Eva Stachniak


Eva is a Canadian and Polish novelist and short story writer
Her first novel, Necessary Lies, was winner of Amazon.ca Books in Canada First Novel Award. Garden of Venus was published both in Canada and internationally. Her latest, The Winter Palace, a novel of Catherine the Great, has just been published in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Holland, and Poland, to great acclaim. Eva lives in Toronto where she is at work on her next novel, also about Catherine the Great from a different point of view.

Eva says:

Here is an excerpt from what has eventually become The Winter Palace; a novel of Catherine the Great which will be published in January of 2012 by Doubleday (Canada), Bantam Books (US) and Transworld (UK). The novel tells the story of Catherine’s rise to power, and it is told in the voice of a palace spy. The voice came to me one morning, quite unexpectedly. I transcribed it and waited unti I could figure out who was speaking to me and why. In the end only short fragments from this piece made their way into the novel, but I have a warm spot for this fragment, the novel’s true beginning.

Every morning she wakes up at five o’clock and writes in her room. Sometimes she uses twenty pages of the paper I prepare for her, and more than a dozen quills. I always find the broken ones neatly piled up on the right hand side of her desk, like a small pyre, but I have forbidden the maids to throw them into the fireplace. The stench of burnt feathers won’t go away for hours.
When I ask her what she is writing, she says: “My thoughts, Varenka. I cannot examine them unless I see them in front of me, in black and white.” Often I’m the one asked to correct the letters she writes in Russian, which she then copies carefully in her own hand. An Empress cannot afford errors, she says. Not in Russian. If she makes a mistake in French or in German, they are hers alone. The French may even be impressed by a certain carelessness of style, some nonchalant slip of spelling or grammar understandable in the industrious life of an Empress, but in Russian she has to set an example, appear spotless, in full control. Any foreigner who succeeds in Russia must be of the highest calibre, she says, for Russians never miss an error and never forgive the slightest of transgressions in those not of their blood.
We are not of their blood. This too connects us.
By eight o’clock my Catherine is ready for the attention of others. At the Russian court there are no rituals of awakening or dressing the Empress, though I—in recognition of my love for her—am allowed to come into her bedroom first, with chunks of ice. I watch as she rubs her cheeks with them and I take one last look at the dress prepared for the day. There have been times when I spotted a tear or a missing ornament and ordered a new dress to be fetched, though these have not been frequent occurrences for the chambermaids take good care of her clothes. The ice makes her cheeks pink and then she is ready for her Kalmyk hairdresser who arranges her hair. His name is Ubashi. Once I saw him wave a smouldering branch of juniper over his hands, washing them in smoke. He said he needed to purify his fingers, restore the deftness that seeps away from him with age. This is also the time when the ministers are admitted, when dispatches and letters are brought. I withdraw then and wait for the time when they are all sent away. I wait for the time when my Catherine says, “Let’s go for a quick walk, Varenka.”
I used to count the times we’ve walked together like that since she has been crowned Empress, but I’ve lost the count by now. Oftentimes the walk is a short one, through the corridor to the right, by the staircase, around the vestibule and back. In winter months we always walk inside the palace, up and down the stairs, or along the corridors. One thousand steps when we take off from her room, turn right and come back from the other side. In the spring, summer and autumn, there is also the garden and the courtyard which gets us to at least three thousand and two hundred steps, and sometimes more. My beloved mistress is brisk; I have to strain to catch up with her. In the evening, she often takes one more walk before sleep. If she allows me to join her, I always keep the candle handy so she can examine the paintings that hang on the walls. Many of them were bought by Peter the Great. My Catherine likes to examine them carefully, study their texture, their sheen, their subject matter. She doesn’t like sad paintings, depictions of death and loss. “There is enough of pain in our lives, Varenka,” she says. Her favourite ones catch their subjects at a moment of desire or slyness. A lover’s hand brushing the breast of his beloved. A cheater sliding an ace of spades up his sleeve.
Once I told her that Peter the Great did not know much about art. All he said to his agents was: “Don’t buy bad paintings.”
“Who told you that,” she asked.
“Empress Elizabeth.”
“It has worked, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “It has.”

She watches me now. Watches me and smiles, holding a glittering broach in her hands. A precious rose made of rubies. Small and tasteful. It would look gorgeous holding a tip of a scarf.
“What do you think,” she asks.
“I think it’s beautiful.”
“Not too small,” she asks, doubtfully. “What’s the use of jewels no one can see. I’ll send it back.”
She is still looking at me with that mischievous twist of her lip, a sign she is playing with me. Teasing.
Once she told me that what she loved best about St Petersburg were the colours. That the city glitters and shines, even in the gloom of winter, beckons with the gold of the onion domes, the colourful facades of the houses. The eye cannot stop on one object for too long, it is prodded and tempted to move on. Awe cannot be sustained for long. It needs ever changing aids.
“We want to daze them, don’t we,” she says now.
My Catherine is right, of course. Everything has to have a purpose, be of use. Her emblem is a bee which, as she likes to repeat, gathers honey from every flower it comes to and carries it to the hive. Her motto is: “Useful.” Ever since she became Empress, our rooms are beginning to resemble the inside of a robber’s cave. Packages and boxes arrive every day. Straw from the wrappings shows up in most unlikely places, inside our shoes, between the sheets, on the mantle. Everyone wants to give her a present or tempt her with a purchase. Every painter in Russia dreams of having his pictures hanging on her walls. They beg for an audience, dying to paint her. If she wanted to give each of them a minute of her time, two hours of each day would have been wasted.
My Catherine has no time to waste.
Russia is big. There is so much to do.

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