Anything that Burns

John Bayley

Five years ago the formidable chairwoman of the first Russian Booker Prize remarked of one of the entries that she’d never been so disgusted in her life. There was an American judge on the panel, also a woman, who looked surprised. Conditioned as she and I were to the novel in the West, we had scarcely noticed what seemed to us rather quaint attempts by younger Russian novelists – aspirants for the prize – to shock and repel their readers. The new sexual and scatological candour in Russian writing was for us run-of-the-mill stuff, obviously copied from Western colleagues.

The chairwoman was of course quite accustomed to the ‘lower depths’ tradition of the Russian novel. Heirs of Gorky and Dostoevsky and Sologub would have been taken in her stride, even though her old Soviet training might make her instinctively feel that the Russian tradition of finding spirituality in the lower depths was not now quite the thing. Yet the novel she privately thought the best, and I agreed with her, was by a well-known novelist, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It was called The Time: Night, and was about the lower depths of family life, from the long-suffering Russian woman’s standpoint. It did not get the prize, probably because novels of this sort do not seem to be well received in Russia, even by women. They disclose private hells which Soviet ideology could have done nothing about, and hence preferred to believe had no real existence. Women characters have vital importance in Russian fiction, but not women writers, unless, as happened during the Soviet era, they write on outgoing male subjects. The intimate world presented by a writer like Antonia Tur, a friend and contemporary of Turgenev, who much admired her, seems never really to have caught on with the Russian reading public.

Although there are one or two hard-drinking ladies in Venedikt Yerofeev’s Moscow Stations, it presents a man’s world, a world of booze. Completed in 1970 during the Brezhnev era, the ‘time of stagnation’, it was not published until the heady days of 1989, and then in a specialised leftover magazine called Sobriety and Culture. The author, who died of throat cancer a year later, as a direct result of his bizarre alcoholic habits, must have appreciated the joke. It was the kind of humour of which his own little book is full, and which gave it instant fashionableness in the West. Since Yerofeev was dead he could not have been awarded the first Russian Booker Prize, and it’s unlikely he would have got it anyway: the Russian males on the jury smiled, chuckled, shuddered with deep internal laughter, but shook their heads. Ultimately nekulturny: a curiosity, a private joke, which the males obviously greatly preferred to the novels we had to consider, but in any case – niet. The simple, even naive solution to the critical problem posed by the book was found not by a literary man but by Peter Kapitsa, the Russian physicist, who enthused about the ‘brilliant form, the tragic content’ of Yerofeev’s offering.

Tragic content? Aha, then that’s all right! But in fact there is nothing tragic at all about Moscow Stations. Russian literary conservatism needed to hang on to the idea of tragedy, although what we used to call black humour is the real dynamic of, say, Gogol’s work. Yerofeev has no need for tragedy at all. His fascinating and extremely funny poetic nouvelle is about the pleasures of drinking, and not just drinking, but drinking ‘anything that burns’. A friend of Yerofeev used to hide away any bottle of perfume she happened to have in the house when he came to visit.

Our Booker chairwoman would not have been disgusted by Yerofeev – he is never self-consciously nasty or conscientiously obscene. At the mention of his name in our literary chit-chat she merely looked exasperated. A drinking man is not a funny subject for a Russian woman. She was disinclined to see the joke, and the immense writing skill that goes with it. The way Gogol had turned a true ‘Overcoat’ situation into all the false but beguiling truths of art was one thing: the way Yerofeev had managed to turn his own drinking habits into art without, as it were, the help of art quite another. He and his drinking companions on Moscow trains remain the most prodigious bores imaginable, but they stick to being bores through thick and thin. Under Western eyes they may be lovably picturesque and Russian, but to many Russians – women especially – they remain bores, and all too familiar. Yerofeev’s combination of art and erudition generates comedy not by diverting boredom but by encouraging it. Alcohol is its own thing, and can make up no story outside of its own.

