Notes on the cuff and ot.., p.1
Notes On the Cuff
Translated by K.M. Cook-Horujy
English translation copyright Raduga Publishers 1990
To the long-suffering writers of Russia who rove o'er land and sea
WHAT WE GONNA DO?
AND HERE IT IS—THE SUB-SECTION
THE BRONZE COLLAR
THE BOYS IN THE BOX
A THROUGH WIND
THE INCIDENT WITH THE GREAT WRITERS
A FOOT-BINDING AND A BLACK MOUSE
NO WORSE THAN KNUT HAMSUN
MUST RUN. MUST RUN!
THE MOSCOW ABYSS. TWANVLAM
I'M TOP MAN AFTER GORKY
I PLUG IN ASS LIT
THE FIRST SWALLOWS
WE WORK UP STEAM
AN UNEXPECTED NIGHTMARE
FULL SPEED AHEAD
ON HOW TO EAT
Commentaries to NOTES OFF THE CUFF:
An editor of the deceased Russkoye Slovo, in gaiters and with a cigar, snatched the telegram off the desk and read it through swiftly from beginning to end with a practised professional eye. •
One hand automatically jotted down "two columns", while the lips unexpectedly rounded and whistled "Phew-ew!"
He paused for a moment. Then abruptly tore off a sheet of notepaper and scribbled:
Tiflis is forty miles away,
Who can sell me a car today?
"Short feuilleton" at the top, "Long primer" at the side and "Rook" at the bottom.
Suddenly he muttered like Dickens's Jingle:
"Uh-huh! Uh-huh! I guessed as much. Might have to beat it. Never mind! I've got six thousand lire in Rome. Credito Italiano. What? Six... And actually I'm an Italian officer! Yes, sir! Finita la comedia!"
And with another whistle he pushed back his cap and hurried out of the door — telegram and feuilleton in hand.
"Stop!" I yelled, coming to my senses. "Stop! What Credito? Finita ? What? Catastrophe?"
But he had vanished.
I was about to run after him... but then shrugged my shoulders, frowned limply and sank onto the divan. What was bothering me? The Credito , whatever it was? The commotion? No, it wasn't that... Ah, yes. My head! It was aching like billyho. The second day running. First a strange chill ran down my spine. Then just the opposite: my body felt all hot and dry, and my forehead unpleasantly clammy. My temples were throbbing. I'd caught cold. That wretched February fog! But I mustn't get ill! I just mustn't get ill!
Everything's unfamiliar, but I must have got used to it over the last six weeks. How good it feels after the fog. At home. The cliff and the sea in the golden frame. The books in the bookcase. The carpet on the sofa is too rough for comfort and the cushion's terribly hard. But I wouldn't get up for anything. I feel so lazy! Can't be bothered to lift a hand. I've spent half an hour thinking I must stretch it out to get the aspirin powder on the chair, but even that's too much trouble.
"Pop the thermometer in, Misha!"
"Oh, I couldn't bear to! I haven't got a temperature anyway!"
Oh, my goodness, my goodness, my goo-oodness! Thirty-eight point nine ... could it be typhus? No, of course not. Where from? But what if it is typhus! Anything you like, only not now! That would be awful. It's nothing. Hypochondria. I've just got a cold. Influenza. I'll take an aspirin tonight and be as right as rain tomorrow!
Thirty-nine point five!
"It isn't typhus, is it, Doctor? Not typhus? I think it's just influenza? Eh? The fog..."
"Yes, yes... The fog. Breathe in, please. Deeper... That's it!"
"I've got to attend to some very important business, Doctor. It won't take long. Can I?"
"Are you crazy!"
The cliff, the sea, and the sofa are blazing hot. The pillow's already hot, as soon as I turn it over and put my head on it. Never mind. I'll stick it out one more night, and leave tomorrow. Leave for good if necessary! For good! Mustn't let this get me down! It's only influenza. Nice to be ill and have a temperature. Forget about everything. Lie in bed and rest. Only not now, for Heaven's sake! There's no time for reading in this diabolical chaos... How I long for... What do I long for? Yes. Forests and mountains. Only not these damned Caucasian ones. But ours, far away... Melnikov-Pechersky (1). A hermitage in the snow. A light in the window and a nice hot steam bath. Yes, forests and mountains. I'd give half my kingdom to be sweating in a steam bath. That would do the trick-Then dive into the snow with nothing on... Forests! Dense pine forests. Good for making ships. Peter in a green caftan (2) chopping down trees. What a fine-sounding stately word — inasmuch! In-as-much! Forests, ravines, carpets of pine-needles, a snow-covered hermitage. And a choir of nuns singing in sweet harmony:
Victorious leader of triumphant hosts!
Hang on! What nuns! You won't find any nuns there. Where are they now, nuns? Black, white, slender Vasnetsovian (3) nuns?
"Larissa Leontievna, where are the nuns?"
