In my inner life, not only during my school years but throughout my youth, nature and individuals occupied a lesser place than books and ideas. Despite my country bringing-up, I was not sensitive to nature. My interest in it and my understanding of it came in later years, when childhood and even early youth were far behind. For a long time people passed through my mind like random shadows. I looked into myself and into books, in which in turn I tried again to find myself and my future.
My reading commenced in 1887 after the arrival at Yanovka of Moissey Filippovich, who brought with him a pile of books, including some of Tolstoy’s writings for the people. At first reading was more of a task than a pleasure. Every new book brought with it new obstacles, such as unfamiliar words, unintelligible human relationships, and the vagueness and instability which separate fancy from reality. Usually there was nobody at hand to answer my questions, and so I was often at sea beginning a book, giving it up and beginning it again joining the uncertain joy of knowledge with the fear of the unknown. One might perhaps liken my reading experiences during that period to a night drive on the steppes: squeaking wheels and voices crossing one another, bonfires along the road flaring up in the darkness; everything seems familiar and yet one does not quite grasp its meaning. What is happening? Who is driving past and carrying what? Even oneself where is one going, forward or backward? Nothing is clear, and there is nobody like Uncle Gregory to explain: “These are drivers carrying wheat.”
In Odessa the choice of books was vastly greater, and with it went attentive and sympathetic guidance. I devoured books ravenously and had to be forced to go out for walks. On my walks I would live through again in my mind what I had read, and then would hurry home to resume the reading. In the evenings I would beg to be allowed to stay up another quarter of an hour, or even only five minutes to finish the chapter. Hardly an evening passed without an argument of this kind.
The awakened hunger to see, to know, to absorb, found relief in this insatiable swallowing of printed matter, in the hands and lips of a child ever reaching out for the cup of ver bal fancy. Everything in my later life that was interesting or thrilling, gay or sad, was already present in my reading experiences as a hint, a promise, a slight and timid sketch in pencil or water-color.
During the first years of my stay in Odessa, reading aloud in the evenings, after I finished my home work and until I went to bed, gave me my happiest hours, or rather half-hours.
Moissey Filippovich usually read Pushkin or Nekrassov, more often the latter. But at the hour set, Fanny Solomonovna would say, “It’s time to go to bed, Lyova.” I would look at her with imploring eyes. “It’s time to sleep, little boy,” Moissey Filippovich would say. “Another five minutes,” I begged, and the five minutes were granted. After that, I kissed them good-night and went off with the feeling that I could listen to their reading all night, though I had scarcely laid my head on the pillow before I was fast asleep.
A girl in the last grade of high school, a distant relative called Sophia, came to stay with the Schpentzers for a few weeks until her family got over an attack of scarlet fever. She was a very capable and well-read girl, although, since she lacked originality and character, she soon faded away for me. But I admired her tremendously, and every day found in her new stores of knowledge and new qualities; by contrast I appeared in my own eyes as utterly insignificant. I helped her by copying her examination programme, and generally in various other small ways. In return, when the grown-ups were resting after dinner, she would read aloud to me. Before long we began to compose together a satirical poem, A Journey to the Moon. In this work I always lagged behind. No sooner had I made some modest suggestion than the senior collaborator would catch the idea “on the wing,” develop it, introduce variations, and pick up rhymes without effort, what time I was, so to speak, being hauled in tow. When the six weeks were up and Sophia returned to her home, I felt that I had grown older.
Among the more notable friends of the family there was Sergey Ivanovich Sychevsky, an old journalist and a romantic personality, who was known in the South of Russia as an authority on Shakespeare. He was a gifted man but was addicted to drink. Because of this weakness, he wore a guilty air toward people, even toward children. He had known Fanny Solomonovna since her early youth, and called her “Fannyushka.” Sergey Ivanovich became attached to me at the very first meeting. After asking what we were studying at school, the old man told me to write a paper comparing Pushkin’s Poet and Bookseller with Nekrassov’s Poet and Citizen. This nearly took my breath away. I had never even read the second work and, what was still more important, I was intimidated by the fact that Sychevsky was an author. The very word “author” sounded to me as if it was uttered from some unattainable height. “We will read it right away,” said Sergey Ivanovich, and began instantly to read. He read superbly. “Did you understand? Well, put it all into your essay.” They seated me in the study, gave me Pushkin’s and Nekrassov’s works, paper and ink.