At the same time Yerofeev’s literary philosophy is gloriously on view, as is his wit. Naturally he is himself in the train that stops at all stations except Yesino, just as he is himself when he meets the woman of his dreams, who really enjoys drinking; and his rather subtle view of writers and writing is that they can never be caught doing anything. They escape into words; they project, they become characters, they give themselves false names. Drink is the warning symbol for Yerofeev of the basic bad faith of writers, whose words can’t actually tilt the bottle. (One wonders whether he ever read Under the Volcano: Lowry seems to have had very much the same alcoholic preoccupation with literature.)

And that’s exactly what Goethe did, the old fool ... d’you think he doesn’t fancy a drink? Of course he does ... so he gets all his characters to do his drinking for him. Just look at Faust, they’re all at it. And you’re asking: ‘Why does Privy Councillor Goethe need to do that?’ Right, I’ll tell you – why does he make young Werther put a bullet through his head? Because – and this can be proved – Goethe himself was on the brink of suicide, so in order to rid himself of the temptation he makes Werther do it for him! You see? He goes on living, but it’s the same as if he’d ended it all. Totally satisfied! That’s more cowardly than a straight suicide. That’s more cowardly and self-centred – creatively it’s the pits.

  And that’s how he drank. The same way as he shot himself, your Privy Councillor. Mephistopheles has a snort, and Goethe’s loving it, the old bugger ... I used to work alongside a guy on the roads, Kolya his name was. He did exactly the same. He didn’t drink either ... But he practically forced us to drink instead. He’d pour for us, belch for us, get happy, the shit, and wander around in a daze.

Yerofeev chooses Goethe, the epitome for Russian intellectuals of Germanic grandeur, censoriousness and respectability, to exhibit the theory of literature as surrogate drinking, surrogate sex or surrogate suicide. And the reader is as bad as the writer, for the writer is merely tempting his reader to join in an imaginary binge. ‘Some people say that life is the thing but I prefer reading,’ as Logan Pearsall Smith put it; and the rich succulence of Yerofeev’s Russian, not really translatable although Stephen Mulrine makes a good and brave attempt at it, begins after a few pages to give us the gloriously static feel of Russian social drinking, with the almost welcome sense of a hangover just beginning to feel its way round the back of the skull, but easily kept at bay by another snort or two. ‘The pounding of Goethe’s profundities’ – in the memorable words of Nabokov – becomes no more than the noise of the train as it makes its way from Moscow to Petushki (Yerofeev’s horrible little home town) calling at Hammer and Sickle, Chukhlinka, Reutovo, Kuchino, Zheleznodorozhnaya, and all stations beyond except Yesino.

Yerofeev’s father, appropriately enough, was a stationmaster at Poyakonda in the far North, who, in the purge year of 1938, when his son was born, made the mistake, in his cups, of criticising the regime, and got 15 years in a gulag. Brought up in an orphanage, the young Yerofeev did brilliantly at school (the Soviet system had no choice but to cherish clever displaced children) but like several others at that time, he threw away his academic promise and embarked on the life of a contemporary brodyag, a Gorky-style tramp, laying cables and building roads, working while drinking, and in the Russian style doing both with determination. Before setting off on this refusenik existence Yerofeev got married (his wedding a predictably uproarious affair) and even had a son. Moments of nostalgia, though hardly of regret, for this bourgeois existence surface occasionally in the extraordinary poema that is Moscow Stations; but the author’s feelings for his son are outside drinking, and therefore outside writing.

Rising through the cloudy nightmare of world culture which hangs over his own prose poetry, his lyricism soars into drink. Canaan Balsam (popularly known as Silver Fox) must contain both meths and clear varnish, but ‘to release the miasma it exudes’ you also need just a touch of dark beer. You end up with ‘a blackish-brown liquid of moderate strength, with a persistent aroma: actually it’s not an aroma, it’s an anthem.’ You could then go on to Dog’s Giblets or Spirit of Geneva, before embarking on Tears of a Komsomol Girl. Some people never get beyond Dog’s Giblets, which is hardly to be wondered at, since it contains

Zhiguli beer100grammes
Sadko the Wealthy Guest Shampoo30"
anti-dandruff solution70"
superglue12"
brake-fluid35"
insecticide20"

  Let it marinade for a week with some cigar tobacco, then serve.

