In his poem Slava (“Fame,” 1942) VN mentions the Influence on the Balkan Novella of the Symbolist School:


Как проситель из наглых, гроза общежитий,

как зловещий друг детства, как старший шпион

(шепелявым таким шепотком: а скажите,

что вы делали там-то?), как сон,

как палач, как шпион, как друг детства зловещий,

как в балканской новелле влиянье, как их,

символистов -- но хуже.


Like the blustering beggar, the pest of the poorhouse,

like an evil old schoolmate, like the head spy

(in that thick slurred murmur: “Say, what were you doing

in such and such place?”), like a dream,


like a spy, like a hangman, like an evil old schoolmate,

like the Influence on the Balkan Novella of - er -

the Symbolist School, only worse.


I always wondered what particular Balkan novella VN had in mind? I am now pretty sure it is VN’s story Vesna v Fial’te (“Spring in Fialta,” 1938). Its characters include Ferdinand, the Franco-Hungarian writer in whose new play there is “that elaborate Kremlinesque night along the impossible spirals of which he spun various wheels of dismembered symbols.” Among Ferdinand’s friends is an artist who constantly painted his bald head into his canvases:


Тут были: живописец с идеально голой, но слегка обитой головой, которую он постоянно вписывал в свои картины (Саломея с  кегельным шаром); и поэт, умевший посредством пяти спичек представить всю историю грехопадения, и

благовоспитанный, с умоляющими глазами, педераст: и очень известный пианист, так с лица ничего, но с ужасным выражением пальцев; и молодцеватый советский писатель с ежом и трубочкой, свято не понимавший, в какое общество он попал; сидели тут и ещё всякие господа, теперь спутавшиеся у меня в памяти, и из всех двое, трое, наверное, погуляли с Ниной.

Among these I recall: an artist with an impeccably bald though slightly chipped head, which under various pretexts he constantly painted into his eye-and-guitar canvases; a poet, whose special gag was the ability to represent, if you asked him, Adam’s Fall by means of five matches; a humble businessman who financed surrealist ventures (and paid for the aperitifs) if permitted to print in a corner eulogistic allusions to the actress he kept; a pianist, presentable insofar as the face was concerned, but with a dreadful expression of the fingers; a jaunty but linguistically impotent Soviet writer fresh from Moscow, with an old pipe and a new wristwatch, who was completely and ridiculously unaware of the sort of company he was in; there were several other gentlemen present who have become confused in my memory, and doubtless two or three of the lot had been intimate with Nina.


In the Russian original VN mentions the bald-headed artist’s painting Salomeya s kegel’nym sharom (Salome with a Skittle Ball). In Kholodnyi veter ot laguny… (“The Cold Wind from the Lagoon…”), one of the three poems on Venice in Alexander Blok’s cycle Ital’yanskie stikhi (Italian Verses, 1909), the poet mentions Salome carrying on a plate his bloody head:


В тени дворцовой галлереи,
Чуть озаренная луной,
Таясь, проходит Саломея
С моей кровавой головой.

Всё спит - дворцы, каналы, люди,
Лишь призрака скользящий шаг,
Лишь голова на черном блюде
Глядит с тоской в окрестный мрак.


Blok must have been inspired by the 14th century mosaics of the Baptistery of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. Above the door of the Baptistery (where the events of St. John the Baptist’s life are represented), we see Salome dancing in a red dress with feathered sleeves, showing her gruesome trophy (the head of John the Baptist) on a golden charger.


In Russian Ioann Krestitel’ (John the Baptist) is often called Predtecha (the Forerunner). In his poem Deti nochi (“Children of the Night,” 1895) Dmitri Merezhkovski famously calls himself and the poets of his generation slishkom ranniye predtechi slishkom medlennoy vesny (too early forerunners of a too slow spring):


Дерзновенны наши речи,

Но на смерть осуждены

Слишком ранние предтечи

Слишком медленной весны.