“I tell you, I can’t do it,” I swore in a tragic whisper to Fanny Solomonovna. “What can I write here?”
“Now, don’t you get excited,” she answered, stroking my head. “You write just as you understand it that’s all.”
Her hand was tender, and so was her voice. I calmed down a little, or rather got my frightened vanity under control, and began to write. About an hour later, I was summoned to show the result. I brought in a large sheet of paper, written all over, and, shaking in my boots as I never did at school, handed it to the “author.” Sergey Ivanovich ran over a few lines in silence, and, turning his sparkling eyes to me, exclaimed: “Just listen to what he wrote. He is a smart fellow, I swear!” And then he read: “‘The poet lived with his beloved nature, whose every sound, both gay and sad, echoed in the Poet’s heart.’ Didn’t he word it beautifully, ‘whose every sound’ just listen to this ‘both gay and sad, echoed in the Poet’s heart’” And so deeply did those words engrave themselves that day on my own mind that I have remembered them ever since.
At dinner, Sergey Ivanovich joked a great deal, delved into memories of the past, and told stories, finding inspiration in the glass of vodka which was always ready at his call. Now and again he looked at me across the table and said: “Where ever did you learn to put it so well? Really, I must give you a kiss.” Then, wiping his mustache carefully with a napkin, he rose and with unsteady steps set out on a trip around the table. I sat as if waiting for some catastrophic blow; a gladsome blow, it is true, but catastrophic all the same. “Go and meet him, Lyova,” Moissey Filippovich whispered to me. After dinner Sergey Ivanovich recited from memory the satirical Popov’s Dream. Tensely I watched his gray mustache, from under which there escaped such funny words. The author’s half-drunken state did not in the least impair his eminence in my eyes. Children possess a remarkable power of abstraction.
In the evenings before it was dark I sometimes went for walks with Moissey Filippoyich, and when he was in a good humor we talked about all sorts of things. On one occasion he told me the story of the opera Faust, which he liked very much. As I eagerly followed the story, I hoped that one day I might hear the opera on the stage. From a change in his tone, however, I became aware that the story was approaching a delicate point. I was quite disturbed by his embarrassment and began to fear that I should not hear the end of the story. But Moissey Filippovich recovered his calm and continued: “Then a baby was born to Gretchen before marriage . . . ” We both felt relieved when we had passed this point; after that the story was safely brought to its conclusion.
I was in bed with a bandaged throat, and by way of consolation was given Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The remark of the doctor in the nursing home about the woman’s not having a wedding-ring perplexed me utterly.
“What does it mean?” I asked Moissey Filippovich. “What has the wedding-ring to do with it?”
“Oh,” said he, somewhat haltingly, “it is simply that when people are not married, they wear no wedding-ring.”
I recalled Gretchen. And the fate of Oliver Twist was spun out in my imagination from a ring, a ring which did not exist. The forbidden world of human relations burst into my consciousness fitfully from books, and much that I had heard spoken of in a casual, and usually coarse and gross manner, now through literature became generalized and ennobled, rising to some higher plane.
At that time, public opinion was stirred up over Tolstoy’s Power of Darkness, which had just appeared. People discussed it with great earnestness and were unable to come to any definite conclusion. Pobedonostzev succeeded in inducing Czar Alexander III to prohibit the play from being performed. I knew that Moissey Filippovich and Fanny Solomonovna, after I had gone to bed, read the play in the adjoining room. I could hear the murmur of their voices. “May I read it, too?” I asked. “No, dear, you are too young for that,” came the answer, and it sounded so categorical that I made no attempt to argue. At the same time I noticed that the slim new volume found its way to the familiar book-shelf. Seizing an opportunity when my guardians were out, I read Tolstoy’s play in a few hurried instalments. It impressed me much less vividly than my mentors apparently feared it would. The most tragic scenes, such as the strangling of the child and the conversation about the creaking bones, were accepted not as a terrible reality, but as a literary invention, a stage trick; in other words, I did not really grasp them at all.
During a vacation in the country, while I was exploring a book-shelf high up under the ceiling, I came across a booklet brought home from Elizavetgrad by my elder brother. I opened it and instantly sensed something extraordinary and secret. This was a court report of a murder case in which a little girl was the victim of a sexual crime. I read the book, strewn with medical and legal details, with my mind all astir and alarmed, as if I had found myself in a wood at night, stumbling against ghostlike, moonlit trees and not able to find my way out. Human psychology, particularly in the case of children, has its own buffers, brakes, and safety-valves an extensive and well-devised system which stands guard against untimely and too drastic shocks.
