To those five-sixths parts of the world not encircled by Russian borders—borders that, for centuries, have flittered carelessly across map-faces like so many loose ribbons in the wind—at least a Russian identity of letters feels stable and secure: there is Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy; beside them proudly prance characters crafted in their image, Onegin, Bazarov, Prince Myshkin, and Levin. So, while the peoples of Ukraine and Eastern Crimea continue daily to suffer from a violent crisis of national identity, the legacy of Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol still passes uncontested to the glory of Russia. In the end, Chichikov picks dead souls from the Rus’ landscape and the vault door closes further over that mausoleum where, entombed, the Russian literary canon lies.
Current events can make us wonder: In times of tremendous violence, do literary questions and conflicts matter at all?
In a newly published translation from Venedikt Erofeev, the Soviet-era writer responds they do. The only complete play written before Erofeev died from throat cancer in 1990, Walpurgis Night, or the Steps of the Commander receives its second English-language translation (the first to appear in print) from Marian Schwartz.
Erofeev’s reputation as an outsider and artistic genius precedes him in literary circles. Above all, though, Erofeev’s alcoholism has been romanticized, probably because it ultimately killed him. In keeping with this image, Walpurgis Night is a burning drink of a play made from equal parts violence and comic relief. Its success almost singularly depends on the skill with which these parts are mixed. Not only must the proportions be accurate, but also the timing of their combination. Likewise, Erofeev focuses not just on what is said, but how dialogue is delivered. In these regards Schwartz’s translation is impeccable. Her attention to the brutality of Erofeev’s language, his comedic timing, and the sounds of words as they are spoken will likely make the work a classic outside of Russia.
Subtitled “A Tragicomedy in Five Acts”, Walpurgis Night opens on the eve of May Day with the interrogation of Lev Isakovich Gurevich by the Admitting Doctor and nurses of the local psychological hospital. Gurevich is a notorious drunkard, poet, social pariah, and eccentric. He measures space in units of 670 steps from his house to the liquor store; he measures time “not by Fahrenheit, or nightstands, or Réamurs . . . [but] the distance between this day and the autumnal equinox.” To the great annoyance of his doctors, Gurevich often takes to speaking in “Shakespearian iambs” on topics ranging from love and medicine to socialist competition. Erofeev crafts situations that are often read as satirical representations of contemporary Soviet society and its practices. Gurevich’s mental evaluation and involuntary commitment to the asylum easily conform to this analytic model:
Doctor: Recently we’ve begun hospitalizing even those who, to the casual eye, don't exhibit a single symptom of psychological disturbance . . . As a rule, those people don't commit a single anti-social deed, a single criminal act, don’t show even the slightest hint of nervous imbalance, to the end of their days. But this is exactly why they are dangerous and must be subjected to treatment. If only because of their private disinclination to adapt socially.
Gurevich: (in ecstasy) That’s great!
No, it’s true, I do revere the march
Of medicine, its progress and
It’s many glories—a spit in the eye,
Amazing all the continents.
I love its smugness, its audacity,
And its tail, again, its . . .”
With an enraging combination of self-aware nonsensicality and utter straight-faced-ness, Gurevich’s interrogation and imprisonment unequivocally recall the Stalinist show trials and purges that continued, in one form or another, throughout Soviet history.
Erofeev makes these connections explicit during Act Two as the patients in Ward 3 conduct their own trial against the “anti-party leader, anti-state figure, anti-popular hero,” and former KGB Rear Admiral Mikhalych. Throughout the trial, we are introduced to the ward’s many inhabitants, overseen by the sloganeering Soviet monitors Prokhorov and Alyokha “the Dissident.” The characters run the gamut from young to old, and come from the countryside as well the city. Unlike Anton Chekhov in his short story “Ward No. 6,” Erofeev does not diagnose his characters’ illnesses pathologically, or suggest economic status as a common source for their derangements. He does not even presume that all his characters are mad, perhaps only too Russian. In short, Erofeev provides readers with a snapshot of the diversity of the Russian soul.
