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Life Is Improv while Keeping Time
Reviewing Prize-Winning Novelist Eugene Vodolazkin’s ‘Brisbane’
I first read Eugene Vodolazkin when many Americans did, following a glowing review of his prize-winning novel, Laurus, in the New Yorker. A story set in medieval Russia with an enigmatic healer and holy fool as the protagonist could go wrong in more ways that anyone would bother counting, but I took the bait.
When I heard Vodolazkin’s next novel, The Aviator, was coming, I preordered and eagerly waited its arrival. I devoured the book within days of its appearance, underlining and notating as I went. The book resonates with one pithy or penetrating line after another, and Vodolazkin writes more convincingly about the difficulties of repentance than anyone I know. The Aviator remains a top-five novel for me.
With an American readership assured for the Ukrainian-Russian novelist, an earlier novel, Solovyov and Larionov, then made it into English. I won’t say I was disappointed, but I can’t say it works on the level that The Aviator does. Then again, the book won several awards and has passages every bit as amusing and arresting as his later work.
Knowing that Vodlazkin’s latest, Brisbane, would be the artistic successor to The Aviator, I again preordered and eagerly awaited the book’s arrival.
Brisbane tells the story of Gleb Yanovsky, a famous concert guitarist whose tremolo leaves the building before he does thanks to the onset of Parkinson’s.
Vodolazkin avoids a straightforward narrative. Instead, the book jumps between the almost present and past, premised on the idea that Gleb both keeps a diary and is also the subject of a biographer working to tell his life’s story with more spirit that prior attempts. So the reader experiences Gleb’s life told first person from 2012–2014 diary entries interlaced with a third-person account from childhood to the present by the biographer.
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Like the narrative itself, there’s a two-ness at work throughout the book. Gleb’s father is Ukrainian and his mother Russian. He was born in Ukraine but primarily lives in Germany. He’s a talented musician who spends much of his life avoiding his craft. Gleb’s performances notably feature two voices—his guitar and his accompanying humming. As the narrative progresses, Gleb encounters a piano prodigy with a terminal illness who becomes something of a foster daughter. The pair performs together, Gleb singing as he’s unable to play the guitar. The fates of the musicians mirror each other as they face their own losses.
As he does elsewhere, especially in The Aviator, Vodolazkin plays with the dimensionality and experience of time. Late in the novel after a devastating turn, Gleb and his wife visit a Byzantine chapel. Inside an elderly priest recites his prayers.
“We lose track of time,” Gleb reports in his diary. “We watch Nektary and his candle. He recites his prayers very quietly, and we hear only snatches. Just so he doesn’t stop. We don’t want to leave here because here there’s no time. And outside is the future, which I basically don’t have. Stand by this murmuring for eternity and plunge into its peace. Cheat the future that awaits us outside the doors.”
The moment also captures a bit of Vodolazkin’s everpresent, understated humor.
Nektary stands in front of me, small and gray-haired. Round eyeglasses in a metal frame. Catching my gaze, he smiles:
“The glasses are vintage. I got them from a certain monk.” His smile melts. “You were thinking about the future just now, weren’t you?”
“Are you clairvoyant, father?”
“No, just voyant—thanks to the eyeglasses. Your hand is shaking. I suspect you’re seriously ill.”
Music’s relationship to time also comes into play. Early on Gleb’s father, a proficient violinist, wants his son to repeat a melody. Gleb can’t get the rhythm right. “My boy,” says his father, “you weren’t meant for music.” And yet Gleb has a nearly preternatural, existential sense of rhythm, instilled in one jolting moment as someone runs downhill with him as a child.
“All I remember is being in someone’s arms,” he says. “And that someone going downhill, balancing, sideways. Foot to foot, foot to foot. And the tragic music corresponding to that descent: two-part phrases.” You can practically feel the rhythm in your body as you read those words—the bah-duh, bah-duh of heavy steps, hurriedly moving downhill while struggling to stay upright.
Vodolazkin here points us to another duality: Despite this inherent, visceral, structural dependence on time, music has the curious ability to point us beyond time and draw feelings of timelessness into the present. “Music is not eternity,” a priest friend of his grandfather tells Gleb. “But it reminds us of eternity—profound music does.”
Yet we live bar to bar. There may be sheet music, but we all must improvise. “There are movements born of experience, of life itself, if you like,” says Vodolazkin, “and you can’t repeat them in a vacuum.”
What of the title? The book unfolds halfway around the world from Brisbane, Australia. But the city is a referent, not a location. Within the context of the story it stands for longing, possibly even for eternity itself. It also stands for separation and the pain of distance, bridged only by hope.
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