Translated by Bryan Karetnyk
Review by Karen Langley
Recent years have seen an upturn of interest in Russian émigré authors from the 20th century; there were, of course, famous names like Nabokov, who transcended that status, making a new life and career in the west. However, other writers fared less well, and one name which languished in relative obscurity until recent years was that of Gaito Gazdanov. He had a fascinating life and career, surviving revolution and civil war in Russia, escaping into exile and ending up in Paris as an émigré. Here, he split his time between earning a living as a night-time taxi driver and writing his wonderful fictions. They earned much praise from authors such as Gorky, and the rest of Gazdanov’s life was eventful, including joining the Resistance during World War 2 and broadcasting on Radio Liberty.
Yet in recent years he’d become something of an unsung writer, until Pushkin Press started issuing his works in shiny new translations, starting with The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. They’ve since released three other titles (two of which are reviewed here and here), and last month saw the publication of a new edition of Gazdanov’s first novel, An Evening with Claire. The book had previously been released in the US in a different version, but here it’s rendered into English by veteran translator Bryan Karetnyk, who’s been responsible for the other Pushkin Gazdanovs; and it really is a most wonderful read.
Originally published in 1930, An Evening with Claire was the work which brought Gazdanov 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 many 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 and the relationship is finally consummated, Kolya begins to remember his past. Journeying back in his mind, he recalls his childhood; his parents’ life 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.
…even the mightiest of shocks seemed incapable of altering anything in this so exquisite a body, of destroying this final, invincible charm that had compelled me to spend ten years of my life searching for Claire, never forgetting her, no matter where I found myself.
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 through which he lives. In particular, the second half of the book, focusing as it does on the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, is extremely powerful and effective. At 16, Kolya joins the White Army against his family’s wishes – his mother is distraught, his Uncle Vitaly angry – and somehow passes through the fighting unscathed. Throughout the book he has had a strong inner life into which he retreats, and this tends to shield him from the harsh realities of conflict – and they are here, but Kolya manages to remain mostly oblivious. As the upper hand switches from one side to the other, and the Reds finally seem to be winning, Kolya reaches Sebastopol – literally the end of the road, and the only option is to head away from Russia on a boat.
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 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, as to the importance of memory in Gazdanov’s work; I’d certainly agree that it’s a strong part of his writing and very relevant to this book. 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. The final pages of Claire are poetic, often hypnotic, the kind of prose in which you lose yourself completely.
As Kolya explores his past, it becomes clear throughout the narrative that the figure of Claire, who he’s loved since he met her, and who reappears periodically in his life, is a kind of touchstone for him; her memory is something that holds him steady through the madness of the real world, and she’s someone he hopes to find again in the new world of exile. There’s a circular structure to the book which recalls some of his other work, and only as you reach the end of the story do you realise the significance of events at the start.
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 see his frequent inability to grasp reality or understand what is going on around him, we get a view inside the mind of a man who witnessed 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. Like Gazdanov himself, the book belongs to two countries: Russia, the place of the author and his narrator’s birth, and France, their home in exile (and also Claire’s native country); and the book captures the anguish of the exile quite brilliantly.
An Evening with Claire is brilliantly translated by Bryan Karetnyk who’s done such a wonderful job of bringing all the other Gazdanov Pushkin titles to English. As Karetnyk’s introduction makes clear, Gazdanov’s book was part of a new wave of émigré writing, drawing on the past but looking to the future. The author was only twenty-five when he completed his manuscript, but had lived a more eventful life than many would in seventy-five years. Here, Karetnyk once again captures that singular voice which makes Gazdanov’s fiction unique – his hypnotic and compelling prose, his masterful storytelling and his excellent ability to evoke setting, character and atmosphere, transporting the reader to another place and time. Gaito Gazdanov’s first full-length work is as powerful, striking and memorable as all his other works, and we can only be grateful to Pushkin Press and Bryan Karetnyk for making it available for Anglophone readers!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and agrees that the past really is another country…
Gaito Gazdanov, An Evening with Claire (Pushkin Press, 2021). 978-1782276050, 222pp., paperback.
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