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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

Gaito Gazdanov

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To purchase The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

Title: The Spectre of Alexander Wolf
Author: Gaito Gazdanov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1948 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Spectre of Alexander Wolf - US
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf - UK
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf - Canada
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf - India
Le spectre d'Alexandre Wolf - France
Das Phantom des Alexander Wolf - Deutschland
Il fantasma di Alexander Wolf - Italia
  • Russian title: Призрак Александра Вольфа
  • Originally published in serial form in 1947-8
  • Translated by Bryan Karetnyk
  • Previously translated under the same title by Nicholas Wreden (1950)

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing tale of fate and émigré life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 24/8/2012 Tilman Spreckelsen
The Guardian . 18/6/2013 Nicholas Lezard
Independent on Sunday . 23/6/2013 Ivan Juritz
NZZ A- 9/10/2012 Andreas Breitenstein
The Times . 22/6/2013 George Szirtes
TLS . 9/8/2013 Lesley Chamberlain
Die Zeit A 4/10/2012 Iris Radisch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dass und wie sich jeder seine Erinnerungen formt, ist das Thema dieses Romans. Damit ist Gasdanow nicht allein, schon gar nicht unter seinen Zeitgenossen. Aber man hat selten so elegant, so tief und trotz allem so tröstlich davon gelesen wie bei ihm." - Tilman Spreckelsen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "What I can tell you is that this is a work of great potency, even though it's rather short, verging on novella length. (...) (I)t punches very much above its weight, and I have a hunch that what's in it will stay with you for the rest of your life." - Nicholas Lezard. The Guardian

  • "(T)he novel makes a sudden leap of genre, from gothic mystery to meditative memoir. (...) Spectre was one of two novels in which Gazdanov used a thrillerish plot to make his digressive, lyrical writing more dynamic. He spends much time questioning how writing reveals authorial character" - Ivan Juritz, Independent on Sunday

  • "Mit stupendem Sinn für Atmosphären vermag der Autor die traum- und geschichtsverlorene, erotisch aufgeladene und melancholisch abgesackte Stimmung der Pariser Emigrantenszene zu fassen. (...) Lange vermag Gaito Gasdanow das melancholische Spiel in der Schwebe zu halten, doch läuft das Ballett der lädierten Seelen gegen Ende aus dem Ruder, auch was die Plausibilität der Handlung betrifft. Nichtsdestoweniger ist hier ein Star der Exilliteratur wiedergeboren" - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The characters in Spectre are Simenon-like, as if drawn from newspapers, and yet burdened with existential dilemmas that give the story pace. (...) The narrator relates his tale in gorgeously cadenced long sentences more like those of Proust than Simenon, or Dostoevsky for that matter. Gazdanov owes a debt from the grave to his translator Bryan Karetnyk, who only occasionally takes literary correctness too far" - Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Seit Langem hat man keinen so menschlich feinen und anrührenden Roman über die große seelische Eiszeit des 20. Jahrhunderts gelesen." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

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:

       The Spectre of Alexander Wolf immediately draws readers in with its opening sentence and confession:

     Of all my memories, of all my lifeís innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.
       It happened a lifetime ago -- the narrator was sixteen at the time, and almost as many years have passed since then -- and far away, in a revolutionary Russia still in great turmoil. He tells his tale as an émigré in Paris, a journalist who thinks maybe he'll write a novel someday. His deed, described in detail early on, has always haunted him (having left, he suspects, "an unconscious mark on everything I was destined to learn and see thereafter") -- but when he comes across a book of stories, Iíll Come Tomorrow, written in English by an Alexander Wolf, his world is shaken anew: one of the stories describes the confrontation and the killing so precisely that only his victim could have written it. Was his victim this Alexander Wolf ? Did the man he left for dead survive ? And if so, what does this mean for him and the life he's led ?
       The narrator tries to get in touch with Wolf, but isn't initially able to do so. And he has a hard time reconciling the Sasha Wolf he hears about -- adventurer, drunkard, philanderer, seducer -- with the clearly cultivated author of the book he read.
       The Spectre of Alexander Wolf isn't just about the narrator's search for answers about his past, describing his present-day life, too. He meets a woman, for one -- also from the old country. Yelena Nikolayevna isn't exactly a woman of mystery, but the uneasy, passionate relationship that develops also long includes some unanswered questions about her past.
       Significantly, the narrator meets Yelena when he covers a boxing match for his newspaper, a bout described in close detail as two very different fighting-approaches lead to a then inevitable outcome. His own life is, in some respects, like such a boxing match, round after round that he staggers through, weighed down by that early, terrible experience of having killed.
       Indeed, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is very much a book about fate. The narrator's victim seems to have cheated fate -- or has he ? The question of fate and its consequences is one that some of the characters repeatedly raise, in various forms. As is suggested to the narrator:
I think you have to believe in fate. Thus youíll also believe, with that same classic naivety, that youíve been its pawn. Then everything falls into place: chance, the shot, your sixteen years of age, your youthful aim
       Everything does fall into place in the novel too, in a not entirely surprising but still quite nicely turned finish.
       Deeply but not too overwhelmingly philosophical, pre-occupied with mortality ("The constant threat of death in all its endless diversity hangs over every man, every life"), The Spectre of Alexander Wolf offers a nice spin on intertwined fates and how others affect our lives. With a solid romantic story to go along with scenes of émigré life and some tangential stories that reïnforce the main thrust of the narrative it's a nicely constructed and written piece of work, and a fine read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 September 2013

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The Spectre of Alexander Wolf: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Gaito Gazdanov (Гайто Газданов) lived 1903 to 1971.

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© 2013 the complete review

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