The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

 

  • You found them in forests of hair, lurking among a constellation of freckles, or peering from armpit caverns, diamond eyes aglitter. Each seemed intent upon his own activity; each was a separate gallery portrait.
  • They were awfully young, Wendy and Peter, for death thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really. Long before you knew what death was you were wishing it on someone else. When you were two years old you were shooting people with cap pistols.
  • There were differences between memories and dreams.illustrated
  • So it was with Lespere and himself; Lespere had lived a good full life, and it made him a different man now, and he, Hollis, had been as good as dead for many years. They came to death by separate paths and, in all likelihood, if there were kinds of death, their kinds would be as different as night from day. The quality of death, like that of life, must be of an infinite variety, and if one has already died once, then what was there to look for in dying for good and all, as he was now?
  • The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.
  • Chinese water cure. Remember the old torture? Rope you against a wall. Drop one drop of water on your head every half-hour. You go crazy waiting for the next one.
  • They had to walk inland six miles to a place where the river boiled out of the earth, suddenly, like a mortal wound.
  • Once she said the light was too strong at night. “But there’s no moon this week,” I said. “There’s starlight,” she said.
  • He listened to the wind and the falling ocean and my voice, always with a rapt attention, a concentration that almost excluded physical bodies themselves and kept only the sounds.
  • He was watching the stars wheel over the sky.
  • For what are we but books, and when those are gone, nothing’s to be seen.
  • I mean see it. I’ve always been that way. When I’m in Boston, New York is dead. When I’m in New York, Boston is dead. When I don’t see a man for a day, he’s dead. When he comes walking down the street, my God, it’s a resurrection. I do a dance, almost, I’m so glad to see him. I used to, anyway. I don’t dance any more. I just look. And when the man walks off, he’s dead again.
  • “Those aren’t real, either,” he said. “What?” asked Clemens. “The stars. Who’s ever touched one? I can see them, sure, but what’s the use of seeing a thing that’s a million or a billion miles away?”
  • “You liked the idea of space travel? Going places?” “I don’t know. Yes. No. It wasn’t going places. It was being between.”
  • You see. You have no mental evidence. That’s what I want, a mental evidence I can feel. I don’t want physical evidence, proof you have to go out and drag in. I want evidence that you can carry in your mind and always touch and smell and feel. But there’s no way to do that. In order to believe in a thing you’ve got to carry it with you. You can’t carry the Earth, or a man, in your pocket. I want a way to do that, carry things with me always, so I can believe in them. How clumsy to have to go to all the trouble of going out and bringing in something terribly physical to prove something. I hate physical things because they can be left behind and become impossible to believe in then.
  • I’d like to know what a place is like when I’m not there. I’d like to be sure.
  • I thought how I’d like to be in a rocket ship, in space, in nothing, in nothing, going on into nothing, with just a thin something, a thin eggshell of metal holding me, going on away from all the somethings with gaps in them that couldn’t prove themselves.
  • Living out their short time until the neon bewilderment fell from the sky.
  • The perspiration of frightened men arose. There were islands of sweat under their arms.
  • For the streets were like tongues, and where the men passed, the taste of their heels ebbed down through stone pores to be calculated on litmus.
  • For some reason the electric humming, the queer cold light suddenly visible under the door crack, the strange odor and the alien sound of eagerness in Mink’s voice finally got through to Henry Morris too. He stood, shivering, in the dark silence, his wife beside him. “Mom! Dad!” Footsteps. A little humming sound. The attic lock melted. The door opened. Mink peered inside, tall blue shadows behind her. “Peekaboo.” said Mink.
  • Turn their eyes down to their hands and to your junk yard, not up to the stars.
  • The rocket smelled of time and distance. It was like walking into a clock.
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The Diary of a Superfluous Man by Ivan Turgenev

  • Nature! Nature! I love thee so, but I came forth from thy womb good for nothing—not fit even for life. 6463
  • While a man is living he is not conscious of his own life
  • And you tall birch-trees, with long hanging branches, from beyond which came floating a peasant’s mournful song, broken by the uneven jolting of the cart, I send you my last farewell!
  • Sentimental out-breaks are like liquorice; when first you suck it, it’s not bad, but afterwards it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth.
  • I’m dying, and at the point of death I really think one may be excused a desire to find out what sort of a queer fish one really was after all.
  • They say that by a blind man the color red is imagined as the sound of a trumpet.
  • The misfortune of solitary and timid people—who are timid from self-consciousness—is just that, though they have eyes and indeed open them wide, they see nothing, or see everything in a false light, as though through colored spectacles. Their own ideas and speculations trip them up at every step.
  • Solitary people like me, I say again, are as incapable of understanding what is going on within them as what is taking place before their eyes. And, besides, is love a natural feeling? Is it natural for man to love? Love is a sickness; and for sickness there is no law.
  • As a rule fellows like me anticipate everything in the world, except what is bound to occur in the natural order of things.
  • When suffering reaches the point of making our whole being creak and groan, like an overloaded cart, it ought to cease to be ridiculous … but no! laughter not only accompanies tears to the end, to exhaustion, to the impossibility of shedding more—it even rings and echoes, where the tongue is dumb, and complaint itself is dead….
  • I fully realized how much happiness a man can extract from the contemplation of his own unhappiness. O men! pitiful race, indeed!
  • I did not even dream of her love. I desired only her affection, I desired to gain her confidence, her respect, which, we are assured by persons of experience, forms the surest basis for happiness in marriage….

