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‘People Need Other Things To Live By’

Earlier this fall, I ran across a short review by Ken Kalfus in [1]The New Yorker [1], praising a best-selling Russian novel called Laurus [2] that had just been translated into English. Kalfus wrote:

A new novel by the Russian medievalist Eugene Vodolazkin, “Laurus,” recreates this fervent landscape [of medieval Russia] and suggests why the era, its holy men, and the forests and fields of Muscovy retain such a grip on the Russian imagination. Vodolazkin’s hero-mystic Arseny is a protagonist extrapolated from the little that is known about the lives and deeds of the famous holy men. Born in 1440, he’s raised by his herbalist grandfather Christofer near the grounds of the Kirillov Monastery, about three hundred miles north of Moscow. He becomes a renowned medicine man, faith healer, and prophet who “pelted demons with stones and conversed with angels.” He makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He takes on new names, depending on how he will next serve God. The people venerate his humble spirituality. In “Laurus,” Vodolazkin aims directly at the heart of the Russian religious experience and perhaps even at that maddeningly elusive concept that is cherished to the point of cliché: the Russian soul.

Of course I had to order this novel at once. I devoured it, and even now, a month after finishing Laurus — the title is one of the names the novel’s protagonist takes —  it is an almost constant presence in my imagination. I tell nearly everybody I see that they have to read this amazing book. My friend Eric Metaxas took my advice, and was dazzled by it — and is going to interview Evgeny Vodolazkin (“Eugene” is the Anglicized form of his name) on his radio show next week when Vodolazkin comes to New York for Russian Literature Week 2015 [3]. Back in October, I blogged about “the wonder-working Laurus,” [4] and said, in part:

What kind of novel makes you want to enter into contemplative prayer after reading from its pages? I’ve never heard of one. But Laurus is that kind of novel. It induces an awareness of the radical enchantment of the world, and of the grandeur of the soul’s journey through this life toward God. It is so strange and mystical and … well, to call a novel “holy” is too much, but Laurus conjures on every page an awareness of holiness that is without precedence in my experience as a reader. Holiness illuminates this novel like an icon lamp.

By saying that, I fear that I will make the novel sound pious and devotional. It very much is not. This is an earthy novel, filled with the sounds, smells, violence, superstition, and fanaticism of the Middle Ages. The achievement of Vodolazkin, who is a medieval historian by vocation, is to make this faraway world come vividly to life, and to saturate it with mystical Orthodox Christianity, such that even the leaves of the trees are enchanted. Most Americans who read Laurus will take it as a work with a strong current of magical realism; the handful of us American readers who worship in the Eastern Christian tradition will recognize it as simply Orthodoxy, where the border between wonder-working and everyday life is porous.

As it turns out, Evgeny Vodolazkin and I were able to connect by telephone from his home in St. Petersburg in early November, and spent nearly two hours in conversation. It was like talking to an old friend. Vodolazkin, 51, is a philologist who works on medieval manuscripts at the Institute of Russian Literature — commonly known as Pushkin House [5] — in St. Petersburg. We must have chatted for 20 minutes or so before we got down to business. We must have been talking about geopolitics — not a surprising topic for a Russian and an American these days — when I began taking notes. What follows is a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for clarity:

RD : Do you believe that problems of the modern world can be solved by political means?

EV : I don’t do politics. If a journalist asks me for my political views, I answer normally that I have no political views. As a Christian, I deal with each event separately, and I try to judge it from a Christian point of view, of right and wrong. I have a theory – well, “theory” sounds too serious, but I have an idea. Each phenomenon has different dimensions or, better, levels and political level is not the highest one . I am certain that the reasons of social events lie in the human soul. It is a concrete soul, where grows aggression, and this aggression echoes with the aggression in other souls. Good sides of the soul do not communicate as easily with other souls as the dark sides. This aggression grows with a terrible speed. Then this aggression takes on social form – of revolution, war, and so on. I suppose nobody believes that Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death in Sarajevo is the reason for the First World War. Everything was ready for the explosion; the assassination was the spark. Or, consider the Russian Revolution, in 1917. Normally, history books tell us that it was a very difficult situation in Russia – there was hunger, starvation, and so forth. But we had much more difficult situations than that [before] in Russia, and did not have a revolution.

The reason of these events is the united energy of individuals.  As Christians and as writers, the main place where we both can work is a man’s soul. We have to work with individual human beings, and their souls. This is why I told you that my position is one of Christian personalism. The main thing we can do to fight this evil is to pray, and maybe also to write something that will douse this fire. To do something politically is not so effective. Politics is a result of the situation we have in our souls. It has to do with consequences, not with reasons.

 RD: A Catholic professor told me that the best response to our own disordered moment in the West is to meditate on what Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, did when the Nazis occupied Poland. He started a theater company. The point is that the most effective response to this kind of thing is cultural. Do you agree?

EV: Yes, culture is our response, really. Except for the gathering of the Holy Spirit, culture is the second most important work that we can do.

My teacher, [historian Dmitri Sergeyevich] Likhachov, a famous Russian scholar, wrote that the main thing that justifies the existence of a nation is its culture. As to Russian culture, literature plays a very important role in it. I can’t say that Russian literature is better or worse than other great literatures, but certainly it has a special weight: it is a rather metaphysical literature.

The reason for this is in its origins. Compared to literature in the Western medieval time, Russians had almost no secular literature. The first literature available to the Russians in the first centuries of Russian Christianity, ninety percent of it was foreign, in translation. And translation was something restricted to the Church. Georgy Fedotov, in his excellent book The Russian Religious Mind, describes the cultural consequences of [Russia’s] baptism. First, the Russians received the Holy Bible in their native language, which was a positive thing. On the other hand, they were cut off from the ancient literature of the Greeks and Romans. At the same time, the people in Western Europe had access to classical literature. So, this may account for the particularity of Russian literature, its strong ethical tension which finds its echo in the great literature of Russia in the 19th and 20th century.

 RD: In the West, the term “medieval” is usually used as an insult, to denote something savage or backwards. Yet we also look back to the Middle Ages as a time of beauty and even romance. How is the Middle Ages seen in Russia?

EV: With us, the word “medieval” is also a swear word, meaning something obscure and wild. In truth, the Middle Ages were more humanistic than modernity. I say such a paradoxical thing as someone who has worked with this literature for more than 30 years. The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined. 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. It was a special kind of humanism — the humanism of modernity — that saw the human being as the measure of all things, but medievals were convinced that this measure was given by God. It’s a very essential difference. Everything modern humanism says about the dignity of man can also be said by humanism’s medieval version, but if in modernity the human being is at the top of the hierarchy, in the Middle Ages, the top of the hierarchy is God.

 RD: Why did you choose to write a novel of the Middle Ages?

EV: My interest in the medieval period began when I studied Nikolai Leskov, a Russian writer of second half of the 19th century. Some of his writings are close to the Middle Ages. Thanks to Leskov, I discovered for myself this amazing period. I was born and raised in the Soviet time, and for me, [studying the Middle Ages] was also a sort of escapism, a kind of immigration. It was the only piece of reality where the Soviet mentality was absent. It was very important in the 1980s.

As to my way to Laurus, I would never have spoken 10 or 15 years ago about the Middle Ages in a non-scientific milieu. I mean that from a scientific point of view, to become a writer is not comme il faut [i.e., what one does]. From this point of view, being a scholar is the best thing in the world, and you have to be dedicated to your work. If you write fiction, it is strange. Besides, I was sure that I would not write about the Middle Ages because I used to deal with Middle Ages every day from morning to evening. I supposed that for me, for my creative writing, I would choose something else. I thought it was rather dull first to study Old Russia, and then to write fiction about it.

In the Nineties, reality in Russia, and in Russian literature, was filled with a blackness that exhausted me. A few years ago, it occurred to me to write about something good. I tried to go against the mainstream. To tell the truth, I was afraid to write about my contemporary life – it is not so easy to depict contemporaries. What’s more, in literature, it is a very difficult thing to depict protagonists who are good. There is no problem writing about “bad ” people, but to create positive literary figures is rather difficult. So, I concluded that the only material I could use would come from the Middle Ages, because if I would write about life based on modern, contemporary material, I thought it would sound false. So that’s how I arrived at setting my novel in the Middle Ages.

 RD: Did the fact that you are a believing Orthodox Christian have something to do with your creative choice?

EV: Yes, the religious dimension was very important. The important feature of the Middle Ages in the life of the people, was God. And now, in our post-Christian society, God very often is not present in our life.

My parents were agnostics – I say “were,” because I believe that something in the last years has changed [Note: Vodolazkin’s father died suddenly shortly after this interview was completed — RD]. I was not baptized 9781780747552 [6]as a child; it was a period of my personal paganism. 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. Of course, I knew about death from the very beginning. I had seen dead people at funerals. Little children, they 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.

But when people are moving from childhood to their teenage years, they discover death. It is an old story – it is the story of Adam. Actually, Adam discovered death after his sin. This is the same thing we experience with changes in the organism – one discovers the sexual side of life and at the same time, death. It was a terrible fear – not that I will die and will not be, but rather that everything is pointless without God. That was a great shock for me.

In the Soviet Union, it was prohibited for young people to visit church, it was a huge risk to be punished (for example to be thrown out of the university) , but I did it anyway. It was my secret life. I visited church, but nobody talked about it. I felt like the first Christian.

RD: In the West, we call the “Middle Ages” the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in the fifth century, to the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century. What does it mean when you describe the period in which Laurus is set as medieval? I mean, without a beginning in the classical world and an end with the birth of modernity, as Europe had, where is the “middle”?

EV: It’s true that Russian Middle Ages are not a middle but in some ways really the beginning. Christianity became an ethnogenetic factor for us. That is, Christianity was the ground on which the Russian nation was founded. There were no Russians in the 10th century. There were many different Slavic tribes, Finnish, and so on. Christianity [which came to Russian lands in the year 988], brought culture with it. This culture made from separate tribes a Russian nation. So our Middle Ages differ from the Western Middle Ages, but generally, they are the same. Very often they used the same texts, they had the same ideals. They differ from each other only in style of life.

But we Russian medievalists, we use sometimes the Western European terminology to reflect our common features and our common roots with the West. This terminology helps us to express the unity of old European culture. It was one bird with two different wings.

RD: Is this why you included in Laurus the character Ambrogio, the Catholic who befriends Arseny, and goes with him on pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

EV: Yes! It is an expression of affection for my Western brothers and sisters. It doesn’t mean that I think that tomorrow we will be reunited. I’m sure that if God sees that we need each other, He will open the door for that. Ambrogio, he is an expression of my love also of Italy. I love Italy very much.

RD: Back to the Middle Ages. One of the things that really stands out about Laurus is that it takes place in a culture of metaphysical realism, and you really make the modern readers, who have lost this perspective, understand what it means. As in the Western medieval period, people in medieval Russia believed that God was, as we say in our Orthodox prayer, everywhere present and filled all things. And then, as you know, in the West the doctrine of nominalism became dominant, and that ended up disenchanting the world. Can you speak of the metaphysical aspect of your novel?

EV: Realists and nominalists, we had no dispute like that in Russia. Nominalism
was not very popular in Russia, though I would not speak about Russian theology as a unified entity. The realist ideas were very important for Russian culture. Take, for example, the Bible story of Joseph, the son of Jacob. A medieval author asked, why didn’t God say to Jacob that Joseph was not dead, as Jacob thought, but is alive. The answer is that Joseph was a prefiguration of Christ , and otherwise he couldn’t play his metaphysical role. The medievals interpreted everything as pointing to divine realities.

As to my novel, you know, some critics declared Laurus a postmodern novel. This is a mistake, because postmodernism is something that is rather far from me. It plays with quoting literature of the past, but it has no grounding in something real. Postmodern texts don’t also exist within a metaphysical reality , they have no eidos [essence], to speak in Plato’s terms. All the “postmodern” things about my novel have their roots in the Middle Ages, but these roots are seldom recognized.

RD: I am very taken by a 1923 book written by Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, called in English The End of Our Time. In it, he says that the modern age is exhausted, and he calls for a “new middle age,” a time of spiritual rebirth. He says it is coming, because we cannot kill the spirit, and Truth.

EV: I like this work of Berdyaev very much. I’m not a theologian, but a philologist, and I see that we have signs of a New Middle Ages now in literature. It is not a Middle Ages in the literal sense, rather a synthesis of modernity and the Middle Ages, and more of the Middle Ages is present. You know, it is like a child is very often is more similar to his grandfather and grandmother than his parents. The new literature now being born, it has many, many features of the Middle Ages in its structure. It is a great theme, maybe it sounds rather paradoxical, but I suppose that modernity as a cultural epoch is over.

RD: Do you think it is possible to be medieval in our world?
EV: I’m not sure that it is possible in the strictly medieval sense : the Middle Ages are also over. Of course if I say that modernity is over, it is a sort of exaggeration. But what I would like to stress is this: Berdyaev says people in the Middle Ages were not so individualistic as people in modernity, but they were stronger as persons — much stronger, because as a background, they had very strong and common ideas. Modernity developed individuality. We have discovered the individuality in us, in our culture; it was the main purpose of modernity, and it was very important. But now, we are entering a time that will bring us another set of values that are more important than individuality.

RD: I think one of the most important moments in Laurus occurs when an elder tells Arseny, who is on pilgrimage, to consider the meaning of his travels. The elder advises: “I am not saying wandering is useless: there is a point to it. Do not become like your beloved Alexander [the Great], who had a journey but no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.” What does this say to the modern reader?

That it is time to think about the destination, and not about the journey. If the way leads nowhere, it is meaningless. During the perestroika period, we had a great film, Repentance, by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze . It’s a movie about the destruction wrought by the Soviet past. The last scene of the film shows a woman baking a cake at the window. An old woman passing on the street stops and asks if this way leads to the church. The woman in the house says no, this road does not lead to the church. And the old woman replies, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”

So a road as such is nothing. It is really the endless way of Alexander the Great, whose great conquests were aimless. I thought about mankind as a little curious beetle that I once saw on the big road from Berlin to Munich. This beetle was marching along the highway, and it seemed to him that he knows everything about this way. But if he would ask the main questions, “Where does this road begin, and where does it go?”, he can’t answer. He knew neither what is Berlin, nor Munich. This is how we are today.

Technical and scientific revelation brought us the belief that all questions are possible to solve, but that is a great illusion. Technology has not solved the problem of death, and it will never solve this problem . The revelation that mankind saw conjured the illusion that everything is clear and known to us. Medieval people, 100 percent of them believed in God – were they really so stupid in comparison to us? Was the difference between their knowledge and our knowledge as different as we think? It was not so! I’m sure that in a certain sense, our knowledge will be a kind of mythology for future generations. I reflected this mythology with humor in Laurus, but this humor was not against medieval people. Maybe it was self-irony.

RD: Timelessness is one of the main ideas of Laurus, which leaps suddenly and unexpectedly from the medieval present, to our own time. What does this mean?

EV: Time doesn’t exist. Of course time exists if we’re speaking in everyday terms, but if we think from the perspective of eternity, time doesn’t exist, because it has its end point. For medieval people, God was the most important thing about life, and the second most important thing was Time. On the one hand, medieval people lived rather short lives, but on the other hand, life was very, very long, because they lived with their minds in eternity. Every day is an eternity in the church, and all that surrounded these people. Eternity made time very long, and very interesting.

If you would think about the first patriarchs, Adam, Methuselah, and others, they had an incredible long life. Adam lived 930 years, Methuselah lived, as far as I remember, 962 years. Because they had eternity in their memories, eternity could not disappear at once. This eternity disappeared slowly, dissipated in the long life of the patriarchs. Medieval people, by comparison to us, are these patriarchs. Their life was very long because they had as part of daily life this vertical connection, the connection to the divine realm, a connection that most of us in modernity have lost.

RD: Another great theme of your novel is suffering. Arseny suffers immensely in his life, but he receives his suffering as something sent by God, and redeems it. This seems to me to be one of the most difficult things for us moderns to understand. We have forgotten how to suffer.

EV: It is a very difficult question. Nobody wants to suffer. It is natural. But suffering sometimes comes to some people as an experience that causes them to think about their own lives. For Arseny, suffering is actually the way of his life, because he suffered from the very beginning — the most terrible suffering for him was the death of [his common-law wife] Ustina. That was the highest point in his suffering.

Then I would say that he loved to suffer as many saints loved to suffer. I can’t say that it is the only way or the proper way to live. No. I understand very good people who don’t want to suffer. But I remember Tolstoy, as his beloved son Vanya died, he said, “I thank God for this suffering.” So, some people understand this, some don’t – there are different ways of life, but suffering must not be something you choose to inflict on yourself. If somebody deliberately cuts his fingers, that is not the kind of suffering that brings redemption.

Laurus’s suffering is not suffering for its own sake, but for a way to help others that he’s trying to heal. That is one kind of suffering, but it exists a closely related kind of suffering, a very dangerous one: suffering as a sort of pleasure. For the saints, it was not an easy thing to divide both features of suffering.

RD: This story of a healer, holy man, and wanderer of the Middle Ages has been translated into over twenty languages, and was a critical and commercial success in Russia. Does this surprise you?

EV: As I finished writing Laurus , I told my wife I worked three years on this novel, and now you will read it, and so will my colleagues — but nobody else. It was so far from the mainstream. But it became so popular in Russia, and it received a big literary prize, one that was given previously only to mainstream books. This mistake was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It taught me that despite all the garbage I see in our bookstores or on TV, despite all of this, people need other things to live by. It is an illusion that they need this shit! If somebody has enough courage to speak with another voice, people will read it. The shock was that I asked myself the question: Is Laurus now mainstream?

Liberals and conservatives both liked my book. I tried to say with it that there is another way to live: the way of the saints. It is not an easy way to walk, but maybe we can walk alongside it. I’m not trying to teach people in this book, only to show them what this other way looks like. You know, maybe it was easier in the first ages of Christianity than it is now in our post-Christian culture. Nobody knew about Christianity back then. These people, these first Christians, brought the fire of a new faith, of a new religion. Now everybody knows everything, and gets very angry if somebody tries to explain something to them. In modern times, I think we need a new language to talk about such things.

If you’re in New York next week, you’ll have two chances to see and hear Evgeny Vodolazkin talk about Laurus and his work in Old Russian. Here is the full schedule for Russian Literature Week. [3]Vodolazkin speaks at NYU on Monday December 7, from 4 to 5:30pm. He will appear on Tuesday December 8 from 7 to 9 pm with Laurus translator Lisa Hayden at BookCourt [7], the excellent bookstore on Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

The book is called Laurus [2], and it is a masterpiece.

39 Comments (Open | Close)

39 Comments To "‘People Need Other Things To Live By’"

#1 Comment By Andrew Keen On December 2, 2015 @ 8:18 am

All right Rod. You’ve convinced me. I need to read this book.

#2 Comment By Randy McDonald On December 2, 2015 @ 8:42 am

To people in the Middle Ages familiar with the persecution of the Jews after the Black Death, which saw the destruction of communities across western Europe and may well have triggered a general Jewish exodus to Poland, the massacres of the 20th century would not have been unfamiliar in scope. They lived with genocide.

#3 Comment By Jones On December 2, 2015 @ 9:22 am

“I don’t do politics. If a journalist asks me for my political views, I answer normally that I have no political views.”

I must become like this man.

“The new literature now being born, it has many, many features of the Middle Ages in its structure. It is a great theme, maybe it sounds rather paradoxical, but I suppose that modernity as a cultural epoch is over.”

This is a great observation. The right way to think about it is whether modernity is exhausted as a cultural movement, in the “high culture” sense, and the evidence of that is overwhelming. Myself, I cared about culture long before I cared about politics, and it was recognizing that artistic exhaustion that made me recognize the ineluctability of God.

#4 Comment By Florence On December 2, 2015 @ 9:39 am

Rod, I have a life to live; I cannot spend all day reading your posts. Could you please give a condensed version when they are this long! LOL!!

#5 Comment By Sam M On December 2, 2015 @ 9:49 am

I will read it, too! My question involves this statement, though:

“A Catholic professor told me that the best response to our own disordered moment in the West is to meditate on what Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, did when the Nazis occupied Poland. He started a theater company.”

Doesn’t it kind of depend on how you are defining the disorder of the moment? If you mean things like cultural rot and things like that, yes. But if you mean ISIS… perhaps something more robust from someone is in order. Yes, Frank Capra helped defeat the Nazis. And I suppose the theater company in Poland did, too. But someone had to fly the P-51 Mustangs and drive the tanks, too.

I am not saying that’s the way to fight ISIS. But sometimes culture is only one part of a larger strategy, no?

[NFR: The professor’s remark did not exclude the need for armed force to defeat the Nazis. He was telling me that there are many ways to resist tyranny, and the way to resist the dictatorship of relativism is through culture. — RD]

#6 Comment By Stubbs On December 2, 2015 @ 9:50 am

Thanks for posting this. I look forward to reading this book.

I’m of the belief that our spiritual yearning as humans will never leave us, and although we may be heading into a “dark age” of relying mostly on technology, intellect, etc., that we will return to a mystical/religious view and practice of life.

#7 Comment By Mike Schilling On December 2, 2015 @ 10:11 am

The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined.

Unless they were Jewish, of course and had lived through, say, the massacres that accompanied the Crusades.

#8 Comment By Camus On December 2, 2015 @ 10:39 am

I will buy it with Christmas money. Thanks for the heads up on this book.

#9 Comment By EngineerScotty On December 2, 2015 @ 10:40 am

Some more than others. And what one person needs to live by, may be harmful to another.

#10 Comment By Patrick On December 2, 2015 @ 10:55 am

This sounds really, really great. But…

Do you think this book is Orthodox enough that Catholics won’t “get it”? This sounds like a great book, mind you, but it is also sounds like a book very rooted in a place that isn’t Catholic and never was. “Rooted” is good, mind you, but it sort of means an audience not raised in the Orthodox milieu might not really get anything from it.

This has probably been mentioned, but maybe some of the preliminary BenOp stuff can simply be people getting together and reading and discussing this type of book to try to reclaim or refurbish bits of the past. It is a start, and may lead to something more practical by discussion.

