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Eugene Vodolazkin: Брисбен (Brisbane)

Eugene Vodolazkin’s previous novels have been set partially or entirely in the past and while this one goes back to the Soviet Union era, its earliest date is 1971, almost modern for Vodolazkin. Our hero is Gleb Yanovsky. I had to admit that when I saw the name Yanovsky, I immediately thought of Zal Yanovsky, lead guitarist for the The Lovin’ Spoonful. Gleb and Zal have no connection except that both are musicians, though Gleb, as we shall see, has a broader repertoire than Zal.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with the first set in 1971 and carrying on to Gleb’s success and the second set in the 2010s when three key things happen to Gleb. As we are following the later story while also following the earlier one, there are relatively few surprises as regads his earlier life,except for the obvious one, namely how and why did he achieve musical fame, something we do not learn till much later on.

Like Vodolazkin, Gleb was born in Ukraine (Kyiv in both cases) but, also like Vodolazkin, seems determined to be Russian rather than Ukrainian. However, while Vodolazkin has spent much of his adult life in Russia, Gleb spends some of his in Russia but most of it in Germany.

Gleb’s parents – Fyodor and Irina – do not have a happy marriage and split up. While Gleb will nominally live with his mother, it is in fact his grandmother, to whom he will remain very close, who takes most care of him. It is Fyodor who is the musician in the family. He is a violinist. He tries to instil a love of music in his son but concludes that Gleb has no musical aptitude. By this time, we know from the later story, which we are also following, that Gleb will go on to be a successful musician. Despite Fyodor’s scepticism, Gleb is enrolled in a music school and learns the domra, deemed to be more suitable than the violin or guitar (which he particularly wants to learn) for a child.

Meanwhile Fyodor and Irina have divorced and Irina plans on going to Australia but the Soviet authorities refuse her an exit visa. Australia, and Brisbane in particular, will mean some sort of idealised place for Gleb and Irina throughout the book. Irina will plan to go there after the fall of the Soviet Union. Fyodor remarries (Galina) and she has a son, Egor, from her previous marriage who is about the same age as Gleb. He will play a small but, on two occasions, a key role in Gleb’s life

Another key issue at this point is language. Gleb and most of the people he has contact with speak Russian but Fyodor speaks Ukrainian. Gleb learns Ukrainian as a foreign language and this language issue will also remain an issue throughout the book, particularly the differences between the two languages.

Gleb’s musical apprenticeship progresses and he becomes highly competent. His grandmother takes him to the opera and he is particularly enamoured of Eugene Onegin. He enjoys the domra but will eventually graduate to the guitar.

As he is growing up, Gleb will develop his musical aptitude but also develop an interest in the opposite sex. He twice falls for one of his teachers but two young women his own age have a huge effect on him. The first is a girl, Arina, he sees at the beach with whom he is immediately smitten and when she drowns accidentally at the beach, Gleb is devastated and never really gets over her, though he never even spoke to her. The second is Anna Lebed (Lebed means swan). When she moves to Moscow, he runs away to find he. It does not go well. She will reappear in his life and her reappearance leads to one of the three key events of his later life, many years later, mentioned above.

To our surprise and the surprise of his family, Gleb drops out of music school because
Arina’s death makes him feel, that, as we are all going to die, there is no point continuing his musical studies. He will return, after being persuaded to do so by his priest (as this is Vodolazkin, religion also plays a role in this book). However, he will not go to the conservatory, but instead, follows his dream to go to Leningrad, where he studies philology, not music. We follow his career in Leningrad and his life after his studies. He manages to get a residency permit but needs to get a job. By this time he has met a German woman, Katya, and we know from the later story that they will remain together.

The pair find jobs as teachers in a religious institution, where Gleb teaches Russian and guitar but is eventually tempted away to Germany by a former fellow student from music school, to work as a musician for a rich man for much more money than teaching can offer. The work is in Berlin. The job does not go well but, gradually, we see Gleb make a highly successful career as a solo musician.

The later story starts in 2012 with Gleb having trouble playing. We and he will soon learn that he has Parkinson’s disease. Naturally, this causes him considerable problems. This is the first of the key events, mentioned above, that occur during this period. The other two are the arrival of Anna, as mentioned, and the Maidan Revolution of 2014. The story is how he and Katya cope with all three.

I am not a musician and therefore not particularly competent to judge the issues in Gleb’s life. However, two people very close to me have been musicians, one classical and one rock and I have learned a lot from them about music and what it means to their lives.

One key event which I could have added concerning Gleb’s later life involves a writer called Nestor, who is writing a book about Gleb (by no means the first). Gleb tells him There’s no understanding that the musical stems from the human and it is this that Nestor and, of course, Vodolazkin in this book, try to come to grips with. Obviously we cannot hear Gleb’s music but we know he plays a mixture of pop, folk and classical and we know, because Vodolazkin is at pains to make us aware of this, that his music comes from his life – his upbringing, his relationships, his language(s), political events that affect him, religion and all the things that life throws at him, including, of course his Parkinson’s. As Nestor says to him You know, where the word ends, that’s where the music begins.

Vodolazkin goes into some detail about how Gleb, his life and his music intertwine but he also goes into detail concerning the technical aspect of music and he clearly knows his stuff. I was a bit at loss at time and had to consult my in-house musician. However, even if you know, like me, little about the technicalities of music and you do not have an in-house expert, do not let that put you off as this is really a very fine book about a musician, yes, but about a person who is of his time and struggles not only with music but with parents, political events, his love life, his illness, his relationships and life in general.

Publishing history

First published 2019 by Redakt︠s︡ii︠a︡ Eleny Shubinoĭ : Izdatelʹstvo AST
First published in 2022 in English by Plough Publishing
Translated by Marian Schwartz