In­vi­ta­tion to a Bon­fire by Adri­enne Celt (Raven Books) $32.99

Waikato Times - - Weekend | Leisure -

A novel fu­elled by rage, a nov­el­ist driven by anger at a man’s be­trayal – these are hardly new. But to write fu­elled by rage at the newly dis­cov­ered trans­gres­sions of a man the au­thor has never met is surely novel.

Such is the driv­ing force for the sec­ond novel by US writer Adri­enne Celt, whose de­but, The Daugh­ters, won pres­ti­gious awards.

In­vi­ta­tion to a Bon­fire is about a mar­ried writer, his wife and his lover, a re­la­tion­ship too chal­leng­ing and com­plex by far to be sum­marised as a love tri­an­gle.

Celt’s tale of White Rus­sian e´ mi­gre´ au­thor Leo ‘‘Lev’’ Orlov, his con­trol­ling wife Vera, ‘‘grand­est and most ter­ri­ble Vera’’, and his young lover Zoya, an or­phaned Rus­sian peas­ant, was in­spired by the dis­cov­ery that her lit­er­ary hero Vladimir Nabokov, best known for his con­tro­ver­sial

Lolita, had been un­faith­ful to his wife Vera. Nabokov’s ed­i­tor, critic, muse and even se­cu­rity guard (she car­ried a gun for his pro­tec­tion), Vera or­ches­trated his life – as the fic­tional Vera does Leo’s – and he de­pended on and cher­ished her. ‘‘I’ve adored Nabokov, rev­er­ently, for my en­tire adult life, and yet this book came from a place of sud­den rage at dis­cov­er­ing that he’d had an af­fair (well, prob­a­bly many af­fairs, but one es­pe­cially sig­nif­i­cant one) – and quickly there­after a de­sire to get even,’’ Celt has said.

Lev meets Zoya while teach­ing at the Donne School, an elite New Jersey girls’ school where he had ac­cepted a teach­ing job, at Vera’s in­sis­tence, to pro­vide sta­bil­ity. Dys­func­tional Zoya was ed­u­cated there – and re­lent­lessly bul­lied – af­ter ar­riv­ing in the US as a refugee and stayed, work­ing in the green­house.

There are el­e­ments of a thriller: In­vi­ta­tion to a Bon­fire is con­structed as a col­lec­tion of pa­pers, a Donne School alumni pro­ject funded posthu­mously by Vera Orlov, a sup­porter of the school since re­turn­ing to France af­ter her hus­band’s mur­der in

1931. This choice morsel is re­vealed in the in­tro­duc­tory

‘‘A Note on the Text’’ which also re­veals Zoya ‘‘died un­der hotly de­bated cir­cum­stances’’ that same year. So, in a sense, ev­ery­thing is lead­ing to the rev­e­la­tion of what hap­pened to them.

But progress is slow and con­vo­luted.

The novel in­ter­weaves Zoya’s di­ary, let­ters from Lev, mostly to Vera while on a dan­ger­ous, il­le­gal mis­sion to Rus­sia to re­trieve a miss­ing man­u­script, and other doc­u­ments such as news­pa­per clip­pings and po­lice re­ports – fic­tional, of course. Celt plays with the chronol­ogy, at times con­fus­ingly so, and even em­u­lates the ar­cane lit­er­ary style of Nabokov him­self.

This makes for chal­leng­ing read­ing re­quir­ing con­sid­er­able pa­tience. It does not help that Zoya, whose di­aries and point of view dom­i­nate, is not a par­tic­u­larly em­pa­thetic char­ac­ter.

As the de­noue­ment nears, the novel be­comes live­lier and tense, the reader driven on by the un­cer­tainty of the pair’s fate.

The re­ward is an un­ex­pected and not fully ex­plained twist, but a sat­is­fy­ing end­ing nonethe­less. But the jour­ney to this des­ti­na­tion is ar­du­ous. – Sue Green

‘‘I’ve adored Nabokov, rev­er­ently, for my en­tire adult life, and yet this book came from a place of sud­den rage at dis­cov­er­ing that he’d had an af­fair.’’

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