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I came across this brilliant gem while causally browsing through my GoodReads homepage, and have since then fallen in love with its simplistic beauty and poignancy – the kind that induced tears not due to excessive sentimentality of any sort, but due to the brevity of the nature of the book itself. To do real justice to this masterpiece would be to read the book in paperback form, to let one’s fingers run through the pages, caressing the printed text, to feel the roughness of the cover and smell the heavy, wooden wafts that are native to any old book. But, all this I discovered only after having read the book in entirety. The unavailability of the book in its physical form made me read it in soft print, an EPUB format which, I admit, does not have the same allure as reading it in book form, perhaps borrowed from the library, or having stumbled upon it on some rusty shelf of an old book shop. Therefore, my experience of the book, the narrative, the concealed story within is dangerously lacking in its truest form. That being said, even reading it on an iPad evoked in me such passion and rapture that I was unable to keep the book all to myself. I had to share it, and immediately recommended it to a couple of good friends of mine.

Epistolary fiction had always captured my fancies, but I never knew non-fiction of a similar kind could possess far more power to entwine the reader in its vast web of human intricacies ranging from the art of letter-writing, to the art of conversation and how human compassion can traverse miles and miles of oceans to make a mark on people one has never met, seen, or even heard about. The potency of words is such that seemingly polarized people are woven together in a relationship that transcends the barriers of friendship and love and all other abstract notions mankind has come to acknowledge and define.

Such is the relationship between an aging scriptwriter hailing from New York, the vivacious Helene Hanff and a certain Frank Doel of Marks & Co., booksellers located in London at the eponymous 84, Charing Cross Road. Ms. Hanff has an unquenchable thirst for English literature and in search for now obscure classics does she begin her acerbic albeit sidesplitting correspondence with the booksellers situated miles away from her shabby apartment. Ms. Hanff stumbles upon the book dealers through an ad placement made in the Saturday Review of Literature. From here onwards starts a warm and compassionate relationship between her and Mr. Doel on whom the responsibility of delivering her books falls on. This relationship is penned down in form of letters spanning almost twenty years.

At first, Frank Doel assumes a reserved, formal tone in his letters to Ms. Hanff, with a somewhat reticent approach to her book demands. He addresses her as “Dear Madam” while she addresses them as “Gentlemen.” The first few letters are even signed off as “FPD, For Marks & Co.” It is only later on that such formality is dropped from both sides as Frank starts to sign off the letters with his real name, and Ms. Hanff begins to address the “inmates” of the book shop on first name basis, beginning with a polite Sir and even later on Frankie.

Ms. Hanff’s correspondence is primarily with Frank Doel but also extends to other employees of the bookshop, namely Cecily Farr who is the first one to address Ms. Hanff informally and on a personal level, inquiring about how she might look and thanking her for the Easter parcel. From here on, Ms. Hanff develops a long distance friendship with other staff members as well (Megan Wells, Bill Humphries) as they keep sending private letters to her, thanking her for Christmas presents, birthday packages and food parcels. Later on, Frank’s wife Nora too writes a letter of thanks for having received more food parcels and their neighbor Mary Boulton sends her own missive of having been grateful of receiving praise for an embroidered cloth sent to Ms. Hanff by Frank.

The earlier letters mostly contain requests for books but as we proceed further, the discussions vary on a range of topics such as recipe for Yorkshire Pudding, sports (the Dodgers for Ms. Hanff and Tottenham Hotspurs for Frank), the possibility of Ms. Hanff visiting England, families of staff members, the coronation of Elizabeth II, Ms. Hanff’s television career, Frank’s procurement of a dodgy, old car, post-World War II food shortages and so on. Perhaps it’s the diversity of personal and impersonal topics discussed over distances between complete strangers that render the book its sublimity as a moving, throat-lumping read. To complement this poignancy, photographs of Frank Doel and family, and the bookshop itself are included which throw the reader in a poetical trance in the midst of the text. I found myself whimsically, romantically invested in monochrome photographs of the interior of the bookshop, or where Frank sits on the bumper of his newly acquired car.

Here are some of my most beloved extracts from the book:

Ms. Hanff on previous book owners

I do love second-hand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.

Ms. Hanff on her inclination for particular Romantic poets

I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering—Wyatt or Jonson or somebody, use your own judgment. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park.

Ms. Hanff on the allure of old books

I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.

Ms. Hanff on mutually shared history of two countries

I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Someday, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).

