A number of you got the new Evgeny Vodolazkin novel Laurus for Christmas, and have been writing to tell me how great it is. Justin Ryan Lonas wrote a rave review calling the novel a “revelation.” The Financial Times published a good review the other day, and you might recall the initial review of my own, especially this:
Last night, after midnight, I read the last lines of Laurus, a newly translated Russian novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, and thought it surely must be the most perfect ending ever. There is no way it could have ended any more perfectly or profoundly. And then I did what I have done nearly every time I’ve put this astonishing novel down over the last few days: I picked up my chotki (prayer rope) and prayed, as I was first taught to do in an Orthodox parish in the Russian tradition.
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.
One of you asked if I could start a new thread to talk about Laurus, now that so many more people have read it. I think that’s a wonderful idea.
I’ll start by repeating a comment that one of this blog’s readers e-mailed me last night:
Just finished it. Holy sh*t. I have nothing to add to the kudos you have heaped upon it. Especially the ending…. Damn you Dreher, for forcing me to read this book! And thanks. For forcing me to read this book!
In a subsequent e-mail, he wrote:
I think it’s really important to note that it wasn’t tradition or faith that gained Arseny his renown. At then end, when his powers ebb, the people totally bail on him. Even in that environment, Even with their faith. When he cannot heal them, offering them real-world relief from actual human suffering, he is worthless to them.
Until people need the church for healthcare or education, they will ditch it.
Also consider the extent to which beauty played a role. In a world as dirty and desperate and filled with lice and worms and death and pus… the church was clean and beautiful. It was rich. And the average Joe was a part of that, at least in some limited way.
I’m going to cut off that comment right there, because his last two paragraphs — which I’ll post below the jump — contain spoilers. If you have read Laurus, please join in the conversation. I warn readers who have not yet read it but plan to that the comments section may well have spoilers. I’m not going to edit any out. By the way, if you’re headed to Wichita this weekend to the Eighth Day Institute shindig, I’ll be leading a discussion about Laurus and sacramentalism.
The reader continues, on beauty in Laurus:
You see the importance of that in the icon lamp Arseny was taking to Jerusalem. The defense of which costs Ambrogio his life. And on their journey he comments about his first time in a real Cathedral.
Now, the cave Laurus died near was not a Cathedral. But that was OK. At least he was still healing people. Until he wasn’t.