09 December 2009

of raisins and of soap

Before, long ago, in the days of my youth, in the days of my childhood, which have passed away like a dream never to return, I felt happy whenever I happened to drive up for the first time to an unfamiliar place: it mattered not whether it was a little hamlet, a poor little provincial town, or a large villiage, or some suburb, the inquisitive eyes of a child found a great deal of interest there. Every building, everything that bore the mark of some noticeable peculiarity—everything made me pause in amazement. Whether it was a brick government building of an all too familiar architecture with half of its frontage covered with blind windows, standing incongruously all alone among a mass of rough-hewn, timbered one-storied artisan dwellings, or a round regular cupola covered with sheets of galvanized iron, rising above the snowy whitewashed new church, or a market-place, or some provincial dandy who happened to be taking a stroll in the centre of the town—nothing escaped my fresh, alert attention, and thrusting my nose out of my travelling cart, I gazed at the cut of some coat I had never seen before or at the wooden chests of nails, or sulphur whose yellow colour I could discern from a distance, of raisins and of soap, glimpses of which I caught for a moment through the door of some grocer's shop together with jars of dried up Moscow sweets; I stared, too, at some infantry officer, walking by himself, who had been cast into this dull provincial hole from goodness only knows what province, or at a merchant in his close-fitting, pleated Siberian coat, driving past in a trap at a spanking pace, and I was carried away in my thoughts after them, into their poor lives. If some district official happened to pass by, I immediately began to wonder where he was going, whether it was to a party given by a colleague of his, or straight home to sit on the front steps of his house for half an hour till darkness had fallen, and then sit down to an early supper with his mother, his wife, his wife's sister, and the rest of his family, and I tried to imagine what they would be talking about, while a serf-girl with her coin necklace or a serf-boy in his thick tunic brought in a tallow candle in an ancient candlestick after the soup. Whenever I drove up to the village of some landowner, I would gaze curiously at the tall, narrow, wodden belfry, or at the dark, vast, old wooden church. The red roof and the white chimneys of the manor house beckoned invitingly to me from a distance through the green foliage of the trees, and I waited impatiently for the orchards which surrounded it to fall back on either side so that I might get a fullview of its, in those days, alas, far from vulgar exterior; and from its appearance I tried to guess what sort of a man the landowner was, whether he was stout, and whether he had sons or a whole bevy of daughters, six in all, with loud, happy, girlish laughter, and their games, and the youngest sister, of course, the most beautiful of them all, and whether they had black eyes, and whether he was a jovial fellow himself or as gloomy as the last days of September, looking perpetually at the calendar and talking everlastingly about his rye and wheat, a subject so boring to young people.
  Now it is with indifference that I drive up to every unknown village and it is with indifference that I gaze at its vulgar exterior; there is a cold look in my eyes and I feel uncomfortable, and I am amused no more, and what in former years would have awakened a lively interest in my face, laughter, and an uninterrupted flow of words, now slips by me without notice and my motionless lips preserve an apathetic silence. Oh, my youth! Oh, my freshness!

Gogol, Dead Souls (1961: 119-120)