I think about death, mine, almost every day for at least the last seven years. I often think of it out of the blue while doing something ordinary such as taking a shower or crossing the road.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov dwells on mortality and fatality. The lives of the key characters in this short novel intertwine with that of the nameless protagonist and narrator, who at the age of 16 fatally shot a soldier during the Russian civil war.

Years later, while living in Paris and working as a journalist, the protagonist comes across a book which depicts that fateful moment, from the perspective of the fallen soldier. This discovery is followed by a chain of events, vividly described and peppered with reflections, before coming to a climatic ending.

To what extent are these events and the people partaking in them subject to chance or destiny?

The story moves with a steady pace. As the connections between the characters become increasingly clear to the reader – though not right away to the protagonist – the ending seems almost inevitable.

I don’t want to spoil the story for those of you who have not read this intriguing work by Gazdanov, so I’m going to end this review with an excerpt from the book to give you an idea of the excellent prose:

“Individual destiny was unimportant, for we each always carry our own death – that is to say, the generally instantaneous termination of life’s habitual rhythm… Still, he believed in some elusive system of general laws, far removed, however, from an idyllic state of harmony: what seems like blind chance to us is most often inevitability. He theorized that logic couldn’t exist outside conditional, arbitrary, almost mathematical constructs, and that death and happiness were fundamentally of the same order, as both one and the other involve the same notion of fixity.”

Gazdanov was a Russian émigré writer novelist who lived in Paris in the early 20th century. His work was not published in Russia until the collapse of the communist regime.

First published in Russian in the late 1940s in a Russian-language journal in New York, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf was recently translated into English by Bryan Karetnyk and published by Pushkin Press in 2013. Harvard Magazine described The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and Buddha’s Return – another Gazdanov novel published by Pushkin Press – as “metaphysical thrillers” in which a criminal plot is combined with meditations on death, chance, fate, and predestination.

This short novel by Gazdanov is thought-provoking and fascinating. Kudos to Pushkin Press for bringing Gazdanov and his works back from oblivion.

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