Tag Archives: Russian emigre literature

Three Novels: Nina Berberova

“Alyosha tried to explain to his mother that the proletariat were the people who smelled.”

Nina Berberova’s Three Novels is really three novellas: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, and Astashev in Paris. While these three stories are very different, there are underlying themes of displacement and fate, as we see Russian emigres on the move, settled in Paris, and bitterly unhappy. (There’s another book titled Three Novels from Berberova, but it contains three different novellas.)

The Resurrection of Mozart is set in France, June 1940, “just at the time when the French army was beginning its final and irrevocable retreat.” It’s a “quiet warm evening” thirty miles from Paris at the country home of Vassily Georgievich Sushkov and his wife Maria Leonidovna Sushkova. The handful of guests talk about war and “the omens of war,” and the conversation turns to a dead friend and what the dead would say “if they were resurrected and saw what is going on now.” From this point a discussion ensues with each guest offering an opinion of who they would resurrect if they had the power. One man would “spare his parents” while another man says he’s resurrect Tolstoy:

I would drag Tolstoy back into God’s world. Wasn’t it you dear sir, who denied that role of the individual in history? You who declared that there would be no more wars? And wasn’t it you who took such a cynical view of vaccination? No, don’t try to wriggle out of it now. Just look at the result.

Everyone has an opinion, and the hostess decides she would resurrect Mozart. Gunfire is heard in the distance, and the dinner party breaks up. It’s an evening which will never be repeated, for when our characters gather again, it’s under vastly different circumstances.

The Waiter and the Slut is set in Paris, and is the story of Tania, the daughter of a “Petersburg bureaucrat who had risen to the rank of full councillor of state–a distrustful, unhealthy and discontented man.” He’s transferred to Siberia and when revolution begins, the family flee to Japan. Tania seduces her sister’s lover, and they marry. Little does she know that this is the high point of her life, for soon she’s in Paris penniless, alone, and aging. This novella reminded me of Jean Rhys for desperate Tania is loitering in bars with the hope to pick up a man who will support her–true her friends scrape by with menial work, but Tania’s life has been defined by seducing men, and so it continues.  She’s

in search of something she couldn’t give a name to but without which she couldn’t imagine living in the world. This indispensable thing consisted of idleness and physical pleasure, in other words, in her private language, Parisian happiness. 

After a series of liaisons, she meets an older Russian waiter who can’t believe his luck when she allows him to take her home. He was once a handsome cavalry lieutenant but now he’s poor–employed, yes, but in a humiliating capacity.  He connects with Tania, a woman who theoretically he could have danced with at a ball in the grand old days. To Bologovsky, Tania is “his last treasure.”

She had somehow managed to come back to him, bringing with her all he had lost.

While the waiter is grateful, Tania isn’t. Bored by her waiter, she becomes obsessed with lurid crime stories and hatches a plot. …

The last novella, Astashev in Paris is my favourite. Astashev is a middle-aged bachelor, an insurance salesman who has managed to replicate the bones of his life in Russia. In Russia, as a child, he moved between his mother’s impoverished home and the gaiety of his father’s household which was under the direction of Astashev’s glamorous risque stepmother. Decades have passed but Astashev moves between his mother’s grimy, dilapidated little apartment (which is “delightfully situated,”) and his stepmother’s salon. Astashev doesn’t regret the lost of Russia and he seems perfectly at home in Paris. As a salesman, meeting people who worry about the future and the meaning of life, he tries to sell financial assurance but in his private life, he’s amoral and completely corrupt. He meets a respectable young woman who works at a theatre, and the meeting results in tragedy.

