The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, by Gaito Gazdanov
In this eerie 1940s novel, an emigre journalist is tormented by memories of killing a man in the Russian Civil War
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf
Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk
For years, the narrator, settled in Paris, lives under the shadow of shooting the man who tried to kill him. Whenever he thinks that the memory has finally faded, it all comes back with a relentless clarity: “I saw again the enormous rose-grey shadow of the forest fire and its gradual progression amidst the crackle of burning twigs and branches; I felt that unforgettable, agonising weariness and the almost overwhelming desire to sleep, the merciless brilliance of the sun, the ringing heat and finally the mute recollection of the revolver’s weight in my grasp . . .”
By chance, he reads a collection of short stories by Alexander Wolf, an English author of whom he has never previously heard. One of the stories is called The Adventure in the Steppe. The title resonates, and although the other stories are also well written, it is the one about the steppe that most grips him. He notes the epigraph, “Beneath me lay my corpse, with the arrow in my temple”, taken from Edgar Allan Poe, but it is the story itself that stuns him. It appears to be a terrifyingly accurate retelling of his wartime adventure and it draws him into a quest that takes many strange twists.
The first of these is in the form of a warning from the British publisher of the book. Having written unanswered letters to Wolf, the narrator travels to London and meets Wolf’s publisher who advises him to avoid the author of the story, adding: “I can assure you that an acquaintance with Mr Wolf, were it to come about, would bring you nothing other than disappointment and would surely want for the interest you vainly ascribe to it.” By this time, the narrator has become a freelance journalist, living in the between-the-wars Paris that Gazdanov knew intimately from his long years spent there as a taxi driver.
By night Gazdanov drove around the city, earning his living and leaving his days free for attending lectures at the Sorbonne and working on his writing. A protégé of Maxim Gorky, he quickly became part of the Russian émigré literary set and one of the books he reviewed early on was by none other than Vladimir Nabokov, an aristocrat by birth and four years his senior. Nabokov later moved on to the US, where he was to play a major role in the revitalisation of American fiction. Gazdanov, however, remained in Europe, and although he had become famous in literary circles with An Evening with Claire (1929), he continued to publish in Russian journals. Cold War politics played its part in confining his work to an admiring, if narrow, audience, and he worked on as a cab driver until he was 50. Then, in 1953, he moved to Munich to work for Radio Liberty, an American station apparently funded by the CIA and still operating. He died in 1971 and is buried in Paris.