I – How to Survive with the Aid of Literature.
Astride a Play to Tiflis.
If someone asked me what I deserve, I would say in all honesty before God that I deserve hard labor.
Not because of Tiflis, however; I did not do anything wrong in Tiflis. Because of Vladikavkaz.
I was living out my last days in Vladikavkaz, and the terrible specter of hunger, (Cliché! Cliché!… “terrible specter”… However, I don’t give a damn! These memoirs will never be published!) as I was saying, the terrible specter of hunger knocked at the door of my modest apartment which I had obtained with a permit. And right after the specter knocked Attorney Genzulaev, a pure soul with a brush mustache and an inspired face.
We talked, and here I include a stenographic record:
“What are you so down in the mouth about?” (Genzulaev)
“Apparently, I’m doomed to die of starvation in this crummy Vladikavkaz of yours…”
“There’s no question about that. Vladikavkaz is a crummy city. I doubt there’s a crummier city anywhere in the world. But why do you have to starve to death?”
“There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve exhausted all possibilities. The Subdepartment of the Arts has no money, so they can’t pay any salaries. I won’t be making any more introductory speeches before plays. I had a feuilleton printed in the local Vladikavkaz newspaper for which I received 1,250 rubles and a promise that they would turn me over to the special department1 Secret police.2 if another one like it ever appeared in print.”
“Why?” (Genzulaev was alarmed. Understandably, if they wanted to turn me over to the special department, I must be suspect.)
“For my mocking tone.”
“Oh, rubbish. They just don’t understand anything about feuilletons here. I’ll tell you what…”
And here is what Genzulaev did. He incited me to write a revolutionary play with him about native life. I’m slandering Genzulaev here. He pushed me and, because of my youth and inexperience, I agreed. What does Genzulaev know about the writing of plays? Nothing whatsoever, it was plain to see. Right away he openly admits that he sincerely detests literature, and I myself hated literature, you better believe, even more than he did. But Genzulaev knows native life like the back of his hand, if, of course, you can call native life a combination of shishkebab houses, breakfasts against a backdrop of the most repulsive mountains in the world, daggers of inferior steel, sinewy horses, taverns, and disgusting music that wrenches the soul.
Therefore, I will write the play and Genzulaev will add the local color.
“Only idiots would buy this play.”
“We’re the idiots if we don’t manage to sell this play.”
We wrote it in seven-and-a-half days, thus spending half a day more than was necessary to create the world. Despite this, it turned out even worse than the world.
I can say one thing: if there is ever a competition to see who can write the most stupid, untalented, and presumptuous play, ours will receive first prize (however, several plays from 1921-26 now come to mind, and I begin to have my doubts…), well, if not first prize, certainly second or third.
In short, after writing this play I am forever stigmatized, and naturally I can only hope that the play will molder in the bowels of the local Subdepartment of the Arts. As for the receipt, the devil take it, it can stay there. It was two hundred thousand rubles. One hundred for me. One hundred for Genzulaev. The play ran for three nights (a record), and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph (which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription, “Glory to…” and a blurred streak.
I ate up seven thousand in two days and decided to use the remaining ninety-three to leave Vladikavkaz
Why? Why Tiflis of all places? For the life of me, I do not now recall. However, I remember I was told that:
1) in Tiflis all the stores are open,
2) in Tiflis there is wine,
3) in Tiflis it is very hot and the fruit is cheap,
4) in Tiflis there are many newspapers, etc.., etc.
I decided to go. First, I packed my things. I took all my worldly possessions: a blanket, some under-clothes, and a Primus stove.
In 1921 things were not quite the same as in 1924. To be more precise, it was impossible to just pack up and go wherever you wanted! Apparently, those who were in charge of civilian travel reasoned something like this:
“If everyone started traveling, then where would we be?”
Therefore, a permit was required. I immediately submitted an application to the appropriate authorities, and where it asked, “What is the purpose of your trip?” I wrote with pride, “I am going to Tiflis for the production of my revolutionary play.”
In all of Vladikavkaz there was only one person who did not know me by sight, and it happened to be the gallant young fellow with the pistol on his hip who stood as if nailed to the spot by the table where permits for travel to Tiflis were issued.
When my turn came to receive a permit and I reached out to take it, the young man started to give it to me, but then stopped and said in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“The production of my revolutionary play.”
Then the young man sealed the permit in an envelope and handed both me and the envelope over to someone with a rifle, saying, “Take him to the special department.”
The young man did not answer.
A very bright sun (the only good thing in Vladikavkaz) beamed down on me as I walked along the road with the man carrying the rifle to my left. He decided to strike up a conversation with me and said, We’re going to be passing through the bazaar now, but don’t even think about escaping. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Even if you begged me to do it, I wouldn’t,” I replied in all honesty.
Then I offered him a cigarette.
Smoking companionably, we arrived at the special department. As we crossed the courtyard, I fleetingly recalled all my crimes. There were three.
1) In 1907 I was given one ruble and 50 kopecks to buy Kraevich’s Physics but spent it at the cinema.
2) In 1913 I got married against the wishes of my mother.
3) In 1921 I wrote that celebrated feuilleton.
The play? But that play could hardly be called criminal, could it? Quite the contrary.
For the information of those who have never been inside the special department, it is a large room with a rug on the floor, a huge desk of unbelievable proportions, eight telephones of different designs with green, orange, and gray cords attached, and behind the desk, a small man in military uniform with a very pleasant face.
The luxuriant crowns of the chestnut trees could be seen through the open windows. Upon seeing me, the man sitting at the desk attempted to change the pleasant expression on his face to an unfriendly an unpleasant one, but was only partially successful.
He took a photograph out of the desk drawer and began scrutinizing both it and me in turn.
“Oh, no. That’s not me,” I hurriedly announced. “You could have shaved off the mustache,” Mr. pleasant responded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but if you look closely,” I said, “the guy in the picture has hair the color of black shoe polish and is about forty-five. I am blond and twenty-eight.”
“Dye?” the small man asked with uncertainty.
“But what about the bald spot? And besides look closely at the nose. I beg you to take a good look at the nose.”
The small man peered at my nose. He was over-come with despair.
“I believe you. There’s no resemblance.”
There was a pause, and a ray of sunlight sprang up in the inkwell.
“Are you an accountant?”
Pause. The crowns of the chestnuts. The stucco ceiling. Cupids.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Tiflis? Answer immediately without thinking,” the small man said in a rush.
“To stage my revolutionary play,” I answered in a rush.
The small man opened his mouth, but recoiled and was completely radiated by the sun.
“You write plays?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“No kidding. Was the play you wrote a good one?”
There was something in his voice that would have touched any heart but mine. I repeat, I deserve hard labor. Looking away, I said:
“Yes, a good one.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. This was my fourth crime, the worst one of all. If I had wanted to remain pure before the special department, I should have answered: “No it’s not a good play. It’s junk. I just really want to go to Tiflis.”
I looked at the toes of my worn-out boots and did not speak. I came to myself when the small man handed me a cigarette and my travel permit.
He said to the guy with the rifle, “Show the writer to the door.”
The special department! I must forget about it! You see, now I have confessed. I have shed the guilt I have carried for three years. What I committed in the special department was, for me, worse than sabotage, counter-revolution or abuse of power.
But I must forget it!!!
II – Eternal Wanderers
People say that in 1924 it was easy to travel from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis; you simply hire a car in Vladikavkaz and drive along the remarkably scenic Georgian Military Highway. It is only two hundred and ten versts.3 A Russian unit of distance, in this case equal to about 6.5 miles.4 However in Vladikavkaz in 1921 the word “hire,” sounded like a word from a foreign language.
In order to travel you had to go with your blanket and Primus stove to the station and then walk along the tracks, peering into the innumerable freight cars. Wiping the sweat from my brow, on track seven I saw a man with a fan-shaped beard standing in slippers by an open freight car. He was rinsing out a kettle and repeating the vile word, “Baku.”
“Take me with you,” I requested.
“No,” replied the man with the beard.
“Please, so I can stage my revolutionary play,” I said.
The bearded man carried the kettle up a plank and into the freight car. I sat on my blanket beside the hot rails and lit a cigarette. A stifling, intense heat filled the spaces between the freight cars, and I quenched my thirst at the faucet by the tracks. Then I sat down again and felt the scorching heat radiated by the freight car. The bearded man stuck his head out.
“What’s your play about?” he asked.
I unrolled my blanket and took out my play.
“You wrote it yourself?” the proprietor of the freight car asked dubiously.
“Never heard of him.”
“I really need to leave.”
“Well, I’m expecting two more, but if they don’t show up, perhaps I’ll take you. Only don’t have any designs on the plank bed. Don’t think that just because you wrote a play you can try anything funny. it’s a long journey, and as a matter of fact, we ourselves are from the Political Education Committee.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” I said, feeling a breath of hope in the searing heat. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Sitting down on the plank bed, the beard said “Don’t you have any food?”
“I have a little money.”
The bearded man thought for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what… you can share our food on the journey. But you’ll have to help with our railway newspaper. Can you write something for our paper?”
“Anything you want,” I assured him as I took possession of my ration and bit into the upper crust.
“Even feuilletons?” he asked, and the look on his face made it obvious that he thought me a liar.
“Feuilletons are my specialty.”
Three faces appeared out of the shadows of the plank bed, along with bare feet. They all looked at me.
“Fyodor! There’s room for one more on the plank bed. That son-of-a-bitch Stepanov isn’t coming,” the feet said in a bass voice. “I’ll make room for Comrade Feuilletonist.”
“Okay, make room for him,” bearded Fyodor said in confusion. “What feuilleton are you going to write?”
“The Eternal Wanderers.”
“How will it begin?” asked a voice from the plank bed. “Come over here and have some tea with us.” “Sounds good—Eternal Wanderers,” responded Fyodor, taking off his boots. “You should have said you wrote feuilletons to start with, instead of sitting on the tracks for two hours. Welcome aboard.”
A vast and wondrous evening replaces the scorching day in Vladikavkaz. The evening’s edge is the bluish mountains. They are shrouded in evening mist. The plain forms the bottom of the cup. And along the bottom, jolting slightly, wheels began to turn. Eternal Wanderers. Farewell forever, Genzulaev! Farewell, Vladikavkaz!
Agit-train in one of Dziga Vertov‘s famous documentaries
Envy, like all our feelings, had been dulled and weakened by hunger. We lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg… We envied only our acquaintances, the ones who had been lucky enough to get office work, a job in the hospital or the stables – wherever there was none of the long physical labor glorified as heroic and noble in signs above all the camp gates. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.
External circumstances alone were capable of jolting us out of apathy and distracting us from slowly approaching death. It had to be an external and not an internal force. Inside there was only an empty scorched sensation, and we were indifferent to everything, making plans no further than the next day.
Even now I wanted to go back to the barracks and lie down on the bunk, but instead I was standing at the doors of the commissary. Purchases could be made only by petty criminals and thieves who were repeated offenders. The latter were classified as ‘friends of the people’. There was no reason for us politicals to be there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils. I stood there, not knowing when I would find the strength within myself to return to the barracks. I was staring at the bread when Shestakov called to me.
I’d known Shestakov on the ‘mainland’, in Butyr Prison where we were cellmates. We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Shestakov didn’t work in the mine. He was an engineer-geologist, and he was taken into the prospecting group – in the office. The lucky man barely said hallo to his Moscow acquaintances. We weren’t offended. Everyone looked out for himself here.
‘Have a smoke,’ Shestakov said and he handed me a scrap of newspaper, sprinkled some tobacco on it, and lit a match, a real match. I lit up.
‘I have to talk to you,’ Shestakov said.
We walked behind the barracks and sat down on the lip of the old mine. My legs immediately became heavy, but Shestakov kept swinging his new regulation-issue boots that smelled slightly of fish grease. His pant legs were rolled up, revealing checkered socks. I stared at Shestakov’s feet with sincere admiration, even delight. At least one person from our cell didn’t wear foot rags. Under us the ground shook from dull explosions; they were preparing the ground for the night shift. Small stones fell at our feet, rustling like unobtrusive gray birds.
‘Let’s go farther,’ said Shestakov.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t kill us. Your socks will stay in one piece.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ said Shestakov and swept his index finger along the line of the horizon. ‘What do you think of all that?’
‘It’s sure to kill us,’ I said. It was the last thing I wanted to think of.
‘Nothing doing. I’m not willing to die.’
‘I have a map,’ Shestakov said sluggishly. ‘I’ll make up a group of workers, take you and we’ll go to Black Springs. That’s fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we’ll make a run for the sea. Agreed?’
He recited all this as indifferently as he did quickly.
‘And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?’
‘Who cares. The important thing is to begin. I can’t live like this any longer. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” ’ Shestakov pronounced the sentence with an air of pomp. ‘Who said that?’
It was a familiar sentence. I tried, but lacked the strength to remember who had said those words and when. All that smacked of books was forgotten. No one believed in books.
I rolled up my pants and showed the breaks in the skin from scurvy.
‘You’ll be all right in the woods,’ said Shestakov. ‘Berries, vitamins. I’ll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map.’
I closed my eyes and thought. There were three roads to the sea from here – all of them five hundred kilometers long, no less. Even Shestakov wouldn’t make it, not to mention me. Could he be taking me along as food? No, of course not. But why was he lying? He knew all that as well as I did. And suddenly I was afraid of Shestakov, the only one of us who was working in the field in which he’d been trained. Who had set him up here and at what price? Everything here had to be paid for. Either with another man’s blood or another man’s life.
‘OK,’ I said, opening my eyes. ‘But I need to eat and get my strength up.’
‘Great, great. You definitely have to do that. I’ll bring you some… canned food. We can get it…’
There are a lot of canned foods in the world – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables… But best of all was condensed milk. Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can…
‘Tomorrow,’ I said, choking from joy. ‘Condensed milk.’
‘Fine, fine, condensed milk.’ And Shestakov left.
I returned to the barracks and closed my eyes. It was hard to think. For the first time I could visualize the material nature of our psyche in all its palpability. It was painful to think, but necessary.