My first visit to the theatre took place when I was in the preparatory class at school. It was like no other experience, and beggars description. I was sent, under the chaperonage of the school janitor, Gregory Kholod, to see a Ukrainian play. I sat pale as a sheet so Gregory afterward reported to Fanny Solomonovna and was tortured by a joy which was more than I could bear. During the intermissions I did not leave my seat, lest God forbid! I might miss something. The performance ended with a comic sketch: A Tenant with a Trombone. The tension of drama was now relieved by riotous laughter. I swayed in my seat, now throwing back my head, and now again riveting my eyes on the stage. At home I related the story of the tenant with a trombone, adding more and more details every time, hoping to arouse the laughter which I had just experienced. To my great disappointment, I found my efforts quite wasted. “It seems you did not like the Nazar Stodolya at all did you?” asked Moissey Filippovich. I felt these words as an inner reproach. I thought of Nazar’s sufferings and said: “No, it was quite remarkable.”
Before passing to the third grade, I lived for a short time outside Odessa in the summer home of my engineer uncle. There I attended an amateur theatrical in which a boy from our school, Kruglyakov, played the part of a servant. Kruglyakov was a weak-chested, freckled boy, with intelligent eyes, but in a very poor state of health. I became greatly attached to him and begged him to stage some play with me. We chose Pushkin’s The Niggardly Knight. I had to act the role of the son, and Kruglyakov that of the father. I unreservedly accepted his guidance, and spent whole days learning Pushkin’s lines. What delicious excitement this was! Soon, however, everything went to pieces: Kruglyakov’s parents vetoed his participation in the theatrical on account of his health. When school opened again, he attended classes only the first few weeks. I always tried to catch him after school so that I could engage him in literary conversation on the way home. Soon after that, Kruglyakov disappeared altogether. I learned that he was ill. A few months later came the report that he had died of consumption.
The magic of the theatre held its spell over me for several years. Later I developed a fondness for Italian opera, which was the pride of Odessa. In the sixth grade I even did some tutoring to earn money for the theatre. For several months I was mutely in love with the coloratura soprano bearing the mysterious name of Giuseppina Uget, who seemed to me to have descended from heaven to the stage-boards of the Odessa theatre.
I was not supposed to read newspapers. But the rule was not very strictly observed, and gradually, with a few setbacks, I won the right to read papers, more particularly the feuilleton columns. The centre of interest in the press of Odessa was occupied by the theatre, especially the opera, and such public divisions of opinion as occurred were mainly inspired by theatrical preferences. This was the only sphere in which the newspapers were allowed to display any semblance of temperament.
In those days the star of Doroshevich, the feuilleton-columnist, shone particularly brightly. Within a short time he became the idol of the city, although he wrote of small and, not infrequently, trivial things. But unquestionably he had talent, and by the daring form of his actually innocent articles he let fresh air into an Odessa oppressed to a state of strangulation by the governor, Zelenoy 2d. When I opened the morning paper, I immediately looked for the name of Doroshevich. This enthusiasm for his articles was then shared both by the moderate fathers and by their children who had not yet become immoderate.
From early years my love for words had now been losing now gaining in force, but generally putting down ever firmer roots. In my eyes, authors, journalists, and artists always stood for a world which was more attractive than any other, one open only to the elect.
In the second grade we started a magazine. Moissey Filippovich and I had many talks on this subject, and Moissey Filippovich even devised a title: The Drop the idea being that the second grade of the St. Paul realschule was contributing its “drop” to the ocean of literature. I embodied this in a poem which took the place of an introductory article. There were other poems and stories, likewise mostly mine. One of our draftsmen decorated the cover with an involved ornamental design. Somebody suggested showing The Drop to Krizhanovsky. The commission was undertaken by the boy Y., who lived in Krizhanovsky’s house. He performed his task with real brilliance: he rose from his seat, walked up to the master’s desk, firmly laid The Drop upon it, ceremoniously bowed, and returned to his seat. We all held our breath. Krizhanovsky looked at the cover, made a few grimaces with his mustache, eyebrows, and beard, and silently began to read. There was complete quiet in the room; only the leaves of The Drop rustled. Then he got up from his desk and with great feeling read aloud my “Pure little drop.” “Good?” he asked. “Good,” answered the boys in chorus. “Yes, it may be good, but the author knows nothing about versification. Now, tell me, what is a dactyl?” he turned to me, having guessed the author behind the thinly disguised nom-de-plume. “I don’t know,” I had to confess. “Then I’ll tell you.” And neglecting several lessons in grammar and syntax, Krizhanovsky explained to the little second-grade boys the mysteries of metric versification. “And as for the magazine,” he said at the end, “it will be better if you don’t bother about it or the ocean of literature either, but let this be just your exercise-book.” It must be explained that school magazines were forbidden at that time. The question, however, found a different solution. The peaceful course of my studies was suddenly interrupted by my expulsion from the St. Paul realschule.
