The Beggar and other Stories by Gaito Gazdanov
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Careful or casual readers of the Ramblings will know of my love for the work of Gaito Gazdanov; I’ve covered the three wonderful novels published by Pushkin Press, as well as “An Evening with Claire”, and I think his writing is outstanding. So I was more than excited to find out that Pushkin were issuing a collection of his shorter works, entitled “The Beggar and other Stories”; particularly as I’d enjoyed those which had featured in the exemplary collection “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”.

“Beggar…” collects six works, and one fascinating thing is the date range they cover: the first, “Maitre Rueil”, dates from 1931, whereas the final tale, “Ivanov’s Letters” is from 1963. The selection is by translator Karetnyk, who points out in his informative and interesting introduction that Gazdanov seemed to feel that a collection of his short works was unnecessary; Karetnyk obviously disagrees, and having now read a number of Gazdanov’s stories I can only concur – this is an essential collection.

As with any volume of short works, it’s hard to know how much detail to go into about the individual pieces that make it up; but I will give a little information about each of the six stories featured here, as they are all quite remarkable in their own way (and that’s down to Gazdanov’s wonderful writing I think). Maitre Rueil is the evocative little tale of the titular agent, who suffers an existential crisis of sorts whilst making a melancholy journey back to Moscow on a mission; Happiness is the story of a émigré whose delicate relationship with his son is disturbed by the arrival of a beautiful stepmother; and Deliverance tells of a man who has come into money but finds the riches bring him no happiness, leaving him detached from life. Then there is The Mistake, somewhat groundbreaking I felt, which tells of the affair of a Russian woman in Paris, presenting the story from her point of view and acknowledging her needs but also identifying her inability to recognise love. The titular character of The Beggar is an ageing tramp who is suddenly triggered into remembering his former life and understanding how the freedom of total poverty, an almost non-existence, is better than the restrictions and restraints of a comfortable but controlled life. And finally Ivanov’s Letters paints a portrait of Nikolai Franzevich, on the surface a calm, educated and cultured man, about whom his friends actually know very little – until all is unexpectedly revealed.

Time marches on by itself; we live until some mechanical force restores the calendar’s truth. But really, time does not exist. We have memories, imagination, we can delve into the past, fear the future, but we term it thus – past, present, future – I think, only because we do not make for ourselves the trouble of contemplating this and understanding that all this is mere sensation.

Each of these stories is a little gem on its own; however, I can see that they’ve been carefully selected by Karetnyk as there are recurring threads which run through the stories and bind them together. Each story distills an aspect of the émigré experience in a way that is never explicitly stated; but there is almost the sense that the lives the characters are leading are not quite real, as if they have left their proper existence behind them in their home country and are half ghosts in their adopted land. The characters all suffer from ennui, or physical ailments which characterise their suffering in exile, and there is a constant feeling that everything is a sham. Money brings no comfort and is often rejected, as is love – rejected, or not understood – and the stories have the same surreal, hallucinatory feeling as do Gazdanov’s novels. The dream-like prose often causes a blurring of lines between reality and imagination and the vividly beautiful descriptions brilliantly evoke a kind of drifting atmosphere which haunts you.

It was as if her senses were a long sword, whose tip, after the blow had already been delivered, still quivered and trembled, fluttering like a banner in the wind, or the white trim of a sail over the rippling sea; or the wings of a bird sitting on the water.

In fact, I keep returning to the word atmosphere, and certainly Gazdanov’s writing and the world he conjures has a distinct and unique character all of its own: dreamlike, contemplative and often achingly beautiful, the sensation and the sadness reading the stories created stayed with me for ages after finishing the book – they really have quite an emotional wallop.

Sometimes I feel ready to laugh at myself, for I have always held a naive and idyllic dream, a utopian vision of a world in which there is no poverty, no suffering, no envy, a world that is built on a great and complex system of harmonious and happy equilibrium. But I digress. If life be movement, then until very recently I would have been well within my right to consider myself dead.

Author and translator

“Beggar…” is an extraordinarily rich collection and while I was reading it I couldn’t help thinking what a wonderful job Pushkin are doing bringing Gazdanov to us. Also, and most importantly, it struck me that some authors are lucky enough to get the perfect translator: Calvino and William Weaver seemed a match made in heaven, as do Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Joanne Turnbull, Platonov and Robert Chandler. And that’s definitely the case here, as Bryan Karetnyk’s elegant translations have been pivotal in Pushkin’s spearheading of the Gazdanov revival; I can only hope he keeps on translating this wonderful author’s works for us. Thanks to his efforts there is so much Gazdanov available for Anglophone readers now – the three novels and this collection from Pushkin, as well as the four stories in “Russian Emigre Short Stories…” – and if you haven’t read any of Gazdanov’s works yet, it might be worth risking £1 on Penguin Modern 21 to get a flavour of his writing. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. “The Beggar and other stories” is published today so you can all rush out and buy a copy….. :)))

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