For some time now, Petersburg has been awash in a greenish hue, a gleaming, blinking, phosphorescent, horrifying color. A greenish light, venomous and sniggering, trembles on houses, faces, souls. The light blinks–and you are facing a clammy reptile instead of Pyotr Petrovich. The light flares up–and you yourself are worse than a reptile. Lift up the hats of women passing by, and you’ll discover snakes where heads should be. Take a good look at that old woman–that’s a she-toad moving its belly. Now for the younger folk. Each is nursing his own dream: The engineer pines for Hawaiian music, the collegiate wants to hang himself with bravado, the schoolboy to prove his masculinity by knocking up some broad. Just walk into any ol’ store–an ex-general is standing behind the counter, a studied smile on his face. Enter a museum–your guide knows he’s lying to you, yet keeps on lying. There is no love in me for Petersburg. My dream is dead.
Petersburg no longer exists. But Leningrad does–though that is of no concern to us. The author is by trade a maker of coffins and not of cradles. Show him a coffin and he’ll tell you instantly the material it is made of by tapping on it, its age, the name of the master who built it–even, perhaps, the parents of the deceased. Indeed, even as he is speaking, the author is building a coffin for the first twenty-seven years of his life. He is fiendishly busy, but don’t suppose for a moment that he is doing it with any specific purpose in mind. No, it’s just a passion with him. Just let him get wind of a corpse and–you guessed it!–somebody is in need of a coffin. He loves the dead and follows them on their rounds even while they are still alive, shaking their hands, striking up conversations with them, piling up plenty of boards and nails and, on occasion, even throwing in trimmings and lace.
Surrounded by nymphs and satyrs and carrying a teapot in his hand, he could often be seen looking for hot water in the common dining hall. In places reeking with stench, he felt himself moving through fragrant groves of delight, and statues in affected poses–a legacy of the eighteenth century–were in his mind’s eye radiant suns made of Pentel marble. Only now and then did Teptyolkin lift up his enormous, brilliant eyes-and then he saw himself in a desert.
A swirling, forlorn desert taking on a variety of forms. Heavy sand spirals up towards the insufferable sky, then turns into columns of stone. Waves of sand shoot up–and freeze into walls. A pillar of dust, whipped up by the wind, ascends from the desert floor and, presto, a homo sapiens! Particles of dust soon coalesce into trees, their miraculous fruit twinkling and gleaming.
One of the most unstable pillars of dust for Teptyolkin was Marya Dalmatova. In her rustling silk dress, she loomed as an unchangeable something in a world of changeability. Whenever they met, she seemed to embrace the world in a harmonious and well-ordered unity.
But this happened only occasionally. Ordinarily, Teptyolkin held to the view that mankind was fundamentally incapable of change: Once begotten–like a plant–man puts out flowers, which then turn into fruit, and the fruit in turn is scattered in the form of seeds.
To Teptyolkin, everything was just such a scattered fruit. He lived with the perpetual sensation of a decomposing skin of fruit, of decaying seeds, amidst shoots that have already sprouted.
This decaying skin of fruit exuded the most refined, the most diverse emanations.
At seven in the evening, Teptyolkin returned to his room carrying a teapot of piping hot water and threw himself into some meaningless and unnecessary task. He was writing a treatise on some unknown poet and planned to recite it to a circle of drowsy ladies and enraptured young men.
A little table would be set up. On it would stand a lamp with a colored lampshade and a little flower-pot with a flower inside. With everyone seated in a semi-circle, Teptyolkin would raise his eyes rapturously to the ceiling, then lower them to look at the sheets of scribbled paper before him. It was on this evening that Teptyolkin was supposed to give his reading. Glancing indifferently at the clock, he folded his sheets of paper and walked out.
He lived on Derevenskaya Street, where grass grew between the stones, and where children sang bawdy songs.
A woman chased after him, pleading with him to buy the last of her glossy sunflower seeds. He looked at the woman but hardly noticed her. At the corner, he ran right into Marya Dalmatova and Natasha Golubetz. A mother-of-pearl light shone from them. He kissed their hands as he bent over.
No one knew how badly Teptyolkin yearned for a rebirth. “I want to get married!” he would often whisper to himself when alone with his landlady. On such occasions he would stretch himself out on his blue knitted bedspread-lanky, thin, with dry, greying hair.
