Nicholas J. L. Luker
I Literary Acquaintances
THE first years of the new century were the most important of Kuprin's career. No longer cut off from literary colleagues, he found himself in the center of Russian cultural life, rubbing shoulders with foremost writers of the day. The early 1900s saw the formation of several friendships important for his literary development. Brief though it was, one of the most vital was that with Chekhov. Between 1901 and Chekhov's death in 1904, the two men met several times and corresponded regularly. Kuprin sought Chekhov's advice on his work and discussed social and political matters with him. These years also saw the beginning of Kuprin's friendship with Ivan Bunin, which would last almost forty years, continuing while both were in emigration.2 Also important was his intimate friendship with the scholar and critic F. D. Batyushkov of God's World. For several years after 1905, Kuprin would visit his remote estate of Danilovskoe, near Ustyuzhna in Vologda Prov- ince.' They wrote to each other frequently, and the one hundred and fifty surviving letters are only part of their correspondence.4 Some credit for Kuprin's success in these years must go to Mirolyubov of the Journal for All. Aware that Kuprin was not given to sys- tematic work, he insisted that he give his writing driving purposefulness, a quality readily apparent in Kuprin's tales of the early 1900s. Kuprin later recalled Mirolyubov's guidance with great gratitude, though he disapproved of his editor's flirtation with the right wing "Religio-philosophical Society" in Petersburg.5 In November of 1902 Kuprin met Gorky for the second time (they had first met in 1900 in Yalta.) Gorky would exert an incalculable influence on Kuprin's career, and especially on The Duel.6 Later on, (*56) Kuprin openly acknowledged his debt to him: "To Gorky 1 owe a very great deal. He not only had a sincere and attentive regard for me and my work, but also - made me think about things I had not thought about before. My contact with him is of enormous significance to me."7
In 1901 Kuprin joined the Moscow literary society Sreda (Wednesday), founded in 1899 by the writer Nikolay Teleshov. An extension of a group dating from the mid-1880s, it was composed chiefly of realist writers of the younger generation, among whom were Gorky, Bunin, and Leonid Andreev. In 1903 the Znanie (Knowledge) publishing concern founded by Gorky began to publish its collections of tales by contemporary writers. The first comprised works written mainly by members of the Wednesday group. In October of 1902, Knowledge offered to publish a collection of Kuprin's tales. Guided by Gorky, Kuprin chose his best works for the book, revising them with scrupulous care and omitting even the sparkling "Allez!" because it seemed out of place. When in February 1903 the collection of eight tales appeared - among them "The Enquiry" and Moloch - Kuprin was immensely pleased. To be published by Knowledge was high recommendation for any writer. "It's pleasant," he wrote to Chekhov, "to come out into the world under such a flag." Tolstoy praised the collection for its vivid language . and distinguished critics were almost unanimous in their approbation, pointing to Kuprin's closeness in themes and technique to Chekhov and Gorky. Angel Bogdanovich of God's World - who in 1897 had written unflatteringly of Moloch - now praised Kuprin's compact style and his ability to convey a feeling of effervescent joie de vivre.10 Gorky himself, writing to Teleshov in March of 1903, about future contributors to Knowledge, ranked Kuprin third, after Chekhov and Andreev. 11
Despite the social and literary success of Kuprin's first years in Petersburg, the period also had its drawbacks. His employment with God's World left him little time for his own writing, and when his work did appear in that journal, malicious tongues whispered that he owed his success to his family connections. "Life is hard," he wrote to a friend in Kiev, "scandal, gossip, envy, hatred ... I'm very lonely and sad."12 A violent disagreement with his colleague Bogdanovich proved the last straw, and in February 1904 Kuprin left the journal altogether.
Because of his editorial work, Kuprin wrote less between 1902 and 1905 than he had in the provinces. But if the quantity of his (*57) writing was reduced - some twenty tales in all - its quality was incomparably higher. Gone were the melodramatic elements of his earlier tales, with their penchant for the abnormal. More conscious now of the blatant contrasts prevalent in Russian society, he turned his attention to the plight of the "little man." thus following the best traditions of Russian literature.
