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The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers
By Boris Pasternak, I. Langnas
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1961 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Long Days
Zhenya Luvers was born and grew up in Perm. Later on, her memories were buried in the many shaggy bearskins of the house, as her little boats and dolls had been earlier. Her father was manager of the Luviewsky Mines and had many customers among the manufacturers of Chusovaya.
The luxuriant, brown-black bearskins were gifts. The white she-bear in the nursery was like a giant, full-blown chrysanthemum. This fur had been especially chosen for "Zhenichka's room." It had been carefully selected, purchased in a store after long bargaining, and brought to the house by a delivery boy.
In the summer the Luvers lived in a country house on the other side of the Kama. In those years Zhenya used to go to bed early, and did not see the lights of Motovilikha. But, one night, the Angora cat, frightened in her sleep, made a violent movement and woke up Zhenya. Suddenly she saw people on the balcony. The alder tree which overhung the balcony railing was iridescent like thick, dark ink. The tea in the glasses was red. The men's cuffs and the cards were yellow and the tablecloth green. It was like a nightmare, but it was a nightmare with a name that Zhenya knew: it was called "a game of cards."
But what was going on, on the other shore of the river, in the far, far distance, she could not recognize; it had no name, no definite color or clear contours. Its billowing movements had something dear and familiar about them; it was no nightmare like the one close by, which murmured in clouds of tobacco smoke and threw fresh, wind-tossed shadows on the reddish beams of the gallery. Zhenya started to cry. Her father came in and explained everything to her. Her English governess turned her face to the wall. The explanation was brief: "That is Motovilikha. You should be ashamed of yourself. Such a big girl! Now go to sleep!"
The girl understood nothing and swallowed a salty tear. She had wanted only one thing, to know the name of the inconceivable: Motovilikha. That night the name explained everything and that night the name still held a real and reassuring meaning for the child.
But in the morning she asked what Motovilikha was and what they made there at night. She learned that it was a factory, that it was owned by the government, that cast iron was made there, and that cast iron was made into.... But that did not interest her. She would have liked to know what "factories" were—maybe they were different countries—and who lived in them. But she did not ask this question; indeed, she deliberately refrained from asking it.
That morning she ceased to be the child she had been in the night. For the first time in her life she suspected that there existed phenomena which either kept certain things to themselves or revealed them only to people who could scold and punish, smoke and lock doors with keys. Like this new Motovilikha, for the first time she too did not say everything she thought but kept the essential, basic and disturbing things to herself.
Some years passed. The children were from an early age so used to the absence of their father that fatherhood was linked in their minds with a certain habit of coming seldom to lunch and never to dinner. More and more often they ate and drank, played and shouted, in deserted, solemnly empty rooms, and the coldly formal lessons of their English governess could not replace the presence of a mother who filled the house with the sweet torture of her temper and willfulness as with a familiar electricity. Through the curtains streamed the quiet northern light. It never smiled. The oaken cupboard looked gray, its silverware piled up heavy and severe. The hands of their governess, bathed in lavender water, smoothed the tablecloth. She gave nobody less than his due and had as strong a sense of justice as a feeling for order; her room and her books were always meticulously clean and tidy. The girl who served the food waited in the dining room and went to the kitchen only to fetch the next course. Everything was comfortable and beautiful, but terribly sad.
These were years of distrust and solitude for the girl, of a feeling of guilt and of what the French would call "christianisme"—something that could not possibly be translated "Christianity." Sometimes Zhenya believed that she neither could nor should have things any better; she deserved nothing different because of her wickedness and impenitence. Meanwhile—though the children never became wholly aware of it—the behavior of their parents threw them into confusion and rebellion; their whole beings shivered when the grownups were in the house, when they returned—not home, but to the house.
Their father's rare jokes fell flat and sounded mostly out of place. He felt this and sensed that the children noticed it. A tinge of sorrowful confusion never left his face. When he was irritated, he became a complete stranger, from the instant he lost his self-control. One is not touched by a stranger. But the children took care never to answer him impudently.
For some time now, however, he had been insensitive to criticism from the nursery, which was aimed at him dumbly from the eyes of the children. He no longer noticed it. Invulnerable, impenetrable, and somehow pitiable, this father was far more terrible than the irritated father, the stranger. He disturbed the little girl more than the boy.