"He's delirious, poor thing!"
"I certainly am not. Not in the slightest. Nuns! What's the matter, don't you understand? Give me that book. Over there, on the third shelf. Melnikov-Pechersky..."
"You mustn't read, Misha, dear!"
"What's that? Why not? I'll be up tomorrow! And go to see Petrov. You don't understand. They'll leave me behind! Leave me behind!"
"Oh, alright then. Get up if you must! Here's the book."
"Lovely book. With that old, familiar smell. But the lines are hopping about all over the place. I remember. They were forging banknotes at the hermitage, Romanov banknotes. What an awful memory I've got. It was notes, not nuns.
Sasha basher, tra-la-la!
"Larissa Leontievna... Larochka! Do you like forests and mountains? I'll get me to a monastery. Yes, I will! Some remote hermitage. With forest all round and birds twittering, and not a living soul... I'm sick of this idiotic war! I'll go to Paris and write a novel first, then get me to a monastery. Only tell Anna to wake me up at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to see him yesterday. Can't you understand?"
"Yes, yes, I understand. Only you must keep quiet."
Fog. Hot reddish fog. Forests, more forests ... and water trickling slowly from a crevice in a green rock. A taut crystal thread. Must crawl up and have a good drink. That'll do the trick. It's hard crawling over pine-needles, they're all sticky and prickly. I open my eyes, and there's just a sheet, no pine-needles.
"For heaven's sake! What's the matter with this sheet. Have they sprinkled sand on it? I'm thirsty!"
"Yes, yes, I won't be a moment."
"Ugh, it's so warm, what horrid water."
"...Forty point five again! How dreadful!"
"Doctor! I insist on being sent to Parisrightaway! I don't want to stay in Russia any longer... If you won't send me, kindly hand me my Brow... Browning! Larochk-a-a! Go and fetch it!"
"Yes, yes, we'll fetch it. Only don't get excited!"
Darkness. A ray of light. Darkness ... a ray of light. I can't re
My head! My head! There are no nuns or triumphant hosts, just demons trumpeting and tearing at my skull with their red-hot hooks. My he-ad!
A ray of light... darkness. A ray ... no, it's gone. Nothing awful, just couldn't care less. Head not aching. Darkness and forty-one point one...
WHAT WE GONNA DO?
The novelist Yuri Slyozkin (4) sat in a posh armchair. Everything in the room was posh, so Yuri looked excruciatingly out of place there. His head shaven by typhus was just like that boy's head described by Mark Twain ( a pepper-sprinkled egg ). A moth-eaten army jacket with a hole under the arm. Grey puttees, one longer than the other, on his legs. A two-kopeck pipe in his mouth. And fear leap-frogging with anguish in his eyes.
"What's going to become of us?" I asked, hardly recognising my own voice. After the second bout it was weak, reedy and cracked.
I turned round in bed and looked wretchedly out of the window, where still naked branches were waving slowly. The exquisite sky touched faintly by the fading sunset gave no reply, of course. Slyozkin was silent too, nodding his shorn head. In the next room a dress rustled and a woman's voice whispered:
"The Ingushes will raid the town tonight..."
Slyozkin twitched in his chair and corrected her:
"The Ossetians, not the Ingushes. And tomorrow morning, not tonight."
The flasks behind the wall responded nervously.
"The Ossetians! Oh, my God! That's terrible!"
"What difference does it make?"
"What difference? Ah, you don't know the local customs. When the Ingushes raid, they raid. But when the Ossetians raid, they kill too."
"Will they kill everyone?" Slyozkin asked in a matter-of-fact voice, puffing on his foul-smelling pipe.
"Goodness me! What a strange person you are! Not everyone... Just those who... Oh, dear, what's the matter with me! I forgot. We're disturbing the patient."
A dress rustled. The lady of the house bent over me.
"I am not dis-turb-ed..."
"Nonsense," Slyozkin retorted sharply. "Nonsense!"
"All that about Ossetians and the rest of it. Rubbish." He puffed out a cloud of smoke.
My exhausted brain suddenly sang out:
Mamma! Mamma! What we gonna do?
"And what precisely are we going to do?"
Slyozkin grinned with his right cheek only, thought for a moment and had a burst of inspiration.
"We'll open an ASS, an Arts Sub-Section!"
"What on earth is that?"
"A sob-sexy on?"
"No, a sub-section!"
"Er ... well, you see," he shifted around, "there's a Sec. of Ed. or Ed. Sec. Sec. Get it? And this is a sub-section. Sub. Get it?"
"Sec. of Ed. Pin-head. Barbousse. Screw loose."
The lady of the house let fly.
"Don't talk to him, for goodness sake! He'll get delirious again..."
"Nonsense!" said Yuri sternly. "Nonsense! And all those Mingrelians and Imere... What are they called? Circassians. They're plain stupid!"