[NFR: I think Catholics will have no problem getting this book. The oddest thing about it is more of a cultural issue than a particular theological one: the phenomenon of the “holy fool,” which is central to the culture of Russian spirituality. There are a couple of holy fools in one part of the novel. A holy fool is a person who seems mentally ill, and who may be mentally ill, but through whom God is working. — RD]

#11 Comment By Major Wootton On December 2, 2015 @ 11:21 am

I’m hoping Laurus will be nominated for the Mythopoeic Society’s fiction award. The Society focuses on C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other fantasists, and I think Laurus would appeal to many Society folk. If any such see Rod’s column on Laurus today, they may want to forward the link to others who would be interested.

#12 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 2, 2015 @ 11:46 am

But what happens when the person has a goal, an end to his journey, and suddenly realizes that the goal was an illusion?

Alexander had the right idea.

#13 Comment By Matthew Fansler On December 2, 2015 @ 11:58 am

“My teacher, [historian Dmitri Sergeyevich] Likhachov, a famous Russian scholar, wrote that the main thing that justifies the existence of a nation is its culture.” This is the core of our political suicide in the west. Between the SJW’s and Europe’s immigration disaster we are so engaged in affirming that everyone and everything is of equal value that Western nations are purposefully attempting to snuff out their own cultural identity. The final outcome can only be disastrous if you have any concern for what a culturally identity actually means for a nations identity and its people.

#14 Comment By Ryan M. On December 2, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

I picked up the novel because of your recommendation, Rod. i’m about 3/4 of the way through it, and I can already tell you that it’s the best novel I’ve read in 10 years. Arseny is probably the most complete character in the last several decades of world lit.

[NFR: I’m pleased beyond all telling to hear this. Last night I started reading it for the second time, and am finding lots of things I missed the first time. For example, the way Christofer, the grandfather, finds deep meaning in the particulars of the natural world (in his case, flowers and herbs). He understands that to the extent that these plants have any meaning at all, it’s as a medium for God’s grace, but it’s his seeing that the world has order and meaning embedded in nature — that’s the key thing that comes through so strongly. The first time I read “Laurus” I thought simply that this was beautiful; now I know from seeing more deeply into Vodolazkin’s art that it’s also true. — RD]

#15 Comment By German_reader On December 2, 2015 @ 12:13 pm

“The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined. Despite what you might have heard, a human life was estimated very highly in the Middle Ages. ”

I don’t find that convincing at all. Ok, there was nothing like the Nazi death camps (which wouldn’t have been possible without a developed modern state anyway) during the Middle Ages. But read the Gesta Francorum, a chronicle about the 1st Crusade by a participant. It’s shocking (at least it was to me) how the narrator again and again tells of deeds of the crusaders that would nowadays be at least considered as war crimes, if not worse…Bogumile heretics in the Balkans, Muslims in Syria/Palestine…on more than one occasion it is reported “We gave them the option to convert or die and killed those that wouldn’t convert”, as if this was totally normal behaviour, pleasing to God. It’s really a mindset not different from that of ISIS today. So this idealized picture of the Middle Ages that just ignores things like this doesn’t convince me…it’s just as much a myth as regarding all of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and darkness.

#16 Comment By Rob G On December 2, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

I’ve got this on my Christmas list. If I don’t get it I will buy it myself the day after.

#17 Comment By Sam M On December 2, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

“He was telling me that there are many ways to resist tyranny, and the way to resist the dictatorship of relativism is through culture.”

I get that, then. And it was what I was getting at when I said that a lot depends on how you define the disorder of the current moment.

Either way, I have a few other people interested in the book now. I look forward to seeing it!

#18 Comment By francis On December 2, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

Rod, thanks so much for posting this. Fascinating, edifying, and very enjoyable interview.

I was particularly intrigued by his saying “We have discovered the individuality in us, in our culture; it was the main purpose of modernity, and it was very important. But now, we are entering a time that will bring us another set of values that are more important than individuality,” which is related, if tangentially, to his concluding remark that “These people, these first Christians, brought the fire of a new faith, of a new religion. Now everybody knows everything, and gets very angry if somebody tries to explain something to them. In modern times, I think we need a new language to talk about such things.” New values, new languages, etc.

I suspect you do not want to put words in his mouth, but to what extent did/could either of you elaborate on that? It is a subject I am writing about now and would be most grateful for any insights.

[NFR: I can’t add to what EV said, and I finally had to cut the interview off because we had been on the phone for nearly two hours, and it was late in the evening for him. What do *you* think he meant here? — RD]

#19 Comment By JonF On December 2, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

A bit of push back: the medieval massacres of the Jews were local, random and lawless events (though, yes of course, still horrible). There was often significant push-back from authorities, most notably Pope Clement during the Black Death. The Holocaust was a systematic attempt by the authorities to eliminate an entire people.

