“I knew that perhaps all it would take to draw me irresistibly towards her was one random twist of fate.”
After publishing Gaito Gazdanov’s marvelous novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Pushkin Press follows up with a second title from this underappreciated Russian émigré author: The Buddha’s Return. Gazdanov (1903-1971) was born in Saint Petersburg but of Ossetian background, he grew up in Siberia and the Ukraine. At 16, he joined the Whites during the civil war, eventually left Russia, 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 that starts with the Russian émigré label but also continues into thematic content. You’ll never do a writer a favour by drawing a comparison to Nabokov, and while there are definite similarities, it’s best to keep the comparisons to a minimum and appreciate Gazdanov for his own sake.
In The Buddha’s Return, Gazdanov takes his usual, idiosyncratic, seemingly discursive approach to the narrative, so initially the story seems to have a meandering, shapeless plot which focuses on the protagonist, a young, penniless student who suffers from fits and strange episodes of lucid dreaming in which he notes a “duality” where he is both a witness and a victim. He considers that “there had been years when my life somehow clearly didn’t belong to me,” and this sense of life as a suit of clothes that doesn’t quite fit is important as the novel continues. The beginning of the novel establishes the student’s aimless life, the futility of existence and the difficulties he has when it comes to differentiating between dreams and realities. In one Kafkaesque sequence, for example, he dreams that he’s arrested for a murder, and obviously this section of the novel carries a political undercurrent.
The novel shifts from a seemingly aimless narrative in which dreams of death and imprisonment pixelate into a strange parallel reality. The main story begins to take shape when the narrator gives ten francs to a beggar in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
It was in these distant and neurotic times that I met a man who seemed to have been summoned out of inexistence with the sole purpose of appearing before me at this precise stage in my life. Strictly speaking, he was not a man, but the unrecognizable, distorted spectre of someone who had once been alive. That man was no more, he had vanished but not without trace, as there yet remained what I saw when the figure first approached me.
The image of the beggar haunts the narrator’s imagination, which “is running a few minutes ahead of itself like a bad watch.” He “later recalled” that when he met the beggar, the light of the day reminds him of a painting– “light in which the last, just departed ray of sun seems to have left a subtle though unmistakeable trace of its unhurried dissolution in the air–in a number of paintings, in particular one of Correggio’s, although [he] is unable to remember which.”
He’s long troubled by visions of the beggar, but the memories morph into an “endless sequence of haunting visions.” It’s already been established that the narrator has difficulties unraveling dreams from reality, so when he sees the beggar again, two years later, but this time as a well-dressed, obviously wealthy man, the narrator is dumbfounded & confused.
To my utter disbelief, I recognized the man to whom I had given ten francs in the Jardin du Luxembourg, I could never have identified him solely on the basis of his eyes and his voice, though, for the man sitting here in the café seemed to have nothing in common with the beggar who had approached me two years ago, asking for money. Never before had it occurred to me that clothes could so change a man. There was something unnatural and implausible about his metamorphosis. It was as if time had fantastically regressed. Two years ago this man had been a mere shadow; now he had miraculously transformed back into the man he had once been, whose disappearance ought to have been irreversible. I was unable to come to my senses for genuine astonishment.
As it turns out, there’s a perfectly plausible explanation for the beggar’s reversal of fortune; his estranged brother died unexpectedly and the beggar, Pavel, inherited a fortune. But while the explanation is plausible, fate has clearly thrown Pavel and the narrator together….
The narrator’s relationship with the now wealthy Pavel Alexandrovich opens up a whole new world–but not all of it is pleasant. Some very shady characters, including a femme fatale, inhabit Pavel’s life, and soon, in a flash of deja vu, the narrator finds himself a murder suspect.
The Buddha’s Return is the most discursive of the three Gazdanov novels I’ve read so far. It’s easy to read Gazdanov and conclude that his narrative writing style suffers from a lack of discipline. But after reading the marvelous The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and the sublime An Evening with Claire, now after this third novel, I can only conclude that to read a Gazdanov novel, one must commit to the journey–a journey which tackles central themes of displacement, the double, identity and fate. Gazdanov’s eye never leaves the plot thread, but there are times, early in the novel, when the plot seems formless. Not so–at the conclusion of The Buddha’s Return all the hypnotic, mystical threads tie together, and Gazdanov clearly saw the destination ahead, but just took his time arriving there.
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk