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Fair-haired Furies

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Marusya Klimova 

Extract from the novel «The Blonde Beasts» (Белокурые бестии)    (Translated By Daria Smirnova)

 

The following has been excerpted from The Fair-haired Furies originally published in Russia in 2001. The book completes Klimova’s autobiographical trilogy; the other two parts are the novels Blue Blood and The Little House at Bois-Colombes. The plot of the The Fair-haired Furies unfolds during the 1990s, a critical time for Russia, when the country and its people were struggling to step over the threshold between the old and the new order. The characters of new Russian dandies and transvestites that the author introduces to the literary reality fit well to the atmosphere of the cosmic carnival of these years as they change their masks and disguises with ease. The book tells a story of gay Pavlik and his adventures in St. Petersburg between his many desperate attempts to emigrate to Europe, and of his friend Marusya, a writer and translator struggling with depression and the absurdity of post-Soviet existence and a silent observer of Pavlik’s rebellion.

 

Cover image by Mstislav Valerianovich Dobuzhinsky (1875 — 1957) — a Russian artist, a master of cityscape, and a participant of artistic movement Mir Iskusstva. This lithography is from the album «St. Petersburg in 1921.»

Kostya occupied a small room in a kommunalka[1] just underneath the roof of a house on Dekabristov Street. One of his windows overlooked the gilded dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and Marusya used to enjoy smoking there and looking down at people below or staring far ahead at the Cathedral itself, until one day Kostya boarded it up with plywood and ever since his room has been plunged into twilight even at daytime. Kostya couldn’t stand the Cathedral and would always turn his head away when he passed it, his face distorted into a mask of pain. He believed, and often lectured Marusya about it, that Isaac’s was an embodiment of the philistinism and triviality that filled this world, moreover, it exemplified the power of brute force over the stupid crowd and its invariable dominance over the world. Kostya did not see anything truly sublime in this meaningless pile of rock and stone, by sublime he meant the greatness of human spirit which, in his opinion, was to be manifested in creative will that would strive to bring to life pure ideas and forms.

The Cathedral was built by a Frenchman latching onto Tsar Nicholas’ court, and, although Kostya liked a kind of jestful sadism about the fact that a Russian Emperor had put a Frenchman in charge of building a cathedral to commemorate the victory over Napoleon, he still hated the building. One look at the architect’s portrait should be enough, Kostya used to say: his face was so typical, plain, and middlebrow that it was clear a man with such features could never create anything sublime. Besides, Neff, the court painter to Nicholas I and artist who created the Cathedral’s iconostasis, was known to spend his leisure producing pornography for the Emperor’s collection now kept in the vaults of the Hermitage…That pointless heap of human ambition, stupidity, and greed brought into being this mass of a cathedral that is not speaking of Orthodox Christianity at all but rather of all the vices of the century it soaked in. Its only virtue is its size and that huge golden dome on top visible from far away, even from the other side of the Neva, and people, it’s all they need, they are satisfied, the Cathedral overwhelms them with its great size that they always take for greatness. The crowd is hypnotized with the power, the scale, the amount of gold spent on the dome, and the questions of beauty and aesthetics are all left behind. And even if another cathedral were erected right next to Isaac’s, this other one being the perfection of taste produced by a free will of a true genius, and not by a likeness of this “go-getting zavhoz[2]”—the name Kostya gave to architect de Montferrand—the crowd would still worship it for its size and nobody would care about beauty. If it comes down to it, one could understand the contemporaries; living in those standardized boxes of concrete, they could not help being consumed by the view of this giant golden dome. Of course, there was de Maupassant who fled from the Eiffel Tower and Gogol who was bored by the entire Petersburg, but those were mavericks, and their actions are seen as some quixotism, insanity, and they were insane as it turned out. On the other hand, though, all these poor souls will pay dearly for their thoughtless worshipping. In the next century they will be edged out to the trim of the world, just the way they’d been pushed out to the outskirts of Petersburg; the shacks they’ll be forced to live in will be even more lousy than now, and they deserve it…

Realizing the depth of people’s stupidity and indifference to beauty made Kostya furious.  He would raise his voice and it would acquire some nasty metallic tone, which would scare Marusya, as his at-first calm, abstract arguments would suddenly turn on her, since he believed that she was like everybody else, thoughtless. She didn’t understand anything, and in particular she didn’t understand what he was trying to tell her, she kept losing the point and he was perfectly aware of it, even though she kept silent and pretended to listen with great attention. Or, else, he would suddenly lash at her calling her a real fool for working day and night on her novels and translations, for spending so much time in the libraries, nobody needs it anyway, and she could easily just sit still and do nothing, for “all these brainless idiots would eat any crap you give them”…

