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J.A.A. Purves

Laurus (2015)

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I just acquired my copy and it is a beautiful book.  Different sources I trust have been singing Vodolazkin's praises for months now and it looks like it may end up being an important novel.

Justin Ryan Lonas, “The Revelation of Literature: A Review of Laurus,” Hardscrabble, January 9, 2015:

“... What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature — sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for “color”, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.

... The way time moves (or doesn’t) in Laurus is reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five, with Arseny “unstuck” in time. Whereas Vonnegut’s clock-play evokes an underlying banality to life, what Vodolazkin achieves is more akin to prophecy—unfolding reality with a rising spiral of metaphysics.

Events and themes seem to reverberate through the book and beyond. What occurs is never in isolation from everything else in the story, but reaches across time and space to give significance to what comes before and after. Like biblical prophecies, which so often have immediate, intermediate, and ultimate fulfillments as they ripple out from their proclamation, the phases of Arseny’s story rhyme, often with repeated phrases and mirrored scenes. For example, early in the book, Arseny sees his older self staring back at him through a fire; the same few paragraphs are retold from the perspective of the old man some 200 pages later, as they behold one another and weep together.

The one constant in time within the story is writing. Characters are constantly quoting Scripture, things of importance are always written down, and Arseny reads and re-reads a few key texts and the manuscripts his grandfather had scribbled into pieces of birch bark.

‘For Christofer, the written word seemed to regulate the world. Stop its fluctuations. Prevent notions from eroding. This is why Cristofer’s sphere of interest was so broad. According to the writer’s thinking, that sphere should correspond to the world’s breadth…Cristofer understood that the written word would always remain that way. No matter what happened later, once it had been written, the word had already occurred.’

The story contains such a wealth of themes that this brief discussion can only scratch the surface. I am not offering a plot summary, because to do so would, I think detract from the experience of reading. Like all truly great books, its value is so much more than the plot (“spoilers” would make it no less worth your time), but it is better taken in stride than explained.

This tips my hand, of course. It is easy to be overcome by the joy of a freshly discovered work of art, but I would be shocked if Laurus is not still around on shelves and in literature classes generations from now. Finding this book has done much to encourage me in the good work of pursuing the holy imagination needed to speak to men’s souls with the sharp truth of love.

And there is a broad hunger for this. The sudden and enthusaistic popularity of Vodolazkin’s work seems to have surprised him more than anyone. In a radio interview with Eric Metaxas, he said that, after finishing the book, he told his wife that he would read it and she would read it and no one else would read it. That was in 2012, before Laurus struck a nerve in Russia and became a best-seller, going on to win that country’s equivalent of the National Book Award.”

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Rod Dreher, “The Wonder-Working Laurus,” The American Conservative, October 27, 2015:

“Last night, after midnight, I read the last lines of Laurus, a newly translated Russian novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, and thought it surely must be the most perfect ending ever. There is no way it could have ended any more perfectly or profoundly. And then I did what I have done nearly every time I’ve put this astonishing novel down over the last few days: I picked up my chotki (prayer rope) and prayed, as I was first taught to do in an Orthodox parish in the Russian tradition.

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.

... In the end, Laurus  is a saint’s life, though it doesn’t read as you think a hagiography would. As Williams would say, this is not a book about good and evil, but about what is real and eternal and what is false and temporal. It is hard, therefore, to place within a familiar Western Christian framework. But that is what is so liberating about it. It calls to mind Bernanos’s ‘Diary of a Country Priest,’ in that it embodies the great mystery and drama of holiness, makes it tangible to us, while at the same time revealing its transcendent character. That is no small accomplishment in our time and place.

Vodolazkin is himself a kind of wonder-worker, and Laurus is without a doubt one of the most moving and mysterious books you will read in this or any other year. The world of its characters is spiritually spellbinding, and the reader should not be surprised to find that it evokes within himself a desire to pray, and thereby take what feeble steps he can to walk alongside the humble healer Arseny on his life’s pilgrimage.”

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I just finished this.  If you like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, then you should read this book.  If you are at all interested in Sacramental Theology/Sacramental Ontology/or-generally-in-rejecting-Descartes’-dualism-between-spiritual-and-physical, then you should read this book.  If you enjoy learning about the Medieval worldview, then you should read this book.  If you ever wondered what Dostoyevsky's literary/spiritual heirs are up to, then you should read this book.  If you just love beautiful and poetic prose, then you should read this book.  If you are interested in what good novels have been written about religious faith in the last year, then you should read this book.

Basically, the main question is ... WHY have you not yet read this book?

Highly recommended.  Vodolazkin just jumped into becoming one of those rare authors whose next book I will always impatiently and excitedly anticipate with great joy and pleasure.

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I'm interested in all of those things.  So I'm thinking that maybe... I should read this book!   :)

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Janet Fitch, Los Angeles Review of Books, February 11, 2016:
“... Under the spell of Laurus, we imagine what it would be like to measure life in seasons and harvests rather than clocks and clicks, to walk in hallowed paths and receive ancient wisdom, to suffer and cleanse the soul. It deposits us, much like the 2007 Russian film The Island — about a man who becomes a contemporary holy fool — into a magical world steeped in voluntary suffering, devotion, and answered prayer, which stands in opposition to Western skepticism and aversion to irrationality.

Unlike a saintly figure one might find in other postmodern Russian work, Vodolazkin’s holy man and his medieval world are drawn with sincere, uncynical affection. As such, the novel embodies a break with immediate post-Soviet literature, which is heavily skeptical and leavened with irony. Laurus contains stylistic similarities to contemporary Russian works — the fracturing of time, the linguistic playfulness — but within the confines of a tale of faith. The result: an instructive saint’s life keyed for a sophisticated contemporary audience, and suggesting an alternative to materialism, irony, and despair ...”

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Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.  Definitely recommended and the perfect double bill with Ishaguro's The Buried Giant, which I also recently read and--even though I found it frustrating at times--am unlikely to forget any time soon.

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