From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, pp.14-17.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Yury Olesha was born in 1899 in Odessa, and served in the Red Army. His novel Envy first created his reputation in the ’20s, and has been read as an indictment of the bureaucracy. He has written numerous stories, a play, a film script (‘technically and ideologically defective’) and stories for children. This story was first published in the Soviet Union in 1928.
Shuvalov waited for Lelya in the park. It was midday and hot. A lizard was outlined on a stone. Shuvalov thought: on the stone the lizard is quite defenceless; it can be seen immediately. ‘Mimicry’, he reflected, and that made him think of a chameleon. ‘That’s all that was needed’, he thought, ‘a chameleon!’
The lizard slid away.
Shuvalov was irritated, got up from the bench and strode off down the path. He was vexed. Suddenly he felt like fighting. He stopped and said rather loudly: ‘Oh, to hell with it! Why should I be thinking about mimicry and chameleons? I haven’t any use for such notions’.
He came to an open space and sat down on a tree-stump. Insects were darting about. The course of the flight of the birds, flies and bugs was architectural, and he could see the faint lines of arches, bridges, towers, terraces – a city changing its shape from moment to moment. Tm beginning to lose my grip’, he thought; ‘my concentration is getting messy. I’m becoming eclectic. What’s got into me? I’m beginning to see things that don’t exist’. There was no sign of Lelya. He went on. He became aware that there were many species of insects. A gnat was climbing a grass-blade. He took it off and placed it on the palm of his hand. Suddenly, its tiny belly flashed in the sun. Shuvalov grew angry. ‘Blast – if this keeps up, I’ll be a naturalist inside half an hour’.
The tree trunks were of many kinds; and so were the stems and leaves; he saw grass jointed like bamboo; he was struck by the many colours of the grass; the varied colours of the earth itself. ‘I don’t want to be a naturalist’ he pleaded. ‘I’ve no use for these chance observations’.
But there was no sign of Lelya. He had already made some calculations, done some classifying. He now knew that the majority of the trees in this park had broad trunks and leaves shaped like the ace of clubs. He discriminated the different insect sounds. Against his will, his attention fastened on matters of absolutely no interest to him.
There was still no sign of Lelya. He was filled with longing and irritation. Coming towards him he saw, not Lelya, but a strange citizen in a black hat. The citizen sat down on the green bench beside Shuvalov. He looked despondent as he sat there, his head hanging and a white hand on each knee. He was young and quiet. The two fell into conversation. The young man was colour-blind.
‘I envy you’, the young man said. ‘They say that leaves are green. I’ve never seen green leaves. I have to eat blue pears’.
‘Blue’, said Shuvalov ‘is not edible. A blue pear would turn my stomach.’
‘I eat blue pears’, the colour-blind youth replied gloomily. Shuvalov shuddered.
‘Tell me’ he said, ‘have you noticed that when birds fly around you, the result is a city, imaginary lines ...?’
‘Can’t say I have’, the colour-blind man replied.
‘So you perceive the world as it actually is?’
‘Yes, except for some details of colour’.
The colour-blind man turned a pale face to Shuvalov.
‘Are you in love?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I am’, Shuvalov answered frankly.
‘Apart from a slight weakness about colour, I’m perfectly all right’, the colour-blind youth said more cheerfully, and he made a patronising gesture towards the other.
‘But blue pears, that’s no trifle!’ Shuvalov grinned.
Lelya appeared in the distance. Shuvalov jumped up. The colour-blind youth got up, tipped his black hat, and started to walk away.
‘Are you a violinist?’ Shuvalov called after him.
‘You see things that don’t exist’ the youth replied.
‘You look like a violinist!’ Shuvalov shouted heatedly.
The youth continued on his way, made a reply that Shuvalov did not catch, but he thought he heard him say: ‘You’re in a bad way’.
Lelya was walking quickly. He got up and made a few steps to meet her. The branches with club-shaped leaves were waving. Shuvalov stood in the middle of the path. The branches rustled. As she approached, the leaves greeted her. The colour-blind youth, turning off the path, thought: ‘It’s getting windy’, and looked up at the leaves. They were behaving like any leaves agitated by the wind. He saw blue treetops swaying. Shuvalov saw green treetops. But Shuvalov drew an unnatural conclusion. He thought the trees were giving Lelya a welcome. The colour-blind young man was mistaken, but Shuvalov was even more seriously mistaken. ‘I see things that don’t exist’, Shuvalov repeated. Lelya reached him. In one hand she carried a bag of apricots. The other hand she held out to him. The world changed dramatically.
‘Why are you making such a face?’ she asked.
‘I feel as if I were wearing glasses’.
Lelya took an apricot out of the bag tore its tiny buttocks and threw away the stone. It fell in the grass. Shuvalov looked round and saw that where the stone had fallen, a tree had sprung up, a slim glowing sapling, a miraculous parasol. At that, he said to Lelya:
‘Something ridiculous is happening. I’m beginning to think in images. The laws of nature don’t exist for me any longer. In five years there will be an apricot tree on this spot. It may well be so. It’s perfectly possible, scientifically. But in defiance of all that’s natural, I’ve just seen this tree five years in advance. It’s nonsense! I’m becoming an idealist’. ‘It’s because you’re in love’, she said, shedding apricot juice.
She was waiting for him on the pillows. The bed had been shifted to the corner. The garlands on the wallpaper had a glint of gold. He came to her and she put her arms round him. She was so young and so slight that when she was wearing nothing but her chemise, her nakedness seemed preternatural. Their first embrace was tempestuous. The childish locket flew from her throat and caught in her hair like a golden almond. Shuvalov bent over her face which sank into the pillows as slowly as if she were dying. The lamp was burning.
‘I’ll blow it out’, said Lelya.
Shuvalov lay next to the wall. The corner moved down on him. He followed the design of the wallpaper with his finger. It occurred to him that the piece of wallpaper pattern nearest to him led a double life: in the daytime it was quite unremarkable, merely garlands; at night, seen five minutes before sleep, it had been transformed. Looming close to him, the design grew larger, more detailed and strange. At the edge of sleep, his perceptions become childlike and he did not protest against the transformation of familiar and proper shapes. Even more was this so, when the result had something so touching about it: instead of circles and curlicues, he saw a goat, a chef’s cap ...
‘And here is a treble clef’, said Lelya, catching on.
‘And a chameleon’, he whispered, falling asleep.
He woke early in the morning, very early. He looked about him, and uttered a cry of sudden delight. During the night, the transformation of the world which had begun when they first met had been completed. The morning sunlight filled the room. He noticed the window sill and on it pots of multi-coloured flowers. Lelya was asleep, her back to him. She was curled up, her back curved, and under her skin her spine showed like a slender reed. ‘A fishing-rod’, though Shuvalov, ‘a bamboo cane’. Everything in the new world was absurd and touching. He heard voices beyond the window, talking of the flowerpots on her window sill.
He got up and dressed, keeping a hold on the real world with difficulty. Gravitation had almost ceased. He did not know the laws of this new world and so behaved cautiously, timidly, fearing that some rash movement might have a disastrous effect. Even thinking, merely observing, was full of risk. And what if in the night he had been gifted with the ability to materialise thoughts? There was some foundaion for such a belief. For example, his buttons just buttoned themselves. Again, as soon as he thought of wetting his brush to smooth his hair down, he heard dripping somewhere. He looked round. Bathed in sunlight, a heap of Lelya’s dresses hung on the wall, blazing with all the colours of a montgolfier balloon.
‘I’m here’, the voice of the tap sounded from the heap. Under the heap he found the tap and washbasin. A piece of pink soap lay near it. But Shuvalov was afraid that he might think of something terrible. ‘A tiger entering the room’, he almost thought against his will. But somehow he managed to escape the thought ... He looked at the door in terror, however. The materialisation took place, but as the thought had been suppressed, it was only partly realised – a wasp flew in through the window ... It was striped and bloodthirsty.
