Gaito Gazdaonv’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf may not be a neglected classic but it is certainly a neglected delight. Gazdanov is a Russian writer who fled his homeland in 1920 and eventually settled in Paris. Originally published in 1947-48, it appeared in English shortly after but has now been released in a new translation by Bryan Karetnyk thanks to Pushkin Press.
The novel has not one but two bewitching openings. The first takes place during the Russian Civil War. The narrator finds himself separated from his comrades and threatened by an enemy soldier charging at him on a white horse. Though apparently at his attacker’s mercy he manages to fire a single shot which hits and, so he believes, kills his opponent. I say the novel has two openings because this one, though dramatic, is only a precursor to the narrator’s discovery, some years later, a story, ‘The Adventure in the Steppe’, in which this event is recounted exactly:
“There remained little doubt for me that the author of the story really was that same pale stranger whom I’d shot.”
So begins the narrator’s determination to track down Alexander Wolf (for he is the story’s author), even when his publisher claims he has no address for him and has not seen him in a year (and tells him that the man is, in fact, English). As is the way with such novels, it is a chance encounter with a compatriot, Vozenesensky, in a pub that leads the narrator to discover more about Wolf. Vozenesensky fought with Wolf and we hear from him the aftermath of Wolf’s encounter with the narrator: “the doctor announced that Sasha had only a few hours to live.” The repeated suggestion that Wolf should not have survived creates the eerie feeling he may be a spectre after all.
From there the novel seems to drift away from Wolf. The narrator becomes a sports journalist and, at a boxing match (which is excellently though rather unnecessarily described at length) he meets a young woman, Yelena, and they strike up a relationship. This is described by Gazdanov with great realism and tenderness:
“The stone walls, the bare trees, the shutters on the building and the steps on the staircase – everything I had known so well and for so long – now acquired a new meaning which hadn’t existed before.”
The middle section is taken up the progress of their relationship and, for a while, it might seem as if Gazdanov is now writing a different novel. However, do not fear, all returns to Wolf and this detour is more significant than it first appears. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf has the feel of a thriller, although on reflection very little happens and much of it is made up of long conversations. Perhaps it’s simply that the tension created in those opening pages never dissipates. Whatever the reason, I found it an entrancing read and can now look forward to two further Gazdanov novels from Pushkin next year.