Intense and near-nauseating, Aleksandr Skorobogatov’s slim novel Russian Gothic is part-Gogol, part-Nabokov and thoroughly magnificent
By Francesca Peacock 25 April 2023 • 9:00am
a wonderfully, startlingly disconcerting read.
For Nikolai, a twenty-something veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, life is bleak. He lives with his wife, Vera, in a small apartment, and spends his days drinking vodka from the moment he wakes up — he has a shot with his “plateful of fried eggs” — to the moment he fights a spinning room and lurching floor to get to sleep. Their young son died five years ago, and lies under “a gravestone of the cheapest sort”. In the aftermath, Nikolai has become dangerously obsessed with the idea that Vera, an actress, is cheating on him. Then, one morning, as Nikolai knocks back his first morning shot, there’s a knock on the door: the elusive, mysterious and possibly imaginary “Sergeant Bertrand” has come to visit.
Belarusian author Aleksandr Skorobogatov’s intense and near-nauseating first novel, Russian Gothic, was originally published in Russian in 1991 as Sergeant Bertrand. (The title was an implicit reference to the 19th-century French soldier whose murderous activities gave the world the term “necrophilia”.) Despite its considerable success in Russia — it was awarded a “Best Novel of the Year” award by the literary magazine Yunost, and sold close to a million copies — this terse, compact translation by Ilona Chavasse is the first time it has been rendered in English.
In Skorobogatov’s hands, the boundaries between reality and imagination, sanity and insanity break down
The novel is part-heir to the “surreal” tradition in Russian literature, from Gogol’s Diary of a Madman to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and part-Nabokovian account of warped passion. Skorobogatov traces Nikolai’s descent into madness as the young ex-soldier becomes more and more convinced that his wife, whom he beats until she is “blotched yellow and blue”, is betraying him with every man he sees. Encouraged by the mysterious “Sergeant Bertrand”, who acts as a narrator of Nikolai’s worst fears, Nikolai becomes mired in hallucinations of Vera’s infidelity and of cathartic violence against other women, until, after an axe-wielding rampage, he ends up in a hospital ward full of “madmen”.
Given the growing violence in Russia and a new generation of war veterans, its relevance may only have
In Skorobogatov’s hands, the boundaries between reality and imagination, sanity and insanity break down. Is anything in the novel not, at least in part, the product of Nikolai’s obsessive imagination? With Skorobogatov’s skilfully ambiguous storytelling, it’s hard to say. With all its angst, terror and uncertainty, Russian Gothic has been heralded as an early masterpiece of “post-Soviet literature” — a wonderfully, startlingly disconcerting read. Given the growing violence in Russia and a new generation of war veterans, its relevance may only have increased.
Russian Gothic is published by Old Street at £8.99.