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‘People Need Other Things To Live By’

My interview with 'Laurus' author Evgeny Vodolazkin

Earlier this fall, I ran across a short review by Ken Kalfus in The New Yorker, praising a best-selling Russian novel called Laurus 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. Back in October, I blogged about “the wonder-working Laurus,” 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 — 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 9781780747552as 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. 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, the excellent bookstore on Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

The book is called Laurus, and it is a masterpiece.