From the days of my childhood I had many conflicts in life, which sprang, as a jurist would say, out of the struggle against injustice. The same motive not infrequently determined my making or breaking of friendships. It would take too long to go through all the numerous episodes. But there were two which assumed considerable proportions.
My biggest conflict occurred in the second grade with Burnande, whom we nicknamed “The Frenchman,” though he was really a Swiss. In the school the German language, to some extent, rivaled the Russian. Our French, on the other hand, showed very little progress. Most of the boys learned French for the first time at school, but the German colonists found it particularly difficult. Burnande waged a relentless war against the Germans. His favorite victim was Vakker. The latter was really a very poor scholar. But this time many if not all of us got the impression that the boy did not deserve the lowest marks that Burnande gave him. And that day Burnande was even more ferocious than ever, swallowing a double dose of dyspepsia tablets.
“Let’s give him a concert,” the boys began whispering around, winking at and nudging one another. Among them I occupied not the least place, perhaps even the first. Such concerts had occasionally been arranged before, particularly in honor of the drawing-master, who was disliked for his spiteful stupidity. To give a concert meant to accompany the steps of the teacher while he was leaving the classroom with a howling sound made with a closed mouth, so that one could not tell who was actually doing it. Once or twice Burnande got it, but in a mild and considerably muffled form, as he was feared. This time, however, we mustered all our courage. The moment the Frenchman put the school “journal” under his arm, there came, from the extreme flank, a howl which spread in a rolling wave to the desks in front. I, for my part, did what I could. Burnande, who had already stepped through the door, instantly turned back, and stood in the middle of the room, face to face with his enemies, his face pale-green and his eyes darting fire, but without uttering a word. The boys behind the desks, particularly those in the front seats, looked innocence itself. Those in the back seats were busy with their kits as if nothing had happened. After staring at us for half a minute Burnande turned to the door in such a fury that the tails of his coat blew out like sails. The Frenchman was accompanied this time by a unanimous and enthusiastic howl which followed him far down the corridor.
Before the next lesson began there came into the classroom Burnande, Schwannebach, and the class monitor Mayer, who was known among the boys as “Ram” on account of his bulging eyes, strong forehead, and torpid brain. Schwannebach essayed something resembling an introductory speech, all the while circumnavigating with extreme care the hidden reefs of the Russian declensions and conjugations. Burnande breathed revenge. And Mayer scrutinized the boys’ faces with his protruding eyes, calling out those known to be sportive, and saying: “You are sure to have been in it.” Some boys mildly protested their innocence; others maintained silence. In this way ten or fifteen boys were picked out for detention “without dinner,” some for one hour, and some for two hours. The rest were allowed to go home, and I was of their number, although I believe I saw Burnande cast an intensely prying glance at me during the roll-call. I did nothing to obtain exemption. Neither did I accuse myself. I left the school rather with a feeling of regret, as staying with the other boys would have promised a jolly time.
Next morning, when I was on my way to school with the memory of the previous day’s incident barely present in my mind, I was stopped at the gate by one of the punished boys. “Look here,” he said, “you’re in for trouble. Yesterday Danilov accused you before Mayer, Mayer called Burnande, then the head master came, and they all tried to find out if you were the ringleader.”
