Petersburg A Swan Song

Turning the whole of his body away from the sighing Zoya Zakharovna, Lippanchenko stretched out his hand – well, just imagine! – to a violin that hung on the wall there:

‘A man has all kinds of unpleasantnesses to deal with on the side … He comes home, to rest, and then – see what he gets …’

He fetched the rosin: with what was quite simply a kind of ferocity, that exceeded all bounds, – he threw himself on the piece of rosin; with pleasure he took the piece of rosin between his fingers; with the guilty little grimace that was in no way appropriate either to his position in the Party, or to the conversation that had just taken place, he proceeded to rub his bow on the rosin; then he took the violin:

‘One could say – he is met with tears …’

He pressed the violin against his stomach and bent over it, resting its broad end against his knees; the narrow end he pushed under his chin; with one hand, enjoying it, he began to tighten the strings, while with his other hand – he extracted a sound:


As he did this, his head bent and inclined to the side; with a questioning look that was not quite buffoonish and not quite sorrowful (childish, when all was said and done), he looked at Zoya Zakharovna and smacked his lips; it was as if he were asking:

‘You hear?’

She sat down on a chair: with a questioning, half-tender, half-desperate expression she looked at Lippanchenko and Lippanchenko’s finger; the finger tried the strings; and the strings – tinkled.

‘That’s better!’

And he smiled; she smiled; both nodded to each other; he – with rediscovered youthful ardour; she – with a hint of shyness that betrayed both a vague pride and her former adoration of him (of Lippanchenko?), – she exclaimed:

‘Oh, what a …’

‘Tinkle-tinkle …’

‘Incorrigible baby you are!’

And at these words, in spite of the fact that Lippanchenko looked every bit like a rhinoceros, with a movement of his left wrist that was both swift and dexterous, Lippanchenko turned his violin around; its broad end moved with the speed of lightning into the angle between his enormous shoulder and his head that had inclined towards it; the narrow end remained in his fleeting fingers:

‘Here you are, then!’

The hand with the bow flew up; and – weighed itself in the air: paused, and then touched a string with a most tender movement of the bow; the string moved across the strings; following the bow went – the whole arm; the arm was followed by the head; the head – by the fat body: they all went to one side.

The little finger bent with a flourish: it did not touch the bow.

The armchair creaked under Lippanchenko, who seemed to be straining in a single, intense, unmasterable, stubborn effort: to emit a tender sound; his rather hoarse and yet pleasant bass voice suddenly filled this room, drowning out both the snoring of the St Bernard and the rustling of a cockroach.

‘Do not te-e-e-mpt me,’ sang Lippanchenko.10

‘Meee – without neee-eee …’ the tender, quietly sighing strings chimed in.

‘–eed,’ – sang the sideways-bent Lippanchenko, who seemed to be straining a single, intense, unmasterable, stubborn effort: to emit a tender sound.

In the years of their youth they had spent a long time singing this old romance, which is not sung today.


‘Did you hear?’

‘The window?’

‘One ought to go: and take a look.’

Dim shapes fleeted melancholically there in smoky green puffballs; the moon rose from behind a cloud; and everything that had stood there like dim shapes – distintegrated, fell apart; and the skeletons of the bushes showed black in empty space; and their shadows fell to the earth in shaggy tufts; the phosphorescent air revealed itself in the gaps between the boughs; all the airy blotches formed together – there it was, there it was: a body, burning with phosphorus; imperiously it stretched its arm towards the window; the little figure jumped towards the window; the window was not latched, and as it opened, it tinkled slightly; and the little figure leapt aside.

In the windows shadows moved; someone passed with a candle – in the curtained windows; this – unlatched – window was also illumined; the curtain was pulled aside; a fat figure stood for a moment and looked out there – at the phosphorescent world; it seemed that a chin was looking out, because – a chin was protruding; the little eyes were not visible; in place of the little eyes two eye sockets showed darkly; two hairless eyebrows gleamed unnaturally beneath the moon. The curtain moved; someone enormous and fat went back behind the curtained windows; soon all was quiet. The tinkling of the violin and the voice again issued from the little dacha.

The bush seethed. The large-headed, browless lump moved out into the moonlight in a single intense stubborn effort: to understand – come what may, at whatever cost; to understand, or – explode into pieces; from the small hollow tree trunk emerged this old, browless excrescence, overgrown with moss and scale; it stretched forth into the wind; it begged for mercy – come what may, at whatever cost. From the small hollow tree trunk the little figure detached itself a second time; and stole up to the window; retreat was cut off; one thing remained to it: to complete what had been begun. Now it hid itself … in Lippanchenko’s bedroom it waited impatiently for Lippanchenko to come – to his bedroom.

Scoundrels, too, have a need to sing their swan song, after all.

‘To the dis-en … -cha-a-anted … are a-a-lien … all the cha-a-rms of former … da-a-ays … In assu-u-u-rances I trust no lo-o-onger …

‘I no mo-o-re … believe in lo-ove …’

Did he know what he was singing? And – what he was playing? Why he was sad? Why his throat was constricted – to the point of pain? … Because of the sounds? Lippanchenko did not understand this, as he did not understand the tender sounds he was drawing forth … No, the frontal bone could not understand: the forehead was small, covered in transverse wrinkles: it seemed to be weeping.

Thus one October night did Lippanchenko sing his swan song.