He’d make a group for an escape and turn everyone in. That was crystal clear. He’d pay for his office job with our blood, with my blood. They’d either kill us there, at Black Springs, or bring us in alive and give us an extra sentence – ten or fifteen years. He couldn’t help but know that there was no escape. But the milk, the condensed milk…
I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov’s can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.
I don’t remember what I did that day nor how I worked. I waited. I waited for the sun to set in the west and for the horses to neigh, for they guessed the end of the work day better than people.
The work horn roared hoarsely, and I set out for the barracks where I found Shestakov. He pulled two cans of condensed milk from his pockets.
I punched a hole in each of the cans with the edge of an axe, and a thick white stream flowed over the lid on to my hand.
‘You should punch a second hole for the air,’ said Shestakov.
‘That’s all right,’ I said, licking my dirty sweet fingers.
‘Let’s have a spoon,’ said Shestakov, turning to the laborers surrounding us. Licked clean, ten glistening spoons were stretched out over the table. Everyone stood and watched as I ate. No one was indelicate about it, nor was there the slightest expectation that they might be permitted to participate. None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of, and their interest was absolutely selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to stare at food disappearing in another man’s mouth. I sat down so as to be comfortable and drank the milk without any bread, washing it down from time to time with cold water. I finished both cans. The audience disappeared – the show was over. Shestakov watched me with sympathy.
‘You know,’ I said, carefully licking the spoon, ‘I changed my mind. Go without me.’
Shestakov comprehended immediately and left without saying a word to me.
It was, of course, a weak, worthless act of vengeance just like all my feelings. But what else could I do? Warn the others? I didn’t know them. But they needed a warning. Shestakov managed to convince five people. They made their escape the next week; two were killed at Black Springs and the other three stood trial a month later. Shestakov’s case was considered separately ‘because of production considerations’. He was taken away, and I met him again at a different mine six months later. He wasn’t given any extra sentence for the escape attempt; the authorities played the game honestly with him even though they could have acted quite differently.
He was working in the prospecting group, was shaved and well fed, and his checkered socks were in one piece. He didn’t say hallo to me, but there was really no reason for him to act that way. I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.
*this story is taken from: “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov, Penguin Books, 1994. Translation copyright © John Glad, 1980, 1981,1994.
The Death-Bed Notes of a Fool
My life is coming to an end. Soon Death will tap its boney finger on my door… soon! Suffering has so withered my chest that no maiden’s kisses can warm it. For the sins of my life, for my battle against Reason, harsh Fate has torn all the hair from my head, and not even Macassar oil will help it grow back! It’s hard to die when you have done as many foolish things in life as I have. It’s hard to die with the bitter knowledge that you have more sins on your soul than you had hairs on your head in your prime. It’s hard to settle accounts with this earthly life when you have so many debts… it’s hard, so very hard! Oh, what a wretch I am! What a fool! Why didn’t I think before I acted? Why did it take me so long to know myself? My fellow man! Have pity on your poor neighbor, who realized so late that he was a fool and that his entire life purpose was to keep from doing foolish things. Have pity on your wretched neighbor, who did not know himself in time and acted against his purpose in life…
I blame no one for succumbing to temptation. No one planted these temptations in me; they took root on their own. I thank you, kind journalists. You tried to bring me to my senses; you proved to me in print the bitter truth that I came to understand so late and the ignorance that was the cause of such unhappiness and sinfulness! My foolish vanity kept me from believing that I was a fool!
Not long before this moment I had intended to bequeath to the world the history of my follies, but the task of the historian is hard. It is hard to maintain objectivity about oneself, as you know from your own experience. With that in mind, I decided not to tear off the veil from my past life. I feel compelled, however, to lift up the veil a bit, since I think that my openness may be useful to humanity. Perhaps I am mistaken. Do not censure me for such a bold thought. Remember: I am a fool.
I think the tale of what happened to me in my youth and threw such a strong shadow on the rest of my life will be useful to someone. Be patient: I want to tell you about the greatest folly of my life.
Of all the passions that inflamed my tempestuous youth, envy was in first place, if only by mite. I suffered greatly from it. I do not wish, however, to unconditionally condemn this emotion. I must suppress my personal hatred for envy and first express my honest opinion of it. Envy is not a useless emotion, although it can be quite harmful. It stirs the blood and prevents the deadly stagnation of the soul; it awakens a person from the inaction that is so harmful to society; it may make someone do absolutely stupid things so extraordinarily boldly that they appear to be well-considered acts. When a person is possessed by envy, it puts him under the great pressure of the powers to act — Reason and Will. I do not speak of the petty, everyday envy that you may meet at every step in London and Kaluga, on the Vyborg side of the Neva River or on Nevsky Prospekt, but I will speak of envy that is more worthy of attention.
There are people who envy Napoleon and Suvorov, Shakespeare and Baron Brambeus, Croesus and Sinebrychoff; there are others who envy Baucis and Philemon, Petrach and Laura, Peter and John, Stanislav and Anna; there is a third group that envies Manfred and Faust; and fourth that envies yet others… in a word, we all envy someone. You come across envy in the theater watching Hamlet, in the pastry shop reading the military newspaper “Russian Invalid,” at the ball dancing with a young beauty who will be forever out of reach of the person who envies her. Envy is especially pervasive in trade, service and literature.
But enough on where you might come across envy. I want to tell you where I felt it… I hold my left hand over my heart, gather up the remnants of my strength, and pray that kind Fate will not end my life before I can finish my instructive talk with my benevolent reader…
I was born on one of the streets of Vasilievsky Island to noble but poor parents. After I turned 18, I was orphaned and received an inheritance of ten thousand rubles. Obeying my father’s death-bed advice, I lent it out to private investors, but since the returns weren’t enough to live on, I had to give lessons… I bitterly complained about my fate, having to run sometimes as much as 10 versts a day to make just five rubles. “So many people travel in carriages!” I thought. “How are they better than me?” Little by little, those complaints arose more and more often. Unhappy creature! I did not understand then how much I sinned against Providence when I dared to lament its good will. Whenever I saw a carriage my heart nearly burst from ire and envy. I hated anyone who owned one… Envy sucked my soul dry… No matter what I did, no matter where I went, the thought of a carriage never left me. I missed lessons, used vulgar language, committed follies — and the only reason was one thought. I cried out in sinful despair: “Why, cruel Fate, did you make me a poor man? What good deeds did so many people do to be blessed with a carriage? What transgressions did I commit to be sentenced to walk on foot my whole life?”
Inclement weather had an even more dreadful effect on me. When there was rain, mud, lightning and thunder outside, the same storm raged within me. A glance at my muddy boots conquered the resolve of my heart. Tears streamed down my face, my eyes flashed like lightning, and a tempest pounded in my head. “Terrible! How terrible not to own a carriage!” I said as I tiptoed across muddy streets. Suddenly I heard a sound far off. I peered into the distance. My fury turned me to stone: A carriage was passing me! I could not control myself! I was ready to leap into the maw of that monstrous four-seater. I was ready to devour that square bulk with my eyes, swallow up its repellent rattle, and clamp down with my teeth to stop it in its path. My blood boiled, my knees buckled: I couldn’t walk as rain poured down on me, thunder cracked above my head, and fear of being late for my lesson burnt my heart by a stroke of lightning. The monstrosity rattled by me. I calmed down, but not for long. Once again I heard the rattle in the distance — another monstrosity! But sometimes — the horror! — two, three, four of them all at once… there was truly no salvation! Clumps of mud flew up and hit my side, my leg, my arm, my face, my mouth… The horror of it! So many reasons to hate mankind! They force you to eat mud in public, so you don’t dare to open your mouth! “Crash into pieces, you despicable tool of Satan!” I shouted, dashing out from under the horses’ hooves.
The torture became unbearable. The love I felt for the sister of one of my students yielded to unfathomable feelings — for carriages. I say “unfathomable” because they were truly unfathomable. I loved carriages, which is why I envied their owners; I hated them and wished them every conceivable harm, since they were the source of all my suffering. Oh, how foolish I was! Once again I say that my love almost turned to hatred because the object of my adoration rode in a carriage. I was tortured, I fulminated, I suffered like the Prisoner of Chillon, I cursed like Byron, and in my terrible despair I didn’t notice that I had failed to lend out my capital… To calm my heart, I needed to take my revenge on mankind, and for that revenge I needed a carriage… I felt that owning one would make me happier, but the delight of having that beast on springs in my power, to have the right to smash it at the first flash of anger… Oh, that would be worth the sacrifice! I fought with myself for a long time. For a long time the spark of Reason, however fading, saved me from the shameful moniker of “arrant fool.” But finally one terrible event decided my lot in life and helped Fate transform me into one of the “utter fools” that I have to honor to be…
One day when the weather was fair, I took a walk along Nevsky Prospekt. I was at ease because I hadn’t seen any carriages for a long time. I thought about my love. There was nothing comforting about my love but the promise of much pure pleasure in the present. My love was wealthy, meant to ride in a carriage and live in joy and luxury. I was a creature born to walk on foot, marked by a strange defect — envy of carriages! But the greatest obstacles in fools often turn into their illusory advantages: I persuaded myself that the obstacles meant nothing, that everything would be fine, and came to the most inane conclusions that seemed completely plausible to my limited intellect.
Suddenly it began to rain and the streets became muddy. My vision was sullied by more and more carriages. As was my wont, I thought that the owners smirked at me and the drivers purposely went out of their way to nearly trample this poor little pedestrian as they even shouted to fall, that is, “Fall and say good-bye to life!” Foolish, so foolish! But I must admit that such madness seemed plausible to me then. There I was crossing the street, when I saw a carriage in the distance. I turned to avoid falling under the horses’ hooves… and suddenly a disgusting clump of mud flew up and hit me right in the face. I shook in horror and outrage. I wanted to wipe it off, but just then I heard a peal of laughter from inside the carriage… Good Lord! Who was laughing? I dropped my hands. I turned around and saw Lyuba, my dream, the object of my love. She stuck her head out the door and screamed with laughter. I can still hear her laughter in my ears! I can’t recall what I said. I just remember that I uttered some dreadful nonsense… My fate was sealed. Like a madman I ran home. That clump of mud was still stuck to my face, and feeling it there kept my fury white-hot.
I sold everything I owned, took all my money and bought a carriage. Oh, what a fool I was!
After committing this enormous folly, I had a few hundred rubles left. Meanwhile, my expenses had soared: the cursed carriage needed a shed; the horses needed a stall and oats; the staff needed apartments and bread. I rented a small room with a big stable. The first trip I took in my carriage was to them — to give a lesson. The entire family and an officer I didn’t know greeted me with laughter. I turned hot and then cold. She, that devilish woman, laughed more than the others!
“Just imagine!” the mother told the officer. “We just went out to buy a trousseau for our girl Lyuba…”
“Trousseau? For your daughter?” I repeated with a horrible foreboding.
“Yes,” Lyuba laughed. “We went to buy gowns and we weren’t careful… ha ha ha!… and we splashed…”
Zumpt’s Latin Grammar fell from my hands…
“I’ll get my revenge!” I said as I ran from the room.
“Where to?” asked the footman.
“Wherever you want! Just drive as fast as you can to the muddiest streets and splash all the pedestrians!” I screamed at the coachman.
The coachman and footman rolled their eyes at me, thinking that I was mad… but I was merely a fool…
After that, my favorite pasttime was to gallop along the streets and watch the mud from my carriage hit passersby in the face. As soon as the weather was foul and the streets were muddy, I would order the carriage to be harnessed up and then gallop, gallop, gallop while taking indescribable pleasure watching the mud fly up from under the wheels and the horses’ hooves! I consoled myself with the thought that in avenging the insults inflicted upon me, I was muddying all of mankind. What a fool I was.
But no matter how I tried, I was never able to sling mud onto the faces of those who once inflicted that humiliation on me…
In the end, my capital ran out. I stopped eating so that I could feed my horses, but it was all for naught. The bitter moment came when I had to accept my poverty and realize that I could no longer afford the carriage. But I didn’t sell it. In a fit of mindless fury at the mute instrument of my misery, I tore my carriage apart with my own hands. And in my poverty and despair I consoled myself with the thought that I had wiped off the face of the earth at least one of those two-seated monstrosities that had splashed mud on so many people, including sinful me. Oh, how stupid I was!
What else can I say? I already told you that this event had a disastrous effect of the rest of my life. I destroyed the carriage and took to my bed. After a long illness I finally got up from my sick bed pale and emaciated, deeply disappointed, with a broken heart. I was still weak, but I thirsted for God’s light and clean air, and so I went outside. On Nevsky Prospekt I fell under a carriage and lost my right leg.
Learn from my sad tale, all you who are fated to walk about on foot, and do not envy people riding in carriages. If my example will cure two or three envious wretches, I will be consoled that I did at least one wise thing at the end of my life. For a fool, that’s a lot!
In my will I ask those who bury me to ensure that not a single carriage follows after my coffin. I recognize that my ill feeling is foolish, but I cannot be completely free of its influence. Such is the power of habit. But I am an old fool and may be forgiven.
Mr. Harlamov was a big man. He was a fearless man too and when he sat himself down at the harmonium (which was a kind of piano played with a foot bellows, or a kind of accordion with legs like a piano’s, an exotic instrument that served as the standard medium of instruction in Music Pedagogy and Appreciation at the Bet Hakerem Hebrew Teachers College of Jerusalem)— when he sat himself down, as big and fearless as a bear tickling a kitten, and picked out the keys with his big, fearless fingers whose palms covered the keyboard while pumping the bellows with his feet, the whole harmonium shook with its wheezing, creaking pedals as if about to give out in one last excruciating and unmusical gasp. Above the crash of its chords, Mr. Harlamov sang in his big, fearless voice. If he hadn’t had to work the pedals he could have easily strode around the room with it instead of intermittently rearing in his seat to scan the class for anyone slacking or off-key, calling out parenthetically to the culprit without breaking the tempo of the song, You there, or That young lady in the back. Which was enough to make whoever it was cringe and join the mighty chorus.
