Tag Archives: Russian civil war

Sentimental Tales: Mikhail Zoshchenko

“No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands.  For his own peace of mind, the author prefers to plop down with a foreign book.”

Sentimental Tales from Columbia University Press contains six of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s stories. I was attracted to this selection mainly due to the period in which the stories were written: The NEP period (The New Economic Policy 1921-1928), and the introduction gives an explanation of this era “Lenin introduced with the main aim of stabilizing a war-ravaged economy” and which “brought elements of capitalism–including, inadvertently speculation and profiteering into the workers’ state.” I’m not an expert on Russian history, but I’m fascinated by it–the revolution, the civil war, and then this rather bizarre short-lived NEP period which began before the death of Lenin (1924) and Stalin’s rise to power.

sentimental tales

Again I’m quoting from the introduction:

Into the fraught sociocultural landscape stepped Zoshchenko, a satirist who hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.

After reading these stories in which Ukrainian Zoshchenko (1894-1958) takes swipes at everyone, I am amazed that the author survived the Purges. Again, the introduction goes into the subject of Zoshchenko’s “gallows humor,” his “devastating indictment of Soviet life, and of life in general,” and the critical responses to his work.

Kolenkorov is our rather chatty narrator, and while no one escapes his scathing wit, still these stories, in spite of their focus on human frailties, are poignant:

Apollo and Tamara

People

A Terrible Night

What the Nightingale Sang

A Merry Adventure

Lilacs in Bloom

Apollo and Tamara is a love story. Apollo, a “pianist-for-hire, musician, and freelance artist,” is “graced with the countenance of a Lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families,” but, in reality he’s timid around women, and uses his devotion to Art to avoid any commitments. Apollo falls in love but is drafted into the army. Apollo’s life goes downhill. …

People is the story of Ivan Ivanovich Belokopytov whose father is obsessed with French culture.  Belokopytov inherits a large estate, and “always rich and secure” he gives away his most of fortune believing that “human beings should make their own way in the world.” Besieged by relatives, peasants and a revolutionary group, Ivan starts writing “his first little book of poems for publication, under the title, A Bouquet of Mignonette.” After being placed under surveillance for his political sympathies, Ivan leaves Russia in 1910 but returns, after marrying a Russian Ballerina, as the Revolution rages on.

Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev is the main character in A Terrible Night. In many ways, Boris appears to have landed on his feet when he marries his landlady and becomes: “lord and master of the entire estate. The wheel, the shed, the rake, the stone–all these were now his inalienable property.” Boris becomes obsessed with the idea that Chance has played a huge factor in his life and so “he tried to avoid it.” Thanks to his belief that Chance can break or break a life, a series of events takes Boris to a “former teacher of Calligraphy” who has fallen on hard times. This meeting seeds unease in Boris which cannot be shaken.

In When the Nightingale Sang, a love story, the narrator imagines what people will say in a hundred years, and there’s a passage that seemed very true.

And will it really be wondrous, this future life? That’s another question. For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we are living. 

This tale concerns a middle-aged civil servant, Bylinkin whose “stock began to rise” in middle age. His hair may be thinning, but his “figure had filled out. He had reabsorbed. so to speak, the vital juices of which he’d been drained.” Fate leads him to take a room at the home of the elderly Daria Vasilyevna Rundukova “who was afraid that, due to the housing crisis, their living space per person might be reduced with the forcible introduction of some crude and superfluous individual.” 

A Merry Adventure, which contains a long chat from the narrator to the audience, the subject of Russian literature is raised

Now let’s look at our precious Russian literature. First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in characters’ faces all the time. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Always flinging curses at each other. Badly dressed. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep.

No, the author doesn’t agree with this kind of literature. Sure, there might be lots of good and brilliant books in it, and who the hell knows how many profound ideas and various words–but the author just can’t find emotional balance and joy in any of it.

I mean why is it that the French can depict all these excellent, calming aspects of life and we can’t? Come on comrades–for pity’s sake! What–is there a shortage of good facts in our life? Are we lacking in light and cheerful adventures? Or are we, in your opinion, low on ravishing heroines?

In Lilacs in Bloom, after assessing her living arrangements, profession and income, Volodin marries Margarita. His material comfort increases, but after three years of married life, he falls in love with another woman. …

The connections between the stories of love, life and regret are the absurdities and meaninglessness of life. Love, success, comfort are all set against the instability and unpredictability of Russian society. One can strive for decades and it will all be for nought. Reading these reminded me of Dostoevsky’s lighter work. Wonderful.

