This translation of Konstantin Vaginov’s The Tower (original title: The Goat-Song) is based on the original edition published by Priboy Publishers of Leningrad, U.S.S.R. in 1928. It was reprinted by Silver Age of New York in 1978. The edition of Kozlinaia Pesn’ published by Sovremennik of Moscow in 1991 is a fundamentally different version of the novel.
Note 1: I’ve retained Vaginov’s occasional inconsistency in chapter organization and order. However, I’ve changed the names of certain chapters where artistically appropriate.
Note 2: Special terms, weights and measures and other references and allusions are translated into their American equivalents. For example, Russian 30° wine is, in American practice, not 30-proof but 60-proof wine (See Chapter 23).
Note 3: The text of this online edition of The Tower is identical in every respect to the hardcover version. Naturally, we have taken advantage of the special opportunities afforded by the Web to employ such HTML features such as color, paragraph design and hyperlinks. Finally, the Georgia 14 pt. font used in the hardcover edition has been replaced by Times New Roman 12 pt, the standard on the Web.
Note 4: The Greek words that appear in Chapter 29 have been rendered in their original Greek form. However, due to the limitations of HTML, it was necessary to omit their diacritical marks. Furthermore, certain browsers (e.g. Netscape 2.x) will convert them to roman characters. My apologies.
Cover Art: ”Red Square” (also known as “Moscow I”) by Wassily Kandinsky (1916). This “dust jacket” was designed exclusively for our online edition of The Tower.
I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Professor Victor Terras of Brown University, an internationally renowned authority on Russian literature (A History of Russian Literature, Yale University Press, 1991), who kindly read the entire manuscript. I especially appreciate his many specific suggestions and emendations, most of which have been incorporated into the final text.
In addition, I would like to express my appreciation to all those who contributed to my understanding of Vaginov’s surrealistic masterpiece. I wish to thank especially Mr. Steve Margulies, who first suggested this unusual work, Ms. Natasha Ramer, whose advice on Vaginov’s language and culture was indispensable, and Mr. Alexander Wentzell, whose knowledge and linguistic expertise helped to clarify many obscure passages.
My gratitude to Professor Alexander Boguslawski of Rollins College for his generous help with HTML problems and for designing the Kandinsky cover page for the online edition.
My thanks to Hummingbird Corporation for their technical assistance with certain aspects of this project.
My special thanks to Ms. Helen Sher, my long-suffering mother, and to the Tof family of Melbourne, Australia, namely, Dvora Tof, my sister, Samu Tof, her husband and their daughter Ilanit.
Finally, my deepest appreciation to my wife Anna, a native of Moscow, who served unselfishly as consultant, editor and proofreader. Her unfailing scholarship and devotion have been indispensable throughout.
Theory of Prose by Viktor Shklovsky (Russia:1929). (Dalkey Archive Press:1990)
The Last Days of Leo Tolstoy by V. Chertkov. http://www.linguadex.com/Tolstoy
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.
In a city where starlit nights melt each year into white nights, there lived in our midst a mysterious creature, and his name was Teptyolkin.
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.
On Avenue of the October Revolution two well-bred young men, Kostya Rotikov and Misha Kotikov, are exchanging lit matches while leaning against an iron railing.
There was a time when young people no less noble than these would whip off a mazurka or a Hungarian dance late into the night. They’d hum along with the music as they danced. As is well known, in those days the avenue would not be completely deserted till past 3 in the morning, when the lanterns would go out. The men cruising the night and the women with swaying buttocks would then vanish into their quarters.
But now it’s only about 9 p.m. At least, the clock on the former Town Hall—now a third-class movie theater—shows 10 minutes to 9. Yet, the young men are nowhere near the former Town Hall. They are standing on the bridge beneath the horse that’s rearing up its hind legs, a naked soldier by its side. At least that’s how it looks to them.
The year 1916: It was on the Nevsky Prospekt and in the Western manner that the Unknown Poet spent his youth. Everything in the city seemed Western to him: the houses, the churches, the gardens. Even poor Lydia seemed poor Anne or poor Mignon in his eyes.
Skinny, with violet eyes and with a blonde tuft of hair, Lydia wandered from cafe table to cafe table in tune with music in vogue at the time. Somewhat hesitantly, she’d sit down with the regulars, who treated her to café au lait, steaming chocolate with two biscuits or tea with lemon.
Men in evening dress carrying a napkin under their arms addressed her familiarly as they passed. They bent down and whispered an obscenity in her ear.
Young men didn’t go to the men’s room in this cafe for the usual reasons. Shutting the door behind them, they’d look around circumspectly, take out the stuff. Each would then spread it on his hand, inhale it, then, quickly turning pale, shake his head vigorously and return to the main hall, by then utterly transformed. For the Unknown Poet, it became a Lake Avernus, surrounded on all sides by cliffs overgrown with dense forests, and it was here that the shade of Apollonius had once appeared to him.
The year 1907: A crowd of revelers was sauntering along. Children were sitting, reclining, standing in snow-white, light-blue and pink carriages. Lycée boys in love walked their lycée girl friends home. Flower vendors were selling hothouse violets smelling like cheap perfume and swaying narcissus. The bourgeoisie were returning from their morning outing to the islands in landaus upholstered in blue or brown cloth, in sightseeing coaches, in carriages harnessed to a pair of black or grey horses. You could catch a glimpse from time to time of the chins and noses of old women as their coaches flitted by. As the carriages drew near, the doorkeepers would rush up and open the carriage-door with great deference. The Unknown Poet often rode in just such a carriage. His mother, a pale, pensive woman, would be sitting with a box of candy on her lap, while the coachman’s rump protruded from above. The little boy was around seven then. He loved ballet. He loved the bald heads of the men sitting in front no less than the strained elegance of everyone around him. He loved to watch his mother powdering her face before the mirror in preparation for the theater, buttoning up her spangled dress, looking at herself in the folding dresser mirror and sprinkling perfume on her handkerchief. Dressed in a white suit and white kid-leather boots, he waited for his mama to finish, then comb his hair and kiss him.
The year 1913: Illuminated by a frozen, red sun, the family was seated at a round table. In the adjacent room the stove burned. You could hear the firewood crackling. Outside someone had built a snow mountain. Through the window you could see the children in the courtyard sliding down on their sleds from the top.
After breakfast, the future Unknown Poet went with his tutor to Kopylov’s bank office. Kopylov was the publisher of the journal Old Coins. In his office stood small cabinets made of oak with little removable shelves upholstered in dark-blue velvet. On this velvet lay the staters of Alexander the Great, the tetradrachmae of Ptolemy, gold and silver denarii of Roman emperors, coins from the Cimmerian Bosphorus, coins with the heads of Cleopatra, Zenobia, Jesus, scenes featuring mythological beasts, heroes, temples, tripods, triremes, palm trees; coins of every possible size, of every possible tint, of states once resplendent, of nations that had once astounded the world with their conquests or with their arts or with their heroic personalities or with a talent for commerce—but were no longer extant. The tutor sat on a leather sofa reading a paper while the little boy examined the coins. Outside it was getting dark, but on the counter a lamp burned under a green shade. It was here that the future Unknown Poet came to know the inconstancy of all things, it was here that he learned about the idea of death, about how to transport himself to other countries and to other nationalities. Just observe this head of Helios—the way it’s tilted back. Observe its half-open, singing mouth compelling us to forget everything. Surely it’ll accompany the Unknown Poet on his nocturnal wanderings. And look at this temple of Diana of Ephesus, look at this head of Vesta, or how about this flying chariot from Syracuse. And let’s not forget the coins of the barbarians, those pitiful imitations with mythological subjects that have turned into mere ornament. Or the coins of the fanatical Middle Ages where, prompted by some detail, the sun breaks in suddenly through another life.
More and more coin-boxes appeared to him.
The tutor has finished reading the newspaper. Outside, the street lamps are burning. “It’s time to go home,” he says, “we don’t want to be late for dinner.”
The coins just purchased drop into individual little envelopes and the little envelopes drop into one big envelope.
Arriving home, the little boy would reach for a magnifying glass as enormous as a round window-pane. He’d then sit down before the table on his oak stool, spread out the coins he had just bought and set out on a journey in time. Until, that is, his father, clad in a Bukhara robe, would walk into the dining-room. The chambermaid would rush in to announce: “Dinner is served!”
After dinner, his father would head for his study for an hour’s nap on the carpeted sofa. The study was lined with bookcases holding magnificent books, the kind found in any family deeming itself among the intelligentsia: A Supplement to Niva, the most terrifying novels by Kryzhanovskaya, Count Dracula (who’ll keep you awake all night!), countless works by Nemirovich-Danchenko, and foreign novelists in Russian translation. Scientific and scholarly books were also to be found on the shelves: A Cure for Sexual Impotence, What Every Child Needs To Know, The Tercentenary of the Romanoffs.
At nine o’clock in the evening his father would don his uniform, sprinkle cologne on himself and go to the club.
With his father gone, the future Unknown Poet would enter the study and sit down on the sofa. A map covered every inch of the rug. Gibbon rubbed elbows on the sofa with archaeology books of every kind. His mother played “A Maiden’s Prayer” in the adjacent drawing-room. His younger brother was reading a Nat Pinkerton novel in his room. The tutor, humming a music-hall song, was putting on his boots in the Unknown Poet’s room. He was about to have some fun after a hard day’s work. In the kitchen, the chambermaid, neighing like a horse, was rocking on the lap of an officer’s orderly.
The year 1917: The Unknown Poet was sixteen and Lydia eighteen when they first met. At the time she visited the cafe only on occasion. Sometimes, she would announce that she was a lycée student and reminisce about her ride in a smart cab: the dead silence of the night, the houses sweeping past, the trees flitting by, the private room in the restaurant, the officers, the sound of the glasses, how she sobbed on the sofa, wiping her tears with the hem of her black apron. At other times, she would talk about her love for an aristocratic student and how he dumped her on his buddies.
At still other times, she would say that she had been dishonored by a married man with a reputation for integrity in the community, who had a long grey beard and loved to stroll in the evening in the Summer Garden.
The Unknown Poet tore himself away from his readings, from his ritual of arranging books on the shelves and of examining coins. It was past two in the morning. Passing the curtains that had been lowered to the floor, he climbed down the back staircase into the deserted courtyard, which was brilliantly lit by a huge suspended lantern. In consternation, the janitor let him slip through the gates and looked on as the lad ran off in the direction of Nevsky Prospekt. A light, driven rain was falling. Lydia was slouching against the entrance door. The satin-smooth cards that he had given to her as a present the night before were spread out on the porch. She was drowsy, her mouth half-open. The Unknown Poet sat down next to her, looked at her girlish face, at the snow melting all around and at the clock above his head. He then reached into his pocket for the gleaming white stuff and turned towards the wall.
A peculiar sound resembling a protracted “oh” modulating into an “ah” seemed to drift through the streets. Like enormous shadows, the houses contracted and pierced the clouds. He lowered his eyes—the huge red figures of the lantern blinked on the pavement: 2 like a snake; 7 like a palm tree.
The cards spread out on the porch attracted his attention. The figures on the cards came to life and entered into an elusive relationship with him. He felt attached to these cards, as an actor feels attached to the wings of a theater. He woke Lydia up and, in an ironic twist, began playing a game of “dunce” with her.
The five cards quiver in his hand. So do her cards. Their eyes turn dark from the wind, at which point they face the wall.
The rain turns into a soft melting snow. The Unknown Poet and Lydia are protected by the awning.
The cards speak to him of sheer horror and desolation. Soon the city will be awake.
“To the tea-house! To the tea-house! Quickly!” says Lydia. “I am frozen to the bone. What a damned night! Why didn’t you come earlier and take me with you to a hotel?! I’d have slept like a log. Do you have any money? Maybe we can still find a room. I’ve been on the street three days already.”
“What are you talking about, Lydia?! You know all the hotels are filled up by five o’clock. No one will let us in anywhere.”
“Then let’s go to the tea-house instead! I feel terribly depressed. My God, let’s go to the tea-house!”
He looks at her. Her face is completely white. Her pupils are dilated. How many years has he been sitting here? What’s the meaning of this lantern, of this snow, what’s the meaning of his appearing on the Nevsky Prospekt?
Flowers of love, flowers of intoxication . . .
Lydia sings, as she moves away from the entrance. A roué passes by. He looks at them both ironically. Lydia and the Unknown Poet walk under a shower of stinging snow. The cards lie forgotten on the porch.
The tea-house is in full swing. Prostitutes in shawls and cotton dresses eye you brazenly and provocatively. The eyes of thieves on the lam pursue you from one corner of the tea-house to the next, their faces haggard and pale. Tea jars of an intolerably dawn-like color stand on round tables. The Unknown Poet and Lydia show up at the door. The night is gone.
Avenue of the October Revolution went under a different name in those days. While the side streets had to settle for gas-lamps, Nevsky Prospekt—whose private houses rubbed elbows with the palaces, churches and buildings of officialdom—was decked out in dazzling, electric lamps.
Through the window-panes and glass doors, you could see snow-white staircases covered with carpets of the most delicate hues, silk curtains and little tables made of every conceivable material, and, oh, yes, armchairs and sofas of every sort. Sometimes, young couples would sit in elongated hallways looking blankly all night into space under ceilings where cupids soared through the air.
Sergei K. was sitting in his room. It was divided in the middle by bookcases filled with French books. In the dining-room, which retained traces of the eighteenth century, peace and tranquillity reigned: the members of the family, even old Grandma, had wandered off to their respective rooms after finishing their evening tea.
Grandma was undoubtedly standing before her mirror, removing the headdress attached to her hair by an ornamental pin. Or smearing some sort of cream on her hands for the night. Or perhaps she was extricating herself from her corset with her chambermaid’s help. Mother—I’ll bet—was writing something to her friend in Paris or reading her girlhood album over again or loosening her hair before the dresser mirror. Her chambermaid was letting down the blinds. And Father—well, he was already on his way to the yacht club on Morskaya Street. All night long, he’d bend over a green table or else go to Cubas Restaurant, the favorite haunt of late night divas.
The dining-room clock struck eleven o’clock. The door-bell rang. The Unknown Poet entered Sergei K.’s house. Then, the two friends left.
The moon and the stars gleamed brightly above the city while, below, the snow crackled and snapped. The trolleys droned on, packed with hussars and shimmering with white light. Nameless characters peddled pornographic books and cards by the gates, as movie theaters beckoned nearby with their silver screens. Horse-cabs, carrying young couples, trotted along the road. Taxis revved up, ready for action.
Women with painted faces huddled on the sidewalk or took short walks or did a little dance.
The Unknown Poet came to a stop.
“Remember last night, Seryozha?” he asked, turning his face—a towering forehead but, oh, what an atrophied jaw!—towards Sergei K. “Remember when the Neva changed into the Tiber, when we roamed through Nero’s gardens and the Esquiline Cemetery? Remember Priapus’s dim eyes haunting us everywhere? I saw new Christians today, but, tell me, dear Seryozha, who are they? I saw deacons, too. I saw officials distributing bread, I saw swarms of people smashing idols. So what do you think? What’s the meaning of all this?”
The Unknown Poet looked far off into the distance.
On the sky he saw gradually unfold before him a horrifying, boarded-up, deserted city overgrown with grass.
The friends walked along the illuminated, buzzing, clattering, humming, screeching, jangling, flashing, mischief-making street. The crowd surrounding them suspected nothing.
The years 1918-1920: The Unknown Poet is standing on a mountain of snow on Nevsky Prospekt. Now he is hidden by the blizzard, now he is emerging again into the open. Behind him stands a void. Everyone has long since left. But he doesn’t have the right to. He can’t leave the city. Let everyone else flee, but he will stay and pay with his life, if need be, to preserve the lofty temple of Apollo. He looks around and sees a temple of snow taking form in the air—with himself standing above a crevice.
The Unknown Poet and Sergei K. are walking on tiptoe on the carpeted lobby floor. For some time now, they have been feeling pain in the back of their heads.
Policewomen are standing coquettishly at their posts, shelling sunflower seeds and exchanging insults with some characters dancing by the street-lamps.
The dark night of late summer now pours over the sky. The city is no longer illuminated by a moon and one star but by a moon and a thousand bluish, reddish and yellowish stars.
Ugly and barefoot, Lydia ran along the wooden tiles of this pavement.
“What the devil!” she thought to herself, “my life is coming to an end. Where the hell am I gonna find enough money to buy stockings and shoes? I can’t even pay for the stuff as it is!”
She made a dash for the tea-house.
“Go away!” said a man holding a napkin. He was pushing her away. “So, that’s why you come here, ha? To play the hooker?! It’s because of the likes of you that this place will be closed down!”
The Unknown Poet and his friend emerge from behind the gates.
“Let’s go to the Summer Garden, Seryozha,” he says. “We’ll sit on the bench for a while.”
“Is that you?!” Lydia cries out. An instant later, she retreats. “Oh, excuse me,” she rushes to add. “Didn’t mean to get in your way.”
A patrol is closing in. Lydia leaps towards the gates of the nearest building as the young men disappear somewhere on the Nevsky Prospekt.
I am sitting at the home of my friend, the well-known artist. His bed is three rooms down the hall. The room I am in juts out like a rotunda onto the street. It is now three o’clock in the morning. The electric bulbs attached to the trolley post below are burning away. The roofs of the buildings aren’t visible from my window. They merge with the sky. I can feel the Neva flowing—light blue—far beyond.
It is pitch-dark. Past two o’clock in the morning. The favorite hour for my heroes, when my Unknown Poet, with his sheaf of visions and talents, comes into bloom. I see him once again seeking intoxication in the pitiless frost, along the snowy potholes of the street and in the horrifying, numbing wind. He seeks it not as a pleasure but as a mode of knowledge, as a way of plunging into a holy madness, an “amabilis insania”, in which a world accessible only to prophets is disclosed.
The windows are closed, the buildings deserted. The holy madness eludes him more and more. The plane-trees, the date-palms and the cypresses are gone as are the porticos and water fountains. Spiritual freedom has gone with them, too. No more conversations under the open, black or golden sky. I see him bidding farewell to his friends amid the ruins of collapsing houses. Just look at one of them, watch him seated on a stone, the eyes of a madman darting in all directions. And now observe how another man is lying immobile on the ground. He feels that he is dead. And how about this third one who is clambering up the ruined staircase of a house open to the wind—to look down upon the city for the last time. Behold, the Unknown Poet is leaning against a column. A shattered capital wreathed in acanthus reaches right up to his knees. He hears the cock crowing in the neighboring house. He remembers cats sidling off to die in just such dilapidated buildings. One cat appears on the scene. As it struts along, it drags its hind legs along the ground. A second cat shows up, wet and trembling, and, losing its balance, falls from the staircase into the black funnel below. A third cat, with lackluster eyes, is looking for something. In vain. It struggles to curl up into a ball, struggles and gives up.
It must be three o’clock in the morning by now. It’s dark, totally dark. Downstairs, a woman is playing the piano. Yes, I am sure it’s a woman. She is under the impression that her gentle lover is lying at her feet. I think she has loosened her hair. I open up Bartolomeo Taeggio’s L’Humore, which is in the form of a dialogue, and read the arguments in praise as well as in condemnation of wine. And I read about the kinship between wine and poetry. I return to the first page, to a description of the vine harvest in the charming little village of Robecco. The women at the wine-presses are singing the praises of the precious vine. On the road we see peasants, carts and tubs brimming over with grapes or wine. Other villagers, carrying baskets and knapsacks, are moving away from the road in order to pick the fruit from the bushes. A party of sailors enters singing. Their guitars strum their way into the hearts of the lovelorn village girls.
I remember a page from the novel by Longus: “Autumn was already in full swing, and the time for the harvest had come. Everyone was in the fields . . . ”
I suddenly catch a glimpse of Aphrodite’s shadow through the window.
I walk up to the window. Everything is so very quiet! The little bulbs attached to the cross-beams of trolley posts shed their deep yellow light on the street. And the passer-by—how he droops, how sadly he drags himself along the sidewalk! Where is he going? Perhaps my heroes are acquainted with him. Or perhaps it’s one of my heroes who has somehow survived.
Light is returning to the sky. The roofs of houses with their chimneys and lightning rods are now visible. On the streets you hear the clattering of hooves. A map from the time of the European war hangs on the wall behind me. Apparently, twelve or thirteen years ago, the entire family took turns pinning Russian, French, Italian and English flags all over the map. Everybody in the family took great pride in the successes of their army and mourned its retreats.
The heel-tapping young ladies disappeared into the void between the buildings. Teptyolkin just stood there and looked at the place where, only a moment before, they had held out their hands. He walked quickly, stumbling. He was in a pensive mood. “What do you think?. . . ” Teptyolkin said absent-mindedly and stopped.
The book salesman smiled and said: “You’re always making fun of everything. Can’t you greet me sometimes like a human being? Come on, sit down and let’s have a little chat.”
Instead, Teptyolkin proceeded to examine the books hanging on the grille of the garden attached to the Mariinsky Hospital.
“I’ll bet if you had money, you’d have bought my entire collection by now,” the street bookseller said and showed the books to Teptyolkin. They were indeed remarkable.
The recent French translation of Marcus Aurelius, rather crudely put together, was bound in luxurious parchment and stamped in gold.
A Zodiac Of Life filled a pocket book. The edges of its pages were trimmed in blue. The splendid ornamental design on the title page harked back to the time of the Late Renaissance.
“Do you have The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius?” inquired Teptyolkin. “I’d like to buy it on credit.”
Booksellers gladly sold their books on credit to Teptyolkin. He was the kind of man one could sit and chat with.
Teptyolkin looked for the Boethius in vain.
“But how is one to reconcile this with the Unknown Poet’s idea that Bolshevism is of momentous importance, that a situation has arisen similar to the first centuries of Christianity?”
En route, Teptyolkin tried his best to extricate himself from this predicament.
“A new religion always makes its initial appearance on the periphery of the cultured world,” he reflected. “Christianity appeared on the periphery of the Graeco-Roman world in impoverished, melancholy, narrow-minded and spiritually lethargic Judea. Now take Islam. It was born among nomads and not in blossoming Yemen, where fountains gush, where the fruit of aromatic trees fills the air with stupor, where women, upon awakening, move their limbs voluptuously and yawn. Ugh! What unclean thoughts,” Teptyolkin added distractedly. “You’d think I was dreaming of women.”
He fell to reflecting again.
“Sometimes you dream of a woman’s heaving breasts. Her dark eyes pierce your soul. You put your arms around the empty form, you lie still and wait and wait for something to happen.”
Teptyolkin saw his room, saw the rose that was given him the previous Wednesday by Marya Dalmatova. “Her life must be sheer terror,” he said, thinking of Marya. “What terror! We, of course, are cultured people: we explain, we understand everything! Yes, we explain first, then we understand: words do the thinking for us. You are busy explaining something to someone, when, suddenly—hearing your own words—it all falls into place.”
And he remembered the Unknown Poet. He was passionately fond of him. The Unknown Poet could toss off a couplet, and, bingo, the lines would fall into place! How intelligent! Lines that speak of death and destruction and of a great passion—and they’d mourn the sun that is forever setting. It is the words themselves that do the thinking for the Unknown Poet. Oh, how cleverly Teptyolkin nursed the poems of the Unknown Poet! To him they were a veritable cornucopia of metaphors and meanings! State and country may have been collapsing all around him, but this pure-hearted young man was singing of the freedom of the spirit, singing secretly as if in shame, and everyone was listening, praising him for his obscure metaphors, for the radiance emerging from the juxtaposition of words.
That same morning, the Unknown Poet imagined himself waking up in a brothel. Dressed like Hussars, Turks and Poles, women were sitting on the floor playing cards. The piano player, tossing his mane in the air, banged on the keyboard. Dragoons were pacing up and down, jangling their spurs. A lieutenant of the Cavalry was sitting on the sofa writing a letter in verse to his sister.
“I am my own father,” the Unknown Poet mused, glancing at the picture on the wall: a buxom woman in a resplendent, star-studded skirt was reclining on a sofa, her eyes rolled back. “I . . .” here the poet spread his arms in the air. “I am my father in the 1890′s, in some provincial city, because the brothels of Petersburg are an entirely different affair: lions, marble staircases, doormen adorned with galloons, valets in silk trousers, a fifteen-piece orchestra and, of course, beautiful women in flowing evening gowns.”
“Fiddle-fiddly-do-do!” the orchestra played.
The Unknown Poet thought he was his own grandfather: a huge, imposing man. He is sitting in a theater-box. A silken program guide, edged with lace, is resting on the partition. On the stage, Louis XIII is saying something to Richelieu. The wooden theater is surrounded on all sides by little wooden houses and by snow and more snow. . . . “Yeniseisk,” thought the poet. “I am my grandfather, the mayor of Yeniseisk.”
He could feel the troika drawing near in the twilight. He heard—or so he thought—the sleigh bells from the porch, then the clattering of horse hooves, then the neighing and then the girls’ voices: “Has the hall been set? Where are the valets? Why isn’t the light on?”
And he sees the valets coming out of the house with pomp and circumstance. Dance music booms out. Women with trailing dresses turn around. Outside the night is snowy. Snowy and quiet. He peers through the window: below is an alley lined with statues. In the distance, in the city, a blizzard hums:
Where are you, my radiant eyes?
Have you fled away into the alleys,
Into the dark corners of the streets?
Have you turned, have you choked
On a wave of blood?
On the porch a scoundrel
Blossoms like an apple tree.
He did not perish with you
Under the starry night.
You yelled, hapless girl,
You tore yourself away.
One fellow pulled your hair.
Another turned the knife
Deep in the wound.
Because of that cursed horror:
“The Devil take her!” said the Unknown Poet. “She was never my wife or mistress. How should I know whether she had syphilis?!”
He got up angrily from the snow-white bed and went to the Hermitage to look at the statues. He entered the museum. He felt as though he were leaning over himself and singing:
And his friends are all rotten and decayed,
But not in the quiet of the cemetery.
One friend is swaying among the ruins,
Hanging from a rope in some house;
Another is bathing in the river,
Swimming under bridges, decomposing.
A third, in a room behind bars,
Exchanges insults with the insane.
The Unknown Poet woke up. It was the 1st of May.
“Fine,” he thought.”It’s been four years since I’ve broken off with the night, with the blinking lights of the city, with the glimmering crowds of the night, with premonitions and prophecies.”
What a strange character that Teptyolkin is!” the young ladies exclaimed, traipsing down Kirochnaya Street. “He must be a virgin! We’ve just got to get him married—otherwise, nothing good will come of him.”
“Hey, why don’t I marry him off to you!” Marya Dalmatova said and laughed. “He’ll kiss your feet, Natasha. I tell you, he’ll work for you like an ox! In return, all you’ll ever have to do is loll around naked all day flipping over the pages of novels.”
“But what I want, Marya, is love, love, love! I want flowers to light up every corner of the world—God knows how rotten everything is!”
“Nothing to it! Come on, Natasha! Let’s go have ourselves some fun! They’ll show off their poems, pass the bottle around and give us a kiss or two. That’s all!”
“They are nothing but scoundrels, Marya, all of them!” Natasha said, cutting her friend off.
“For goodness’ sake! There’s nothing to worry about!” Marya burst out laughing. “If one of them so much as feels up my dress, I’ll stab him with my hat-pin! On the spot! Just watch him make a hasty retreat!”
She took a broken hat-pin out of her purse and showed it to Natasha.
“All right, all right! But I’m going just for your sake,” declared Natasha. Then she added: “But are you sure we’re not in danger?”
“In danger? Are you kidding,” exclaimed Marya. “Just do what I do. If he starts pestering you, just hit him in the crotch with your fist. I guarantee you he’ll be as gentle as a lamb.”
They walked into the lobby. Svechin opened the apartment door for them.
“Well, girls, at long last you’re here!” Svechin said with a smile. He lit up a cigarette, then said: “We’ll have lots of fun tonight. You’ll see!”
Hard on his heels came Asphodeliev. Clean-shaven, hands glistening from eau-de-cologne, he had on a morning coat and a shimmering pince-nez. Taking his time, he greeted everyone solemnly. He inquired of the girls whether they had taken a stroll through the Summer Garden or perchance penned some new poems.
All four entered the room together.
From afar a mummy-like creature got up, shook his long hair and bowed.
“This is our friend Kokosha Shlyapkin,” Svechin announced. “He is a poet, musician, painter and world traveler. Right now, he is busy making clay sculptures of scenes from the Revolution. A regular son-of-a-gun, I might add.”
Kokosha smiled. He was quite a character. Asphodeliev set about courting Marya, while Svechin pursued Natasha. Kokosha took turns sitting next to one couple, then the other. He was apparently bored.
After supper, Kokosha, the universal artist, sat down at the piano and improvised. In the adjoining room Asphodeliev, who had his sights set on a dark little corner, was dragging Marya onto a sofa. In a state of languor induced by the wine, she let him kiss each and every one of her fingers as well as the back of her neck, but pushed his hands and chin away.
Asphodeliev tried to win her over philosophically.
“What the hell do you need your virginity for?” he whispered in her ear. Swinging the fatty layers of his posterior around, he clasped her to his bosom. “Don’t tell me you’re tempted by the virtues of the philistines?! Can’t you see I’m offering you the fabulous life of bohemia, a true aristocratic life?”
And Asphodeliev dropped his pince-nez.
“A girl is like an innocent sparrow,” he continued. “A girl smells of a fresh roll. A woman is like a flower, like a fragrance. And what is a family, I ask you, if not bourgeois philistinism, yes, petty bourgeois philistinism. You’ll be on your knees all day long darning—that is, when you are not slaving away in the kitchen.” He made a lunge in her direction but was stopped in mid-flight. “We poets,” Asphodeliev continued, shifting the weight of his body, “are a spiritual aristocracy. A poet has need of life-experiences. How. . . by Jove, how could you ever hope to write poems if you’ve never known a man?”
Meanwhile, Svechin was dragging Natasha across the room. She was giggling and drunk out of her mind, and her head drooped to one side. She covered her mouth with her hand to push back the nausea that was welling up in her. Svechin led her into the bathroom, paced up and down excitedly outside, then pulled her into the last room of the apartment and dropped her on the bed.
Natasha buried her face in the pillow and fell asleep. Whistling away, Svechin started disrobing. He took his shirt off and slowly untied his shoelaces.
“Let her fall fast asleep!” he said to himself.
He took off his shoes, lined them up neatly by the bed, then put his hand over her mouth. She made an effort to fight him off but failed. Through the fingers of his hand she saw the light of the lamp and cried.
He sat down on the edge of the bed to catch his breath. Natasha raised her head, felt her breasts with her hand and glanced at Svechin’s back. Then, falling back, she started crying again.
Svechin turned around, slapped her heartily on the back and said : “So what does it matter? Sooner or later. . .”
“How are things going?” he asked Asphodeliev, entering the living-room.
Asphodeliev was frowning. Marya laughed.
Svechin led Asphodeliev to the window. “You’re a fool!” he said. “Where is that rogue Kokosha?”
“Left hours ago. He got fed up with waiting.”
“Your Kokosha is a damn fool,” said Svechin. “Another minute and he could have sneaked into the bedroom while she was still knocked out. And I kept telling him to wait!”
“I suppose I’ll go in then in his place,” said Asphodeliev, his face beaming. He adjusted his pince-nez and headed towards the bedroom.
Svechin walked over to Marya.
“Where is Natasha?” Marya demanded.
“She’ll be back in a jiffy,” Svechin replied, holding her back. Marya understood. She was furious at Natasha. “What a fool!” she thought and sat down.
Svechin tried to work on her.
“Where is Natasha? Where is she?” Marya reiterated. Finally, she got up and went looking for her friend.
Asphodeliev entered. There was a smile on his face. “Your Natasha is drunk out of her mind,” he said. “She’ll be here any minute now.”
The rising sun was visible through the window. The two girls left without saying good-bye.
That very morning Kovalyov was sitting before the window.
“Oh, there goes Pierrot. Look at him carrying Columbine off. And now look! The old husband is lolling under the lamp, while his young wife is on her feet looking for fleas! . . . And, what do you know, I think I see a naked girl stretched out on the operating table with the grey-haired doctor bent—oh, ever so thoughtfully!—over her.”
So many, many memories.
The Pierrot and Columbine was his favorite postcard. General Golubetz’s favorites were the flea hunt and the operating table.
Kovalyov was carrying gravel in a wheel-barrow to the barge when Natasha, returning from a party, happened to walk by. With her nose buried in her collar, she didn’t notice him. And he was overjoyed that she didn’t. After all, he, Kovalyov, was no common laborer. Sure, he was loading and unloading gravel but only to tide him over! Soon he’ll be doing real work. With Natasha out of sight, Kovalyov sat down on the wheel-barrow, lit up a cigarette and reflected. He reached into his lunch box, took out a slice of raisin bread and devoured it.
He remembered Easter, cathedral bells, love songs.
“It’s nothing. I’ll pull myself out of it,” he declared. “I’ll become a human being again if it kills me! If only I could crack the construction union!”
And he started thinking about the union, much as earlier he had thought about the Cross of St. George.
“By God, I’ll make it to the top yet!”
Puffing on a cheap cigar, former General Golubetz was going over the music score when Natasha, his daughter, walked into her room. She had just returned from a party. Being in a mood for a chat on this spring morning, the General got up and followed Natasha. Stopping at the door of her room, he then and there launched upon his anecdote.
“The Commandant is sitting by the window,” the General began, “when his eyes fall on a certain lieutenant from Regiment X. He sees that the lieutenant is without his obligatory sword. ‘Ivan!’ the Commandant barks, summoning his day-orderly. The orderly enters. The Commandant points out the offending officer. A minute later, the officer shows up. His sword is in place. Seeing the sword, the Commandant is perplexed. ‘Excuse me, Lieutenant,’ he says, ‘I don’t think we’ve been introduced. Have you been in our city long?’ After this courteous exchange, the Commandant dismisses the lieutenant. A minute later, the Commandant is once again sitting by the window. He sees the lieutenant. Once more, he is without his sword. ‘Ivan,’ the Commandant hollers a second time, ‘call the lieutenant here!’ The lieutenant walks in. His sword is in place. Utterly flustered, the Commandant asks the officer to convey his greetings to his regimental commander. The lieutenant leaves. A minute later, the Commandant is seated once again before the window. The same lieutenant is parading up and down and, yes, without his sword! He summons his orderly a third time. ‘Ivan,’ the Commandant shouts, ‘bring the lieutenant back!’ The officer returns, his sword firmly in place. Totally confounded, the Commandant invites the lieutenant to an evening game of whist. The young officer leaves. Once again the Commandant is sitting by the window. The offending lieutenant walks past without his sword. ‘Liza, Elena!’ he calls out to his wife and daughter. Pointing to the officer in the window, he demands: ‘For God’s sake, tell me! Is he carrying a sword or isn’t he? I’m going out of my mind!’ ‘No, he isn’t!’ wife and daughter reply in unison. ‘And I say that he is!’ the Commandant yells in a rage. ‘The lieutenant is carrying a sword!’”
