In 1918 or 1919 Mayakovsky and I were walking along the street in Moscow, when suddenly he asked me: "Listen, canI ask you something that may strike you as strange?" I said: "Ask away."--"You're walking along the street alone and suddenly you notice that you're thinking of something incredibly stupid, silly, and meaninglyess, and that you're thinking about it in a concentrated way. Does that ever happen to you.?"--Oh yes, it happens all the time."--"Thank God, I thought it happened only to me." This is very characteristic for Mayakovsky's psyche.
This entire evening I will,
While suffocating on cigarette smoke,
Be tortured by thoughts of certain people,
Who perished very young,
Who either at sunrise or in the night,
Suddenly and inappropriately,
Died. Leaving unsteady verses unfinished,
KK: Clearly, your purpose wasn’t exactly to bring Tolstoy’s novel up to date, but there are several scenes that reference Anna Karenina in a direct way. Some that come to mind are when David and Anna meet at the subway station, when David trips and falls during the New York Marathon, just as Vronsky’s horse goes down in a steeplechase (I love that one, by the way), and, of course, the ending. What made you invoke the scenes you did, if your intention was not Anna Karenina redux?
IR: You’re right — I did not begin my novel with the idea of updating Anna Karenina. The connections only became obvious to me after I had written some stories and began to sew them together into a novel. Perhaps because I had read the Tolstoy book so closely and so recently, it began to inhabit my novel-in-progress. Once I made up my mind to make the allusions explicit, I purposely did not reread the book, but allowed the scenes that had spoken to me push their images onto the page. I did not transpose them literally — in my novel, for example, the ice skating scene between Lev and Katia has a very different aim from Tolstoy’s ice skating scene. The parallels between my book and the classic are less conscious than they may seem, which made the process of writing my novel an unusual one. It is this process, I think, that allows my novel to stand firmly on its own two legs.
I found this letter (one of two) in the latest issue of Harper's Magazine. It's from Pushkin bowing out of an assignment to investigate the extermination of locust's somewhere when he was in the Russian Foreign Service. Count Woronzof, the deputy authority of the province of Bessarabia, was Pushkin's boss. The last graf reminds me one of my staffers when she calls in *sick* and feels the need to lay it on thick. Would that I received this letter from her!
Esteemed Aleksandr Ivanovich,
Bureaucratic procedure is entirely foreign to me. I don’t even know if I have the right to respond to His Highness’s orders. Whatever may happen, I trust in your indulgence and must dare to give an honest explanation of my situation.
For seven years I was remiss in my duties: I did not author a single paper, I did not communicate with any superior. These seven years, as you well know, were totally wasted. Complaints would be inappropriate on my part. I set obstacles in my own path and chose a different goal. For God’s sake, don’t think that I looked upon poetic creation with the childish vanity of a rhymester or as a sensitive man’s respite: it is simply my craft, an honest type of industry, which earns me my livelihood and independence. I think Count Woronzof won’t wish to deprive me of either the former or the latter.
I’ll be told that because I receive 700 rubles a year I am obliged to serve. You know that it is possible to be part of the book trade only in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, as the journalists, censors, and booksellers are there; I constantly have to decline the most advantageous offers for the sole reason that I am located far away from the capital. It suits the government to compensate me for my losses in some way, and thus I receive those 700 rubles not as a functionary’s salary but as the allowance of an exiled prisoner. I am prepared to refuse them if I cannot be in control of my own time and occupation. I’m going into these details because I value the opinion of Count Woronzof, as I do yours, as I do the opinion of any honest person.
I know this letter is enough to destroy me, as they say.
(If the Count orders me to send in my resignation, I am ready; but I feel that I am losing a lot and am not expecting to gain anything.)
One last word: you perhaps are not aware that I have an aneurysm. For eight years already I have been carrying death with me. I can show evidence from any doctor. Is it really not possible to leave me in peace for the remainder of my life, which surely won’t be prolonged?
Please accept my deepest respect and heartfelt devotion.
Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
(Translated from the Russian and French by Simona Schneider for Pushkin: Documents Toward a Biography 1799-1829, published last year in Russia by Iskusstvo.)