The True Memoirs of Little K

by Adrienne Sharp

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp Reading The True Memoirs of Little K is like spending time with a garrulous, name-dropping old relative full of opinions about everyone and everything and determined to air them all. Mathilde Kschessinska, nicknamed "Little K," was the Russian Imperial Ballet's dimunutive and demanding prima ballerina assoluta during the reign of Russia's last tsar. The men of the ruling Romanov family often chose mistresses from among the ballerinas. When Tsar Nicholas succumbed to Mathilde's energetic campaign for his heart and other portions of his anatomy, her fortune was made - for a time.

A wealth - a barrage, even - of meticulously researched detail about Imperial Russia spills onto the pages, shaping the novel's theme. Tidbits about Russia's distant past, Mathilde's childhood and her days as a dancer jumble together in a merry, sometimes mind-numbing, hodge-podge. Mathilde tells of the history of Russia's capital, Petersburg, familiarly called Peter, built in 1703 by laborers who "dug the foundations for it with their bare hands, carried off the dirt in their shirt fronts." On the next page, she veers into a description of court balls "lit by ten thousand beeswax candles and garnished with pruned fruit trees in enormous pots and vases thick with pink roses, Parma violets, and white orchids sent north by train in heated cars from the warm Crimea." She revels in memories of dancing in wigs and corsets, wearing diamonds as big as walnuts "whether I played a peasant girl or a princess."

Insousciently self-absorbed, Mathilde is also perceptive and, within her limitations, insightful. She remarks on the resemblance between Russian politics, whether of the Romanovs or of the Revolution's instigators, and the showy displays of the theater. The novel's theme and the known facts of Mathilde's life dominate a sketchy plot until midway through as the slowly simmering Revolution breaks into a raging boil. Fiction intervenes, plunging someone dear to Mathilde into peril and replacing anecdote with a series of vividly imagined scenes. (2010; 378 pages, including an Acknowledgement section with an extensive list of references)

More about The True Memoirs of Little K at Powell's Books or

Interview with author Adrienne Sharp

Other novels about Imperial Russia:

The Jewel of St. Petersburg by Kate Furnivall (2010), about an aristocratic Russian woman who has an affair with a Danish engineer during the years leading up to the Revolution. More info

Rasputin's Daughter by Robert Alexander (2006), about the daughter of the mystic trusted by Empress Alexandra. More info

Russka by Edward Rutherfurd (1991), a panorama of Russian history. More info

Mathilde Kschessinska as Esmeralda

Nonfiction about Mathilde Kschessinska, St. Petersburg and the history of ballet:

Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinska by Mathilde Kschessinska (1960). More info

Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs by Coryne Hall (2005). More info

St. Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov (1994). More info

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans (2010). More info


Mathilde Kschessinska, an article in Ballet Magazine (adapted from the biography Imperial Dancer by Coryne Hall)

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