A surprising new Russian novel recommends 'the way of the saints'.
Have we been duped by modernity? Was the rise of Christianity in its first age an easier project than its restoration or rejuvenation may be? In an age when technical and scientific knowledge has such a capacity to bamboozle humanity with the idea of irreversible progress, can the light of faith still penetrate the darkness?
Yes, it can. And how it might do so is the preoccupation of a Russian historian and novelist whose book, Laurus, is taking the literary world by storm.
Already a best-seller in its country of origin where it was published in 2013, this novel by Evgeny Vodolazkin, has now been translated into English. Its first edition sold out and a new printing – my local bookshop tells me -- will not be available in Europe until May. Laurus has already been translated into more than twenty languages worldwide. It became a literary sensation when published in Russia and won its two major awards in that year. This, Vodolazkin’s second novel (though his debut in English), captures religious fervour in fifteenth-century Russia, tracking the life of a healer and “holy fool”; it is described by some as a postmodern synthesis of Bildungsroman, travelogue, hagiography and love story.
Set in the late Middle Ages, its protagonist, Arseny, born in 1440, was raised near 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, its New Yorker reviewer tells us, Vodolazkin aims directly at the heart of the Russian religious experience. He may, but he does much more than that.
A contemplative experience
It is truly astounding that just a few decades after Russia’s emergence from the bitter wilderness of soviet atheism, a voice and a spirit like this can speak to us with such authority, spiritual sensibility and wisdom. It shows us that mankind, even while caught in the grip of atheistic modernity, is redeemable.
Rod Dreher of The American Conservative, who practices Orthodox Christianity, says of this novel that it makes you want to enter into contemplative prayer. “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.”
He fears that by saying that, he will make the novel sound pious and devotional. It 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.”
The baptism of Princess Olga in Constantinople in 955, a miniature from the Radzivill Chronicle. Wikipedia
So taken was Dreher by this novel when he read it, that he contacted the 51 year-old author by telephone at his home in St. Petersburg in early November, and spent nearly two hours in conversation.
Dreher asked the Russian, "Do you believe that problems of the modern world can be solved by political means?" the answer was polite but clear -- almost to the point of not being polite:
"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 the 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.”
Vodolazkin has a personalist view of history.
“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. ... We have to work with individual human beings, and their souls. My position is one of Christian personalism. The main thing we can do to fight this evil is to pray... To do something politically is not so effective. Politics is a result of the situation we have in our souls.”
For him, after the Providence of God, culture is the real catalyst for change. Except for what he describes as “the gathering of the Holy Spirit”, culture is for him the second most important work that we can do. He cites one of his teachers, the historian and scholar, Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachov, who wrote that the main thing that justifies the existence of a nation is its culture.
‘The things we no longer have’
Laurus is an exploration of the human condition in our own time but looked at with the wisdom of the people of another time. In truth, It reveals the deep humanism of the Middle Ages. For Vodolazkin (pictured) this age was much more humanistic than modernity.
“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.”
He explains how it was a special kind of humanism. The humanism of modernity sees the human being as the measure of all things, but medieval people were convinced that this measure was given by God. It’s an essential difference. Echoing his great compatriot Alexander Solzynitsyn in the latter’s critique of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, he says that in modernity the human being is at the top of the hierarchy. In the Middle Ages, at the top of the hierarchy was God. “In our post-Christian society, God very often is not present in our life at all.”
In a seminar in London last Autumn Vodolazkin described Laurus in this way: “To quote Lermontov," he said, “it is ‘the history of a man’s soul’.” The book’s subtitle is, intriguingly, “a non-historical novel”. The author is quick to dissociate himself from historical fiction. It is ultimately “a book about absence," he said, “a book about modernity”.
“There are two ways to write about modernity: the first is by writing about the things we have; the second, by writing about those things we no longer have.”
The beetle on the road to Munich
Evegeny Vodolazkin was born and raised in the Soviet era. For him, studying Medieval history and literature was a way to escape from the gulag that was Soviet Russia, a kind of emigraton. Medieval history was the only piece of reality where the Soviet mentality was absent in the 1980s when he was growing up.
His parents were agnostics and he was not baptized as a child. It was a period of personal paganism, he says.
“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.”
Little children, he says, 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. At that moment he says he experienced a terrible fear – not that he would die and cease to be, but rather that everything is pointless without God.
In the Soviet Union in those years after his conversion it was prohibited for young people to visit church. Doing so constituted a huge risk and was regularly punished by expulsion from university. He was undeterred by this and describes it as his secret life. He felt like one of the early Christians.
He is intrigued by the response to Laurus. Some critics have described it as a postmodern novel. He disputes this because for him postmodernism is just a game that plays with quoting literature of the past, but has no grounding in anything real.
He sees a new literature now being born. It has, he says, many, many features of the Middle Ages in its structure. Modernity he thinks, quoting Nikolai Berdyaev, the great Russian religious and political philosopher, is in its end days as a cultural epoch.
Berdyaev says people in the Middle Ages were not so individualistic as people in modernity. Modernity developed our appreciation of individuality and that in itself was not a bad thing. But now, we are entering a time when our appreciation of another set of values is growing, values which are ultimately more important than individuality.
‘What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church.’
For Vodolazkin it is now time to think about the destination, and not just about the journey. This is a central theme in Laurus. If the way leads nowhere, it is meaningless. He recalls a film released in Russia during the perestroika period. Repentance, by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze, is 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, Vodolazkin argues. 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”.
He sees us as essentially duped by technical and scientific knowledge. This leads us to believe that we can solve every problem in life, he says. That for him is a great illusion. Technology has not solved the problem of death, and it will never solve this problem. The illusion is that everything is clear and known to us. Were medieval people, 100 percent of whom believed in God, really so stupid in comparison to us? he asks.
In the world of Laurus, God was the most important thing in life. The second most important thing was Time. While in terms of years spent on this earth, medieval people lived rather short lives, in other terms life was very, very long, because they lived with their minds in eternity. Life did not end when their time on earth ended; their days on earth were part of a greater whole.
“Every day is an eternity in the church, and all that surrounded these people. Eternity made time very long, and very interesting. 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.”
Vodolazkin is puzzled by the fact that liberals and conservatives both liked his 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”
He says he is not trying to teach people in his book. His only purpose is to show us what this other way looks like.
With a note of doubt as to whether people will understand what he s really saying, he says that maybe it was easier to see the truth about things 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 everyone thinks they know everything.
Laurus is evidently a book of great complexity, with archaic flourishes which sometimes baffle the reader but are all part of the meaning of the whole. According to one reviewer, “Laurus cannot be faulted for its ambition or for its poignant humanity. It is a profound, sometimes challenging, meditation on faith, love and life’s mysteries.”
Yet if the book is a phenomenon, so is Evegeny Vodolazkin himself. It is not a little ironic that he should make his appearance in our culture at the juncture when another – to whom he has been compared – should have left us. Umberto Eco preoccupied himself with many of the same things as Vodolazkin does – but came to very contrary conclusions. Eco remained with the beetle on the road to Munich. Vodolazkin transcended the road and helps us see both the origin and the destination of everything that gives that road its purpose.
The New Yorker reviewer said that Vodolazkin aims directly at the heart of the Russian religious experience. He does, but he does much more than that. He goes to the heart of the hunger for religion in every soul.
Michael Kirke writes from Dublin. This article has been republished from his blog, Garvan Hill.