If there’s one think I love, it’s discovering a new author, particularly if it’s a Russian one – and I’ve been very blessed in recent years to come across Platonov and Krzhizhanovsky, thanks to wonderful translations published by NYRB. But there are also an increasing number of 20th century European authors coming to light, some quite well-known and some coming back into the spotlight. And many of these are being brought to us by the lovely Pushkin Press, who’ve just come up trumps with another new-to-me author – Gaito Gazdanov. His book “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” sounded irresistible so I didn’t – resist, that is – and picked up a copy recently.

spectre

Wikipedia says simply “Gaito Gazdanov (6 December [O.S. 23 November] 1903–5 December 1971) was a Russian émigré writer of Ossetian extraction.”. However, if you read down the entry, he had quite a life – driving taxis for a living, becoming feted amongst the émigré literary community and broadcasting on Radio Liberty amongst other things. “Wolf” was first published in English in 1950, but this new translation from Pushkin is by Bryan Karetnyk.

The premise of the book is intriguing from the start – the narrator, a journalist, is living in émigré Paris, haunted by his past and a murder he committed during the Russian Civil War when just 16. He stumbles across a short story by the author Alexander Wolf which relates the story of the murder from the point of view of the victim in such detail that he realises that his victim must have survived and has written the tale.

Needless to say, the narrator is obsessed by trying to track down the elusive Wolf and confront his past. Along the route he meets a beautiful Russian woman with whom he becomes obsessed – to the extent that she is the women of his dreams. Will he meet up with Wolf and resolve the ‘murder’? Will he solve the mysteries behind his lover’s past?

When I started reading “Wolf” I was instantly reminded of Joseph Roth’s “Confession of a Murderer” which I reviewed here – the Parisian cafe setting, the murder, the first person narrator. However, this is a very different book. “Wolf” is quite wide-ranging for such a short book, exploring memory, existence and motivation. The protagonist is a strange character, marked for all time by his experiences in the war, unable to shake off the influence of the past.

“I also knew that no matter what life threw in my path, nothing could save me from the severe and terminal regret that all this would vanish nonetheless, swallowed up whether by death, time or distance, and that the inwardly blinding power of this memory would occupy too great an emotional space in my life and leave no room for other things which may also have been destined for me.”

He is somewhat dissociated from his surroundings, not able to relate that well to those around him, and Gazdanov conjures up vividly the strong memory of the murder: the heat, the dusty and the country road; his exhaustion, hunger and thirst; and the almost dream-like quality of the actions that take place. That dream-like ambience will re-appear in the novel, and at times the narrator seems to be existing in a kind of detached, emotional fog.

Gazdanov

The resolution of the book, and some of the twists also, are almost inevitable (and I did see a couple of points coming) – but that doesn’t detract from the story, which I found very gripping. In fact, it adds to the feeling of the narrator being somewhat out of control of his life, unable to rationalise his life or influence events around him. There is a fatalism about him, as if what is to come is pre-destined and he can do nothing to change it.

This was a thought-provoking read, one of those books that stays with you and has you thinking about it for a long time afterwards. Pushkin Press are most definitely to be congratulated for bringing it back into print in this beautifully translated edition, and I hope they’ll see fit to publish more of Gazdanov’s work!

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