Review copy

Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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The Kremlin Ball: Curzio Malaparte

“It rather appears that Stalin doesn’t like certain worldly behaviors of the Soviet nobility, nor does he like scandals involving women. Stalin, at heart, is a puritan.”

Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball grants a look at 1929 Stalinist Russia which is terrifying, delirious and hypnotic: this is a freshly transformed society, post revolution, post civil war, post NEP and post Lenin’s death that is already teetering on its decaying legs. Trotsky is in exile, and Kamenev has been arrested: “The great purge had begun,” but in these early days, no one quite grasps what is happening.  Think of the Titanic as it hits the iceberg and that’s the feeling which seeps through these pages.

The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte is shocked by what he finds in Moscow; a new social elite has risen on the corpses of those they’ve replaced. There’s still an obsession with “Western behaviours,” and some people, always trying to keep ahead of fashion, have clothes delivered from London:

I had arrived in Moscow believing I would find a tough, intransigent, puritan class in power who had risen from the working class and who abided by a Marxist puritanism.

Malaparte moves through society, mingling with those who appear to be in control, and he watches the doomed–those who have power which is so soon to slip from their grasp:

They had very suddenly risen up to sleep in the beds of the great women of the tsarist nobility, to sit in the gilded chairs of the tsarist officials, carrying out the same functions that until the day before had been carried out by the tsarist nobility. 

Malaparte mingles with the highest echelons of Soviet society; he rubs shoulders with politicians, their wives, listens to gossip about ballerinas, attends balls and dinners, recording all he sees, even as Stalin’s brooding, malevolent presence lingers over every society event. Malaparte recalls the French revolution and draws comparisons:

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity or bad manners, nor is it the complacency of wealth, luxury, and power: it is the suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence. All of us in Moscow were united in our praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways: but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire. 

Some of the characters Malaparte meets are ‘ghosts’ of the past regime–they’ve survived, and yet they may as well not exist–even as they hang onto life by a fingertip. One of the book’s greatest scenes takes place at the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard. Malaparte goes there with Bulgakov and runs into “ghosts of the tsarist aristocracy” who are selling their “meager treasures.” A surreal meeting takes place between Malaparte and Prince Lvov who is trying to sell an armchair. There’s also an incredible meeting between Malaparte and Florinsky, the Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic who rides around Moscow in a carriage:

All rouged and powdered, his little yellow eyes rimmed with black, his eyelashes hardened with mascara.

On another occasion, Malaparte meets Trotsky’s sister, Olga Kamenev. She’s waiting for death to arrive, even as she continues her work in the face of her doom. Others will soon die, and there’s a motif of rot and death throughout the book. Malaparte visits Lenin’s Tomb,  the morgue (or what passes for a morgue) and a glue factory where a “mountain of dead animals” emits a stench of rot even as the animals are converted into usable objects. People are being arrested, others commit suicide: Death awaits nearly everyone Malaparte meets, and of course there’s a subtle comparison to be drawn between the piles of animal corpses and the soon-to be dead:

What did Trotsky think would happen if he lost? The hateful thing, in my opinion, about Trotsky wasn’t that he killed thousands upon thousands of the bourgeoisie, of counterrevolutionaries, of  tsarist officers, nor that he killed them with bad feelings–good feelings do not make for a good revolution–but I reproached him for having placed himself at the head of a political faction that identified itself with the corrupt Soviet ruling class of the years 1929-1930. Behind his rhetoric lurked the pederast, the prostitute, the enriched bourgeoisie, the petty officers, all those who exploited the October Revolution. Trotsky’s sin was not that he had placed himself at the head of a proletarian faction, but at the head of the most corrupt faction comprised of the revolutionary proletarian exploiters.

The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Purges, but this is a time in-between: 1929. So many people had been slaughtered, but many many more were to die. There’s a sense of unease, a troubled sleep in between the past violence and the violence yet to come, and Malaparte’s amazing, perverse intellect, devoid of moral judgement, captures this moment in time. Malaparte ruminates about Russian literature and how the characters in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov “were alive in a world inhabited by death.” He discusses religion, death and the nature of revolutions while evoking Proust, Balzac, and Russia’s greatest authors. This is a brilliant work which will make my best-of year list.

Review copy

Translated by Jenny McPhee

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution: Selected by Boris Dralyuk

“Every pickpocket who takes a wallet from some heedless passer-by can now say that he’s a follower of Lenin.”

