An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

Back in 2013, I was captivated by Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (1947), an existential novel that explored questions of coincidence, fate, love and death. I read it pre-blog, but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere. Originally published in 1930, An Evening with Claire was Gazdanov’s first novel, written during his time as a Russian émigré in Paris. It was an instant success, resonating strongly with the displaced population across Europe as a whole. In writing this novel, Gazdanov drew heavily on his own life via a series of memories covering his childhood, his time in the Russian Civil War and his impressions of an enigmatic young woman named Claire, the figure captured in the book’s title.

claire

As the novel opens, the narrator – a young man named Sosedov, but referred to as Kolya throughout – has recently reconnected with Claire, a French woman he first met some ten years earlier in 1917. Kolya has been spending his evenings with Claire at her home in Paris, the lady’s husband being away on an extended trip to Ceylon. While Claire sleeps, Kolya reflects on the time he has spent desiring her over the years, the woman who has occupied his mind for the past decade.

Surrendering to the power of sleep, or sadness, or yet another emotion, no matter how strong the emotion was she never ceased being herself; and it seemed that the mightiest tremors were powerless to alert this perfectly completed body, could never destroy this final invincible charm which had induced me to waste ten years of my life in pursuit of Claire, and which had made it impossible for me to get her out of my mind at any time, any place. (p. 28)

This process triggers a series of memories for Kolya as he gradually comes to remember everything that has happened in his life, particularly the events of his first eighteen years. While the difficulty of understanding and articulating everything seems immense, Kolya proceeds to explore his childhood and adolescence through a stream of associations, moving seamlessly from one recollection to another over the course of the novel. We hear of the young boy’s close relationship with his father, a man obsessed with fires and hunting, a man whom Kolya loved very dearly at the time. By contrast, Kolya’s mother is portrayed as a relatively cold and controlled woman, someone who showed little warmth and affection in her dealings with the children. Nevertheless, Kolya respected her a great deal.

From a relatively early age, Kolya’s life was marked by the shadow of death. He was just eight years old when his father died, and by the time of the Great War both of his sisters had followed suit.      

Death was never far away, and the abyss into which my imagination plunged me seemed to belong to it. I think this feeling was hereditary: It was not for nothing that my father so violently detested everything that reminded him of the inevitable end; this fearless man felt his weakness here. It was as though my mother’s unconscious, cold indifference reflected someone’s final stillness, and the ravenous memories which my sisters possessed absorbed everything into themselves so quickly because, somewhere in their distant foreboding, death already existed. (p. 60)

As a consequence, Kolya was left alone with his mother, a woman who struggled to come to terms with the losses that had touched her family.

At various times during his childhood, Kolya felt as though he was turning in on himself, a process which left him somewhat immune to the external events that were happening around him. This feeling emerged once again when Kolya was sent to military school, a place he disliked a great deal. Given that the other cadets seemed so different, Kolya kept his distance from the rest of the pack, a move that also caused him to develop an instinct for self-preservation when dealing with his tutors.

The novel touches on various stories and anecdotes from Kolya’s time at both the military school and the gymnasium that followed, too many to capture here. While several of these memories are melancholy in tone, there are recollections of happier times as well: the summers Kolya spent at his grandfather’s house in Caucasus where many of his father’s relatives also lived; memories of Claire too, especially Kolya’s first encounter with her at the tennis courts of the gymnastics society (Kolya was around fourteen at the time). From the moment he first set eyes on eighteen-year-old Claire, Kolya was captivated by her presence. A native of Paris, Claire had travelled to Russia with her family; her father, a merchant, had a base in Ukraine which he visited every now and again. Kolya and the coquettish Claire spent much of the summer together, laughing and joking at Claire’s house. Even so, Kolya was acutely aware of Claire’s blossoming sexuality, something he did not fully understand at the time despite being able to feel it. By late autumn that year, Claire had all but disappeared from Kolya’s life, a development which left the young boy feeling rather bereft.

The final third of the novel focuses on the time Kolya spent with the White Army in the Russian Civil War, a somewhat arbitrary move motivated by the desire to know what war was like, to experience the new and unknown. (Kolya readily admits that his decision was not driven by any political beliefs or ideals; he could have just as easily joined the Reds had they been in possession of his part of the country at the time.) The memories of his departure for the front at the age of sixteen are imbued with a tender sense of melancholy, a tone which is so characteristic of this haunting novel.

