Pitch dark. Clanging. Rumbling. Wheels still turning, but slower and slower. Now they've stopped. That's it. The end to end all ends. Nowhere else to go. This is Moscow. M-O-S-C-O-W.
A moment's attention to a long powerful sound swelling up in the darkness. Mind-splitting reverberations in my brain:
C'est la lu-u-tte fina-a-le!
Here too. Just as hoarse and terrifying:
A row of goods vans in the dark. The students' carriage had gone quiet...
I took the plunge at last and jumped down. A soft body slipped away from under me with a groan. Then I got caught on a rail and fell even deeper down. Heavens, was there really an abyss below me?
Grey bodies heaved monstrous loads onto their shoulders and flowed off.
A woman's voice:
"Oh, dear, I can't..."
In the misty darkness I made out a medical student. She had travelled with me, hunched up, for three days.
"Allow me to carry that."
For a moment the black abyss seemed to shudder and turn green. How much had she got in there?
"A hundredweight of flour... They trod it down."
Staggered along, zigzagging, spots before the eyes, towards the lights.
They broke into beams. The weird grey snake crawled towards them. A glass dome. A long roaring sound. Blinding light. A ticket. A gate. Exploding voices. Curses falling heavily. More darkness. More light. Darkness. Moscow! Moscow.
The cart was loaded up to the church domes, to the stars in velvet. It clattered along, while the demonic voices of grey bodies cursed it and the man urging on the horse. A flock followed behind. The medical student's long whitish coat appeared now to one side, now to the other. But in the end we emerged from the tangle of wheels, and left the bearded faces behind. We rattled on over the potholed pavement. Pitch black. Where were we? What place was this? Never mind. What did it matter? Moscow was all black, black, black. Silent buildings stared tightly and coldly. A church loomed, looking confused and worried. It was swallowed up in the dark.
Two in the morning. Where can I spend the night? All those houses! What could be easier... Just knock at any door. Could you put me up for the night? I can just imagine it!
Voice of the medical student:
"Where're you going?"
"What do you mean?"
There are some good souls in this world. "The person who rents the next room is still away in the country, see. You could stay there for one night..."
"Oh, how kind of you. I'll find my friends tomorrow." Cheered up a bit after that. And it's funny, but as soon as I'd found somewhere to stay, I began to feel the effects of losing three nights' sleep.
Two bulbs fracture the shadows on a bridge. We plunge into darkness again. A street-lamp. A grey fence with a poster. Huge garish letters. Goodness, what's that word? Twanvlam. What on earth does it mean?
Twelfth Anniversary of Vladimir Mayakovsky.
The cart stopped. They took off some luggage. I stared at the word, entranced. A good word! And I, provincial wretch that I am, had sniggered in the mountains at the ASS head! What the blazes! But Moscow is not as black as its papooses. Sudden urge to imagine Vlam. Never seen him, but I know ... I know. He's about forty, very short and bald, wears glasses and is always dashing about. Short trousers turned up. Works in an office. Doesn't smoke. Has a large flat with portieres, now compulsorily shared with a lawyer, who is a lawyer no longer, but the commandant of a government building. Lives in a study with an unheated fireplace. Likes butter, comic verse and a tidy room. Favourite writer — Conan Doyle. Favourite opera — Eugene One-gin. Cooks himself rissoles on a primus-stove. Can't stand the lawyer-commandant, and dreams of getting him out some day, marrying and living happily ever after in five rooms.
The cart creaked, shuddered, moved on for a bit, then stopped again. Neither storm nor tempest could daunt the immortal citizen Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov. By a building, which seemed in the darkness and fear to have about fifteen storeys, the cartload grew perceptibly thinner. In the inky blackness a figure rushed from it into an entrance and whispered: "What about the butter, Dad? And the lard, Dad? And the flour, Dad?"
Dad stood in the darkness, muttering: "That's the lard, and the butter, and the wheat, and the rye..."
Then out of the pitch dark flashed Dad's thumb, which peeled off twenty banknotes for the drayman.
There will be other tempests. Raging tempests! And everyone may perish. But not Dad.