"They just rush about. Shooting. At the moon. They won't rob anyone."
"But what'll happen? To us?"
"Nothing. We'll open up..."
"That's right. The whole lot. Fine Arts. Photo. Lit. and Dram."
"I don't get it."
"Please don't talk, Misha dear! The doctor..."
"Tell you later! It'll be alright. I've been in charge before. What do we care? We're a-political. We're Art!"
"And how shall we live?"
"We'll hide our money behind the carpet."
"In the town where I was in charge, we had a carpet on the wall. And when we got paid, my wife and I used to hide it behind the carpet. They were anxious times. But we ate. Ate well. Special rations."
"What about me?"
"You'll be ASS Lit. head. Yes."
"Please, Misha. I beg you!"
The night swims. Pitch black. Can't sleep. The icon-lamp flickers anxiously. Shots in the distance. My brain's on fire.
Mamma! Mamma! What we gonna do?
Slyozkin's building something. Piling something up. Fine Arts. Photo. Lit. Dram. Scram. Sam. It's photographic boxes. Why? ASS Lit. for the writers. Poor blighters. Dram. Ham. Ingushes gallop about on horseback, eyes flashing. Pinching the boxes. Dreadful racket. Shooting at the moon. Nurse injects my thigh with camphor. A third bout!
"Help! What'll happen? Let me go! I must get out..."
"Be quiet, Misha dear. Be quiet!"
After the morphine the Ingushes disappear. The velvety night sways. The icon-lamp casts its divine light and sings in a crystal voice:
AND HERE IT IS—THE SUB-SECTION
Sun. Clouds of dust behind carriage wheels. People walking in and out of an echoing building. A room on the fourth floor. Two cupboards with broken doors, some rickety tables. Three young ladies with violet lips bang away loudly at typewriters, stopping now and then to have a smoke.
In the very centre a writer snatched from death's jaws fashions a sub-section out of the chaos. Fine. Dram. Actors' bluish faces keep pestering him. Asking for money.
After the typhus a rocking swell. Dizziness and nausea. But I'm in charge. ASS Lit. head. Getting to know the ropes.
"ASS head. Sec. of Ed. Lit. Coll."
A man walks between the tables. In a grey army jacket and monstrous riding-breeches. He plunges into groups that fall apart. Like a torpedo boat ploughing the waves. Everyone quails under his glance. Except the young ladies. They're not afraid of anything.
He comes up. Eyes boring into me, he plucks out my heart, places it in his palm and scrutinises it carefully. But it is as clear as crystal.
He puts it back and smiles graciously.
"ASS Lit. head?"
He goes on his way. Seems a good chap. Only what's he doing here? Doesn't look like Dram. And certainly not like Lit.
A poetess arrives. Black beret. Skirt buttoned down the side and stockings falling down. She's brought a poem.
Dee, dee, deep down,
In my heart
Beats a dynamo-machine.
Dee, dee, deep down.
Not a bad poem. We'll have it ... you know ... what do they call it ... recited at a concert.
The poetess looks pleased. Not a bad young lassy. But why doesn't she hitch up her stockings?
Everything was fine. Everything was dandy.
And then I got the push all because of Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich, God rest his soul!
It was like this.
A workshop of local poets nested in the office, under the spiral staircase. A young man in blue student trousers with a dynamo-machine in his heart, a doddery old man who started writing poems at the age of fifty-nine, and a few others.
In sidled a dare-devil with an aquiline nose and a big revolver in his belt. He was the first to thrust his ink-intoxicated pen into the hearts of those who had escaped the knife and turned up for old time's sake at the track—the former Summer Theatre. To the incessant booming of the muddy Terek, he cursed lilac and thundered:
You've had enough songs about moonlight and
Now I'll sing you one about emergency meetings.
It was most impressive!
Then another one read a paper on Gogol and Dostoyevsky wiping them both off the face of the earth. He spoke disapprovingly of Pushkin, but in passing. Promising to devote a special report to him. One night i
Bathed in sweat I sat in the front row of the stuffy hall and heard the speaker rip Pushkin's white trousers to shreds. When, after refreshing his dry gullet with a glass of water, he finally suggested throwing Pushkin into the stove, I smiled. I must confess. It was an enigmatic smile, blast it! A smile's not a bird in a bush, is it?
"Then you defend him."
"I don't want to!"
"You haven't any civic courage."
"Is that so? Alright, I'll defend him."
And so I did, damn it! I spent three days and three nights preparing. Sitting at an open window by a lamp with a red shade. On my lap lay a book written by the man with eyes of fire.
False wisdom pales at the first tiny glimmer
Of true wisdom's ne'er-fading light... (7)
It was He who said:
Indifferent alike to praise or blame... (8)
No, not indifferent! No. I'll show them! I'll show them alright. I shook my fist at the inky night.
Notes on the Cuff and Other Stories by Mikhail Bulgakov / Science Fiction / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes