When Ballet Dancers Were Superstars: Adrienne Sharp’s “The True Memoirs of Little K”

The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp

          Mathilde Kschessinska (1872-1971) comes to life in Adrienne Sharp’s The True Memoirs of Little K in the same way she lit up the stage as a ballet dancer.  Kschessinska rose up in the ranks of the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg to become prima ballerina assoluta with a little help from her powerful paramour, Tsar Nicholas II.   Sharp successfully recreates the splendor, extravagance, and excess of a dynasty whose days were numbered, though no one knew it.  In fact, Sharp’s storytelling skills are so masterful that I frequently forgot that I was reading fiction.


Sharp is a lover of the ballet from a very young age and trained at the Harkness Ballet in New York.  She attended Johns Hopkins University where she received an M.A. with honors and was awarded a Henry Hoyns Fellowship at the University of Virginia.  She previously wrote the national bestseller White Swan, Black Swan, which was a Barnes & Noble Discover Selection, and The Sleeping Beauty, named one of the ten best first novels of 2005 by BooklistThe True Memoirs of Little K was a finalist for the California Book Award.  Oprah Winfrey also chose the novel as one of Oprah Book Club’s 10 Fantastic Books for fall 2010.


In 1971 Paris, one hundred-year-old Kschessinska decided to write down her life story before she died.  She was once a proud, talented, and ambitious young woman who inhabited a different world.  “The world I knew was grand,” she confided, “the court more elaborate than the French court under Louis XIV.”  Kschessinska revealed that she was the lover of not one but two grand dukes.  Yet she was more than that: she was mistress to the last tsar of Russia.  Nicholas called her “Little K.”  Her relationship with the tsar was one of which she took full advantage, and it allowed her to rise up the ranks of the ballet.


Nicholas, though, could not marry Little K; instead, in 1894, he married Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  The Russian people were unhappy that their tsar was marrying a foreigner.  Alix was said to be cold, unfeeling, and a stranger to Russian culture.  In Little K’s mind, she herself was the perfect match for the tsar, yet she was only a ballet dancer, perfect for affairs but unsuitable for marriage.  Little K watched as Alix gave Nicholas children.  She one-upped the empress when she gave Nicholas a son, who could never be tsarevich when Alix later birthed a son.  The son, however, was a hemophiliac, and his survival was not guaranteed.  His health was so precarious that the extent of his illness was kept secret from the Russian people.  It is here that Sharp shines.  Sharp illustrates how the imperial family shut themselves off from the rest of the world to hide the tsarevich’s hemophilia.  She even writes that the tsar was willing to substitute Little K’s son for the tsarevich if the heir had died.  This bit of intrigue, though historically inaccurate, was entirely plausible and interesting.  Instead of wanting Romanov family and friends around, the empress wanted holy-man Rasputin, a disreputable character, maybe even a charlatan.  As they alienated themselves from those around them, Russia suffered.


Through the eyes of Little K, we saw the stirrings of revolution.  We also noticed how the imperial family and those around them ignored the calls for change.  Nicholas II “wanted to turn back the clock even as the world was hurtling forward.”  The three hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty was doomed when they first shut themselves away, intent on hiding a son’s illness.  For imperial Russia, the twentieth century was late in arriving, for it waited until the revolution.


When revolution broke out, Sharp’s pacing became hurried.  I wondered if this was not deliberate.  Things happened so fast at the time.  Everything Little K and those around her knew was eroding quickly.  Their whole entire social and political order was changing by the minute.  I suspect Sharp is simply evoking the era through her narrative.  As Little K could not catch her breath, the reader should therefore be unable to catch hers.


As Sharp re-imagined the life of Little K, creating her own “concoction of fiction and lies,” she employed a bit of poetic license.  She “twisted the details of Kschessinska’s life, conflating rumor into fact, exercising inconvenient truths, and reconfiguring events and relationships to suit dramatic purpose.”  Sharp did this beautifully and seamlessly.  As Sharp explained, “though conversations are imagined, I have used excerpts from the letters and journals of the principal characters when so indicated, with the exception of Little K herself, who, when it comes to her epistles, as with everything else, serves mostly at the pleasure of my imagination.”  Sharp combined historical accuracy with what could have happened in the novel.  Nothing she writes was implausible.


In Sharp’s novel, Little K is the prima ballerina assoluta once again, and I know she could not be more pleased.  If you are a lover of ballet or of Russian history, The True Memoirs of Little K would be the perfect novel in which to immerse yourself for a weekend.  You, like me, will forget you are reading fiction.  Let Sharp transport you to a different time and place full of grandeur and filled with intrigue, when tsars loved ballerinas and when ballerinas were superstars.


*Adrienne Sharp’s The True Memoirs of Little K comes out in paperback on November 1, 2011.  Thanks to Elianna Kan for my copy.


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