There are books which entertain us, books which edify us, and there are some works of literature - given an honest disposition on our part - which may change our lives and the way we look at the world. Such, for many people, are The Divine Comedy, King Lear, and The Four...See more
There are books which entertain us, books which edify us, and there are some works of literature - given an honest disposition on our part - which may change our lives and the way we look at the world. Such, for many people, are The Divine Comedy, King Lear, and The Four Quartets of T.S. Eliot. There is now another to add to that canon. It was published in Russia in 2013 and by last autumn it appeared in English, just one of more than 20 languages into which it has now been translated. It is Laurus - as in laurel, I think. It''s author, Evegeny Vodolazkin, is a 51 year-old Russian medieval scholar and his own story is no less impressive or inspiring than the novel he has written for us. It became a literary sensation when published in Russia and won its two major literary awards in that year. This, Vodolazkin’s second novel (though his debut in English), captures the religious and social flavour of fifteenth-century Russia, tracking the life of a healer and “holy fool”. It is described by some as a post-modern synthesis of Bildungsroman, travelogue, hagiography and love story. From almost every angle in which you might position yourself to look at this novel, it is exceptional. It really is post-modern - but not in any of the multitude of senses in which that slippery term has ever been used before. Vodolazkin even questions the use of the term, because for him post-modernism is just a game that plays with quoting literature of the past, but has no grounding in anything real. Vodolazkin certainly ignores narrative conventions. But he does so to create, not to confuse, disrupt or destroy. It''s mission - whether the author''s intention is missionary or not - is to liberate. And it truly does so. It often ignores the conventions by which we deal with time and place. But if it does, it does so to give us a deeper and more profound sense of both - eternal and universal. Set in the late Middle Ages, its protagonist, Arseny, born in 1440, was raised near the Kirillov Monastery, about three hundred miles north of Moscow. He becomes a renowned herbal healer, faith healer, and prophet who “pelted demons with stones and conversed with angels.” He makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, encountering miracles, murder and mayhem on the way. He takes on new names, depending on how he will next serve God. His last name is Laurus. The people venerate his humble spirituality. American columnist Rod Dreher describes this as "an earthy novel", a novel filled with the sounds, smells, violence, superstition, and fanaticism of the Middle Ages. It reminds one of Andrei Tarkovsky''s cinematic masterpiece set in the same era, Andrei Rublev. Vodolazkin has what we would probably call, borrowing from his own terminology, a personalist view of history. Laurus is an exploration of the human condition in our own time but looked at with the wisdom of the people of another time. In truth, It reveals the deep humanism of the Middle Ages. For Vodolazkin this age was much more humanistic than modernity. In one of the most moving passages in the book - and there are many of those - the medieval sensibility speaks to modern man showing us that there truly is nothing new under the sun. The sequence, and the events which follow, are central in the entire structure of the novel and in it''s spell-binding denouement. In a year of great hunger, the young woman Anastasia came to Laurus after losing her virginity. She prostrated herself before Laurus, weeping, and said: I feel that I am carrying a baby in my womb but I cannot bear the baby without a husband. For when the child is born, it will be called the fruit of my sin. What do you want, woman? Laurus asked. You know yourself, O Laurus, what I want, but I am afraid to say it to you. I do know, woman. Just as you know how I will answer you. So do tell me, why did you come to me? Because if I go to the wise woman in Rukina Quarter, everyone will find out about my sin. But you can simply pray and then the fruit of my sin will leave me the same way it entered. Laurus’s gaze rose along the tops of the pine trees and got lost in the leaden skies. Snowflakes froze on his eyelashes. The first snow had covered the glade. I cannot pray for that. Prayer should carry the force of conviction, otherwise it is not effective. And you are asking me to pray for murder. Anastasia slowly rose from her knees. She sat on a fallen tree and held up her cheeks with her fists. I am an orphan and now is a time of hunger and I cannot feed the child enough. How can you not understand? Keep the child and everything will turn out fine. Simply believe me, I know this. You are killing both me and the baby, Anastasia said before leaving him. “The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined", Vodvolaskin has said. "Despite what you might have heard, a human life was estimated very highly in the Middle Ages. When they say that humanism appeared only in modernity, it is not true.” He explains how it was a special kind of humanism. The humanism of modernity sees the human being as the measure of all things, but medieval people were convinced that this measure was given by God. For him, it’s an essential difference. Echoing his great compatriot Alexander Solzynitsyn’s critique of the Renaissance, and the subsequent moves to put man at the centre of the universe in the Enlightenment, he says that in modernity the human being is at the top of the hierarchy. In the Middle Ages, at the top of the hierarchy was God. “In our post-Christian society, God very often is not present in our life at all.” In a seminar in London last Autumn, Vodolazkin described Laurus in this way: “To quote (Mikhail) Lermontov,” he said, “it is ‘the history of a man’s soul’.” The book’s subtitle is, intriguingly, “a non-historical novel”. He is quick to dissociate himself from historical fiction. It is ultimately “a book about absence,” he said, “a book about modernity”. There are two ways to write about modernity, he explains: the first is by writing about the things we have; the second, by writing about those things we no longer have. This is the way of Laurus and for those who have ears to hear it may be a way back to all that has been lost. Vodolazkin was born and raised in the Soviet era. For him studying medieval history and literature was a way to escape from the gulag that was Societ Russia, a kind of emmigraton. For him medieval history was the only piece of reality where the Soviet mentality was absent in the 1980s when he was growing up. His parents were agnostics and he was not baptized as a child. It was a period of my personal paganism, he says. "As a child, I asked someone, some unknown person, to help me, please. When I was 16, I was baptized; a movement inside me led me to that point. Where did it come from? When I was 14 or 15, I discovered death." Little children, he says, know that death exists, but they don’t believe it concerns them. They think that a death is a personal misunderstanding, or something that happens to this particular person who died. He experienced a terrible fear when he confronted death – not that he would die and would not be, but rather that everything is pointless without God. In Laurus, its New Yorker reviewer tells us, Vodolazkin aims directly at the heart of the Russian religious experience. He may, but he does much more than that. He goes to the heart of the hunger for religion in every soul. This is a book of great complexity, with archaic flourishes which sometimes baffle the reader but are all part of the meaning of the whole. According to one reviewer, “Laurus cannot be faulted for its ambition or for its poignant humanity. It is a profound, sometimes challenging, meditation on faith, love and life’s mysteries.” It is truly astounding that just a few decades after Russia’s emergence from the bitter wilderness of soviet atheism, a voice and a spirit like this can speak to us with such authority, spiritual sensibility and wisdom.