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Nicholas J. L. Luker

Alexander Kuprin

Alexander Kuprin
This monograph in the Twayne series surveys the varied life and work of Kuprin, who with Chekhov and Gorky was one of the best-known Russian prose writers of the early 1900s. Beside his contemporaries he has received scant critical attention, and within the limits imposed by the series, this study with its bibliography aims to redress the balance.
Boston, G K Hall, USA 1978

Contents

  1. About the Author
  2. Preface
  3. Chronology
  4. Biography and Literary Beginnings
  5. Kiev Years
  6. Petersburg
  7. The Duel
  8. 1905 and After
  9. War and Revolution
  10. The Twilight Years
  11. Epilogue
  12. Notes and References
  13. Selected Bibliography

1905 and After

I. Echoes of 1905

Throughout his life Kuprin was a man of indefinite political views that he rarely expressed in his writing. But the events of 1905 moved him to declare himself, and in several works of this time he adopted a progressive position openly critical of the regime. His first response to this year of foreign war and domestic repression was his sketch "Pamiati Chekhova" ("To the Memory of Chekhov"), commemorating the first anniversary of Chekhov's death. Published only two months after The Duel, the work is pervaded by the revolutionary enthusiasm of those days, when the collapse of tsarism seemed imminent. Beside the bloody horror of the Russo-Japanese War, Chekhov's charm seems like a distant fairy tale. But now, as freedom draws near. Kuprin recalls the "fragrant, delicate, sunlit" words (IX, 97) with which Chekhov spoke of the brighter future for mankind. All things come to an end, he writes, and everyone believes that Russia will emerge renewed from the bloodbath of 1905, that her people will breathe the air of freedom and see the diamond-studded sky of which Chekhov dreamed. Imprecise though Kuprin's ideas are - he does not specify how the new life will come about - they indicate his profound concern for Russia at this crisis point in her history. December of 1905 saw Kuprin's most virulent denunciation of repression in his angrily publicistic sketch "Sobytiia v Sevas-topole" ("Events in Sevastopol"), in which he describes the destruction of the cruiser Ochakov in Sevastopol harbor that November. The mutiny on the Ochakov lasted five days, ending on November 15 when the cruiser was shelled, with the loss of hundreds of lives. Kuprin was in Balaklava at the time and actually witnessed the event. Appalled at the spectacle of senseless slaughter, "that bonfire of human flesh" (III, 438), he directs his attack at (*111) Admiral G. P. Chukhnin, commander of the Black Sea fleet, who ordered the ship shelled and forbade the rescue of survivors. "Until I die," writes Kuprin in pain and fury. "I shall never forget that ... vast blazing vessel, that last word in engineering, condemned to death together with hundreds of human lives by the extravagant will of one man" (III, 440). In urgent prose he describes the confused flight of people from Sevastopol, the horrified crowds hopelessly watching the cruiser bum, and the piercing shrieks of men being burnt to death.

Chukhnin reacted quickly by ordering Kuprin to leave Sevastopol within forty-eight hours and then instituting legal proceedings for slander. Though Chukhnin was assassinated in June 1906, the case was still heard two years later. Sentenced to a fine or ten days' house arrest, Kuprin chose the latter and served his sentence in Zhitomir in August 1909. His role in the Ochakov affair, however, was not confined to that of angry journalist. His later tale "Gusenitsa" ("The Caterpillar," 1918) reveals that he helped to rescue several sailors who escaped from the blazing cruiser. 1

From one instance of heinous repression, Kuprin moved on to show the agony of all Russia in the iron grip of reaction. Published on December 25, 1905, his miniature "Sny" ("Dreams") is an impassioned monologue on the suffering of his native land. He looks upon his "wretched, beautiful, amazing, incomprehensible homeland" and sees in her "a beloved woman, dishonored, mutilated, bloodstained, outraged, and betrayed" (III, 445). The immeasurable vastness of Russia is ablaze with fires, running with blood, and littered with corpses, while the earth shudders with groans as bestial gangs laughingly slaughter old men, women, and children. Kuprin believes that soon this nightmare will end, though again, as in the piece on Chekhov, he fails to show how the transformation will occur. One day, he believes, amid the violence and bloodshed, "someone's calm, wise, grave word will resound - a comprehensible, joyous word" (III, 445-46), and men's eyes will be opened. Then hunger and suffering will vanish and men will be equal and free. The dawn of freedom draws near, he concludes: eternal glory to those who wake us from our bloody dreams, and eternal memory to those who have died.

White "Dreams" illustrates the suffering of Russia in 1905, the tale "Tost" ("The Toast"), of January 1906, demonstrates Kuprin's belief in the eventual triumph of universal freedom. Set on New Year's Eve in the year 2905, it shows an ideal world where (* 112) all men are united in "a universal, anarchical union of free people" (IV, 219) reminiscent of that proposed by Nazansky. Miracles of technology have transformed the earth, quadrupling the productivity of her soil and turning the whole planet into a blossoming garden. Tyranny, violence, and deception are now unknown, work is a delight, love beautiful and free, and death no longer feared. Recalling the revolution in the twentieth century long ago, Kuprin's engineer-orator is horrified at the monstrous life of their fore- fathers, who knew only disease, vice, and filth. Yet that ugly age gave birth to revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives for the future of mankind. That river of blood swept mankind out into the sea of universal happiness. But in the closing lines the motif of gratitude to past revolutionaries that sounded at the end of "Dreams" is given a thought-provoking twist. As the orator proposes a toast to freedom's martyrs, a woman of rare beauty beside him weeps with yearning for those distant days of heroism. Struggle and self-sacrifice, Kuprin implies, are mankind's suprime joys, and beside them the rarest felicity seems wanting.

That joy lies in revolutionary struggle is the message of Kuprin's parable "Iskusstvo" ("Art," 1906), in which he examines the link between art and revolution. Asked how one can combine art and revolution, a sculptor flings back a curtain to reveal the figure of a slave straining to burst his chains. While one spectator finds the work beautiful, and a second lifelike, the third exclaims: "Oh, now I understand the joy of struggle!" (IV, 307). Kuprin was convinced that art should not only be beautiful and realistic, but should inspire positive thoughts of freedom.

As pieces like "Dreams" and "Events in Sevastopol" show, violence is the most insistent motif in Kuprin's work immediately after 1905. His tale "Ubiitsa" ("The Murderer," 1906) is interesting since it offers a psychological explanation for the bloodshed that swept Russia in 1905. Amid a general conversation on contemporary violence - "executions and shootings, people burnt alive, women dishonored, old men and children murdered" (IV, 262) - the narrator of this story within a story tells of a murder on his conscience. Ten years ago he was obliged to shoot a cat that had lost a leg in a trap. But shot after shot failed to kill it. and in the end a peasant stopped the butchery by simply swinging the cat against a beam. What horrifies the narrator to this day is not the shooting itself - after all, he has hunted animals and fought in war - but the "chill, terrible, insatiable urge to kill" (IV, 265) that drove him (*113) to fire again and again. From the depths of his soul, he recalls, "some dark, vile, ... terrible force" (IV. 266) suddenly rose and swamped his reason. This same bloody fog, he argues, takes possession of those who visit violence upon Russia today. Though sick with blood, they cannot help themselves, for they are possessed of a "devil with lacklustre eyes and clinging flesh." And as they kill, they feel neither pity nor repentance, for their brains are wrapped in bloody delirium. There is only one consolation, he concludes. Down the years these wretched men will never forget the horrors they have committed, and even in their death-agony will remember the blood thev have shed.

