red top hat in Invitation to a Beheading

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 06/22/2022 - 18:25

In VN’s novel Priglashenie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935) the judge whispers into Cincinnatus’s ear a token phrase ‘with the gracious consent of the audience, you will be made to don the red top hat:’


Сначала на черном бархате, каким по ночам обложены с исподу веки, появилось, как медальон, лицо Марфиньки: кукольный румянец, блестящий лоб с детской выпуклостью, редкие брови вверх, высоко над круглыми, карими глазами. Она заморгала, поворачивая голову, и на мягкой, сливочной белизны, шее была черная бархатка, а бархатная тишина платья, расширяясь книзу, сливалась с темнотой. Такой он увидел ее нынче среди публики, когда его подвели к свежепокрашенной скамье подсудимых, на которую он сесть не решился, а стоял рядом и все-таки измарал в изумруде руки, и журналисты жадно фотографировали отпечатки его пальцев, оставшиеся на спинке скамьи. Он видел их напряженные лбы, он видел ярко-цветные панталоны щеголей, ручные зеркала и переливчатые шали щеголих, - но лица были неясны, - одна только круглоглазая Марфинька из всех зрителей и запомнилась ему. Адвокат и прокурор, оба крашенные и очень похожие друг на друга (закон требовал, чтобы они были единоутробными братьями, но не всегда можно было подобрать, и тогда гримировались), проговорили с виртуозной скоростью те пять тысяч слов, которые полагались каждому. Они говорили вперемежку, и судья, следя за мгновенными репликами, вправо, влево мотал головой, и равномерно мотались все головы, - и только одна Марфинька, слегка повернувшись, неподвижно, как удивленное дитя, уставилась на Цинцинната, стоявшего рядом с ярко-зеленой садовой скамьей. Адвокат, сторонник классической декапитации, выиграл без труда против затейника прокурора, и судья синтезировал дело.

Обрывки этих речей, в которых, как пузыри воды, стремились и лопались слова "прозрачность" и "непроницаемость", теперь звучали у Цинцинната в ушах, и шум крови превращался в рукоплескания, а медальонное лицо Марфиньки всё оставалось в поле его зрения и потухло только тогда, когда судья, - приблизившись вплотную, так что можно было различить на его круглом смуглом носу расширенные поры, одна из которых, на самой дуле, выпустила одинокий, но длинный волос, - произнёс сырым шёпотом: "с любезного разрешения публики, вам наденут красный цилиндр", - выработанная законом подставная фраза, истинное значение коей знал всякий школьник.


At first, against the background of that black velvet which lines at night the underside of the eyelids, Marthe's face appeared as in a locket; her doll-like rosiness; her shiny forehead with its childlike convexity; her thin eyebrows, slanting upward, high above her round hazel eyes. She began to blink, turning her head, and there was a black velvet ribbon on her soft, creamy-white neck, and the velvety quiet of her dress flared at the bottom, blending with the darkness. That is how he saw her among the audience, when they led him up to the freshly painted defendants' bench on which he did not dare sit, but stood beside it (and still he got emerald paint all over his hands, and the newspaper men greedily photographed the fingerprints he had left on the back of the bench). He could see their tense foreheads, he could see the gaudy pantaloons of the fops, and the hand-mirrors and iridescent scarves of the women of fashion; but the faces were indistinct--of all the spectators he remembered only round-eyed Marthe. The defense counsel and the prosecutor, both wearing makeup and looking very much alike (the law required that they be uterine brothers but such were not always available, and then makeup was used), spoke with virtuoso rapidity the five thousand words allotted to each. They spoke alternately and the judge, following the rapid exchanges, would move his head, right and left and all the other heads followed suit; only Marthe, half-turned, sat motionless like an astonished child, her gaze fixed on Cincinnatus, standing next to the bright green park bench. The defense counsel, an advocate of classic decapitation, won easily over the inventive prosecutor, and the judge summed up the case.

Fragments of these speeches, in which the words ‘translucence’ and ‘opacity’ rose and burst like bubbles, now  sounded in Cincinnatus’s ears, and the rush of blood became applause, and Marthe’s locket-like face remained in his field of vision and faded only when the judge — who had moved so close that on his large swarthy nose he could see the enlarged pores, one of which, on the very extremity, had sprouted a lone but long hair — pronounced in a moist undertone, ‘with the gracious consent of the audience, you will be made to don the red top hat’ — a token phrase that the courts had evolved, whose true meaning was known to every schoolboy. (Chapter One)


Vam nadenut krasnyi tsilindr (“you will be made to don the red top hat”) brings to mind Nadev shirokiy bolivar (having donned a broad bolivar), a line in Chapter One (XV: 10) of Eugene Onegin:


Бывало, он еще в постеле:
К нему записочки несут.
Что? Приглашенья? В самом деле,
Три дома на вечер зовут:
Там будет бал, там детский праздник.
Куда ж поскачет мой проказник?
С кого начнет он? Все равно:
Везде поспеть немудрено.
Покамест в утреннем уборе,
Надев широкий боливар3,
Онегин едет на бульвар
И там гуляет на просторе,
Пока недремлющий брегет
Не прозвонит ему обед.


