An Evening with Claire

An Evening with Claire, Gaito Gazdanov’s first novel, was published in 1930 in France where Gazdanov had arrived in 1923, a Russian émigré. The novel certainly has autobiographical elements, telling, as it does, of a young Russian in Paris who left his homeland after fighting with the White Army when little more than a child. The story is framed around Claire, whom he first meets when he is thirteen. She is slightly older (“At that time I was between the fifth and sixth grades; Claire was finishing her tenth and last.”) – and one of her friends quickly dismisses the narrator as “extraordinarily immature”, something illustrated by the fact he senses rather than understands her “budding sexuality”:

“It always seemed to me I was sinking into a fiery and sweet liquid and seeing Claire’s body and her bright eyes with their long lashes near me.”

He stops visiting her after he is insulted by her mother (in French, as she assumes he will not understand) but now, in Paris he has renewed his acquaintance with her despite her marriage. Though he is now in his twenties, there is still a strong sense that he is the junior partner:

“She smiled and her smile clearly said, ‘My god, is he naïve.’”

It is finally sleeping with Claire, however, which seems to prompt the recollections which form the bulk of the narrative, originating from the feeling that there is sadness as well as joy in achieving his dream:

“…never again could I dream about Claire as I had always dreamed about her, and that much time would come to pass before I would come to form another image of her and before this image would become in its own way just as unattainable for me as had been this moment…”

The narrator’s memories from this point are presented impressionistically, a style which Gazdanov describes as follows:

“It was as if I no longer saw or knew anything that happened to me beyond the moment I chose to recollect… I grew accustomed to living within a past reality which my imagination had brought back to life.”

The narrator’s childhood is one of loss: his father dies when he is eight, and he loses his sisters as well. This makes him rather self-contained – he says, “I never loved anyone and would leave those from whom circumstances would separate me with no regrets.” It is this quality which perhaps encourages him to enlist during the civil war, an action which is not based on ideology:

“I joined the White Army because I was on its territory, because it was expected of me; and if in those days the Reds had occupied Kislovodsk, I probably would have joined the Red Army.”

His time in the army is recounted largely in the characters of his comrades rather than the horrors of war or the incompetence of generals. Even as he demonstrates his affection for his fellow soldiers, however, he continues to remain at one remove from them:

“I passed the time with the soldiers but around me they behaved with a certain guardedness, because I didn’t understand many things which, in their opinion, were extraordinarily simple; at the same time they though I knew things which, in turn, where inaccessible to them.”

The narrator’s ability to observe in detail while maintaining some distance, as well as his desire to embrace experience, suggests the writer in waiting. It also reflects what translator Jodi Daynard calls Gazdanov’s attempt “to reconcile his own joyous sense of wonderment with the depressing material and moral conditions of his times.”

An Evening with Claire can seem slight compared to some other émigré novels: Nina Berberova, for example, deals with childhood during the revolution in much greater depth in The Book of Happiness, and the civil war has been written about extensively in fiction. It also lacks the thriller structure which makes later novels such as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and The Buddha’s Return such a delight. Having said that, it is still a beguiling read, suffused with Gazdanov’s trademark weary joy, encompassing everything from love to war.

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9 Responses to “An Evening with Claire”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I *did* enjoy this when I read it, Grant, but agree it seems very different from his other works. Maybe that’s because it was his first or maybe the different translator made the difference. Whatever – I always enjoy his writing. Glad you could join in with 1930! 😀

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m pleased to have made a contribution as well, though I usually manage more than one. Yes, Gazdanov is a writer I have always enjoyed and I still have a copy of The Flight waiting to be read.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    A very astute review, Grant. I think you’re right in saying that it may appear slight in comparison with other emigre works, but the mood Gazdanov creates is beautifully melancholic and elegiac. A timely reminder of his skills as a writer – I’d like to return to him at some point, maybe with the Buddha’s Return given your fondness for it!

    • 1streading Says:

      I think you’re right that this is very much a mood piece, and that Gazdanov’s tone is quite unlike other writers – melancholy but not entirely unhappy. I think you’d enjoy The Buddha’s Return – I still have a couple of his to read as well.

  3. banff1972 Says:

    I’ve got to make time for Gazdanov, especially as I know Karen and Jacqui like him. I admit, though, that Berberova appeals even more.

  4. Simon T Says:

    Thanks for joining in! I’ve been meaning to read this author, though have a different one of my shelves. Would find out which, but there’s a cat on my lap at the moment…

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