Right, Gaito Gazdanov penned this metaphysical thriller and it was published in 1947. Born in Saint Petersburg, and raised in Siberia and Ukraine, Gazdanov fought in the Russian Civil War but was exiled to Paris in the 1920s. He lived through both World Wars (which shaped the 20th Century so) and his writing reflected much of the conflict. However, his works (along with other unknown authors such as Venedikt Yerofeev) were only published in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Since then he’s become something of a revered cult figure. His other works, such as An Evening With Claire (1930), feature a highly introspective quality, but Spectre of Alexander Wolf is something else entirely. It’s an innovative tale about coincidence, life, death, and existential angst; it was a real surprise. An excellent book that grips you and makes you wonder about the nature of life and death, from a writer clearly possessing a great talent.
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf
The novel offers an unusual take on war. It tells the tale of a war veteran who recalls the story of a time he had to shoot a soldier in WWI. The soldier he believed he killed was on a white horse – in intimate detail, he describes the psychological shock of realising he’s taken a life. This is even to the extent where it’s obvious the man was done for.
Whilst in Paris some years later, he happens to read a story that shocks him to his very core. It appears to perfectly match this incident, suggesting the man was indeed alive and well somewhere in the world. How could this be? The man surely had died, which triggers off an investigation into whether he is still alive, or if someone had seen the incident and turned it into a story.
The writer of the story names himself as Alexander Wolf. What then plays out is a taut, innovative novel and one that really displays Gazdanov’s mastery of psychology. It’s of no surprise to learn he did battle, such as in Russia’s Civil War, but the intelligence and sharpness of the prose displays a writer in full command of his concept.
It’s an excellent book – gripping! There’s something quite compelling in his writing style that forces you to keep on going. Whilst we didn’t find the ending satisfying (it’s a bit corny, we thought), but that’s subjective and may do it for other readers. Ultimately, Gazdanov is increasingly emerging as something of a forgotten master from Russia – we can highly recommend this one if a taut psychological thriller is what you’re looking for.