Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Лавр (Laurus) combines lots of elements I enjoy in my fiction: a long-ago setting in the fifteenth century, guilt feelings, a focus on one ever-changing character, fear of apocalypse, curiously varied language, and, yes, even the bubonic plague. Best of all, to borrow from what one of you said about Laurus in an online conversation, the book is addictive. It just reads and reads and reads, drawing the reader through four “books,” sections that describe four stages—four separate lives, really—within the title character’s time(s) on earth, resulting in a simple structure that creates something akin to a life of a saint.
What’s a bit complicated for my purposes here is that the title character is known by several names, frequently Arseny, so I’ll call him that, too. So many thematic elements thread through Laurus that I think I’ll approach the book through a few themes I particularly enjoyed rather than trying to explain who’s who and what happens… the result is a messy mishmash, but pretty much anything would feel awkward to me because Laurus feels so elegantly balanced and indescribably intimate.
The Plague and the Apocalypse. Why do the bubonic plague and the apocalypse fascinate me in fiction? I don’t know but I suspect it’s because they infect novels with existentialism via the threat of imminent death. Aloneness fits with them, too: Laurus includes children orphaned because of the plague. (Even Forever Amber, BTW, endeared itself to me forever because of the plague, and I’m not alone!) In Laurus, Arseny learns herbal healing from his grandfather, Christopher, and treats plague patients in neighboring villages, earning such a reputation that he’s commandeered by a prince. As for apocalypse, there are calculations for the end of the world. Death is ubiquitous, particularly since Arseny often lives, basically, on top of cemeteries. Also: the unchristened dead are scapegoats for all sorts of calamities.
Time and Reinvention. One of the most wonderfully jarring aspects of Laurus is the language Vodolazkin uses. I feel almost as if I should write “languages” since Vodolazkin mixes archaisms with contemporary language—dropping in thoroughly modern slang and bits of anachronistic historical and geographical information—to strangely good effect. Though it’s surprising to find a sentence that mentions that a monastery is located on the future Komsomol Square of Pskov, the out-of-time toponym reinforces Arseny’s thoughts that he lives outside of time. As Arseny tells his dead girlfriend, Justina, “…события не всегда протекают во времени… порой они протекают сами по себе. Вынутые из времени.” (“…events don’t always flow in time… now and then they flow on their own. Pulled out of time.”).
Time cycles around and around in Laurus as seasons and lives, with Arseny living through four “books” that cover phases that almost amount to four lives where he is, roughly, healer, holy fool, pilgrim, and monk. Toward the end, Arseny lives in a cave and loses track of years, though he still knows when it’s Sunday. He looks forward to being freed from time and decides the only word he needs to discuss time is однажды, a sort of “once” or “one day” word that reinforces the time when something happens, such as “Однажды он понял, что этого указания вполне достаточно.” (“One day he realized that this indicator was quite enough/all he needed.”) Vodolazkin also includes references to Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, adding another layer to the reader’s perceptions of the temporal setting of Laurus. Also: years are occasionally given in both Anno Mundi and Anno Domini, establishing parallel calendars.
|Cathedral of St. John, Pskov.|
And Lots More “Alsos”… Arseny’s friendships with Foma, a holy fool who saves Arseny more than once by explaining away Arseny’s erratic-seeming behavior (during his holy fool period), and with Ambrogio, an Italian who comes to Pskov and ends up as Arseny’s traveling companion for a trip to Jerusalem that includes travel through the Alps and a horrendous hurricane at sea… mystical scenes with a wolf… an assortment of apparent miracles… the importance of literacy and words, which can be fatal, as well as the greater and deeper importance of their meanings, something reinforced through Arseny’s many silences and Christopher’s written instructions about herbal medicine, documentation Foma tells Arseny he no longer needs because he treats patients by taking their sins onto himself… a multi-pronged “also”: the tremendous immediacy of Arseny’s relationships with God, himself, his sins, Justina, and nature… the occasional feeling of a Bruegel painting… lots of marginalia reading “ha ha” or “!!” and then, yes, tears at the end of the book even though I knew how it would end… and so on and so on… To sum up: Laurus’s closeness, which never felt claustrophobic, left me with the feeling I’d experienced a strange combination of medieval timelessness, agelessness, life, and death, all of which works inexplicably well thanks to Vodolazkin’s mélange of words.
Level for non-native readers of Russian: From average to very difficult, depending on what sentence you’re reading.
Disclaimers: The usual; I have multiple connections to this book.
Up Next: The Big Book long list will be out on Wednesday. Then Sergei Nosov’s very enjoyable Грачи улетели, which I guess I’ll call The Rooks Have Left or The Rooks Are Gone, to play on the title of Alexei Savrasov’s painting in which the rooks have returned. Then maybe some short stories that have unexpectedly come my way…
Photo Credit: Левкий, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons.