Little Nips

Penelope Fitzgerald

The moment between the past and the future is brought home to Zhenya Usvatov, the prosperous First Deputy of the Theatre Workers’ Union, when he wakes in his well-appointed dacha and turns on his Japanese radio. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth at this time in the morning! On TV he sees a black-suited orchestra sawing away – but the first violinist has been dead for six months: he remembers signing the widow’s pension form. Presumably this was the only film they could lay hands on. The date is 10 November 1982. Brezhnev has died. Zhenya Usvatov groans. Usvatov’s new appointment has not been confirmed, ‘If only he could have hung on for another month.’ Five days later, at the state funeral, Andropov is observed to be the first to scatter a handful of earth. But nothing is certain. The future is still terrifyingly open to history.

Baklanov’s novel, then, is the life of an apparatchik written in the traditional strongly ironic narrative mode which ‘crept out from beneath Gogol’s Overcoat’, tightened up at certain points by satire, and at others relaxed into open pathos. When the story opens Zhenya has received a modest award – not enough to get into the papers – and, more encouraging still, he is about to lead a large deputation to Uzbekistan, which should make a favourable impression on everybody. And all goes well enough, although Nature herself mocks him when the dry Asiatic wind blows his dyed hair aside, exposing his bald spot. After the speeches and recitations are over the delegates cram the leftovers into their despatch-cases. The farm manager has long since given up trying to distinguish one delegation from another, and is already loading up the spits with another row of monstrous fowls. At the book’s other extreme is the death of Baklanov’s mother-in-law. The old woman has been packed off to the country to look after the dacha. (Since the war it has become impossible to get caretakers, everyone wants secondary education.) In her loneliness (‘I’ll forget how to talk if I stay here much longer’) she poisons herself and is found ‘with frozen white eyes’ on the verandah steps. The gravediggers are supposed to bury her a metre deep, but they are too drunk to finish the job properly. And Usvatov is in torments of fear. Supposing someone at the office were to hear about it!

Baklanov’s business is to show us why and how Usvatov behaves as he does without letting the First Deputy understand it for himself. His childhood was comfortable enough until his father left his mother and they took refuge in a stinking communal apartment on the edge of a railway track. In describing this place Baklanov shows a merciless grasp of the interaction between physical and moral squalor. Young Usvatov, for example, whips a small boy who has stolen some of his soup. ‘The child could not complain, for he was a deaf mute.’ In later life, by manoeuvring himself up the perilous grades of official success, Usvatov believes he is recovering what he has lost, but what he has truly lost he does not know. Certainly his memory conjures up his past for him, often when he needs it least, but the images are curious. Quite early on in his career, during the Virgin Lands programme, he and his friends shoot a brood of ducklings and have them cooked in a country restaurant: ‘the soft little bones stuck out in mute reproach.’ A drunk shouts out,‘Nothing’s too good for the bosses,’ but the group of officials are too embarrassed to stand up for themselves. It is the waitresses, ‘fearless princesses in white caps and aprons’, who turn on the intruder, waving their napkins.

Usvatov is not a hypocrite, indeed he hardly has the strength for it, but he is self-deceiving almost beyond redemption. He is supposed to be a playwright, although his plays are written for him by an obsequious young colleague, always on tap, and when a distinguished old horror of a guest toasts his ‘creativity’ he even manages a few tears. As to his shoddy luxuries and privileges he has surely earned the right to them, since, like Stalin himself, he must be saved for posterity. He represents the moral bankruptcy of the Brezhnev years, the fagend of Stalinism with its uncertain lurches in and out of despotism. The uneasiness he feels (people don’t wear their medals any more; there are disrespectful jokes) he attributes to a proper respect for dignity and order. What has become of the days ‘when people dared not think, let alone give each other funny looks, and everyone knew exactly where they stood?’

Although he has come to some sort of compromise with his wife, his stomach pains, his baldness and the nameless horror of the future, Usvatov is a haunted man. Lenya was his friend at university, and the only human being for whom he has ever felt real love. But Lenya – who had lost an arm in the war – was Jewish, and as a Jew he was denounced and sent to the camps. Who informed against him? ‘Well, it’s always a friend,’ Lenya says, but when Usvatov meets him, thirty years later, in his shabby overcoat outside the Moscow Arts Theatre, there is no recrimination. ‘Comrade Usvatov, vessel of God,’ Lenya cries, ‘You are destined to prosper.’ It’s this kind of thing that Usvatov has always objected to in Jewish comedians. ‘Could they think of nothing better, than to laugh at life?’

Lenya, or someone like him, is perhaps predictable. More unexpected, as a challenge, is Vasily Panchikhin, the Head of Central Directorate at the Union, a confidential clerk gone grey in the service of duty who has long ago put aside any personal ambition. Usvatov knows what he owes to Panchikhin but he needs the job for his own son-in-law. Early retirement, then, for Panchikhin. Far from diminishing, however, the clerk expands, gains weight, and exchanges his ancient spectacles for gold-rimmed Zeiss lenses. On the day of Brezhnev’s funeral he arrives uninvited to watch the ceremony on TV, sitting in an armchair and wearing a pair of Usvatov’s slippers. A necessary element of Russian bureaucracy, perhaps of all bureaucracy, he will survive long alter his master has fallen into ruin.

Evgeny Popov’s The Soul of a Patriot also ends with a description of, or rather with a disjointed set of notes on, Brezhnev’s funeral, including the black crow which flew across Red Square and was recognised by the watching millions as a departing soul. (‘His spirit has flown!’ murmurs Usvatov’s wife. ‘The bird flew over and that’s all,’ concludes Popov.)

Baklanov was born in 1923, Popov in 1946: he was a schoolboy in Siberia when Sinyavsky’s On Social Realism was printed in France. Realism, Sinyavsky wrote, whether genuine or as demanded by the Soviet Central Committee, was totally inadequate to represent what was going on in Russia. Sinyavsky Called on Hoffmann, Dostoevsky, Goya, Chagall, a ‘phantasmagoric art to represent the inconceivable’. Popov himself got finally, if precariously, settled in Moscow in 1970, after seven years’ grind as a geologist in Siberia. But he had only been allowed membership at the Writers’ Union for a few months when he was expelled, in 1979, for contributing to Metropol. The authors had asked for this collection to appear without censorship, as a test of the new climate of opinion. It was banned. ‘As far as the Soviet reader was concerned, Popov was now a non-person.’

I have taken most of these details from the helpful introduction to The Soul of a Patriot by its translator, Robert Porter. The manuscript had to wait ‘in the desk-drawer’ until 1989 before it was published in Russia, and it is the first of Popov’s novels to be published in English. Porter tells us that in an interview Popov named his own favourite writers as Sterne and Zoschenko. He has settled, then, for the ‘phantasmagoric’, the sardonic, the grotesque, the seemingly incoherent, the restless Hoffmann-like patrolling of Moscow’s streets in the shadow of tyranny and the boozy warmth of the ‘Little Nips’. But even though he has been obliged to disappear, as he puts it, into a different dimension, it never seriously occurs to him to stop writing.

The Soul of a Patriot is a series of ‘epistles’, letters which demand serious consideration, or would do so if they weren’t constantly on the verge of breaking down altogether. They are written, we’re told, not by Evgeny Popov, but the Popov who stands outside him and, not quite approvingly, introduces him.

He sort of writes artistic works. That is, like he sort of used to write and he even had acquaintances and contacts in the literary world, so he’s extremely proud of this and he’s always name-dropping. But nowadays he sort of like doesn’t write due to circumstances which are nobody’s fault.

His correspondent, Ferfichkin (not the Ferfichkin in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground), is unexplained and apparently not too sympathetic. His only recorded comment is that Popov is a fool to write him all this rubbish. But Popov is determined, at well past thirty, to ‘attain authorial fecundity by means of regular, unstinting work and an honest life for the good of the state’. Publishers won’t accept him, so he writes to Ferfichkin.

The Fifth Congress of Soviet writers called for the depiction of Soviet man ‘in all the fullness of his historical deeds and high purpose’. Popov, accordingly, starts with a bizarre account of his family – Grandpa Pasha, the horse-dealer; Uncle Kolya, who showed the best restaurant in Vienna how to make Russian scalded milk; the two Grannies Marisha, and so forth. With these shaky credentials he goes on to record his life and high purpose in Brezhnev’s Moscow. He’s constantly diverted by gossip about his enemies and confusing, affectionate stories of his friends, but he returns time and again to detailed lists and specifications: as Porter points out, ‘we are dealing with a delightful parody of conformist Soviet writing which must be factually complete, correct and objective.’ These catalogues act, as they often do, as a means for a non-person to cling onto his identity. To be an individual may be the most coveted right of all. There is a particularly touching passage – this book is notable for its expert changes of tone – when Popov and a friend of his watch Brezhnev’s cortège entering Red Square. They feel themselves lucky to be so close ‘on that day, that evening and that hour, to the geographical epicentre of world history, but on the other hand it was as if we were sitting in a Russian, Soviet kitchen in a one-room apartment, in which the one room housed a coffin containing the master of the house, and people kept calling all the time ... And the women crying.’ Popov doesn’t grudge even Brezhnev a human death.