THE SPECTRE OF ALEXANDER WOLF By Gaito Gazdanov / Pushkin Press
Seduced by the exceptional visual and tactile quality of both design and paper I picked up this small book by instinct, knowing nothing at all about its author. It was the kind of experience one can only have in a bookshop while browsing. I would never have disovered this book or its author; no amount of imaging or blurb on the net would have had the same response from a book buyer.
Gaito Gazdanov wrote in Russian. He fled his homeland, landing in Paris after having fought with the White Army aged just sixteen. This novel felt a little more like a short story which had been expanded, but it is none the worse for it. At no point does the author allow the tension to drop. A young Russian soldier roams aimlessly across the battlefields of the Russian steppes. A lone rider shoots his horse. Delirious from heat, thirst and exhaustion, he in turn shoots the enemy soldier and rides off on the latter's white stallion. Years later he finds the exact account of his `murder', retold by an apparently English author by the name of Alexander Wolf. Is this a coincidence or did the man survive the shooting and has changed his name? The search to meet the author begins. Gazdanov's life as a refugee in Paris in the 1920s brought long periods of unemployment, sleeping on park benches or in the Metro. When he finally became a night time taxi driver he had the money and time to attend lectures at the Sorbonne and write in the daytime; he quickly became part of the Paris literary scene. Bryan Karetnyk's translation of the Russian original could not be bettered. It is sensitive, thoughtful, lyrical and precise. Gazdanov was a fan of Nabokov long before the latter became famous; there are echoes of Nabokov who had also fled Russia after the defeat of the White Army in 1919. I could well imagine that a good translation into German would see similarities with the beauty of Hermann Hesse or Patrick Suskind's writing, in a good French translation there might be some resemblance with the best of Proust. This is not `a page-turner' in the usual sense - one turns the pages long after one had meant to close the book to get on with one's own life. Nor is it a crime novel, rather the story of a predestined killing.
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