Alexander Kuprin.

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"Oh how incomprehensible for us, how mysterious, how strange are the
very 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 every
time I think of the immensity and complexity, the incomprehensible and
elemental accidentoriness of the whole hurly-burly of life, then my own
little life seems but a miserable speck of dust lost in the whirl of a

So in a paragraph in one of his sketches Alexander Kuprin gives his
feelings about his life and his work, and in that expression perhaps we
see 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, the
author of fourteen volumes of effusive, touching and humorous stories.
He is read by the great mass of the Russian reading public, and his
works can be bought at any railway bookstall in the Empire. He is
devoured by the students, loved by the bourgeois, and admired even by
intellectual and fastidious Russians. It is impossible not to admire
this natural torrent of Russian thoughts and words and sentiments. His
lively pages are a reflection of Russia herself, and without having
been once in the country it would be possible to get a fair notion of
its surface life by reading these tales in translation. Perhaps the
greatest of living Russian novelists is Kuprin - exalted, hysterical,
sentimental, Rabelaisian Kuprin. He comes to you with a handful of
wild flowers in one red, hairy hand and a shovelful of rubbish in the
other - his shiny, lachrymose but unfathomable features pouring floods
of tears or rolling and bursting in guffaws of laughter. His is a rank
verbiage - he gives birth to words, ideas, examples in tens where other
writers go by units and threes.

He is occasionally coarse, occasionally sentimental, but he gives great
delight to his readers; his are rough-hewn lumps of conversation and
life. With him everything is taken from life. He seems to be a master
of detail, and the characteristic of his style is a tendency to give
the most diverting lists. Often paragraph after paragraph, if you
look into the style, would be found to be lists of delicious details
reported 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; the
inevitable village idiot, Serozha, walking almost naked in the snow;
the priest, who won't play cards the day before a festival but writes
denunciations 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 to
what point of boredom and stupefaction we attained. We had already
got tired of bear-hunting, hare-hunting with hounds, pistol-shooting
at a target through three rooms, writing humorous verses. It must be
confessed we quarrelled."

He is also the inventor of amusing sentences which can almost be used
as proverbs: -

He knew which end of the asparagus to eat.


We looked at our neighbours through a microscope; they at us through a

Every one of Kuprin's stories has the necessary Attic salt. He is like
our English Kipling, whom he greatly admires, and about whom he has
written in one of his books an appreciative essay. He is also something
like the American O. Henry, especially in the matter of his lists of
details and his apt metaphors, but he has not the artifice nor the
everlasting American smile. Kuprin, moreover, takes his matter from
life and writes with great ease and carelessness; O. Henry put together
from life and re-wrote twelve times.

Above all things Kuprin is a sentimental author, preferring an impulse
to a reason, and abandoning logic whenever his feelings are touched.
He likes to feel the reader with the tears in his eyes and then to
go forward with him in the unity of emotional friendship. There is,
however, under this excitement a rather self-centred cynic despising
the things he does not love, a satirical genius. His humour is nearly
always at the expense of some person, institution or class of society.
Thus "The Song and the Dance" is at the expense of the peasantry, "The
Last Word" at the expense of the lower _intelligentia,_ "The White
Poodle" at the expense of those rich bourgeois who have villas on the
Crimean shores, "Anathema" at the expense of the Church, "Mechanical
Justice" at the expense of the professor, and so on. And it is part of
Kuprin's sentiment to love dogs almost as much as men, and he tells no
tales at dogs' expense. "The White Poodle" and "Dogs' Happiness" are
two 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 designed
by him for reading aloud to children. They are in very simple and
colloquial and humorous Russian, and are delightful to read aloud.

Kuprin, who is a living Russian tale-writer, though considerably less
productive than in his earlier years, spent a great deal of time in
the Crimea, which is evidently favourite country to him. Chekhof also
lived in the Crimea and tended lovingly his rose garden at Yalta.
His neighbour, Kuprin, wrote one of the most charming reminiscent
essays on Chekhof and his life in "To the Glory of the Living and the
Dead," which also contains the Kipling essay. Many of Kuprin's stories
relate to the Crimea, and the longest of these given in this selection
contains a description of Crimean life, and gives (pp. 154 - 157) a
wonderful impression of a Crimean summer night. Kuprin has also lived
in England and has written tales of London life, and has occasional
references to English characteristics. But I have avoided carrying
coals to Newcastle.

As compared with Sologub, whose volume of beautiful tales, "The
Sweet-scented Name," has found so many friends in England, Kuprin
may be said to be nearer to the earth, less in the clouds. He is a
satirical realist, whereas Sologub is a fantastic realist. Sologub
discloses the devils and the angels in men and women, but Kuprin is
cheerfully human. Both have a certain satirical genius, but Kuprin is
read by everyone, whereas it would be hardly one in ten that could
follow Sologub. In comparison with Chekhof I should say Kuprin was
a little more inventive, and as regards a picture of life Kuprin is
nearer to the present moment. Nearly all these Russian tale-writers
excel in describing the life of townspeople. Very little study of the
peasantry 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 the
subject are "Cadets," "Staff-Captain Ribnikof"[1] and "The Duel."[1]
He extended his popularity with somewhat lurid and oleographic
descriptions of the night haunt and night life, and wrote the notorious
novel, lately completed, entitled "_Yama_" - "The Pit." He has written
a great deal about the relationship of men and women. His weakness
is the subject of women. Whenever they come into question he becomes
self-conscious and awkward, putting his subject in the wrong light,
protesting too much, and finally writing that which is not fitting just
because "all is permitted" and "why shouldn't we?" His poorest work is
his coarse work. Nothing ugly is worth reproducing, however curious the
ugliness may be. We do not want the ugly, and are interested more in
brightest Russia than in darkest Russia. My purpose is to give what
is beautiful, or in any case what is interesting but not ugly, in the
living Russian literature of to-day. Consequently I have made, together
with my wife, a choice of Kuprin. We have read all his stories through
and taken fifteen of those which make him a great writer, just those
which should enrich us. Here is Kuprin's humour, sentiment, pathos,
and delightful and entertaining verbosity. Of this work all but three
tales were translated by my wife, and these three by myself. I have
communicated the contents to Kuprin, who sanctions the publication.



[1] Now obtainable in English translation.




The farther I go back in my memory of the past, and the nearer I get to
remembering incidents connected with my childhood, the more confused
and doubtful do my recollections become. Much, no doubt, was told me
afterwards, in a more conscious stage of my existence, by those who,
with loving care, noticed my early doings. Perhaps many of the things
that I recall never happened to me; I heard or read them some time
or other and their remembrance grew to be part of myself. Who can
guarantee which of these recollections are of real facts and which of
tales told so long ago that they have all the appearance of truth - who
can know where one ends and the other begins?

My imagination recalls with special vividness the eccentric figure
of Yasha and the two companions - might almost call them friends - who
accompanied him along the path of life: Matsko, an old rejected cavalry
horse, and the yard-dog Bouton.

Yasha was distinguished by the deliberate slowness of his speech
and actions, and he always had the air of a man whose thoughts were
concentrated on himself. He spoke very seldom and considered his
speech; he tried to speak good Russian, though at times when he was
moved he would burst out in his native dialect of Little-Russian. Owing
to his dress of a dark colour and sober cut, and to the solemn and
almost melancholy expression of his shaven face and thin pursed lips,
he always gave the impression that he was an old servant of a noble
family of the good old times.

Of all the human beings that he knew, Yasha seemed to find my father
the only one besides himself worthy of his veneration. And though to
us children, to my mother, and to all our family and friends, his
manner was respectful, it was mingled with a certain pity and slighting
condescension. It was always an enigma to me - whence came this
immeasurable pride of his. Servants have often a well-known form of
insolence; they take upon themselves some of that attractive authority
which they have noticed in their masters. But my father, a poor doctor
in a little Jewish village, lived so modestly and quietly that Yasha
could never have learnt from him to look down upon his neighbours.
And in Yasha himself there was none of the ordinary insolence of a
servant - he had no metropolitan polish and could not overawe people
by using foreign words, he had no overbearing manners towards country
chambermaids, no gentle art of tinkling out touching romances on the
guitar, an art by which so many inexperienced souls have been ruined.
He occupied his leisure hours in lying in sheer idleness full-length
on the box in which he kept his belongings. He not only did not read
books, but he sincerely despised them. All things written, except in
the Bible, were, in his opinion, written not for truth's sake but
just to get money, and he therefore preferred to any book those long
rambling thoughts which he turned over in his mind as he lay idly on
his bed.

Matsko, the horse, had been rejected from military service on account
of 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 the
body were adorned with bladder-like growths; he strutted on his hind
legs like a cock. He held his head like a camel, and from old military
habit tossed it upward and thrust his long neck forward. This, combined
with his enormous size and unusual leanness, and the fact that he had
only one eye, gave him a pitiful war-like and serio-comic expression.
Such horses are called in the regiments "star-gazers."

Yasha prized Matsko much more than Bouton, who sometimes displayed a
frivolity entirely out of keeping with his size. He was one of those
shaggy, long-haired dogs who at times remind one of ferrets, but
being ten times as large, they sometimes look like poodles; they are
by nature the very breed for yard-dogs. At home Bouton was always
overwhelmingly serious and sensible in all his ways, but in the streets
his behaviour was positively disgraceful. If he went out with my father
he would never run modestly behind the carriage as a well-behaved dog
should do. He would rush to meet all other dogs, jump about them and
bark loudly in their very noses, only springing away to one side in
affright if one of them with a snort of alarm bent his head quickly and
tried to bite him. He ran into other people's yards and came tearing
out again after a second or so, chased by a dozen angry dogs of the
place. He wandered about on terms of deepest friendship with dogs of a
known bad reputation.

