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The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (Gazdanov) — Book Review

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 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’.

Let the Right One In (Lindqvist) — book review

I always meant to watch the 2009 film of this (details on IMDB), but came across Lindqvist‘s Let the Right One In in the Kindle store and thought that I would buy it to save for a moment of boredom when I wanted to read something on my phone/iPad (I use the app and don’t have an actual Kindle). That moment came on a plane recently, when I’d read most of Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (review) and wanted something new to help keep me awake!

I would highly recommend this book, as it’s a gripping read.

Although told mainly through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the book tackles a wide range of seriously ‘grown-up’ issues, including child abuse and neglect, ‘broken homes’  and absent parents, alcoholism, paedophilia, and chronic bullying. It can be hard to judge when reading in translation, but I found Lindqvist’s style wonderfully clear and lucid. I enjoyed the story’s focus on two core groups that parallel one other: Oskar and his classmates, and Lacke and his friends (and fellow alcoholics).

The growing relationship between Oskar and new arrival, Eli, is a joy. There is something very understated in the way that each and every momentous discovery in their relationship — She’s a vampire? She’s a boy? — is handled lightly but not flippantly. Oskar’s growing detachment from his parents and isolation from his schoolmates, most of whom either actively bully him or passively ostracise him, leaves his hopes of having his emotional needs met pinned exclusively on Eli. The coming-of-age story, Oskar beginning to stand up for himself and pursue physical fitness as a means of taking control of his life, is blended with the horror story of a vampire slipping into the midst of the small community and decimating it. Bodies stack up quickly, and Eli is both monstrous and fascinating. Eli’s story, told mainly in flashbacks, has echoes of Anne Rice’s Armand, but isn’t Lindqvist’s focus, and it lurks in the background as a dark echo of the suffering of the modern-day children in the book.

Many of the most heartrending moments come from these ‘minor’ characters, particularly from Tommy, an older teen, sliding into drug use and petty crime, whose mother is on the verge of marrying a police officer who will inevitably hate his stepson (the suggestion is he’s a likely abuser); and from Jonny, Oskar’s nemesis, whose tangled family situation and struggle with his emotions about his absent father, hint at sad roots to his behaviour.

The book manages to produce moments of real menace, and surprisingly, none of them were incited by Eli. I felt real terror for Tommy, locked in with a brain-damaged, priapic, vampire-Hakan; for Oskar as Jonny and his brother and friends begin to descend upon him, apparently intent on murder or maiming; and for Eli when being attacked by paedophile Hakan, and when Lacke plans to murder Eli for killing his friend Jocke and his some-time girlfriend, Virginia. Although only a small element in the novel, I also felt real concern for Tommy’s mother, so wishing to be loved that she is willing to shrink herself — and probably put herself in physical danger — in order to be in a relationship with police officer Steffan.

This is a story where the weak, generally children, but also vulnerable adults, are threatened and imperilled by the strong; where those who are abused turn on those below them in turn; and where a darker threat is in fact a possible saviour. It is sensitive and well done, except for the very ending of the book, when Eli murders Jonny and his brother in order to rescue Oskar. The violence between Oskar and his bullies had been slowly escalating, through physical wounds and arson to their attempted murder, but I wonder whether its culmination had to be so flippant. Eli whips off their heads and, whilst flying, deposits them in the swimming pool. Was the sadism in Eli’s revenge really needed? Perhaps it was, as the ultimate escalation of the whole novel’s violence, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.

The Islands (Gamerro) — book review

Having abandoned one of my ‘chunksters’ (Stendhal’s The Red and The Black), I thought I’d better start on another. I bought Carlos Gamerro‘s The Islands (English translation by Ian Barnett, in collaboration with Gamerro) about two years ago when I saw him speak at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference. I hadn’t really heard of him before, but he impressed me so much in the conference — clear, precise, not backwards about coming forwards — that I thought I’d like his writing, and the blurb of this book persuaded me: “A detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir”.

Although a chunkster, this is a quick and pleasant read. The prose trots along at a quick pace, funny and stylish. I read almost half the book in one day (on two trains, going between Strasbourg and London). From Chapter 1, I had a sense of entering a more ‘adult’ or disturbing China Mieville fantasy landscape, and with the central character a self-proclaimed ‘hacker’, I was starting to expect shades of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which I didn’t quite get, although there were brief flashes of it now and again.

Whilst the blurb trots through a range of genres, this book is, at root, a novel about homo argentinus, about his drives and delusions and sense of lack. The Falklands/Malvinas war is a convenient hook on which to hang this meditation, but the guerra sucia and Argentina’s connection with fleeing Nazis post-WWII both inform the novel as much as the 1982 conflict.

In meditating on Argentinian masculinity, there is an obvious Faustian theme, coupled with that of empire-building Tamerlane, which Gamerro exaggerates and almost spoofs. The spider at the centre of the web is Fausto Tamerlán, who Gamerro makes surreal and almost absurd in his glass-and-mirrors surveillance tower, accompanied at the top by his psychoanalyst, his ruthlessness and the power of wealth bringing a sharp edge. The protagonist hacker, Felipe Félix, manages to avoid being too self-pitying or serious by a wry sense of humour and an air of nerdiness — both about computers and about the machinery of war — that gives him a simultaneous authority and adolescent air. 
Gamerro is unflinching in describing the grotesque and the surreal with the same clarity and seriousness as the factual and banal, although ‘factual’ is at times a hazy label in this book! There are distinct moments where the reader feels either in the dark or simply bewildered, looking for the logical jump, looking for the break that might come between reality and a distorted narratorial perception thereof. The franknesses about horrible things that seems to come from the author is a refreshing contrast to the duplicity that at times shadows the voice of the narrator. 
I’d highly recommend this book, and as soon as I find a minute this weekend in going to hunt down the Spanish original to read Gamerro’s prose in its original medium. 

