Archive for the ‘Gaito Gazdanov’ Category

An Evening with Claire

October 15, 2019

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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The Buddha’s Return

December 10, 2014

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In Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf the narrator reads an exact account of an event in his own life written from the point of view of the only other witness, a man he believed dead. Such double lives are everywhere in The Buddha’s Return (translated again by Bryan Karetnyk), with each character having experienced some transformative event much like Wolf’s apparent demise. For the narrator, like Wolf, his journey begins with death: “I died,” the novel opens, with the narrator going on to describe plummeting to his death as the branch to which he finds himself clinging breaks (a literal cliff-hanger).

“Such was my recollection of death, after which I mysteriously continued to survive, if I am to assume I remained myself.”

So powerful is the illusion of his death, that the narrator becomes convinced of the illusory nature of reality afterwards:

“I could now sense the strange illusoriness of my own life everywhere – an illusoriness that was many-layered and inescapable…For me the world consisted of objects and sensations that I recognised – as if I had experienced them all long ago and only now were they coming back to me, like a dream lost in time.”

One of Gazdanov’s purposes is to use the novel itself to make the reader feel likewise, taking the narrator down a dark alley where he is attacked and, in defending himself, kills his assailant. This crime sees him imprisoned, not in France where he resides, but in some unrecognised foreign country – this, too, seems to be an “attack of mental illness.” Strangely, it also foreshadows the novel’s main event, the murder of the narrator’s friend, Pavel Alexandrovich.

Alexandrovich’s two lives form a more coherent whole. The narrator first meets him when he is begging for money, giving him a generous ten francs – a fact that explains Alexandrovich’s desire to befriend him when he inherits his estranged brother’s wealth. More than once, the rich Pavel is not recognised by those who knew the poor Pavel, suggesting that in some way he is not the same man. He is murdered and a golden statue of the Buddha is stolen. The narrator is the prime suspect: the last person to see him alive and the man to which he leaves everything – and, once again, he is imprisoned. If the Buddha can be found, however, his innocence can be proven.

The Buddha, of course, is deliberately chosen as the novel’s McGuffin to suggest the illusory nature of truth in the novel’s philosophical heart while at the same time representing the search for a different kind of truth in the crime fiction narrative. Just as in The Spectre of Alexander Wolf Gazdanov superficially uses the thriller format, here he uses the whodunit, with the investigation of the crime taking second place to the novel’s philosophical investigations.

While imprisoned, the narrator considers other possible suspects: Alexandrovich’s mistress, Lida, and her Tunisian lover, Amar (her time in Tunisia is Lida’s other life). Though clearly incriminating them would be in his interest, he remains doubtful:

“The first hypothesis to enter my head was that Amar was the murderer. But I failed to see why he would do this. There could be no question of jealousy.”

The narrator retains his equanimity while the crime narrative follows through to its conclusion, but the novel’s conclusion turns to an old love affair, a woman he promised to return to “as soon as the clarity of your mind is no longer obscured.” She, too, is now leading a new life, as the narrator also promises to do:

“From the next day onward I began a new life, completely different from the one I had been leading until now.”

The Buddha’s Return is a novel about chance and change, about facing fate without expecting to understand or reason with it. Its main character is neither a hero nor a villain. It’s a more frustrating novel than The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, but, for that very reason, makes Gazdanov a more interesting writer.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

October 27, 2013

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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.