Gaito Gazdanov (1903-1971) has emerged as something of an obscure Russian writer lately with an ever-growing cult following. This is largely thanks to his excellent novella The Sprectre of Alexander Wolf (1947), which received considerable media interest a few years ago after a fresh translation. An Evening With Claire (1930) was another brilliant piece of writing from a man who’d left his homeland in the 1920s, as an émigré, to live in Paris. There, whilst writing away, he worked in Renault factories, before becoming a taxi driver in the 1930s.
After World War II, he wound up in Germany in later life. From 1953, he was a radio presenter on Radio Free Europe, where he hosted a show about Russian literature until his death. He wasn’t a commercially successful writer, though, even after An Evening With Claire earned him rave reviews from critics – it was a surprise bestseller, too, but Gazdanov was unpublished in Russia during the Soviet Union and it wasn’t until the 1990s that his work received the attention it deserves. Rightly so, too, as this novella is a minor masterpiece.
An Evening With Claire
This is an introspective novella with a maudlin tone; it’s written in the first person. Gazdanov was only 26 when he wrote the thing – he’d survived the Civil War in Russia and had seen close hand the illness and death of his beloved father and sister, along with the increasing despondency of his intellectual mother (who had a capacious reading habit).
Consequently, An Evening With Claire is semi-autobiographical. This helps to explain the ethereal nature of his writing style, which has a gentle, circumspect, melodic quality that floats alongside a keen desire to understand life events and incidents happening around him (Marcel Proust’s work was clearly a major influence for the young Gazdanov).
The story follows a young man, Kolya, who has coped with family tragedies, is deeply introverted, introspective, and hypersensitive. He’s been in love with a girl called Claire and he reminisces about an evening he spent with her. It’s this love for Claire since childhood into maturity that acts as something of a paean to youth, the loss of it, and the sadness of life.
Added to this, Kolya remembers his time in the army, which he joined as he wanted to discover what war is truly like. With tragedies in his family, and the disappearance of Claire from his life, he’s left feeling ostracised and attempting to work out, on a psychological level, the nature of humanity.
It’s an impressive piece of writing. Melancholic, for sure, but not depressing. It’s a tale for the introverts out there, as you could find considerable solace in a man almost 100 years ago and his sense of alienation from those around him. The pathos, the intelligence involved with his writing, and the depiction of a bygone time all add together for a fascinating read.
Gazdanov’s most famous work, the Spectre of Alexander Wolf, is an existential, metaphysical thriller. An Evening With Claire, his first book, is far removed from the genre he’d go on to prefer. Of the reviews we found online, this has clearly disappointed some of Gazdanov’s fans, who wanted a bit more of the same. An Evening With Claire is simply a completely different type of writing style and genre, but this shouldn’t deter you from reading it.
Gazdanov as a writer marks a few other talents who didn’t receive much attention during their lifetimes (or in their current one!). Franz Kafka is arguably the most famous example, then there’s Mihail Sebastian, and Fernando Persoa is another. From the women’s writers side, there’s Rachel Ingalls, whose Mrs. Caliban seems to have been stolen for the 2018 Oscar winning The Shape of Water. What are we getting at? Always keep your eyes peeled for obscure talent – don’t just head straight to the bestsellers list. That’s an order!