Tuesday, May 08, 2012




Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945) and her husband Dmitriy Merezhkovsky (1865-1941) was a happy childless couple of Russian writers from St. Petersburg, who lived in Berlin. Nabokov at his young age used to visit their salon. Before looking at Leon Bakst’s famous portrait, in which the middle-aged Zinaida Gippius is wearing a costume a la Oscar Wilde (1906), I deemed my manner of lounging on the chair is unique. She was red-haired, myopic, slim. Half myrrh-bearer, half garconne. In her poems she used masculine gender and pronoun ‘he’ speaking of herself. Her poems left me cool, because like her husband she was a religion and mystique oriented writer--between 1894 and 1905 Merezhkovsky wrote a trilogy of historical novels entitled The Death of the Gods (1894, on Julian the Apostate), Leonardo da Vinci (1896), and Peter and Alexis (1902) about Peter the Great and Tsarevich Alexis. I read a part of Gippius’s St. Petersburg Diaries, which I regard as great historical nonfiction; her thoughts and theories concerning the current politics and everyday life of the beleaguered Petrograd are so close to my own thoughts on the theme that it seemed to me sometimes that I read my own words when reading the Diaries. I hardly have anything in common with her as a person unless her firm politics and her manner of lounging on the chair. After I reread her Parisian gay themed essay “Disharmonie harmonieuse”, I tried to find its English text on the Net, but in vain. There are not her works in English on the Net, which is a pity. Then I decided to translate the essay. The small essay is a bagatelle, if you like, but in my view, it is most interesting and worth rereading and remembering as an old document like a photo. The reader may take this translation as purely informative text. I don’t share the author’s irony concerning harmony of the world, and I believe in harmony of the disharmonious. 
Now imagine: the 1920s, Paris by night…


