The blind interference of an external force
Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk
Pushkin Press, 2016
Picture to yourself a Parisian street. Decorated with austere asphalt, regular walls and buildings, where the ground is smooth, like the belly of a lizard, and the doormen are languid, like crocodiles. Decorated with daily lunches and lightsome lives, like a cloud. The hotel of the future.
Parisian streets have been endlessly painted, sketched, filmed, photographed and written about. Parisian streets are not difficult to picture. But these opening lines of Gaito Gazdanov’s early short story, “Hotel of the Future” (1926), translated from Russian by Bryan Karetnyk, are almost certainly not the first example that springs to mind. Gazdanov’s name has commonly been grouped amongst the so-called “unnoticed generation” of Russian literature. Of Ossetian origin, he was born in 1903 and migrated across Russia for his father’s work as a forester throughout his childhood. At the age of sixteen he fought in the Russian Civil War on the side of the White Army. He is one of many Russians who left their homeland in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution and Civil War and converged in Paris, which from approximately 1925 onwards became the unofficial capital of the interwar diaspora. In Paris, Gazdanov worked to support his writing as a night-time taxi driver, which led to an intimate acquaintance with the city’s streets, cafés and parks. He was to remain there for the majority of his life.
Paris has long been acknowledged as influential for European modernism, with the term “École de Paris” referring not to a single, coherent artistic form or movement, but broadly delineating the huge multiplicity of music, visual arts and literature that emerged from the city over a diffuse period extending from around 1900 until World War II. In Pascale Casanova’s words, interwar Paris was “a ‘denationalized’ universal capital” capable of catapulting hitherto unknown or “peripheral” artists to international literary visibility. This idea is compelling: think of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce, whose residence in the French capital and integration in the vibrant cultural life of the Left Bank are closely tied to their own artistic identities. But the same cannot be said of Gazdanov’s generation of émigré writers, who continued to write in Russian in spite of their separation from a mass readership in that language. Association with the “international literary capital” of Paris ultimately did relatively little for those émigrés who could not or did not choose to migrate into a second or third language, such as French or English.
Fortunately for a modern Anglophone audience, renewed attention has recently been granted to Gazdanov’s writing thanks to his latest translator, Bryan Karetnyk, and the London-based publisher, Pushkin Press. Karetnyk’s translations of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (2013) and The Buddha’s Return (2014) were unanimously well-received and marked a triumphant start to the revival. Buddha and Spectre have much in common, not least a central murder plot relayed with a deliberate film noir flavour, and have garnered comparisons with more famed Russian exports such as Dostoevsky and Nabokov from Russian and English readers alike. Karetnyk’s latest offering, The Flight (2016), is however quite distinct from these two predecessors, both stylistically and in subject matter. It is also notably the very first English translation of the novel, and arguably Karetnyk’s best yet, commendably capturing the darkly humorous tone whilst retaining the lyrical simplicity of the original Russian. Karetnyk excels at rendering the diverse array of voices in the text into evidently considered, idiomatic English-language variants. He rightly retains the numerous French interjections and asides, providing translations in footnotes where necessary, and his sensitivity to the intricate and digressive quality of Gazdanov’s Gallicised Russian sentences is most strikingly apparent in the penultimate two chapters which deliver the novel’s final dramatic episode. Written between 1936 and 1939, The Flight depicts the lives of an affluent Russian émigré family whose members divide their time between a Paris apartment, a London home and a French Riviera villa, amongst other European holiday resorts. Sergey Sergeyevich, his wife, Olga Aleksandrovna, their son, Seryozha, and Olga’s younger sister, Liza, form the central figures in an expansive cast of Russian émigré, French and British characters. The plot is meandering and intricate, but its main events are kept within the family. The summer before Seryozha is due to commence his studies at Oxford, he embarks on an affair with his aunt, Liza, who is precisely twice his age and (unbeknownst to him) also happens to be his father’s former mistress. (At least he’ll have plenty to talk about when inevitably asked what he did over the summer.)
Characteristically for Pushkin Press, the book is beautifully designed and put together. The front cover bears a striking geometric illustration by Julien Pacaud, which fuses both drawn and photographic elements. The collage is emblematic of Gazdanov’s own narrative technique; influences are taken up, hewn down to size, and overlaid onto one another, the offcuts discarded. The focal point of the image is an open door with a stream of white light flooding through. On one side, a silhouetted woman in an electric blue coat, her back turned, looks up at a receding row of identical monochrome apartment blocks. On the other, an athletic young man stands at the water’s edge before a shoreline dotted with palm trees, his arms folded, staring out to sea, an airplane soaring overhead. There is a subtle symmetry in the triangular forms of these two contrasting scenes that frame the open door; the respective blues of the ocean and the coat provide a further thread between the two vistas, jumping out from the pale green cover and foreshadowing Seryozha’s fascination with the Mediterranean Sea. A premonition of the novel’s shattering climax, the eponymous flight, hovers on the front and back covers.