General Golubetz paused for effect.
“And I’ll bet you’ll never guess where the lieutenant got the sword in the first place,” he said to Natasha. “From the Commandant himself! Where else!”
General Golubetz withdrew from Natasha’s door to the dining-room, where he sat down to study the score. Next to him were his wife and a samovar.
While the General played the piano at a movie theater, his wife sewed marquisette dresses for the market. Behind them—in her room—was their only daughter, a thin, giggling child. She was a student at the university.
When she saw Mikhail Kovalyov off to the war in 191_ , Natasha thought to herself: “My hero! My warrior!” Returning home, she wept: “They’ll kill him. I just know they’ll kill him.”
She was fifteen years old then. You couldn’t really have called her a giggling child at the time, though she had already acquired by then the habit of smiling on appropriate and inappropriate occasions alike.
This was the smile of bashfulness.
Mikhail Kovalyov, her fiancé and a cornet of the Pavlograd Hussar regiment, went off to war as if to a parade. The fields and forests flew by as he stood looking out the window. He saw the face of his betrothed and the coveted Cross of St. George.
But a week after arriving at the regiment, Mikhail was offered the position of cook by the soldiers.
“So that’s what heroism is all about,” he thought.
He hid in the forests outside Petersburg for a year, then landed at the Red front, where he served as an assistant to the Inspector of the Cavalry.
He cursed the Reds at every opportunity but served them nonetheless with honesty.
After demobilization, Mikhail found himself in Petersburg. By this time, though, Natasha’s ardor had cooled. The years of hunger had transformed her. She had become high-strung. After spending some time at a certain theatrical school—with every Tom, Dick and Harry making a grab for her private parts—she found herself pacing back and forth in the “Bois de Boulogne” hallway of the university, where she would sneak in a cigarette or two.
Mikhail Kovalyov rarely got to see Natasha after the Revolution. His penury, his inability to find a job—he had no specialized training—were a profound blow to his dignity and drove him to the brink of despair. Still, he always believed that one day he’d find a job and marry Natasha.
On the first day of Easter of each year, he would put on his red Hussar trousers with galloons color of gold, the boots with hussar rosettes, his service jacket—brought out of the dresser for the occasion—and, finally, the monogrammed golden shoulder-straps stored under the floor. He’d dress quickly, very quickly, shove his spurs into his pocket and rush over to see Natasha. On his shoulders he’d wear a greatcoat burned through and through. It had seen much action during the Civil War against the Whites.
Year in and year out, Mikhail would reenact this scene.
He’d rush up the stairs.
Her former Excellency, the General’s wife, would be sitting in her room reading a book. He’d go in, exchange Easter greetings with Natasha, eat a tiny portion of Easter cream-cheese and a slice of cake.
Natasha would then sit down at the shaky piano and sing something in her thin voice. She’d open her pitiful mouth and glance in Mikhail Kovalyov’s direction. She was sad. She no longer loved him. He had become vulgar in her eyes.
Sometimes, Mikhail would get up and ask Natasha to play “Oh, the chrysanthemums have faded long ago.”
Standing right next to her, his mouth open like hers, he’d start singing off-key. At times he’d sing: “All the girls adore it!” or: “Oh, you beauties of the cabaret, love is a delight for hearts that play.”
Oh, that was such a beautiful evening, he thought, sauntering home at night through the renamed and newly lit streets. He walked among the pointed helmets of Red Army soldiers, among leather jackets and leaping signboards.
True, the development of an idea calls for poetry based on science,” Teptyolkin mused. It was the day after his lecture, and, lo, Teptyolkin was stretched out in bed. “Yet, here we have a thoroughly obscure poet who summons up a new world for us through the juxtaposition of words. And what do we do? We take his world apart, decompose it, translate it into prose and strip it of all its imagery. Generations that come will assimilate the fruits of our labor, but they will never feel the luxuriance oozing from his images of this new world. To them, his poetry will seem ordinary and pitiful. To us, though, his poetry is accessible only with the greatest effort and then only to a few.
“Years will pass. Our age will pass, and everything will have changed: The Unknown Poet will be mocked and laughed at. He’ll be called a barbarian, a madman or an idiot for vandalizing our beautiful language. Pupils will scribble off horrid sonnets to their female classmates, office boys will declare their love to typists while filing invoices, the directors of trusts and the representatives of local trade union committees—all will intone: ‘How degenerate their age was! But then, what could you expect from such lazy bums? Poetry ought to convey ideas, not images! It ought to march to the tune of science and take its cue from inventions like the telegraph or the radio. Why not write about them?’ they’d say. ‘Why not glorify our culture?’
“Be that as it may, the Unknown Poet enjoys renown, however transitory, amongst us,” Teptyolkin thought. He sat upright, his feet solidly on the floor: “As a matter of fact, young ladies are already pasting his photograph into his books, scholars are rushing to shake his hand, and everywhere students are hanging his portrait over their boring books. Were he to die this very day, he could count on no less than forty people to bring up the rear of his coffin. To a man, these devotees would eulogize him as a cunning Odysseus who struggled against his age, who fled the clutches of the sea of sociology to seek refuge on the island of Circe or Art.”
Teptyolkin peered through the window to see whether he had arrived yet. Yes, yes! The Unknown Poet was heading this way. He saw him waving his hat and striking the ground with his cane. He was carrying his latest manuscript in his hand.
“How splendid! Now I’ll have a chance to feast on far-off shores,” Teptyolkin thought, rushing to unlock the door.
They exchanged kisses and immediately proceeded to lambaste their contemporaries. Figuratively, if not literally, they spit on the little Pioneers trooping past their window.
“Just look at this new generation of theirs,” the Unknown Poet said sneeringly. “Not a trace of humanism in them. True sons of a future medieval age, fanatics and barbarians—that’s what today’s kids are. The light of the humanities has never penetrated their benighted souls.”
“Yes, I see what you mean,” Teptyolkin joined in. “Nothing but filth everywhere. Yes, nothing but slime.” He then added: “They’re savages every one of them!”
They sat down.
“There never was anything but filth and slime, nothing but! They’re all swine,” Teptyolkin went on. He was in a meditative mood. “In my mind, I see White consular officials defacing our diplomatic buildings abroad. Before our ambassador has a chance to settle in, these Whites tear up the wallpaper, spit at the ceiling above, and—to crown it all—rip open the parquet floor. All this when they should be leaning back before the fireplace to admire for the very last time the fine tapestry hanging on the walls or taking a stroll through the rooms and the adjoining garden.”
“There is no point in philosophizing,” declared the Unknown Poet evasively. “Both of us—you through literature, I through art—have experienced every kind of death. Therefore, death can never really surprise us. Spiritually speaking, a man of culture inhabits not one but many countries. He lives not in one epoch but in many. He can elect any form of death and does not grieve when death at last catches up with him. Overcome by ennui, he pronounces: ‘So, we meet again!’ It all seems so ridiculous to him.”
Teptyolkin was sad. He walked up to the window, frowning.
“How gloriously sun-tanned they are—these Pioneer kids,” Teptyolkin thought and broke into a smile. He did not know why but he felt happy and refreshed, as if a stream of air, bearing the sun on its back, had burst into the room. “The world is young again,” he thought.
At that very moment, Kostya Rotikov walked into the room.
“Your poetry is stunning,” he said, turning to the Unknown Poet. “Impeccably Baroque!”
There was something quite peculiar about Kostya. His every move spoke of elegance. He had dropped in on Teptyolkin today in order to spirit the Unknown Poet away and discuss the subject of bad taste with him, i.e. to consider the question of junk as a genre of art. For some time, Kostya had been collecting tasteless and pornographic materials. He and the Unknown Poet often scoured the market-places of St. Petersburg for ash-trays. The obverse of such an ash-tray would be decent enough, but, if you turned it over, you would discover something quite naughty. For example, one side might show a lady followed on foot by a smiling gentleman, while the reverse would. . .
Kostya Rotikov’s interest in postcards was not confined to pornography as such. He also bought up decent postcards that were nonetheless positively revolting: A red-cheeked, mustachioed gentleman out to dinner with his date is pinching her foot with his boot. Or: a girl with hair rolled up in a bun is playing on a harp. Or: a naked nymph with a beer mug in her hand is fleeing from a man in a Tyrol suit.
Teptyolkin breathed a sigh of relief after they left. Surveying his room, he found himself thoroughly pleased. He was as pleased with the ash-tray decorated with little flowers (it was, of course, for his friends—Teptyolkin himself didn’t smoke) as he was with the flower vase showing an Arab woman bent over a pitcher.
He was delighted, too, with the photos from his childhood:
Here is six-year old Teptyolkin chasing after a butterfly with a net! Here is eight-year old Teptyolkin eating his dinner! And, look! Over there is ten-year old Teptyolkin sitting under the Christmas tree clad in a knight’s armor. And that’s not all! Here is his mother and here are his brothers and his sisters and his friends!
And, oh, here is a picture of The Dream!
Glancing at the summer rocking chair, Teptyolkin discovered that it was just as comfortable as the Voltaire armchair. Then, deciding to resume the principal work of his life, he opened his trunk. It was always covered with a plush, green tablecloth and bore the image of God knows what! He reached deep into the trunk and brought out his notebook.
Two entries appeared on the first page: “Hierarchy of Meanings” and “Introduction to the Study of Poetry.” This was followed—on the bottom of the second page (Teptyolkin was very fond of originality)—by his dedication to “MY ONE AND ONLY” and by a photograph of The Dream. The third page bore the Roman numeral “I”, while on the fourth page—in the middle—appeared the single word: “Foreword.” On the fifth page. . .
The treatise begins on solid ground. The main text is interspersed with the annotations of distinguished contemporary linguists. Written in French, these observations are offered without Russian translation. (This treatise is meant for true scholars, not for the dull-witted). The main text also seems to be penned in a foreign tongue, but with Russian inflectional endings. There is a hint here of possible new definitions for such concepts as “Romantic” and “Classical.” Here, too, the author speaks of the poetic technique whereby time present takes on the coloring of time past and time future. And there is more. For example, Teptyolkin explodes the absurd notion that meaning inheres within the narrow compass of a word alone. The aesthetic, on the other hand, is defined as a phantasm, as the harmonization of nature and history.
“Any real artist,” thought Teptyolkin, “who picks up this book in earnest won’t be able to put it down. The pathos of these pages would exert its magical influence on him. After all, a work of art ought never to be considered impersonal. On the contrary, it is, in principle, always personal. I do not have in mind the artist’s name but his personality as reflected in the artifact.”
Art is rapture, an objective phase of existence. In the aesthetic there is neither nature nor history.
It is a unique sphere, neither a logical nor an ethical one, nor yet their sum.
— from Teptyolkin’s Hierarchy of Meanings
The curious artist will soon discover the dominant leitmotif that runs through every page of this book, namely, that art is a rapturous state of being, with fantasy as its objective phase. Surely, the reader will forgive Teptyolkin his preposterous language, his French annotations, the furnishings of the room and, indeed, the photograph of The Dream—riding off in a smart cab, a hat and parasol in full view.
Sporting white pants, black coat and felt hat, Kostya Rotikov was making his way through the marketplace. He had been at it for a full two hours. Tall and stocky, he bent over the junk heap before him, loosening it fastidiously with his stick. He was hunting for pornography. He stopped before a group of women.
“What’s the matter?” these scrap iron dealers insist. Nursing their teacups, they bark: “Why are you ransacking through everything? . . . Must you throw everything all over the place?”
Kostya blushes, then leaves.
Standing before an antique dealer at the other end of the market, the Unknown Poet examined an ancient, shaggy Venus that conjured up the figure of a witch: With one hand she was clasping a large-headed cupid while with the other she held a balalaika. Her loins were wound in Mongolian cloth, her breasts were sagging, her head was marked—to the right and to the left—with the sign of her sex: .
Svechin walks up to the Unknown Poet and says:
“Did you know that Kokosha Shlyapkin has a stall right here in the market? Would you believe—that slime is peddling a picture showing a Red Army soldier dancing on the chest of an officer! The audacity of the man—sketching miniature medallions of Lenin and selling them to every Komsomol girl. . . . By the way, have you run into any college girls lately? . . . Don’t mind telling you that I get a real thrill popping their cherry. In fact, while you were out yesterday taking in the May Day parades—yes, I know, I know, you were actually perched on some balcony—right?—and spitting down below—well, anyway, believe it or not, I scored with Natasha, if you know what I mean. . . ”
The former artillery officer completed the sentence with the appropriate gesture.
The Unknown Poet felt uneasy. He remembered Natasha when she was a little girl—in her white dress and pigtails, dancing away at the Pavlovsk children’s ball.
“So that’s where you two are, my good friends,” Teptyolkin exclaimed, stretching out his hands, “you must be talking about literature! I’ll bet. No, no, far be it for me to interfere. No, I most assuredly won’t!”
He bowed and left.
At long last, Kostya Rotikov found the match-box he was looking for and left. Svechin left, too. As he walked away, he peeked under the women’s hats.
Leaning against the wall, former society ladies were now peddling a whole miscellany of trinkets. One of them flaunted a monogrammed teaspoon, another a worthless old boa, a third two wine-glasses shimmering with colors, a fourth a rag doll of her own making, a fifth a corset of the 1900′s. Last but not least, a grey-haired crone was selling off her hair, that is, the hair she had saved from her early youth and now gathered into tresses. And, oh, yes, there was a certain young woman—relatively speaking, of course—who was offering the worn-out boots of her late husband.
You are doing me a great wrong,” the Unknown Poet once told me. “You’re ruining my life’s work. I’ve tried so hard as a poet to show the tragedy of it all, the fact that we were once so radiant. You, on the other hand, are defaming us in the eyes of posterity.”
I looked at him.
“If you think we’ve kicked the bucket, you are grievously mistaken,” the Unknown Poet said with a touch of affectation in his voice. “Not on your life! We are a breed apart—destined to emerge anew in each generation. No, we cannot die. We are inevitable.”
I sat down on a bench next to him.
“There’s nothing worse than a professional man of letters,” he said, moving away. “And that’s exactly what you are!”
“You’re mad!” I muttered under my breath.
The Unknown Poet looked at me and said: “Just because I don’t see eye to eye with my contemporaries doesn’t give you the right to call me mad.”
I was shamefaced. So maybe he is not so mad, after all.
Pricking up his ears, the Unknown Poet strained to hear the rustling of the leaves.
Young Communists and their girl friends walked past.
“No, he is mad!” I said to myself.
“I know, sometimes I’m not quite all there,” said the Unknown Poet, apparently guessing what was on my mind. “It’s just my way of dissolving into the totality of Nature.”
He got up and shook my hand.
“It’s a real pity,” he said, “that you live in the same world that you describe.”
Teptyolkin walked up to him. They exchanged gestures graciously, which is to say, they refrained from slapping each other on the back. I watched them turn into an alley. Then I walked on past the mosque and got on a trolley.
“But you are out of your mind! Yes! You’re stark raving mad!” I thought.
I entered my apartment, sharpened a pencil. “Yes! Yes!” I said. “I must find out what those two are doing at this very moment! I’ll bet they are up to their necks in some dirty business again.”
I twirled my mustache, put my key in my pocket, checked to make sure I had pencil and paper on me and left.
It was a white night.
The columns jutted out in twos, in threes, in fours.
A woman dressed like a nurse came up to me. “My name is Tamara,” she said.
“So where is your white satin quilt?” I inquired. “You know what I mean—the quilt woven from expensive Stoby cloth, from Indian calico, from Giland silk? Where is the silken, violet pillow and the golden veil with the dangling tassel?”
She fixed her lorgnette directly on me and declared: “You stink of beer, my good sir, but, surely, you are clean as a whistle. Come on, let’s go to my place!”
“Thanks,” I replied, “but I think I’ll take a rain check on that. I’m frightfully busy just now.”
“No problem! No problem!” she hurriedly rejoined, “we can do it just as easily here as anywhere. Just pull over to the side, sir.”
When she saw that I wouldn’t, she cried out: “So you think you’re some highfalutin’ man of letters. Ha! You’re all nothing but scoundrels, good-for-nothing beggars! Do you hear?! I’m keeping a certain Vertikhvostov alive. In return for that, he recites to me his poems about syphilis! He likes to compare himself to a prostitute. . . He calls me his bride.”
“Go away, darling!” I said, “please go away! Can’t you see I’m not a man of letters? I’m just a busybody.”
She followed me almost as far as Victims of the Revolution Square, sat down on a bench and wept.
“What the devil are you crying for?” I asked. “Are you missing your ermine coat, is that it? Or your coat lined with fur from Karakum and adorned with pearls? Or your cape of Khorassan cloth or a chess set made of walrus tusks or turquoise rings from Nystadt and amber jewelry boxes?”
“How I’d love to ride on a bicycle. Didn’t I tell you I was one of Colonel Babulin’s steeds? Oh, to be surrounded by all those darling officers!”
Only then did I realize that she was totally drunk.
“A drunken broad!” I said to myself and quickened my pace.
It was well past one in the morning when I arrived at Teptyolkin’s apartment building. The janitor let me in. I entered through the dilapidated wing of the building and positioned myself right across from Teptyolkin’s window.
Seated before a kerosene lamp on the table before them, Teptyolkin and the Unknown Poet were arguing vehemently, that is, when they weren’t reciting something.
Now and then, the Unknown Poet would get up and pace the floor.
“What are they reciting?” I wondered. “What are they talking about? . . . Looks like they’re sneering at the contemporary world again, as usual.”
“I think,” said the Unknown Poet, getting up, “that ours is a heroic age.”
“Incontestably heroic!” Teptyolkin asserted.
“I think the world is being shaken up as it hasn’t been since the first centuries of Christianity.”
“I’m convinced of it,” replied Teptyolkin.
“What a spectacle unfolds before us,” the Unknown Poet observed.
“What a defining moment we’re living in,” Teptyolkin whispered in delight.
“Anyway, it’s time for me to go!” said the Unknown Poet, moving away from the window. “I hope you don’t mind if I take your Dante with me.”
“Of course not. Go ahead!” replied Teptyolkin.
The Unknown Poet walked up to the table, closed the book and put it in his pocket. He then took leave of Teptyolkin. I left soon afterwards, too.
As I walked briskly through absolutely deserted streets, I remembered how I too had once looked upon the Unknown Poet as the Pythian Oracle of St. Petersburg.
One day, the Unknown Poet was giving a reading at a club named for Kruzhalov.
A bearded man in a cotton shirt danced around him. He was drunk. In his ecstasy, through tears of joy, he declared:
“Oh God! Have you ever heard such genius! All my life I’ve been dreaming of poems like these!”
The young ladies in the audience applauded in unison. The Unknown Poet was their friend.
Reeking with the stench of vodka, the man in the cotton shirt shook the poet’s hand and said:
“For God’s sake, you must come by and see me. My last name is September.”
Fumbling in his pocket, the Unknown Poet took out several scribbled pieces of paper and jotted down the address in the appropriate blank space.
“I’ve just come back from Persia. You must come and see me. I haven’t heard real poetry in so long,” said the man in the cotton shirt.
The following day, the Unknown Poet went to see September.
September lived in a different part of town, in a so-called income-generating house, which is to say, in a tall house built around a courtyard that was narrow as a well. While the street apartments were spacious and equipped with all the amenities, those in the wings and along the back alleys were small and relentlessly monotonous in their repetition of a set pattern.
The Unknown Poet rang the door-bell. He was greeted by September himself. The host, now sober, was wearing tall boots and a clean shirt gathered at the waist by a belt.
In the middle of the first room stood a table on which a tablecloth had been spread. The table held plates with leftovers. Four bentwood chairs, warped by the rain, surrounded the table on every side.
A single nail groaned under the combined weight of a decrepit brown coat and a blouse.
The room was split evenly by a dresser, behind which stood September’s conjugal bed.
The Unknown Poet put away hat and cane—the latter adorned with an episcopal stone—and took a long look at September, for whom he felt a genuine liking. He knew a great deal about him already. He knew that he had spent two years in an insane asylum seven years before. He knew also of the hurly-burly in which he lived.
“I’m still giddy from yesterday,” September said. “You know, before I was committed to a mental asylum, during my confinement, and later, in Persia, I used to imagine poems in which I had died many times, in which I’d lived many lives before.”
The Unknown Poet looked around the room and said: “Go on! Read me some of your poems.”
“No, no, later. . . Here is my wife.”
From behind the dresser emerged the slim figure of a woman. Next to her stood a handsome, well-groomed seven-year-old boy.
“This is Edgar, my little rabbit!” September said. He pointed out the Unknown Poet to the boy and said: “Do you see that man over there, sonny? He is an extraordinary poet.”
“That’s Pushkin?” little Edgar asked, his eyes opening wide.
September led the Unknown Poet into his room.
A very thin pillow served as a headrest to a narrow bed covered by a violet blanket with black, horizontal stripes. This bed was reserved for September’s use.
In the middle of the bed lay a manuscript scribbled all over with crossed-out words. A glass and a two-ounce pouch of cheap tobacco, recently opened, stood on the window-sill. Against a wall papered with rose patterns stood a chair and a black desk.
September and the Unknown Poet sat on the bed.
“Why did you have to come here, of all places?!” the Unknown Poet asked. He glanced out the window, then continued: “This city is death itself. Why did you leave the other shore, where you had money—and your wife’s respect—where they published you, where you wrote your so-called Futurist poems? Here in St. Petersburg you won’t write a single line.”
“But what about your poems?” September interjected.
“My poetry? . . .” the Unknown Poet paused, “may not be poems at all. Maybe that’s why they have the impact they do. For me, they are a type of allegory, a special kind of material in need of an interpreter.”
“I don’t quite understand. . .” pleaded September. He started pacing the floor. “I never got past elementary school. Then I went wacko. When I got out of the asylum, I began writing Symbolist poems, even though I knew nothing about Symbolism. Later, by chance, I came across the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I was shaken to my foundations: I could have sworn that I had written them myself. It’s only recently that I’ve become a Futurist. . .”
He paused, lifted the edge of the blanket, hauled out a wooden box from beneath the bed, opened it, took out a manuscript and read aloud:
The whole world is moving in trembling circles.
It burns with a deep greenish light.
As I left my house, I saw a cliff,
A ship and a woman above the sea.
Lovers stroll along the Pryazhka River in pairs —
Their faces are sticky. So are the flowers.
The lofty eyes of your lofty soul
Are fixed forever on my soul.
“A mental collapse at times leads to a greater refinement of soul,” the Unknown Poet thought while his host recited his poem. He looked into September’s eyes and mused: “It’s a pity that he can’t control his madness.”
“I wrote this poem,” September said, pacing the room, “before I was dismissed from the sanitarium. I understood the poem then, but now I don’t have the faintest idea. . . it’s just plain drivel.”
He bent down and brought a few more poems out of the box. Then he straightened his back and began reading aloud once again.
In the general rhythmic chatter of his recitation you might have detected an occasional, nervous image. But, on the whole, these lines were pretty feeble.
Sensing this, September squatted down and began rummaging—in a state of embarrassment—through his trunk. At last, he pulled out his books of poems, the ones published in Teheran. They too were worthless.
“Tea is ready!” September’s wife announced. She was standing in the middle of the door. “Don’t forget to invite your guest, Pyotr!”
“In a minute! In a minute!” September barked back. In utter desperation, he started reciting his recent, Futurist poems at breakneck speed.
The Unknown Poet sat on the bed in a state of near despair. “Here is a man,” he thought, “who had been blessed with madness but who was utterly incapable of controlling or understanding it or of putting it to the service of mankind.”
A cool night breeze was already blowing through the window. September and the Unknown Poet stepped into the adjoining room.
Pink, round crackers were lying on a plate.
Diminutive and swarthy and somewhat wrinkled, September’s wife served the tea and crackers with great dispatch. And how she talked and talked! Finally, the Unknown Poet took notice.
“You agree with me, don’t you?” she demanded. “It was sheer madness for us to come here. Life here is pure horror. You should see his parents’ place. They live on the shore of Lake Baikal. They are peasants, you know—if only you could see their house, crammed with goodies from wall to wall! That’s where we should have gone to!”
The kerosene lamp burned faintly on the table. His head buried in his arms, his teacup pushed aside, seven-year-old Edgar was now fast asleep.
“My little rabbit,” September whispered. He bent down and kissed his son.
“You’ll be the death of me and my son, yet!” September’s wife insisted. “We’ve got to leave this place! The sooner the better!”
She rose from the table and paced all over the room.
It was late into the night when the Unknown Poet descended the stairs.
Hearing the dying echoes of his own footsteps on the deserted street, the Unknown Poet stopped and leaned on his cane, which was adorned with a large, episcopal amethyst. He thrust out his shoulder-blades and paused to reflect. He so very much wanted to be the leader of the insane—of all of them. He longed to become their Orpheus. He would have gladly plundered the East and the South for the sake of the insane, wrapping their sad misadventures in the falling and rising folds of rich, holy vestments.
In his hatred, he raised his cane threateningly in the air. How he ached to hurl his cane at sleeping book-keepers and variety show entertainers, in fact, at anyone who was not—in his eyes—convulsed by some excruciating agony!
“Help! Help!” a girl’s voice seemed to ring out from the first floor.
At a loss, but immeasurably strengthened by his anguish, the Unknown Poet ran—no!—limped up the staircase, tried the door, then rushed down and plunged headlong through the window. His eyes stopped in their orbits, and his neck tensed up. “Take that!” Clutching the back of someone’s head, the Unknown Poet started pounding on it with both fists. This someone quickly fought him off. The Unknown Poet grabbed the man’s throat. The man pushed him off. The Unknown Poet picked up a heavy chair and struck hard.
At the feet of the Unknown Poet lay Svechin. There was no sign of a woman.
“I’ll be damned!” the Unknown Poet thought, coming to his senses. “The devil knows what this is all about!”
The whole apartment came to life: Doors banged, feet stomped, the Unknown Poet frowned, somebody ran off to get a cop.
The policeman’s report stated that a friend of Svechin broke in through the window and attempted to kill him in his sleep.
“How strange life is!” thought the Unknown Poet. “The sensations of childhood remain vividly with us. There was a time when I considered a woman a most extraordinary creature, whom no man ought ever to offend, and for whom a man should sacrifice everything. Some of these pale faces and flowing tresses and clear voices still echo in my mind. So maybe I have been hating Svechin subconsciously all this time. How else account for the fact that I actually hallucinated a girl’s voice?”
The window had been boarded up. Behind the planks was a grating. Above, one could make out a narrow strip of cloudy sky.
On one bed sat the Unknown Poet, in the other lay an aging prisoner.
Svechin was astounded by this turn of events more than anyone else. He never could figure out why things had happened the way they did. He’d shrug his shoulders as he walked on, his head covered in bandages.
The public defender couldn’t get anything whatsoever out of the Unknown Poet.
“I have nothing to say to my contemporaries,” the Unknown Poet said aloud to himself. “The hell with explanations!” And he walked from the window to the door.
Medical experts found him thoroughly normal.
He was given a one-year suspended sentence.
For some time now—a good two years behind the rest of Europe—everyone in our city (that is, St. Petersburg, not Leningrad) had become infected with the teachings of Oswald Spengler.
Tall, spindly youths, young ladies with heads like birds, paterfamilias who had recently overcome dropsy—all were sauntering through the streets and alleys of the city talking up a storm about the collapse of the West.
A certain Ivan Ivanovich, for instance, would run into Anatoly Leonidovich, shake his hand and say: “Have you heard, sir, the West is dying? Dying from disintegration and decay. Cultural life is dead, dead as a doornail—civilization marches on . . . ”
They’d sigh, hold meetings, suffer.
This belief in the collapse of the West was held, among others, by the poet Troytsyn.
He was returning home from a party one evening in the company of the Unknown Poet when, hiccuping from the good food, which had recently become widely available, he turned to his companion and whispered sympathetically in his ear: “We of the West shall surely perish and die.”
The Unknown Poet was humming:
Oh, how sad! A thick darkness is descending
On the distant West, land of holy miracles.
The Unknown Poet spoke of K. Leontiev and sniggered at his brother-in-arms, Troytsyn.
And what was death to the Unknown Poet? Nothing at all. It’ll all come back full circle, anyway.
“Lift up your leg and hop along,” the Unknown Poet wanted to say. Instead, slapping Troytsyn on the back, he said: “Why don’t you take a long, loving look at the spectacle of this world?” He pointed to a dog near the gate. The dog was urinating.
Troytsyn stopped dead in his tracks—there were very few dogs in the city then.
“Just the same, it’s really sad,” he said, addressing the Unknown Poet informally. “We write poems—but for whom? For nobody! Nobody needs them. Nobody reads them. Nobody ever comes to hear them. It’s so very sad.”
“Well, you just go on grinding out your endless idylls,” said the Unknown Poet. “You have a real knack for writing them. Go ahead! Do your thing: The flower blooms, the grass grows, the bird sings, and you write poetry.”
“The moon and the stars are out tonight,” Troytsyn said, yawning softly. “Let’s take a nice, long walk through the city.”
“Let’s,” agreed the Unknown Poet.
With rags on their backs and worn-out shoes on their feet, the poets marched on, first to Pokrovskaya Square, then to Peski, and, finally, to the Garden of the Workers.
“You really love St. Petersburg. You feel it deep down, don’t you?” Troytsyn said.
He was standing next to Kazan Cathedral admiring the stars.
“What’s so surprising about that?” the Unknown Poet observed, inspecting his boots. “I come from four generations of Petersburgians.”
“That explains why St. Petersburg is in your bones,” Troytsyn said. He reached for his handkerchief. “I, on the other hand, come from Ladoga.”
“Then, by all means, write about Ladoga! Your childhood impressions are obviously connected with Ladoga rather than with St. Petersburg. As a child, you must have loved frolicking among the cornflowers, swamps and forests that bordered on your ancient, wooden church. But I grew up loving the Summer Garden, its sandbox, its flower-beds, its statues, the buildings. You sipped your tea straight from the saucer. Right?”
They remained silent.
The Unknown Poet looked around him.
“I came to know our parks before I ever laid my eyes on our fields—and I saw the torso of Venus before I ever saw a tanned peasant woman. So how could I’ve acquired a love for the fields or for the villages and hamlets that nestle among them? No such love could arise in me.”
They sat down on a pile of stones next to Yusupovsky Garden.
“Why don’t you read some of your poems?” Troytsyn proposed.
The Unknown Poet laid down his cane.
“Oh God in heaven!” Troytsyn exclaimed, deeply moved. “What truly Petersburgian poems. . . ! Look, do you see the moon shining through the ruins?”
He tiptoed his way to the top of the gravel heap.
The Unknown Poet lit up a cigarette and said: “Stop looking at the moon! It’s a disturbing sight.”
Then, tiptoeing his way up the stones, he moved in front of Troytsyn and shielded him from the moon.
Arriving in our midst in the year of the Spengler craze, Misha Kotikov came under the spell of Zaevfratsky, a tall, silver-haired painter and poet of St. Petersburg. Or, rather, he came under the spell of Zaevfratsky’s power, pride and world-view, since the man himself had recently drowned. He had been traveling with his two servants.
From his 35th birthday on, Zaevfratsky worked to prepare materials for his future biographers. With this in mind—and in the company of his splendid retainers—he scaled Mt. Ararat, Mt. Elbrus, even the Himalayas. He had pitched his tent in every oasis, visited every palace, however fantastical, and conversed with every ruler of color.
Misha Kotikov had never set eyes on Zaevfratsky. Still, he was quite impressed. Ruddy of cheek and well-groomed, Misha had a large head and a small mouth. “Fantastic!” the redheaded youth whispered as he pored over Zaevfratsky’s books and drawings.
When Alexander Zaevfratsky died, his wife wept and wrung her hands.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, Zaevfratsky’s friends came by to comfort and console her. Svechin, too, tried to console her.
The very next day Svechin was bad-mouthing her: “What an idiot! Never so much as moves a muscle.” And he paced the floor, shouting:
“I’m holding her in my arms, but she goes on sighing: ‘Oh! Alexander, my dear, sweet Alexander!’”
A year later, Misha Kotikov, very much an admirer of Zaevfratsky, made the acquaintance of his widow Yekaterina.
He dropped by one evening carrying a bottle of wine and hors d’oeuvre. With head bent down, Yekaterina talked about Alexander Zaevfratsky, about the dresses he liked seeing her in, about his hands, his gorgeous silvery locks, his massive stature, about how he used to pace the floor and how, standing on tiptoe, she would kiss him. . .
Misha watched her with his light blue eyes. His small crimson mouth was open. He stroked Yekaterina’s hands and squeezed them, then kissed her forehead and asked:
“And what kind of nose did Alexander Zaevfratsky have? How long were his arms? Did he wear starched collars or did he prefer the looser kind? Is it true that Alexander would tap on the window-pane with his fingers. . . ?”
Yekaterina answered all of Misha’s questions, then burst out crying. She picked up a man’s monogrammed handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it.
“Wait a second! Isn’t this Alexander Zaevfratsky’s handkerchief that you are holding in your hand?” Misha exclaimed.
Yekaterina went on wiping her tears for some time with Alexander Zaevfratsky’s handkerchief.
Giving the handkerchief at last to Misha, she said: “Please keep it in memory of Alexander Zaevfratsky.”
She wept again. Misha Kotikov folded the handkerchief neatly and buried it hastily in his pocket.
“And what did Alexander Zaevfratsky say about poetry?” he asked, playing with the handkerchief in his pocket. “What exactly did poetry mean to him?”
“Poetry? He never spoke to me about that!” Yekaterina Zaevfratsky declared, ogling herself in the mirror.
Suddenly, she jumped up from her seat. Standing before the mirror, she demanded: “Don’t you think I move gracefully, Misha? Come on! Take a look for yourself!”
She swung her arms right, then left, moved her head up, then down, and declared: “For your information, Misha, Alexander always thought so!”
“And when did Alexander begin writing poetry? At what age?” Misha inquired, lighting up a cigarette.
“Honestly, Misha, don’t I look like a little girl?” Yekaterina pleaded and plunked down in an armchair.
“Alexander used to say that I was just like a little girl. Really!”
“Yekaterina, which table should we set?”
Misha got up from his armchair. He was angry.
“That one!” she replied, pointing out the little round table, “but I’ve nothing to serve, Misha.”
“It’s all right. I brought a bottle of Bordeaux with me. . . ” Misha Kotikov announced with pride, “and hors d’oeuvre and fruit.”
“How very kind of you, Misha,” Yekaterina laughed, “I just adore wine and fruit!”
“Alexander’s friends have completely abandoned me,” Yekaterina sighed.
