The Flight by Gaito Gazdanov

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Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Reviewed by Karen Langley

As well as being the driving force behind the Stefan Zweig revival, Pushkin Press has also done fans of Russian authors a great service with their translations of Gaito Gazdanov’s novels. I reviewed his dreamlike novel The Buddha’s Return in SNB3, and it seems I’m not the only one who was seduced by his prose; he’s received so much critical acclaim that we’re at the point now where any new publication of a Gazdanov book is an occasion for great celebration.

Their recent Gazdanov release, The Flight, was the author’s second 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 expat, who seems to display no emotion 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.

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; and 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 smitten 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 whom 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 young 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.

As the narrative progresses and the tale starts to take flight, the interlinked destinies of all the characters begin to draw together. There is 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 writing; however The Flight is a completely different kettle of fish! This is Gazdanov in playful mood, spinning a tale of émigrés 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 deep feeling – 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 will have you careering headlong to the end of the tale, totally gripped by the events and storytelling; and when you get to the end you may well want 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 right man for the job!

The Flight is one of my stand-out reads of the year so far. Really, Pushkin Press can’t be thanked 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 Gaito Gazdanov 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 book and highly recommended!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and dreams of the south of France before it became popular.

Gaito Gazdanov, The Flight, (Pushkin Press, 2016). 978-1782271628, 224pp, paperback.

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