The Haunting, Half-Lit World Of Yelena Moskovich’s Virtuoso

Reviewed by John Biscello

by Yelena Moskovich
Two Dollar Radio, 272 pp., $12.74

“But I see my mind’s asleep.
Were it to remain wide awake from this point on, we should quickly arrive at the truth, which may well be all around us now (its angels weeping)!” — Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

And so, let us start by imagining those angels, weeping. Their tears, tiny silver scalpels. Their wings, mangled. Their faces, featureless and orphaned to pools of light. They are everywhere, traceless repositories for unheard screams and unheld children who grow fitfully into adults (housing mutated unheld children in the attics of their guts, the sacral basements of their anuses). Everywhere, innocents locked in metaphysical orphanages, everywhere, angels slashing at air with turquoise tears.

This is what needs to be imagined, conjured, arrived at. This is how gauzy scrim calls to the curious and brave and dream-blooded to sneak intimate peeks, like the tenderest of spiritual peepshows. Here, I return to Rimbaud, or rather how he was compared to Paul Verlaine in Arthur Rimbaud: Presence of an Engima, by Jean-Luc Steinmetz: “Where Verlaine describes, Rimbaud hallucinates, and creates an epic. It is not the recreation of a décor that matters to him, but the shaping of one from the starting point of a few elements bestowed by reality. Authentic magic, a spellcasting gesture.” It is this sort of spellcasting and sorcery, this strain of numinous lyricism, which forges strange angels from silhouettes in Yelena Moskovich’s Virtuoso.

Last year, I had the absolute pleasure of reading and reviewing Moskovich’s debut novel, The Natashas, which, along with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties (the two books struck me as switchblade siblings), instantly became two of my contemporary favorites. In The Natashas, it felt as if Moskovich had created an imaginary cinema in which text, imagery and dreams find themselves projected mash-up-style onto a moveable altar of screens. It delivered that wonderfully woozy sense of being lost and found all at once, and in her second novel, Virtuoso, Moskovich yet again plays the role of a heretic Virgil in guiding readers through a half-lit world, at once beguiling and viscerally compelling.

Alternating between Prague, Paris and the United States, Virtuoso centers on a quartet of women — Jana, Zorka, Aimée and Dominique. Jana, bookish, taciturn and deviant in her silences, and Zorka, a “wild-child” who has been dubbed “Malá Narcis,” or “the Little Narcissus,” by her mother, form a spirit-clad bond and love for each other, while coming of age in 1980s communist Czechoslovakia. And yet, the causal viability of these girls predates their existence, with Jana stating, “I was just a particle, a frequency, a rainbow in the sky, a melody on the tip of someone’s consciousness in January 1969, 13 years before my birth, when, in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, Czech student Jan Palace set himself on fire to protest the continued Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia,” and Zorka, fretting, “I don’t know what to do with History, the big one that belongs to all of us, and my small one, like a keychain.”

Herein lies the history, crunched and embedded in molecules, in molecular inheritance, which is translated less as a history lesson and more as a course on alchemy. Moskovich dwells with indigenous belonging and a native fluency in the realms of the unseen, the worlds slotted between worlds, or behind them, a fluttering geography of veils calling for mirrors, or perhaps for the abolition of mirrors. There is Jana and Zorka existing as their namesakes in 1980s Czechoslovakia, but there is also Jana and Zorka existing as amorphic potentialities and code-bearers, as unsigned particles communing and commiserating with other particles outside of time. Throughout Virtuoso, this dance is going on, a staggered interplay between selves, with the movements of the dancers modeling a ribbed orgy of multiplicities. In the case of Aimée and Dominique, one of the worlds-behind-the-world is theater, with Dominique, an actress, who captures the eye and heart of the younger Aimèe, who becomes her devoted wife. “Aimèe loved to watch Dominique on stage. There, where Dominique was charged, where she was holy.” It is this seething quest for the holy which not only courses through the blood-life of Aimèe, but the other three women as well, and through the intersecting tales of her protagonists, Moskovich touches upon gender, politics, religion, sexuality, childhood, and identity crises on varying scales, yet does so with the phantom grace of a cat burglar whose footsteps belong to the air.

The title, Virtuoso, derives its name from a fictional state-of-the-art mattress for hospital beds, which obliquely factors into the narrative. Patients who are suffering or dying can, through the bed to which they are confined, experience “a sort of organic reunion with their own gravity, a homecoming to the distribution of their mass, a realignment comparable with the original state of symbiosis within their mother’s womb.” This want of homelike wombcoming, this exile’s song of mortal despair, prevails as the steady hidden heartbeat beneath the arson and siege and riot of moods that give undulating form and texture to the novel’s architecture. Jana, as a young girl, waits to be molested, believing it is an inevitable part of growing up female, and is marred by feelings of regret, resentment and neglect when it doesn’t happen. Her desire, on a most instinctual level, is to be seen, to be voiced, to be known beyond her name. Love is being sought, yet love’s shadow, no matter how long or cold or menacing, would have to suffice as an inverted substitute.

There are writers who, with uncanny lyrical exactness, become as smoke and breathe their way into the core of our fragile being-ness. Moskovich unquestionably ranks in that class. She riddles and clarifies, weaves and unravels, claims tenancy where there is none, and demands a reader’s imaginative and emotional participation in the journey. With Virtuoso, she has created a Book of Longing uniquely her own, a sacred sensual tablet carved from punk manna and seared corsets, while psychically evincing the cabaret smolder of a top-hatted, sheer-stockinged Marlene Dietrich, forever stalking the notes of a torch song.


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