A rave review for Laurus in the LA Review of Books. Excerpt:
Under the spell of Laurus, we imagine what it would be like to measure life in seasons and harvests rather than clocks and clicks, to walk in hallowed paths and receive ancient wisdom, to suffer and cleanse the soul. It deposits us, much like the 2007 Russian film The Island — about a man who becomes a contemporary holy fool — into a magical world steeped in voluntary suffering, devotion, and answered prayer, which stands in opposition to Western skepticism and aversion to irrationality.
Unlike a saintly figure one might find in other postmodern Russian work, Vodolazkin’s holy man and his medieval world are drawn with sincere, uncynical affection. As such, the novel embodies a break with immediate post-Soviet literature, which is heavily skeptical and leavened with irony.Laurus contains stylistic similarities to contemporary Russian works — the fracturing of time, the linguistic playfulness — but within the confines of a tale of faith. The result: an instructive saint’s life keyed for a sophisticated contemporary audience, and suggesting an alternative to materialism, irony, and despair.
The concern with the “Russian soul” and life of the spirit reemerges regularly in Russian culture — marked by a turning away from the West, the need to reestablish who we are in terms of who we were, and of how we differ from others. It’s not surprising, in these uncertain decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to see a book like Laurus take the big awards in Russia. The materialism that seized that country at the end of the Soviet Union left behind a spiritual hunger, and set the national identity adrift. Ironic literature can meet despair with a kind of gallows humor, but it doesn’t successfully address the deeper need. Laurus’s loving portrait of the medieval world and the holy man’s bildungsroman, couched in entertainingly playful postmodernist language, offers an enticing alternative to contemporary cynicism. And we in the West might also consider the extent to which longing for such certitudes might be surfacing within us, like an old water bottle under the snow.
I found out just now that Laurus will be out in paperback this September. The publicist has generously offered ten copies to readers of this blog. I would like to have a contest to give them away. For people who have already read Laurus, please give me between 150-250 words explaining how Evgeny Vodolazkin’s novel of medieval Russia is relevant to our lives as 21st century Americans. Because I don’t want to disadvantage those who have not yet read Laurus, and who would do so if they received a copy in the mail this autumn, I would like to invite those readers to explain in 150-250 words what we contemporary Americans have to learn from Russian spirituality, as expressed in one or more works of Russian literature of the 19th or 20th century.
You have till midnight Sunday to participate. E-mail me your responses at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com. Use the subject line “LAURUS CONTEST”. I’ll post the ten best entries on Monday. Please let me know if you want me to use your name and city, or just your initials, when I publish your entry. Also, if you are one of the winners I’ll be sending your e-mail to the Laurus publicist, who will see to it that you get a paperback copy when it comes out in September.