Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
"With us, you see," Kuprin makes the reporter Platonov, his mouthpiece, say in Yama, "they write about detectives, about lawyers, about inspectors of the revenue, about pedagogues, about attorneys, about the police, about officers, about sensual ladies, about engineers, about baritones--and really, by God, altogether well--cleverly, with finesse and talent. But, after all, all these people are rubbish, and their life is not life, but some sort of conjured up, spectral, unnecessary delirium of world culture. But there are two singular realities--ancient as humanity itself: the prostitute and the moujik. And about them we know nothing, save some tinsel, gingerbread, debauched depictions in literature..."
Tinsel, gingerbread, debauched depictions... Let us consider some of the ways in which this monstrous reality has been approached by various writers. There is, first, the purely sentimental: Prevost's Manon Les caut. Then there is the slobberingly sentimental: Dumas' Dame aux Camelias. A third is the necrophilically romantic: Louys' Aphrodite. The fertile Balzac has given us no less than two: the purely romantic, in his fascinating portraits of the Fair Imperia; and the romantically realistic, in his Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes. Reade's Peg Woffington may be called the literary parallel of the costume drama; Defoe's Moll Flanders is honestly realistic; Zola's Nana is rabidly so.
There is one singular fact that must be noted in connection with the vast majority of such depictions. Punk or bona roba, lorette or drab--put her before an artist in letters, and, lo and behold ye! such is the strange allure emanating from the hussy, that the resultant portrait is either that of a martyred Magdalene, or, at the very least, has all the enigmatic piquancy of a Monna Lisa... Not a slut, but what is a hetaera; and not a hetaera, but what is well-nigh Kypris herself! I know of but one depiction in all literature that possesses the splendour of implacable veracity as well as undiminished artistry; where the portrait is that of a prostitute, despite all her tirings and trappings; a depiction truly deserving to be designated a portrait: the portrait supreme of the harlot eternal--Shakespeare's Cleopatra.
Furthermore, it will be observed that such depictions, for the most part, are primarily portraits of prostitutes, and not pictures of prostitution. It is also a singular fact that war, another scourge has met with similar treatment. We have the pretty, spotless grenadiers and cuirassiers of Meissonier in plenty; Vereshchagin is still alone in the grim starkness of his wind-swept, snow-covered battle-fields, with black crows wheeling over the crumpled masses of gray...
And, curiously enough, it is another great Russian, Kuprin, who is supreme--if not unique--as a painter of the universal scourge of prostitution, per se; and not as an incidental background for portraits. True, he may not have entirely escaped the strange allure, aforementioned, of the femininity he paints; for femininity--even though fallen, corrupt, abased, is still femininity, one of the miracles of life, to Kuprin, the lover of life. But, even if he may be said to have used too much of the oil of sentimentality in mixing his colours for the portraits, his portraits are subordinate to the background; and there his eye is true and keen, his hand steady and unflinching, his colours and brushwork unimpeachable. Whether, like his own Platonov--who may be called to some extent an autobiographical figure, and many of whose experiences are Kuprin's own--"came upon the brothel" and gathered his material unconsciously, "without any ulterior thoughts of writing, "we do not know, nor need we rummage in his dirty linen, as he puts it. Suffice it to say here--to cite but two instances--that almost anyone acquainted with Russia will tell you the full name of the rich, gay, southern port city of K--; that any Odessite will tell you that Treppel's is merely transplanted, for fictional reasons, from his own city to K--...
Alexandre I. Kuprin was born in 1870; 1909 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of his literary activity. He attained his fame only upon the publication of his amazing, epical novel, "The Duel"-- which, just like "Yama," is an arraignment; an arraignment of militaristic corruption. Russian criticism has styled him the poet of life. If Chekhov was the Wunderkind of Russian letters, Kuprin is its enfant terrible. His range of subjects is enormous; his power of observation and his versatility extraordinary. Gambrinus alone would justify his place among the literary giants of Europe. Some of his picaresques, "The Insult," "Horse-Thieves," and "Off the Street"--the last in the form of a monologue--are sheer tours de force. "Olessiya" is possessed of a weird, unearthly beauty; "The Shulamite" is a prose-poem of antiquity. He deals with the life of the moujik in "Back-woods" and "The Swamp"; of the Jews, in "The Jewess" and "The Coward"; of the soldiers, in "The Cadets," "The Interrogation," "The Night Watch," "Delirium"; of the actors, in "How I Was an Actor" and "In Retirement." We have circus life in "'Allez!'" "In The Circus," "Lolly," "The Clown"-- the last a one-act playlet; factory life, in "Moloch"; provincial life, in "Small Fry"; bohemian life, in "Captain Ribnicov" and "The River of Life"--which no one but Kuprin could have written. There are animal stories and flower stories; stories for children --and for neuropaths; one story is dedicated to a jockey; another to a circus clown; a third, if I remember rightly, to a race- horse... "Yama" created an enormous sensation upon the publication of the first part in volume three of the "Sbornik Zemliya"--"The Earth Anthology"--in 1909; the second part appeared in volume fifteen, in 1914; the third, in volume sixteen, in 1915. Both the original parts and the last revised edition have been followed in this translation. The greater part of the stories listed above are available in translations, under various titles; the list, of course, is merely a handful from the vast bulk of the fecund Kuprin's writings, nor is any group of titles exhaustive of its kind. "The Star of Solomon," his latest collection of stories, bears the imprint of Helsingfors, 1920.
