The Lunatic Ship (Olga Forsh)

The Lunatic Ship is a novel by Olga Forsh. I read the German translation (Russisches Narrenschiff) by Christiane Pöhlmann.
Finished on: 30.1.2020

There is a house in Saint Petersburg in the 1920s that is home to the big artists of the time. As one can imagine, things are not necessarily very ordered there – with the colorful and idiosyncratic inhabitants as much as with the new Soviet regime, there’s a lot going on – and the House of Art is caught up in the waves of all that dynamic.

Forsh’s novel has all but disappeared – in Russian as well as in other languages. The German translation only came out this year – and what a good thing that is. I was really impressed with the novel as well as with the translation. It’s beautifully written, evocative, surreal and has a sharp eye for the absurdities of (early) Soviet Russia.

The book cover showing a collage of house parts and author portraits.

I was glad that I just took a class on Soviet literature, because knowledge of the time and its authors really helps when you’re reading the novel. The House of Art existed after all (it was founded by Gorki) and Forsh herself lived there. The characters in her novel are almost entirely allusions to actual artists, and to know at least a few of those names is very helpful. Even more helpful is the extensive appendix in this edition that gives you short biographies and a few poems of the most important writers that make an appearance in the novel (under pseudonyms).

But even if you don’t know anything about Soviet literature, I still think that this novel can work beautifully for you. It has beautiful language (again, Pöhlmann’s translation is simply fantastic) and is narratively really exciting in the way it associatively meanders through the events it portrays. It generally has a very interesting relationship with time and space, as the House here becomes unmoored in phyiscal reality.

The surreality that comes from that only serves to make life in the House of Art as portrayed here feel more realistic. Sometimes, by telling things that obviously didn’t happen like this, you get to the truth of them – and that’s what happens here, I think. (Of course, having never lived in the House of Art myself, I don’t know either way.)

And to top it all, there is such a sharp sense of humor here. Forsh knows exactly where she has to point her finger and how she can coat her criticism in a way that is genuinely funny without it losing its bite.

I’m really taken by this novel. I can see myself reading it multiple times, sure to discover something new every time I do. It’s absolutely awesome.

Summarizing: a great literary (re-)discovery for me.

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