The Masquerades of Fyodor Sologub

SologubAnastasia

In 1899, as Fyodor Sologub progressed in the teaching profession while continuing to elaborate his literary career, Sologub was appointed principal of the Andreevskoe municipal school in Saint Petersburg. With the position came an apartment on Vasilievsky Island, which Sologub shared with his sister Olga. In the late 1890s and at the beginning of the 1900s, the art world of Petersburg saw Konstantin Sluchevsky’s ‘Fridays’, and Sergei Diaghilev’s ‘Wednesdays’: literary salons which were attended by the leading poets and artists of the day. Sologub had been a participant of both groups; and between 1905 and 1907, his apartment on Vasilievsky Island became the home of ‘Sundays’, a regular meeting place for Petersburg’s nascent intellectuals.

Alexander Blok was a routine visitor. These years were some of the young Blok’s most prolific, marked by bursts of creative energy as he worked on two lyrical dramas – Balaganchik (‘The Puppet Show‘), featuring the ‘grotesquely luckless’ Pierrot, which was staged in 1906 by Vsevolod Meyerhold at the Komissarzhevskaya Theatre; and The Stranger – and the poetry cycle The Snow Mask, which he completed in little over a week at the beginning of 1907. The actress Valentina Verigina often accompanied Blok, and recounted of these visits to and from Sologub’s apartment:

‘How often we wandered through the streets of the snowy city… All of the theatrical events that seemed so important in their time have grown dim in my memory. Acting at the theatre, which I loved so much, now seems to me far less exciting and bright than that game of masks in Blok’s circle. It is true that even at that time I did not look upon our meetings, gatherings, and strolls as mere entertainment. There is no doubt that others too felt the significance and creative value of it all, yet nonetheless we did not realize that the charms of Blok’s poetry almost deprived us all of our real existence, turning us into Venetian masqueraders of the north.’

In the month after Olga’s death from tuberculosis in June 1907, Sologub retired following twenty-five years as a teacher, and moved in Petersburg from the school-owned apartment to a private flat. The following year he married Anastasia Chebotarevskaya, a translator and author of children’s books who he had first met in the autumn of 1905. In the summer of 1909, Sologub and Chebotarevskaya holidayed in France. Though he had travelled to Finland with his sister in a final attempt to improve her condition, Finland was at the time part of the Russian Empire, so this trip to France was Sologub’s first proper visit abroad.

In August 1910, Sologub and his wife moved to a larger apartment, at Razyezzhaya ulitsa in the centre of Petersburg. The short and brisk sentences of Anastasia Chebotarevskaya’s writing have been viewed as a potential influence on Sologub’s own work; and she encouraged his acquaintance with the young writers of Russian Futurism, a distinctive literary movement which was then just beginning to flower. Yet the influence of Anastasia on her husband has not been unanimously well received. The humourist Teffi – who was one of the group who frequented the ‘Sundays’ gatherings at Sologub’s Vasilievsky Island home – wrote that Sologub’s marriage:

‘reshaped his daily life in a new and unnecessary way. A big new apartment was rented, small gilt chairs were bought. The walls of the large cold office for some reason were decorated with paintings of Leda by various painters […] The quiet talks were replaced by noisy gatherings with dances and masks. Sologub shaved his mustache and beard, and everyone started to say that he resembled a Roman of the period of decline.’

One of these ‘noisy gatherings with dances and masks’ proved the occasion of a notable scandal within the world of Russian letters. On 3 January, 1911, Sologub and his wife hosted a masquerade to celebrate the new year. Among the attendees were the writers Aleksei Remizov and Aleksei Tolstoy. Remizov was well known within the world of Russian letters for his mischievous sense of humour. He founded a ‘Great and Free House of Apes’, declaring himself Chancellor, and sent out missives to writers and publishers decreeing them positions in this ironic organisation; and Andrei Bely dubbed him a ‘petty demon’ – the title of Sologub’s most celebrated work – owing to his appearance.

For the new year’s masquerade, Anastasia lent Remizov an animal hide for use as a costume. Remizov apparently cut the tail from this hide, and attached it to his rear so that it poked out of the vent of his evening jacket. Anastasia failed to see the funny side, for she had borrowed the hide herself in order to lend it to Remizov. She complained in a letter:

‘To my great dismay, today I discovered that your tail came from my animal hide (actually not mine, someone else’s – that’s the problem!). Moreover, I cannot find the rear paws. Have they really been cut off? Where shall I look for them? I await your reply. I’ve taken the skin to be fixed – but how ever can I return it with patches?’

In response, Remizov claimed that the tail had been shorn from the rest of the hide during a party hosted the previous day by Aleksei Tolstoy. The result was that both he and Remizov were precluded from subsequent parties at the Sologub household.

Fyodor and Anastasia would stay at the apartment on Razyezzhaya ulitsa until 1916, when – after several years of constant touring for the sake of a series of lectures – Sologub settled again and returned with his wife to Vasilievsky Island. The final move of his life would come in the weeks after his wife’s suicide in 1921, upon which Sologub took an apartment on the Zhdanovskaya Embankment, close to Tuchkov bridge from which his wife had jumped and drowned.