This book is not to be missed for Berberbova fans or for those who like Russian emigre writing. The three stories illustrate phases of Russian emigre displacement. In The Resurrection of Mozart, displaced Russians are about to be displaced once more. In The Waiter and the Slut, Bologovsky prizes Tania for what she represents–his lost world. In his memories, Bologovsky has images of himself as a dashing young cavalry officer:

Tight white gloves on his little hands, and his long cadet’s overcoat, and something proud and awesome which happened after he joined the Corps. The wild and wonderful freedom of spring, and again the azure December weather, and that intersection near Exchange Bridge where for some reason he always imagined an ocean liner entering the Neva through the mists, bursting its banks, and growing and growing until it towered over the Peter and Paul Fortress; and something else: sobbing strident brass, the curl of regimental trumpets over his father’s coffin. Sand and snow. And quiet. And in the black northern sky a comet he had glimpsed one night from a window. And something else, something…

In Astashev in Paris, Astashev is, materially at least, much better off than older Russians. He’s built a life for himself in Paris; he doesn’t long for his past as his present offers a smorgasbord of illicit, deviant possibilities, but there’s a void where his moral center should be, and there’s the idea that while he’s done well, somehow, he’s been corrupted in the process.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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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 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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Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

“And that,” I said, “is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoevsky, that’s how it was with Yesenin, and that’s how it’ll be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Suitcase from Sergei Dovlatov, and so when I saw a new release from the same author, Pushkin Hills, translated by the author’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, I knew I had to read it. The premise sounded excellent–this is the story of a divorced, alcoholic writer, Boris Alikhanov who takes a job as a tour guide at the rural estate of Mikhaylovskoye, the Pushkin “preserve” even as his  ex-wife considers emigrating abroad. The possibilities of such a scenario were intriguing. At 116 pages, this is a slim book that at times seems more anecdotal than straight narrative, or perhaps it’s just that the characters appear and then disappear, and I frequently wanted them to return.

Pushkin HillsPushkin Hills was first published in Russia in 1983, and the novella slips in observations and criticisms of Soviet life, so when our narrator arrives at his destination, he notices that the walls of the town square are plastered with “warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.” These observations are prevalent in late Soviet literature, and yes they appear in early Soviet literature and post Soviet literature too, but there’s something about that late Soviet period. I’m not a historian, and I’m not a Russian literature expert–I’m a reader, so I’ll throw a mental dart at 20th century, and say post Stalin. Yes, Soviet writers were still being exiled but Soviet culture was defanged without Stalin, and what seems to be left, in late Soviet Culture (60s, 70s, & 80s) as evidenced by Pushkin Hills is a broken society in which conformity is still valued. We hear the slow, creaky wheels of indifferent, incompetent bureaucracy at every turn, and here at Mikhaylovskoye, it’s no different except tour guides are bombarded with the question: “do you love Pushkin?” which is supposed to generate an enthusiastic, gushing response. Here’s Boris being grilled in an interview conducted by the methodologist about his devotion to Pushkin:

I explained my reason for being there. With a skeptical smile, she invited me to follow her to the office.

“Do you love Pushkin?”

I felt a muffled irritation.

“I do.”

At this rate, I thought, it won’t be long before I don’t.

“And may I ask why?”

I caught her ironic glance. Evidently the love of Pushkin was the most widely circulated currency in these parts. What if I were a counterfeiter, god forbid.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why do you love Pushkin?”

“Let’s stop this idiotic test,” I burst out. “I graduated from school. And from university.” (Here I exaggerated a bit; I was expelled in my third year.) “I’ve read a few books. In short, I have a basic understanding… Besides, I’m only seeking a job as a tour guide.”

But Boris has failed to give the correct answer which is “Pushkin is our pride and joy” and “He is not only a great poet, but he is also Russia’s greatest citizen.” In spite of failing to give the standard answer, Boris is given the job of being one of the many tour guides. He rents a room from Mikhail Ivanych:

A sloping antenna shone black against the white clouds. Sections of the roof had caved in, revealing black uneven beams. The walls were carelessly covered in plywood. The cracked window panes were held together with newspaper. Filthy oakum poked out from countless gaps. The stench of rotten food hung in the owner’s room. Over the table I noticed a coloured portrait of General Mao, torn from a magazine.

Mikhail Ivanych lives alone in squalor since his wife left. The beds are covered with “putrid sheepskins,” and Boris’s new landlord charges rent calculated by how many bottles of booze he can buy.

