When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
“Those few seconds it takes to terminate a person’s life comprise the idea of an incredible, almost superhuman, power.” This idea is the obsession of the nameless narrator of Gaito Gazdanov’s mesmerizing novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Yet what is superhuman in the ability to kill a person? With a gun it’s exceedingly simple; ordinary humans do it every day. Gazdanov’s narrator has done it — once. He was 16 years old, and a soldier in the Russian Civil War.
This opening scene is tinged with surreality, primarily because the young narrator is so bleary with sleep-deprivation. The blurred background of gunfire could be any war, the “scorched grass” and “hot, drowsy haze” could be almost any country. The narrator leans against a tree to rest and finds himself alone, separated from his troop. He comes across a black horse and mounts it, and they gallop off down the road before a crack of rifle fire brings them crashing to the dust. Unhurt, the narrator stands and dazedly watches a rider on a white horse approach from down the road, shouldering a rifle. “It was so quiet I could distinctly make out the dry sobbing of hooves against the cracked earth, the horse’s heavy breathing…” Without really thinking, the narrator raises his revolver and fires. The rider falls. The numbed narrator walks to him. “Bubbles of pink foam frothed up and burst on his lips. He opened his dull eyes, said nothing, and closed them again.”
It’s a commonplace wartime killing, senseless and sudden, and no one’s fault in particular. Yet for years after, the narrator cannot fully rid himself of the feeling of guilty regret. By the time he’s a grown man, an émigré living in Paris, he has nearly managed to forget the episode. Then he comes into possession of a collection of short stories by an English author, Alexander Wolf, rather ominously titled I’ll Come Tomorrow. In the last story, “The Adventure in the Steppe,” he finds an eerily exact reproduction of the murder from the perspective of the rider he had supposedly killed. As if in a mirror he looks up from the ground into his own “commonplace, ugly little face that expressed nothing other than manifest fatigue.” He sees himself mount the great white mare and gallop away.
“There remained little doubt,” the narrator says, “that the author of the story really was the same pale stranger whom I’d shot.”
Gaito Gazdanov was born in St. Petersburg in 1903, and like his narrator participated in “the exhausting senselessness of the Civil War” when he was 16. He was evacuated to Gallipoli, moved to Constantinople, before arriving in Paris along with many other Russian émigrés, Vladimir Nabokov famously among them. Gazdanov worked in the Citroen factory, and then later as a taxi driver (“there were thousands of them [Russians] plying that fool’s trade in Paris,” Humbert Humbert snidely remarks). Gazdanov drove at night and attended lectures and wrote during the day. Gradually he began to publish pieces in Russian journals and infiltrate the Parisian literary scene. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf was written in 1947, and like many quiet masterpieces it fell unfairly into obscurity for many decades — until now, elegantly translated by Bryan Karetnyk and beautifully republished by Pushkin Press.
Gazdanov’s writing career — nine celebrated psychological crime novels — was one which the nameless narrator of Alexander Wolf might have envied. This narrator has literary aspirations but settles for the more practical and less taxing field of journalism. His life thus far, he claims, is loaded with “regrets, dissatisfaction and a sense of manifest futility of everything I did.” His desire to meet Alexander Wolf, author of I’ll Come Tomorrow, is composed partly of curiosity about this ghost of the man he swore he had killed, and partly of jealous wonder at the ex-soldier’s skill with a pen, his “taut, flawless rhythm.”
By chance — or its opposite, one of the many mechanisms of fate grinding its gears behind the scenes — the narrator meets one of his countrymen in a local Russian restaurant in Paris. Voznesensky is a drunkard and “something of a Don Juan,” who begins regaling our narrator with anecdotes of war and love. With a casual inevitability that attends all the book’s intersections, Voznesensky produces a book, which the narrator recognizes at once: I’ll Come Tomorrow. It is revealed that Voznesensky and Alexander “Sasha” Wolf were comrades in the Civil War. Pressing the drunk raconteur for details, the narrator is rewarded by yet another version of that hot, awful afternoon, this time told from the vantage of the rider whose approaching clatter made him mount the white mare and gallop away. Voznesensky found Wolf in the road, “coughing up blood and foam,” and took him to a hospital.
