In a Metro underpass, bald and dressed in rags, stands a silent beggar. In the evening, he walks the deserted streets of Paris; at night, he sleeps in a small, foetid crate vacated by the death of another beggar. He is poor and he is ill, but, on reflection, he is free.
Never published before in English, this marvellously translated collection of tightly written, lyrical works represent marvellously compact miniatures of all the major strands that Gazdanov explores in his novels. The senselessness of life, the nature of fate, and the richness of the inner life - these brilliant and moving stories have it all.
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Maître Rueil, a Frenchman, blond with black eyes and a sharp, square face, an agent of the Sûreté Générale, had been dispatched from Paris to Moscow on an important political assignment. In the days in which this story takes place he was around thirty years old; he had long since graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Paris and for eight years or so had been engaged exclusively in political affairs, which brought in a sizeable income and allowed him, who had no fortune of his own, to live in great style. He enjoyed a reputation as one of France's finest agents; and the word maître, by which he was known and to which, by virtue of his legal learning, he had the right, rather frequently acquired another, more deferential, character: Maître Rueil was truly head and shoulders above all his colleagues. A brilliant career lay ahead of him. In addition to the purely professional dexterity, essential in people of his occupation, he was endowed with many other gifts. He spoke several languages fluently, could catch the meaning of others from only half a word, never lost his nerve on dangerous assignments, and was rewarded with exceptional success in everything he laid his hands on. It was said that the shadow of good fortune followed him everywhere.
He was of below-average height but very strong; years of continuous physical training and intense mental exertion had made of him an almost infallible human mechanism. The maître's nervous system was in perfect working order: even the frequent sleepless nights had no ill effect on him. He endured journeys of any length with ease, was able to sleep in any location, was never burdened by the tedium of endless trips and never knew what it meant to be seasick. Because he was young and in rude health — and also, very likely, because of his constant efforts of imagination, directed at the solution of dangerous, though purely practical, problems — abstract ideas never drew his interest. His penetration extended well beyond his charge of duties — into the realms of ethics, philosophy and art — and was so great as to allow him, should the occasion present itself, to construct and defend all manner of systems of ideas; such an occasion, however, had yet to present itself — and so the maître's knowledge lay there, dormant and inert. Maître Rueil could not admit the thought that, if it were set in motion, it would spell catastrophe for him: in the mental landscape surrounding Maître Rueil, nothing was supposed to happen that could not be foreseen to a greater or lesser degree of approximation.
Then, one day, when boarding a ship from Marseilles to Constantinople, the maître suddenly experienced a sensation hitherto unknown to him, one of incomprehensible irritation and utterly inexplicable alarm. No one was there to see him off: he had no family and had deemed it unnecessary to divulge his plans to anyone. Only one figure, in a hat and a tattered blazer, with a face on which there was a decorative blue mole below the left eye, appeared on the quayside at the last moment and immediately vanished, having met the maître's gaze. This was the man whom the stubborn, stupid officials of the Sûreté Générale's lower ranks invariably dispatched to ascertain whether the maître was indeed departing. Once, after returning from a routine trip, the maître went to see the bureau chief, who was in charge of agents, and, laughing especially calmly and coldly, told him that he thought he was a fool. The bureau chief remained silent, for he greatly feared that Maître Rueil, using his influence, could have him fired. However, the maître did nothing of the sort — and the bureau chief, each time fearing more than on the previous occasion, would again send the man to follow the maître, because he considered it his professional duty.
It was cold and beginning to get dark. Scraps of paper, broken boards and glittering oily slicks danced upon the filthy waves. The ship had long been standing on the roads, and Maître Rueil gazed absent-mindedly ahead and saw the nearby quay lighting up and black boats moored to the bank. Then he took several turns about the deck and, after waiting for the first movements of the propeller, whipping up foam instantaneously, went below.
There were few passengers: a Catholic priest, a tall, slight man of around forty-five and a great lover of anecdotes; a young Greek with quick movements and thievish eyes; and a hulking boxer, a thickset titan from Buenos Aires. The boxer was unable to lay to rest his recent defeat and was for the fourth time telling of how the referee had been far from impartial. He was speaking in English; the priest listened to him with manifest pleasure, yet at times he would laugh at inappropriate moments and again fall silent under the boxer's heavy gaze. Taking the maître by the arm, he said:
"Just imagine, I'm not in the least bored by this story. I don't speak English. Praise be!"
Maître Rueil politely smiled, with his lips alone.
Apart from the priest, the Greek and the boxer, there was a tall lady in a blue dress travelling on board the ship — an actress from Odessa, with a proud, troubled face; on her heels followed a short-legged Russian, a businessman to all appearances: the tense expression on his face attested to his unremitting readiness to execute her every wish at the drop of a hat. Maître Rueil watched the actress and felt a sense of envy towards the Russian. "Très bien, la petite?" — there suddenly came a voice from behind him. The maître turned around and saw the priest's grinning face.
