Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/Sonia
J. S. MACHAR: SONIA (FROM "THE CONFESSIONS OF AN AUTHOR.")
I read the story of the student Raskolnikov in my uninviting room, shivering with cold and writhing with hunger; my spirit was haunted by that feeling of grief and emptiness common to every Czech in the nineties; the conflict of life, such as I had been compelled to live it under the insane yoke of the secondary school and then hunting after niggardly coaching jobs with vain yearnings for freedom and sunshine within, burdened and afflicted me unspeakably; I was sated with the world which I did not know, nauseated by life of which I had no experience, having no strength because there was no hope, and there was no hope, because there was no-where for it to seize hold. My spirit weighed upon me like a fallow field full of weeds, a few of which—my verses—swayed to and fro there sadly and despondently, waiting submissively for the stroke of the scythe, the foreboding of an early death persisted in me with extraordinary strength, because death seemed to me the natural and only result of my condition.
And into this spirit there now fell sentences and scenes the like of which I had met with neither in life nor in literature. I read each page three or four times in succession; I did not hurry, I was not anxious to know what the end of the story would be; my spirit was in a ferment, everything within it rose upwards, my nerves were strained like wires and quivered with anguish—my own suffering was doubled by the suffering of another, and evinced itself as sheer physical pain.
And meantime I used to go to school and felt the whole inanity of so-called studies, Xenophon, Caesar, dogmatics, mathematics; I used to go to my coaching jobs, and the more they afflicted me, the more I afflicted others, insisting to them how important it is to know the irregular perfects and the ablative absolute—I did everything like a machine, but with a spirit in painful turmoil. Then evening came, and jaded and hungry I would sit down to Raskolnikov.
"A human louse"—yes, that is what Raskolnikov called the murdered usuress . . but her stupid sister was also a human louse, a superfluous louse, the scamp Svidrigailov was a louse, the drunkard Marmeladov was a louse, the magistrate Porphyry was also a louse, and, finally, so was Raskolnikov himself. And Sonia, the poor skinny harlot, who would give herself to every such louse in the street,—does she stand above them? And amongst all this murdering, loving, condemning, drinking, and merry-making,—how unnaturally the virtuous Avdotya Romanovna is drawn! And you, reader, are sickened by men and the world, but, my dear fellow, look closely at yourself . . not only your clergyman, your teacher so and so, the person so and so, with whom you are acquainted, whom you despise, whom you loathe,—you yourself are just such a human louse, a superfluous creature of chance. You turn up your nose at the world,—but what do you demand of it? You are sickened by life,—who keeps you there? A stone falls into the water and nobody notices it, and the stream does not stand still. You are puffed up, vain, my reader,—quote a few of your ephemeral verses that have appeared in print,—those images, those rhymes, those banalities,—you cannot? Ah yes, immortal art is something quite different, something vastly remote from you . . you read, for instance, "Crime and Punishment," and you will writhe like a worm. . . Humble yourself, proud human louse, the meanest crossing-sweeper is worth as much as you, and perhaps more: he is well aware of his paltriness and has no wish to thrust his head among the stars. Scourge your self, scourge, you see how much easier I feel at once.
Ye gods, how I scourged myself . . . the sUfferings I went through over that dreadful book! I finished reading it,—and suddenly all was still. Into my spirit there mounted a kind of frosty calm, the surging grew numb and as if the book had prompted me with a single ghastly idea, which seemed to me axiomatic, I felt that I must murder a human being. And I knew that I must kill them with an axe like Raskolnikov, and I found the axe in Mrs. Randa's kitchen and it was sharp, having been recently whetted by Mr. Randa. And I felt, further, that my victim must be some old woman or other, and her features would resemble those of the old usuress in the novel. . . I found her. One afternoon I was going across the Staroměstské Náměstí. In a covered way by St. Tein's Church there was a shop where plates, pots, and dishes were sold. I caught sight of the proprietress, an ugly old woman. A human louse, thus Fate wills it. . . I walked round a few times, watching the shop. Nobody went in there, the old woman was sitting in her recess, with her knees drawn up,—clearly she was warming her feet at the glowing coals. I seemed to be dreaming. I was satisfied, I went home, sat down and considered the matter in cold blood. It now occurred to me that I must know whether there was a bell on the door of the shop. I went back. I entered the shop, a bell tinkled above my head. The old woman looked at me, and it seemed to me that she guessed what I had in mind. Her glance struck me as sharp and inquisitive. I asked for a tea-cup, was a long time choosing, and kept on looking at the old woman. Yes, she's the one, I said to myself. I bought a cup at last, went out, but stood still in front of the shop. 'The old woman was watching me . . . after a while she opened the door, stood on the threshold, looked about as if at random and then fixed me with a long stare. I went away as if disgraced. It struck me that this woman fancied I was a thief, a common pilfering thief. My prompting received its first blow; then on the next day the golden March sun, a hamper from my mother with washing, a loaf of bread and a page of her dear, honest Gothic script, dealt it the final one. I was cured of my fancies, but the book left a strong impression. I was humbled, reduced, and taken down to where other mortals were living. I began to judge them, not according to their faults and failings, but according to my own. Feeling myself as a component part of the whole, I judged from the part to the whole.
