Just read “Cloud, Castle, Lake” and am puzzling over it. Here are these coarse and cruel Germans, and then the somewhat spineless Vasily Ivanovich, forced into traveling with them. His fellow travelers are repulsive, but being on a train, he is unable to escape them except briefly at their final stop. While the Germans seem stereotypes of the extreme nationalism of the Nazis, I have to admit my own stereotyping – wanting to draw an equal sign between Russian and Communism instead of remembering all the exiles driven out during the revolution who opposed that ideology.
At first reading I was drawn into the possibility of Vasily’s escape – who wouldn’t want to extend that triumphant moment when Vasily recognizes in the transcendence of the landscape the possibility of happiness? The imagery is beautiful – I can picture the cloud reflecting in the lake and the castle jutting up above the landscape – vivid enough to make me think I’ve been there. I wonder if I am imagining some actual lake we visited in Colorado or an image on a calendar.
But I wonder at Vasily Ivanovich for presuming to think he could just stay there, that his happiness would be complete because of this room with a view. And at the unmitigated coarseness of the Germans. They become caricatures, and in their lack of humanity, weaken Vasily’s character. Is his playing along at their singing and games supposed to show how easy it is to get drawn in by bullying and propaganda? Or to show his courage for sneaking off to the little inn by the lake? Should he not have gone back to the group to announce he wasn’t returning but let them look for him?
Vasily’s defeat seems indicative of a failure of the romantic individualist. This story seems to exemplify what I just read in a friend’s “Last Lecture” about “The Romance of Domesticity,” in which he describes Romanticism’s myth of escape as a heresy based on the idea that man’s real happiness and wholeness is found somewhere else in this world, not, as the Christian believes, in the next. He points out that what is true in Romanticism is the feeling that we are wayfarers and the longing for something more exciting, something lovelier, something more fulfilling, just like Vasily. For the Christian, these restless longings are intimations of the desire for union with God. And while the Romantic believes that imagination leads to knowledge and action, (eg, Vasily’s move to extricate himself from the ugliness of his travelers after a harmonious vision), the Christian uses imagination to take inspiration from the extraordinary that can be seen in the ordinary. So the narrator, telling Vasily Ivanovich’s story to the object of his affection, is able to avoid the despair that Vasily feels upon his return after his failure to escape because he is in love, the ultimate means of sanctifying the ordinary.
If I hadn’t read the story right after reading these lecture notes, I wonder if I would’ve sympathized with Vasily more instead of pitying him almost to the point of contempt.