Gaito Gazdanov’s novel The Flight begins in Seryozha’s childhood and presents a chaotic picture of the boy’s domestic life. His mother, Olga, is always in pursuit of the next great love affair, and so she disappears with various, interchangeable ‘chéris‘ for long periods of time. When the novel opens, she reappears after a year’s absence, grabs the 7-year-old boy and so begins a nomadic existence for an unknown period of time until the father, Sergey, appears, puts an end to the adventure by saying “We’ll consider today the end of this little romantic episode, shall we?” and takes his wife and son back home.
They live in “an enormous mansion block” in a Parisian apartment so large that Seryozha can “ride a bicycle from one room to another.” The father, Sergey is seen as the reliable parent, a rock solid although quirky individual, a wealthy man who managed by some freak stroke of luck to escape the Bolsheviks. With both parents coming and going (sometimes to avoid each other), the most dependable person in young Sergey’s childhood is his mother’s sister, his “constant companion,” Aunt Liza, a woman who is fifteen years his senior.
Yet however much the lives of Seryozha’s mother and father were full of apologies, conversations in that incomprehensible German, departures, journeys, returns and surprises, Liza’s existence was by the same measure devoid of any irregularity. Truly, she was a living reproach to Seryozha’s parents–everything in her life was so clear, perfect and crystalline
Since both Olga and Sergey are imperfect parents, Liza, in contrast, appears to possess “incontestable moral grandeur.” Sergey may be the more solid of the two parents but that’s mainly because he isn’t a slave to his emotions. To his wife, Olga, and his sister-in-law, Liza, Sergey’s lack of emotion makes him a “machine.”
In life he always acted more or less in accordance with the aesthetic system he had devised for himself, in which principles that were exterior and ornamental, as it were, played the leading role. It was not based, as it ought to have been, on private emotions, and he himself would have been hard pressed to explain why, in fact, it was necessary to act one way and not another.
Sergey is a very interesting man who’s had incredible luck and is easy to underestimate. He finances various artistic endeavours and various human beings–not from altruism but for entertainment. “A never-ending army of cadgers passed though his life, an astonishing variety of petitioners,” and they leave with the vague suspicion that he’s having fun at their expense. Even his servants rob him blind, but again, Sergey seems to find this amusing more than anything else.
That was just the way of things, that people would carry on stealing, regardless. This conviction, however, aroused in him neither distress or surprise; he took it as a matter of course and sometimes amused himself by making fools of his household staff–as he did, for example, with his driver, who had robbed him of oil, petrol and a thousand other things, and invariably presented him with “bogus” invoices.
Sergey doesn’t confront his driver but instead, after revealing his thievery, pats the driver on the back and laughs about it. “Unable to steal” and “forced to make do with his salary, reduced” the chauffeur to a “nervous wreck.” He ends up in a mental asylum, a “broken man.” Sergey has a strange effect on people–he drives them to the limits of certain behaviours almost as though they are trying to see how much he will tolerate. His wife, Olga, for instance, with her serial love affairs with disreputable men, has brought immense trouble down upon her husband’s head, but he deals with blackmailers and gigolos alike–they are, at worst, minor annoyances, and at best, entertainment. Sergey is, therefore, impervious to any sort of wound … except one….
Various characters converge in this tale: the abandoned wife of Olga’s latest lover con-artist Lyudmilla, (who learns that she can’t blackmail Sergey but that he isn’t opposed to giving her a handout,) aged actress Lola, “tormented by haemorrhoids,” who foolishly married a much younger man, and Sergey’s perennial project, Sletov–a man in eternal pursuit of true love:
Sletov’s life, in which Sergey Sergeyevich could not help taking a close part, consisted in a sequence of tragedies, always of the same nature, for which Sergey Sergeyevich would always have to pay–in the literal sense of the word–since Sletov had been living out of his pockets for many years already. These tragedies would involve Sletov falling in love with some woman–in which connection he would find no obstacle too great an impediment to their union; he would achieve his aims, rent an apartment, set himself up for good and live happily for a certain time, the average duration of which was calculated by Sergey Sergeyvich to be approximately six months. Then a drama would stage itself: either Sletov’s sweetheart would prove untrue to him, or Sletov himself would fall in love with another woman. There would be an eruption, sometimes involving the threat of a revolver; then would come the parting, and later everything would begin afresh, with a new beloved.
Of course, Sletov is the male version of Olga, so it cannot be coincidence that Sergey has two such people in his life. It’s as though Sergey, who isn’t given to extreme emotions, finds these two people who tirelessly search for ‘great love’ endlessly fascinating.
Although the novel begins with Seryozha’s childhood as background, the main focus is on a period in Seryozha’s adolescence–with his mother in hot pursuit of her latest love affair–a man who physically seems an unlikely candidate to inspire great passion, and yet it seems that Olga has finally managed to engineer a grand love affair. Seryozha is left alone in the company of his Aunt Liza, and the pair travel to the French Riviera where the boy’s sexuality awakes….
In common with the magnificent The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and An Evening With Claire, The Flight, which will make my best-of-year list, contains a strong emphasis on fate. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf argues that someone who has escaped death waits for it to return, and in The Flight, Sergey’s attitude to life and the way in which he floats through experience, never feeling anything deeply, may also be explained by his miraculous, freakishly lucky escape from the Bolsheviks. The one and only time Sergey concedes to emotion, he meets his tragic fate.
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk