Eugene Vodolazkin and his ‘non-historical’ novel

Against the usual backdrop of rush-hour traffic along Bloomsbury Way, Pushkin House played host earlier this month to the launch of the English-language edition of Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus. With an audience made up primarily of Russians, however, the discussion showed a certain linguistic flexibility, with both author and interviewer – Dr Josephine von Zitzewitz of Cambridge University – switching acrobatically between Russian and English, ably assisted by Alexei Stephenson, the evening’s interpreter.

Vodolazkin is by day a scholar of medieval manuscripts in the Department of Old Russian Literature at Pushkin House (the venue’s academic namesake in St Petersburg); and his love of – and profound expertise in – medieval literature truly shone though. Fresh from a talk the previous evening at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where the topic under discussion was “Contemporary Russian Literature through the Eyes of a Mediaevalist”, Vodolazkin now had the chance to reflect personally on how these literatures combine in his own work.

Laurus, which has already been translated into more than twenty languages worldwide, was Russia’s literary sensation of 2013, scooping both the Big Book and the Yasnaya Polyana awards. This, Vodolazkin’s second novel (though his debut in English), captures religious fervour in fifteenth-century Russia, tracking the life of a healer and holy fool in a postmodern synthesis of Bildungsroman, travelogue, hagiography and love story. “To quote Lermontov,” he said, “it is ‘the history of a man’s soul’.” However, when von Zitzewitz touched on the significance of the work’s subtitle (“a non-historical novel”), Vodolazkin was quick to dissociate himself from historical fiction. His is ultimately “a book about absence,” he said, “a book about modernity”. “There are two ways to write about modernity: the first is by writing about the things we have; the second, by writing about those things we no longer have.”

While Vodolazkin may resist the label of historical novelist, he soon enough gave the audience to realize that time, nonetheless, is a crucial factor in his thinking – both as an artist and as a scholar. He spoke engagingly of the medieval obsession with time and its reckoning, giving a fascinating account of the calculations that led to a widespread belief that the world would end in 1492 (or 7000 Anno Mundi). Even later, he told us, in 1700 (after God had “postponed” the apocalypse), there was an uprising of Old Believers when Peter the Great proclaimed a new calendar that was at odds with their counting: they consequently dubbed him the Antichrist for having introduced an eight-year void in which no one had lived.

When asked about the language of the period and the challenges it brought to Laurus, Vodolazkin wryly admitted that having worked for more than thirty years on Old Russian manuscripts, he was probably better read in medieval literature than modern. “Without any false modesty, I think I can say I’d make a decent Old Russian writer”, he quipped, with an undertone of absolute seriousness. He went on to describe how, after some encouragement from his wife, he first tried his hand at writing in the idiom of the period. He quoted from memory – first in Old Russian, then giving a modern translation – several sources that inspired his work, and it was touchingly apparent that these vitae, these “lives” of the saints, are indeed still very much alive to him.

Questions followed; when the inevitable one arose, about what the public could expect from this author in future, he gave us a hint: a new novel called The Aviator. “All I need is another two or three weeks to finish it off”, he said. “The difficulty is finding the time.”

By BRYAN KARETNYK The Times Literary Supplement