Category Archives: Gazdanov Gaito

It’s a Wrap: 2016

Back once more to my best-of year list in no particular order.

War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen. Irreverent, darkly funny, a tale of poisonous sibling rivalry during WWII.

The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb. So you’ve retired and want to move to a quiet life in the country? Think again.

The Flight: Gaito Gazdanov. Trying to escape fate never works.

The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon. What can I say? Fay Weldon is a GODDESS.

All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage. Who says crime fiction can’t be literary? A haunting novel of crimes, decades apart, that take place in the same house.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea: Teffi. I can’t say that I wish I’d lived through the Russian Revolution, but Teffi’s memories bring some powerful experiences to life.

Siracusa: Delia Ephron. Two unhappily married couples and one precocious child on holiday in Italy. What can go wrong?

The Wicked Go to Hell: Frédéric Dard. Three Dard books from Pushkin Vertigo this year, and this was my favourite.

Bye-Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes. Who can resist a Kamikaze woman?

The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin. Funny and fast moving, the best of all the Golden Age mysteries I read this year.

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge. William could give Casanova a run for his money.

Willful Disregard:Lena Andersson. Obsession and delusion in a relationship break-up.

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The Flight: Gaito Gazdanov

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.

the flight

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.

Review copy

Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

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The Buddha Returns: Gaito Gazdanov

“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.

the buddha's returnIn 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.

Review copy

Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

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An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov

“And perhaps the reason I always briefly regretted leaving people and countries, perhaps this feeling of only very fleeting regret was evanescent precisely because nothing that I saw and loved–soldiers, officers, women, snow and war–will ever leave me, not until the time has come for my last deathly voyage, the slow fall into the black abyss, a million times more protracted than my earthly existence, so long that while I am falling I will have time to forget about everything that I have seen and remembered and felt and loved; and when I have forgotten everything that I have loved, then I will die.”

Far into Gaito Gazdanov’s novella, An Evening with Claire, the narrator, a young man named Kolya, discusses the Civil War with his renegade uncle Vitaly, a Russian dragoon captain who challenged his commanding officer to a duel. When the commanding officer refused, Vitaly slapped his face and ended up in prison for 5 years. A cuckold and a freethinker, Vitaly advises his nephew not to listen to his teachers or to priests because they are all “idiots” and tell lies. It’s Russia, 1919, and Vitaly learns that his soon-to-be-16-year-old nephew has enlisted in the White Army, not from any political ideology, but because he is on White territory and it’s “expected” of him. Vitaly tells Kolya:

“Russia,” he said, “is entering the zone of the peasant stage of history, the strength of the muzhik, and the muzhik serves in the Red Army. The Whites,” according to Vitaly’s contemptuous observation, “don’t even possess that romanticism of war which could seem attractive; the White Army is the army of the middle class and the semi-intelligentsia. It’s full of madmen, cocaine addicts, cavalry officers mincing like coquettes,” Vitaly said sharply. “Failed careerists and sergeant majors can be found in the ranks of the generals.” 

Vitaly sees the Whites “like dying coral, on the corpses of which new formations are growing. The Reds–they are what is growing.” Vitaly cannot dissuade his nephew–the situation is too far gone, so instead he offers a piece of advice:

“Listen to me,” Vitaly meanwhile said to me. “In the near future you will be witnessing many atrocities. You will see people killed, hung, shot. None of this is new, important, or very interesting, but here is what I advise you: Don’t ever become a man of conviction. Don’t reason or draw conclusions, but try to be as simple as possible. And remember that the greatest happiness on earth is to think that you’ve understood something about the life surrounding you. But you don’t understand and when, after some time, you look back on it you will see that you had not truly understood. And after another year or two has passed you will be convinced that you were mistaken the second time as well. And so it will go without end. And nonetheless this is the most important and most interesting thing in life.”

Vitaly’s advice is central to An Evening with Claire, and it’s also seminal to the novella’s style, for the tale passes through the narrator’s memories rather like a camera recording events, or a photograph album, in which the reader flips through the pages and discovers snapshots of the author’s amazing life.

My first Gazdanov novel came earlier this year with the splendid The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. An Evening with Claire, according to the excellent and informative introduction written by translator Jodi Daynard, was Gazdanov’s breakthrough work. It was published in Paris in 1930 by a 26-year-old Gazdanov who had, up to this point, written a handful of stories. An Evening with Claire touched a nerve within Europe’s émigré population as a whole,” and after reading the book, it’s easy to see why.

