Petersburg Petersburg

Aleksandr Ivanovich flew, not himself, into his wretched room and saw that Stepan was sprawled on the dirty trestle of the bed over a guttering candle; his shaggy head was sunk low before an open book with Church Slavonic lettering.

Stepan was reading the Prayer Book.

Aleksandr Ivanovich remembered Styopka’s promise: to bring the Prayer Book with him (he was interested in a prayer it contained – St Basil the Great’s prayer, the admonitory one, to devils).14 And he caught at Styopka.

‘It’s you, Styopka: oh, I’m glad!’

‘Here, barin, I’ve brought you the Pr –’ – but after a look at the visitor who had entered, Styopka added – ‘what you asked for …’

‘Thank you …’

‘While I was waiting for you, I got absorbed in reading …’ (again a look in the direction of the visitor) ‘… It’s time I went …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich caught at Styopka with his hand:

‘Don’t go away, stay for a bit … This barin is Mr Shishnarfiev …’

But from the door a metallic voice rapped out hoarsely:

‘Not Shishnarfiev, but … Shishnar-fne …’

And what made him insist on the absence of the v ending? He was visible outside the door; he took off his little bowler hat; did not throw off his little coat and surveyed the room with a questioning gaze:

‘It’s not very nice in your room … A bit damp … and cold …’

The candle was burning down: the wrapping paper flared, and suddenly the walls began to dance in a watery red light.

‘No, barin, let me go: it’s time I went’ – Styopka began to fuss at this point, squinting in hostile fashion at Aleksandr Ivanovich and not looking at the guest at all – ‘let me go – until another time.’

He took the Prayer Book with him.

Under Stepan’s fixed gaze Aleksandr Ivanovich lowered his eyes; the fixed gaze, it seemed to him, was a condemning gaze. And what was he going to do with Stepan now? He wanted to say something to Stepan; he had hurt Stepan; Stepan would not forgive; and, it seemed to him, Stepan was now thinking:

‘No, barin, if folk like that have taken to coming to visit you, there is nothing to be done; and the Prayer Book is no use … Folk like that don’t come to see everyone; and those to whom they come are birds of the same feather …’

That meant, that meant, if Stepan thought he was – the visitor: was indeed suspicious … And then, how would he manage, he, alone – without Styopka:

‘Stepan, please stay.’

But Stepan waved him away, not without a shade of revulsion: as though he were afraid that this fellow might come bothering him, too:

‘It’s you he’s come to see: not me …’

And in his soul reverberated:

‘It’s you they’re looking for …’

The door banged shut behind Stepan. Aleksandr Ivanovich was about to shout after him to tell him to leave the Prayer Book, but … was too ashamed. Suddenly he would utter the little words, ‘Prayer Book’, so compromising for a free-thinker; but – Aleksandr Ivanovich had vowed to himself in advance: not to be excessively frightened, because the events that he might be involved in after Stepan left would be an auditory and visual hallucination. The flames, blood-red torches, having done their dance, were dying on the walls; the paper had burned up: the little flame of the candle was dying; everything was a deathly green colour …

With a gesture of his hand he invited the visitor to sit down on the blanket-covered trestle at the little table; he himself stood in the doorway, so that if necessary he would be able to get out to the staircase and lock the visitor in, while he went racing off down all ninety-six steps as fast as his legs would carry him.

The visitor, leaning on the windowsill, lit a cigarette and jabbered; his black contour was delineated against the shining green spaces beyond the window (there the moon was racing through the clouds) …

‘I see that I have come to visit you at the wrong time … that I am evidently troubling you …’

‘It’s all right, very glad to see you,’ Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin said, trying unconvincingly to reassure his guest, but himself in need of reassurance, and warily feeling with a hand behind his back to see if the door was locked or unlocked.

‘But … I have so much wanted to see you, have looked for you everywhere, and when we did not manage to meet at Zoya Zakharovna Fleisch’s, I asked her to give me your address; and from her, from Zoya Zakharovna, I came straight to you: to wait for you … All the more, since I am leaving tomorrow at first light.’

‘Leaving?’ Aleksandr Ivanovich asked, echo-like, because it seemed to him: the visitor’s words had divided into two inside him: and while his outer ear had heard ‘I am leaving at first light’, some other kind of ear had distinctly heard:

‘I am leaving in the daytime, but will come back at twilight …’

But he did not persist, continuing to hear the words beating at his ears, resounding, but not responding.

‘Yes, I am leaving for Finland, for Sweden … That is where I live; though actually, my home is in Shemakha; but I live in Finland: I confess that the climate of Petersburg is harmful to me, too …’

This ‘to me, too’ echoed, divided in his consciousness. The Petersburg climate was harmful to everyone; the visitor could have easily managed without emphasizing ‘to me, too’.

‘Yes,’ Aleksandr Ivanovich replied mechanically, ‘Petersburg stands on a swamp …’

At this the black contour on a background of green spaces beyond the window (there the moon was racing through the clouds) darted away, and – went off to write complete balderdash.

‘Yes, yes, yes … For the Russian Empire Petersburg is a most characteristic little dot … Take the geographical map … But concerning the fact that our capital city, abundantly adorned with monuments, also belongs to the land of the world beyond the grave …’

‘Oh, oh, oh!’ thought Aleksandr Ivanovich: ‘I must keep my ears pricked up, so that I’ll be able to run away in time …’

But he retorted:

‘You say our capital city … But it isn’t yours: your capital city is not Petersburg but Teheran … For you, an Oriental, the climatic conditions of our capital …’

‘I’m a cosmopolitan: why, I have been in both Paris and London … Yes – what was I saying: that our capital city,’ the black contour went on, ‘belongs to the land of the world beyond the grave – it is not done to speak of this for some reason when compiling geographical maps, guidebooks and directories; the venerable Mr Baedeker keeps eloquently silent about it; the modest provincial who is not informed of this in time gets into a fix at the Nikolayevsky or even the Varshavsky Station; he reckons in terms of Petersburg’s visible administration: he has no shadow passport.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, quite simply: when I set off for the land of the Papuans, I know that in the land of the Papuans a Papuan awaits me: Karl Baedeker warns me in advance about this sad phenomenon of nature; but how would it be if on the way to Kirsanov I were to encounter the camp of a swarthy Papuan horde, something that will, as a matter of fact, soon happen in France, for France is arming the black hordes on the quiet and will introduce them into Europe – you will see: actually, that ought to serve your purpose – your theory of the brutalization and overthrow of culture: do you remember? … In the Helsingfors coffee house I listened to you with sympathy.’

Aleksandr Ivanovich was growing more and more out of sorts: he was shaken by fever; it was especially loathsome to hear a reference to a theory he had abandoned; after his dreadful Helsingfors dream, he had manifestly realized the connection between that theory and Satanism; he had rejected all that, as an illness; and now, when he was ill again, the black contour was returning it all to him with interest, in a revolting fashion.

There, in the moonlit little cupboard of a room, against the background of the window, the black contour was becoming ever thinner, more aerial, lighter; he looked like a sheet of dark, black paper, motionlessly stuck in the window frame; his resonant voice, outside him, resounded of itself in the midst of the square room: but most surprising of all was the fact that the very centre of the voice was moving in a most noticeable fashion – from the window – in Aleksandr Ivanovich’s direction; it was an independent, invisible centre, from which earsplitting sounds grew louder and louder:

‘And so, what was I saying? Yes … about the Papuan: the Papuan is, so to speak, an earthborn creature; the biology of the Papuan, though it is even somewhat primitive – is not alien to you, Aleksandr Ivanovich. In the end you will come to terms with the Papuan; well, even if it’s with the help of the spirituous liquor to which you have been rendering tribute all these recent days and which has created a most favourable atmosphere for our meeting; and moreover: in Papua, too, there exist some sort of institutes of legal foundation which have, perhaps, been approved by the Papuan parliament …’

It passed through Aleksandr Ivanovich’s mind that the visitor’s behaviour was not proper at all, because the sound of the visitor’s voice was separated from the visitor in a most indecent manner; and indeed the visitor himself, who had frozen motionless on the windowsill – or did his eyes deceive him? – had plainly become a layer of soot on the moonlit pane, while his voice, becoming ever more resonant and acquiring the timbre of a gramophone screeching, resounded right above Aleksandr Ivanovich’s ear.

‘A shadow is not even a Papuan; the biology of shadows has not yet been studied; and so I tell you this – never come to terms with a shadow: you will not understand its demands; in Petersburg it will enter into you through the bacilli of all kinds of diseases that are swallowed in the very water that comes through the taps …’

‘And in vodka,’ Aleksandr Ivanovich interjected, and found himself thinking: ‘Why did I say that? Or have I bitten on fever? Have I been answering myself, echoing myself?’ He at once decided to dissociate himself once and for all from this balderdash; if he did not at once decompose this balderdash with his mind, then his mind would itself decompose in the balderdash.

‘No, sir: in vodka you will only introduce me into your mind … Not in vodka but in water do you swallow the bacilli, and I am not a bacillus; and – look here: since you do not have a proper passport, you are subject to all kinds of consequences: why, ever since the very first days of your sojourn in Petersburg your stomach has not been digesting properly; you have been threatened by cholerine … thereupon follow incidents from which neither petitions nor complaints to the Petersburg police will deliver you; your stomach does not digest properly? … But – what about Dr Inozemtsev’s drops?15 You are dispirited by depression, hallucinations, gloominess – all consequences of cholerine – then go to the Farce Theatre … Give yourself a bit of entertainment … Now tell me, Aleksandr Ivanovich, for friendship’s sake – you do suffer from hallucinations, don’t you?’

‘Why, he is simply mocking me,’ thought Aleksandr Ivanovich.

‘You suffer from hallucinations – it is not the constable but the psychiatrist who will tell me about them … In a word, your complaints, addressed to the visible world, will remain without result, like all complaints: after all, one must admit that we do not live in a visible world … The tragedy of our situation is that we are, like it or not, in an invisible world; in a word, complaints to the visible world will remain without result; and therefore it remains to you to make a respectful petition to the world of shadows.’

‘But is there such a thing?’ Aleksandr Ivanovich shrieked with defiance, preparing to leap out of the cupboard of a room and lock the visitor in, a visitor who was becoming ever more subtle: into this room came a thickset young man who possessed three dimensions; as he leaned against the window he became simply a contour (and, in addition: two-dimensional); moreover: he became a thin layer of black soot, like the one that falls out of a lamp if the lamp is badly trimmed; and now this black window soot, forming a human contour, grey all over, was smouldering to ash that gleamed in the moonlight; and already the ash had smouldered away: the contour was entirely covered in green blotches – openings into the spaces of the moon; in a word: there was no contour. The fact of it was plain – here the decomposition of matter itself was taking place; that matter had turned, all of it, without residue, into a substance of sound that jabbered deafeningly – only where? To Aleksandr Ivanovich it seemed that it was jabbering inside himself.

‘You, Mr Shishnarfne,’ said Aleksandr Ivanovich, addressing space (for after all, Shishnarfne was no longer there), ‘are perhaps an issuer of passports for the world beyond?’

‘Original,’ jabbered Aleksandr Ivanovich, replying to himself – or more correctly, something jabbered out of Aleksandr Ivanovich … ‘Petersburg possesses not three dimensions, but four; the fourth is subject to obscurity and is not marked on maps at all, except as a dot, for a dot is the place where the plane of this existence touches against the spherical surface of the immense astral cosmos; so any dot of Petersburg space is capable in the twinkling of an eye of throwing up an inhabitant of that dimension, from which a wall is no salvation; so you see, a moment ago I was there – in the dots that are on the windowsill, and now I have appeared …’

‘Where?’ Aleksandr Ivanovich wanted to exclaim, but could not, because his throat exclaimed:

‘I have appeared … out of a dot in your larynx …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich looked around him in bewilderment as his throat, automatically, ceasing to obey him, hurled out deafeningly:

‘One needs a passport here … As a matter of fact, you are registered with us there: all you have to do now is to complete a final passport application; this passport is made out inside you; you will sign it inside yourself by means of some extravagant little action, for example … Oh yes, the little action will come to you: you will perform it yourself; that kind of signing is acknowledged among us as the best kind …’

Had my panic-stricken hero been able to take a look at himself from the side at that moment, he would have been horrified: in the greenish, moonlit little cupboard of a room he would have seen himself clutching at his stomach and bawling with effort into the absolute emptiness in front of him; his head was thrown right back, and the enormous opening of his yelling mouth would have seemed to him a black abyss of non-existence; but Aleksandr Ivanovich could not jump out of himself: and he did not see himself; the voice that was thunderously booming out of him seemed to him like an alien automaton.

‘But when was I registered with you there?’ lurched through his brain (the balderdash had vanquished his mind).

‘Oh, then: after the act,’ his mouth deafeningly ripped itself apart; and, having ripped itself apart, closed.

At this point before Aleksandr Ivanovich a veil was suddenly rent: he remembered everything clearly … That dream in Helsingfors, when they had whirled him through some kind of … yes … spaces that were connected with our spaces in their mathematical point of contact, so that while remaining fixed to space he had none the less truly been able to sail off into spaces – well, and so: when they had whirled him through different spaces …

He had done it.

By doing it he had united himself with them, and Lippanchenko was merely an image that alluded to this; he had done it; and with it strength had entered him; racing from organ to organ and seeking the soul in the body, this strength was gradually taking hold of him entirely (he had become a drunkard, sensual passion had begun to play naughty tricks, et cetera).

And while it was happening to him, he had thought that they were looking for him; but they were inside him.

And while he thought this, out of him came roarings that were like the roarings of motor-car horns:

‘Our spaces are not like yours; there everything flows backwards … And there Ivanov is some kind of Japanese, for that name, read backwards, is Japanese: Vonavi.’

‘So your name, too, has to be read back to front,’ lurched through his brain.

And he grasped it: ‘Shishnarfne, Shishnar-fne …’ That was a familiar word, which he had uttered as he had performed the act; only that drowsily familiar word had to be turned back to front.

And in a fit of involuntary terror, he made an effort to shriek out:


And from the depths of himself, starting near his heart, but really through the apparatus of his larynx came the reply:

‘You summoned me … Well – here I am …’

Now Enfranshish16 itself had come for his soul.

With a monkey-like hop Aleksandr Ivanovich leapt out of his own room: the key turned in the lock; he was stupid – he ought to have jumped out of his body, not his room; perhaps the room was his body, and he was merely a shadow? That must be the case, because from the other side of the locked door menacingly boomed the voice that had just boomed out of his own throat:

‘Yes, yes, yes … It is I … I annihilate irrevocably …’

Suddenly the moon lit up the steps of the staircase: in the most total darkness emerged, barely perceptible, grey, whitish, pale and then also phosphorescently burning blotches.