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The Real Journey
So did he fall in love with his own creation? Verochka onstage beneath the floodlight, Verochka offstage beneath the gaslight, his Verochka, now prized the more for having been overlooked in his own text thirty years earlier? If love, as some assert, is a purely self-referring business, if the object of love is finally unimportant because what lovers value are their own emotions, then what more appropriate circularity than for a dramatist to fall in love with his own creation? Who needs the interference of the real person, the real her beneath the sunlight, the lamplight, the heartlight? Here is a photo of Verochka dressed as for the schoolroom: timid and appealing, with ardour in her eyes and an open palm denoting trust.
But if this confusion occurred, she incited it. Years later, she wrote in her memoirs, "I did not play Verochka, I performed a sacred rite... I felt quite distinctly that Verochka and I were the same person." So we should be forgiving if "the living Verochka" was what first moved him; what first moved her was perhaps something else that didn't exist - the author of the play, now himself long gone, thirty years away. And let's also remember that he knew this would be his last love. He was an old man now. He was applauded wherever he went as an institution, the representative of an era, someone whose work was done. Abroad, they hung gowns and ribbons on him. He was sixty, old by choice as well as fact. A year or two earlier, he had written: "After the age of forty there is only one word to sum up the basis of life: Renunciation." Now he was half as old again as that defining anniversary. He was sixty, she was twenty-five.
In letters, he kissed her hands, he kissed her feet. For her birthday, he sent a gold bracelet with their two names engraved inside. "I feel now," he wrote, "that I love you sincerely. I feel that you have become something in my life from which I shall never be parted." The phrasing is conventional. Were they lovers? It seems not. For him, it was a love predicated upon renunciation, whose excitements were called if-only and what-might-have-been.
But all love needs a journey. All love symbolically is a journey, and that journey needs bodying forth. Their journey took place on the 28th of May 1880. He was staying on his country estate; he pressed her to visit him there. She couldn't: she was an actress, at work, on tour; even she had things that must be renounced. But she would be travelling from Petersburg to Odessa; her route could take her through Mtsensk and Oryol. He consulted the timetable for her. Three trains left Moscow along the Kursk line. The 12.30, the 4 o'clock, and the 8.30: the express, the mail, and the slow train. Respective arrivals at Mtsensk: 10 in the evening, 4.30 in the morning, and 9.45 in the morning. There was the practicality of romance to be considered. Should the beloved arrive with the post, or on the railway's equivalent of the red-eye? He urged her to take the 12.30, redefining its arrival more exactly to 9.55 p.m.
There is an ironic side to this precision. He was himself notoriously unpunctual. At one time, affectedly, he carried a dozen watches on his person; even so, he would be hours late for a rendezvous. But on May the 6th, trembling like a youth, he met the 9.55 express at the little station of Mtsensk. Night had fallen. He boarded the train. It was thirty miles from Mtsensk to Oryol.
He sat in her compartment for those thirty miles. He gazed at her, he kissed her hands, he inhaled the air she exhaled. He did not dare to kiss her lips: renunciation. Or, he tried to kiss her lips and she turned her face away: embarrassment, humiliation. The banality too, at his age. Or, he kissed her and she kissed him back as ardently: surprise, and leaping fear. We cannot tell: his diary was later burned, her letters have not survived. All we have are his subsequent letters, whose gauge of reliability is that they date this May journey to the month of June. We know that she had a travelling companion, Raisa Alexeyevna. What did she do? Feign sleep, pretend to have sudden night vision for the darkened landscape, retreat behind a volume of Tolstoy? Thirty miles passed. He got off the train at Oryol. She sat at her window, waving her handkerchief to him as the express took her on towards Odessa.
No, even that handkerchief is invented. But the point is, they had had their journey. Now it could be remembered, improved, turned into the embodiment, the actuality of the if-only. He continued to invoke it until his death. It was, in a sense, his last journey, the last journey of the heart. "My life is behind me," he wrote, "and that hour spent in the railway compartment, when I almost felt like a twenty-year-old youth, was the last burst of flame."
Does he mean he almost got an erection? Our knowing age rebukes its predecessor for its platitudes and evasions, its sparks, its flames, its fires, its imprecise scorchings. Love isn't a bonfire, for God's sake, it's a hard cock and a wet cunt, we growl at these swooning, renouncing people. Get on with it! Why on earth didn't you? Cock-scared, cunt-bolted tribe of people! Hand-kissing! It's perfectly obvious what you really wanted to kiss. So why not? And on a train too. You'd just have to hold your tongue in place and let the movement of the train do the work for you. Clackety-clack, clackety-clack!
