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Boris Poplavsky: Аполлон Безобразов (Apollon Bezobrazov)

This book was not published in Poplavsky’s lifetime with only a few chapters being published in an émigré magazine. It was only serialised in a Russian magazine in 1992 and then only published in book form for the first time in 1993.

The novel is set in Paris in the 1920s and is narrated by Vasya, a young Russian, who meets the enigmatic Apollon Bezobrazov in Paris on Bastille Day. It was intended to be the first of a series of novels. One other was published (it has not been translated) but no other volume was completed.

We first meet Vasya as a down-and-out young Russian émigré. He has no money, doing odd jobs when he can and sleeping on park benches or, if lucky, in a bed during the day when friends are out at work. Despite this, he seems quite contented: this hopelessness was sweet. A civic death fit me quite smugly.

One day he notices a man seemingly just sitting in a boat on the Seine, anchored just two feet from the shore. The man is doing nothing. Vasya decides to go and join him. The man leaves the boat and Vasya follows him and then the man again enters the boat and Vasya follows him, as he sits for another hour in silence. Finally, they both leave the boat together and walk through the now deserted streets of Paris. The man is, of course, Apollon Bezobrazov.

The two become friends, with Vasya sleeping in Bezobrazov’s small lodgings. Apollon Beobrazov lived entirely in the now. For him the present was a golden wheel with no top or bottom. The world revolved to no purpose but because of its perfection, the present was not part of the programme and went free of charge.

Apollon is the ultimate flâneur, always wandering around and observing but he is also what we might call a character. He is strong, though does not look it, as he shows more than once. He likes joking, drinking, philosophising, the cinema and museums (the odder, the better) and Vasya accompanies him on his outings. He is often provocative. Don’t you secretly love the very tragedy of this world? If I had created the world I probably would have made it even more tragic. I would have doubled every conceivable burden and the amount of suffering, cruelty and illness, he says but he himself seems indifferent to his poverty.

There is a third key character, Vera-Tereza von Blitzenstiff, but known as Tereza. Her mother was Russo-German, her father a French aristocrat from Lorraine. The father is a religious fanatic. He has written a work on demonology and believes that the worst excesses of the Inquisition were justified. We are all born criminals and in our hearts we are murderers, he says to justify his cruelty to his children (Tereza has a brother), as children carry within them a flower which is already evil. The brother is rescued by a relative, on condition that he does not see his family again while Tereza is sent to a monastery.

Inevitably, her life in the monastery is not normal. She is in love with the abbot, who has a good-natured relationship with devils and he may well be in love with her. She hears voices and considers herself a star of the underworld. When the abbot dies and is replaced by a young priest, Robert, things get worse as he and Tereza do fall for each other. Both end up leaving. Tereza gets to Paris and ends up going to a ball.

This is a strange ball, seemingly primarily for the poor, where everything is done in a frenzy, with wild dancing and drinking. Vasya and Bezobrazov attend but Bezobrazov does nothing at the ball, just sits there. His thirst for life was gone. Gone to the last drop. How could he live? How could he think? The answer: non-existence cannot perish.

Of course, Tereza meets our heroes. Bezobrazov has not paid rent for some time so he is about to be thrown out of his flat. The three live on the streets, till they are rescued by Tikhon Bogomilov, a Siberian who is the son of an Old Believer and takes them to a mansion he is nominally looking after. The four, with Tikhon renamed Zeus by Bezobrazov live a strange existence in the furniture-less mansion till they are thrown out and move to a mansion on Lake Garda, where Bezobrazov explores the castle, digging up the basements, Tereza writes a diary and asks Why was my life vanishing? while Vasya daydreams. Robert, the former abbot, as mad as ever, turns up to complicate matters. Tereza is convinced that Bezobrazov is the devil – there is some evidence for it – and things take a turn for the worse.

This is a decidedly strange novel. Is Bezobrazov the devil? If so, whose soul is he trying to get and why? He clearly has an indifference to life yet, every so often, throws himself into it. I don’t want anything. I’m happy in my own way he comments. At times, he really does nothing. He sits for hours in the boat when Vasya first meets him and, similarly, he does the same thing at the ball, when, all around him, there is a mad frenzy taking place. Only Tereza’s arrival gets him out of his torpor. However, he eagerly explores the Swiss castle later on and, before that, when they were living in the mansion he often goes off for a week at at time, exploring. For example, he goes to Chartres, walking all the way, and sleeping outdoors.

Vasya, our narrator, is a nebulous character, a daydreamer, in love with Tereza but not one for taking much initiative on his own, while Tereza likes Vasya but thinks she is in love with Bezobrazov. Zeus and Bezobrazov’s philosopher friend, nicknamed Averroes only play small roles.

Overall, I did enjoy the book, not least because it was full of surprises. You could never tell what Bezobrazov was going to get up to next but you could be sure that it would be something you had not expected. Russian literature is full of holy fools, devilish characters and the like and Apollon Bezobrazov is certainly an interesting addition to the list.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Logos
First published 2015 in English by Three String Books
Translated by John Kopper