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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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A little taster… #penguinmodern @Bryan_S_K @classicpenguins

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Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and Others
Penguin Modern: 21 – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

OK, time for a little confession… Before I received the lovely Penguin Moderns box set, and when I wasn’t sure when it was coming out and if I’d actually get it, I may just have picked up a few of them in my local Waterstones (who did a lovely display of them – I got inordinately excited about spotting Penguin Moderns ‘In the Wild’!!!) – and here they are:

All of these are titles I wanted to read anyway, and I don’t mind having extra copies. But in advance of a review I have going live on Thursday, I thought I would dip into the Four Russian Short Stories volume. These are all works by émigré writers and it’s interesting that of the four featured, it’s the name of Gaito Gazdanov that appears on the cover; testament, I suppose, to the success of Pushkin Press’s rediscovery of his work over recent years.

The stories are translated by the ever-industrious Bryan Karetnyk, who was responsible for the marvellous “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”, which I reviewed for Shiny New Books. Three of the stories featured here are also in that book, but very excitingly this little volume features a newly translated gem in the form of “A Miracle” by Yury Felsen. First published in 1934, this evocative story is set in a clinic where the narrator is bored whilst recuperating. Forced into the company of a rather troubling nurse, he is initially relieved to have a room-mate, although the latter turns out to be taciturn and no company at all. However, on the room-mate’s day of discharge a few home truths are told and the final denouement is perhaps unexpected.

My rule is to agree, not to argue, not to object. That way, the outside world remains somehow acceptable: I haven’t the energy to fight. Sometimes, with no good cause, I hope that everything will clear up…

I read this story after finishing my Thursday book and interestingly found that it resonated strongly with the feelings I had about that particular volume. Specifically, I keep returning to the drifting quality of émigré life, the detachment of the protagonists, and their sense of ennui as well as often despair.

There will be more on this subject in Thursday’s post, but if you want an introduction to Russian émigré writing this is definitely a great place to start. One of the things which please me about the “Russian Emigre…” volume was the gender balance and the fact that there were a goodly number of women writers featured; I’m glad to see that this has been carried over to PM21 as there is a 50:50 split. As well as Gazdanov and Felsen, the other stories are by Nina Berberova and Galina Kuznetsova, and all are excellent.

I’ll leave you a quote from Gazdanov which will give you an idea of the quality of the writing here – more émigré writing to come later this week!

The February dusk fell, plunging Paris into the icy darkness typical of this time of year, and night shrouded everything that had just taken place. Afterwards, it began to seem as if none of this had ever happened, as if it had all been an apparition, eternity’s brief intrusion into the historical reality in which we just happened to live, uttering foreign words in a foreign tongue, not knowing where we were headed, having forgotten whence we came.

 

Another side to Gazdanov….

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The Flight by Gaito Gazdanov

As well as bringing us lots of lovely Stefan Zweig books, Pushkin Press have also done fans of Russian authors a great service with their lovely translations of Gaito Gazdanov’s novels. I’ve written about several on the Ramblings, hypnotised by his wonderful prose and dreamlike narratives; so I was very excited to see that Pushkin were bringing out another Gazdanov title, and they were kind enough to provide a review copy.

“The Flight” was Gazdanov’s third novel, written in 1939, but not published in its first complete edition until 1992. Set in the émigré world of the 1930s, it tells the story of the interlinking lives of a disparate group of characters. There is Sergey Sergeyevich, a millionaire ex pat, who seems to display no emotions and has a public, mask-like persona. His wife, Olga Alexandrovna staggers from one affair to another, constantly walking out on him and then returning when all goes wrong. Also on the scene is her sister Liza, who just happens to be the mistress of Sergey Sergeyevich and also of her nephew, his son Seryozha!

the flight

Then there are the slightly more peripheral characters: Lola Ainee, an ageing actress with a gigolo husband, who sponges from Sergey; Yegorkin, a penniless painter who’s another one dependent on Sergey’s good nature; Sletov, Sergey Sergeyevich’s old friend who’s permanently suffering from the fall-out of his latest love affair and regularly washes up to cry on his comrade’s shoulder.

