Mikhail Bulgakov the heart of a dog and other stories



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PART ONE



1

An editor of the deceased Russkoye Slovo, in gaiters and with a cigar, snatched the telegram off the desk and read it through swiftly from beginning to end with a practised professional eye.

One hand automatically jotted down "two columns", while the lips unexpectedly rounded and whistled "Phew-ew!"

He paused for a moment. Then abruptly tore off a sheet of notepaper and scribbled:


Tiflis is forty miles away,

Who can sell me a car today?
"Short feuilleton" at the top, "Long primer" at the side and "Rook" at the bottom.

Suddenly he muttered like Dickens's Jingle:

"Uh-huh! Uh-huh! I guessed as much. Might have to beat it. Never mind! I've got six thousand lire in Rome. Credito Italiano. What? Six... And actually I'm an Italian officer! Yes, sir! Finita la comedia!"

And with another whistle he pushed back his cap and hurried out of the door — telegram and feuilleton in hand.

"Stop!" I yelled, coming to my senses. "Stop! What Credito? Finita? What? Catastrophe?"

But he had vanished.

I was about to run after him... but then shrugged my shoulders, frowned limply and sank onto the divan. What was bothering me? The Credito, whatever it was? The commotion? No, it wasn't that... Ah, yes. My head! It was aching like billyho. The second day running. First a strange chill ran down my spine. Then just the opposite: my body felt all hot and dry, and my forehead unpleasantly clammy. My temples were throbbing. I'd caught cold. That wretched February fog! But I mustn't get ill! I just mustn't get ill!
*

Everything's unfamiliar, but I must have got used to it over the last six weeks. How good it feels after the fog. At home. The cliff and the sea in the golden frame. The books in the bookcase. The carpet on the sofa is too rough for comfort and the cushion's terribly hard. But I wouldn't get up for anything. I feel so lazy! Can't be bothered to lift a hand. I've spent half an hour thinking I must stretch it out to get the aspirin powder on the chair, but even that's too much trouble.

"Pop the thermometer in, Misha!"

"Oh, I couldn't bear to! I haven't got a temperature anyway!"

*
Oh, my goodness, my goodness, my goo-oodness! Thirty-eight point nine ... could it be typhus? No, of course not. Where from? But what if it is typhus! Anything you like, only not now! That would be awful. It's nothing. Hypochondria. I've just got a cold. Influenza. I'll take an aspirin tonight and be as right as rain tomorrow!
*
Thirty-nine point five!

"It isn't typhus, is it, Doctor? Not typhus? I think it's just influenza? Eh? The fog..."

"Yes, yes... The fog. Breathe in, please. Deeper... That's it!"

"I've got to attend to some very important business, Doctor. It won't take long. Can I?"

"Are you crazy!"
*
The cliff, the sea, and the sofa are blazing hot. The pillow's already hot, as soon as I turn it over and put my head on it. Never mind. I'll stick it out one more night, and leave tomorrow. Leave for good if necessary! For good! Mustn't let this get me down! It's only influenza. Nice to be ill and have a temperature. Forget about everything. Lie in bed and rest. Only not now, for Heaven's sake! There's no time for reading in this diabolical chaos... How I long for... What do I long for? Yes. Forests and mountains. Only not these damned Caucasian ones. But ours, far away... Melnikov-Pechersky (1). A hermitage in the snow. A light in the window and a nice hot steam bath. Yes, forests and mountains. I'd give half my kingdom to be sweating in a steam bath. That would do the trick-Then dive into the snow with nothing on... Forests! Dense pine forests. Good for making ships. Peter in a green caftan (2) chopping down trees. What a fine-sounding stately word — inasmuch! In-as-much! Forests, ravines, carpets of pine-needles, a snow-covered hermitage. And a choir of nuns singing in sweet harmony:
Victorious leader of triumphant hosts!

Hang on! What nuns! You won't find any nuns there. Where are they now, nuns? Black, white, slender Vasnetsovian (3) nuns?

"Larissa Leontievna, where are the nuns?"

"He's delirious, poor thing!"

"I certainly am not. Not in the slightest. Nuns! What's the matter, don't you understand? Give me that book. Over there, on the third shelf. Melnikov-Pechersky..."

"You mustn't read, Misha, dear!"

"What's that? Why not? I'll be up tomorrow! And go to see Petrov. You don't understand. They'll leave me behind! Leave me behind!"

"Oh, alright then. Get up if you must! Here's the book."

"Lovely book. With that old, familiar smell. But the lines are hopping about all over the place. I remember. They were forging banknotes at the hermitage, Romanov banknotes. What an awful memory I've got. It was notes, not nuns.

Sasha basher, tra-la-la!
"Larissa Leontievna... Larochka! Do you like forests and mountains? I'll get me to a monastery. Yes, I will! Some remote hermitage. With forest all round and birds twittering, and not a living soul... I'm sick of this idiotic war! I'll go to Paris and write a novel first, then get me to a monastery. Only tell Anna to wake me up at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to see him yesterday. Can't you understand?"

"Yes, yes, I understand. Only you must keep quiet."


*
Fog. Hot reddish fog. Forests, more forests ... and water trickling slowly from a crevice in a green rock. A taut crystal thread. Must crawl up and have a good drink. That'll do the trick. It's hard crawling over pine-needles, they're all sticky and prickly. I open my eyes, and there's just a sheet, no pine-needles.

"For heaven's sake! What's the matter with this sheet. Have they sprinkled sand on it? I'm thirsty!"

"Yes, yes, I won't be a moment."

"Ugh, it's so warm, what horrid water."

"...Forty point five again! How dreadful!"

"...an ice-bag..."

"Doctor! I insist on being sent to Paris rightaway! I don't want to stay in Russia any longer... If you won't send me, kindly hand me my Brow... Browning! Larochk-a-a! Go and fetch it!"

"Yes, yes, we'll fetch it. Only don't get excited!"


*
Darkness. A ray of light. Darkness ... a ray of light. I can't remember for the life of me...

My head! My head! There are no nuns or triumphant hosts, just demons trumpeting and tearing at my skull with their red-hot hooks. My he-ad!


*
A ray of light... darkness. A ray ... no, it's gone. Nothing awful, just couldn't care less. Head not aching. Darkness and forty-one point one...

2. WHAT WE GONNA DO?

The novelist Yuri Slyozkin (4) sat in a posh armchair. Everything in the room was posh, so Yuri looked excruciatingly out of place there. His head shaven by typhus was just like that boy's head described by Mark Twain ( a pepper-sprinkled egg ). A moth-eaten army jacket with a hole under the arm. Grey puttees, one longer than the other, on his legs. A two-kopeck pipe in his mouth. And fear leap-frogging with anguish in his eyes.

"What's going to become of us?" I asked, hardly recognising my own voice. After the second bout it was weak, reedy and cracked.

"What's that?"

I turned round in bed and looked wretchedly out of the window, where still naked branches were waving slowly. The exquisite sky touched faintly by the fading sunset gave no reply, of course. Slyozkin was silent too, nodding his shorn head. In the next room a dress rustled and a woman's voice whispered:

"The Ingushes will raid the town tonight..."

Slyozkin twitched in his chair and corrected her:

"The Ossetians, not the Ingushes. And tomorrow morning, not tonight."

The flasks behind the wall responded nervously.

"The Ossetians! Oh, my God! That's terrible!"

"What difference does it make?"

"What difference? Ah, you don't know the local customs. When the Ingushes raid, they raid. But when the Ossetians raid, they kill too."

"Will they kill everyone?" Slyozkin asked in a matter-of-fact voice, puffing on his foul-smelling pipe.

"Goodness me! What a strange person you are! Not everyone... Just those who... Oh, dear, what's the matter with me! I forgot. We're disturbing the patient."