The cart turned into a huge platform which engulfed the medical student's sack and my travelling-bag. And we sat down, legs dangling, and rode off into the darkness.
To tell the truth I've no idea why I crossed the whole of Moscow to get to this huge building. The document I had carefully brought with me from the mountain kingdom was valid for all six-storey buildings, or rather, for none.
The cage of the dead lift in entrance six. Got my breath back here. A door with two notices. One says "Flat 50". The other an enigmatic "F. Arts". Must get my breath back again. My fate is about to be decided.
I pushed open the unlocked door. In the semi-dark hall was a huge box full of papers and a grand-piano top. A room flashed past, full of women and wreathed in smoke. There was a short burst of typing. Silence. Then a deep voice said: "Meyerhold."
"Where's ASS Lit.?" I asked, leaning on the wooden barrier.
The woman by the barrier shrugged her shoulders irritably. She didn't know. The other one didn't know either. A long dark corridor. I groped my way along by guesswork. Opened one door — a bathroom. The next door had a scrap of paper nailed to it. Askew, one corner turned up. AS. Thank the Lord. Yes, ASS Lit. My pulse started racing again. Voices inside: mumble-mumble-mumble...
I closed my eyes and imagined the inside. This is what I saw. In the first room — a carpet, an enormous writing desk and a bookcase. Awesome silence. At the desk a secretary — probably one of the names I know from magazines. Then other doors. The section head's office. Even more awesome silence. Bookcases. Who's that sitting in an armchair? ASS Lit.? In Moscow? Yes, Maxim Gorky. The Lower Depths. Mother. Who else? Mumble-mumble-mumble. They're having a talk. Or perhaps it's Bryusov and Bely? (17)
I knock lightly on the door. The mumble-mumble stops to be followed by a hollow "Come in!" Then more mumble-mumble. I turn the knob and it comes off in my hand. I'm petrified. A fine start to my career! Breaking the door knob! I knock again. "Come in!"
"I can't!" I shout.
A voice comes through the keyhole:
"Turn the knob right, then left. You've locked us in..."
Right, left, the door gives slightly, and...
I'M TOP MAN AFTER GORKY
I was in the wrong place! This couldn't be ASS Lit! A summer-cottage wicker chair, an empty wooden desk, an open cupboard, a small table upside down in the corner. And two men. One was tall and very young in a pince-nez. His puttees stood out. They were white, and he was holding a battered briefcase and a sack. The other man, greying and elderly with bright, almost smiling eyes, wore a Caucasian fur cap and an army greatcoat. The coat was covered with holes and the pockets were hanging in tatters. He wore grey puttees and patent leather dancing shoes with little bows.
My lack-lustre gaze passed over the faces, then the walls, looking for another door. But there was none. The room with the broken wires had no windows. Tout. In a rather thick voice:
"Is this ASS Lit.?"
"Could I see the head, please?"
"That's me," the old man replied affectionately.
He picked up a large page of a Moscow newspaper from the desk, tore a piece off, sprinkled some tobacco on it, rolled himself a cigarette and asked me:
"Got a match?"
I struck a match automatically, and then under the old man's affectionately enquiring gaze took the precious paper out of my pocket.
The old man bent over it, and I racked my brains wondering who he could be. Most of all he looked like Emile Zola without a beard.
The young man also read the paper over the old man's shoulder. They finished and looked at me with a kind of puzzled respect.
"I'd like a job in ASS Lit.," I replied.
"Splendid! Well, I never!" the young man exclaimed in delight.
He took the old man aside and started whispering. Mumble-mumble-mumble.
The old man spun round on his heels and grabbed a pen off the desk. The young man said quickly:
"Write an application."
I had an application in my breast pocket. I handed it over.
The old man flourished the pen. It made a scratching sound and jerked, tearing the paper. He dipped it in a small bottle. But the bottle was dry.
"Got a pencil?"
I handed him a pencil, and the head scrawled:
"Please appoint as Secretary of ASS Lit. Signed..."
I stared open-mouthed at the dashing squiggle.
The young man plucked my sleeve.
"Hurry upstairs, before he goes. Quick."
