The Boy Who Stared Death in the Eye: On Gaito Gazdanov’s “The Beggar and Other Stories”
By Eileen BattersbyMay 15, 2018
The Beggar and Other Stories by Gaito Gazdanov
Since the 2013 English-language publication of his extraordinary mid-career novel The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (1947–’48), a psychological mystery fraught with guilt and inevitability, Gazdanov (1903–1971) has beguiled readers with his unsettling blend of directness and metaphysical suggestiveness. This literary awakening was made possible by Gazdanov’s brilliant translator, Bryan Karetnyk, who has gone on to render two more of his nine completed novels, The Buddha’s Return and The Flight. Both The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and The Buddha’s Return were originally serialized in the late 1940s in the Russian-language literary journal Novyi Zhurnal (The New Review) in New York, while The Flight, written a decade earlier, was partially serialized in 1939 before being published in its complete form, for the first time, in 1992.
Now, with this first enticing selection, Karetnyk has chosen half a dozen representative stories spanning the writer’s career. As there are more than 50 surviving stories, it seems apt to suggest — and hope — that this is only the beginning.
The profound title story, dating from 1962, encapsulates Gazdanov’s major theme: the struggle to live — not in terms of mere survival, but in the far more complex metaphysical sense of maintaining one’s dignity as a human being. At the heart of his graceful, languidly ironic prose, which Karetnyk has once again captured with impeccable mastery, is the conflict of right and wrong, reality and delusion. This preoccupation with morality is evident throughout the work of a writer who, at 16, fought on the side of the White Army during the Russian Civil War. A shocking experience at the front was to define his life and, as we shall see, shape his fiction.
But first, to return to “The Beggar,” in which we meet a singular outsider, Gustave Verdier, who spends his days on the streets of Paris and his nights in an abandoned crate near the Metro:
He had long since ceased not only to contemplate anything, but also to think altogether; it was the same as the vanished need to speak. In this mute and unthinking life there remained only the interchange of sensations — the noise in his head, pain, fatigue, the itching of insect bites, the heavy stench of the crate that he would detect upon entering it after a long stint in the open air, cold, heat, thirst […] He began anew to think about those things that had occupied his thoughts many years ago. It had been so infinitely long ago, long before he became as he was now. The question, which had so importunately faced him back then and to which, as he knew both then and now, there was and could be no answer, was that as to the meaning of life, why it was necessary, and to what mysterious end this long sequence of events had been set in motion.
A mounting disgust with his pampered existence had caused Verdier to reject everything and adopt poverty. This carries obvious echoes of Tolstoy, and another story, “The Mistake” (1938), is another possible homage to the 19th-century Russian master. Shades of the tormented Anna Karenina are evident in Katya, a young woman contentedly married to a kindly man. She has always been aware of her mother’s abrasive unhappiness, and boredom has already begun to gnaw away at her too. For a while her unrest is relieved by the birth of her son, Vasily Vasilyevich. It takes a chance encounter with an idle young man to challenge everything. While they carry on an affair, she is confident she harbors no feelings for him. But after his death, she realizes “that the man who had died was the man she loved, and that she had loved only him.”
Gazdanov was exploring spiritual malaise and the search for meaning as early as 1936. “Deliverance,” written that year, features Alexei Stepanovich, who was living hand to mouth until a clever invention brought him immense wealth but little joy. At one point, Alexei Stepanovich sits with his former mistress, the wife of an old friend and the mother of a “nephew” who may well be his only child. As he watches her move, he recognizes how well she deflects her misery by concentrating on banalities: “He understood that in her life everything had been almost as hopeless as in his […] and that the matter of dressmakers and the maid interested her only because it stopped her pondering what she ought not to ponder, lest she cry or become upset.” The story, worthy of Chekhov, is a succinct study of regret.