This is not a traditional novel with a plottable story line for the book mainly deals with the issue of memory. Critics thought An Evening with Claire was influenced by Proust and Bunin. According to the introduction, Gazdanov didn’t read Proust until after WWII, and while the connections are there, it’s best to approach Gazdanov not as a secondary Nabokov or a pale Proust, but as an important Russian émigré writer who reflected the displacement and loss experienced by those swept up the events of this remarkable time.

Gazdanov (1903-1971) was just 16 years old when he enlisted in the White army during the Russian Civil War, and some of those experiences are recorded in the novel. With the defeat of General Wrangel in 1920, Gazdanov left the Crimea and eventually, in 1923, landed in Paris. All these dramatic twists and turns of fate appear in An Evening with Claire, and perhaps the role of memory is emphasised because for those displaced by the turmoil in Russia, memory was–after all–one of the very few things left for the émigré population, and the one thing that could not be taken away.

The novel begins with a very definite structure: the first person narrator, Kolya, in Paris, is visiting, as he does every evening, Claire, the married woman he loves. Her husband, rather conveniently, is in Ceylon. Claire, a tease whose eyes are “gifted with the power of so many metamorphoses–cruel one moment, shameless or laughing the next” has been ill. On this particular evening, Kolya finally possesses Claire–a moment he’s dreamed of for ten years.

I thought about Claire, about the evenings I had spent with her, and gradually I came to remember everything that went before them; and the impossibility of understanding and expressing all of it weighed heavily upon me. This evening it was even more apparent than usual that there was no way for me to embrace and feel that endless succession of ideas, impressions and sensations which, in their totality, rose up in my memory like a row of shadows reflected in the dim and fluid mirror of a seasoned imagination.

Kolya admits that throughout his life he “was far too indifferent to external events; my deaf inner existence remained incomparably more significant,” and from this point, he recalls certain moments–beginning with his earliest childhood memory. This leads to the memories of his robust, generous-hearted father, a chief forester in Siberia,  who wasted away and died when Kolya was eight. Kolya has a much more difficult time understanding his mother as “concealed within her was the danger of internal explosions and the continual conflict of selves.” After the death of his siblings, they grew closer but parted when he attended military school.

There are some incredible memories here as Kolya notes his ability to access a moment from his past and find himself there–a boy, a teenager, a young man, and then a soldier.

Usually much time would have to pass before I would understand the sense of a particular event, and only after it had completely lost and influence on my receptiveness would it acquire that meaning which it should have had when it took place. First it would migrate to a distant and illusory region to which my imagination descended only rarely, and where I would find, as it were, a geological stratification of my history.

Some memories are recalled by the sense of smell and then transmitted to us through Gazdanov’s language which effectively builds a snap-shot:

Just as, in order to remember clearly and distinctly my life in the military school and the incomparable, stony sorrow with which I left that tall building, I had only to imagine the taste of meatballs, the meat sauce and macaroni–so could I, as soon as I smelled coal, immediately picture the beginning of my service on the armoured train, the winter of 1919, snow-covered Sinelnikov, the bodies of the Makhnovites hanging from the telegraph poles, their frozen bodies swinging in the winter wind and striking the wood of the poles with a blunt, light sound, the blackening hamlets behind the station, the whistle of the engines sounding like distress signals, and the white summit of the rails, incomprehensible in their motionlessness.

Moments from the war comprise the most powerful passages in the book: a soldier goes insane–another soldier, Kopchik, is avoided by Kolya who feels that “there was something inhuman and evil about this soldier, something I would not have wanted to know,” and scenes of Sevastopol, the temporary, chaotic home of the remnants of the defeated White army. Claire also appears as an attractive child and as a seductive newlywed, and when the narrator is cast from Russia and becomes a “vagabond,” she rather romantically embodies the narrator’s sense of regret. Ten years later, in Paris, that regret would seem to be expunged in the night Kolya spent as her lover, but is regret ever dismissed? Or does it remain ephemeral, inaccessibly frozen in suspended time?

An Evening with Claire is not a quick read and is best read slowly. Gazdanov offers us a glimpse of a vanishing world, and his experiences of war are tempered with time and edged with sadness–yet there’s also an emotional distancing there. As translator Jodi Daynard notes, “it became a mark of his character to measure the value of experience subjectively, seeking to find its meaning, not to judge it.” Absolutely marvellous.

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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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