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.

Living Authors of the Unexamined Life

There are quite a few gems in the literary world at this moment, and I wanted to list them. I have been thinking of cancelling out of Twitter. The problem is the discoveries I would miss. Should I subscribe to a literary quarterly instead? Is there one that’s worth consulting? I don’t know that the literary crowd always identifies things correctly. I wonder if things aren’t missed.

Is it that I’m idiosyncratic? Perhaps. Here’s what I’ve gained mostly in the past decade that I’m grateful for in terms of fresh novels.

Donna Tartt. This American author goes slow, a book every ten years or so. Her first book, The Secret History, is a rejection of the pagan allure of learning the classics. It is a rejection of that which looks down on Christianity from learned alternatives. In that way, it is a restatement of Augustine’s City of God. It is an intriguing, off-putting, gradual, explosive, and amazing book.

Her best book, I think, is The Little Friend, in which she tries something similar to the first but with a different revelation. Tartt is most like Flannery O’Connor in this book: it is about people in the raw, the strange a violent pulse of life in most anywhere and yet particularly that place of America.

I think her most difficult and least rewarding book is The Goldfinch. It goes to the city, to New York and Las Vegas, and this America is not the America of The Little Friend. It is nevertheless intriguing to follow her complex plots. One encounters characters in so many varieties. She is always going somewhere, the climax is worth waiting for.

Her style does not pander to contemporary expectations. She writes well, but not to draw attention to her skills. She writes in order to demonstrate how character is revealed in action.

Lev Grossman. Grossman, let me be clear, is a bit of an orc; he’s endeavoring to practice arts not entirely of disenchantment but of less rapturous and chastened enchantment. He is writing to disabuse those who were enchanted by Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. He has a new book out, one targeted at children, unlike his Magicians series, which perhaps will be more mild.

Grossman is a spectacular American writer. He can do things, amazing things with setting up scenes, placing details, understands dialogue, all that kind of stuff. He is a very good writer, and he figured out something about something that intrigued him in The Magicians which he explored thoroughly. He is also making a serious point. It is not a point I entirely agree with, but it is interesting to wrestle with. I do not recommend Lev Grossman to most people I talk with about books, but I really, truly enjoy his books. I haven’t read his latest yet.

Eugene Vodolazkin. Russian literature lives on in Vodolazkin. We have to read him in translation, but the translations work well. He brings his readers on serious journeys that illuminate something of the strengths of Russian culture. He is both building and retrieving in a ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ kind of way. There are three of his books available to us in English.

Soloviov and Larionov is one of his earlier works and intriguing, but it doesn’t quite add up to the other two. It plays with the themes of history and memory and Russian particularity. Still, I think this book is more useful for understanding Vodolazkin than as a novel on its own, though it is good. It anticipates Laurus without quite succeeding the way Laurus does.

Laurus is his masterpiece. It explores the Russian Orthodox phenomenon of holy folly. It is set in Medieval Russia, mostly, and is miles and miles away from most of our experiences. And yet it is close too, because Vodolazkin wants to open that up to us and succeeds. If you have any acquaintance with the history of the ancient Christian church, that of the fourth and fifth centuries, there are echoes in this of that: the undisciplined and spontaneous eremitical impulse that leads into monasticism. This book in our lifetime has signally enriched the literary heritage of this world.

The Aviator is entirely different and as intriguing. Just figuring out why it has that title takes the whole book, and it is a discovery worth making. The book is hard to describe without giving away the interesting discoveries that compel the reader’s interest. I have yet to read it a second time in order to see what it is like without them. If it is a worthwhile book, however, it will be the richer for having been read once, and so I am looking forward to it. It is about Russia, it is about Russians, it is about what there is in the subterranean Russian that existed long before and emerges after the Communist interlude.

Paul Kingsnorth. An English author, Kingsnorth is the most challenging writer in this list. His ability to do things stylistically is his great strength, which means the reader has to master his stylistic innovations. These are considerable. That he did not get a prize for his first book is a sign that the system for prizing is broken. The Wake is set in England after the Conquest and is written in an approximation of Old English that requires intense effort for a few pages to master (reading aloud, as when learning to hear poetry, is recommended). It is worth it. It is illuminating, in fact, how much Kingsnorth accomplishes. He takes us into the consciousness of an Anglo-Saxon landholder: his bitterness, his failure, his demons, his deep pagan roots. It is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read.

The Beast is the second book, and it is set in our time. One can see the stylistic antecedents from The Wake in this one; it is not, of course, written in a adapted Old English style. It traces the mental deterioration of the subject as he is alone. Yes, another eremitical kind of thing, this time with admiration of St. Cuthbert. It is a shame Kingsnorth’s sympathies are more with the pagan than with the Christian past (in contrast with Vodolazkin), but there is still this lucid comparison at the heart of the novel that is favorable to ancient Irish monasticism. It is also an extraordinary book in communicating the consciousness of a man reduced to a feral state and wrestling with his demons in a compelling way.

I have not read Alexandria yet. It is set in the future. Kingsnorth used to be an environmental activist and is still thoroughly pessimistic: the calamity, he believes, is about to strike any moment. Because he became disillusioned by the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of activism, while at the same time meeting many of the kind of people who still live a hardscrabble life where volatilities in the ecology have greater impact, he expresses a desire for an old pagan connection with nature and its forces. I find it an intriguing impulse, one that I think with the upheavals our machines are causing is likely to increase, rather than diminish.

Susanna Clarke. Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a feat. We live in a world of proliferating genre fiction, much of it trivial or intolerable. But just because we are awash in a sea of mediocrity doesn’t mean that out of it objects strange and rare cannot emerge. In fact, I think in some ways the sea of bad stuff is to be expected and has to be sorted through. If people weren’t trying and failing, there would be nobody trying at all. I don’t think it is realistic in any age to expect the majority of what is attempted to succeed. Susanna Clarke earns her success through long and patient labor, and she does not settle for less.

What prompted this whole outburst from me is that I’m in the middle of her third book. The second was The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is nothing but a collection of short stories continuing the time and place of JS&MN. But in Piranesi she has delivered something different that is still in keeping with her extraordinary abilities. She really wants to write in a remote and oblique way about religious themes, and their absence from our world. I ought not to stick my neck out too far, being where I am in Piranesi, so I’ll say no further at this point. It is looking to be a triumph though.

It makes me glad to live in times when unanticipated joys are still springing forth. This list is not entirely of the last decade, but it is mostly. I think that’s something. And to think my view is no doubt partial!