Reviewing The Flight in the TLS, Caryl Emerson has rightly noted a debt to Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877). The trope of the wife’s infidelity, an automaton-like husband more at home in business than in personal matters, and a bewildered son named Seryozha are a few of the parallels between the original Karenins and their émigré counterparts. The significance of Anna Karenina in the first-wave emigration was two-fold: grounded in a pre-revolutionary literary tradition which many elder émigré authors saw it as their duty to preserve, the novel was also wildly popular outside of Russia and already by then the subject of multiple retellings, including the 1935 MGM film version directed by Clarence Brown and starring Greta Garbo as Anna. But The Flight is not a straightforward retelling. Where Anna and Vronsky are forced into unofficial exile from St Petersburg society as a direct result of the scandal caused by their affair, Gazdanov’s characters have had no agency in their personal exilic fates. The whims of their love lives are moreover entirely extraneous to their status as émigrés.
Pitching an excerpt of the novel to a French publisher in the late 1930s, Gazdanov emphasised the importance of the “blind interference of an external force” acting over its protagonists, regardless of the extent to which they deserved their particular fates or not. Characters act in The Flight, but they do not always fully understand why they do so. We are told very little of Olga Aleksandrovna’s first affair, which occurs four months after her wedding to Sergey Sergeyevich, except that it “happened by chance and was insignificant.” Elsewhere, Sletov, the hapless friend of Sergey Sergeyevich, threatens in the throes of his latest heartbreak to throw himself under a Métro train, a knowing nod to the dénouement of Anna Karenina. Thankfully, at this point we are nowhere near the end of the novel, and any hint of a railway suicide is swiftly and bathetically averted in Sergey Sergeyevich’s blithely impassive retort that “It isn’t worth it, Fedya”. Whether or not the messily intertwined liaisons of The Flight have been “worth it” remains to be seen when we do eventually reach the novel’s end.
The Gazdanov who wrote The Flight is quite unrecognisable from the one we may associate with later, post-1945 works such as Spectre and Buddha. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that these distinct phases in his career are separated by the major and traumatic events of World War II. It has been conjectured by Emerson that Gazdanov never sought to publish The Flight in full after the war because he sensed that “a story solely about love was out of step with the times.” This may in part be true, but such an appraisal of the novel’s subject matter is overly simplistic. Although unashamedly about love in both its familial and sexual forms, The Flight is also deeply concerned with the means by which relationships evolve when they are geographically scattered across land and sea borders.
As such, the question of multilingualism – and the opportunities it affords either for inclusion or exclusion – is everywhere in the novel. We see it in Seryozha’s childish confusion at his parents’ private discussions of their marital difficulties in German, a language he cannot understand. We see it in the diplomatic roleplay in which Seryozha and Sergei Sergeyevich debate foreign affairs as though they are at a session of the League of Nations, with son posing as the French foreign minister and father as a representative of the Foreign Office, speaking French with “a pure English accent”. We see it in the scheming Lyudmila’s skilful trilingual seduction of an unsuspecting and wealthy Englishman, introduced to her by an Italian acquaintance. We see it in the émigré painter Yegorkin, who despite having graduated from an undistinguished art school in Tambov insists on using the French term “école supérieure” out of some misplaced notion that it lends his work greater legitimacy. Subsequent to his literal migration, his artistic practice also undergoes significant shifts, and he makes the ludicrous transition from specialising in painting religious icons of Saint Nicholas to a conscious decision “to conceive a passion for surrealism”:
and so to his usual troika racing through the snow he began to add, albeit around the edges, in the background, and even sometimes from a far-off perspective, palm trees and a sea of the deepest blue, through which it was possible to discern some tailed monster with fins.
Through Yegorkin’s hackneyed scenes of snow and troikas, and the absurd addition of palm trees and sea creatures, Gazdanov gestures, albeit cartoonishly, to the very real creative insecurity experienced by many Russians in exile during this period. Fortunately for us, this insecurity was in his own case highly productive, and we may at long last be grateful that this Flight has made its way safely from Paris to London.
Melissa Purkiss is reading for a DPhil in Russian at Wolfson College, Oxford.