II 'Staff-Captain Rybnikov'

Whereas works like "Events in Sevastopol" focus on the domestic Russian scene, the tale "Shtabs-Kapitan Rybnikov" ("Staff-Captain Rybnikov," 1906), though set in Petersburg, has a close bearing on the Russo-Japanese War on the Pacific. Its opening sentence sets it precisely on the infamous day of Tsushima (May 27, 1905), when the Russian fleet was destroyed by the Japanese. The work tells of a Japanese spy who poses as the Russian soldier Rybnikov and gathers information by visiting government departments ostensibly to secure financial assistance as a wounded veteran. Kuprin had long been intrigued by the notion of a spy carrying out his lone mission in the heart of an enemy nation. In his dreams of valor Romashov had seen himself as a spy in Germany. Kuprin's Rybnikov was based on an officer of that name whom he met in one of his favorite haunts, the "Capernaum" restaurant in Petersburg. The real Rybnikov was a Siberian, wounded at the battle of Mukden, whose Mongolian features reminded Kuprin of a Japanese. Through Rybnikov's talk of the war Kuprin reveals the incompetence of the Russian army in the field. Those in command fail to adapt to the terrain, their men are supplied with shells of the wrong caliber and obliged to fight for days without food, while their officers play cards and take mistresses. All the while the Japanese fight with the efficiency of machines. Morale is disastrously low in the Russian ranks, and mutiny increasingly apparent. More ferment still is to be seen in the navy, where officers are afraid to meet their sailors ashore. Through the military bureaucrats whom Rybnikov visits. Kuprin points ironically to the reasons for Russia's defeat in (*114) the Far East. "And that's what Russian officers are like!" they exclaim. "Just look at that fellow [Rybnikov]. Well, surely it's clear why we're losing one battle after another? Dullness, stupidity, complete absence of any self-respect... Poor Russia!" (IV, 225).

But "Rybnikov" draws its power not from the hero's espionage activities (of which we see little), but from the tense psychological duel between him and Shchavinsky, a journalist convinced that Rybnikov is a Japanese spy yet unable to prove it. Shchavinsky is clearly a self-portrait by Kuprin. A "collector of human documents, ... of rare and strange manifestations of the human spirit" (IV, 234), he strives to penetrate the innermost recesses of another's soul, "to hold in his hands a warm, live human heart and feel it beating" (IV, 235). What fascinates him about Rybnikov is the incredible presence of mind of this man who in broad daylight in an enemy capital plays the garrulous Russian soldier with unrelenting skill. At any moment the slightest mistake can destroy him. To the journalist Rybnikov exhibits the very highest degree of patriotic heroism. But all his efforts to make Rybnikov reveal his true identity fail. And yet, like a good detective writer, Kuprin leaves clues that prove Shchavinsky right: Rybnikov's fine silk linen of a kind Russian soldiers never wear, his excessively deliberate pronunciation, the superfluity of Russian proverbs in his speech (some of them not quite apropos), and the warm gleam in his eye at the word samurai.

Though artistically both necessary and satisfying as the culmination of the psychological struggle between Shchavinsky and Rybnikov, Kuprin's denouement is unfortunately melodramatic. Moreover, the story's pace is slowed by the unnecessarily detailed treatment of the thief Lenka in Chapter VI. which serves no useful purpose in the finale two pages later. In a stylish brothel, Rybnikov gives himself away by shouting Banzai! in the arms of a whore, leaps from her window, breaks his leg, and is caught. But despite its melodrama, the closing scene is intensely powerful. Discovered now. Rybnikov instantly reverts to his real-Japanese self. Pale but totally calm, his wounded soldier's limp gone, with soft, catlike movements he prepares to escape, whispering to the whore that he will kill her if she moves. When seconds later, he lies in defeat in the yard below, his eyes burn with implacable hatred.

III "The River of Life"

If "Rybnikov" points to military incompetence, "The River of (*115) Life" (1906) is an indictment of the social conditions in Russia that cripple the capacity of the young for effective revolutionary action. The tale falls into two sections. The first and longer section describes the setting of the work and the characters who belong to it. But it is the second section, the closing chapter (IV), that constitutes the kernel of the tale. In the squalid Kiev hotel "Serbia" the grasping proprietress Anna Fridrikhovna lives a life of philistine vulgarity and moral laxity. Her shabby establishment is frequented by undistinguished visitors to the city: petty brokers, priests, and pilgrims, or couples who rent a room for an hour or a night. Its only permanent residents are prostitutes. With the proprietress live her lover Chizhevich, a seedy reserve lieutenant, and her four children, precocious as a result of the vice around them. This is especially true of thirteen year old Alechka, whose nascent sexuality is expressed in her adult eyes and strangely voluptuous smile. Banality reigns in stifling triumph in the "Serbia," pervading the lives of its inmates like the smell of kerosene and boiled cabbage that drifts through its proprietress's room.

Framed by the stagnation of this vacuous existence is the suicide of an anonymous student, who takes a room, asks for paper and ink, then shoots himself. At least, such is the sequence of events as the proprietress sees them. But inside the student's, room,

Kuprin looks over his shoulder as he writes his suicide letter, and through it reveals its writer's character. Having betrayed his revolutionary comrades in a cowardly manner under interrogation, the student has resolved to kill himself, and writes an explanation. The reason for his cowardice, he writes, lies in the circumstances of his upbringing during the reactionary 1880s. His mother is to blame for his subservience to all those in authority. Widowed early, she was forced to depend on charity, and so the student's earliest memories are of her obsequiousness before her benefactors. (Compare Kuprin's suffering at his own fatherless childhood and his mother's straitened circumstances.) As a boy he hated and feared those condescending benefactors, just as he now hates and fears "all complacent, stereotyped, sober people who know everything in advance" (IV, 281), people like professors, archpriests, and radical women doctors whose hearts are as cold as a marble slab. His years in a charitable boarding school only reinforced his servility, so that when his mind became receptive to dreams of freedom, his soul was already devastated forever by "base, neurasthenic timidity" (*116) (IV, 282). Like his whole generation, he despises slavery, yet is a slave himself. His hatred of servitude is passionate but fruitless, like the love of a eunuch.

This, then, is why he will shoot himself, not so much for betraying his comrades as for being a slave to cowardice in these terrible days when it is shameful to be so. Reflecting on his imminent death, he feels that nothing is irrevocably lost in this world, and that all our deeds, words, and thoughts live on in others after we have gone. These are streams that flow together to form the invincible river of life. The time will come, he believes, when that river will wash away all constraints on the freedom of the spirit, and where once "there was a sandbank of vulgarity (poshlost), will be the greatest depths of heroism" (IV, 284). In a moment his life too will join that river, and perhaps within a year will help to drown this vast city and obliterate its name forever.

Kuprin surrounds his hero's closing lines with mounting tension as the clock ticks away and a dog barks rhythmically in the yard below. On the stroke of nine, as he promised himself, the hero pulls the trigger. But the tragedy of his suicide and all it signifies reaches no further than the room in which it occurs. With delicate symmetry Kuprin closes his tale as he began it: while the student's body lies in the anatomy theatre, Anna Fridrikhovna tipsily dances an after dinner polka with Chizhevich and the local policeman. Vulgarity and indifference are in the "Serbia" to stay.