I shot upstairs. Barged through the door, tore across the room with the women and went into the office. The man sitting in the office took my paper and scribbled: "Appt. seer." Letter. Squiggle. He yawned and said: "Downstairs."
I raced downstairs again in a tizzy. Past the typewriter. Then instead of a bass, a silvery soprano said: "Meyerhold. October in the Theatre..."
The young man was storming round the old man and chortling.
"Did they appoint you? Fine! We'll see to it. We'll see to everything!"
Then he clapped me on the shoulder:
"Don't worry! You'll get everything."
I have always detested familiarity and always been a victim of it. But now I was so overwhelmed by what had happened, that all I could do was say weakly:
"But we need desks ... chairs ... and at least some ink!"
The young man shouted excitedly:
"You'll get them! Good lad! You'll get everything!"
He turned to the old man, winked at me and said:
"He means business, that lad! Fancy asking for desks straightaway. He'll put things right for us."
Appt. Seer. Heavens! ASS Lit. In Moscow. Maxim Gorky. The Lower Depths. Sheherazade. Mother. *
The young man untied the sack, spread a newspaper on the table and poured about five pounds of lentils onto it. "That's for you. A quarter of the food ration."
I PLUG IN ASS LIT
Historians of literature, take note:
At the end of 1921 three people were engaged in literature in the Republic: the old man (dramas; he turned out not to be Emile Zola, of course, but someone I didn't know), the young man (the old man's assistant, whom I didn't know either — poetry) and myself (who hadn't written a thing).
Historians, also note: ASS Lit. had no chairs, desks, ink, light bulbs, books, writers or readers. In short, nothing.
And me. Yes, I rustled up from nowhere an antique mahogany writing-desk. Inside I found an old, yellowing, gold-edged card with the words: "...ladies in semi-decollete evening dress. Officers in frock-coats with epaulettes. Civilians in uniform tail-coats, with decorations. Students in uniform. Moscow. 1899."
It smelt soft and sweet. A bottle of expensive French perfume had once stood in the drawer. After the desk a chair arrived. Then ink, paper, and finally a young lady, sad and pensive.
On my instructions she laid out everything that had been in the cupboard on the desk: some brochures about "saboteurs", 12 issues of a St. Petersburg newspaper and a pile of green and red invitations to a congress of provincial sections. It immediately began to look like an office. The old man and the young man were delighted. They clapped me on the shoulder affectionately and vanished.
The sad young lady and I sat there for hours. Me at the desk and she at the table. I read The Three Musketeers by the inimitable Dumas, which I had found on the floor in the bathroom. The young lady sat in silence, occasionally heaving a deep sigh.
"Why are you crying?" I asked.
In reply she started sobbing and wringing her hands. Then she said:
"I've found out that I married a bandit by mistake."
I don't know if anything could surprise me after these two years. But at this I just stared blankly at her...
"Don't cry. Things like that do happen."
And I asked her to tell me about it.
Wiping her eyes with a handkerchief, she told me she had married a student, enlarged a photograph of him and hung it in the drawing-room. Then a detective came, took one look at the photograph and said it was not Karasev at all, but Dolsky, alias Gluzman, alias Senka Moment.
"Mo-ment..." the poor girl said, shuddering and wiping her eyes.
"So he's gone, has he? Well, good riddance to him."
But this was the third day. And still nothing. Not a soul had come. Nothing at all. Just me and the young lady...
I suddenly realised today: ASS Lit. isn't plugged in. There's life overhead. People walking about. Next door too. Typewriters clattering away and people laughing. They get clean-shaven visitors too. Meyerhold's fantastically popular in this building, but he's not here in person.
We have nothing. No papers, nothing. I decided to plug ASS Lit. in.
A woman came upstairs with a pile of newspapers. The top one was marked in red pencil "For ASS Fine Arts".
"What about one for ASS Lit.?"
She looked at me in fright and did not answer. I went upstairs. To the young lady sitting under a notice that said "secretary". She listened to me, then looked nervously at her neighbour.
"That's right, ASS Lit..." said the first young lady. "There is a paper for them, Lidochka," said the second. "Then why didn't you deliver it?" I asked in an icy tone. They both looked worried. "We thought you weren't there."