Ms. Hanff’s friend Maxine, describing the shop

It’s dim inside, you smell the shop before you see it, it’s a lovely smell, I can’t articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood

Ms. Hanff on media hypocrisy

We’re sponsored by the Bayuk Cigar Co. and we’re not allowed to mention the word “cigarette.” We can have ashtrays on the set but they can’t have any cigarette butts in them. They can’t have cigar butts either, they’re not pretty. All an ashtray can have in it is a wrapped, unsmoked Bayuk cigar.

Ms. Hanff on sending the Doel’s another unexpected gift

I just talked to your mother, she says you don’t think the show will run another month and she says you took two dozen pairs of nylons over there, so do me a favor. As soon as the closing notice goes up take four pairs of nylons around to the bookshop for me, give them to Frank Doel, tell him they’re for the three girls and Nora (his wife).

Frank extending his generosity as a way of gratitude to Ms. Hanff

All I can say is, if you ever decide to make the trip to England, there will be a bed for you at 37 Oakfield Court for as long as you care to stay.

Ms. Hanff on having to invest in teeth rather than travel

So Elizabeth will have to ascend the throne without me, teeth are all I’m going to see crowned for the next couple of years.

Ms. Hanff, again, on previous book owners

It looks too new and pristine ever to have been read by anyone else, but it has been: it keeps falling open at the most delightful places as the ghost of its former owner points me to things I’ve never read before

Ms. Hanff on the undying value of books

I do think it’s a very uneven exchange of Christmas presents. You’ll eat yours up in a week and have nothing left to show for it by New Year’s Day. I’ll have mine till the day I die—and die happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some booklover yet unborn.

Ms. Hanff on stealing

Have you got De Tocqueville’s Journey to America? Somebody borrowed mine and never gave it back. Why is it that people who wouldn’t dream of stealing anything else think it’s perfectly all right to steal books?

Ms. Hanff, again, on having to spend at home the money she had been saving up for travels to England

I am now racing around buying furniture and bookshelves and wall-to-wall carpet with all my England money, but all my life I’ve been stuck in dilapidated furnished rooms and cockroachy kitchens and I want to live like a lady even if it means putting off England till it’s paid for.

Ginny & Ed on hospitality

You might have warned us! We walked into your bookstore and said we were friends of yours and were nearly mobbed. Your Frank wanted to take us home for the weekend. Mr. Marks came out from the back of the store just to shake hands with friends-of-Miss-Hanff, everybody in the place wanted to wine and dine us, we barely got out alive.

Ms. Hanff on words and their associations

Nothing’s cheap any more, it’s “reasonable.” Or “sensibly priced.” There’s a building going up across the street, the sign over it says: “One and Two Bedroom Apartments At Rents That Make Sense.” Rents do NOT make sense. And prices do not sit around being reasonable about anything, no matter what it says in the ad—which isn’t an ad any more, it’s A Commercial. I go through life watching the English language being raped before my face.

Ms. Hanff using the phrase “gone out of her mind” for the second time in reference to Austen

Introduced a young friend of mine to Pride & Prejudice one rainy Sunday and she has gone out of her mind for Jane Austen.

Secretary Joan Todd informing Ms. Hanff on the sudden demise of her distant comrade, Frank Doel

8th January, 1969

Dear Miss,

I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr. Doel on the 30th of September last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday the 22nd of December, the funeral took place last week on Wednesday the 1st of January.

He was rushed to hospital on the 15th of December and operated on at once for a ruptured appendix, unfortunately peritonitis set in and he died seven days later.

He had been with the firm for over forty years and naturally it has come as a very great shock to Mr. Cohen, particularly coming so soon after the death of Mr. Marks.

Ms. Hanff to a friend, on old acquaintances, on England, on 84, Charing Cross Road

April 11, 1969

Dear Katherine

I take time out from housecleaning my bookshelves and sitting on the rug surrounded by books in every direction to scrawl you a Bon Voyage. I hope you and Brian have a ball in London. He said to me on the phone: “Would you go with us if you had the fare?” and I nearly wept.

But I don’t know, maybe it’s just as well I never got there. I dreamed about it for so many years. I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: “It’s there.”

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Looking around the rug one thing’s for sure: it’s here.

The blessed man who sold me all my books died a few months ago. And Mr. Marks who owned the shop is dead. But Marks & Co. is still there. If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.

An obituary of Ms. Hanff in the New York Times, 1997

A child of the Depression, Ms. Hanff could afford only a year of college, and throughout her life was an impassioned autodidact, educating herself by reading the great books, which she preferred to procure from London rather than dip into “Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.”

The last correspondence in the book to Ms. Hanff is by Sheila, Frank’s daughter, who apologizes for long silences and briefly describes the Doel’s lives after the death of Frank. I particularly enjoyed how the book ends abruptly, without mawkish sloppiness, leaving upon the reader an imprint of raw emotions experienced during the course of this short read.

The Epilogue tells us how Marks & Co. ceased business in December 1970, thus bringing our journey to a settled end.

