Line and Color by Isaac Babel

(Translated by Peter Constantine)

I first met Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky[*] on December 20, 1916, in the dining room of the Ollila Spa. We were introduced by Zatsareni, a barrister from Turkestan. I had heard that Zatsareni had had himself circumcised at the age of forty. That disgraced imbecile Grand Duke Peter Nikolayevich, who was banished to Tashkent, prized Zatsareni’s friendship very highly. The Grand Duke used to walk about Tashkent stark naked, married a Cossack woman, lit candles before a portrait of Voltaire as if it were an icon of Jesus Christ, and had the boundless flatlands of Amu-Dari drained. Zatsareni was a good friend to him.

So, there we were at the Ollila Spa. Ten kilometers away shimmered the blue granite walls of Helsingfors.[†] O Helsingfors, love of my heart! O sky, pouring down onto the esplanades and soaring high like a bird!

So, there we were at the Ollila Spa. Northern flowers were withering in vases. Antlers spread across the murky ceilings. The air of the dining room was fil1ed with the fragrance of pine trees, the cool breasts of Countess Tyszkiewicz, and the British officers’ silk underwear.

At the table, a courteous converted Jew from the police department was sitting next to Kerensky. To his right, a Norwegian by the name of Nickelsen, the owner of a whaling vessel. To his left, Countess Tyszkiewicz, as beautiful as Marie Antoinette.

Kerensky ate three pieces of cake and went with me for a walk in the forest. Fröken Kristi hurried past us on skis.

“Who was that?” Kerensky asked me.

“That was Nickelsen’s daughter, Fröken Kristi,” I said. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

Then we saw old Johannes’s sledge.

“Who was that?” Kerensky asked.

“That was old Johannes,” I said. “He brings cognac and fruit from Helsingfors. Can it be that you don’t know old Johannes the coachman?”

“I know everyone here,” Kerensky replied, “but I can’t see anyone.”

“Are you nearsighted, Alexander Fyodorovich?”

“Yes, I’m nearsighted.”

“You need glasses, Alexander Fyodorovich.”

“Never!”

“If you think about it,” I said to him with the brashness of youth, “you are not merely blind, you are as good as dead. The line—that divine trait, that queen of the world—has escaped you forever. You and I are walking through this enchanted garden, this marvelous Finnish forest. To our dying day we will not encounter anything better, and you, you cannot even see the rosy, ice-crusted edges of the waterfall, over there, on the river. The weeping willow, leaning over the waterfall—you cannot see its Japanese delicacy. The red trunks of the pine trees heaped with snow! The granular sparkle that scintillates over the snows! It begins as a frozen line above the tree’s wavy surface, like Leonardo’s line, crowned by the reflection of the blazing clouds. And what about Fröken Kristi’s silk stockings, and the line of her maturing legs? I beg of you, Alexander Fyodorovich, buy some spectacles!”

“My dear boy,” he answered, “don’t waste your gunpowder! That half-ruble coin you want me to squander on a pair of spectacles is the one coin that will never leave my pocket! You can keep that line of yours with its repulsive reality. You are living the sordid life of a trigonometry teacher, while I am enveloped by wonders’ even in a hole like Klyazma! Why do I need the freckles on Fröken Kristi’s face when I, who can barely make her out, can imagine everything I want to imagine about her? Why do I need these clouds in the Finnish sky, when I can see a dreamy ocean above my head? Why do I need lines when I have colors? For me the whole world is a gigantic theater in which I am the only spectator without opera glasses. The orchestra plays the prelude to the third act, the stage is far away as in a dream, my heart swells with delight, I see Juliet’s crimson velvet, Romeo’s violet silk, and not a single false beard—and you want to blind me with a pair of half-ruble spectacles?”

That evening I left for town. O Helsingfors, refuge of my dreams!

I saw Alexander Fyodorovich again half a year later, in June of 1917, after he had become Supreme Commander of the Russian army and master of our fate.

That day the Troitsky drawbridge had been lifted. The Putilov workers were heading for the arsenal. Burning tramcars lay in the streets like dead horses.

The mass rally had gathered at the House of the People. Alexander Fyodorovich gave a speech on Russia, our mother and our wife. The crowd smothered him with its sheepskin-coat passion. Could he, the only spectator without opera glasses, even see the bristling passion of the sheepskin coats? I have no idea. But after him, Trotsky came to the podium, twisted his lips, and, in a voice that chased away one’s last hopes, said:

“My Comrades and Brothers!”

[*] Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, 1881–1970, served as Minister of Justice, Minister of war, and provisional Prime Minister of Russia after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

[†] A former name (Swedish) for Helsinki, which until Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 was Russian.

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