“Why not? Lenin takes somebody else’s house, a pickpocket takes somebody else’s wallet. The only difference is one of scale. After all, great ships need deep waters.” (Teffi)

Welcome to 2017, a year to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s perhaps then not surprising  that the ever innovative Pushkin Press should mark the occasion with a very special book: 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. Editor Boris Dralyuk concentrated his selections on the period between February 1917 and late 1919 with the aim “to steep the reader in its tumult-to recreate that heady brew of enthusiasm and disgust, passion and trepidation that intoxicated Russia and the world as events unfolded.” 

1917

Contents:

The Revolution: A Poem Chronicle

Stolen Wine:

Marina Tsvetaeva

Zinaida Gippius

Osip Mandelstam

A Distant Voice:  

Osip Mandelstam

Anna Akhmatova

Boris Pasternak

Wake Me Tomorrow

Mikhail Kuzmin

Sergey Esenin

Iron Flowers

Mikhail Gerasimov

Vladimir Kirillov

Alexey Kraysky

Purifying Fire

Andrey Bely

Alexander Blok

Titsian Tabidze

Our March

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Prose

The Break

Alexander Kuprin

Valentin Kataev

Alexander Serafimovich

Dovid Bergelson

Teffi

Vasily Rozanov

Alexey Remizov

Of Dragons and Men

Yefim Zozulya

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Blue Banners and Scarlet Sails

Mikhail Prishvin

Alexander Grin

Future Prospects

Mikhail Zoshchenko

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the important aspects of this collection is that these pieces were not written with hindsight; they were written at a very specific moment of history, capturing the transient feelings of those times. Not only does this collection gather together the most important creative voices of the period, but each section gives a short bio of the writers–along with their fate (so few lived to old age.) I had intended to write a short description of what happened to each writer before I came to this review but the editor did this in the book, and shows, effectively how writers of such amazing talent were killed or displaced–an entire generation swept off the map.

I won’t review every piece–some given the outcome of the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war are extremely painful–but instead I’ll say that by far my favourite is Kuprin’s story (perhaps not too surprising since I loved The Duel.) Kuprin’s tale Sasha and Yasha: An Old Story is an incredibly moving piece in which we are left to wonder what happened to the characters whose photographs are in an old album:

It feels like none of it ever existed: the glorious army, the extraordinary soldiers, the heroic officers, our dear, good, carefree comfortable Russian life… The old album’s pages tremble in my hand as I turn them.

Teffi presents a frightening picture of Russian society with her vicious little story The Guillotine, and in her piece, A Few Words About Lenin (1917), she presents an unflattering portrait of the man and his ideology.

He sensed nothing, predicted nothing. He knew nothing but what he’d been stuffed with: the history of socialism

Yefim Zozulya’s story,  The Story of Ak and Humanity augurs the Red Terror yet to come with the commodification of the individual.

Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours.

I loved Alexander Grin’s story, The Soul’s Pendulum, a story in which a man sees the revolution as one of history’s “exhilarating and magnificent upheavals.”  Valentin Kataev’s story The Drum focuses on a group of cadets–one in particular whose greatest concern in life is getting some extra time with his sweetheart, but everything changes when the news arrives that the Tsar has abdicated. On the other side of the political equation, Bolshevik Alexander Serafimovich’s story How He Died is also incredibly moving even though it’s initially heavy-handed. This is a wonderful collection that provides many pointers for those who wish to expand their knowledge of Russian literature, but readers are best advised to come to the book with some idea of the history of the period.

A poem by Blok 

Review copy

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Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

“And then there I was, rolling down the map. Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea. Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea-or it could push me along the coast. In the end, wasn’t it all the same?”

Before you start reading Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, take a look at a map of Russia and Ukraine; it helps to track Teffi’s journey and to understand just how, in the wave of Bolshevik advances, she found herself with a startling lack of choices.

memories

In 1918 Teffi left Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) and moved to Moscow. Over the course of the book, she travels, after getting the necessary permits, to Kiev, and then to Odessa, Sebastopol and finally, Novorossiik.  By tracing her journey, it’s easy to grasp how she, along with many other desperate refugees, always trying to stay ahead of the Bolsheviks, found themselves with little choice but to escape by taking to the sea.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea is a non-fiction account of the author’s journey from Moscow to Ukraine. Teffi (1872-1952), whose real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was, like many Russian intellectuals, initially in favour of social change. She was a immensely popular writer in Russia, and according to the introduction from Edythe Haber, Teffi was a favourite writer of both tsar Nikolai II and Lenin. She “actively supported” the 1905 Revolution and while she wrote for various Bolshevik newspapers, later Teffi became a critic of the Bolshevik party. Memories finds Teffi post revolution in Moscow, and it’s a very scary place indeed. There are food shortages. People disappear and many of those who remain are “desperate” to get to Ukraine.