IV Anecdote, Fable, and Legend

From the tragic suicide of an unwritten/casualty of revolution, Kuprin turned to a situation full of wry humor amid the frightening chaos of 1905. "An Insult" (1906) is, in Vorovsky's words, "a tale imbued with the ... growing feeling of human dignity characteristic of that time."2 Set in Odessa and subtitled "a true occurrence," it describes the visit of a delegation of professional thieves to a commission of lawyers dealing with the victims of the latest Jewish pogrom. The thieves are insulted by newspaper accusations that they have participated in pogroms at the bidding of the police, and ask the lawyers to refute this calumny, which soils their reputation as "honest" thieves. The tale is a subtle fusion of outright comedy and lacerating social criticism. The amusing speech made by the spruce gentleman-thief explains the rationale behind his profession and (*117) reveals its attractions. Repeating Proudhon's maxim that "property is robbery," the orator argues that theft acts as a corrective mechanism in a society where wealth is concentrated in few hands. At the same time, the profession of thief combines all the traditional elements of art - "vocation, inspiration, imagination, inventiveness, ambition, and a long, hard apprenticeship" (IV, 292). But under cover of this sparkling oration and the amusing demonstrations of thieves' skill that accompany it, Kuprin attacks both the police and the regime for their role in the pogroms. Hiring a rabble of drunkards and hooligans, the police openly incite them to slaughter innocent Jews. But the police and the mob are not primarily responsible for this evil. Behind them, autocracy itself whips them to hysteria and makes of them "a senseless fist ... incited by a devilish will" (IV, 302). By a neat paradox Kuprin lays bare through that traditional pariah, the thief, the hypocrisy of "respectable" Russian society in the early 1900s. Fables and legends were a genre to which Kuprin resorted throughout his career because of their allegorical potential. Such in 1906 were the fairy tale "Schast'e" ("Happiness"), which asserts the immortality of thought, and "Legenda" ("The Legend"), a romantic tale of vengeance and death. More important in the context of 1905 is the eastern legend "Demir-Kaya" (1906), which develops the theme of betrayal central to "The River of Life." The robber Demir-Kaya has ninety-nine murders on his conscience, but is forgiven them all by Allah for killing a single traitor, who was about to betray the conspiracy of his friends to overthrow their cruel pasha. Readers at the time could hardly miss the parallel between pasha and tsar, still less Kuprin's implication that the overthrow of a tyrant is a righteous cause.

"Bred" ("Delirium," 1907) uses the biblical legend of Cain to cast new light on the horrors of reaction. The tale is a reworked version of "Ubiitsy" ("The Murderers") of 1901, set in South Africa during the Boer War. While preserving his original New Year's Eve setting, Kuprin changes the name of his principal character to Captain Markov, and transfers the action to Russia in the months after 1905, when punitive expeditions brought bloodshed to many rural areas. This topical story is a compressed psychological study of the emergence of shame and repentance in Markov at his punitive activities. In its half- dozen pages he changes from a brutal officer who proudly defends the might of Russia to a thinking human being racked by guilt. The reason for his transformation lies in a (* 118) strange old man Markov orders to be shot at dawn as a spy. When told of his fate, the mysterious prisoner only smiles at the captain in indifference and pity. During the night the old man appears to Markov as the soldier tosses in delirium and reveals that he is the eternal witness of all bloody killings since the dawn of history. He was beside Napoleon at Austerlitz and Borodino, with the Catholics as they slaughtered the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's Night, walked in the wake of Attila and Genghis Khan, and heard the lamentation of the Jews at the fall of Jerusalem. He is, in fact. Cain himself, the world's first murderer, cursed by God and condemned to wander the earth forever. Forced to witness all human slaughter, the first fratricide now sees in every killing Abel's corpse stretched out on the sand. Horrified by his sudden awareness of his participation in universal carnage. Markov resigns his command. In abstract but effective terms, Kuprin's tale condemns not only the gratuitous bloodshed of the reactionary years, but all violence perpetrated by man upon his fellow.

V "Gambrinus"

Kuprin's tale "Gambrinus" (1907) is an emotional summation of many motifs of his writing after 1905. Echoing the declamatory tone of "Events in Sevastopol," it presents a paradigm of events in Russia from the turn of the century to after the first revolution. Days of peace are followed by the unpopular war with Japan; the euphoria of 1905 yields to the riots and pogroms of the years of reaction. Against this historical background, Kuprin traces the growth of dignity in his little hero Sashka, whose musical gift asserts the joy of struggle illustrated by the parable "Art."

As usual, on a base of solid reality Kuprin erects a structure in which fact and fiction are inextricably interwoven. The locational fulcrum of the work is the Odessa tavern. "Gambrinus," of which Kuprin had fond memories. Sashka, the Jewish musician who embodies the spirit of the tavern, was a genuine figure familiar to all Odessa.3 The city is an all-embracing presence within the tale. After describing briefly the center of Odessa, with its festive shop windows and majestic policemen, Kuprin turns his eye on the color- ful port to produce a masterpiece of evocative description. Though poor and squalid, the harbor is a fascinating world of steep, narrow streets crowded with countless taverns, gambling dens, and brothels. Cosmopolitanism is the hallmark of this bustling venue for ships of every nation on the globe. The varied denizens of this (* 119) quarter are no less intriguing, and Kuprin speaks of them with profound affection. Fishermen, sailors, engineers, stevedores, smugglers - all are "young, healthy, and steeped in the strong smell of the sea and fish" (IV, 342). He openly admires the vigorous intensity of their simple lives, the burden of toil they all bear, and the frenzy of their revelry ashore. The "Gambrinus" is the center of their harsh existence, for it offers oblivion after their labors. In its dank, crowded room they sing and dance to the music of Sashka's violin with the easy spontaneity of natural folk. In the Gorkian manner, Kuprin sees in his simple people an elemental spiritual purity that derives from the uncomplicated nature of their life of toil.

Music lends power to "Gambrinus" as it constitutes Sashka's raison d'etre. Referring to historical events only in general terms, Kuprin uses his hero's music to trace the changes of mood among his audience during the early 1900s. Sashka is a folk artist whose vast repertoire is able instantly to suit his audience's need for music gay or sad, a need that depends directly on events of the moment. During the Boer War he plays the "Boers' March." a hymn to their struggle for liberation from the British yoke; at the time of the Franco-Russian friendship celebrations, he plays the "Marseillaise." But the outbreak of war with Japan brings a sudden change of tempo. When at first victory seems certain, the cheerful "Kuropatkin March" resounds from Sashka's fiddle, but then successive Russian defeats are reflected in the refrain of the fishermen's mournful song about recruitment for the Far East. After Sashka has returned miraculously from captivity in Nagasaki, the 1905 revolution arrives with its "radiant, festive, jubilant days" (IV, 357), and Sashka plays the "Marseillaise" again. Now the emotive swell of "Gambrinus" rises to a crescendo and the tale ripples into its swift coda. During the months of reaction after 1905, Sashka refuses to play the national anthem when ordered to do so by a thug, and his left arm is brutally crippled by the police so that he can never play the violin again. Yet music triumphs over all in the finale: undaunted by his mutilation, Sashka thrills his audience once again, this time with a flute.

Sashka's role in the tale develops the idea of "Art" (written simultaneously with "Gambrinus") that true creativity serves a social purpose. That creativity is revealed in the closing lines, as Sashka's audience whirls in a gay dance to the sound of his flute, a scene Kuleshov describes as "the apotheosis of the power and might of the humble musician. the triumph of his talent."4 (*120)

Sashka's music expresses the emotions of his time, and though Kuprin leaves his twice- resurrected hero in the dark days of reaction, Sashka's music and its power to move men's hearts remain invincible. "A man can be crippled," the last line asserts, "but art endures and conquers all" (IV, 362).

