A new edition of the Russian Nobelist's collection of novellas, short stories, and prose poems Stories and Prose Poems collects twenty-two works of wide-ranging style and character from the Nobel Prize–winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose shorter pieces showcase the extraordinary mastery of language that places him among the greatest Russian prose writers of the twentieth century.
When the two superb stories "Matryona's House" and "An Incident at Krechetovka Station" were first published in Russia in 1963, the Moscow Literary Gazette, the mouthpiece of the Soviet literary establishment, wrote: "His talent is so individual and so striking that from now on nothing that comes from his pen can fail to excite the liveliest interest." The novella For the Good of the Cause and the short story "Zakhar-the-Pouch" in particularboth published in the Soviet Union before Solzhenitsyn's exilefearlessly address the deadening stranglehold of Soviet bureaucracy and the scandalous neglect of Russia's cultural heritage.
But readers who best know Solzhenitsyn through his novels will be delighted to discover the astonishing group of sixteen "prose poems." In these works of varying lengthssome as short as an aphorismSolzhenitsyn distills the joy and bitterness of Russia's fate into language of unrivaled lyrical purity.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Stories and Prose Poems
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michael Glenny
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1970 Hermann Luchterhand Verlag
All rights reserved.
For at least six months after the incident took place every train used to slow down almost to a standstill at exactly a hundred and eighty-four kilometres from Moscow. The passengers would crowd to the windows and go out onto the open gangway at the end of the carriages to find out whether the track was under repair or if the train was ahead of schedule. But these were not the reasons for the delay. Once it had passed the level crossing, the train would pick up speed again and the passengers would go back to their seats. Only the drivers knew why they had to slow down.
And I knew too.
* * *
In the summer of 1953 I was returning from the hot, dusty wastelands, making my way aimlessly back to Russia. No one had sent for me and no one was waiting for me, because my return had been delayed by a little matter of ten years. I simply wanted to go somewhere in central Russia, somewhere where it was not too hot and where leaves rustled in the forest. I just wanted to creep away and vanish in the very heartland of Russia—if there were such a place.
A year earlier, the most that I could have got in the way of a job on the other side of the Urals was labouring work. I would not even have been taken on as an electrician on a decent-sized construction site. And my ambition was to be a teacher. People in the teaching world told me that I was wasting money on a ticket, as the journey would be fruitless.
But the atmosphere in the country had already started to change. As I climbed the stairs of the Regional Education Department and asked for the personnel branch, I was amazed to see that personnel was no longer situated behind a black leather door but simply on the other side of a glass partition as in a chemist's.
I approached the window timidly, bowed, and asked: "Excuse me, have you any vacancies for a mathematics teacher somewhere far away from civilisation? I want to settle there for good."
They scrutinised every detail of my documents, scuttled from room to room, and made telephone calls. I was a rare case for them; as a rule, everybody asked to be sent to a town and the bigger the better. Suddenly they presented me with a little place called High Field. The name of the place alone cheered me up.
It did not belie its name. Situated on a slope among hills, encircled by a wood, with a pond and a dyke, High Field was the very place where a man would be glad to live and die. I sat there on a tree stump in a copse for a long time, wishing that I could do without my daily meals and just stay here and listen to the branches rustling against the roofs at night, when there was no sound of a radio from any direction and everything in the world was at peace.
But it was no good. They did not bake their own bread there. They did not sell anything to eat. The whole village dragged its foodstuffs in sacks from the local town.
So back I went to the personnel branch and stood imploringly at their window. At first no one would see me. Then once again they scurried from room to room, made telephone calls, scratched their pens, and typed on my assignment form: "Peatproduce."
Peatproduce? If only Turgenev were alive today to see what violence is being done to the Russian language.
On Peatproduce Station, consisting of a grey temporary wooden hut, hung a warning sign: "Trains may only be boarded from the platform." Someone had scratched on the notice with a nail: "Even if you haven't got a ticket," and beside the ticket office the following grimly humorous message was carved permanently in the woodwork: "No tickets." I realised the full meaning of these comments only much later. It was easy to get to Peatproduce but not to get out of it.
Before the Revolution and for some time after it, the place had been covered with silent, impenetrable forest. Then the forest had been cut down by the peat diggers and the nearby collective farm, whose chairman, Shashkov, had razed a considerable area of the forest to the ground and had sold it at a profit in the province of Odessa.
A straggling village was scattered among the peat diggings, consisting of some monotonous huts dating from the thirties and a few cottages put up in the fifties with fretwork trimmings and glassed-in verandahs. But in none of these cottages were there any partitions built right up to the ceiling, so that I could not find a room that had four proper walls.
A factory chimney poured smoke over the whole village. A narrow-gauge railway line wound its way through the place, and little engines, also puffing out thick clouds of smoke and emitting piercing whistles, pulled trainloads of raw peat, peat slabs, and briquettes. I was right when I guessed that a radiogram would be blaring out music all evening through the doors of the club, that drunks would be lurching about in the street, and that now and again they would knife each other.