II "At the Circus"
Published in God's World in January, 1902, "At the Circus" was clear proof of Kuprin's literary maturity. Successful among readers and critics alike, it brought high praise from both Chekhov and Tolstoy. Writing to Olga Knipper soon after its publication, Chekhov described the tale as "a free, ingenuous, talented piece written ... by ... an expert."13 Kuprin never ceased to love the circus all his life. He felt boundless admiration for the skill and daring of performers who daily risk their lives to entertain their audience. At the same time he was attracted by the camaraderie of polyglot circus folk, closely knit by the traditions of their profession and proud of their individual skills, handed down from one generation to the next. While working on the tale, Kuprin commented that, though its plot was simple, it offered him tremendous creative scope: "the circus during rehearsals in the daytime and a performance at night, jargon, customs, the description of a wrestling match, straining muscles and beautiful poses, the excitement of the crowd, and so on."14 As Kuprin said, the plot of the work is delightfully simple. The wrestler Arbuzov (based on a performer of that name whom Kuprin had met in Odessa) feels unwell before his final bout with the American Reber, enters the ring against his doctor's advice, loses, and dies immediately afterward of a heart attack. While Kuprin's earlier circus works ("Lolli," "Allez!" and the play The Clown) had focused on such sensational incidents as catastrophes and suicides, here Arbuzov's death is conveyed in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. "Everything vanished," Kuprin concludes his tale, "thought, consciousness, pain, and anguish. And it was just as simple and quick as if someone had blown on a candle burning in a dark room and put it out... (II. 173).
Arbuzov's physical strength is pivotal to the story, and heightens the tragedy of his premature death. In the opening scene, the circus physician Lukhovitsyn admires Arbuzov's magnificent physique, wondering at the wrestler's "huge, sleek, shining, pale pink body (*58) with ... its muscles jutting out sharply as hard as wood" (III, 147). The details of Arbuzov's illness which follow were supplied by Chekhov while Kuprin was staying with him in Yalta in the summer of 1901. The wrestler, Lukhovitsyn explains, is suffering from hypertrophy of the heart, or cor bovinum, a condition afflicting many who engage in very strenuous exertion. Arbuzov's physical magnificence is emphasized not only through the picture of the hunchbacked doctor prodding him in admiration, but also through the unattractive circus director, "a small, stout, thin-legged man with hunched shoulders," whose bulldog face reminds one of Bismarck (III, 158). Arbuzov is the victim of the circus system, which revolves round money and takes no account of individuals in its service. But, on a higher level, for circus we may read any rigid system based on money that ignores the little man. Kuprin's criticism is levelled at the circus director's ruthless indifference to his artists' needs: since he knows that cancellation of the bout will reduce his takings, he refuses to put it off. Forced to perform, the wrestler feels "some nameless, merciless power" (III, 169) driving him into the ring. even as he becomes acutely aware of how "absurd, useless, ridiculous, and brutal" his performance will be. Once out before the audience, he feels hopelessly trapped in the bright circle of light, as if "someone else's enormous will had brought him here and no power could make him turn back" (III, 170). He is gripped by the instinctive horror felt by the ox as it is led into the slaughterhouse. His sense of inexorable doom is intensified by the word "boomerang" ringing unaccountably again and again in his head and sym- bolizing the cyclical nature of all men's lives. As his own life comes full circle, the word echoes once more in his mind before he is swallowed by oblivion.
What gives "At the Circus" such power is the skill with which Kuprin conveys Arbuzov's feelings as they rise from vague disquiet in the opening chapter, through feverish sickness in his room, to a crescendo of impotent horror just before the bout. Conveyed in taut language that becomes more charged as the tale progresses, his suffering is set delicately into the more relaxed frame of circus activity with its varied characters engaged in their rehearsals, such colorful figures as the garrulous acrobat Batisto, whose speech is a dazzling melange of French. Italian. German, and Russian. The story's wealth of semidocumentary material about circus life lends it verisimilitude, while the details of wrestling technique in hap-(*59)ters II and V display Kuprin's expert knowledge of a sport that he sometimes refereed. In the Chekhov manner, the narrative is compressed, shorn of detail that would contribute little either to Arbuzov's spiritual condition or to the background against which it belongs.
Realism and humane concern lie at the heart of "At the Circus." Drawn from lived life and peopled with real types with whom Kuprin was closely familiar, it pointed the direction his best work would take in the years ahead.
III "The Swamp"
Submitted first to Russian Wealth, "The Swamp" was rejected and appeared instead in the December issue of God's World for 1902. Though linked thematically with the Polesye cycle, it is set in the Zaraisk area of Ryazan Province, where Kuprin worked as a forest surveyor in late 1901. The tale has no plot; in Kuprin's words, it "consists entirely of mood."15 Though its text is continuous, it falls into two distinct parts. The first is a philosophical prologue in which the student Serdyukov gives his views of the peasants and country life as he accompanies the surveyor Zhmakin through the forest at twilight. The second illustrates how mistaken his ideas are when both men spend the night in the keeper Stepan's hut, where they find parents and children the victims of malaria from the swamp around them.
The student confesses to Zhmakin that though he is not familiar with the country, all he has found in it so far is moving and beautiful. He marvels at the continuity of rural life. "A plough, a harrow, a hut, a cart.... Two thousand years ago these things were exactly the same as they are now" (III, 203). The native creativity of rural folk has produced what they require, but left no trace of the men who brought tools, customs, and beliefs into being. "Whatever you take," Serdyukov goes on, "clothing, utensils, bast shoes, a spade, a spinning wheel, a sieve! ... Generation after generation ... have racked their brains over the invention of these things ... and despite all this ... there's not a single name, not a single author!" (III, 203).
Serdyukov next speaks of the peasant's work on the land. Not only is he surrounded by the accumulated experience of his forefathers, but he also never doubts the usefulness of his toil. Unlike professional men, the peasant never need ask himself whether his labor is necessary to humanity: "For the peasant everything is (*60) amazingly orderly and clear. If you sow in spring then in winter you are fed. If you feed your horse it will feed you in return. What could be simpler or more certain?" (III, 204). Thrust forcibly now by the march of time into the "civilized" world with its endless rules and regulations, the peasant is utterly mystified. Rejecting Zhmakin's views that the peasant is a stupid sluggard who should be beaten, the student explains that the muzhik (peasant) simply lives in a different dimension from more educated people. While they are already approaching the fourth dimension, he is only just beginning to grasp the third. But he is not at all stupid: "Just listen to him talking about the weather, his horse, or the haymaking ... it's simple, apt, and expressive, and every word is weighed and fitting. ..." Carried away by his own words. Serdyukov concludes:
"Yes, I know, the peasant's poor, ignorant, dirty.... Feed him, cure him, teach him to read and write, but don't crush him with your fourth dimension.... till you educate the people, all your Appeal Court decisions, compasses, notaries, and easements will be empty words of your fourth dimension to him!" (III, 206).
Kuprin handles the first half of "The Swamp" with great skill. Involved though they seem in the retelling, Serdyukov's ideas are essential to the impact made by the second half. The early pages rely for their effect on the contrast between the two men. The enthusiastic Serdyukov is set against the gloomy Zhmakin. who resents the voluble young man's presence and becomes painfully aware of his own old age under the student's barrage of words. Though Serdyukov does most of the talking and Zhmakin is essentially a sounding board, the author is careful to break up the student's tirade by frequent though brief exasperated retorts from the surveyor, so lending Serdyukov's words a more conversational flavor.
The second half of the tale brings an abrupt change of atmosphere. With the doleful boom of a bittern echoing in his ears, Serdyukov suddenly finds himself treading soft, slimy ground and surrounded by the clinging mist of a swamp. Meeting the keeper's family stricken with the fever that will eventually kill them all, the student is filled with despair. Unforgettable in its quiet horror, the "mood" to which Kuprin referred pervades the closing pages as remorselessly as the poisonous exhalations of the swamp seep into the hut. Sound is at the center of Kuprin's evocative technique here. A lonely island in a sea of mysterious stillness, the hut is filled with isolated but expressive sounds that intensify the silence of (*61) swirling mist outside: the plaintive humming of the samovar, the soporific chirping of a cricket, the monotonous creaking of the cradle, the fevered breathing of the sleeping children, and the mother's sad lullaby that seems to echo from the dawn of time when cavemen huddled round their fires. The sense of doom hanging over the family is heightened by Serdyukov's feeling that a "mysterious, invisible. bloodthirsty spirit" (III. 215) lurks like a curse in the hut, sucking its victims' lifeblood. The spirit of incurable disease is personified in a sinister picture called "Malaria" he saw long ago. In it a wild-eyed, ghostly woman rose with the mist from a swamp and slowly approached a child asleep at the water's edge.
Yet even in this wretched family there is beauty, all the more poignant for its transience. Looking at the face of Stepan's little girl, Serdyukov is struck by its sickly beauty: its features are so delicate that they seem "painted without shadow or color on translucent china," and its unusually large eyes are full of "naive astonishment, like the eyes of holy virgins in paintings by the pre-Raphaelites" (III, 211). Gazing at the lamp like one bewitched, her face is lit with a strangely expectant smile. Perhaps, Serdyukov muses, she longs for the night with its fever, when disease "takes possession of her little brain and wraps it in wild, tormentingly blissful dreams... "(Ill, 213).