The mother confused both children. She showered them with caresses and gifts and passed whole hours with them when they least desired it, when it oppressed their childish consciences because they felt that they did not deserve it. They did not recognize themselves in the tender pet names that her maternal instinct lavished on them.
And often, when an exceptional calm ruled their souls, when they did not feel like criminals, when everything mysterious that shies away from revelation, and is like the fever before the rash, had left their consciences, they saw their mother also as a stranger, who pushed them aside and became angry without reason. For instance, the mailman would come, and the children would bring a letter to her. She would take it without thanking them. "Go to your room!" The door closed. They hung their heads in silence and were plunged into long, disconsolate doubts.
At first they had sometimes cried; then, after a particularly violent outburst of anger on their mother's part, they became frightened. In the course of the years this fear turned into a concealed hostility which struck ever deeper roots in their hearts.
Everything that came to the children from their parents seemed to come at the wrong moment, from far away, as if produced not by them but by mysterious, unknown causes. It smelled of a great distance and was like the groaning of the folding screens when they went to bed.
These circumstances molded the children. They never knew this, for even among grownups there are few who know and feel what shapes them, forms them and links them with one another. Life lets but a few people in on what it is doing to them. It loves its work too much and talks while it works only with those who wish it success and love its workshop. No one has the power to assist it, but anyone can disturb it. How can one disturb it? Quite simply. When a tree is left to grow undisturbed, it grows crooked, grows only roots or wastes itself upon a single leaf, for it forgets that it must take the universe as its model and, once it has brought forth one out of a thousand possible things, it continues to bring forth the same thing a thousand times.
To ensure that no dead branches remain in the soul to hinder its growth, and that man does not inject his stupidities into the creation of his immortal being, many things are provided to divert his trivial curiosity from life, which does not like to work in his presence and avoids his scrutiny in every possible way. Among these diversions are all genuine religions, all generally accepted ideas and all human prejudices, including the most brilliant and interesting psychology.
The children had already gotten over their first illnesses. Concepts such as punishment, retribution, reward and justice had already, in childish form, penetrated their souls, diverted their consciousness and let life do anything with them that it thought necessary, essential and good.CHAPTER 2
Miss Hawthorne would not have left, except that Mrs. Luvers, in one of her motiveless outbursts of tenderness toward the children, spoke sharply to the governess apropos of nothing very important and the Englishwoman disappeared. Shortly thereafter she was imperceptibly replaced by a thin Frenchwoman. Later on, Zhenya could recall only that the Frenchwoman looked like a fly and that nobody liked her. Her name deserted Zhenya completely, and she could not say under what syllables and sounds it was to be found. All she remembered was that the Frenchwoman had shouted at her, and then taken a pair of scissors and cut the bloodstained spot from the bearskin.
It seemed to her that she was now always being scolded and that she would never again understand a page of her favorite book—it became so blurred before her eyes, like a textbook after a heavy lunch.
The day dragged terribly. Her mother was not at home, but that did not bother Zhenya. In fact, it seemed to her that she felt happy about it.
The long day soon passed into oblivion over the forms of the passé and the futur antérieur, the watering of the hyacinths and walk in Sibirskaya and Okhanskaya Streets. It was so forgotten that she felt the length of the following day—the second endless day of her life— only toward evening, when she was reading by lamplight and the dragging action of the story lulled her into a hundred lazy thoughts. And when she later thought of the house in Osinskaya Street, where they lived at the time, it always looked to her as it looked at the end of this Second long day—a day without end. Outside it was spring. In the Urals, spring is sickly and matures painfully; then, in the course of a single night, it makes a wild and stormy break-through, after which it enters upon a wild and stormy growth.
The lamps only emphasized the emptiness of the evening air. They gave out no light. Like spoiled fruit, they swelled from the hydophilia inside them, which blew up their bloated shades. They were located where they should be: standing in their proper places on the tables and suspended from the stucco ceiling. But the lamps had fewer points of contact with the room than with the spring sky, to which they were as close as a water glass to a sickbed. Their souls were in the street, where the gossip of servant girls buzzed over the wet earth and individual waterdrops gradually turned to ice and grew rigid for the coming night. Out there the lamps disappeared in the evening. Their parents were away, but their mother was expected that day—on that longest day or the next one. Yes, perhaps she would return quite suddenly. That, too, was possible.