It is the inclusion of minor characters, a few who are present in the book only by name, others make their appearance just the one time, and their personal lives that gives a touch of unbounded compassion to the book. We meet Cecily Farr, and are briefly introduced to her husband Doug who is stationed with the RAF, and her two children girl 5, boy 4 (they later shift to Iraq); Megan Wells, we are told, tries her luck first in Africa and then Australia; Bill Humphries, who lives with his 75 year old grandmother had been working with Mark & Co. as a cataloger for nearly two years; Mary Boulton is taken to a home owing to her old age; Brian (neighbor Kay’s British boyfriend) move to the suburbs leaving Ms. Hanff without a translator to convert British Pounds to American Dollars; Mr. Marks, the owner of the antiquarian booksellers who passes away before Frank’s untimely demise; and the last we hear of Mary Frank was of her working at a university while Sheila pursues a part-time degree.

It must be mentioned that Ms. Hanff did get to visit England and Charing Cross Road in the summer of 1971 but by then the still standing shop was empty, leaving behind nothing but a legacy preserved in the letters which Ms. Hanff had acquired and published in form of a book, and a commemorative plaque acknowledging the story. According to Wikipedia, the place now houses a McDonald’s restaurant, which for some odd reason, leaves me with a bitter taste.

I fully intend to revisit this book in a few years, if God wills.

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A Boring Story by Anton Chekov

“He had gone to the theatre, you see, the drunken blockhead, not for the sake of art, the play, but for elevation! He wanted noble sentiments.”

As a book recommendation for the book club “Virtual Book Lair,” I chose Chekov’s ANTON-CHEKHOV“A Boring Story” to start with simply because the title of the story aroused in me the
curiosity to explore the term “Boring” which should, in ordinary circumstances, thwart a reader yet fascinated and impelled me to discover the very reason I was intrigued by it. Spoilers ahead.

“I am myself as dingy and unsightly as my name is brilliant and splendid”

And thus begins Anton Chekov’s “A Boring Story”. Part autobiographical, Chekov masterfully creates a narrator too isolated and self-absorbed yet remarkable enough to wind up the reader in his unnecessary meticulous details of less than ordinary characters around him, his bouts of insomnia and rants on science versus arts where sometimes the conversations might run deep but on the narrator’s part, lack the required conviction and interest to fully make the reader believe in his stance.

INTRODUCTION

Our narrator, Nikolay Stepanovitch, is an aging professor, “a chevalier and privy councilor” who has “many Russian and foreign decorations”. He might seem insular at first glance, indeed he is remote or rather has induced seclusion upon himself from his family and friends. His egotistic praises of himself are almost always followed by a declaration of self-loathing which might indicate an identity crisis.

“My fervour, the literary skill of my exposition, and my humour, almost efface the defects of my voice, though it is harsh, dry, and monotonous as a praying beggar’s.”

Add to this his hypocritical statements, amusing estimations of certain characters: “He has prominent eyes like a crab’s, his cravat is like a crab’s neck, and I even fancy there is a smell of crab-soup about the young man’s whole person”; his denial of senility, preoccupations with death, and persistent complaining either of the pleasures of theatre or stringy financial situation – nowhere does our narrator come off as a hero. But neither is he an anti-hero.

RELATIONSHIP WITH WIFE AND DAUGHTER

He is a fibrous man, who takes a lowly opinion of everyone around him, except perhaps his adopted daughter Katya with whom he shares a warm, sympathetic paternal relationship. Many times Katya calls him her only friend, but this sentiment is never extended on his part. He devoutly gives her money time and time again, despite complaining of the extravagances of his own daughter Liza and rebuking her for refusing to subdue pleasures to ease the burden of poverty on him. Of course, this is all meant for the reader as Nikolay does not utter a single word of this to his family, despite being in possession of lavish amenities such as his fur coat.

The narrator’s relationship with Katya as opposed to his own family, especially his wife takes a strained view.

“Daily experience might have taught my wife that constantly talking of our expenses does not reduce them, but my wife refuses to learn by experience, and regularly every morning discusses our officer son, and tells me that bread, thank God, is cheaper, while sugar is a halfpenny dearer—with a tone and an air as though she were communicating interesting news.”

As a man of science, he deems his wife to possess a low mental calibre than himself – someone who is only engrossed in humble, menial duties of household, worrying about inconsequential situations such as daily provisions and their daughter’s future. At one point in the story he even confesses to having lost the woman whom he married in the first place, lamenting what she has become now.

RELATIONSHIP WITH KATYA

Weighing up Nikolay’s relationship with Katya whose company he enjoys immensely and is enamoured by her innocent curiosity as a child, he refers to his wife in a somewhat callous tone in the following lines.

“She would sit somewhere out of the way, with her face tied up, invariably watching something with attention; whether she watched me writing or turning over the pages of a book, or watched my wife bustling about, or the cook scrubbing a potato in the kitchen”

In his arrogance, Nikolay refers to himself in reference to scholarly pursuits such as writing or turning over the pages of a book but harshly refers to his wife bustling about, perhaps indicating her pointless endeavours around the house. Even the cook doesn’t escape his measly judgement, as the act of scrubbing a potato in the kitchen seems extremely commonplace and witty. He acknowledges the hatred his wife and daughter feel for Katya “Varya and Liza both hate Katya. This hatred is beyond my comprehension, and probably one would have to be a woman in order to understand it.”

