Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch 2017
Like Sophie von La Roche’s novel which I reviewed at the start of GLM X, The Last Summer is an epistolary novel in which letters are written by multiple characters, and only rarely to each other. There’s another thing in common – characters in mortal danger, although those faced by Huch’s characters are more realistic and altogether more sinister.
Petersburg 1905: Governor Yegor von Kasimkara, his wife Lusinya, their son, Velya, and his two daughters, Jessika and Katya are spending the summer on their estate in the suburbs, Kremskoye. In truth they have retreated to the countryside, after the governor has received a death threat, Following student uprisings the governor must preside over the trial of some anarchists, including the ringleader, for whom the death penalty no doubt awaits. He is, therefore, a prime target. His wife, justifiably nervous, insists that he have some protection. So Lyu is recruited, ostensibly as the governor’s private secretary, secretly as his bodyguard.
Unknown to Lusinya, she has invited the scorpion into the nest, for Lyu is not what he seems. That is no spoiler because Lyu himself reveals it in the very first letter to his fellow anarchist conspirator, Konstantin. The dramatic tension in Huch’s novella is, therefore, not generated through a gradual reveal, but of the disconnect between the reader knowing exactly what the danger is, and the family going about their everyday life and dealing with Lyu in blithe wide-eyed innocence.
For example Lusinya believes that handsome, elegant, intelligent Lyu poses the biggest threat to her daughters. Both in their early 20’s, they are sheltered and impressionable. A liaison between one or the other and the bodyguard would be a disaster. And, indeed, there comes a time when it appears the sisters will descend into catfighting over the stranger in their midst.
Over the course of the 3 months that Lyu has to effect the assassination, he gets to know the family very well, but reveals precious little about himself. His initial and well-hidden feelings of derision towards the governor and his politics are tempered. Perhaps a change of strategy is called for. Perhaps the governor could be prevailed upon to show mercy to the insurgents? When it becomes clear that the governor is not one to change his beliefs, Lyu’s plan must proceed despite slight pangs of conscience.
In the interim, however, the family become unsettled. Lusinya becomes suspicious following the receipt of a second anonymous letter (a rare misstep on Lyu’s part) and there is something about the coldness in his eyes. Velya recognises Lyu’s revolutionary spirit but does not believe him capable of foul play. The once-besotted Kayta becomes his biggest critic, deeming him untrustworthy. She even pleads with her brother not to leave her parents alone on the estate with him …
Will the family stop sleepwalking to their doom?
The epistolary format allows us to indirectly observe events from multiple flawed perspectives. The letter writers’ voices can be distinguished from each other. Konstantin’s is sinister, Lusinya is motherly, the young adults reveal interests and concerns that are age- and gender-appropriate. We only hear twice from the target, once as a governor, the other as a father. Both, considering he is the planet around which the others are orbitting, are significant inputs. Indeed, the latter could be deemed game-changing.