NOVEMBER 24, 2021
ALONG THE STORIED HALLS of Russian literature, the call of the name Gaito Gazdanov had, for many decades, elicited little more than a faintly alliterated echo. With the publication of Gazdanov’s 1930 debut novel, An Evening with Claire, Pushkin Press and translator Bryan Karetnyk beckon us closer to that resonant echo, the voice of a haunting and haunted author often compared to Nabokov and Proust but really dwelling in a room entirely his own. Who is this Gazdanov?
He answers in spades: bargeman, White Army soldier, Sorbonne student, taxi driver (by night), writer (at all hours). Born in St. Petersburg in 1903 to an upper-middle-class family of Ossetian origin, by 16 Gazdanov had suffered the loss of his father and two sisters. That is, perhaps not coincidentally, the same age at which he enlisted in the White Army — his first of many colorful jobs. He fought in the Russian Civil War, serving on the platform of a machine-gun carrier, before being driven out of his homeland forever by Bolshevik forces. He went to Turkey, then Bulgaria (where he resumed his education), and, finally, to the great Russian city of Paris, where at 20 he found himself alone, an émigré in a sea of émigrés.
One can imagine how this foundation of loss might induce a fixation on the theme of detachment, and it is indeed a sense of irrevocable and total separation from the external world that makes Gazdanov’s even most lyrically beautiful prose painful to bear. Detachment is the spiritual crux at the heart of An Evening with Claire. The novel, drawing heavily on the author’s own life, is told from the perspective of Kolya, who — like Gazdanov at the time of writing — is a young Russian émigré living in Paris. We enter upon Kolya and the titular Claire, with whom he has reunited after a period of 10 years. How they found each other again is irrelevant; only “the pale-blue clouds of her room, which until this evening I would have deemed impossible, imaginary,” matter, the very same clouds that “surrounded Claire’s alabaster body, covered as it was in three places with such shameful and agonizingly alluring hair.” So opens An Evening with Claire, which really stretches to encompass years and years of Kolya’s evenings: he begins to recount, from the perch of his pale blue cloud, the events which lead to this very moment.
He takes us through cheery scenes of childhood (“I had no friends. […] [F]riendship — it means that we’re still alive while others have died”), to first meeting Claire as a teenager, glimpsing her in the stands of the “Eagle” gymnastics club playing field. He gains and loses her companionship, and spends the intervening years fighting Bolsheviks, narrowly avoiding death, and being haunted by Claire’s name, Claire’s face, and even Claire’s calves, which float about in his visions isolated and ghostly, like the little feet that obsess Alexander Pushkin’s narrator in Eugene Onegin.
Thus it is the dream of Claire that goes bounding backward through the text. It’s no coincidence that the first and last words of the novel are themselves “Claire”: she travels in both directions from the point of their meeting as adolescents, spilling out into the past and future of Kolya’s mind and of the reader’s own. Isn’t that how memory always plays us? Gazdanov understands the power of the dream — or rather, the dreamer — to solidify an otherwise fragmentary existence with a singular vision, a singular desire. And so Claire, forming a complete and round O, turns still on its sad axis.
It was a hit: by the end of 1930 the novel was checked out 14 times in three months from the Turgenev Russian library in Paris, and Gazdanov was hailed, along with Nabokov, as the greatest new talent to emerge in the emigration. Reviewers immediately noted his indebtedness to Proust, an author he later admitted to not yet having read. There are indeed certain overlaps — Gazdanov recounts, in the chapters focusing on Kolya’s childhood in pre-revolutionary Petersburg, reading the same book that Nabokov does in Speak, Memory (Les Malheurs de Sophie about a pauvre French girl who, more than a century on, just cannot catch a break). Plus, Proustians everywhere will delight in the mere length of Gazdanov’s sentences, his love of music, and the spell of “Mother’s frigid magic.” But the younger Russian is no flamboyant knight: expect no passages musing on his own genius or grandiose attempts to resurrect the past. Instead he invites us, by means of simple gestures, to enter what Kolya designates “the bleak landscapes of my fantasy.”
From childhood, Kolya suffers a distinct split between his inner and outer existence. This malady, experienced by many, is taken to extremes in our protagonist. What begins simply as an indifference to external events grows to resemble a deafening depression: “Sometimes I dreamt that I was dead, that I was dying, that I was about to die; I could not cry out, and a familiar silence, which I had known so long, descended around me; it would suddenly expand and alter, taking on a new, hitherto unknown meaning: it was a warning to me.” The strength of this warning sends young Kolya further into himself, as well as into the company of various “dubious characters.” At only 13 and a half, he begins to frequent gambling halls, and the greatest of all absurdist attractions, the circus.
Nowhere is Kolya’s sense of separation so evident as in what might be assumed the climax of the novel. Arriving at almost exactly the halfway point, the scene occurs after a break in Kolya and Claire’s friendship. He has not glimpsed her in four months when one evening, very late, he is out walking (returning home from the circus, of course):
I had, moreover, the sudden feeling that something was about to happen — and then, thinking about it, I realized that I had long since been aware of footsteps following me. I turned around. Enswathed in the fox collar of her fur coat, as though in a cloud of gold, her eyes open wide and gazing at me through the slowly falling snow, Claire was walking behind me.
Claire jovially announces that she is married and no longer a virgin; Kolya can neither speak nor comprehend the meaning of her words. Again, it is the “familiar silence” that descends and envelops the space between him and the present, between him and Claire. When she invites him upstairs to her empty apartment, he remains rooted to the spot, near-mute. Claire goes up without saying goodbye, leaving Kolya to listen as the door closes: “Snow was still falling and disappearing into thin air, and everything that I had known and loved until then eddied and vanished with it.”
It is such a quietly harrowing scene that one can almost hear the footsteps, the door slam shut, and the hysteria of years that are to pass between their two points of encounter. Claire is not glimpsed in the flesh again, only in visions and in the distant future from which we have already departed.
Yet Claire is not always the sole focus of our attention; in fact, she remains absent for most of the narrative. A long gallery of characters and faces rise in Kolya’s mind, in place of the one he desperately aches to see. There is no rhapsodizing on her departure, no Claire disparue, only the cold wideness of a life suddenly emptied of its meaning. Kolya continues to observe, sullenly, distantly, accurately: amid the violence of war, a fellow soldier is described as “a lonely animal whose presence is tolerated, unpleasant though it may be,” and an overheard conversation is compared to the bubbles that form on the surface of water when a person is drowning.
Gazdanov — like his protagonist, like his snow — remains cool. As Kolya describes the void of his fantasies, reading Claire begins to feel like inhabiting “some enormous glass building in which [one] had never lived” — it is a lonely place. But the void is home to the irresistible image of Claire and to those sentences, delicately recreated by Karetnyk, which wind around us with their lyricism and evocations of profound loss. Glass buildings and bubbles and snow and pale blue clouds: they all linger as fragments of a dream sharp upon awakening.
The mysterious Gazdanov — that echo down the hall — confronts us with the weight of memory. An Evening with Claire is a masterfully crafted book that not only deserves but demands renewed attention. As Kolya might attest, it is impossible simply to forget it.