His landlady, spread out like a mountain, would shower him with love. Sitting at his feet, she’d vainly try to seduce him with the splendor of her bodily forms. She was a noblewoman–or so she said–and claimed to be fluent in a number of foreign languages. From her imagined grandeur she had preserved a silver sugar-basin and a plaster bust of Wagner. Wearing her hair cropped, like most women of the city, she gave lectures–as did many others–on the history of culture. There was a time, though, when, as a young woman enamored of the occult, she’d conjure up men with pink skin, and naked men kissed her in clouds of smoke. She often told the story of how she once found a mystical rose on her pillow and how it turned into evaporating slime.
Like many of her compatriots, she loved to talk about her former wealth, about the lacquered carriage upholstered in quilted blue satin: how it would wait for her at the doorway while she descended the red-carpet staircase, how the passers-by would give way as she entered the carriage.
“Young boys would gawk at me,” she’d intone. “Men in winter coats with sealskin collars eyed me from head to toe. My husband, an elderly colonel, slept in the carriage, while the valet stood on the footboard in his cockade hat. We’d all be on our way to the Imperial Theater.”
At the word “Imperial,” Teptyolkin would come to life, as if roused by something poetical. He’d see Averescu in a uniform fringed with gold traveling to meet Mussolini. He’d see them conferring about how to gobble up the Yugoslav state and how to resurrect the Roman Empire: Mussolini is marching on Paris. Mussolini conquers Gaul. Spain and Portugal join Rome of their own free will. The Academy in Rome is called into session to find a dialect to serve as a common tongue for the newly created empire. Among these academicians we find–Teptyolkin.
Meanwhile, the landlady would go on jabbering on the edge of his bed until she remembered it was time for her to go to the Political Education Institute. Inserting her broad feet into her Tartar shoes, she’d shuffle off towards the door. Her name was Yevdokia Sladkopevtseva. She was the widow of a bandmaster.
Raising his greying, dried-up head, Teptyolkin would follow her spitefully with his eyes.
“Lacks noble breeding,” he’d say to himself. “Sticks to me like a pimple and gets in the way of my work.”
He’d get up, button up his yellow Chinese robe (the one he bought at a flea market), pour himself a glass of cold, black tea, stir it with his pewter teaspoon and reach for a volume of Parny from the shelf. He’d then begin checking it against Pushkin.
The window would open wide, a silvery evening would steal in, and Teptyolkin would have a vision: a tall, very tall tower, a city asleep, while he, Teptyolkin, is keeping vigil. “The tower represents culture,” he’d think, “and I, Teptyolkin, am standing on its very summit.”
“Where are you ladies off to in such a hurry?” Teptyolkin asked, smiling. “Why don’t you drop in on our meetings sometimes? Just think: today I’ll be delivering a report on a remarkable poet, and on Wednesday next I’ll be giving a lecture on American civilization. You must have heard about all the miracles now taking place in America. Or haven’t you? The ceilings are sound-proof, everybody chews aromatic gum, and the factory organ prays for everyone before work. Please, you must come!”
Teptyolkin bowed from the waist and kissed their hands. Tapping their heels, the young ladies disappeared into the void between the buildings.
No matter where Teptyolkin was–whether strolling in the garden above the river or playing whist on the green table or reading a book–you’d be sure to find Philostratus by his side. Philostratus’s whole being bubbled over with inexpressible music. His beautiful, youthful eyes laughed under the wings of their eyelashes, and his long fingers, threaded with rings, held a stylus and tablet. Often would Philostratus walk alongside Teptyolkin and converse with him. “Observe,” Teptyolkin would hear Philostratus saying–or so he thought–”Observe how the phoenix dies and how it is reborn.”
And Teptyolkin saw this strange bird with its feverish, feminine Oriental eyes. She was standing on a bonfire, smiling.
At times Teptyolkin was visited by a dream: He is descending a lofty tower. Beautiful Venus is standing in the middle of a pond, a long sedge is whispering, the rising dawn is casting a golden hue over the tall sedge and over Venus’s head. The chirping sparrows leap over the road. Marya Dalmatova shows up. She is sitting on a bench, reading Callimachus. She lifts up her eyes. They are full of love.
“We are living amidst horror and desolation,” she’d say.