The Spectre of Alexander Wolf starts with the narrator describing his memory of the day he murdered a stranger. He also goes on to say that this act has haunted him every passing day since that moment, and also that despite this fact, he could not have done anything different.
This event told by the narrator, happened during the Russian Civil War where he describes himself as a young soldier in southern Russia. After two and half days without sleep he becomes separated from the rest of his troop.
He sets out in the direction he presumes they’ve gone and not long after is chased down by a Cossack, it is this that leads to the moment he describes as murder, but is really self defence. He was sixteen years old when this occurred, and from that moment on he will be haunted by it.
Flash forward many years and whilst in Paris, he reads a short story, that describes exactly what happened, and in such detail that it could have only been written by someone who was there. The problem is that he and the murdered Cossack were the only ones there.
This impossibility sets him out on a mission to find the author, to find out if. This will lead him……….
This book manages to pack in a lot between it’s 178 pages, it manages to be a detective tale, romance, and memoir; yet still ask those questions about existence, still points it’s metaphysical finger at the world at large. This is a book that absorbs you, makes you want to savour it. Whether it’s the opening scene, or the way the book develops this is a book for cold dark nights, read whilst cosied up somewhere warm.
Gaito Gazdanov, was born in Saint Petersburg but was brought up in Siberia and Ukraine, where his father worked as a forester. He joined Baron Wrangel’s White Army aged just sixteen and fought in the Russian Civil War. Exiled in Paris from 1920 onwards, taking on the jobs that were available to him and sleeping on park benches during periods of unemployment. A job as a taxi driver working nights, allowed him to attend lectures at the Sorbonne and write during the day. It didn’t take him long to become part of the literary scene. His first novel — An Evening with Claire (1930) — won accolades from Maxim Gorky and Vladislav Khodasevich, who noted his indebtedness to Marcel Proust. On the strength of his first short stories, Gazdanov was described by critics as one of the most gifted writers to begin his career in emigration. He died in Munich in 1971.
Whilst researching for this post I came across this piece in The Independent
“Writing in a Russian émigré magazine in 1927, Gaito Gazdanov – a young soldier-turned-driver-turned-novelist, recently escaped from Soviet Russia – praised his contemporary Vladimir Sirin for "the rare kind of gift he possesses": "he is outside of society, of rationality, of the rest of the world" [Rul', 18 November, 1927]. Twenty years later, Sirin began to write as Vladimir Nabokov. Few would remember the reviewer who spotted his early promise.”
Hopefully thanks to the wonderful publisher Pushkin Press, this will change and Gazdanov will join that list of not just Russian émigré writers, but that colossal pantheon of Russia’s great writers
Baron Karetnyk is an editor as well as a translator of Russian literature. He read Russian and Japanese at the university of Edinburgh, graduating in 2008 and now lives and works in London.
Pushkin Press(Gaito Gazdanov)
A Gaito Gazdanov Short Story