The reader can be quite certain that these concoctions are not fantasies (along the lines of Goethe compelling his characters to drink because he wants a few himself) but Yerofeev’s daily tipple, as writer and man.

If Gogol and others were reading Moscow Stations today they might recognise with some relief signs of the old Holy – or at least spiritual – Russia surfacing through the mists of alcohol. Yerofeev manages this without any sense that he is availing himself of a native tradition. His ‘Angels of the Lord’ possess the ghastly solicitude of delinquent children, which is what they are: the sort who in Russia haunt the railway stations and pilfer from the passengers. More serious are the devils, or the four horsemen, or Stalin’s henchmen, or Politburo members, or perhaps just murderous layabouts, who pursue the hero at the end of the poem and finally nail his throat to the floor. Unlike everything else in the book, this couldn’t have actually happened, at least not at the moment of writing: it took place in hospital ten years later, at the author’s painful and premature deathbed. It also takes place by the Kremlin, which the drunken hero, tottering on his way from one Moscow railway station to another, has never troubled himself to visit. Worse devils come out of the Kremlin than ever came out of a vodka bottle, or even a can of brake-fluid, and where are the angels now? They have absconded, leaving the hero to his symbolic fate. Talking is as important to a Russian drinker as the booze itself: Yerofeev had his vocal chords removed and in his last months could only talk with the aid of a primitive squawk-box. BBC2 did a documentary on his life, in which he cracked jokes with the interviewer while recorded passages of his poem-novel, read in his own powerful voice, could be heard in the background.

Russians’ veneration for their poetry exceeds all other kinds of national fervour. But even Pushkin, the supreme icon, is given genially blasphemous treatment by Yerofeev, drinking on the way home to Petushki with a hardbitten woman whose teeth have been knocked out by a Komsomol organiser for demanding what good Pushkin is going to be when it comes to really looking after things. ‘He started to shake. “You get pissed all you want but just keep your hands off Pushkin! Keep your hands off my kids! Drink my blood if you want but don’t tempt fate, don’t mock the Lord God!’ ” This farrago of superstitious reverence, in which the Pushkin icon gets mixed up both with God and with the crumbling ideal of Soviet childhood, amuses the other drunks, Yerofeev most of all. He and the woman who had no use for Pushkin are well aware that Russian men who revere the poet and genuinely love his poetry are usually bad fathers, bad citizens, wife-beaters even. But what does that matter to Yerofeev, downing bottle after bottle as he writes his prose poem, while laying cables between Sheremetyevo and Lobnya in the autumn of 1969?

Stephen Mulrine adapted the dramatised version of the novel, Moskva-Petushki, for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, from where it found its way both onto Radio 3 and to the Garrick stage in London. As a play it had to be much shortened, and Mulrine has performed good service in translating and bringing out the complete work. But both as play and as novel its position in English is somewhat anomalous. We are accustomed to tame domestic versions of black humour, black comedy and the like, and this genuine Russian product, 100 per cent proof, may seem in our own genteel setting just another of them. Rightly no doubt we adjust to having it both ways, licensed to enjoy all the dark depths in an artistic presentation, while proceeding soberly from day to day following the proper social and political guidelines. That form of canny civic emasculation is quite alien to Yerofeev and his world, which remained wholly and sincerely indifferent both to Soviet reality and to the rebel writers who protested against it. He, like they, circulated in samizdat, and his poema became an underground cult. Now that the rebels have done their great work and departed, Yerofeev still remains a cult. Russians venerate Pushkin’s masterpieces, but a masterly poem on drink fascinates them. Dostoevsky, who revered the utter irrationality of the Russian soul, always wanting to do what it wanted, and not what it ought to want, would have understood that.