Waiting for Something Unexpected

Sophie Pinkham

  • The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk
    Pushkin, 167 pp, £7.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 78227 072 0

In October 1920, Gaito Gazdanov, then a young soldier, returned to his armoured train in the Crimea to find that it had been captured by the Red Army. He escaped in November by crossing the Black Sea to Constantinople with some of his fellow soldiers. He was one of more than 150,000 refugees – the sad remains of General Wrangel’s defeated White Army, along with any civilians who managed to make it on board – on a fleet of 126 ships. Like many of them, Gazdanov ended up in an overcrowded camp in Gallipoli funded by the French. France had bet on the wrong side in the Civil War, and was eager to stop supporting the camps. But it would provide a more permanent home for many of the refugees, among them some of Russia’s most important writers.

Gazdanov was born in 1903 in St Petersburg, to an upper-middle-class family that was Ossetian in origin but Russian-speaking and Orthodox. At 16, he joined the White Army. According to László Dienes, author of one of the few books on Gazdanov, he was not a diehard anti-Bolshevik: it seems he joined up mainly out of curiosity, and chose the Whites because they were closest to hand. On his armoured train he fought on the machine-gun platform. He had plenty of time to carouse with lowlifes in towns like Sevastopol. The boy who had started reading Kant at 13 was as much an outsider in the Crimean underworld as he was among his fellow soldiers.

At the refugee camp in Gallipoli, Gazdanov soon quarrelled with a superior and was forced to leave. He returned to his studies, first in Constantinople and then in Bulgaria. He arrived in Paris in 1923, at a time when it seemed that half the city’s taxi drivers were Russian aristocrats or White Army officers, like Lolita’s Mr Taxovich with his bushy moustache and an ‘atrocious accent to his careful French’. Emigrés loitered over cheap drinks in Montparnasse, and settled on the rue de Vaugirard, or near the Orthodox Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky, or in suburbs like Boulogne-Billancourt. The appeal was obvious: many educated Russians had learned French as children, and Russia had always admired French culture.

The penniless émigrés were rarely able to practise their old professions, and were often reduced to menial labour. Gazdanov’s first job was lugging 36-pound sacks on and off the barges of the Seine; when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he got work washing locomotives. He was homeless for a winter, sleeping on pavements and in Metro stations, until he was taken on at the Citroën factory; he gave that up when he was almost killed by an oncoming lorry, and realised he was going deaf. He got a desk job at Hachette, but found it too difficult to pretend to work for eight hours a day, and soon left that too. Then he settled on the profession that he would stick with for twenty years: driving a taxi at night.

He claimed that the night taxi driver’s life was worse than the Civil War, but it gave him plenty of time to write and lots of good material. In 1930 he had his first major success: An Evening with Claire, a lyrical, semi-autobiographical novel that was praised in the émigré press. He was compared to Nabokov, the multilingual star of the young émigré writers, and to Ivan Bunin, who in 1933 would become the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize. Bunin himself praised Gazdanov’s work.

Nabokov and Bunin embodied many of the differences between the two generations of émigré fiction writers. The older émigrés, such as Bunin, had begun writing in Russia and hoped to return one day; they struggled in the meantime to preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage. Bunin spent his years in France writing lyrical stories about pre-Revolutionary Russia. During the Nazi occupation, cold, hungry and poor, he wrote Dark Avenues, a collection of exquisite stories about Russian youths on country estates. As Graham Hettlinger writes in the introduction to his translation, Bunin had a ‘remarkable ability to call up and distil the past. In a letter to Bunin, Gide wrote: ‘Your inner world … has triumphed over the external one. For you, it is the true reality.’ Gazdanov, too, favoured the inner over the outer.

Younger émigrés, such as Nabokov, straddled two (or more) cultures; they spoke Russian and thought of themselves as Russian, but were strongly influenced by their new surroundings. They knew Russia’s literary canon well, but were also steeped in modernism – especially French modernism – and used it to differentiate themselves from the older generation. Considering themselves well prepared for the modernist movement, they played up their isolation and alienation. In 1936 Gazdanov declared that émigré literature did not exist. The threat of assimilation caused anxiety among the old guard, who worried that the young were losing their national feeling. In 1930, a group of exiled academics wrote that ‘the very idea’ of Russia ‘is becoming ever more abstract’. Russia as it had existed before the Revolution was a mirage, and the Russian émigré world in Paris would dissipate after the war.

Gazdanov’s fifth novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, was conceived during the Second World War, when there wasn’t much work for taxi drivers. (Gazdanov and his wife also became involved in the Russian communist Resistance; again he was easy-going when it came to ideology.) Published in 1947-48 in an émigré journal in New York, the novel is a sort of existential thriller. The narrator, whose name we never learn, reads a story that recounts, in precise detail, what he calls the ‘painful memory that haunted me everywhere Fate took me’: the day when, as a boy fighting in the Russian Civil War, he killed (or thought he killed) a man in self-defence. The man was blond and handsome, on a beautiful white horse; the narrator was tired and ugly, riding a black nag. (Gazdanov’s protagonists often shared his characteristics. His fellow émigré Vasily Yanovsky described him as ‘a stocky fellow with broad shoulders and a short neck, resembling a hornless buffalo, with pockmarks on his large, ugly face’.)

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is a world of doubles. The narrator admits to a split personality; Wolf, the blond man who ‘missed his own death’ and went on to publish the story that plunges the narrator back into his memory of the war, suffers the same affliction, and so does Jean, the French police inspector. The narrator’s lover, Yelena, has a quick, lithe body, but her soul is sluggish. The characters are torn between past and present, choice and powerlessness, life and death. Very often the inner world prevails over the outer. The plot – the events unfolding in the external world – slips in and out of sight, always secondary to the book’s philosophical excursions. At the same time, there’s an openness about sex as a refuge from the mind’s abstractions.