Those last Moscow days passed by in a turbid whirl. People appeared out of the mist, spun around and faded from sight; then new people appeared. It was like standing on a riverbank in the spring twilight and watching great blocks of ice float past: On one block is something that could be either a cart packed with straw or a Ukrainian peasant hut; on another block are scorched logs and something that looks like a wolf. Everything spins around a few times and the current sweeps it away forever.

Fueled by the knowledge that an actress was arrested for reading works written by Teffi (and a fellow Russian author, Averchenko,) it doesn’t take much persuading for Teffi, under the guidance of a “squint-eyed Odessa impresario by the name of Gooskin,” to apply for permits to travel for a ‘reading tour’ to Ukraine. It’s a dangerous journey that takes them to the unpredictable violence of a village in the border zone, full of refugees, and ruled by the sadistic “deranged” commissar H-.

In German-occupied Kiev, Teffi can’t quite absorb some of the things she sees. It’s incredible to see Russian soldiers alive, standing in the sun, sitting in cafes, laughing and eating cake “instead of hiding away in basements like hunted animals, sick and hungry, wrapped in rags, knowing that their very existence threatens the lives of their loved ones.” At first, Kiev seems like a miraculous place, almost surreal when compared to the places Teffi has left:

But soon it begins to feel more like a station waiting room, just before the final whistle.

The hustle and bustle is too restless, too greedy to be a true festival. There is too much anxiety and fear in it. No one is giving any real thought either to their present or to their future. Everyone just grabs what they can, knowing they may have to drop it again at any moment.

The scenes in Kiev convey a desperate giddy gaiety which reminds me of the musicians  playing on the Titanic as it sinks slowly into the waves.

From Kiev, Teffi flees to Odessa with the plan to eventually return to Petrograd via Vladivostok, but fate decrees otherwise, and Teffi leaves never to return again. Throughout the book, Teffi meets people she thinks she’d lost and loses people she thought had reentered her life. She recounts atrocities on both sides–although her sympathies are clearly with the Whites.

In spite of the terrible things that Teffi witnesses, there’s a sense of humour accompanying these memories. This does not make the stories funny at all–rather, the things she witnesses and records are that more horrific. We see women grabbing the last piece of crepe de chine before it’s “confiscated” by Bolsheviks, women buying some old velvet curtain to be remade, optimistically, into a gown, while it’s still available, carpets sold in the shadow of retreat, and then there’s one resilient soul who insists on having her hair done before the Bolsheviks arrive.

Another aspect of the memoirs is the instant establishment of culture wherever the refugees land. Within a few hours of arrival, evenings and readings are arranged as if the establishment of a cultural life is vital. There are so many scenes here I’ll never forget: the looted and abandoned hotels, the frantic dash to the steamer, the man walked out onto the ice for execution, the general set on fire so that a bullet isn’t ‘wasted,’ the dogs chewing a human arm, the donkeys being beaten with sticks, and the French soldiers grabbing armfuls of their laundry right before they evacuate from Odessa.  And always there’s the sense that time is running out. Teffi stays in each oasis of safety for increasingly shorter times, or so it seems, with Bolshevik infiltration occurring right before a red surge. The Bolsheviks continue their relentless march, and Teffi jumps from one safe-White held zone to another–until there’s nowhere left.

My memories of those first days in Novorossiisk still lie behind a curtain of gray dust. They are still being whirled about by a stifling whirlwind–just as scraps of this and splinters of that, just as debris and rubbish of every kind, just as people themselves were whirled this way and that way, left and right, over the mountains or into the sea. Soulless and mindless, with the cruelty of an elemental force, this whirlwind determined our fate.

Finally…A quote I have to include for its pure, tragic beauty

I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me.

Review copy

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, Irina Steinberg.

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The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism (part II)

In an earlier post about The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel, I selected a scene from Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. Nikolai’s mother died when he was four years old, and she left 7 children behind. He has a fairly miserable childhood marked by benign neglect but full of interesting incidents and observations. In one section, he notes visiting his uncle, a commandant of a fortress. The name of the fortress isn’t given but I’m wondering if it is the Peter and Paul Fortress as Wrangel tells us that the Decembrists were kept there until they were executed or exiled. Wrangel glimpses an unknown prisoner held captive during Catherine’s reign and still there sixty years later through the reigns of three tsars.  I thought right away of the Man in the Iron Mask–he was a prisoner for 34 years.

Wrangel seeds his memoirs with commentary about Russian society. For example he notes how each landowner was required to deliver serf “recruits” for the army, and these poor devils were then expected to serve for twenty-five years.