ASS Lit. is plugged in. A second paper has arrived from the young ladies upstairs. A woman in a kerchief brought it. Asked me to sign for it in a book.
Wrote a memo to the Service Department: "Give me a car."
A man came two days later and shrugged his shoulders.
"Do you really need a car?"
"More than anyone else in this building, I should say."
I managed to find the old man. And the young one too. When the old man saw the car and I told him he had to sign the papers, he gave me a long look, ruminating.
"There's something about you. You should apply for an academician's food ration."
The bandit's wife and I started drafting an official claim for payment of salary. ASS Lit. was firmly plugged into the mainstream now.
N. B. My future biographer: all this was done by me.
THE FIRST SWALLOWS
At 11 a. m. a young poet, obviously frozen to death, came in and said quietly: "Storn."
"What can I do for you?"
"I'd like a job in ASS Lit."
I unrolled a sheet of paper headed "Staff". ASS Lit. was allowed eighteen members of staff. I was vaguely hoping to allocate these posts as follows:
Poetry instructors: Bryusov, Bely, etc.
Prose writers: Gorky, Veresayev, Shmelyov, Zaitsev, Serafimovich, etc.
But none of the afore-mentioned showed up.
So with a bold hand I scribbled on Storn's application: "Pise, appt." instr. pp. head." Letter. Squiggle.
"Go upstairs while he's still here."
Then the curly-headed, rosy-cheeked poet Skartsev arrived, full of joie de vivre.
"Go upstairs while he's still here."
A gloomy fellow in glasses, about twenty-five, so thick-set he seemed to be made of bronze, arrived from Siberia.
But he replied:
"I'm not going anywhere."
He sat down in a corner on a rickety, broken chair, pulled out a scrap of paper and started writing some short lines. Obviously a very experienced fellow.
The door opened and in came a man wearing a nice warm coat and a sealskin hat. It was a poet. Sasha.
The old man wrote the magic words. Sasha looked round the room carefully, fingered the dangling piece of broken wire thoughtfully, and for some reason looked into the cupboard. He sighed.
Sitting down beside me, he asked confidentially:
"Will they pay cash?"
WE WORK UP STEAM
There was no room at the desks. We were all writing slogans, with a new fellow, very active and noisy, in gold glasses, who called himself the king of reporters. The king appeared the morning after we got an advance, at 8.45 a. m. with the words:
"Is it true they paid out cash here?"
And joined the staff on the spot.
The episode of the slogans was like this.
A memo arrived from upstairs.
"ASS Lit. urgently requested to produce a set of slogans by 12 noon."
Theoretically this is what was supposed to happen: the old man with my assistance would issue an order or summons to all places where there were supposed to be writers. We would then receive thousands of slogans from all over the country, by telegraph, letter and word of mouth. Then a commission would select the best and present them by 12 noon on a certain date. After that my secretarial staff (i. e., the bandit's sad wife) and I would draw up a claim for payment, receive the monies concerned and pay the most deserving for the best slogans.
But that was in theory.
In practice, however:
1) It was impossible to issue a summons, because there was no one to summon. All the writers within the field of vision were: the above-mentioned, plus the king.
2) Excluded by one: we could not possibly be flooded with slogans.
3) The slogans could not be submitted by 12 noon on such-and-such a date, because the memo arrived at 1.26 p. m. on the date in question.
4) We needn't have written a claim for payment, because there was no "slogan" allocation. But — the old man did have a small, precious amount for travel allowances.
Therefore: a) The slogans shall be written as a matter of urgency by all those present;
b) a commission to consider the slogans shall be set up consisting of all those present to ensure complete impartiality; and
c) the best slogans shall be selected and the sum of fifteen thousand roubles paid for each of them.
We sat down at 1.50 p. m. and the slogans were ready by 3 o'clock. Each of us managed to squeeze out five or six, with the exception of the king who wrote nineteen in verse and prose.
The commission was fair and strict.
I, the writer of slogans, had nothing in common with the other me who accepted and criticised them.
As a result the following were accepted:
three slogans from the old man,
three slogans from the young man,
three slogans from me,
and so on and so forth.
In short, forty-five thousand each.
