Friday, May 26, 2017

All Russia's honest men drank like fish

So, where did all this start? Well, it all started when Tikhonov nailed his fourteen propositions to the door of the Yeliseiko village soviet. Or rather, he didn't nail them to the door, he chalked them up on the fence, and they were words, really, not propositions, very clear and succinct, and there weren't fourteen of them, just two. Well, anyway, that's where it all started.
You can see how we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator here. But sincere. He exaggerates, to be sure, but it doesn't matter much in the end, does it? The spirit is true.

I was tempted to dismiss Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev, as drunken, if poetic, ramblings, lovely ramblings — one man's journey by train to a Moscow suburb. But amid searching for a drink, tales of past drunken escapades, and cocktail recipes (including the likes of White Lilac toilet water and brake fluid), there's a very sober grappling with Kant, free will vs predetermination, the meaning of life, and the angelic orders. And love and death.

And it's quite funny. (In a Bulgakov kind of way.)

Also, it includes graphs, detailing the productivity of his coworkers as plotted against their alcohol consumption.
"What's that got to do with the Social Democrats and Khovanshchina?"

"Plenty! That's where the whole thing started, when they switched from Veuve Cliquot to rotgut. Middle-class intellectuals, rowdyism, Khovanshchina! All these Uspenskys, all these Pomyalovskys — they couldn't write a line without a drink. I've read them, I know! All Russia's honest men drank like fish, yes. And why did they drink? They drank out of sheer desperation. They drank because they were honest! Because they weren't able to relieve the people's suffering. The people were suffocating in poverty and ignorance, you just read Pisarev! This is what Pisarev says: 'The people can't afford beef, but vodka's cheaper than beef, so the Russian peasant drinks, he drinks out of poverty! And he can't buy books, because there's no Gogol or Belinsky in the market, only vodka — yes, there's plenty of vodka, any sort you like, draught or bottled. And that's why he drinks, he drinks out of ignorance!'

"You see? No wonder they were miserable, no wonder they wrote about the peasants, and tried to save them, and no wonder they started drinking out of sheer desperation. The Social Democrats wrote and drank, they drank while they wrote. But the peasants couldn't read and drink both, they just drank! So Uspensky ups and hangs himself, Pomyalovsky lies down under a bar counter and snuffs it, and Garshin flings himself off a bridge, pig-drunk!"
So it's a book about drinking, but it's also about drinking, in all its political, religious, metaphysical glory.

Clearly this book describes much more than a trip to the suburbs. It's a Dante-esque exploration. The ending devastated me. I'm still reeling.

Truly this is a lost classic.

Yerofeev, or Erofeev or Yerofeyev, wrote this prose poem — variously titled Moscow Stations, Moscow-Petushki, Moscow to the End of the Line, and Moscow Circles — in 1969, but it was not published in the USSR till 20 years later. Yerofeev cut a tragic figure, and little of his work was ever published.

See also: Venedikt Erofeev: The Lost Genius of Soviet Literature

1 comment:

Buried In Print said...

Graphs?! Hah. Now that sounds like fun!