A dress rustled. The lady of the house bent over me.

"I am not dis-turb-ed..."

"Nonsense," Slyozkin retorted sharply. "Nonsense!"

"What's nonsense?"

"All that about Ossetians and the rest of it. Rubbish." He puffed out a cloud of smoke.

My exhausted brain suddenly sang out:


Mamma! Mamma! What we gonna do?

"And what precisely are we going to do?"

Slyozkin grinned with his right cheek only, thought for a moment and had a burst of inspiration.

"We'll open an ASS, an Arts Sub-Section!"

"What on earth is that?"

"What?"


"A sob-sexy on?"

"No, a sub-section!"

"Sub?"

"That's right."



"Why sub?"

"Er ... well, you see," he shifted around, "there's a Sec. of Ed. or Ed. Sec. Sec. Get it? And this is a sub-section. Sub. Get it?"

"Sec. of Ed. Pin-head. Barbousse. Screw loose."

The lady of the house let fly.

"Don't talk to him, for goodness sake! He'll get delirious again..."

"Nonsense!" said Yuri sternly. "Nonsense! And all those Mingrelians and Imere... What are they called? Circassians. They're plain stupid!"

"Why?"

"They just rush about. Shooting. At the moon. They won't rob anyone."



"But what'll happen? To us?"

"Nothing. We'll open up..."

"The Arts?"

"That's right. The whole lot. Fine Arts. Photo. Lit. and Dram."

"I don't get it."

"Please don't talk, Misha dear! The doctor..."

"Tell you later! It'll be alright. I've been in charge before. What do we care? We're a-political. We're Art!"

"And how shall we live?"

"We'll hide our money behind the carpet."

"What carpet?"

"In the town where I was in charge, we had a carpet on the wall. And when we got paid, my wife and I used to hide it behind the carpet. They were anxious times. But we ate. Ate well. Special rations."

"What about me?"

"You'll be ASS Lit. head. Yes."

"What head?"

"Please, Misha. I beg you!"

3.

THE ICON-LAMP

The night swims. Pitch black. Can't sleep. The icon-lamp flickers anxiously. Shots in the distance. My brain's on fire.

Everything's misty.

Mamma! Mamma! What we gonna do?
Slyozkin's building something. Piling something up. Fine Arts. Photo. Lit. Dram. Scram. Sam. It's photographic boxes. Why? ASS Lit. for the writers. Poor blighters. Dram. Ham. Ingushes gallop about on horseback, eyes flashing. Pinching the boxes. Dreadful racket. Shooting at the moon. Nurse injects my thigh with camphor. A third bout!

"Help! What'll happen? Let me go! I must get out..."

"Be quiet, Misha dear. Be quiet!"

After the morphine the Ingushes disappear. The velvety night sways. The icon-lamp casts its divine light and sings in a crystal voice:



Ma-amma! Ma-amma!

4.

AND HERE IT IS—THE SUB-SECTION

Sun. Clouds of dust behind carriage wheels. People walking in and out of an echoing building. A room on the fourth floor. Two cupboards with broken doors, some rickety tables. Three young ladies with violet lips bang away loudly at typewriters, stopping now and then to have a smoke.

In the very centre a writer snatched from death's jaws fashions a sub-section out of the chaos. Fine. Dram. Actors' bluish faces keep pestering him. Asking for money.

After the typhus a rocking swell. Dizziness and nausea. But I'm in charge. ASS Lit. head. Getting to know the ropes.

"ASS head. Sec. of Ed. Lit. Coll."

A man walks between the tables. In a grey army jacket and monstrous riding-breeches. He plunges into groups that fall apart. Like a torpedo boat ploughing the waves. Everyone quails under his glance. Except the young ladies. They're not afraid of anything.

He comes up. Eyes boring into me, he plucks out my heart, places it in his palm and scrutinises it carefully. But it is as clear as crystal.

He puts it back and smiles graciously.

