‘Does your grief sleep or not?’
‘Grief does not sleep,’ I replied.
– Nikolay Leskov, The Make-Up Artist, A Story on a Grave (162)
The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories, is a collection of twenty short stories by different Russian writers. I began reading, as usual- at one of my jobs, with Pushkin’s The Shot which was about a steady and patient revenge. In between drying dishes and filling out forms, I read the quick tale. Unlike Eugene Onegin, this story is, sadly, not in rhyming verse, never the less it has a charmingly perplexed narrator doing his best to understand a puzzle of a man. When I was finished, it was time to deal with the commode, it’s the sort of task that is undignified all around- do not consider, just do. I think it’s best that way.
‘I don’t want to know! Do you think I’m going to let a sawn-off nose lie around in my room…you fathead!’ – Nikolay Gogol, The Nose (29)
While ironing in the basement I giggle at the weird Gogol and his ridiculous tale of a nose gone wild. No matter how hard I look before, I always find the odd stowed tissue in the shirt sleeves or pockets of the laundered clothes. Usually it comes out in flaky dried up bits I have to crawl around the floor collecting, but this day, the tissues separated into perfectly flat sheets pasted on the clothing. I had to spend some considerable time peeling them off my client’s fluffy bathrobe, too bad poor Kovalyov didn’t consider static cling as an adhesive for his wayward nose.
Later in the day I wandered the yard in search of suitable flowers to cut for the guestroom, I had only just finished Bezhin Lea, a truly beautiful tale by Ivan Turgenev:
I was at once surrounded by an unpleasant, motionless damp, just as if I had entered a cellar. (73)
A sleeping man privy to the fairy tales and superstitions of a group of boys chatting deep into the night. The writing was so beautiful- the story is just lovely good. His power of description and sentiment is wonderful. A short story is such a marvel- precision and economy are vital, a phrase such as “motionless damp,” is arresting in its original yet flawless description- it’s quite perfect.
My pride increased over the years and if I had ever actually come to the point of admitting to someone that I was strange I think I should have gone straight home that very evening and put a bullet through my brains. – Dostoevsky, A Strange Man’s Dream (99)
I probably don’t need to cite Dostoevsky with that excerpt. Gotta love him- There are more than commodes not to consider. Too true, my dear.
‘”You’re a foolish girl,” she said, “who does want to at first! Why, life is bitter, but grief’s poison is even more so. But if you quench the burning coal with this poison it will die down for a moment. Take a sip, quickly, take it!” – The Make-Up Artist (168)
Some days there isn’t enough silver to polish or toaster ovens to clean to quench the burning coal. Based on a story that he heard as a child, The Make-Up Artist is absolutely devastating. Naturally, I loved it. Heartache is the sort of condition that, while turning one’s heart into stone, remains an eternal burning coal. There is nothing to do, nothing with which to douse, no deceptions of perspective that smolder.
The pansies need to be dead-headed. I’ll contemplate my plan for dinner, maybe Tilapia in a white wine sauce with sauteed zucchini, my client loves that. There will be another story tomorrow.
The Shot, Alexander Pushkin translated by David Richards
The Nose, Nikolay Gogol translated by Ronald Wilks
Bezhin Lea, Ivan Turgenov translated by Richard Freeborn
A Starnge Man’s Dream, Fydor Dostoevsky translated by Malcolm Jones
The Make-Up Artist, Nikolay Leskow translated by William Leatherbarrow