Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Nothing but spiders: Bobok in the bathhouse

Russian culture has no shortage of spooks – and I don’t mean Stirlitz. It’s that time of year when we creep into the cobwebby bathhouse with Pushkin’s Tatyana, organize a BYOB barbecue for the local skeletons (Pushkin again – Belkin Tales), or daringly defy vampires (Tolstoy – not the cranky one, but Aleksei Konstantinovich). If you really want to make music with the children of the night, you can hardly do better than reading Dostoevsky: FMD is reliably Gothic and ghastly, if not always ghostly. Never forget that there are actual ghosts in Crime and Punishment: Svidrigailov, not a man to stint himself, has two. Both perished in extremely suspicious circumstances: Filka, his manservant, and Marfa Petrovna, his wealthy but querulous wife. My favourite is Filka: ‘“We’d only just buried him and I yelled, absent-mindedly, ‘Filka, my pipe!’ and in he came and walked straight over to the cabinet where I keep my pipes. I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘He’s come to get his own back,' because we’d had an almighty row shortly before he died. ‘How dare you,’ I say, ‘come in here with holes out at your elbows? Get out, you rascal!’ He turned, walked out and never came back.”’
As for ghoulish reflections on the ‘life to come’, Svidrigailov nails it: ‘“What if there’s nothing but spiders there or something like that? […] We’re forever imagining eternity as an idea beyond our understanding, something vast, vast. But why must it be vast? Just imagine what if, instead of all that, there’ll just be some little room, some sooty bath-hut, say, with spiders in every corner, and that’s it, that’s eternity?”’*

It’s always a little difficult to move the conversation on from a question like that, so I propose a sideways dash… into the cemetery, where all is not as you might expect. What happens if the dead, instead of going quietly into that good topsoil, treat the afterlife like a Senior Common Room after the college servants have fetched the port – or, even worse, like a Saturday night outside the kebab shop off the High Street? Dostoevsky’s strange 1873 short story Bobok (which, like most of his late-career shorter work, first appeared in his Diary of a Writer column in the newspaper The Citizen) pictures precisely this scenario: a freelance translator, tired after helping to heft a stranger’s coffin at a funeral, overhears corpses chatting in a graveyard. Their conversation is, to say the least, unedifying: although puzzled by their additional lease of life, they make no bones (ahem) about returning to their mortal preoccupations of lustfulness, gambling, and moral turpitude.

“Tell me first of all how it is we can talk? I've been wondering ever since yesterday. We are dead and yet we are talking and seem to be moving—and yet we are not talking and not moving. What jugglery is this?”
“[…] when we were living on the surface we mistakenly thought that death there was death. The body revives, as it were, here, the remains of life are concentrated, but only in consciousness. I don't know how to express it, but life goes on, as it were, by inertia. […] everything is concentrated somewhere in consciousness and goes on for two or three months ... sometimes even for half a year.... There is one here, for instance, who is almost completely decomposed, but once every six weeks he suddenly utters one word, quite senseless of course, about some bobok, 'Bobok, bobok,' but you see that an imperceptible speck of life is still warm within him."
"It's rather stupid. Well, and how is it I have no sense of smell and yet I feel there's a stench?"
"That ... he-he.... Well, on that point our philosopher is a bit foggy. […] the stench one perceives here is, so to speak, moral—he-he! It's the stench of the soul, he says, that in these two or three months it may have time to recover itself ... and this is, so to speak, the last mercy.... Only, I think, Baron, that these are mystic ravings very excusable in his position...."
"Enough; all the rest of it, I am sure, is nonsense. The great thing is that we have two or three months more of life and then—bobok! I propose to spend these two months as agreeably as possible […]. Gentlemen! I propose to cast aside all shame." [translation by Constance Garnett]

Stranger yet, however, is a widely acclaimed modernist novel by Irish writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay, 1949), which is narrated almost wholly from the perspective of recently buried corpses in a small Connemara graveyard. Episodes of conversation – exposing village scandals, and the cupidity and arrogance of chief mournee Caitríona Pháidín in particular – are interrupted by soliloquies from the mysterious Last Trump (not Donald).

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Am I alive or am I dead? Are these here alive or dead? They’re all giving out as much as they did above ground! I thought that once i was laid in the grave, free from chores and household cares and fear of wind or weather, there’d be some peace in store for me… but why all this squabbling in the graveyard clay?...”
“Who are you? Are you long here? Do you hear me? Don’t be shy. Feel as free here as you would at home. I’m Muraed Phroinsias.”
“For god’s sake! Muraed Proinsias who lived next door to me all my life. I’m Caitríona. Caitríona Pháidín. Do you remember me, Muraed, or do you lose all memory of life here? […]”
“[..] Life’s the same here, Caítriona, as it was in the ‘ould country’, except that all we see is the grave we’re in and we can’t leave the coffin. You won’t hear the living either, or know what’s happening to them, apart from what the newly buried dead will tell you. But we’re neighbours once again, Caitríona.”

Fittingly for such a polyphonic novel, Cré na Cille can be enjoyed in either or both of two recent translations (from Irish; the one quoted above is by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson). Did Ó Cadhain crib the plot of his best-known work directly from Dostoevsky? Some degree of influence is probable, as Ó Cadhain was a reader of Russian literature and even a scholar of the language; but he claimed that he was inspired with the idea for Cré na Cille when digging up an actual graveyard during his internment in the 1940s. The plot, or indeed crypt, thickens  even further when we get to the publication of Aleksandr Sharov’s The Death and Resurrection of A.M. Butov (1984). Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the name of Vladimir Sharov, the late and great historian and novelist. Skilled and insightful as he was, Vladimir Sharov no doubt owed his Soviet-intellectual pass to the fact that he was the son of Aleksandr Sharov, born Asher Israelievich Nurenberg (1909-1984), a bibulous but none the less brilliant writer and journalist. Much of Sharov père’s works belong to the genres of children’s literature or popular science (he was, briefly, a student of the geneticist Nikolai Kol’tsov, who was reimagined as a kind of Russian Dr Frankenstein in Bulgakov’s 1925 novella Heart of a Dog), but this late novel – completed in the year of the author’s death – is a serious study of the consequences of dying, but not going away. Effectively extinct, but still conscious, Butov revisits his typical Soviet life – and its moral and emotional consequences.

Butov was lying in the newly opened Second Municipal Cemetery of the town of T, which was then simply known as “The New Cemetery”. There were still very few deceased there, and there was no-one at all near Butov’s plot. This plot of his had been temporarily marked out with a string draped between four slender poles.
The plot was square and fairly spacious […]. Farther off, on all sides, were more squares of the same sort, all marked out with string and poles. Only one of them boasted a tall black cross erected on a stone plinth. Beyond lay more flat ground, narrow little paths between the plots, which were half-swamped in water, with a greyish-brown plank fence on the horizon. It was an unattractive place – no doubt why it had been selected as a cemetery.
“And rightly so,” he thought, feebly.
His thoughts revolved dully, heavily, as they do in the gap between swallowing a sleeping pill and falling asleep. He had been in this condition steadily and unchangingly since the awful pain in his heart had suddenly broken off and Butov had thought at first, “Well, that’s good!”, but he had not felt glad and, in the absence of gladness – and of sorrow too – he guessed:
“Well, I’ve died, met my Maker, as they say.”
[…]The damp was not seeping into his coffin. The well-fitted planks smelled dryly of resin. […] All the time, he was thinking about one thing or another, without the slightest gap, but differently, than before; if a cheerful thought entered his head, he felt no cheer; if something sorrowful, the sorrow stayed away. Thinking like this was unusual and exhausting. “It’s all because I’ve died,” Butov reasoned. “I wonder, how long will this go on? For eternity? How terrifying, if it lasts for eternity.”
[my translation; Смерть и воскрешение А. М. Бутова is available on Amazon Kindle in Russian].

I’ll let you know what happens next, as I haven’t finished reading Aleksandr Sharov’s novel; suffice it to say that while I’m sure Sharov Sr had read Bobok, he definitely wasn’t plagiarizing Cré na Cille, all superficial similarities aside. Now that would be spooky.

In other news: while sights like this one
still terrify me, Halloween has lost its horror since Brexit was postponed yet again. In fact, instead of trick-or-treating, I’ll be speaking about Alisa Ganieva and Guzel’ Yakhina and their brilliant translators Carol Apollonio and Lisa C. Hayden (respectively) at the Institute for Modern Languages Research-funded conference Translating Women: Breaking Borders and Building Bridges in the English-Language Book Industry” in London on 31st October and November 1st. I recently joined Twitter (twitterati can follow me at @RussianLitDino) and I hope to live-tweet part of the conference (#TWconf19, #WIT). Do tune in for a prehistoric perspective on trending translations.

*Both quotations are from Oliver Ready’s 2015 Penguin Classics translation of Crime and Punishment.