To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss. If only I could have simply said: “I’m afraid this won’t work…” But it appears I am genteel after all. And so I said something lyrical:

“The windows face south?”

“The very, very south,” Tolik affirmed.

Through the windows I could see a dilapidated bathhouse.

“The main thing,” I said, “is that there’s a private entrance.”

“The entrance is private,” agreed Mikhail Ivanych, “only it’s nailed shut.”

“Oh that’s too bad,” I said.

“Ein moment,” said the owner, took a few steps back, and charged the door.

Mikhail Ivanych, one of the book’s more bizarre characters, is perpetually drunk, and has some extreme, distasteful views regarding the German occupation and the fact that they “did no harm.” Apparently to Mikhail Ivanych, who at one point hangs two cats with fishing line, the Germans “fix[ed] the Yids and the gypsies.” This character, repulsive as he is, seems a study in contrast to the high-minded worship of Pushkin which is fostered just a few miles away.

Boris’s life as a tour guide at Mikhaylovskoye is the best parts of the book. We see bus loads of tourists disgorge, and Boris learns which nationalities are the best-behaved, along with the sorts of questions they will ask. Boris sometimes fabricates the facts, but most people don’t notice. The tour guides are essentially a bunch of misfits: failed writer Stasik Pototsky & the brilliant Mitrofanov who suffers “a rare clinical condition … total atrophy of will.”  Pototsky, who indulges in week long drinking binges, develops a lucrative sideline in showing tourists Pushkin’s secret “true grave.”

For this reader, the best parts of the book are found in the details of life at Mikhaylovskoye, and the juxtaposition of the worship of all-things Pushkin with the reality of how the tour guides are heartily sick of the manipulation of the subject. The book’s narrator finds parallels between his life and Pushkin’s. After all, they both had “an uneasy relationship with the government,” and Boris acknowledges that they both had ‘problems’ with their wives. Beneath the dark, sardonic jokes, and the twisting of the absurd into humour, the book raises questions about the writer’s life, censorship, the writer and the state, and the role of an émigré writer.

Pushkin Hills contains some colloquial language and the occasional swear word, and this brings up the issue of exactly how does one translate this sort of language?Apparently Alma Classics searched for a translator for some time, and I can guess that this book wasn’t easy to translate.  The translation of colloquialism is the aspect of the novel I liked the least.  I’ll add that I find it wearing to read much colloquialism in any book–not that I object to swearing. Here there’s “gimme,” “kinda,” “scrud,” “Fuck them and the horse they rode in on,”fuckin,” “fuck, my pecker’s dripping,”  “booze-up,” “wino,”have ya heard,” “outta,” “snuff ‘er,”  Well you get the point. I have no solutions for how to translate colloquialism, but for this reader, the book became less Russian when I read Americanisms. Perhaps other readers will feel differently. Yes, I could always learn Russian, but that’s not going to happen.

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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 Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine

“When you expect nothing more, life opens up to what is really important …”

Old and new Russia meet in the superb, elegiac novel The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine. The story begins with fifty-year-old Russian exile, Shutov alone in his Paris flat remembering moments from his failed two-year-long relationship with his young lover, Léa. They met accidentally–she was a budding writer from the provinces with no place to live and was easily impressed with the cachet of living with a much-older published Russian émigré author. Shutov “is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter,” so he wallows in self-pity even as he performs a post-mortem of a relationship doomed to failure.

In spite of the fact that Shutov has published a few books in France, he remains a lonely émigré–still completely Russian–even though he left that country during the final years of the Soviet Union twenty years earlier.

“An exile’s only country is his country’s literature.” Who said that? Shutov cannot place the name in his confused thoughts. Some anonymous expatriate, no doubt, waking in the night and trying to recall the last line of a rhyme learned in childhood.

For a long time he had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers. Shadowy figures, certainly, but in his Parisian exile he got on well with them. On a fine summer’s day in Moscow Tolstoy saw the figure of a woman through an open window, a bare shoulder, an arm with very white skin. All of Anna Karenina was born, if we are to believe him, from that woman’s arm.

