The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

One of the many pleasures of blogging is the possibility of resurrecting names of writers who’ve been buried in obscurity, and while reviewing a long out-of-print book may not send thousands flocking to buy it, at least it stakes out a small spot in the vast world of the internet for those who may one day be curious about a book’s content.  And this brings me to Gaito Gazdanov (1903-1971). Born in Saint Petersburg but of Ossetian background, he grew up in Siberia and the Ukraine. At age 16, he joined the Whites during the civil war but made it out alive and arrived in Paris in 1923. There he worked a range of jobs, but finally settled into driving a taxi by night, as the job, he argued, allowed him to write. Gazdanov has been compared to Nabokov, and I don’t think it’s doing any favours to compare another writer to Nabokov. While I can see some similarities, I think it’s best to keep the comparisons to a minimum and appreciate Gazdanov for his own sake.

I now own all of Gazdanov’s book I can find in English. There aren’t many, and some weren’t easy to find, but I picked up The Spectre of Alexander Wolf first. Some argue it’s a noir novel which once again is going to bring disappointment. While The Spectre of Alexander Wolf includes a large component of mystery, this is primarily and overwhelmingly a Russian novel. It’s not perfect. It’s undermined by a certain lack of lack of tension which can be construed as digression (it isn’t), but nonetheless, in spite of its flaws, this is a haunting tale which illustrates the loneliness of displacement and the inescapable nature of Fate.

This is how the novel begins:

Among all my recollections, among all the numberless sensations of my life, the memory of the lone murder I had committed weighed heaviest on my mind. From that moment on I cannot remember a day during which I have not regretted it. I never have been threatened with punishment because of the most extraordinary circumstances and because obviously I could not have done anything else. Besides, no one except me knew about it. This murder was one of the countless episodes of the Russian civil war. In relation to the general course of contemporary events it would be viewed only as an inconsequential detail, particularly so because during the minutes or seconds which had immediately preceded it only two people had been concerned with the outcome: I and a man unknown to me. Then I was alone. No one else played any part in it.

After this opening explanation, the narrator then goes on to explain the circumstances of the murder, and it’s interesting that the narrator choses to call this act ‘murder’ since it’s one soldier shooting another. By choosing the word ‘murder,’ this tells us, essentially, how he feels about it.  He was a 16 year-old soldier in the south of Russia, who, due to exhaustion, became separated from his comrades. He’s half asleep on his horse, when someone shoots the horse and kills her. Scrambling to his feet, he sees a large white horse with a rider galloping towards him, and the rider raises a rifle to take aim. The narrator shoots the rider, and he falls to the ground. Then with an “irresistible urge” to see the man he shot, he approaches the dying man who lay on the road with “bubbles of pink foam” coming from his lips. The narrator takes the dying soldier’s horse and escapes, leaving Russia behind. He cannot, however, forget the man he shot, and he’s haunted by, he says  “a dismal memory which pursued me quietly no matter where the fates carried me.

Years pass. The memory recedes, and then one day the narrator picks up a collection of short stories written by an English author named Alexander Wolf. The book is called I’ll Come Tomorrow, and one of the stories, The Adventure in the Steppe is “an episode out of a war.’”

The opening of the story was:

The finest horse I ever owned was a large, half-blooded, white stallion with an unusually loose, long gait. He was so fine that I always thought of him as of the four horses mentioned in the apocalypse. This resemblance was borne out for me when on the hottest day summer day I have ever known I galloped astride this stallion across a sweltering earth to meet my death.

The details in the story mirror exactly the incident between the narrator and the man he shot all those years ago during the last days of the civil war, and the narrator asks himself if the author of the story could also be the person he shot. Could the man have survived what seemed to be a fatal wound? Could the author have talked to the man who was shot or did he somehow witness the event? Is the story just a product of the author’s imagination? Is this just coincidence–one of  a million similar stories from the time? 

My imagination found it difficult to reconcile the vision of a horseman galloping astride a white stallion to meet death, that special kind of death when a man riding at a gallop is slain by a bullet fired from a gun, with the vision of a writer of a collection of short stories who had chosen a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe for an epigraph. Sooner or later, I thought, I had to learn more about him. Maybe I would be able to follow to the end the history of his life, the double aspect of which interested me so much. But even if this should ever come about, I could hope for it only in the future; if it was my fate to learn more about him, I could not imagine under what circumstances I would have the opportunity. Unconsciously I was drawn to the man. Besides the more apparent and obvious reasons for my interest in him, I had one particular, most important motive which concerned my entire fate. The first time this thought had occurred to me, it had seemed absurd. I felt it was an expression of the urge for self-justification and the search for self-understanding. I was conscious that I was like a person who, being sentenced to a certain type of punishment, seeks out the society of others serving similar sentences. To put it another way, the fate of Alexander Wolf interested me because throughout my existence I, too, had suffered from a pernicious and obdurate case of split personality against which I had struggled in vain and which had poisoned the best moments of my life.

The story by Alexander Wolf ends with the idea that the young man, “has perished astride the white stallion and that in his person the last phantom of this adventure in the steppe has dissolved in nonexistence,” but that he “would give anything to know where, when and how they encountered death again.” So the narrator, theorizing that if Alexander Wolf is indeed the person he shot, Wolf must be as curious about him as he is about Wolf. Compelled to track down Wolf, the narrator is determined to uncover the truth of Wolf’s identity, but this quest seems doomed. Just as it seems as though the narrator has Alexander Wolf in his sights, the man vanishes. Does he really exist? Then the narrator travels to England and meets Wolf’s publisher who says something rather strange. Suddenly, Alexander Wolf, a spectre is everywhere and nowhere….

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, a mystery, and a marvellous entry into Russian emigre literature, is infused with an emphasis on death, character and fate. It’s impossible to read it and not make a connection to Dostoevsky (and Nabokov) for the book’s exploration of the Double, for it is through the Double, the Other, the spectre he chases, that the narrator comes to a crisis of identity.  

Translated by Nicholas Wreden

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11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gazdanov Gaito

11 responses to “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

  1. This sounds absolutely great. I really would like to read it. From the moment I saw that he chose to call this “murder” I was hooked and would like to go on reading. It is indeed one of the great sides of blogging that you discover authors that you have never heard of, be they new or long forgotten. Thanks. I’ll see what I can track down of him in French.

  2. Night Roads is still in print in English thanks to Northwestern University Press. Some of the used books (in English) are pricey but you may have better luck in French.

  3. It does sound absolutely great. I’ve never heard of this author, so thanks for bringing him to my attention. The exploration of guilt here, the terrible sadness and inescapability of it, that’s powerful stuff.

    Was this your first Gazdanov?

  4. Ditto to Caroline and Max’s comments. I’ll be hunting this down, thanks.

  5. He must have had a powerful insight into schizophrenia, something the sufferer can’t do, like the character’s blurred vision between fact and fiction. Amazing.

  6. I am happy to discover another Russian author. We get the standard names (no complaints as they produce some tremendous work), but it’s also wonderful to uncover a name that seems to have faded almost out of sight (at least to English readers). Another one–Nina Berberova.

  7. I’ve never heard of him. Thanks Caroline for looking out the French titles. I’ll try Eveils or Le Chemin du Buddha. This one is OOP.

    I wonder if he met our friend M Agueev in Paris or if he met Kessel and Gary there. That would be interesting to read about the Russian literary crowd in Paris in those years.

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