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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Eugene Vodolazkin

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Laurus

Title: Laurus
Author: Eugene Vodolazkin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 364 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Laurus - US
Laurus - UK
Laurus - Canada
Laurus - India
Les quatre vies d'Arséni - France
Laurus - Deutschland
Lauro - Italia
  • Russian title: Лавр
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Lisa C. Hayden

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd but compelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 8/1/2015 Lucy Popescu
Известия . 1/3/2013 Лиза Новикова
NZZ . 30/4/2016 Ulrich M. Schmid
Российская газета . 26/11/2012 Павел Басинский
TLS . 6/1/2016 Boris Dralyuk

  From the Reviews:
  • "Given such complexity, the fluidity of Lisa Hayden’s English translation is commendable. Though some readers may be deterred by the archaic flourishes and sometimes fable-like narrative, Laurus cannot be faulted for its ambition or for its poignant humanity. It is a profound, sometimes challenging, meditation on faith, love and life’s mysteries." - Lucy Popescu, Financial Times

  • "Умберто Эко пишет детективный роман «из сегодняшнего дня», но временем действия выбирает старинные эпохи. Водолазкин, напротив, выбирает старинный жанр жизнеописания святого и не только добавляет в повествование современные реалии, но и присматривает за своим героем из XXI века." - Лиза Новикова, Известия

  • "Vodolazkins Laurus hebt sich durch sein erzähltechnisches Raffinement von der Masse der historischen Romane ab. Nicht die Handlung steht hier im Vordergrund, sondern die Fragmentierung des menschlichen Lebens, die der Autor exemplarisch an der Biografie seines Helden vorführt. (...) Vodolazkins Leistung besteht darin, die immer drohende Zersplitterung von Arsenis Persönlichkeit in einem hagiografischen Sinnentwurf aufzuheben. (...) (E)in exzeptioneller Roman, der mittelalterliche und postmoderne Schreibweisen zu einem anrührenden Kunstwerk fügt." - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Пересказывать роман бесполезно. (...) Этот роман нельзя прочитать быстро, он требует медленного чтения. Порой детали здесь куда важнее развития сюжета, но еще важнее -- точная настройка зрения, не побоюсь этого, духовная настройка. (...) При этом язык романа нередко ошеломляет. (...) Это очень многослойный, но и очень живой роман." - Павел Басинский, Российская газета

  • "(A) nest of contradictions: a postmodern hagiography, at once stylistically ornate and compulsively readable, immersing the reader in meticulously detailed medieval Russian, Western European and Middle Eastern settings while consistently undermining them with contemporary insertions, as well as explicit assertions that historical time is inconsequential. (...) Many readers are likely to find the book enchanting, if not palliative." - Boris Dralyuk, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Laurus is set in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century and is basically the birth-to-death story of its protagonist. A short introductory 'Prolegomenon' already summarizes it -- but, as the opening line noting: "He had four names at various times" suggests, there's more to it all.
       Arseny was born in 1440, and he came to live with his grandfather, Christofer, when the plague came to the quarter where he lived with his parents, the disease quickly killing them off. A healer, Christofer passed on his medical and other knowledge to Arseny, a bright child who quickly picked things up. When Christofer died Arseny continued treating patients, showing a sure touch and feel for what ailed people and whether they could be cured -- and, if so, helping however he could.
       A young woman, Utsina, appeared in his life -- fleeing from yet another plague-site. He took her in when no one else would, and they became a couple (though he tried not to reveal her presence in the house to outsiders, and although they didn't officially get married). She got pregnant -- but happy family life was not meant to be, leaving Arseny alone again. The loss of Utsina marks him for life: "I have an eternal love and eternal wife" he explains, even many years later, and Utsina remains a very real -- if not physical -- presence in his life.
       Arseny left his hometown and on his travels revealed his healing-prowess, as he repeatedly came to places being ravaged by the plague and plunged right in, doing good. As happens repeatedly in his life, his reputation quickly spreads and people flock to him. Along the way he also found understanding benefactors, whether local grandees or nuns at a convent, who put up with his sometimes odd ways.
       Arseny is taken for a 'holy fool' at times, but his diagnostic and healing touch is undeniable, as is his fundamental goodness -- a willingness to try to help wherever he can, even if that brings harm to him. He also has close calls under other circumstances, including on a journey to Jerusalem, which ends in yet another trauma that marks him for the remainder of his life. Arseny settles down for a while in a monastery, but eventually decides to find his place alone and elsewhere. Even in what should be complete isolation he can not escape those seeking his help, and he also takes in and cares for yet another young woman who can not remain at home.
       Much of Arseny's life is relatively uneventful. He has a remarkable gift for understanding what ails people, recognizing it instantly and advising them accordingly (even unbidden). He is a great healer but he isn't entirely a miracle-worker; some ailments are beyond him. His self-sacrifice is impressive but also -- like much in the novel -- a sort of monotone: while the action sometimes takes unexpected turns, Arseny's actions and reactions remain predictably true to him, varying only to the extent of how self-absorbedly-contemplative he is, as there are numerous times he withdraws almost entirely into himself.
       There's a pervasive sense of fatalism here: Arseny's diagnoses are quick, even abrupt, and if there's no hope then there is no hope. Death is omnipresent, especially with the plague repeatedly striking, but even aside from disease fatal accidents and violent deaths are near-everyday occurrences.
       Arseny isn't a man of many words, but words do mean a great deal to him. He picks up reading quickly, and one of the things he does with Ustina as well as the final girl who becomes part of his life is teach them to read and write. His grandfather's books are important to him, and he seeks out others that provide more knowledge. Later in life, he spends time as a transcriptionist in the monastery.
       Language matters in the novel, too, which frequently reverts to an older style and at times shifts over entirely in quoting from writing of that time. Much of the novel, both in language and story, has the feel of droning incantation -- and yet it never really bogs down in that. Even as Arseny's mundane and often repetitious actions are described, there is something compelling to it. Vodolazkin also remains anything but predictable, with occasional scenes from the future, including the twentieth century, suddenly cropping up, an effective disarming technique that also, somehow, seems fitting
       Steeped in religion, Arseny is a character who is almost too good to believe, and his supernatural diagnostic and healing powers too simplistic. Yet for all that Laurus is a gripping, weirdly fascinating read -- very Russian, perhaps, in its fundamental outlooks and presentation, and certainly very carefully and well crafted (so also in Lisa Hayden's English rendering).

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 October 2015

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Laurus: Reviews: Eugene Vodolazkin: Other books by Eugene Vodolazkin under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia

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About the Author:

       Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin (Евгений Водолазкин; Evguéni Vodolazkine, Evgenij Vodolazkin) was born in 1964.

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© 2015-2022 the complete review

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