Brrr. What a wind! And it's starting to drizzle. The meat pie in the Truba (18) is wet from the rain, but delicious enough to drive you crazy. A tube of saccharine and two pounds of white bread.
Caught up Storn. He was chewing something too.
AN UNEXPECTED NIGHTMARE
"It's all a dream, I swear. Can it be black magic?"
I was two hours late for work today.
I turned the knob, opened the door, walked in and saw the room was empty. Well and truly empty! Not only had the desks, the sad woman and the typewriter gone, but even the electric wires. Everything.
"So it was all a dream... I see ... I see..."
For some time everything round me has seemed like a mirage. A vaporous mirage. There, where yesterday... But why yesterday, for goodnees sake? A hundred years ago ... an eternity ... perhaps it never existed at all... perhaps it doesn't now. Kanatchikov dacha! (19)
So the kind old man ... the young man ... the sad Storn ... the typewriter ... and the slogans ... didn't exist at all?
But they did. I'm not mad. They did, dammit!
Then where on earth had they got to?
Walking unsteadily, trying to hide my expression under my eyelids (so they didn't grab me and take me away) I set off down the dark corridor. And realised that something funny really was happening to me. In the darkness over the door leading into a room which was lit, glowed letters of fire, as if on a cinema screen:
ON THE 25TH OF MARCH AN UNUSUALLY STRANGE EVENT TOOK PLACE IN ST. PETERSBURG THE BARBER IVAN YAKOVLEVICH...
I read no further, recoiling in horror. Stopping by the barrier, I hooded my eyes even more and asked in a hollow voice:
"Excuse me, did you happen to see where ASS Lit. has gone?"
An irritable, gloomy woman with a crimson ribbon in her black hair snapped:
"What ASS Lit... I don't know."
I closed my eyes. Another female voice said sympathetically:
"Actually it's not here at all. You've come to the wrong place. It's in Volkhonka."
I went cold all over, walked onto the landing and wiped the sweat off my forehead. Then I decided to go back on foot across the whole of Moscow to Razumikhin's and forget all about it. If I was quiet and said nothing, no one would ever know. I could live on the floor at Razumikhin's place. He wouldn't drive me, a poor madman, away.
But a last faint hope still lingered in my breast. And I set off. I started walking. This six-storey building was positively terrifying. It was riddled with passages, like an ant-hill, so you could walk right through it from one end to the other without going outside. I hurried along the dark twists and turns, occasionally wandering into niches behind wooden partitions. The light bulbs were reddish and uneconomical. Worried people scurried past me. There were lots of women sitting at desks. Typewriters clattered. Notices flashed past. Fin. Dept. Nat. Mins. I reached well-lit landings, only to plunge back into darkness again. At last I came to a landing and looked round dully. The further I went, the less chance there was of finding that bewitched ASS Lit. It was hopeless. I went down the stairs and into the street. When I looked round, it was entrance!...
A bitter gust of wind. Heavy cold rain began to pour. I pulled down my summer cap even further and put up my greatcoat collar. A few minutes later my boots were full of water, thanks to the cracks in the soles. This was a relief. Now I needn't kid myself that I would manage to get home dry. Instead of slowing down my journey by hopping from stone to stone, I just waded straight through the puddles.
ENTRANCE 2, GROUND FLOOR, FLAT 23, ROOM 40
In letters of fire:
QUITE RIDICULOUS THINGS ARE HAPPENING IN THE WORLD. SOMETIMES THEY ARE TOTALLY IMPROBABLE: SUDDENLY THAT SELFSAME NOSE WHICH HAD BEEN PARADING AROUND IN THE RANK OF STATE COUNCILLOR AND CAUSED SUCH A COMMOTION IN THE TOWN, FOUND ITSELF BACK IN ITS PLACE AS IF NOTHING HAD HAPPENED... (20)
Morning is wiser than eventide. That's true alright. When I woke up the next morning from the cold and sat on the divan, ruffling my hair, my head seemed a bit clearer!
Logically, had it existed or not? Of course it had. I could remember my name and the date. It 'had just moved somewhere... So I would have to find it. But what had those women next door said? In Volkhonka... That was nonsense! You could pinch anything from under their very noses. I don't know why they keep them on at all, those women. Egyptian plague!