Despite having polar opposite inclinations, Nikolay as a man of science and Katya as a woman of arts, they are both wound together by the same thread of self-imposed confinement from the rest of the world. Although Nikolay has some bitter personal opinions about the theatre and stage, not once does he censures Katya for opting such a vocation. Even till the very end he insists her to reconcile with acting despite her being involved in a tragic relationship with a fellow actor that leaves her with a dead baby out of wedlock.

“She has ceased to ask me questions now, as though she had experienced everything in life and looked for nothing new from it.”

Similarly Katya is able to understand Nikolay on a level his own family is unable to. They mutually understand each other’s shortcomings. Following is a true estimation of Nikolay’s character made by Katya which also reinforces the idea of his indifference which is explained later on:

“I cannot tell you how bitter it is to me that the art I love has fallen into the hands of people I detest; how bitter it is that the best men look on at evil from afar, not caring to come closer, and, instead of intervening, write ponderous commonplaces and utterly useless sermons …”

It is she who attributes his illness and bad temper to aging. Towards the end, she relentlessly encourages him time and time again to leave his work and go abroad to ease his sickly mien.

“And I vow to myself that I will never go to Katya’s again, though I know I shall go next evening.”

A poignant scene in the story that incorporates Nikolay and Katya where the latter runs to the formers house at dead of night to share their mutual loneliness shows that they are entwined spiritually. Whenever Nikolay feels ill at ease, somehow Katya is always close-by. This is especially evident when Nikolay is in Harkov and Katya knocks at his door unexpectedly. What follows is perhaps a finality of their unaffected support of each other as Katya seeks his assistance in reference to a suitor. This is where Nikolay fails to address her predicament as he too is involved in introspection and has at last decided to leave the country.

RELATIONSHIP WITH COLLEAGUES AND ACQUAINTANCES

Coming towards Nikolay’s relationship with fellow professors, students, colleagues and other acquaintances, he has a rather hard-lined approach to his estimation of their characters which in turn effects his conduct towards them. He mostly sees them as sources of discomfort and irritation. He berates Liza’s suitor Mr. Gnekker and doubts his character gravely:

“Above all, I cannot understand why a creature utterly alien to my habits, my studies, my whole manner of life, completely different from the people I like, should come and see me every day, and every day should dine with me.”

His intuitive suspicions regarding Mr. Gnekker are proven right towards the end of the story when he visits Harkov solely for the purpose of finding more about this suitor, but it is too late to confirm his doubts to his wife as Mr. Gnekker and Liza marry off secretly during his absence.

Nikolay is at first comfortable with Mihail Fyodorovitch’s company alongside Katya but later admonishes his toxic conversations “He had gone to the theatre, you see, the drunken blockhead, not for the sake of art, the play, but for elevation! He wanted noble sentiments.”

“Mihail Fyodorovitch speaks evil of everything. Katya listens, and neither of them notices into what depths the apparently innocent diversion of finding fault with their neighbours is gradually drawing them. They are not conscious how by degrees simple talk passes into malicious mockery and jeering, and how they are both beginning to drop into the habits and methods of slander.”

Similarly, Nikolay’s conduct towards the student whom he repeatedly fails and the professor who beckons his assistance hint at his ever increasing cynicism. He arrives at conclusions too early especially in regards to the professor:

“I say a great deal, but he still remains silent. By degrees I calm down, and of course give in. The doctor gets a subject from me for his theme not worth a halfpenny, writes under my supervision a dissertation of no use to any one, with dignity defends it in a dreary discussion, and receives a degree of no use to him.”

But at the same time, the reader may question if this is foresight or just passive negativity of which our narrator has become a victim of in his old age. After all he is a man with years of boundless experience, having encountered countless men as he himself mentions in the course of the story. We can only assume that his judgements of people are a hit at times, and a miss at others.

OUTLOOK ON WOMANKIND

Another aspect of his relation with people is his outlook on the womankind whom he deems as “tearful and as coarse in her feelings now as she was in the Middle Ages, and to my thinking those who advise that she should be educated like a man are quite right.” He is offended by the hatred harboured by his family towards Katya and vice versa and addresses the situation in a moralistic tone:

“The mournful feeling of compassion and the pang of conscience experienced by a modern man at the sight of suffering is, to my mind, far greater proof of culture and moral elevation than hatred and aversion.”

In particular, Nikolay feels distanced from his wife and daughter. He resonates the weakness of womankind in their ability to be overwhelmed too quickly. Again, with a hint of arrogance in his tone, he deliberates over the change that has taken place within his family and explains at as such:

“Why did that change take place? I don’t know. Perhaps the whole trouble is that God has not given my wife and daughter the same strength of character as me. From childhood I have been accustomed to resisting external influences, and have steeled myself pretty thoroughly. Such catastrophes in life as fame, the rank of a general, the transition from comfort to living beyond our means, acquaintance with celebrities, etc., have scarcely affected me, and I have remained intact and unashamed; but on my wife and Liza, who have not been through the same hardening process and are weak, all this has fallen like an avalanche of snow, overwhelming them.”