More was demanded of a man than he could possibly do. They were beaten and treated like dogs, and many died under the lash. The method was to kill three if necessary, in order to train one man.

The people themselves looked on the conscript as a man condemned to death, and on his departure as the equivalent of a funeral. As soon as the choice was made, the man chosen by his master was immediately handcuffed, imprisoned and guarded to prevent his committing suicide. The whole village gathered about his prison, and he would be given spirits to console him.

And then there’s a particularly despotic landowner, Count Visaur, murdered by a couple of his serfs. Wrangel makes a visit with his father to the dead man’s estate. It’s for sale:

Instead of one big house he had six or seven fairly roomy small ones, each built in a different style. According to his steward, each had contained a harem of women recruited from the wives and daughters of his serfs. They were all dressed to match their surroundings–in Chinese costume in the Chinese house, in Spanish dress in another house, and so on. The Count lived first in one house, then in another.

These houses were surrounded by a beautiful garden containing flower beds, canals with gondolas floating on them, artificial pools and statues. However the statues were no longer there and only their pedestals were there to be seen. The count’s old steward explained their absence telling us they were working in the fields. In the dead proprietor’s time the statues were living men and women, stripped naked and painted white. They had to stay motionless in their poses for hours at a time, when the Count was sailing in his gondola or walking in the garden. He even showed us the torture house–a torture chamber would not have been enough. It contained everything–whips, the boot–I cannot remember them all now. Being neither an executioner nor a victim, the names of these things did not interest me.

The Count’s death was quite as fantastic as his mode of life. One day when he was strolling past a group representing Hercules and Venus, the two statues jumped down from their pedestal; Venus threw sand in his eyes, and Hercules broke his neck with his club.

They were tried and condemned to the knout. Venus died under it and Hercules was sent to Siberia.

Later,in 1859,  a formative, traumatic incident takes place which illustrates the sorry lot of some poor educators who have the misfortune to work for the nobility, but I can’t say that the incident is exclusive to Russia as it’s a scene that could very well take place in a Thomas Hardy novel. It’s a scene that Nikolai witnesses, puts two and two together, and comes up with the correct, sordid conclusion.  A failed attempt at suicide ends with Nikolai requesting to be sent to Switzerland, and his father agrees.

This is a wonderful time for Nikolai, and he quickly adapts to the free spirited society in which he mingles. He meets Dumas and Princess Metternich but rather disappointingly doesn’t give us his impressions of the former. Meanwhile, back in Russia, Alexander II abolishes serfdom, Geneva is swarming with nihilists and anarchists, and Wrangel has time for neither. An anecdote concerning Bakunin sounds third hand.

Wrangel returns to Russia and then he sees the reforms for himself. The serfs can now marry as they please and it is illegal to beat them (that doesn’t stop Wrangel’s father), but the abolishment of serfdom has backfired in ways that no one predicted:

These months which I spent in the new Russia gave me an impression which I cannot describe. A new era had begun. Serfdom, which is an obstacle to all progress, no longer existed, but its abolition had not yet had the results which one was entitled to expect.

Neither the lords nor the former serfs could keep pace with the new order. The former, accustomed to forced labour which cost them nothing, thought themselves ruined, let their land go to the devil, turned everything they could into money by cutting down their woods wholesale, and by selling their property to speculators who did not buy with the intention of working the estate, but held it in the hope of a rise in land value.

The serfs, trained in obedience, and as yet incapable of looking after themselves, used their liberty to have a good time and drink as much as they could hold.  Meanwhile agriculture and the land fell into decay.

The Russia of the past had vanished, and that of the future was yet to come.

That’s Wrangel’s version of the reforms, and it’s patronizing towards the serfs, who according to Wrangel, seem to see life as one big party, and without a master to ‘guide’ their decisions, they have become degenerates.  He doesn’t mention that household serfs, who used to work as free labour, now were to be paid, so the landowners learned (or tried to learn) to manage with less, so many former serfs were simply cast adrift. The land serfs–now peasants–were so deeply harnessed with debt for the over-priced, usually poorer quality land they’d been allocated, they were working harder than ever trying to dig their way out of impossible debt.  The former serfs were to repay the debt as ‘redemption payments’ over a period of 49 years.

Now that landowners had to pay wages, they discovered that they had to cut back their lavish lifestyles:

“I’ve made some reforms too” said my father. “I’ve only got twelve carriage horses in the stables now, and five saddle horses; one for myself, two for your sisters, and two for visitors. It’s quite enough. Nobody comes to the country anymore. The kennels are done away with, the hot houses are shut up, and there are only eight gardeners left. Manners change with the times. You’ve got to put a check on your fancies nowadays.”

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn

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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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