Contact for rights enquiries: William Barclay
Part One – September, Chapters 3 and 4
No, who do you think, Buzz Lightyear?
“Gleb, hi.” Lida appeared from hall. “Were you kept late at the university?”
“Hi. A student who’d failed was doing his retake. I told you.”
Lida stopped awkwardly a few steps from him. Since the spring they had stopped embracing one another when they met.
“What have you brought home?”
Lida’s eyes were fixed on the canvas Gleb was holding.
“A painting,” he said. “I came by it by accident. I’ll explain later.”
“Fine,” said Lida. “The hot water’s off.”
“I heated some for you. I’ll pour it.”
“No need, thanks. It was hot outside, I’ll wash with cold.”
“Really, Lida, there’s no need.”
“Yes there is. And rinsing your face makes you feel better.”
Gleb couldn’t recall exactly when he had first got drawn into this little game. A game that was repeated over and over again. The rules were that Lida would gently insist and he would refuse to give in, for a time. Or not give in at all if it was about something that really mattered.
While Lida filled the basin, Gleb took the painting and his briefcase into his study.
He could hear familiar voices coming from the television. Her favourite comedy sketch show. One of those in which the performers are trying too hard to be funny. Plenty of people buy it. They certainly convinced Lida.
The blasts of canned laughter were stupefying and Gleb quickly took refuge in the bathroom behind Lida. To quote Khlebnikov: The laugh of belaughed laughsters.
“It’s almost gone cold,” said Lida, before pouring a bit out.
Gleb cupped his hands, closed his eyes tight and doused his face. The tap water probably wasn’t any colder.
“Is that good?”
He grabbed a towel. “Just right. I’ve not seen this basin before.”
“Really?” said Lida. “I bought it last summer.”
“You know,” said Gleb, “I’m not sure I have many friends in the world of crockery.”
“In what sense?”
Apart from her enthusiasm for comedy sketch shows and stand-up, humour was definitely an alien concept to the woman.
“A plate, a cup, a saucer, a fork and two spoons – one big, one small,” explained Gleb. “No other friends.”
“And,” said Lida. “Don’t forget drinking glasses – for wine and beer.”
Gleb ate stew while she watched her programme. Whichever way you sliced it, Lida was a top-notch cook. Stew, borsch, stuffed cabbage, pasta, sautéed potatoes – in culinary matters, the woman was more than a match for any restaurant chef. Her fruit compote, in particular, was cooked using some secret method that immediately conjured up the taste, smell and sensations of childhood. You’re one of the select few if you can produce a dish as good as the ones you tasted as a kid.
It happened that he finished his supper just as Lida’s so-called comedy show ended.
“Will you show me the painting?” she asked.
“Just be warned: it’s done in an unusual style.”
“You’ve made me curious now.”
Gleb led Lida to the study, turned on the light and, without any ceremony, tore off the wrapping paper. Here, the canvas seemed somehow different from when it was in The Squat, yet it was still just as magical and grandiose. Lida fixed a long, ill-informed stare on the painting and it became clear its charm was lost on her.
“Why are their faces so indistinct?”
“What do you mean?”
“You can hardly see the eyes, mouth and ears,” said Lida. “It’s like blank skin. You can’t tell if their eyes are blue, or brown, or grey. I mean, you can make out her hairclip more clearly than her eyes.”
“I believe it’s done deliberately,” said Gleb. “The artist has depicted the details of the clothing and the interior distinctly but left the faces blurry in order to depersonalise the two main figures. Maybe not the most sophisticated technique, but it’s effective.”
“Meaning these people are empty. They have no personality, no will, nothing to distinguish them from everyone else. They have long since exchanged their ‘selves’ for things.”
This explanation didn’t satisfy Lida. Gleb stood like a fool with the unveiled canvas before him, bewildered by her speechless bafflement.
“Don’t you like it?” he asked.
“You were right when you mentioned the unusual style,” said Lida. “Then again, I don’t understand modern art.”
Like she was an expert on the classical stuff.
“Actually this isn’t modern art,” said Gleb. “It isn’t some elitist crap sold for an exorbitant price at auction just because a respected critic has declared it a masterpiece. It’s probably the air of gloominess that’s putting you off.”
“Probably. It’s cold, unpleasant.”
“Which means the artist has managed to create a mood.”
Lida glanced at Gleb.
“It’s not that artist?”
“The one you were talking about. What was her name?”
“Lana Lancaster? No, what are you like? It’s way above her level.”
“To be honest, I don’t know the artist.”
“Was this painting given to you?”
Gleb had been waiting for this question but it still wrong-footed him.
