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.
Laurus is the life of a saint, though it doesn’t start out that way. The title character is an orphan named Arseny, taken in by his grandfather after his parents die in the plague. The time is the 15th century, and the place is rural Russia. Grandfather Christofer is a doctor, which is to say, an expert herbalist. He teaches young Arseny all his healing wisdom. When he dies, Arseny takes over his grandfather’s calling. Something terrible happens, a trauma for which Arseny blames himself. Thus begins his life’s journey seeking redemption, a sojourn which will take him through Europe, to Jerusalem, and back again. Though the life of Arseny is, obviously, extremely unlike our own, Vodolazkin presents it as a pilgrimage, both literally and figuratively, and encourages the reader to see his own life as a pilgrimage toward God. This passage gets to the Orthodox heart of Laurus. In it, Arseny has reached a holy place on pilgrimage — I’m deliberately obscuring it so as not to commit spoilers — and is praying; the lack of quotation marks are in the original text:
And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.
What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder standing [nearby]. Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey — and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.
But were the venerable not aspiring for the harmony of repose? asked Arseny.
They took the route of faith, answered the elder. And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.
Arseny says he wants to know the general direction of his journey, especially the part that concerns him and the person he hurt early in his life.
But is not Christ a general direction? asked the elder. What other kind of direction do you seek? And how do you even understand the journey anyway? As the vast expanses you left behind? You made it to [here] with your questions, though you could have asked them [in your local monastery]. 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 had no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.
Then what should I be enamored of? asked Arseny.
Vertical motion, answered the elder, pointing above.
In the center of the church’s cupola there gaped a round, black opening reserved for the sky and stars. Stars were visible but they were fading from sight. Arseny understood day was breaking.
This short interview with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and an enthusiastic reader of Dostoevsky, helped me to understand what’s going on in Laurus. Excerpts:
LC For those of us steeped in Russian culture, the relationship between literature and religious thought always seemed very inspiring, but it’s exotic and strange from a British viewpoint. How would you describe it?
RW The key for me is the concept of “personalism”—a fascination with the unfathomable in each person. Russian personalism comprises a sharp reaction against collectivism, which, as we know, is odd given the dominance of collectivist tendencies in Russian history. But there’s a tension there. There’s a wonderful expression of personalism in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, when Yuri Zhivago speaks of a time when “There will be no spare people any more. Everyone counts.”
LC There’s also a long-standing tension with western individualism in Russian personalism, isn’t there?
RW Personalism creates a kind of way through to community and freedom at the heart of human life. It doesn’t set individual dignity and integrity against anything. Dostoevsky dismisses western individualism as “wills asserting themselves against reality, as opposed to finding the way through from personal freedom to the freedom of God.”
LC Can we unpack that? It seems important, but the language can be offputting for contemporary readers.
RW Dostoevsky and some of his followers would say ethics is not about good and evil; it’s about truth and falsehood, reality and illusion. The right way to live doesn’t amount to a series of approved actions. It’s about living in recognition of reality.
LC I like this idea of a true reality beaming its message out from Dostoevsky’s great novels, but on the face of it it’s so airy-fairily metaphysical I wonder whether we can persuade many people today to buy it.
RW Reality is an underlying conviction of harmony. The sense that there is a unity to human experience, that somewhere every river runs into the same sea.
RW Dostoevsky famously said: “If there’s no God, then everything is permitted.” It’s a view the west might consider more often. Dostoevsky’s not saying that if there’s no God then no one’s watching us and we can do what we like. He’s really asking: what’s the rationale for living this way and not otherwise? If there’s no God, then there’s no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something. If there’s no divine tune, how do you know where to go, what to do? To believe in God is not a business of rewards, but an ability to make sense of things.
LC And this ability can’t come from our experience of love and art, say?
RW How do you see to it that one thousand flowers bloom and not one thousand weeds? The problem is one of the irreduceable divergence of moral ideals.
This is what Vodolazkin embodies in his novel: the quest of Arseny to harmonize his life with reality, which cannot be other than giving over his personal freedom for freedom in God. One more thing from the interview:
RW: … Third, and here I would go back to Dostoevsky, the creative potential of every person is an abyss of risk and danger. In the Russian tradition, human beings are regarded as mysterious and impenetrable, so you have to govern with a rod of iron—otherwise you don’t know what they might do.
LC This is the heart of one’s equivocal admiration for the Russian soul, isn’t it? A world that has that sense of individual spiritual depth and mystery and power set against a completely unworkable political reality. What do you think the west today might take out of the Russian tradition?
RW For most of us it’s a question of what authority we are prepared to recognise, and I think authority often comes from something endured, either by ourselves or someone else. Think of Nelson Mandela. Think also of Gee Walker, the mother of the murdered Liverpool teenager Anthony, who forgave her son’s killers. Suffering confers a certain authority. We learn from it. Dostoevsky is often accused of masochism. But he’s not saying suffering is good for you. He’s saying suffering is how you are likely to learn. Don’t be frightened when it happens to you.
This is Laurus. The suffering of a wanderer in plague-haunted Russia is very different from anything we have to deal with, but suffering itself — that’s universal. The way Arseny deals with it, seeks God’s will in it, and measures his own spiritual progress by it, may strike the contemporary Western Christian with the force of revelation. That said, the astonishing final act of the novel, and its unforgettable final lines, showcase the “mysterious and impenetrable” quality of human nature, and its tragic sense.
On a number of occasions reading Laurus, I thought about how much it reminded me of Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the vision of harmony Dante shows us in Paradiso, which, as you know, was written in the High Middle Ages, and shares with Orthodoxy a view of the world as kosmos, as ordered by God, and our task as Christians to unite ourselves to this divine harmony, which is Love. Laurus shows us what that feels like in the life of an extraordinary peasant pilgrim long ago and far away.
In the end, Laurus is a saint’s life, though it doesn’t read as you think a hagiography would. As Williams would say, this is not a book about good and evil, but about what is real and eternal and what is false and temporal. It is hard, therefore, to place within a familiar Western Christian framework. But that is what is so liberating about it. It calls to mind Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, in that it embodies the great mystery and drama of holiness, makes it tangible to us, while at the same time revealing its transcendent character. That is no small accomplishment in our time and place.
Vodolazkin is himself a kind of wonder-worker, and Laurus is without a doubt one of the most moving and mysterious books you will read in this or any other year. The world of its characters is spiritually spellbinding, and the reader should not be surprised to find that it evokes within himself a desire to pray, and thereby take what feeble steps he can to walk alongside the humble healer Arseny on his life’s pilgrimage.
UPDATE: I just ran across this favorite quote of mine by Russell Kirk:
“I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.”
Amen and amen. If you are the kind of person who would give any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle, Laurus is a novel for you.