Review: The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, By Gaito Gazdanov (Trs by Bryan Karetnyk)

Writer infused with the spirit of Nabokov

Writing in a Russian émigré magazine in 1927, Gaito Gazdanov – a young soldier-turned-driver-turned-novelist, recently escaped from Soviet Russia – praised his contemporary Vladimir Sirin for "the rare kind of gift he possesses": "he is outside of society, of rationality, of the rest of the world" [Rul', 18 November, 1927]. Twenty years later, Sirin began to write as Vladimir Nabokov. Few would remember the reviewer who spotted his early promise.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Gazdanov's fifth and most tightly constructed novel, makes clear the lasting effect of Nabokov on his fellow exile. A nameless narrator is haunted by the memory of a man he has murdered, until he reads a story that describes it in perfect detail. Obsessed with the quality of the writing as much as the possibility that the man he shot is alive, the narrator sets off in search of the author. When the publisher assures him that the author is English, the lead goes cold, intrigue turns to mystery, and the narrator returns to an idle life with his mistress Yelena. Then Wolf appears.

Wolf has sought asylum in England, abandoned interest in the world outside of literature, and switched to an English of "flawless rhythm" (a near-perfect résumé of Nabokov's post-war fate). With his appearance, the novel makes a sudden leap of genre, from gothic mystery to meditative memoir. Wolf reveals how he survived and the pair fall to drinking in Parisian brothels, discoursing on the role of chance in modern life. They find in each other happy companions: the narrator's guilt finds a resonant echo in Wolf's obsession with himself. But just when it seems the plot itself has died – losing its momentum in the novel's cerebral turn – fate deals a hand.

Spectre was one of two novels in which Gazdanov used a thrillerish plot to make his digressive, lyrical writing more dynamic. He spends much time questioning how writing reveals authorial character – on meeting Wolf, the narrator cannot square his rough manner with the "quick-paced, taut prose" of his stories. That pace is as much a feature of Gazdanov's writing as it is of Wolf's (or of Nabokov's), and it is rendered beautifully in Karetnyk's accomplished new translation.