As the story plays out, it becomes clear that as an émigré, Shutov is essentially lost in time and place. He doesn’t fit into his newly adopted country, and when it comes to his homeland, he is stuck in the Soviet past that no longer exists. Nabokov knew that he could never go home again as that ‘home,’ as he knew it, no longer existed. Shutov thinks otherwise. Faced with Léa’s arrival to pick up the last of her belongings, Shutov impulsively decides to return to Russia–ostensibly to seek out Yana, a woman he knew thirty years before in Leningrad.

Leningrad has, of course, reverted back into being St. Petersburg, and Shutov arrives  in the middle of the St Petersburg tercentenary celebrations and a “confusion of styles, the disappearance of a way of life and barely the first babblings of a new manner of being.” Street celebrations yield surreal exhibitions. Actors dressed as executioners and figures of terror have now become figures of fun:

“Three days of this burlesque May Revolution to undo decades of terror, to wash away the blood of real revolutions. To deafen themselves with the noise of firecrackers so as to forget the sound of bombs. To unleash these merry executioners into the streets so as to blot out the shadowy figures that came knocking at doors in the night not so long ago, dragging men out, still half asleep, throwing them into black cars.”

Behind the Winter Palace a placard announces a “family portrait.” Seated on folding chairs, a Peter the Great, a Lenin, a Stalin, and, beyond an untoward gap, a Gorbachev, complete with birthmark painted on the middle of his bald head. Stalin, pipe in mouth, talks on his cellphone. A Nicholas II and a Brezhnev (the missing links) rejoin the group, laden with packs of beer. Laughter, camera flashes. The barker, a young woman in a miniskirt, moves among the crowd: “Now then, ladies and gentlemen, spare a coin for the losers of history. We accept dollars too …”

“They’ve managed to turn the page at last,” Shutov says to himself. And the thought of being left behind, like a dried flower, between the preceding pages, gives him the desire to hurry, to catch up on lost time.

There was a time when a visitor from Europe to the Soviet Union had a certain air of privilege, but now Shutov is shabby in comparison with his affluent Russian friends.

Having come as a nostalgic pilgrim, he finds himself surrounded by modernity gone mad, a mixture of American razzle-dazzle and Russian clowning.

 Almost as though he’s been locked in a time warp, Shutov cannot align his past with the excesses of New Russia, and instead of becoming soothed and reassured by his visit, he’s increasingly disturbed and alienated by what he sees. Shutov watches Russian television–that touchstone of culture:

On the screen is a thoroughbred dog, with a long, haughty, nervous muzzle. Hands with varnished nails fastening a glittering collar about the animal’s neck. A figure appears: 14,500. Fourteen thousand five hundred dollars, the presenter confirms, and specifies the precious stones that decorate this accoutrement. A sequence of other models: rubies, topazes, diamonds… The numbers lengthen to match the rarity of the gems. The next scene features a dog with clipped hair, whose body, sensitive to the cold, is to benefit from a distinctive garment. Fox fur, beaver, or sable capes … The same range of furs for its ankle boots … the program now moves on to a more difficult species to domesticate. A lynx, which must undergo a pedicure if you care about carpets and furniture. A vet is seen filing down the animal’s claws … For a dwarf hippopotamus, whose well-being depends on a good level of humidity, the installation of a hygrometer is essential. The brightness of the colors on your python’s skin can be enhanced by a wide range of food supplements …

Shutov is confused by New Russia and its “frenzied materialism.” With a growing sense of displacement he meets Volsky, an elderly man, survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s Purges, and years spent in a labour camp. Listening to the man telling his poignant story which begins in 1941, Shutov learns the value of a moment of compassion, hears how the human spirit soars over brutality, and how love endures despite monumental adversity….

The Life of an Unknown Man is split into roughly two parts–Shutov’s broken love affair and his visit to St Petersburg followed by Volsky’s story. Volsky is a living relic of Russian history, and it’s through Shutov’s meeting with this remarkable ‘unknown man’ that Shutov finally is able to come to terms with his own life. I cannot praise this extraordinarily moving novel enough, and it’s destined to make my ‘best of 2012’ list.   