My heart sank into my boots. And at the same moment the monitor, Peter Pavlovich, emerged. “Go to the head master,” he said. The fact that he had waited for me at the entrance, and the tone in which he addressed me, augured ill. Inquiring of one doorman after another, I found my way into the mystery-wrapt corridor where the head master’s room was, and there I stopped outside his door. The head master passed me, looked at me gravely and shook his head. I stood there, more dead than alive. The head master came out of his room again and only let fall: “All right! All right!” I realized that in point of fact it was not all right at all. A few minutes later teachers began to come out of their room next door, the majority of them hurrying to their classrooms with out so much as noticing me. Krizhanovsky answered my bow with a sly grimace which seemed to say: “Got in a mess, my boy. I’m sorry for you, but such is fate.” And Burnande, after my courteous bow, came right up to me, bent his spiteful little beard over me, and waving his hands said: “The star student of the second grade is a moral outcast,” then turned and walked away. A few minutes later the “Ram” straddled up. “That’s the sort of bird you are,” he said with apparent satisfaction. “We’ll teach you a lesson.” Then my long torture commenced. In my classroom, from which I was kept away, there was no lesson: a cross-examination was going on there. Burnande, the head master, Mayer, and the “inspector” Kaminsky formed a supreme investigating committee to inquire into the case of the moral outcast.
It began, as transpired afterward, with one of the punished boys complaining to Mayer during the detention in school:
“We have been unjustly punished. The one who made the most noise went scot-free. B. egged the other boys on and shouted himself, and he was allowed to go home. And Carlson, he will tell you so, too.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Mayer, “B. is a well-behaved boy.”
But Carlson, the boy who recommended Binneman to me as the cleverest man in Odessa, corroborated the accusation, as did a few others. Mayer called Burnande. Encouraged and urged on by their superiors, infecting one another with their example, there emerged ten or twelve informers from the entire body of boys.
They began to search their memories. A year before B. had said something during a walk about the head master. B. had repeated it to somebody else. B. had taken part in the “concert” to Zmigordsky. Vakker, who was the cause of all the trouble, said in a moving voice: “I cried, as you know, because Gustave Samoilovich gave me the lowest marks, and B. came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Don’t cry, Vakker, we will write the inspector-general such a letter that he will dismiss Burnande.’”
“Write to whom?”
“Is that so! And what did you say?”
“I said nothing, of course.”
Danilov picked up the story: “That’s quite true. B. suggested writing a letter to the inspector-general, but not to sign it, so as not to get expelled, but to let every one write one character in the letter in turn.”
“I see,” gloated Burnande, “every one a character in turn!”
All of the boys, without exception, were cross-examined. A number of them flatly denied everything, both what did not happen, and what did. One of them was Kostya R., who wept bitterly at seeing his best friend, the star student, so shamefully betrayed. The informers denounced these stubborn deniers as my friends. Panic reigned in the classroom. The majority of the boys closed up and said nothing. For once Danilov was playing first-fiddle, which had never happened to him before, and never did again. I stood in the corridor near the head master’s room, next to a yellow polished cupboard, like a man who had committed a grave crime against the state. There the principal witnesses were brought in turn to confront the accused. In the end I was told to go home.
“Go and tell your parents to come here.”
“My parents are way down in the country.”
“Then tell your guardians.”
Only the day before, I had held the undisputed rank of star student, quite a distance ahead of the next boy. Even Mayer had never so much as suspected me. To-day I lay prostrate on the ground, and Danilov, who was known for his laziness and naughtiness, was reviling me in front of the entire class and the authorities of the school. What had happened? Had I come too rashly to the aid of an injured boy who was not my friend and for whom otherwise I had no feeling of sympathy? Or had I placed too much confidence in the united support of the class? I was in no mood for these generalizations, how ever, while I was returning to the Pokrovsky Alley. With a distorted face and beating heart, in a flood of words and tears, I related what happened. My guardians tried to console me as best they could, though they themselves were greatly perturbed. Fanny Solomonovna went to see the head master, the inspector Krizhanovsky, and Yurchenko, trying to explain, to persuade, and quoting her own experience as a teacher. All this was being done without my knowledge. I sat in my room, with my kit unopened on the table, and moped. Days passed. How would it end? The head master said: “A meeting of the teachers’ council will be called to consider the question in its entirety.” This sounded awe-inspiring.
The meeting took place. Moissey Filippovich went to hear the decision. I waited for his return with greater excitement than I did in later years for the sentence of the Czar’s court.
The entry downstairs resounded with the familiar bang, familiar footsteps mounted the iron staircase, the dining-room door opened, and simultaneously from another room appeared Fanny Solomonovna. Gently I lifted my curtain. “Expelled,” said Moissey Filippovich in a voice that betrayed fatigue. “Expelled?” asked Fanny Solomonovna, catching her breath. “Expelled,” repeated Moissey Filippovich in a still lower tone. I said nothing, only glanced at Moissey Filippovich and Fanny Solomonovna, and withdrew behind my curtain. During the summer vacation, on a visit to Yanovka, Fanny Solomonovna described the scene: “When this word was uttered he turned all green, so that I became very alarmed about him.” I did not cry. I merely pined.
At the teachers’ council, three degrees of expulsion were debated: without the right of joining any school; without the right of re-entering the St. Paul realschule; and finally, with the right of re-entering the latter. The last and most lenient form was selected. I shuddered at the thought of the effect that breaking the news would have on my parents. My guardians did everything in their power to soften the blow. Fanny Solomonovna wrote a long letter to my elder sister, with instructions as to how the news should be broken. I stayed on in Odessa until the end of the school year, and went home for the vacation as usual. During the long evenings, when my father and mother were already asleep, I would relate to my sister and oldest brother how it all happened, impersonating the teachers and the boys. The memory of their own school life was still fresh with my sister and brother. At the same time they regarded themselves as my superiors. Now they shook their heads, and then they burst out laughing over my story. From laughter my sister went on to tears and cried copiously, with her head resting on the table. It was decided then that I was to go on a visit somewhere for a week or two, and while I was away my sister would tell Father everything. She herself was rather frightened by her commission. After the academic failure of my oldest brother, my father’s ambition had centred in me. The first years seemed to bear out his hopes, and then suddenly all had gone down with a crash.
Returning to my home from the visit with a boy friend Grisha, the grandson of Moissey Kharitonovich, the right-handed musician I instantly perceived that everything was known. Mother welcomed Grisha very cordially, but pretended that she did not see me at all. On the contrary, Father behaved as if nothing had happened. But a few days later, while he was resting in the cool hall after coming home from the fields, he suddenly asked me in the presence of Mother: “Show me how you whistled at your head master. Like this? With two fingers in the mouth?” And illustrating, he burst out laughing. Mother, greatly surprised, kept moving her eyes from Father to myself. On her face a smile struggled with indignation; how could one talk with such levity about such dreadful things? But Father persisted in his demand: “Show how you whistled.” And his laughter grew still merrier. Pained as he was, he obviously relished the idea that his offspring, despite his title of the star student, had daring enough to whistle at high officials. In vain did I try to convince him that there was no whistling, but only a peaceful and perfectly innocent howl. He insisted that it was whistling. It ended up with Mother bursting into tears.
I made hardly any effort to prepare for the examinations. What had taken place made me lose, for the time being, all interest in study. I spent a restless summer with ever-recurring flare-ups of ill temper, and about a fortnight before the examinations returned to Odessa, but even there worked very badly. Perhaps the greatest effort I made was in the study of French. At the actual examination, however, Burnande confined himself to a few cursory questions. Other teachers asked even less. I was admitted to the third grade. There I met most of the boys who had either betrayed me, or defended me, or had remained neutral. This determined my personal relations for a long time. Some boys I cut completely; with others who had supported me during these trying moments, I became even more friendly.
Such, one might say, was the first political test I underwent. These were the groups that resulted from that episode: the tale-bearers and the envious at one pole, the frank, courageous boys at the other, and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. These three groups never quite disappeared even during the years that followed. I met them again and again in my life, in the most varied circumstances.
The snow was not yet all cleared from the streets but it was already warm. The housetops, the trees, and the sparrows proclaimed the spring. The fourth-grade boy was walking home, carrying in his hand, against all regulations, a strap from his kit, the reason being that the hook was torn off. The long coat seemed useless and heavy, merely causing one’s body to perspire. Fatigue went with it. The boy saw everything in a new light, himself above all. The spring sun stimulated the feeling that there was something immeasurably mightier than the school, the inspector, and the kit hanging aslant on the back mightier than studying, chess, dinners and even reading and the theatre; in short, than all of one’s every-day life. And the longing after this something unfathomed, commanding obedience and rising high above the individual, seized upon the boy’s entire being down to the marrow of his bones and called forth the sweet pain of exhaustion.
He came home with a buzzing head, with painful music in his temples. Dropping the kit on the table, he lay down on the bed and, hardly realizing what he was doing, began to weep into the pillow. To find an excuse for his tears, he recalled pitiful scenes from books and from his own life, as if to feed the furnace with fresh fuel, and wept and wept with tears of spring longing. He was in the fourteenth year of his life.