Masquerades are as prominent in Sologub’s literature as they were in his life. In Melky Bes – finally published in 1907, just a few months before his sister’s death, and translated into English as The Little Demon or The Petty Demon – in a plot which runs alongside the adventures of the protagonist Peredonov, a boy named Sasha Pylnikov becomes involved in a curious relationship with a young woman, Lyudmila Rutilova.

Peredonov labours as a provincial schoolteacher and aspires to be promoted to an inspectorship. His wife, Varvara, secures his hand in marriage by asserting her connection to a patron with the power to provide such a promotion. Varvara has lied, however, and Peredonov, spiteful by nature, paranoid, frustrated, and increasingly beset by deceptions and hallucinations, abuses Sasha most out of all his students.

As the relationship between Sasha and Lyudmila is established, Sasha is warned by his school’s headmaster that it is inappropriate, and he is told to curtail his visits to the Rutilova house. When the local theatre organises a masked ball, with prizes for the best male and female costumes – the prizes being, at least according to local rumour, a bicycle and cow respectively – Lyudmila and her sister, Darya, seize upon the idea to enter Sasha as a girl:

‘The amount of the prize did not interest either Darya or Liudmilla. Much they wanted a cow! What a rarity a fan was! And who was going to award the prizes? We know what taste these judges have! But both sisters were captivated by the idea of sending Sasha to the masked ball in a woman’s dress, to fool the whole town and to arrange so that the lady’s prize should go to him.

[…]

And when the sisters told Sasha about their project and Liudmillotchka said to him: “We will dress you up as a girl,” Sasha jumped up and down and shouted with joy. He was delighted with the idea, especially as no one would know – it would be fine to fool everyone.

They decided at once that they would dress Sasha as a Geisha. The sisters kept their idea in the strictest secrecy and did not even tell Larissa or their brother. Liudmilla herself made the costume from the design on the label of Korilopsis: it was a long full dress of yellow silk on red velvet; she sewed a bright pattern on the dress, consisting of large flowers of fantastic shape. The girls made a fan out of thin Japanese paper, with figures, on bamboo sticks, and a parasol out of thin rose silk with a bamboo handle. They bought rose coloured stockings and wooden slippers with little ridges underneath. The artist Liudmilla painted a Geisha mask: it was a yellowish but agreeable thin face, with a slight motionless smile, oblique eyes and a small, narrow mouth. They had only to get the wig from Petersburg – black, with smooth, arranged hair.’

Sologub’s novel has been cited as a Russian instance of Decadent literature, and it shows some of the contemporaneous Russian interest in paganism and ‘orientalism’. The fact of a boy adopting the role of a woman calls back to ancient Greek theatre, English Renaissance theatre, and kabuki: Japanese dance-drama with its beginnings in the seventeenth century, in which the term for male actors who impersonate women is ‘onnagata’ or ‘oyama’. In The Little Demon, there is a perversely sexual element to Sasha’s fluctuations between boyhood and womanhood. When Sasha first appears in the novel, he is kneeling, and Peredonov seems darkly attracted to his femininity:

‘After he had stood behind the boys for some time and gathered enough of depressing reflections, Peredonov moved forward toward the middle rows. There, on the very edge, to the right, stood Sasha Pilnikov; he was praying earnestly and often went down on his knees. Peredonov watched him, and it gave him pleasure to see Sasha on his knees like one chastised, and looking before him at the resplendent altar with a concerned and appealing expression on his face; with entreaty and sadness in his black eyes shaded by long intensely black eyelashes. Smooth-faced and graceful, his chest standing out broad and high as he rested there, calm and erect on his knees, as if under some sternly observing eye, he appeared at that moment to Peredonov altogether like a girl.

Peredonov now decided to go directly after Vespers to Pilnikov’s rooms.’

When Peredonov visits Sasha’s home late that evening, he puts his arm around the boy, pretends to mistake him for a girl, and threatens to whip him with a birch when Sasha refuses to tell which of his fellow pupils have been speaking coarsely.

Sasha ultimately sustains the courage to attend the masquerade as a geisha; and in the following chapter, in disguise at the ball, he wins many male admirers:

‘Sasha, intoxicated by his new situation, coquetted furiously. The more they stuck their cards into the Geisha’s little hand, the more gaily and provokingly gleamed the eyes of the coquettish Geisha through the narrow slits of the mask.’

Taken for a famous actress, Sasha wins the prize for best female costume: a fan, rather than the rumoured cow. But all the attention the geisha has received upsets many of the females present, and a violent scuffle ensues through the rooms of the venue, with embittered women, drunkards, and young men scratching and pulling and tearing at the geisha’s clothes. Sasha is only rescued by the actor Bengalsky. As he and Bengalsky take a cab to the Rutilovas, Peredonov burns the ballrooms down, impelled by his ‘nedotykomka’: the small grey demon of the novel’s title, which only Peredonov can see.

‘An Enchanted Masquerade’, at Berkeley.edu: http://petersburg.berkeley.edu/cameron/cameron2_3.html

Chronicle of Sologub’s life events: http://sologub.narod.ru/english/english_bio2.htm

McQuillen, C. The Modernist Masquerade: Stylizing Life, Literature, and Costumes in Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)

Sologub, F. The Little Demon trans. Cournos, J. & Aldington, R. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1916)