Standing on tiptoe, Misha searched the cupboard for wine-glasses. “They don’t care one iota about me,” Yekaterina persisted. “They know that I haven’t got an ounce of will-power in me, that I don’t have the faintest notion how to live. . . ” She caught her breath, then resumed her lament. “I tell you, Misha, they don’t pay me the slightest attention. They don’t drop by. They don’t talk about Alexander. They don’t sing my praises any more. Please, Misha, let’s be friends and talk about Alexander Zaevfratsky!”
After savoring the wine and hors d’oeuvre, Misha set out to examine the various objects in the room.
“Isn’t this where Alexander composed his poems?” Misha said, pointing to a small round table. “Why haven’t you dusted it, if I may respectfully ask?”
“I don’t know how to,” Yekaterina replied. “I never dusted a thing while Alexander was alive.”
Misha Kotikov woke up the next morning in Alexander Zaevfratsky’s bed.
Next to him slept Yekaterina Zaevfratsky, her mouth open and her hand sticking out.
“It’s a pity she’s so stupid,” thought Misha Kotikov. “She can’t tell me one damn thing about Alexander worth remembering. I guess I’ll have to go see his friends. Still, maybe she can tell me how Alexander went about writing his poems.”
“Yekaterina,” Misha asked, “how did Alexander go about writing his poems?”
Yekaterina Zaevfratsky woke up, stretched out her arms and jabbed Misha with her knee. Then, she turned over on her side and fell asleep.
Two whole weeks Misha Kotikov called on Yekaterina. In the process, he collected a heap of intimate details about Alexander Zaevfratsky.
Misha took Yekaterina to the cinema or, then again, to the theater or just for a stroll. He learned all there was to know about Alexander Zaevfratsky: How many birthmarks were on his body, how many corns were on his feet. He learned that in 191_ a boil had broken out on his back, that Alexander loved coconuts, that he had had plenty of lovers while married to Yekaterina, that he had loved her, nonetheless, very much.
When he had learned all there was to learn and recorded all there was to record, it dawned on Misha that Alexander’s lovers were probably a good deal smarter and better informed than his wife. They could tell him a lot more about Zaevfratsky’s soul. So Misha dumped Yekaterina Zaevfratsky.
Misha was always a clean-cut, fastidiously groomed young man. You’d have been hard put to find a single speck of dirt under his fingernail.
Learning that a certain co-ed X had been Alexander’s last mistress, Misha set out to meet her at a certain well-known house frequented by the literati.
And what a marvelous house it was! Two young lady poets lived here. One wrote misty, melancholy poems, the other poems of passion and naturalness. It was as if they had divided the world between them into two halves: one filled with sadness, the other with joy.
A whole assortment of young men and women passed through this house. Soon, a poetry club came into being, and even 35-year-old juveniles, poets of an earlier generation, showed up. They would all sit down in a circle, and each would recite his poems, while—out on the balcony—others would gaze at the starry sky or at the chimneys.
It was at one of these reunions that Misha Kotikov first met co-ed X.
Misha was seated on the floor on one of the sofa pillows. Legs spread and eyes shut, he recited his poems to the group. Next to him sat co-ed X, a cheerful young woman with long legs.
“What do you say, Yevgenia,” he asked, “shall we traipse through the city after the party? What do you say we walk as far as the Thomon Exchange?”
“All right, but only if we go in a group,” whispered Yevgenia.
By two in the morning, a group had formed. As they sauntered past the horses rearing over the Fontanka River, Misha Kotikov wooed Yevgenia. How extraordinary she was, he told her, how stunning. . .
When they approached the Thomon Stock Exchange, they broke away from the group. Their heads were leaning against each other.
Misha blushed. Yevgenia turned crimson. They got up from the steps.
“Tell me, Zhenya,” Misha asked, “did Alexander Zaevfratsky love you very much?”
“He promised to love me for two months. But soon he was avoiding me . . . ”
“And when did all this happen?”
“On the 11th of February.”
“Did Alexander ever talk to you about poetry?”
“Yes, he did,” Yevgenia said, adjusting her skirt. “He said that every woman ought to write poetry. In France, he said, everybody writes poems.”
“And what did Alexander say about assonances?”
“He never did like assonances. He said all they were good for was songs.”
“Lower your skirt, Zhenya! Somebody is coming. . . ”
Young couples were saying their good-byes.
The city was gradually returning to life: richly colored buildings were greeting the dawn.
The poet Troytsyn, who was seeing his lady pharmacist home, walked past.
He had met her under the most unusual circumstances. Strolling past the pharmacy one evening, he had caught sight of a sweet young thing standing behind the counter and sauntered in. He asked her if she had anything for his headache. The sweet young thing knew all too well who Troytsyn was. How could she not know! Troytsyn had been reading his poems everywhere. And, boy, did he love to recite them!
When she handed him the medication, Troytsyn started talking about the stars. Troytsyn was not of this world. That was all there was to it. He talked of nothing but the stars.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the window, “do you see the Great Bear?”
“What a huge moon,” said the girl.
“And what pure night air!” Troytsyn added. “By the way, do you know my poem ‘Lady of the Camillias’?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Would you like me to recite it to you?”
“Yes, please, go ahead!” the lady pharmacist said.
And Troytsyn recited it.
“Oh, how poetic!” the sweet young thing said to herself, as if in a dream.
Troytsyn leaned on the counter. The young girl glanced at the clock.
“My girl friend will be here in a few minutes. I’ve been working her shift.”
“Then why don’t I walk you home?”
“Sure!” she said, opening her eyes wide.
A half-hour later, they were walking past Petrovsky Park.
Let’s have a snowball fight!” Troytsyn suggested.
They took turns. Now he ran away, now she did. There weren’t any people around. They sat down to rest. Their bodies were white with snowballs. Troytsyn looked over his shoulder. No one. She looked around. No one. They walked on, away from the main road.
The next day Troytsyn rushed about the city telling everybody. For the next two weeks, he walked the pharmacy girl home every night. Wherever he went, she was always by his side. He’d take his friends aside and whisper in their ears:
“I’m fed up with her! I’m fed up with our one-dimensional love affair. No, I’m looking for real love, like Don Juan. Yes, that’s it!”
Misha and Yevgenia watched the couple walk by. They made fun of Troytsyn.
Misha Kotikov and Yevgenia exchanged good-byes after setting a rendezvous for the next day. Misha walked up to the Unknown Poet and said:
“I’m busy writing a biography of Alexander Zaevfratsky. Could you possibly relate to me the more pertinent facts about him?”
“Hmm. . .” the Unknown Poet said lazily. “Why not ask Troytsyn? He knows everything.”
Misha Kotikov ran off in hot pursuit of Troytsyn.
The following day, Misha Kotikov was sitting in the semi-darkness of Troytsyn’s apartment. The smell of raspberry preserves drifted through the air, the muslin curtains swayed from the windows, a green lychnis plant looked over the window-sill, and on every wall hung portraits of French poets and engravings of Manon Lescaut, Ophelia and the Prodigal Son.
“This pen belonged to Alexander Zaevfratsky,” announced Troytsyn as he presented the penholder to Misha Kotikov. “And here is his ink-well. And his handkerchief.”
“I already have Alexander Zaevfratsky’s handkerchief,” Misha said with pride.
“Really?! Are you collecting his poetic remains, too?”
“I’m collecting them all for his biography,” explained Misha. “It’s important to establish precisely which handkerchief Alexander Zaevfratsky wore in any given year. The handkerchief in your hands is made of cambric, mine of linen. I suppose there’s a connection of some sort between a man and his things: The linen handkerchief indicates one inclination of the mind, the cambric another.”
“My handkerchief belongs to the year 1913,” interjected Troytsyn.
“You see what I mean?!” observed Misha Kotikov. “Mine dates from 1916. That means that Alexander Zaevfratsky must have experienced an inner turmoil during the interval or else his economic situation had become precarious. By comparing handkerchiefs, we can determine the psychological and economic state of their owner.”
“I collect poetic memorabilia,” said Troytsyn. He then brought out a little box and said: “Here’s a shoelace from the half-boot belonging to the renowned poetess. . . (he called her by name). And here’s a tie worn by the poet Lebedinsky. And here’s Linsky’s autograph and Petrov’s, too, and—look, here’s Alexander Zaevfratsky’s autograph!”
Misha Kotikov took Alexander Zaevfratsky’s autograph in his hands and examined it with care.
“And where can I obtain an autograph by Alexander Zaevfratsky?”
“Oh, at Natalie Levantovsky’s,” Troytsyn said.
“Oh! . . .” Misha Kotikov said to himself.
As early as spring, Teptyolkin moved to Peterhof, the city built by Peter the Great for his Court. There he rented a most unusual building.
At the entrance to this building, he stopped to reflect: Here he’ll be receiving his friends, strolling arm in arm with them in the park like the ancient philosophers. Here he’ll be expounding and deliberating and discoursing on lofty things. Here, too, he will be visited by the dream of his life, a creature of extraordinary radiance, Marya Dalmatova.
The poet extraordinaire—his philosopher and old mentor—will certainly show up. As the spiritual descendant of the great poets of the West, he’ll recite his latest poems, ensconced in the lap of nature. Other friends and acquaintances will come, too.
So thought Teptyolkin, as he stood on the threshold of his new home.
In the morning, he got up, opened the window wide and sang like a bird. A milk-woman made the rounds below, and the sparrows chirped in their flight.
“It’s so warm!” he thought and stretched out his arms to the sun shining through the branches.
“It’s so quiet here, so peaceful: I’ll be working far from the city. At last, I’ll be able to concentrate. I won’t have to spread myself so thin.” He leaned his elbow on the table.
“Ha! Ha!” laughed the residents of the neighboring dachas. It was evening, the hour when contented Soviet bureaucrats, accompanied by their wives and children, saunter on from their dachas to the park, to be swallowed up by the dense greenery.
“Ha-ha! We hear the philosopher has arrived. Look at the place he has chosen for himself!”
“Ha-ha! What a jerk. . . he spends his mornings picking flowers.”
Every day Teptyolkin waited for the arrival of his friends. It was for them that he plucked flowers each morning.
Look! Over there! Teptyolkin is clutching an armful of bird cherry. Marya Dalmatova positively adores them.
Look again, for there he is, rounding a corner with a bouquet of lilacs in his hands. Yekaterina Zaevfratsky loves lilacs.
But why is there no sign of Natasha Golubetz? Where has she run off to?
“We are the last island of the Renaissance,” Teptyolkin proclaimed. “In the sea of dogmatism encircling us, we—and only we—have kept the lights of criticism burning. We alone have preserved a respect for scholarship, for the sciences and for man. Acknowledging neither lord nor servant, we have taken our stand on this high tower, against whose granite base the furious waves pound and beat.”
This was a real tower in the full sense of the word. It had once formed part of a merchant’s dacha, whose ground floor had subsequently been ransacked by neighbors for firewood. The upstairs, however, survived intact. This upper room was very comfy. In its center stood a table covered by a green tablecloth, and around it huddled the invited guests: A lady wearing an amethyst pendant and an ostrich-feather hat, a dog seated on a chair next to her, an old man who inspected his nails and manicured them on the spot, a young man in a jacket holding a student cap of the ancien régime on his lap, the philosopher Andrei Andrievsky, three spinsters and four confirmed bachelors. Yekaterina Zaevfratsky sat in a corner twirling her hair with her finger.
“My God! There are so few of us!” Teptyolkin said, shaking his greying head. Suddenly, he turned towards the tall philosopher and said: “Why don’t we prevail on our esteemed Andrei Andrievsky to play something for us!”
Flaunting his long and fluffy mustache and hair white as snow, the philosopher rose to his feet, got his violin case and whipped out his violin.
Teptyolkin opened the window wide, then stepped back.
Perched atop the window-sill, the philosopher stretched a corner of his handkerchief over his starched collar, tuned up the strings and played away.
The late-blooming lilacs were releasing their buds. From afar a violet light streamed into the tower. In the distance, the sea shimmered under the faint rays of a moon still capable of enchantment. Fountains shot up into the air to touch the moon. Their multicolored strands ended in quivering white birds.
The philosopher played an ancient melody.
Far below, Kostya Rotikov promenaded among the fountains, intoxicated with love and with the night. He was accompanied by a young Communist, who beamed cherubically as he strummed on his balalaika.
The philosopher played on. He saw Marburg and Hermann Cohen, the great philosopher. He saw himself touring every capital of Western Europe. He recalled spending a year of his life on Jeanne D’Arc Square, remembered how in Rome. . . and his violin whined and moaned.
The philosopher—thick, silvery hair, youngish face, fluffy mustache, thick beard and all—saw himself as a young man promenading with his young wife. He was magnificent in his top hat and cane.
“Oh, my God, how she loved me!” he thought. He longed to see his dead wife again, when she was, oh, so very young.
“I can’t,” he said. “I just can’t go on!” He dropped his violin and turned away into the purple night.
The whole company went down into the park.
The philosopher walked on in silence. “If only we had a writer,” he pronounced, “who would exalt us and our feelings!”
“You must be talking about Philostratus!” the Unknown Poet said, examining a flower he had just torn off.
“All right, have it your way. Let’s call this stranger ‘Philostratus’.”
“Sure, they’ll vilify us,” the Unknown Poet resumed. “They’ll call us devils. But not Philostratus. He’ll say ‘how radiant they are!’”
“You can be sure of that,” someone interjected. “The victors always slander the vanquished. Then, whether gods or humans, they turn them into devils. It’s always been this way, and that’s what’s in store for us. Yes, they’ll turn us into devils, yes, they will, by God, they will!”
“But they’re already doing it!” someone observed.
“So, does that mean that we’ll soon be shunning each other?” Teptyolkin whispered in horror and blinked. “Is it conceivable that we’ll end up seeing devils in each other?”
They walked on towards Babiegonsky Hills.
The company spread out a rug, and everybody rolled up his coat into a little mound.
“What a sofa!” Teptyolkin exclaimed.
Before them rose the dark mass of Belvedere, illuminated by an Islamic crescent. To the right lay Peterhof, to the left a Finnish village.
When everyone had settled down, the Unknown Poet began:
The strings moaned on like women.
Oh, turn us not into sinister beings!
Teptyolkin, leaning against a tree, wept, and it seemed to everyone that night that they were terribly young and terribly beautiful, indeed, terribly kind.
Women rose to their feet and began dancing in pairs among the flowers on the meadow. In the hands of the philosopher, the violin soared again—and with what purity and sweetness of tone! And, lo, everyone beheld Philostratus in the flesh: Wearing tumbling clothes and crowned with a laurel wreath, the slender youth with wondrous eyes set off by winged eyelashes sang all through the night, and the olive groves rustled behind him. Rome itself rose before them like an apparition.
“I intend to write an epic poem,” the Unknown Poet said (when the apparition vanished): “A metaphysical plague is raging uncontrollably in the city. The signores adopt Greek names and flee into their castle. Within the walls of this castle, they devote what remains of their lives to the pursuit of science, to music, and to the creation of works of poetry, painting and sculpture. But they know that they are doomed, they know that a final assault on the citadel is being prepared. Knowing they cannot win, the signores descend into the recesses of the earth, where they bury their resplendent pictures for generations to come. When they come to the surface, it is only to face an ignoble death. For them, no other death is possible.”
“Oh, what an idiot I’ve become, Teptyolkin! Don’t you think?” Yekaterina said irksomely. “I’ve turned into a complete idiot without Alexander Zaevfratsky. Oh, if only you knew how miserable I’m.”
“Listen,” Teptyolkin insisted, drawing her aside, “you are no idiot! Do you hear me? You’re not an idiot! C’est la vie, that’s all!” And he said to himself: “To think how she has been thoroughly corrupted by Zaevfratsky! How indeed!”
“And where is Mikhail Kotikov?” Yekaterina whispered in his ear. “He never comes by. Doesn’t he want to talk about Alexander any more?”
“I don’t know,” Teptyolkin said after a brief pause.
Yekaterina Zaevfratsky lifted her foot to inspect her shoes.
“My shoes are thoroughly worn out,” she said, opening her eyes wide. “Besides, I don’t have a blanket. I have to sleep curled up under my coat.”
And she fell to thinking. “Would you happen to have any candy on you, Teptyolkin?” she asked.
“No,” Teptyolkin replied. There was a sadness in his voice.
“Alexander is a great poet. Don’t you think?” she declared proudly, rising to her full frame. “You won’t find poets like him nowadays.” She paused, then added with a smile: “He loved me more than anything in the whole world.”
Seeing Teptyolkin, Marya Dalmatova walked up to him and touched his hand with her shining fingernails. She was wearing an old-fashioned straw hat with blue ribbons.
“Tell me,” she said, “what do the following lines mean?”:
There is in statues the enchantment of wine,
The intoxicating fruit of high autumn. . .
“Ah!” Teptyolkin nodded. “There is a whole Weltanschauung hidden in these lines, a whole sea of shifting, fluctuating, elusive meanings.”
“You make me feel so wonderful when I’m with you!” Marya sighed. “He told me”—and here she turned to the Unknown Poet, who was himself plunged in conversation with a perpetually youthful young man—”that you represent the last, surviving leaf of high autumn among us. I’m afraid I didn’t quite understand that—even if I did graduate from the university. But then, come to think of it, they don’t teach things like that nowadays at the university.”
“Things like that you can’t learn or teach. You feel them!” Teptyolkin rejoined.
“Let’s go up a few steps,” Marya said, indicating with her chin.
They climbed up, then sat down between the caryatides of the Belvedere portico.
“Listen to the nightingale’s song!” said Marya Dalmatova. “Tell me, why are girls so excited by the song of the nightingale?”
“Not only girls,” replied Teptyolkin. “I’m just as excited by it as they are!”
He paused, then looked directly into Marya’s eyes. He was in a pensive mood. “I’m afraid of women,” the words slipped out of his mouth. “They’re a terrifying chaos.”
“Why terrifying?” Marya asked, smiling.
“A woman will twist you around her little finger, then dump you cold. That’s exactly what’s happened to my friends. After she dumps you, nothing in the world will make her pick up the thread again. And to think how they idolized their wives, carrying their pictures in their wallets and what not! And what did they get in return? I tell you what—they got dumped.”
Teptyolkin was mightily offended on behalf of his friends.
Marya took out her comb and arranged Teptyolkin’s hair.
Voices of youngsters drifted up from below:
“Gaudeamus igitur. . .”
Teptyolkin recalled his graduation from the university, then reminisced about his childhood: how he had met Elena Stavrogina. He saw something of Elena in Marya Dalmatova. In fact, she seemed a distorted image of her—distorted but precious nonetheless. He kissed her hand. “Oh, my God,” he said, “if only you knew. . . !”
“Knew what?” Marya interjected.
“Oh, nothing,” Teptyolkin said softly.
From below they heard a voice:
There is a cliff that overlooks the Volga. . .
It was morning.
Kostya Rotikov and the Unknown Poet were taking the train back to Leningrad. The Unknown Poet was irremediably sad. There was nothing for him to look forward to, nothing except oblivion, total oblivion.
Kostya tried to cheer him up the best he could by bringing up the Baroque: “Isn’t it true that you strive not for the perfect and accomplished but for that which is perpetually in motion, in flux? Not the finite and palpable but the colossal and the infinite?”
They were sitting together, all alone in the same carriage. Kostya got up and recited a sonnet by Góngora.
The Unknown Poet eyed his companion lovingly. A biting satirist and wit and not without a streak of frivolity, Kostya read only books in foreign languages. He admired—though with a certain hauteur—the works of human hands.
“The fight isn’t over yet!” the Unknown Poet said. He was sitting erect.
“What makes you say that?” Kostya asked.
“It’s nothing, really,” the Unknown Poet said, smiling. “I’m thinking of writing a major new Baroque poem.”
Fields and tall grass rushed past. Kostya Rotikov was already reciting a sonnet by Camoens. Its mood, he discovered, bore an enormous affinity to Pushkin’s poem:
For the shores of your distant, native land. . .
At the other end of the train sat Yekaterina Zaevfratsky. All alone in her car, she was busily plucking the daisy: “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.” Exactly who was supposed to love—or not love—her, she couldn’t say. Someone, somehow, she felt, ought surely to love and care for her.
In the very last carriage sat the philosopher with the fluffy mustache. He was thinking: “The universe is a task, not a given. Reality is a task, not a given.”
Chu, chu, the wheels churned and spinned.
Chu, chu. . .
Hey, look, there’s the station!
A cat’s-eye stone looms large on Kostya Rotikov’s cane.
Kostya Rotikov’s eyes are sky-blue, almost like sapphires.
Kostya Rotikov’s fingers are long and roseate.
“Where are we going?” the Unknown Poet, his face beaming, asked. “There is nothing for us to do, anyway.”
“Let’s go hear the ever-changing idiom of our native aspen trees,” Kostya suggested with a smile.
Kostya Rotikov and the Unknown Poet spent the entire day together. They strolled through the Summer Garden, along the embankments of the Fontanka, the Yekaterininsky Canal, the Moika and the Neva River. They stood before the Bronze Horseman and lamented the fact that the city fathers had stripped it of its beautiful green-black patina. They lit up a cigarette, sat on a bench, talked about the city, how it had originally been nothing more than a big palace.
And they talked a little about books, too.
A summer evening, no official business to attend to, no lectures to give. The midges whirled and swarmed. Teptyolkin was sitting in a boat, rowing. The reeds swayed back and forth. In the background you could see Peterhof Palace.
On the shore stood the Unknown Poet.
“You made it!” Teptyolkin hollers. “At long last you’re here!”
He rowed towards the Unknown Poet. “If only you knew how sad it is for me to live here. Especially today.”
The boat put in at the shore. The Unknown Poet lowered himself into it. Teptyolkin pushed off, his shoulders and silver head bobbing in the air. The Unknown Poet gripped the rudder, and the boat sailed towards the sea.
“I remember,” said Teptyolkin. “It was only a few years back. I was teaching at some university. I remember it was on this very day, at this very hour, that we—my young students and I—took off for the other bank of the river. There, in a little grove, I delivered my lecture.”
After mooring the boat in the darkness, they took a stroll in the park.
Roseate dawn had already stained the East when they finally reached the tower in silence.
The Unknown Poet listened for a long time. He heard Teptyolkin pottering about in the upstairs room, his only living quarters. He heard him kicking off his boots and lining them up by the bed. And he heard the teaspoon jangling in the drinking glass.
“He must be drinking cold tea,” he concluded.
The next morning, Kostya Rotikov saw the Unknown Poet snoozing on a white bench beneath a large spruce tree in the park. The tree was as erect as a mast. Greeting each other joyously, the two comrades took off on foot for the sea. Someone was already mowing the grass behind them.
In the sea, Kostya squatted among the waves. His body was firm, and his skin glowed pink. Meanwhile, the Unknown Poet, warmed by the morning sun, was dozing off on the rocks.
“You know,” Kostya said, “Andrei Andrievsky is here for the summer.” He shook his leg as he dried himself with a Turkish towel. “Have I told you that I’m taking lessons from him in the methodology of Art History?”
The rocks and the sand were scorching hot. As Kostya tied the laces of his round half-boots, the Unknown Poet frolicked happily from rock to rock, a cigarette quivering in his mouth.
The young men walked diagonally from the cemetery along a path that led them among downy nectar plants—not mowed as yet—that were covered with black insects, greenish-metallic beetles and snail slime, among caraway and red-white clover and sorrel, along the road that led to New Peterhof, to the fountains that were idle, it being a weekday, to the statues that had shed their gilding, to the palace, where a vendor of cigarettes—an invalid—was making his way along the balustrade, where a barefoot street urchin was peddling toffees, and where a melancholy ice-cream vendor, his legs crossed and leaning against his ice-cream box, periodically picked his nose.
They entered the public dining-room in the vicinity of the palace and sat down to a meal of sour cabbage soup served on two plates, one, rather heavy, formerly in use in the Navy, the other inscribed with a coat-of-arms. The spoons were made of tin.
“What does Philostratus represent?” Kostya Rotikov asked, raising his spoon to his mouth.
But just then the philosopher Andrei Andrievsky entered, accompanied by a pharmacist and a female research scientist.
Kostya Rotikov and the Unknown Poet rose from their seats to greet the philosopher.
After dinner, they headed for Old Peterhof to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the local research institute. On the way, they decided to look in on Teptyolkin.
Teptyolkin was sun-bathing. He was sitting naked in a three-legged armchair, playing with his toes. He smiled and drank tea as he read Chateaubriand’s Spirit of Christianity.
Kostya Rotikov entered first. Startled, he beat a hasty retreat and shut the door. He pleaded with the others, who were climbing up the stairs behind him, to wait. He then opened the door a crack and leaped elegantly into the room. Teptyolkin blushed from the suddenness of it all.
The revelers, stationing themselves by the tower, in the little garden with the broken fence, where acacia bushes and flower-beds in disrepair were in profusion, were enjoying themselves.
The company had now grown in size. One student, of average height, was sitting on a tree stump playing on his comb. Another student, inordinately short, was whistling. Within hearing distance sat the philosopher on a bench only recently installed. It had not even been painted yet. Next to the philosopher sat the pharmacist whose lips quivered incessantly. The lady research scientist sat primly on the grass. . .
At last, Kostya Rotikov, led by Teptyolkin, descended from the high tower. . . The pharmacist, who had finally opened his mouth to talk, felt bad that he had been cut off. He was a huge man, wore a starched shirt and collar and showed—no!—showed off his dress suit to the world. . .
A young man with a Freudian fixation asked everyone to hold still while he captured the entire complex on his kodak lens. He was taking lessons in German from Teptyolkin and longed to read Freud in the original.
“Gentlemen,” said Teptyolkin. “Let’s not go to the anniversary celebrations just now. Why not stretch our legs here a little longer? I’m expecting a student of mine from the city shortly.”
While Teptyolkin prepped a student at a workers’ school for the university, the Unknown Poet and Kostya Rotikov went to get some beer. Everyone took turns drinking from a small tumbler that one of the students happened to have on him. Each member of the company chased away the mosquitoes with his handkerchief.
The sound of a man’s footsteps reached their ears. A wrinkled gypsy woman in tall, greased boots appeared on the roadway. Seeing the tower and the guests, she ran up quickly, shouting: “Let me tell your fortunes! You have the eyes of people from beyond the seas!”
She walked among the guests. Some of them were reclining, others sitting or standing.
“Don’t worry about us!” they answered in a chorus. “Don’t you worry ’bout us! We know our future.”
In the uproar, no one noticed the student slipping out of the tower with Kraevich’s Physics under his arm.
“La-la, la-la,” warbled Teptyolkin. He hid the money and went downstairs.
The sun was already setting when the company of merrymakers arrived at the local institute. They were late. The scientific part of the festivities had come to an end. Music gushed from a room situated in the little palace of the Duke of Leichtenberg. Wide open, the glass doors leading into the park revealed gorgeous young women (and plain ones, too) hovering by the entrance-door in astonishingly well-preserved lace gowns. Inside, people were dancing. Everything looked pristine and innocent: the joyous faces of young men and women, the pianist who kept slow time, the professors sitting against the walls and conversing in dignity with each other.
The revelers made a beeline for the dance hall. Under a dazzling moon, Kostya Rotikov danced his legs off, while the philosopher, chatting with the professors, was negotiating his way among dancing partners.
Teptyolkin broke away from the dance hall. He and the pharmacist plunged into the nearby park.
The night moths beat their wings against the lighted windows.
Darkness. The philosopher, the pharmacist and the female research scientist move on like three silhouettes. The pharmacist keeps his eyes peeled on the philosopher, lest his Professorship stumble and the world be deprived of its last philosophic luminary.
On the well-formed porch, two silhouettes are exchanging kisses with a third.
“Good night, my dear Andrei Andrievsky,” they say.
In the morning, the students once again wander off into the park to gather little bugs, beetles and all manner of herbs. Some sail boats in small ponds and haul water plants onto the deck with their nets.
The sun is scorching hot, and the smell of hay is in the air.
Columns of Red Army troops and sailors marched through the streets of the little southern town. The sailors moved smartly, but the weary and bedraggled soldiers were making quite a fuss. The artillery and transport vehicles brought up the rear.
Wrangel and his White Russians had landed.
Wrangel was a mere 16 kilometers away when a solemn session was held in the assembly hall of a two-story girls’ lycée located next to the hospital and across the street from the cathedral.
Behind a long table covered with the traditional green cloth sat the guests from St. Petersburg. Leaping to his feet, the newly appointed rector of the university spoke first. He was followed by the newly elected deans and the newly elected professors and instructors. When the third instructor concluded his remarks, Teptyolkin rose from his seat.
“My fellow citizens,” he began, “you have honored us with the sacred title of ‘professor’. Meanwhile, in the north, St. Petersburg is dying—from famine, epidemics and moral anguish. Its libraries are deserted, its museums abandoned. Students roam the university like shadows. Neither dogs nor cats nor crows are to be found anywhere. Even the sparrows have stopped their chirping. All winter long the people of St. Petersburg huddle before their stoves. Like Eskimos, they never take their clothes off.
“The streets are littered with the carcasses of horses. Their legs stab the sky. Utterly transparent people with swollen bellies walk up to the horses and cut them up. Then, burying pieces of flesh in their shirts and blouses, they return to their homes.
“Here in the lap of mother nature, in a hospitable southern climate and surrounded by a profusion of earthly fruit, we shall plant a garden of the intellect, where culture shall grow and bloom.”
Wringing his hands, Teptyolkin lifted his head and resumed:
“Here, in the south, culture shall ascend the heavens like a multi-tiered tower. Its summit shall be kissed by the South wind, its pedestal showered with innocent flowers. Birds shall flit in and out of windows. In the summer, we shall sail to the steppes in multitudes and recite from the immortal pages of philosophers and poets. There is no reason for you to be thrown into confusion by war and destruction. I trust that the zeal which moves us will also move you.”
A man up in years—an expert on Sumerian-Akkadian texts—broke out in a guffaw: he could no longer hold back. An old man whose passion for the classics was based not on their grammatical structure but on their eroticism, burst out laughing, then covered his face with his hands. A biologist with a reputation as a Don Juan checked the parting of his hair and eyed Teptyolkin with irony. Nonetheless, everyone in the audience applauded Teptyolkin. Minutes later, at the faculty lounge, they chatted with him and shook his hand.
After consulting briefly with his students, Teptyolkin decided to offer a course on Novalis.
Teptyolkin’s first lecture was magnificent. Standing at the lectern with his back to the blackboard, he bent down from time to time to read his notes.
“Colleagues,” he began. “We shall now launch on what is surely the most beautiful experience on earth. Leaving behind a classicism bound hand and foot, we shall strive to hear the captivating music of the human soul, to look upon the bouquet of youth, love and death—a bouquet kissed by the morning dew.”
Teptyolkin’s voice fluttered like a nightingale in the air. His tall, handsome frame, without so much as a hint of stooping, his hands cupped behind his back, his eyes flashing with inspiration—everything about Teptyolkin provoked rapture in his listeners.
At the next lecture, Teptyolkin read his text in the original and followed it immediately with his own translation and commentary. Citing countless poets in countless languages, Teptyolkin shook the young men to their foundations. The young ladies, too, fell madly in love with him.
The entire student body yearned for youth, love and death.
All winter long, Teptyolkin’s lectures filled the lecture hall to overflowing.
It was spring, and the weeds were already pushing their way between the bricks on the roadway. The sun’s rays were caressing the warm earth.
When Teptyolkin went out for a stroll in his summer suit and white canvas shoes, young ladies would run after him on the avenue, carrying their bouquets of flowers. They’d talk incessantly of—what else if not of youth, love and death. When he paid the students a visit, they would bow to him deferentially.
Teptyolkin was worshipped by the whole town to the point of idolatry.
Several students undertook the study of Italian in order to read about Petrarch’s love for Laura in the original. Some brushed up on their Latin so they could read the correspondence of Abélard and Héloïse. Others delved into Greek grammar with the hope of savoring the splendors of Plato’s Symposium.
Teptyolkin’s extraordinary lectures became ever more frequent.
“The world is in bloom! The world is in bloom!” he said excitedly, scurrying from one end of the city to the other like an orchestra conductor.
He’d tutor someone on the subject of love, elucidating its hidden meaning. Or, parsing the Divine Comedy, he’d suddenly come to a stop, get up and pace the floor—so shaken was he by the story of Paolo and Francesca leaping at him from the fifth canto. Or, then again, he might comment on Hector’s farewell to Andromache or lecture on Vyacheslav Ivanov.
The university lasted one year.
When Wrangel was finally repulsed, the authorities decreed that the university shall henceforth have at least ten Marxists on its faculty. Since no Marxists could be found—they were all serving at the front—the university closed down. The lecture-rooms located in the warehouse closed their doors, and the solemn sessions and extraordinary lectures held on the premises of the girls’ lycée came to an end.
In vain did the splendid climate and the southern steppes beckon Teptyolkin to remain.
He packed his things and returned to St. Petersburg.
Teptyolkin whiled away the entire summer in his tower, in the lap of the aristocratic surroundings so dear to him.
In late autumn, when the crimson leaves billowed in the air and rustled under the feet of passers-by, Teptyolkin gathered his books, his one and only possession, and crammed them into his tarpaulin suitcase.
One last time, he made the rounds of the small, intricate, labyrinthine English garden, now fallen into neglect. One last time, he strolled into the adjoining park.
Teptyolkin looked up sadly at Eve. Her hand rested on her crotch, from which protruded a number of black twigs (a prank by neighborhood kids).
Teptyolkin looked up at Adam: His buttocks were smeared with feces.
He sat down on a bench.
Hardly more than a day or two before, sitting with Marya on this very bench, he had talked to her—not about love, of course—but about how wonderful it is for two people to live together. He told her that he was no longer afraid of women. He recalled Marya’s golden words in response:
“A wife, like a mother, ought to take care of her husband.”
You could say that again! Teptyolkin most certainly needed a mother, someone who would love and caress him, someone who would kiss his forehead and call him her adorable little boy.
“Oh, my God, how beautiful this park is! How very beautiful. . .” he whispered as he got up from the bench.
Although he did not belong to the nobility, he felt for them, for their ruined and devastated estates, even for their cows: they bore such names as Ariadne, Diana, Amalchen or Gretchen. He felt pity for all their numerous relatives, for hangers-on shivering forever in their grey, brown or black scarves. He felt keenly sorry for the samovars, the jam-preserves, the albums and decks of “solitaire” laid out by a trembling hand.
“Now,” he wondered, “when all of this is gone, are we not indeed moved by rose gardens, by rose gardens far away, in the province of Kharkov?
“And what about all the adolescent girls who read only Pushkin and Gogol, who dream of saving Lermontov’s Demon with their love? Isn’t the life of these former adolescents horrifying today when the way of life for which they had been groomed has reached a dead end?
“What is it that awaits them on every side if not howling despair?”
