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
Coincidence is central to the tightly constructed narrative. Gazdanov, with his stylistic echoes of Mikhail Bulgakov, creates a vivid sense of his narrator’s life as a working journalist open to turning his attention to a variety of stories on subjects about which he knows little. He tends to write in cafes, which provide stories of their own in the form of some interesting characters. One such chance meeting, with an engaging drunk with a lifetime of wine and women behind him, proves of immense value to the outcome, as does an approach made to the narrator by a discreetly traumatised woman with an interest in attending the light-heavyweight world boxing title fight the narrator is asked to cover for an indisposed colleague.
There are elements of the psychological thriller, but this cool, wonderfully fraught novel with its hint of restrained hysteria and a subplot alluding to enforced morphine addiction is essentially a philosophical tract concerned with human mortality and how one confronts it. Although the romance, with its edgy banter, is laboured and the narrator appears to be yet another man at the mercy of damaged women, Gazdanov is unusually good at evoking ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.
Near the close of the narrative, which covers a great deal of ground in less than 200 pages, the narrator introduces an account of his shortlived friendship with a likeable minor criminal. The gangster, the pretentious policeman on his trail and the sweating stool pigeon are all brilliantly summoned up in a brief, exciting narrative diversion that also remains relevant to the novel’s prevailing thesis of mortality and “cosmic catastrophes”.
First published in a Russian-language journal in New York between 1947 and 1948, its 2012-2013 new edition in several languages, including this English translation, is getting a lot of attention in Europe. It is not surprising. Gifted if unsung masters from the past continue to put pressure on the writers of the moment, and readers need only savour riches such as this unsettling wonder to understand why.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.