Working A Short Story

‘Does your grief sleep or not?’
‘Grief does not sleep,’ I replied.

– Nikolay Leskov, The Make-Up Artist, A Story on a Grave (162)

IMG_0046The 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

15 responses to “Working A Short Story

  1. you’re a verbal artist ~ weaving together disparate threads into one compelling tapestry, that you admire both close-up and from a far. it’s such a pleasure to read your blog entries!

  2. Jessica,
    Another lovely post. And an evocative picture. Perfect, I think, for short stories . . . I could see Gogol perching in the middle of a web, lurking, and Pushkin . . . though it’s hard to imagine Dostoevsky doing the same. I feel like he’d give it up as a bad job the second it was finished, go off to fight some other spider.
    Don’t you love Gogol’s insults? Fathead! Skinflint! Old towel! Butt-brains!

  3. And then there was Victoria’s ‘assclown’ from last night…was that it? Do I remember it right? She, the Dostoevsky insult channeler…

  4. Isn’t is so odd that a man with a mind right enough for writing would resort to a pistol duel? We all make mistakes but what a shame.

  5. short stories are largely neglected, but they can be real gems, and if you need a break from the long haul of a novel, they are brilliant.

  6. petrujviljoen

    Do you really take in people’s washing? And alleviate the drudgery with reading excellence?

  7. Dear Jessica,
    I have heard that if you are not careful when you google Gogol, you can break the internet.
    Though I keep toeing him in the ribs, the body of J. Chip is not responding. He’s been off on some potato jag again, I don’t know if there is any coming back for him this time.
    Meanwhile, I understand his disembodied “soul” has gone off to inhabit some other corpse over here, in case you are interested:
    Don’t go there expecting quality. The Russians are all dead, after all. Especially the writer ones.

  8. Reblogged this on nós and commented:
    Simply admirable!!!!

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