Herculine Barbin (Foucault) — Book review

I read Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite ages ago as part of my Classics Club reading challenge, but I’ve been exceptionally tardy in writing it up. In fact, since then, I’ve read and written about Eugenides’ Middlesex, which was in part ‘inspired by’ this book and a sense of disappointment with the text. As a consequence, the short review below relates heavily to my review of Middlesex.

The memoirs are genuine, and I quite enjoyed reading HB, although of course it is far less salacious than some people might be expecting. HB’s love affair with fellow teacher Sara is touching, and it is the obvious (and superior) precursor to Eugenides’ depicted relationship between Cal and a schoolmate. I find HB far more relatable than Eugenides’ Cal, perhaps because the latter has a slightly patronising “I must be a bit shocking to you” air, whilst HB’s narrative feels more on the level with the reader. This is perhaps what Foucault responds to in HB, using the narrative to talk about sociocultural circumstances wherein a “true” sex is less insisted upon.

Alongside the edited memoirs, Foucault brings together a number of other documents relating to HB’s life and the reporting of HB’s condition, as well as Oskar Panizza‘s ‘Scandal at the Convent’, a late-nineteenth-century story based on HB’s life. These framing materials, and their juxtaposition with the memoirs, are really the most interesting part of the text. These perhaps frustrated Eugenides and his desire to dissect and lay out the inner narrative of someone with a particular intersex condition, but to me they are the most interesting part.

The obsession with “true” sex — in turn becoming an obsession with genitalia and reproductive organs, redefining “true” as “bodily” — becomes for Eugenides character-driven, a bildungsroman, a journey for Cal towards a “true” and chosen sex that nevertheless has genitalia as a sign of falsity, rendering Cal unable to perform PIV intercourse in the male role, and thus, apparently, unable to live fully (at least until Eugenides’ love-conquers-all ending). What HB’s memoirs and Foucault’s framing text(s) question is why “true” =/= “as currently is”.  This is a question that Eugenides does not really tackle, although it can be asked of the novel, and should be, I think, in conjunction with HB.

The Red and the Black (Stendhal) — book review

This post is labelled as a book review, but it is not in the strictest sense. I have had this book on my shelves for a while, and I recall starting it once before (or at least had a lot of déjà vu whilst reading the first few chapters!).

Sadly, it has defeated me. Unlike reading Flaubert, I just couldn’t find it in my to be interested by the characters. I felt a glimmer of interest in the situation and the small-town politics, but not enough to keep reading. I have so many books now that I just don’t see the point in spending time reading ones that don’t grab me. So I’m reading some of Nabokov’s lectures on literature instead. Much better!

Bernardo Atxaga, ‘Obabakoak’ — book review

This book is on my Classics Club list, but I bought it quite a long time ago. I really enjoyed Bernardo Atxaga‘s Seven Houses in France, and I was struck when I saw him speak at the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival about self-translating and, more broadly, the impact of translation. Obabakoak is a seminal work, despite the brevity of the English Wikipedia entry.

Obabakoak, meaning ‘the things and people of Obaba’, is somewhere between a short-story collection and a novel. The book’s focus is on the (imaginary but representative) place, the Basque country and its effects on the people and lives occupying that space, but the technique is circuitous, resembling negative drawing. The book is separated into two large sections — Childhoods and the longer In Search of the Last Word — with an intervening section meditating on the location: Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villamediana. To me, the structure reflects the book’s focus on understanding and perceiving something in the round by looking at it from multiple viewpoints.

The first story, Esteban Werfell, plays with this idea of coming to a fuller understanding of one’s reality through partial revelations. Esteban writes of a teenage experience of a ‘religious’ hallucination; although raised by an anti-religious father, he is persuaded into the church by school friends, and there he has a vision of a young woman who asks him to love her and find her, giving him her address. The young Esteban enters into a correspondence wholeheartedly, which sees him through his studies and keeps him on the straight and narrow until the correspondence is coldly broken off by her. Only many years later does Esteban learn that his hallucination was the product of unconscious memories of things he had heard his father speaking of, and that his correspondent was in fact his father.

This story sets the tone for the rest of the book: the possible darkness of religion and its effects, echoed again in An Exposition of Canon Lizardi’s letter; the manipulation of children echoed in Albania’s predatory (perhaps?) school-teacher in Post Tenebras Spero Lucem; the exclusion of outsiders, so often moralising, seen in many of the stories; and the preoccupation with the idea of attempting the futile exercise of fixing memories and understanding fully the interconnections between one person or event and many others.

The whole book is atmospheric, offering a visceral sense of life in communities like Obaba. Atxaga is by turns, and occasionally simultaneously, melancholic, joyful and wry. How to Write a Story in Five Minutes, which flawlessly gives the impression of being self-referential, is a wonderful example of all three at once. This is a great book to dip in and out of compulsively until the whole thing is finished, and then start it again because, of course, your understanding of it the second time around will be different — maybe better, maybe worse — than on first reading.