Brisbane, the latest offering from the enigmatic author Eugene Vodolazkin, is a novel that might not exist—at least not in any readily recognizable form. And that is its greatest gift.
Brisbane is difficult to summarize. Aristotle, with his famous command that dramatic action is best confined to one thing in one time and one place, would either laugh or weep at it. Is it one novel, or two? Is it set in the 1970s and 80s, or in the early 2010s? Who is the ‘main character?’ The cleanest description I can offer is this: it is the tale of Gleb, a prodigiously gifted guitarist, who, despite his place at the summit of the arts and culture, struggles to understand the purpose of his life. When destiny (Providence?) robs him of his ability to play the guitar, he must find another path to meaning—and salvation.
The titular city plays only a passing role in the novel, which alternates between Kyiv, St. Petersburg, and Munich as its setting. Brisbane, for Gleb, is a kind of paradise. Or rather, it is a kind of paradise for his mother, a Russian beauty who in the first pages of the book divorces his moody Ukrainian musician of a father. Gleb’s mother sets out on a journey to Brisbane, the city of her dreams. Meanwhile, Gleb stays in Europe, torn between dreams born in Ukraine, Russia, and Germany. To Gleb’s mother, a simple Australian town is Paradise; yet among the fetes and accolades of the great capitals of Europe, Gleb cannot find even a home to call his own.
Gleb’s own dislocation is not so much described as felt. The book itself is fragmented to the point of frustration. It is essentially two stories told on top of each other, one the story of the narrator’s childhood and young adulthood and the other his late middle-age. They do not really read as two stories woven together; they read as two stories told in chronologic parallel, moving in the same direction at the same pace, two stories that will never catch up with each other. The snippets of each story are tantalizingly brief. Just as we begin to find our feet in one narrative, we are plunged into another.
This back-and-forth was so shattering to my literary nerves that for my second time through the book, I tried reading it in chronological order, flipping pages to follow Our Hero straight through from 1971 to 2018. The experiment failed. I quickly found that a song written for two voices does not sound well when it is sung by only one, and Brisbane truly is a song. In many ways it feels more like an oratorio than a novel; the pace is unexpected, sometimes jarring. Situations that seem to merit considerable dramatic space take only a few paragraphs to summarize; meanwhile, moments can stretch into pages, just as in singing, a phrase can extend itself outwards in time far beyond any merit found in the words alone.
One of the keys to Brisbane lurks in Gleb’s university years, where he studies Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theory of polyphony. Bakhtin lent us language to describe the psychological choruses that are the novels of Dostoevsky; before Dostoevsky, Bakhtin argues, novels followed traditional harmonics, meaning that even in novels with numerous “voices,” one voice or line was dominant. The goal of harmony in music is to hear many voices singing together as one—a grander and richer voice, but still a single voice. Within literature, Bakhtin says, this is how novelists prior to Dostoevsky wrote. Throughout their works, one “voice” became dominant; this voice was the moral arbiter, or, for more sophisticated novelists, the arbiter of reality. Dissenting voices eventually fell into harmony with it, so that the experience of reading a novelist’s work was one of a single voice.
Dostoevsky, according to Bakhtin, changed all that. Reading the works of Dostoevsky does not feel harmonic; rather, it feels like a great cacophony of equal, differing voices, with none exerting the power to bring the others into harmony with itself. The experience is beautiful, but jarring—the reader of Dostoevsky who expects a harmonic note is caught off-guard over and over by the moral or theological or simply dramatic jockeying between voices.
Think, for example, of The Brothers Karamazov (while Bakhtin extends his polyphonic reading to Dostoevsky’s whole corpus, it works equally well within each of the novels individually). Within Karamazov, there are a dozen voices, each fully enfleshed, none submitting to the others. Even such ‘side characters’ as Liza and Father Ferapont are completely realized; they refuse to play harmonics to anyone else. The two characters who might have the moral authority to unite the voices of the novel into harmony, Alyosha and Father Zosima, refuse to do so. And so, Bakhtin argues, we are left with an utterly new dramatic experience: many voices within a novel, all equally developed, none dominant, each singing his own line with all his might, yet ultimately brought together into a whole.
I consider Bakhtin’s theory because Gleb does; it is the subject of his graduate thesis. But it is also his mode of expression. As a musician, Gleb’s unique offering is his virtuosic guitar playing combined with a peculiar vocalization, a humming as he calls it, that he developed as a child. Throughout his career, these two voices depend upon each other, but neither becomes dominant.
This is also the structure of the novel: Gleb’s childhood voice exists side-by-side with his adult voice. Neither overcomes the other; neither makes sense without the other. We long for harmony; we long for one of the voices to subsume the other and bring us to a chordal completion. But it does not happen.
The novel succeeds because of its failure; it succeeds because it would fail if it were written like a “normal” novel. Following its story from point A to point B, it makes no sense; it holds none of the wonder that we expect from great fiction. It is only when we view Gleb’s life as a stained-glass window, aggressively fragmented, the bands of black lead abrasive between glowing panels, that we see it as a whole, illuminated with inner light. Brisbane illustrates St. Catherine of Siena’s famous quote, “The path to Heaven is Heaven.” St. Catherine did not say whether the path felt like Heaven at the time, but she was certain that it was, in all essentials, Heaven. In other words, Heaven bleeds backwards into our lives, until every moment is colored with its otherworldly hues.