VI Political and Social Satires

Not all Kuprin's works of the immediate post-1905 period are permeated with the tragedy of those years. Several pieces of this time contain a satirical treatment of contemporary political events. Such are the two topical "Skazochki" ("Little tales"), entitled "O dume" ("On the Duma") and "O konstitutsii" ("On the Constitution"), published in March 1907. Bearing the descriptive subtitle "adapted by children for their parents," the tales are playfully allegorical thrusts at the first and second state Dumas (parliaments) of 1906 and 1907 and at the constitution promised by the tsar's October Manifesto of 1905. "On the Duma" shows Kuprin's hostility to an assembly whose membership was heavily weighted in favor of the wealthier classes. His Duma deputies are well-dressed "children of the nobility" who, after much persuasion, allow an urchin to join their game. Once admitted to the company of his social superiors, the urchin plays tricks on them, dirtying their fine clothes and abusing them before running off in triumph. When his victims' noble parents threaten him, the urchin defiantly sticks out his tongue at them. All this, warns Kuprin in conclusion, is only the beginning; the real story is yet to come. "On the Constitution" is closer to the fable and recalls the work of the nineteenth century fabulist Ivan Krylov. To Kuprin, the constitution proclaimed in the 1905 manifesto is a deception, like a piece of beef tied to a long string and fed by a boy to a chained, starving dog. Each time the dog swallows the meat the boy pulls it back again. Eventually the infuriated animal breaks its chain, bites the boy, and eats the meat. Now that it has tasted freedom, the dog can never be chained again.

From compact political allegory, Kuprin turned to more elaborate social satire. The tales "Mekhanicheskoe pravosudie" ("Mechanical Justice") and "Ispoliny" ("The Giants"), both of 1907, attack the rabid reactionary who resists all social change and longs for the good old days when "the rod and morality walked (*121) hand in hand" (IV, 394). As in "A Quiet Life," Kuprin's satire in both works is aimed at a complacent pedagogue who is the epitome of conservatism. In "Mechanical Justice," however, the subtle irony of "A Quiet Life" yields to outright farce: as the teacher demonstrates to his audience the mechanical flogging machine he has invented, his brainchild traps him and thrashes him within an inch of his life. Transformed by his experience, the sadistic zealot becomes a gentle melancholic loved by his pupils. Through his hero's grotesque invention, Kuprin points not only to the cruel use of corporal punishment in Russian schools but to the vast, brutal apparatus of Russian autocracy itself.

"The Giants" is more condensed and its satire more biting. Its hero, the captious pedagogue Kostyka, preaches blind obedience to authority and denounces all current interests of the young, be they Marx, Nietzsche, freedom, or the proletariat. Returning home embittered and drunk after a party, he subjects the portraits of the Russian writers on his walls to an examination as he would his schoolboys. Through the criteria Kostyka applies to these literary giants, Kuprin scathingly reveals his obscurantist hero's attitudes. Disapproving of Pushkin's ode "Freedom," Kostyka awards him a "nought with double minus" for his poetry and a "one" for his "un-Christian feelings" (IV, 396). To Lermontov he gives a "three minus" for talent; noughts for conduct, attention, and scripture, and a "one" for his morals. Gogol fares better. Though he gets a nought for ridiculing the powers that be, he is awarded a "four" for abusing the Jews and a "five" for his repentance before death. Next, Kostyka reproaches Turgenev for his love for a foreign woman and Dostoevsky for his sectarianism. But then Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin pronounces Kuprin's verdict on his reactionary pedagogue: when Kostyka reaches the satirist's portrait, the great man utters in a voice hoarse with anger: "Slave, traitor and..." (IV, 397). The foul but deleted word which follows, Kuprin tells us, is only used to express extreme repugnance. In the best traditions of satire, Kuprin turns the knife by bringing his satirical figure to see himself as he really is.

VII "Emerald"

Kuprin's overtly political works inspired by 1905 were followed by others with no bearing on events of that time. Many treat universal motifs such as human love and the joy of being alive in a (*122) wondrously beautiful world. This difference of emphasis indicates that - despite the assertions of some Soviet critics to the contrary - Kuprin was never an engage revolutionary bard like Gorky. The fact is underlined by his reaction to Gorky's insistence that he turn to immediate social issues after completing The Duel: "He was hoping to make me into a herald of the revolution.... But I was not filled with the fighting mood."3 Kuprin's departure from Knowledge and his estrangement from Gorky after 1908 are further proof of the political vacillation that characterized his career. His deteriorating relationship with Gorky was not helped by the publication in 1908 of Kuprin's tale "Morskaia bolezn' " ("Seasickness"), which tells of the rape of its Social Democrat heroine, a work Gorky regarded as a deliberate slur on the SD Party.6 Kuprin's first significant nonpolitical work after 1905 was his tale "Izumrud" ("Emerald," 1907), the most famous of his animal stories. Always fond of animals, he believed that man could learn a great deal from them about life and how it should be lived. In his fantastic tale "Dukh veka" ("The Spirit of the Age," 1900), he writes that men's sufferings stem from the fact that they are becoming increasingly distant from creatures of the animal world. "We have lost their natural beauty," declares his hero, "their grace, strength, and agility, their resilience in the struggle with nature, their vitality" (II. 435). "Emerald" is a moving affirmation of those qualities through the vigorous four year old stallion of the title. The tale's essentials are based on the poisoning of the racehorse "Dawn" by a rival horse breeder as reported in the Moscow papers in the early 1900s. Moreover, as Kuprin's dedication suggests, the literary progenitor of his Emerald was that "incomparable piebald trotter Kholstomer" in Tolstoy's tale of that name.7 Comparison of the works reveals parallels in treatment and emphasis, but there is an essential difference of technique. While Tolstoy's horse is part man, Kuprin's is all horse. Tolstoy not only endows his horse with human feelings, but gives him the ability to think, using him as a vehicle for social comment and a lens through which to examine the human institution of property. Kuprin's tale, by contrast, is less complex, relying for its power on the visual precision of its description. Choosing not to penetrate his horse's psychology, he relies instead on Emerald's acute sensual awareness of external reality.

That reality is immediate yet ephemeral for the horse, an intriguing but limited universe resting firmly on the triple pillars of (*123) sight, sound, and smell. Indeed, smell is the all-pervasive essence of this world, and through his animal's receptivity to its infinitely suggestive variety Kuprin paints a delicate picture of a creature at one with the life around it. Nowhere is this better seen than in Emerald's dream of a pristine morning: "Just before dawn he dreamed of an early spring morning, a red sunrise over the earth, and a low, fragrant meadow. The grass was thick and lush, brilliantly, magically, and delightfully green, and ... all over it the dew sparkled with quivering fire.... Through the cool of morning he catches the smell of smoke curling blue and limpid above a chimney in the village, every flower in the meadow has a different scent, on the damp, rutted road beyond the hedge a multitude of smells are mingled: there is the smell of people and tar and horse dung and dust and steamy cow's milk from the passing herd, and fragrant resin from the pine stakes of the fence" (IV, 401). Emerald is the embodiment of life itself, a gloriously full-blooded creature, exultant in a dazzling world of primary colors and supremely natural things - "blue sky, green grass, golden sun, miraculous air, the heady ecstasy of youth, strength, and swift flight" (IV, 402).

But this jubilant hymn to the joy of being ends on a tragic note. The somber gloom of the closing chapter contrasts starkly with the triumphant light of Emerald's earlier life. The story's conclusion is pervaded by an oppressive sense of doom, from the yellow moon that fills the horse with terror, through the long, empty days of his captive solitude, to the dancing yellow lantern - that parody of the sun - which is the last thing he sees. Though it lacks the horror of Kholstonier's end under the knacker's knife, Emerald's death by poison is the more moving because of his vibrant youth. His fate is a tragic illustration of the gulf between the human and the animal world. Not even the splendid beauty of innocent natural things, Kuprin infers, is immune to the venality of men.

