I find it hard to believe I’ve never mentioned Gaito Gazdanov on this blog, but the site search tells me it is so. I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of him before I wandered into the late lamented Donnell Library (see this post), shortly after my arrival in NYC in 1981, and stood, mouth agape, in the midst of its magnificent foreign language collection; for some reason — probably the strikingly odd name of the author (Ossetian, as it turned out) — I plucked Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire) off the shelf, read the first sentence (“Клэр была больна; я просиживал у нее целые вечера и, уходя, всякий раз неизменно опаздывал к последнему поезду метрополитена и шел потом пешком с улицы Raynouard на площадь St. Michel, возле которой я жил”), and checked it out, intrigued by the Parisian place names plunked into the Russian text. Despite the fact that my Russian was very rusty and the sentences were often long, I read the whole thing, enchanted by his style and gripped by the flashbacks to the Russian Civil War. Ever since, he’s been high on my list of writers I want to delve into now that my Russian is up to the task, and one of the works I’m most looking forward to is his later novel Призрак Александра Вольфа, now translated by Bryan Karetnyk as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. My appetite is even more whetted by Sophie Pinkham’s review in the LRB; I’ll quote here several paragraphs about Gazdanov’s knowledge and use of various languages:
Gazdanov’s preoccupation with doubles isn’t hard to understand. In Paris, he lived two lives: one in the Parisian demi-monde, the other in the Russian émigré world of art and ideas. And he knew something about having two identities before he emigrated; he never learned Ossetian, though his parents spoke it, and he needed an interpreter to speak to his grandmother. Exile made language fraught for everyone, but especially for writers, who had to choose between the mother tongue, part of a world that more and more seemed to have been lost, and the language of the host country, which offered the hope of a wide readership, financial success and a lasting legacy. Nabokov went for the second, and became one of the few younger émigrés to achieve real fame. Others became successful writers with French names: Elsa Triolet, born Ella Kagan; and Henri Troyat, born Lev Tarasov. Troyat adopted the pseudonym at the suggestion of his editor, and went on to become the first Russian to be elected to the Académie Française. But many more writers were unwilling, or unable, to abandon their original language, or play down their Russian identity.
Gazdanov’s French was impeccable, but he felt unable to write fiction in anything other than his native language. His novels are distinctly bilingual even so: his magnum opus, Night Roads, contains passages of French street slang that he translated only at the insistence of his editor. His novels are often set in Paris, with characters speaking French to each other, sometimes without translation and without an accent, and yet they’re written (mostly) in Russian.
In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, the narrator speaks perfect French; Wolf’s English prose is so fluent that he can be mistaken for a native writer. Yelena, too, appears to be fluent in both French and English. She is married to an American, and introduces herself by her last name, Armstrong. At first she and the narrator speak French; he can’t place her accent until she tells him she’s Russian, having spotted the Russian newspaper in his pocket. They switch to Russian, and he remarks on a stylistic error she makes (Gazdanov was sometimes criticised for such mistakes). Voznesensky, Wolf’s old friend, speaks French but not a word of English, and longs in vain to read Wolf’s book about the world they fled together. Voznesensky tried to write his memoirs in order to remember his great love, Marina, who was stolen by Wolf, but he found that he had no gift for writing. Now his last hopes lie with Wolf; but Wolf writes in English, because the money’s better, and he hasn’t written about Marina, because he didn’t love her like Voznesensky did. Still, Voznesensky says: ‘Perhaps we’ll be remembered if he mentions us in his writing; in fifty years’ time, pupils in English will read about us, and so everything that has happened won’t have been in vain … everything will live on.’
If you’re intrigued, you might want to read Justin Doherty’s guest post at Russian Dinosaur about translating Night Roads. It’s a blessing that so much Russian literature is becoming available in English; Jodi Daynard’s translation of An Evening with Claire was published by Ardis in 1988 and is apparently being reissued by Overlook Press next month.
Update. While I was linking to Russian Dinosaur, I should certainly have remembered this post from last October, which not only reviews the recent translation of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, with the kind of sentence-by-sentence detail I love, but appends a “Selected bibliography of Gazdanov’s major works in translation” from which we learn that the novel was previously translated by Nicholas Wreden in 1950. I thank the Dinosaur for reminding me to remedy the omission!