THE NARRATOR AS A PROFESSOR

We now come to an assessment of our narrator as a Professor and as a man of science. From the very beginning of the story, Nikolay establishes himself first and foremost as a Professor, and then a family man. His profession sculpts his personality, which in turn shapes his attitude towards everything in life, be it the theatrical arts or death. With such passion does he tell us of his vocation, which is amiss in almost all the other details of his life:

“Every moment I must have the skill to snatch out of that vast mass of material what is most important and necessary, and, as rapidly as my words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be grasped by the monster’s intelligence, and may arouse its attention, and at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout that one’s thoughts are conveyed, not just as they come, but in a certain order, essential for the correct composition of the picture I wish to sketch.”

He professes his ability to be a savant and teacher and orator” all at the same time. Furthermore, he discusses his enthusiastic approach to lecturing, which fills him with great pleasure.

“No kind of sport, no kind of game or diversion, has ever given me such enjoyment as lecturing. Only at lectures have I been able to abandon myself entirely to passion, and have understood that inspiration is not an invention of the poets, but exists in real life, and I imagine Hercules after the most piquant of his exploits felt just such voluptuous exhaustion as I experience after every lecture.”

Here we come across a few instances of witty comparisons the narrator makes as he equates himself to Hercules, as if delivering a lecture is nothing short of a Herculean task. It seems Nikolay amuses himself greatly by playing with a tad bit of egotism every now and then to throw off the reader. Many times during the course of the story he refers to himself as “Excellency” and “celebrated man of science” – despite having a sarcastic tone one can easily see through his motives of enjoying the status of an emeritus and being a well-known, titled and honored fellow. A particularly comical display of his arrogance comes to surface when he refers to himself as the King whilst discussing his ordeal with Katya:

“You see how it is, my dear; the best and holiest right of kings is the right of mercy. And I have always felt myself a king, since I have made unlimited use of that right. I have never judged…”

THE NARRATOR AS A MAN OF SCIENCE

Nikolay certainly has a wrong estimate of his own character. He has judged people around him time and time again as shown previously. This supplements his uncompromising stance on the importance of arts in one’s life, which now brings us to Nikolay – a man of Science.

“As I yield up my last breath I shall still believe that science is the most important, the most splendid, the most essential thing in the life of man; that it always has been and will be the highest manifestation of love, and that only by means of it will man conquer himself and nature.”

For our narrator, arts seems not even a secondary resource for mankind. He completely and utterly negates its value in everyday life. This is most evident when he bombasts the theatre for its trivialities in the following lines:

“The sentimental and confiding public may be persuaded that the stage, even in its present form, is a school; but anyone who is familiar with a school in its true sense will not be caught with that bait. I cannot say what will happen in fifty or a hundred years, but in its actual condition the theatre can serve only as an entertainment. But this entertainment is too costly to be frequently enjoyed. It robs the state of thousands of healthy and talented young men and women, who, if they had not devoted themselves to the theatre, might have been good doctors, farmers, schoolmistresses, officers; it robs the public of the evening hours — the best time for intellectual work and social intercourse. I say nothing of the waste of money and the moral damage to the spectator when he sees murder, fornication, or false witness unsuitably treated on the stage.”

He sees arts not as complimenting mankind, but as an antithesis to Science, that which robs men of precious time and thought that might advance and improve their present condition. In this regard, Nikolay is a fanatic in his inclination towards science. He fails to acknowledge a branch of human knowledge that has perhaps existed since the dawn of mankind.

“So, as you see, the cause of the evil must be sought, not in the actors, but, more deeply, in the art itself and in the attitude of the whole of society to it.”

He equates the advancement made by science as having no parallel in human history. He alleges himself to be a conservative and denounces arts not just in the form of theatre but to some extend even in the form of literature.

“And every time I come out of the theatre more conservative than I go in.”

Nikolay condemns Russian literature in the harshest of terms which is quite unbecoming of a learned man:

“Of course, it would be more patriotic to read Russian authors, but I must confess I cherish no particular liking for them. With the exception of two or three of the older writers, all our literature of today strikes me as not being literature, but a special sort of home industry, which exists simply in order to be encouraged, though people do not readily make use of its products. The very best of these home products cannot be called remarkable and cannot be sincerely praised without qualification. I must say the same of all the literary novelties I have read during the last ten or fifteen years; not one of them is remarkable, and not one of them can be praised without a “but.” Cleverness, a good tone, but no talent; talent, a good tone, but no cleverness; or talent, cleverness, but not a good tone.