That is the feat Vodolazkin accomplishes in Brisbane: that bleeding backwards, that transformation wrought by Heaven on Earth. Within this novel, as within life, things look different based on where we are now. The marriage that feels like a trap at one point becomes the most comforting of shields later; the rejection that shoves us through a black and cold doorway becomes the pathway to true love. The anguish of childbirth that leaves a woman writhing on the floor becomes a laughing matter once she holds her child in her arms (this was the case for me, at least).
T.S. Eliot alludes to this mystery of the future changing the past in the realm of literature specifically when he said, in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent:
What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it … the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
The temptation is, of course, to imagine that this is some kind of platitude, or worse, a tame little contradiction masquerading as a paradox. No true paradox is tame, but we live in a world of bland pseudo-paradoxes: “I’m so glad you’ve found what’s true for you,” for example, or “Follow your truth!” These vile little phrases are pale shadows of true Paradox; they drape confusion in the veil of Mystery and demand that we adore it. A true Paradox is devastating. It is the Three-in-One; it is the wholly-God-and-wholly-Man; it is the damnably-corrupt-divine nature of humanity. It is something that irks, that troubles, that torments us.
Brisbane does just that. It may not seem high praise to call a novel “tortuous,” but in this case, I can think of no higher praise. Too many things in this world are easy, and they create the illusion that we are owed ease. We are not. The path of salvation is tortuous; it is straight, yes, but oh so narrow, and to walk it is to dance on feet bloodied by the knife-edge.
As I write this, I am listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion directed by Klemperer, for it is Maundy Thursday, and as I wrote those words the recording reached the end of the “Erkenne mich, mein Hüter,” the tune to which St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s glorious poem “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” is usually sung.
This is, of course, the greatest Paradox: the Sacred Wounded, the Divine Victim, the Omnipotent Sacrifice. There is resistance nowadays among “edgier” folk to describing Christ as a Victim; people seem to fear that by making the Divine into a victim, we risk normalizing victimhood. Whether this concern is merited or not is not the point of this essay; this essay is a review of Brisbane. But the reality is that at the central moment in history, God became a Victim. The Easter Sequence in the Old Rite of the Mass is “Victimae Paschali Laudes”— “to the Easter Victim, Christians, offer praise and sacrifice!” We cannot dodge this paradox with platitudes; this cannot be true for me and not for thee. It is a vital and all-consuming claim. It is a universal claim, yet in its universality it is infinitely particular. The Truth revealed in this claim is unique to each person, and it is unique to each person at various points in his life. In this way, in all its fragmentation and frustrations interspersed with brief moments of clarity, Brisbane reads like life.
It is necessary to address two other things about Brisbane: the historical moment of its publication, and its relationship with Vodolazkin’s previous novel, the tremendous Laurus. First, the historical moment. The opening pages of Brisbane recount the divorce of a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father; again, two voices that seem unable to harmonize. These two voices resonate with equal clarity throughout Gleb’s life. The question of Gleb’s national identity—is he Russian? is he Ukrainian? What is the difference?—circles the events of the novel. Now, of course, all of those questions have much greater urgency. It is a quirk of fate that Vodolazkin’s novel will be published in the midst of a war of Russian aggression against Ukraine; there is much to say about the question of Ukraine and Russia, but I hope that this quirk will not become the dominant voice in conversations about Brisbane, for the book is much larger than the historical context of its publication.
And finally, a word about Laurus, which many people who approach Brisbane will doubtless have read and relished. Brisbane is no Laurus. In fact, it is so profoundly not Laurus that this differentiation becomes a triumph. To realize so fully such different “imaginative dreams,” as critic and novelist John Gardener describes fiction, requires not just depth of craft but depth of soul. There is a risk in the kind of pivot Vodolazkin attempts in his turn from Laurus to Brisbane; readers enchanted by the voice of Laurus may be baffled by Brisbane’s dueling narratives (and narrators) and mundane Cold-War cityscapes. But considering Vodolazkin’s apparent admiration for Dostoevsky and for Bakhtin’s criticism of Dostoevsky, the varied voices of Vodolazkin’s novels become even more telling: not only is there no dominant voice with each of the novels, but apparently there is no dominant voice among the novels. Each is its own song, and these songs heard together become greater than the sum of their parts.
In this, Vodolazkin stands in contrast with another great contemporary European novelist, Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq’s panopticon of novels, despite differences of setting and characters, are only ever studying one thing—the sick, empty heart of modern humanity—using one perspective: that of a modern man sick to death of his own empty excess. Houellebecq’s own voice is always present, lurking beneath that of the narrator, and because of that, there is no real frisson between his novels. This is not true of Vodolazkin. The worlds of Laurus and Brisbane do not harmonize; instead, they sing to each other. Sometimes they shout at each other. But through it all Vodolazkin probes his central theme: the mysterious relationship of time and salvation, the bleeding back and forth of joy and grief across life and history, the never-ending exchange between our end and our beginning.