Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist caught my eye soon after its publication in 2016, but it has taken me quite a while to procure a copy of the novel. Russia and its history absolutely fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the twist which Hobson has added to the turmoil of the 1918 Revolutions. Anthony Beever calls this novel ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down’, and The Guardian describes it as ‘a rapturous, carnival-like ride into political disorder, heady romance and absurdity.’
The Vanishing Futurist is set in Moscow in 1918 where, in the ‘heady post-revolutionary atmosphere, a young English governess, Gerty Freely, and her friends throw themselves into the task of living as genuine communists.’ A rather mysterious and revered inventor, Nikita Slavkin, runs their commune. He is ‘determined to revolutionise daily life with his technological innovations’, one of which is thought to have caused his disappearance. The novel opens with a report from the Soviet Press, which states that ‘the Socialisation Capsule, Slavkin’s latest invention, represented an extraordinary advance in human knowledge… [and] revolutionised our understanding of the universe.’ Slavkin is thus the ‘Vanishing Futurist’ of the novel’s title.
Gerty, a headstrong young woman, takes it upon herself to find out the truth behind his disappearance, which becomes quite notorious in Russian circles. In fact, his mysterious exit from Russia causes him to become a ‘Soviet icon’, with streets named after him, and films made about his life. People remain convinced that one day he will reappear; ‘that if his Socialisation Capsule can distort our perception of temporal reality, then it can equally reinstate it.’
Gerty, in her late seventies, is looking back on her life, focusing upon her time in Russia when living in London. She justifies this decision by saying: ‘My husband, Paul, died six months ago, and since then I have had the strange sensation that the present, my creaky old body in the little terraced house in Hackney which we bought together, is no longer my home.’ She reveals that she has kept this portion of her past a secret from her only daughter, Sophy, and it seems time to make amends. Talking face to face seems difficult, so Gerty takes another route: ‘I find myself writing an account for her instead, using the papers as my starting point. This way, I think, will be more truthful – more complete – than if I stammer it out incoherently.’
The novel is narrated by Gerty, who comes from Truro in Cornwall, and decides to become a governess for the Kobelev family in central Moscow. Of her reasoning to do so, she states: ‘… I was a bookish, scrawny girl, a spinster in the making; argumentative and contrary to my father (as he often said) and disappointingly serious to my mother, who wanted to gossip with me about clothes. Reading Tolstoy had made me long to visit this country full of peasant women in birch-bark sandals, young officers as fresh as cucumbers, forests filled with unheard-of berries.’ I found Gerty’s voice immediately believable, and its pace and turns of phrase were maintained with consistency throughout.
From the outset, Hobson weaves in rather sensuous descriptions to Gerty’s narrative, which allow her to deftly capture her drastically different change of surroundings: ‘… I was shown immediately to Mrs Kobelev’s room, the heart of the house, dark and hot and smelling of face powder and eau de cologne and slept-in sheets and violet lozenges.’ Moscow, one of my own favourite cities, has been marvellously captured in all of its mystery: ‘Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections. At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might… Yet slowly I came to know its little courtyards, its secret gardens and alleys, its cool green boulevards cast in relief against the bustle and noise. It was impossible not to be charmed by the wooden houses and the bawdy streets, the little churches squeezed into every corner. There was a sort of unexpected joyfulness about it all, unlike any other city I have known.’ Despite the outbreak of war, and the looming Revolutions, Gerty finds a freedom in Moscow that she has never known at home in Cornwall: ‘… I discovered a household where the most absurd and opposing views could be voiced, disagreed with, argued over or renounced without any tempers lost or touchy Chapel gods involved.’
Hobson successfully navigates her way through a pivotal period of Russia’s history, weaving in avant-garde elements against the backdrop of mass arrests and sea-change. Moscow, and Russia on a grander scale, has been marvellously captured, and the entirety of the novel is so engaging. There is humour here – for instance, Slavkin ‘ate a great deal of sandwiches, swallowing them whole, like a snake’. I could not help but feel a fondness for Gerty.
Telling such a story through the eyes of a participant and also a bystander, as Gerty is, is a clever touch, which works well. The Vanishing Futurist took a series of twists and turns which I was not expecting, and is a novel which is so clever, and so well executed. I look forward both to picking up Hobson’s debut, and to seeing what she comes up with next.