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Gaito Gazdanov: Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire)

This was Gazdanov’s first novel, published in Paris when he was twenty-six, having escaped from Russia, where he had been fighting for the Whites. It received a lot of good reviews and was very well-received by the Russian émigré community. However, Gazdanov more or less disappeared from sight, till he was revived in English translation in the late 1980s. His novels are generally autobiographical in nature. This one, for example, is nominally about an evening with Claire but though Claire does put in a few appearances, most of it is about his life to date in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Russia. Indeed, it may be the very well-written description of this life, with which many Russian emigrés must have been able to identify. The book has been compared to the writing of Proust and though Proust had published all of his À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past) by the time this book was published, Gazdanov claimed not have read it till much later. Despite this, I can certainly see why critics did compare him to Proust, though they have as many differences as similarities.

The book does indeed start with Claire. Our hero, whose name we later learn is Kolya Sosedov, visits Claire in her flat in Paris. Her husband is away in Ceylon and, at the start of the novel, Claire is ill. In one of the many touches that adds to the charm of this novel, we learn about the maid who seems to be rather plain but also seems to have a series of love affairs, which often end badly. Kolya, however, does not seem to have any more success than the maid. When he tries to touch Claire, he is firmly rejected. He even stays so late that he misses his last train and has to walk home. His conclusion is that he has wasted ten years of his life pursuing her.

At this point Claire disappears for a while as we follow his early life. We learn about his father, to whom he was devoted. Indeed, he was more of a friend than a father. His father was interested in many things but, in particular, hunting. But he also liked maps, fire (he enjoyed rescuing things from burning houses, another odd touch), science, public affairs. He was anti-religion. His mother was made of sterner stuff. She was not harsh but he felt that she was more in charge. However, tragedy hit the house. When he was eight, his father died and, later, his older sister died of scarlet fever. His mother never really recovered from the loss of her husband and daughter. We follow his growing up, he and his mother the only ones left of his immediate family. What makes this book interesting at this point is his detailed self-analysis. Indeed, he indulges in this frequently.

Kolya is a very solitary boy though he does have some friends but they are not very close. However, he does not feel alone and is an inveterate reader. He is also something of a rebel, often getting into trouble at school. However, he is also self-deprecating, frequently saying that was the least intelligent of his family. It is when he is thirteen that he first meets Claire. He goes to Kislovodsk in the holidays, where his grandparents live and he sees her there. It is she that initiates the conversation with him and they seem to become friends (but nothing else). He even goes to her house several times, though stops going when her mother is rude to him. After that he did not see her for some time and when he did, by chance, she told him that she was married. She invites him into her house but he declines and she walks away without saying Goodbye. Everything that I had known and loved until that moment swirled and disappeared with the snow. He saw her in the street some time later. He bowed but she did not acknowledge him. He will not see her for ten years.

We follow his life at school and, in particular, at military school before and after the Revolution. Away from Moscow and St Petersburg, the revolution did not happen so quickly and the old life continues on, to a certain degree, though the teachers are not paid. The priests – both Kolya and his father are very anti-religion – continue trying to save souls and, as he shows, even accept bribes, like the police. To everyone’s surprise, he joins the Whites as, of course, Gazdanov did. His reasons are the same as his creator’s – because they were there. Had the Reds been in occupation, he would have joined the Reds. He merely wanted to see what war was like. Though he does see the horrors of war and describes them, he seems to take it all in his stride. We follow the gradual retreat of the Whites and then the evacuation of the remaining troops to Istanbul.

This book does give an interesting account of the Civil War as well as what it was like to grow up in a well-off family in the period immediately preceding the Russian Revolution. But above all, this book is worthwhile as it is an introspective book, the story of a young man growing up in a society that was about to see major upheaval, yet it is teenage love that affects him most. He can forget the limbs shot off in the Civil War, the huge changes to his country and the personal tragedies in his family, but he cannot forget Claire.

Publishing history

First published 1929 by Pavolotsky, Paris
First English publication by Ardis in 1988