When did you last have your hands kissed? And if you did, how do you know he was any good at it? (Further, when did anyone last write to you about kissing your hands?) Here is the argument for the world of renunciation. If we know more about consummation, they knew more about desire. If we know more about numbers, they knew more about despair. If we know more about boasting, they knew more about memory. They had foot-kissing, we have toe-sucking. You still prefer our side of the equation? You may well be right. Then try a simpler formulation: if we know more about sex, they knew more about love.
Or perhaps this is quite wrong, and we mistake the gradations of courtly style for realism. Perhaps foot-kissing always meant toe-sucking. He also wrote to her: "I kiss your little hands, your little feet, kiss everything you will allow me to kiss, and even that which you will not." Isn't this clear enough, to both writer and recipient? And if so, then perhaps the converse is also true: that heart-reading was just as coarsely practised then as it is now.
But as we mock these genteel fumblers of a previous era, we should prepare ourselves for the jeers of a later century. How come we never think of that? We believe in evolution, at least in the sense of evolution culminating in us. We forget that this entails evolution beyond our solipsistic selves. Those old Russians were good at dreaming a better time, and idly we claim their dreams as our applause.
While her train continued towards Odessa, he spent the night at a hotel in Oryol. A bipolar night, splendid in his thoughts of her, miserable because this prevented him from sleeping. The voluptuousness of renunciation was now upon him. "I find my lips murmuring, 'What a night we should have spent together!' " To which our practical and irritated century replies, "Take another train then! Try kissing her wherever it was you didn't!"
Such action would be far too dangerous. He must preserve the impossibility of love. So he offers her an extravagant if-only. He confesses that as her train was about to leave he was suddenly tempted by the "madness" of abducting her. It was a temptation he typically renounced: "The bell rang, and ciao, as the Italians say." But think of the newspaper headlines if he had carried out his momentary plan. "SCANDAL AT ORYOL RAILWAY STATION," he delightedly imagines to her. If only. "An extraordinary event took place here yesterday: the author T-, an elderly man, was accompanying the celebrated actress S-, who was travelling to Odessa for a brilliant season in the theatre there, when, just as the train was about to pull out, he, as though possessed by the devil in person, extracted Madame S- through the window of her compartment and, overcoming the artiste's desperate efforts, etc, etc." If only. The real moment - the possible handkerchief being waved at the window, the probable station gaslight falling on the whitened crest of an old man - is rewritten into farce and melodrama, into journalese and "madness". The alluring hypothetical does not refer to the future; it is safely lodged in the past. The bell rang, and ciao, as the Italians say.
He also had another tactic: that of hurrying on into the future in order to confirm the impossibility of love in the present. Already, and without "anything" having happened, he is looking back on this would-have-been something. "If we meet again in another two or three years, I shall be an old, old man. As for you, you will have entered definitively upon the normal course of your life and nothing will remain of our past..." Two years, he thought, would turn an old man into an old, old one; while "normal life" is already waiting for her in the banal yet timely shape of an officer of hussars, clanking his spurs offstage and snorting like a horse. NN Vsevolozhsky. How useful the thunderous uniform was to the gauntly bent civilian.
We should not, by this point, still be thinking of Verochka, the naïve, unfortunate ward. The actress who embodied her was robust, temperamental, bohemian. She was already married, and seeking a divorce to acquire her hussar; she would marry three times in all. Her letters have not survived. Did she lead him on? Was she a little in love with him? Was she, perhaps, more than a little in love with him, yet dismayed by his expectation of failure, his voluptuous renunciations? Did she, perhaps, feel just as trapped by his past as he did? If love for him had always meant defeat, why should it be any different with her? If you marry a foot-fetishist, you shouldn't be surprised to find him curled up in your shoe-cupboard.
When he recalled that journey in letters to her, he made oblique references to the word "bolt". Was this the lock on the compartment, on her lips, on her heart? Or the lock on his flesh? "You know what the predicament of Tantalus was?" he wrote. The predicament of Tantalus was to be tortured in the infernal regions by endless thirst; he was up to his neck in water, but whenever he bent his head to drink, the river would run away from him. Are we to conclude from this that he tried to kiss her, but that whenever he advanced, she retreated, withdrawing her wet mouth?
On the other hand, a year later, when everything is safe and stylised, he writes this: "You say, at the end of your letter, 'I kiss you warmly'. How? Do you mean, as you did then, on that June night, in the railway compartment? If I live a hundred years I will never forget those kisses." May has become June, the timid suitor has become the recipient of myriad kisses, the bolt has been slid back a little. Is this the truth, or is that the truth? We, now, would like it to be neat then, but it is rarely neat; whether the heart drags in sex, or sex drags in the heart.
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