This was the place to which my dream of a quiet corner of Russia had brought me. At least in the place I had come from I had lived in a mud hut that looked out over the desert, a fresh, clean wind had blown at night, and only the starry arc of heaven was stretched over my head.
I found it impossible to sleep on the station bench and it was hardly light when I set off to explore the village. Then I saw that it had a tiny market. Because it was so early, only one woman was there, selling milk. I bought a bottle and drank it on the spot.
The way she spoke surprised me. She did not so much talk as sing in an oddly touching way and her words made me feel nostalgic for Asia.
"Drink, drink, your heart's athirst. Are you a stranger here?"
"Where are you from?" I asked, delighted.
I learned that the region was not all peat workings, that beyond the railway track there was a hill and over the hill a village called Tal'novo, which had been there from time immemorial, since the days when a "gypsy" lady had lived there and a haunted wood had stood all around. And beyond it a whole string of villages with names like Chaslitsy, Ovintsy, Spudni, Shevertni, Shestimirovo—each one more remote than the next as they stretched farther and farther away from the railway and nearer to the lakes.
The names wafted over me like a soothing breeze. They held a promise of the true, legendary Russia. So I asked my new-found friend to take me to Tal'novo when the market was over and help me look for a cottage where I could find lodgings.
As a lodger I was a good prospect: in addition to my rent, the school also provided a lorryload of peat for the winter. The woman's expression now betrayed a kind of concern that was less touching. She herself had no room to spare (she and her husband looked after her aged mother), so she took me around to some of her relatives; but their houses were noisy and crowded and none of them had a separate room to rent either.
By then we had walked as far as a little dammed-up stream crossed by a bridge. There was no prettier spot in the whole village—two or three willows, a crooked little shack, ducks swimming on the pond, and geese waddling up the bank to shake themselves.
"Well, I suppose we'd better try Matryona," said my guide, already growing tired of me. "Only her place isn't that well kept, she's let it go on account of her being so sick."
Matryona's house was nearby. It had a row of four windows along the side on which the sun never shone, a steep shingled roof with an elaborately ornamental dormer window. But the shingles were rotting away, the logs of the cottage walls and the once-mighty gateposts had turned grey with age, and much of the caulking between the logs had fallen out. Although the gate was shut, my guide did not bother to knock but thrust her hand underneath and undid the bolt—a simple precaution against stray cattle. There were no sheds in the yard, but instead the cottage had several outbuildings clustered under the one roof. Just inside the entrance, there were some steps leading up to a broad passage, open to the roof timbers. To the left, some more steps led up to the outhouse—a separate room but without a stove—and another flight of steps down to the storeroom. To the right were the living quarters with their attic and cellar.
It had been solidly built a long time ago, intended for a large family, but now a woman who was getting on towards sixty lived there alone.
The spacious room, and especially its brighter end by the windows, was set about with flower pots and tubs of fig plants on stools and benches. Silent yet alive, they filled the loneliness of Matryona's life, growing in wild profusion as they strained to catch the sparse northern light. As the light was fading and because she was hidden by the chimney, the owner's round face looked yellow and ill. Her bleary eyes showed how much her illness had exhausted her.
She talked to me lying prone on the stove, without a pillow, her head facing the door, while I stood over her. She showed no sign of pleasure at the prospect of acquiring a lodger but merely complained about the attack from which she was now recovering: the sickness did not come every month, but when it did strike, "... it stays for two or three days, so I wouldn't be able to get up or do anything for you. But the house isn't bad, you'd be all right here."
She listed other landladies whose cottages might be quieter and more comfortable and suggested that I should go and try them. But I could already tell that I was fated to settle in this dark cottage with its tarnished mirror, in which it was completely impossible to see yourself, and its two cheap, brightly coloured posters hung on the wall for decoration, one advertising the book trade and the other campaigning for the harvest.
Matryona made me try the village again, and when I arrived the second time she made countless excuses like "Don't expect any fancy cooking." But she was up and about and there was even a glint of something like pleasure in her eyes because I had come back.
We agreed about the rent and the peat that the school would supply.
I only found out later that Matryona Vasilievna had not earned a penny from anywhere for a long, long time, because she was not given a pension and her relatives hardly ever helped her out. She worked on the collective farm not for money but for ticks—the ticks entered in her well-thumbed workbook.
And so I settled in with Matryona Vasilievna. We did not divide up the room: her bed was in the corner by the door, near the stove; and I set up my camp bed by the window. I pushed Matryona's beloved fig plants aside to let in more light, and put a table by one of the windows. They had electricity in the village; it had been brought from Shatura as early as the twenties. In those days the newspapers used to publicise Lenin's electrification scheme with catchwords like "Ilyich lamps," while the peasants blinked and called it "magic fire."
Perhaps to someone from a better-off village Matryona's cottage would not have seemed an ideal place to live, but we were very comfortable there that autumn and winter. Despite its age, it kept the rain out, and the embers in the stove warded off the icy winds pretty well—except towards morning, and hardly at all when the wind was blowing from the cold quarter.