I don’t say the French books have talent, cleverness, and a good tone. They don’t satisfy me, either. But they are not so tedious as the Russian, and it is not unusual to find in them the chief element of artistic creation — the feeling of personal freedom which is lacking in the Russian authors. I don’t remember one new book in which the author does not try from the first page to entangle himself in all sorts of conditions and contracts with his conscience. One is afraid to speak of the naked body; another ties himself up hand and foot in psychological analysis; a third must have a “warm attitude to man”; a fourth purposely scrawls whole descriptions of nature that he may not be suspected of writing with a purpose … One is bent upon being middle-class in his work, another must be a nobleman, and so on. There is intentionalness, circumspection, and self-will, but they have neither the independence nor the manliness to write as they like, and therefore there is no creativeness.”

PREOCCUPATION WITH DEATH

We now come to our narrator’s unceasing preoccupation with death in which Science plays a great role in manifesting and shaping his discourse and attitude towards it. It is quite odd that Nikolay is haunted by thoughts of death yet fails to acknowledge aging as being the root cause of many of his problems as he does not fully retire. He questions as to why his ideals and thoughts are rapidly undergoing a change which he fails to comprehend fully:

“My reasoning, too, has undergone a change: in old days I despised money; now I harbour an evil feeling, not towards money, but towards the rich as though they were to blame: in old days I hated violence and tyranny, but now I hate the men who make use of violence, as though they were alone to blame, and not all of us who do not know how to educate each other. What is the meaning of it? If these new ideas and new feelings have come from a change of convictions, what is that change due to? Can the world have grown worse and I better, or was I blind before and indifferent? If this change is the result of a general decline of physical and intellectual powers — I am ill, you know, and every day I am losing weight — my position is pitiable; it means that my new ideas are morbid and abnormal; I ought to be ashamed of them and think them of no consequence …”

One can easily see that he attributes this change not to old age in crude terms but to his illness which has taken hold of him now. But this doesn’t necessarily make him too senile as Nikolay is still capable of strewing intellectual gems which are a consequence of intense introspection towards the end of the story. Here is one of my most favourite passage from the story where the narrator sets aside his prejudice and presumptions and meditates on what his fame had acquired for him so far. It is also the first time perhaps that the narrator is able to induce empathy from me:

“I am famous, my name is pronounced with reverence, my portrait has been both in the Niva and in the Illustrated News of the World ; I have read my biography even in a German magazine. And what of all that? Here I am sitting utterly alone in a strange town, on a strange bed, rubbing my aching cheek with my hand … Domestic worries, the hard-heartedness of creditors, the rudeness of the railway servants, the inconveniences of the passport system, the expensive and unwholesome food in the refreshment-rooms, the general rudeness and coarseness in social intercourse — all this, and a great deal more which would take too long to reckon up, affects me as much as any working man who is famous only in his alley. In what way, does my exceptional position find expression? Admitting that I am celebrated a thousand times over, that I am a hero of whom my country is proud. They publish bulletins of my illness in every paper, letters of sympathy come to me by post from my colleagues, my pupils, the general public; but all that does not prevent me from dying in a strange bed, in misery, in utter loneliness. Of course, no one is to blame for that; but I in my foolishness dislike my popularity. I feel as though it had cheated me.”

This discourse humbly borders on hopelessness and is poignant for it simply questions And what of all that? Here we see the first signs of the true revulsion he feels for his status and what it has done for him so far. This bleak outlook on life comes to surface in the very last chapter of the story when Nikolay is all alone in Harkov deliberating his life:

“The clock in the corridor strikes one, then two, then three…. These last months in which I am waiting for death seem much longer than the whole of my life. And I have never before been so ready to resign myself to the slowness of time as now. In the old days, when one sat in the station and waited for a train, or presided in an examination-room, a quarter of an hour would seem an eternity. Now I can sit all night on my bed without moving, and quite unconcernedly reflect that tomorrow will be followed by another night as long and colourless, and the day after tomorrow.”

The most sublime imagery of death is conveyed to the reader when Nikolay, at his own house, senses the close proximity of death at night:

“I rapidly struck a light, drank some water straight out of the decanter, then hurried to the open window. The weather outside was magnificent. There was a smell of hay and some other very sweet scent. I could see the spikes of the fence, the gaunt, drowsy trees by the window, the road, the dark streak of woodland, there was a serene, very bright moon in the sky and not a single cloud, perfect stillness, not one leaf stirring. I felt that everything was looking at me and waiting for me to die…”

In this moment the reader is assured of the narrator’s conviction to die, to embark upon a journey of which he is not hesitant of, but perhaps a little afraid of, as he welcomes it repeatedly during the course of the story. It is also at this moment the reader may realise that nothing in this world can alter the narrator’s viewpoint regarding death. Simply put, he has done all that he had to do and there is no singular motivation to continue living an already “unlived life”.

The tone of horror suggested in this line: “I had a sensation on my face and on my bald head as though they were covered with spiders’ webs,” is a metaphor for a rotten corpse in a grave and compliments brilliantly the aforementioned imagery of death.

It is only towards the very end of the story that the narrator’s profound thoughts on the existence of nothingness manifest, thereby revealing and concluding the narrator’s most intimate of thoughts.

“And now I examine myself: what do I want?

