Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature
A. Kuprin, Circus Fan
When I once asked Kuprin what the source of his undying love for the circus was, he answered without a moment's hesitation:
"Well, you see, I'm a hereditary animal-trainer. My uncle, a small Narovchat landowner, was famous throughout Penza Gubernia for his ability to break in the half-wild Bashkir horses. He was a Tatar by birth and loved horse racing, wrestling and any other kind of sabantui, that is, any type of popular festivity with dancing, rope-walking or archery, where the strongest, most skilled and cunning are awarded prizes. Alas, all my uncle's artistic endeavours ended in nought, and he died a poor man. I will probably die a beggar, too. But this does not frighten me, for even though I go hungry, I will have many good memories. Do you know the tale about the pebbles on the beach?"
"No, I don't seem to recall it."
"It's a very short but convincing story. I heard it in Tiflis. An extremely wealthy man lost all his treasures in a single day. Then he went to live in a fisherman's hut on the seashore. He would sit on the beach for hours, watching the waves, fingering the pebbles, recalling his diamonds and pearls. 'These are also stones,' he mused. 'They have also been created by nature. Many of them are very beautiful but, most important, my soul is at peace, for no one will take them from me, no one will envy me for having them.' "
"On the Other Side," a story in which Kuprin recalls his own adventures, is about a junior lieutenant named Alexandrov who, just for fun, mounts a lame old one-eyed horse and rides up a flight of stairs to a restaurant on the second floor. While in the saddle he drinks a glass of brandy and rides down again, where he is greeted by a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.
"You might say this was simply the stunt of a bored officer. Was it really just a stunt? If you think so, try to teach a one-eyed horse to climb, a flight of stairs and come back down as well! The circus trainers and riders I know say this is one of the most difficult tricks to do."
When Kuprin was a youth in the Cadet Corps and later at the Junker Military Academy, he was known as a gymnast and dancer and excelled at formation marching.
Kuprin was six years old when an older boy of eleven came to visit relatives in the house on Kudrinka, in Moscow, where he lived with his mother. The boy, who knew various circus tricks, grew up to be the famous clown and animal-trainer Anatoly Durov. Little Anatoly took Sasha Kuprin to a back corridor, so that no one would see them, and showed him how he could jump, do somersaults, make faces and do impersonations. When Kuprin was away at a boarding-school several years later he would always go to the circus or the zoo on Sundays, preferring to spend the day watching the animals and observing their habits to playing with his friends at home. When he was ten years old and at the Rumyantsev Home, Kuprin was seized with the fantastic idea that he could fly if he jumped very quickly over a skipping-rope. He decided to see if the idea would work and climbed up a pole in the gymnasium, flipped the rope and jumped over it. Alas, he could not fly!
When Kuprin was a middle-aged man, he suddenly became fascinated with juggling. If one happened to be having dinner with him at the time, he would be surprised to see Kuprin suddenly toss an empty plate across the table with great accuracy; there it would be picked out of the air quite skilfully by one of his guests, who would naturally turn out to be a professional juggler.
In Kiev, Kuprin became acquainted with the famous wrestler Ivan Poddubny, who at the time was only a wrestler. Kuprin prevailed upon him to take up classic wrestling and Poddubny later became World Champion, a title he retained through many international tournaments.
Kuprin took part in organising the Kiev Athletic Society, and as a lightweight wrestler he met with many formidable opponents. Later Kuprin became acquainted with Ivan Lebedev, organiser of the world wrestling championship meets in Petersburg's Modern Circus. Kuprin was often a judge at these matches. Many were the times during difficult or puzzling situations when the noisy and demanding balcony fans would protest against Lebedev's ruling. They would shout: "Get Kuprin! Let Kuprin be the judge!"
Then the famous writer would get up and say, pointing to the referee:
"My friends, don't shout! He's right!"
And the noise would subside.
Ivan Zaikin was a handsome, powerful circus strong man. He began his career by working with weights, pulling iron chains apart and bending steel crowbars over his neck. Kuprin also persuaded him to try his luck at classical wrestling. Besides, he got Zaikin interested in aviation. In Odessa, Kuprin and Zaikin were one of the first teams in Russia to fly a biplane. It flew about half a kilometre and then came crashing to the ground. From then on Kuprin became an avid aviation fan.
In 1910, as he watched the first non-stop Petersburg-Moscow flight in Russia getting under way, he noted wrathfully that this wonderful undertaking had been put in the hands of men who did not consider aviation to be of great national importance but merely a new source of amusement.
"Aviation has become stylish," he wrote. "Just as spiritualism, hypocrisy, a false interest in sports, and chiefly in sports clothes, have all become stylish. The gilded idiots have found it necessary to latch on to this tremendous undertaking."
At the time, the Italian clown and gymnast Jacomino was first appearing in the Modern Circus. Soon he became a frequent visitor at Kuprin's Green House in Gatchina. He tried to talk the writer into going to Italy and promised to be his guide there. Kuprin finally did set out for Italy, but when he arrived his friend was gone. Jacomino had just left for an unexpected engagement in Paris. All was not lost, for the result of this trip were Kuprin's wonderful travel notes, The Azure Coast.
It is unlikely that any other writer in the world devoted so much attention to the circus.
Kuprin's first short story, "Allez," of the proud love of a young circus acrobat, appeared in the 90s and drew an excited response from Lev Tolstoi.
While staying with Chekhov in Yalta in 1901, Kuprin wrote "At the Circus" which was enthusiastically acclaimed both by Tolstoi and Chekhov. Following is an excerpt from a letter Kuprin wrote to his friend L. Yelpatyevskaya.
"The theme is not too involved, but what breadth of action there is in it: the circus in the daytime, during rehearsals, in the evening, during the performance, the argot, the customs, the costumes, a wrestling match, the tense muscles and beautiful poses, the excitement of the crowd, etc. When I first thought of this yesterday, my hands turned cold from happiness. I did a dance round the room singing: 'I'll write it, I'll write it, I'll write it!' "
In a letter to Chekhov, dated 1903, Kuprin wrote:
"In our enlightened times it is considered shameful to confess a love for the circus, but I am courageous enough to do so." In "The White Poodle" Kuprin writes of a little travelling circus that consisted of an old organ-grinder, a boy acrobat and a trained poodle. This is a story with deep social content, written with moving simplicity. It is one of the favourite stories of children everywhere. "The White Poodle" has gone through innumerable printings and translations.
Three of Kuprin's other famous circus stories are "Olga Sur," "Lighter Than Air" and "Crimson Blood."
Kuprin dreamed of a Russian circus, of a school of Russian circus performers with a repertoire that would be characteristic of the ingenuity and wisdom of the peoples inhabiting Russia.
"Will I ever live to see the day," he said, "when, on a circus poster, instead of foreign, and often invented names, one will find the names Ivanov, Gebitullin, Dadvadze and Sidorenko? I know they will create a repertoire no worse, and certainly much better and more original than the foreigners have, because our muscles are stronger, fate has not by-passed us with courage, and we have patience enough and laughter! Oh, we can laugh better than anyone in the world, because our laughter is of a very special kind."