"ASS Lit. head?"

"That's it."

He goes on his way. Seems a good chap. Only what's he doing here? Doesn't look like Dram. And certainly not like Lit.

A poetess arrives. Black beret. Skirt buttoned down the side and stockings falling down. She's brought a poem.

Dee, dee, deep down,

In my heart

Beats a dynamo-machine.

Dee, dee, deep down.
Not a bad poem. We'll have it ... you know ... what do they call it ... recited at a concert.

The poetess looks pleased. Not a bad young lassy. But why doesn't she hitch up her stockings?




5.

GENTLEMAN-OF-THE-BEDCHAMBER PUSHKIN

Everything was fine. Everything was dandy.

And then I got the push all because of Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich, God rest his soul!

It was like this.

A workshop of local poets nested in the office, under the spiral staircase. A young man in blue student trousers with a dynamo-machine in his heart, a doddery old man who started writing poems at the age of fifty-nine, and a few others.

In sidled a dare-devil with an aquiline nose and a big revolver in his belt. He was the first to thrust his ink-intoxicated pen into the hearts of those who had escaped the knife and turned up for old time's sake at the track—the former Summer Theatre. To the incessant booming of the muddy Terek, he cursed lilac and thundered:


You've had enough songs about moonlight and

sweet things.

Now I'll sing you one about emergency meetings.

It was most impressive!

Then another one read a paper on Gogol and Dostoyevsky wiping them both off the face of the earth. He spoke disapprovingly of Pushkin, but in passing. Promising to devote a special report to him. One night in June he tore Pushkin off a strip. For his white trousers, his "I face the future without fear..." (5), his Gentleman-of-the-Bedchamberism, (6) his elementary rebel, and in general for his "pseudo-revolutionism and hypocrisy", obscene poetry and gadding around after women...

Bathed in sweat I sat in the front row of the stuffy hall and heard the speaker rip Pushkin's white trousers to shreds. When, after refreshing his dry gullet with a glass of water, he finally suggested throwing Pushkin into the stove, I smiled. I must confess. It was an enigmatic smile, blast it! A smile's not a bird in a bush, is it?

"Then you defend him."

"I don't want to!"

"You haven't any civic courage."

"Is that so? Alright, I'll defend him."

And so I did, damn it! I spent three days and three nights preparing. Sitting at an open window by a lamp with a red shade. On my lap lay a book written by the man with eyes of fire.

False wisdom pales at the first tiny glimmer

Of true wisdom's ne'er-fading light... (7)
It was He who said:
Indifferent alike to praise or blame... (8)
No, not indifferent! No. I'll show them! I'll show them alright. I shook my fist at the inky night.

And show them I did! There was commotion in the workshop. The speaker was out for the count. In the eyes of the audience I read a silent, jubilant:

"Finish him off!"

.....................................................................


*

………………………………………

But afterwards! Afterwards...

I was a "wolf in sheep's clothing". A "toff". A "bourgeois yes-man".

..............................................................

So now I'm not head of ASS Lit. Or Dram. I'm a stray dog in an attic. Hunched up. Shuddering when the bell rings at night .........................................................

Oh, dusty days! Oh, stuffy nights!
*

And in the summer of 1920 A. D. there did appear a vision from Tiflis. A young man, all broken and disjointed, with an aged wrinkled face, arrived and offered his services as a brawler poet. He brought with him a slim volume like a wine price-list. The book contained his poems.

Lily-of-the-valley is rhymed with don't shilly-shally.

It's enough to drive you bonkers!

The young man took an instant dislike to me. He brawled in the newspaper (page 4, column 4). About me. And about Pushkin. Not about anything else. He hates Pushkin more than me. It's alright for Pushkin! He's passed into the great beyond...

But I'll be squashed like a worm.



6.

THE BRONZE COLLAR

What a bloody awful town Tiflis is! A second one's arrived. In a bronze collar. Yes, bronze. And he spoke in a live magazine like that. I'm not joking! In a bronze collar, see!............................................................

