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.

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