#20 Comment By Kevin On December 2, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined.

Several folks have already mentioned the pogroms and the crusades. It’s hard to imagine that a Russian would not know about the Mongol invasion that massacred over 5% of the population.

#21 Comment By panda On December 2, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

““My teacher, [historian Dmitri Sergeyevich] Likhachov, a famous Russian scholar, wrote that the main thing that justifies the existence of a nation is its culture.” This is the core of our political suicide in the west. Between the SJW’s and Europe’s immigration disaster we are so engaged in affirming that everyone and everything is of equal value that Western nations are purposefully attempting to snuff out their own cultural identity. The final outcome can only be disastrous if you have any concern for what a culturally identity actually means for a nations identity and its people.”

This is a good time to remind the readers that Likhachev was a resolute opponent of the “blood and soil” nationalism that popped up in the late Soviet period, and was adamant one needed not to be Russian to be an integral part of the Russian nation. By your lights, the man was an SJW..

#22 Comment By panda On December 2, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

BTW- a Russian-American historian, Vladislav Zubok, is about to publish a major English-language biography of Likhachev, focusing on his work on national culture as the middle path between Communism and ethnic nationalism. I think that when that comes out, you Rod should pick it up- I think it will be useful on your thinking about the BO as a way of living in the modern world, but not being of it.

#23 Comment By German_reader On December 2, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

“A bit of push back: the medieval massacres of the Jews were local, random and lawless events (though, yes of course, still horrible)”

That may be true regarding the worst excesses (like the Rhineland massacres during the 1st crusade), but in the 13th/14th centuries Jews were expelled from many countries in Western and Central Europe, at the orders of the highest powers (e.g. from England at the orders of Edward I in 1290). That can hardly be regarded as the responsibility of lawless mobs.

#24 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 2, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

“The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined.”

People have already mentioned the Crusades, but as he is Russian maybe we can charitably assume that he never heard of them. We can be certain that he never heard of the Albigensian Crusade when the father of the man who created the English Parliament, Simon de Montfort uttered the phrase that in translation echos to this day, “Kill them all and let God sort them out!” Even so, there are a few a Russian can remember, if he thinks about it. The Mongols wiping out Samarkand and St. Ivan IV the Great (or Terrible depending of if a Dolgorukhi is a friend of yours and you get yelled at if you call him Ivan Grozny) exterminating the population of Novgorod come to mind immediately.

Being an interesting novelist does not exempt you from saying really stupid things.

#25 Comment By AndrewBH On December 2, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

I bought “Laurus” after reading about it on this blog. Now halfway through and loving it. A marvelous vision of a world that hasn’t yet been disenchanted.

#26 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2015 @ 3:33 am

“Most Americans who read Laurus will take it as a work with a strong current of magical realism; the handful of us American readers who worship in the Eastern Christian tradition will recognize it as simply Orthodoxy, where the border between wonder-working and everyday life is porous.”

I haven’t yet read this; it’s not yet available at our library. However, this illumination, where contact with God occurs, and one decides to concur, not yet knowing the outcome, is transformative as one is obedient to the mystery. There have been these occurrences, where following his leading results in a heightened awareness of the world, in which everything seems brighter, more alive, infused with what has not been seen before, but must have been there already. And all that was necessary was to be obedient to the spirit of the Lord in charity – at those times, one is aware how different it would be for us all, were we all conscious of the possibility.

One does not have to be Orthodox to experience this wonder of reality, but I suppose one must not have been intellectually inoculated against it, and open to the possibility of miracles right where you are.

#27 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2015 @ 3:45 am

“A holy fool is a person who seems mentally ill, and who may be mentally ill, but through whom God is working.”

Dostoyevsky attempted to explore this in his novel, The Idiot, in which he makes Prince Myshkin the vehicle. I felt that it failed, though a monumental attempt, because he tried to have him stand in for Christ, which was unsatisfactory, likely because no one can. It is extremely difficult to make a realistic Jesus of a fictional character, rather than characters with flaws who are fully human and therefore flawed as they contend with the reality of God in the world, as Walker Percy put it of the South, God haunted. I suppose the difference with our part of the world, is that it is merely haunted, while the Medieval was God centered. But Dostoyevsky was living in an era past then, with intimations of the one we live in, with its transformations into nihilism.

#28 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2015 @ 4:04 am

“The professor’s remark did not exclude the need for armed force to defeat the Nazis.”

