Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
The Spirit of the Age

A Fantastic Tale

On New Year’s Eve, Istomin plunges into a feverish delirium. In a whirlwind of images and plots, he is suddenly met with the great truth—the days and moments that make up human life pass into infinity and leave not a single trace.

As part of V–A–C Sreda’s special New Year issue, we publish Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin’s short story “The Spirit of the Age,” which will be included in “Apparition of the Spectres,” the forthcoming third volume of little-known fantasy works by Russian writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, part of a series published by V–A–C Press. The first two volumes in the series—“Tales of Mutinies and Truffles” and “Ghosts on All Sides”—were edited by the writer and translator Vitaly Babenko.

Each time Istomin was taken over by a familiar attack of fever, he would move from his comfortable, spacious study into the small, narrow, dark room which served in ordinary times as a wardrobe. This room was known in the house as “father’s infirmary.” Besides a number of chests, the room contained a sofa of the old, awkward style, hard and uncomfortable, with the stuffing coming out of its torn upholstery. This ancient object had long perturbed the domestic and orderly Vera Platonovna. Many times, she had raised in conversation the necessity of its being sold to junk dealers, and had even quarrelled with her husband over the matter—but Pavel Yegorovich, elsewhere always compliant, gentle, and obliging in his relations with others, and absolutely indifferent to the smaller details of life, put up, in this case, a steadfast resistance.

“What! Sell an old, devoted, proven friend?” he exclaimed, mixing, as was his habit, joke with sincere feeling. “No, that would be worse than betrayal! After everything we have thought through with the old man, everything we have experienced in my fevered nights. After how faithfully he has served me in the times of my nightmares—he has been for me by turns a fiery-nostrilled horse, a ship’s deck, a dolphin, a boat’s oar, a white Indian elephant… No, I don’t have the strength to part with him, Verochka…”

It was, in fact, only when Istomin settled on his sofa and covered himself with the old, ancient raccoon fur that had belonged to his father and which, like the sofa, was kept in the house only for such occasions that, when he was beset by his brutal paroxysms, he would begin to feel a little better. It is very possible that Istomin’s capricious love for this sofa full of holes and this moth-eaten fur had its source in some old, far-away memory of an illness experienced in childhood, when, in exactly the same way, he would have lain on an old sofa, covered by an old, warm fur of some kind.

As soon as Pavel Yegorovich settled on the sofa, a small table with a candle, a little bell, a glass of cold tea, and the first crime novel that came to hand would be set beside him, after which everyone, at his request, would go away, and he would remain alone, burning with fever, forgetting himself, raving and reading the absurd adventures of bloodied heroes in his conscious moments. Besides his old lackey—and even he only after knocking—no one dared enter the room, because during these episodes the mild, loving Pavel Yegorovich was overcome with great fury: he would cry out, throw tabloid novels against the wall, throw the glass from the table onto the floor… With time, Pavel Yegorovich had been able to “discipline the house,” and was left in utter solitude for the entire duration of his illnesses. Vera Platonovna called this caprice, petty tyranny, but Istomin himself saw things somewhat differently.

“Do you see, Verochka,” he would sometimes say in days of health, “all human suffering arises from the fact that more and more, humanity has become estranged from animals. We have lost their natural beauty, their grace, strength, and ease, their steadfastness in their struggle with nature, their vitality. But worst of all, consciousness, in humans, has killed instincts. Just look at a dog. If it falls ill, without fail, it strives to hide somewhere far from prying eyes. A good dog will never die at home. It will run away to a secluded place and die there… because it knows by instinct that death is the most unnatural and foul of phenomena, a most filthy and loathsome sight, and it, this honest, magnanimous, selfless dog, humbly spares its former friends the necessity of contemplating the most repulsive act in the world. And Man… Man has perverted, complicated, distorted everything, in nature and in himself… Doctors, care, pretence, poker faces, self-pity, emotion at the pity of others, in a word—that pleasure in suffering about which the great writer spoke…” [1]

At this point, Vera Platonovna usually interrupted her husband.

“Well, there it is… all of you, writers, are mad. You may not be the greatest, but in this respect, you do not fall behind from even the very great…”

But she could not be angry with him, because the somewhat severe words were met with a tender, almost feminine smile.

On New Years Eve, this eccentric lay in his infirmary in the delirium of a forty-degree fever. He had sent Vera Platonovna and their daughters to a famous writer of fiction, Parkhomov, for the evening, to which the whole household had been invited. The women had not even tried to reject the invitation, knowing how much it would anger Pavel Yegorovich.

Pavel Yegorovich lay on his back on the sofa, with half-opened eyes. Some kind of terrible, monstrous mass hung over his body. It seemed awfully, endlessly far away, at the same time, it almost touched his face; it was much softer than down, at the same time, its edges recalled unfinished granite to the touch—there was, in this incomprehensible duality, something melancholy, troubled, and agonising.

And then, somewhere in the depths of this hanging mass, some point came alive. Or, rather, it is difficult to say what it was: movement, noise, or some other phenomena not expressible in words, something flowing, burdensome, plaintive, monotonous, without a name. It grew, extended outwards, enlarged, strengthened, and took over the body, thought, and feeling of Pavel Yegorovich with unpleasant, slow melancholy. It drew everything into it into a towering mass that gathered into a furious hurricane and threatened to deform the universe… and then, suddenly, in the blink of an eye, everything scatters, everything abates, there remains again only the unmoving mass and the point vibrating somewhere in its depths, and Pavel Yegorovich opens his eyes with a groan.