‘Lelya, a tiger!’ shouted Shuvalov.
Lelya woke up. The wasp hung on the edge of a plate. It buzzed dizzily. Lelya jumped out of bed and the wasp attacked. She waved it away – wasp and locket circled about her. Shuvalov swatted the locket with his palm. The pair of them hunted the wasp systematically. Lelya covered it with her creaky straw hat.
Shuvalov had to go. They said goodbye, standing in a draught – in the new world become both active and noisy ... It blew open a door downstairs. It sang like a washerwoman. It whirled the flowers on the window ledge and lifted Lelya’s hat, freeing the wasp and hurling the hat into a salad bowl. It ruffled Lelya’s hair. It whistled. Lelya’s chemise billowed out. They parted. And Shuvalov, too happy to feel the steps beneath his feet, went downstairs and out into the courtyard. He did not feel the steps, the porch or the pavement. It was then that he discovered that all this was not a mirage but reality: his feet were suspended in air, he was flying.
‘He is flying on the wings of love’, he heard as he passed a window.
He rocketed into the air, his long belted blouse spreading out like a crinoline – there was a fever on his lip, he flew, snapping his fingers.
At two o’clock he reached the park. Exhausted with love and happiness, he fell asleep on a green bench. He slept on. The sweat on his face boiled in the sun. He slept, his collarbone sticking out of his open blouse.
A stranger, wearing a sort of cassock, a black hat, and heavy blue spectacles, was walking slowly along the path like a priest, hands behind his back and head bobbing up and down. He reached Shuvalov and sat down beside him. ‘I am Isaac Newton’, the stranger said, lifting his hat. Through his spectacles he saw his blue photographic world. ‘How do you do?’ murmured Shuvalov.
The great scientist was sitting bolt upright, alert, poised. He listened intently, his ears twitching and calling to order an invisible choir that waited to burst into song at his command. Nature waited. Shuvalov quietly hid behind a bench – the gravel screeched under his foot. The famous physicist attended to the deep silence of nature. Faraway, under a clump of foliage, a star shone as during an eclipse, and it became cool.
‘There!’ Newton said suddenly.
‘You hear?’ Without looking, he reached out, seized Shuvalov by his blouse, and, getting up, pulled him out of his hiding-place. They walked on the grass. The scientist’s roomy shoes trod softly and left white imprints on the grass. A lizard darted in front of them, taking quick glances back at them now and then. They passed through undergrowth, which festooned the steel frames of the scientist’s spectacles with fluff and ladybirds. They reached a clearing. Shuvalov recognised the sapling that had sprung up yesterday.
‘Apricots?’ he asked.
‘No’, snapped the scientist irritably. ‘It’s an apple tree’.
The skeleton of the apple tree, the wiry framework of its top, light and fragile as the spidery frame of a balloon, was visible through the thin undergrowth. Everything was still and silent.
The scientist stopped. ‘Here’ he said, his voice a growl as he stopped. ‘Here!’ He had an apple in his hand. ‘What does this mean?’
It was evident that the scientist did not often have to stoop. He stood up again, threw back his shoulders several times, flexing his spine, the old bamboo cane of a spine. The apple rested in three fingers.
‘What does this mean?’ he said again, wheezing so that his voice was muffled.
‘Will you tell me why the apple fell?’
Shuvalov looked at the apple as William Tell once did.
‘It’s the law of gravity’, he whispered.
After a pause, the great physicist asked:
‘Am I to understand that you were flying this morning, young man?’ He spoke like a professor examining a student. His eyebrows soared above his spectacles.’Am I to understand that you were flying this morning, my young Marxist?’ A ladybird crawled from his finger onto the apple. Isaac Newton eyed it. The ladybird seemed dazzlingly blue to him. He frowned. It rose from the highest point on the apple and flew away on wings it suddenly produced from behind somewhere, like a man in a frock coat pulling a handkerchief from a back pocket.
‘Am I to understand that you were flying this morning?’
Shuvalov was silent.
‘Pig!’ said Isaac Newton.
Shuvalov woke up.