In our districts of Podolia and Volhynia nothing was thought so much of
as a person's way of setting out from his house. A squire might long
since have mortgaged and re-mortgaged his estate, and be only waiting
for the officers of the Crown to take possession of his property,
but let him only on a Sunday go out to "Holy Church," it must be in
a light tarantass drawn by four or six splendid fiery Polish horses,
and driving into the market square of the village he must cry to the
coachman - "Lay on with the whip, Joseph." Yet I am sure that none of
our rich neighbours started off in such pomp as Yasha was able to
impart to our equipage when my father made up his mind to journey
forth. Yasha would put on a shining hat with a shade in front and
behind, and a broad yellow belt. Then the carriage would be taken out
about a hundred yards from the house - an antique coach of the old
Polish days - and Matsko put in. Hardly would my father show himself at
the house-door than Yasha would give a magnificent crack with his whip,
Matsko would wave his tail some time in hesitation and then start at
a sober trot, flinging out and raising his hind legs, and strutting
like a cock. Coming level with the house-door Yasha would pretend that
only with great difficulty could he restrain the impatient horses,
stretching out both his arms and pulling back the reins with all his
might. All his attention would seem to be swallowed up by the horses,
and whatever might happen elsewhere round about him, Yasha would never
turn his head. Probably he did all this to sustain our family honour.

Yasha had an extraordinarily high opinion of my father. It would happen
upon occasion that some poor Jew or peasant would be waiting his turn
in the anteroom while my father was occupied with another patient.
Yasha would often enter into a conversation with him, with the simple
object of increasing my father's popularity as a doctor.

"What do you think?" he would ask, taking up a position of importance
on a stool and surveying the patient before him from head to foot.
"Perhaps you fancy that coming to my master is like asking medical
advice of the clerk at the village police-station. My master not only
stands higher than such a one, brother, but higher than the chief of
police himself. He knows about everything in the world, my brother.
Yes, he does. Now, what's the matter with you?"

"There's something wrong with my inside ..." the sick person would say,
"my chest burns...."

"Ah, you see - what causes that? What will cure you? You don't know, and
I don't. But my master will only throw a glance at you and he'll tell
you at once whether you'll live or die."

Yasha lived very economically, and he spent his money in buying various
things which he carefully stored away in his large tin-bound wooden
trunk. Nothing gave us children greater pleasure than for Yasha to
let us look on while he turned out these things. On the inside of the
lid of the trunk were pasted pictures of various kinds. There, side
by side with portraits of terrifying green-whiskered generals who had
fought for the fatherland, were pictures of martyrs, engravings from
the _Neva_,[1] studies of women's heads, and fairy-tale pictures of the
robber-swallow in an oak, opening wide his right eye to receive the
arrow of Ilya-Muromets. Yasha would bring out from the trunk a whole
collection of coats, waistcoats, top-coats, fur-caps, cups and saucers,
wire boxes ornamented with false pearls and with transfer pictures of
flowers, and little circular mirrors. Sometimes, from a side pocket of
the trunk, he would bring out an apple or a couple of buns strewn with
poppy-seed, which we always found especially appetising.

[1] A popular Russian magazine which presents its readers with many

Yasha was usually very precise and careful. Once he broke a large
decanter and my father scolded him for it. The next day Yasha appeared
with two new decanters. "I daresay I shall break another one," he
explained, "and anyhow we can find a use for the two somehow." He kept
all the rooms of the house in perfect cleanliness and order. He was
very jealous of all his rights and duties, and he was firmly convinced
that no one could clean the floors as well as he. At one time he had a
great quarrel with a new housemaid, Yevka, as to which of them could
clean out a room better. We were called in as expert judges, and in
order to tease Yasha a little we gave the palm to Yevka. But children
as we were, we didn't know the human soul, and we little suspected what
a cruel blow this was to Yasha. He went out of the room without saying
a word, and next day everybody in the village knew that Yasha was drunk.

Yasha used to get drunk about two or three times a year, and these
were times of great unhappiness for him and for all the family. There
was nobody then to chop wood, to feed the horses, to bring in water.
For five or six days we lost sight of Yasha and heard nothing of his
doings. On the seventh day he came back without hat or coat and in a
dreadful condition. A crowd of noisy Jews followed about thirty paces
behind him, and ragged urchins called names after him and made faces.
They all knew that Yasha was going to hold an auction.

