THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
THE FACE-MAKER AND THE MUSE
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
(excerpt from the novel)
It is raining everywhere except here inside. No matter how strong, how constant, how persistent, how cold or all-powerful the rain might be - the blue rain of the river in its slanting lines, the red rain of the sun in its large check patterns, the green rain falling down through the leaves on to the point of the hood of your cloak, across your shoulders, down on to the ground and then into the stream of the gutter, into the canal and on out of the City - no matter how strong it might be, this rain, here inside a human being it is thought that flows, that swells with the blood, that emerges from the mouth as steam or congeals in the brain as memory that might be needed some day. Everything outside a human being is subject to the laws of nature, but nothing here inside a human being is subject to any laws at all. He can live his entire life underground, that is, within himself, and no one will ever know, because he will walk home through the streets of the City just as the Face-Maker is walking home from work at this very moment, because at home his Muse is waiting for him, the Muse who was granted to him by chance, his own faithful Muse, just as our Muse is waiting for our Face-Maker at this very moment. The rain simply keeps on falling downwards, but the blood inside the body moves in its own unswerving, anomalous direction, quite independent of the direction of the rain. This, or something like this, is the way the Face-Maker reasons in his joy at the fact that sooner or later, if you remain exclusively faithful, the thing you are waiting for will happen. But even so, the hour of a person's encounter with his own fundamental identity is unexpected and fortuitous, possibly even disastrous, it might even be better if it never arrives at all, for the longer you live in anticipation of this hour, the more meaningful your life will become. This, or something like this, perhaps even in words something like these, is the way the Face-Maker reasons on the deserted street of the City, not even aware that thought is protecting him from what is happening outside him; he walks on, unaware of the rain squeezing his body with its cold, heavy hands and bowing his head down towards the stone that serves the inhabitants of the City so forcefully by lying beneath their feet.
How everything has changed! Only yesterday the Face-Maker had walked along these same streets with almost exactly these thoughts, feeling the rain on the folds of his cloak, and then on the folds of his skin, accepting the weight of this torrent pouring down from above. Today the rain is still pouring down, perhaps even more heavily, but the Face-Maker is totally insensible to it.
The thing he has been waiting for for years has happened.
On one occasion already, in his impatience at waiting so long, the Face-Maker had forfeited the final remnants of his gaiety, then after the Commission he had simply become indifferent to fear, and begun over again working secretly to prepare himself for today - without knowing, of course, that it would be today. The Official had appeared in the laboratory during the final quarter of an hour before the lunch-break and the patient lying on the table had pulled the sheet up over her breasts as she gaped wide-eyed at him, and attempted to get up. That was when the
Face-Maker had seen the Official in her eyes.
The Official gestured for the patient to get up from the table. She wrapped herself more tightly in the sheet against the cold and stood up. Then she realized she was being banished from the surgery, and she hurried out.
The Face-Maker stood there with his arms dangling awkwardly, the fingers of one hand still clutching a scalpel. He tried to assume a more independent pose: he bent his arm and tossed the scalpel with an easy movement into the white nickel-plated instrument box, but the ease was evidently more pretense than reality, and in his agitation the throw proved awkward. The scalpel clattered on to the bottom of the box and bounced, skidding over the edge and flying point-first towards the floor, glinting momentarily like a fisherman's spinner in the water before it was extinguished.
The Face-Maker was astonished to discover within himself the traits he had possessed before the Commission. Firstly, he was nervous, and secondly, he had lost control of himself to such an extent that his agitation was visible to others. The Face-Maker was overjoyed, the way a person who has fallen over a cliff is overjoyed, on re-emerging from unconsciousness into life and feeling himself all over, to discover that he is not only alive, but unharmed, his arms and legs obey him, his eyes see and his ears hear. Unable to believe the evidence of his senses, he is overjoyed even at his own disbelief.
This meant that beyond the bounds of his daily routine the Face-Maker still possessed all the same old feelings. The Official's arrival was something that went beyond his daily routine, something from a higher plane, from a life in which the Face-Maker had had no place until today. From the life which last year the Face-Maker had been in such haste to enter that he had almost broken his neck in the attempt. But perhaps his experience in indifference and self-control could serve him well enough even in this other life, if only he could impress upon himself the idea that the Official's visit might be something new, but it was still a part of daily reality, it was almost like the return of his old freedom, just with a certain extra tension.
But even this fancied freedom lasted scarcely more than a moment before it was gone like a spike driven into a railway sleeper - the first blow secures it, and after the second there is nothing left but the head showing on the surface. Not only had the Official himself come - and his appearance in itself was a sure sign that you were somehow involved in the principal affairs of the City - but there had been a second blow, the one which took away the Face-Maker's fancied freedom: the Official had come to see the Face-Maker on business. He began to speak.