I got dressed, drank the water I had saved in a glass from yesterday, ate a piece of bread and one potato, and drew up a plan.
6 entrances times 6 floors = 36, 36 times 2 apartments — 72, 72 times 6 rooms = 432 rooms. Was it feasible? Yes, it was. Yesterday 1 had walked at random along two or three horizontals. Today I would search the whole building systematically vertically and horizontally. And find ASS Lit. Provided it hadn't vanished into a fourth dimension. If it had, that really was the end.
By the second entrance I came nose to nose with Storn!
Thank the Lord! A kindred spirit at last-It transpired that yesterday an hour before I arrived the head of admin, turned up with two workmen and moved ASS Lit. to entrance 2, ground floor, flat 23, room 40.
Our place was to be taken by the music section, ASS Mus.
"I don't know. But why didn't you come yesterday? The old man got very worried."
"For goodness' sake! How was I to know where you'd gone? You should have left a note on the door."
"We thought they'd tell you..."
I gnashed my teeth.
"Have you seen those women? Next door..."
"That's true," said Storn.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Getting a room of my own gave me a new lease of life. They screwed a light bulb in ASS Lit. I found a ribbon for the typewriter. Then a second young lady appeared. "Pise. appt. clerk."
Manuscripts began to arrive from the provinces. Then came another splendid young lady. A journalist. Very amusing, a good sport. "Pise. appt. as sec. of lit. feuilletons."
Finally, a young man turned up from the south. A journalist. And we wrote him our last "Pise." There were no more vacancies. ASS Lit. was full up. And a real hive of industry.
Twelve tablets of saccharine and that's all...
"The sheet or the jacket?"
Not a word about cash.
Went upstairs today. The young ladies were very snappy with me. For some reason they can't stand ASS Lit.
"Can I check our pay-roll?"
"I want to make sure everyone's on it."
"Ask Madame Kritskaya."
Madame Kritskaya got up, shook her bun of grey hair and announced turning pale:
"It's got lost."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Madame Kritskaya, tearfully:
"My head's going round. You can't imagine what's been going on here. Seven times I wrote out that pay-roll and they sent it back. Said there was something wrong with it. And you won't get your pay anyway. There's someone on your list who hasn't been officially authorised."
To hell with the lot of them! Nekrasov and the resurrected alcoholics. I hurried off. More corridors. Dark. Light. Light. Dark. Meyerhold. Personnel. Light bulbs on in the daytime. A grey army-coat. A woman in wet felt boots. Desks.
"Which of us hasn't been officially authorised?"
"None of you have."
But the best of it was that the founder of ASS Lit., the old man himself, had not been authorised. What? And I haven't either? What's going on here?
"You probably didn't write an application?"
"I didn't what? I wrote four applications in your office. And handed them over to you personally. Together with the one I wrote before that makes 113 applications in all."
"Well, they must have got lost. Write another one."
This went on for three days. After that we were all reinstated. And new authorisations were written.
I am against the death penalty. But if Madame Kritskaya is ever taken to face the firing squad, I'll go and watch. The same applies to the young lady in the sealskin hat. And Lidochka, the clerical assistant.
Get rid of the lot of them!
Madame Kritskaya stood there with the authorisations in her hands, and I solemnly declare that she will not pass them on. I could not understand what this diabolical woman with the bun was doing here. Who would entrust her with work? This was Fate and no mistake!
A week passed. I went to the fifth floor, in entrance 4. They put a stamp on them there. I need another stamp, but for two days I've been trying vainly to catch the Chairman of the Tariff-Valuation Committee.
Sold the sheet.
We won't get any cash for at least a fortnight.
There's a rumour that everyone in the building will get an advance of 500.
The rumour's true. They've spent four days writing out authorisations.
I took the authorisations to receive the advance. Had everything. All the stamps were in order. But I got so worked up rushing from the second floor to the fifth that I bent an iron bolt sticking out of the corridor wall.
Handed over the authorisations. They'll be sent for endorsement to another building at the other end of Moscow. Then returned. And then the cash...
Got paid today. Cash!