Gazdanov’s preoccupation with doubles isn’t hard to understand. In Paris, he lived two lives: one in the Parisian demi-monde, the other in the Russian émigré world of art and ideas. And he knew something about having two identities before he emigrated; he never learned Ossetian, though his parents spoke it, and he needed an interpreter to speak to his grandmother. Exile made language fraught for everyone, but especially for writers, who had to choose between the mother tongue, part of a world that more and more seemed to have been lost, and the language of the host country, which offered the hope of a wide readership, financial success and a lasting legacy. Nabokov went for the second, and became one of the few younger émigrés to achieve real fame. Others became successful writers with French names: Elsa Triolet, born Ella Kagan; and Henri Troyat, born Lev Tarasov. Troyat adopted the pseudonym at the suggestion of his editor, and went on to become the first Russian to be elected to the Académie Française. But many more writers were unwilling, or unable, to abandon their original language, or play down their Russian identity.

Gazdanov’s French was impeccable, but he felt unable to write fiction in anything other than his native language. His novels are distinctly bilingual even so: his magnum opus, Night Roads, contains passages of French street slang that he translated only at the insistence of his editor. His novels are often set in Paris, with characters speaking French to each other, sometimes without translation and without an accent, and yet they’re written (mostly) in Russian.

In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, the narrator speaks perfect French; Wolf’s English prose is so fluent that he can be mistaken for a native writer. Yelena, too, appears to be fluent in both French and English. She is married to an American, and introduces herself by her last name, Armstrong. At first she and the narrator speak French; he can’t place her accent until she tells him she’s Russian, having spotted the Russian newspaper in his pocket. They switch to Russian, and he remarks on a stylistic error she makes (Gazdanov was sometimes criticised for such mistakes). Voznesensky, Wolf’s old friend, speaks French but not a word of English, and longs in vain to read Wolf’s book about the world they fled together. Voznesensky tried to write his memoirs in order to remember his great love, Marina, who was stolen by Wolf, but he found that he had no gift for writing. Now his last hopes lie with Wolf; but Wolf writes in English, because the money’s better, and he hasn’t written about Marina, because he didn’t love her like Voznesensky did. Still, Voznesensky says: ‘Perhaps we’ll be remembered if he mentions us in his writing; in fifty years’ time, pupils in English will read about us, and so everything that has happened won’t have been in vain … everything will live on.’

The narrator describes Wolf’s writing as ‘taut’ and ‘faultless’. Like Nabokov, Wolf has escaped the Russian émigré literary ghetto. The narrator’s own literary aspirations, on the other hand, are never realised. He is a journalist and occasional literary critic who longs to write novels, but has never put in the effort. He fills in for other writers at the newspaper (in French) and does odd jobs. His friends keep reminding him of his failure. Yelena tells him that if she had to describe him, she would say ‘that you understood more than you knew how to say, and that the tone of your voice was more expressive than the words you spoke’. Curly Pierrot, who loves detective fiction, asks: ‘But don’t you write novels?’ The narrator is mystified that Sasha Wolf, the drunken, philandering adventurer of Voznesensky’s pub anecdotes, is now Alexander Wolf, author of a book with an epigraph from Poe: ‘Beneath me lay my corpse, with the arrow in my temple.’ It turns out that his encounter with death was what made Sasha Wolf a writer. Bleeding to death after the narrator shot him on that fateful day, during the Civil War, he understood that life is the ‘sole thing whose value we can truly comprehend’, but later he says: ‘I could never recapture this feeling, and because I could never recapture it, I turned into the author of that book. I waited my whole life for something unexpected to happen, something entirely unforeseen, some incredible shock, when I’d see anew what I’d once loved so much: the warm, sensual world that I lost.’ The narrator concludes that ‘without fixity there can be no happiness.’

Memory is Gazdanov’s central theme, as it was for so many Russian émigrés, and for so many modernists. After he first sleeps with Yelena, the narrator says:

I … 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.

These are the thoughts of a man who is in exile from a civilisation that no longer exists, and will be condemned, eventually, to extinction. Because of his preoccupation with memory and his fondness for long sentences, Gazdanov has been compared to Proust, though he said he didn’t read him until after the Second World War. The critic Leonid Livak argues that he was influenced not so much by Proust as by a vague idea of ‘Proustianism’. Gazdanov veers far from Proust in his frequent scenes of violence; the elaborate syntax creates a contradiction between tone and subject. But perhaps he seems Proustian because to be an émigré was a Proustian condition: in New Mecca, New Babylon, a history of Russian émigrés in France, Robert Johnston describes the way Russian participants at a 1930 session of the Studio Franco-Russe said they felt ‘condemned to a Proustian existence’, an existence ‘as passive and contemplative of life as Proust’.

Gazdanov said that his was ‘quintessential Russian literary prose’, without a sense of living speech, and though it is often beautiful, it is at times colourless. Bryan Karetnyk’s translation is readable and sometimes elegant, but small inaccuracies, in a highly philosophical text, where precision is essential, make the underlying ideas sound more vague than they should. One of Gazdanov’s central themes is the absence of any meaning other than that created by one’s own actions. He is known to have admired Camus (most of whose work was published after The Spectre of Alexander Wolf was written), though he hated Sartre. At the same time, the novel is clearly descended from Dostoevsky, and in this sense, Gazdanov’s work is the perfect fusion of the Russian tradition and French innovation. Recently in France he’s come to be regarded as ‘a French writer of the Russian language’. Unfortunately for Gazdanov, in France they still speak French.