Through Serdyukov, Kuprin reexamines his ideal of the "natural man" as portrayed in the Polesye cycle. The student is appalled by the quiet resignation with which Stepan regards his fate. Such instinctive submissiveness, Kuprin infers, is buried so deep in the peasant mentality that it is impossible to uproot. Stepan knows full well that he and his family are doomed: "We're all sick here. The wife and this child here and those on the stove. We buried the third on Tuesday. The place is damp.... We shiver and shiver ... and then that's it!" (II, 211). When the student asks why he does not move elsewhere, Stepan replies: "If we don't live here then others will - it's all the same where you live. Our father in heaven knows best where we should live and what we should do" (III, 211-12). Mystified by this simple-hearted man at peace with his life of poverty and disease, Serdyukov realizes that his earlier ideas were wrong. Bewildered, he asks himself how such suffering can possibly be justified. Neither he nor Kuprin provides an answer. To underline Stepan's submissiveness once more, the author has him called out in the dead of night to help fight a fire. Racked with (*62) fever, he goes obediently out into the mist that will eventually send him and his family to their graves.
The precise significance of the story's finale is unclear. Waking at dawn, Serdyukov feels a sudden desire to see the sun. Crossing the swamp, he climbs above the mist and stops. filled with gladness, on top of a hill. Beneath him lies a shimmering sea of white mist, "but above him shone the blue sky... and the golden rays of the sun resounded with the jubilant triumph of victory" (III. 218). It is hard to agree with the Soviet critic F. I. Kuleshov's contention that the closing lines are a poetic expression of the joyous future for the downtrodden Stepans of Russia.16 Though reminiscent of Chekhov's optimistic predictions, they seem to convey Serdyukov's relief at having left the swamp rather than any conviction of future social reform. His night in the hut has a dreamlike quality that his joy at the radiant morning helps him to escape. His feelings at the close have little connection with the plight of the peasant family. Like his author, and despite his theories, he offers no practical solution to Stepan's problem and that of millions like him. Despite its equivocal ending, the symbolism of the tale is plain. Life for the peasant is a vast swamp whose poisonous miasmas of poverty and ignorance bring him suffering and death. But the advantages of civilization will not by themselves save him from destruction. As one critic put it in his review: "Here something bigger and wider is needed, something that embraces the whole of life ... in its comprehensiveness. Man is dying in the swamp, and man must be resurrected. And this task is more important and difficult than bread, medicine, and schooling..."17 But Kuprin is content to show Stepan in death, not in resurrection. "The Swamp" remains a statement of the rural problem, not an answer to it.
IV The Underprivileged, the Downtrodden, and the Dispossessed
Other tales of these years focus not on the peasant but on the outcasts and deelasses of a society that measures success by wealth. In them we find people drawn from all sections of the lower classes. Actors and thieves, hobos and beggars, they are united by the poverty and squalor of their lives. Here again the breadth and depth of Kuprin's social experience emerge in the truth of his portrayal.
Set in a charity home for retired actors, "Na pokoe" ("In Retire-(*63)ment," 1902) reveals Kuprin's familiarity with the provincial Russian stage, a milieu he disliked intensely for its bickering and petty jealousies. Sustained by drink and the memory of past fame, the five inmates of the home live a useless life of boredom, enlivened only by arguments and vulgar talk of women. But Kuprin attenuates the grotesque vapidity of their existence with quiet tragedy. One of their number longs to see his granddaughter and is convinced she will visit him. But his pitiful dream remains unfulfilled, and during the stormy night of the closing lines he dies, alone and unloved.
Like his later tales "Zhidovka" ("The Jewess") and "Svad'ba" ("The Wedding"), "Trus" ("The Coward") of 1903 derives from Kuprin's observations during his army days of the life of poor Jewish communities on the Russo-Austrian border. The contrast between the tale's two main characters - the coarse smuggler Faibish and his reluctant partner in crime, the gentle Jewish actor Tsirelman - recalls that between the heroes of Gorky's "Chelkash" (1895). The likeness is no coincidence, for Gorky's tale impressed Kuprin. "I was struck," he recalled, "by the ... exact description of the feelings of Chelkash and ... the coward Gavrila.... I read this tale twice.... "18
The story is composed of two distinct episodes which could almost stand as independent tales. The second describes Faibish's lamentable smuggling expedition in which poverty compels Tsirelman to take part. Hesitant about his role and frightened by the darkness, he is seized with terror when the smuggler and he are fired on by a frontier guard, and screams in animal fear. If the second part of the tale is a gripping psychological study of a man in the clutches of terror, the first is a more subtle demonstration of the inspirational power of art. In a filthy tavern in the opening scene, Tsirelman acts out the traditional
Jewish story of the rejection of an old man by his son. Against a backdrop of damp walls in a blue haze of tobacco smoke, he plays to an audience drinking cheap wine. They see the Tsirelman they all know miraculously transformed into an awesome figure of legend who thrills them with his sonorous words. Even in this incongruous setting, Kuprin affirms, art retains its power to move the hearts of men. Capable of stirring the most downtrodden of folk, Tsirelman's acting is extraordinarily talented, a quality thrown into bizarre relief by his cowardly behavior during the smuggling episode that follows. The freedom-loving Faibish is akin to Buzyga, the hero of (*64) "Konokrady" ("The Horse Thieves," 1903). But the horse thief occupies the central position in that work, and is a more developed character than his predecessor. Renowned for his resourcefulness, he has become a notorious figure of country legend, one who despises the complacency of village life and prefers the exhilarating existence of a thief on the run. Admiring this self- sufficient loner who survives so skillfully beyond the pale of rural society, Kuprin delights in the attractive fusion of opposites that makes Buzyga the glamorous figure he is. In him, vengefulness coexists with kindness, brutality with gentleness, and calculating evil with breathtaking heroism. The fundamental nobility of his soul emerges in the closing pages of the tale. Caught and horribly beaten by the infuriated villagers, he steadfastly refuses to betray his partners in crime and so is torn to pieces by the crowd. Such outcasts on the fringe of "respectable" society were not new in Kuprin's work - his Kiev Types had presented a gallery of them. What is new is the fierce determination with which Buzyga clings to his role of pariah, considering it preferable to the accepted way of life around him.