VIII Love Eternal: Sulamith and "The Bracelet of Garnets"

Kuprin could hardly have retreated further from the early 1900s than to the reign of King Solomon, in which his tale Sulamith (1908) is set. Based closely on The Song of Songs, the work tells of the love between Solomon and Sulamith (Shulamite), the daughter of a vineyard keeper at Baalhamon outside Jerusalem. Kuprin had become interested in The Song of Songs many years before, and as early as 1899 had used part of its third verse - "thy name is as (*124) ointment poured forth" - as the epigraph to his article "Solntse poezii russkoi" ("The Sun of Russian Poetry"), written to mark the centenary of Pushkin's birth.8 In 1907 his interest in the canticle revived, perhaps as the result of his love for Elizaveta Geinrikh, who in 1909 became his second wife.9 At one point he described both his fascination with the song of Solomon's love and his reasons for reworking it in prose: "The Song of Songs ... captivates me with the power of its feeling, its poetry, and its lofty, creative inspiration. And I would like this remarkable work of art to become the property' of many readers who do not know it at all." 10

While The Song of Songs provides only the faintest idea of its historical context, Kuprin's Sulamith sets forth the background of the canticle in infinite detail. Simple enough in itself, his love story is part of a complex historical tableau that breathes oriental exoti- cism. Feeling that the magnificence of Solomon's life was rivaled only by tales from the Arabian Nights, Kuprin creates an ornate picture of biblical antiquity. His erudition is amazing. Drawing on the experience of Flaubert (Herodias. Salammbo. and La Tentation de Saint Antoine) and perhaps of Gautier (La Chaine d'Or and Le Roman de la Momie), he resurrects the age of Solomon in all its gorgeous color and bejewelled splendor. Whole chapters of Sulamith - which Kuprin described as "half historical poem, half legend"'' - are devoted to a re-creation of antique atmosphere and setting. Thus Chapter I tells in exhaustive detail of the building of the temple of Jerusalem and of the thousands of workmen and materials involved, and Chapter II speaks of Solomon's boundless power and the catholicity of his tastes. While Chapter III reveals his profound learning and

Chapter V his wisdom as a judge, Chapters X and XI describe the ecstatic ritual of phallic sacrifice in the temple of Osiris and Isis. But perhaps the most remarkable chapter of all is VIII. in which Solomon explains to his beloved the secret properties of precious stones. These pages illustrate Kuprin's detailed research for his tale: the short chapter encapsulates the exoticism of that legendary time, as it moves from the sapphire of chastity to the moonstone of prophecy, and from the amethyst, which protects its wearer from intoxication, to the emerald, Solomon's favorite, which guards against snakes and scorpions.

Yet for all their scrupulous detail, Kuprin's extensive descriptions are only the decorative frame into which his simple love story is set. All the splendor of Solomon's reign is - in the words of Ecclesiastes - only a "vanity of vanities" beside the love of Sulamith. (*125) "a devoted and beautiful love that is more precious than wealth, glory, and wisdom, more precious than life itself..." (IV, 14). Kuprin amplifies the Song of Solomon into the story of the love between the king of Israel and Sulamith, from its chance beginning in a vineyard to its tragic end in the palace, when the girl is stabbed. Skillfully incorporating lines and motifs from The Song of Songs, Kuprin sings a lyrical prose hymn to the immortal love of two human beings. Love is the only reality to endure through the ages, for, as the canticle says, it alone is as strong as death. The inspiration and embodiment of that love is the delightful, dark-skinned Sulamith, that "fairest among women," whose matchless but ingenuous beauty mirrors the purity and selflessness of her soul. Despite its idealized quality, this extraordinary love between a king and a poor vine- grower's daughter is untouched by ethereal chill. Solomon and Sulamith are supremely sensual creatures, whose passion leads readily to the triumphant gratification of natural desire. Yet with great delicacy, Kuprin avoids describing their sensuality in overt terms. preferring instead to suggest it subtly through word, gesture, and the seductive atmosphere of their nuptial chamber.

Sulamith is not without its faults. Its excess of historical detail tends to submerge the love story at its center and to retard the narrative. Kuprin's imitation of ponderous biblical rhythm and refrain burdens his prose, and his technique of incorporating lines from the canticle in the speech of Solomon and Sulamith lends their dialogue a stylized quality. Gorky most uncharitably condemned the work as an unnecessary experiment: "Kuprin ... had no need whatsoever to touch The Song of Songs - it's fine without his doing anything to it. And anyway, his Solomon resembles a drayman."12 The Symbolist critic Zinaida Hippius was rather more kind. Though she considered Sulamith a "coarse work, a primitive crayon sketch unworthy of Kuprin's talent," she added that she liked it nonetheless, "because of its doubly exotic nature, both Russian and oriental." Like her predecessor, the less intensely poeticized Olesya, Kuprin's Sulamith is the bearer of her author's idea. She is the embodiment of the rare love that so few ever know. Her tragic end is an eloquent demonstration of her love, for she sacrifices her own life to shield her beloved from the assassin's sword. "All things pass," affirms the inscription on Solomon's ancient ring; but the memory of Sulamith's selfless love echoes down the centuries. (*126) immortalized in the canticle to which Kuprin paid a humble prose tribute.

In his strongly autobiographical tale "Lenochka" (1910), Kuprin turned to the love of ordinary mortals in an everyday world where time takes its relentless toll. With Chekhovian restraint he tells of the love of two young people, recalled in the twilight of middle age. His hero Voznitsyn meets his adolescent sweetheart Lenochka on a Crimean steamer, and their chance encounter evokes a sadly poetic recollection of the first stirrings of sensuality thirty years before. Pervaded though it is by wistful melancholy, the tale is quietly optimistic, for it affirms the continuity of life. All things change in a world where life is followed by death, but all our lives are interwoven because life itself never dies. Painfully aware of the proximity of old age, Voznitsyn is fortified by the knowledge that he too has his minuscule place in life's scheme of things. "Life is wise ... life is beautiful," he explains to Lenochka. "It is an everlasting resurrection from the dead. You and I will leave life ... but from our minds, inspiration and talent will rise ... a new Lenochka and a new Kolya Voznitsyn.... We all live together ... both in death and resurrection" (V, 203). Its delicate evocation of the feelings of youth and its elegiac nostalgia for the joys of an irrevocable past make "Lenochka" one of Kuprin's most masterful tales of love.

To Kuprin sadness and tragedy are as much a part of love as the joy and ecstasy it brings to fortunate human beings. The theme of suffering and disappointment in love, already apparent in Moloch and The Duel, reaches a profoundly moving crescendo in his shorter works of these years. While Sulamith speaks of the fulfillment of mutual love, "Telegrafist" ("The Telegraphist," 1911) tells of the loneliness of failure. The sensitive hunchback Vrublevsky has known two loves in his twenty-six years. While the first failed because it was unrequited, the second - a deep, mutual love - was renounced by Vrublevsky himself because he felt ashamed of his physical disability beside the slender elegance of his beloved. Though in only six months his sweetheart married another, there is no bitterness in his generous soul, and with sad resignation he wishes her happiness. She gave him at least the illusion of love, and for that he will always be grateful, "because there is nothing more sacred and beautiful in the world than a woman's love" (V,331).

The hopelessness of unrequited love holds a special fascination for several of Kuprin's characters, notably Nazansky, who speaks of its delightful torments to Romashov. In the famous story "The (*127) Bracelet of Garnets," (1911), hopeless love finds its quietly tragic apotheosis. Though it develops the theme of unsuccessful love found in "The Telegraphist," the tale pivots on two ideas central to Sulamith: that love is as powerful as death, and that real love conies only once in a thousand years. Based on people of Kuprin's acquaintance,14 the tale has as its main character the timid clerk Zheltkov, a "little man" very like Vrublevsky, who is possessed by a consuming love for Princess Vera Sheina, a rich society lady hardly aware of his existence. Precisely because it is so hopeless, Zheltkov's love lacks the Lirgent sensuality of Sulamith. Instead it is an emotion of boundless nobility and pure selflessness, the highest spiritual experience attainable by man. Kuprin was aware that its purity distinguished Zheltkov's passion from that of other characters in his work: "I'll say one thing," he told Batyushkov. "I've never written anything more chaste."15

The structure of "The Bracelet" underlines the hopelessness of Zheltkov's love by revealing the social gulf between him and the princess. The first nine chapters of the thirteen are devoted to a portrayal of her wealthy household, its aristocratic visitors, and the attitudes typical of their social stratum. Indeed, it might be said that Kuprin pays excessive attention to Vera's milieu at Zheltkov's expense, for three-quarters of the tale is told before we meet him in Chapter X, and since he commits suicide shortly afterward, he is alive in only that scene. But the early sections of the work are important for other reasons. The first chapter creates an atmosphere of foreboding with its thick fog, the incessant wailing of the siren, and the storm that casts up the bodies of fishermen on the Black Sea coast. Then an abrupt change in the weather brings the quiet, cloudless days of an unexpectedly warm September. The contrasting weather perhaps foreshadows in allegorical terms Zheltkov's emotional tumult and the welcome peace brought by suicide. But the eventual tragic denouement is more clearly suggested through old General Anosov. A deeply sympathetic creation, he is the most important figure in the princess's circle because he is the mouthpiece for Kuprin's views on love. During a discourse on women and marriage in Chapter VIII, he asks Vera whether every woman does not dream of "a love that is unique, all-forgiving, prepared for anything, humble, and selfless" (V, 256). He then speaks of Vera's secret admirer, who has sent her a gift of blood-red gar- nets. "Perhaps your life's road has been crossed," he conjectures, "by just such a love of

which women dream and of which men are (*128) no longer capable" (V, 257). Unlike Vera's husband whose inaccurate parody of Zheltkov's letters points up his own insensitivity, Anosov has detected the truth.

Zheltkov's tragedy is that of a man wholly committed to a single ideal. Compelled by her relatives to cease all communication with the princess, yet certain he can never stop loving her, he can only kill himself. "Nothing interests me in life," he writes to her in his suicide letter, "neither politics, science, philosophy, nor concern for the future happiness of mankind - for me my whole life consists only in you" (V, 266). But neither Zheltkov's living nor his passing are in vain, for his love has found its way into his beloved's heart and brings about her spiritual resurrection. As she looks upon Zheltkov's corpse, Vera recalls Anosov's prophetic words and realizes that the rare, great love of which every woman dreams has passed her by. The cool aristocrat has suddenly become a woman deeply moved by the exceptional love bestowed on her. In a finale unequalled in his writing for its poetic power, Kuprin shows the rebirth of his heroine as she becomes one in spirit with him who loved her more than life itself. As she listens to the mournful largo appassionato of Beethoven's Second Piano Sonata, mentioned in Zheltkov's last letter, the princess hears prose stanzas form to the music in her mind, as if Zheltkov himself is speaking to her. With its refrain of "Blessed be Thy name," his prose poem seems to forgive her for recognizing too late the greatness of his love. "Think of me," he whispers to his grieving beloved as the last notes of the sonata die away, "and I shall be with you, because you and I loved each other only for an instant, and yet forever" (V, 271).

IX "The Lestrigons"

The joie de vivre that pulses so vigorously in tales like "Emerald" and Sulamilh reaches its zenith in Lisirigony (The Lestrigons, 1907-11), Kuprin's cycle of sketches about the fishermen of Balaklava. During his visits to the Crimea in the early 1900s, he grew to know the people of Balaklava intimately, learning to fish with them and coming to love the robust simplicity of their life. Set in remote Balaklava, "that most original corner of the motley Russian empire" (V, 278), these eight sketches are a lyrical paean to the simple life and an epic glorification of the sterling virtues of its simple folk. To Kuprin the peaceful life of Balaklava serves as a spiritual tonic for the torpor of civilization. His splendid fishermen (*129) embody all the qualities he finds lacking in the life around him. Named after the race of Sicilian giants in Homer's Odyssey, from whom according to local legend they are descended, Kuprin's Lestrigons affirm the heroic principle of which he so approved. Bounded only by sea and sky. their free existence demonstrates the superiority of natural man over his civilized fellow. Like that of Jack London's heroes, whom Kuprin so admired, their life is "a noble protest against the closeness, sourness, egoism, timorousness, and limpness of capital cities" (IX, 155). The inhabitants of those cities, the holiday visitors (dachniki) to Balaklava, incur Kuprin's contempt in his very first paragraph, as they leave at the end of summer, "with their... scrofulous children and decadent spinsters" (V, 278).

The wild environment of Balaklava makes the Lestrigons what they are. Their age-long struggle to wrest a livelihood from the sea has forged among them links of friendship that bring exemplary solidarity to their collective. Physical strength and spiritual beauty, unfailing vigor and resolute courage, carefree simplicity and life-asserting spontaneity - these traits delight Kuprin in his toilers of the sea, precious qualities summed up in the lyrical tribute beginning the sixth sketch, "Bora": "Oh, dear, simple people, courageous hearts, ingenuous, primitive souls, strong bodies weathered by the salt sea wind, calloused hands, and sharp eyes that have looked so often into the face of death..." (V. 296). Proud of his friendship with these people and grateful to have been admitted to their rare community, Kuprin describes their life with reverential admiration. All the sketches but VII, "Vodolazy" ("The Divers"), explore the enclosed world of Balaklava from the author's privileged position inside it, and his joy at living in that world gives his Lestrigons its vivid immediacy. Whe ther afloat or ashore, fighting the elements or dancing in revelry, his fishermen assert the exhilaration of living a life that is a priceless gift to man. No dominant hero moves from one sketch to the next, because together they demonstrate the solidarity of a community united by its centuries-old preoccupations and pervaded by the "feeling of intimate comradeship" (V. 299) that Kuprin so prized. Instead we find several characters - Yura Paratino. Kolya Konstandi, Vanya Andrutsaki, and others - who are renowned in different ways. Yura exhibits to the highest degree that astonishing "indifference of the sea fisherman to the unjust blows of fate" traditional among his people. The conrage and skill of this simple man mean infinitely more to Kuprin (*130) than the traditional distinctions of the high and mighty of this world. Yura is not "the German emperor, a famous bass, or a fashionable writer." he remarks mockingly, "but when I think what authority and respect surround his name along all the Black Sea coast, I recall his friendship ... with pleasure and pride" (V, 281). The epic quality of The Lestrigons springs from Kuprin's fusion of present and past in his narrative. His fishermen are steeped in history yet almost untouched by time, for now, in the 1900s. their skill derives directly from their distant ancestors, who fished these same Crimean waters long before the days of Odysseus. The romantic aura lent by historical perspective is heightened by Kuprin's fifth sketch, the apocryphal tale "Gospodnia ryba" ("The Lord's Fish"), with its revelation of the ancient legends still current in Balaklava. The evocative atmosphere of antiquity surrounding the sketches is reinforced by more precise historical detail: the fortresses built by the Genoese along the Crimean coast, and the wreck in Balaklava bay of the British frigate Black Prince during the Crimean War. History lends symmetry to this tale of the living present. Echoing the first sketch "Tishina" ("Silence"), with its mention of Homer's Lestrigons, the last sketch "Beshenoe vino" ("Furious Wine"), confirms Balaklava and her people in the timelessness of antiquity. Reflecting on the Balaklavan tradition of drinking the local wine in early autumn, Kuprin recalls that "on these same hills three, four, or perhaps five thousand years ago, ... all the people would celebrate the magnificent feast of Bacchus" (V, 317). Unchanging in their natural simplicity, his Lestrigons seem as immortal as the figures of Homeric legend, or the mighty sea to which they owe their being.

X Rural Gloom and Philosophical Despondency

Though Kuprin's work around 1910 is primarily optimistic, skepticism and gloom are not wholly absent from his writing of that time. Such somber notes sound most often when he examines crucial social issues or speculates on fate and destiny, a subject that never ceased to fascinate him.