The small brightly lit café is white, cozy, douillette, with windows and doors covered with reddish-rosy velvet. The café patron is a chic swarthy man wearing a dinner-jacket, white shirt and patent-leather shoes with white uppers. He wants nothing to be visible or heard outside, and every now and then, with his well groomed hand, graced with glittering rings, he straightens the close velvet of the windows.
It’s one at night. Theatre shows are over, and the elegant smelly automobiles and cabs drive up to Bar Auguste in the dubious small lane in Montmartre. The door opens every minute. Gentlemen wearing tailcoats; ladies wearing evening dresses. Two mirrored walls vis-à-vis multiple reflections of everything and everybody between them.
Sounds of matchiche are heard from the corner where the musicians’ jackets show red. Snaking, the middle-aged, clean-shaven Hautero dances with Babette. Babette turns his head to look at himself in a mirror, every now and then. He loves himself. He is concerned in his accurate kinky hair: the perfect hairstyle should not be disordered. A strange hair, it looks like a wig of false astrakhan or like our soldiers’ hats. Hautero (he is… dressmaker) is draped with a Spanish large serape. The café is crowded, and the serape’s long fringe gets caught on the guests’ buttons.  Hautero has a black trilby on his head.  A red rose is in his teeth. Clicking ivory castanets, Hautero looks fascinated by dancing. He enjoys the attention of the chic guests, who are numerous tonight in the brightly lit room; besides, he loves Babette and clings to the young man, snaking languorously.
Loud applause. The patron applauds looking askance at the door. “Bravo, Hautero!” the guests shout, and two ladies invite him at their table and ask to have a glass of champagne. One of the ladies has canotier and a coat on, a starched collar props her sharp chin; she has a cigarette in one hand, her other hand embraces her neighbor, a nice-looking pale girl, brightly lipsticked. The girl has rich flaxen-coloured hair; on her fingers she has such a great amount of rings that she seems to be metal gloved. The bebe style white frock.  
“Lily!” Hautero compels her, “Sing for us!”
Mincing Lily goes to the middle of the room. Her friend never takes eyes off her.
But there is a small misunderstanding. Adolph, a lovely youth with dark languid eyes is tired of sitting at table with a German. The German treats Adolph to beer; the man hardly can speak French; actually, he looks rude, boring, uninteresting. Now, a Pole wearing a tailcoat and top-hat throws a rose across the table to Adolph. The youth puts the rose in the buttonhole, comes to the Pole and kisses the man on lips. The German takes offence and becomes insolent to the Pole. Who knows what would come of it but for the sophisticated patron. Confused not in the least, he knows whose side he should take with: the Pole spends hundreds francs for champagne every night in the cafe. The patron speaks energetically about something to the German. The angry man turns red and goes to the exit; everyone laughs and whistles after. Adolph laughs especially loud, however he is looking at the Pole no longer--now he looks occasionally at three clean-shaven Americans with thick cigars in teeth, who watch dully and imperturbably what’s going on. Lily has nearly taken alarm but she calms down and begins to sing in a thin voice a sweet song, throwing her eye up at her friend. Amidst the men, the singer is not a success, but the chic ladies of demi-monde bend and begin to explain something to their tired elderly boyfriends, and then they applaud softly with their hands wearing long white gloves.
Babette announces he wants to sing too. But it’s the same old story: being engaged in himself too much he demands everyone to keep silence while he sings. As if on purpose, talks arise amidst the listeners as soon as he begins to sing. He grows angry and becomes silent. To take offence affectedly, to make a little moue of plaint is profession of the kinky lamb Babette. One of the guests, a young artist crosses out his funny well-meant caricature.
Like Lily, Babette loves sweet sentimental songs. Pressing his hands on his bosom, he sings of unshared love, of men’s heartlessness. But Lucien is quite another matter; the young man dislikes the sloppy endearments. His baritone is not bad at all. Opening his eyes wide, looking seriously, he shoots out the free-spoken things that in virtue of their specific character hardly can be comprehensible, at times. Most spicy bits he underlines with gestures. His listeners enjoy.
The Pole laughs especially loud. He has forgotten of Adolph and invites the mettlesome Lucien at table. However, there are two Luciens. The second one is a modest, non-singing boy about eighteen or may be younger. The young Russian artist, the enigmatic habitué (“enigmatic” because nobody, including Hautero, knows his name here, though everyone here has got used to him and loves him) calls the second Lucien to sit at our table. Hautero, who is tired of dancing, sits at our table too.
The artist presents little bouquets of violets to Hautero and Lucien. Lucien is so stupid that he doesn’t know what he should do with his bouquet. Lucien is stupid to utter perfection--not only to innocence, but even worse, to ultimate virtue.  He hardly can speak. He just smiles with his fresh childish lips. His eyes are either an infant’s or a deer’s, very beautiful. Being slightly confused, an elderly Russian writer admires the eyes; yet the man doesn’t look for a wit, being content with his own, as for adolescence, Lucien has it to your heart’s content. Really, what for a wit, if there are freshness, beauty and virtue? “Gha-a…” Lucien smiles. “J’aime tout le monde…”
And Hautero is not stupid at all. He doesn’t mind philosophizing, pretending to be une cocotte chic, as usual--as usual, repeating female feline grimaces. His face is whitened like a mask. The nostrils of his flattish nose swell; he puts the violets and round green leaves in his ears. He has tousled the little bouquet to parts.
“Life is good, isn’t it, bon camarade?” I ask.
He makes a small bow on one side, “Good, because there is always hope.”
“Hope of what?”
“I don’t know. Is that of importance? O, speranza, speranza!”
“You lie”, I think, “You know the old age is coming; you know that at your art of ‘dressmaker’ you need adolescence as nobody else; even une cocotte chic, even she keeps her fortune longer than you…”
Some movement. A new face. A boy, well-dressed, uncommonly beautiful, perhaps a Spaniard. His eye is confused, alarmed and somewhat badgered. He looks round. Hautero jumps up pushing Lucien neglectfully. The Spaniard is encircled. Another moment he is jammed. What next happens to him?--presently--I don’t know. 
The musicians have nearly begun to play a gipsy romance, but they are interrupted with everyone’s demand of “matchiche”. Snaking, someone goes to dance again… Lifted arms sway in the dove-coloured air…
Well, what comes next? We seem to do all tonight--both singing and dancing--and all is good, in friendly way… But there is a new guest: a little old woman in black with a little reticule in hands. She looks like a usual parishioner of a church. A woman like she stands at a chapel and moves her lips telling her beads. But there is not a chapel here, and the old woman has a pack of cards in hands instead of beads. She is a fortune-teller.
The well-dressed ladies are glad. At their table, the fortune-teller shuffles the worn, greasy cards. The elderly tailcoat-clad boyfriends put monocles in eyes and pretend to be interested in the fortune telling. The ladies laugh loudly.
But some of the guests are off. The Pole went away along with the little Adolph, because he finally preferred Adolph to Lucien; Lucien followed them with envious eye. Hautero rushes about tables, arranging things: “About twenty!.. Take my word for it!.. He overcharges!” The patron glances at his watch. Chasseur calls automobiles, cabs. The musicians make their round with a plate in hand; the waiters give the fantastic bills.
“C’est curieux, c’est tres curieux,” say the elderly tailcoat-clad boyfriends, who have become thin and hollow-cheeked, at once, and throw the unbelievable fur-mantles on their ladies’ shoulders.
The boulevards are silent. The high Windmill is lit with red and blue irritating lights no longer. The Windmill is waiting for the next night, waiting for the warm wind of the human… no, Parisian lust. The roundabouts turn no longer. The rosy boars, which the happy screaming people rode the night long, now are covered keeping silence.
The gaunt, sallow-faced conductor takes tickets of the not numerous passengers of the last metro. The horse drawn carts full of vegetables move slowly along the desert streets. There, the soft-green cart full of cresses; and over there, the orange one, full of carrots. A Parisian doesn’t look at the carts. It’s for tomorrow. And tonight, it’s time to go to bed. All in good time; and days must be harmonious--a sleep after a spree. The harmony of the world is a great thing!
That’s true. So what? Nothing special. I don’t draw a conclusion. I just take a photograph.

The End

Translator: Larisa Biyuts

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