The novelist Slyozkin has been sent packing, regardless of his nation-wide reputation and his pregnant wife. That one's taken his place. So much for Lit. and Dram. And money behind the carpet..............................................................



7.

THE BOYS IN THE BOX

The moon's in a corona. Yuri and I sit on the balcony and look at the canopy of stars. But it doesn't help. In a few hours' time the stars will fade and a ball of fire will flame up overhead. And we'll squirm again like beetles on pins...

A high unbroken squeal can be heard through the balcony door. Somewhere at the back of beyond, by the foot of a mountain, in a strange town, a son has been born to starving Slyozkin in an absurdly, bestially cramped room. They have put him on the window-sill in a box with the words:

"M-me Marie. Modes et Robes."

And he whimpers in the box.

Poor child!

Poor us, not the child.

The mountains have hemmed us in. Table Mountain sleeps under the moon. Far, far away in the north lie the endless plains... In the south ravines, precipices, swirling rivers. Somewhere in the west is the sea. Above it shines the Golden Horn...

...Have you seen the flies on Tangle-foot?

When the crying stops, we go into the cage.

Tomatoes. A little black bread. And araki. What filthy vodka! Disgusting! Still it does the trick.

And when all around is fast asleep, the writer reads me his new novel. There's no one else to hear it. The night swims. He finishes, wraps up the manuscript carefully and puts it under the pillow. There is no writing-desk.

We whisper until the pale dawn.

What names are on our dry tongues! What names! How Pushkin's verse can soften spiteful souls. Beware of spite, writers of Russia!

..................................................................

Truth comes only through suffering. That's right, rest assured! But no one pays you or gives you food parcels for knowing the truth. Sad, but so.



8.

A THROUGH WIND

Yevreinov (9) arrived. In an ordinary white collar. From the Black Sea on his way to Petersburg.

There used to be such a city in the north.

Does it still exist? The writer laughs and assures us that it does. But it takes a long time to get there. Three years in a goods van. My tired eyes feasted for a whole evening on his white collar. And for a whole evening I listened to tales of adventure.


Brother writers, your vocation... (10)
He hadn't got a penny. His luggage had been stolen...

...On another evening at Slyozkin's, the last, Nikolai Nikolayevich sat at the piano in the smoke-filled drawing-room provided by the landlady. He endured the torment of inspection with iron stamina. Four poets, a poetess and a painter (workshop) devoured him decorously with their eyes.

Yevreinov is an ingenious fellow.

"And now ' Musical Grimaces'..."

Turning his face to the keys, he began to play. At first... At first he gave us a visiting elephant playing the piano, then a lovesick piano-tuner, a dialogue between steel and gold and, finally, a polka.

Within ten minutes the workshop was totally incapacitated. It no longer sat decorously, but rolled about hysterically with much waving of hands and groaning...

...The man with the lively eyes went away. No more grimaces!
*
A sudden gust of wind blew through, and they were swept away like leaves. One from Kerch to Vologda, another from Vologda to Kerch. A rumpled Osip appears with a suitcase, complaining angrily:

"We'll never get there, and that's that!" Of course you won't get there, if you don't know where you're going!


*

Yesterday Riurik Ivnev (11) appeared. On his way from Tiflis to Moscow.

"It's better in Moscow."

He travelled so much that one day he just lay down in a ditch.

"I refuse to get up. Something must happen."

And so it did. A friend chanced to see him there, took him home and gave him a meal.

Another poet went from Moscow to Tiflis.

It's better in Tiflis.

The third was Osip Mandelstam. (12) He arrived one cloudy day, holding his head high like a prince. His laconic remarks devastated us.

"From the Crimea. Ghastly. Do they buy manuscripts here?"

"Yes, but they don't pay..." Before I could finish he had gone. I know not where...

The novelist Pilnyak (13) went to Rostov in a flour train, wearing a woman's cardigan.

