The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

It was foul weather for Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, so I was amazed by how many people turned up, hooded, wellied and umbrellaed, keen to get out on the Heath in spite of the sheeting rain.

Alas our garrulous charge into the greenery soon dwindled to a conversation-struggling limp as no one could hear anything beneath their hoods, and were concentrating too much on missing the puddles to be able to talk about the book. Feeling rather feeble, we retreated to a nearby café, shedding our waterproofs and apologetically disturbing its quiet newspaper-reading clientele, as, revived with hot drinks, all thirty of us launched into an impassioned discussion of Gaito Gazdanov’s brilliant The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. As you know, this whole sitting down thing is anathema to the walking book club, so I managed to move a few people around every now and then to mix things up, and darted about between the groups, reading passages aloud and steering conversation as though we were on foot. While we were thwarted of the bracing air and soaring views of London, everyone still claimed to have enjoyed their morning, and many remained chatting bookishly in the café after I returned to work in the bookshop.

The Spectre of Alexander WolfWhat a great novel! And what a strange one. It hooks you from the start, with a terrific first sentence:

Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.

Critics have compared Gazdanov to Proust, I suppose because of the way a powerful memory can propel so much of the narrative, but this is murder he’s remembering, not a visit from enigmatic Charles Swann at idyllic Combray. And while Proust’s narrative is luxurious and sensuous, there is a febrile urgency to the dreamlike feeling of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. It is more a telling of an unshakeable nightmare than a madeleine-induced reverie.

Back to the murder. We are told that the narrator was fighting in the Russian Civil War when his horse was shot and he ‘went tumbling down with her’, although was unharmed. Coming towards him was ‘a rider astride a great white horse’:

I saw the rider let go of the reins and shoulder his rifle, which, until that point he had been carrying atilt. It was then that I fired. He jerked up in his saddle, slumped down and fell slowly to the ground.

The narrator looks into the dying eyes of the fallen man, when he hears hooves in the distance, and so rides off on the white horse and escapes. In Paris, many years later, the narrator is astonished to read a short story telling of exactly this episode but from the murdered man’s point of view. Of course he is determined to meet the writer – Alexander Wolf – and the book follows him on his quest to meet him.

Or does it?

For this is a strange shape-shifting book. It begins as a mystery, then becomes a picaresque evocation of life in Paris between the wars, pausing for a detailed account of a boxing match, before transforming into an intense love story, and right at the end there’s an unexpected turn into gangster noir. All this action is interspersed with thought-provoking philosophical discussions and digressions.

These plural forms of the novel make me think of when the narrator receives a phonecall from his lover:

Hearing those first sounds of her voice, distorted as usual by the telephone, I immediately forgot everything I’d only just been thinking about; it was so total and instantaneous as though the thoughts had never even existed.

The twists and turns of the narrative can feel similarly startling. There you are on the path of this mysterious Alexander Wolf and the next thing you know you’re at a boxing match, and it is as though the earlier episodes ‘had never even existed’.

Except of course you don’t completely forget about what’s gone before. The book, in fact, makes a case for the inescapable uncanny interconnections between everything and everyone – however disparate they might seem. Throughout the novel, Gazdanov repeats the phrase:

The chain of events in each human life is miraculous.

Just one action – the bullet from the narrator’s revolver – has brought together a whole world of consequences:

Who could have known that the bullet’s spinning, instantaneous flight actually contained that town on the Dnieper, Marina’s inexpressible charm, her bracelets, her singing, her betrayal, her disappearance, Voznesensky’s life, the ship’s hold Constantinople, London, Paris, the book I’ll Come Tomorrow and the epigraph about the corpse with the arrow in its temple?

And there is even more contained in that bullet, yet to be revealed. I don’t want to give away the twist at the end, but it rests upon the flight of another bullet. Perhaps the chain of events set in motion by the first bullet can only be halted by that of a second.

As might be expected from a book which encompasses so many genres, capturing many scenarios and ideas in its sweep, there is a great deal to think about. Just as compelling as life’s ‘miraculous’ chain of events – the spinning bullet which draws everything into its centrifugal force – is the idea that one man’s life can be inextricably bound to another’s. The kill or be killed situation at the start, which the narrator and Alexander Wolf both managed to survive and so cheat death, binds them together. As one walker said, ‘It’s like Harry Potter and Voldemort!’ Indeed it is! Quite why all the critics seem so bent on picking up echoes of Proust rather than J.K. Rowling is beyond me.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is one of those books that will continue to haunt me, just like the narrator is haunted by the spectre himself. It left me – and other walkers too – wanting to re-read it straight away, to try to make more sense of the strange connections and diversions which Gazdanov, thankfully, doesn’t over-explain.

And just who is Gaito Gazdanov? He fought in the White Army and then was exiled in Paris from 1920, where he became a taxi-driver by night and writer by day. Praise be to Pushkin Press for publishing his work in English. They’re bringing out another of his books in late August – I can’t wait.

Gaito Gazdanov

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