The Beggar and Other Stories

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 15 Jun 2018

Member Reviews

Gaito Gazdanov is an excellent author, and these shorts, published for the first time in English, are exceptional. I had not been introduced to this author before - I will have to find his novels.  I love the way he brings his story to light, and the mental gyrations delved in his protagonists.   

I received a free electronic copy of this collection of short stories from Netgalley, Gaito Gazdanov and Brian Karetnyk, and Pushkin Press in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.
Was this review helpful?
A breathtaking, lyrical collection, which continually surprised and unnerved me.  I adore Pushkin for bringing titles like this to my attention, which would have slipped under my radar otherwise.
Was this review helpful?
I've been interested in Russian literature for years, so whenever I get a chance to try a new writer, I jump on it. Sometimes, it's love at first read, sometimes it doesn't work out. Unfortunately, in this case it's the latter.
Now, don't get me wrong, Gazdanov's writing is great, it's entirely personal here. I just didn't get into the stories and they just did nothing for me and I didn't feel compelled to keep reading. I'm sure it will work for others, I'm just not overly keen on character-centered stories.
Was this review helpful?
Un auteur russe, exilé en France et dont je n'avais jamais entendu parler. J'étais évidemment intéressée. Et la couverture est superbe (même si je n'arrive pas à l'afficher). Il s'agit ici du premier recueil en anglais de ses nouvelles. Si plus de la moitié des romans de l'auteur sont disponibles en anglais, les nouvelles ont été largement négligées. En revanche, l'auteur est largement publié en Russie et en France. Le recueil combine des nouvelles plus anciennes écrites dans les années 30, et les plus récentes datant des années 60 (l'auteur est décédé en 1971). Le traducteur avertit le lecteur dès le début du style « kaléidoscopique » des nouvelles, ce qui avait d'ailleurs valu à l'auteur d'être boudé par les émigrés russes. J'ai eu moi-même beaucoup de mal avec ces nouvelles un peu trop « expérimentales ».

Maître Rueil parle d'un agent français de la Sûreté générale qui part à Constantinople, en préambule à une mission en Crimée. Sur le bateau où il embarque à Marseille, il rencontre des personnages insolites. Il n'arrive pas à dormir, se sent malade et alors qu'il délire, plusieurs passagers lui rendent visite dans sa cabine. Vision ou réalité ? On ne sait pas vraiment. Il passe deux jours à Constantinople où il fait des mauvais rêves, angoisse et se méfie de tout. Il part ensuite à Sébastopol, puis à Moscou où il doit rencontrer un jeune homme. Involontairement, il s'acquitte de sa mission.

C'est cette nouvelle qui m'a donné le plus de mal. Ces crises d'angoisse et ces délires que l'on ne comprend pas bien me donnent toujours l'impression de manquer quelque chose ou que l'auteur choisit la solution de facilité.

Dans Happiness, André vit avec son père. La mère d'André, toute jeune et chétive, n'a pas survécu à l'accouchement. Son père se remarie quand André a 14 ans. André a du mal à accepter sa belle-mère. Il hésite pourtant à dire à son père que sa nouvelle épouse le trompe. Celui-ci ne le croit d'ailleurs pas car il veut voir le bien dans tout. Le père tombe gravement malade, devient aveugle et sa perception change. Il évite alors son fils car il ne peut plus contrer les arguments pessimistes de celui-ci.

Cette nouvelle m'a plu même si je n'ai pas trop compris où l'auteur voulait en venir.

Deliverance : Alexei Semyonov est ingénieur, très riche et souffre tout le temps. Il se force tous les jours à faire une promenade car le docteur le lui a recommandé. Il n'est pas malade mais ses organes ne fonctionnent pas de manière suffisante. Il entretient un ancien camarade, devenu alcoolique, et sa femme. Il se prend d'affectation pour Anatoly, le fils de ce couple, qui devient son secrétaire à la fin de ses études. Quand Anatoly reçoit une invitation pour se rendre pendant trois semaines en Angleterre, il se trouve un remplaçant qu'il paie lui-même.

Encore des personnages un peu spéciaux dans cette nouvelle qui est en fait l'une de mes deux nouvelles préférées du recueil. Même si leur conception de la vie n'est pas franchement la mienne.

The Mistake : Lassée de son mari et de son infaillibilité, une femme mariée a une liaison avec un jeune homme. Un jour, celui-ci ne vient pas à leur rendez-vous.

J'ai trouvé que c'était la nouvelle la plus « légère » du recueil, en tout cas la plus abordable selon moi.