Gazdanov is brilliant at tracing the unexpected twists of life’s forking paths, the interconnectedness of his various characters. A mysterious seductress sways into the novel at a boxing match our narrator is covering for a newspaper. Yelena Nikolayevna is another Russian émigré, with an icy, languid loveliness; their meeting has a tingle of déjà vu, as though they had known each other before. “‘They say that’s a very dark omen,’” the narrator suggests. Indeed, it is. The love affair is a welcome distraction from his obsession with Alexander Wolf, and his own morbid navel gazing. But as Wolf will say later on, “Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate.” And fate, the narrator suspects, cannot easily be thwarted. He can feel a chill reaching up from Yelena’s past, the shiver of a former lover who had marked her life forever.
Ineluctably, one day Yelena begins to speak of this man. He was charming, erudite, acute, and doomed, obsessed with his own impending death. His fatalism was apparent in everything he said: “‘Every life becomes clear — its path, its twists and turns — only in its final moments.’” To illustrate the point he recounted a story of a poor Jewish boy who dreamed of becoming a tailor, who strived through war and hardship; upon finally receiving his first order as a tailor, he died of pneumonia. “‘It was a race towards death…Finally, when his dream comes true, it turns out that its very realization heralds his own death, towards which he’s been striving all this time.’”
Yelena Nikolayevna escaped this lover’s dangerous, entrancing clutches. But we know who this man is, even if our narrator feigns ignorance. It’s a short matter of time before he emerges at last. The narrator enters his local Russian restaurant and there is Alexander Wolf dining with Voznesensky. Wolf’s face is hauntingly familiar, handsome and disturbing, bearing “an obscure expression, some sort of deathly significance — a look that seemed entirely impossible on the face of any living man.”
This is because Alexander Wolf is not truly alive. He is a spectre, who is certain he knows what awaits him. “I am sure,” he later tells the narrator, “that I’ll die just like that — suddenly and violently, in much that same way as when we first met.”
The question implicit in Gazdanov’s fascinating novel is whether such macabre determinism is self-perpetuated or inalterably woven into the fabric of our existence. Does believing we are doomed to die in a particular way bring about that very end — or do we believe it because we know in our prescient soul it’s the inexorable truth? “‘It isn’t fatalism, it’s the direction of life,’” Wolf explains to Yelena. Yet this is cyclical philosophy. For if the direction of a life is illuminated by its end, then its winding path has offered merely the illusion of forking possibilities. There was only the one, fated way. In which case, is it a fallacy to speak of points of origin, crucial links where the chain of causality actually began? The narrator cannot help but wonder:
It would seem as though a whole world had sprung into existence from a single action of mine. Assuming the origin of this long chain of events was my outstretched hand holding a revolver and the bullet that pierced Wolf’s chest, then in this brief space of time…a complex process was born, which could be neither foreseen nor accounted for by any human mind possessed of even the most powerful, grotesque imagination.
Yet if the “complex process” extends forwards then it reaches backwards, as well, in which case there is no origin. There is only an unending chain. Except that a chain implies singularity, when in actuality all lives are interconnected into the weft of continuous time.
One is reminded of Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first the great Russian wrote in English. His character Sebastian Knight fled from Russia during the Civil War and wrote his novels in English like Alexander Wolf (who explains Voznesensky, “it’s more profitable to do it in English, it’s better paid”). After Sebastian Knight’s death, his half-brother turns literary detective and tracks down the details of his sibling’s life and downfall. He comes at last to this lovely, if wistful, realization: “The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden. Thus…I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.”