Besides Matryona and myself, the other occupants of the house were a cat, some mice, and the cockroaches.
The cat was rather old and lame. Matryona had adopted it out of pity and it had settled down with her. Although it walked on four legs, it limped heavily in order to spare its one bad leg. When it jumped from the stove onto the floor, the sound it made when it landed was not a typical soft catlike sound but a thump of three legs hitting the floor simultaneously—crash!—a noise so loud that at first, before I got used to it, it startled me. It would land on three feet at once so as to spare the fourth.
It was not lameness that prevented the cat from dealing with the mice in the cottage; it would corner them and pounce like a flash of lightning and carry them off in its teeth. The reason why it caught so few was that once, when times were better, someone had papered Matryona's room with some greenish ribbed and checked wallpaper, and not just one layer but five. The coatings of wallpaper were stuck firmly to each other but in many places all five layers had ceased to adhere to the wall, thus giving the house a sort of inner skin. The mice had made paths for themselves between the planks and the wallpaper where they pattered impudently back and forth, even running about under the ceiling. The cat would glare angrily at their rustling but could never get at them.
Sometimes the cat would even eat cockroaches, but they made it feel sick. The only thing that the cockroaches respected was the line of the partition dividing the stove and the kitchen from the clean part of the house. They never penetrated into the living room. But they made up for it by swarming all over the kitchen at night, and if I went into the kitchen late in the evening and switched on the light, the entire floor, the large bench, and even the walls were almost a solid, heaving mass of reddish-brown. Once when I brought home some borax from the chemistry lab at school, we mixed it with dough and slaughtered the cockroaches. Their numbers diminished, but Matryona was afraid of poisoning the cat as well, so we stopped putting down poison and the cockroaches flourished once more.
At night, when Matryona was asleep and I was working at my table, the occasional sound of the mice darting about behind the wallpaper was smothered by the ceaseless, monotonous rustle behind the partition, like the distant roar of the ocean. But I grew accustomed to it, for there was nothing false or deceptive about it. It was their nature; they couldn't help it.
I even got used to the crudely drawn girl on the poster, eternally offering me copies of Belinsky, Panfyorov, and a pile of other books, but never speaking. I got used to everything in Matryona's house.
Matryona would get up at four or five o'clock in the morning. She had bought her old-fashioned kitchen clock at the village store twenty-seven years ago. It was always fast, but Matryona didn't mind; at least it wasn't slow, so she would not be late in the mornings.
She would switch on the light in the kitchen and quietly, considerately, trying not to make a noise, stoke up the stove. Then she would go and milk the goat (her entire livestock was one dirty white goat with a crooked horn), fetch water, put three saucepans on the stove to boil—one saucepan for me, one for herself, and one for the goat. From the store in the cellar she picked out the very smallest potatoes for the goat, small ones for herself, and a few for me the size of a hen's egg. Her kitchen garden was incapable of producing large potatoes; its sandy soil had not been manured since before the war and was never planted with anything but potatoes.
I hardly ever heard her doing her morning chores. I slept long, woke up late with the wintry sun and stretched, poking my head from underneath my blanket and sheepskin coat. With a quilted jacket from my prison-camp days which covered my feet, and a sack stuffed with straw as a mattress, I stayed warm all night, even when the north wind set our little windows rattling in their rotten frames.
Hearing the muffled noises coming from behind the partition, I would solemnly say:
"Good morning, Matryona Vasilievna."
And always the same kindly response would be echoed from the other side. It began with a sort of low purring noise that grandmothers make in fairy tales: "Mm-m-m ... and the same to you."
And a moment later: "Your breakfast's ready."
She never said what was for breakfast, but it was not hard to guess: an unpeeled potato, 'taty soup (as they called it in the village), or millet porridge. Any other kind of cereal was unobtainable in Peatproduce that year, and even millet was hard enough to get—as it was the cheapest sort, they bought it by the sackful for pig food. It was not always salted properly and it was often burnt; it left a film on your palate and gums, and it gave you heartburn. However, this was not Matryona's fault. There was no butter in Peatproduce either, margarine only now and then if you were lucky, and the only readily available fat was low-grade lard. What was more, the Russian stove, as I soon realised, was extremely awkward: the cook was unable to see the food cooking, and the heat reached the saucepans unevenly and sporadically. I suppose the reason why our forefathers have retained this kind of stove since the Stone Age is that once it is banked up before dawn, it keeps food and water for man and beast warm all day; and it's warm to sleep on.
Excerpted from Stories and Prose Poems by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michael Glenny. Copyright © 1970 Hermann Luchterhand Verlag. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
For the Good of the Cause,
The Easter Procession,
The Right Hand,
An Incident at Krechetovka Station,
Freedom to Breathe,
The Ashes of a Poet,
The Elm Log,
The City on the Neva,
The Old Bucket,
In Yesenin Country,
The Kolkhoz Rucksack,
The Bonfire and the Ants,
A Storm in the Mountains,
A Journey along the Oka,
At the Start of the Day,
We Will Never Die,
Restored to the 2015 Edition,
What a Pity,
Also by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,