If truth be told, the monumental sight of Mr. Harlamov thumping away at the wheezing harmonium while the class accompanied him at full volume was impressive. It was also comical, mixing giggles into the harmonies whose frequent parentheses were filled with a Hebrew that was far from untainted by Mr. Harlarnov’s big, fearless Russian errors. You please to sing, he would scold. You no laugh, you. And with a scowl he went on adjusting our mighty chorus to his big, fearless notes, hunching over his harmonium and fiercely rearing up to review his troops.
There was really nothing very fierce about him. There was even an inherent good nature that might have prevailed were it not that nothing was as it should have been – neither the poor substitute for a piano, nor our voices that kept going flat, nor our young, grinning faces that showed scant respect for The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord. He was constantly correcting us. C! he would shout. C Major! The more roughshod we ran over the music, the more desperately he increased the volume of the harmonium to salvage what he could of its beauty, doing his best to drown us out while bent over his instrument, a very lonely, uncompromising man.
I never had much luck with Mr. Harmalov. I didn’t even notice it when, while we were singing a choral number one day, he reared up and signalled for silence so that he might spot the villain who was making a mockery of the music. For a moment nothing was heard but my unsuspecting voice, booming out the words of the Internationale. You, Mr. Harlamov whispered in a voice that made the ceiling recoil. You. Mr. Dinburg. Scram you from here! I tell dean he give you boot. I tell you without with no, murder music. I tell, for what I work? And maybe I tell too: if you know what is Russia and what is do to me there, you not sing that song. It wouldn’t have helped if I had sworn on a stack of Bibles that it was only a harmless joke. It wouldn’t even have cleared my own conscience. Why did I do it? Sometimes the only answer is because, and this because was a feeble one. Unless (but this wasn’t something I could have said out loud, not even to myself) it was to make an impression on the flushed wearer of a brown sweater who was singing her heart out next to me.
Little wonder that I received a “D” in music at the end of the term and even that was an act of mercy to the young buffoon on the great man’s part. Next to my “A”s in Bible, Literature, and History, it stood out like a sore thumb. (Not that my Arabic was any better; I flunked with an “F” courtesy of the esteemed and resplendent Jerusalem orientalist, Yosef Yoel Rivlin. And my English too, in the words of Mr. Morris, a short but stern pedagogue whose heels clicked when he walked, left “a great deal to be desired.” To say nothing of math, all my efforts at which satisfied neither the sphinx-like Mr. Hevroni nor the laws of algebra. I didn’t do very well either when I tried pacifying Mr. Harlamov by remarking as I walked beside him, half-running to keep up with his big, fearless steps in the portico flanking the rocky lot that was slated to become an athletics field for our fabled gym teacher Mr. Yekutieli, that I, simple farm boy though I was, was so musically sophisticated that I had actually listened at my friend Habkin’s house to records of Beethoven (mainly the Fifth), Mozart (the E-Minor), and Bach (the Third Brandenburg). At which point I committed the grievous faux pas of adding enthusiastically that I also liked the symphonies of Chopin. Breaking off his fearless stride, Mr. Harlamov threw me a downward, withering glance. Chopin write no symphonies! he said with disgusted finality, walking on to leave me more foolish than ever and unable to explain that I had meant Schumann, and especially the Spring Symphony, which had left me damp- eyed with weltschmerz, most of all for the wearer of a brown sweater whose shy beholder found her more adorable than approachable.
The fact was that all those European names, like Schumann and Chopin, could have confused anybody, especially if he was bad at languages, and most especially if he had an idealistic father who had insisted on speaking only Hebrew at home because that was what a proud Jew should speak. But go explain all that to Mr. Harlamov. The man was as big as the steppes of Russia, where he would have had a great future had not a cruel fate reduced him to a Palestinian music teacher who did not even have a proper piano.
Who could count the times I had been corrected with a tolerant smile by Habkin, who, with his gramophone, his record collection, and his violin, had so much knowledge that, when he wasn’t eking out a living as Professor Gruenfeld’s secretary, he was copying scores in a calligraphic hand I never tired of watching, scrolling clefs and staffs and bars and notes, multi-angled and magical with the secret glyphs of music-making: It’s not Ber Ahms. It’s not Yiddish. It’s Brahms, in a single syllable: Johannes Brahms.
Once, though, it was different. Once, as Mr. Harlamov was playing and singing while we sang along with him, grinning as we sometimes did, we suddenly found ourselves listening as if something were happening and we had to know what it was. All at once, without even a rear or a scowl, Mr. Harlamov was transformed at the faltering old harmonium, which gasped out great chords that seemed beyond its powers of endurance. Something was definitely happening. The chords and music were no longer the same. Although Mr. Harlaniov was still singing and playing while hunched over the keys like a giant snail, or an eagle feeding its fledglings between its talons, the whole class had fallen silent with a great, concentrated attention. He was singing differently too, as though to himself, as though he were alone and had suddenly realized something and didn’t care that no one else knew, or had discovered a new truth that was now coming into focus and of which he only knew meanwhile that it was on its way. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, in case you’re wondering. It wasn’t Borodin, or Scriabin, or one of your Rimski—Korsakoffs. It was different and special, not yet itself as he sang hunched like a snail in his big voice, which came through slightly muffled but clean the way something sounds when it’s true and you know it’s happening and that he isn’t here and is perhaps more than you always thought, beyond all your stupid jokes when you knew nothing about it.
It was happening to us too, so that, humbled and longing for what we now knew was there and had never known before, we listened with a catch in our throats. It would be easy to spout something about the vast steppes of Russia sobbing in that harmonium, or the Cossacks, or the Tartars, or the cold winds of Siberia, or something of the sort, but it wasn’t that at all. It was only a man singing and you hearing and knowing that was it, a place beyond the class and the room and the Bet Hakerem Teachers College of Jerusalem, something coming from afar that was maybe a bit like the child Samuel when he heard the voice in the quiet of the night the voice that said Samuel Samuel and he answered here I am.
Then there was silence and it was over. Nobody knew \vhat to do next, not even Mr. Harlamov, who finally rose all at once to become as tall as the ceiling and then let his shoulders slump and grew smaller again, his big hands dangling in air. His wiped his big, bald skull with a handkerchief and grew even smaller, and then he turned and walked without a word to the door and turned again when he reached it and waved a limp hand and was gone.
And still no one spoke. A few of us began getting to our feet. One by one, we stooped forlornly out of the classroom. I started down the stairs, not knowing what to say. Which way are you going? asked the girl in the brown sweater, who did not know what to say either. It was such an unanticipated question that the young man it was asked of forgot how long he had been waiting for it, and how many wonderful stories he had told himself about it, and how now that it had happened he had never imagined that it would be like this. They descended the stairs. How about you? he asked with an awkward gesture. I’ll walk you. He couldn’t believe that it was so simple or that he had been so bold. I live quite near here, at the bottom of Hehalutz Street, she said. The Jerusalem cold brought a flush to her cheeks, and when, in her brown sweater, she noticed that he’d noticed, she blushed until she was as red as an autumn apple in a poem. She was so scandalously red that she would have liked to run away, but she raised her collar to blush level and the two of them headed for the steps of Hama’alot Street, skipping down them as if dancing not only because they were so skippety young, but because dance is a wordless art form. Of the sort we’re most in need of at this moment, she added without words, the casuarina trees dripping wet pearls on a rain-washed street that was already Hehalutz. Three or four houses further on they turned to the right and there, on the ground floor, she lived.
They stood there, the rosy girl and the young man with the wild head of hair and the too-slender back. He gives me piano lessons, she confessed. Mr. Harlamov. I didn’t ask for them, but he asked me if I’d like them, and I asked if it wouldn’t put him out, and he said no, he’d be glad to, I had a talent and he didn’t even want to be paid. Believe me, that’s the kind of man he is.
They stood there a while longer without thinking of anything to say, shifting their weight from leg to leg. Then they leaned their arms against a tree, an electric charge flowing between their fingers that were not yet ready to touch. the blush gone from her face that was now simply ruddy with cold. His heart was in his throat. He couldn’t think of a word. It was great, what he played, she said. Tremendous, he said. Utterly fantastic. Extraordinary. Unbelievable. The drops falling from the needles of the casuarina trees were clean and pure enough to drink.
If he were to shake a branch it would shower down on her and make him laugh at her sudden shriek. Well, she said.
Yes, he said. All right, then. She stood a while longer. I guess I’d better turn in. Good night. Good night. And still neither of them made a move to go. Well I’ll see you, she said. She had chestnut hair above the warm brown of her sweater. Look how pearly the raindrops are, he said. Yes, she said. And he said, Yes, well, so long, and she came running back to him and planted a kiss on his cheek and spun around and fled down the stairs.
Incredulous, he stood there, his hand on his cheek. It was too much to take in but there it was.
Like a drunk he staggered up the wet, empty street. under his breath breaking into The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord and then beginning to hum and then to sing until he was roarine like an ox in the sleepy streets of Jerusalem whose good folk he was keeping awake. He wasn’t thumbing a proletarian nose at them, he was simply 1etting them know the great truth newly revealed to him on Hehalutz Street that the heavens told the glory of the Lord. He went on singing even when it began tc rain so wonderfully hard that he only wanted to let it be and to turn cold and wet inside him. He only wanted to sing with the choir— -three, four! “His handiwork is written in the sky.”
*This story is taken from: S. Yizhar, Asides, Zmora-Bitan, 1996.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
*Image: Yochanan Simon, “Youth in the Kibbutz”, 1950, (mural on the dinning room, Gan Shmuel)
With a leg–tossing military marching step (toes in, heels out, knees to the side, pelvis down), Stasik the mosquito wended his way home. He had asked the veterinarian, Akop the condor, to bandage the spot where the bedbug Mstislav bit him, since the bite throbbed so much that he couldn’t walk at all otherwise.
Naturally, Stasik the mosquito dreamed of a hot meal.
However, as he walked up to his house he heard the muffled cry of his mosquito wife Tomka (“That’s it, hold on, just a sec, just one more second, wait just a minute”) and the raspy reply: “I can’t.”
Stasik froze for a moment, but then he went into his house and saw Tomka pulling out Zoya the hyena’s beard, hair by hair (cosmetic facial cleansing).
On the issue of a hot meal, Tomka said in a rush, “Go to the swamp.”
“Go to the swamp” meant going to the swamp, picking, squashing, washing, cleaning, cutting, pouring, turning on, putting on, stirring and so on, and the food would only be ready in forty minutes, and it would probably be burnt and leave sand between his teeth.
Thanks for nothing.
Sighing bitterly while his wife shouted and Zoya the hyena growled in the background, Stasik got out the precious bottle from Auntie Lida the beetle, what they called “the bottle of last resort,” and drank down a dose of what was left.
He forgot about everything but Alla the pig’s swaying miniskirt.
Stasik wept and sang his favorite song: “Back there, where the sea of lights…” and swiftly flew out of his house towards the pigsty, forgetting all about his wounds.
When Tomka the mosquito was tucking her fee into her boot and Zoya the hyena was looking at her smooth face with tears of joy, Stasik was flying around Alla the pig, who was lying comfortably without any miniskirt, and asking her questions in his high chirping voice: a) had she consorted with the bedbug Mstislav recently; and b) did she know that Mstislav had a nasty disease —tooth decay — that would require a bandage and frequent changes of dressing for a very long time?
But it fell on deaf ears, since Stasik wasn’t Alla the pig’s only guest. There was a big gang there already – the grown children of Domna Ivanovna the fly, for instance, who had already helped themselves generously and were barnstorming like they were on fire to the sound of their own inner rock n’ roll; and Afanasy the spider, who was giving a class in macramé in the corner, organized especially for the gathering.
The party was hopping, but Stasik the mosquito was lonely.
With a fidgety military marching step, knees out and pelvis down, but now even hungrier, he showed up at home ready for a fight. But instead he smelled the marvelous scent of a hot meal.
Tomka had cooked dinner, set the table and was waiting for him in her apron, like Penelope.
Stasik just about burst into tears.
“It is sometimes much easier to call up a spirit
than to get rid of it.” – A. B. CALMET
The strange adventure I intend to tell took place several years ago, and can now be freely told, the more so as I reserve for myself the right not to use a single proper name in doing so. In the winter of the year 186–, there came to settle in Petersburg a very prosperous and distinguished family, consisting of three persons: the mother— a middle-aged lady, a princess, reputed to be a woman of refined education and with the best social connections in Russia and abroad; her son, a young man, who that year had set out on his career in the diplomatic corps; and her daughter, the young princess, who was just going on seventeen.
Up to then the newly arrived family had usually lived abroad, where the old princess’s late husband had occupied the post of Russian representative at one of the minor European courts. The young prince and princess were born and grew up in foreign parts, receiving there a completely foreign but very thorough education.
The princess was a woman of highly strict principles and deservedly enjoyed a most irreproachable reputation in society. In her opinions and tastes she adhered to the views of French women renowned for their intelligence and talents in the time of the blossoming of women’s intelligence and talents in France. The princess was considered very well read, and it was said that she read with great discrimination. Her favorite reading was the letters of Mmes de Sévigné, La Fayette, and Maintenon, as well as of Caylus, Dangeau, and Coulanges, but most of all she respected Mme de Genlis, for whom she had a weakness to the point of adoration. The small volumes of the finely made Paris edition of this intelligent writer, modestly and elegantly bound in pale blue morocco, always occupied a beautiful little bookshelf hanging on the wall over a big armchair, which was the princess’s favorite place. Over the edge of the bookshelf, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, reaching slightly beyond its dark velvet cushion, rested a miniature hand, perfectly formed from terracotta, which Voltaire had kissed in his Ferney, not suspecting that it was going to let fall on him the first drop of a refined but caustic criticism. How often the princess had reread the little volumes traced by that small hand, I do not know, but she always had them near her, and the princess used to say that they had for her a particular, so to speak, mysterious meaning, of which she would not venture to tell just anyone, because not everyone would believe it. From what she said, it followed that she had never parted from these volumes “since she could remember herself,” and that they would go with her to the grave. “I have instructed my son,” she said, “to put these little books into the coffin with me, under the pillow, and I’m certain they will be useful to me even after death.”