It happened, he'd be still in bed

when little billets would be brought him.

What? Invitations? Yes, indeed,

to a soiree three houses bid him:

here, there will be a ball; elsewhere, a children's fete.

So whither is my scamp to scurry?

Whom will he start with? Never mind:

'tis simple to get everywhere in time.

Meanwhile, in morning dress,

having donned a broad bolivar3,

Onegin drives to the boulevard

and there goes strolling unconfined

till vigilant Bréguet

to him chimes dinner.


3. Hat à la Bolivar. (Pushkin’s note)


Bolivar is a silk top hat. Lupus, in the commentary to his German version of EO, pp. 46-47, notes that as late as 1883, the Parisian Figaro's correspondent (reporting on the coronation of Alexander III) loosely described the top hats of Russian coachmen as "une sorte de chapeaux Bolivar." (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 68)


The Bolivar was Lord Byron's boat. In O. Henry’s story The Roads We Take (1910) Bolivar is the name of Shark Dodson’s horse:


"Set still," said Shark. "You ain't goin' to hit no breeze, Bob. I hate to tell you, but there ain't any chance for but one of us.  Bolivar, he's plenty tired, and he can't carry double."

"We been pards, me and you, Shark Dodson, for three year," Bob said quietly. "We've risked our lives together time and again. I've always give you a square deal, and I thought you was a man. I've heard some queer stories about you shootin' one or two men in a peculiar way, but I never believed 'em. Now if you're just havin' a little fun with me, Shark, put your gun up, and we'll get on Bolivar and vamose. If you mean to shoot – shoot, you blackhearted son of a tarantula!"


“Blackhearted son of a tarantula” and the spider in Byron's poem The Prisoner of Chillon bring to mind a spider in Cincinnatus’s cell:


так - подбираемся к концу. Правая, еще непочатая часть развернутого романа, которую мы, посреди лакомого чтенья, легонько ощупывали, машинально проверяя, много ли еще (и все радовала пальцы спокойная, верная толщина), вдруг, ни с того ни с сего, оказалась совсем тощей: несколько минут скорого, уже под гору чтенья - и... ужасно! Куча черешен, красно и клейко черневшая перед нами, обратилась внезапно в отдельные ягоды: вон та, со шрамом, подгнила, а эта сморщилась, ссохшись вокруг кости (самая же последняя непременно - тверденькая, недоспелая). Ужасно! Цинциннат снял шелковую безрукавку, надел халат и, притоптывая, чтобы унять дрожь, пустился ходить по камере. На столе белел чистый лист бумаги, и, выделяясь на этой белизне, лежал изумительно очиненный карандаш, длинный как жизнь любого человека, кроме Цинцинната, и с эбеновым блеском на каждой из шести граней. Просвещенный потомок указательного перста. Цинциннат написал: "и все-таки я сравнительно. Ведь этот финал я предчувствовал этот финал". Родион, стоя за дверью, с суровым шкиперским вниманием глядел в глазок. Цинциннат ощущал холодок у себя в затылке. Он вычеркнул написанное и начал тихо тушевать, причем получился загадочный орнамент, который постепенно разросся и свернулся в бараний рог. Ужасно! Родион смотрел в голубой глазок на поднимавшийся и падавший горизонт. Кому становилось тошно? Цинциннату. Вышибло пот, все потемнело, он чувствовал коренек каждого волоска. Пробили часы - четыре или пять раз, и казематный отгул их, перегул и загулок вели себя подобающим образом. Работая лапами, спустился на нитке паук с потолка, - официальный друг заключенных. Но никто в стену не стучал, так как Цинциннат был пока что единственным арестантом (на такую громадную крепость!).

So we are nearing the end. The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager: a few minutes of quick reading, already downhill, and--O horrible! The heap of cherries, whose mass had seemed to us of such a ruddy and glossy black, had suddenly become discrete drupes: the one over there with the scar is a little rotten, and this one has shriveled and dried up around its stone (and the very last one is inevitably hard and unripe) O horrible! Cincinnatus took off his silk jerkin, put on his dressing gown and, stamping his feet a little to stop the shivering, began walking around the cell. On the table glistened a clean sheet of paper and, distinctly outlined against this whiteness, lay a beautifully sharpened pencil, as long as the life of any man except Cincinnatus, and with an ebony gleam to each of its six facets. An enlightened descendant of the index finger. Cincinnatus wrote: "In spite of everything I am comparatively. After all I had premonitions, had premonitions of this finale." Rodion was standing on the other side of the door and peering with a skipper's stern attention through the peephole. Cincinnatus felt a chill on the back of his head. He crossed out what he had written and began shading gently; an embryonic embellishment appeared gradually and curled into a ram's horn. O horrible! Rodion gazed through the blue porthole at the horizon, now rising, now falling. Who was becoming seasick? Cincinnatus. He broke out in a sweat, everything grew dark, and he could feel the rootlet of every hair. A clock struck--four or five times--with the vibrations and re-vibrations, and reverberations proper to a prison. Feet working, a spider--official friend of the jailed--lowered itself on a thread from the ceiling. No one, however, knocked on the wall, since Cincinnatus was as yet the sole prisoner (in such an enormous fortress!). (Chapter 1)