"Is it better in Rostov?"

"No, I just want a rest!"

Eccentric — wears gold-rimmed spectacles.

*
Serafimovich arrived from up north. (14)

Tired eyes. Hollow voice. Gave a talk in the workshop.

"Remember Tolstoy's kerchief on a stick. It keeps catching, then fluttering again. As if it were alive... I once wrote an anti-drink label for a vodka bottle. Jotted down a phrase. Crossed one word out and put another over it. Thought a bit, then crossed that one out too. And so on several times. But the phrase came out pat. Now they write... They write in a funny way! You pick it up. Read it through. No! Can't understand it. You have another try — still no luck. So you put it to one side..."

The local workshop sits by the wall in cor pore. Judging from their eyes they don't understand it. That's their business!

Serafimovich's left town... Entr'acte.

9.

THE INCIDENT WITH THE GREAT WRITERS

The Sub-Section's decorator painted Anton Pavlovich Chekhov with a crooked nose and such a monstrous pince-nez that from a distance he seemed to be wearing racing goggles.

We put him on a big easel. A gingery-coloured pavilion, a small table with a carafe and a lamp.

I read an introductory article "On Chekhovian Humour". But perhaps because I hadn't eaten for three days or for some other reason, my thoughts were rather sombre. The theatre was packed. Now and then I lost the thread. I saw hundreds of blurred faces rising up to the dome. And not a ghost of a smile on any of them. Mind you, there was some hearty applause. But I realised to my dismay that this was because I had finished, and fled backstage in relief. That was two thousand in my pocket. Now let someone else sweat it out. Going into the smoking-room, I heard a Red Army man complain miserably: "To blazes with them and their humour! We come to the Caucasus and they won't leave us alone here either!"

He was quite right, that soldier from Tula. I hid away in my favourite place, a dark corner behind the props room. A roar came from the hall. Hurrah! They were laughing. Good for the actors! "Surgery" saved the day and the story about the civil servant who sneezed.

Success! Success! Sloyozkin rushed into my rat corner and hissed, rubbing his hands:

"Write the second programme!"

It was decided to hold a Pushkin Evening after the Evening of Chekhovian Humour.

Yuri and I planned the programme lovingly.

"That blockhead can't draw," Slyozkin fumed. "We'll ask Maria Ivanovna!"

I immediately feared the worst. In my opinion Maria Ivanovna draws about as well as I play the fiddle... I concluded this when she first appeared in the Sub-Section saying she had studied under the great N. himself. (She was immediately made Head of Fine Arts.) But since I know nothing about painting, I kept quiet.

*
Exactly half an hour before the beginning I went into the scenery room and stopped dead: there, staring at me from a gold frame, was Nozdryov. (15) He was perfect. Crafty, goggling eyes, even one side-board thinner than the other. The illusion was so complete, that I expected him to give a loud guffaw and say:

"Just got back from a fair, my friend. Congratulate me: gambled all my money away!"

I don't know what my expression was like, but the painter was mortally offended. She blushed a deep red under the thick layer of powder and screwed up her eyes.

"You obviously ... er ... don't like it, eh?"

"Oh, but I do! Ha-ha! It's very ... nice. Very nice. Only the side-whiskers..."

"What? The side-whiskers? You mean to say you've never seen Pushkin? Fancy that! And you call yourself a writer! Tee-hee! Perhaps you think he should be clean-shaven?"

"Sorry, it's not so much the side-whiskers, but Pushkin never played cards, and if he had, he would never have cheated!"

"What have cards got to do with it? I don't understand! You're making a mockery of me, I see!"

"Pardon me, but it is you who are making a mockery. Your Pushkin has the eyes of a scoundrel!" "Ah, so that's it!"

She threw down her brush. And called from the door: "I'll complain to the Sub-Section about you!"

