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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Eugene Vodolazkin

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To purchase Brisbane

Title: Brisbane
Author: Eugene Vodolazkin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 335 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Brisbane - US
Brisbane - UK
Brisbane - Canada
Brisbane - France
Brisbane - Italia
Brisbane - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Plough Publishing
  • Russian title: Брисбен
  • Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Our Assessment:

B+ : obvious, but not in the ways one might initially expect -- and ultimately very well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Il Manifesto . 18/4/2021 Michela Venditti
TLS . 23/9/2022 Muireann Maguire

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tessuto di riferimenti e allusioni alla letteratura russa, da Turgenev a Cechov, da Karamzin a Puškin, Brisbane è l’espressione diretta di un mondo, sia interno che esterno, dipinto da Vodolazkin in contraddittoria e intrigante unità e con grandiosa leggerezza. Al centro della narrazione stanno il suono delle parole, le declinazioni di nomi in russo e in ucraino, le etimologie, e anche una rivista che pubblica solo titoli palindromi (sui quali si è esercitata la perizia del traduttore)." - Michela Venditti, Il Manifesto

  • "Of Vodolazkin’s four novels, this is his most contemporary -- and autobiographical. (...) Brisbane is very witty, and, while the cheeky palindromes are cleverly reconstructed by Schwartz, and the farce works well (...), what one might call the high-culture dad jokes, almost instinctively funny for Slavic readers, are doomed to flop in English without footnotes. (...) Brisbane is a richly polyphonic novel. It is a shame that, in translation, some of its voices have been muted." - Muireann Maguire, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The chapters in Brisbane alternate between present-day first person accounts, from 2012 to 2014, by Gleb Yanovsky, and an omniscient narrator chronicling Gleb's earlier life, also chronologically, from 1971 through 2000. Gleb is a world-famous guitar player, and in the novel's opening scene, aboard a flight from Paris to Petersburg, he meets a writer who publishes under the pseudonym Nestor -- himself well-known enough that Gleb has read one of his books. Nestor finds himself intrigued by Gleb and proposes writing a book about him. Gleb notes that there are already a few decent ones about him out there -- but he admits that they are missing the human element; the confident Nestor -- "I'm a good writer", he tells Gleb -- thinks he can do better. If not exactly enthusiastic about the undertaking (and noting that Nestor is clearly quite drunk at the time), Gleb is fine with it: "Go ahead. Write it"". He even recounts a scene from forty years earlier, his father testing the boy's musical ear -- "Why shouldn't that be the start of the book ?" -- and the novel then neatly segues to the next chapter, reproducing that scene from 1971 more fully, in the third person, as if Nestor had taken up the story from there
       The retrospective chapters begin with Gleb growing up in Kyiv. His musical genius is not immediately evident; indeed, for a novel about a man who has gone on to become a widely-recognized and very wealthy performer, Gleb's musical talent lies dormant much of the time or is, at best, underutilized. But then Gleb complained to Nestor that where those other books about him fell short was in the fact that they showed: "no understanding that the musical stems from the human". And Brisbane focuses very much on the human: there are musical interludes -- several concerts, and some music-making and -studying along the way -- but far more often it is not front and center. So also, the book basically passes over the most successful period of Gleb's musical career entirely, the years between 2000 and 2012.
       Language is very much at the fore in Brisbane as well -- down to Gleb studying philology at university, rather than continuing music school. (His thesis, then, is on polyphony.) The connection between language and music is repeatedly made clear -- very explicitly then, after he has graduated but before he has really begun down the path to his eventual success, when he realizes: "music was language and language music". Earlier, he had also come to understand that:

