Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus is a remarkable novel, partly because it challenges our notions of what the 21st-century novel should be. We do not need to go as far as Georg Lukács, who famously described the novel as the epic of a world abandoned by God, to see the modern novel as essentially a secular construct, with even Christian authors tending to write about the trials of men and women in this world without much reference to supernatural realities. But what we get in Laurus is quite different. Here we have miracles and saints, angels and answered prayers all set in the context of liturgical time, monastic life and a very long pilgrimage. Which is not to say that Vodolazkin has given us some ethereal hagiography: the key event of the book is the (graphically described) death in childbirth of the central character’s lover, a character who becomes a saint, not because he never sins, but because he knows how to repent. Laurus is, in other words, a deeply religious book as well as a profoundly unsettling one.
The plot, on one level, is relatively straightforward. A young healer in 15th-century Russia called Arseny (who later takes the name Laurus) takes in and falls in love with a young woman called Ustina who is fleeing the plague. When Ustina falls pregnant, a combination of pride and shame prevents Arseny from fetching the midwife. Their child is stillborn and Ustina dies soon after. Her tragic and preventable death, however, proves to be as much a beginning as an end. As a wise monk tells him: “You have a difficult journey, for the story of your love is only beginning. Everything, O Arseny, will now depend on the strength of your love. And, of course, on the strength of your prayers too.” Leaving his home, Arseny becomes an itinerant healer and a holy fool. His constant suffering is mitigated by the conversations he has with the dead Ustina, his prayers, and the increasingly miraculous cures that he works for all those who need his help. Gradually he makes his way towards Jerusalem. Slowly he becomes a saint.
So what sort of book is Laurus? The genre is not obvious at first, but the genre matters, because along with the striking use of language, which ranges from Old Church Slavonic to modern slang, it is the means by which Vodolazkin challenges modern preconceptions and prejudices. What we have in this book is not historical fiction―its Russian subtitle is “A Non-Historical Novel”―and certainly not historical kitsch, but rather a book that is part saint’s life, part love story, part travelogue and part Bildungsroman. Vodolazkin, who is an expert in Old and Middle Russian literature, sees himself as an intermediary between medieval Russia and the modern world and what he gives us in Laurus is a novel that negotiates a way between the two in some intriguing ways.
Midway through the book, for example, when Arseny is dying, a “splendid young man” whose “face shone like a sunbeam” brings him back to life. From then on Arseny’s life is transformed and, crucially, events “diverged from time and no longer depended on time”. It is at this point that the Orthodox holy fool meets the Catholic Ambrogio Flecchia who has visions of the future and is entranced by history: “The young man was willing to spend hours sitting over historical writings. With their focus on the past, they […] were an escape from the present. Movement away from the present―in both directions―became something Ambrogio needed as much as air, because it removed time’s unidimensionality, which caused him to gasp for breath.” In a book rooted firmly in the events of this world, Arseny, Ambrogio and the readers begin to experience time from outside, sub specie aeternitatis, seeing 20th-century events as often as 15th-century ones.
As Ambrogio learns Old Russian and becomes a historical expert, the 21st-century reader also begins to grasp what sort of book Vodolazkin has given us. Like Tolkien reforming the modern novel through continuity with Old English literature, Vodolazkin rewrites the contemporary novel by drawing upon annals, chronicles, and saints’ lives that our 21st-century culture does its best to forget. This use of the past challenges us to read differently. Do we judge Arseny and his 15th century, deeply Christian world from the perspective of our secular age or do we allow his often disconcerting differences to judge us? Do we adopt a hermeneutic of rupture or do we apply a hermeneutic of continuity, a way of reading which does not contemptuously dismiss the pre-modern world? If ever there was a novel which demanded a theological reading, it is Laurus (which didn’t prevent it from becoming a bestseller and the winner of two major literary prizes in Russia).
Vodolazkin is an Orthodox writer who is sympathetic to Catholicism, so it is maybe no surprise that Laurus can be read through a lens provided by Pope Benedict XVI. However, if we are to grasp the full richness of the book we need St John Paul II too, and specifically his catecheses on human love. Laurus is a book about the body, about illness and suffering, but more importantly about wholeness and healing. As Arseny grows more saintly, the cures that he effects have less to do with the medicine he administers and more to do with the person he is. The medicines “did no harm but (or so it now seemed to Arseny) they did not substantially help. It was Arseny’s inner work that was important: his ability to concentrate on prayer while simultaneously dissolving himself within the patient. And if the patient recovered, it was Arseny’s recovery.” What Arseny discovers is that the greatest gift he can give is himself: it is this that brings wholeness to his patients and redemption for himself.
Vodolazkin once wrote that “contemporary Russia desperately needs people who can pelt devils with stones, but even more, it needs those who can talk with angels.” In Vodolazkin himself, Russia seems to have found such a person. Fortunately for us, Laurus is now available in English translation and so it is not simply his homeland which can benefit from the discovery.
This review first appeared in Humanum Review.