"Belyi pudel'" ("The White Poodle") is very different in tone and content. Published in the journal Yunyi chitatel (The Young Reader) in 1904, it has become a favorite in Kuprin anthologies and is one of his most popular works for the young. Set on the exotic Crimean coast, it derives from Kuprin's acquaintance there with a pair of wandering artists and their dog. In contrast to "The Swamp" and "The Horse Thieves," it is an easy blend of lyricism and gentle satire, spiced with a dash of adventure at the close and rounded off by the happy ending typical of tales for younger readers. Disarmingly simple as the work may seem, it effectively illustrates the gulf separating the "haves" of Russian society from the "have nots." The story pivots on the social contrast in its third chapter between old Lodyzhkin and his young acrobat companion Sergey on the one hand, and the rich family before whose dacha they perform on the other. While Lodyzhkin and the boy have only their beloved poodle Arto, the family are surrounded by all the appurtenances of wealth. The artists are social outcasts whose only link with respectable society consists in the coppers flung them for their performance. Trilli, the spoilt son of the family, exhibits the degeneracy resulting from the easy life. His infantile behavior sets off the quiet maturity of Sergey as he calmly performs his acrobatic tricks in the hope of a small reward. To Kuprin. the performers' love of their art is a gauge of their spiritual beauty, a quality con-(*66)firmed by their stubborn refusal to sell the poodle, whatever the price. They are the people whom Kuprin credits with nobility and goodness, people rejected as social nobodies by the wealthy to whom the rouble means all. "The Jewess" (1904) strikes a more serious note. Published when pogroms against the Jews were regular occurrences in Russia, it demonstrates Kuprin's profound sympathy for this persecuted minority in Russian society. The tale is an eloquent reflection on the history and destiny of the Jewish race. Against his friends' advice, Kuprin chose to retain in his title the pejorative Russian term for Jew, zhid, instead of the neutral evreika (Jewess), and thus gave ironical emphasis to his pro-Jewish stance in the work. Traveling on a winter's night to his post, the medical officer Kashintsev stops at a remote Jewish inn. where he is astounded by the incomparable beauty of the landlord's wife. The squalid poverty of the inn and the grubby slovenliness of the Jewess herself make her beauty more astonishing still - "He had not only never seen such radiant, proud, perfect beauty, but had not even dared think it might exist" (III, 343). The dazzling spectacle gives rise to an impassioned inner monologue in Kashintsev, which reveals Kuprin's own wonder at the Jewish race: "Amazing, inscrutable Jewish people! ... Through tens of centuries it has come,., remaining fastidiously aloof from all other nations and concealing in its heart age-old grief and fire. The motley, vast life of Rome, Greece, and Egypt has long ago become the property of museum collections ... but this mysterious people ... has preserved ... its faith,., the sacred language of its inspired, divine books,., and its mystical alphabet whose very outlines are pervaded by thousand year old antiquity! ... versatile and immortal, it lives on, as if in fulfillment of some supernatural predestination. Its whole history is ... drenched with its own blood: centuries-old captivity, coercion, hatred, servitude, torment, bonfires of human flesh, exile, dispossession.... How has it remained alive?" (Ill, 347-48).
In the divine beauty of the woman's face, the doctor sees proof of the immortality of the Jewish people. How many millennia, he wonders, must her race have stood apart from others to preserve these exquisite biblical features that hark back to Judith, Ruth, and Rachel? Lost in a distant corner of the Jewish Pale, the woman is the embodiment of some miracle, and before her Kashintsev senses his own insignificance. "What am I," he muses, "yesterday's savage and today's intellectual,., beside this living enigma, perhaps(*66) the greatest and most inexplicable enigma in the history of mankind?" (III, 349).
