Monday, October 29, 2018

Gaito Gazdanov's The Specter of Alexander Wolf

Gaito Gazdanov's novella, The Specter of Alexander Wolf, is an unusual mixture of novel, mystery, and metaphysical treatise on the nature of love, fate, memory, and death.  The plot revolves around the protagonist's memory of a brief but violent encounter in the Russian Civil War.  Now working as a journalist in Paris, the site of Russia's greatest community of exiles, the narrator, a White, is obsessed with the memory of combat with a Red soldier many years before.  Believing he killed his opponent, the narrator seems to have been utterly transformed by guilt.  Appropriately, the book begins with his confession.  "Of all my memories," he writes, "of all my life's innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of a single murder I had committed."

While killing an opponent in the midst of war is not ordinarily considered murder, the author has no doubts about the immorality of his action.  Indeed, the author repeatedly returns to this single moment of violence.  His obsession with the event manifests in two ways.  First, the protagonist appears to have become somewhat detached from his own life.  That is to say, he lives a cool, detached existence, and seeks thrills by interacting with damaged women, criminals, and Paris' underworld.  His job as a journalist perfectly represents this life of  detachment.  After all, every journalist is obligated to cover an endless strings of events with absolute objectivity. Second, the protagonist imagines that an English author might be the man he thought he had killed.  In the end, the protagonist meets his victim, and the memory of trauma is manifested in the flesh.

The Specter of Alexander Wolf is an elliptical work.  The author has intentionally avoided any clear explication of his plot and its significance.  We do not always know why the author chooses to dwell on certain subplots and themes.  What is the significance of the protagonist's love interest?  Why is his visit to a boxing match important?  Why does the author spend time discussing the protagonist's encounter with criminals? The book is awash in similar ellipses. We do know even know why author's shadow is writing in English rather than French or even Russian.  In any event, the book is clear about one thing:  fate does have a hold on the protagonist and his shadow.  It's clear that neither the protagonist nor Alexander Wolf can ever forgot the violence of the Russian Civil War.  Like most Russians, the disaster of modern Russian history will follow them forever.

If the book has an unusual (and someone haphazard) plot, its meandering style seems to provide readers with an interesting commentary about fate.  For although the book's protagonist sees the hand of fate in his early encounter with death, his life actually seems somewhat chaotic and un-mapped.  The paradox may explain the author's apparent sloppiness.  The random events of the protagonist's  life seem to suggest that the more we understand the trajectories of our life, and the inescapable nature of fate, the more we are forced to let go of our attempt to maintain an orderly, intelligent, and intelligible, daily existence.

Some favorite quotes from the book: 

"He was one of those archetypal adventurers, renowned in the annals of every revolution and every civil war."

"I was a hardened man," he said;  "I'd seen my comrades killed before my very eyes, I myself had often risked my life, and everything had washed over me like water off a duck's back.  But that day I went home, lay down on my bed and cried like a little boy."

"His entire life had been remarkable for a striking consistency:  a succession of shady dealings, spurious bank transactions and party betrayals..."

"Or look at it this way:  take a beautiful woman, like Marina, for who dozens of people are even prepared to die--a few years and there'll be nothing left of her other than a rotting corpse.  Now is that really fare?"

"The first city she ever saw was Murmansk."

"Your gift for thinking interferes with you:  Without it, of course, you'd be happy."

"Sometimes there's nothing duller than being right."

"Every life becomes clear--that is to say, it's path, its twists and turns--only in its final moments."

"Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate; it's a naive illusion of brief immortality..."

"Sometime later she came to understand how this man was able to exist and what had supported him on his long journey toward death:  he was a morphine addict."

Had he ever loved her?  No, it had been a lengthy misunderstanding.

Fate was especially derisive in its dealings with me.  I could never forget one woman I was seeing, remarkable in many respects, but outstanding for her unspeakably hellish nature.

I spent years feeling sorry for her;  feeling truly sorry for her, I did everything so that she might be less unfortunate, since she herself was the primary victim of her own flaws.

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