He sees the familiar room, the shadow of the lampshade flickering on the ceiling, recognises in a minute and with great effort that his wife and their daughters have left to meet the New Year with Parkhomov, and, immediately, delirium takes hold of his fevered mind once again.

Now before him there is a whole cascade of people, animals, landscapes, and, in particular, certain repulsive, half-human, half-beast beings that loathsomely and terribly grimace and quickly replace one another. Pavel Yegorovich feels his head spin from this ugly hubbub and, through an effort of will, comes to his senses for a few moments. He is hot; his breath singes his lips. He barely manages to take a gulp from the glass before his imagination once again becomes the play-scene of delirium… This time, he declaims poems in which there are no words, only single, unrelated syllables, and which are terribly difficult and boring to read. But an incomprehensible force makes him read and read without end, not stopping, not taking a breath. And so, slowly, slowly, pass agonising hours in which delirium and consciousness endlessly alternate for Pavel Yegorovich.

After one of his absurd nightmares, he comes to with strange words in his mind. It seemed some quiet, importunate voice, barely audibly, whispered into his ear:

Let the New Year
Bring with it
Wine, bouts of drinking…

“Ah! The New Year,” thought Istomin, and smiled. “That old man who takes his leave, bowing down, as the new-born arrives… wine, bouts of drinking… a new-born arrives… and both have ribbons. Ribbons. Ribbons. Dots…”

But suddenly, as often happens in fever, an unexpected turn took place in the consciousness of Pavel Yegorovich. He almost completely came to his senses, and thought:

“Here I am lying in fever. Yes. And my wife and children are at the Parkhomovs. New Year. The last year of the century. Probably, they will make toasts. Children don’t like it, it’s boring. New Year brings with it… Ah, there I go into delirium again. New Year is drawn as an old man. Vulgar, in my opinion. The spirit needs to reflected. The spirit of the age. The spirit of the times. ‘Bring with it wine, bouts of drinking,’ whispers the voice. The eighteenth century—a marquise, a petit-maître in silk stockings [2] and diamond buckles. Our century—small, so small, hunchbacked, with two heads. But then again, there was Napoleon. Let the New Year bring with it… Ugh! What vile poems, Junkeric [3]. What am I on about? The spirit of the age, the spirit of the age… The spirit of the year, the spirit of the day, the spirit of the minute… everything adds up… One needs wine, bouts of drinking… One must understand, delve with spirit into spirit. Then the face of the spirit will take shape in the mist, and you will read in his face, and his parted lips.”

In weakness, Istomin closed his eyes, and heard immediately how that terrible voice, in which there was no timbre, no intonation, pronounced:

“The Spirit of the Age is speaking.”

Istomin listened, and along with him, a number of living beings, that he knew to be near beside him, although he could not see them, also listened.

“The Spirit of the Age is speaking,” the voice continued, “years pass him by, days pass him by, moments pass him by—and not a trace of them remains in the universe. And centuries pass by millennia, and not a trace of them remains in infinity. For he who understands infinity knows that there is no time.”

And suddenly Istomin saw an immense white field and throne set at its centre, on which sat an old man in white clothes, with a silvery beard and majestic but sad and tired face, on which there appeared a sad, thoughtful smile.

And the Old Man said: “I am the Spirit of the Age, and human years pass me by.”

And, one after the other, old, stooped men passed him by in a slow procession. But their clothes were not like the clothes of the old man on the throne. On some of them hung scraps of pitiful rags that barely covered their weak and dilapidated bodies, that would have been refused by the last beggar. Others were dressed in tsarist luxury, but the gold of their mantles was not visible from under the fetid dirt that covered them. Others still walked in chains of iron, crimson from head to toe in blood, blood was baked into their ancient lips, into the grey hairs of their heads. Among them were the lame, the hunchbacked, the leprous, beings covered with terrible sores. The old were among them, the emaciated by hunger, some had been disfigured by plague, some among them had been so brutally and awfully disfigured that it was terrible and repulsive to look upon them. And not one of them had either the white clothes of the one sitting on the throne, nor his majestic look. Suffering, fright, hatred, supplication, and despair were stamped onto their faces.

In slow procession, one after another, the ancient elders approached the one sitting on the throne, and he held out his arms to meet them, and bowed to them with a mild, compassionate smile. And, in his wide embraces, one after another, human years disappeared, dissolved.

And when they had all passed the infinite multitude of eyes of the invisible people and animals gathered there, the same indescribable voice asked:

“Tell us, Great Spirit, why neither the blood, nor the dirt, nor the sores, nor the rags of those that entered into you has tainted your clothes?”

And the Great Old Man answered with a sad smile:

“Because suffering cleanses everything, and oblivion cures everything…”

Istomin started and woke with an awareness that he felt much better than before. And the clock on the wall struck twelve.

Notes

[1] A reference to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, who wrote in The Diary of a Writer: “I believe that the main and most fundamental spiritual quest of the Russian people is their craving for suffering—perpetual and unquenchable suffering—everywhere and in everything. It seems that they have been affected by this thirst for martyrdom from time immemorial. The suffering stream flows through their whole history—not merely because of external calamities and misfortunes: it gushes from the people’s very heart” (Chapter V).

[2] Petit-maître—a young dandy, a fop, slavishly imitating everything French. From the French “maître,” literally “little master.”

[3] “Junker”—a pre-Revolutionary Russian term for a pupil at the military schools that trained officers.

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