Merezhkovski’s poem begins: Ustremlyaya nashi ochi na bledneyushchiy vostok (“Turning our eyes to the paling East…”). In VN’s story Ferdinand, after a brief period of fashionable religious conversion, had turned his eyes toward barbarous Moscow:


Пройдя небольшой период модного религиозного прозрения, во время которого и благодать сходила на него, и предпринимались им какие-то сомнительные паломничества, завершившиеся и вовсе скандальной  историей, он обратил свои  тёмные глаза на варварскую Москву.

After a brief period of fashionable religious conversion, during which grace descended upon him and he undertook some rather ambiguous pilgrimages, which ended in a decidedly scandalous adventure, he had turned his dull eyes toward barbarous Moscow.


John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. The hero and narrator of Spring in Fialta recalls the Last Supper as he sees Ferdinand in the company of his friends:


Когда мы вошли в кафе, там играл дамский оркестр;  я мимоходом заметил, как в одной из гранёных колонн, облицованных зеркалами, отражается страусовая ляжка арфы, а затем тотчас увидел составной стол, за которым, посреди долгой стороны и спиной к плюшу, председательствовал Фердинанд, и на мгновение эта поза его, положение расставленных рук и обращенные к нему лица сотрапезников напомнили мне с  кошмарной карикатурностью...  что именно напомнили, я сам тогда не понял, а потом, поняв, удивился кощунственности сопоставления, не более кощунственного, впрочем, чем самое искусство его.

An orchestra of women was playing when we entered the café; first I noted the ostrich thigh of a harp reflected in one of the mirror-faced pillars, and then I saw the composite table (small ones drawn together to form a long one) at which, with his back to the plush wall, Ferdinand was presiding; and for a moment his whole attitude, the position of his parted hands, and the faces of his table companions all turned toward him reminded me in a grotesque, nightmarish way of something I did not quite grasp, but when I did so in retrospect, the suggested comparison struck me as hardly less sacrilegious than the nature of his art itself.


Blok’s poem Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918) ends in the lines:


В белом венчике из роз

Впереди Исус Христос.

In front of them [the twelve Red Army soldiers], in a little white crown of roses,

Is Jesus Christ.


In VN’s story the name Fialta reminds the narrator of violet (“the most rumpled of small flowers”):


Я этот городок люблю; потому ли, что во впадине его названия мне слышится сахаристо-сырой запах мелкого, тёмного, самого мятого из цветов, и не в тон, хотя внятное, звучание Ялты; потому ли, что его сонная весна особенно умащивает душу, не знаю; но как я был рад очнуться в нем, и вот шлёпать вверх, навстречу ручьям, без шапки, с мокрой головой, в макинтоше, надетом прямо на рубашку!

I am fond of Fialta; I am fond of it because I feel in the hollow of those violaceous syllables the sweet dark dampness of the most rumpled of small flowers, and because the altolike name of a lovely Crimean town is echoed by its viola; and also because there is something in the very somnolence of its humid Lent that especially anoints one ’s soul.


Merezhkovski was a friend of Chekhov (the writer who lived in Yalta and who had met Merezhkovski and his wife in Venice). Nina (the heroine’s name in Spring in Fialta) rhymes with Zina, the name of Merezhkovski’s “muse” (as Chekhov called Merezhkovski’s wife Zinaida Hippius) and of Zina Mertz (the girl with whom Fyodor falls in love in VN’s novel Dar, “The Gift,” 1937). When at the end of VN’s story Vasiliy (in the English version, Victor) parts with Nina forever, she has a bouquet of violets in her hands:


Откуда-то появился у неё в руках плотный букет тёмных, мелких, бескорыстно пахучих фиалок, и, прежде чем вернуться к гостинице, мы ещё постояли у парапета, и всё было по-прежнему безнадежно.

From somewhere a firm bouquet of small, dark, unselfishly smelling violets appeared in her hands, and before she returned to her husband and car, we stood for a little while longer by the stone parapet, and our romance was even more hopeless than it had ever been.


Nochnaya Fialka (“The Night Violet,” 1906) is a poem by Blok (the greatest of Russian Symbolist poets).


Alexey Sklyarenko

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