Two important tales of this period reflect his concern at the gulf between the intelligentsia and people in rural Russia. Set in a remote village. "Meliuzga" ("Small Fry," 1907) depicts the appalling life of the peasantry, and through its two central characters (*131) illustrates two different views of the people held by the intelligentsia at the time. Surrounded by an ocean of snow deep in the Russian winter, the village teacher. Astrein, and the medical assistant, Smirnov, engage in endless arguments about the peasantry. Astrein is an ineffective Chekhovian figure who believes that one day the whole of life will be transformed into something beautiful. The people too, he thinks, live in expectation of wondrous events, and only a miracle can wake them from their sleep. To him the people are still exactly as they were centuries ago, a dark mass without identity living in ignorance and filth across the silent vastness of Russia. Despite what many say, it is impossible to understand the soul of this people, for it is "as unfathomable as the soul of a cow" (IV, 419).

Exactly where Kuprin stands here is hard to say. While he rejects Smirnov's crude cynicism ("To hell with the future of mankind! May it croak from syphilis and degeneration!" [IV, 428]). he clearly has little sympathy for Astrein's flabby naivete. despite his good intentions. Nevertheless, Kuprin's final verdict on his characters is clear. His provincial "small fry" not only fail to understand the peasants around them, but cannot comprehend the urgent necessity of doing so in the early 1900s. when social change in Russia seems inevitable. Their end is as pointless as their interminable arguments. After the seemingly endless winter, Astrein finds his longed-for miracle with the advent of spring. But ironically, regeneration in the natural world brings retribution to both men for their spiritual bankruptcy. In the clearly symbolic closing scene they are swept to their deaths by a river in furious spate, that invincible river of life which in the fullness of time bears all before it.

Less somber than its predecessor, "Poprygun'ia-strekoza" ("The Jumping Dragonfly," 1910) is a neater piece that reveals the gap between intelligentsia and people in disturbing terms. Set like "Small Fry" in the wintry wastes of rural Russia, it brings three members of the intelligentsia - a painter (the narrator), a poet, and a musician - face to face with the peasantry when they attend a Christmas concert at the village school. The best number in the program is the children's enactment of Krylov's fable "Strekoza i muravei" ("The Dragonfly and the Ant"), which stresses the value of industry and foresight. In it a dragonfly asks an ant to feed and warm him till the spring, but on hearing that all the dragonfly has done all summer is sing, the ant refuses to help him, saying "Go on (*132) then, dance!" Listening to this rejoinder, the narrator feels that he and his friends are like the improvident dragonfly, and that the eyes of Russia's 150 million peasants are upon them. What links them and his intellectual fellows, he asks himself, with this, "the great- est, most mysterious and oppressed people on earth"? (V, 221). The answer is nothing. "neither language, faith, labor, nor art." And what reply, he wonders, will he and those like him give on the dread day of reckoning to this people that is both "child and wild beast, sage and animal"? Like the dragonfly, they can only answer that they have spent their time singing, whereupon the people will respond with the words of the ant. Though God alone knows the destiny of Russia, it seems to Kuprin's narrator that the ant's words are an irrevocable death sentence pronounced on him and his kind. The gloom of "Small Fry" is distilled with disturbing intensity in Kuprin's skeptical tales of this time that explore the mysteries of destiny and fate. The allegorical "Lavry" ("Laurels," 1909) emphasizes the impermanence of earthly beauty and the transience of fame. Though all things pass and then are repeated in the process of renewal, man finds little consolation in the knowledge that life will continue after he is gone. "O pudele" ("About my Poodle") of the same year reveals that its author is as mystified by life as his dog. What is the point of his brief existence, he asks, and why is it poisoned by suffering?

Enveloped in the wintry murk of a Petersburg night, "V tramvae" ("In the Tram," 1910) is a more despondent tale. To its narrator our planet resembles a tram hurtling into eternity. Its invisible driver is Time, its conductor Death. Human life is as short as a tram ride, and when his time comes each passenger must step off into the darkness. "Iskushenie" ("Temptation," 1910) is the most sinister of these tales. Its philosophizing narrator believes man is ruled by a terrible law of chance woven into the pattern of life. That law is embodied in a mysterious Someone or Something that is stronger than destiny and controls our lives with an absurd logic of its own. This spirit is malevolent and ironic, and when tempted by man's blind faith in the morrow, it can destroy him in an instant. Its capriciousness is illustrated by the death of an engineer returning to Petersburg after five years in the Far East, who tempts fate with his impatient love for his family and his unthinking certainty of meeting them. As the train pulls into the station, he slips and is crushed before his wife's eyes. It seems to the narrator that this apparently unjust death is an example of the same logic applied by the evil Someone who rules our lives. For who (*133) knows what the morrow would have brought the couple - disenchantment, boredom, or even hatred perhaps?

XI The Pit

Kuprin's novelistic study of prostitution, The Pit, was the longest and most ambitious work of his career. Begun in 1908, its first part appeared in 1909, its second in 1914, and its third in 1915. Kuprin began to collect material on prostitution in Kiev in the 1890s, and used it in his tale "Natashka" (1897), which he reworked as "Po-semeinomu" ("In Family Style") while writing Part II of The Pit. Though its opening sentence sets the novel "on the furthest outskirts of a large southern town" (VI, 150), its location is any Russian city, as Kuprin remarked: "The Pit is Odessa and Petersburg and Kiev."16 The problem of prostitution became more acute in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s because of the growth of urban population caused by industrial expansion. Public concern was reflected in the First All-Russian Congress to combat prostitution, which met in Petersburg in 1910. Kuprin felt strongly on this question. "Prostitution," he once said, "is an even more terrible phenomenon than war or plague."17 When Part I of his novel appeared, it enjoyed an instant succes de scandale, provoking controversy as widespread as that produced by The Duel four years before. Though the dominant reaction was one of censure, several eminent critics praised the novel. Alexander Izmaylov, for example, called it an immensely powerful work of a kind not seen since Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata."18 But with the appearance of Parts II and III six years later it became clear that as a work of literature The Pit was far inferior to The Duel

Many weaknesses of the novel stem from the fact that it took seven years to write and that Kuprin became tired of it. finding the completion of Parts II and III difficult and even loathsome. His dislike for the work was intensified by the sensation caused by Part I and by the publication of his own "ending" of The Pit by a Petersburg plagiarist in 1913. Kuprin's sporadic work on the novel is reflected in its structure. Its three parts are linked by the flimsiest of transitions, and Part II contains a long section (Chapters II to V) on the procurer Horizon that is of minimal relevance to the plot. While some symmetry is achieved by the rise and fall of the Yama red light district with which the work opens and closes, its action is set artificially in a three month period between those pro-(*134)cesses and relies on a series of loosely connected episodes (some reminiscent of his sketches of the 1890s) that bear little relation to the theme of prostitution. Moreover, such plot as the novel possesses lacks a clear thread, and too often wanders into digression and superfluous detail. Consequently the work is long and cumbersome, and fails to show Kuprin's purpose clearly. The reader feels that The Pit outgrew its author's initial intentions and swamped them. From a necessary, topical study of prostitution it swelled into a vast, disordered canvas depicting the social and moral issues of its age, many of which are only tenuously linked with the problem of vice. Somehow Kuprin manages to introduce them all: ignorance, inequality, the depravity of Russian society, the relationship between intelligentsia and people, philanthropy and liberalism, socialism and anarchy, revolution and pogroms, art and its restorative power, education, environment, and the unexpectedly relevant question of the economic pressures that give rise to prostitution. The weight of this material rests precariously on the slender pillars of a handful of episodes in the lives of the whores in Kuprin's brothel. Four such episodes are Likhonin's attempts to "save" the prostitute Lyubka, and the visit to the brothel by the actress Rovinskaya (Part II); and the shorter scenes involving the cadet Gladyshev and Zhenka, and the thief Senka and Tamara (Part III).