The last time she stopped by he was most adamant about it, because even though she had many books published, she was still doomed to working for some Vasya or Petya or somebody, no matter who, because trying to do something, creating beauty means being a real idiot, because it means you can’t see what’s around and know nothing about human nature, which means that with everything you create, the more you put into it, the worse it is, the more stupid it is; for, inadvertently, it becomes a symbol of your enslavement by the world that deserves nothing but scorn. In fact, Nietzsche was right saying that the word “work” itself in Slavic languages is derived from the word “slavery,”[3] see, unlike Marusya, Kostya, for one, never wrote anything down and would always just say whatever came to his mind at the moment and then would forget it completely, which he saw as his main advantage over her.

Lately he really hadn’t been working anywhere, which would often leave him penniless, and he would lie on the couch for days and even for weeks as if pressed down by some invisible heavy load. Kostya believed that in a spiritual world nothing could disappear without a trace and dissolve into thin air, since it was also governed by a law, like the law of energy conservation in our physical world. Because of this people at all times had to carry an invisible load, a burden, something like a wardrobe that they carry up the invisible stairs; and if everybody holds it, the weight is almost unnoticed, and they can carry it easily, joking and chatting with each other on the way, as it used to be in the beginning of the century, for instance; but when all, or almost all around you suddenly take their hands away from the wardrobe, then, the one who had bad luck and happened to be closer to the middle of it and failed to leap away soon enough, will suddenly feel all the weight of it on his shoulders, and he will never be able to step aside no matter how hard he tries and he will never shove away this wardrobe of tradition and all mankind, since there always will be a fool, like Kostya, who got caught and never managed to slip away from under it.

And indeed, almost always when Kostya started to talk this way, his voice was trembling with incredible suppressed tension, he struggled to find words and it seemed that these words were burdened with some inconceivable transcendental meaning, it seemed that he was moving huge heavy stones. But then, when he would finally have expressed his thought, when he would have brought it to its end, he felt unexpected relief and often would never actually even return to the subject that seemed to have been so important to him just now. He lived off of a small pension that he was assigned after one of his stays at the nuthouse. However, the subject of the Cathedral looming behind his boarded up window never left his mind. 

If Marusya could make her poor little bird brain work to imagine, just for a moment, that here, next to this miserable Isaac’s, a new, ideal cathedral suddenly appeared, it would still be attended by the same Marusya-like, hen-witted guides with their pointers that they would wave about poking at some meaningless icons, and columns, and sculptures, and chandeliers, frescos, mosaics, and ornaments, spicing their speeches with loud words like “god,” “soul,” “genius, ” such empty and approximate words that have lost all sense and now mean hardly more than “crap” and “condom.” What’s most important, they are not trying to fool the crowd, they just don’t know any better, they don’t understand. Kostya came to this conclusion observing Marusya for quite a while. This is exactly why, recognizing all the effort spent on the ideal cathedral on part of its creator, Kostya would inevitably, finally have to get filled with contempt at both the Cathedral and Marusya’s books that would have come to symbolize to him bad taste and human idiocy, mostly due to their perfection itself for it would be the testimony of the servile industriousness and slavish diligence of their creators. Marusya’s books and translations which he used to like not so long ago now made him feel sick just like he was sick of her being so assiduous and dutiful.

This way Kostya would arrive to the thought that a truly ideal cathedral that would contain the will of its creator directed not towards but away from being the idol of the crowd’s worshipping like Isaac’s, that is, a cathedral that Kostya could look at without disgust, would have to be built as poorly as possible, as badly as one could imagine, for only while taking a walk around a cathedral that embodies someone’s will to the worst, obvious for the sight of those cognizant, can one truly comprehend and experience the nature of a contemporary tour guide. Kostya was long fed up with the brainless tour guides that accompany us everywhere poking their pointers at various paintings and palaces, monuments and historical examples, samples, touchstones and perfections…However this will to the worst frightens the contemporaries because they fear this piercing light that uncovers and illuminates all dark secrets and, first of all, their own misery, so they prefer to wander in the shadow of perfection, which Kostya can’t think of, save talk about, without laughing….