And then what happened! As soon as the curtain went up and Nozdryov appeared before the darkened hall with his sly grin, the first ripple of laughter broke out. Oh, my God! The audience had decided that after Chekhov's humour they were going to get Pushkin's humour! I began to talk in a cold sweat of "the Aurora Borealis in the snow-bound wastes of Russian belles-lettres". There were sniggers in the audience at the side-whiskers. Nozdryov skulked behind me, grunting:

"If I were your boss, I'd string you up on the nearest tree!"

So I couldn't stop myself and let out a snigger too. The success was overwhelming, phenomenal. Neither before nor after have I ever been the recipient of such thunderous applause. And then it began to crescendo. When Salieri poisoned Mozart in the dramatised excerpt the audience expressed its delight with approving guffaws and thunderous cries of "Encore!"

Scampering rat-like out of the theatre I saw from the corner of my eye the poetry brawler scurry into the editorial office with his notebook...

*
I knew as much! On the very front page, fourth column:
MORE PUSHKIN!
Writers from the capital who are skulking in the local Arts Sub-Section have made a new objective attempt to corrupt the, public by stuffing their idol Pushkin down its throat.

They even took the liberty of portraying this idol as a landlord and serfowner (which he was) with side-whiskers... And so on.

Dear God. Please let that brawler die! Everyone's catching typhus these days. Why can't he get it too? That cretin will get me arrested!

And that infernal old hag from Fine Arts!

Ruined. Everything's ruined. They've banned the evenings...

...Ghastly autumn. Rain lashing down. Can't think what we're going to eat. What on earth are we going to eat?




10.

A FOOT-BINDING AND A BLACK MOUSE


…………………………………………………………………………

Late one hungry evening, I wade through puddles in the dark. Everything's boarded up. My feet are in tattered socks and battered shoes. There is no sky. In its place hangs a huge foot-binding. Drunk with despair, I mutter:

"Alexander Pushkin. Lumen coelum. Sancta rosa. (16) And his threats ring out like thunder."

Am I going mad? A shadow runs from the street lamp.

It's my shadow, I know. But why is it wearing a top hat, when I've got a cap on? Had to take my top hat to market to buy some food. Some good folk bought it to use as a chamberpot. But I won't sell my heart and brains, even if I'm starving. Despair. A foot-binding overhead and a black mouse in my heart...

11.

NO WORSE THAN KNUT HAMSUN

I'm starving ……………………………… ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….




12.

MUST RUN. MUST RUN!

"A hundred thousand... I've got a hundred thousand!, I earned it!

A barrister's clerk, one of the natives, taught me how. He arrived one day when I was sitting silently, head in hands, and said:

"I'm broke too. There's only one solution — we must write a play. A revolutionary play. About the life of the natives. And sell it..."

I stared at him vacantly and replied: "I can't write anything about the life of the natives, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. I know nothing about their life. In fact I can't write anything at all. I'm tired, and I don't think I'm any good at writing anyway."

"You're talking nonsense," he answered. "It's because you're hungry. Be a man. The life of the natives is a cinch. I know it inside out. We'll write the play together. And split the money fifty-fifty."

So we started to write. There was a round hot stove at his place. His wife would hang up the washing on a line in the room, then give us some beetroot salad with vegetable oil and tea with saccharine. He told me some common names and customs, and I made up the plot. So did he. And his wife sat down and advised us too. I realised at once they were much better at it than me. But I didn't feel envious, because I had already decided this was the last play I would ever write...

And so we wrote it. He basked by the stove saying: "I love creating!" I scratched away with my pen...

A week later the three-act play was ready. When I read it through to myself in my unheated room at night, I'm not ashamed to admit that it brought tears to my eyes! In terms of crassness it was unique, remarkable! Something obtuse and insolent stared out of every line of this collective creation. I couldn't believe my eyes. What could I hope for, imbecile, if I wrote like that? Shame stared at me from the damp green walls and the terrible black windows. I began to tear up the manuscript. But then I stopped. Because suddenly with remarkable, unusual clarity I realised the truth of the saying: once written, never destroyed. A work can be torn up, burnt, concealed from others. But never from oneself! It was the end of me! It could never be erased. This astounding thing had been written by me. It was the end!..