It was late autumn, and in the cold air I could feel the sorrow and the regret characteristic of every departure. I was never able to accustom myself to this feeling; for me, every departure marked the beginning of a new existence and consequently, the necessity of living once again by groping, of finding once more among the people and things surrounding me, a more or less intimate environment in which to recapture my former tranquillity, so needed to make space for those inner oscillations and shocks with which I was so greatly preoccupied. (p. 105)

Kolya’s time in the war gave him a deep insight into the psychology of human behaviour; while stationed at the front he witnessed several instances of bravery, cowardice and fear. This section is packed with stories, anecdotes and memories of Kolya’s comrades, including tales of some of the scoundrels he encountered during this period. By the summer of 1920, Kolya had made his way to Sevastopol where he witnessed some of the emotional fallout from the war. The atmosphere in this desperate city seemed to reflect all the eternal sorrow and melancholy of provincial Russia, a feeling that is captured in this next passage.

I saw tears in the eyes of usually unsentimental people. Having deprived them of their homes, families and dinner parties, the Revolution had suddenly given them the ability to feel deep regret, and for an instant liberated from their coarse, warlike casing their long-forgotten, long-lost emotional sensitivity. It was as if these people were taking part in a minor-keyed symphony of the theater hall; they saw for the first time that there was a biography and a history to their lives, and a lost happiness which they had only read about in books, (p. 133)

An Evening with Claire is a deeply introspective novel, one that offers a rare insight into a vanished world. Kolya’s memories are shot through with a gentle sense of sadness and regret coupled with a noticeable yearning for Claire. Perhaps this reunion in Paris represents a new beginning for Kolya, an element of hope for the future? I’d like to think so.

Guy and Karen have also reviewed this book – just click on the links to read their reviews.

An Evening with Claire is published by Overlook Duckworth / Ardis; personal copy.

48 thoughts on “An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

  1. Brian Joseph

    I am partial to stories filled with existentialist musings. The characters also sound well crafted.

    I have set out to read more of this type of book in the coming year. Thus I will put this on my list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. Existentialism seems to be a common theme that runs through much of Gazdanov’s work, so I think you will click with him as a writer. Let me know how you get on – I’d love to hear.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I have The Flight by this author waiting for me patiently for a while now, I have heard a lot of good things about him. This end-of-empire musing is perhaps appropriate for the current day, but I wonder just how much proportion of nostalgia there is there, and if that’s what appealed most to the emigre Russians in the 1930s.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed – as a meditation on fractured lives, it still feels very relevant today. I suspect that much of the book’s power stemmed from the poignancy of Kolya’s story – I found it incredibly haunting, especially towards the end.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    This isn’t an author I had heard of before. It’s interesting you use the word melancholic as that’s exactly what sprang to mind as I was reading your review. I like stories which use memory in this way to explore characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. Gazdanov has been compared to Proust, so I think you’re onto something there with your comments on the use of memories in his fiction.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome. I would also strongly recommend The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, In fact, they probably work well together as a pair as An Evening with Claire gives an insight into the genesis of the themes he mines in Spectre.

      Reply
  4. banff1972

    Been meaning to get to Gazdanov and this review makes me even more keen. Have you read Nabokov’s 20s and 30s work? I wonder how it compares to Gazdanov’s.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, terrific – I would love to hear your thoughts on this writer’s work. Would you believe if I said that I’ve never read any Nabakov? Shameful, I know – a gap I really ought to plug at some point. (To tell you the truth, I’ve always been a little scared of reading him, as if he might be too intellectual for me!)

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        That is crazy talk, Jacqui! No way is VN too intellectual for you. He’s definitely mandarin and frankly he can be a shade too chilly for me to ever really love him but he’s pretty amazing. I don’t believe it could ever be shameful not to have read something, but you should give him a try. I think you’ll really appreciate him. Pnin is my favourite.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ha! Yes, I know it’s a bit silly of me. Isn’t it funny how we form these impressions of certain writers even if we’ve never experienced them for ourselves? That’s good encouragement, Dorian – thank you. I will give him a try, possibly with Pnin as it’s your favourite. Would it be a suitable intro to his style?

          Reply
          1. banff1972

            Pnin is a bit anomalous in that it’s more episodic than most Nabokov, and it’s also much more gentle. It’s the only Nabokov I can think of that you could call sweet. I think I might start with Lolita. Or maybe some of the stories–the early ones (from teh 20s) are particularly good. I wrote about “The Fight’ on my blog a couple of years ago. But there are all these 30s novels, several set in emigre Paris, I believe, that I don’t know and would be curious about. Actually, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight could be a good first one. I wouldn’t start with Pale Fire. His memoir, Speak Memory, is amazing and would also be a great entry point.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              That’s great – thank you. I’ll take a closer look at your recommendations. Lolita doesn’t appeal to me for various reasons, but you’ve definitely piqued my interest in some of his others…

              Reply
  5. Guy Savage

    Thanks for the mention Jacqui. I thought this was a very powerful novel–even though that doesn’t really hit you (or it did me anyway) until the end of the book

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Guy. Yes, I know what you mean about the book hitting home towards the end, I found the final section incredibly poignant, especially the devastation in Sevastopol. It sort of casts a different light on the narrative as a whole…

      Reply
  6. Emma

    I remember Guy’s review and now yours make me want to read it too.
    I’ve read The Awakening, a wonderful novella. It had the same delicate prose, introspective tone. And so much humanity.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would love to read The Awakening if only it were available in English. I have a feeling it’s yet to be translated. Maybe Pushkin Press or Overlook will pick it up of the back of responses to Gazdanov’s other works – fingers crossed. I think you would like this one a great deal, especially given the poignancy of the themes and Gazdanov’s understated prose style.