I cautiously expressed a wish to receive an explanation, however remote, of these last words— and I received it.
“These little books,” the princess said, “are suffused with the spirit of Felicity” (so she called Mme de Genlis, probably as a sign of the closeness of their relations). “Yes, piously believing in the immortality of the human spirit, I also believe in its ability to communicate freely, from beyond the grave, with those who have need of such communication and are able to appreciate it. I am certain that the fine fluid of Felicity chose itself a pleasant abode under the fortunate morocco that embraces the pages on which her thoughts have found rest, and if you are not a total unbeliever, I should hope that would be understandable to you.”
I bowed silently. It evidently pleased the princess that I did not contradict her, and in reward she added that everything she had just told me was not merely a belief, but a real and full conviction, which had such a firm foundation that no powers could shake it.
“And that precisely,” she concluded, “because I have a multitude of proofs that the spirit of Felicity lives, and lives precisely here!” At the last word the princess raised her hand above her head and pointed her elegant finger at the shelf on which the pale blue volumes stood.
I am slightly superstitious by nature and always listen with pleasure to stories in which there is at least some place for the mysterious. That, it seems, is why perspicacious critics, who kept including me in various bad categories, spoke for a time of my being a spiritualist.
Besides, let it be said, everything we are talking about now took place just at the time when an abundance of news about spiritualist phenomena was coming to us from abroad. It aroused curiosity then, and I saw no reason not to be interested in something people were beginning to believe in.
The “multitude of proofs” the princess mentioned could be heard from her a multitude of times: these proofs consisted in the princess having long since formed the habit, in moments of the most diverse states of mind, of turning to the works of Mme de Genlis as to an oracle, and the pale blue volumes, in their turn, invariably displayed an ability to respond reasonably to her mental questions.
That, in the princess’s words, became one of her habitudes,1 which she never changed, and the “spirit” abiding in the books never once told her anything inappropriate.
I could see that I was dealing with a very convinced follower of spiritualism, who besides was not without her share of intelligence, experience, and education, and therefore I became extremely interested in it all.
I already knew a thing or two about the nature of spirits, and, in what I had happened to witness, I had always been struck by a strange thing common to all spirits, that, appearing from beyond the grave, they behaved themselves much more light-mindedly and, frankly speaking, stupidly, than they had shown themselves in earthly life.
I was already familiar with Kardec’s theory of “mischievous spirits” and was now greatly interested in how the spirit of the witty marquise de Sillery, Comtesse Brûlart, would deign to show itself in my presence.
The occasion was not slow in coming, but since in a short story, as in a small household, order ought not to be upset, I ask for another minute of patience before matters are brought to a supernatural moment capable of going beyond all expectations.
The people who made up the princess’s small but very select circle were probably aware of her whimsicality; but since they were all well-bred and courteous people, they knew enough to respect another’s beliefs, even in cases when those beliefs diverged sharply from their own and could not stand up under criticism. Therefore no one ever argued about it with the princess. However, it might also be that the princess’s friends were not sure whether the princess considered her pale blue volumes the abode of their author’s “spirit” in a direct and immediate sense, or took these words as a rhetorical figure. Finally, more simply still, they may have taken it all as a joke.
The only one who could not look at the matter in such fashion was, unfortunately, I myself; and I had my reasons for it, which may have been rooted in the gullibility and impressionability of my nature.
The attention of this high-society lady, who opened the doors of her respectable house to me, lowed to three causes: first, for some reason she liked my story “The Sealed Angel,” which had been published shortly before then in The Russian Messenger; second, she was interested in the bitter persecutions, beyond count and measure, to which I had been subjected for a number of years by my good literary brethren, who wished, of course, to correct my misunderstandings and errors; and third, I had been well recommended to the princess in Paris by a Russian Jesuit, the most kindly Prince Gagarin— an old man with whom I had enjoyed many conversations and who had not formed the worst opinion of me.
This last was especially important, because the princess was concerned with my way of thinking and state of mind; she needed, or at least fancied she might need, some small services from me. Strange though it was for a man of such modest significance as myself, it was so. This need was created for the princess by maternal solicitude for her daughter, who knew almost no Russian… Bringing the lovely girl to her native land, the mother wanted to find a man who could acquaint the young princess at least somewhat with Russian literature— good literature exclusively, to be sure, that is, real literature, not infected by the “evil of the day.”
About the latter the princess had very vague notions, and extremely exaggerated ones besides. It was rather difficult to understand precisely what she feared on the part of the contemporary titans of Russian— thought their strength and courage, or their weakness and pathetic self-importance; but having somehow grasped, with the help of suggestions and surmises, the “heads and tails” of the princess’s thoughts, I arrived at the conviction, unmistaken in my view, that she most definitely feared the “unchaste allusions” by which, to her mind, all our immodest literature had been utterly corrupted.
To try to dissuade the princess of that was useless, because she had reached the age when one’s opinions are already firmly formed, and it is a very rare person who is capable of subjecting them to a new review and testing. She was undoubtedly not one of those, and to make her change her mind about something she believed in, the words of an ordinary man were insufficient, though it might perhaps have been done through the power of a spirit, who deemed it necessary to come from hell or paradise with that aim. But could such petty concerns interest the bodiless spirits of the unknown world? Were not all arguments and concerns about literature too petty for them, like our contemporary ones, which even the vast majority of living people consider the empty occupation of empty heads?
Circumstances soon showed, however, that I was greatly mistaken in reasoning this way. The habit of literary peccadilloes, as we shall soon see, does not abandon literary spirits even beyond the grave, and the reader will be faced with the task of deciding to what extent these spirits act successfully and remain faithful to their literary past.
Owing to the fact that the princess had strictly formed views about everything, my task in helping her to choose literary works for the young princess was very well defined. It was required that the young princess be able to learn about Russian life from this reading, while not coming upon anything that might trouble her maidenly ear. The princess’s maternal censorship did not allow the whole of any author, not even Derzhavin or Zhukovsky. None of them seemed fully safe to her. There was, naturally, no speaking of Gogol— he was banished entirely. Of Pushkin, The Captain’s Daughter and Evgeny Onegin were allowed, the latter with considerable cuts, which were marked by the princess’s own hand. Lermontov, like Gogol, was not allowed. Of new authors, Turgenev alone was approved without question, but minus the passages “where they talk of love,” while Goncharov was banished, and though I interceded for him quite boldly, it did not help. The princess replied:
“I know he’s a great artist, but so much the worse— you must admit there are arousing subjects in him.”
I wished at all costs to know what precisely the princess meant by the arousing subjects she found in the works of Goncharov. How could he, with the mildness of his attitude towards people and the passions that possess them, offend anyone’s feelings?
This was intriguing to such a degree that I plucked up my courage and asked outright what the arousing subjects in Goncharov were.
To this frank question I received a frank, terse reply, uttered in a sharp whisper: “Elbows.”
I thought I had not heard right or had not understood.
“Elbows, elbows,” the princess repeated and, seeing my perplexity, seemed to grow angry. “Don’t you remember… how that one… the hero at some point… admires the bare elbows of his… of some very simple lady?”
Now, of course, I recalled the well-known episode from Oblomov and could not find a word of reply. As a matter of fact, it was more convenient for me to say nothing, since I neither needed nor wished to argue with the princess, who was beyond the reach of persuasion, and whom, to tell the truth, I had long been observing much more zealously than I tried to serve her with my recommendations and advice. And what recommendations could I make to her, since she considered “elbows” an outrageous indecency, and all the latest literature had stepped so far beyond such revelations?
What boldness one had to have, knowing all that, to name even one recent work, in which the coverings of beauty are raised far more resolutely! I felt that, circumstances being revealed in this way, my role as an adviser should be over— and I resolved not to advise, but to contradict.
“Princess,” I said, “it seems to me that you are being unfair: there is something exaggerated in your demands on artistic literature.”
I laid out everything that, in my opinion, had to do with the matter.
Carried away, I not only delivered a whole critique of false purism, but also quoted a well-known anecdote about a French lady who could neither write nor speak the word culotte,2 and when she once could not avoid saying this word in front of the queen, faltered and made everyone burst out laughing. But I simply could not remember in which French writer I had read about this terrible court scandal, which would not have taken place at all if the lady had spoken the word culotte as simply as the queen herself did with her august little lips.
My goal was to show that too much delicacy could be detrimental to modesty, and therefore an overly strict selection of reading was hardly necessary.
The princess, to my no little amazement, heard me out without showing the least displeasure, and, not leaving her seat, raised her hand over her head and took one of the pale blue volumes.
“You,” she said, “have arguments, but I have an oracle.”
“I would be interested to hear it,” I said.
“Without delay: I invoke the spirit of Genlis, and it will answer you. Open the book and read.”
“Be so kind as to point out where I should read,” I asked, accepting the little volume.
“Point out? That’s not my business: the spirit itself will do the pointing out. Open it at random.”
This was becoming slightly ridiculous for me, and I even felt ashamed, as it were, for my interlocutrice; however, I did as she wanted, and as soon as I glanced at the first sentence of the open page, I felt a vexing surprise.
“You’re puzzled?” asked the princess.
“Yes, it’s happened to many. I ask you to read it.”
“Reading is an occupation far too serious and far too important in its consequences for young people’s tastes not to be guided in its selection. There is reading which young people like, but which makes them careless and predisposes them to flightiness, after which it is difficult to correct the character. All this I know from experience.” I read that and stopped.
The princess, with a quiet smile, spread her arms and, tactfully triumphant in her victory over me, said:
“In Latin I believe it’s known as dixi.”3
After that we did not argue, but the princess could not deny herself the pleasure of sometimes speaking in my presence about the ill breeding of Russian writers who, in her opinion, “could not possibly be read aloud without preliminary revision.”
To the “spirit” of Genlis, naturally, I gave no serious thought. People say all kinds of things.
But the “spirit” indeed lived and was active, and, in addition, seemed to be on our side, that is, on the side of literature. Literary nature took the upper hand in it over dry philosophizing, and, unassailable on the score of decency, the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis, having spoken du fond du coeur,4 pulled off (yes, precisely pulled off) such a schoolboy stunt in that strict salon that the consequences of it were filled with deep tragicomedy.
Once a week “three friends” used to gather at the princess’s in the evening for tea. These were distinguished people, excellently placed. Two were senators, and the third was a diplomat. Naturally, we did not play cards, but conversed.
Usually the older ones, that is, the princess and the “three friends,” did the talking, while the young prince, the young princess, and I very rarely put in a word of our own. We were learning, and it must be said to the credit of our elders that we did have something to learn from them— especially from the diplomat, who amazed us with his subtle observations. I enjoyed his favor, though I do not know why. In fact, I am obliged to think he considered me no better than the others, and in his eyes “littérateurs” all shared “the same root.” He said jokingly, “The best of serpents is still a serpent.”
This same opinion gave rise to the terrible incident that follows.
Being stoically faithful to her friends, the princess did not want such a general definition to extend to Mme de Genlis and the “women’s pleiade” that the writer kept under her protection. And so, when we gathered in this esteemed person’s home to quietly see in the New Year, shortly before midnight the usual conversation started among us, in which the name of Mme de Genlis was mentioned, and the diplomat recalled his observation that “the best of serpents is still a serpent.”
“There is no rule without its exception,” said the princess.
The diplomat understood who the exception must be, and said nothing.
The princess could not contain herself and, glancing in the direction of Genlis’s portrait, said:
“What kind of serpent is she!”
But the worldly-wise diplomat stood his ground: he gently shook his finger and gently smiled— he believed neither flesh nor spirit.
To resolve the disagreement, proofs were obviously needed, and here the method of addressing the spirit came in pat.
The small company was in an excellent mood for such experiments, and the hostess, first reminding us of what we knew concerning her beliefs, then suggested an
“I claim,” she said, “that the most faultfinding person will not find anything in Genlis that could not be read aloud by the most innocent young girl, and we are going to test it right now.”
Again, as the first time, she reached her hand to the bookshelf that was still situated over her établissement, took a volume at random— and turned to her daughter.
“My child! Open it and read us a page.”
The young princess obeyed.
We all became pictures of earnest expectation.
The writer who begins to describe the appearance of his characters at the end of his story is blameworthy; but I have written this little trifle in such a way that no one in it should be recognized. Therefore I have not set down any names or given any portraits. The portrait of the young princess would in any case have exceeded my powers, because she was fully what is known as “an angel in the flesh.” As far as her all-perfect purity and innocence were concerned— they were so great that she could even have been entrusted with resolving the insuperably difficult theological problem posed in Heine’s “Bernardiner und Rabiner.” Of course, something standing higher than the world and its passions had to speak for this soul not privy to any sin. And the young princess, with that very innocence, charmingly rolling her r‘s, read Genlis’s interesting memoirs about the old age of
Mme du Deffand, when she became “weak in the eyes.” The text spoke of the fat Gibbon, who had been recommended to the French writer as a famous author. Genlis, as we know, quickly sized him up and sharply derided the French who were made enthusiastic by the inflated reputation of this foreigner.
Here I will quote from the well-known translation of the French original read by the young princess who was capable of resolving the argument between “Bernardiner und Rabiner”:
“Gibbon was of small stature, extremely fat, and had a most remarkable face. It was impossible to make out any features on this face. Neither the nose, nor the eyes, nor the mouth could be seen at all; two huge, fat cheeks, resembling the devil knows what, engulfed everything… They were so puffed up that they quite departed from all proportion ever so slightly proper even for the biggest cheeks; anyone seeing them must have wondered: why has that place not been put in the right place? I would characterize Gibbon’s face with one word, if it were only possible to speak such a word. Lauzun, who was on close terms with Gibbon, once brought him to du Deffand. Mme du Deffand was already blind then and had the habit of feeling with her hands the faces of distinguished people newly introduced to her. In this way she would acquire a rather accurate notion of the features of her new acquaintance. She applied this tactile method to Gibbon, and the result was terrible. The Englishman approached her chair and with especial good-naturedness offered her his astonishing face. Mme du Deffand brought her hands to it and passed her fingers over this ball-shaped face. She tried to find something to stop at, but it was impossible. All at once the blind lady’s face expressed first astonishment, then wrath, and at last, quickly pulling her hands away in disgust, she cried: ‘What a vile joke!'”
