When he walked into the kitchen just before he left, he saw a chicken leg lying on a plate in the white enamel sink, the very drumstick that he had dropped on the floor – she was probably planning to wash it and reheat it – and it seemed to him that he had foreseen all of this from the very beginning.
I’ve noted before that my reading tends to run in unintended cycles: stories with a certain theme, or set in a particular city. Right now I must be in my Russian literature phase.
On first read, I was very lost, mostly, I think, because I was looking for the Russian-ness: specifically, since I knew this story was written in 1972, some anti-Communist message. When I finish reading, I get the classic 14-year-old’s “WTF?” It didn’t seem like much of a story.
But Prof. May’s blog has taught me well, and I also learned something from dictating “ First Love, Last Rites” into a Word document. So I re-read this very short story (one-and-a-half pages) aloud as well. Turns out, it’s a hell of a story. While there is a clear connection to Communist Russia, with a little tailoring, it could apply to anywhere. To me, it’s about people, not politics.
On the surface, it’s the story of a man returning home by train after a visit to his mistress. The characters, appropriately, are unnamed; he is the third-person point-of-view character. The text alternates between her apartment, and the train. And not much happens.
But it’s all in the details.
“Oy, don’t look, please, the place is so awful,” she said, setting a dish of steaming chicken and rice on the table; it was more or less the same thing she said when he undressed her.
She is a rather pathetic woman, so eager to please, so desperate for any kindness, it hurts to read. He can’t kiss her because she wears her lipstick on so thick. She wouldn’t dream of letting him eat the dropped chicken leg, but it’s good enough for her. He hurts her feelings by saying he wishes he could stay for a couple of days, rather than a lifetime; fact is, he has trouble staying long enough to finish his post-coital cigarette. Their affair, at least as seen through his consciousness, seems completely pleasureless. This is echoed by the joyless landscape seen from the train window:
The high-rise buildings were fewer and farther between now. Outside the train window where the neighborhoods that had been built-up in the fifties, with extruding cornices, bas-reliefs, and sculptural ensembles designed to depict bounty and the joy of labor. On the roof of one such building, a green neon sign read “Dawn – a specialized shop for the blind.” An oncoming train zipped past like a blast of wind; through the flickering of its cars and windows, the sign could still be seen distinctly.
In the same way the architecture pictures bounty and joy in a gloomy scene, and a neon sign advertises a store for the blind, his mistress is more an idea he likes to think about rather than a woman who gives him actual pleasure. Her overabundant lipstick, her habit of referring to wineglasses as “goblets,” the carvings on the buildings – it’s like a stage scene for “this is what happy people have” when it’s barely life at all.
He hears music on the train; a passenger is playing dance music on radio. Obviously there is no dancing, but there’s no reaction at all, not a tapped toe, not a scornful grimace deriding The Twist. Even as he imagines the performers singing and playing the raucous music, he imagines no reaction at all:
The singers would be shaking their shoulders, as if teasing someone, their bodies bent and gyrating, their wrists flapping, striking the strings of electric guitars in a frenzied tempo, as though whipping up shaving cream, but at the same time they’d remain in place, as if each of them were delineated by an invisible circle, so that all this ecstasy seemed fake, deliberately put on.
So this then is the story: even as his imagination, whether of spending stolen time with his illicit lover or seeing Chubby Checkers play in his head, is smothered by the absence of life, even while his sensorium is overwhelmed by the appearances and imitations of life – there is no life. To the world he has “a real mistress and she received him the way mistresses generally do only in the movies,” but he approaches their tryst with businesslike efficiency:
Theoretically, drinking and eating were supposed to come first, but this could lead to excessive palpitations during the hour of love. On the other hand, drinking and eating were pointless afterward, when he just wanted to have a smoke and get home as quickly as possible. And yet entirely refusing the repast she’d spent so long preparing would mean offending her.
Tsypkin is an interesting real-life character, begging for a biography. He lost most of his family of origin to Stalin, the rest in the war. He was a pathologist, hampered by Soviet anti-Semitism. He wrote several stories and one novel, Summer in Baden-Baden, which I understand uses a similar twining of two stories to blend a railroad trip and Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. He never saw them published. Though his son was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in 1977, he was not; in 1982 his novel, smuggled out of Russia, was just being serialized in an émigré newspaper when he died of a heart attack. He was 56 years old. The Bridge Over the Neroch, a collection of his short stories, is scheduled for publication in December 2012. The title novella is ” the history of four generations of a Russian-Jewish family… vividly rendered by a doctor living in Moscow.”
Maybe that’s an autobiography right there.