Though cut short by the appearance of a vulgar local policeman. Kashintsev's reverie casts a shadow of poignant sadness over his life. Like that of Stepan's daughter in "The Swamp," the beauty of the Jewess comes as a profoundly moving surprise, a blinding anomaly in an environment of penury and degradation. Kuprin's point is that not even the foul mire at the lowest depths of man's existence can destroy the essential beauty of certain human beings. Yet Kashintsev's experience has a curiously insubstantial quality. So exceptional is it that like the night spent by Serdyukov in "The Swamp," it acquires the ephemerality of a dream. As the doctor drives away into the winter darkness, all that remains of the woman's beauty is a bright but wistful memory, flickering like the light of a station left far behind.
If tales like "The Jewess" and "The Swamp" show human beings condemned by circumstance to remain in the low social stratum into which they are born, then "Off the Street" (1904) describes a man of comparatively high social standing who has sunk to the nadir of degeneration. Andrey, the "man off the street" whose life story constitutes the whole of the work, is probably based on P. D. Manych,19 a minor literary figure in Petersburg and one of Kuprin's boon companions renowned for his chequered past. The peculiar staccato delivery of his speech, with its frequent questions and exclamations, provides the driving force behind Audrey's narrative.
His account of how he became a declasse echoes the confessions of Dostoevskian characters tormented by the unstable amalgam of base and noble impulses within them. Though he describes himself as "a striking example of moral and physical degeneration resulting from hereditary alcoholism, poor food, exhaustion, and venereal disease" (III, 364), he is also sensitive, intelligent, and highly versatile. His decline is the result of environmental factors rather than of fecklessness or irresponsibility. A home background of heatings, drunkenness, and adultery was followed by a succession of schools from which he was expelled. Next came the army, with its drinking and gambling, a sordid affair with another officer's wife, and dismissal for cheating at cards. Jobs as varied as Kuprin's own were followed by work on a provincial paper, where "there was no need to have any talent or the ability to read and write" (III, 375). Dismissed again, he was forced to become a professional beggar (*67) (strelok) and then a waiter. Arrested for his part in the murder of a hotel guest, he was acquitted and released after six months in an asylum. Showing the demoralizing effect on his hero of every stage in his life. Kuprin points the finger of accusation at the traditional pillars of "respectable" society - the family, the school, and the army - and shows that beneath their facade all are equally corrupt. Unable to offer Andrey scope to apply his talents effectively, society's only recourse now it has made him a hobo is to fling him out on the street. Society, Kuprin infers, not Andrey, is the loser.
As "Off the Street" shows, destructive social forces are at their most concentrated in the urban environment. In the tale "Chernyi tuman" ("Black Fog," 1905), those forces are allegorically represented in the poisonous emanation of the city that seeps into body and soul and brings with it death. Boris, the Little Russian hero of the tale, comes north to Petersburg to make his fortune, but instead falls victim to consumption. The familiar product of that city's climate, the disease becomes for Boris the malevolent distillation of everything evil in this dark, inhospitable metropolis so alien to his beloved south. ConsLimption lurks in the city's gloom like a predatory snake, its fetid breath a loathsome blend of "the sins of men, their malice and hatred, the exhalations of their mattresses, the odor of sweat and putrid mouths" (III, 406). Said by Kuprin to be written of himself. "Black Fog" reveals his antipathy to "flabby, cold, pale, boring Petersburg" (III, 400) and her grey people with no sunlight in their souls.
V. Hypocrites, Bigots, and Degenerates
Not content with showing the plight of the poor and dispossessed of Russian society. Kuprin also exposed the hypocrisy of "respectable" people whose reactionary attitudes made that society what it was. One such is Nasedkin, the retired school teacher of "Mirnoe zhitie" ("A Quiet Life," 1904), Kuprin's first work to appear in a Knowledge miscellany. Nasedkin (his name derives from the Russian nasedka, a sitting hen) is a self- appointed guardian of social order who writes anonymous letters denouncing inhabitants of his town in the belief that he is doing good. In his blind respect for authority he is the spiritual brother of Belikov, the classics teacher of Chekhov's tale "Man in a Case" (1898). whose encapsulated life shields him from reality. Nasedkin's thirty-five years as a pedagogue have taught him to be constantly watchful. Just as earlier he (*69) committed the results of his observations of his pupils to a notebook, so now he secretly records the names and circumstances of the victims of his anonymous letters - "all the scandals, love intrigues, gossip, and rumor of this sleepy little philistine town" (III, 302). The withering power of this laconic satire derives from the glaring contrast in Nasedkin between appearance and reality, how he seems to himself and others, and how he really is. Outwardly he is a model gentleman enjoying a quiet retirement. Everything in his little apartment - from its tulle curtains and pink lampshade to its old-fashioned repp furniture and corner icon - suggests peaceful respectability. In the stillness of his room, pervaded by the smell of geraniums, Nasedkin reflects with pride on "his honorable old age, serene, neat, and respected by all" (III, 300), his full pension, and his thousands carefully salted away over the years.