That was the end of the reading, and of the friends’ conversation, and of the anticipated celebration of the New Year, because, when the young princess closed the book and asked, “What was it that Mme du Deffand imagined?” the mother’s look was so terrible that the girl cried out, covered her face with her hands, and rushed headlong to another room, from where her weeping was heard at once, verging on hysterics.
The brother rushed to his sister, and at the same moment the princess hastened there on long strides.
The presence of outsiders was now inappropriate, and therefore the “three friends” and I all quietly cleared off that minute, and the bottle of Veuve Clicquot prepared for seeing in the New Year remained wrapped in a napkin, as yet uncorked.
The feelings with which we left were painful, but did no credit to our hearts, for, while keeping our faces strenuously serious, we could barely refrain from bursting into laughter, and bent down with exaggerated care to look for our galoshes, which was necessary because the servants had also scattered on occasion of the alarm caused by the young lady’s sudden illness.
The senators got into their carriages, but the diplomat accompanied me on foot. He wished to take some fresh air and, it seems, was interested in knowing my insignificant opinion about what might have presented itself to the young princess’s mental eyes after reading the above passage from the writings of Mme de Genlis.
But I decidedly did not dare to make any suggestions about it.
From the unfortunate day when this incident took place, I saw no more of the princess or her daughter. I could not resolve to go and wish her a Happy New
Year, and only sent to inquire after the young princess’s health, but even that with great hesitation, lest it be taken in some other sense. Visits of condoléance seemed totally out of place to me. The situation was a most stupid one: to suddenly stop visiting acquaintances would be rude, but to appear there also seemed inappropriate.
Perhaps I was wrong in my conclusions, but they seemed right to me; and I was not mistaken: the blow that the princess suffered on New Year’s Eve from the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis was very heavy and had serious consequences.
About a month later I met the diplomat on N evsky Prospect: he was very affable, and we fell to talking.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he said.
“We have nowhere to meet,” I replied.
“Yes, we’ve lost the dear house of the esteemed princess: the poor woman had to leave.”
“Leave?” I said. “For where?”
“As if you don’t know.”
“I know nothing.”
“They all left for abroad, and I’m very happy that I was able to find a post there for her son. It was impossible not to do so after what happened then… So terrible! You know, the unfortunate woman burned all her volumes that same night and smashed the little terracotta hand to smithereens, though one finger, or better say a fig, seems to have survived as a souvenir.
Generally, it was a most unpleasant incident, but then it serves as an excellent proof of one great truth.”
“Even two or three, in my opinion.” The diplomat smiled and, looking fixedly at me, asked:
“First, it proves that the books we decide to talk about, we should read beforehand.”
“And second— that it’s not reasonable to keep a young girl in such childish ignorance as the young princess was in before that occurrence; otherwise she would certainly have stopped reading about Gibbon much sooner.”
“Third, that spirits are just as unreliable as living people.”
“And that’s not all: the spirit confirms one of my opinions, that ‘the best of serpents is still a serpent,’ and what’s more, the better the serpent, the more dangerous it is, because it holds its venom in its tail.”
If we had satire in our country, this would be an excellent subject for it.
Unfortunately, having no satirical ability, I can recount it only in the simple form of a story.
*The Editorial team had made all possible efforts to contact the rights holder of this work. We ask them to write to us here.
*Image: Anita Arbidane
“To whom shall I tell my grief?”
The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off… His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.
It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.
“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”
Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.
“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”
In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets of…
“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!”
“You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.
A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.
“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”
Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips… Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.
“What?” inquires the officer.
Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”
“H’m! What did he die of?”
Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:
“Who can tell! It must have been from fever… He lay three days in the hospital and then he died… God’s will.”
“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”
“Drive on! drive on!…” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”
The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box… Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another…
Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.
“Cabby, to the Police Bridge!” the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. “The three of us,… twenty kopecks!”
Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare… The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.
“Well, drive on,” says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona’s neck. “Cut along! What a cap you’ve got, my friend! You wouldn’t find a worse one in all Petersburg…”
“He-he!… he-he!…” laughs Iona. “It’s nothing to boast of!”
“Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?”
“My head aches,” says one of the tall ones. “At the Dukmasovs’ yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.”
“I can’t make out why you talk such stuff,” says the other tall one angrily. “You lie like a brute.”
“Strike me dead, it’s the truth!…”
“It’s about as true as that a louse coughs.”
“He-he!” grins Iona. “Me-er-ry gentlemen!”
“Tfoo! the devil take you!” cries the hunchback indignantly. “Will you get on, you old plague, or won’t you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it to her well.”
Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:
“This week… er… my… er… son died!”
“We shall all die,…” says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?”
“Well, you give him a little encouragement… one in the neck!”
“Do you hear, you old plague? I’ll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don’t you care a hang what we say?”
And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.
“He-he!…” he laughs. “Merry gentlemen… God give you health!”
“Cabman, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.
“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth… He-ho-ho!… The grave that is!… Here my son’s dead and I am alive… It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door… Instead of coming for me it went for my son…”
And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him… The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery… His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona’s heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight…
Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.
“What time will it be, friend?” he asks.
“Going on for ten… Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”
Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins… He can bear it no longer.
“Back to the yard!” he thinks. “To the yard!”
And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early…
“I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even,” he thinks. “That’s why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work,… who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease…”
In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.
“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.
“May it do you good… But my son is dead, mate… Do you hear? This week in the hospital… It’s a queer business…”
Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself… Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet… He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation… He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died… He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country… And he wants to talk about her too… Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament… It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.
“Let’s go out and have a look at the mare,” Iona thinks. “There is always time for sleep… You’ll have sleep enough, no fear…”
He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather… He cannot think about his son when he is alone… To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish…
“Are you munching?” Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. “There, munch away, munch away… Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay… Yes,… I have grown too old to drive… My son ought to be driving, not I… He was a real cabman… He ought to have lived…”
Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:
“That’s how it is, old girl… Kuzma Ionitch is gone… He said good-by to me… He went and died for no reason… Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. … And all at once that same little colt went and died… You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?…”
The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.
“PAVEL VASSILYEVITCH, there’s a lady here, asking for you,” Luka announced. “She’s been waiting a good hour….”
Pavel Vassilyevitch had only just finished lunch. Hearing of the lady, he frowned and said:
“Oh, damn her! Tell her I’m busy.”
“She has been here five times already, Pavel Vassilyevitch. She says she really must see you…. She’s almost crying.”
“H’m… very well, then, ask her into the study.”
Without haste Pavel Vassilyevitch put on his coat, took a pen in one hand, and a book in the other, and trying to look as though he were very busy he went into the study. There the visitor was awaiting him – a large stout lady with a red, beefy face, in spectacles. She looked very respectable, and her dress was more than fashionable (she had on a crinolette of four storeys and a high hat with a reddish bird in it). On seeing him she turned up her eyes and folded her hands in supplication.
“You don’t remember me, of course,” she began in a high masculine tenor, visibly agitated. ” I… I have had the pleasure of meeting you at the Hrutskys…. I am Mme. Murashkin….”
“A… a… a… h’m… Sit down! What can I do for you?”
“You… you see… I… I…” the lady went on, sitting down and becoming still more agitated. “You don’t remember me…. I’m Mme. Murashkin…. You see I’m a great admirer of your talent and always read your articles with great enjoyment…. Don’t imagine I’m flattering you – God forbid! – I’m only giving honour where honour is due…. I am always reading you… always! To some extent I am myself not a stranger to literature – that is, of course… I will not venture to call myself an authoress, but… still I have added my little quota… I have published at different times three stories for children…. You have not read them, of course…. I have translated a good deal and… and my late brother used to write for The Cause.“
“To be sure… er – er – er — What can I do for you?”
“You see… (the lady cast down her eyes and turned redder) I know your talents… your views, Pavel Vassilyevitch, and I have been longing to learn your opinion, or more exactly… to ask your advice. I must tell you I have perpetrated a play, my first-born – pardon pour l’expression! – and before sending it to the Censor I should like above all things to have your opinion on it.
Nervously, with the flutter of a captured bird, the lady fumbled in her skirt and drew out a fat manuscript.
Pavel Vassilyevitch liked no articles but his own. When threatened with the necessity of reading other people’s, or listening to them, he felt as though he were facing the cannon’s mouth. Seeing the manuscript he took fright and hastened to say:
“Very good, … leave it, … I’ll read it.”
“Pavel Vassilyevitch,” the lady said languishingly, clasping her hands and raising them in supplication, “I know you’re busy…. Your every minute is precious, and I know you’re inwardly cursing me at this moment, but… Be kind, allow me to read you my play…. Do be so very sweet!”
“I should be delighted…” faltered Pavel Vassilyevitch; “but, Madam, I’m… I’m very busy…. I’m… I’m obliged to set off this minute.”
“Pavel Vassilyevitch,” moaned the lady and her eyes filled with tears, “I’m asking a sacrifice! I am insolent, I am intrusive, but be magnanimous. To-morrow I’m leaving for Kazan and I should like to know your opinion to-day. Grant me half an hour of your attention… only one half-hour… I implore you!
Pavel Vassilyevitch was cotton-wool at core, and could not refuse. When it seemed to him that the lady was about to burst into sobs and fall on her knees, he was overcome with confusion and muttered helplessly.
“Very well; certainly… I will listen… I will give you half an hour.”
The lady uttered a shriek of joy, took off her hat and settling herself, began to read. At first she read a scene in which a footman and a house maid, tidying up a sumptuous drawing-room, talked at length about their young lady, Anna Sergyevna, who was building a school and a hospital in the village. When the footman had left the room, the maidservant pronounced a monologue to the effect that education is light and ignorance is darkness; then Mme. Murashkin brought the footman back into the drawing-room and set him uttering a long monologue concerning his master, the General, who disliked his daughter’s views, intended to marry her to a rich kammer junker, and held that the salvation of the people lay in unadulterated ignorance. Then, when the servants had left the stage, the young lady herself appeared and informed the audience that she had not slept all night, but had been thinking of Valentin Ivanovitch, who was the son of a poor teacher and assisted his sick father gratuitously. Valentin had studied all the sciences, but had no faith in friendship nor in love; he had no object in life and longed for death, and therefore she, the young lady, must save him.
Pavel Vassilyevitch listened, and thought with yearning anguish of his sofa. He scanned the lady viciously, felt her masculine tenor thumping on his eardrums, understood nothing, and thought:
“The devil sent you… as though I wanted to listen to your tosh! It’s not my fault you’ve written a play, is it? My God! what a thick manuscript! What an infliction!”
Pavel Vassilyevitch glanced at the wall where the portrait of his wife was hanging and remembered that his wife had asked him to buy and bring to their summer cottage five yards of tape, a pound of cheese, and some tooth-powder.
“I hope I’ve not lost the pattern of that tape,” he thought, “where did I put it? I believe it’s in my blue reefer jacket…. Those wretched flies have covered her portrait with spots already, I must tell Olga to wash the glass…. She’s reading the twelfth scene, so we must soon be at the end of the first act. As though inspiration were possible in this heat and with such a mountain of flesh, too! Instead of writing plays she’d much better eat cold vinegar hash and sleep in a cellar….”
“You don’t think that monologue’s a little too long?” the lady asked suddenly, raising her eyes.
Pavel Vassilyevitch had not heard the monologue, and said in a voice as guilty as though not the lady but he had written that monologue:
“No, no, not at all. It’s very nice….”
The lady beamed with happiness and continued reading:
ANNA: You are consumed by analysis. Too early you have ceased to live in the heart and have put your faith in the intellect.
VALENTIN: What do you mean by the heart? That is a concept of anatomy. As a conventional term for what are called the feelings, I do not admit it.
ANNA (confused): And love? Surely that is not merely a product of the association of ideas? Tell me frankly, have you ever loved?
VALENTIN (bitterly): Let us not touch on old wounds not yet healed. (A pause.) What are you thinking of?
ANNA: I believe you are unhappy.
During the sixteenth scene Pavel Vassilyevitch yawned, and accidently made with his teeth the sound dogs make when they catch a fly. He was dismayed at this unseemly sound, and to cover it assumed an expression of rapt attention.
“Scene seventeen! When will it end?” he thought. “Oh, my God! If this torture is prolonged another ten minutes I shall shout for the police. It’s insufferable.”
But at last the lady began reading more loudly and more rapidly, and finally raising her voice she read “Curtain.”
Pavel Vassilyevitch uttered a faint sigh and was about to get up, but the lady promptly turned the page and went on reading.
ACT II. – Scene, a village street. On right, School. On left, Hospital. Villagers, male and female, sitting on the hospital steps.
“Excuse me,” Pavel Vassilyevitch broke in, “how many acts are there?”
“Five,” answered the lady, and at once, as though fearing her audience might escape her, she went on rapidly.
VALENTIN is looking out of the schoolhouse window. In the background Villagers can be seen taking their goods to the Inn.
Like a man condemned to be executed and convinced of the impossibility of a reprieve, Pavel Vassilyevitch gave up expecting the end, abandoned all hope, and simply tried to prevent his eyes from closing, and to retain an expression of attention on his face…. The future when the lady would finish her play and depart seemed to him so remote that he did not even think of it.
“Trooo – too – too – too…” the lady’s voice sounded in his ears.”Troo – too – too… sh – sh – sh – sh…”
“I forgot to take my soda,” he thought. “What am I thinking about? Oh – my soda…. Most likely I shall have a bilious attack…. It’s extraordinary, Smirnovsky swills vodka all day long and yet he never has a bilious attack…. There’s a bird settled on the window… a sparrow….”