The Beggar : Un homme d'affaires très riche disparaît un jour, abandonnant ses responsabilités et cette vie qu'il n'a pas choisie et qui l'étouffe.

Autre nouvelle que j'ai beaucoup aimée, en particulier pour la description de Paris et les commentaires sur le Boléro de Ravel (même si je ne suis pas toujours d'accord). (J'ai trouvé bizarre que le traducteur n'ait pas gardé Champs-Élysées en anglais. Mais il se trouve qu'en russe, ce nom est traduit : Елисейские Поля. Une recherche sur Champs-Élysées dans Wikipedia en russe renvoie à la chanson de Joe Dassin.)

Ivanov's Letters : Nikolai Franzevich se comporte comme s'il vivait toujours dans la Russie impériale, même s'il a des occupations et des préoccupations de son temps. Il habite un bel appartement rive droite où il reçoit parfois quelques amis pour un repas fin. Au cours d'une de ces soirées, il leur raconte sa vie passée à Saint-Pétersbourg. Ses histoires même si elles semblent véridiques sèment le doute dans l'esprit d'un de ses amis qui en discute avec le narrateur. Quelques années plus tard, après une absence de plusieurs années de Paris, le narrateur apprend la mort de Nikolai. Quelques jours après l'enterrement, la servante italienne de Nikolai appelle le narrateur pour qu'il fasse le tri dans les papiers du défunt.

Encore une nouvelle avec un personnage central un peu décalé qui m'a fait penser à Gatsby. Et c'est la deuxième que j'ai préférée.

Hormis quelques passages et réactions qui m'ont semblé obscurs et difficiles, j'ai dans l'ensemble apprécié ce recueil. Je lirai peut-être l'un des romans de l'auteur.

P.S. J'ai quand même été un peu déçue par les fautes de français des personnages dont c'est la langue.

Traduction : Bryan Karetnyk
Was this review helpful?
Publications from Pushkin Press are always worth a look. This first few stories in this collection of six, set in Russia and French exile, are interesting enough, a little reminiscent of Nabokov but without his playfulness.  However, the final two stories, The Beggar and Ivanov’s Letters, written towards the end of Gazdanov’s life, are really excellent, compact explorations of lives, meaningfulness and the process of writing, and living, stories.  I hope Pushkin Press keeps publishing his work.
Was this review helpful?
I have always loved reading Russian authors for their ability to delve deep into the psyche of life. I had never heard of Gaito Gazdanov before I got “The Beggar and Other Stories” from NetGalley and Pushkin Press (one of my favourite publishers now). Thank you for sending me the ARC for a review.

“The Beggar and Other Stories” is a collection of six vivid stories, each featuring one prominent character. The book opens with the story of “Maitre Rueil” in which the titular character is a spy. In the beginning, it appears like he has everything a man could ask for – prestige, women, and adventure. But then one day, suddenly and inexplicably, he is seized with “a sensation hitherto unknown to him, one of incomprehensible irritation and utterly inexplicable alarm. No one was there to see him off…” From there, we see the melancholic descent of a seemingly perfect man into one haunted by his past.

“Happiness” explores the touching bond between Dorin and his son Andre, which is disturbed when a stepmother, Madeleine, comes into the picture. The template might be old but Gazdanov’s treatment of it is certainly different. 

In “Deliverance” Alexei Stepanovich comes into a lot of money but feels that his “omnipotent wealth” is just senseless and he “realized all the unbreakable horror of his life.”

“The Mistake” has overtones of Anna Karenina and features Katja, a bored housewife married to a kind man. But his “infallibility began to unnerve her sometimes – as if he were not a man, but a perfect, thinking machine.” Katja is tormented by an affair that she has with a younger man, and we see how her personality undergoes a sea change making her an insufferable person.

“The Beggar” is the glittering star in the collection. We meet Gustave Verdier, once a wealthy man, now a beggar who lives in a crate in Paris, in Champs Elysee. This ironically translates to Elysium Fields, the place where you find perfect happiness according to Greek mythology. Verdier is disillusioned with life and his wealth, and he decides to make himself disappear from his perfectly normal life, and live like a beggar.

Lastly, there is “Ivanov’s Letters”, where we meet Nikolai Franzevich who “seemingly” is a man of letters, cultured, and wealthy. He had few friends and they too don’t seem to know much about him.  But the mystery begins to unravel and we are prompted to think about his very existence.