Music can only exist in harmony with silence. Without a pause a sound is incomplete, as is speech without silence. Gleb's musical pause lasted for many years, but it was only a pause. For his understanding of music, they proved more important than years and years of playing.
       From early on he is also between languages -- specifically, Ukrainian and Russian. A revelation comes when he is in his late teens, and visits a distant relation in Moscow: "He was shaken by the Russian language such as he'd never heard it; with its own exquisite melody and, of course, words". Language matters to Gleb: he's struck by one of the women in his life not knowing Ukrainian -- "her ignorance of her native tongue is increasingly obvious" -- and speaking a poor Russian ("Her Russian is far from irreproachable, either, to put it mildly"), and as a consequence: "Hearing Hanna's speech, I feel like getting even farther away from her".
       Gleb's identity is not defined by nationality -- he grew up in the Soviet Union; he eventually moved to Germany -- but he is clearly 'Russian' (in its broadest -- yes, *sigh*, Putinesque -- sense) to his soul. So also, he maintains: "For me, Russia and Ukraine are one land", even as he is repeatedly confronted with the differences from childhood on and then most obviously when he visits Kyiv and the Maidan shortly after the February revolution there.
       Others do shift identity in ways having to do with language: Hanna's name is actually Anya; Gleb's German-born wife Katarina comes to call herself Katya (because: "Her fusion with Russia was so profound that she could no longer use her old name"). As significant as these shifts is the embrace of religion, which Gleb was pulled into as a youth -- not a simple step in the then-still Soviet Union --, and while it is not pushed obtrusively to the fore, there is a pervasive sense of deep spirituality to Brisbane. (As a matter of course, too, Katya adopts Gleb's religion -- allowing then also for their true union.)
       If there is a tragedy in Katya and Gleb's life, it is that they can not have children. Just how much it means to Katya becomes clear when the possibility of Gleb becoming a father arises, which she embraces wholeheartedly. But it is only midway through the novel that they truly become parents, when a woman Gleb had been in love with as a teen turns to him, asking for help with her thirteen-year-old daughter, Vera, -- a musical prodigy who has cancer and whose liver is failing.
       Gleb initially has doubts about Vera's talents -- "what parents don't think their child is talented ?" -- but Vera is the real deal. Her mother, Anna, on the other hand is falling apart -- conveniently allowing Gleb and Katya to take over the role as parents.
       Gleb is beyond comfortably well-off, so money is never an issue. This makes many things a lot easier, which isn't always entirely satisfying, story-wise -- but Vodolazkin wants to focus on the deeper things, and so it is essential that money is truly immaterial. It's also why he simply skips over Gleb's career as a success: we only get a glimpse of the beginnings of the meteoric rise, and then the Gleb who has achieved everything one can hope to achieve professionally -- at which point he faces a new and different challenge. When the novel opens, in 2012, he has the first inklings that something is wrong, physically, and while it takes a while for the diagnosis to become final, it's soon clear that he has Parkinson's and that his career as virtuoso is doomed to soon come to an end.
       With Vera comes new hope and opportunity; with her he can still make music -- and even perform. In fostering her talent, and bringing her to the stage, Gleb and Katya find renewed purpose, and can channel their own failed and failing yearnings -- Katya's for motherhood, Gleb's to make music.
       In summary, a lot of this sounds like the basis for a heartwarming tale, but Vodolazkin not only avoids the saccharine-trap, he runs counter to it. Not that Brisbane is a depressing novel: Vodolazkin's spiritual-religious certainty makes him -- and dominant protagonist Gleb -- not just philosophical about life on earth, but casual; one could almost sum up: the greater truth lies beyond it, so what's the big deal ? In the most literal sense, Brisbane is a tragic tale, as Vodolazkin has no interest in conventional sorts of happy endings (and, boy, does he not offer one here), but it's not a sad ending, because the greater happiness is only to be found elsewhere anyway.
       Vodolazkin doubles down on his tale in the small but significant side-story of Gleb's mother, with Gleb recalling that:
She often repeated that she'd like to live in Australia; for some reason, that country seemed like the embodiment of the carefree life.
       And that's also where the novel's title comes from: "Talking about the city of her dreams, his mother named Brisbane". The echoes of Chekhov's Three Sisters and their longing from Moscow are clear, but it's in how Vodolazkin twists and then reveals what became of Gleb's mother's longing that he delivers the final, very effective gut-punch of the novel. (Gleb, of course, is still left with his faith; faith trumps all here.)
       Brisbane can be a bit difficult to warm to, at first. The back and forth, some of the predictable scenes of growing up in the Soviet Union, and the seemingly too obvious plot-lines -- the story of an artist facing physical decline that will take him from his art; the opportunity that youth, in the form of Vera, offers --, as well as the author who chronicles this tale (as Nestor and Gleb are often in touch as the story progresses) all can seem all too wearyingly familiar. So then also its spiritual foundations might not be to everyone's taste (certainly not mine). But Vodolazkin is a very talented author, and Brisbane is an impressive work, not making any of the easy compromises that one might have expected, given its premises and characters; so also, while it is deeply religious -- Brisbane is Russian Orthodox to the core --, it takes that religiousness so much as a given, as the natural state of (Gleb's world and) affairs, that Vodolazkin feels no need to bother getting particularly preachy. It's ultimately also a very powerful novel: Vodolazkin sees his deeply spiritual work through to its bitter end -- and without the slightest bit of bitterness to it (it's simply quietly moving instead).
       There are problematic aspects to Vodolazkin's novel -- no end of them, one can sometimes think ... -- but in its uncompromising own way, Brisbane is a quite remarkable work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 May 2022

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Brisbane: Reviews: Eugene Vodolazkin: Other books by Eugene Vodolazkin under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia

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About the Author:

       Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin (Евгений Водолазкин; Evguéni Vodolazkine, Evgenij Vodolazkin) was born in 1964.

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© 2022 the complete review

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