Medievalist Eugene Vodolazkin is the author of Laurus, a new novel set in plague-ridden 15th century Russia. Here, he writes on using the language of the past to construct new meaning for the present, and how both the medieval and the postmodern influence his writing.
Translated from the Russian by Caz Hattam.
The novel Laurus plays out in 15th century Russia and at the centre of the narrative is the fate of the healer Arseny (the protagonist’s name changes according to circumstance, and the last of these is his monastic name, Laurus). Arseny’s one true love, Ustina, dies in childbirth after he fails to help her. As a result, he resolves to live on her behalf. From this moment on, his life turns to legend and the narrative is constructed in the style of a canonical saint’s biography, or vita.
Arseny nurses plague victims back to health, treats the wounded and tirelessly works to heal people. In the Middle Ages, successful treatment was determined not so much by the quality of medicine (which was poor) as by the skill of the doctor. The more Arseny sacrifices himself, the more clearly his gift develops. Mastery of his craft becomes something monumental, as treatment gives way to healing. Travelling far and wide healing people, Arseny tells Ustina of all that happens. Although Ustina does not answer, Arseny regards what passes between them as conversation, convinced that silence does not mean absence. This dialogue stretches throughout the entire novel.
In the novel Laurus I wanted to write about a man capable of sacrifice. I felt compelled to counter the prevailing cult of success in today’s society with something quite different. Despite this ‘moral’ challenge, my desire was not to preach; that is not the place of literature and besides, nobody has given me the right to do so. I likely asked more questions than I answered. Sometimes it is more important to ask a question correctly than to answer it. In actual fact, in an ideal world it is the readers who answer the questions, each in their own way. It is precisely this that creates the subtext intrinsic to good writing.
Every era presents voids that need filling in. This is where the author pours his sculptor’s plaster – much like archaeologists did in Pompeii, into the spaces where bodies had been buried under ash – and figures take shape as a result – literary ones, in our case. If the work is well-written, the plaster turns to flesh and blood. And the more the literary figure (such as Laurus) clashes with our contemporary world, the more clearly we need them. You can describe your own era and everything in it. But you can describe what it lacks by escaping into another age. This is exactly what I chose to do.
In Laurus I was not so much interested in the historical narrative but rather, to use Lermontov’s expression, in ‘the narrative of the soul’. Calling the novel ‘ahistorical’ is a cue for the reader, a suggestion that they should not search the book for something that is not there. The novel contains barely any historical facts in the conventional sense. On top of that, there is very little artistic invention either. My protagonist embodies traits common to a great many people depicted in ancient Russian texts. He is an inquirer, full of doubt. For the most part, his defencelessness is precisely what makes him charming. In order to embrace the protagonist, the reader must identify with him. But how could they identify with a depersonalised ideal? Contrary to popular opinion, there are never any such saints. Read the vita of any saint and you will find him in perpetual inner turmoil. My protagonist lives part of his life as a holy fool. Holy foolery is an exceptionally noble feat as the holy fool makes himself blind not only to the world, but also to his own sense of self. This he loses, denying himself absolutely in order to become one with God.
Writing a novel like this was a risky business. The challenge of depicting a ‘positively magnificent man’ (Dostoevsky) is extremely problematic; by and large, entirely sympathetic characters are a weak spot in literature. It is almost impossible for the contemporary author to resolve this, and, if it is at all possible, you need to be the author of The Idiot in order to pull it off. I came to the realisation that, if taken from the streets of the present, a protagonist such as Dostoevsky describes would be unconvincing, not to mention downright contrived. And so I turned to an ancient form, to the vita of a saint, which is intended for this kind of narrative. I simply wrote that vita using contemporary literary devices.
For almost 30 years I have engaged with the world of the Middle Ages – it is very different from the world of today. That other culture has become a part of me and I – strange as it might seem – am a part of it, because I continue to reconstruct it in a time when it has already become history. If you take all that I have read over the course of my lifetime, you find more ancient Russian texts than contemporary ones. This is simply because I spend many an hour each day reading ancient Russian writings. But when somebody dedicates decades to something which appears – to put it mildly – exotic to today’s society, they acquire a special kind of perspective. You could call it a professional deformity. It was this perspective that I resolved to share with the modern day reader.
I am lucky that my personal experience is in keeping with the current literary trend. I used several ancient Russian techniques that even 40 years ago would have been deemed unacceptable and discounted as unliterary. But now they are in vogue; postmodernism paved the way for them. Literature has wound its way to confronting things that were once the foundations of medieval poetics. I approached these things not via postmodernism, however, but directly from the Middle Ages.
Laurus is a novel about love in the deepest sense of the word, but it is equally a novel about time. More precisely, it is about the absence of time, the way it dissolves upon touching eternity. Time in the novel shimmers; its flow is constantly disturbed by ripples and surges from other eras. This ‘destruction’ of time is also brought about by the conflation of ancient Russian and contemporary linguistic elements. Language is one of the novel’s main protagonists. I envisioned a text that was to be read not only with the eyes, but also with the soul; a text that would lay bare the beauty of language in its distinct layers (historical, social and so on); a text that would ultimately attest to the absence of time. This leads us to a third way in which we can define the text: it is a novel about language.