A Slav Soul, and Other Stories
A SLAV SOUL
AND OTHER STORIES
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
|I.||A SLAV SOUL|
|II.||THE SONG AND THE DANCE|
|VIII.||THE LAST WORD|
|IX.||THE WHITE POODLE|
|XII.||A CLUMP OF LILACS|
"Oh how incomprehensible for us, how mysterious, how strange are thevery simplest happenings in life. And we, not understanding them,unable to penetrate their significance, heap one event upon another,plait them together, join them, make acquaintances and marriages,write books, say sermons, found ministries, carry on war or trade,make new inventions and then after all, create history! And yet everytime I think of the immensity and complexity, the incomprehensible andelemental accidentoriness of the whole hurly-burly of life, then my ownlittle life seems but a miserable speck of dust lost in the whirl of ahurricane."
So in a paragraph in one of his sketches Alexander Kuprin gives hisfeelings about his life and his work, and in that expression perhaps wesee his characteristic attitude towards the world of which he writes.One of the strongest tales in this collection, "Tempting Providence,"is very representative of Kuprin in this vein.
After Chekhof the most popular tale-writer in Russia is Kuprin, theauthor of fourteen volumes of effusive, touching and humorous stories.He is read by the great mass of the Russian reading public, and hisworks can be bought at any railway bookstall in the Empire. He isdevoured by the students, loved by the bourgeois, and admired even byintellectual and fastidious Russians. It is impossible not to admirethis natural torrent of Russian thoughts and words and sentiments. Hislively pages are a reflection of Russia herself, and without havingbeen once in the country it would be possible to get a fair notion ofits surface life by reading these tales in translation. Perhaps thegreatest of living Russian novelists is Kuprin—exalted, hysterical,sentimental, Rabelaisian Kuprin. He comes to you with a handful ofwild flowers in one red, hairy hand and a shovelful of rubbish in theother—his shiny, lachrymose but unfathomable features pouring floodsof tears or rolling and bursting in guffaws of laughter. His is a rankverbiage—he gives birth to words, ideas, examples in tens where otherwriters go by units and threes.
He is occasionally coarse, occasionally sentimental, but he gives greatdelight to his readers; his are rough-hewn lumps of conversation andlife. With him everything is taken from life. He seems to be a masterof detail, and the characteristic of his style is a tendency to givethe most diverting lists. Often paragraph after paragraph, if youlook into the style, would be found to be lists of delicious detailsreported in a conversational manner. Thus, opening a volume at random,you can easily find an example:—
"Imagine the village we had reached—all overblown with snow; theinevitable village idiot, Serozha, walking almost naked in the snow;the priest, who won't play cards the day before a festival but writesdenunciations to the village starosta instead—a stupid, artful man,and an adept at getting alms, speaking an atrocious Petersburg Russian.If you have grasped what society was like in the village you know towhat point of boredom and stupefaction we attained. We had alreadygot tired of bear-hunting, hare-hunting with hounds, pistol-shootingat a target through three rooms, writing humorous verses. It must beconfessed we quarrelled."
He is also the inventor of amusing sentences which can almost be usedas proverbs:—
He knew which end of the asparagus to eat.
We looked at our neighbours through a microscope; they at us through atelescope.
Every one of Kuprin's stories has the necessary Attic salt. He is likeour English Kipling, whom he greatly admires, and about whom he haswritten in one of his books an appreciative essay. He is also somethinglike the American O. Henry, especially in the matter of his lists ofdetails and his apt metaphors, but he has not the artifice nor theeverlasting American smile. Kuprin, moreover, takes his matter fromlife and writes with great ease and carelessness; O. Henry put togetherfrom life and re-wrote twelve times.
Above all things Kuprin is a sentimental author, preferring an impulseto a reason, and abandoning logic whenever his feelings are touched.He likes to feel the reader with the tears in his eyes and then togo forward with him in the unity of emotional friendship. There is,however, under this excitement a rather self-centred cynic despisingthe things he does not love, a satirical genius. His humour is nearlyalways at the expense of some person, institution or class of society.Thus "The Song and the Dance" is at the expense of the peasantry, "TheLast Word" at the expense of the lower intelligentia, "The WhitePoodle" at the expense of those rich bourgeois who have villas on theCrimean shores, "Anathema" at the expense of the Church, "MechanicalJustice" at the expense of the professor, and so on. And it is part ofKuprin's sentiment to love dogs almost as much as men, and he tells notales at dogs' expense. "The White Poodle" and "Dogs' Happiness" aretwo of his dog tales.
The tales selected are taken from various volumes, and two of them,"The Elephant" and "The White Poodle," from a volume specially designedby him for reading aloud to children. They are in very simple andcolloquial and humorous Russian, and are delightful to read aloud.
Kuprin, who is a living Russian tale-writer, though considerably lessproductive than in his earlier years, spent a great deal of time inthe Crimea, which is evidently favourite country to him. Chekhof alsolived in the Crimea and tended lovingly his rose garden at Yalta.His neighbour, Kuprin, wrote one of the most charming reminiscentessays on Chekhof and his life in "To the Glory of the Living and theDead," which also contains the Kipling essay. Many of Kuprin's storiesrelate to the Crimea, and the longest of these given in this selectioncontains a description of Crimean life, and gives (pp. 154—157) awonderful impression of a Crimean summer night. Kuprin has also livedin England and has written tales of London life, and has occasionalreferences to English characteristics. But I have avoided carryingcoals to Newcastle.
As compared with Sologub, whose volume of beautiful tales, "TheSweet-scented Name," has found so many friends in England, Kuprinmay be said to be nearer to the earth, less in the clouds. He is asatirical realist, whereas Sologub is a fantastic realist. Sologubdiscloses the devils and the angels in men and women, but Kuprin ischeerfully human. Both have a certain satirical genius, but Kuprin isread by everyone, whereas it would be hardly one in ten that couldfollow Sologub. In comparison with Chekhof I should say Kuprin wasa little more inventive, and as regards a picture of life Kuprin isnearer to the present moment. Nearly all these Russian tale-writersexcel in describing the life of townspeople. Very little study of thepeasantry has been made, though there are one or two notable exceptions.
Kuprin made his name in writing stories of life in the Russian army.He did not describe the common soldier as did his likeness, Kipling,but rather the life of the officers. His most famous books on thesubject are "Cadets," "Staff-Captain Ribnikof" and "The Duel."He extended his popularity with somewhat lurid and oleographicdescriptions of the night haunt and night life, and wrote the notoriousnovel, lately completed, entitled "Yama"—"The Pit." He has writtena great deal about the relationship of men and women. His weaknessis the subject of women. Whenever they come into question he becomesself-conscious and awkward, putting his subject in the wrong light,protesting too much, and finally writing that which is not fitting justbecause "all is permitted" and "why shouldn't we?" His poorest work ishis coarse work. Nothing ugly is worth reproducing, however curious theugliness may be. We do not want the ugly, and are interested more inbrightest Russia than in darkest Russia. My purpose is to give whatis beautiful, or in any case what is interesting but not ugly, in theliving Russian literature of to-day. Consequently I have made, togetherwith my wife, a choice of Kuprin. We have read all his stories throughand taken fifteen of those which make him a great writer, just thosewhich should enrich us. Here is Kuprin's humour, sentiment, pathos,and delightful and entertaining verbosity. Of this work all but threetales were translated by my wife, and these three by myself. I havecommunicated the contents to Kuprin, who sanctions the publication.
 Now obtainable in English translation.
A SLAV SOUL
A SLAV SOUL
The farther I go back in my memory of the past, and the nearer I get toremembering incidents connected with my childhood, the more confusedand doubtful do my recollections become. Much, no doubt, was told meafterwards, in a more conscious stage of my existence, by those who,with loving care, noticed my early doings. Perhaps many of the thingsthat I recall never happened to me; I heard or read them some timeor other and their remembrance grew to be part of myself. Who canguarantee which of these recollections are of real facts and which oftales told so long ago that they have all the appearance of truth—whocan know where one ends and the other begins?
My imagination recalls with special vividness the eccentric figureof Yasha and the two companions—might almost call them friends—whoaccompanied him along the path of life: Matsko, an old rejected cavalryhorse, and the yard-dog Bouton.
Yasha was distinguished by the deliberate slowness of his speechand actions, and he always had the air of a man whose thoughts wereconcentrated on himself. He spoke very seldom and considered hisspeech; he tried to speak good Russian, though at times when he wasmoved he would burst out in his native dialect of Little-Russian. Owingto his dress of a dark colour and sober cut, and to the solemn andalmost melancholy expression of his shaven face and thin pursed lips,he always gave the impression that he was an old servant of a noblefamily of the good old times.
Of all the human beings that he knew, Yasha seemed to find my fatherthe only one besides himself worthy of his veneration. And though tous children, to my mother, and to all our family and friends, hismanner was respectful, it was mingled with a certain pity and slightingcondescension. It was always an enigma to me—whence came thisimmeasurable pride of his. Servants have often a well-known form ofinsolence; they take upon themselves some of that attractive authoritywhich they have noticed in their masters. But my father, a poor doctorin a little Jewish village, lived so modestly and quietly that Yashacould never have learnt from him to look down upon his neighbours.And in Yasha himself there was none of the ordinary insolence of aservant—he had no metropolitan polish and could not overawe peopleby using foreign words, he had no overbearing manners towards countrychambermaids, no gentle art of tinkling out touching romances on theguitar, an art by which so many inexperienced souls have been ruined.He occupied his leisure hours in lying in sheer idleness full-lengthon the box in which he kept his belongings. He not only did not readbooks, but he sincerely despised them. All things written, except inthe Bible, were, in his opinion, written not for truth's sake butjust to get money, and he therefore preferred to any book those longrambling thoughts which he turned over in his mind as he lay idly onhis bed.
Matsko, the horse, had been rejected from military service on accountof many vices, the chief of which was that he was old, far too old.Then his forelegs were crooked, and at the places where they joined thebody were adorned with bladder-like growths; he strutted on his hindlegs like a cock. He held his head like a camel, and from old militaryhabit tossed it upward and thrust his long neck forward. This, combinedwith his enormous size and unusual leanness, and the fact that he hadonly one eye,