From his childhood the boy had suffered from a disease which the doctors in their official certificates described as chronic catarrh of the digestive tract, and which was closely intertwined with his entire life. Often he had to take medicine, and go on a diet. Nervous shocks nearly always affected his digestion. In the fourth grade, the disease became so acute that it crippled his studies. After a long but unsuccessful course of treatment, the doctors passed sentence: the invalid must be sent to the country.
I received the doctors’ verdict with pleasure rather than with regret. But it was necessary to gain the consent of my parents. It was necessary to get a tutor to stay with me in the country to avoid losing a year at school. This meant extra expense, and they did not like extra expense at Yanovka. With the help of Moissey Filippovich, however, the matter was finally ar ranged. The student G. was engaged as a tutor a little man with a huge mane of hair, grown noticeably gray on the sides. He was slightly vain, and slightly fantastic, very talkative and utterly lacking in character, one of that type of former undergraduate with an uncompleted education which never succeeds in life. He wrote verse and even had two poems published in the local paper. The two issues were always with him, and he was only too pleased to show them. His relations with me were subject to spasmodic outbursts tending constantly to get worse. At first G. established with me a relationship of ever growing familiarity, insisting on every occasion that he wanted to be my friend. To this end he showed me the photograph of a certain Claudia and described their rather complicated relations. Then he would suddenly draw back and demand from me the respectful attitude due the teacher from his pupil. This grotesque situation ended badly; there was a violent quarrel, and a final break between us. But even the episode with the tutor was not without effect, whatever one may think of it. Here was a man with graying hair confiding to me the secrets of his association with a woman who in her photograph looked very imposing. This made me feel older.
In the upper grades the teaching of literature passed from Krizhanovsky to the hands of Gamov. The latter was still a young man, fair-haired, rather plump, very short-sighted, and without the least spark of interest in his subject. We dismally tottered along after him from chapter to chapter. To top this off, Gamov was also not punctual and would put off indefinitely the reviewing of our papers. In the fifth grade we were supposed to do four home papers on literature. I began to regard the task with an ever-growing attachment. I read not only the sources indicated by the teacher, but a number of other books as well, copying out facts and passages, altering and appropriating the sentences that caught my imagination, and in general working with a great enthusiasm which did not always stop at the threshold of innocent plagiarism. There were a few other boys who did not regard composition merely as an odious task.
Excitedly some with fear, others with hope the fifth-grade boys waited for the grading of their work. But the marks never arrived. The same thing happened in the second quarter of the school year. In the third quarter I handed in a paper which filled an entire pad. A week passed, then a second, and a third but there was no trace of our work. Cautiously we brought the fact to Gamov’s attention. His answer was evasive. At the next lesson Yablonovsky, also an eager composition-writer, put the question pointblank to Gamov: what was the reason for our never learning the fate of our papers, and what did actually happen to them? Gamov sharply told him to shut up. But Yablonovsky would not give up. Knitting his eyebrows still closer together, he began nervously to pull at the top of his desk, and, raising his voice, kept repeating that it was “impossible to go on working like this.”
“I must ask you again to keep silent and sit down,” answered Gamov. But Yablonovsky would neither sit down nor stop talking. “Please leave the room,” shouted Gamov. My relations with Yablonovsky had not been friendly for some time. The affair with Burnande in the second grade taught me to be more circumspect. But here I felt that I could not keep silent. “Anton Mikailovich,” I cried, “Yablonovsky is right and we all support him.”
“He’s right, he’s right,” echoed other boys. Gamov at first seemed somewhat taken aback, but immediately recovered, and flying into a rage shouted at the top of his voice: “I know myself what to do and when to do it . . . I don’t take orders from you. You are violating the rules . . . ” We had evidently touched some sore spot.
“We only want to see our papers, that’s all,” a third one chimed in. Gamov was fuming. “Yablonovsky, leave the room at once!” he shouted. Yablonovsky did not budge. “Go out, do go out,” came whispers from all sides. Shrugging his shoulders, rolling the whites of his eyes, and stamping heavily with his boots, Yablonovsky left the room, banging the door with all the force he could muster. At the beginning of recess Kaminsky slid into the room on his noiseless rubber soles. This was a bad omen. The room became very quiet. In a husky falsetto voice like a drunkard’s, he administered a short, but very stern reproof containing a threat of expulsion from the school, and announced the punishment: Yablonovsky to be put in solitary confinement for twenty-four hours, and to be given a “three” in conduct; for me, twenty-four hours in solitary confinement; and for the third protestant, twelve hours. That was the second hole on my academic road. The case brought no other important consequences. Gamov did not return our papers, in spite of everything. And we too tried to forget the matter.