‘Pig!’ said Lelya, standing over him. ‘You’re waiting for me and you fall asleep! Pig!’
She picked a ladybird from his forehead and smiled at the metallic shine on its little belly.
‘Damn!’ he swore. ‘I hate you. There was a time when I knew that this was a ladybird and that was all I knew about it. But ever since we met, something’s happened to my eyesight. I see blue pears and I take a fly aparic for a ladybird’.
She wanted to hug him.
‘Let me alone, let me alone!’ he cried. ‘I’m tired of you. I’m ashamed’.
He ran off shouting, snorting, leaping wildly, shying away from his own shadow and squinting his eyes. At length, he stopped, out of breath. Lelya had vanished. He resolved he must forget everything. He must rediscover the world he had lost. ‘Goodbye’, he sighed,’ we shall never see each other again’. He sat down on a ledge, overlooking a valley dotted with summer-houses. He sat on the apex of a prism, his legs dangling over the edge. Below him, the huge parasol of an ice-cream vendor was moving; the impression the whole unit gave was of an African village.
‘I am living in paradise’, said the young Marxist in a crushed tone.
‘Are you a Marxist?’ someone asked.
The young colour-blind youth was sitting close beside him.
‘Yes, I’m Marxist’, Shuvalov said.
‘Then you cannot live in paradise’.
The colour-blind youth was playing with a twig. Shuvalov kept sighing.
‘But what can I do? The world had become paradise?’
The colour-blind man whistled, scratching his ear with a twig.
‘Do you know how far I’ve gone?’ whispered Shuvalov. This morning I was flying’.
There was a kite in the sky, like a postage stamp pasted askew.
‘If you like, I’ll show you. I’ll fly over there’. Shuvalov stretched out his hand in preparation.
‘No, thanks. I don’t want to be present at your disgrace’.
‘It’s terrible’ Shuvalov murmured after a pause. ‘I know it’s terrible, I envy you’.
‘Honest. It’s wonderful to see everything properly and only make mistakes about trivialities of colour, like you. You don’t have to live in paradise. The real world has not disappeared for you. Everything is in its proper place. But me – just think of it! I’m perfectly well, I’m a materialist. And suddenly, a criminal, anti-scientific distortion of substances, of matter takes place before my very eyes!’
‘Yes, it is terrible’, the colour-blind man agreed, ‘and all because of love!’
Shuvalov suddenly seized the young man’s hand.
‘Listen!’ he said quickly. ‘Give me your retina and take my love’.
The young man started climbing down the slope. ‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I have no time. Goodbye. Go on living in your paradise’.
He found it difficult clambering down the slope. He climbed with legs apart, looking less like a man than like the reflection of one in water. Eventually, he reached level ground and trudged off gaily. Then, throwing the twig in the air, he blew Shuvalov a kiss and shouted: ‘Remember me to Eve!’
Meanwhile, Lelya was sleeping. Shuvalov found her an hour late in the depths of the park. He was no naturalist, could not identify the vegetation around him: hazelnut, hawthorn, elderberry, or eglantine. Branches, shrubbery, pressed upon him all around. He walked like a pedlar, bowed with baskets of interwoven twigs knotted in the middle. He kept throwing aside the baskets that poured over him, leaves, petals, thorns, berries, birds.
Lelya lay on her back in a pink dress open at the throat. She was asleep. He could hear a faint snuffling in her nose, congested in sleep. He sat near her. Then he laid his head on her breast, fingering the cotton print of her dress. Her breast was damp with perspiration. He could see the pink nipple, faintly wrinkled like the skin on milk. He no longer heard the rustle of the leaves, the twigs crackling.
Suddenly the colour-blind young man looked up behind the branches of a bush. The bush resisted his passage.
‘Listen’, the colour-blind man said.
Shuvalov lifted his head, sweetness clinging to his cheek.
‘Don’t follow me around like a dog’, Shuvalov said.
‘Listen. I agree. You take my retina and give me your love’.
‘Go and eat blue pears’, said Shuvalov.
Last updated on 1 March 2010