*
The play caused a sensation in the native Sub-Section. They bought it at once for two hundred thousand. And a fortnight later it was performed on the stage.

Eyes, daggers and cartridge pockets flashed in the mist of a thousand bated breaths. After heroic horsemen rushed in and grabbed the chief of police and guards in the third act the Chechens, Kabardians and Ingushes yelled:

"Zere! Serves him right, ze cur!"

And following the Sub-Section ladies they shouted: "Author!"

There was a lot of handshaking backstage.

"Vairy gut play!"

And invitations to visit their mountain villages.
*
Must run! Must run!

Quickly. A hundred thousand is enough to get out of here. Forward. To the sea. Over one sea and another to France and dry land — to Paris!

A driving rain lashed my face as, hunched up in my greatcoat, I ran along the alleys for the last time — home...

You — prosewriters and playwrights in Paris and Berlin — just you try. Try, for the fun of it, to write something worse. If you are as talented as Kuprin, Bunin or Gorky you will not succeed. It is I who hold the record! For collective creativity. The three of us wrote it: me, the barrister's clerk and hunger. At the beginning of nineteen twenty one...



13.

The town at the foot of the mountains has vanished. Curse it... Tsikhidziri. Makhindzhauri. Green Cape! Magnolias in bloom. White flowers the size of plates. Bananas. Palm trees! I saw them myself, I swear it, palm trees growing out of the ground. And the sea singing endlessly by granite cliffs. The books were right. The sun sinks into the water. The beauty of the sea. The high vault of the heavens. The steep cliff, with creeping plants on it. Chakva. Tsikhidziri. Green Cape.

Where am I going? Where? I'm wearing my last shirt. With crooked letters on my cuffs. And heavy hieroglyphs in my heart. I have deciphered only one of these mysterious signs. It says: woe is me! Who will interpret the others for me?

*
I lie like a corpse on pebbles washed by salt water. I am weak with hunger. My head aches from morning to midnight. Now it is night. I cannot see the sea, only hear it rolling. Surging to and fro. A tardy wave hisses. Suddenly three tiers of lights emerge from behind a dark promontory.

The Polatsky is sailing to the Golden Horn.

……………………………………………………………….
Tears salty as sea water.

Saw a poet, one of the unknown. He was walking round Nuri Bazaar trying to sell his hat. The peasants laughed at him.

He smiled shamefacedly and explained he wasn't joking. He was selling his hat because his money had been stolen. That was a lie. He'd been broke for ages. Hadn't eaten for three days. He confessed later, when we were sharing a pound of cheese. Told me he was on his way from Penza to Yalta. I nearly burst out laughing. But then I remembered: what about me?
*
My cup is full to overflowing. The "new head" arrived at twelve o'clock.

He walked in and said:

"Ve vill take a different path! No more of ziss pornographia: Vit Vorks Voe and The Government Inspector by Goggle. Boggle. Ve vill write our own plays."

Then he got into his car and drove off.

His face imprinted itself on my memory forever.
*
An hour later I sold my overcoat at the bazaar. There was an evening boat. But he wouldn't let me go. Understand? Wouldn't let me go!..
*
I've had enough! Let the Golden Horn shine. I'll never reach it. There's a limit to a man's strength. Mine's finished. I'm starving, broken! There's no blood in my brain. I'm weak and scared. But I won't stay here any longer. So ... that means ... that means ...

14.

GOING HOME

Going home. By sea. Then by goods van. And if the money runs out — on foot. But I'm going home. My life is ruined. I'm going home!

To Moscow! To Moscow!

……………………………………………………………………

Farewell, Tsikhidziri. Farewell, Makhindzhauri. Green Cape, farewell!
Moscow, 1923



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