The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Finches (from Dust, published by Dalkey Archive Press) by Arkadii Dragomoschenko
Translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan & Ana Lucic

It’s morning. There are no finches in sight, and the pecked rowanberries underfoot are like random lines taken from any convenient poem.

The notes and correspondence of Gustave Flaubert: On Literature, Art, and Writing, in Russian, two volumes, purchased for next to nothing from the flea market by the Museum of Railroads, where loudspeakers mumble at you continuously from the museum’s basement. It used metal-cast type. I could’ve haggled over the book, but it was already so (irresistibly) cheap that I just decided to “go with it.”

Do you remember the days when people still used to ask each other: “What are they selling today?” You probably don’t—you’re still young, and anyway, what’s the use of mixing beautiful fairy tales with stories from those nightmarish days. The backdrop to these memories unfolds and then darkens like the lines in a developing photograph exposed to too much light. Look at it long enough, without interruption, and you’ll start seeing signs of the twilight to come. Our photograph sinks into darkness.

On a number of occasions, Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin refers to the strange, somewhat morbid impression left on him by a picture published in Niva, the illustrated journal; the picture had the Alps in the background, and an image of a short muscular man with a disproportionately large head. Under the picture, Bunin wrote, “There was an inscription—‘An encounter with a cretin from the mountains.’ It’s hard to say how many actual cretins I’ve seen in my life . . .”

So, it’s morning. According to all the signs, it looks like the finches had a feast here. Gertrude Stein was born on February 3rd. Snow is snow is snow, which is just an adaptation of the famous sentence from her lecture “Poetry and Grammar,” which she used as an example of pure poetry—the possibility of narration without a beginning or ending.

It’s either the snow or the dirt that’s irritating my eyes. While I’m running my myopic finger over Stein’s famous lines—“He had dreamed that he and Uncle Pierre, wearing helmets such as were depicted in his Plutarch, were leading a huge army. The army was made up of white slanting lines that filled the air like the cobwebs that float in autumn and which Dessalles called les fils de la Vierge”—two cretins and a singer are arguing on TV about how the English language was invented by people who didn’t know how to pronounce sounds properly. They may be right.

Perhaps, too, we might be witnessing the return of a certain social need—it’s difficult to say. I’m not so good at arguments and figuring out who hit whom. As an example, one of the TV people brings up an anecdote about some Englishman who couldn’t pronounce the word “pyl’” with a soft L in Russian. So, instead of “dust,” the stupid Englishman kept saying “heat” (“pyl”).

Gertrude Stein once said something that was almost as famous as the sentence alluded to above (though less popular—after all, the other one was about a rose). She said: “You are all a lost generation.” The consequences were astounding and well known to everyone. But let’s assume that our scheduled rain got lost in the suburbs. Would this change anything? The rain got cancelled and instead, today, we have snowflakes sifting in everywhere. In order to lose something, you first need to have it. To have and have not, yet another name emerging from my memory, which doesn’t change a thing in our ongoing recollections, however. This is what Clifton Fadiman said about Stein: “She was a past master in making nothing happen very slowly.” Isn’t memory very much like a “past master” that’s good for nothing?

Aren’t we compelled to remember things over and over again? Which reminds me that certain computer games don’t have a “save” function, so that you can never return to a previous moment.

At this moment, however, this “past master” can easily be misread or mistaken for a “postmaster”: a mediator, a dispatcher of messages. Some of these messages reach us intact, having kept their original meanings, but still—it’s necessary to understand them “over again,” as though they never had a past.

In the meantime, in an increasingly heated atmosphere, the advocates of correct pronunciation continue their debate, bringing concrete proofs and examples of how the language in which they communicate is, by comparison, perfect. One of these cretins is a well-known journalist. And what else should we expect from a singer?

What more can we add, my friend, after reading this: “We are entering a rather sad epoch here in France. And I, too, am becoming like the epoch.”

And isn’t the following remark also fascinating? “The Marquis de Sade forgot two things, cannibalism and predators, and this proves how even the greatest of people are not so great, and besides he should have ridiculed vice too, which he didn’t do, and that was his mistake.”

For my own part, I’ll try my best to not make any mistakes.

I won’t call you, I won’t think of you, I won’t even write about you, regardless of the enticing opening of this piece—about the morning and the finches—which got lost along the way, and which has been begging me relentlessly to continue it ever since. Any direct address creates a dangerous illusion of the validity of what’s being recounted. By which I mean, imagine a person, standing alone at some crossroads or in a little town square, addressing a void: “How are you? What’s going on? Would it have killed you to call?” and so on. It’s hard to imagine a scenario like this if we don’t acknowledge this person’s absolute right to his madness: i.e., his right to establish his own routes of communication.

Now I look at my glass of beer—great, because nowadays it’s possible to do so even in an opera house—and try to remember which awards some Chilean wine has won, trying (in vain) to find an appropriate if somewhat abstract plot for a future column, and simultaneously remembering a photograph of the Mechnikov Hospital where the twilight is settling on its gauze-like glass. Did you sell the car, the shells from the coast, the Eileen Fisher dress?

To tell you the truth, what I liked best was watching you look at the pecked rowanberries through the window, watching you stomp on your dress with both your feet, hearing you get in the shower and shout from there that we’d never be together again.

Direct speech presupposes the certainty that one can actually overcome the lack of expression in a given language and indeed the possibility that the original content of your speech might be meaningless. I should remember to add in a few more lines from Gertrude Stein (Why her, though? Why not, for example, Marcus Aurelius or Viktor Pelevin? Can everything be explained by the given hierarchy of the stars?): “Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation. That is what makes school.”

Because nobody went to school, because it’s still morning and there are no finches in sight, while the pecked, rotten rowanberries stick underfoot and fingers are dancing across the keyboard: “Everything is covered in frost. Do you know how beautiful you are in the morning, when the windows are covered in frost, on the day that Stein was born, when tides of grammar wash the shores of slumbering mirror-like images, and three people talk on the flickering TV screen, forced between its lines as though with a crowbar, feeling their way, unbearably slow, through the wordless tracks and outlines there, which, if we squint, become nothing more than regular patterns; these people, who, like Flaubert [let’s carefully put this paragraph in scare quotes], argue about the problems of language, its use, and also about its elusive, subtle gradations of meaning, and perhaps even about love—without which it’s quite impossible to write—in whose absence someone is still talking incessantly to someone else, because you have disappeared from my side [which I’ve put in italics here, despite its being omitted in the original text], disappeared like some eloquent phrase, because this is how various conditions must be described—but turn around, and you appear in a flash, turn around again and you disappear, so there’s no need to address you in so mysteriously direct a fashion.”

But one shouldn’t turn around. Because eventually things get dull, and with time everything will become mundane. How to get interested again. I wrote about large buildings in a different city. It seemed to me that the concept of the Tower of Babel has been completely misinterpreted by the people who are still arguing over the problems of translation. For them, the confusion of tongues exists, linguistically, as some inert spatial figure, a level field, whereas we should see it instead as an axis, with the Tower at its center—various languages spinning around it, regularly appearing and then disappearing into the darkness, inert.

I won’t try to hide it: I also wrote about the horizon, which breaks out before you even get a chance to breathe in the sunrise, racing over the roofs of the big houses. Your absence, and the absence of those buildings—what this book was supposed to be about—is replaced instead with a multitude of descriptions.

I was thinking of dust particles as I was describing the stones.

. . . Then the TV offers me advice on how to raise flowers, how to get train tickets when there’s a rush, and, most importantly, how to fill out my tax return painlessly.

Then begins a vita nuova, because, to be sure, it was morning and, soon, night.

With a feeling of synchronicity the perception of velocity begins its slow trickle into our consciousness.