The dark, beautiful magic of reading Russian master Gaito Gazdanov’s stories for the first time

I’m sorry to say that up until a month or so ago I had never heard of Gaito Gazdanov. Although, I have long been an admirer of his apparent literary rival – Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov. Now that I have become acquainted, it feels as if a door has been opened. A door that leads to light and darkness, embrace and solitude. Gazdanov, I am confident, is a master writer.

I take this view because I have just read my first selections of his work: The Beggar and Other Stories. This thoughtfully compiled and beautifully packaged primer of Gazdanov’s short fiction from the wonderful Pushkin Press is a wonderful introduction. Or perhaps you’ve read his celebrated novel The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and are looking for more. However you fall upon The Beggar and Other Stories just make sure you do.

There are, including the title piece, six stories collected here and a varied bunch they are from the dream-infused exploits of a secret agent on a voyage to a heartbreakingly tender tale of a father and son whose voids are filled by each other.

Then of course there’s The Beggar itself – as if Joseph Roth’s The Legend of the Holy Drinker met with Terry Gilliam’s film The Fisher King. It fuses the magic and despair inherent in those narratives to tell the story of a man who is down and out of his own choosing. A man who has tasted riches and nearly choked on them only to be reborn on the streets, a sage mute among a cacophony of Parisian noise, a capitalist who cashed out his soul.

The collected is translated and introduced by Bryan Karetnyk who provides deeper insights into the author’s life and circumstance. Occasionally, Karetnyk will not translate a small section but add a footnote offering a literal translation and some context which helps readers know better where they stand while also retaining the exoticism of the narrative intact within the main body text. As Gazdanov’s writing style is so lyrical and insightful, I think this was a wise move. Karetnyk is obviously fond of Gazdanov’s work but, more importantly, respectful of it as well.

There’s a tenderness within Gazdanov that seems to recall Carson McCullers or Anne Tyler – two masters of character-building who also traded sentiment with tragicomedy amid a poetic form. This is inviting writing, not a challenging slog through dreary Russian times. It would be a mistake to compare Gazdanov with those greats of the Russian epic ala Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Think more modernist: Bulgakov and, quite rightly, Nabokov. Dark, beautiful magics awaits in these pages.

The Pushkin Press publication of The Beggar and Other Stories is a must buy in paperback. The quality of the pages and cover make this one for a long term tour of duty on your classics shelf.

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