International skulduggery in high society. Glamor, sex, money and violence shaken together into a strong cocktail. Cynical luxury-loving Soviets, a beautiful amoral heroine, and a an implacable all-knowing villainess — why is The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars not a movie?
Well, it was, in 1929, starring an actress known as “Claude France.” It was also a massive best-seller, according to the Afterword of the lovely Melville House edition I read. The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars was first published in French in 1925, was translated into 30 languages, and sold 15 million copies. So where has it been all these years?
Languishing unknown, is where. And even though the plot is busy enough to appeal to contemporary audiences, the language might present a hurdle to readers who just want stuff to happen, without being asked to admire the aphorisms. Such as “My dear friend, there are two things in this world about which no one can be sure: whether or not one is being deceived by a woman and whether or not a Communist is sincere.” (These are the two principal points of tension in the novel, by the way.) One prominent Russian wears “a watch chain to which hung a symbolic charm: a scythe and a hammer set with rubies.” If that’s the kind of detail that delights you, this book will be a treasure.
The plot, of course, is as artificial and incredible as the ruby hammer and scythe. Our narrator is handsome, courtly Gerard, Prince Séliman, who is serving as private secretary to the English beauty Lady Diana Wynham. Recently widowed, Lady Diana courts scandal. Among her lovers: “Lord Howard de Wallpen; the Duke de Massignac, Secretary at the Embassy; George Wobbly, the burlesque singer; Somerset Wiffle, M.P.; and Leo Tito, dancer at The Ambassadors…” I always assume that beautiful blonde daughters of English dukes, when they appear in novels of the 1920s, are based on Lady Diana Manners, but this character is as also a caricature of the New Woman, taking charge of her love life, her financial life, and, in this case, an oil field in the Caucasus. Her counterpart is the steely Irina Mouravieff, faithful to revolutionary principles and apparent mistress of a very efficient spy network.
There’s a yacht. There are cocktails. There’s a prison scene in which Gerard our narrator seems deeply disturbed that he can’t shave for a week. Settings range from a Highland castle to London, Berlin, and Trebizond. People sleep in silk pajamas. I skimmed the analyses of Soviet politics and I did find the archness of the narrative grating at times, but heck, The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars is a caper, and as such, should be taken lightly.