Ten minutes before it was time to go to the pay desk, the woman on the ground floor, who was supposed to put on the last stamp, said:
"It's not set out according to form. You'll have to write another one."
I don't remember exactly what happened then. Everything went hazy.
I seem to remember yelping something painfully. Like:
"What the hell's going on?"
The woman opened her mouth:
"How dare you..."
Then I calmed down. I calmed down. Explained that I'd been het up. Apologised. Took back what I'd said. She agreed to correct it in red ink. Scribbled: "Pay cash." Squiggle.
I rushed to the cash desk. Magic words: cash desk! Didn't believe it, even when the cashier took out the notes.
Then it suddenly hit me. Money!
From the drafting of the authorisation up to the moment of receipt from the cash desk passed twenty-two days and three hours.
There was nothing left at home. No jacket. No sheet. No books.
ON HOW TO EAT
Got ill. Through being careless. Had beetroot soup with meat today. Tiny golden discs (fat) floating on top. Three platefuls. Three pounds of white bread in one day. And some pickled cucumbers. When I was full up, made some tea. Drank four glassfuls with sugar. Felt sleepy. Lay down on the divan and dropped off.
Dreamed I was Lev Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. Married to Sofia Andreyevna. Sitting upstairs in the study. Had to write. But didn't know what. People kept coming up and saying:
"Dinner is served."
But I was afraid to go down. I felt stupid, realised there was a big misunderstanding. It wasn't me who wrote War and Peace. Yet I was sitting there. Sofia Andreyevna herself came up the wooden staircase and said:
"Come along. It's a vegetarian dinner."
Suddenly I lost my temper.
"What? Vegetarianism? Get some meat at once! I want a steak. And a glass of vodka."
She burst into tears. Then a dukhobor with a bushy ginger beard rushed up and said to me reproachfully:
"Vodka? Tut-tut-tut! What are you thinking of, Lev Ivanovich?"
"Not Ivanovich! Nikolayevich! Get out of my house! Scram! Away with all those dukhobors!"
There was a great commotion.
I woke up a sick and broken man. It was dusk. An accordion was playing in the next room.
I went to the mirror. What a face. Ginger beard, white cheekbones, red eyelids. But that was nothing compared to the eyes. Glittering again. That was bad.
Advice: beware of that glitter. as soon as it appears, borrow some money (not returnable), from a bourgeois, buy some food and have a meal. Only don't eat too much to begin with. Just clear soup and a little white bread on the first day. Take it easy.
I didn't like my dream either. It was a horrid dream.
Drank tea again. Remembered last week. On Monday I ate some potatoes with vegetable oil and quarter of a pound of bread. Drank two glasses of tea with saccharine. On Tuesday I had nothing to eat and drank five glasses of tea. On Wednesday I borrowed two pounds of bread from a plumber. Drank tea, but ran out of saccharine. Had a splendid lunch on Thursday. Went round to see some friends at
2 p. m. The door was opened by a maid in a white apron. Strange sensation. As if it were ten years ago. At
3 p. m. heard the maid begin to set the table. We sat and talked (I had shaved that morning). They cursed the Bolsheviks and told me they were exhausted. I could see they were waiting for me to go. But I sat tight.
Eventually the lady of the house said:
"Would you care to stay for lunch perhaps?"
"Thank you. I should love to."
We had: soup with macaroni and white bread, meatballs and cucumbers for the main course, then rice pudding with jam and tea also with jam.
Must confess something horrid. As I was leaving, I imagined the place being searched. They would come and ransack everything. Find gold coins under the longjohns in the chest of drawers. Flour and ham in the larder. Take the host away...
It was foul to think like that, but I did.
He who sits hungry in an attic over a feuilleton, let him not follow the example of the fastidious Knut Hamsun. Let him visit those who live in seven rooms and lunch with them. On Friday had lunch at the canteen, soup and a potato cake, and today, Saturday, got paid and ate myself sick.
There's a hint of menace in the air. I've already developed a sixth sense. Something is giving way beneath our ASS Lit.
The old man appeared today, pointed a finger at the ceiling beyond which the young ladies lurk, and said:
"There's a plot against me..."