Pavel Vassilyevitch made an effort to unglue his strained and closing eyelids, yawned without opening his mouth, and stared at Mme. Murashkin. She grew misty and swayed before his eyes, turned into a triangle and her head pressed against the ceiling….
VALENTIN: No, let me depart.
ANNA (in dismay): Why?
VALENTIN (aside): She has turned pale! (To her) Do not force me to explain. Sooner would I die than you should know the reason.
ANNA (after a pause): You cannot go away….
The lady began to swell, swelled to an immense size, and melted into the dingy atmosphere of the study – only her moving mouth was visible; then she suddenly dwindled to the size of a bottle, swayed from side to side, and with the table retreated to the further end of the room…
VALENTIN (holding ANNA in his arms): You have given me new life! You have shown me an object to live for! You have renewed me as the Spring rain renews the awakened earth! But… it is too late, too late! The ill that gnaws at my heart is beyond cure….
Pavel Vassilyevitch started and with dim and smarting eyes stared at the reading lady; for a minute he gazed fixedly as though understanding nothing….
SCENE XI. – The same. The BARON and the POLICE INSPECTOR with assistants.
VALENTIN: Take me!
ANNA: I am his! Take me too! Yes, take me too! I love him, I love him more than life!
BARON: Anna Sergyevna, you forget that you are ruining your father….
The lady began swelling again…. Looking round him wildly Pavel Vassilyevitch got up, yelled in a deep, unnatural voice, snatched from the table a heavy paper-weight, and beside himself, brought it down with all his force on the authoress’s head….
* * * * * *
“Give me in charge, I’ve killed her!” he said to the maidservant who ran in, a minute later.
The jury acquitted him.
*Image: Eugenia Loli
On that terrible day, when the universal injustice was committed and Jesus Christ was crucified in Golgotha among robbers—on that day, from early morning, Ben-Tovit, a tradesman of Jerusalem, suffered from an unendurable toothache. His toothache had commenced on the day before, toward evening; at first his right jaw started to pain him, and one tooth, the one right next the wisdom tooth, seemed to have risen somewhat, and when his tongue touched the tooth, he felt a slightly painful sensation. After supper, however, his toothache had passed, and Ben-Tovit had forgotten all about it—he had made a profitable deal on that day, had bartered an old donkey for a young, strong one, so he was very cheerful and paid no heed to any ominous signs.
And he slept very soundly. But just before daybreak something began to disturb him, as if some one were calling him on a very important matter, and when Ben-Tovit awoke angrily, his teeth were aching, aching openly and maliciously, causing him an acute, drilling pain. And he could no longer understand whether it was only the same tooth that had ached on the previous day, or whether others had joined that tooth; Ben-Tovit’s entire mouth and his head were filled with terrible sensations of pain, as though he had been forced to chew thousands of sharp, red-hot nails, he took some water into his mouth from an earthen jug—for a minute the acuteness of the pain subsided, his teeth twitched and swayed like a wave, and this sensation was even pleasant as compared with the other.
Ben-Tovit lay down again, recalled his new donkey, and thought how happy he would have been if not for his toothache, and he wanted to fall asleep. But the water was warm, and five minutes later his toothache began to rage more severely than ever; Ben-Tovit sat up in his bed and swayed back and forth like a pendulum. His face became wrinkled and seemed to have shrunk, and a drop of cold perspiration was hanging on his nose, which had turned pale from his sufferings. Thus, swaying back and forth and groaning for pain, he met the first rays of the sun, which was destined to see Golgotha and the three crosses, and grow dim from horror and sorrow.
Ben-Tovit was a good and kind man, who hated any injustice, but when his wife awoke he said many unpleasant things to her, opening his mouth with difficulty, and he complained that he was left alone, like a jackal, to groan and writhe for pain. His wife met the undeserved reproaches patiently, for she knew that they came not from an angry heart—and she brought him numerous good remedies: rats’ litter to be applied to his cheek, some strong liquid in which a scorpion was preserved, and a real chip of the tablets that Moses had broken. He began to feel a little better from the rats’ litter, but not for long, also from the liquid and the stone, but the pain returned each time with renewed intensity.
During the moments of rest Ben-Tovit consoled himself with the thought of the little donkey, and he dreamed of him, and when he felt worse he moaned, scolded his wife, and threatened to dash his head against a rock if the pain should not subside. He kept pacing back and forth on the flat roof of his house from one corner to the other, feeling ashamed to come close to the side facing the street, for his head was tied around with a kerchief like that of a woman. Several times children came running to him and told him hastily about Jesus of Nazareth. Ben-Tovit paused, listened to them for a while, his face wrinkled, but then he stamped his foot angrily and chased them away. He was a kind man and he loved children, but now he was angry at them for bothering him with trifles.
It was disagreeable to him that a large crowd had gathered in the street and on the neighbouring roofs, doing nothing and looking curiously at Ben-Tovit, who had his head tied around with a kerchief like a woman. He was about to go down, when his wife said to him:
“Look, they are leading robbers there. Perhaps that will divert you.”
“Let me alone. Don’t you see how I am suffering?” Ben-Tovit answered angrily.
But there was a vague promise in his wife’s words that there might be a relief for his toothache, so he walked over to the parapet unwillingly. Bending his head on one side, closing one eye, and supporting his cheek with his hand, his face assumed a squeamish, weeping expression, and he looked down to the street.
On the narrow street, going uphill, an enormous crowd was moving forward in disorder, covered with dust and shouting uninterruptedly. In the middle of the crowd walked the criminals, bending down under the weight of their crosses, and over them the scourges of the Roman soldiers were wriggling about like black snakes. One of the men, he of the long light hair, in a torn blood-stained cloak, stumbled over a stone which was thrown under his feet, and he fell. The shouting grew louder, and the crowd, like coloured sea water, closed in about the man on the ground. Ben-Tovit suddenly shuddered for pain; he felt as though some one had pierced a red-hot needle into his tooth and turned it there; he groaned and walked away from the parapet, angry and squeamishly indifferent.
“How they are shouting!” he said enviously, picturing to himself their wide-open mouths with strong, healthy teeth, and how he himself would have shouted if he had been well. This intensified his toothache, and he shook his muffled head frequently, and roared: “Moo-Moo….”
“They say that He restored sight to the blind,” said his wife, who remained standing at the parapet, and she threw down a little cobblestone near the place where Jesus, lifted by the whips, was moving slowly.
“Of course, of course! He should have cured my toothache,” replied Ben-Tovit ironically, and he added bitterly with irritation: “What dust they have kicked up! Like a herd of cattle! They should all be driven away with a stick! Take me down, Sarah!”
The wife proved to be right. The spectacle had diverted Ben-Tovit slightly—perhaps it was the rats’ litter that had helped after all—he succeeded in falling asleep. When he awoke, his toothache had passed almost entirely, and only a little inflammation had formed over his right jaw. His wife told him that it was not noticeable at all, but Ben-Tovit smiled cunningly—he knew how kind-hearted his wife was and how fond she was of telling him pleasant things.
Samuel, the tanner, a neighbour of Ben-Tovit’s, came in, and Ben-Tovit led him to see the new little donkey and listened proudly to the warm praises for himself and his animal.
Then, at the request of the curious Sarah, the three went to Golgotha to see the people who had been crucified. On the way Ben-Tovit told Samuel in detail how he had felt a pain in his right jaw on the day before, and how he awoke at night with a terrible toothache. To illustrate it he made a martyr’s face, closing his eyes, shook his head, and groaned while the grey-bearded Samuel nodded his head compassionately and said:
“Oh, how painful it must have been!”
Ben-Tovit was pleased with Samuel’s attitude, and he repeated the story to him, then went back to the past, when his first tooth was spoiled on the left side. Thus, absorbed in a lively conversation, they reached Golgotha. The sun, which was destined to shine upon the world on that terrible day, had already set beyond the distant hills, and in the west a narrow, purple-red strip was burning, like a stain of blood. The crosses stood out darkly but vaguely against this background, and at the foot of the middle cross white kneeling figures were seen indistinctly.
The crowd had long dispersed; it was growing chilly, and after a glance at the crucified men, Ben-Tovit took Samuel by the arm and carefully turned him in the direction toward his house. He felt that he was particularly eloquent just then, and he was eager to finish the story of his toothache. Thus they walked, and Ben-Tovit made a martyr’s face, shook his head and groaned skilfully, while Samuel nodded compassionately and uttered exclamations from time to time, and from the deep, narrow defiles, out of the distant, burning plains, rose the black night. It seemed as though it wished to hide from the view of heaven the great crime of the earth.
*Image: Jesus Everywhere
A Fantastic Story
I am a ridiculous person. Now they call me a madman. That would be a promotion if it were not that I remain as ridiculous in their eyes as before. But now I do not resent it, they are all dear to me now, even when they laugh at me – and, indeed, it is just then that they are particularly dear to me. I could join in their laughter–not exactly at myself, but through affection for them, if I did not feel so sad as I look at them. Sad because they do not know the truth and I do know it. Oh, how hard it is to be the only one who knows the truth! But they won’t understand that. No, they won’t understand it.
In old days I used to be miserable at seeming ridiculous. Not seeming, but being. I have always been ridiculous, and I have known it, perhaps, from the hour I was born. Perhaps from the time I was seven years old I knew I was ridiculous. Afterwards I went to school, studied at the university, and, do you know, the more I learned, the more thoroughly I understood that I was ridiculous. So that it seemed in the end as though all the sciences I studied at the university existed only to prove and make evident to me as I went more deeply into them that I was ridiculous. It was the same with life as it was with science. With every year the same consciousness of the ridiculous figure I cut in every relation grew and strengthened. Everyone always laughed at me. But not one of them knew or guessed that if there were one man on earth who knew better than anybody else that I was absurd, it was myself, and what I resented most of all was that they did not know that. But that was my own fault; I was so proud that nothing would have ever induced me to tell it to anyone. This pride grew in me with the years; and if it had happened that I allowed myself to confess to anyone that I was ridiculous, I believe that I should have blown out my brains the same evening. Oh, how I suffered in my early youth from the fear that I might give way and confess it to my schoolfellows. But since I grew to manhood, I have for some unknown reason become calmer, though I realised my awful characteristic more fully every year. I say ‘unknown’, for to this day I cannot tell why it was. Perhaps it was owing to the terrible misery that was growing in my soul through something which was of more consequence than anything else about me: that something was the conviction that had come upon me that nothing in the world mattered. I had long had an inkling of it, but the full realisation came last year almost suddenly. I suddenly felt that it was all the same to me whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all: I began to feel with all my being that there was nothing existing. At first I fancied that many things had existed in the past, but afterwards I guessed that there never had been anything in the past either, but that it had only seemed so for some reason. Little by little I guessed that there would be nothing in the future either. Then I left off being angry with people and almost ceased to notice them. Indeed this showed itself even in the pettiest trifles: I used, for instance, to knock against people in the street. And not so much from being lost in thought: what had I to think about? I had almost given up thinking by that time; nothing mattered to me. If at least I had solved my problems! Oh, I had not settled one of them, and how many there were! But I gave up caring about anything, and all the problems disappeared.
And it was after that that I found out the truth. I learnt the truth last November–on the third of November, to be precise– and I remember every instant since. It was a gloomy evening, one of the gloomiest possible evenings. I was going home at about eleven o’clock, and I remember that I thought that the evening could not be gloomier. Even physically. Rain had been falling all day, and it had been a cold, gloomy, almost menacing rain, with, I remember, an unmistakable spite against mankind. Suddenly between ten and eleven it had stopped, and was followed by a horrible dampness, colder and damper than the rain, and a sort of steam was rising from everything, from every stone in the street, and from every by-lane if one looked down it as far as one could. A thought suddenly occurred to me, that if all the street lamps had been put out it would have been less cheerless, that the gas made one’s heart sadder because it lighted it all up. I had had scarcely any dinner that day, and had been spending the evening with an engineer, and two other friends had been there also. I sat silent–I fancy I bored them. They talked of something rousing and suddenly they got excited over it. But they did not really care, I could see that, and only made a show of being excited. I suddenly said as much to them. “My friends,” I said, “you really do not care one way or the other.” They were not offended, but they laughed at me. That was because I spoke without any not of reproach, simply because it did not matter to me. They saw it did not, and it amused them.
As I was thinking about the gas lamps in the street I looked up at the sky. The sky was horribly dark, but one could distinctly see tattered clouds, and between them fathomless black patches. Suddenly I noticed in one of these patches a star, and began watching it intently. That was because that star had given me an idea: I decided to kill myself that night. I had firmly determined to do so two months before, and poor as I was, I bought a splendid revolver that very day, and loaded it. But two months had passed and it was still lying in my drawer; I was so utterly indifferent that I wanted to seize a moment when I would not be so indifferent–why, I don’t know. And so for two months every night that I came home I thought I would shoot myself. I kept waiting for the right moment. And so now this star gave me a thought. I made up my mind that it should certainly be that night. And why the star gave me the thought I don’t know.
And just as I was looking at the sky, this little girl took me by the elbow. The street was empty, and there was scarcely anyone to be seen. A cabman was sleeping in the distance in his cab. It was a child of eight with a kerchief on her head, wearing nothing but a wretched little dress all soaked with rain, but I noticed her wet broken shoes and I recall them now. They caught my eye particularly. She suddenly pulled me by the elbow and called me. She was not weeping, but was spasmodically crying out some words which could not utter properly, because she was shivering and shuddering all over. She was in terror about something, and kept crying, “Mammy, mammy!” I turned facing her, I did not say a word and went on; but she ran, pulling at me, and there was that note in her voice which in frightened children means despair. I know that sound. Though she did not articulate the words, I understood that her mother was dying, or that something of the sort was happening to them, and that she had run out to call someone, to find something to help her mother. I did not go with her; on the contrary, I had an impulse to drive her away. I told her first to go to a policeman. But clasping her hands, she ran beside me sobbing and gasping, and would not leave me. Then I stamped my foot and shouted at her. She called out “Sir! sir! . . .” but suddenly abandoned me and rushed headlong across the road. Some other passerby appeared there, and she evidently flew from me to him.