      Reply
  7. FictionFan

    Excellent review of what sounds like a fascinating book! Would you mind if I include a link to your post when I do a round-up for my Reading the Russian Revolution challenge?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, please do include a link in your round-up – that would be great. I’ll be interested to see your list of books. I don’t know if you’ve come across the Russian emigre writer Teffi, but if not she’s well worth considering in this context.

      Reply
      1. FictionFan

        Thank you! I actually put the list up just after the holidays, when lots of people weren’t back on the blogosphere yet. But I had quite a lot of difficulty tracking down fiction with a Revolution setting, so I shall add this one to my list and look into Teffi – thanks for the rec!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I must have missed that over the Christmas break. I’ll take a look – thanks! Teffi is a wonderful writer, so sharp and insightful – her account of the brief meetings she had with Rasputin is worth the entry price alone. I’ve also written about a couple of her books if you need any more info.

          Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve read two Nabokovs, you’d be more than fine.

    This sounds very good. I’m reminded somewhat of Modiano except that I actually want to read this. I have Alexander Wolf still to read though so it will need to wait until after that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Max. Out of interest, which Nabakovs have you read? Would you recommend either of them as a good one to try?

      Claire has more depth than the Modiano I read last year (Villa Triste), that’s for sure. I get the feeling that his novellas are strong on mood and atmosphere but somewhat lacking in substance. Maybe I’m being a little unfair to him as I’ve only read the one so far. Nevertheless, that’s the impression I get from reading various reviews of his work. Returning to Gazdanov for a mo, I think you’re right to begin with Alexander Wolf. That’s where I started with him, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way .

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        Pnin and Laughter in the Dark. Pnin is excellent, though you need to stick with it (or I did). It got to a point where I was getting fairly irritated by it, but I pressed on as it was Nabokov and had a good reputation. If you do stick with it though it turns out there’s a reason for the irritation, it’s intentional, and there’s a payoff. It’s very good.

        Laughter in the Dark isn’t as strong and is seen by many as weak Nabokov, but I enjoyed it still (though it’s not nearly as clever as Pnin) and it has probably my favourite opening paragraph of any novel.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s really useful, Max – many thanks. The more I hear about Pnin, the more I like the sound of it. That’s definitely going on my list for the future..

          Reply
  9. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I am not in the right place for an introspective novel at the moment, but thank you for putting it on my radar. I know that eventually, I will be in the right mood again for this type of book, and then I will definitely check it out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome. I know exactly what you mean about needing to be in the right frame of mind for something like this. It’s a very affecting story, so the timing has to be right. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely one to read slowly, that’s for sure. There is a sort of cumulative effect with the poignancy of Kolya’s story building and deepening over time. I think it will stay with me for quite a while.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really think you’d like his style, Caroline. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf was my first and it served as a good introduction. Existentialism, fate and mortality seem to be common themes running through much of his work. As Emma commented above, his books are imbued with a strong sense of humanity.

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    I’ve enjoyed both Alexander Wolf and Buddha’s Return, though this sounds more autobiographical. As I mentioned, i recently bought a copy and hopefully will get to it soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to see what you think of it, especially compared to Alexander Wolf. The heavily autobiographical feel gives the story an added poignancy here.

      Reply
  11. Scott W

    I had not heard of this, but Gazdanov (Alexander Wolf, at least) has been on my radar for some time. Ah well, one of these days.

    And yes, read Nabokov. I think his memoir Speak, Memory is actually a good place to start, as it will de-fang your image of him as inaccessibly intellectual, and it’s really quite a beautiful book. He can be so incredibly funny – and yet still manage an astonishing degree of tenderness. And his language is splendid.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gazdanov is well worth your time, Scott – I think you’d like him a great deal. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf has received a fair amount of coverage across the blogosphere and rightly so – it’s a truly excellent novel.

      Ah, Nabakov – yes, I shall have to give him a try. To be honest, I’m not a big reader of memoirs/autobiographies. I have to be super-interested in the writer and/or a certain aspect of their life to even contemplate it (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is the only memoir I’ve read in the last couple of years)! Nevertheless, I will keep Speak, Memory in mind for the future once I’ve tried some of his fiction. :)

      Reply
  12. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

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