Hearing this I hurriedly counted how many saccharine tablets I had left. Enough for five or six days.
The old man came in noisily, beaming all over.
"I've foiled their plot," he said. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than a woman's head in a scarf popped round the door and snapped:
"You there. Sign this."
I signed it.
The paper said:
"As from such-and-such a date ASS Lit. is disbanded."
Like the captain on the sinking ship, I was the last to leave. Our business — Nekrasov, the Resurrected Alcoholic, Hunger miscellanies, (21) poetry, instructions to provincial ASS Lits, I ordered to be filed and handed in. Then I turned out the light with my own hands and left. And just as I did it began to snow. Then rain. Then something in between the two lashed my face from all sides.
Moscow's terrible in periods of staff reductions and weather like that. Yes sir, that was a reduction alright. People were being sacked in other parts of that awful building too.
But not Madame Kritskaya, Lidochka or the sealskin hat.
Commentaries to NOTES OFF THE CUFF:
1. Melnikov P. I. (the pseudonym of Andrei Pechersky, 1818-1883), a Russian writer and the author of In the Forests and In the Hills, novels about Old Believers.
2. "Peter in a green caftan..." A reference to the Russian tsar Peter the Great who founded the Russian navy and used to build ships with his own hands.
3. "Black, white, slender, Vasnetsovian..." Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), a Russian artist who painted legendary subjects and also decorated the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev.
4. "The novelist Yuri Slyozkin..." The writer Yu. L. Slyozkin (1885-1947), author of the novels Table Mountain
(The Girl from the Mountain), Abdication and others, which portray the events of the pre-revolutionary period and the years just after the Revolution.
5. "Iface the future without fear..." A quotation from Alexander Pushkin's poem "Stanzas", which prompted certain circles of Russian society to talk about the poet's abandonment of his ideals. These accusations, which were disproved by Pushkin's life and writings, were repeated by primitive critics in the early Soviet period.
6. "...his Gentleman-of-the-Bedchamberism..." In 1834 Pushkin was appointed a Gentleman-of-the-Bedchamber (the lowest court rank in Imperial Russia). The poet was insulted and deeply angered by this unexpected "favour" from the Tsar.
7. A quotation from Pushkin's poem "A Bacchanal Song".
8. "Indifferent alike to praise or blame..." A quotation from "A monument I've raised not built with hands..."
9. Yevreinov N. N. (1879-1953), a director and playwright.
10. "Brother writers, your vocation..." A line from Nekrasov's poem "In the Hospital" which continues as follows: "holds the threat of doom..."
11. "Yesterday Riurik Ivnev appeared..." The pseudonym of Mikhail Alexandrovich Kovalyov (1891-1981), a poet who belonged to the group of Imagists during the period in question.
12. "The third was Osip Mandelstam." Osip Emilievich Mandelstam (1891-1938), an Acmeist poet.
13. "The novelist Pilnyak..." The pseudonym of Boris Andreyevich Vogau (1894-1941), the author of the novels The Naked Year, The Volga Flows into the Caspian Sea and Okay, as well as several collections of short stories.
14. "Serafimovich arrived from up north." Alexander Serafimovich Serafimovich (Popov) (1863-1949), the author of the well-known novel The Iron Flood about the Civil War.
15. Nozdryov — a satirical character from Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls.
16. A quotation from Pushkin's poem The Poor Knight.
17. "Or perhaps it's Bryusov and Bely?" Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov (1873-1924), poet, novelist and critic, the founder of Russian Symbolism. Andrei Bely (the pseudonym of Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev) (1880-1934), poet and novelist, a leading representative of Russian Symbolism.
18. "The meat pie in the Truba..." Trubnaya Square in Moscow, where there was a market.
19. "Kanatchikov dacha!" A clinic for the mentally ill.
20. A quotation from Gogol's story The Nose.
21. "...Nekrasov, the Resurrected Alcoholic, the Hunger miscellanies..." A reference to a book of verse by Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-1878), which was about to be published, a play called The Resurrected Alcoholic by an amateur playwright, and also various collections by Russian and Soviet writers, the proceeds from which had been donated to famine relief.
The Tale of the Twins Who Finished off the Chief Clerk