The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov (translated Bryan Karetnyk). When is someone you killed dead? Mystery, guilt, love, philosophy, and death in a very Russian thriller. This review first appeared in Nudge Books (now NB).
The opening is an almost conventional attention-grabbing shocker: ‘Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.’ From then on it’s quite different. Not immediately, urgently, collar-shakingly different, but different from the opening, and different from other books. The feel is not unlike that in some of Dostoevsky’s more hallucinatory writing, while there’s a certain detachment and nonlinearity in the storytelling that’s perhaps a little Nabokovian. Gazdanov admired Nabokov when the latter was relatively unknown and also living in Paris, and it’s tempting to think that one of the characters, a Russian writing in English, may owe something to him:
They [his stories] were exceptionally well written, and of particular excellence were the narrative’s taut, flawless rhythm and the author’s distinctive manner of seeing things in quite an original light.
There again, that may be altogether too neat and convenient, but at times in their art the fellow exiles do seem to have shared a curious outlook, an in some ways quite ruthless and limited morality combined with a very strong aesthetic sense, the two things mingling uncomfortably in the border regions between them. Both writers suffered the dislocation of exile, made stronger by the effective dissolution of the world of their childhood; their Russia no longer existed. They had also witnessed the revolution and civil war first-hand, Gazdanov actually serving with the counter-revolutionary White Guards as a 16-year-old.
The nameless protagonist of Spectre had also been a 16-year-old White Guard and was marked by his experiences.
I knew that the silent, almost unconscious memory of war haunts the majority of people who have gone through it, leaving something broken in them once and for all. I knew myself that the normal, human ideas regarding the value of life and the necessity for a moral code—not to kill, not to steal, not to rape, to show compassion—had been slowly reasserted within me after the war, but they had lost their former persuasiveness and had become merely a system of theoretical morality, with whose correctness and necessity I couldn’t, in principle, disagree. Those feelings that ought to have been inside me and that were a condition of the re-establishment of this code had been razed by war; they no longer existed, and there was nothing to take their place.
This broken interior landscape is where the most important action takes place, but it isn’t a dull, overworked psychological soliloquy, things do happen. Some have even described Spectre as a noir crime story, but despite the death, crime, underworld characters and city (Paris) life, I can’t really see it. There is genuine mystery and excitement, however, even if it comes and goes. The central enigma I won’t risk spoiling. The protagonist’s work as a journalist covering everything from sport to literature provides a good deal of incidental interest and is entirely convincing and often funny. His disengaged, well-informed but unfocused curiosity makes him an interesting narrator, even if this means a lack of urgency at times. For a short novel, and it only took me a three-hour train journey to read it, there’s rather a lot of digression and meandering. Nonetheless, in the end it holds together. Searching for a reviewer’s cliché, you’d say that it’s atmospheric rather than thrilling; you could add that it’s thought-provoking and haunting—and so it is.
Bryan Karetnyk’s translation is excellent, while it’s a typically nice Pushkin Press edition. Earlier this year Pushkin also published Gazdanov’s The Buddha’s Return, again translated by Karetnyk, and I wouldn’t be at all unhappy if I were to find it under the Christmas tree this year with my name on it.