The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov

September 27, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. 1965/1966. French title: Eveils (translated from the Russian by Elena Balzamo)

François dévisagea son ami avec compassion. Il l’examinait comme s’il le voyait pour la première fois : ce visage ordinaire, ces yeux tristes, ces mains très blanches, très propres, aux ongles coupés court, cet air de propreté que dégageait tout son être. Pierre donnait toujours l’impression d’avoir tout juste pris un bain, de s’être fraichement rasé, de sortir tout droit de chez le coiffeur, d’avoir mis un costume qu’on venait de repasser. A part ça, il n’avait rien, même pas un métier, qui le distinguerait de milliers d’autres individus et qui rendrait son existence moins banale que la leur. Ce sont ces êtres-là que sociologues et journalistes appellent le « Français moyen ». François looked at his friend with compassion. He examined him as if he saw him for the first time: his plain face, his sad eyes, his very white and very clean hands with his nails cut short, this impression of cleanliness that oozed from him. Pierre always seemed to have just taken a bath, just shaved, just come out of the hairdresser, just put on a freshly ironed suit. Otherwise, he had nothing, not even a job, that could single him out of thousands of other individuals and that would make his life less ordinary than theirs. These people are the ones that journalists and sociologists called the “Average French” (my translation)

You’ll make up your mind about Pierre while you read this billet but to me Pierre is not the average Frenchman.

Gazdanov_EveilsEveils opens with Pierre leaving Paris to visit his friend François in Provence for the holidays. Pierre’s mother just died, he feels lonely but almost regrets accepting François’s invitation. François has an old house in the country and when Pierre arrives there, he stumbles upon Marie. François found her unconscious on the road in Provence in 1940 during the Exode. She suffers from amnesia and has become like a wild animal. François lets her live in a cabin near his house and feeds her. She’d been there for six years when Pierre sees her. Something in her tugs at Pierre’s heart and he decides to bring her home with him, in Paris. There he starts a slow process of giving Marie her humanity back. Will her condition improve? Will she learn again how to behave in society? Will she remember who she is and where she comes from?

It is hard to write about Eveils without spoilers. The French title is a give-away, Eveils is plural, contrary to The Awakening. Pierre and Marie are awakening together. Pierre had a quiet childhood with ill-matched parents. His father wasn’t good at keeping a job and tended to waste money on gambling. When he discovered he wouldn’t get the heritage he was expecting, he let himself die, all hopes of a better life extinguished. Pierre decided to take care of his mother and found a job as an accountant. Working for his mother’s well-being was Pierre’s only purpose in life. After she died, he’s disoriented and his life makes no sense anymore. In Pierre’s mind, his place on Earth is to nurture someone. So when he sees the filthy Marie in her stinky cabin in Provence, he cannot turn a blind eye and let her be while thinking he could take care of her.

Eveils relates Marie’s progress, her re-awakening to the world but also Pierre’s awakening through her. She’s not a pet project. While helping her with infinite patience, Pierre opens himself to others, finds a reason to live and builds them a nest. His apartment becomes a home.

Eveils is a beautiful novella for its sensitivity and its subtlety. It’s quiet. Pierre is a quiet person but he’s also dependable, caring, loving. He’s someone you want to be friend with because he’s the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t let you down. He’s an honest and lucid guy. He questions his motives, analyses his relationship with Marie and knows how to put her interest first. He wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t have a hero complex. He’s being Human and that’s the toughest goal to achieve.

So if I refer to the quote before, no, Pierre isn’t the average Frenchman. Who would take on the responsibility of a woman who doesn’t talk, forgot how to take a shower, go to the toilets, eat with cutlery? Who would be that selfless?

In addition to Pierre and Marie’s story, Gazdanov puts the spotlight on ordinary people who are extraordinary for the people around them. Sure they’ll remain anonymous, like most of us but they still make a difference in their friends and families lives. Eveils and The Golden Gate have this in common: they picture our ordinary frailty and put forward the place we have in this world. These books are moving; they don’t display grand passions and dramatic scenes. They ring true because they don’t have big declarations, soul-searching conversations and spectacular epiphanies. Honestly, while they’re great plot devices, do we often have these in real life? Eveils and The Golden Gate convey deep feelings through small gestures and show the unsaid.