I want our wives, our children, our friends, our pupils, to love in us, not our fame, not the brand and not the label, but to love us as ordinary men. Anything else? I should like to have had helpers and successors. Anything else? I should like to wake up in a hundred years’ time and to have just a peep out of one eye at what is happening in science. I should have liked to have lived another ten years… What further? Why, nothing further. I think and think, and can think of nothing more. And however much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it is clear to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great importance in my desires. In my passion for science, in my desire to live, in this sitting on a strange bed, and in this striving to know myself—in all the thoughts, feelings, and ideas I form about everything, there is no common bond to connect it all into one whole. Every feeling and every thought exists apart in me; and in all my criticisms of science, the theatre, literature, my pupils, and in all the pictures my imagination draws, even the most skilful analyst could not find what is called a general idea, or the god of a living man.

And if there is not that, then there is nothing.”

Even these thoughts are not devoid of the value of Science which Nikolay deems to be the cornerstone of human existence. Here, he sums up his beliefs coupled with his attitude towards family, morality, fame, the nature of existence and the meaning of “being” and “death”. He also denounces god and gives more weight to the argument of nothingness in everything, the futility of human endeavours. These thoughts can be set in contrast to the earlier Nikolay, the one who describes the tritest of details to the readers.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Verging on the boredom rooted from his own existence and that which Nikolay observes in his surroundings, it is not unexpected of the narrator to be completely preoccupied with the thought of death, not as a relief or escape, but as a means to an end. He is in a continual denial of having been amused by the large (his growing popularity) and small (“And when at last I go back into my study my face still goes on smiling, I suppose from inertia”) adventures of life.

He is indifferent about the present and the past “I am an old man, I have been lecturing for thirty years, but I notice neither degeneration nor lack of ideals, and I don’t find that the present is worse than the past”; yet disparages indifference as being “paralysis of the soul” and “premature death.” This is nothing short of irony as he himself feels acute apathy towards grave matters such as those concerning his daughter’s marriage or when Katya seeks his urgent assistance during a meltdown of sorts. It is perhaps this very indifference which brings about his own “premature death”. He is, to some extent, incapable of true contemplation of his own self.

“Know thyself” is excellent and useful advice; it is only a pity that the ancients never thought to indicate the means of following this precept.

Hunza Proverbs by Etienne Tiffou

Burushaski is an isolated language spoken by the Burusho people of Gilgit-Baltistan. It is an oral language, that is, it is predominantly spoken rather than written. I happened to come across a reference book “Hunza Proverbs” by Etienne Tiffou of the University of Montreal. He has been working on the Burushaski language since 1975, concentrating more on the Yasin dialect. The book includes a total of 565 entries expressed in the language. Following are some of my favorite proverbial phrases:

Proverbs51185YND5CL

  • The bean is under my tooth.

Used when one is unable to take revenge on someone because both enjoy the friendship of an important person.

  • The sky is high, and the earth is hard.

Things are what they are.

  • Sunburn on my head, calluses on my feet.

I am dead tired.

  • For your red tongue, a blow on your black head.
    1. Don’t be surprised if you are in trouble after misbehaving
    2. It serves you right
  • The cooking pot said: “My bottom is of gold.” The fireplace said: “Where was I?”

When a man boasts of his good birth, another who knows all about him says: “I know all about your roots.”

  • You know the taste of a man sometime later; the taste of a fruit you know as soon as it is in your mouth.
    1. One cannot judge a man the first time one sees him
    2. After a man is dead, one remembers him
  • I don’t mind so much the cat’s stealing some milk as its licking its lips afterward.

Boasting about one’s bad deeds is even worse than doing them.

  • From one country to another, even the chewing is different.

Every country has its own customs.

  • Even with its muzzle bound, the calf remains under its mother

In spite of all, family links resist everything.

  • Water cannot flow down a straight stick.

Truth cannot be warped.

  • When the flesh is cut, the bone is also suffering.

One shares his relatives’ pains.

  • The tool makes the work and its owner boasts.

When someone takes credit for the work of others.

  • Nobody sees the dirt on the nape of his own neck.

Nobody sees his own faults.

  • If you tell kings that mice eat iron, they will believe it.

Kings have so much help around them that they are cut off from reality.

  • In through the door, and out through the chimney.

When the food supply brought into the house is rapidly consumed.

  • The heavy load bends the donkey

Even people used to misfortune suffer from it.

  • The thread is broken and the pearls are lost

Said when a nice, young or dear person has died.

  • When matches appeared, flint and steel lost their value.

Used by old men to protect themselves when a young man excels at something.

  • Don’t pile up straw in front of me

Don’t take one for a cow in front of which one throws fodder.

Questions

  • The tree said to the axe: “If I give you my arm, will you cut it?”

Said to a person whom you have helped and who turns against you

  • Do you hear voices from the beyond?

Said to someone who does not listen to what he is being told.

  • Don’t wear a leather cape – but don’t complain about the noise if you do.

One must not complain about something he knew was bound to happen when he started it.

Comparisons

  • Like fleeing from a bear’s dung and not the bear

To be extremely cowardly

  • They are like grains of millet in the desert

Applies to people who run away when one needs them the most