During the Russian Civil War – the conflict leading up to the formation of the Soviet Union – a teenage soldier finds himself alone, his horse shot from under him. Though he’s never had to do anything like it before, he takes aim and shoots an enemy soldier, then walks over and watches the man seem to die. Years later he reads a short story that recounts the exact details of the encounter – from the point of view of the man who was killed.
It’s impossible. That’s the mystery driving Russian writer Gaito Gazdanov’s short 1947-48 novel, published in a lovely new paperback edition by Pushkin Press in a new translation by Bryan Karetnyk. Part mystery, part love story, and part metaphysical exploration, the novel feels heavy and intense, yet, on this reader, it did not make the deep impression it seems to have made on some others. Perhaps it’s the long lacuna in which nothing that seems relevant to the mystery occurs. Perhaps it’s the translation, which feels rather rough, though not knowing Russian I can’t judge it with finesse.
It may also be a bit unfair of me to have read this book in between tackling volumes of Proust. But the Proustian comparisons that some have made are hyperbolic. They refer, I think, to passages like this, in which the narrator, newly in love, observes with fresh eyes the street and the house where his girlfriend lives:
It was as if everything were the scenery for the only (and of course finest) play that the human imagination could conceive of. It might have been a theatre set. It might also have been a visual overture to a melody that I alone among millions of people could hear, and that was ready to start up the moment that door on the first floor opened to me – a door just like thousands of others, but nevertheless the only one in the world.
An evocative passage, surely, but was that second sentence really necessary?
Later, he recalls the night he first met the rather mysterious Yelena at a boxing match in Paris:
Much later, recalling our first meeting and how everything had begun, I found it easier to reconstruct events by closing my eyes and hypothetically omitting the content of our initial conversation in the café, our parting under the rain, and generally those things whose substance can fit into a cohesive narrative. More keenly than every before in my life I sensed that all this came down to some blind, obscure movement, to a sequence of visual and aural impressions, accompanied by an unconscious, simultaneous muscular gravity that was developing uncontrollably.
Such close examination of the narrator’s own mind and memory gives us a firm sense of his interior world and his grasp of psychology. “I knew,” he reflects at one point, “that the silent, almost unconscious memory of war haunts the majority of people who have gone through it, leaving something broken in them once and for all.” The love relationship provides the otherwise rather icy story’s emotional heart, while his search for the writer of the inexplicable short story provides the suspense. Less solid is the overall narrative structure, which breaks off the mystery to recount the love story in detail before returning to the earlier matter and close with what was, to me at least, an unexpected final twist.
Modernistic? Yes. Experimental? Perhaps. Successful? Not entirely. I read with interest throughout but became frustrated during the long middle section, during which the suspense dissipated – and the whole story takes only 187 of Pushkin Press’s tiny pages.
Pushkin brings out a great many “lost” classics by notable but mostly forgotten authors. This is a perfect example, but not a perfect book. Nonetheless I recommend it for its psychological acuteness and its sense of place and time. It is not only a work of literature but a historical document of sorts: an entry in the record of Russian and European history, and in the history of the art of fiction.