Brisbane by Eugene Vodolazkin

An Ethereal Beauty

Brisbane by Eugene Vodolazkin (translated by Marian Schwartz) is an epic contemporary novel that drew me in from the start.

It is a novel that focuses on a life in both relatively present day and the 1970’s moving forwards.

Brisbane is also a celebration of the arts – Gleb is a musician but he also loves words, exploring their impact in the novel. He is conflicted between the Russian and the Ukrainian in him.

The main character has a mixed relationship with his father, also a musician, who seems to enjoy putting his son down. Gleb strives to make his father proud.

In contrast there is a loving relationship with his grandfather who sustains and encourages Gleb. He also introduces him to God. Religion was not encouraged in Soviet Russia as a communist country, when Gleb was growing up. Gleb dreads having the dilemma as to whether to acknowledge his faith or to deny it. Gleb finds comfort in knowing God.

There is a lifetime’s pre-occupation with death. Once Gleb becomes a Christian, his fear diminishes. “Although death was inevitable, it wasn’t final.”

Developing Parkinsons in later life, Gleb fears being unable to play and perform. He looks for comfort where he can.

Brisbane had an ethereal beauty that draws the reader in. It is part biography and part a study in music, language and life. It was a very unique read.

I will leave you with my favourite and most powerful quote:

“ ‘Yuri Gagarin flew into space but he did not see God’ … the old man smiled… ‘But God saw him. And blessed him.’ “

I received a free copy. A favourable review was not required. All opinions are my own.



Brisbane: A Novel

Eugene Vodolazkin

Translated by Marian Schwartz

A powerful exploration of identity, purpose, love, music and mortality by an award-winning writer, set against a backdrop of Russia-Ukraine unrest

‘This novel counterposes past and present, self and other. It can be defined as an exercise in Dostoyevskian polyphony, and certainly few contemporary writers are as steeped in the Russian greats as Vodolazkin. But it’s also a sophisticated and frequently moving study in dissonance, dedicated to pointing out contrasts between art and life, beauty and decay, intention and outcome. And, yes, between Ukraine and Russia.’             

‘The main thing is not to grieve over what hasn’t happened yet. Because then you’ve got double woes: first, Parkinson’s and second, your grief. Start helping someone and that will help you yourself.’

‘If your days are shortened in this disease, [they] will be given depth instead of length.’

25 April 2012. Paris. Celebrated Ukrainian guitarist Gleb Yanovsky misses a tremolo during his Paris concert. The audience doesn’t notice but Gleb worries what this stumbling of his fingers might mean. His fears are confirmed when he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s less than a year later. ‘We’ll get through this together,’ his wife reassures him, ‘All of it.’ But they have no idea of the events which are about to unfold.

On the plane back from Paris, Gleb meets a Russian writer, Nestor. Born in Kyiv in Ukraine, Gleb now considers himself Russian – Nestor tells Gleb, ‘you intrigue me… you combine two nations and I want to know exactly how.’ Gleb agrees that Nestor can write his biography. As the Parkinson’s diagnosis sinks in, Gleb is forced to look towards a time when he will be unable to play – an unthinkable prospect for a professional musician – and he and Nestor are drawn together as Gleb recalls his childhood, his musical training, his first love Anna, his marriage to Katya, the building of his career as a musician, and Katya’s sadness that they don’t have children.

Then, one day, a desperate letter arrives out of the blue from Gleb’s first love Anna. Her 13 year daughter Vera, a talented pianist, has liver cancer – Anna, who is now struggling with mental health issues herself, asks if they can help Vera. United in their love of music and their fear of death, Gleb and Vera practise and perform together, giving a new focus to their lives and providing some relief from their illnesses. But the grains of sand are slowly running down…

Brisbane is a richly layered narrative from award-winning writer Eugene Vodolazkin (born in Ukraine and now living in Russia), which explores universal themes including music and art, identity and purpose, community and belonging, nationalism and individualism, weakness and mortality, and giftedness versus graft. Through the dual narrative of Gleb’s day to day life after his diagnosis and his recounting of his life to Nestor, the hopes, dreams and fears of Gleb, his family and friends are explored against the backdrop of a restless Ukraine suspicious of Russia and its power.

‘As the [war] has unfolded, Vodolazkin’s depiction of these two languages as part of one and the same person, as brothers and foes simultaneously, while not completely new for me, has introduced more nuance into my thinking. For an English reader less familiar with the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, the novel may well be a revelation.’
Marian Schwartz, Literary Hub

‘Intensely lyrical and tender, while punctuated by moments of transfixing beauty, violence, ecstasy, and pain, Vodolazkin’s masterpiece is at once relatable and transcendent, straightforward and multi-layered, rational and mystical. But what makes it especially relevant and poignant today, is its examination of the intertwined fates of two nations, Russia and Ukraine, through the lens of changing political regimes and complicated family relations.’

Dr. Marina Alexandrova, Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, University of Texas at Austin

‘The magic of Vodolazkin’s talent takes place in the level of ideas and plot… and in the level of words and sounds. Vodolazkin plays with both Russian and Ukrainian languages that were not lost in translation.’

Alexandra Guzeva, Russia Beyond

About the author and translator:

Eugene Vodolazkin is the author of Laurus, which won both of Russia’s major literary awards – the National Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Book Award – and was shortlisted for the National Bestseller Prize and the Russian Booker Prize. An expert in medieval history and folklore, Vodolazkin was born in Kiev in 1964 and has worked in the department of Old Russian Literature at Pushkin House since 1990. He lives with his family in St Petersburg, Russia.

Marian Schwartz, who has translated this novel into English, is a former President of the American Literary Translators Association and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships and numerous prizes. She has also translated works by Berberova, Radzinsky, Bulgakov, Olesha, Lermontov and Tolstoy into English. 

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