That year was marked by the death of the Czar. The event seemed tremendous, even incredible, but very distant, like an earthquake in another country. Neither I nor the people about me were at all moved by the Czar’s illness, felt any sympathy for him, or any sorrow on account of his death. When I came to school the following morning, the place seemed gripped by something like a great, but causeless panic. “The Czar is dead,” said the boys one to another, and did not know what to say next, or how to express their feelings, for they did not realize themselves what this feeling was. But they knew well that there would be no classes, and, without showing it, were pleased at the prospect, particularly those who had not done their homework, or who were afraid of being called down. The janitor directed all comers into the big hall where requiem services were being arranged. The priest in gold spectacles said a few appropriate words: children are grieved when their father dies how much greater must be the grief when the father of the whole people dies! But there was no grief. The requiem dragged on. It was trying and dull. Everybody was ordered to put a mourning-band around his left arm and to cover the badge on his cap with black muslin. Everything else went on as before.
In the fifth grade, the boys were already exchanging views about going to college and choosing their vocations. A great deal of talk centred on the competitive entrance examinations, on the sternness of the St. Petersburg professors toward the applicants, the tricky problems that were asked, and the specialists in St. Petersburg who coached boys for their examinations. Among the older boys we knew, there were some who went to St. Petersburg year after year, flunked the examinations, prepared again, and again went through the same experience. At the thought of these future trials many a boy felt his heart freeze two years before the time.
The sixth grade passed without incident. Everybody was anxious to escape from the school drudgery as soon as possible. The matriculation examinations were staged with all pomp in the great hall, and with the participation of university professors sent especially by the educational authorities. The head master would open with great solemnity the package received from the inspector-general, which contained the subject for the papers. Its announcement was usually followed by a general sigh of fear, as if everybody had been dipped into icy water. The nervous suspense made one think that the task was utterly beyond one’s powers. But further consideration soon revealed that the fears were much exaggerated. As the time drew toward the end of the two hours allotted for each paper, the teachers themselves would help us deceive the vigilance of the regional authorities. Having finished my paper, I did not hand it in immediately but remained in the hall, by a tacit agreement with the inspector Krizhanovsky, and engaged in animated correspondence with those who found themselves in difficulties.
The seventh grade was considered a supplementary one. There was no seventh grade in the St. Paul realschule and this necessitated a transfer to another school. In the interim we found ourselves free citizens. For the occasion everybody outfitted himself in civilian attire. The very evening of the day we received our diplomas, a large group of us disported ourselves in the Summer Garden, where gay cabaret actresses sang on the open stage and where schoolboys were strictly forbidden to enter. We all wore neckties and smoked cigarettes, and there were two bottles of beer adorning the table. Deep in our hearts we were afraid of our own daring. No sooner had we opened the first bottle when the school monitor Wilhelm, nicknamed “the goat” because of his bleating voice, sprang up right before our table. Instinctively we made an effort to rise, and felt our hearts jump. But everything came off well. “You are already here?” said Wilhelm with a tinge of regret in his voice, and graciously shook hands with us. The eldest of the boys, K., wearing a ring on his little finger, nonchalantly invited the monitor to have a glass of beer with us. This was carrying it too far. Wilhelm, with a show of dignity, declined and, hurriedly saying “good-by,” walked away in search of the boys who ventured to step over the forbidden threshold of the Garden. With redoubled awareness of our own status we attacked the beer.
The seven years I spent in the school, beginning with the preparatory class, had their joys too. But it would seem that these were not as plentiful as sorrows. The color of my memory of the school, taken as a whole, has remained if not quite black, at least decidedly gray. Above all the episodes of school life, whether gay or sad, towered the regime of soulless, official formalism. It would be difficult to name a single teacher of whom I could think with genuine affection. And yet our school was not the worst. It certainly did teach me a few things: elementary knowledge, the habit of methodical work, and out ward discipline. All these came in advantageously in my later life. The same school, however, sowed in me, contrary to its direct purpose, the seeds of enmity for the existing order. These seeds, at any rate, did not fall on barren ground.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00