Once again the time had come for Teptyolkin to bury himself in the city’s libraries, to peruse the letters and writings of the minor collaborators of the humanists, the modest array of soldiers commanded by Petrarch and Boccaccio. He saw Petrarch and Philip de Cabassole poring all night long over their books or strolling in the vicinity of Vaucluse absorbed in a discussion of matters of scientific and religious import. Clement VI himself showed up on the scene to confer prizes for Latin verse.
Reviewing accounts of arguments and disputes, Teptyolkin was overcome with sadness. In view of the radical decline of the humanities and the dearth of good books, no scientific disputation, he felt, was any longer possible—only meaningless drivel.
On occasion, leafing through the latest books, he was struck by their form of exposition.
“Our contemporaries,” he thought, “are notorious for their indefensible form of exposition, uncritical attitude, ignorance and brazen effrontery.”
The Akim Akimoviches, dropping by ever more frequently, whispered in Teptyolkin’s ear the latest news concerning his friends: One is cohabiting with his mother and is involved in occultism, a second has a weakness for little dogs, a third, a former drug addict, boasts of insights that are highly suspect, a fourth plays the sycophant on alien ground.
“How can that be?” he would say. “I’ve chosen my friends from amongst the elect. No, I won’t! I won’t listen to such slander. There is nothing more noble in life than friendship.”
Yet, Teptyolkin had to admit that the young radio enthusiast did go overboard at times. Mother and son would be sitting together. Suddenly, one tongue would wind around another tongue, and the pressure of the two tongues would cause both partners to blush profusely. He observed how another friend, too familiar with people of ill repute, would wag his behind when meeting them. A third friend would shake unnaturally in a fit of nerves.
Nevertheless, Teptyolkin tried mightily to convince himself that these were mere peccadillos, that there was nothing more noble on earth than friendship. And a passage from Cicero would come to mind.
The Unknown Poet waited for Kostya Rotikov in Yekaterininsky Square.
He stood there for a while.
He strolled in the garden.
He noticed the presence of Misha Kotikov. The latter, sitting on a bench with actress B., was whispering sweet nothings in her ear. When Misha caught a glimpse of the Unknown Poet, he smiled awkwardly.
“He’s collecting biographical data about Zaevfratsky,” the Unknown Poet thought, then turned around and walked back to the wicket-gate.
He bought a newspaper.
He sat down on a bench.
He read for awhile.
He put the paper down.
He remembered the philosopher with the fluffy mustache and admired his determination. In earlier times, a magnificent university chair would’ve been his for the asking. His books would have been devoured by mobs of adoring youth. A departmental chair was now out of the question and so, alas, were the adoring youth.
Yawning, the Unknown Poet mused: “What blasphemy to claim that with the triumph of Christianity the great pagan poets and philosophers of antiquity vanished into thin air! No one understood them, no one had the most rudimentary notion of what they were all about. And so they perished. How lonely these last philosophers must have been, how lonely. . .”
He saw Marya Dalmatova on a bench. He got up and walked over to her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m reading your book,” she said with a smile.
“You’d do better to read Troytsyn. There’s a lot more to be gained from his book, especially if you’re a girl. Why would you bother to read such arid nonsense?”
“I’m unlearning to talk,” he thought, “I am unlearning to talk.”
Suddenly, he looked around him, and he was very, very sad.
It was well into autumn. Teptyolkin had already quit his tower for the city when the Unknown Poet walked into his room.
Teptyolkin was wearing his Chinese robe and an embroidered Oriental skullcap, which he always put on when engaged in study.
“I’m studying Sanskrit,” he announced. “I feel like burying myself in the wisdom of the Orient. I’m writing, I’ll have you know. . . but shh! Keep it absolutely confidential—I shall call the book The Hierarchy of Meanings.”
“Yes, of course,” the Unknown Poet said and burst out laughing. He pressed his chin down on his cane. “My point is that the modern world will ridicule you for it.”
“Ridicule me?!” Teptyolkin shouted. He was very much annoyed. “How could you say such a thing? Everybody loves Teptyolkin. Everybody respects me!”
Frowning, the Unknown Poet drummed on the window-pane with his fingers.
“For the modern world, all this stuff is nothing but a form of amusement,” he said, turning his head away. “Take Troytsyn, for instance. One may dispute his greatness but there’s no denying that he is a genuine poet.”
“I’ve heard that Troytsyn is collecting poetic memorabilia,” said Teptyolkin, observing the Unknown Poet’s head from behind.
“Of course! He’s doing this out of a great love for poetry. Such love often appears ridiculous in the eyes of mere observers.”
“And what about Mikhail Zaev. . . I mean, uh, Mikhail Kotikov?” Teptyolkin insisted.
The Unknown Poet left. He had a previous engagement.
The crazy young men were sitting on unpainted iron beds:
One man flashed his pince-nez, another chanted his poem like a bird, a third pounded the floor with his foot while feeling his pulse. In the middle sat their common-law wife, a future teacher in her second year at the Pedagogical Institute.
The window and its flower were reflected on the bare wall.
The Unknown Poet entered the room.
“We would like to have a little chat with you about poetry. We regard you as one of us,” they said and put aside whatever they had been doing.
“Get off that chair, Dasha!” the man in pince-nez said.
The teacher turned around and plunked down on the bed.
“My name is Gompertsky,” the man in pince-nez announced to the Unknown Poet and offered his hand. “I’ve been expelled from the University for insufficient progress.”
“My name is Lomanenko. I’m an agronomist,” a second inmate intoned in a bird-like voice.
“My name is Stokin, a future castrator of livestock,” a third inmate declared.
“And I’m Ivolgina,” said the teacher and offered her hand. She scratched the palm of his hand with her finger.
“Make us some tea, Dasha!” the future hospital attendant said in his deep voice without turning to face her.
“I want to hear what’s being said!” Dasha retorted, turning her head sideways. She laughed.
“I’m talking to you!” the man in pince-nez yelled. Oh, boy, what a voice! He did a pirouette on the spot and smacked her behind gracefully with his boot.
The teacher vanished from sight.
“I’m trapped,” the Unknown Poet thought, turning to the window. “I can’t for the life of me figure out how to talk to these crazies about the affinities between intoxication and poetry,” he thought. “Why bother insisting on the reorganization of all life by means of the Word? Or of descending into the hell of meaninglessness, of wild cacophony and emerging from it with the new melody of the world? No, they’ll never understand a damn thing, they’ll never grasp that the poet must become Orpheus at all costs, that it is his duty to descend into the infernal regions, indeed, even the artificial ones, that he must cast a spell on them and, like Orpheus, return to earth with Eurydice, that is, Art, that the poet is doomed, like Orpheus, to turn back and watch the gentle apparition fade away. No one but a moron would ever suppose that art was possible without this descent into hell.
“The specifics of this descent may vary, as may the means of isolating oneself and descending into Hades: Alcohol, love, madness. . . ”
Terrifying hotels soared before the Unknown Poet. Accompanied by hordes of half-mad tramps, he slowly ascended endless staircases illuminated by a dull half-light. He saw himself swaying for nights on end on mattresses, rubbing elbows with sailors, thieves and ex-officers. He felt their bodies meshing with women’s legs under them or above. Suddenly, the boarded-up streets, huddled timidly around the hotel, open up and, once again—six years ago—he runs off, his life in peril, along the snowy crust of the Neva, for it is his duty to study hell. In the night, he sees cohorts of pale figures led away. They are suffused with white.
“The earthly sun shines as ever in the West,” a poetess will later intone, but he knows that the old sun will never shine again, that one can never step into the same river twice. He knows that a new circle is forming in hell on top of the two thousand-year-old one. He plunges deep into the ancient two thousand-year-old circle and has already broken through the last century of humanism and dilettantism, of pastorals and Trianon, the century of philosophy and criticism. Now he runs through Italian gardens, among fireworks and sweet Latin-Italian panegyrics until at long last he is rushing into the palace of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Florentine ruler greets him as a long-lost friend.
“How are things in the world above?” somebody asks.
He turns silent, grows pale and vanishes into thin air. He sees himself standing before a high tribunal in torn boots, unkempt and insane. The tribunal is shrouded in mist.
“This is Judgment Day,” he thinks.
“How did you acquit yourself above?” asks Dante, rising. “Have you ever committed sins against widows or orphans?”
“No, I’ve never committed sins against widows or orphans, but I did bring an author into the world,” the Unknown Poet answers softly. “I corrupted his soul and replaced it with laughter.”
“Aren’t you really talking about my ‘laughter through tears’?” Gogol says, rising from his seat.
“No, I’m not talking about your laughter,” the Unknown Poet softly replies, lowering his eyes.
“Could it be my laughter, then?” asks Juvenal. He too rises from his seat.
“Alas, sir, not yours, either. I allowed my author to drag us into the sea of life and ridicule us.”
And Horace shakes his head and whispers something in Persius’ ear.
Suddenly, everyone’s face is grim and frightfully sad.
“And did this cause you much pain?”
“Very much, sir,” the Unknown Poet replies.
“And, still, you allowed the author to make fun of you?”
“Then, there is no place for your kind among us, notwithstanding your art!” Dante thunders as he rises from his seat.
The Unknown Poet sinks to his knees. The door-keepers lift him up and cast him into the horrifying city.
How slowly he moves through the street! There is nothing left for him to do on this earth. He sits down at a cafe table. Teptyolkin has reached the top of the stairs and was already by his side.
“There is no point in grieving,” he told the Unknown Poet. “We are all poor wretches. I, too, thought of bringing the light of the Renaissance to mankind and just look what’s happened instead.”
The Unknown Poet was again in the room.
“You are striving for an art that is devoid of meaning,” the Unknown Poet said, “when what is called for is the very opposite. Art demands that we make sense of what has no meaning. Man is surrounded on all sides by meaninglessness: Look, you dash off a certain combination of words, a meaningless collection of words exhibiting a certain rhythmic pattern. Next, you immerse yourself in this combination of words. You have to feel it in your bones. You ask yourself: Have I apprehended a new way of knowing? Have I discovered a new form for a new world? Each historical epoch possesses its own distinctive way of knowing the world.”
“An example! Give us a concrete example!” all present exclaimed.
“I had better make it simple!” he thought, turning to his audience:
“The windows of cupboards, the trees of gardens. . . What does this mean?”
“Nothing,” they shouted as one from their beds.
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“No!” he said, groping for some sheets of paper in his pocket. “Look intently at a cupboard.”
“Cupboards don’t have windows,” they shouted, “but houses do!”
“Good!” the Unknown Poet said and smiled. “That means that houses are cupboards. And do you agree then that gardens have trees?”
“So it turns out that there are people who live in houses-cupboards just as trees grow in gardens.”
“We don’t understand!” they shouted in a chorus.
“Well, that’s improvisation for you!”
“Here’s what it all means,” said the Unknown Poet: “the windows of cupboards, the trees of gardens.”
“What a clever trick!” muttered the youngsters from their beds when the Unknown Poet disappeared.
“Dashka, no need for the tea.”
“The cunning fox! You should see those poems of his!” the man in pince-nez said. He was frowning. “Traditional? Or translogical? You know, the Zaumny stuff? Try figuring that out!”
Gompertsky walked into the kitchen and sat down on the window-sill. “How about some fried eggs!” he barked.
He began drumming on the window-pane with his fingers.
“I’m an intellectual, a neurasthenic. You ought to love me more than”—he pointed to the door—”more than them. I’m educated. I’m a refined specimen of humanity. And what are they? Nothing but children of darkness. Oy, tru-la-la, oy, tru-la-la! . . .” he sang. “We are your harem, Dashka: You are our Sultan.” He walked up to her.
“Ugh! Stop it,” Dashka barked, pushing him away. “The eggs will be all burnt!”
Having moved back from the dacha to the city, Teptyolkin once again gave free lessons in Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. It was necessary to uphold a culture in decline.
Teptyolkin was sitting in his room on a brilliant, autumn day. Against the backdrop of family photographs, he pored over the Egyptian legend about the man who survived a shipwreck. He was studying certain hieroglyphs, copying out words onto individual sheets of paper.
Mer: town mayor
As he looked off into the distance, Teptyolkin heard the singing of painted birds and the sound of decorated boats sweeping past. He heard the palm trees swaying in the wind. Beautiful Isis rose before him to be followed by the image of the last queen.
Under the windows of the courtyard, Pioneers were playing tag and blindman’s buff. Others picked their noses, like the little kids they were. From time to time they sang the words of the “Internationale”:
We’re building a new world. . .
Let’s travel the seven seas.
In boats sweeping the canals and rivers that criss-cross the city, young Soviet ladies harkened to the strains of an ardent suitor in a leather jacket. Oh, to hear him serenade them on concertina, balalaika or was it guitar!
Whenever the madmen and madwomen of St. Petersburg saw these boats, they’d be overcome by despondency, so much so that they’d weep without shedding a tear. And they’d clench their fists and shrug their shoulders.
Seeing all this, the poet Troytsyn would return to his tiny room and throw himself on his bed. He’d turn to the wall and shudder, as if from the cold.
Yekaterina Zaevfratsky paced the floor of her unheated room. She was cradling a bundle in her arms. My God, how she longed to have Alexander Zaevfratsky’s child!
She remembered how Alexander turned to her once on the stairs, as they were climbing past mirrors and tree pots, how he proposed to her and how she led him into her pink, utterly pink room. And she remembered how he read poems to her late into the night. Then they sat down in the brightly lit dining-room with the colored tablecloth and napkins. She saw her father, a distinguished civil servant in the employ of a certain department. She saw her mother, too, tightly corseted and strained, and Gregory, the valet, in his new double-breasted jacket and white gloves.
Kovalyov saw the boats and his heart sank. He looked around him and saw to his horror that time had passed him by before he had even begun to live. Dread swept over him. Something deep down told him that he would never again don the uniform of a Cavalry officer or ride his horse along the bridle path in the Summer Garden or salute the fashionable young ladies on the way.
Teptyolkin copied out a heapful of words, then, with an Egyptian grammar (in German) by his side, he proceeded to study the tenses.
Everything was ready, but the student had yet to show up. An hour passed, then another. Teptyolkin walked up to the wall.
“Soon it’ll be six o’clock. Marya won’t be here for some time yet. Tonight we’ll be going to Konstantin Rotikov’s to hear a concert of ancient music,” he thought with delight.
The clock in the landlady’s room struck 6, then 6:30.
Four suitors were sitting in Yevdokia Sladkopevtseva’s room sipping tea from a variety of saucers. They were discussing the theory of relativity. Unnoticed by the others, each suitor, in turn, brushed against Yevdokia’s foot. Whenever a teaspoon fell to the floor or a handkerchief was to be picked up, a hand would rush up Yevdokia’s knee.
These suitors were Yevdokia’s students, and, as is well-known, students love to pay court to their teacher.
The clock struck seven. Yevdokia Sladkopevtseva sat down at the upright. Chibiryachkin, very tall and very broad, sat down next to her and immediately started cleaning his enormous nails with a match.
“Will these scoundrels ever leave or what?!” he thought. He looked over his shoulders at his boon companions. “The horny bastards!”
Indeed, one bastard, a lanky 28-year-old with a red beard, was eyeing the back of Yevdokia’s head with carnal anticipation. The eyes of a second student, a short little fellow in tall boots, glided lovingly along her thighs. A third student, a fat young man with a shaven head, was slouching in an armchair.
The hostess played a sentimental song and said to herself: “My God, how that virgin turns me on!”
At eight o’clock, Marya Dalmatova entered Teptyolkin’s room. Teptyolkin removed his embroidered skullcap, wrapped a reddish muffler around his neck and buttoned his coat.
“I’m shivering,” he said. He picked up his soft hat and the cane with the Japanese monkeys, gave Marya his arm, and they left.
“Oh,” Teptyolkin said on the way, “if only you knew how beautiful ancient Egyptian of the classical period is! And it’s not that difficult. All you really need to know is around six hundred ideograms. It’s just too bad that no one has come up with an Egyptian Unabridged as yet.”
“And, on the basis of its origin, what family of languages does Egyptian belong to?”
“To the Hamito-Semitic family,” he replied.
“And where did the columns come from?” Marya asked.
“From a striving for eternity,” Teptyolkin said pensively. “Confound it! I almost forgot!” he said, correcting himself. “The columns have as their prototype the trunks of trees.”
They were standing in front of Kostya Rotikov’s apartment building when Marya said: “I saw some amazing Egyptian ornaments recently in one of the museums: Rings made of lapis lazuli.”
They entered a courtyard reeking with stench. Cats, peering out of an open garbage dump, leapt out one after the other and ran off. One cat—a red one—ran across the street.
Teptyolkin felt something foul beneath his foot. He walked over to the fragrant camomile bushes growing nearby and rubbed his shoe on them.
They climbed the dilapidated stairs, stopped and knocked on the door.
A 35-year-old red-haired tenant with a cigarette in her mouth opened the door. Her shoulders wrapped in a blue shawl spotted with roses, she brooded over the nocturnal city of the years 1908-1910. She will brood over it the rest of her life—even as an old crone.
“You have company!” she announced, opening the door to Kostya Rotikov’s room. Kostya and the Unknown Poet were sitting cross-legged on the sofa and drinking Turkish coffee from tiny cups.
Specimens of junk lined one wall to the very top: All kinds of money-boxes shaped like figs, ash-trays, paper-weights taking the form of a hand grasping a woman’s breast, all sorts of little boxes with “body movements,” paintings in gold frames covered—just in case—with crimson velvet, and, last but not least, books from the 18th Century with engravings and explanatory text.
On the wall facing the sofa hung some of the most whimsical creations of the Baroque, namely, snuff-boxes, clocks, engravings, the works of Góngora and Marino bound in green and red morocco or in parchment. And on a magnificent gnarled little desk rested the Sonnets of Shakespeare.
“All over Europe,” Kostya Rotikov was saying, “we’re seeing a growing interest in the luxuriant madcap Baroque, an age that reveled, as you put it, in a unique style, a style whose very perfection lay in its imperfection.”
And they bent over a portrait of Góngora.
“Every word in Góngora resonates with multiple meanings,” the Unknown Poet declared, raising his head. “Every word carries a primary, secondary and tertiary level of meaning. Every line represents Dante’s epic in miniature. And what a desperate, blatant aestheticism—that strives to conceal the soul’s turmoil. What about the cheeks of the beloved and her neck? Formerly, in the golden age, they were real, living flowers—roses and lilies. To understand Góngora, you have to re-orient yourself, you have to view him within a Hellenistic framework. Nowadays this is all quite clear, but, until fairly recently, almost no one grasped this fact.”
The Unknown Poet leaned back against the wall.
Just then, Marya Dalmatova and Teptyolkin entered the room.
“How cozy!” said Teptyolkin, not noticing the fig money-boxes above the heads of his friends.
“How delightful to see you sitting here cross-legged and—what else?—drinking Turkish coffee! But the smoke is much too much, gentlemen. Really! Do you mind if I open the window?”
He opened the hinged side-window and said: “Marya is easily given to headaches. Have you been waiting for us long?”
“We’ve been sitting here since last night poring over Spanish, English and Italian poets,” answered Kostya, “and exchanging ideas.”
“And is Aglaya Nikolaevna here yet?” asked Teptyolkin.
“We’re expecting her any minute now,” replied Kostya.
A knock on the door.
Instantly, Kostya Rotikov jumped to his feet and rushed into the lobby. A moment later, a slender woman entered the room writhing like a snake. The fur of a blue fox rested on her shoulders beneath her unadorned ears, while a large emerald glittered from between her breasts. Alongside came Kostya Rotikov, twisting and wriggling. A dog pranced along on the other side.
“An evening of ancient music is about to take place,” Teptyolkin whispered into Marya’s ear.
Everybody got up and walked into the adjoining room.
Old women who were stone deaf had already taken their seats alongside old men with sideburns and beards. Bouncy young ladies rubbed elbows with elderly young men, who rolled their R’s gutturally as in the days of their youth. On the walls above them hung portraits in round gold frames.
The lid on the grand piano flies up. The keys tremble and quiver.
Aglaya Nikolaevna exchanges bows with all present.
Someone brings her flowers—white roses.
She takes a deep breath, bows and smiles.
The gaunt hands of old women and men hurry to applaud. “Our beloved Aglaya! Look at her, she hasn’t changed one bit over the years,” they whisper.
“She was N’s mistress in 191_ ” whispers one elderly young man to another.
“She has the most amazing dog,” whispers a bouncy young lady to another bouncy young lady.
Aglaya Nikolaevna sits down.
Once again the hands fly up in the air. Once again, the keys roll and cascade. Once again, music throbs in all its purity like a butterfly.
Two young ladies present Aglaya with a bouquet of lilies.
“Oh, Aglaya,” said Kostya Rotikov, “you’ve brought us such joy tonight.”
The dining-room was inundated with light. Porcelain plates from the Imperial Factory, gilt-edged and decorated with landscapes and portraits—somehow they had escaped destruction—shimmered on the wall. On the table stood wine bottles, vodka in decanters and sparkling wine-glasses. They were surrounded by something pink or red or white or blue. There was plenty of everything on hand.
The old men and the elderly young men, though, felt that all of this was a mere copy, that the “real” thing had died. They remembered “reality” far more vividly. They suddenly became very, very despondent . . . Besides, they noticed that certain items from the dining-room had disappeared, no doubt, sold to help pay for this party.
“Bring me my purse,” Marya whispered in Teptyolkin’s ear, “it is in Kostya Rotikov’s room.”
The moon shone down on Kostya’s room. With each breath, the wind lifted the crimson velvet screen covering the pictures. And here Teptyolkin saw what he should have never seen.
He grabbed Marya’s purse, held it tightly in his hands and sat down. His mouth fell.
“What’s all this?” he asked himself. “What’s. . .? A man of such refined taste and out of the blue. . .?!”
Dozens of naked male and female bodies in every conceivable position swept past him, to be covered again with velvet.
Teptyolkin sensed that things weren’t quite in order.
“Serpents!” he exclaimed. “Serpents! Serpents!” he cried out. He rushed back to the room, only to see snakes bent over the table before him. They guffawed and babbled and bowed, as they thrust their forks into multicolored food. Then they raised their green hands and deposited the food in their mouths.
Only he and Marya Dalmatova were really alive.
The Unknown Poet made a powerful impression on Teptyolkin. He noticed that the poet’s face had turned completely white, that his eyes were greenish, that he most definitely had ceased to be a young man.
“Eat! Eat!” Kostya’s aunts insisted as they ran round and round the table. “Eat! Eat!”
There was no crystal in the room. Yet, shining down from the chandelier globes, drops of light hinted at its presence.
The leaves on the black branches burned like pure gold under transparent, blue skies. Out of nowhere, a warm front swept over the city. In this unexpected Indian summer, my heroes imagined themselves members of a circle of devotees of Philostratus, who crumbles with the leaves of Autumn or topples over on the embankment like a house, bringing ruin to himself and to all those who came before him.
“Many of us have caught a glimpse of the beautiful youth,” insisted the Unknown Poet.
“Caught you red-handed, you perverts!”—a burst of laughter—”So that’s why you’re all haunted by a beautiful boy.”
The Unknown Poet’s boon companion turned his head on his bull neck, slapped his knee with the round palm of his hand, grinned broadly and adjusted his pince-nez.
“A toast!” Asphodeliev exclaimed. “My love, I’ll have you know, is reserved for women. I have no use for pretty boys, real or imagined. I suppose it’s because women’s hands are as soft as pillows. . . How ravishing it is to savor every part of a woman from the crown of her head to the tips of her feet!”
“So tell me, you are no longer writing poetry, are you?” asked the Unknown Poet.
“Are you kidding? Just the other day I negotiated a splendid deal with a publisher,” answered the good-natured fatso as he adjusted his pince-nez. “I’m now composing programmatic tales for children. You know as well as I that there’s no shortage of fools out there ready to shell out money for this stuff . . . Oh, now and then, I scribble off an article or two for the journals—under a pseudonym, of course.” Asphodeliev savored each and every word that escaped his lips. “I heap praise on proletarian literature. I declare that the flowering of their movement is not only just around the corner but that it is—ha, ha!—already here. For this the fools shell out money, too. I’m now on ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ terms with these proletarians. In fact, I’m now considered their regular critic.”
“Comrade! . . . ” Asphodeliev barked, seizing the waiter by the apron. “Bring me another bottle, pronto!”
The waiter shuffled off lethargically to get a bottle of beer.
“Wouldn’t it be grand if we took a ride to a floating restaurant? . . . “ Asphodeliev suggested, gazing fondly through the window.
The coachman drove along Troytskaya Street, keeping his horse to a walking pace.
“You know, you could try your hand at writing reviews. What do you say?” asked Asphodeliev. “It’s so easy.”
“I’d rather not. . . Why? Probably out of sheer stupidity,” replied the Unknown Poet. “And laziness. I am lazy on principle. I guess I’m just impractical by nature.”
“You are talking like a snotty nobleman,” sneered Asphodeliev. “And there’s no place for a nobleman in our day and age. What damn idiots you all are!” He was in a rage. “Where the hell is your gumption, your will to live? You won’t stand up for modernity and take money, will you?”
Clasping the amethyst knob of his cane, the Unknown Poet said:
“You don’t understand a damn thing, my friend. You’re nothing but a reptile!”
“A reptile?!” Asphodeliev exploded. “You get drunk on my money and then you have the gall to talk such rot. How callous! How dare you talk like that to me?!”
Asphodeliev bristled, then sighed.
“It’s just that I’m bored,” said the Unknown Poet. “I think I’ll go see Swan Lake.”
He got up and quickly said good-bye. He was about to jump off the carriage’s footboard.
“Where are you off to?” asked Asphodeliev.
“I’m going to the Academic Theater,” the Unknown Poet replied.
“Coachman, to the Mariinsky Theater!” The carcass in pince-nez rose from his seat, then sat down and embraced the Unknown Poet.
The coachman headed for Rossi Street.
“I too was once devoted to poetry,” Asphodeliev lamented. “I venture to say that no one in the whole world loves poetry as much as I do, but what can I do?—I don’t have any talent for it.”
He hugged the Unknown Poet. They were silent for a moment.
“You don’t understand the first thing about my poems! Nobody does!” the Unknown Poet sneered.
“What? Are you still peddling that ‘translogical’ Zaumny doggerel of yours?” Asphodeliev demanded in astonishment.
“Well, there is Zaumny poetry and then there is Zaumny poetry!” said the Unknown Poet. “Give me a chance and I’ll take you to the real Masters of the Translogical. You’ll see how they pull new meanings out of the hats of words.”
“You don’t mean those callow juveniles with strange surnames, do you? The ones in brocade caps and tassels?” Asphodeliev asked in amazement.
“Poetry is an idiosyncratic enterprise,” said the Unknown Poet. “It’s a terrifying spectacle: You take a few words, arrange them in some peculiar way, then you sit on them night after night, brooding and concentrating. You watch as the hand of meaning emerges from one word to link up with the hand emerging from another word. Then a hand emerges from a third word—and, presto, you are swallowed up by the totally new world disclosed through these words.”
The Unknown Poet talked for a long time, but when the coachman drew near the Academic Theater, he jumped off. The carcass in pince-nez got off, too, and paid the coachman.
In his pocket, the Unknown Poet carried a heap of unfinished poems, a rather odd pencil in a little velvet bag, a coin stamped with the head of Helios, an ancient little book bound in parchment and a piece of Brussels lace yellowed with age.
In the theater-box that overlooked the stage sat Kandalykin, Natasha Golubetz and their guests. The Unknown Poet put on his glasses and bowed with dignity. He looked to his right: In the same row sat Kostya Rotikov and, further on, Misha Kotikov. Teptyolkin sat in the first row next to the philosopher with the fluffy mustache.
“Our entire literary club is here today,” the Unknown Poet thought. “It’s trade union day. We all managed to finagle complimentary tickets from our admirers and friends.”
The orchestra started playing—indolently. The curtain went up—indolently. The first act passed—oh, so indolently.
Not a leaf remained standing on the trees. The moon had already spread its false snow on the limestone and asphalt sidewalks and on roadways made of planks, of octagonal and quadrangular wooden tiles, of round and oblong black-grey stones. In the moonlight, 200-year-old buildings with their columns, porticos, pediments and friezes took on ethereal lightness. In the darkness of evening the devotees of Priapus, caressing each other or else quarreling, drifted past shops whose signs flashed with yellow bulbs. There were couples among the devotees and threesomes and foursomes, too.
The doors of the winter theaters and music halls were already flung wide open.
As was the custom, libraries, schools and clubs were preparing unhurriedly for the anniversary celebration. In the same spirit, scrawny and portly shopkeepers were hanging the portraits of leaders and decorating them as best they could.
The celebration had already assumed a spontaneous, national character.
My heroes, on the other hand, remained perched, as always, atop the lofty tower of humanism. From these heights, they strained to glimpse the essence of the age. True, they no longer saw themselves as heroes—their sense of duty dimming to mere habit—and the prophecies of the Unknown Poet had long since come to an end.
Teptyolkin? Well, he talked less and less about any cultural crusade, and, when he did, he had little to say. Even the philosopher touched less upon philosophy than upon his youth. In fact, he stopped writing books altogether—they were doomed to remain unpublished, anyway.
At long last, real snow began falling in white flakes.
Standing—along with Kostya Rotikov—in the courtyard of the Stroganoff residence, the Unknown Poet looked intently at the blue snow and listened to the humming of electrical wires on the street.
“So, there you are, you serpents!” Teptyolkin hissed. He was standing between the open doors of the gate.
“What’s with him?!” Kostya Rotikov asked in amazement. “What’s gotten into him?”
Teptyolkin, tall and lean, rushed down and trotted along the Moika Embankment, pressing against the railings as he went along.
“What’s wrong with me?” Teptyolkin thought. “What’s wrong with me?”
His friends, he felt, were breathing down his neck, dancing, stomping, waving their arms: “They are mocking me,” he thought. “What’s gotten into all of us, anyway?”
Tears welling up in his eyes, Teptyolkin ran head-on into Marya Dalmatova. Beneath a halo of snowy stars, Marya was hurrying on to Gostiny Court to buy a pair of shoes. Getting a hold of himself, Teptyolkin offered to come along.
“OK, but let’s get going!” Marya argued. “Before you know it, it will be 5 p.m., and the shops will all be closed.”
Teptyolkin shuffled along behind Marya, from shop to shop, across the brightly lit arcades of Gostiny Court. He saw the lofty Tower of Peterhof, saw himself waiting for his friends, flowers in hand. “Everything had been so bright then, so beautiful! We were all so radiant!”
“Oh, these shoes won’t do!” Marya moaned.
Tu-tu-ru-tu from shop to shop. Teptyolkin ran after her, as if chasing after his own star.
He fell behind for an instant when he saw the Unknown Poet reeling towards him.
“You’ll soon see,” the Unknown Poet said, lifting his head, “how he who breathed life into us lives.”
I woke up in a room overlooking the street like a rotunda. It was, oh, so very peaceful—but God knows what happens here in the evening: A house manager notorious even more for his crimson nose than for his sophistries looms in the darkness, a wolf-dog is dragging somebody behind him, two passers-by—hands unsteady, collars rolled up—run into each other under a street-lamp and light their cigarettes. All of a sudden, a shriek ignites the surroundings. On the staircase, a man has fallen asleep in his own vomit.
What a city it once was, so pure, so festive!
Hardly a soul on the street. The tall columns have pierced the flocks of clouds like odes, and the scent of grass and mint is everywhere. In the courtyards, goats nibble on the grass, rabbits run about, the cocks crow.
Now I throw a Chinese robe around my shoulders, now I fidget with the amethyst cane, now I inspect a collection of junk art.
How I wish time would stop dragging its feet! The bookshops are still closed. I might as well busy myself with numismatics or read the Treatise on Poetry and Intoxication.
I’m going to invite my heroes over for supper tomorrow. I’ll regale them with a bottle of wine that I buried in the courtyard in 1917 under a large linden tree.
Once again, I fall asleep, and in my dream I see the Unknown Poet. He is pointing to his book, the one I am holding in my hands.
“No one suspects,” he says, “that this book has come into being from the juxtaposition of words. This is not to deny that every artist experiences a certain something in childhood that impinges upon him from outside. We are already dealing here with a fundamental antinomy or contradiction: The artist is confronted by a something which has its source in a realm beyond language, yet it is only by marshaling words and juxtaposing them that he fashions his soul and comes to know it. That’s how it was in my youth, when I came to know the universe by juxtaposing words. A whole world sprang up for me then out of the depths of language. As it turned out, this world rising up from the depths of language coincided remarkably with the real world. But it’s time, it’s time. . .”
I wake up. It’s already 11 o’clock. The bookshops—crammed with the latest from the regional libraries—must be open by now. Perhaps an early edition of Dante will fall into my hands, though I’ll gladly settle for Beyle’s Encyclopedic Dictionary.
“Welcome! Welcome!” the bookseller warbles. “Haven’t seen you in three whole days! Wait till you see the books we have for you. Go ahead, sir! There’s the ladder!”
“Do you have any books by strutting Romans or ratiocinative Greeks or perhaps by cooing Italians? For instance, would you happen to have Philostratus’s The Life of Apollonius of Tyana?”
“Take your pick, take your pick!”
“But aren’t they expensive?”
“On the contrary, they’re quite cheap!”
“Where can I find books on archaeology?”
“To the right. Use the ladder! Here! Let me set it up for you!”
“How beautiful your books are!”
“We take good care of our customers—all to please the customer!”
“And has Teptyolkin dropped in recently? You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? Tall, almost transparent, with a Japanese cane in his hand.”
“Of course! Of course! I know him well. But he hasn’t been here in a long time.”
“What about the lady in the hat adorned with feathers?”
“She was here yesterday right after dinner.”
“And what about the tall young man?”
“You mean the one interested in drawings? Yes, he was here two days ago.”
“Did the young man with blue eyes and turned-up nose ask for Zaevfratsky’s books?”
Night. Blue-white snow beneath, astral-blue sky above.
Here is a shovel! I’ve got to prepare for the arrival of my self-transforming heroes. In my silent and luminous yard, the linden tree, stripped bare, reminisces about us: how we, white, yellow and pink, slouched beneath its foliage many, many years ago, our teeth intact, our hair unfallen, our postures still upright, how we used to talk about the end of an age.
“To find the place—stand in front of the linden tree and count two steps in the direction of the illuminated window.” Hm. Hm. Here it is! The moon is covered with clouds. Looks like I’ll have to dig in the dark of the falling snowflakes.
No problem. . .
Have I determined the location correctly?
Once more: “Two steps away from the linden tree, in the direction of the window.”
Here, of course, right here!
Should I dig deeper?
At last! At last!
Now I’ll have to dump the earth back—and level it with my feet. The spreading snow will cover everything.
Like a sleepwalker, I carry my shovel and box up the staircase, then turn my head to look at the darkness.
Is there anyone in the courtyard?
No, not a soul!
I set the wine bottles on the table and tidied up my room in anticipation of my friends’ visit.
