The genesis moment of stories has long interested me. A year ago a colleague at work approached me with the dispiriting request that I read some plays of his that had been rejected by the BBC. I struggled bravely through them, wondering with every turn of the page how I was going to phrase my feedback to him. The problem went further than the quality of the writing – I could not see any connection between the stories and the person who had written them. We were both English teachers, and while I am not declaring it necessary for any writer to restrict his subjects to those personally experienced, I do believe in Twain’s injunction to ‘write what you know.’ And what did my colleague know, in the first place, about a priest who succumbed to a dreadful crisis of faith and ended up sleeping with his brother’s wife; and in the second, about a young, talented swimmer attracted to his gay tutor? There was no trace of my friend in either of his plays, and this I thought had led to their ruin.
So what then was the spark that led Gazdanov to write his tale of Russians in interbellum Paris? At first sight, you would suspect that it was a response to the writer’s own experiences fighting in the Russian Civil War. The narrator of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf shoots down a Red in self-defence; the memory of this murder haunts him, until he discovers quite by chance that the man he presumed dead is not only alive, but has written a short story describing the shooting. The first third of the book concerns the narrator’s search for the author, a spectral figure he feels has pursued him since that steamy day on the Steppe.
But it is not Alexander Wolf or his story that I believe motivated Gazdanov to put pen to paper.
Instead, the heart of the story, in every sense of the word, is another Russian émigré, Yelena Nikolayevna.
Yelena is a difficult, cold woman, though infinitely alluring. Perhaps it is her aloofness that drives the narrator towards her, as if he feels that here is a challenge waiting for a conqueror. Of all the varied threads that trace a path through Gazdanov’s slim volume, it is the relationship between Yelena and the narrator that proves most true to life; Yelena is a captivating character, the most human of any to appear in the story, and therefore, for me, proof that it is for her sake that the book was written at all.
For, you see, I have navigated the same tortuous relationship as Gazdanov’s White Russian.
I shall refer to her as Z. We met in Spain some years ago, both of us enrolling in a Spanish language course in the romantic city of Seville. As with Yelena, it was through a number of unlikely coincidences that we ended up together. Z. was a difficult woman, beautiful in her unquantifiable way, stubborn, combative; with one hand she would push me back while with the other she would pull me close. So when Gazdanov wrote, “I was silently intoxicated by her presence, and the longer it went on, the more keenly I felt any control over the situation slip away from me,” I knew precisely how the narrator must have felt.
As Z. and I grew closer – if such a term could ever apply to this mysterious woman – I felt the same once more as the narrator: “[H]er irresistible magnetism lay, I think, in the vague sense that close relations with her required some sort of irrevocably destructive effort, and in the infallibility of this presentiment.” I was losing myself to Z., becoming her inferior, and as I made the transition I could sense that her perception of me was also beginning to shift; soon I would lose her to the world, she would disengage from me and go on to seek out the next in a sequence of lovers, much as a traveller might venture out in search of new cities to explore.
Z. and Yelena shared much in common; among other things, they were spontaneous women, living life according to their whims and little else. Z. was in Spain because she had a desire to experience life in a country so far removed, emotionally if not so much physically, from her native Sweden. She loved musicals and opera, and one night she wished to see The Barber of Seville, fitting given our location. But we could not afford the tickets, and though I greedily eyed the opportunity to woo her, I knew that there was a limit to my means. Z. would not be defeated, however, and so we snuck in; Z.’s idea was to catch the second half of the show by lingering among the crowd during the intermission. Incredibly, her plan worked; but the second-half of the opera was a torment to sit through, as my attention was entirely directed towards the muscular security guards standing by the doors. Z. was unconcerned, as too was Yelena, first on a night out with the narrator, doing the rounds of the seedier parts of Paris, and later, charging about the countryside in a sports car, driving recklessly as if in pursuit of a tragic death.
When we parted ways I fell briefly into a depressive state, but I could never regret my short relationship with the irrepressible Z. “I was indebted to her existence for the discovery of a world that I had previously not known.”
Gazdanov wrote like a man who had personally known his Yelena. The rest of the book strikes the reader as less certain, less physical. In fact, at times it is a troublesome mish-mash. The first part of the story reads like something out of Chesterton, with coincidences and mysteries driving the plot forwards. Then Yelena arrives; while her period in the book is its strongest, it contains too the deepest flaw of all. The narrator has already learnt the identity of Alexander Wolf; indeed, he has even travelled to London to meet the publisher of the Russian’s book. Yet when Yelena describes a previous lover the reader cannot doubt that it is the same Wolf that disturbs her own memories. That the narrator misses this important piece of information is not only incongruous, it is alarmingly odd. After all, he is a journalist; before first encountering Yelena he is sent to cover a boxing match between a little-known American and the reigning French champion, and he has the nous to correctly predict an upset. How he could overlook his lover’s testimony and not see that fate has had one last trick to play on them both caused me to pause in my reading long enough to shake my head despairingly.
The climax proceeds at a brisk pace, with the story concerning Alexander Wolf coming full circle. Strangely, though, we must first sit through a parody of a Simenon novel, where the narrator receives a tip-off about the sudden capture of a notorious mobster. No previous mention had been made of this character, and so for twenty pages it feels like you are reading a different book.
Pushkin Press, the people responsible for returning Gazdanov to our attention seventy years after the novel’s original publication, has done a magnificent job of the production. To reflect the lingering presence of the Russian Civil War, the pages are white but the fringe has been coloured red. This also has the effect of conveying to the reader the sense of the bloodiness of fate, a recurring message in the story.
Gazdanov’s novel is good, though it could have been better with the addition of a few dozen more pages: this is a Russian novel, after all, and the great Russians were never known for their brevity. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is a worthwhile read, though not, perhaps, for the same reason that many might suggest.