You have given Dostoyevsky credit for having preserved me from murder by his "Crime and Punishment." No, gentlemen, a hundred times no. Dostoyevsky is not a parochial schoolmaster of that sort. I got to know him otherwise. . .
I did not seek Sonia, but I found her. . . Sonia's name was Marie, but in that house she had been patriotically re-christened Vlasta, and she was sixteen or seventeen years old. She was delicately made and fair-haired, and her colouring was so pronouncedly vivid, that she seemed to have been moulded in sugar and tinted by an adept at painting, who knew naught of shades and nuances, but had put a full red on the face, an honest summer azure upon the eyes, cinnabar upon the lips and the ideal whiteness of the human body upon the brow and temples. Her hair was dyed yellow—the lurid yellowness of straw; later, when she stopped colouring it, I saw that it was chestnut. . .
We sat facing each other; I looked at her and felt sorry for her. It was half because of promptings from Raskolnikov, half really because of the circumstances under which I was vegetating. We seized each other's hands and she made her confession. At an early age she had lost her mother. Her father was a teacher, and through his grief at her mother's death he had begun to drink and play cards. Then they had driven him from his post. She had been seduced by some student or other on a summer night in the holidays. She had reached Prague and the house where she then was. Sometimes her father visited her, took every farthing from her, and went away. Of her present life, of the value of life in general, of her future, I spoke enthusiastically and with conviction. And so we sat, two lost creatures, in a silent deserted room of an ill-famed house till a late hour in the morning. And we parted with a shy kiss and the promise to see each other again on the afternoon of the next day.
She came down at five o'clock the next day and we went through crooked streets across the Franz Josef Bridge as far as Stromovka to a lonely path along the Moldau. We continued our conversation of the day before. We described our childhood to each other, and discovered many points in common there. We spoke of our likings and longings, and in many things we were in agreement. And we admitted that we were as close to each other as if we had known each other for years. When night came on, I accompanied her home. On the way back she was sad, unusually sad at the thought of what awaited her at home. . . At the street door she begged me to wait a little, as she would return at once. She came, took me by the hand, asked me to walk quietly and led me upstairs to her room. Amid pure kisses and tears we sat together for a long, long time. . . She wept for her own sake and I for her, too, because I felt that she was fond of me and I of her. We made plans for the future, but we saw no escape from the present, for duty bound her to that house and to that life. . .
About three o'clock in the morning, somebody knocked on the match-wood wall of the room and whispered: "Are you asleep, Vlasta?" It was her friend. Vlasta opened the door and let her in. Valerie, a stout girl, introduced herself to me ceremoniously, gave me her hand, and sat down wearily upon the bed. . . Valerie propped her head in her hand and softly lamented: "How can I get away from here. . . how can I get away from here?" "You," remarked Valerie, "only owe fifty gulden . . but I've got a hundred and twenty against me. . ." "Yes, fifty gulden, but where am I to get them from?" "Don't shout, Vlasta,”’ said Valerie, soothingly, "we'll get something together for you. I've got seven gulden, Elsa has three . . ." and she recounted a whole string of poetical names with a complete total of thirty-five gulden.
"T will get together the rest," I announced.
"Now let's celebrate the occasion," suggested Valerie, and from her room she brought in a bottle of wine and seven gulden, wrapped up in a handkerchief, which she gave to Vlasta. They kissed each other; then we drank, got into a festive mood and made plans. Valerie knew of an office where they provided situations. Vlasta could only go somewhere as a shop-girl, for of household work she knew absolutely nothing. Valerie declared positively that something would turn up, and that she was glad that Vlasta, anyhow, would get away from that life. And as it often happens that when a man is himself on dry land, he tries to help another from the water by plans and advice at least, so we both began to arrange Valerie's life by our "ifs" and "perhapses." But she shook her head, stood up, gave us her hand, and with the words: "I'll manage somehow, children, to drag my battered life along," she went to bed.