The Unknown Poet was first to arrive. He was limping slightly. With his brow towering over a nearly atrophied jaw, he moved to inspect my books.
“All of us love books,” he said softly. “It’s our literary culture that sets us apart from the new generation.”
I invited my hero to sit down.
“I suppose,” he continued, “that the greatest threat to the relics of humanism is to be found there, in the New World, and not here. And these former European colonies are a threat to Europe. It’s curious, isn’t it, how Europe first saw America as a primeval land, then as a land of freedom, and, finally, as a land of action.”
Within an hour, all of my friends had arrived. We took our seats at the dinner-table.
“I want you to know,” I said, addressing the Unknown Poet, “that I stalked you and Teptyolkin once at night.”
“You’re always hot on our trail,” he cut me off, “spiritually speaking!”
Then, looking at me. . .
“We are in Rome,” he began. “There’s no doubt about it. We’re in Rome and we’re drunk. I can feel it. I can hear it in the words that tumble out of the night.”
He raised an Apullian drinking vessel and made a toast:
“A toast to Julia Domna!” he said.
He nodded deferentially and drained the drinking vessel.
Rotikov got up gracefully and declared: “To an art of refinement!”
Kotikov leapt up: “To a science of literature!”
Troytsyn was in tears: “To sweet France!”
Teptyolkin raised a Renaissance goblet high in the air. Everyone fell silent.
“I offer a toast to the decline and fall of the 15th Century,” he said hoarsely. He unclenched his fist and dropped the goblet to the floor.
I gave out engravings by Piranesi to my friends.
Everyone was plunged in grief. Only Yekaterina didn’t understand.
“Why the sad faces?” she shouted. “Why so unhappy, my friends, so cheerless?”
Sparks flew from the stove.
My heroes joined me in a semi-circle around the stove. On the carpet before us loomed empty cigarette boxes and mountains of ashes.
Apples towered over the broken crockery.
There was no way to tell night from daybreak.
Kostya Rotikov got up.
“Let’s all compose a story cycle,” he proposed.
I rose from my seat and lit a candle.
“Go ahead!” I said.
“Ever since childhood I have been fascinated by junk,” Kostya, sitting in an armchair, began. “I’m convinced that it obeys its own unique laws and its own unique style. Once, I remember, I learned that a certain widow of a former Privy Councilor was selling off her furniture. So I hurried over to her place. Well, imagine a smoking-room in the home of a civil servant! Imagine a Turkish sofa, a whole set of ash-trays in the shape of sea-shells or outstretched hands or leaves on tall or low tables. Imagine pouffes and even a writing desk kept for God knows what reason! Imagine posters of actresses from the music-halls of Paris all over the wall! I enter deferentially, and—lo and behold!—a ravishing creature is sitting on the sofa. She is warbling a magical song and accompanying herself on the guitar. Look at the stunning blue skirt embroidered with golden bees—it’s from the last century! And what about those dull-edged satin shoes on her feet?
“‘How utterly amazing you are, Mrs. Privy Councilor!’ I declared, making a deep bow. ‘Oh, no!’ the creature laughed. ‘I’m not a Mrs. at all, I’m really a young man!’ She indicated the pouffe with her eyes and inquired: ‘Are you cold?’ Without waiting for an answer, she wrapped a cashmere shawl around my shoulders.
“She dropped her head, scrutinized the talking flowers of a certain book and announced: ‘The age of Nana the seductress is gone, the age of the Lady of the Camillias!’ She smoothed out her luxuriant hair, then added: ‘My good man, you’re trying to resurrect the past, the frivolous, carefree days of yore.’”
Taking his seat in the armchair, the Unknown Poet picked up the thread of this fairy tale: “They threw this poor damsel out into the snowy, Petersburg night. Living on the sidewalk, she came to love the silvery houses, the drivers of smart cabs, the cafe violinists and the English military song.”
The Unknown Poet smiled, got up and walked up to the fire.
Now it was Troytsyn’s turn to sit in the armchair. He continued where the poet left off: “Seeing me, she spread out her fan. She was born on a small estate near Kiev.”
Troytsyn now yielded to Kotikov, who sat down self-importantly in the armchair.
“In the evening, her mother talked of nothing but Paris, of the cabriolets, the Champs Élysées. When she was 16 years old, this poor damsel ran off to St. Petersburg with a ballet dancer. How she loved St. Petersburg, the Paris of the North. . . !”
“St. Petersburg is the center of humanism,” Teptyolkin said, cutting the storyteller off. His heart beat faster.
“It’s the center of Hellenism,” interjected the Unknown Poet.
Kostya Rotikov turned over on the carpet.
“How thrilling,” said Yekaterina, clapping her hands. “What a fascinating story!”
The philosopher brought out his violin and sat down in the armchair. Instead of continuing where the previous storyteller left off, he pondered the situation for a moment. Then, getting up, he launched a café chantant melody, thumping out the beat with his foot.
Teptyolkin opened his eyes wide—as if they weren’t enormous enough—and stretched out his hands to the philosopher.
“So what’s the point?! What’s the point?!” his hands seemed to say.
And suddenly he rushed out of the room and buried his face in my bed.
Oblivious to what had just taken place, the philosopher was already soaring on a beautiful, pure melody. His round, sad face with its fluffy mustache was deeply expressive.
I walked up to the mirror. In the dimming light of the candles, I saw my heroes. They were slouching in a semi-circle. Teptyolkin was in the adjoining room, leaning against the window. He was blowing his nose and observing us from afar.
I raised the curtains.
I saw dawn looming out of the dark, and soon the factory sirens were whistling. I saw my heroes grow pale and dissolve, one after another, into the early morning.
Returning home, Teptyolkin opened a fretted casket and took out a statuette from the 15th century. Then, using the casket as a pedestal, he set the statuette on top of it.
Teptyolkin bowed his head:
“Deliver me from temptation. Give me the strength to see the world in a beautiful light!”
He lifted his head and saw Marya Dalmatova instead of Elena Stavrogina staring at him from the face of the statuette.
Teptyolkin spent the entire night in meditation. In Sladkopevtseva’s room, the canary was already soaring on a new song, while Sladkopevtseva herself, shuffling along in her slippers from room to room, was searching for water after a night of revelry. But Teptyolkin’s eye was still focused on this image of a vanishing world when he was, oh, so very young.
It was nearly daybreak when the fires of humanism gave out. From now on—like a lodestar—Marya Dalmatova’s image would shine all alone in the dense forest of Teptyolkin’s life.
Teptyolkin is bent over the table, racked with pain. He remembers that more than a few great men have practiced abstinence.
“How could I give in to temptation and marry?” he asks. “Is it not possible that Nature has thrust me into the world for an entirely different purpose? . . . Something tells me that my memory will go to pieces right after the wedding—to be followed by the collapse of my magical dreams, the lucid hours in the morning, my peaceful nights. All will vanish for good. And when I see her growing old beside me, I will see myself growing old, too.”
“What a difficult decision,” he thought. He was pacing the floor. “And what if I’m impotent? What if I’m less than a man? What if my body is that of a child? I’ll marry her and then. . . what horror.”
He was seized with fear. He opened the door absent-mindedly, but no one entered.
Teptyolkin poured himself a cup of cold tea and drained it in one gulp.
“Is it conceivable that all of my virility has gone to my head? What am I to do? What am I to do?” he moaned behind closed doors. “I do want to get married, but what if my body doesn’t? On the other hand, I’ve heard of people maturing late in life. So maybe I will, too.”
Teptyolkin paced restlessly in the darkness. Meanwhile, corrosive steam was percolating up into Teptyolkin’s room through a crack in the floor. Someone was making soap in the ramshackle basement below.
Sitting on a post in the yard behind locked gates, the janitor was reading Tarzan, raising the book to his eyes.
It was at this very moment that an extraordinary 23-year-old woman in straw hat materialized in Teptyolkin’s room. Her name was Marya Dalmatova. She began by plucking flowers from the red-painted plank floor and offered them to Teptyolkin. Teptyolkin bowed and took the flowers from Marya, inhaled deeply and kissed them with devotion.
Marya started dancing. As she danced, Teptyolkin heard peculiar voices. And he saw a stalk trembling in her hand, then a bud swelling and ripening, and he saw a sky-blue flower opening up in full bloom.
“Oh, my mind has been corrupted! Utterly corrupted!” Teptyolkin moaned, pacing the floor.
The janitor finished reading Tarzan, walked about in front of the house, sat down and dozed off . . .
Teptyolkin looked out the window.
“What stars!” he thought. “And to think I’d indulge vile thoughts on such a starry night. Surely, there isn’t a more loathsome person in the whole world than me.”
Teptyolkin walked out of his apartment building. As he moved convulsively through the streets in his autumn coat, the windows on all sides poured out their harsh or sentimental or indifferent light. This is the night that would reveal whether he’s a man or less than a man, he thought, whether he’s fit for matrimony.
Teptyolkin walked hurriedly from Lassalle Street to October Station, stopping now and then on the sidewalk. He’d rush up to women on the street and do what he had never dared to do before—look under their hats.
He looked hard for the ugliest, most deformed woman he could find in order to rule out the slightest suspicion of love.
He stops. A woman offers her services. Then another. They are little more than children. They assault him with the lewd expression of their eyes, with their meretricious smiles and exaggeratedly childish mannerisms.
Teptyolkin is rooted to the spot. They pelt him with their words—and hurry on under the cover of night.
A few moments later, Teptyolkin is buttonholed by a lady in high heels. By now, the heels are thoroughly worn out. With no hint of rouge on her face, she flaunts an inconceivably yellow ermine on her neck. With might and main, she tries to preserve her dignity, now long gone, whispering: “First gate to the right!”
At last, Teptyolkin finds what he came for. Not far from Ligovka Street, a tavern disgorges a broad, large-boned woman with strong teeth.
“Do you believe in God?” Teptyolkin demands.
“Of course I do!” she says, crossing herself.
“In that case, follow me!” Teptyolkin insists. “Let’s go! Now!” And he drags her down Nevsky Prospekt.
“Stop it! I won’t go for less than three rubles!” she screams, looking Teptyolkin up and down.
“That’s fine by me! I won’t argue with that,” Teptyolkin says, pulling on her sleeve.
“For God’s sake, stop it! Where the hell do you think you’re dragging me to? I live just around the corner.”
The woman stops, jerks her hand loose.
“Later! I’ll go to your place later! But first I want you to swear.”
“Swear?! You are drunk! What do you want me to swear to?”
With astonishment, almost with terror, she looks at Teptyolkin. His face is twitching.
“Everything depends on this night,” Teptyolkin whispers, as if he hasn’t heard a thing she said. “The rest of my life depends on this night!”
“I want to get married! I want so much to get married!” Teptyolkin moans to himself. “The test is today; I’m at a crossroads, at a horrifying crossroads. If I prove to be a man, I’ll marry Marya Dalmatova! If not, I’ll be a eunuch, a monstrous eunuch in the name of science.”
“But what are you whispering?!” the lady of the night yells. “How long are we going to stand here on the street?”
“Then let’s go! Let’s go!” Teptyolkin says and hurries on.
“Are you taking me to the cathedral? Is that it?” she says, opening her yellow eyes wide.
But Teptyolkin is already dragging her off to the wall—right to the dazzling gleam of an icon.
“Swear! Swear that you don’t have a trace of syphilis in your body!” he yells. “Swear!”
“A-ha! You must be the Devil!” the woman says angrily. Swinging her skirt from side to side, she disappears between the buildings.
Behind muslin curtains, Marya Dalmatova was telling her fortune. Outside, it was night. Inside, behind her, a photograph was hanging on the wall. Cinderella, the cat, was circling around Marya’s chair.
Done with her fortune-telling, Marya reflected on the time when she was a student at a certain singing school from the days of War Communism. It had been shut down long ago. In her dreams she saw herself commanding the stage like a prima donna: she was here—leaning against the grand piano and singing her heart out; they were there, soaring rapturously in their seats. And, lo! the doors of the concert hall burst open, the walls give way and people stampede onto the stage bearing flowers, candy and all manner of precious things.
Marya was pensive. Leaning against the table, she reminisced about her recent graduation: the university with its arcades, corridors, numerous lecture-halls, professors and students. Didn’t she always dream of becoming a scholar, of writing books on literature, of talking about it in the presence of attentive professors?
The street was deserted except for the police officers. They whistled to each other in their smart uniforms and left on their rounds in pairs, chatting.
Marya was telling her fortune again. “What’s to become of me?” she wondered, spying Teptyolkin through the window: There he is—pitiful, chilled to the bone, watching the light in her window.
“He’s in love, of course, he’s in love!” She feels warm all over.
The leaves rustle, the bats soar above, as Teptyolkin and Marya traipse along to the sea. They sit on a stone. Under a silvery moon, she rises to sing. And what a sensation, like a diva alighting from abroad! Teptyolkin watches the sea and listens.
Marya peers through the window as if to ask: “Are you still on watch, Teptyolkin? Yes, you are! Yes, you are!”
Marya imagined a cheerful morning: “Teptyolkin is working at his desk, and I’m ironing his starched shirt.”
Marya looked through the window and wondered: Was Teptyolkin standing outside or not? Yes, he was standing outside. It seemed to her that there was sadness in his eyes.
“But what about the wedding?” Teptyolkin returned home and sat down on his bed. It was late at night. The blanket was on the floor, his greying hair stood on end, and the wall shimmered in the moonlight. The moon poured its light into every corner of the room. “If I’m an honorable man,” he began, “I’ll most surely marry Marya Dalmatova. I can’t go on leading her by the nose for an entire year.”
Teptyolkin got up. His shirt was longer in front and shorter in the back. He opened the dresser and brought out a candle. He lit the candle and nursed the flame until, at long last, the candle shone like a star.
“I could use a little distraction,” he thought. He wrapped the blanket around him, moseyed over to the table and set out to compare Pushkin and André Chénier.
“Toujours ce souvenir m’attendrit et me touche.”
He read, and, as he read, he found himself increasingly distracted from his textual comparison: The yellow-reddish foliage of the silent trees rippled and dazzled above his head. Marya Dalmatova was sitting below. In the distance the sea swayed back and forth, and the wind sang.
Towards morning, a silent, oh, so very silent, garden loomed in Teptyolkin’s mind: Churches awash with the sun, monks blowing their noses with their hands, blooming oleanders, a gentle, roseate sea, church-bells coughing like consumptives awakened from their sleep, vine covered with dew, tea in a saucer, and the grunting of pigs wallowing behind a fence.
It seemed to Teptyolkin that he believed in devils and in temptation. He ached to get away from this place, to sit atop a tall, majestic mountain, to rejoice in his contemplation of the world beneath his feet. And it seemed to him that there on that mountain he’d be encircled by demons. But he would resist them to the bitter end. He would be victorious: “Go away, you devils,” he’d say. “Under no circumstances will you drag me away with you! I’m not of your ilk. All my life I’ve fought you!” The demons, leaping at him, would shout: “You perpetual juvenile!” In the vanguard of these demons Teptyolkin eyes the Unknown Poet. On either side of him twist and writhe the figures of Kostya Rotikov and Misha Kotikov.
“Be gone, you abhorrent ones!” Teptyolkin called out, leaping to his feet and stomping on the floor. On the table stood a cup of coffee with a slice of buttered bread nearby. The landlady was standing next to the bed.
“You were moaning in your sleep. Take a look at what a fine morning we’re having today!”
As a matter of fact, the dazzling transparent winter sky danced above the pot geranium on the window-sill.
“You’re young, oh, how young you are!” the landlady sighed after a brief pause. “Never mind your grey hairs. I’ll bet that the moment I leave, you’ll jump up, grab a book off the shelf and go into raptures.”
And she spirited off through the door, her dress rustling like the tail of a snake.
Night. Teptolykin was walking on the frozen sidewalk when he heard music leaping at him from the depths of a tavern.
Sounds like the flute players are at it again, he thought.
He walked past Athenian dancers, unruly, grossly oversize women. They pelted each other with colorful sayings. “Hmm, underworld lingo,” he decided. “How fascinating it would be to investigate its provenance!”
He fled to 13th century France, where argot first came into being. Profanity drifted all around him.
Hordes of habitués, reeking with the smell of boots, “Sappho” cigarettes and wine, rushed up and down the stairs of the tavern. In a corner, a man was beating on a skinny-legged Athenian dancer, landing punches on her face, chest and other vulnerable body parts. She parried his blows, yelling: “Help! Police!”
The policeman on duty turned his back and went off on his rounds.
A howling, whooping-it-up crowd had gathered. Two mounted police officers, deciding that the mayhem had gone far enough, cut through the crowd on their well-trained horses.
The horses pranced about as if in a circus, and the tipsy crowd dispersed.
Teptyolkin entered the apartment house.
Marya Dalmatova was waiting for him. Her apartment was neat and tidy, and the muslin curtains were dazzling white. A figure with dark eyes watched out of an icon as Teptyolkin, with trepidation in his heart, walked in. Marya was standing before him. For the first time, Teptyolkin noticed her downy hair, her pointed nose, her tiny lips.
“I’ve come to propose . . .” he stammered, “that we study Latin.”
“Latin?! What for?” Marya said in astonishment and laughed.
“To get a better feeling for our city,” replied Teptyolkin.
“But I know the city well enough without it!” Marya said. “Still, I am happy to see you. You’re so wonderful, so very wonderful. Give me your hat and cane!”
They sat down on the old sofa.
“Where is your friend?” she asked, just to be asking.
“He’s very busy,” answered Teptyolkin. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. I’ve been told that. . .”
“No, no! I just asked to be asking,” Marya said, cutting him off. “Why not tell me what you’ve been doing lately?”
“No, no, let’s not talk about me,” Teptyolkin said.
“How should I talk about. . . ” he thought, “about the main business at hand?”
“My mother will be back from church shortly,” Marya said. “We’ll have tea with jam when she comes back.”
“How do I talk about the main business at hand to such an innocent, radiant creature?” Teptyolkin thought.
He turned pale.
“Excuse me, I’m in a terrible hurry,” he said, barely managing a good-bye. And he rushed out.
“What’s the matter with him?! Does he have a stomach-ache, or what?” Marya fumed. She was lonely. She walked over to the canary cage and, pondering the situation, jabbed the canary with her finger. The canary hopped from rod to rod.
“What rotten luck!” Marya thought. “All of my friends have left the coop except for me. I’m still stuck at home with my mother. How lonely can you get?!”
She walked up to the piano and started playing Scriabin’s Ecstasy.
Her mother walked in.
“Please remove the books from the table, Marya!” she said.
“What books?” Marya asked, continuing to play. When she turned her head, she saw the books and said: “Oh, they are Teptyolkin’s. He must have forgotten them.”
Getting up from the piano, she walked over to the table and leafed through the books.
“Vita Nuova,” Marya, eyeing the title, said.
“So, is he still wasting his life on that drivel?” her mother remarked.
A sheet of paper dropped out of a book. Marya picked it up:
My God may be decayed, but he’s still a youth.
Nothing so terrifies me as breasts and shoulders,
The moan of a woman’s thigh, the sigh of her skin,
That nurture the torments of a passionate night.
I roam the deserts like Origen,
And look upon a sunset vast and cold.
Not for me, Marya, the captivity of a woman,
Nor your question welling up from the dark. . .
Only when Teptyolkin returned home, deeply agitated, did he discover that he had forgotten his books. “My God!” he shrieked. “Marya has surely read it!” He sat down on his bed and dug his fingers deep into his greying hair.
At that moment, the doorbell rang.
“It’s me!” the voice answered.
The Unknown Poet walked in.
“There is no need for despair, Teptyolkin,” the Unknown Poet said on his way out, “everything will work out just fine. No one really understands women, anyway.”
Marya read the page that had fallen out and reflected on it. She quickly drank her tea, told her mother she had a headache and lay down on her bed.
“Isn’t Teptyolkin just wonderful?!” she thought. “So it’s true: he is a virgin. My God, how intriguing! And what a fascinating personage he is—all the more so when you consider that there is no shortage of swine in our city. His life must be so very sad. . . Yes! I’ll marry him. Yes! We’ll live like brother and sister. Our life will be splendid and how!”
In the morning, the Unknown Poet entered Marya’s room.
“I’ve come for Teptyolkin’s books,” he said. “Teptyolkin is horrified that he left so unexpectedly yesterday. By the way, you haven’t looked through his books by any chance, have you?”
“Me? Of course not! Do I know any Italian?”
“Teptyolkin loves you very much, Marya. He idealizes you so very, very much,” the Unknown Poet observed, as if to himself.
“I love him, too,” Marya said, also as if to herself.
“You’d make a very lovely couple,” the Unknown Poet said, withdrawing to the window. He was talking into the distance.
Seeing that Marya was blushing, the Unknown Poet said his farewell and left with Teptyolkin’s books under his arm.
“Women are self-sacrificing creatures,” the Unknown Poet pronounced, as he entered Teptyolkin’s room. “I told her that you love her and I proposed to her on your behalf.”
The choristers are singing. Marya Dalmatova, in white, and Teptyolkin, in black, are standing on a pink satin carpet. Plain wreaths studded with counterfeit gems are held above their heads. Gossipy invalids and cigarette-vendors, old women from the Mosselprom trading company, stand behind them.
The marriage was solemnized in secret.
After the wedding, Teptyolkin walked out onto the balcony. He looked down at the city below and saw—not apartment buildings, three or five stories tall, but the alleys of carefully trimmed acacias. Somewhere among them, Teptyolkin caught sight of Philostratus. He saw the enormous eyes of the tall youth. They were shadowed by winged eyelashes. And he saw the fountains swallowing their pools of water and the moon’s arcs trembling beneath and, above, the palace spreading its wings.
Beyond the fountains lay the sea. All of a sudden, Teptyolkin caught sight of someone walking deferentially alongside the tall youth. Teptyolkin looked again and saw that it was none other than. . . himself!
It was winter, and Natasha was feeling better. “If only Kandalykin fell in love with me,” she thought. It was time to quit her foolishness. It was time to get married.
A month passed.
On a soft, snowy December night, Kandalykin came knocking on her door. He was a technician.
“Look at these muscles! Look at them, Natasha!” he said after tea. “I’m a real man—not one of those sniveling, intellectual wimps. My father may be a door-keeper, but, look at me, I’m already hobnobbing with high society. I’m in a perfect position to create the right setting for you, a golden cage, if you will. You’ll never have to work as long as you live. I’m a real man who needs a real wife, and a wife needs a lot of caring for. All of my friends have wives—marvelous wives, creatures of superior caliber.”
“I’m no longer a virgin,” Natasha said, lowering her eyes bashfully.
“You don’t say!” replied Kandalykin. “I’ll have you know that virgins have become obsolete in our age. You won’t find any in our city. Look, Natasha, I’ve got to set up my house on a firm foundation—with vases, flowers and curtains in place. I don’t mind telling you that I earn a damn good salary, so what use do I have for a virgin? But you!—You know your way in the world of culture and, what’s more, you really know how to wear your clothes with style! I need an educated wife—the last thing I want is to be shamed before my friends. So, you’ll organize literary salons for me. Right? After all, I’m a man with deep needs. Just imagine—we’ll travel abroad together, you and I! I’ve already started taking English lessons, and, oh, yes, I’ve acquired an encyclopedia and hired a Frenchwoman to tutor my son. I’ve not one but two servants at my beck and call. I’m not just anybody—I’m a technocrat!”
Misha Kovalyov had not come up with a thing the past year except perhaps an occasional odd job or two. On such days, Misha would get up at 6:00 a.m., button up his greatcoat—all burned through and through—and off he’d go to haul bricks, demolish buildings, dump gravel onto barges. Only towards the end of the year did he find permanent work, whereupon he joined a union and became senior concrete mixer. And so Misha Kovalyov began thinking more and more of marriage. He started putting money aside and resolved to propose to Natasha on the first day of Easter.
On the morning of the first day of Easter—as was his custom—Misha Kovalyov walked over to his dresser, reached in and pulled out his Army jacket with its decorative little “bombs.” He then bent down to the floorboard and brought out his shoulder-straps with their zigzags and monograms. He looked at the jacket, shook his head and inspected the trousers. Seeing that they were fairly eaten away by moths, he picked up thread and needle and mended them as best he could. He then got dressed, washed his hands with cheap eau-de-cologne, shook his head, glanced at his thinning hair, adjusted his threadbare civilian coat, bought second-hand, and left resignedly.
He went so far as to hire a cab, took a seat and thought: “In a few minutes, I’ll be charging up the staircase again. As always, Natasha will open the door. I’ll rush in, greet her with an Easter kiss and say: ‘Excuse me!’ Then, I’ll throw off my coat, put on my spurs and, once again, we’ll be soaring on a song: ‘Oh, the chrysanthemums have faded long ago.’ Then, after singing the ‘baby’ solo, I’ll tell her I’ve found a permanent job. That’s when I’ll offer her my hand in marriage.”
The cab came to a stop. Misha paid the driver and quickly ran upstairs. He knocked on the door for some time. At last, the wife of his former Excellency opened the door. Misha Kovalyov walked into the lobby, kissed her soft hand, wished her “Happy Easter” and said: “Forgive me, Mrs. Golubetz, I’ll be right there!” He put on his spurs, hung his coat and entered the room. The General’s wife locked the door gingerly behind him.
“What an idiot!” General Golubetz exclaimed, instead of greeting him. He got up quickly from his seat and barked: “The Revolution is seven years old and here you are still strutting around in your uniform. You’ll be the death of us yet. Don’t ever let me catch you in a uniform again!”
The General slammed the door angrily and left the room.
“Where is Natasha?” Misha inquired in bewilderment.
“Natasha is married,” a market-woman answered.
“How about that!” Misha thought. “What am I to do now?!” He stood motionless, rooted to the spot.
“You had better leave,” the market-woman said softly, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. “The General is very upset.”
She stretched out her hand to Misha.
Misha Kovalyov staggered in confusion in the semi-darkness of the lobby. He almost forgot to take off his spurs. He buttoned up his coat, raised his collar, put on his soft, summer hat.
“What is to become of me? What is to become of me?”
He remembered that he had found a room, that he had inquired a week before about the price of a table, two bentwood chairs and a used sofa—all to get their marriage off to a good start.
He leaned against the banisters. When his summer hat flew off, he walked down the stairs, picked up his hat and left. He stopped on the street, looked back at the illuminated window in the upper story. “I’ll never be invited into this house again,” he thought, “I’ll never stand on their threshold. I’ll never be greeted with a kiss.” He had no wife—and no uniform. He’d never wear it again. “What a horrible life!” he thought.
All night, Misha wandered up and down before the dark mass of buildings that was the girls’ lycée. The lights were out. The city was plunged in a heavy sleep.
Gentlemen and their dancing partners introduced themselves to Misha Kovalyov through the veil of sleep. A cadet rolled his mustache while executing a mazurka. How quickly he fell on his knee! How the young lady swept around him! The masquerade lamps kept on burning—everyone wore a half-mask. All the ladies wore sprays of flowers and the chandeliers were festooned with brilliantly colored paper streamers which floated to the ground.
“How quickly the Empire fell,” mused Kovalyov. “We’ve been abandoned by our fathers. I for one did not curse the last emperor as my father did, as nearly every staff officer remaining in the city did. Will he love her as I love her?” Kovalyov asked, leaning against the girls’ lycée.
“She must be so unhappy!” Misha thought, almost in tears.
He wandered all over the city, seeking balm for his troubled soul.
Once again he returned to the lycée and stood there—just stood there, grieving—and rolling his hussar mustache.
Natasha was busy running the show. Next to a table groaning with hors d’oeuvre stood crystal jugs that held 60-proof wine. The wine goblets bought at an exorbitant price from a family in financial ruin glistened and glowed. Under the shadow of an enormous palm tree sat Kandalykin, surrounded by his tipsy friends.
After supper and a brief recital by a singer from the Academic Theater, known to them personally, a long-haired poet rose to his feet to read a few poems dedicated to the flowers of life—that is, to children. He recited a poem extolling free love, which was immediately followed by talk about the latest news from the factory and the latest embezzlement scandal. Then a certain N. N. came to blows with a certain M. N. They beat each other to a pulp, wept and made up.
Late at night, the long-haired poet turned to Natasha and urged her to support the war against pornography.
“Just think!” he said, elaborating on his novel ideas. “God forbid that we should be faced with another Madame Verbitskaya! And what’s our censors doing about all this? Nothing! What we need in these times is a stern and implacable censorship policy that will show no leniency to the purveyors of smut.”
“But didn’t you recite a poem about free love in our honor?” Natasha asked, fiddling with her diamond wedding ring.
The young poet played with the tip of his yellow shoe.
Spring is here. Once more the rendezvous in the night on islands of Baroque, neo-Roman or neo-Greek architecture. The thick trees of the Summer Garden, the saplings in Victims of the Revolution Square and the bushes of Yekaterininsky Square—all these remind the absent-minded and the perplexed alike that Spring has arrived.
A young lady hurries by, glances at a tree and exclaims: “What do you know—it’s Spring!” She looks sad.
Another young lady hurries by, glances at the tree and exclaims: “What do you know—it’s Spring!” She looks happy.
An invalid ex-colonel on a government pension is slouching on a bench thinking: “I once played in this very sand-box.” or “That’s where a carriage once passed with me in it.” Sighing and reflecting, he takes a dusty handkerchief out of his pocket. It reeks with every odor under the sun: the smell of black bread, meat patties, tobacco and soup assaults him. He blows his nose forcefully, puts away his handkerchief and, presto, the odors are all gone.
Two high school students are promenading down lovers’ lane. They take a seat on a bench next to an old man. As she chirps away, the student looks down his long neck at the crown of her head. All of a sudden, he goes: “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”
Or maybe it’s Misha Kotikov, our famous biographer. He makes his appearance in the park and sits down on a bench next to some bushes, opens his notebook, lowers his sky-blue eyes and strokes his day-old beard. He is looking over a list of those of Zaevfratsky’s friends and acquaintances whom he has not yet interviewed.
The Unknown Poet had become accustomed in recent years to a city in ruins, to streets without life under a brilliant, blue sky. He had not yet grasped that the world around him was changing. He had spent the last two years, or so it seemed to him, shaping and molding reality into gigantic forms. Unrest, though, gradually took possession of his soul. On one occasion, he felt betrayed by intoxication and by his juxtapositions of words. Standing on the bank of the Neva River against the backdrop of a city slowly coming to life, he dropped the sheets of paper he had been holding in his hand.
And the lofty palm trees swayed again.
The Unknown Poet lowered his face. He sensed that the city had never been what he had imagined it to be. So he quietly opened up his subconscious mind.
“No, it’s too early. I may be mistaken.” And he moved through the streets like a shadow.
“I’ll have to go out of my mind,” the Unknown Poet said. He walked on under the rustling leaves of the linden trees on the Griboyedov Canal embankment.
“It’s true, I no longer find madness quite so fascinating . . .” he said, bending down to pick up a leaf, “. . . as I once did in my youth. I’ve discovered that there is nothing lofty in it, even if I do crave it with my whole being. So perhaps I will go mad.”
And he moved on.
“To go mad you have to annihilate the will by means of the will. If you want to snuff out the light of consciousness, you have to erase the boundary that separates the conscious from the subconscious.”
He stopped and leaned on the cane with the large amethyst.
“I shall have to bid farewell forever to myself, to my friends, to the city, to reunions and assemblies of every sort.”
At this moment, Kostya Rotikov ran up to him.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he said. “They’ve been saying some pretty horrible things about you. They said you’ve gone out of your mind.”
“It’s not true,” the Unknown Poet replied. “You can see for yourself that I’m of sound mind, but I am trying hard to go out of my mind. But, please, don’t think I’m even remotely concerned with my biography. I couldn’t care less. Biography is nothing but vanity, anyway. If you ask me, I’m simply fulfilling the laws of nature. If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t be going out of my mind. I want to, therefore, I must. A terrifying night is descending. Leave me! A man on the precipice should be free to look into the face of the abyss alone. No one should be present at the demise of another person’s consciousness—it would be degrading. It would turn friends into enemies. Let me sweep back to my childhood alone, to the large house boasting of many, many rooms, each in its own style. Let the house pass before me for the last time, with the lamp shining softly above the writing desk. Let the city put on a mask over its horrible face. Let my mother play ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’ in the evening—there is nothing horrifying in that. It merely shows up the contrast between a girl’s dreams and reality. So who cares if the classics and pseudo-scientific books and insufferable novels pile up on my father’s shelves. You can’t expect everybody to cram their brains with works of refinement.”
“But what’s to become of humanism?” Kostya whispered as he stroked his pointed beard. “Don’t you see? What happens if you go out of your mind, if Teptyolkin gets married, if the philosopher takes up an office job, if Troytsyn starts writing about Fyokla, if I give up my study of the Baroque? We are the last of the humanists, the torch-bearers. We have no business getting involved in politics. We are not in power. On the contrary, we’ve been pushed aside. Still, whatever the regime, we’ll always be there to take up the cause of science or art. And no one can ever accuse us of doing this from mere idleness. I’m convinced that we’ve been born for this and for this alone. Of course, in the 15th and 16th centuries, humanists were often statesmen. But that time has passed!”
And Kostya Rotikov turned his huge shoulders towards the canal.
The linden trees swayed quietly in the wind. The young men walked along Lviny Bridge as far as Podyacheskaya Street. From there, they set out on their wanderings through the city.
“Eight years ago, I too roamed the streets with Sergei K.,” thought the Unknown Poet.
“But now it’s time!” he said. “It’s time for me to go to sleep.”
As soon as Kostya Rotikov disappeared, the Unknown Poet’s face became distorted.
“Oh. . .” he said. “It took everything in me to feign composure. How he talked and talked about humanism—he couldn’t have been more callous! What I need more than ever now is to be left alone with my thoughts, to relive my life for the last time down to its minutest detail.”
The Unknown Poet entered his house and opened the window.
“Hop-hop!” he shouted, jumping up, “what a marvelous night.”
“Hop-hop! It’s far to the nearest star.”
Soar into the infinite spaces,
Decompose in the earth’s bosom.
Scatter into little stars,
Dissolve entirely in water.
“Don’t touch me! I’m gone now,” he cried out.
Soar, lofty lyre, like a flower,
Spin a song to the immense night.
I sit like a wax flower on a lyre
And sing to the departed throng.
“I hear a voice from below,” he said, bending down. “It’s you, blue mist, isn’t it? Blue, blue mist, is that you singing?” And he bent over the mist.
I’m Philostratus. You are part of me.
It’s time for us to unite, you and me.
“Whose voice is that?” the Unknown Poet said, leaping aside.
Your body may walk and drink,
But your soul is heading my way.
The Unknown Poet thought he was hearing the sounds of a sistrum. He saw something walking towards him. It was in white, its face utterly ethereal, a garland twined around its head. He felt as if someone were extracting his soul through his mouth.