When he used to work in a library, he had a huge pile of books on his desk written in foreign languages including some Eastern ones: Arabic, Japanese. He was to carefully memorialize them, that is to type their titles and authors on a typewriter, Eastern names and titles were usually duplicated in English, and this went on for quite a while, because Kostya had worked there for four years, an eternity, but once, he entered the titles of some Japanese books in all kinds of doodles, brackets, percent symbols and hyphens, quotation marks, semicolons and commas right into the register. In his opinion it all looked like hieroglyphics and he was sure that nobody would notice a thing, so, he brought the folder to the manager, put it right under her nose, and asked her if he did everything right, she, of course, looked at it closely, and, as he expected, saw nothing, but rather looked at him happily and ingratiatingly as never before and even started thanking him for diligent work. That was when he sent his boot flying at her, because he had been dying to know if she would notice; he wanted to know the degree of her idiocy and enslavement by the modern civilization…

Kostya still had no doubts that if today the very same Isaac’s received some fiat from above stating that all icons and paintings must be hanged upside down, none of the guides working there would pause for a minute, well, maybe they’d be a bit confused at first, but then the Cathedral director would call for a brief and would sort everything out in five to ten minutes, he’d explain the meaning of the instruction and these things would pick up their pointers and go on with their enlightening activities confident and reassured. Soon they would stop noticing the change, Kostya was really disappointed he couldn’t issue such a fiat because he would really do it, if he could…

At this point Marusya completely lost Kostya’s line of thought, as always happened to her. She remembered how, when she was a schoolgirl, their teacher would take them to the Russian Museum and inevitably stop in front of the huge painting by Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompoeii. She came to believe it was the best painting of all times and nations, a belief that was mostly based on the size of the thing. Actually right next to it there was another big painting, Fyodor Bruni’s The Brazen Serpent, and Marusya would keep comparing them, and she started having certain doubts, since the size of the other one was no less impressive. However, after pondering over it for quite a while she had to agree with the guide’s reasoning, since Bryullov’s painting depicted real historical events, which she couldn’t say about The Brazen Serpent, she was not quite sure about that one. The Russian Museum was always so crowded and the little velvet sofas, so cozy to sit on, were always occupied by some fat women and men, and their screamy, fidgety children that were jumping and running around the hall under the visitors’ feet. Their excursions usually took place in the evening, after all the classes, and Marusya was awfully tired. She was dreaming about taking a seat and resting for a couple minutes; besides she was hungry and the smells coming from the cafeteria on the first floor made her dream of meatballs and mashed potato. Once, the guide kept talking for so long that the paintings went dark before her eyes, and suddenly she crashed down on the floor. When she came to her senses she saw worried faces of her teacher and some other women bent over her, she was brought up from the floor and put on a velvet sofa, some shriveled old crump with a cane being driven away for her sake. After, at home, Marusya even had a dream about the earthquake in Pompeii and it was as if she were there, at the very center of it, everything was crumbling down, infants screaming and distraught women running around with their hair loose, almost naked, trying to save their belongings and offspring, and everything was sinking into the raging flame. But now she wouldn’t even stop to look at this painting, so she felt she was getting Kostya’s point.

As for Isaac’s Cathedral, she liked it, she remembered how, when a student, she would go out for a smoke on the embankment and would stand and look at it for a long while… And besides, wherever she was, she could see its golden dome, the silhouette of this “ink pot” as one of her friends used to call it, and it consoled her, she felt sure that she was at home and knew every corner here, every backyard and backstreet, so, if anything happens, she could always hide.

 

[1] Kommunalka or communal apartment is a relic of Soviet times, especially of the first year after the Revolution, when wealthy people’s spacious apartments were appropriated and the rooms were filled with working class families. One family usually occupied one room and the utilities – kitchen and bathroom – were to be used communally, hence the name. The realities of communal living in such apartments were harsh and often lead to utterly absurd and comedic situations and are often described in literature, particularly Joseph Brodsky’s essay “A Room and a Half”, in which he tells about growing up in a very typical St. Petersburg kommunalka during 1950s-60s.

[2] Zavhoz (from zaveduiushchyi hoziaistvom) – is a term of Soviet jargon of officialdom, meaning logistics or supply manager, literally “person managing the household”; people of this position became known for their cunning wit and ability to make personal profit from the property they were in charge of.

[3] As rabota coming from rab – a slave.

 Опубликовано:

Underpass, August 2017.

http://underpass.co/Home/LoadFullPageContent/80

 

@Marusya Klimova (Tatiana Kondratovich) 2001.

@Translated By Daria Smirnova 2017

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