Gazdanov’s narrator does not reach such a tranquil conclusion. But the novel’s violent, exciting climax has a similar, circular quality, a return to the source. A final confrontation between the narrator and Wolf is inevitable. The two men are aching to reenact their fateful first encounter, as if they wish to test the limits of the baleful hypothesis that figures as the subtext of their existence. That is, the man who manages to subvert causality by killing another “is given the opportunity to become, for some short space of time, more powerful than fate and chance, earthquake and tempest, and to know the exact moment when he’ll put a stop to that long and complex evolution…Love, hatred, fear, regret, remorse, will, passion…all is helpless before the momentary power of murder.”
This applies equally well to suicide. And herein lies the supposed “superhuman power” of the murderer, and the self-destructor. This power, however, is fallacious. Any chain of fate will have anticipated this abortive link as clearly as any “natural” death. The power of murder, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to discontinue life, which, as Wolf unexpectedly proclaims, is “the sole thing whose value we can truly comprehend.”
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is a compulsive read, playful yet sinister, meandering yet impressively trim, old-world and modern. It is to Pushkin Press’s great credit that this gorgeously restored relic, from an age when books could be spectral and slip elusively through your fingers, has been revived from untimely oblivion.
As a term of approbation, “precious” has lost its currency. These days, the p-word puts us in mind less of rare gems than of independent films about quirky white people. But as A.O. Scott’s recent review of The Darjeeling Limited reminds us, we needn’t choose between precious and precious. In the movies of Wes Anderson, the boxes of Joseph Cornell, and now, in Jesse Ball’s unabashedly imaginative debut novel, the two senses of the word collide.The set-up is pure Hitchcock: a (seeming) bystander, James Sim by name, witnesses an act of political murder that draws him into a web of intrigue (or, as my friend Colin’s dad liked to put it, “a tissue of lies.”) Confined to an asylum for compulsive prevaricators, Sim must ferret out the truth. Ball has followed Murakami, however, in replacing the traditional terms of the suspense novel with his own cryptic obsessions. It soon becomes apparent that Samedi the Deafness is less an epistemological mystery than an existential one. The important question for is not whodunit, but “Why am I here?”The pursuit of an answer proves to be highly entertaining, thanks in large part to Ball’s untrammeled idiosyncracies. This 28-year-old debut novelist is also a poet and an illustrator, and his prose, in Samedi the Deafness, leavens flights of hallucinatory vision with the arch diction and mannered dialogue of mid-twentieth-century British children’s novels. (The bad guys are always saying things like, “For this reason…”) At its weakest, the novel struggles to sustain its tone; the juvenile elements decay from wonder into whimsy, the poetic ones start to feel strained. At its best, the tongue-in-cheek and the earnest harmonize to produce a vivid and dreamlike whimsy, as in this flashback to James Sim’s formative years:”The best hiding place of all, said James’s friend Ansilon, from his perch atop James’s shoulder, is inside something hollow when no one knows it’s hollow. Ansilon was James’s one friend. He was an invisible owl who could tell the future and also speak English, although he preferred to speak in the owl language, which James understood perfectly. -But if no one knows that it’s hollow, said James, then how would I manage to know that it’s hollow? Should I just go around with a little hammer, tapping things?”Ball has pronounced The Castle one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and this literary debt is obvious. Like Kafka’s K., Ball’s protagonist is a patient and bemused Everyman. His character emerges not in his actions, but in his reactions, and despite his unusual gifts (a near-photographic memory, for example), James Sim is a democratic figure; he could be any one of us. Ball is less successful at creating a supporting cast. Where the inhabitants of Kafka’s village are both madcap and mysteriously human, the denizens of Ball’s asylum often seem a mere accumulation of tics. Their setting redeems them, however. With its labyrinthine architecture and wonderfully arbitrary list of rules, the asylum itself becomes a character, and a worthy foil for our hero.In the end, the delights of Samedi the Deafness outweigh its flaws. Ball’s sensibility is, despite his many influences, entirely his own, and one can expect good things to come. (Another novel, The Way Through Doors, will be published in 2008). At a speedy 280 pages, Samedi is a welcome appetizer to what one hopes will be a rich and – dare we say it? – precious career.
