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Gaito Gazdanov: Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Spectre of Alexander Wolf)

The unnamed narrator of this book has one abiding memory – that of the only murder he had ever committed to date. It was not what we would call murder but he did. It was during the Russian civil war. He, aged sixteen, was a soldier. He had been awake for two whole days and was very tired. He was wandering through a forest and, when he came out, he found a saddled, but riderless black horse. He assumed the rider was dead and took the horse. As he was riding along, the horse suddenly stumbled and fell. He realised that he had been shot at by a man approaching on a white horse. Our hero quickly pulled out his revolver and, before the man could fire his rifle, shot him. The man fell from his horse and, when our hero approached him, he was lying on the ground. The injured man opened his eyes, looked up and died. As his horse was now dead, our hero took the man’s white horse. It was a magnificent horse and he was able to sell it for a large sum when he finally left Russia to move to Paris.

Many years later, while in Paris, he came across an English author’s collection of stories. One story particularly interested him. It was called The Adventure in the Steppe. It told of a man fighting in the Russian Civil War. He was riding a white horse, when he saw a man approaching on a black horse. He quickly got off two shots with his rifle. As he was a crack shot, he was sure that he had killed the man. However, the man suddenly got up and, before the author could fire, fired at him with his revolver. He fell from his horse. He remembered lying on the ground and seeing the man looking at him. He then lost consciousness. His comrades were not far behind. They picked him up and took him to a hospital where, despite his serious wounds he made a full recovery. He wonders what happened to the man who shot him and assumes that he had died. Naturally, our hero immediately thinks that this must be the man he shot. Some time later, he has to visit London and goes to the office of the publisher of the book. He speaks to the publisher, who tells him that he must be mistaken The author – Alexander Wolf – is an Englishman who has barely left England and has certainly never been to Russia. He is currently not in touch with Wolf. However, were the story true, the publisher wishes that our hero’s shot had been more effective but declines to elaborate. He also strongly discourages our hero from trying to find Wolf, saying it would bring you nothing other than disappointment and would surely want for the interest you vainly ascribe to it.

While the plot, of course, does bring our hero ever closer to the mysterious Mr Wolf, there is a lot more to this novel than this plot. He is, by profession, a journalist, though he clearly has ambitions to write novels. However, life and laziness have prevented him from realising these ambitions. As a journalist, he seems to fill in for other journalists, when they are absent or otherwise occupied. For example, the obituary writer is off sick, and we get a detailed and quite amusing description of his time as an obituary writer. On one occasion, he is asked to cover an important boxing match between a US fighter and a Frenchman. Though I dislike boxing, I very much enjoyed his excellent description of the fight, particularly the detailed examination of the tactics of the two men and how these played out during the fight. More importantly, when he arrives at the match, the place is full of ticket touts and people are eagerly trying to get tickets. A woman approaches him and asks him if he has any tickets to spare. He, of course, has a press pass, giving him a front row seat. He is somewhat intrigued by a single woman wanting to see a boxing match, so he manages to get her in, with her taking his seat, while he stands up.

As in Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire), our hero is very introspective and we get a detailed self-examination, in particular, about what he calls his split personality. My split personality was entirely benign and in no way seemed to foreshadow those catastrophic consequences it bore later on. It began with my being attracted to two opposing things in equal measure: on the one hand there was history of art and culture, reading, to which I devoted much time, and a predilection for abstract problems; on the other, so excessive a love of sport and everything to do with the purely physical, muscular, animal world. He goes on to talk about the savage versus the sensual in his make-up and that this explains the love for both literature and earthy journalism. He inevitably starts an affair with the woman he met at the boxing match and she too has something of a split personality. Life with her consisted of two sharply contrasting love affairs: a sensual intimacy, in which everything was, on the whole, natural, and a spiritual affinity, infinitely slower, more complex and which may not have been there at all. The affair continues for much of the book and he describes his relationship with her in detail and, certainly, in a much more mature manner than Kolya Sosedov in Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire) in his relationship with Claire.

Our narrator has not realised that this woman is Russian and is surprised when he discovers it. She had been married to an American and is now a (rich) widow. However, the fact that she is Russian does enhance their relationship. Inevitably, the Wolf story is going to coincide with hers. However, before it does, it fades away for a long while. However, when it does come back, our hero starts giving much thought to it and, as he had said in the opening paragraph of the book, feels guilty about what he sees as murder, even though it was in the heat of war and the man had fired at him first. Again the Wolf story disappears, as out of the blue, our hero gets involved with an arch-criminal and the police hunt for him.

Critics, particularly Russian ones, have showered praise on Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire) but I thought that this was the much better book. Firstly, there is a genuine and very clever plot, which has several twists and a clever ending. Secondly, our hero is a far more mature, more complex and more interesting man than Kolya Sosedov. Thirdly, while there is nothing wrong with young love or unrequited love, as we find in Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire), the relationship in this book is much more mature. Gazdanov was in his early twenties when he wrote Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire) and it shows. He was in his mid-forties when he wrote this book and it is a more mature and, from my perspective, a more interesting book, as a result.

Publishing history

First published 1947 by New Journal, New York
First English publication by Jonathan Cape/E P Dutton in 1950
Translated by Nicholas Wreden (Dutton), Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin)