Monday, October 18, 2010

Petersburg: A laughable figure

Nikolai, upon crashing a ball wearing a cape and domino but freezing on the dancefloor, begins to realize he has turned a bad situation into something worse…
It was still him, of course: Nikolai Apollonovich. He had come today to say—to say what?

He had forgotten his own self; forgotten his thoughts; and forgotten his hopes; he was intoxicated by his own predestined role: the godlike, passionless creature had flown away; naked passion remained, and passion turned to poison. A feverish poison penetrated his brain, poured unseen from his eyes in a cloud of flame, entwining him in clinging blood-red velvet: as though he now looked at everything with a charred face out of flames that seared his body, and that charred countenance turned into a black mask, and the flames that seared his body—into red silk. He had now truly become a clown, an ugly red clown (as she had once called him). Now this clown was pouring scorn—perfidiously, vengefully, incisively—on someone’s truth—his own, or hers?—and once again the question: was it love, or hate?

It was as though all these recent days he had been casting spells on her, stretching his cold arms from the windows of the yellow house, stretching his cold arms from the granite into the mist of the Neva. He wanted to embrace in love the mental image he had evoked, he wanted to smother in vengeance the faintly wafting silhouette; it was for this that all these days cold arms had stretched from one space to another, and that was why all these days from such a space unearthly confessions had been whispered in her ears, sibilant invocations and hoarse passions; and that was why inchoate whistles had echoed in her ears, and the crimson of the leaves had chased between her feet a rustling web or words.

And that was why he had now come to that house: but she, unfaithful, was not there; in the corner he fell to thinking. He saw the venerable and astonished zemstvo member as though in a haze; somewhere far off, in the labyrinth of mirrors, it seemed, the figures of the laughing girls floated past as fitful blurs; and when, emerging from this labyrinth, from the cold greenish surface, the distant echoes of questions and the paper ribbon of the serpentin had struck him, his surprise was like surprise in a dream: he was surprised to see how a reflection, with no existence of its own, emerged before him into the bright world, but just as he regarded them as unstable, fleeting dream reflections, so these reflections themselves evidently took him for an emanation from the other world; and as an emanation from the other world, he drove them all away.

(pages 212-213, Petersburg by Andrei Bely, Pushkin Press, 2009, translation by John Elsworth)

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