In broad daylight I went out, reached home, took my Xenophon, my grammar, my exercise-books and made my way to school.
In the afternoon I tied my books up in a parcel, and took them to the second-hand bookseller's; a quarter of an hour later I made a journey with a second parcel. Palacký, Šafařík, Svatopluk Čech, Jirásek, Hellwald, Vrchlický, Arbes, Třebizský, and many others were priced by Taussig, Pascheles, and Alexander Storch. Ah, how lightly these leading figures of our literature were priced! Pascheles, on the Velké Staroměstské Náměstí, was the only one who paid at all reasonably. . .
In those two days I felt as if I had shaken off the burden of Raskolnikov's "human louse." My life seemed to have suddenly gained content, meaning, value. I felt that I had sacrificed it for ever, and it stirred me to think that I had sacrificed it to so unhappy a being. In my fancies I surrounded my head with a gleam of romance, and it was particularly pleasant to me. I gazed with contempt upon the bourgeois, their wives and daughters whom I met in the street,—how prim and unpleasantly prudent these creatures were! How they would have turned away from me with the disdain proper to respectable ratepayers, if they had known!
And so I set this delicately-made Vlasta on the altar of my soul, pitied her, spoke to her in my thoughts, surrounded her with an ever brighter and ever holier radiance, until, as it often happens with love, I really adored her who was living within me and whom I had created for myself. I at once realised the contradiction in her dual being when I took her the money that evening. She accepted it, she thanked me,—but somehow in a matter-of-fact way that I had not expected. I did not consider that I had sat up two nights with her, that the pitch of her highly-strung mood had to reach slackening point, that it was not possible to wander for ever in the celestial spheres—I took none of this into account, and I was chilled, mortified, disenchanted.
I gave her the money and did not want to detain her. She did not detain me long, promised that she would let me know how things turned out, and I went away.
When I got home, I sat down by my empty box and laughed bitterly at myself. But this ebbing of emotion was certainly followed by a corresponding flood—again I saw her in her unhappiness, making her confession; the surge of emotion ceased, and I waited in suspense for her letter. . .
Day upon day passed by, week upon week,—no letter came. For some time I endured that with the tranquil pride of an offended man, but at last I went to enquire. Vlasta had left Prague the very next day in the afternoon,—more than that they did not know. . .
I was embittered both against her and against myself. I had become quite accustomed to the array of a fiction-hero; now my array was torn; the novel in which I figured appeared to me a piece of utter folly, which robbed me of my beloved books; its heroine was God knows who, her array had also lost its glory, and the worst torment was caused me by the reflection that she would think of me with something of the derision with which a designing female of that kind would generally remember an unsophisticated fool who had crossed her path. Supposing, that is, she remembers me at all, I reflected. . .
Man is never satisfied with the novels in which life entangles him. He applies his standard and makes his demands. But life does things differently. Its novels flow along in a broad river-bed, they are seemingly without form, logic and meaning,—but only seemingly. If we had eternity's calm and angle of vision, we should find in them everything,—masterly form, iron logic and deep meaning. But we deal with life in the same way that we deal with nature; where we are short-sighted, we lay the blame on them, and where we do not comprehend, we speak of them as muddled-headed authors: but chiefly, I think, we reproach them for their lack of good taste and aesthetical feeling, as if these eternal masters were compelled to acknowledge the hoary standards of beauty set up by our schoolbooks and the chameleon-like dictates of our ephemeral critics!
Now I reproached life for its lack of good taste and aesthetical feeling when, contrary to expectation, I received Vlasta's letter. She was, she said, serving in a ham and beef shop in the Celetná Ulice. A fine novel! The heroine behind the counter of a ham and beef shop! And she wrote that I was to come at ten o'clock when they closed, and that she had lots of things to tell me. I was there by nine; I sat down in the eating-room and Vlasta brought me the sausages I ordered. And she related that she had been obliged to go home to some village beyond Chrudim, that she had been with relatives to have a complete change. To have a complete change,—these words reconciled me. . . Her hair was no longer dyed, her face no longer bore the weary signs of squandered nights,—it was as fresh in its youthfulness as a blossoming peach-spray. When the shop was closed, I accompanied her to Vinohrady, where she had a lodging. I felt that she was happy. She did not explain why she had not written, and I did not ask about it. She confided to me that a young assistant-teacher was courting her out in the country; this delighted her, and she told me about it in very great detail. Altogether on that evening there was another flood-tide of her whole nature; she arose from herself above the normal of ordinary things; there was an intensity in all her movements, glances and words, all was in a kind of superlative which allures, fetters and drags you along to admiration. But the flood-tide goes down and the normal of life is so drab and monotonous. . .
