Fyodor Sologub: Творимая легенда (The Created Legend)
Капли крови (Drops of Blood)
This book was a complete change of pace for Sologub. We have moved from the harsh satire of Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon) and into what can only be described as fantasy, though fantasy with the background of the harsh life of Russia. The book was not well received in Russia at the time and critics are still divided on it. It was written after the 1905 Revolution and this partially influences the book.
The focus is on Giorgiy Sergeyevitch Trirodov, a retired private teacher who has bought a large but strange house, once owned by a relative of theirs. (It was said that the house was inhabited by ghosts, and by phantoms who had left their graves.) It is still somewhat mysterious. We actually start with two sisters, Elisaveta and Elena Rameyev. While bathing (naked) they are observed by a schoolboy. They are aware of him and, once they get dressed and decide to walk into the wood past the house. They come to a gate which they cannot open but then a strange boy comes and opens it and they go in. There they find a group of children (some thirty boys and girls were singing and dancing; their dance followed strictly the rhythm of the tune and interpreted the words of the song with beautiful fidelity). They meet Nadezhda Vestchezerova who says to them We have come from the town into the woods. From the wild beast, from the savages of the town. The beast must be killed. The wolf and the fox and the hawk—all those who prey upon others—they must be killed. They are invited into the house and meet Kirsha, Trirodov’s son and Triridov himself. Triridov’s wife has died. The house has a strange effect on them. As Triridov puts it Terror and joy live here together.
This is the period in the early twentieth century when revolution was in the air or, as Sologub puts it, This was in those days when the red demon of murder was prowling in our native land, and his terrible deeds brought discord and hate into the bosom of peaceful families. We meet friends of Elizaveta and Elena who are involved in social reform. Gradually, we get a portrait of Russia around the time of the 1905 Revolution, with those involved in social protest and those opposing it. The police become more and more active, raiding houses, arresting people and spying on them. The Cossacks are brought in to brutally repress any form of protest, with resultant injuries and deaths. We also see the activities of the Black Hundreds, a right-wing group who, at least in this book, act as spies, provocateurs and thugs, beating up and killing left-wing protesters and Jews. Both Triridov and the Rameyevs are involved in the protests.
The focus, however, is on Triridov. His colony/school, based on modern principles of free expression, comes in for a lot of criticism. But he also communes with the ghosts of the dead, raises a boy thought dead from the grave, writes poetry and has, apparently, a past, for which Ostrov, an actor, tries to blackmail him. He also falls in love – with Elisaveta, to the chagrin of Piotr, her cousin. With sprites and spirits and the ghosts of the dead, lots of women running around naked, an unconventional school, revolution, an organised gang of crooks and. apparently, past lives, about which we will learn more in the next volume, this book is something of a mishmash, not entirely sure if it is social commentary, fantasy, a love story or an old-fashioned story. Indeed, critics such as Gorky condemned it for this, finding the fantasy element incompatible with the social realism they espoused.
Королева Ортруда (Queen Ortruda)
The second book really does plunge into fantasy. The eponymous Queen Ortruda is Queen of the United Isles. This is a small country which used to be powerful but is no longer. However, it does exist in the real world, as they discuss other real countries such as France, England, Spain and even Russia (which is described as a horrible country with a terrifying reality) and even talk about cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Ortruda actually became queen before she was born, as her father died when her mother was pregnant with her. Her mother, Queen Clara, acted as regent till Ortruda reached her majority. At her coronation, she met Prince Tankred. The pair fell in love and married a year later. Tankred was initially a good prince consort. He was a military man but not too ambitious and did not expect any favours in the army, doing his duty as prescribed. However, he has gradually changed. He has had numerous affairs. These have proved an expensive business. Initially, he lived well within the civil list pension he was given by parliament but now, with the cost of wooing his various mistresses and bribing various people to keep quiet about his affairs, his expenses have gone up and he is permanently in debt and permanently borrowing, including from his mother-in-law. He has also become involved in politics, something he initially kept away from, In particular, he has allied himself with the group that is in favour of the United Isles becoming more powerful, including acquiring colonies, a strong fleet and army and competing with the major European powers on the world stage. It has been pointed out, however, not least by the Queen, that the United Isles does not have the resources to do this. Moreover, with clearly a reference by Sologub to the situation in Russia, the United Isles faces a lot of social discontent, with a huge disparity between rich and poor and social unrest.