The final pair in the mix are Arkady Alexandrovich, an author and his wife Lyudmilla; Arkady is Olga Alexandrovna’s latest love, but it appears that he might be a more permanent fixture in her life. And as Lyudmilla is in love with a rich Englishman and desperate for a divorce, it seems that Sergey Sergeyevich’s comfortable regime may be about to crumble.

They all flit from Paris to London to the Midi and back again; and their main problems in life revolve around love and money, those old perennials! The central core of the story is Sergey Sergeyevich; he’s a man who’s been through many dramatic experiences, as we learn, in his flight from the Russian Civil War, and yet he’s managed to come through it all apparently untouched. Yet the mask is always present, and there is the suspicion that his lack of real emotion and total control hides an interior self we’ll never see. In many ways, the rest of the characters orbit him; the two sisters who are in effect his love life are dependent on him and yet somehow despise him; his son, for who he’s an elusive figure, coming and going through his younger life depending on the whims of Olga Alexandrovna; Sletov and Yegorkin, who rely on his charity, but are both clear-eyed enough to see his faults.

The book’s publicity makes much of the element of Liza and Seryozha’s secret and somewhat forbidden love, and this is quite a striking and perhaps alarming turn of events; only when Seryozha starts to think clearly of Liza in terms of her being his mother’s sister do we really get a sense of how the two are transgressing. Add into this the age difference, as well as the long relationship between Liza and Seryozha’s father, and it really does all seem quite scandalous.

gg47

As the narrative progresses and the tale starts to take flight, the interlinked destinies of all the characters start to draw together. There are a series of dramatic events as matters come to a head; secrets are revealed, lovers are separated and reunited, and many of the characters make a desperate attempt to grasp happiness.

As for the title, you might be wondering what it refers to…  Well, there’s mention of the flight of life itself; several of the characters have taken flight from their partners and their normal life; and others are in flight from poverty or their past. However, all will be revealed by the stunning ending.

I’ve previously been mesmerised by Gazdanov’s slightly surreal, fanciful and complex works; however “The Flight” is a completely different kettle of fish! This is Gazdanov in playful mood, spinning a tale of emigres and their romances, dysfunctional families and lost loves. However, look closer and you can see a darker, satirical side to the book. The high life and the glossy facade are in the end worthless, and it takes Sletov to see that Sergey Sergeyevich is suffering from a lack of real emotion – which becomes clear to the latter towards the end of the story.

Suddenly Sletov turned to him – he was undoing his tie in front of the mirror – and said:
“You know, Seryozha, there’s something dead about your face.”
“You’re no expert when it comes to men’s faces, Fedya.”
“No, Seryozha, I’m not joking. You know, that constant smile of yours, as if you’re always happy about something – it’s like a wax figure in a museum. Such jovial eyes and teeth that are too regular, like an advertisement for toothpaste, there’s something very unnatural about it.”

About the resolution I will say little… For “The Flight was one of those novels which had me careering headlong to the end of the tale, totally gripped by the events and storytelling; and when I *had* got to the end I felt I instantly wanted to go back to the beginning and read it all over again, just to be able to appreciate it even more without needing to find out what happened to the characters. Gazdanov’s writing and plotting are magnificent, and the book is again beautifully translated by Bryan Karetnyk (who also did the two previous Pushkin Gazdanovs) and he’s quite obviously the man for the job!

“The Flight” is one of my stand-out reads of the year so far. Really I can’t thank Pushkin Press enough – not only for bringing Gazdanov back into general circulation, but also for the ongoing loveliness of their books! If you’ve been considering reading GG (and I really think you should!) but are perhaps uncertain about the dreamlike narratives of his other novels, “The Flight” would be a great place to start – it’s a wonderful, wonderful book and highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, for which many thanks!)

Speak, memory – spending an evening with Gazdanov

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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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