“No,” he said. “I bought it.”
Now it was Lida’s turn to look confused.
“Where?” she asked.
“At The Squat. I know you’re fretting about the price so I’ll tell you straight up. Twelve thousand.”
“What?!” she spluttered. “Gleb, have you gone mad?”
“It’s a real treasure. I did well to get it for twelve, that’s a lot less than its true value.”
“Twelve thousand notes, Gleb!”
“Lida, this is a truly great work. You haven’t the slightest idea what it’s really worth.”
“Twelve thousand notes! That’s three months’ rent! That’s more than my salary! Do you realise how long I’ll have to sit behind the checkout to pay for your painting?”
Gleb just about restrained himself from shouting.
“Lida, hold on,” he said. “Let’s suppose this is the money saved from the summer. Something to make up for the holiday.”
Judging by the expression on her face, Lida was supposing no such thing. It wasn’t much of a joke, or the strongest argument.
“Are you going to hold it against me for the rest of my life that I ruined your Crimea trip? Never mind that you order books every month just to put them on a shelf? Or pay to have your articles translated into English so that they can be published in some pretentious journal? God knows, only last week I handed five thousand over to the translator.”
Gleb felt like shaking her until she choked on all her insults. Just grab the shoulders and shake. And at the same time spell out in a rasping voice that his scholarly reputation and income depended on him being published in ‘pretentious’ journals, that new books were an absolute necessity for him and that he didn’t hold Crimea against her in any way.
But he rowed with women far too often to feel the need to answer their every accusation or justify himself.
“Lida,” he said. “I didn’t get hysterical when you bought yourself a fur gilet.”
“Have you lost your mind?” said Lida. “Comparing clothes and this, a painting by nobody-knows-who or why?”
“True, it’s a poor comparison,” said Gleb, “because you can make as many gilets as you like, but exquisite paintings, like pirozhki, don’t bake themselves.”
“Are you insane?” Lida carried on. “Don’t you understand? When it’s cold, should I wear the painting, or what?”
Looking away, Gleb focused on the pendulum of the clock, then took a deep breath to prevent himself from screaming.
“Stop suggesting every other word that I’m out of my mind,” he said. “Point number one. Point number two, don’t lie to yourself. You don’t need the gilet to keep yourself warm. A jumper would keep out the cold just as well. Point number three, stop yelling at me. It’s totally unjustified.”
“Of course, totally unjustified,” said Lida. “You just blew twelve thousand notes without even consulting me.”
“I’m earning money and am entitled to spend it how I want.”
“Fine! Then the same goes for me. Tomorrow I’m going to buy some clothes. I’m going on a shopping spree.”
“I’ve had my eye on one particular dress for ages.”
“Is that all?”
“And a bag.”
“Great idea. Surprise me.”
Lida stared at him. Like a frightened rabbit. She had run out of threats and arguments, and she had missed her opportunity to fly at him with her fists. He had won.
In victory, as ever, Gleb found himself overcome by a sense of magnanimity to his defeated adversary and an irresistible urge to be generous.
“Lida, have faith in my taste,” he said. “My instinct tells me that this canvas will one day be recognised as outstanding. If so, I’ll be able to sell it for much more than I bought it for.”
“You reckon?” She didn’t believe him.
“I’m convinced of it. We won’t regret it.”
He had not the slightest intention of parting with the painting, of course. Besides, there are so many artists out there that it’s incredibly hard to identify the great ones among them. The likelihood of the canvas in Gleb’s study being declared outstanding was close to zero.
Lida took shelter in the kitchen and deliberately started clattering about with the pots and pans. She was shaming him with this racket that drew attention to his lack of appreciation for all her unnoticed work, for her daily culinary exploits, for the unenviable role of a woman.
Gleb, by some miracle, did not explode; he quelled his ire. He hid himself in the bathroom, slid the bolt across and got out his phone.
On Sunday, while Lida was on her shift, Gleb busied himself with the painting. He bought some special, double-sided fixings to hold the frame on the wall.
Rather than an ice desert, as he’d initially thought, the wallpaper in the painting looked more like melted wax. The walls of the mysterious kitchen, therefore, called to mind a psychiatric hospital in a roundabout sort of way. Not much cause for optimism there either. It was as if pointless conflict had exhausted the couple. Neither wished to claim victory, they were done with talking. There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don’t know how. Liam Gallagher, I think. Or maybe Noel?
Anyway, regardless of which brother sang it, the figures in the painting were seated in stony silence.
Gleb delivered both his Monday lectures with aplomb. He made some jokes about Nietzsche and decadents, quoted from memory some striking bits of a Bryusov essay. As was usually the case after the holidays, Gleb felt invigorated. Because he hadn’t yet had time to get sick of the endless, monotonous conversations on the same old topics, the wandering through the corridors and the stuffy lecture halls, he felt no need to scuttle away from the university straight after his classes. He even dropped by the department for a coffee before his meeting with Slava.
Izida Nazirovna was conducting a retake exam with a Chinese student. Each was playing their role to a tee. The professor was berating the Chinese student in the usual explosive way while the latter nodded eagerly.
“The Life of Archpriest Avvakum differs from earlier examples of the genre in a myriad of ways!” Nod. “It was the first ever autobiography – the Archpriest Avvakum wrote it himself!” Nod. “That’s the bare minimum you should be able to tell me!”
Ruslan Niyazovich looked up from his laptop and watched from the opposite end of the table. Gleb peered past the shelving unit to observe the scene, leaning against the back of the sofa with a hot cup of coffee. In such moments, it’s easy to imagine yourself as the performer of an all-knowing, velvet-toned voiceover, an ethereal narrator, a master at endowing others with astonishing qualities via a mix of documentary testimony and details which the central characters would either have included with a smile on job application forms, or kept well hidden from idle curiosity and the holier-than-thou brigade. ‘Sergei Truffelev, 32 years of age, senior manager of a mobile phone company, single, big fan of FC Arsenal Tula and roast turkey, fell naked into a swimming pool at the office party in 2013, blah-blah-blah.’ An amusing technique.
“Archpriest Avvakum fundamentally diversified the lexicon of autobiographical narrative!” Nod.
And that’s Izida Nazirovna. An old maid in every sense of the word. Specialist in Old Russian Literature and the Comparative Study of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy with the Tatar Classics. She had trained herself since her student days to work at her desk until three or four in the morning. This means she only wakes up just before noon, so no-one expects her at the university before lunch. They adjust the timetable for her. Dry but not stale; remembers wrongdoing but not vindictive. You have an underlying suspicion that nothing interests her except literature.
“You need to memorise the study guide like a prayer!” said Izida Nazirovna. “The first two chapters in particular.”
The Chinese student nodded. His concentrated face showed little emotion.
“Memorise it like a prayer, understood?”
When the Chinese student had gone, Ruslan Niyazovich permitted himself an observation.
“They don’t have prayers, Izida Nazirovna, it’s a totally different culture!”
Both forced a smile. Izida Nazirovna, to show that even she could take criticism from a mere lecturer. Ruslan Niyazovich, to smooth things over.
Izida Nazirovna herself had written the study guide to which she had assigned religious status. Gleb only just stopped himself from cracking a joke. They didn’t appreciate his irony here. Besides, why would any intellectual, hand on heart, reject one of their own flock? Which of them didn’t endow their poorly appreciated endeavours with some sacred significance?
Ruslan Niyazovich, a brief résumé: specialist in Intercultural Communication and Representations of the Orient in Russian Literature. A walking encyclopaedia on Asian beliefs and outlook, able to list off the top of his head at least eighteen differences between the Hinayana and the Mahyana Buddhists. A man of impeccable upbringing, composure and cordiality. Reveals little about his family, leaves departmental get-togethers straight after the third glass has been downed and the last of the meaningful pleasantries exchanged. Black hair with touches of grey, as if sprinkled with ash.
Gleb heard the door open. The rhythmic sound of high heels, and Katerina Borisovna came into view. Gleb swallowed the rest of his coffee in one gulp. He greeted Borisovna in passing and went to wash up his cup.
Borisovna was the type of sharp-nosed, superior-looking female with a prickly personality that everyone positively hated behind her back. She idolised Dostoevsky, disguising her nunnish devotion as professional interest. Every last detail of his diaries was, to her, pure genius, she could find a hidden abyss of meaning in the most ordinary descriptions of an interior and she equated Fyodor Mikhailovich himself with the saints. Furthermore, Borisovna adored picking out symbols of Christianity everywhere and, every now and again, would launch into an impassioned speech about the decline of spirituality these days. Borisovna’s detailed grasp of moral issues complemented perfectly her haughtiness and her utter lack of tact. She would call students clueless, talentless and useless, to their faces.
That’s not to say Borisovna was unique. Gleb knew three other female literary scholars united by a keen interest in Dostoevsky and Christianity, and an unlimited capacity for rudeness. Gleb had observed that this type of personality was already formed by the age of twenty. Their symbolic capital only increased with age, broadening the circle of people whom Borisovna and her kind could hector unchallenged from their lofty academic perches. Worst of all, these well-read harpies possessed a subtle sense of humour, which meant their tongues were twice as sharp as those of your average, ignorant dumb-arse.
Having washed his cup, Gleb went back to the department. At the door Svetlana Yurevna thrust a bundle of paperwork under his nose.
“Gleb Viktorovich, hello. Can you believe they just sent us this minuted nonsense marked ‘Urgent’.”
“Hello, Svetlana Yurevna. Run-of-the-mill or official?”
“Official. You should see Kristina’s face.”
“Ah well,” said Gleb. “It’s a tough life being a departmental assistant.”
“I’ll give her some money for a taxi home from the department kitty,” said Svetlana Yurevna. “She’ll probably be here until midnight with this paperwork.”
“Let her sleep on the couch in your office.”
“You can joke but the girl’s almost in tears. This wasn’t what she expected – working her backside off, like a slave, for only five thousand a month.”
Svetlana Yurevna was the perfect Head of Department. A distinguished campaigner, an expert at organising everything just-so. If anyone doubted a woman’s ability to lead, she’d convince them otherwise. Gleb had once witnessed her handling an important report during a discussion of the exam timetable with a trio of other course leaders, while at the same time ignoring the distraction of a constantly ringing telephone and dictating the text of an email to Kristina. Whenever Svetlana Yurevna flew off to a conference in Paris, Dublin, Minsk even, documents would suddenly go missing and arguments in the department would multiply. She taught 20th Century Foreign Literature and loved Galsworthy and Bernard Shaw. Though not to the same extent that Borisovna revered Dostoevsky, obviously.
Gleb understood how university academics were variously perceived and labelled. Someone taking their cue from Lenin might, as he did, liken them to something brown and smelly. A member of the inner circle, on the other hand, considered them, in all seriousness, to be the nation’s conscience, the last bastion of decency and humanity. For his part, Gleb held to the moderately critical view that most university lecturers were destined to come up with two or three original, if small, ideas and spend their whole lives nurturing them. To chase after grants, publish papers and monographs, defend dissertations, to churn out graduates year after year. They’re real pros at that. The problem is not that they are worse than what they call the general public. It’s that they secretly consider themselves to be better – purer, superior, freer even.
Gleb said goodbye to his colleagues and headed off to meet Slava. One of the students, Fedoseyeva, stopped him in the middle of the corridor. Gleb remembered her from when she was a bright-eyed fresher.
“Hello, Gleb Viktorovich. Happy new academic year.”
“Hello, Ira. Thanks.”
“Are you in a rush?”
Gleb looked at his watch, thought a bit, then looked at it again.
“I’ve got a meeting quite soon,” he said. “What is it?”
“I’ve an important question to ask you,” said Fedoseyeva. “In second year we have to choose a supervisor and write an extended essay.”
“Yes I think I’ve heard about that,” said Gleb. “And?”
“I want it to be you.”
“Why all the hurry? No-one usually worries about it until November.”
“I like the way you taught us Lyric Poetry,” said Fedoseyeva. “Good lecturers get snapped up quickly so I’m asking you in advance.”
“Do you want to write about poetry?”
“I’ve decided poetry studies is my thing.”
“How many poems do you know off by heart?”
“So…around thirty. Something like that.”
In other words, less than twenty.
“A real poetry scholar knows at least a hundred,” said Gleb. “As well as eloquent stanzas from other poems.”
“I’ll learn them, Gleb Viktorovich.”
“You will if you put the effort in.”
“Will you take me on?”
“I’ve nothing against you, Fedoseyeva. Consider yourself provisionally accepted. Come to the department…” Gleb paused, trying to recall the timetable, “…on Friday, at 1700 hours.”
‘Snapped up quickly’, fancy that.
Ira from either Zelenodolsk or Chistopol. Combining a typical Russian female name and a provincial town, or even a village, nearly always sounds comical. Ira from Zelenodolsk, Olya from Magnitogorsk, Natasha from Ozernoe. Sveta from Ivanovo.
As for Fedoseyeva, Gleb took her for a feminist in the first month. The kind who doesn’t shave their legs and would scratch your eyes out if you paid for them in the café. This opinion was based on the fact that Ira didn’t seek to please and didn’t engage in the usual female mind games. In particular, she dressed informally: baggy jeans and acrylic, polo-neck jumpers. Gleb subsequently realised he was mistaken. Ira was straightforward and amiable. Practicality dictated her choice of clothes, rather than any lack of taste. In her classes, albeit she behaved with exaggerated seriousness, Fedoseyeva showed better understanding than others in the group.
Meaning Gleb was flattered by her attention.
Translated by William Barclay (2021). You can read more about William’s translation project here.