Pushkin Press has a knack for disinterring long-forgotten European classics, dusting them down, translating them afresh and introducing them to readers as exciting new releases. Now they have turned their attention to Gaito Gazdanov, a Russian writer who lived in exile in Paris from the 1920s onward and whose work only saw the light of the day in his native land after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” (splendidly translated by Bryan Karetnyk) is, quite simply, a mini-masterpiece, one that says as much about Gazdanov’s talents as it does about the gems in Pushkin’s treasure trove.
The novel opens with an explosive confession: “Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.” This line not only entices, it also encapsulates, summing up what lies in store: deep reflection (“memories”), passion and longing (“sensations”) and thrills (“murder”). Our anonymous narrator is a 16-year-old soldier in Russia’s Civil War. One sultry day he shoots an enemy soldier dead and flees on his victim’s white stallion. Years later, as an émigré in Paris, he comes across a short story by an English writer called Alexander Wolf in which the aforementioned incident is recounted from the point of view of the man who had been shot. Disconcerted by the parallels and still haunted by his act, the narrator makes inquiries about the identity of the enigmatic author. Is Wolf the man he shot? And if so, did he survive?
We shadow our narrator on his paper chase and sift with him the tidbits he is fed. Wolf, we learn, is a mass of contradictions: a leftist revolutionary, an adventurer, drunkard, philanderer and seducer, but also a cultivated producer of fine literature.
The narrator falls for the capricious and worldly Yelena, and we wonder what her connection is to his old adversary. When “killer” and “corpse” are reunited, the two confront their past and succumb to bouts of Russian soul-searching.
Throughout, Gazdanov stokes our curiosity while manipulating our unease. Unanswered questions and feelings of guilt and regret result in interludes laced with menace and tension. What started as a mystery redolent of Poe wends into a tale of rich psychological complexity.
Gazdanov is also expert at presenting love in an original way. “Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate,” we are told; “it’s a naive illusion of brief immortality.” His hero’s senses are impressionistically rendered, particularly when he is entranced by Yelena’s “whole silent melody of skin and muscles, the counter jolt from her body.” In contrast, we get visceral snapshots of war and a bloody boxing match, and a novel tour of 1920s Paris, homing in on Montmartre.
In an age in which too many so-so new books are published, perhaps it is time to rediscover the classics. If “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” is indicative of the rest of this writer’s output, then we can only hope Pushkin Press will open the Gazdanov vault and give us more of the same.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.