Of the many elements which make this volume especially appealing to dedicated Gazdanov readers is that all but one of the stories is written — like his suave, cosmopolitan human comedy with a twist, The Flight — in the third person. The use of the omniscient narrator adds an interesting detachment; the distance slows and mellows the narrative, in contrast with the more heightened tone of the first-person narrators in The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and The Buddha’s Return. Despite the contrast, however, all of Gazdanov’s work demonstrates his great gift for characterization. He simply knew human nature, at its best and worst.
So how did Gaito Gazdanov come by such knowledge? The Spectre of Alexander Wolf opens with a sentence that merits inclusion among fiction’s most memorable:
Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed. Ever since the moment it happened, I cannot remember one day passing when I haven’t regretted it. No punishment for it ever threatened me, because it occurred in the most exceptional circumstances and it was clear that I couldn’t have acted otherwise.
The narrator had been a boy soldier, who, having fallen asleep, was left behind by his comrades. On waking he rushes after them on foot until he finds a black mare whose Cossack rider has been killed. He mounts and rides off only to fall to the ground when the horse is shot dead beneath him. His own death appears inevitable as he watches an enemy soldier taking aim at him. The boy remembers the revolver he is carrying, yanks it free from a stiff new holster, and fires. His adversary collapses and the youth, mesmerized by his action, contemplates his victim before taking the dead man’s white stallion and riding away.
This was, in all likelihood, a story drawn from Gazdanov’s own experience. What we know for certain is that he fled Russia after the war and headed for Paris, where he undertook various menial jobs before becoming a night-time taxi driver. His days were reserved for studying and writing. A first novel, An Evening with Claire, was published in 1929 and drew praise from the critics, who compared Gazdanov to Proust and to another talented young émigré, Vladimir Nabokov, four years his senior. Despite his critical success, however, Gazdanov continued to drive his cab, musing and observing, until he was 50. That year he moved to Munich and began working for Radio Liberty, an American station believed to be funded by the CIA. He died in 1971 and is buried in Paris, a city he knew so well and immortalized in his fiction. He captured the foggy evenings and shabby romance of nights in the French capital as well as anyone, but it is his depiction of the city’s quietly desperate, mysterious denizens, especially the displaced Russians, that give his stories such evocative power.
“Ivanov’s Letters,” dating from 1963, is an inspired choice with which to close this collection, as it showcases Gazdanov’s vision at its most allusive. Here a first-person narrator is allowed to grapple with his unease about the true nature of the mysterious Nikolai Franzevich, a well-to-do Russian in Paris. To the narrator, Nikolai Franzevich — who turns out to be the author of the eponymous letters — is “a figment, blatantly the product of someone’s imagination […] I had the feeling that he never told the whole story, or else was hiding something, although he seemingly had nothing to hide.”
Later, another character, who is also ambivalent about Nikolai Franzevich, remarks that he doubts the man ever lived in St. Petersburg, despite his convincing descriptions of the city: “it was as if he were reading us excerpts from a book he had written about it.”
Yet it is the elusive letter-writer, unaware he is subject to such speculation, who gives voice to the most perceptive and telling comment in the story:
I’m convinced that everyone, or nearly everyone, is interested not in how he lives, but in how he wants or ought to live. Many people, as you know, see themselves not as others see them. […] Their soul, their intellect demand something else, as though each of them needs to live several lives, and not just one.
In his introduction to this unsettling yet captivating selection of psychological gifts, Bryan Karetnyk reveals that Gazdanov was not “convinced” that it was necessary to put together a book of his own stories. Thankfully, Karetnyk’s own conviction won out. How to define the genius of Gaito Gazdanov, the boy who stared certain death in the eye? He understood how human beings struggle to live in the world while shouldering the burden of their obsessive thoughts, fears, desires, and regrets.
Born in California, Eileen Battersby holds a master’s degree in English literature from University College Dublin. An Irish Times staff arts journalist and literary reviewer, she was named Arts Journalist of the Year four times and was National Critic of the Year in 2012. Her novel Teethmarks on my Tongue, which was published in the United States by Dalkey Archive, will be published in Britain this summer by Apollo, Head of Zeus.
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