Krasnyi tsilindr (the red top hat) that Cincinnatus will be made to don makes one think of O. Henry’s story The Ransom of Red Chief (1907) and of Hackett’s hat (tsilindr in the Russian version) in O. Henry’s story The Marquis and Miss Sally:


"Heavens alive!" exclaimed Hackett, "are we as ugly as that? How do you do, Mr. Saunders? Glad to see you again. What are you doing to my hat, Holly?"

"I was afraid of this hat," said Sam Holly, meditatively. He had taken the hat from Hackett's head and was holding it in his hand, looking dubiously around at the shadows beyond the firelight where now absolute stillness reigned. "What do you think, Saunders?"

Pink grinned.

"Better elevate it some," he said, in the tone of one giving disinterested advice. "The light ain't none too good. I wouldn't want it on my head."

Holly stepped upon the hub of a hind wheel of the grub wagon and hung the hat upon a limb of a live-oak. Scarcely had his foot touched the ground when the crash of a dozen six-shooters split the air, and the hat fell to the ground riddled with bullets.

A hissing noise was heard as if from a score of rattlesnakes, and now the cow-punchers emerged on all sides from the darkness, stepping high, with ludicrously exaggerated caution, and "hist"-ing to one another to observe the utmost prudence in approaching. They formed a solemn, wide circle about the hat, gazing at it in manifest alarm, and seized every few moments by little stampedes of panicky flight.

"It's the varmint," said one in awed tones, "that flits up and down in the low grounds at night, saying, `Willie-wallo!'"

"It's the venomous Kypootum," proclaimed another. "It stings after it's dead, and hollers after it's buried."

"It's the chief of the hairy tribe," said Phonograph Davis. "But it's stone dead, now, boys."

"Don't you believe it," demurred Dry-Creek. "It's only 'possumin'.' It's the dreaded Highgollacum fantod from the forest. There's only one way to destroy its life."

He led forward Old Taller, the 240-pound cow-puncher. Old Taller placed the hat upright on the ground and solemnly sat upon it, crushing it as flat as a pancake.


The characters of Yuri Olesha’s fairy tale Tri tolstyaka (“The Three Fat Men,” 1927) include tolstyi kucher v golubom tsilindre s bantikom (a fat coachman in a light-blue top hat with a ribbon on it):


На углу, где горел трёхрукий фонарь, вдоль тротуара  стояли  экипажи. Цветочницы продавали розы. Кучера переговаривались с цветочницами.

- Его протащили в петле через весь город. Бедняжка!

- Теперь его посадили в железную клетку. Клетка стоит во Дворце Трёх Толстяков, - сказал толстый кучер в голубом цилиндре с бантиком.


There was a street lamp on the corner and carriages were lined up along the sidewalk. Flower girls were selling roses, and coachmen were talking to them.

“He was dragged through the town with a rope round his neck. Poor man!”

“They’ve put him in an iron cage. And the cage is in the Palace of the Three Fat Men,” said a fat coachman in a light-blue top hat with a ribbon on it. (Chapter II “Ten Scaffolds”)


In Chapter Five (II: 8) of Pushkin's EO the kibitka driver is red-sashed (v krasnom kushake):


Зима!.. Крестьянин, торжествуя,
На дровнях обновляет путь;
Его лошадка, снег почуя,
Плетется рысью как-нибудь;
Бразды пушистые взрывая,
Летит кибитка удалая;
Ямщик сидит на облучке
В тулупе, в красном кушаке.
Вот бегает дворовый мальчик,
В салазки жучку посадив,
Себя в коня преобразив;
Шалун уж заморозил пальчик:
Ему и больно и смешно,
А мать грозит ему в окно...


Winter! The peasant, celebrating,

in a flat sledge inaugurates the track;

his naggy, having sensed the snow,

shambles at something like a trot.

Plowing up fluffy furrows,

a bold kibitka flies:

the driver sits upon his box

in sheepskin coat, red-sashed.

Here runs about a household lad,

upon a hand sled having seated “blackie,”

having transformed himself into the steed;

the scamp already has frozen a finger.

He finds it both painful and funny — while

his mother, from the window, threatens him...


Annette Olenin nicknamed Pushkin Red Rover (after the famous pirate in Fenimore Cooper's novel The Red Rover, 1827). In the surname Olenin there is Lenin.