I mounted up to my fifth storey. I have a room in a flat where there are other lodgers. My room is small and poor, with a garret window in the shape of a semicircle. I have a sofa covered with American leather, a table with books on it, two chairs and a comfortable arm-chair, as old as old can be, but of the good old-fashioned shape. I sat down, lighted the candle, and began thinking. In the room next to mine, through the partition wall, a perfect Bedlam was going on. It had been going on for the last three days. A retired captain lived there, and he had half a dozen visitors, gentlemen of doubtful reputation, drinking vodka and playing stoss with old cards. The night before there had been a fight, and I know that two of them had been for a long time engaged in dragging each other about by the hair. The landlady wanted to complain, but she was in abject terror of the captain. There was only one other lodger in the flat, a thin little regimental lady, on a visit to Petersburg, with three little children who had been taken ill since they came into the lodgings. Both she and her children were in mortal fear of the captain, and lay trembling and crossing themselves all night, and the youngest child had a sort of fit from fright. That captain, I know for a fact, sometimes stops people in the Nevsky Prospect and begs. They won’t take him into the service, but strange to say (that’s why I am telling this), all this month that the captain has been here his behavior has caused me no annoyance. I have, of course, tried to avoid his acquaintance from the very beginning, and he, too, was bored with me from the first; but I never care how much they shout the other side of the partition nor how many of them there are in there: I sit up all night and forget them so completely that I do not even hear them. I stay awake till daybreak, and have been going on like that for the last year. I sit up all night in my arm-chair at the table, doing nothing. I only read by day. I sit–don’t even think; ideas of a sort wander through my mind and I let them come and go as they will. A whole candle is burnt every night. I sat down quietly at the table, took out the revolver and put it down before me. When I had put it down I asked myself, I remember, “Is that so?” and answered with complete conviction, “It is.” That is, I shall shoot myself. I knew that I should shoot myself that night for certain, but how much longer I should go on sitting at the table I did not know. And no doubt I should have shot myself if it had not been for that little girl.
You see, though nothing mattered to me, I could feel pain, for instance. If anyone had stuck me it would have hurt me. It was the same morally: if anything very pathetic happened, I should have felt pity just as I used to do in old days when there were things in life that did matter to me. I had felt pity that evening. I should have certainly helped a child. Why, then, had I not helped the little girl? Because of an idea that occurred to me at the time: when she was calling and pulling at me, a question suddenly arose before me and I could not settle it. The question was an idle one, but I was vexed. I was vexed at the reflection that if I were going to make an end of myself that night, nothing in life ought to have mattered to me. Why was it that all at once I did not feel a strange pang, quite incongruous in my position. Really I do not know better how to convey my fleeting sensation at the moment, but the sensation persisted at home when I was sitting at the table, and I was very much irritated as I had not been for a long time past. One reflection followed another. I saw clearly that so long as I was still a human being and not nothingness, I was alive and so could suffer, be angry and feel shame at my actions. So be it. But if I am going to kill myself, in two hours, say, what is the little girl to me and what have I to do with shame or with anything else in the world? I shall turn into nothing, absolutely nothing. And can it really be true that the consciousness that I shall completely cease to exist immediately and so everything else will cease to exist, does not in the least affect my feeling of pity for the child nor the feeling of shame after a contemptible action? I stamped and shouted at the unhappy child as though to say–not only I feel no pity, but even if I behave inhumanly and contemptibly, I am free to, for in another two hours everything will be extinguished. Do you believe that that was why I shouted that? I am almost convinced of it now. I seemed clear to me that life and the world somehow depended upon me now. I may almost say that the world now seemed created for me alone: if I shot myself the world would cease to be at least for me. I say nothing of its being likely that nothing will exist for anyone when I am gone, and that as soon as my consciousness is extinguished the whole world will vanish too and become void like a phantom, as a mere appurtenance of my consciousness, for possibly all this world and all these people are only me myself.
I remember that as I sat and reflected, I turned all these new questions that swarmed one after another quite the other way, and thought of something quite new. For instance, a strange reflection suddenly occurred to me, that if I had lived before on the moon or on Mars and there had committed the most disgraceful and dishonourable action and had there been put to such shame and ignominy as one can only conceive and realise in dreams, in nightmares, and if, finding myself afterwards on earth, I were able to retain the memory of what I had done on the other planet and at the same time knew that I should never, under any circumstances, return there, then looking from the earth to the moon–should I care or not? Should I feel shame for that action or not? These were idle and superfluous questions for the revolver was already lying before me, and I knew in every fibre of my being that it would happen for certain, but they excited me and I raged. I could not die now without having first settled something. In short, the child had saved me, for I put off my pistol shot for the sake of these questions. Meanwhile the clamour had begun to subside in the captain’s room: they had finished their game, were settling down to sleep, and meanwhile were grumbling and languidly winding up their quarrels. At that point, I suddenly fell asleep in my chair at the table–a thing which had never happened to me before. I dropped asleep quite unawares.
Dreams, as we all know, are very queer things: some parts are presented with appalling vividness, with details worked up with the elaborate finish of jewellery, while others one gallops through, as it were, without noticing them at all, as, for instance, through space and time. Dreams seem to be spurred on not by reason but by desire, not by the head but by the heart, and yet what complicated tricks my reason has played sometimes in dreams, what utterly incomprehensible things happen to it! My brother died five years ago, for instance. I sometimes dream of him; he takes part in my affairs, we are very much interested, and yet all through my dream I quite know and remember that my brother is dead and buried. How is it that I am not surprised that, though he is dead, he is here beside me and working with me? Why is it that my reason fully accepts it? But enough. I will begin about my dream. Yes, I dreamed a dream, my dream of the third of November. They tease me now, telling me it was only a dream. But does it matter whether it was a dream or reality, if the dream made known to me the truth? If once one has recognized the truth and seen it, you know that it is the truth and that there is no other and there cannot be, whether you are asleep or awake. Let it be a dream, so be it, but that real life of which you make so much I had meant to extinguish by suicide, and my dream, my dream–oh, it revealed to me a different life, renewed, grand and full of power!
I have mentioned that I dropped asleep unawares and even seemed to be still reflecting on the same subjects. I suddenly dreamt that I picked up the revolver and aimed it straight at my heart–my heart, and not my head; and I had determined beforehand to fire at my head, at my right temple. After aiming at my chest I waited a second or two, and suddenly my candle, my table, and the wall in front of me began moving and heaving. I made haste to pull the trigger.
In dreams you sometimes fall from a height, or are stabbed, or beaten, but you never feel pain unless, perhaps, you really bruise yourself against the bedstead, then you feel pain and almost always wake up from it. It was the same in my dream. I did not feel any pain, but it seemed as though with my shot everything within me was shaken and everything was suddenly dimmed, and it grew horribly black around me. I seemed to be blinded, and it benumbed, and I was lying on something hard, stretched on my back; I saw nothing, and could not make the slightest movement. People were walking and shouting around me, the captain bawled, the landlady shrieked–and suddenly another break and I was being carried in a closed coffin. And I felt how the coffin was shaking and reflected upon it, and for the first time the idea struck me that I was dead, utterly dead, I knew it and had no doubt of it, I could neither see nor move and yet I was feeling and reflecting. But I was soon reconciled to the position, and as one usually does in a dream, accepted the facts without disputing them.
And now I was buried in the earth. They all went away, I was left alone, utterly alone. I did not move. Whenever before I had imagined being buried the one sensation I associated with the grave was that of damp and cold. So now I felt that I was very cold, especially the tips of my toes, but I felt nothing else.
I lay still, strange to say I expected nothing, accepting without dispute that a dead man had nothing to expect. But it was damp. I don’t know how long a time passed–whether an hour or several days, or many days. But all at once a drop of water fell on my closed left eye, making its way through the coffin lid; it was followed a minute later by a second, then a minute later by a third–and so on, regularly every minute. There was a sudden glow of profound indignation in my heart, and I suddenly felt in it a pang of physical pain. “That’s my wound,” I thought; “that’s the bullet . . .” And drop after drop every minute kept falling on my closed eyelid. And all at once, not with my voice, but with my entire being, I called upon the power that was responsible for all that was happening to me:
“Whoever you may be, if you exist, and if anything more rational that what is happening here is possible, suffer it to be here now. But if you are revenging yourself upon me for my senseless suicide by the hideousness and absurdity of this subsequent existence, then let me tell you that no torture could ever equal the contempt which I shall go on dumbly feeling, though my martyrdom may last a million years!”
I made this appeal and held my peace. There was a full minute of unbroken silence and again another drop fell, but I knew with infinite unshakable certainty that everything would change immediately. And behold my grave suddenly was rent asunder, that is, I don’t know whether it was opened or dug up, but I was caught up by some dark and unknown being and we found ourselves in space. I suddenly regained my sight. It was the dead of night, and never, never had there been such darkness. We were flying through space far away from the earth. I did not question the being who was taking me; I was proud and waited. I assured myself that I was not afraid, and was thrilled with ecstasy at the thought that I was not afraid. I do not know how long we were flying, I cannot imagine; it happened as it always does in dreams when you skip over space and time, and the laws of thought and existence, and only pause upon the points for which the heart yearns. I remember that I suddenly saw in the darkness a star. “Is that Sirius?” I asked impulsively, though I had not meant to ask questions.
“No, that is the star you saw between the clouds when you were coming home,” the being who was carrying me replied.
I knew that it had something like a human face. Strange to say, I did not like that being, in fact I felt an intense aversion for it. I had expected complete non-existence, and that was why I had put a bullet through my heart. And here I was in the hands of a creature not human, of course, but yet living, existing. “And so there is life beyond the grave,” I thought with the strange frivolity one has in dreams. But in its inmost depth my heart remained unchanged. “And if I have got to exist again,” I thought, “and live once more under the control of some irresistible power, I won’t be vanquished and humiliated.”
“You know that I am afraid of you and despise me for that,” I said suddenly to my companion, unable to refrain from the humiliating question which implied a confession, and feeling my humiliation stab my heart as with a pin. He did not answer my question, but all at once I felt that he was not even despising me, but was laughing at me and had no compassion for me, and that our journey had an unknown and mysterious object that concerned me only. Fear was growing in my heart. Something was mutely and painfully communicated to me from my silent companion, and permeated my whole being. We were flying through dark, unknown space. I had for some time lost sight of the constellations familiar to my eyes. I knew that there were stars in the heavenly spaces the light of which took thousands or millions of years to reach the earth. Perhaps we were already flying through those spaces. I expected something with a terrible anguish that tortured my heart. And suddenly I was thrilled by a familiar feeling that stirred me to the depths: I suddenly caught sight of our sun! I knew that it could not be our sun, that gave life to our earth, and that we were an infinite distance from our sun, but for some reason I knew in my whole being that it was a sun exactly like ours, a duplicate of it. A sweet, thrilling feeling resounded with ecstasy in my heart: the kindred power of the same light which had given me light stirred an echo in my heart and awakened it, and I had a sensation of life, the old life of the past for the first time since I had been in the grave.
“But if that is the sun, if that is exactly the same as our sun,” I cried, “where is the earth?”
And my companion pointed to a star twinkling in the distance with an emerald light. We were flying straight towards it.
“And are such repetitions possible in the universe? Can that be the law of Nature? . . . And if that is an earth there, can it be just the same earth as ours . . . just the same, as poor, as unhappy, but precious and beloved for ever, arousing in the most ungrateful of her children the same poignant love for her that we feel for our earth?” I cried out, shaken by irresistible, ecstatic love for the old familiar earth which I had left. The image of the poor child whom I had repulsed flashed through my mind.
“You shall see it all,” answered my companion, and there was a note of sorrow in his voice.
But we were rapidly approaching the planet. It was growing before my eyes; I could already distinguish the ocean, the outline of Europe; and suddenly a feeling of a great and holy jealousy glowed in my heart.
“How can it be repeated and what for? I love and can love only that earth which I have left, stained with my blood, when, in my ingratitude, I quenched my life with a bullet in my heart. But I have never, never ceased to love that earth, and perhaps on the very night I parted from it I loved it more than ever. Is there suffering upon this new earth? On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love. I want suffering in order to love. I long, I thirst, this very instant, to kiss with tears the earth that I have left, and I don’t want, I won’t accept life on any other!”
But my companion had already left me. I suddenly, quite without noticing how, found myself on this other earth, in the bright light of a sunny day, fair as paradise. I believe I was standing on one of the islands that make up on our globe the Greek archipelago, or on the coast of the mainland facing that archipelago. Oh, everything was exactly as it is with us, only everything seemed to have a festive radiance, the splendour of some great, holy triumph attained at last. The caressing sea, green as emerald, splashed softly upon the shore and kissed it with manifest, almost conscious love. The tall, lovely trees stood in all the glory of their blossom, and their innumerable leaves greeted me, I am certain, with their soft, caressing rustle and seemed to articulate words of love. The grass glowed with bright and fragrant flowers. Birds were flying in flocks in the air, and perched fearlessly on my shoulders and arms and joyfully struck me with their darling, fluttering wings. And at last I saw and knew the people of this happy land. That came to me of themselves, they surrounded me, kissed me. The children of the sun, the children of their sun–oh, how beautiful they were! Never had I seen on our own earth such beauty in mankind. Only perhaps in our children, in their earliest years, one might find, some remote faint reflection of this beauty. The eyes of these happy people shone with a clear brightness. Their faces were radiant with the light of reason and fullness of a serenity that comes of perfect understanding, but those faces were gay; in their words and voices there was a note of childlike joy. Oh, from the first moment, from the first glance at them, I understood it all! It was the earth untarnished by the Fall; on it lived people who had not sinned. They lived just in such a paradise as that in which, according to all the legends of mankind, our first parents lived before they sinned; the only difference was that all this earth was the same paradise. These people, laughing joyfully, thronged round me and caressed me; they took me home with them, and each of them tried to reassure me. Oh, they asked me no questions, but they seemed, I fancied, to know everything without asking, and they wanted to make haste to smoothe away the signs of suffering from my face.