Maître Rueil sat down in an armchair, lit his pipe and made an effort to forget the alarming, piercing feeling that had so recently set in, and which might be likened to the foreboding of some misfortune, were this not the first time in all his life that such a feeling had befallen the maître. However, despite a certain abstraction, the maître, as was his wont, still managed to mark those little details that seemed most distinctive upon a superficial examination of the passengers: the Russian's fat wallet (the businessman had moved it from one pocket to another while rummaging for some newspaper clipping), the Greek's roving eyes, the complex web of red veins on the priest's face and the darned elbows of the boxer's jacket. "He's short on cash," thought the maître. "Then again, it's possible that this is his travelling suit and that he's just thrifty." "Unlikely," the maître answered himself, and here for the first time noticed that the ship was beginning to pitch. "Unlikely: he isn't shrewd enough for that."
By now the lights of Marseilles had disappeared. The maître was sitting with his eyes half shut; his head was slightly buzzing, although he had had nothing to drink. He was no longer observing his fellow passengers, although a little earlier his attention had been attracted by the actress and the boxer: the boxer because he was a marvellous specimen of the athletic form, and the actress because a recollection of her forced the maître to stretch for a moment and to move and tense the muscles in his body. And suddenly it seemed to the maître as if he had sailed on board this ship and seen these people all before, as if long, long ago he had sailed the sea just like this and felt that same strange ennui, and that afterwards for a long while he had languished half-conscious in the dark, and when he had opened his eyes again, he had already forgotten everything. The ship pitched more and more violently. The actress instantly began to feel seasick; for some reason or other, with a frightened look, her companion dashed into their cabin. The actress's body convulsed; the skin on her face turned ashen. The maître drew his eyes away from her and saw the boxer, whose enormous figure was bent double: he was groaning and shaking his head. The priest's gaze, directed heavenward, seemed surprisingly nonsensical to the maître. The young Greek, who was not suffering from the pitching, slapped the priest on the back; the latter turned around to point out to the Greek the impropriety of his behaviour, but he only looked at him and sighed, and was unable to utter a single word.
Maître Rueil retired to his cabin. It was almost eleven o'clock in the evening. The maître detected in his throat the unpalatable aftertaste of the macaroni that had been served at dinner; the thrifty cook must have prepared it using rancid butter. The maître lay on his berth and closed his eyes, thinking that any minute now he would fall asleep, as usual. But sleep escaped him. The pitching grew ever more exaggerated: his cabin slid away and then righted itself — now from right to left, now up and down. Diving and surfacing thus on his berth, Maître Rueil followed the erratic shadows on the floor, which followed in time with the motion of the shuddering and revolving lamp. The macaroni's unpleasant taste intensified, as did the slight ringing in his ears and head. "I'm ill," thought Maître Rueil for the first time. The door to his cabin seemed to be slowly opening. He looked more carefully; the door was still. But sitting in the maître's chair was the boxer, who — it was unclear when or how — had entered his cabin. "What do you want?" asked the maître. But the boxer made no reply; and so the maître decided to leave him in peace. "Just how did he get in here?" wondered the maître, then instantly forgot about the question. The ship continued to pitch. Maître Rueil watched the boxer and with each roll of the cabin seemed to draw closer to him; yet the armchair invariably imitated the motion of the cabin and remained forever out of reach. The sea's heavy tumult merged with the ringing in his ears, and when Maître Rueil tried speaking aloud he was unable to hear his own voice. The maître fell silent; he remained in this unfamiliar world of images and sounds; their alarming immateriality never ceased its torment.
"The boxer," thought the maître with an effort, and his berth slowly floated towards the armchair. "The boxer travels and makes his money with his fists. Then he'll return to his Buenos Aires and learn something nasty: for instance, that his wife has a lover. It's bound to be unpleasant."
The ship was being tossed from side to side. The maître, eyes fixed on the boxer, went on thinking:
"Yes, but then those wonderful muscles will become soft, and no woman ..." He couldn't remember what "no woman" would do. "Yes, no woman will want to belong to him ... Unless, of course, he pays for it. But then he won't have any need of women. And all that will be left are death and memories."
Strange and unexpected, Maître Rueil recalled a young Italian. It was when the maître was living in Milan and thanks to his efforts the Italian police uncovered an anarchist plot. The youth the maître recalled was one of the party activists and Rueil's closest comrade. During the interrogation, having found out that the maître was a Frenchman and a provocateur, he shouted in his face:
"On te rappelera ça un jour!"
"Vous êtes un comédien," the maître had replied.
"Now he's in prison," thought the maître. "Of course, the actor was me, not him. What will happen when he's released and bumps into me? ... I'm not afraid of him. But what will I say to him? I'm ill," said the maître, coming to his senses.
The agitation eased at once. The maître's former clarity of thought returned to him for a time. "It's all stuff and nonsense," he said. "It's just a rare variety of seasickness." Yet still sleep eluded him, and for a long while he tossed and turned on his berth. An old nursery rhyme suddenly floated into his thoughts, and he immediately recalled even its simple melody:
Quand j'étais petit Je n'étais pas grand,
The maître smiled with the satisfaction of having remembered the melody and began quietly to sing, and, as he did, he thought that this children's tune was the best thing there had been in his life. "All the rest," he told himself with a smile, "was business, money, women and restaurants — all that was sordid and superfluous. But this is good:
Quand j'étais petit Je n'étais pas grand ..."
He glanced at the chair and saw that the boxer was gone. So much the better. Immediately there came a knock; the door opened and in came the Russian actress: she wore a light dressing gown and slippers. However, Maître Rueil, smiling, looked at her, saw her barely covered, simmering body — and just lay there. "Monsieur," said the actress, and the maître smiled politely and wistfully, almost not hearing her. "Monsieur," she repeated deliriously, "voulez-vous tromper mon amant avec moi?"
The maître wanted to laugh. "Could she really comprehend," he thought with a jolly expression on his face, "that all this is entirely superfluous and inconsequential?"
"Non, madame," he said, barely able to contain his laughter. "Non, madame, je n'en ai aucune envie."
Thereupon the actress left at once, slamming the door — and Maître Rueil stopped laughing. "What did I do?" he said; and all the terrible senselessness of his action became clear to him. "Did I refuse her? Two days ago I would have paid serious money for that. I'm ill!" he shouted. "I'm ill! I'm ill!"
He fidgeted around on the berth; an almighty headache was impeding his thought. He stretched out and, at last, fell asleep.
The ship was on the approach to Constantinople. Over the bright waters of the Bosphorus flew innumerable white specks of seagulls, resembling from afar fleecy, moving clouds that scattered on contact with the sea and then soared up again, hovering in the limpid air. All the passengers had come out on deck, and the Greek, standing beside the boxer, explained to him:
"There is Pera, over there Galata, and there Stamboul."
They sailed along the coast; white and yellow villas rose up from the water, the peaks of minarets glittered: the sun was shining brightly, and it was warm. From the quayside there came a shrill, unbroken clamour; heavy little boats with rowing Turks, standing with their backs aft-facing and plunging the oars deep into the water, crossed the Bosphorus in all directions. At the bridge connecting Stamboul with the European part of the city there thronged a multitude of people, and the maître recalled that when he had arrived into Constantinople for the first time and seen this great assemblage of humanity in one place, he had thought there must have been some catastrophe. The ship meanwhile went slower and slower and, finally, came to a halt on the roads; rowing boats immediately swarmed around it. Ferrymen, interrupting one another, offered their boats, and the maître heard a high-pitched but clearly masculine voice, shouting in Russian:
"No, I won't go! He'll drown us!"
The boat, however, was already getting under way, and the Turk was rowing with contemptuous composure, paying no heed whatever to the cries of his passenger; in the bay there was a considerably strong swell. The Catholic priest spent a long time haggling, but at last he too reached an agreement and got into a boat, absorbed in his red missal.
Maître Rueil hired a ferryman without haggling. The Turk, astonished by his generosity, rowed with great zeal and, after a short while, overtook both of the other boats that had set off earlier. The maître bowed to the actress, who in reply shrugged her shoulders scornfully. Then her companion stood up and beamed at the maître, but immediately fell, having lost his foothold.
The two days that Maître Rueil spent in Constantinople were passed in that same unaccountable sense of anguish and alarm. At night he slept terribly, having the most unusual dreams: rivers covered by ice, exceedingly like crêpe paper, an abbot who was for some reason riding a bicycle, and an anarchist youth who sidled up to him and said:
"Il y a quelque chose qui ne marche pas, mon cher maître?"
The maître awoke, smoked half a pipe and fell asleep again. Towards morning he awoke for the fourth or fifth time. "I must go for a walk outside, I need some fresh air," he thought hazily. He dressed and left the hotel.
It was very early; weedy little old men were carrying heavy crates with oil and vegetables; Turks selling bubliks were trudging around in the morning mist. Somewhere nearby an invisible donkey was braying. The maître walked through Pera, heading towards the Galata steps; a couple of drowsy sailors caught his eye. Suddenly he saw something very odd: the tall building he was walking past began slowly and silently to tilt; the figure of the Russian actress appeared on the second floor and floated down, gripping the window frame. The maître paused — and caught the boxer's hoarse voice, which said in a tone of friendly caution:
"You ought to be more careful, dear maître, such journeys might lead you to no good."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Beggar and Other Stories"
Copyright © 2018 Bryan Karetnyk.
Excerpted by permission of Pushkin Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
THE BEGGAR AND OTHER STORIES,
Maître Rueil, 19,
The Mistake, 135,
The Beggar, 159,
Ivanov's Letters, 187,