If Nasedkin is genuinely unaware of the harm his letters cause, Kuprin is not. In the latter half of the tale, when Nasedkin goes devoutly to church, Kuprin shows the depth of his hypocrisy and the suffering, his letters bring. By cleverly weaving Nasedkin's thoughts into the background of the service, Kuprin reveals with biting irony Nasedkin's view of himself as an arm of the law: "... I add my drop of benefit to the common good: I caution and warn those who require it, open their eyes and set them on the right road" (III, 308). When a tall woman in black enters the church. Nasedkin recognizes Shcherbacheva, the wife of a bestial millionaire merchant forty years her senior. Warned by a letter from Nasedkin, he caught her one day with his bailiff, had her stripped in front of the servants, and flogged her savagely. Her spirit broken, the young woman is now a virtual recluse. Watching her sobbing on her knees as the priest intones a prayer for fornicatresses, Nasedkin gloats over his success in setting her on the path of righteousness. Convinced that his own life is free from sin, he believes proudly that his zeal in unmasking transgression assures him a special place in the life to come. To Kuprin the church and its traditional conservatism foster the activities of people like Nasedkin. who impose their own standards on others. The bigotry of Nasedkin and the dogma of the church complement each other in a society riddled with prejudice and hypocrisy. While "A Quiet Life" contains no positive character as a mouthpiece for Kuprin's views, three other tales of the early 1900s turn on conflict between members of respectable society and progressive (*69) representatives of the intelligentsia, in whom the author's voice is heard. The first and best is the Crimean story "Kor' " ("Measles," 1904). Socially and materially, its protagonists are diametrically opposed: the wealthy shipowner Zavalishin and the impecLinious student Voskresensky, tutor to his children. The student is an intelligent young man of democratic views, while his employer is the embodiment of rabid Russian chauvinism. Everything about Zavalishin is extravagantly Russian: his house furnished in ungainly, pseLido-Russian style; his fantastic dress of silk Russian blouse and high patent leather boots; and his beard a la mouzhik. The result is an absurd caricature, reminiscent of the provincial impresario strutting in fake Russian costume. But Zavalishin's attitudes are even more offensive than his affectation, and it is they that bring about the confrontation with Voskresensky in the second part of the tale. Convinced of the superiority of the Russian nation over all others, Zavalishin is infuriated by foreign exploitation of his country's resources. As he attacks the Jews, his abusive words reveal in him the vicious anti-Semitism of the reactionary Black Hundred movement of the early 1900s. Too long suppressed, the student's indignation bursts forth in an impassioned tirade against his hateful opponent: "Your ideal. all-Russian fist that squeezes the blood out of the little minority people you despise, isn't dangerous to anyone. It's just purely and simply loathsome, like every symbol of force. You're not a disease, not a sore, you're just an inevitable, tiresome rash, like measles" (III, 324). His anger rising, Voskresensky denounces the falsity of Zavalishin's pose, based as it is on popular but erroneous notions of the Russian people. Masking the poverty and suffering of the people it purports to epitomize, Zavalishin's affectation of all things Russian is only an "absurd masquerade" of life a la russe with a "moire silk lining" (III, 325).
More outspoken than those of his predecessors Bobrov (Moloch) and Pchelovodov ("A Muddle"), Voskresensky's protest hits the mark, and though immediately dismissed by his employer, he emerges the moral victor. His confrontation with Zavalishin exemplifies the wider conflict between progressive and reactionary Russia. Kuprin's optimism as to the eventual outcome of that struggle is subtly displayed by the story's close. Though tinged with regret, the loathing Voskresensky feels for Zavalishin's wife after she has seduced him on the eve of his departure underlines his total rejection of the family and its values.
