A young soldier, exhausted after almost three nights without sleep, finally collapses. When he wakes his comrades are gone and he is alone. Grazing nearby is a thin, black mare “whose rider had obviously been killed”. He mounts the horse and sets off at a gallop through the deserted landscape, but although he is moving at speed, his later memories convey an impression of everything happening in slow motion. He recalls riding along, still longing for rest, when the mare fell to the ground, bringing him with her. She had been shot in the head; he looked up and saw the marksman closing in.
The narrator of the émigré Russian writer Gaito Gazdanov's elegantly eerie classic, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, is tormented by that single wartime experience. His pursuer was mounted on a large white horse. The narrator was only 16 at the time, and watched as the horseman released the reins and shouldered his rifle. The narrator suddenly remembered that he had a revolver, "and with some difficulty managed to pull it out of its tight, new holder". He took aim and waited for a few seconds before firing. A crazed curiosity made him rush over to examine the face of the man he had killed. He saw him dying, and the image never left him.
Gaito Gazdanov was born in St Petersburg in 1903, but moved to Kharkov, in Ukraine, and was living there with his widowed mother some time before the Russian Revolution began in 1917. He begins his story with this dramatic to-the-death encounter between two fellow countrymen pitted against each other by civil war. The opening scene takes place in the heat of a southern Russian summer, intensified by a forest fire. Gazdanov’s father had been a forester. Exactly how much of the subsequent narrative is autobiographical is not certain, yet the future novelist did fight as a 16-year-old on the side of the White Russians, and his description of the chaos and lull of battle, the sudden silence, is immediate and urgent, devastatingly atmospheric.
The boy in the story stares with wonder at the dead man. To him, it is a murder, the only one he has ever committed. He is not helped by the thought that, in war, a soldier is expected to kill. Whatever about his remorse, he has sufficient presence of mind to claim the white horse and ride off. A few days later, before fleeing Russia, he sold the horse to a German settler. It is an interesting touch that the buyer was German, not Russian.
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.
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.