It was excruciatingly sweet. He lifted his eyes and looked cunningly at the city opening up before him. The streets were awash with people. The porticos gleamed, the chariots swept by.
“What do you know!” he said, rising. “I must be waking up. I must have had a terrible dream.”
“Where are you off to, Apollonius!” he heard a voice say.
“Wait! Wait here! I’ll be right back!” the Unknown Poet said, swaying as he got up. “I’ll be right back! I just want to iron out a few last details about a voyage to Alexandria.”
He walked out of the house in his slippers. Shuffling along the sidewalk, he exchanged greetings every other minute or so with his imagined friends.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said to a passer-by, taking him for Sergei K. “How kind of you indeed to have been resurrected,” he almost said but couldn’t.
“I can no longer communicate in a human tongue,” the Unknown Poet thought. “I’m part of the phoenix that is consumed in fire.”
The Unknown Poet heard the music of nature, plaintive as an autumn night. He heard the sounds of weeping rising in the air, and he heard a voice. He sat on a post and covered his face with his hands.
He got up and peered into the distance.
In the morning, the Unknown Poet was still sitting on the post, his head buried in his shoulders. He was completely white, and his expressionless eyes darted everywhere. The sparrows shrieked and chirped, a cat stole its way in, a window opened and a naked man, his back to the sun, perched on the window-sill. The other windows opened, too, and the canaries warbled their song. You could hear water splashing—a hand appeared and watered the flowers, then two hands appeared to hang some diapers on the line. Then a man in a hurry appeared and moved on, and another man appeared, and he, too, moved on.
Strictly speaking, the idea of a tower was congenial not only to Teptyolkin but to each and every one of my heroes. They would all have loved to cloister themselves in Peterhof Tower. Take the Unknown Poet, for instance: He would’ve loved practicing logomancy in the tower. Kostya Rotikov? For him, the tower loomed as a wonderful specimen of junk.
Time is flying as I write—and what a hateful time it is. My heroes drag out their separate lives to the four corners of St. Petersburg. They no longer hold gatherings or communicate with each other.
Although it is spring, Teptyolkin has given up his enraptured walks in the park. He no longer picks flowers, nor does he wait for his friends. The latter have stopped visiting him anyway. No more for him getting up early in the morning, reading one book today, another book tomorrow.
Never again shall they talk in the sleeping garden about how people want to cast spells on them or about being the representatives of a high culture.
Two years passed. Teptyolkin, fully thirty-seven years old, was already bald and afflicted with arteriosclerosis. Still, how he doted on Ronsard! After putting in a day at the offices of Gubono, the provincial department of public education, he’d gulp down his dinner and settle down in his chair, surrounded by Petrarch and La Pléiade. Next to him stood the kindly and learned Poliziano.
Marya sat on Teptyolkin’s lap and kissed his neck. Turning around, she kissed the back of his head. From time to time she’d squeal and shriek from sheer joy.
“True,” Teptyolkin philosophized, “Marya is no Laura, but, then again, I certainly am no Petrarch!”
His quiet apartment, two rooms in all, reeked of monkeys—the bathroom was close by—and sour cabbage. Marya was a really good homemaker. Two-year-old vine bushes, withered and transparent, stood by the windows, and an electric light burned above the lovers’ heads.
Having all but abandoned the Renaissance, Teptyolkin wallowed in domestic bliss and in the belated joys of physical love. He sank into a state of hibernation, which became more pronounced with each new stroke of Marya’s hand.
No one could accuse Teptyolkin of overlooking Marya’s flaws. But he did love her, that is, as an old widow might love her husband’s portrait depicting him in his prime as a lusty suitor.
Whenever he kissed Marya, Teptyolkin felt in her the presence of the beautiful, impossible dream of fraternal love. But the moment she opened her mouth to talk of this love, it came off stupidly.
He had long since renounced all his cherished hopes as one might put aside the illusions of unbalanced youth. “Infantile dreams—that’s all they were!” he would confess to Marya.
Teptyolkin now sported a clean new handkerchief and a thoroughly scrubbed collar pressed against his neck.
Often Kandalykin would drop by to talk about the new society: In his impeccable attire, he’d report on the construction of new factories, on how electricity and, yes, even radio, have made their way into the countryside. He spoke of a new age more dazzling than the Eiffel Tower, of a grain elevator under construction in the south of Russia that would perhaps rival the one in New York.
He went on talking about untold multitudes swarming about, of thousands of engineers, manual workers, seamen, miners, stevedores, cooperative men, cabmen, foremen, watchmen, mechanics, what have you.
“Perhaps so,” Teptyolkin mused, “perhaps the villages have electricity. Perhaps the cows moo better on exemplary state farms. Perhaps tractors do roar on the meadows. But what can we really expect from all those picturesque Eiffel Towers? . . . There’s something lacking in this new society!”
Marya poured tea into inexpensive, pleasing little cups decorated with muscular figures.
Taking his leave, Kandalykin bowed and kissed Marya’s hand with deep feeling. He invited Teptyolkin and Marya to visit him some evening soon.
Teptyolkin’s heart beat with a silent music. In his heart of hearts, he still believed in the coming peace and brotherhood of all nations.
Walking arm in arm, Teptyolkin and Marya headed towards the Kandalykins’. They took the Avenue of the October Revolution route.
They shuffled on, the bald man and the little woman. State shops glowered at them on every side. When they lifted their eyes, they caught a glimpse of the painted houses and buildings on the way. The sidewalk under their feet felt smooth and even.
Husband and wife were met affectionately at the door by Kandalykin.
“Well, how are things going?” he asked Teptyolkin. “How are your lectures these days? You are much better off now, financially speaking, aren’t you? It’d have been a shame to watch someone like you going to waste.”
“Yes, Teptyolkin is absolutely mad about his lectures,” Marya interjected. “He’s very grateful to you for your efforts on his behalf. He’s busy studying the history of social upheavals from the time of Egypt to our own day.”
“Do you remember,” Kandalykin said as he paced the floor, “how once—several years ago—I found myself at one of your lectures? I knew then and there that you were an outstanding, superior person. I remember—you were lecturing about God knows what nonsense!”
“It wasn’t nonsense!” Teptyolkin said in his own defense. “It just came out that way!”
That year the spring would not come. In the fields, the water gushed up and splashed under the feet of early vacationers from the dachas and from the House of Recreation. Under trees that were odiously bare, roosters fought each other furiously, dogs barked at passers-by, children—fingers in their mouths—stared at electrical wires.
Teptyolkin was sad. Walking home, he considered that one could even interpret the finger-in-the-mouth from a Freudian point of view. “And to think that this abominable notion is of recent origin,” he said to himself.
He’d read a philosophical poem, and a phrase would leap up from the page towards him. Take for instance his favorite poem by Solovyov:
The time for questions and for speeches is over.
I’m seeking you as a brook seeks the sea.
Even this poem became utterly abhorrent in his eyes.
He felt that he was wallowing in mud like a pig. He drew out his lips like a trumpet and reflected on things.
The milk-woman was returning from the city, and her empty milk cans clattered as she walked.
“I know damn well that you’ve been diluting the milk!” he thought, and he drew out his lips even more forcefully like a trumpet.
The milk-woman looked at the gaunt face of the man with trumpet lips and moved on.
Once again, the sky turned dark. A small patch of light had shrunk to nothing and disappeared. A fine rain began to fall.
It made no difference to Teptyolkin. He put on his hat, closed his eyes and thought: “I have to go.”
“But it’s raining, honey!” Marya said. “What’s the point of knocking about in the rain? There’s nothing clever in that, is there? By the way, a notice came for you today from the publisher. They’re going to bring out a second edition of your book.”
“By Jove,” Teptyolkin exclaimed, “it must be that biography! Those publishers will print any garbage that comes their way. The worse the writing, the more they want it.”
“What are you hollering about?” Marya countered. “If you don’t want to write, don’t! Nobody is putting a gun to your head.”
“It’s the age we live in. A vile and crass and ugly age has broken my spirit,” Teptyolkin said. And he wept.
“You’d think I was married to a woman,” Marya said, leaping up from her seat. “Those endless hysterics of yours!”
Teptyolkin was walking in the garden. On the right stood an apple tree. Its leaves had been nibbled at by goats. On the left stood the lilac bush with its diminutive leaves. He was wearing galoshes on his feet and a felt hat on his head. A pince-nez rested on his nose.
“Nobody wears a pince-nez in our day and age,” Marya shouted spitefully from the window. “For your information, people today wear glasses!”
“Damn them and their glasses!” Teptyolkin shouted from below. “I’m a man of the old world, and I’ll wear my pince-nez as long as I feel like it. The hell with all this modern crap!”
“But why are you walking in the rain?” a voice resounded from above.
“Because I feel like it! And that’s that!” a voice answered from below.
The Obvodny Canal reeks with an ominous, vivid, abject silence. It is crossed by two avenues. Bridges—including one reserved for rail traffic—span it at many points, and two train stations overlook it. Still, it hardly resembles the granite-faced canals in the center of town.
Caraway and elder bushes—along with some insufferable leaves—reach out obliquely from the water in the direction of the wooden railings.
Latrines of Tsarist vintage are still standing on their iron legs along the Obvodny Canal. Gradually, though, they’ve been giving way to small, heated shelters. The new structures, prompted by much the same needs as the earlier ones, are more comfortable by far. They are surrounded by young trees that have been planted around them. One thing, of course, has not changed—the graffiti on the walls. Utterly obscene and degrading, they have from time immemorial shared their space with underground political slogans and caricatures.
Pulling out their notebooks, young men examine the inscriptions with meticulous care. They chuckle and chortle as they record the “sayings of the people.”
On a brilliant spring day, you might well catch sight of a certain young man walking seven fox-terriers along the Obvodny Canal. By his gait and beaming face, by the moldy cupid in his buttonhole and by his cat’s-eye cane, he would’ve swiftly been recognized by my heroes. His name was Kostya Rotikov.
“My darling little chicks,” Kostya instructed his charges, “you go ahead and romp around in the grass. I’ve some scribbling to do.” He bent down and slapped Catherine Sforza on her canine shoulder, shook the paw of Marie Antoinette, crumpled Queen Victoria’s ears, told them all to behave and fled into the rest room.
Pencil in hand, Kostya copied down the graffiti on the walls, while the dogs ran all over the place, frolicking and sniffing at the corners of the latrine. Tilting their heads sideways, some of them chewed up last year’s grass.
Leaving the latrine, Kostya Rotikov summoned his pack of dogs. He shoved his notebook in his pocket and proceeded to the next rest room. By habit, Kostya made the rounds every Sunday. His notebook brimmed with choice quotations.
He returned to his apartment on the outskirts of town. As soon as he turned on the light, the dogs jumped all over him, licked his hands, jumped up, licked each other’s necks, then Kostya’s. Victoria even licked his lips, whereupon he picked her up and smacked her belly with his mouth. You could say that he was madly in love—well, almost—with these canines. To him they were such gentle, frail creatures.
In fact, he was so protective of their virginity that no male dog ever got near them. In the spring, the bitches would cry out, roll on the ground and crawl onto objects of every sort—but all in vain. Kostya would not yield. He’d pick up the dog that wailed the most, cuddle her in his arms and lullaby her to sleep.
On this particular evening, after their regular walk, Kostya’s fox-terriers went into convulsions. They yelled and yelped, and their jaws drooped plaintively. Only Victoria maintained her composure, a terrifying composure, one might add.
Kostya put away his notebook and offered pieces of sugar white as snow to his charges. All in vain. They looked at him mournfully and continued to howl. So Kostya howled back.
Defeated, the canines finally calmed down.
As he lay down to sleep with them, he began thinking of his romance.
That redhead thinks he’s in love with her.
In the morning, he reread what he called “the wisdom of the people.” He fed the dogs, who were now appeased, for the time being at least, and left for work.
From the ceiling hung porcelain chandeliers with painted bouquets, crystal chandeliers with drops and metallic chandeliers with chainlets and buttons. Kostya Rotikov moved about under them, all smiles—he was busy juxtaposing, appraising and disposing of artifacts for the auction.
He sat down now in one armchair, now in another. While chatting away with other young men who were listening to him with rapt attention, he squeezed his sponge and pasted labels on figurines presented to him.
When bored out of his mind, he asked one of his admirers—they all revered him for his vast knowledge and gaiety—to play something for them on a musical box.
Ach, mein lieber Augustin, Augustin, Augustin!
Or a Viennese waltz would take the stage or “On the Hills of Manchuria” or “Clair de la Lune.”
Kostya would be all ears.
The room to the right housed the contents of five drawing-room suites, while the room to the left housed those of three bedroom suites.
Kostya Rotikov ensconced himself in an armchair. Surrounded by young men on all sides, he adopted an impossible pose as he inspected artifacts and pontificated on them. All of a sudden, a man in yellow boots and polka dot socks sauntered into the hall, carrying a yellow suitcase. He was a market specialist and was followed by a rotund man with a guitar under his arm and two young ladies who dashed breathlessly from objet d’art to objet d’art. A manager in a suit made of Chinese raw silk brought up the rear.
On Monday, April 18th, Konstantin Rotikov came home late from a party held by a group of research scientists.
Kostya smiled blissfully, undressed, stretched out on the tumbledown sofa and turned to the wall. He was still rather excited.
Fifteen newly inaugurated suites overlooking the Neva River loom suddenly into view. They are all furnished with items donated by Kostya from his collections of junk.
Scientists, travelers and professors—some from abroad—are milling about.
Kostya Rotikov exchanges greetings with all of them and pontificates at will.
In his sleep Kostya is snoring.
Vague spots, green, red, violet. The banquet commences.
Kostya Rotikov is seated in a place of honor, surrounded by his devotees. His hair is sublimely grey.
One person is reciting to him addresses on envelopes, while another rushes in with the latest telegrams. The Curator of the Hermitage rises and says:
“My dear colleagues, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Konstantin Petrovich Rotikov into our midst sub luce aeterna. It is not an easy task to open up a new frontier in the world of art. To do this you must have genius.”
The Curator presses two fingers hard against the table and continues:
“From earliest childhood—when other boys were doing somersaults or leaping rapturously into the air at the sight of a steam locomotive—Konstantin Rotikov was already feeling the restlessness of a true scholar. In vain did the other kids plead with him to join them for a stroll in the park. In vain did his parents order him to take a ride in a carriage—he was studying books on art. When a mere stripling of seven, with a bib dangling from his neck, Konstantin already knew every painting hanging on the walls of the Hermitage. He even knew—from reproductions—all of the paintings at the Louvre and, yes, those in Dresden, too. By the time he was ten, this prodigy had already visited all of the principal museums of Europe and had attended auctions as if he were an adult.
“When he had learned everything there was to learn, then and only then did he launch upon his life’s work.
“Konstantin Petrovich Rotikov, in the name of the Hermitage Museum, permit us to welcome you into our midst, and please permit us to express our profound gratitude to you for your pioneering role in this daring new field of art and for donating to us your vast collections and exhibits.”
The Unknown Poet rises from his seat. His fame has by now spread to every corner of Europe. His grey hair rolls down to his shoulders and his cuffs gleam with gold drachmas stamped with the head of Helios.
“Our generation was not without fruit,” he began, bowing in response to stormy applause. “Faced with unimaginable hardships,” he continued, “we closed ranks and marched on as one man. Neither distractions nor scorn nor hard times succeeded in making us abandon our calling. In the person of Konstantin Petrovich Rotikov I welcome a comrade-in-arms and a dear friend. The flowering we are witnessing today would have been impossible had our generation wavered and faltered in their time.”
Everyone rises to his feet to applaud the grey-haired comrades.
A well-known public figure now takes the floor. He is holding a goblet in his hand. It is Teptyolkin, a desiccated old man with beautiful eyes. A halo of radiant grey hair frames his head, and tears of rapture roll down his cheeks.
“I remember it all, as if it were yesterday, my dear Konstantin,” he begins, “the bright autumnal day, when we gathered atop the lofty tower that soared up from the dilapidated dacha to the sky. . . .”
Despair swept over Kostya Rotikov. He was now awake. He leaned on his pillow and looked through the window. . . Snowflakes were falling. It felt like Christmas.
“It’s too early for the winter,” he thought. He got up reluctantly. “Russia is terribly impoverished. It has resources now only for its most urgent needs and cannot afford to indulge in any intellectual luxuries. Even if my book meets with universal critical approval, it remains to be seen whether any publisher would be in a position to bring out a mammoth volume meant only for the elect.”
He had labored for so many years in libraries, poring over pornographic books and reproductions . . . He had made forays, time and again, into closed-off sections in museums and had studied innumerable figurines in marble, ivory, wax and wood . . . So many, many pictures, engravings, sketches and pieces of sculpture jostled at any given time in his mind. . . We could take, for example, the pornographic theater of the Renaissance (substratum: classical antiquity) and the pornographic theater of the 18th century (substratum: folk character). Yet, he did have precursors in this field, and corresponding studies did exist in the West. However, in the study of junk art his achievement was absolutely unique. Here he was an originator, a true pioneer. Being a pioneer called for a far greater and more exacting level of responsibility. You had to begin at the beginning with a primitive accumulation of materials.
On this blue morning, Kostya Rotikov gazed on the whole, wide world—with its immense forests (never mind the timber-fellings)—with its oceans of wildernesses (never mind the railroads criss-crossing them). He gazed on the world with its iron-and-concrete cities, its cities of paper, its brick settlements and settlements of wood. Races, tribes and individual clans still extant filed past him. “It is relatively easy to define junk art while standing in the middle of a room,” thought Kostya Rotikov, “to determine the basic elements of junk in the context of European art. But imagine trying to define it in Chinese or Japanese art, and I haven’t even mentioned Negro art, a field that—notwithstanding the public’s enormous interest—has been little explored. It goes without saying that if we look at the art retrieved by archaeology in Egypt, Sumer and Akkad, Babylon, Assyria or Crete, then the situation becomes even more problematical and complex.”
On this morning, Kostya Rotikov’s hands sagged, and his back was out of shape. Excruciating pain shot through him. Suddenly, he recalled that everything had changed.
His friend, the Unknown Poet, was no longer showing his face anywhere. He was apparently in hiding, had moved or perhaps had left for good.
Rumor had it that Teptyolkin had married and had acquired a new circle of friends.
He, Konstantin Rotikov, was now a research scholar, a position he had sought for his private satisfaction.
Konstantin left for the Institute. It was situated on the embankment. He entered and exchanged greetings with Elena Stepanovna, the door-keeper. She was sitting by the fireplace.
“How do you feel, Elena?” he asked.
“Shivering,” she said. “I’m shivering.”
He climbed up the staircase and entered the lobby, where he was met by the watchman, who led him gently to the wall newspaper.
“They’ve really let you have it this time!” he said, smiling.
As a matter of fact, there on the wall was his picture! He was flanked on both sides by professors and scholars.
Like a true scholar, Konstantin Rotikov was showing off the urinals.
He got up and went to the library, where he studied the faces of the people around him.
For Kostya Rotikov, the whole world was imperceptibly turning into junk. He was already deriving more aesthetic pleasure from the depictions of Carmen on candy wrappers and boxes than from the masterpieces of the Venetian School. How enthralled he was by the protruding tongues of clock dogs—far more, indeed, than by all the Fausts he had ever met in the world of literature. The theater, too, assumed significance only when junk plays took to the stage: A woman with bare breasts, pirouetting against a backdrop of Doric columns in a dress fashionable in his mother’s times, pleased Rotikov immensely—just watch her toss her flowers to the dancing cupids! He was excited to no end by obscure movie theaters showing films spliced from torn fragments. Their tasteless compositional techniques filled him with ecstasy. Reviews written by provincial reviewers, where junk, illiteracy and impudence reigned supreme, made him laugh through his tears. What a pure and sublime delight they awakened in him!
He attended as many conferences and gatherings as possible and noted with thoroughness every manifestation of junk art. Rapturous letters from young men and women—infected as he was with a passion for junk—greeted him every morning. It seemed to him at times that he had uncovered the philosopher’s stone, by means of which one could transform life into something rich and wondrous. Indeed, the whole earth became inexhaustibly radiant. In his friends, too, he discovered an abyss of uncharted traits and antics. In their speech patterns, for instance, there was a secret tackiness that they themselves had never suspected.
It was at this point that he began receiving letters from the countryside. Youngsters in the provinces, where—God knows how—rumors of his exploits had penetrated, were waking up. In the most remote, God-forsaken corners of our country, people were beginning to collect junk as a cure for ennui.
In a two-story house on Karpovka Street lived the philosopher Andrei Andrievsky. Formerly a private residence, this building resembled a perforated, grey box fitted with a pediment and coat-of-arms whose crown had been knocked off. A number of Chinese from the province of Shan-Dun lived with him in this house. They were engaged in the making of paper fans used by handicraftsmen to decorate the wall on which the mirror hung. Andrei clearly felt that he was discoursing on the problems of philosophy and methodology to an audience thoroughly unfit for such deliberations. “They must consider this a rather preposterous form of entertainment,” he mused. Of what possible benefit, for instance, was the methodology of literature to his perpetual companion, the pharmacist? Why is he, Andrei Andrievsky, reading his treatises to practical folk forever on the move? Nevertheless, the philosopher was preparing a lecture. Some theses had been sketched out long before. He had only to develop them.
He looked down at the city. It was night. He contemplated the motley crowds sweeping past, their strides and impulses and the pipes sticking out of their mouths.
The ringing of bells was audible from afar.
“It was here that I collaborated on special philosophical journals—they were in ample, if not always sufficient, supply. It was here that my work—famous in its own time—was first published, here that I defended it for the title of Professor.”
The philosopher paced back and forth in the large room decorated with expensive but faded wallpaper.
He saw his room as it once was, as a drawing-room, and heard the literary and philosophical discussions that had taken place in it.
He is on a train. Kostya Rotikov is sitting opposite him.
He recalls his first meeting with his wife at an estate near Moscow, where he was a guest at the home of one of his friends.
Once again, they are strolling among the tall, golden fields.
His future wife, in a long dress and wearing a straw hat, is smiling radiantly as she walks by his side under her light-colored parasol.
She folds the parasol and rushes down the road. Turning around, she suggests that he catch her. He catches and holds her a long time, her hands in his. She stands rooted to the spot without saying a word.
This incident eventually grew into full intimacy. They became precious to each other.
The philosopher paced restlessly when—oops!—he bumped into a chair. It was old and wobbly and had a gilded back. It originally stood in his wife’s bedroom.
He heard someone scraping at the door.
A four-year-old girl entered the room. She was barefoot. Walking in step with the philosopher, she clapped her hands and crooned:
“I’m a russka. I’m a russka.”
A guitar sighed from behind the other side of the wall.
A woman walked past. She was a broom-maker. She had one eye, and her mouth was crooked.
Andrei Andrievsky stopped. Looking down, he saw a little girl by his side. She had also stopped. She was the daughter of the broom-maker and his Chinese neighbor.
“Go away, you little girl,” he said. “Uncle needs to be alone.”
The little girl sucked on her thumb and would not leave. He led her out and locked the door. Then, settling into a leather armchair—the one from his former study—he unwrapped the little package lying on the table and fixed himself several open-faced cheese sandwiches.
“I won’t go,” he thought. “I won’t go, who the hell needs my lectures!”
Crumbs fell from his mouth onto the napkin that was pinned to his collar. An hour later, though, he did leave. On the embankment he ran into the pharmacist.
“I’ve come to get you!” the pharmacist cheerfully declared.
The house on Shpalernaya Street was well lit.
The elevator worked.
The house was built in modernist style. Countless balconies, big-bellied but small and asymmetrically arranged, hung everywhere.
Rows of windows, each more fantastical than the one before it, were suffused with light. Tiled representations of women with disheveled hair had been recently restored and, once again, they stood out against a background of gold.
Andrei Andrievsky pressed down on the door’s metallic handle. The lilies on the door’s corrugated glass were illuminated from within. Walking through the front door, he climbed up to the second story and entered the spacious chambers occupied by the family of a certain traveling engineer by the name of N.
The pharmacist followed close behind.
A discussion was to have followed the lecture.
“How about some jam, Andrei,” said the pretty, young wife of the engineer.
The comic from the adjacent theater ate the pastry with disgust.
“Well, Valechka, have you had a good time?” the engineer asked after the philosopher left.
The Chinese man, having saved up his money or, perhaps, under the pressure of circumstances, left for his homeland.
That same evening, the broom-maker got involved with another Chinese man. Two months later, she died from an unsuccessful abortion.
Little Russka curled up in a corner of the philosopher’s room like a cat. The philosopher occasionally bought her milk.
He let her out into the yard and watched her run around the tree.
That was no act of charity on his part. He simply knew that the girl had no place to go.
Once he even bought her a toy. He looked on as she played with it.
Little by little, something like a bed appeared in the corner of the room. So did a cotton print dress and a pair of shoes.
This spring, Yekaterina Zaevfratsky grieved long and hard. While Zaevfratsky was alive, she had no need for a child. She herself had felt like a little girl in the presence of this big man who was always on the move.
Increasingly haunted by the prospect of homelessness and destitution, Yekaterina would often get up in the middle of the night and walk over to the window. Wearing nothing but a nightshirt, she would look down with eyes wide as windows. Across the street, a night-club throbbed.
Ugly scenes were unfolding at its entrance door.
“Misha Kotikov was here for awhile,” Yekaterina would reminisce in the evening, “but he has run off, too. For a while, at least, I had someone to talk to about Alexander.” She reached for a portrait of Alexander.
“Misha asked me to give him one of Alexander’s manuscripts,” she recalled. “But there is nothing left. Alexander’s friends have taken everything. . . except maybe for the landscape album.”
In the afternoon, the organ-grinder played in the yard. Bristling and trembling, his green parrot “read” everyone’s fortune with his beak as in days of yore. The yard smelled faintly of people returning from the dacha or from abroad. This Black Spring looked so much like Autumn.
“How I’d love to go to the ballet,” she said, rising on her toes in a classical pose. And she did a pirouette.
“The ballet is quite obsolete.”
“I know, Mikhail Kotikov said so long ago.”
She stopped, sat down on the bed and wept. “Everything I love in the world has become obsolete. . . Nobody understands me. . . Did Alexander Zaevfratsky ever really understand me—I mean, even someone as brilliant as he was. . . ? Was he perhaps, deep down, a little contemptuous of me? Most men have been, I’m afraid. . .”
She raised her head. Her face was moist with tears. Then, assuming the pose of a mature woman, she stared into the distance.
Someone knocked on the door, entered and handed her a letter.
“Dear Yekaterina: I’ve succeeded after much effort in securing a pension for you. Please forgive me for not writing sooner. It was a very vexing matter and right up to the last minute. . .”
The letter came from Moscow, from a pre-Revolutionary friend of Alexander Zaevfratsky.
All this was so unexpected that Yekaterina felt that she had aged on the spot.
She walked up to the mirror:
Wrinkles flowed about her eyes and mouth. Her hair was thin and sparse. She wanted to be young again.
She put on her hat and light-colored jacket and looked at herself again in the mirror. She touched up her pale lips and went into Zaevfratsky’s private quarters.
Yekaterina climbed up the marble staircase. It was furnished with every conceivable oriental monstrosity. None of it had as yet been removed.
Zaevfratsky’s residence now served as the House of Education.
Class was in session. Young women in red scarves ran up and down the staircase summoning others to a meeting. Young men in coats walked from room to room or sat on benches, listening.
The drawing-room, where Zaevfratsky had once given his little chats, had been transformed into a meeting-room and decorated with placards.
Opening the door into Zaevfratsky’s bedroom, Yekaterina caught a glimpse of Teptyolkin. Bent over his lectern, he was lecturing conscientiously on A Short History Of World Literature.
Yekaterina sat down on a back bench and observed him closely.
“He’s so flabby!” she thought.
A sparrow flew in through the side-window, perched on the window-sill and soared through the room. The pupils got up from their benches to chase the bird away. Teptyolkin was standing at the lectern, waiting. Moving ponderously, Yekaterina came up to him.
“Yekaterina?!” Teptyolkin exclaimed in astonishment. “So here we meet again!”
“I really didn’t know you were lecturing at our place,” Yekaterina said coquettishly.
“What’s so amazing about all that?” Teptyolkin replied.
Suddenly, a feeling of youthfulness swept over Teptyolkin. Once again, he stepped into his lofty tower under the canopy of the night. Just as quickly, he saw himself as a mere instructor, a lecturer rushing about from one state-sponsored club to another.
With the sparrow chased away, Teptyolkin resumed his lecture.
Yekaterina started back alone from the House of Education. The wind was lashing at her skirt. She sat for a while in the little square, buffeted by the snowflakes of spring. Then she went home.
“Dear Mikhail Kotikov,” she began her letter, “please come see me. We’ll talk things over and discuss Alexander’s poems. By the way, I’ve found Alexander’s album for you. You won’t say no, will you?”
The former Unknown Poet walked about in his room. The wide two-story house, built during the 1820′s by a French emigré, had been slated for demolition on the eve of the war. For the present, it was home to a mailman, who liked to relax in the yard. He had a snub-nosed family. The family of a former chamberlain was here too, sporting a whole variety of noses and heads of hair. They sustained themselves by needlework, while their needs were attended to by a male artist’s model.
A woman who loved to giggle her way into cinemas and wharves in the company of sailors bounced up and down the staircases.
An old man was chatting away. Formerly the proprietor of the Bauer Wine Shop, he was now employed by the Concordia Wine Shop. On Wednesdays and Sundays, old men, book-keepers and ex-counts would gather at his apartment to play whist.
The Unknown Poet was renting a well-lit oblong room from this man. The latter, an employee of the cooperative, had formerly been a Spanish Consul. He had a wife who habitually applied rouge to her cheeks and an 80-year-old sister, distinguée.
The apartment that used to belong to Heinrich Maria Bauer, the Spanish Consul, once boasted of comfort. Ah! To loll again in the gas-lit drawing-room or amid the heavy, oakwood furniture of the dining-room, which was decorated with papier-maché birds on plates, lithographs in ebony frames and stuffed birds hanging from the walls! To sit at the round, oaken table that stood on one round leg surrounded by eight auxiliary legs! Surely, the Spanish Consul considered himself a person of some authority. Mahogany furniture stood in the drawing-room, while the study held sofas and the portraits of monarchs: the German Emperor, the Russian Autocrat, the King of Spain. The electroplated images of Luther and the Apostles were also visible. On a velvet-covered table lay a huge folio book in German—it was Goethe’s Faust with illustrations in color.
The kitchen abounded in kitchenware bearing the names of Gretchen, Johannchen and Amalchen. They were immaculate and fat-bellied and presented every conceivable kind of handle and neck.
The Spanish Consul did not speak Spanish. In the evenings, he used to take off for the Schuster-Klub, the German club. There, in a private room, the so-called German room, he would drink beer from a mug like everyone else. There were no decorations of any sort on the walls. Instead, the viewer’s eye fell on a huge portrait of Kaiser William II, framed in heavy gold.
The Unknown Poet was spending his third year with the family of the whist-loving old man. On Wednesdays and Sundays, he watched them play cards.
The Hungarian Count played with dignity. At times, stroking his sideburns, he’d betray a certain elusive gentleness. The jacket, sewn in the first year of the Revolution, fit him grandly, and he spoke French magnificently. Next to him sat his wife, dressed in black. She looked like a marquise wearing a snow-white wig. She, too, spoke French.
At some remove from the Count sat a former frontier guard with a dashing mustache, whose bearing was decidedly military. And let’s not forget the book-keeper with his fabulous income.
No one ever spoke of things modern here. The conversation always turned to the Court or to the Guards and the Army or to Court festivities at Peterhof on the occasion of the French President’s visit or to the machinations of dealers in contraband.
The balding young man was drinking tea with the old men. Repeatedly, the conversation turned to the end of the 19th century and to the beginning of the 20th. An old man, snoring intermittently, lisped his way through an anecdote. His memories rocked him to sleep. The eighty-year-old distinguée looked at the clock.
Everybody rose from the table.
After being thoroughly scrubbed by a mixture of coffee grounds and sand, the Johannchens, the Wilhelmchens and Gretchens gleamed on the kitchen shelves.
It was morning. The former Unknown Poet, leaning out of the window, saw a Tartar junk dealer walking in the courtyard, his face turned upward. He was shouting: “Got any junk for sale?” The Unknown Poet invited him in.
“Look here, pal,” the Unknown Poet said when the Tartar, an empty bag under his arm, entered his room. “As you can see, I’ve accumulated a lot of junk. Does this little vase interest you? This ash-tray? Or how about some books or a handful of ancient coins?”
The Tartar frowned as he paced the disorderly room. A bed that remained permanently unmade stood in the room along with books scattered all over the floor and coins from the time of Vasily the Dark, resting on a plate next to a smooth piece of soap. The window-panes were so dusty that hardly a ray of light got through.
The Tartar walked up to the bed, felt the blanket with his experienced hand, then sauntered over to the little table, tapped on it and examined it to see if worms had eaten their way into it.
“It’s no use to me,” he said. “You have an overcoat? How about pants? I’ll take pants and an overcoat.”
“What’s the matter with you? You know that I’ve already sold you everything I could a long time ago!” the former Unknown Poet said angrily.
“Why you lie to me?” the Tartar said, leaning over the dresser. “Come on! Tell me what’s in this here!” And he opened the door wide. “What you want these for? Later, you’ll buy yourself new ones!” he cried out, inspecting the pants.
“Look, how about the carpet in the corner?” the host said.
“Won’t you sell me the bed?” the Tartar asked.
After pacing about his room all evening, the former poet headed towards a most imposing building.
He went up the staircase.
Bending down, he paid admission.
“Oh, Agafonov,” Asphodeliev said, shaking his hand. “Where are you off to?”
“What are you so busy with?” replied Asphodeliev in surprise.
“Let’s not talk about it,” said the balding young man evasively. “I came here to amuse myself, not to talk about my business.”
Asphodeliev looked at him. “He must be irritable,” he thought.
“Life is so beautiful,” Asphodeliev said philosophically. “You’ve got to take from life all that it can give. Just look at these splendid palm trees.” With a sweep of his hand, he pointed to the stunted plants: “Listen, can’t you hear the music?”
He walked with Agafonov to the glass doors. A music-hall song was in the air.
“Look at these gamblers!” Asphodeliev exclaimed. “What burning eyes! Observe how they scrape their nails against the smooth, green cloth. It’s an obsession with them!”
The former poet saw none of this. He saw croupiers dropping the ten percent earmarked for public education down a slot, then, as they buried their tips in their pockets, muttering “Merci!” He saw that they were bald and well-fed, that they were all dressed to the nines. He saw that embezzlers and extortionists were crowding the gaming tables, that they were losing money, that this money or rather part of it ended up going to support public education, that they were taking money stolen from one government department and transferring it to another.