Clearly, the biggest theme that runs through all the stories is disillusionment with life. A numbing that overtakes the characters rendering them heavily lugubrious and spiritless. The motif of blindness (Dorin goes blind, Verdier listens to a blind boy play the accordion) is peppered throughout to, perhaps, reinforce the characters’ closing their eyes to life. 

My personal favourites are “The Mistake” and “The Beggar”, the former for its Tolstoy-esque feel and the latter because there were long passages that just stood out like stars on a dark night. 
“He was free now – because nobody needed him; he had no belongings, no money, no ability to influence anything anywhere, no ability to help or harm anyone in any way, in a word, nothing…”

How can you resist passages like this? 

Although Gazdanov’s exploration of the human mind and life is not as incisive or destructive or shot through with passion like that of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky it certainly gives us a look at modern life. Where the earlier Russian masters focused on intense emotions and feelings, most of Gazdanov’s characters are anaesthetized. This pervasive dullness is what infuses most of the stories with reality, holding up a mirror to modern life. 

“…the majority of people feel constrained by those conditions that determine their existence. Their soul, their intellect demand something else, as though each of them needs to live several lives, and not just one.”

Bryan Karetnyk's brilliant and seamless translation of Gazdanov’s stories preserves their soul. Unlike the people in his stories who have lost theirs.
Was this review helpful?
This collection of six stories, elegantly rendered by Brian Karetnyk, introduces Western audiences to the work of emigre Russian writer Gaito Gazdanov. This collection features a wealth of genres and styles stretching nearly thirty years. In the opening story "Maitre Rueil," the protagonist ruminates on a life of migrant living and espionage en route to Moscow from Paris. What begins as merely thoughtful quickly turns into paranoia as Rueil is harassed by specters he has wronged from the past: a midnight encounter on a ferry with a boxer recalls Nabokov's "The Passenger." In his contemplative "Happiness," Gazdanov channels the contemplative mortality of the Tolstoy of "Ivan Ilyich;" in "The Mistake," a woman's adulterous liaison invokes "Anna Karenina." Gazdanov's most powerful moral statement comes in "The Beggar," about a wealthy aristocrat who gives up his money and chooses to live destitute on the streets of Paris, unable to rally himself from a tragedy that had taken places years before.

Gazdanov's style is not as elegant as Bunin, Paternak, or Nabokov, but the breadth of his experience certainly class him with the superior emigre writers.
Was this review helpful?
Bourgeois ennui doesn't win me over anymore. While Gazdanov can certainly spin a beautiful sentence, I read these stories over the course of a week or more and never felt any urgency to return to the book. In response to the very civilised, polished, world-weary tone of this book, I can only muster up a shrug.
Was this review helpful?
'The Mistake' features several candidates for the title incident – although you can have a good guess at which one it is, even through the woolly structure.  It features a woman who doesn't seem to enjoy life and wishes to negate love; even giving everything away in charity doesn't seem to help her misery, which is a theme common to the book.  In 'Deliverance' an entrepreneur by default tries too to give money away, and doesn't end up with friendship or purpose because of it.  It's also something the title character of the whole collection knows to be true.  He's a true nihilist, wanting and enjoying nothing ever in life, but the psychology of the piece does finally manage to tell us why.  You can seek psychology in the woozy opening story in vain, for this early piece has a bit of genre DNA, but a lot of something else, and I didn't find the piece to work.  More successful, mostly from being very different to the rest, is the tale of a morose teenager's relationship with his father, and the man's remarrying.  But equally distinctive is the final work, which I almost gave up on, with its preponderance of long sentences and lack of interest – more fool me had I done so.  This then, with a tidy little introduction, left me with the feel that this wasn't the best selection of his stories available (the charity similarity being the main reason; the fact several are turning up in English for the first time ever one justification for the choices made), but still happy I'd got to try this author at least once.
Was this review helpful?
Émigré Russian writer Gaito Gazdanov is perhaps not as well-known as his contemporaries, such as Nabokov, and this collection of 6 of his stories from Pushkin Press is to be welcomed, as it’s a wonderful introduction to his work for anyone not familiar with it. Over a long writing career he wrote 9 novels and over 50 short stories, and the half dozen presented here span that career, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Gazdanov’s characters are concerned with morality and the meaning of life while themes of loss, suffering, alienation and exile pervade the stories. They don’t make for cheerful reading, but I found all of them compelling and often moving. I particularly liked “Deliverance” in which Alexei Stepanovich becomes a rich man, but finds that his wealth is ultimately inconsequential and meaningless. A thought-provoking, yet always accessible collection, that feel seamlessly translated.
Was this review helpful?