(*70) Like "Measles," the shorter tale "Khoroshee obshchestvo" ("Good Company," 1905) shows a collision of opposite types leading to a rupture between them, but it lacks the power of its predecessor. The work shows signs of hasty composition, probably to be explained by the fact that at the time of writing (spring, 1905), Kuprin was hurrying to finish The Duel. The tale's protagonist, the young writer Druzhinin. feels like a poor relative in the rich Bashkirtsev household, where he is considered an undesirable suitor for Rita, the daughter of the family. The father's reluctance to help a friend of Rita's because it might damage his reputation leads to a fierce argument between Bashkirtsev and Druzhinin that reveals their long-concealed antipathy. To Bashkirtsev's remark that the young man's company is harmful to his daughter, Druzhinin retorts in fury: "the most harmful, corrupting, filthy company for your daughter is your own, your shady operations ... your lack of principles ... and humanity, - that's what will corrupt her, not my company" (III, 423). Once again, the moral victory rests with Kuprin's intellectual hero, and though Bashkirtsev attempts a reconciliation, Druzhinin breaks with the family for good.
If "Good Company" is Kuprin's indictment of the speculator who hides his machinations beneath a veneer of respectability, "Zhrets" ("The High Priest," 1905) is a more fundamental criticism of the monied society to which Bashkirtsev belongs. Through the eyes of its physician hero Chudinov, it lays bare the moral and physical degeneration of the idle rich. Though it contains no verbal conflict of the kind pivotal to "Measles" and "Good Company," the tale sets its democratically inclined hero in a horrifying setting of hereditary disease and bodily corruption. Called to a wealthy household to attend a dying paralytic, Chudinov discovers that the man's son is an imbecile and that his daughter's fiance is suffering from venereal disease. Thus the whole line is tainted, from father through son to children-to-be, with an ineradicable infection symbolizing the degeneracy of their class. Appalled by the spectacle, Chudinov looks back on a career devoted to the treatment of such people and recognizes its tragic pointlessness: "Why do I soil myself with these sickly people, my patients? So they can bring idiots into the world like the one we've just seen?" (III, 436).
VI Philosophical Miniatures
Beside the realism of his other tales of the early 1900s. Kuprin's (*71) four philosophical miniatures of 1904 strike a dissonant note. Each touches on the mysterious forces of destiny that rule men's lives, and in their somber settings of evening and night, they echo such earlier works as "In the Dark."
"Bril'ianty" ("The Diamonds") examines the effect on passers-by of two large gems in a shop window. On every face gazing at their rainbow brilliance can be read the secret longing to possess the stones. "Who knows," Kuprin asks, "what would be found in the best human souls if one could only ... observe their most secret, hidden corners? How many ... honest citizens would prove to be thieves, murderers, and adulterers?" (III. 356). Absurdly, man has made these fragments of condensed carbon the quintessential symbol of wealth and honor. But above all they signify power, power that down the ages has brought war and death in its train. "Pustye dachi" ("Empty Dachas") is a more delicate piece, full of the author's nostalgia for the past. As autumn sets in with her late flowers and cold sky, the narrator senses that the summer of his life is gone forever. The happiness of bygone years is as irrevocable as the radiantly beautiful girl who once skipped enchantingly past him and out of his life. The inexorable passage of time is embodied for him in the obscure but menacing creature, "vast, unseen, omniscient and cruel" (III, 358), that lies silently beyond the hills and smiles at the autumn with malevolent joy. "Belye nochi" ("White Nights") offers a somber picture of the mystical Petersburg night, evoked in the author by the very different, luxuriantly festive nights of the Crimea. Walking the streets of the sleeping city, he visualizes the hundreds of people asleep in its vast buildings, so strangely close yet so far from one another. The time will come, he reflects, when the last human beings will die, but Petersburg's massive, mute buildings will outlive them all, staring into the silent void with their blind, dead eyes. "Vechernii gost" ("An Evening Guest") is the longest and most sinister of the miniatures. Here the cruel creature of "Empty Dachas" is fate itself, which holds us all in its unfathomable power. A knock on his door at evening triggers in the narrator thoughts about the horrifyingly chance quality of all our lives. Life is an awesome lottery: "I do not know what will happen to me tomorrow ... in an hour, in a minute; I live like a gambler for whom fate spins a wheel full of surprises" (III, 295). Only one thing is sure in this game of hazard on the brink of the abyss - death, that most chance yet most certain of guests. In the stillness of his room (*73) the narrator wonders fearfully whether the sudden visitor outside his door is destiny himself, come to claim his ineluctable due. Imbued with the fashionable pessimism of the Decadent movement, the miniatures are anomalous pieces amid Kuprin's work of the early 1900s, in which realism and social concern are paramount. His tales of these years display an increasing awareness of the injustice that bedevils a society so rigidly divided into rich and poor, a schism that was reinforced by the powerful apparatus of autocratic control. Fundamental to that control was the Russian military machine so virulently denounced by Kuprin's most famous work, The Duel.
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