Zhenya went to bed and discovered that the day had been long for the same reason as the previous one. At first she wanted to get a pair of scissors and cut out the spots from her nightgown and the bed sheet; but then she decided to take the French governess' powder and whiten the spots with it. She was reaching for the powder box when the governess came in and struck her. All sinfulness became concentrated in that powder. "She powders herself! That's the last straw. I suspected as much for a long time."
Zhenya burst into tears because the governess had struck her and scolded her; because she was upset because she had not committed the crime of which she was accused; because she knew that she had done something much uglier than the governess suspected. She had to—she felt this deep in her stunned conscience, in her very calves and temples—she had to conceal this, without knowing how or why, but somehow and at any price. Her aching joints moved heavily, as if under a hypnotic compulsion. This tormenting, paralyzing compulsion was the work of her body, which hid from the girl the meaning of the whole frightening process, which behaved like a criminal and forced her to regard this bleeding as somthing disgusting and abominably evil. "Menteuse!" She could only deny everything, obstinately conceal what was worse than anything else and lay somewhere between the disgrace of illiteracy and the shame of making a row in the street. She could only shiver, clench her teeth, suppress her sobs and lean against the wall. She could not throw herself into the Kama; it was still cold and the last floes of ice were still moving down the river.
Neither she nor the Frenchwoman heard the doorbell in time. The tension in the house was absorbed by the thick, brown-black bearskins, and when her mother came in, it was already too late. She found her daughter in tears and the governess livid with anger. She demanded an explanation. The Frenchwoman quickly explained that—no, not "Zhenya" but "votre fille"—"your daughter" had been powdering herself, that she had seen her doing it and had suspected her for a long time. The mother let her talk herself out; her own horror was genuine—the girl was not quite thirteen. "Zhenya! My God, how far have you gone?" (In that moment, these words had a special meaning to the mother, as though she already knew that her daughter was on the wrong path, that she herself had failed to intervene in time, and that now her own daughter had already sunk this low.) "Zhenya, tell me the whole truth, or else it will be even worse. What have you done—" Mrs. Luvers wanted to say "done with the powder box," but she said—"with this thing?" And she took the "thing" and waved it in the air.
"Mama, don't believe Mam'selle. I have never ..." and she began to sob. But her mother heard unrepentant tones in this crying that were not there at all. She felt guilty and became frightened; she believed that she could put everything right and "take pedagogical and rational measures," even if it went against her maternal instinct. She decided not to yield to compassion. She would wait until the girl's stream of tears, which hurt her deeply, had stopped.
She sat on the bed and stared with a quiet, empty look at the edge of the bookshelf. She smelled of an expensive perfume. When Zhenya regained her self- control, her mother questioned her again. Zhenya, with tearful eyes, looked out the window and swallowed. Outside the ice floes drifted by, probably with a crunching noise. A star sparkled. And there was the dull blackness of the desolate night, supple and cold, but dark. Zhenya looked away from the window. Her mother's voice sounded a note of warning impatience. The Frenchwoman stood against the wall, an image of strictness and concentrated pedagogy. Her hand lay on the wrist band of her watch—the gesture of a military aide. Zhenya cast another glance at the stars and the Kama. She was resolved, in spite of the cold, in spite of the drifting ice—she would throw herself in. She lost herself in her words, in her terrible, incoherent words, and told her mother about that.
Her mother let her finish only because she was startled to see how much of the child's heart and soul went into her account. From the first word, everything became clear to her. No—she knew even as the girl took a deep breath, before she started her story. The mother listened happily, lost in love and tenderness toward this thin little body. She wanted to throw her arms around her daughter's neck and kiss her. But, no—pedagogy! She rose from the bed and removed the bedspread. She called her daughter to her, and caressed her hair slowly, very slowly and tenderly. "My good child ..." she managed to say, then went hastily to the window and stood with her back to the other two.
Zhenya did not see the Frenchwoman. Her tears— her mother—filled the whole room. "Who makes the bed?" the woman asked. It was a senseless question. The girl shrank into herself. She felt sorry for Grusha. Then her mother said something in French, a language with which she was familiar—but these words were harsh and incomprehensible. Then she said to Zhenya, in a completely different voice, "Zhenichenka, go into the dining room, my child. I'll be there right away. I'll tell you about the wonderful country house Papa and I have rented for you—for us all—for the summer."
Excerpted from The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers by Boris Pasternak, I. Langnas. Copyright © 1961 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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Table of Contents
I – The Long Days,
II – The Stranger,