However, as this is a fantasy, we do have some fantasy elements. There is a white ghost in the castle which the Queen claims to have seen (with all the features we would expect in such a book when someone sees a ghost). There is a mysterious passage in the castle which is known only to the reigning monarch and the Marshal of the Court. There is an offshore island called Dragonera which is volcanic. The volcano started erupting the day of the coronation and has been doing so since. Obviously, we know that it is going to get serious. The Queen also sees a mighty spirit called the Radiant One. She is also given to wandering alone in the woods (and nearly gets herself killed by smugglers.) We even have a Hammer horror/Indiana Jones mysterious ceremony in an underground cavern.
The book takes a fairly predictable course. Tankred’s affairs get more and more out of hand and, inevitably, Ortruda learns about them. She too has her men whom she lusts after. Tankred’s finances also get out of hand and he becomes more and more compromised, pushing for colonisation and increased army and navy expenditure. The social unrest also increases and there are plots afoot. Because of the social unrest and Tankred’s activities, the Queen becomes less and less popular and the government even stages a fake assassination to increase her popularity. We know that the volcano is going to seriously erupt and bring about a showdown. Overall, this book is really quite weak, predictable, not very imaginative and lacking in any charm.
Дым и Пепел ) (Smoke and Ash)
We are now back to Trirodov. He has been reading about the news from the United Isles and decides that he would be the ideal candidate to fill the vacant throne in the Isles. He has no royal blood, nor relevant experience and, indeed, no connection to the country. He does not even speak the language which, we learn, is Spanish, and is studying it. However, he thinks it would be a good place to try his socialist experiments. He writes a letter of application and it is met with the same derision as we have met it with. However, in the interests of transparency, the government publishes the letter in the official journal. We learn that the Prime Minister, Victor Lorena, has a plan to convert the country to a republic, with himself as its first president. He hopes the ridicule with which Trirodov’s letter is met will help his plan. Back in Russia, things are not going well. There is more social upheaval and agitation and more official repression. The government, under the influence of Vice-Governor Peredonov, he of Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon), plans to close Trirodov’s school but he manages to get help from an influential friend to stop the closure. He does, however, have a back-up plan. It turns out his greenhouse is actually a spaceship and he plans to fly to the Moon. Trirodov continues his personal agitation, criticising the church, the post office and other officials. Indeed, there is a strong criticism of the church by Sologub. Meanwhile, agitation is continuing elsewhere, with arson attacks and the valuable icon robbed from the monastery as had been planned in Капли крови (Drops of Blood). The relationship between Trirodov and Elisaveta is blossoming. There is more fantasy, with a dance given to which two dead women come. The rest of the book, much shorter than the previous two, concerns the worsening political situation in Russia and Trirodov’s candidacy. Initially, it is mocked not only in the United Isles but in various European countries. Then there is considerable support for it, particularly among left-wing groups. Russia, however, is very opposed to it and Peredonov tries to dissuade Trirodov.
This was quite a daring experiment for a Russian novel at the time. Science fiction was to appear quite frequently after the Revolution, with such writers as Alexander Belyaev, Vladimir Obruchev, Grigory Adamov and, in particular, Alexei Tolstoy with his famous Aelita and but quite a few science fiction works had appeared before the Revolution, to a great extent under the influence of Jules Verne. Nevertheless, serious writers did not, on the whole, write science fiction/fantasy. But Sologub is trying to have his cake and eat it. He wants to write about the upheavals in Russia at the beginning of the century. He wants to tell a love story. He wants to give his views on such matters as education and the church. But, at the same time, he throws in dead people reappearing, greenhouses as spaceships and mystic ceremonies in underground chambers on a fantasy island. It does not really work and many Russian critics said so, too. Gorky, writing after Sologub’s death, said of him he pretended to be a voluptuary, even a sadist, a demonic character, but he lived the life of a most prudent teacher of art, he worshipped marmalade and whenever he was eating it and sitting on the couch, he would be fairly hopping up and down with pleasure. He should have stuck to the marmalade.
First published in Russian in 1907-1914 by Sirin
Published in three parts: Капли крови (Drops of Blood), Королева Ортруда (Queen Ortruda) and Дым и Пепел (Smoke and Ash)
First English translation by Martin Secker/Frederic Stokes in 1916
Translated by John Cournos (Secker); Samuel D. Cioran (Ardis)