My thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for a review copy of the book.
The first book by Russian émigré writer Gaito Gazdanov, An Evening with Claire (1929), opens in Paris where we are introduced to our narrator and main character, Nikolai Sosedov or Kolya. After ten years, Kolya has been reunited with his first love, Claire, one he has never ceased loving, and has always dreamt of. As the romance he has imagined for so long becomes real, the unattainable dream-like status Claire has always had in Kolya’s thoughts fades away. But his thoughts of the Claire of his dreams, or rather of a dream-like image of Claire that he needs to always have, lead him back to times past—in fact all the way back to his childhood in Russia.
In a flowy narrative, with loosely connected memories of different people, incidents and times in his life, we follow Kolya from his idyllic childhood, which lasted somewhat briefly for he lost his father when he was only eight; his life with his cold but admirable mother; in the gymnasium and military academy; carefree times spent wandering in his grandfather’s orchards in the holidays; his meeting with Claire; and ultimately the civil war in which he joined the White Army and eventually found himself having to leave Russia. Throughout these recollections what Kolya tells us is his perceptions of scenes he witnessed, incidents he experienced, and people he met—at different times in his life, these were from all walks of life, his own family, fellow students, teachers and fellow soldiers.
Kolya makes for an interesting, yet puzzling character; there are some things he feels strongly—like the loss of his father (I’ve perished with him, so too my fabulous ship, and the island with white buildings which I discovered in the Indian ocean), or even an incident involving Claire’s mother’s rather harsh words to him, while in others, whether it is the death of his sisters (here his reaction seemed more to his mother’s sorrow which made him almost guilty to be alive) or the pointless and seemingly endless injury and loss of life during the war which he seems almost numb to. Moments of ‘perfect happiness’ are perhaps few, like when he is a child:
…sitting on Father’s knees and glancing from time to time at mother’s placid face—for she was usually by his side—I experienced true happiness, the sort that only a child or man possessed of extraordinary spiritual strength can feel.
Or amidst nature or in a book:
In that moment, as whenever I was truly happy, I vanished from my own consciousness. It could happen in a forest, in a field, on a river, by the seashore; it could happen while I was reading a captivating book.
But for the most part, Kolya seems to live within himself—in his inner life, as opposed to the outer one—and so looks at most others, in a rather detached manner. In his memories we meet a range of personalities, warm and cold, brave and cowardly, learned and hypocritical, as well as some colourful characters.
What defines Kolya perhaps is his constant search for something—the adventure on the Indian Ocean in his childhood games with his father, the search for ‘change’ , to be somewhere which alone leads him to join the White Army (he has no belief in their cause or for that matter, in the Reds’), and so too, is the dream of Claire—which we soon realise means not so much the person but an unattainable dream which he must always have to carry him on, and forward. At one point, Kolya observes of a fellow student, Vasily Nikolaevich, he was always searching for his truth, wherever he happened to be. And that seems to apply to Kolya too, always needing to have that dream he is in pursuit of.
While I enjoyed the writing in the book (the translation was excellent, and it never felt that I was reading one), and the different memories through which Kolya takes us through (his childhood memories are lovely while those of the war once again make one question the point of it), I found myself struggling with how to understand the book. But thinking over it all, Kolya perhaps represents the experience of Gazdanov himself, and perhaps many other emigres, their home taken away from them (probably) forever, left only with snatches of memory of times past, and ‘Claire’, that unattainable dream he is always in search of, the only thing they can hold on to.
(This is probably more of an exercise in my trying to understand the book than a review per se, I know, but these were the thoughts that came to mind).