And do you know what? Well, granted that it was only a dream, yet the sensation of the love of those innocent and beautiful people has remained with me for ever, and I feel as though their love is still flowing out to me from over there. I have seen them myself, have known them and been convinced; I loved them, I suffered for them afterwards. Oh, I understood at once even at the time that in many things I could not understand them at all; as an up-to-date Russian progressive and contemptible Petersburger, it struck me as inexplicable that, knowing so much, they had, for instance, no science like our. But I soon realised that their knowledge was gained and fostered by intuitions different from those of us on earth, and that their aspirations, too, were quite different. They desired nothing and were at peace; they did not aspire to knowledge of life as we aspire to understand it, because their lives were full. But their knowledge was higher and deeper than ours; for our science seeks to explain what life is, aspires to understand it in order to teach others how to love, while they without science knew how to live; and that I understood, but I could not understand their knowledge. They showed me their trees, and I could not understand the intense love with which they looked at them; it was as though they were talking with creatures like themselves. And perhaps I shall not be mistaken if I say that they conversed with them. Yes, they had found their language, and I am convinced that the trees understood them. They looked at all Nature like that–at the animals who lived in peace with them and did not attack them, but loved them, conquered by their love. They pointed to the stars and told me something about them which I could not understand, but I am convinced that they were somehow in touch with the stars, not only in thought, but by some living channel. Oh, these people did not persist in trying to make me understand them, they loved me without that, but I knew that they would never understand me, and so I hardly spoke to them about our earth. I only kissed in their presence the earth on which they lived and mutely worshipped them themselves. And they saw that and let me worship them without being abashed at my adoration, for they themselves loved much. They were not unhappy on my account when at times I kissed their feet with tears, joyfully conscious of the love with which they would respond to mine. At times I asked myself with wonder how it was they were able never to offend a creature like me, and never once to arouse a feeling of jealousy or envy in me? Often I wondered how it could be that, boastful and untruthful as I was, I never talked to them of what I knew–of which, of course, they had no notion–that I was never tempted to do so by a desire to astonish or even to benefit them.
They were as gay and sportive as children. They wandered about their lovely woods and copses, they sang their lovely songs; their fair was light–the fruits of their trees, the honey from their woods, and the milk of the animals who loved them. The work they did for food and raiment was brief and not labourious. They loved and begot children, but I never noticed in them the impulse of that cruel sensuality which overcomes almost every man on this earth, all and each, and is the source of almost every sin of mankind on earth. They rejoiced at the arrival of children as new beings to share their happiness. There was no quarrelling, no jealousy among them, and they did not even know what the words meant. Their children were the children of all, for they all made up one family. There was scarcely any illness among them, though there was death; but their old people died peacefully, as though falling asleep, giving blessings and smiles to those who surrounded them to take their last farewell with bright and lovely smiles. I never saw grief or tears on those occasions, but only love, which reached the point of ecstasy, but a calm ecstasy, made perfect and contemplative. One might think that they were still in contact with the departed after death, and that their earthly union was not cut short by death. They scarcely understood me when I questioned them about immortality, but evidently they were so convinced of it without reasoning that it was not for them a question at all. They had no temples, but they had a real living and uninterrupted sense of oneness with the whole of the universe; they had no creed, but they had a certain knowledge that when their earthly joy had reached the limits of earthly nature, then there would come for them, for the living and for the dead, a still greater fullness of contact with the whole of the universe. They looked forward to that moment with joy, but without haste, not pining for it, but seeming to have a foretaste of it in their hearts, of which they talked to one another.
In the evening before going to sleep they liked singing in musical and harmonious chorus. In those songs they expressed all the sensations that the parting day had given them, sang its glories and took leave of it. They sang the praises of nature, of the sea, of the woods. They liked making songs about one another, and praised each other like children; they were the simplest songs, but they sprang from their hearts and went to one’s heart. And not only in their songs but in all their lives they seemed to do nothing but admire one another. It was like being in love with each other, but an all-embracing, universal feeling.
Some of their songs, solemn and rapturous, I scarcely understood at all. Though I understood the words I could never fathom their full significance. It remained, as it were, beyond the grasp of my mind, yet my heart unconsciously absorbed it more and more. I often told them that I had had a presentiment of it long before, that this joy and glory had come to me on our earth in the form of a yearning melancholy that at times approached insufferable sorrow; that I had had a foreknowledge of them all and of their glory in the dreams of my heart and the visions of my mind; that often on our earth I could not look at the setting sun without tears. . . that in my hatred for the men of our earth there was always a yearning anguish: why could I not hate them without loving them? why could I not help forgiving them? and in my love for them there was a yearning grief: why could I not love them without hating them? They listened to me, and I saw they could not conceive what I was saying, but I did not regret that I had spoken to them of it: I knew that they understood the intensity of my yearning anguish over those whom I had left. But when they looked at me with their sweet eyes full of love, when I felt that in their presence my heart, too, became as innocent and just as theirs, the feeling of the fullness of life took my breath away, and I worshipped them in silence.
Oh, everyone laughs in my face now, and assures me that one cannot dream of such details as I am telling now, that I only dreamed or felt one sensation that arose in my heart in delirium and made up the details myself when I woke up. And when I told them that perhaps it really was so, my God, how they shouted with laughter in my face, and what mirth I caused! Oh, yes, of course I was overcome by the mere sensation of my dream, and that was all that was preserved in my cruelly wounded heart; but the actual forms and images of my dream, that is, the very ones I really saw at the very time of my dream, were filled with such harmony, were so lovely and enchanting and were so actual, that on awakening I was, of course, incapable of clothing them in our poor language, so that they were bound to become blurred in my mind; and so perhaps I really was forced afterwards to make up the details, and so of course to distort them in my passionate desire to convey some at least of them as quickly as I could. But on the other hand, how can I help believing that it was all true? It was perhaps a thousand times brighter, happier and more joyful than I describe it. Granted that I dreamed it, yet it must have been real. You know, I will tell you a secret: perhaps it was not a dream at all! For then something happened so awful, something so horribly true, that it could not have been imagined in a dream. My heart may have originated the dream, but would my heart alone have been capable of originating the awful event which happened to me afterwards? How could I alone have invented it or imagined it in my dream? Could my petty heart and fickle, trivial mind have risen to such a revelation of truth? Oh, judge for yourselves: hitherto I have concealed it, but now I will tell the truth. The fact is that I . . . corrupted them all!
Yes, yes, it ended in my corrupting them all! How it could come to pass I do not know, but I remember it clearly. The dream embraced thousands of years and left in me only a sense of the whole. I only know that I was the cause of their sin and downfall. Like a vile trichina, like a germ of the plague infecting whole kingdoms, so I contaminated all this earth, so happy and sinless before my coming. They learnt to lie, grew fond of lying, and discovered the charm of falsehood. Oh, at first perhaps it began innocently, with a jest, coquetry, with amorous play, perhaps indeed with a germ, but that germ of falsity made its way into their hearts and pleased them. Then sensuality was soon begotten, sensuality begot jealousy, jealousy–cruelty . . . Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember; but soon, very soon the first blood was shed. They marvelled and were horrified, and began to be split up and divided. They formed into unions, but it was against one another. Reproaches, upbraidings followed. They came to know shame, and shame brought them to virtue. The conception of honour sprang up, and every union began waving its flags. They began torturing animals, and the animals withdrew from them into the forests and became hostile to them. They began to struggle for separation, for isolation, for individuality, for mine and thine. They began to talk in different languages. They became acquainted with sorrow and loved sorrow; they thirsted for suffering, and said that truth could only be attained through suffering. Then science appeared. As they became wicked they began talking of brotherhood and humanitarianism, and understood those ideas. As they became criminal, they invented justice and drew up whole legal codes in order to observe it, and to ensure their being kept, set up a guillotine. They hardly remembered what they had lost, in fact refused to believe that they had ever been happy and innocent. They even laughed at the possibility o this happiness in the past, and called it a dream. They could not even imagine it in definite form and shape, but, strange and wonderful to relate, though they lost all faith in their past happiness and called it a legend, they so longed to be happy and innocent once more that they succumbed to this desire like children, made an idol of it, set up temples and worshipped their own idea, their own desire; though at the same time they fully believed that it was unattainable and could not be realised, yet they bowed down to it and adored it with tears! Nevertheless, if it could have happened that they had returned to the innocent and happy condition which they had lost, and if someone had shown it to them again and had asked them whether they wanted to go back to it, they would certainly have refused. They answered me:
“We may be deceitful, wicked and unjust, we know it and weep over it, we grieve over it; we torment and punish ourselves more perhaps than that merciful Judge Who will judge us and whose Name we know not. But we have science, and by the means of it we shall find the truth and we shall arrive at it consciously. Knowledge is higher than feeling, the consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom, wisdom will reveal the laws, and the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness.”
That is what they said, and after saying such things everyone began to love himself better than anyone else, and indeed they could not do otherwise. All became so jealous of the rights of their own personality that they did their very utmost to curtail and destroy them in others, and made that the chief thing in their lives. Slavery followed, even voluntary slavery; the weak eagerly submitted to the strong, on condition that the latter aided them to subdue the still weaker. Then there were saints who came to these people, weeping, and talked to them of their pride, of their loss of harmony and due proportion, of their loss of shame. They were laughed at or pelted with stones. Holy blood was shed on the threshold of the temples. Then there arose men who began to think how to bring all people together again, so that everybody, while still loving himself best of all, might not interfere with others, and all might live together in something like a harmonious society. Regular wars sprang up over this idea. All the combatants at the same time firmly believed that science, wisdom and the instinct of self-preservation would force men at last to unite into a harmonious and rational society; and so, meanwhile, to hasten matters, ‘the wise’ endeavoured to exterminate as rapidly as possible all who were ‘not wise’ and did not understand their idea, that the latter might not hinder its triumph. But the instinct of self-preservation grew rapidly weaker; there arose men, haughty and sensual, who demanded all or nothing. In order to obtain everything they resorted to crime, and if they did not succeed–to suicide. There arose religions with a cult of non-existence and self-destruction for the sake of the everlasting peace of annihilation. At last these people grew weary of their meaningless toil, and signs of suffering came into their faces, and then they proclaimed that suffering was a beauty, for in suffering alone was there meaning. They glorified suffering in their songs. I moved about among them, wringing my hands and weeping over them, but I loved them perhaps more than in old days when there was no suffering in their faces and when they were innocent and so lovely. I loved the earth they had polluted even more than when it had been a paradise, if only because sorrow had come to it. Alas! I always loved sorrow and tribulation, but only for myself, for myself; but I wept over them, pitying them. I stretched out my hands to them in despair, blaming, cursing and despising myself. I told them that all this was my doing, mine alone; that it was I had brought them corruption, contamination and falsity. I besought them to crucify me, I taught them how to make a cross. I could not kill myself, I had not the strength, but I wanted to suffer at their hands. I yearned for suffering, I longed that my blood should be drained to the last drop in these agonies. But they only laughed at me, and began at last to look upon me as crazy. They justified me, they declared that they had only got what they wanted themselves, and that all that now was could not have been otherwise. At last they declared to me that I was becoming dangerous and that they should lock me up in a madhouse if I did not hold my tongue. Then such grief took possession of my soul that my heart was wrung, and I felt as though I were dying; and then . . . then I awoke.
It was morning, that is, it was not yet daylight, but about six o’clock. I woke up in the same arm-chair; my candle had burnt out; everyone was asleep in the captain’s room, and there was a stillness all round, rare in our flat. First of all I leapt up in great amazement: nothing like this had ever happened to me before, not even in the most trivial detail; I had never, for instance, fallen asleep like this in my arm-chair. While I was standing and coming to myself I suddenly caught sight of my revolver lying loaded, ready – but instantly I thrust it away! Oh, now, life, life! I lifted up my hands and called upon eternal truth, not with words, but with tears; ecstasy, immeasurable ecstasy flooded my soul. Yes, life and spreading the good tidings! Oh, I at that moment resolved to spread the tidings, and resolved it, of course, for my whole life. I go to spread the tidings, I want to spread the tidings–of what? Of the truth, for I have seen it, have seen it with my own eyes, have seen it in all its glory.
And since then I have been preaching! Moreover I love all those who laugh at me more than any of the rest. Why that is so I do not know and cannot explain, but so be it. I am told that I am vague and confused, and if I am vague and confused now, what shall I be later on? It is true indeed: I am vague and confused, and perhaps as time goes on I shall be more so. And of course I shall make many blunders before I find out how to preach, that is, find out what words to say, what things to do, for it is a very difficult task. I see all that as clear as daylight, but, listen, who does not make mistakes? An yet, you know, all are making for the same goal, all are striving in the same direction anyway, from the sage to the lowest robber, only by different roads. It is an old truth, but this is what is new: I cannot go far wrong. For I have seen the truth; I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at. But how can I help believing it? I have seen the truth–it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever. I have seen it in such full perfection that I cannot believe that it is impossible for people to have it. And so how can I go wrong? I shall make some slips no doubt, and shall perhaps talk in second-hand language, but not for long: the living image of what I saw will always be with me and will always correct and guide me. Oh, I am full of courage and freshness, and I will go on and on if it were for a thousand years! Do you know, at first I meant to conceal the fact that I corrupted them, but that was a mistake–that was my first mistake! But truth whispered to me that I was lying, and preserved me and corrected me. But how establish paradise–I don’t know, because I do not know how to put it into words. After my dream I lost command of words. All the chief words, anyway, the most necessary ones. But never mind, I shall go and I shall keep talking, I won’t leave off, for anyway I have seen it with my own eyes, though I cannot describe what I saw. But the scoffers do not understand that. It was a dream, they say, delirium, hallucination. Oh! As though that meant so much! And they are so proud! A dream! What is a dream? And is not our life a dream? I will say more. Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it. And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted–you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it’s an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times–but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness–that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.
And I tracked down that little girl . . . and I shall go on and on!
*Featured image: Logan Zillmer via Designboom
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