I am only recently making forays into Russian Literature. For a would-be novelist, this is rather embarrassing—like an aspiring chef finding himself unable to pull off grilled cheese.
Unlike that grilled cheese, though (to undo this clunky metaphor) Russian fiction can be long, dense, and difficult to master—especially for the 7,040,000,000 of us who don’t understand Russian. Literature and language are so intertwined that even the best of translations have difficulty capturing the true measure of a story.
Even so, with all the best “self-improvement” motivations in gear, I picked up Crime and Punishment last year. It was beautiful, comprehensible, engaging, moving, and instructive. Dostoevsky proved less to be an impediment to my literary coming of age than a gateway drug.
What the Russian people have to offer the world of ideas and story (such despair, such hope!) was brought home to me, not in one of the canonical tomes, but in a practically brand new work*: Laurus—a novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, an expert in medieval Russian history and folklore at Pushkin House (the Institute of Russian Literature) in St. Petersburg.
The story seems to flow out of Vodolazkin’s work, effectively illuminating the experience of the 15th century with a modern idiom. His language is as intentional as it is playful, swinging effortlessly from archaic spellings through straight narration to silly modern slang. This fits the journey of Arseny (whose name changes three times with the phases of his life, finally arriving at Laurus) from cradle to grave, which moves along by leaping back and forth through time (of which more below).
Despite exploring sin and pain deeply (for how else can we see glory aright?), this is a tasteful work. A few scenes pull no punches in describing medieval filth and horror, but they feel necessary. Overall, Vodolazkin relies on the power of the story to jolt readers, rather than foul language and overindulgence in the grotesque.
What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for “color”, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.
A few early scenes hint at the spiritual flavor of the whole. His parents having died of the plague, Arseny learns the ways of the world from Christofer, his grandfather. Christofer is an herbalist (essentially a doctor for that era), and he passes his trade to his grandson.
“Christofer did not exactly believe in herbs, more likely he believed God’s help would come, through any herb, for a specific matter. Just as that help comes through people. Both are but instruments. He did not ponder why each of the herbs he knew was associated with strictly defined qualities; he considered that question frivolous. Christofer understood Who had established that association, and that was all he needed to know.”
“Along the way home, they always gathered pods from the herb known as river crossing, which repelled snakes.
Put a seed in your mouth and water will part, Christofer once said.
It will part? asked Arseny, serious.
With prayer it will part. Christofer began to feel awkward. Everything is about prayer after all.
Well, then why do you need that seed? The boy lifted his head and saw Christofer was smiling.”
The way time moves (or doesn’t) in Laurus is reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five, with Arseny “unstuck” in time. Whereas Vonnegut’s clock-play evokes an underlying banality to life, what Vodolazkin achieves is more akin to prophecy—unfolding reality with a rising spiral of metaphysics.
Events and themes seem to reverberate through the book and beyond. What occurs is never in isolation from everything else in the story, but reaches across time and space to give significance to what comes before and after. Like biblical prophecies, which so often have immediate, intermediate, and ultimate fulfillments as they ripple out from their proclamation, the phases of Arseny’s story rhyme, often with repeated phrases and mirrored scenes. For example, early in the book, Arseny sees his older self staring back at him through a fire; the same few paragraphs are retold from the perspective of the old man some 200 pages later, as they behold one another and weep together.
The one constant in time within the story is writing. Characters are constantly quoting Scripture, things of importance are always written down, and Arseny reads and re-reads a few key texts and the manuscripts his grandfather had scribbled into pieces of birch bark.
“For Christofer, the written word seemed to regulate the world. Stop its fluctuations. Prevent notions from eroding. This is why Cristofer’s sphere of interest was so broad. According to the writer’s thinking, that sphere should correspond to the world’s breadth…Cristofer understood that the written word would always remain that way. No matter what happened later, once it had been written, the word had already occurred.”
The story contains such a wealth of themes that this brief discussion can only scratch the surface. I am not offering a plot summary, because to do so would, I think detract from the experience of reading. Like all truly great books, its value is so much more than the plot (“spoilers” would make it no less worth your time), but it is better taken in stride than explained.
This tips my hand, of course. It is easy to be overcome by the joy of a freshly discovered work of art, but I would be shocked if Laurus is not still around on shelves and in literature classes generations from now. Finding this book has done much to encourage me in the good work of pursuing the holy imagination needed to speak to men’s souls with the sharp truth of love.
And there is a broad hunger for this. The sudden and enthusaistic popularity of Vodolazkin’s work seems to have surprised him more than anyone. In one interview, he said that, after finishing the book, he told his wife that he would read it and she would read it and no one else would read it. That was in 2012, before Laurus struck a nerve in Russia and became a best-seller, going on to win that country’s equivalent of the National Book Award.
Thanks to the stellar translation of Lisa C. Hayden, it came to print in English in October 2015. Her feel for the nuance of Vodolazkin’s phrasing makes the reading smooth where it should be smooth and striking where it should be striking (and he speaks and reads English well enough to strongly praise her rendering of his work). I dare say this may become a standard introduction to Russian lit in years to come.
Laurus is a serious work which is nevertheless extremely delightful. This is wholly different from being entertaining. The joys found here come not from exhilarating motion (though there are segments of adventure), but from the savor of fulfillment: complementary scenes, piercingly accurate phrases, redeemed longings, deftly chosen character names. Laurus is self-contained, intact, and deeply satisfying.
Image: Old Salem Bricks, Forsyth County, N.C., December 2015.