We parted in high spirits and met the next day in a matter-of-fact, sober, and prosaic mood. Again I accompanied her home. She complained of weariness, of men who molested her, and of the smell of sausages in the shop. I comforted her, but my comfort was feeble, and half-hearted, and I was glad when we reached the door of her lodging.
A whole series of such drab days went crawling on. After she had grumbled about her present grievances, her thoughts would leap back to memories of past days, of her former life. . . more and more frequently . . . I guessed that she was brooding about it, considering, comparing, passing judgment, and bewailing her lot. And I was silent, because I could find nothing to say and because the whole thing was beginning to be dull and objectionable.
Then one evening there was another flood-tide of emotion. For she had given notice to her employer, the ham-and-beef dealer, and had obtained a place as a vendor of soda-water. She was delighted with the change and the fresh outlook on life; it pleased her to think how we would go to the country in the evening . . . she confided to me that the assistant-teacher who was in love with her, had already written twice to her, that although she did not care for him, she had written back, that I should not be angry with her, as I knew what I was to her, and the like. And I did not begrudge her this innocent game,—indeed, it gave me pleasure, since what I felt for her had long ceased to be love. I felt myself something of a guardian towards her, an elder brother, a man who has drawn someone out of the water and who is waiting until their life is restored.
Her kiosk stood at a deserted corner of Vinohrady Square. . . At seven o'clock I would go to her, wait until she closed, then we went out into the country.
It happened on several occasions that when I arrived, I found people there. Well-dressed young men, with the insolent glances of coxcombs, stood about her, chatting and laughing. Vlasta was beaming. I departed unobserved. When she questioned me afterwards, I told her. She reddened, looked on one side, and explained that it could not be helped, she could not drive customers away.
Then one day I followed her and one of these young men. She closed the kiosk, they linked arms and walked towards her lodging, where they both vanished through the doorway.
The end, the end. . . I went home.
What was the good of all this, I thought to myself. I was torn by a corroding physical pain. Redemption, the return to an honourable life,—what folly. Moral regeneration,—where lay the flaw? Ah, a worm-eaten apple would be sound. The end, the end. . . But after all, I was glad of it. These tiresome walks, these tiresome conversations would cease. My conscience would be relieved of a task for which, properly speaking, I had no strength. I reviewed those days, and it appeared to me that I was clad in the array, not of the hero of a novel, but of a bourgeois moralist. I turned red with anger at the thought of how ridiculous I must be to this chit of a girl with such a past, with such experience and such yearnings in her soul. . .
I slunk round the kiosk only once again. I saw that Vlasta had again dyed her hair an infamously light colour. This was the last chapter. The end, in good sooth, the end.
After that I got a letter from her. A despairing letter. She supposed I knew all. She was a worthless wretch. But I should not desert her. And if I did not come, she would go back to the place where we had met for the first time. . .
I threw the letter into the grate and went nowhere.
Then after a few days, another one came. She wrote curtly and categorically that if I did not come that day or the next, then on the following day she would most certainly be in that house.
I did not go. By chance I discovered later that Vlasta was in that house. I was impressed by the fact that she had kept her word, but it did not disturb me. As far as my feelings were concerned, she had died long before.
Two years later I was at "The Bear Cubs," a cabaret at Perštýn. Šmíd's company, which had just been got together, was giving a performance of vocal and instrumental music upon a small stage. Šmíd drew my attention to a new singer, petite and pretty, who was just about to appear, but whose voice, it seemed, was not up to much. It was Vlasta. . . She came on in a red costume, her hair was dyed yellow, she assumed a military bearing on the stage and sang a song, the chorus of which ran:—
And he's a hussar,
And he has a sharp sword;
Firmly he can sit
Upon his black horse.
He gives the horse its oats,
And hurries to meet me.
The black horse and myself
He loves equally. . .
This chorus was sung the second time by a considerable part of the audience and Vlasta, marching in step along the stage, saluted in military style. When she had finished singing, she took a plate and went round making a collection. When she reached me, she lowered her eyes,—nothing more.
Then she sat down at the performers' table with some scabby young man who at once put his arm round her waist.
And a few years later, as a result of this incident, I wrote my book "Magdalena."