I had never actually heard of this novella until I saw a review of this most recent translation by Bryan Kartenyk. Russian literature has always been something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed — thanks in no small part to a wonderful professor in college (William Mills Todd) — but known only partially. My primary academic focus is British literature, along with some elements of French and Spanish literature and a tiny dash of American literature, so reading Russian literature has only ever been a for-pleasure activity, easily squeezed out of my busy work and academic life.
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (Gazdanov) — Book Review
The prose here is quick, but weighty, fast-paced but with an erudition of language and keen observation. The novella runs to only 150 pages or so; there is mystery, and a slightly supernatural air (similar to a Wilkie Collins novel), but it is not so ponderous that one can get frustrated. I’d recommend this to anyone who is a fan of stories that play with the uncanny and sensational fiction with a thoughtful side. The below includes a summary of the plot, so beware spoilers. (And I’d really recommend you read the story ‘cold’.)
Gazdanov was a Russian émigré after the Russian Civil War, and his own experiences inflect the background story of the novella’s main character: a young Russian exile in Paris after the war, a jobbing journalist by trade but with a grumbling dark side, or as he himself calls it, a ‘split personality’. He traces his troubles back to a near-fatal encounter during the war, where his horse was shot from under him, and in a moment of good luck, he manages to defend himself against his assailant, who he shoots and then hastily abandons moments from death. He is dogged by regret, and also, I think, by a sense of that defining moment as somehow incomplete for him, having been chased away by the sound of approaching horses. More than the fact of having killed his attacker (in self-defence, as he constantly reminds us), the protagonist seems affected by the sense that he had insufficient time and presence of mind positively to choose to commit the murderous act.
The protagonist receives a shock when he reads a short story describing the murder he has committed from his assailant’s perspective, and realises that the story can only have been written by the dead man. He seeks out the author — Alexander Wolf — via his publisher’s, but he seems to hate Woolf, and nothing comes of that approach. Another chance comes from an unlikely encounter with a drunk fellow émigré in Paris, Vladimir Voznesensky, who claims to have fought with Sasha Wolf and to have rescued him, bleeding and nearly dead, after being shot. The mystery of the man’s survival is now made clear, but our narrator is worried now by another thought: that the man Voznesensky describes cannot possibly be reconciled with the psychological profile of Wolf the author. Our narrator thus continues to yearn for an encounter with Wolf in order to understand the shift between the two personalities.
A chance encounter with another Russian, Yelena, and the beginnings of a love affair seem to distract our narrator. He becomes engrossed with a woman who might best be described as recovering from some trauma. Impulsive and reserved, our narrator is drawn away from pursuing the psychological mysteries of Wolf and towards resolving those of Yelena. He eventually learns from her that her last relationship had left her almost entirely at the mercy of a man who believed that he had, by a twist of fate, missed his death-date, and so was living on borrowed time. His fatalism had almost sapped her of all her strength, but she had fled to Paris, thus to be rehabilitated through the love of the narrator, and he to be rehabilitated through hers.
Of course, this does not end happily, and the threads begin to come together swiftly at the end of the novella. Sasha Wolf appears in Paris, suddenly at the restaurant that the narrator and Voznesensky frequent. He is, by the narrator’s description, a spectre. There is something vacant in him — ‘an obscure expression, some sort of deathly significance’ — and our narrator remains troubled at the apparent disconnect between the Wolf in front of him and his psychological assessment of the author of I’ll Come Tomorrow. On the other hand, the description bears resemblance to Yelena’s former lover, obsessive and cold, on a ‘long journey’ towards his death. We begin to suspect that their chance encounter in Russia is not the only thing the narrator and Wolf have in common, but the narrator suspects nothing and is thrown again into meditations on their mutual attempts at murder.
In amongst these, a rather left-field plot device comes in the form of a connection between our journalist and organised criminals; having received a tip-off that the police are about to arrest ‘Curly Pierrot’, the narrator seeks to warn him to flee his safehouse before attending it with the police. Refusing to be taken alive, Curly is instead shot to death, and it is with this in mind that the narrator returns to Yelena’s apartment to find her in the midst of a fight with a man who can only be her former lover, judging from her cries of ‘Never, do you hear? Never!’ Instinctively, and ‘in a haze’, the narrator shoots and kills the assailant. Only afterwards, stepping over the body, does he realise that he has finally shot and killed Alexander Wolf, completing the fate that had evaded them both (or that they had both somehow evaded?) many years ago.
The novella’s exploration of the meaning of fate and the effect that murder — even in self-defence — has on one’s character is rapidly truncated in this ending, and we are left to piece together from the narrator’s previous meditations, and what we know of Wolf from Voznesensky, Yelena, and his short appearance, the moral of the tale. Was the narrator fulfilling his and Wolf’s destiny? Were they ‘fated’ to be always pitted in mortal combat, and was this fate written by their own hands or in the stars? Cause and effect are potentially misordered here.
The very brief details about the narrator’s life after he shoots Wolf a second time are telling. He notices blood on Yelena’s dress and tells us that he ‘learnt afterwards’ that she had defended herself, and in doing so dodged Wolf’s bullet. This single sentence, given to us between his shooting and his approaching the corpse, does a great deal of work. The act of ‘noticing later’ comes up several times through the novella, and is performed by both the narrator and Yelena. That she survives — and that the narrator needs us to know that — and that she fought back and saved herself from Wolf a second time, suggests that the happy life she and the narrator had begun to live together continues after this fatal shooting. Successfully killing Wolf has, it is suggested, set the narrator finally free. However, I think we must recall the narrator’s description of his previous life, full of regret at having pulled the trigger in haste. This is exactly what seems to have taken place in Yelena’s apartment: an impulsive, defensive shooting with no knowledge of whom he is murdering until after the fact. What, then, distinguishes one incident from the other? Are we to believe that one act instantiates a ‘split personality’ and a life of unhappiness, and the other opens the door to a life of contentment with Yelena?
Perhaps we can believe this, if we see the second act as the exorcism of Wolf’s spectre, but I would also question this interpretation because of the rather random inclusion by the narrator of the story of ‘Curly Pierrot’ immediately prior to the confrontation at Yelena’s apartment. Curly, a gangster whose acquaintance the narrator makes solely by chance, is a useful source for him in his journalistic work, as is a police detective who is on the verge of arresting Curly. The narrator tries to warn Curly to flee his compromised safehouse, and then attends with the police who are hoping to make the arrest. His warning has come too late, however, and Curly is trapped in the house. Preferring death in a shoot-out to death at the gallows, Curly allows himself to be shot by the police, thanking the narrator for his tip-off with his dying breath. Was it Curly’s fate to die at that moment, or his choice? We have little cause for thinking the former, but if the latter, then the inclusion of the story by the narrator seems to invite us to conclude that Wolf chose his death, rather than continuing his life as a morphine addict; however, the conversation that we overhear appears to be a snippet of Wolf seeking to persuade Yelena to return to him. I think the narrator’s framing of Wolf’s death therefore self-servingly elides the choice that Wolf may have been trying to make to live, in order that he and Yelena may have their lives returned to them free of Wolf’s ‘spectre’.