An Evening With Claire by Gaito Gazdanov

It’s funny how publishing fashions and favourite books go in phases; some authors are read consistently, whereas others dip in and out of the public eye, until it takes a big push by a publisher to bring them back into the book arena.

Gaito Gazdanov is very much one of those writers. He had a varied and fascinating life and career, surviving revolution and civil war in Russia, escaping into exile and ending up in Paris where he joined the émigré life. Here, he split his time between earning a living as a night-time taxi drive and writing his wonderful fictions. They were published and translated and earned much praise from authors such as Gorky, and Gazdanov went on to do have quite a life, including broadcasting on Radio Liberty (and you can actually hear his voice online here – thanks to Pushkin Press for pointing this out).

claire

And yet in recent years he’s been something of an unsung writer – certainly, despite my extensive Russian reading, I hadn’t come across him until Pushkin started issuing his works, starting with “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” and soon to come “The Buddha’s Return”, which I’ve reviewed for the forthcoming edition of Shiny New Books.

However, Pushkin Press are not the only publishers to be promoting Gazdanov, as the Overlook Press/Ardis in the USA put out this year his first novel “An Evening with Claire”. Originally published in 1930, this was the work that brought him to the attention of his fellow writers, and it’s easy to see why it was such a hit with émigré Russians in particular. The novel opens with the narrator, Kolya, spending the eponymous evening with Claire. Her husband is away and it’s obvious from what he says that he has been in love with her for years. However, they seem to be constantly misunderstanding each other and the reader is left to wonder whether this is a relationship that has any kind of future, and why the two are drawn together. As the night wears on, Kolya begins to remember his past. Journeying back in his mind, he recalls his childhood, growing up with his mother and father in Siberia; his days at school; the death of his father; the coming of the War, then Revolution and Civil War; and finally his escape to a new life.

So in many ways plot is not the main element in this book. Instead, we see the internal life of Kolya, his emotions (or lack of them), the world through his eyes and the changes he lives through. In particular, the second half of the book, focussing as it does on the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, is extremely powerful and effective. Kolya joins up against his family’s wishes – his mother is distraught, his Uncle Vitaly angry – and in many ways passes through the fighting unscathed. All the way through the book he has had a strong inner life into which he retreats, and in many ways this tends to shield him from the harsh realities of conflict – and they are here, but Kolya seems able to almost ignore them. As the upper hand switches from one side to the other, and the Red finally seem to be winning, Kolya reaches Sevastopol – literally the end of the road, and the only option is to head away from Russia on a boat.

Gaito Gazdanov - picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

Gaito Gazdanov – picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

“Claire” is like and unlike Gazdanov’s other books: stylistically, you know you’re reading the same writer, with his beautiful, elegiac prose. However, the subject matter is very autobiographical (and the excellent introduction to this edition by translator Jodi Daynard discusses this element) , and there is an immediacy to the book where you feel you’re living through events alongside Kolya/Gaito, in a kind of haze of experience. Comparisons have been made to Proust, in the importance of memory in Gazdanov’s work; I’d certainly agree that it’s a strong part of his writing, but not the only one. He has a particular view of the world, slightly detached, fantastic even in some of his writings; it’s very individual and often leads to him blurring the lines between the real and the imagined which is fascinating.

“And while I found discussions of political issues – Russia and the REvolution – strange, I found their sense, or rather their movements, even stranger. I thought about them as I did everything else, most often at night; the lamp above my table was lit, outside the window it was cold and dark; and I lived as if I were on a distant island; right there, beyond the window and beyond the wall, ghosts crowded together, coming into the room as soon as I thought about them. The air was cold in Russia then, snow was deep, houses appeared black, music played and everything flowed by in front of me … The Moscow fire roared and roared…”

The novel also captures strongly what it was like to live through the last days of the Russian empire, as Kolya’s family and friends carry on as normally as they can with the world collapsing around them. As we learn how Kolya and Claire met, as we witness his frequent inability to grasp reality or understand what is going on around, we get a view inside the mind of a man who witnesses and survived remarkable events, and went on to use them in his fictions. In the late 1940s/early 1950s he was still referring to these events in his work, which is not surprising – living though a cataclysm at an early age is going to leave its mark.

Gasdanov’s fiction is unique – his prose is hypnotic and compelling, his storytelling masterful and his ability to evoke place, character and atmosphere is excellent. I only wish I had discovered his work sooner; however, I should give myself a slapping, because had I read the Nabokov short story “Torpid Smoke”, first published in 1932, I would have come across reference to this wonderful book. The excellent Russian Dinosaur blog recently featured an interview with Bryan Karetnyk, translator of the Gazdanov/Pushkin volumes. This was fascinating reading in its own right, but even more so because Karetnyk remarked that he had heard mention of Gazdanov in this early Nabokov tale – it seems that the latter was well aware of the former and thought him worthy of mention alongside Pasternak and Ilf & Petrov, amongst others! And I’d agree – Gazdanov is a quirky, individual and wonderfully talented author and I’m pleased to hear that there’s likely to be more of his writing appearing in English (and there’s a short story you can read here) – so yay for translators and their publishers!

(Review copy kindly provided by The Overlook Press – for which many thanks!)

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On a minor aside, much as I adored “Claire” and kudos to Overlook for publishing it, I really have to say that it would have benefited from some much tighter proof reading. Apart from several examples of split words, often names (Bu nin instead of Bunin; Eliza veta instead of Elizaveta), there were some silly mistakes that should have been picked up – for example unless “pouring over a book” is a new Americanism I’ve not heard, it really should be “poring”!

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