Brisbane: A Novel, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Brisbane has to be Vodolazkin’s most ambitious work so far (at least for those of us who have to use translations). It centers on an artist, a musician who plays the guitar. As the story opens, the two themes Vodolazkin wants to think about are presented: life and art. We encounter them as problems, and this creates the novel’s tension. The artist is developing physical problems that take the edge off his art. We begin with life’s problem: old age. And we see that the end of art as the beginning of the end of life.

The problem of life is, of course, how to live it–art being one of the more important aspects of the solution. We make art because we want to live. Art exists for the sake of life, and not the other way around. Right from the start Vodolazkin gives us a stark statement of his theme in the mouth of Gleb, the protagonist, who as he meets his biographer, complains of former biographers that: “There’s no understanding that the musical stems from the human.” In other words, the problem of art, the theme of all art, the purpose of art is fundamentally the quest of life. Life is anterior to art.

In order to twine his two themes, Vodolazkin raises two questions: who is this guy and, what will he do? And so the story is interleaved, leaping back in time to the fortuitous development of the artist while interspersing the deliberative approach to the problem of the present. As we get to know Gleb, he deals with the greatest intersection of life and art: the way one faces death.

Vodolazkin shows that just as life must surrender to God’s providence, art must surrender to life, and be of it and in it. He builds a pyramid that way, an integrated hierarchy at the top of which is that worship which in Soviet Ukraine Gleb acquired from his grandfather. Vodolazkin knows how to put God into a book rightly, rather than in a forced or propagandistic way. He knows how to dramatize the quiet transmission of tradition; it is one of his greatest strengths. I think Vodolazkin has always succeeded most at neither avoiding nor exaggerating the inevitable presence of the incomprehensible in life. In a way, divine incomprehensibility manifested in creation is a fundamental theme for Vodolazkin. Divine incomprehensibility integrates all the mysteries that make life mysterious and without which it would not be life or, as he desires to point out particularly, have art.

Brisbane is a great novel, perhaps eclipsing Laurus. Even the title of the book contains the mystery, artfully played to great effect, the way he did with The Aviator. I have no doubt that Vodolazkin belongs with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn in the pantheon of great Russian literature.

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