Eveils is great material for a French film, I insist on the French before film. This novella reminded me of the atmosphere you find in French films exploring off-the-mark relationships, like Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Not much is said but a lot of the characters’ thoughts are visible through their actions. I would love to see it with Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie and Grégoire Colin as Pierre.

The only slight thing that bothered me about The Awakening is Pierre’s clichéd job. Why do writers make characters be either civil servant or accountants when they want a character with a boring job? Trust me from experience, accountants, controllers, CPAs and CFOs can be quite feisty.

Anyway. The Awakening was our Book Club choice for September and apart from my earlier little complain, it was a great pick. In France, it’s published by Viviane Hamy, an excellent publisher. They have Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Fred Vargas on their catalogue. I couldn’t find trace of English copies of The Awakening. Please leave a comment if you found its English translation. If you’re interested in Gazdanov, you might want to read Guy’s reviews of An Evening With Claire or The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.

  1. September 28, 2014 at 1:47 am

    NO I haven’t been able to find a copy of this in English which is very disappointing. But perhaps some publisher, let’s say Pushkin Press will take mercy on us and publish it in English. They have published The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, and The Buddha’s return is due to be released next year.

    Like

    • September 28, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      I owe you another one: I bought this after reading your review of An Evening With Claire. I hope Pushkin Press will publish this one too.

      I’d like to read a book about the Russian émigrés in France in the 1920s/1930s.

      Like

      • September 29, 2014 at 12:03 am

        I’d recommend The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.

        Like

        • October 2, 2014 at 8:57 pm

          Thanks. I’ll put it in the TBR

          Like

  2. September 28, 2014 at 9:37 am

    I love the sound of this one, Emma, especially given its focus on ordinary people who make a remarkable difference to the lives of others. When I think of the books I’ve read this year, the quiet, subtle ones are up there with my favourites. Like Guy, I’m hoping this gets picked up and published in English. Loved The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, and I have The Buddha’s Return to look forward to.

    Your book group sounds amazing, fab selection of books!

    Like

    • September 28, 2014 at 8:33 pm

      Another Gazdanov fan, I need to read other books by him. (I’m still on a book bying ban, so it will have to wait)

      I think we have a nice selection of books for our Book Club. If you want to know about it, click on the Book Club picture on the right of the screen. It will lead you to the 2014/2015 list. You’re welcome to join us online, read one or several along with us and post a review. I’ll link it to mine. The more the merrier!

      Like

      • September 29, 2014 at 9:18 am

        Thanks, I’ll take a look at your schedule. You’ve already covered this one, but I definitely want to read the Marias and have a copy on the shelf.

        Like

        • October 2, 2014 at 9:00 pm

          Join us whenever you want for one, two, three or more books. I’ll be glad to hear your thoughts about the book we’re reading.

          Like

          • October 3, 2014 at 1:46 pm

            Count me in for The Good Soldier as I actually have a copy in my unread books mountain. It’s December, right? Is there a particular deadline for reading the book?

            Like

            • October 4, 2014 at 6:58 am

              Yes, The Good Soldier will be in December. There’s no special rule except that if you could publish your review by the end of December / early January, that would be great.
              I’m looking forward to this book, I expect it to be excellent.

              Like

              • October 4, 2014 at 10:17 am

                Great. I’ll aim for mid/late December, looking forward to it. Like you, I’m expecting it to be a terrific book.

                Like

              • October 4, 2014 at 10:04 pm

                Fantastic.

                Like

  3. September 28, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    My local library only has books by this writer in Russian. Too bad, it sounds really good and I’ll have to see whether I can get it somewhere else. Thanks for bringing our attention to this one!

    Like

  4. September 28, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    lets hope it comes out in english ,hope pushkin do it at some point ,all the best stu

    Like

    • September 28, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      I hope so too, Stu. They might since they have published a book by him.

      Like

  5. October 2, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    It does sound rather good this one. I think I’d like it. I’ve got Chemins Nocturnes, which sounds very different.
    I agree about the French nefore the film— that tells me exactly what you mean (I love Nelly et Mr Arnaud btw).
    They could have translated it literally, Awakenings. I wonder why they didn’t.

    Like

    • October 2, 2014 at 9:01 pm

      I think you’d like it, Caroline.
      Perhaps the title in Russian in singular and the French translator changed it into a plural.

      Like

  1. December 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm

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