Kuprin could not decide whether his novel should be documentary reportage or pure fiction, and either oscillates between the two or attempts to combine them in an artificial way. But he is more successful when in documentary vein, and so Part I, with its details of life in the brothel, is by far the best. Though not maintained throughout, this documentary technique was clearly central to his initial didactic purpose in writing The Pit, a purpose suggested by his epigraph to the novel: "1 know many will find this tale immoral and improper, but nevertheless ... I dedicate it to mothers and young people" (VI, 150). On the instructive aim of the work he wrote: "I only attempted to throw correct light on the life of prostitutes and to show they should not be regarded as they have been hitherto."20 But Kuprin's documentation of brothel life is not infrequently overdone, and burdens his narrative. Perhaps the best example of this occurs in Chapter XV of Part II. where during Likhonin's visit to Anna Markovna's establishment to collect Lyubka's papers, Kuprin first provides exhaustive details of the girl's income and expenses as a whore, then enumerates the official (*135) rules concerning the hygiene and conduct of prostitutes.

The Pit employs Kuprin's familiar device of a pair of characters - one older and more experienced - who discuss issues central to the work and arrive at conclusions that reflect their creator's views. Here the student Likhonin and the reporter Platonov are descendants of Bobrov-Goldberg and Romashov-Nazansky. But there is an essential difference between The Pit and the long prose works that preceded it. While in Moloch and The Duel Bobrov and Roma-shov were set in the center of the stage, here neither Likhonin nor Platonov is a central character. Kuprin is interested not so much in the psychology of individual characters as in the life of a particular social group - his prostitutes and those associated with them. This lack of personal focus makes The Pit very unsatisfying artistically, however convincing it may be as a social document. What human interest the work possesses is either blanketed by Kuprin's plethora of subsidiary themes or submerged by his documentary preoccupations.

Platonov is Kuprin's mouthpiece in the novel. A wooden figure who plays no essential part in the work, he is a raisonneur who stands on the periphery of the action, obediently commenting on it for Kuprin. His position as an intimate observer of brothel life is oddly equivocal, and his relationship with the various prostitutes curiously avuncular. After helping his author explain the bases, workings, and effects of prostitution, he drifts out of the novel as mysteriously as he first appeared, a lifeless assemblage of weighty words. The core of his tiresome philosophizing is that the horror of prostitution lies precisely in the fact that those engaged in it see nothing horrible about it. What is terrible is not the trade in female flesh, but "the everyday, accustomed trivialities, these daily, commercial, businesslike calculations, ... this matter-of-fact practice laid down over the centuries" (VI. 204). But Platonov's (and evidently Kuprin's) views on prostitution are somewhat confused. Asked by Likhonin when prostitution will cease, he replies naively: "Perhaps when the beautiful Utopias of the socialists and anarchists come true, ... when love is absolutely free" (VI, 233). But while marriage exists, he goes on, prostitution will survive, maintained by the so-called "decent people" in society. Then he argues that man is a polygamous animal whose instincts urge him to enjoy many women, a view which implies that prostitution will last forever and that social factors have little to do with it. Other characters are hardly more convincing than Platonov. (*136) Likhonin is an insubstantial figure who voices Kuprin's belief that attempts by members of the upper classes to rescue "fallen women" are doomed to fail, and that a more radical solution to the problem of prostitution is needed - though he does not say what. The actress Rovinskaya and the lawyer Ryazanov are, as one Soviet critic points out,21 episodic characters portrayed in a romantic manner reminiscent of Kuprin's earliest tales. While Rovinskaya has "long, green, Egyptian eyes and ... a red, sensual mouth" (VI, 264), Ryazanov is "tall, ... with a broad forehead like Beethoven's ... and the appearance of a ladykiller" (VI, 416). Except for Lyubka and Zhenka, the fifteen prostitutes in the novel are static creatures. During her association with Likhonin, Lyubka displays unsuspected qualities of sincerity and devotion, while Zhenka. realizing she has syphilis, is consumed by a vengeful desire to infect as many men as possible before she dies. Paradoxically, Kuprin is more effective when portraying minor characters - the brothel proprietress Anna Markovna, her housekeeper Emma Eduardovna, and the local policeman Kerbesh.

The Pit is not one of Kuprin's best works, as he himself admitted in a letter of 1918: "The tale turned out pale, crumpled, untidy, and cold, and was in all fairness torn to pieces by the critics. Serves it right!" " Not only did he lack a clear objective in writing the novel, but also had no solution for the problem of prostitution it examined. To a reader who wrote asking what could be done, he could only reply as Platonov did to Zhenka when she turned to him for advice: "I don't know!" (VI, 391). The postscript to his letter revealed his sense of failure in a work to which he had devoted so much time and energy: "I'm not fit to be a teacher of life: I've ruined all my own life as far as it's possible." As a study of prostitution The Pit is unique, but as literature it leaves much to be desired. It was to be Kuprin's last major work, and to many it signaled the decline of his creativity.

  • 1 For an account of Kuprin's part in the rescue, see E.M. Aspiz, "A.I. Kuprin v Balaklave," Krym, 23 (1959), 131-36.
  • 2 Vorovskii, p. 278.
  • 3 Sashka's real name was Gol'dshtein, and Paustovsky recalls how he was buried with pomp in starving Odessa in 1921. See K. Paustovsky, "Potok zhizni" (Zametki о proze Kuprina), in Sobranic sochinenii v shesti tomakh, Moscow, 1958, vol. 5, pp. 629-55.
  • 4 Kuleshov, p. 349.
  • 5 Volkov, p. 207.
  • 6 See note, V, 487-88.
  • 7 See IV. 398.
  • 8 See IX. 72-75.
  • 9 A relative of the Siberian writer Mamin-Sibiriak, Elizaveta Geinrikh had lived as a child with Alexandra Davydova, editor of God's World, and thus knew Kuprin's first wife. During the war with Japan she had served as a nurse.
  • 10 Kuprina-Iordanskaia. Gody molodosti, p. 243.
  • 11 Kuleshov, p. 382.
  • 12 Afanas'ev, p. 109.
  • 13 Temira Pachmuss, Zinaida Hippius. An Intellectual Profile (Carbondale, Illinois. 1971), p. 340. Kuprin's own opinion of Sulamith was unfavorable: "It's an artificial thing ... a collection of bookish information, excerpts and quotations ... very skillfully written but cold." (Krutikova, p. 83.)
  • 14 See L. Liubimov. "Na chuzhbine," Novyi mir, 2 (1957), 181-87; and "Iz tvorcheskoi laboratorii Kuprina." Russkaia literatura, 4 (1961), 164-67.
  • 15 Letter of December 3, 1910, from Odessa, in Kuprin о literature, p. 237.
  • 16 Volkov, p. 353.
  • 17 Krutikova, p. 86.
  • 18 A. Izmailov, "Pod krasnym fonarem," Russkoe slovo, 91 (April 22. 1909) 2. For other views of Yama see, for example: VI. Kranikhfel'd, "Literaturnye otkliki," Sovremennyi mir, 6 (1909), 98-102: K. Chukovskii, "Novaia kniga A.I. Kuprina," Niva, 45 (November 8, 1914), 867-70; V.G. Golikov, "Yama Kuprina," Vestnik znaniia, 6 (1915), 360-69.
  • 19 SeeKuleshov,p. 423.
  • 20 Ibid, p. 424.
  • 21 Afanas'ev, p. 136.
  • 22 Kuleshov, p. 428.
  • 23 Berkov, p. 134.

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