to recognize the color “Sherwood Forest green” outside Sherwood Forest, and one can get Gruyère cheese. The overuse of urban-fantasy tropes in recent years should not detract from their use to good effect. Well done, it is lovely, and Nazarian handles it quite well here. Since this is also self-consciously a literary fantasy, a reader can think of Dinesen, Yourcenar, Charlotte Brontë, the Bluebeard franchise in folklore, and the eternal feminine in Blok and Soloviev without overloading the works, but it is still self-consciously and quite successfully a work of entertainment based in the senses. Nazarian’s food tastes like food, her darkness is dark indeed, and her sex is real, with depths, elbows, and pudge. Were this novella to be filmed, the filmmaker I’d think of is not Joss Whedon, the late Jim Henson or Peter Jackson, but the Peter Greenaway of The Pillow Book and Prospero’s Books. That is high praise and may seem extravagant to hang on a novella that is intentionally modest in scope. But the plot here is less slight than that of many literary fairy tales, and the issues are ubiquitous. The story of the creator in love with his artwork come to life, but unable to let it go, is archetypical and perhaps quintessentially male. Izelle as the female matures differently, by falling in love first with herself in different guises, finding her own power, and then risking enough to share it with another.
There is yet another reading, one that may or may not be intended by Vera Nazarian and would be very personal to her if it existed; it would also provide a key to the overall mood of a merry but haunting game, strangely concerned with guessing identities that remain just beyond grasp. The names Rossian and Nairis recall Rossiya, Russia, and Nayiri, an archaic name for Armenia. Izelle, the motley mediator, is perhaps American. The characters of Rossian and Nairis also have something in common with Russia and Armenia in the present day. Nairis was dead and has been brought to life again, but as a child; her amnesia and slow progress reflect the condition of Armenians today rediscovering their ancient culture, and finding that “our roots are younger than our branches.” Rossian is used to bondage and lonely melancholy and is at once tempted and repelled by the wisecracking Izelle. The interplay of the three might possibly be an allegory for the mind of the creator and the finding of her voice. If this is true, then The Duke in His Castle represents something quite new: an urban fantasy that is also a political allegory, a homage to many sources, and a personal catharsis. Again it may be a lot to hang on a modest fairy tale of courtship, but more than that has hung on some courtships; and it would be agreeable to think that the children of Rossian and Nairis in Brighton Beach and Glendale might find something of themselves here, in a story told by one of their own.