The Life of an Unknown Man was originally published in French as La Vie d’Homme Inconnu. The author was born in Siberia in 1957 and has lived in France for over 20 years. My copy came courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

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The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

“Lenin was depicted in his familiar pose–a tourist hitching a ride on the highway. His right arm pointed the way to the future. His left was in the pocket of his open coat.”

The words “A Novel” appear on the cover of Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, but that isn’t an accurate description of the book’s 8 chapters which are bookended by the sections “Foreword” and “Instead of an Afterword.” In each chapter Dovlatov (1941-1990) examines one of the few objects found in his suitcase–the single piece of luggage he took with him when he left the Soviet Union and emigrated to America. Here’s how the book begins at The Russian Office of Visas and Registrations (OVIR):

So this bitch at OVIR says to me, “Everyone who leaves is allowed three suitcases. That’s the quota. A special regulation of the ministry.”

No point in arguing. But of course I argued. “Only three suitcases? What am I supposed to do with all my things?”

“Like what?”
“Like my collection of race cars.”

“Sell them,” the clerk said without lifting her head.

Then, knitting her brows slightly, she added, “if you’re dissatisfied with something, write a compliant.”

“I’m satisfied,” I said.

After prison, everything satisfied me.

“Well, then, don’t make trouble…”

A week later I was packing. As it turned out, I needed just a single suitcase.

I almost wept with self-pity. After all, I was thirty-six years old. Had worked eighteen of them. I earned money, bought things with it. I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me. And still I only needed one suitcase–and of rather modest dimensions at that. Was I poor, then? How had that happened?

The narrator takes his one suitcase from the Soviet Union and finally to New York. The suitcase is “plywood, covered with fabric.” The lock doesn’t work so it’s wound with a clothesline to keep it shut. The narrator begins his new life in America, dresses completely differently, and forgets about his old battered suitcase until one day, years later, his attention is drawn to it. He opens it and sees “pathetic rags” which are relics of his “lost life.” From this point, he examines the articles of the suitcase–including some Finnish crepe socks, a pair of half-boots, a suit, a belt, a jacket, etc, and each piece of clothing is its own piece of uniquely Soviet history. The Finnish crepe socks, for example, are part of a black market story which extends into the vagaries of consumerism and friends lost to the past.

While The Suitcase details these neglected relics of the narrator’s life, the stories told here are really about lost identity. The items that meant something to the narrator in the Soviet Union are useless in his new life, and yet even though they are seemingly ‘worthless,’ they are markers of Soviet life and reveal the author’s former identity. Here’s the narrator on the fate of 720 pairs of useless, pea-green Finnish crepe socks, and his friends Asya, Fred, and Rymar:

They reminded me of my criminal youth, my first love and my old friends. Fred served his two years and then was killed in a motorcycle accident on his Chezet. Rymar served one year and now works as a dispatcher in a meat-packing plant. Asya emigrated and now teaches lexicology at Stanford–which is a strange comment on American scholarship.

Dovlatov was a journalist and a part-time tour guide in The Pushkin Preserve. In the chapter, A Decent DoubleBreasted Suit, the narrator is told by the director of the Preserve that he dresses so shabbily that “his trousers ruin the festive mood of our area.” In the narrator’s tatty old suitcase is a suit that carries a tale of the narrator’s employment as a newspaper reporter and how he managed to upgrade his pitiful wardrobe. He’s assigned a series of tasks, finding an Uzbek to quote for a Constitution Day article, a “modern Russian handyman” for Efficiency Day , and a “Heroine Mother.” Things become complicated when a KGB major appears at the newspaper office and begins quizzing the narrator for information about a visiting Swede. The narrator manages to get a new suit out of the deal without compromising his morals.

Dovlatov was unable to publish his work in the Soviet Union and so smuggled out his writing which was subsequently published in Europe. In 1979, he emigrated to America.

Told with a self-deprecating, yet gently ironic humour, there’s a bitter-sweetness to the book, and I came away with the feeling that I would have liked to have known Dovlatov.  

My copy translated by Antonina W. Bouis

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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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