“You Romantic, you naughty boy!” the former Unknown Poet said, turning to Asphodeliev. “Don’t tell me you don’t feel the enormous greyness of this world. I come here because there is nothing left for me to do, because I’ve tried to go out of my mind and failed. So now I feel like a jerk.”
“But did you really try to go out of your mind? What a Romantic you are!” Asphodeliev said sarcastically.
“Of course not!” the former poet replied, retreating. “I just said it to be saying something. What do you take me for—a fool?”
“Forget it!” said Asphodeliev. “No one respects you more than I do, and no one loves your writings more than I do. A man needs a dream. You have given us a dream. What else can one ask for?”
“I’ve never given anyone any such dream!” Agafonov insisted.
The two men spent several hours at the club restaurant. They consumed a dozen bottles of beer and many glasses of cheap brandy, then graduated to red wine.
A chorus of gypsy women walked on stage and struck up a litany of old songs. They were joined by a gypsy man, who accompanied them on his guitar while thumping with his foot. Two women, wearing motley dresses and red shoes, broke away from the group. Moving their shoulders, they struck up a gypsy dance.
“Nonsense! What nonsense!” Agafonov muttered, and went into the gambling room.
He sat down at a vacant seat.
Two circes got up behind him.
Sensing that someone was leaning over his shoulder, Agafonov turned around and pushed them away, saying: “I beg of you, it’s none of your affair!”
The two circes jerked up their noses and walked away.
Agafonov felt uncomfortable: “I used to treat them very differently in the past.”
Two gamblers ran up to the croupier, who immediately rose from his seat. They apologized profusely and pleaded that they be allowed to play on credit. Rejecting their plea, the croupier walked off. They trailed after him. Asphodeliev and Agafonov left, too. The two circes, who were about to follow them, changed their minds and stayed behind.
“Charming!” said Asphodeliev. “Charming. . .”
“Tell me,” Agafonov interrupted him, “could I spend the night at your place?”
A porcelain chandelier burned in Asphodeliev’s study.
An enormous writing desk from the time of Alexander I, with candlesticks shaped like sphinxes, stood facing the door. Pyramids of recently published books and booklets, reaching halfway up the ceiling, rested on it. They were neatly cut and set off with paper bookmarks. An edition of Goethe in German and the Brockhaus edition of Pushkin stood on several mahogany bookcases that had recently been delivered. Close by lay an illustrated edition of Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin and Griboyedov’s Woe From Wit in the edition by Golicke and Wilborg.
“Excuse me,” said Asphodeliev, “my wife is asleep.” He set a bottle of vodka and some cucumbers on the table.
Agafonov recited his poems deep into the night. “How stupid of me!” he interrupted himself, “I didn’t hear a thing.”
At three in the morning, he got up and said:
“What idiocy! How could I claim that wine is a means to knowledge!”
He saw himself roaming through the streets and asked: “What am I to the city and what is it to me?”
“Morning!” he said, approaching the window. He sat down on the sofa and opened his mouth.
The rays of the sun, just barely warm, illuminated Agafonov’s prominent bald spot. He was lying on the sofa. One leg, thrust into a violet sock, peeped out from under the blanket.
The rays of the rising sun fell on his shoulders, then on the wine-glass, which flared up next to an empty bottle.
Agafonov woke up. Someone touched him on the shoulder. It was Asphodeliev.
“Forgive me, my dear friend,” said the latter. “The marquetry cupboard has just been brought in.”
A cupboard was visible behind Asphodeliev. Two porters were smoking cheap tobacco.
In the evening, Agafonov sought shelter with a family he barely knew.
After tea, the young men and women took their seats in a corner and told stories to each other. A young woman with hair bleached white by hydrogen peroxide went first:
“A certain stupid young man was very fond of riding horses. We were staying then on our dacha at Lakhta. He was living in the city. He would ride horseback in the riding-school and on the islands.
“Once he entered the verandah, where we were having tea, and, instead of greeting us, announced with a beaming face: ‘All of the mares I’ve ridden are pregnant.’ We burst out laughing in sheer delight and ran off to tell this stupid story to others. Our father, though, rose to the occasion and demanded: ‘So—you really think the foals will look like you?’”
“Once—I was in a bathhouse then,” the journalist said, his hand touching the leg of the woman next to him, “a bather poured a tubful of cold water on my neighbor. The latter ran up to him with raised fists. ‘My apologies,’ said the culprit, ‘I thought you were Rabinovich.’ The victim started cussing. ‘Hey, hey,’ the culprit said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘At last, a defender for Rabinovich has been found!’”
“During the imperialist war of 1914-1918,” Kovalyov began, his voice rising—he was lighting up a cigarette handed him by the journalist—”there was a certain cornet assigned to run errands for his superior who once wanted to smoke a cigarette. The officers were taking in fresh air when the Army Commander arrived on the scene. The cornet, hiding the cigarette in his coat sleeve, moved off to the side to enjoy a smoke.
“‘Hey, Cornet, who gave you permission to smoke!’ the Commander bellowed. ‘What the devil! What’s happened to discipline around here?!’ ‘I’m s-s-orry, Your Excellency,’ the cornet stammered in salute. ‘I thought that the fr-fresh air. . .’ ‘Forget it, Cornet,’ the general cut him off. ‘There’ll never be any fresh air where I am!’”
Kovalyov finished the anecdote and smiled, pleased with his own wit.
Women, young ladies and men were chasing each other on the floor in a game of cat-and-mouse.
Leaving this place, Agafonov ran into Kostya Rotikov.
They were so taken by this reunion that they walked each other home several times, hardly noticing the cold air and the deserted streets. On the third such trip, they found themselves in Kostya’s room.
They sat down on a huge sofa. Auntie wasn’t here to bring her tray laden with slices of bread and teacups. Nor was Kostya’s diminutive old father here—how he used to peep into the room long after midnight to remind all present that old women would be sitting at their desks in the morning waiting to receive their English lesson from Kostya. No longer would the Unknown Poet and Kostya, disregarding the father’s summons, smile gaily and continue their forays into metaphysical poetry late into the night.
Thrilled by their unexpected reunion, they spent the whole night talking. Once again, the moon seemed to them not a moon but a dirigible, and the room not merely a room but a gondola sweeping above the endless expanse of world literature and art. In fact, in his forgetfulness, Kostya reached for his copy of Fracastoro’s epic poem on syphilis. He wanted to compare it with Barthelemy’s poem in four cantos on the same subject from the middle of the 19th century. The latter asserted that Napoleon was not actually to blame for the fact that the French are so short. No, the true culprit, he claimed, was syphilis, which had infiltrated the French nation and penetrated it to its very core. Suddenly, Kostya’s hand froze in mid-air because the cane of the visiting Irish poet and the shoulder of a German student by the name of Miller loomed through the window. The cane and the shoulder were immediately followed by the faces themselves. One face sported a poetic, English beard. Another was clean-shaven, smiling, with raised collar, a truly charming face. Then Kostya saw a third face. Lifted onto the shoulders of the other two, a woman peeped into the room.
Some minutes later, a procession filed out through the gates onto the street.
Ahead of everyone strode a creature of charm and elegance. She was dressed in sheepskin covered—from the hips up—with suede and—from the hips down—with fur. Amazingly small, patent-leather shoes gleamed on her feet, and on her head she wore a little cap.
The Irish poet walked closely behind her. He was wearing a thick leather coat that reached almost to the ground.
Behind him walked Agafonov in an autumn coat.
Behind Agafonov walked Miller, the German student, in a summer coat.
Kostya Rotikov, wearing a raccoon coat, brought up the rear of the procession. At the intersection, the group—with the charming creature in their midst—argued about how to continue:
“Das ist ganz einfach!” the German observed. “Let’s take a cab.”
He ran up to the intersection and started haggling.
The cab took them swiftly to a bar.
“I love you all so very much,” said the Irish poet. “Everything here is so strange. I think I’ll stay here for a while. Here a poet can really live. Here people confront issues of world significance. You can wear whatever you want to here, with nobody caring one way or another. And all we ever read about you in our newspapers is that Russia is in ruins, that there is famine everywhere, and that grass is growing in the middle of the streets. A toast to poetry!” he declared and clinked glasses with Agafonov.
“You have Tolstoy, Gorky,” the German piped in as if to corroborate. At this juncture, the conversation became a babel of languages: The Greek kai flared up out of nowhere. Instead of lycée, the crackle of h palaistra resounded in the air, to be followed immediately by urbs or astu, the vowels of Italian and by the nasal sounds of French. A grey-haired, desiccated beggar woman stood singing by the door.
Seated at a table with bottles before him, Agafonov agonized. He was inebriated. His poetry, which his friends praised to heaven, seemed to him now nothing but the fruit of poisonous dreams. He remembered the very day when he first set out on his experiments. To be precise, he didn’t really remember the day itself, but it seemed to him that it was on a sunny autumn day, after summer vacation. He and his friend Andrei were standing on the staircase of the lycée. They were illuminated by a sun that streamed in through an enormous window not far from the faculty lounge. He remembered that below them passed teachers in regulation frock-coats with shiny buttons. He recalled Spitsyn and the Baron, the school groundskeepers, lurking in corridors. He recalled class mentors and instructors chatting away in the faculty lounge. Above them on the staircase stood the Director. Beneath them, between numerous coat-racks, sat Andrei Nikolaevich, the hall-porter.
Agafonov was on a binge. But in vain. Although drunk, he felt his own worthlessness. No great idea dawned upon him, no pale rose petals composed themselves into a garland, no pedestal materialized beneath his feet. No longer did he drink innocently, from a sense of his own dignity, that is, conscious that he was pursuing a great cause. No longer did he anticipate discovering something beautiful that would dumbfound the world. What wine revealed to him now was his creative impotence, his vile and desolate soul. He felt preposterous and terrified. Everything around him was preposterous and terrifying. Still, the hateful bottle beckoned him on.
Agafonov returned home on foot. He chose the narrowest and darkest streets, those inhabited by the poorest folk. He yearned to go back to 1920 and even 1917. He was ready to plunge with his whole being into the world of poisonous substances in order to conjure up a vision. He ached for intoxication. Unable to endure it any longer, he jumped on the trolley. He got off on Pushkin Street.
The street had changed much in the intervening years: the hordes of rampaging vagabonds were gone. No prearranged whistle, no sign of Lydia, standing by the gate, smoking a cigarette. He fell to reminiscing: Here she took his cane and ring and showed them around for two whole hours. Here she cussed out her girl friends until he had put a stop to it. “Only carters use profanity!” he told Lydia. Or he’d remember the house with the green roof, where, standing with his back to the window, he watched her shake her head inanely on the filthy bed—she leaped up and all but threw herself out the window. . . . He saw her for the last time at the intersection—there! He remembered standing rooted to the spot as they dragged her off to a concentration camp. He knew every gateway here, but now he could hardly recognize a single face.
Violet eyes gleamed in the darkness between the buildings.
“Lydia!” Agafonov cried out. His face beamed as he ran after her.
An utterly young face turned towards him.
“Lydia!” he exclaimed in despair. “We are still so terribly young!” And he ran after her, stumbling.
Suddenly, the figure stopped, and the sound of a slap in the face resounded in the air, echoed by the locked gates. Quick steps followed, then an echo. A man with an amethyst cane remained frozen in place.
Blue, yellow and red stars dotted the sky, but the houses no longer heaved upwards or fell. There were no snowflakes in sight nor cards to lie forgotten on the porch.
When Misha Kotikov pressed a button, the chair soared into the air. The electric machine hummed, and the needle with the indented protuberance rotated on the rubber tube. As the electric light bounced gently off the ceiling, the penetrating rays of the moving bulb swept over the patient’s face. A half hour more, and the root was thoroughly cleaned. Now it was time for the crown. Misha Kotikov reached for the vial, drew out the fluid with a tiny steel instrument and poured two other substances onto the surface of a thick, opaque pane of glass.
He was preparing a paste, when—lo and behold!—rhymes leaped out of nowhere at him. But the fast-drying paste would not allow for carelessness, and Misha found concentrating on the rhymes rough going.
Mikhail Kotikov filled the patient’s tooth with a protective substance. Then, applying the paste to the gold crown, he executed a skillful manoeuvre of the hand and fastened the gold crown onto the barely visible wall of the tooth. Then, holding the tooth with two fingers, he stared through the window.
Now he was free for a while, thank goodness!
Misha had been searching for a theme for a long time. “What I need is inspiration from the world outside,” he sighed.
“Now!” he said and took out his hand. He looked inside the patient’s mouth. The crown gleamed like a mountain plateau made of pure gold.
Misha Kotikov was overjoyed and lowered the chair.
He walked up to the window. He was ecstatic.
“That’s just what I was praying for: a golden plateau. That gives me a motif for my poem.”
“Next!” he intoned, opening the door ever so slightly.
A housewife walked in. She was groaning.
“Which tooth hurts you?”
“The front tooth, sonny,” a voice resounded from the dentist’s chair.
“It’s been neglected for too long,” Misha said in a deep bass voice. “I’ll have to pull it out. Why didn’t you come sooner?”
“I didn’t have any money. My nephew returned from China only yesterday.”
“From China?” Misha said in astonishment.
Misha Kotikov washed his hands. A young man with a silver filling had just walked out, his mouth still open. Misha reached into his pocket for the announcement:
“Today at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Sciences, Professor Schmidt will deliver a lecture on The Liu-Kiu Islands.”
“What an utterly astonishing combination,” Misha said in surprise. “That’s exactly what I’ve been looking for! Something like a nightingale’s song and the miawing of a cat. At one and the same time! Oh, if only I could put it in my poem!”
He wiped the instruments thoroughly, put them in a glass cabinet on a glass shelf and went home to change.
He put on his pink silk drawers—his only ones—and his striped socks. Then, standing before the mirror, he pounded on his youthful chest with his fists.
“I’m a gentleman,” he said, inspecting himself. “She is calling for me. She wants me. I have to go.”
He reread Yekaterina Zaevfratsky’s letter.
“Well, well, I do know women. Don’t I?” he said and smiled patronizingly.
On the way, a heavy spring shower fell. Misha was forced to seek shelter at the first entrance he came to. There he met Troytsyn.
Troytsyn beamed with delight as he read and reread a drenched note.
Misha slapped him on the back.
“These women are driving me crazy, Misha!” said Troytsyn. “They won’t give me a moment of rest.”
“Must be the war,” explained Misha. “We men are now in great demand.”
Taking each other’s arm, they leaned against the wall.
“Yes, there is quite a shortage of men now,” Troytsyn said, deeply moved. “So many splendid young men are dead! What a shame!”
“Did you know that Alexander Zaevfratsky considered women the inferior sex?” Troytsyn asked, thrusting his head into the street.
“Don’t I know that!” Misha said, leaping into the street. “Have you forgotten that I investigated his life in minute detail?”
He tested the rain with his hand.
Troytsyn’s head protruded into the street.
And suddenly, without any transition, the young men began complimenting each other on their poetry. Troytsyn praised excessively, Misha praised moderately.
“Your poems breathe the air of Africa,” said Troytsyn.
“And your poems, too, are . . . rather captivating,” Misha said condescendingly, “quite lovely, indeed!” He was pondering what to say.
The sparse rain continued to fall. Misha once again sought refuge at the front entrance. Although Troytsyn and Misha Kotikov had spent barely a moment in the rain, they were noticed by a man standing at the adjacent entrance. He was a member of the Collegium of Advocates and had once learned Petiscus by heart. To this day, he was still writing poems on mythological subjects. He adjusted his collar and tie, picked up his cane and dashed over to the entrance where the true poets had found refuge. His demeanor was obsequious.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s been so long since we met last! I’ve been busy with all sorts of things—mostly, things of no use to anybody. Today, for instance, I defended my house manager. . . Come on, let’s recite some of our poems, while it’s still raining.”
Each of the three began reciting their poems in turn.
Troytsyn bellowed his poems with great enthusiasm.
Mikhail Kotikov read his poems with the voice of Alexander Zaevfratsky.
The defender read with the gestures of an orator.
The rain stopped. The sun peeped through the clouds. The poets headed for the nearest bar, where they carried on passionate conversations.
“Unless I’m mistaken, didn’t you just now read us your old poems?” the defender observed. He was looking at Troytsyn.
“I don’t read my new poems to anyone,” Troytsyn said, offended. “The modern world will never understand my new poems. Now I write poems only for myself, that is, I write one kind of poetry for posterity and myself—the real, romantic poems—and a different kind for my contemporaries.”
“Looks like I’m the only one, then, who has the guts to read my new poems to all who would listen,” Misha noted with pride.
He looked with self-satisfaction at the balding heads of his friends. He then said that he was in a hurry, excused himself, paid for the beer and left.
Troytsyn took the advocate’s arm. They got on the trolley with the idea of continuing their discussion in more romantic surroundings.
On the Islands the snowdrop and coltsfoot were already blooming.
“Yes,” said Troytsyn, walking along the sea. “Your poems reveal a certain unevenness characteristic of youth.”
“Excuse me,” the jurist interrupted him, “I’m far from young. You and I began our literary career together.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Troytsyn corrected himself. “I meant to say that you have little technique.”
“I don’t agree with this, either,” objected the jurist.
At that very moment, Troytsyn saw two young ladies sitting on a green bench. The young ladies nudged each other with their shoulders and exchanged laughs.
“Not bad!” the jurist said, stopping.
“I’ll say!” Troytsyn concurred.
They sat down on the bench, on either side of the young ladies. The defender took off a black glove and dusted off his boots.
“And what do you think of Meyerhold’s Theatre?” asked Troytsyn.
The balding young men moved ever closer to the young women, who were laughing their heads off.
With studied casualness, Troytsyn kissed the shoulder of the girl next to him.
Cunningly, the jurist maneuvered his boot under the shoes of the other girl.
There they go:
The advocate, walking swaggeringly, is already preparing anecdotes for the occasion.
Troytsyn, bending and twisting, is already moving ahead.
The young men pair off with the girls and walk through the grass. At the island’s edge, Teptyolkin and Marya make their appearance. They advance slowly and self-importantly.
Teptyolkin sits down on a bench. Marya walks up to the sea and begins singing an aria from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmilla.
Teptyolkin is pensive as he counts the sparrows.
“Marya,” he asks after she finished, “where are our sandwiches?”
Misha Kotikov had long considered transferring his accumulated materials to the Quiet Sanctuary. On this day, after returning from Yekaterina’s, he decided unequivocally to do so. He worked late into the night organizing the cards, then tied them up with string. The reverse sides of the cards showed landscapes with peasant huts and accordionists and young women as well as fragments of maps. The facing sides, ruled throughout, were filled in by Mikhail Kotikov in Zaevfratsky’s handwriting.
With everything firmly in place, Misha discovered that a number of duplicates were left over. He moved the lamp closer and, against the background of the packages, read the following:
1908. Wednesday, May 15, 3 p.m. Alexander Zaevfratsky dined at the European Hotel. At 5 p.m. Alexander left the European Hotel for Gostiny Court with Yevgenia Sleptsova (ballerina), where he bought her a pair of kid gloves and a sapphire ring.
As of this moment (January 5, 1925, 6 p.m.) Sleptsova is a well-preserved, dark-haired woman. Her breasts are small, her shoulders are wider than her hips, her legs—as is characteristic of all ballet dancers—are muscular. According to information gathered, she was a phenomenon in her day. I concluded from her words that Alexander Zaevfratsky was distinguished for his extraordinary virility. I also concluded that Alexander went directly from Gostiny Court to her place.
1912. Friday, April 12, 8-10 p.m. Alexander Zaevfratsky delivered a lecture in his Private Residence. Attempt to determine the theme of the lecture unsuccessful—it was either about Leconte de Lisle or the Abbé Delille. After the lecture, a valet walked up to A. P. Gunther and informed her that Alexander Zaevfratsky requested her presence in his study in reference to her poems on India. It has been verified that the small mahogany table was set for them, that they drank their share of champagne and that Alexander Zaevfratsky recounted his Indian journeys to her.
P.S. Gunther is a petite woman with blond hair. She has aged prematurely (as of today, Feb. 15, 1926). She no longer writes verse. She reminisces with gratitude about Alexander Zaevfratsky, as her first mentor. She says that Alexander was quite a man.
1917. Winter. Eve of departure (parts unknown), time unknown. Liaison with the manicurist Alexandra Ptichkina. Ptichkina says that she doesn’t remember any particulars. A stupid, uneducated sort of person. Says that Alexander Zaevfratsky was no better than any other man.
Mikhail Kotikov looked at his watch:
“What a lovely spring morning. To think that I’m summoning Alexander Zaevfratsky from non-being.”
Before leaving for the clinic in the morning, Mikhail Kotikov sat down at his desk. Not quite dressed, he began composing a poem on India in Zaevfratsky’s hand. He fitted this poem with an impeccable Parnassian rhyme scheme, exotic words (“Liu-Kiu”), shimmering geographical names, jungles, a golden plateau reflecting the sun, a spring festival in Benares, leopards, Knights Templars from Asia, famine and plague.
The verse was metallic.
The voice was metallic.
Not a single assonance, no metaphysics, no symbolism.
The poem boasted of everything. All that was missing was Mikhail Kotikov himself.
If Alexander Zaevfratsky had written this poem, people would have said that his poem was remarkable, that it expressed the wanderlust of a cultured man, his longing to leave behind the greyness of everyday life, the factories, mills and libraries in order to seek out the enigmatic diversity of life awaiting the traveler in exotic lands. Or they would have discovered in Alexander Zaevfratsky the spirit of an explorer. They would have said that in olden times he might have become a great voyager and, who knows, maybe even another Columbus. Or they might have insisted that, in the final analysis, this poem reveals unmistakably Zaevfratsky’s total alienation from the traditions of Russian literature. “Strictly speaking,” they would have said, “we are dealing here with a phenomenon beyond the pale of Russian verse. This poem isn’t Russian at all. It is French.”
After finishing the poem, Misha Kotikov looked intently at the portrait of Zaevfratsky.
The latter was standing between cactuses surrounded by mountains.
“What a vigorous old man,” Misha thought.
Mikhail Kotikov remembered that it was time to go, that people were waiting for him, that patients were waiting in line, that once again he would be exploring with his fingers in open mouths and probing gums.
Misha picked up his cane. A Yale lock clicked into place behind him.
A young woman was climbing the staircase. She stopped on the landing and read the metallic doorplate. It said: “Mikhail Kotikov. Dentist. Hours 3-6 p.m.” She rang the bell.
A spring evening. Not even a breeze.
Smoke rose from the chimneys to the reddish fleecy clouds of the sky, then dissipated.
Mikhail Kotikov walked out of the private clinic. He stopped to admire the sky.
He was in a mood for a stroll.
Suddenly, he remembered that he had a rendezvous this very day with Yekaterina. He got on a trolley, got off at Theatre Square and headed for New Holland.
Reaching the extreme part of the embankment, he sat on the bench and looked at the sea.
He saw the Mining Institute. This would be the site for his assignation today.
The young dentist often came here to dream of far-away seas, of oceans without shores. During these past six years, a ship would often appear to him—a huge, European ship. He’d see himself boarding it.
But now, with the materials all gathered and forwarded, he saw himself as an ordinary dentist. He understood that he would never go anywhere, that he would never follow in the wake of Alexander Zaevfratsky. Only in the zoo would he ever come face to face with anything truly exotic, namely, mangy lions pacing restlessly behind bars.
Or perhaps in the circus, where the toothless beasts perform antics they would never do in their homeland.
Misha Kotikov’s dream of voyages burned low, then died out.
Yesterday he received a bronze medal from the Quiet Sanctuary. That’s all the recompense he got for his six years of work. And are his poems in fact being published? All people do is laugh at them. True, he is a member of the Union of Poets, but what kind of poets will you find there?! The moment you start reciting your poetry, people say that it’s not yours. It’s Alexander Zaevfratsky’s.
Nevertheless, he will marry Yekaterina. Yes, she is stupid, but Alexander Zaevfratsky in his day married her. That means that he, Misha Kotikov, must marry her, too.
For several minutes, Yekaterina stood watching the youthful back of Misha’s head. His hat was on his lap. Then she jumped up from behind, covered his eyes with her hands and sat down next to him.
“What are you dreaming of, Mikhail Kotikov?” she asked, removing her hands. “I got your letter, Misha. I accept.”
Misha Kotikov looked at the sea.
“I’ve loved you for a long time,” Yekaterina continued, “but you started coming over again only the past two months.”
“My dear Yekaterina,” he said, as if awakening. He got up.
“So, you r-really accept?” Misha asked in the French manner. “Then today marks the beginning of my life as an ordinary person!” He sighed and added: “Of course, you will also be my link with the past, with the romantic period of my life.”
Seated next Misha, Yekaterina was rummaging through her purse. A cambric handkerchief, a cheap compact and a pocket lip pencil jostled for her attention. She took out the mirror and applied the pencil to her messily painted lips.
“She’s over thirty,” Misha thought as he looked at her.
“I used to think you were so stupid,” he said, “but, in the past several years, I’ve come to know so many women.” And he smiled.
“Deep down I’m a child,” Yekaterina said and laughed. “And it is this childlike nature of mine that attracts men. I’m not stupid, and I’m glad to see that you understand this. . .”
Misha, bending down, kissed her on the forehead.
“So,” asked Misha, “is it settled?”
“It’s settled,” replied Yekaterina.
An hour later and in another part of the city they were climbing the marble staircase of the Quiet Sanctuary.
“Here,” Misha said, turning towards her, “are preserved all the materials I’ve managed to collect on the life of Alexander Zaevfratsky, including my notebooks and diaries.”
A very thin old man started descending the staircase as soon as he saw the couple climbing towards him.
He exchanged greetings with Yekaterina, then shook Mikhail Kotikov’s hand. “Oh, what an enormous pleasure we have derived from your materials on the life of Alexander Zaevfratsky!” he said. “They are indeed astonishing, but there is something strange about them. Don’t you worry, though! It’s just that you are so young. What a pity that there wasn’t a young man like you around in the days of Pushkin, our glorious sun. How fascinating it would have been if we could’ve followed the life of a genius from day to day, from hour to hour.”
The old man looked rapturously at the portrait.
Someone summoned the old man away. He disappeared into the inner rooms of the Sanctuary.
The session was not yet under way. Mikhail and Yekaterina stopped in the middle of the room. It was here that the library of the great writer was preserved.
Outside, silence reigned on the Square. To the right—new buds gave off their smell, to the left—emperors’ busts in plaster brought in from adjacent institutes were rotting away.
The wind blew from the Neva River. You’d think it was human.
People were strolling by the university, past the Thomon Stock Exchange, past the Ethnographic Museum, past the Admiralty, cut off from view by houses, and past the Bronze Horseman erected by Catherine II.
Yekaterina and Misha walked up to the window.
“I’m so happy,” Yekaterina said, awakening. “Now we’ll be talking about Alexander forever and ever.” She leaned on the back of the armchair. “You do like this jacket, Misha. Don’t you? How it does become me!” And she took a deep breath from a bouquet of violets.
The bearded employees of the Quiet Sanctuary went swiftly to work. Like ants, they scurried about to protect their Sanctuary, restocking it, dusting it, showing it with dignity to all visitors. They showed profound reverence to anyone who had ever served as a sponsor or done a good deed for the Sanctuary. Here they lavished praise on what they considered the ne plus ultra of poetry, a point never to be surpassed by future ages.
Heading in different directions, couples in love walked behind Agafonov. They smiled, turned back, stood on the banks of the Neva, took a stroll and again returned. They smiled at the sun that was disappearing on the waters. They smiled at the last sparrows on the road. The sparrows pecked at the oats, lifting them triumphantly in the air.
Agafonov sat down unself-consciously on the granite bench, took out a sheet of paper and pencil and, as in days of old, proceeded to combine the first words that entered his head. It was thus that the first line was born. He brooded over it, trying to make sense out of it. He eliminated the clash of sounds in the line, put it in good syntactic order and added a second line. Once again, the words opened up to him like little boxes. When Agafonov crawled into these boxes—they had no bottom—he came out onto a vast expanse and found himself in a temple: He was sitting on a tripod simultaneously expounding, taking notes and arranging them into verse.
Proud as a demon, he returned to the embankment. He started walking to the Summer Garden.
“I’ve been vouchsafed knowledge,” he thought. “I have a Roman connection. I know the future. Often, I do not exist at all. Often, I merge with all of nature, then I come forward as a human being.”
Proud and even slightly impertinent, he paced along the main alley of the Summer Garden. Statues eyed him from all directions. They appeared pink to him. Their eyes were green and their hair slightly painted.
The flowers growing on the banks of the pond, the granite vases, the Engineer’s Castle—these caught his attention momentarily, but he turned back and noticed Andrei, the philosopher, sitting on a bench with a half-Chinese child.
The little girl was wearing a light-colored, half-length coat and a straw hat. On her feet were colored socks. Andrei had on an inexpensive coat and felt hat. While the philosopher amused himself with a book, the little girl sucked away on a chocolate bar.
Agafonov moved slowly past them. He was afraid lest someone disturb him, his state of mind.
Once there had been gardens and boulevards all over this place. Agafonov could still feel their presence.
He walked in this mood all day.
The white night, whose trembling recalled the evaporating ether, had an ever greater intoxicating effect on him. Well-defined shadows moved along the road, where automobiles with elegant creatures in them rushed by. Then everything fell silent. In the windows of certain jewelry shops, the clocks showed the exact time. Proud inscriptions announced that this was indeed so.
The former Unknown Poet entered the hotel.
Troytsyn walked the streets of the city with tears in his eyes. He loved St. Petersburg so passionately. It had once loomed like Sirin, the Bird of Paradise, beckoning him with its lights.
There was a time when Troytsyn saw St. Petersburg as a fairyland, as a Russian city. And in what sense was Moscow’s Cathedral of the Assumption not Russian, you might ask, even if it was built by a foreigner? And what about St. Sophia in Kiev? In St. Petersburg, Russian Manon Lescauts, Ladies of the Camillias came out to gaze lovingly at the floating pearls of ice along the Neva River.
Here you might well have encountered the tales of Perrault or the bohemian world itself with its guitars and balalaikas. Here were masquerades with ruby lights.
Sure, Troytsyn still dances his legs off at the festive balls. He still reads his old poems at daybreak to close-cropped young ladies. Oh, how he prances before the mirror, executing half-turns and smiling with self-satisfaction. But no one seems to notice that Sirin, the Bird of Paradise, has shrivelled up deep within him and died.
The young lady may have poked fun at Troytsyn at the ball, but on the street she relents. She goes off with him, not because he is a poet or because she is on the rebound but because, well—why not?
She has hair the color and texture of tow, cherry lips and lovely blue eyes. A short dress and brocade blouse hang on her scrawny frame. The chrysolite on her little finger looks as desolate as a piece of bottle green glass.
It was not Troytsyn’s style to get his young ladies drunk. Instead, he’d lead them into his room, reach for his jewel-case and woo them with all sorts of poetic objets d’art. So it was this time, too.
The room was cozy, the night ever so silent and white. Pictures of the Kremlin and of Manon Lescaut lined the wall next to an engraving of the Prodigal Son. Troytsyn sat down on his bed and moved to kiss his lady fair. His boots were standing near the chair, next to the young girl’s shoes.
The brilliant dawn stole over the lovers. Their mouths were open. Their hands were joined. They were snoring fitfully. They were dreaming: She saw her future family going about their daily chores, while he saw himself, during his days at the lycée, on the fields washed by a little river.
On this night, Agafonov looked out the hotel window and saw the white Petersburg night stretched out on the spacious avenue. Sitting at the little table, he drank beer, placed a sheet of paper on the table and recited his last lines of verse. After he finished, he looked at the poem and realized that it was quite bad. The flowering of his youth was over. His dream had come to an end, as did his life. He sucked on the muzzle of a revolver—God knows only why—then walked over to a corner of the room, pointed the gun at his temple and pulled the trigger.
Troytsyn was in bed with his young lady when Misha Kotikov, dropping everything else, rushed over to his house and pounded on his door. Troytsyn put on his pants in a hurry and came out into the lobby.
“My God! I can’t get over it! I can’t! The world’s last poet blew out his brains last night at the Hotel Bristol!”
Troytsyn broke out in tears.
“The same fate awaits all of us. I, too, am the last poet.”
Forgetting all about the young lady, he left with Misha Kotikov for the hotel.
They kissed the forehead of the deceased and wept. Troytsyn blew his nose. Unnoticed by anyone, he grabbed the poet’s tie and shoved it in his pocket. Misha Kotikov removed the blue, enamel cuff links from the Unknown Poet’s wrists and buried them in his cigarette case. Putting these items away, they glanced at each other with a certain relief and satisfaction.
Only then did Troytsyn remember his young lady. He ran home to apologize.
“What kind of respect is this,” she asked angrily, “to leave a woman all alone?”
But when she learned what had happened, when she saw Troytsyn weeping, when she saw him holding the poet’s tie in his hand, she too wept.
“There’s something exotic about my profession,” Misha was saying to Yekaterina as they walked in the noisy park. “I’m always tinkering—that’s part of my job, you know—with gold and silver and even with liquid silver. You look down and you discover a ring with a precious stone in it—an emerald, for instance—and, all of a sudden, a far-off continent looms into view, with emeralds hanging from every branch of every tree, and, suddenly, a belly dancer swings her body to and fro. Or a young man walks in wearing a turquoise ring on his little finger. As you look for a tooth of matching color, you think of Persia, of sultry gestures and movements. Out of my dream I create an Africa. Dynamite! Don’t you think?”
“Yes, but tell me, Misha, just why did you choose this profession?”
“I didn’t. It chose me!” the dentist replied, shaking his head. “At first I got into it just to be doing something, you know, a temporary job, took evening courses. But before I knew it, I had become a dentist.”
“My brother is a boot-maker. So what kind of a boot-maker will a horse-guardsman make?”
Misha and Yekaterina continued their stroll through the park.
The lanes of Pavlovsky Park were quiet and nearly deserted. Once upon a time, Misha rode a tricycle through this park.
“Yes, of course, we were oppressors once,” he said in a spirit of ideological conviction.
They walked slowly, very slowly.
In a city that is stirring to life, Troytsyn, dreaming of Don Juan, yearns for a great love. He watches kids prancing in the courtyard. They are rejoicing in the spring that has come.
The side-windows open. He sees children stick out their frail heads with damp hair out of the window, then vanish. The door knobs and handles come alive with the sudden appearance of children on unsteady legs.
Above the canal, across from the House of Education, Kostya Rotikov is pacing the floor of the auction hall reading a book of dream interpretation. Two or three figures shuffle leisurely in the hall, inspecting the items on display.
The leaves rustle outside the window. The pale, white sky gradually turns dark.
Kostya glances at the clock—it’s time to close up shop.
Stragglers descend the staircase.
He goes down below.
He says something to the door-keeper.
On the trolley, he thinks to himself: “Isn’t life beautiful?!” All in all, his job is a piece of cake. What a thrill to pick up chinoiserie and paintings at cut-rate prices and auction them off. He can live off a single teacup for an eternity! Well, almost.