Kingdoms of the world will defend their particular treasure with force, for that is what they are based on. I believe it is a gross error to conflate Christendom, however, with the sort of kingdom Jesus described, which rejected those means as inimicable to its ends. As mentioned elsewhere, the Westminster Confession isn’t so much a declaration of faith concerning the kingdom of heaven and its immanence, but a document concerning a Christendom alternate to the Roman Catholic secular and religious hybrid, that is, a state established on the basis of a church granted authority, but one very much based on the state monopoly on violence.

It should be obvious when talking about those driving tanks and piloting P51s, we are not talking about people who are necessarily Christian at all nor what they are defending anything at all like the kingdom of heaven.

Nor was that the object of the war; it wasn’t even to prevent the Holocaust; there was no action taken to do so, or even mitigate it. It was entirely self interested. Now it can be true, as is recorded in scripture, that immoral powers can be used by God for His purposes, which it’s possible to say about the Nazi defeat. But the involved immoralities that caused the circumstances of the Nazis to emerge are not solely attributable to them, but to very many negative occurrences contributed to neither all at once or by only a few – the historical record leaves no one with clean hands.

Neither is the emergence of ISIS something that happened in isolation and without culpability on the part of our own nation.

#29 Comment By JonF On December 3, 2015 @ 6:05 am

Bought this off Amazon last night (E-book) but could only read a few pages before lights out.

#30 Comment By Rob G On December 3, 2015 @ 6:40 am

“The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined.”

He is correct if one takes into consideration both the magnitude and efficiency of the 20th century examples, which far surpass those of the middle ages.

~~~This is a good time to remind the readers that Likhachev was a resolute opponent of the “blood and soil” nationalism that popped up in the late Soviet period, and was adamant one needed not to be Russian to be an integral part of the Russian nation. By your lights, the man was an SJW.~~~

Heh. So anyone who’s not a fascist is a SJW? Who knew!

#31 Comment By WhiskeyBucks On December 3, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

I started Laurus last night and I’m hooked. I immediately felt like I was reading something special.

Btw, Rod, you should look up this guy David Eugene Edwards. He’s a musician, and maybe as close to a holy fool as I’ve seen. Utterly firm in his convictions, but for some reason, he’s accepted in very unexpected circles. The European metal scene (he doesn’t play metal) is fiercely anti-Christian, but he sells out at metal festivals there.

Like or not his music, I bet you’d find him to be a pretty interesting guy.

#32 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On December 3, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

Just to be clear, is Fran Macadam arguing that World War II ought not have been fought?

#33 Comment By B.E. Ward On December 3, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

An amazing novel that gives me hope. That’s all I can say about it. I really hope his newer book is translated into English. I also hope he’s right and publishers are realizing there’s a market for this sort of literature.

#34 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

“Just to be clear, is Fran Macadam arguing that World War II ought not have been fought?”

History didn’t begin on December 7, 1941.

I suggest before embarrassing yourself, you pick up a copy of Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke.”

Do you believe that World War IV should now be fought? And just how did things reach this stage?

#35 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 3, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

“Just to be clear, is Fran Macadam arguing that World War II ought not have been fought?”

No, I think she is just pointing what everyone knows, that the war was not fought about the Holocaust, that was purely incidental.

#36 Comment By Rob G On December 4, 2015 @ 7:03 am

WhiskeyBucks — yes to Edwards! Very interesting guy, to say the least, almost like someone out of a Flannery O’Connor story. I’ve been a fan since the 90’s, the heyday of his old band 16 Horsepower. Imo, their song “Splinters” is one of the best Biblically-themed rock songs ever, with a killer video to boot.

#37 Comment By JonF On December 4, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

I’ve read a ways into the book (through chapter “I”, if the Glagolithic character/numeral is the equivalent of our letter). Minor quibble: the translator seems to suddenly inject archaic spellings completely at random. Yes, there’s a note about this at the beginning, but it’s grating, not charming. I could see if it were being done in formal and especially religious speech, that would be accurate to the time (and even today our prayers still come with “thee” and “thou” sometimes). But “Helpe” and “Yf” in everyday mundane speech just doesn’t ring true (and I doubt Russian peasants would have been breaking into sudden bursts of Old Slavonic other than at their prayers, or reciting an old text or verse).

#38 Comment By Bruno On December 5, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

From what you say, this book seems similar to a book written by another medieval scholar, Kristin Lavransdatter (the author’s name is Sigrid Undset). Great book.

#39 Comment By Mack Hall On December 29, 2015 @ 8:33 am

I finished LAURUS last night. Mr. Dreher is exactly right in his praise. The seeming diversions – occasional archaic spelling, plastic litter in a 15th century forest, and so on – are essential to the narrative.

LAURUS is properly shelved with THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and THE IDIOT.