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Émigré Dreams… @Bryan_S_K @PushkinPress

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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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Master of the Day of Judgement by Leo Perutz

They want to banish war. What good does that do? … Human vileness remains, and that’s the most lethal of all lethal weapons.

Over the last year or two, Pushkin Press have become my go-to publishers when I want quality; for their championing of Stefan Zweig alone they deserve kudos, but then there’s Antal Szarb, Teffi, Mikhail Elizarov, Gaito Gazdanov, Andrei Bely, Herman Hesse – the list goes on and on. However, not to be satisfied with all that wonderfulness, Pushkin have now started a new imprint called Pushkin Vertigo, a range of classic crime and thriller novels from around the world. So, more lost classics rediscovered – yay!

master of the day

The Vertigo cover style – which I think has caused some controversy!

Pushkin were kind enough to provide a review copy of one of the new titles that caught my eye, in the form of “Master of The Day of Judgement” by Leo Perutz. Born in Prague, the author lived in Vienna until the rise of Nazism forced him to flee the country and he spent some years in Palestine before returning to Vienna in the 1950s to spend the last years of his life. He wrote eleven novels including this one, and they’ve been praised by other authors like Greene, Fleming, Calvino and Borges – so that gives some idea of the strange mixture you might expect to encounter in this book!

The rhythm of life and death was a banal dance tune. Thus we come and thus we go. What shatters us and casts us down utterly turns out to be an ironic smile on the face of the world spirit, to whom suffering and grief and death are continually recurring phenomena familiar since the beginning of time.

The story is set in 1909 and narrated by Baron von Yosch, who in his foreword throws up a number of possible red herrings, starts a number of hares and drops enough hints about what is to come to have you thoroughly intrigued! Having set the scene, telling us most importantly about a bank collapse, the Baron sets off to play music at the house of his friend, the actor Eugen Bischoff. Also present, amongst others, are Dr. Gorski, Bischoff’s wife Dina (a former lover of the Baron) and most notably the engineer Solgrub.

Tensions are already visible at the gathering, with the Baron tormented by jealousy, the engineer winding everyone up and Bischoff agonising about his next role – his star is obviously waning and he’s as yet unaware of the bank collapse which will affect him dramatically. As the night progresses, a tragedy occurs – Bischoff is dead, apparently suicide, though things are not quite as clear-cut as they seem. Although this appears to be a traditional locked-room mystery, Bischoff was speaking earlier of a suicide he had heard of which was later replicated, and there are hints of a sinister outside force causing these deaths. Mysterious phone calls are received concerning “The master of the Day of Judgement” and meanwhile, the Baron – obviously an unreliable narrator at the best of times – is acting very oddly. Bischoff’s brother effectively accuses the Baron of murder (thanks to his pipe!), and it is down to the latter, along with the engineer and Dr. Gorski, to find out the truth…

leo-perutz-young

The adventure that follows is fascinating and gripping and quite unsettling in places. The Baron is an ingenious invention, at times confused, at times clear about what is happening and we follow the twists and the turns of the plot through his eyes. Is there a supernatural force at work? Is there a supervillain at work? The Baron often arrives at a point of investigation just ahead or behind the engineer and Gorski, and we begin to wonder whether any of them will find the solution or whether there will be more deaths. There’s quite a McGuffin as well, though I’d like to go back and read the book again to see if the plot element I’m thinking of really had any point. There *is* a solution of sorts, but it’s suitably ambiguous and in some ways leaves the reader to make up their own mind about what really happened – which is great fun and very satisfying.

So what, in the end, is this book about? Is it a thriller? Murder mystery? Love story? Horror? Philosophical tale? In many ways, it’s a strange and wonderful hybrid of all of these, and it’s completely unputdownable. Perutz was obviously a writer of great skill, and I’m very keen now to read more of his works. “Master of the Day of Judgement” was a wonderful introduction to Pushkin Vertigo, and I feel a very strong risk of a new collection coming on…..

(Many thanks to the lovely Pushkin Press for kindly providing the review copy!)

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