Besides satire, Erofeev’s greater purpose in Walpurgis Night, it would seem, is to undermine the myth of a single Russian identity, particularly one that would view itself as a superior cultural, ideological, or physical force on the world stage. Alliances formed between abusive medical staff and their patients surely point to a method of insidious control at work in Soviet society. But they also show how eagerly members of that society will drink in the alcohol-sodden myth of a great, Russian ethos. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship enjoyed between Prokhorov and Gurevich. The latter’s Jewishness recurrently provokes Prokhorov’s anti-Semitism, which, as Karen Ryan observes in her introduction, represented for Erofeev “an unalterable feature of Soviet culture . . . it underscores [Gurevich’s] otherness and his status as a victim of irrational hatred.” As a result of this otherness, Gurevich alone understands just how ingrained anti-Semitism is in the Russian mindset. He reassures Prokhorov that there is “no rush” to eradicate such sentiments from society, and warns that enthusiasm to do so might “sow panic in weaker souls.” Indeed, Prokhorov’s admission of anti-Semitism only arouses greater anxieties in the other patients:
Prokhorov: Vova, you’re from the country. Try to imagine you’re on the shore of a pond. You’re sprouting up. Your name is Rhododendron. And on the other side of the pond, some Yid is sitting and looking at you.
Vova: No, I can’t . . . that I’m sprouting up and—
Prokhorov: Oh, to hell with the damn rhododendron. Look, imagine this, Vova. You’re a white swan perched on the shore of a pond, and across the way a Yid is sitting and staring at you.
Vova: No, I can’t imagine being a white swan either. That’s hard for me. I can . . . I can imagine being a flock of white swans.
Prokhorov: Wonderful, Vova. You’re a flock of white swans, on the shore of a pond, and across the way—
Vova: Well, naturally, I fly off every which way. It’s scary.
Prokhorov: Alyokha, take Vovochka away. There, you see Gurevich?
Gurevich: (forcing a smile) Oh, all right.
The true significance of Erofeev’s writing—as a work of art, a work of life-and-death—depends on a pivotal observation: that the myth of a Russian identity will forever be entwined with the myth of a Russian literary canon. In Moscow to the End of the Line, Erofeev’s notorious “poem in prose” for which English-reading audiences will know the writer best, literature comes paired with death like a fine wine is paired with food. The death of a writer, the death of a storyteller, is the death of a Russian spirit. Walpurgis Night ratchets this idea up to the point where absurdity becomes reality, where the need to fetishize the myth bends reason to its breaking point:
Doctor: Have you had occasion to sip vodka with any viscounts, counts, or marquises?
Gurevich: Have I ever. For instance, Count Tolstoy calls me up—
Gurevich: Why Lev necessarily? If it’s a count, then it’s got to be Lev? I’m Lev, too, but I’m no count.
Even though Gurevich lives the life of a self-proclaimed poet, and a Russian at that, he still doesn’t understand the reference to his literary namesake.
Act Five sees Gurevich and his asylum comrades dead before the break of May Day dawn. Having accidentally consumed fatal amounts of methyl alcohol, their collective deaths signal the final fracture of authorial belief in a Russian literary canon. Instead of liberating their souls, however, Erofeev’s ending is painfully cynical. The final lines are given to a hospital goon who, savagely kicking Gurevich, screams profanities and anti-Semitic slurs. The message is clear.
The system wins.
Reality is lost.
Erofeev’s last stage direction, for the audience: there will be no applause.
* * *
If Walpurgis Night feels unconscionably hopeless, we should remember that Gurevich—through whom Erofeev, the writer, speaks at us after death—was always a subversive of some sort. And the system that perpetrates such tremendous violence was made to be afraid. As Gurevich (Erofeev) himself reminds us, “The foe goes flying even if men throw themselves under without anything. My advice to you is: read more.” On Erofeev’s advice, we find an old instrument of subversion already in our hands, but a newfound responsibility to use it.
(A first draft of this review was written between August 17 and September 7; because dates only really matter in times of tremendous violence.)