He enters a house and inspects its belongings. The hostess had once “acquired” chinoiserie from emigré gentlemen. Now she was getting married, leaving town, selling everything.
“No need to be too scrupulous with the likes of her,” thinks Kostya Rotikov and purchases a few knick-knacks for next to nothing.
Kostya would like to stop and look closely at his purchases. He has a flair for things of this sort. He knows that he has acquired objets d’art that would be accorded respect everywhere. The cemetery is not far off. He places all of the cups and figurines on a bench and squats down before them. Expensive porcelain from Saxony, he mutters.
On the trees, the birds are pouring out their song. Kostya packs his artifacts away and proceeds to read his dream interpretation book.
“Wonderful,” he says, putting his notebook on his lap. He looks up at the birds. “Their singing is warm and sentimental.”
He gets up and starts inspecting the gravestones and their epitaphs.
He leaps up and chortles before one such epitaph:
There were no bounds to your love,
I delighted in it as a husband.
He takes out his notebook and writes this down.
Kovalyov and his wife go to the opera.
Yesterday he met Natasha. Natasha was going abroad for two months.
“Yes,” he thinks, “she’s settled in.”
Just like Alexander Zaevfratsky, Misha Kotikov spent his evenings painting. He made every effort to select the same colors, the same tones, the same brushes his hero had used.
He found brushes in Yekaterina’s dresser. To obtain paints from abroad, on the other hand, he’d go to former amateurs, the offspring of wealthy families. In the evenings, he’d sit before an easel with a brush in his hand. When tired of painting, he’d read from the books that Zaevfratsky had read.
His whole life was modeled on Zaevfratsky.
A marvelous evening.
The sun is setting.
In a peasant hut, Marya Dalmatova is boiling milk on her primus stove.
The grasshoppers chirr and clatter. The lake is iridescent with color.
“Yes, it’s good to spend the summer in the country.”
Teptyolkin is sitting before the hut in his slippers and loose shirt. His collar is open. He is drawing certain figures on the sand with his cane. The knob is decorated with images of monkeys.
I finished my novel, raised my pointed head with its yellow membraned eyes and looked at my congenitally deformed hands: my right hand had three fingers, my left—four.
I then took my novel and went to Peterhof to reread it, to reflect, to wander about, to be in the company of my heroes.
From the Old Peterhof train station I walked to the tower I had once come upon and described.
There was no sign of a tower.
Under the influence of the perennially blooming flowers and grass, the enormous bird, which—consciously or otherwise—had so exercised my heroes, stirred to life again within me.
I see my heroes in the air around me. I join a crowd pushing its way to the New Peterhof. I sit down by the sea and look up: my heroes are standing in the sun-pierced air above the sea. I leaf through my manuscript and converse with them.
Once back in St. Petersburg, I want only to disintegrate, to vanish into thin air. I open the stove, throw the pages of my manuscript into it and set them on fire.
A heat wave.
I take my clothes off slowly and walk naked to the table. I open the window, scrutinize the passers-by, then the city. I begin to write. As I write, I observe a house manager striding past. I see a NEPman’s wife ambling by. Not far off, a college girl is hurrying off somewhere.
I’m amused by the fact that I’m sitting naked before the window, and that a laurel-tree about the length of my little finger is standing on my table next to a little shrub of myrtle. Between them is the knobby ink-well and books, all sorts of books dealing with the conquests of Mexico and Peru, grammar books, and so on.
“I’m a decent person,” I say to myself. “I’m a starry-eyed idealist, much like Teptyolkin. I have Kostya Rotikov’s refined taste, the lofty conceptions of the Unknown Poet and Troytsyn’s simple-mindedness—I’m made of the same stuff as my heroes.”
I immediately set out to fix myself a chocolate drink on my primus stove—you see, I have a sweet tooth!
I walk in the nude (recollections of Hellas) all day in my two-room apartment or else wearing only a shirt. My slippers are those of the monastery, velvet woven with gold.
I fix myself the chocolate and drink it. Then I dust the books. As I dust them, I also read them—one book today, another book tomorrow. Ten lines here, ten lines there. A passage from a political treatise in French, followed by an Italian poem, then by a fragment from a Spanish travelogue, and, finally, by a maxim or two in Latin. I like to call this a flight from one culture to another.
You’ll find not a few eccentrics like myself in Europe. All in all, I’m satisfied with the new way of life. I live in a heroic land, in a heroic time, and I follow the events in China with curiosity.
If China joins India and the USSR, then it will bode ill for the old world. No question about it!
Sometimes, I look at my deformed fingers and laugh with satisfaction to myself. Look at me! What a monstrosity I am!
My hands are always moist, my mouth reeks of raspberry. I wear a “tolstoy” shirt and unfashionably long trousers. On my finger is a turquoise ring. I’m very fond of this ring as a specimen of junk art. Sometimes, I put on a fashionable suit, yellow boots and a fancy wrist watch.
I have a real weakness for gingerbread figurines covered in sugar who show off their scanty skirts. How reminiscent indeed of classical ballet! On my writing desk you’re always sure to find a gingerbread ballerina dancing next to the knobby ink-well. But there is more: a nude woman representing Venus and, at her feet, a small plate with fragments of Tanagra statuettes. Here slumber too a bottle of brandy and a sloping package of colored mint gingerbread in the shapes of fish, lambs, rings and “horsies,” which I wash down with my brandy.
I know that I cut a ludicrous figure sitting here naked on my chair, eating mint gingerbread and drinking brandy. In life, I’m an optimist. For me, writing is a physiological process, a unique, sui generis purging of the human organism. I don’t like what I write because I see all too well that my writing is pretentious, metaphorical, poetically coquettish, in short, something a true writer would shun at all cost.
I’m not in the least perturbed by the fact that my works go unpublished for the most part. It wouldn’t have been any easier in the past. “Look at England,” I say to myself, “true writers aren’t having any better luck there than here. Sure, two or three writers may get together and publish their works in an elegant edition of 200 copies with all sorts of allusions to unknown texts. But who reads them? Everybody is too busy doing the fox-trot and devouring the latest potboilers.”
I could live comfortably enough on earnings from my countless trades, were it not for my curiosity. I love going for a walk, frequenting the theatres and show-places and clubs, going to concerts, visiting the suburbs, doing the fox-trot, setting a young girl on a sofa and reading her passages from my works—not because I believe them to be beautiful, but because, in my opinion, you won’t find anything better in our city, and, I might add, because the girl in question would hardly understand them, anyway (it’s such fun sometimes not to be understood!)—and then taking her somewhere, running into another girl and reading them passages from my works.
At bedtime, when I’m at home, I read or reread some pastoral novel in an old French translation—because it sometimes seems to me, especially in the evenings, that I actually think in French. This is odd in view of the fact that I don’t speak a word of any other language except Russian. At times, I like to concoct something so spiritually elegant or philosophically subtle that I myself am dumbfounded.
Did I write this myself or didn’t I?
I bring my hand to my lips and kiss it. My hand is precious. I’m praising myself. I wonder—whom did I take after? No one in my family had any talent!
It was still winter when, on a certain hour and day, the members of Zhakt, the Housing Committee, held their meeting at the apartment of a railroad employee. At the appointed hour, the district instructor entered the room.
Teptyolkin had not wanted to attend: He had had a premonition of disaster. However, the educated residents of his housing complex had worked hard to bring him around. At last, he decided to make a sacrifice, to go and agree to everything.
Long before this day, it had been whispered about at every gate that Teptyolkin should be elected Chairman of the Housing Committee. He was, they said, a man of culture. And what’s more, he was not a thief.
The meeting dragged on well into the night. Overcome by despair, Teptyolkin at first said flat out “no”. But when the portfolios were distributed, the chairmanship went to Teptyolkin. Next on the agenda was the matter of suggestions. Everybody pleaded that a Bolshevik Reading Room be installed in the building. Arguments instantly broke out over which apartment should have this honor: A special room next to the janitor’s or one of the communal apartments? Since there was no way to settle this controversy that very evening, it was duly recorded in the minutes under the rubric “To Be Resolved.”
Meanwhile, the district instructor, a former navy man, was busy explaining and amplifying. He was quite pleased, that is, pleased that everyone was listening and putting their trust in him. The building residents, on the other hand, were pleased that they were being listened to and trusted.
The instructor was in the best of moods, and so were the residents. The meeting was over.
They descended the stairs.
A waiter, the new Secretary of the Governing Board, walked ahead of them, with the members of the new Reviewing Commission at his heels—a doorman employed by a certain foreign company, an accountant and a doctor. The people walked behind them, and behind the people walked Marya Dalmatova with Teptyolkin, who kept adjusting his pince-nez. They all exchanged farewells in the courtyard. Some men kissed the hands of the ladies, others shook them, still others tipped their hats and hurried on. Under a diminutive moon, the cats shrieked in the wide courtyard.
As early as the last days of June, Teptyolkin had felt—sitting in the garden laid out by Marya and himself—that the entire history of the world was essentially nothing less than his own history. The little garden was gorgeous. The handiwork of both husband and wife, it occupied a tiny area in the yard by the red, brick wall. The previous spring, Marya had watched as the trees next to the zoo were being clipped and pruned. She remembered that when freshly-cut branches are planted, they strike roots.
Assisted by Teptyolkin, Marya took two large branches home. By that time, Teptyolkin had already become Chairman of the Housing Committee. The branches took. Husband and wife constructed a small fence of wooden cross-beams around it and, using oil paint, painted it green themselves. They beat diminutive paths into the soil, raked the soil and covered it with turf. To obtain the turf, they made a special trip to the countryside.
They then installed a little table and a bench, planted forget-me-nots, pansies and even prepared a miniature lawn. Teptyolkin had one key, the house manager or janitor another—so the residents of this building could feel free to come and go as they pleased. But, whether out of respect for someone else’s labor or, perhaps, out of scorn for a garden that looked more like a terrarium, the peaceful residents never set foot in it.
A watering can in her hand, Marya would go down the stairs in the morning to water the plants. In the evening, Teptyolkin would sit hatless in the garden.
At times, they would have their dinner here. Teptyolkin would sit at the table covered with a white tablecloth. Marya would rush down the stairs with a steaming bowl of something or other, while the children, playing in the courtyard, would observe them with keen curiosity.
Thoroughly at peace with himself, Teptyolkin began taking his walks in the garden. Only in a manner of speaking could you talk about taking walks in that tiny garden. There was hardly enough room for a man to stretch out his limbs in.
Nothing could have been more terrifying, therefore, than the night Teptyolkin realized that the culture which he had been defending for so long was not his, that he had never belonged to it, that he had never belonged to the world of radiant spirits, which, until then, he had considered himself a member of, that there was nothing for him to do in this world, that he would just pass through life like a shadow without leaving any remembrance of himself or else only the worst remembrance possible.
He realized that he was no different from a book-keeper, that no chasm separated him from the latter, that, whatever their differences otherwise, they all viewed the world identically: they all talked about a culture they had never been part of.
At a concert given by a visiting conductor, Teptyolkin felt tears rolling down his cheeks. Yet, it was not the music that occasioned his weeping but his, Teptyolkin’s, longing to remain young forever, to look at the world with wonderment. Whenever it seemed to him that there was no difference between himself and a whimpering philistine, he’d become loathsome to himself. Nausea would come over him. He would throw fits in Marya’s presence for no apparent reason. At times, he’d even break some dishes.
Marya worried herself to a dither over Teptyolkin. She saw to it that his contacts with his fellow man be reduced to a bare minimum.
“We’ll avoid all unnecessary contact,” she would sometimes say. “Contact that is unnecessary just isn’t necessary. Don’t you think so?”
Hardly moving his lips, Teptyolkin would usually reply after a brief pause:
“Yes, that which is unnecessary is, of course . . . not necessary.”
Although he hardly believed in an afterlife, Teptyolkin found Scipio’s dream alluring. The music soared and strained and cascaded. His love for the Renaissance was ludicrous and groundless, he confessed, but how could he turn his back on horizons that extended without end?
The bald man rushes into the bookstore like a man thirsting for the water of life.
“We really couldn’t live without our Cicero,” he says, warming his feet by the tiled stove. “Now, could we, Marya?” The fire crackles on.
Whenever Marya was out visiting, Teptyolkin would become terribly agitated: “. . . and what if—heaven forbid!—she ends up under a trolley? Or what if she is attacked on her way home by robbers? Her heart is none too strong. Don’t I know it!”
Teptyolkin was perturbed as much by Marya’s forays during the day as by those at night. He’d stand at the window and wait. Sometimes, he’d get his old binoculars out of the black dresser and watch the street below. He’d weave his way mentally through the crowd, anxious to spot Marya somewhere. He was always worried about her.
“A-ha! There she is! It’s Marya, my Marya! And she is carrying a bundle under her arm. I wonder, why is she in such a hurry?”
And behold! You could already hear her steps on the staircase: “thud, thud!” She was carrying a newspaper under her arm—a bad newspaper, of course, bristling with vulgarisms. But, then, newspapers all over the world are vulgar these days.
Teptyolkin began his reading of the paper with a lament for a certain general hanged recently in Mexico. Teptyolkin was saddened to learn that the military orchestra played right through the execution, while the people, including several other generals, stuffed themselves silly with ice cream on this festive occasion. The news that the Soviet Society of Aviation and Chemical Defense was organizing a crop-dusting campaign aroused in Teptyolkin a sense of the futility of human actions. He read that a 3-day canary song tournament was scheduled to begin soon and that a shipment of veil instead of textiles was sent to a provincial cooperative for the winter. Forgetting that his whole life was one endless hustle and bustle, he immersed himself in interminable speculations on the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm.
Dinner is on the table. A rather frugal dinner. Marya dries the plates diligently and stirs the soup with her ladle.
“Well, honey, how is it?” she pleads, blowing on the soup. She smiles and repeats: “So, how is it?” Then she says proudly: “Look, I fried the roots! Just look at the color on that bouillon soup!”
Just the same, today’s dinner was truly magnificent. As the pièce de résistance, they had duck with cranberry jelly. For dessert, they had baked apples, after which Marya got up and said: “Look what I got for you—Paul et Virginie! And with engravings, too! I was at the market when—believe it or not—there it was! Well, what do you think?”
And they sat down together, drank tea and looked closely at the engravings:
First childhood. Two mothers with babies at their breasts are seated between two huts. A loyal dog is watching over the cradle. Palm trees and mountains are visible in the distance.
Second childhood. The children, a skirt spread over their heads, are walking in the rain. A barefoot young man, elegant and wearing a broad-brimmed hat, is hurrying in their direction.
Look over there! The plantation-owner is beating on a slave with sticks. Look at Paul and Virginie pleading with him to stop.
Teptyolkin recalls the article on the Negroes by kind-hearted Macaulay. He had read it as a child. And he feels that he too had once had lofty impulses, a festive spirit and a striving for something achingly beautiful. And more pictures pass before their eyes.
Teptyolkin was sitting in his garden-study. Perhaps the sky was too bright or Marya had let the goats into the yard or perhaps on account of some other phenomenon or conversation earlier that day—whatever the reason—he dropped his book, unable to concentrate on it. It was hard to say whether he was actually thinking about anything as such. If anyone had posed this question to him at the time, he’d have undoubtedly hesitated to answer it. He’d have ransacked his brains trying to think of what was running through his head and would’ve had to admit—and bitterly, too—that he hadn’t been thinking about anything at all. One set of associations led to other associations: One moment, the sun looked to him like a watermelon, the next, the flowers on Marya’s blouse reminded him of a steamboat. A goat that was butting the brick wall provoked in him an image of yet other goats.
Time and again, Teptyolkin got up from his bench, leaned against the fence, sniffed and moved his lips as if to say:
“I have a premonition of something.”
Conscious of his own dignity, Teptyolkin looked significantly at people passing by his garden, while Marya, clasping a goat in her arms, dragged it along the yard to the little garden. Putting away for the moment his own lofty sensibilities—his tendency to dissolve in nature or be swallowed up by the cosmos—Teptyolkin exchanged a few words with Marya. Then, he opened the gate and walked out.
Awakening from his pensive mood, Teptyolkin would feel the sweet charm of the world upon him. Yes, the sun shone more brightly, the whole world was, in fact, infinitely brighter. He himself was a lofty creature again, worthy on every count. At such moments, he’d be filled with compassion for all living things, forgiving each his shortcomings. His unbounded love for Marya would be rekindled, and he’d turn to her and say: “Marya—don’t you think we should go looking for toys!”
He’d walk self-importantly through the streets, with Marya by his side. They’d be looking for toy shops. At the display window, Marya would press her nose insistently against the glass. They would go in.
“What age do you have in mind?” a clerk would ask.
“We are looking for artistic toys,” Teptyolkin would reply.
Bending over the counter, Marya and Teptyolkin would inspect the toys.
“Don’t you have a wooden bird,” Marya would ask, “or a wooden lion with the traditional mane?”
“And where are your Russian dolls?” Teptyolkin would interrupt.
Returning home, husband and wife would dote lovingly on the toys.
Sometimes, sitting in the garden, Teptyolkin noticed that Marya was getting old, that the complexion of her face had lost its original purity. She no longer felt like taking any walks. She would say: “Go ahead, honey, take a walk by yourself, go breathe the pure air. Meanwhile, I’ll have your dinner ready for you. How would you like crayfish soup, hah?”
Teptyolkin would hug her and hold her tightly on such occasions. Rubbing his nose against hers, he’d look deeply into her eyes. Marya, so youthful, so very youthful, would walk through the park like Diana, yes, so much like Diana.
Marya Dalmatova stepped out of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, an enormous building resembling a pepper-pot or desk set and blazing with chandeliers, lamps and candles. She unbuttoned her jacket, took out a flat Chinese lantern, unfolded it and stationed herself between two columns. Then, shielding the light from the wind, she inserted a candle into the lamp.
Part of the crowd headed for Avenue of the October Revolution, another took off along Mayorov Avenue. Several others, including Marya and Teptyolkin, followed Galernaya Street towards Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge. The streets, dried up from the frost, reflected the starry sky. The sound of bells echoed from the lid of the ink-well. The trembling light of the candles illuminated faces, hands, streets, lanes and alleys.
Marya, who had shed her religious feelings, thought that she was taking part in a carnival procession. No longer a Christian, she nevertheless loved the church for its rituals. She loved it as a form of archaic theater, as a dramatic performance. Similar considerations made her prefer the traditional wing of the Orthodox Church to its reformist one. Sublimity, she felt, demanded a language unique unto itself, along with a touch of incomprehensibility. Failing to understand this, the reformist church had—in Marya’s opinion—aimed for a simplicity that served to undermine the psychological element altogether. The sublime had been reduced to the level of the mundane.
“Art cannot exist without an irrational component,” thought Marya as she crossed Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge with her husband. She was holding her lantern as if taking part in a sublime theatrical performance.
Teptyolkin, too, was carrying a candle in the paper bag he had fashioned from yesterday evening’s Red Gazette. He was adrift in his dreams: Carried back to his childhood, he saw himself in a hygienic room painted in oil. He saw the icon of St. Panteleimon with the crimson, multi-faceted lamp before it. Shielding the light with his hand, he turned onto the first line of Vasilievsky Island.
Her eyes on her lamp, Marya mistook someone’s back for her husband’s and took the wrong turn. All of a sudden, she felt like screaming. She shook and trembled. All around her, everything became hot—her eyelids would not open. Through her nausea, she heard a voice:
“Rush to the sick bay! Tell the helmsman at once that someone has fallen overboard.”
In the distance, she heard other voices:
“I climb up to the deck when I hear someone screaming. Hey, what’s going on, I ask myself. So I take a look and—guess what!—someone has fallen overboard. So I jump into the water, throw my jacket away, my raincoat, too. The water, br-r-r cold. By God, I manage to get out just in time. She seemed to weigh a ton. So maybe she didn’t weigh that much—must have been that cramp she got.”
“We was sitting around, shooting the bull. We was gonna pass around the vodka. All of a sudden—wham!—I hear Seryozhka splashing into the water. I look down and think to myself: Somebody’s gotta jump in and get’em. I look again and I seen him dragging the woman by the hair, like she was some kind of a whale. What damn luck!—I think to myself—hadda happen on Easter Sunday! He grabs the bottle, takes a swig, all puffin’ and pantin’, turns all red. It was like Epiphany day, I wouldda sworn he’d been baptised all over again.”
Marya raised her heavy head and took in her surroundings with her eyes.
Two people, a bathhouse, people standing in the door in striped vests, a porthole drawing in air from above, someone at the stern is adjusting the lamp.
“You see, her eyes are open. Take her up to the deck!”
They wrapped Marya Dalmatova in a blanket. The sailors wanted to see her off, but she got off the boat alone. As she did so, she overheard the following:
“We boiled water in the galley, fixed some tea and gave it to her. She may still pull through. Life is full of misfortunes. She’ll sneeze, cough and then be as good as new.”
Meanwhile, Teptyolkin was running like crazy through the streets, looking for Marya. He’d come home and still no Marya! A dozen times he dashes off to St. Isaac’s to look for her. A dozen times he watches from both ends of Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge for her. Sometimes, he stops near the two sphinxes. He looks at the black strip of water wedged between the shore and the ice, and a premonition presses against his heart.
“My God, where is she? Where?” his soul cries out. He leaps over the snow and hurries on.
He had run up the staircase of his building for the twentieth time when he caught sight of Marya by the light of the dawn. She was sitting by the door, a bandage around her head and shaking with fever. The colored lantern was missing from her hands, and her face was frightfully pale. Her hat sat strangely on her head.
“My sweet little child,” he exclaimed, “what’s wrong?” and he clasped her shoulders and led her into the apartment.
Marya burst out in a sob.
The thermometer peeped out from beneath Marya’s armpit. She was lying on the bed. Teptyolkin, sad and frowning, was pacing about the room. His unshaven face was twitching.
“How fleeting is domestic bliss!” he thought. “The slightest incident and it all comes crashing down.”
It was a pity, he felt, that a young life should fade away for no good reason.
“Marya,” he said, sitting down on his chair and taking her hand.
“My treasure,” Marya said, opening her eyes, “my sweet treasure, I’m leaving you.” And—and this was utterly strange—she really did leave him.
Something strange now happened: Marya pleaded with Teptyolkin to carry her in his arms to every corner of the room. Holding onto Teptyolkin with one hand, she stroked each and every object in the room with her free hand: She felt the little book-openers, the books, the backs of chairs, the flowers on the window-sill, the curtain, the ash-tray with its tiny flowers. She demanded that he spin her round and round: she needed air. Teptyolkin was pale, but he carried out her orders nonetheless, spinning her round and round as he himself spun around.
The sounds of a radio-newspaper were blaring away from two horns attached to the facing balcony. Teptyolkin couldn’t remember the rest because he suddenly noticed that Marya had calmed down. He laid her carefully on the bed and sat down next to her. He began looking at the vials, at the lampshade, at her illuminated face. Noticing that dust had settled on the vials, he wiped them. He then covered the lamp on all sides with paper and left only a narrow cleft so that the light would be deflected away from Marya’s face. Teptyolkin kissed Marya on the forehead and sat down on the window-sill.
From his perch, he looked down at his little garden in the courtyard. It was covered with snowflakes. In his drowsy state, Teptyolkin observed with horror that everyone loved to talk about the body’s corruption but few if any cared to talk about its resurrection. It was night. He got up from his chair and sat on the window-sill: Up there, Dante and Beatrice were wandering through the sensitive garden that was the universe. Could it be that each man is guided by a certain woman as his lodestar, that an image from our childhood revisits us in the person of our wives, an image of stunning harmony? Moreover, Teptyolkin wondered whether married life might not therefore be intolerable. On his tiptoes, huge and sad as he was, Teptyolkin walked into the neighboring room and began reading his manuscript. He agonized over the discrepancy between the figure he cut in reality and the ideal image. He was tormented by his thinness. In his opinion, it was his slender frame that prevented him from becoming a hero.
“What if I had muscles,” he mused, “or the face of an ascetic? Or what if I had put on chains to mortify the flesh?” Teptyolkin lifted his eyes. In the moonlight, a greater sadness troubled him. “What would’ve happened,” he wondered, “had my name not been Teptyolkin but something utterly different? Tep and tel—what an obvious case of onomatopoeia. Yet, what irony! The particle kin might well sound stern in the manner of the English king, but, alas, the liquid l frustrates the noble effect.”
“Oh, Lord,” Teptyolkin said, sitting upright, and he let go of his manuscript. “No one ever bothers with the Renaissance these days. That is, no one but me. Oh, my God, why all the torture? Why me?” And once again he collapsed into reality.
He remembered that terrible night, remembered how excruciatingly silent it was, how, in his search for Marya, he found himself standing face to face with the sphinxes. And these fabled monsters reminded him of other nights—Egyptian nights. Yes, even then. He put his book down and went into the adjoining room. Marya was not in her bed. He looked around and saw her groping her way entirely on her own. She’d sit down wherever she could—on the chairs, on the table, on the trunk covered with a plush green tablecloth, even on the window-sill.
“Marya!” Teptyolkin rushed to her side. “Please don’t leave me!”
Marya wept in his arms, then coughed again.
She was breathing more softly now. Teptyolkin felt that he was holding a heavy body in his arms, a body just barely warm. Unable to hold her, he sat down on the chair, now of triple weight. The chair couldn’t hold them, and Teptyolkin slumped to the floor.
A pink hue was already dancing on the cheeks of what was once Marya. Her arms swung lifelessly in the air, her eyes stared at the ceiling, her lower jaw drooped.
Teptyolkin, his face white, stared out the window. Like Kovalyov, the cornet, he felt that the world was a horrifying place, that he was alone in it, utterly alone.
When the doctor, as usual, came that night, he found the roseate body of the deceased lying on the bed in her white dress. Teptyolkin was sitting on the chair next to her, his hat on his lap. His suitcase was by his side.
Teptyolkin, in anguish, was taking a walk in the early hours of the morning when a dove smiled at him. The white bird with reddish-brown spots turned its neck towards him. It looked at him with its round eyes.
“Oh, my dove,” Teptyolkin said and stopped walking. “My dear, dear dove!” He walked behind the dove. The dove walked solemnly before him. Teptyolkin followed the dove. “You’ve returned, you peaceful birds. But I’m so different now! Really! I’m a totally different person. He who once thought of exalting the city with his love is no more. A different man stands before you now, you sweet birds.”
The doves went on chattering. Thinking that he was about to feed them, they flew down from the cornices in flocks.
Kazan Cathedral. The sun is shining brightly on a small park. Lonely, shivering figures sit on benches that are moist with the dew.
Teptyolkin lies down on the bench and dozes off. Frolicking birds surround him on all sides.
The pale sky, the sweet, blue, faint Petersburg sky sinks like a dome over Teptyolkin. Never mind that he is already bald and utterly alone.
The author has tried valiantly—and on every page of this book, I might add—to save Teptyolkin. Alas, it was not to be.
After his act of renunciation, Teptyolkin lived a life that was far from destitute, and his station in life was not without substance. He never had doubts about himself or about his participation in the life of a great culture. It was his dream—not himself—that he considered a lie.
Teptyolkin had become far more than just another impoverished culture club lecturer. Rather, he was now a distinguished, albeit obtuse, bureaucrat. And he certainly did not cultivate any garden in his courtyard. On the contrary, he shouted at petty bureaucrats and was horribly loud-mouthed and proud of the position he had attained.
It’s time to lower the curtain. The performance is over. The stage is silent and dim. Where is the promised love, where the heroism and art?
A sad-faced, three-fingered author walks out onto the stage with his heroes, bows and takes his leave.
“Look, Mitka, what freaks and monsters his heroes are,” a spectator says. “What a foul-mouthed scoundrel! Did you hear that filth coming out of his mouth!”
“Ah, what horror! Let me ask you something? Are all people like that? You know, Ivan, there really is something of Teptyolkin in you!”
“Don’t worry! I’ll get even with him tomorrow. I’ll blow up a mine under his feet. I’ll. . . ”
The author waves his hand; the typesetters are already setting the book.
“Thank you, thank you!” the author says as he kisses the actors good-bye.
He takes off his gloves, removes his make-up. Actors and actresses sit up and wash away their make-up right on the stage.
The author rides with his actors to a cheap tavern, where, surrounded by bottles and glasses, they feast to their hearts’ content. The author discusses the outline of a new play with his actors. They argue passionately about it and make toasts to a lofty art that fears neither ignominy nor crime nor spiritual death.
Now that the typesetters have set a good half of The Tower, the author walks out of the tavern in the company of his true friends. He heads into the enchanting Petersburg night that rustles like a garden.
It is spring. The night soars on a song like youth itself or like a spent arrow, hurling souls over the Neva River, over the cathedrals and palaces of the city.
Highly regarded, both as a poet and as a novelist, by such Russian literary figures as Sologub, Kuzmin, Kaverin and Bakhtin, Konstantin Vaginov (1899-1934) of Leningrad has gradually emerged as a link between the glories of the Silver Age and the Russian avant-garde of today. The recent republication in Russia of his four novels (Moscow: 1989) attests to his influence on the present generation. His grotesque, surrealistic yet empathetic satire of the intelligentsia rings true in the turmoil and spiritual malaise of the new Russia. No wonder. There is a strong affinity between the philistinism and decadence of Vaginov’s characters, their aping of Western values (rationalism, secularism, individualism) and the similar aspirations of many of today’s intellectuals. Like Tsvetaeva, Mandelshtam, Bulgakov and Akhmatova, Vaginov was nearly forgotten, and his memory had been nearly obliterated for three generations. Like them, too, he is now being given posthumous recognition as one of the masters of modern Russian literature.
The Tower (original title: The Goat-Song) is the tragedy (Greek “goat-song”) of an idealist circle of artists and scholars, headed by Teptyolkin, who flee from the chaotic cultural void of post-revolutionary Leningrad in search of a utopian classical humanism. Teptyolkin himself serves as a kind of John the Baptist to the pagan but Christ-like Unknown Poet, whom he and his circle revere and emulate. The Unknown Poet is the pivotal center of this tragic multi-faceted satire. In this respect, The Tower anticipates, by at least a decade, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which similarly contrasts a tragic center (Pilate and Christ in Judea) with a satirical periphery (contemporary Moscow). Unlike Bulgakov, however, Vaginov does not separate these two strands. Instead, he interweaves center and periphery throughout the 35 chapters of the novel, creating thereby a rich and complex texture and tone.
The Tower is directed both at the new and the old: at Bolshevik materialism but also at Teptyolkin’s doomed and deluded circle. Seeking refuge in their leader’s ivory tower, they are brought to ruin as a result of their own carnal and material needs and by the inherent imperfectibility of human nature and human institutions. The Unknown Poet, i.e. Agafonov (in Bakhtin’s opinion, he is Vaginov himself) alone resists the temptations of the new materialist age. The name Agafonov may allude to a) the classical Greek agon or dramatic conflict of Athenian tragedy, b) the Russian agonia or death-throes, and c) the Greek New Testament agape, i.e. Christian love (or “charity”). The Unknown Poet recalls Dostoevsky’s Kirillov and Jesus of Nazareth, two other rebels tormented by their allegiance to a higher sacred order. Like them, Agafonov overcomes his inner struggle and accepts the logical consequences of his commitment to an absolute in a world of perpetual change. Madness and self-destruction follow without fail. The Unknown Poet’s martyrdom stands in stark contrast to the accommodation sought by members of Teptyolkin’s circle.
To create his expressionistic novel, Vaginov utilizes a whole array of modernistic techniques: dislocations of time, place and plot, multiple voices, synchronicity, stream-of-consciousness, dissonances of style and genre, arcane literary allusions, dazzling metaphors, cultural exotica, and a tone that ranges from the lyrical to the tragic, from the ironic to the epic, from the parodic to the visionary. All of this takes place within the context of a multi-layered structure with an elusive “plot.” In short, Vaginov constructs a surrogate universe that refracts reality instead of reflecting it.
As the self-proclaimed heirs to the exalted ideals of the Renaissance (as they understand them), Teptyolkin’s pagan disciples turn their backs on the new materialistic Bolshevik order (identified paradoxically, in Vaginov’s allusive historical texture, with the rise of early, primitive Christianity on the ashes of a glorious classical past). In its place, and inspired by the artifacts of Greece and Rome, they seek to restore a dubious absolute order based on classical values. They cling for dear life to these relics as if to a surrogate religion: They are a surety against cultural collapse. In the process, the dynamic humanism of Athens becomes a petty, ritualistic enterprise indulged in by cultural antiquarians. An overpowering sense of nostalgia—pathological and decadent, no doubt, and expressed in English by the ubiquitous retrospective “would”—emanates from every pore of The Tower (“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.’ “— Chapter 1, etc.).
As one prototype for Teptyolkin’s tower (also referred to as an “island”) we may consider the circle of Vyacheslav Ivanov, who, like Vaginov’s hero, was a teacher of the classics. We may also connect it with Alexander Blok’s circle, where the great poet, surrounded by his devotees, recited his poems on the Beautiful Lady, that is, the mystical Sophia. In fact, we cannot help but recall the hermetic circle that gathered in Paris in the 1880′s around Mallarmé, the high priest of French Symbolist poetry. He too scorned the utilitarian values of his society, that is, the values of republican France.
In the preface to The Tower, the author (appearing as a character in his own novel) informs us that he is a maker of coffins, not cradles, that his business is not to celebrate the new (Leningrad) but to bury the old (Petersburg). He has no use for the new utilitarian culture of the Bolsheviks, that is, for Leningrad, the cradle of the Revolution and of the New Soviet Man. The reverse is equally true: the Bolsheviks had no use for poets or “culture” either.
Held in contempt by both the Bolshevik ideologues and the bourgeois philistines of the capitalist NEP, Vaginov’s characters were doomed to figurative if not always to literal extinction. One by one, they came down from their humanist tower to become—by choice or otherwise—dentists, clerks, engineers and professors in the new Soviet world. Only the Unknown Poet, whose poems served as a spiritual magnet for the circle, remained adamant and uncompromising in his devotion to the Ideal and ended up a suicide.
This may have been a premonition: Two years after the publication of The Tower (i.e. in 1930), the great Futurist poet Mayakovsky, an exponent of unbridled experimentation in life and art, blew his brains out. With this, the cultural exuberance that had flourished for a generation came to an end.
In one ironic respect, Vaginov was fortunate. While most of the writers and artists of the Stalinist period, which commenced in a big way with the first Five-Year Plan in 1928, were either silenced, exiled, imprisoned or executed, Vaginov died of tuberculosis. He was one of the few lucky enough to die a natural death.
Vaginov’s tragic satire of philistines and idealists is given shape and direction by his magic lantern. In distorting the mundane reality of the world around him, Vaginov triumphs over the mediocrity which he himself satirizes. In The Tower, he captures the magnificence of late autumn.
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