It must not be thought, despite its locale, that Kuprin's "Yama" is a picture of Russian prostitution solely; it is intrinsically universal. All that is necessary is to change the kopecks into cents, pennies, sous or pfennings; compute the versts into miles or metres; Jennka may be Eugenie or Jeannette; and for Yama, simply read Whitechapel, Montmartre, or the Barbary Coast. That is why "Yama" is a "tremendous, staggering, and truthful book--a terrific book." It has been called notorious, lurid--even oleographic. So are, perhaps, the picaresques of Murillo, the pictorial satires of Hogarth, the bizarreries of Goya...
The best introduction to "Yama," however, can be given in Kuprin's own words, as uttered by the reporter Platonov. "They do write," he says, "... but it is all either a lie, or theatrical effects for children of tender years, or else a cunning symbolism, comprehensible only to the sages of the future. But the life itself no one as yet has touched...
"But the material here is in reality tremendous, downright crushing, terrible... And not at all terrible are the loud phrases about the traffic in women's flesh, about the white slaves, about prostitution being a corroding fester of large cities, and so on, and so on... an old hurdy-gurdy of which all have tired! No, horrible are the everyday, accustomed trifles; these business- like, daily, commercial reckonings; this thousand-year-old science of amatory practice; this prosaic usage, determined by the ages. In these unnoticeable nothings are completely dissolved such feelings as resentment, humiliation, shame. There remains a dry profession, a contract, an agreement, a well-nigh honest petty trade, no better, no worse than, say, the trade in groceries. Do you understand, gentlemen, that all the horror is in just this-- that there is no horror! Bourgeois work days--and that is all...
"More awful than all awful words, a hundredfold more awful--is some such little prosaic stroke or other as will suddenly knock you all in a heap, like a blow on the forehead..."
It is in such little prosaic strokes; everyday, accustomed, characteristic trifles; minute particles of life, that Kuprin excels. The detailism which crowds his pages is like the stippling of Whistler; or the enumerations of the Bible; or the chiselling of Rodin, that endows the back of the Thinker with meaning.
"We all pass by these characteristic trifles indifferently, like the blind, as though not seeing them scattered about under our feet. But an artist will come, and he will look over them carefully, and he will pick them up. And suddenly he will so skillfully turn in the sun a minute particle of life, that we shall all cry out: 'Oh, my God! But I myself--myself!--have seen this with my own eyes. Only it simply did not enter my head to turn my close attention upon it.' But our Russian artists of the word--the most conscientious and sincere artists in the whole world--for some reason have up to this time passed over prostitution and the brothel. Why? Really, it is difficult for me to answer that. Perhaps because of squeamishness, perhaps out of pusillanimity, out of fear of being signalized as a pornographic writer; finally from the apprehension that our gossiping criticism will identify the artistic work of the writer with his personal life and will start rummaging in his dirty linen. Or perhaps they can find neither the time, nor the self-denial, nor the self- possession to plunge in head first into this life and to watch it right up close, without prejudice, without sonorous phrases, without a sheepish pity, in all its monstrous simplicity and everyday activity... That material... is truly unencompassable in its significance and weightiness... The words of others do not suffice--even though they be the most exact--even observations, made with a little note-book and a bit of pencil, do not suffice. One must grow accustomed to this life, without being cunningly wise..."
"I believe, that not now, not soon--after fifty years or so--but there will come a writer of genius, and precisely a Russian one, who will absorb within himself all the burdens and all the abominations of this life and will cast them forth to us in the form of simple, fine, and deathlessly--caustic images. And we shall all say: 'Why, now, we ourselves have seen and known all this, but we could not even suppose that this is so horrible! In this coming artist I believe with all my heart."
Kuprin is too sincere, too big, to have written this with himself in mind; yet no reader of the scathing, searing arraignment called "Yama," will question that the great, the gigantic Kuprin has shown "the burdens and abominations" of prostitution, in "simple, fine, and deathlessly-caustic images"; has shown that "all the horror is in just this--that there is no horror..." For it is as a pitiless reflection of a "singular," sinister reality that "Yama" stands unsurpassed.
B. G. GUERNEY.
New York City, January, 1922.