His speech stacked itself away on the shelves of the Face-Maker's memory like bolts of cloth in a haberdashery shop. The Face-Maker saw the meaning, but not the words, for the external sense of words never expresses what the speaker really wants to say to you, his desire to astonish or conquer you, to crush or compel you to love him or to stop loving him, and all the rest... You have to filter all this out from the spoken word like salt from water, and not everyone is capable of this. The Face-Maker, though, was a master of the technique of translating words into meaning.
The Official was suggesting that the couple the Face-Maker was working on should be altered to become the Principal Couple - but although his couple and another were both involved in the Choice, the distance between them was as insurmountable as a precipice for a tortoise or a pane of glass for a butterfly, and the distance was even greater that separated our Face-Maker from his teacher, the Great Face-Maker, who was preparing the Principal Couple.
The Face-Maker did not know what to do with his hands, he stood up... picked up the scalpel... he sniffed (which was tantamount to disrespect), became even more embarrassed, carefully placed the scalpel in the box. The scalpel clinked once and was silent. Apparently heartened by this steely signal from fate, he shuddered once and - to external appearances at least - regained control of himself.
The proposal was as unexpected and impossible as a proposal that a girl from the corps de ballet should dance the leading role in a major competition. Of course, the Face-Maker was precisely that, a Face-Maker, but the gap between him and the Great Face-Maker was wider than that between the prima ballerina and a chorus girl.
The Great One was unique.
Of course, he could have regarded the proposal as a test of the extent of his own secret vanity, but testing that was obviously not a job for the Official. To regard the visit as a test would have been the extreme limit of fear and mistrust, and even after the Commission, the Face-Maker, like all who had acquired a name, knew only moderate fear.
Today the Official was neither joking nor testing him. For all his experience in mistrust, the Face-Maker gave precedence to the simple sense of the proposal in the Official's words. In any case, it appeared that he could wait until the following day before deciding whether or not to accept. Yes, taking everything together, the interpretation of a combined test and deception could effectively be ruled out. But the Face-Maker did not entirely dismiss this meaning, he simply assigned it a subordinate position in the system of possible variants, and regarded the simple sense of the proposal as the fundamental one. The effort cost him all the energy that he had accumulated and conserved. This was the first step towards the life-goal for which he had been preparing - with the Muse's help, of course. But had he really been preparing? And was he ready now?
The rain grew stronger and finally forced a breach in the Face-Maker's concentration - a small, narrow breach just large enough for a single drop - and it seeped through into the Face-Maker's consciousness, like a mouse that twists and stretches itself in order to wriggle into a room through a crack in the floor. The Face-Maker's shoulders twitched, and once again he saw himself alone on the street in the rain, hunched and wretched, hiding away from people within himself, the way he had seen himself almost all his life, apart from those moments when he thought of the Muse, who waited for him in the dry apartment, pretending to read something, when she was really listening to hear the bang of the front door, which meant that in a moment the door would open. In contrast with the Face-Maker, who was waiting for his hour to come, she had long since been prepared to live in any way that life allowed, whether that meant success or living out the rest of their years as they had been living, always waiting for each other and glad to see each other, and... Perhaps the Muse would have preferred the second option, because success was something unknown and even frightening, it would open up another way of life which might distort and perhaps mutilate everything that had been built up in the course of their long and faithful relationship, perhaps making them more tender and loving, but perhaps finally pulling them apart. She did not want these potential blessings or misfortunes, she was happy to exchange them for what they had already, which she treasured, and which made her happier than many of the people she encountered at work or afterwards. Sadly this choice did not depend on her, however, she was dependent on the Face-Maker, and he was dependent on many different things, including the Official, as had been confirmed by that day's meeting.
If that day's meeting had not taken place, there would have been no novel. Their previous life is not the subject of this novel, it is a life like everyone else's; and the things that are known to everyone, that everyone can see, are not, even in their most pronounced form, the subject-matter of the novelist, but of the chronicler of social mores. The subject-matter of a novel is something concentrated in one or several individuals, which entirely changes the lives of all people living, changes them and the shape of their days, so that the chroniclers of the future may continue to perfect their art and describe the subtle forms of realities which came into being without their assistance. Therefore our novel begins with that day's meeting, which affects the destiny of everyone living, not only the Face-Maker and the Muse. Of course I need not have written that, I could have left it for the critic to guess: when they finish building a house they take away the scaffolding, and only an architect would know where to position the support if the building had to be renovated. But I want to leave the critic with no work to do, because his fate is to serve the chronicler, he is the second half of this pair, which feeds itself by gathering the corn planted earlier by a sower who scattered his own substance on the soil in place of grain.
How strange it was: until today nothing had depended on the Face-Maker, everything - his work, his pay, his routine - had been decided without him being involved, and he had been entirely dependent on people above him, but today his own voluntary decision would determine whether or not he would carry out the work proposed by the Official, because this was something you could not be ordered to do.