“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.