Sometimes I find that I need to slow things down. After reading four or five books a month, it becomes necessary to pick one book and settle down – to nestle in and enjoy every painstakingly created word. This month, I finally did it.I found great pleasure in discovering John Steinbeck five years after going to college. I read Of Mice and Men while in high school, and breezed through The Pearl in college, but never gave him a second thought until reading East of Eden last year.I was hooked.Instead of doing the compulsive book-reader thing and devouring every Steinbeck book at once, I’ve decided to stretch them out. Steinbeck’s not writing any more books, and I’d hate to not have one to look forward to, even if it’s a shorter novella or play.With that in mind, I felt it was time to dive into his Pulitzer Prize winning novel – The Grapes of Wrath – and experience the horrible, yet satisfyingly moralistic life of the Joad family.Think about it: what happens when you lose everything? When your livelihood dries up and your home is taken away. When you’re forced onto the road after selling nearly everything. What happens when you drive off in search of a better place and it proves not to be the Babylon you’d dreamed of but a living hell?To most of us, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras are historic concepts, no longer conceivable in today’s world, destined to live in the past and remembered only by those who lived through it. However, nearly 70 years after it was published, The Grapes of Wrath continues to outline the life and death struggle to survive without food, money, or prospect.The Joads are a typical Dust Bowl group: a farm family whose land dried up, cashed out, and was taken away. They’re forced to begin a journey to California, admittedly with the greatest of intents. Jobs are rumored to be plentiful, and even the eldest members are excited to bask in endless fields of grapes and peaches. With very little money and an unreliable truck, the family heads west on Route 66 in search of their new life.What they find is anything but plentiful. An entire population of displaced farm families – “Okies,” as they were slanderously called – had arrived in California to find very few jobs. Because of this, wages were lowered; child labor encouraged, and even those who had constant work were hard pressed to keep their families fed. Children starved, men and women collapsed, exhausted, and what little belongings that still existed were moved weekly, sometimes daily.Steinbeck constructs an unassuming, yet vicious landscape throughout the book. The imagery is stark. Hope is fleeting as the Joad family slowly makes its way down Route 66. They felt the cold calculation of the banks that took away their home. Then they experienced the restless journey towards something they couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually, they discovered that they could be powerful – if they organized, they could beat this rap. If a man’s children are crying for food, starving and dying, you’d be surprised the amount of fight it can bring up.The Grapes of Wrath isn’t a dusty, boring tome. It’s not a chore. It’s amazingly gripping and startlingly vivid. At times it’s hopeful. Other times, terrifyingly melancholy. If you see a little of yourself in the Joad family, you’re liable to understand their plight, to feel their pain – to quietly champion their cause until, by the end, you’re fighting for a rally and hoping things turn out.Steinbeck champions the “down on his luck” traveler better than anyone. He brings the fight not just to the family, but to everyone around them. Brief chapter-long interludes paint a frame around the Joad family’s odyssey, bringing perspective to their suffering. Steinbeck argues that bad luck shouldn’t cause an entire region to end up poor, homeless, and without prospect. And it shouldn’t cause hardship for the small farmers that have to try to survive in a world of declining costs and dwindling returns.There are stark parallels between the westward migration of Midwesterners during the Depression and a more recent disaster – Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Look at what happened last summer – at the destruction that Mother Nature brought down upon the people of New Orleans – and consider what happened to residents who were too poor to pick themselves back up. Think about the people who were forced to move on from their homes in order to fight for the same job as their displaced neighbors.Ultimately, we can all learn a lot from Steinbeck’s prose. In The Grapes of Wrath, we learn not to take anything for granted. We learn that beauty can be found in the simple – in a loaf of bread, or in a porcelain bathtub.Most of all, we learn that many times it’s the people with nothing that are willing to give the most. We learn that everyone is a member of the same human race – that everyone has a hand in everyone else’s life – and that if you can’t help a fellow destitute, then what good are you to yourself?Frankly, that’s a lesson we all could learn a thing or two about.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, August