Yasha came into the house, and then in a minute or so ran out again
into the street, carrying in his arms almost all the contents of his
trunk. The crowd came round him quickly.

"How's that? You won't give me any more vodka, won't you?" he shouted,
shaking out trousers and waistcoats and holding them up in his hands.
"What, I haven't any more money, eh? How much for this? and this, and

And one after another he flung his garments among the crowd, who
snatched at them with tens of rapacious fingers.

"How much'll you give?" Yasha shouted to one of the Jews who had
possessed himself of a coat - "how much'll you give, mare's head?"

"We - ll, I'll give you fifty copecks," drawled the Jew, his eyes

"Fifty copecks, fifty?" Yasha seemed to fall into a frenzy of despair.
"I don't want fifty copecks. Why not say twenty? Give me gold! What's
this? Towels? Give me ten copecks for the lot, eh? Oh that you had died
of fever! Oh that you had died when you were young!"

Our village has its policeman, but his duties consist mainly in
standing as godfather to the farmers' children, and on such an occasion
as this "the police" took no share in quelling the disorder, but acted
the part of a modest and silent looker-on. But my father, seeing the
plunder of Yasha's property, could no longer restrain his rage and
contempt. "He's got drunk again, the idiot, and now he'll lose all
his goods," said he, unselfishly hurling himself into the crowd. In
a second the people were gone and he found himself alone with Yasha,
holding in his hands some pitiful-looking razor-case or other. Yasha
staggered in astonishment, helplessly raising his eyebrows, and then he
suddenly fell heavily on his knees.

"Master! My own dear master! See what they've done to me!"

"Go off into the shed," ordered my father angrily, pulling himself away
from Yasha, who had seized the tail of his coat and was kissing it. "Go
into the shed and sleep off your drunkenness so that to-morrow even the
smell of you may be gone!"

Yasha went away humbly into the shed, and then began for him those
tormenting hours of getting sober, the deep and oppressive torture of
repentance. He lay on his stomach and rested his head on the palms
of his hands, staring fixedly at some point in front of him. He knew
perfectly well what was taking place in the house. He could picture to
himself how we were all begging my father to forgive him, and how my
father would impatiently wave his hands and refuse to listen. He knew
very well that probably this time my father would be implacable.

Every now and then we children would be impelled by curiosity to go and
listen at the door of the shed, and we would hear strange sounds as of
bellowing and sobbing.

In such times of affliction and degradation Bouton counted it his
moral duty to be in attendance upon the suffering Yasha. The sagacious
creature knew very well that ordinarily when Yasha was sober he would
never be allowed to show any sign of familiarity towards him. Whenever
he met the stern figure of Yasha in the yard Bouton would put on an
air of gazing attentively into the distance of being entirely occupied
in snapping at flies. We children used to fondle Bouton and feed him
occasionally, we used to pull the burrs out of his shaggy coat while
he stood in patient endurance, we even used to kiss him on his cold,
wet nose. And I always wondered that Bouton's sympathy and devotion
used to be given entirely to Yasha, from whom he seemed to get nothing
but kicks. Now, alas! when bitter experience has taught me to look all
round and on the under side of things, I begin to suspect that the
source of Bouton's devotion was not really enigmatical - it was Yasha
who fed Bouton every day, and brought him his dish of scraps after

In ordinary times, I say, Bouton would never have risked forcing
himself upon Yasha's attention. But in these days of repentance he
went daringly into the shed and planted himself by the side of Yasha,
staring into a corner and breathing deeply and sympathetically. If
this seemed to do no good, he would begin to lick his patron's face
and hands, timidly at first, but afterwards boldly and more boldly. It
would end by Yasha putting his arms round Bouton's neck and sobbing,
then Bouton would insinuate himself by degrees under Yasha's body, and
the voices of the two would mingle in a strange and touching duet.

Next day Yasha came into the house at early dawn, gloomy and downcast.
He cleaned the floor and the furniture and put everything into a
state of shining cleanliness ready for the coming of my father, the
very thought of whom made Yasha tremble. But my father was not to be
appeased. He handed Yasha his wages and his passport and ordered him to
leave the place at once. Prayers and oaths of repentance were vain.

Then Yasha resolved to take extreme measures.

"So it means you're sending me away, sir, does it?" he asked boldly.

"Yes, and at once."

"Well then, I won't go. You send me away now, and you'll simply all die
off like beetles. I won't go. I'll stay years!"

"I shall send for the policeman to take you off."

"Take me off," said Yasha in amazement. "Well, let him. All the town
knows that I've served you faithfully for twenty years, and then I'm
sent off by the police. Let them take me. It won't be shame to me but
to you, sir!"

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Online LibraryAlexander KuprinA Slav Soul and Other Stories → online text (page 1 of 15)