A Day in a Read State (4)

Through Good 360 and the Center’s cornerstone Nebraska Truckloads of Help program, Lincoln’s Center For People In Need receives thousands of book donations from participating non-profits and national companies alike, helping put free books in the homes and schools of low-income and high-need families throughout Nebraska.

These are the stories of some of those stories.

Today’s excerpt is from The Keeper of Antiquities by Yury Dombrovsky (Moscow, 1909 – Moscow, 1978).

About Dombrovsky’s life, David Bethea of the New York Times writes:

“By all accounts, Yury Osipovich Dombrovsky was a very decent man. Born in 1909 to the family of a well-known Moscow lawyer, he got into trouble with the authorities as early as 1932, while still a student in the capital. As a result of this incident (described in “The Faculty of Useless Knowledge“), he was exiled to Alma-Ata in Soviet Kazakhstan, where he spent the next 24 years, off and on, when he wasn’t in the camps (which was most of the time). Like his character Zybin, he supported himself with archeological work and earned the nickname ”the keeper of antiquities”; that phrase eventually became the title of the predecessor to ”The Faculty of Useless Knowledge”; it was published in 1964 in ”Novy Mir.” Memoirists tell us Dombrovsky was distinguished even in these early years by his consuming interest in far-flung disciplines (ichthyology, classics, Shakespeare and Pushkin), by his slow-burning intellectual and spiritual integrity, his seemingly natural democratic tendencies and plain speaking. He wrote both poetry and prose.

During his Alma-Ata residence he was arrested three times. Each occurrence was prompted by some alleged participation in what was fast becoming the Soviet legal system’s crime of choice — so-called ”anti-Soviet behavior” (the dreaded ”Article 58-10” of the Soviet criminal code). In 1937, he was taken into custody in connection with the ”wrecking” plot described in the novel, but he was released. One reason he may have survived at this most perilous juncture was that his case had arisen precisely in the security organs’ interregnum between the fall of Nikolai Yezhov as head of the system, and the rise of Lavrenti Beria. Between 1937 and 1939, when he was picked up again (after false denunciation), he published his first novel, a re-creation of the early life and checkered exploits of the great 18th-century poet and statesman Gavrila Derzhavin.

The first years of the war (1939-43) he spent in the camps at Kolyma, described so harrowingly by the poet Varlam Shalamov in ”Kolyma Tales.” But by 1943 his health had been ruined (his legs were becoming paralyzed), and he was, to use Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s term, ”dumped out” of this human sewage system. In the hospital he wrote another novel, about the rise of fascism: ”The Monkey Comes for Its Skull.” Over the next few years he taught foreign literature in Alma-Ata and drafted ”for the desk drawer” his novel on Shakespeare, ”The Dark Lady.” Then in 1949 he was swallowed up a third time, in connection with the campaign against foreign influences and ”cosmopolitanism”; his 10-year sentence to the Siberian outposts of Taishet and Osetrovo was commuted only in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death; in 1956 he was finally and fully rehabilitated. Dombrovsky’s last 20 years were passed in Moscow, filled with the writing and publishing stolen from him in captivity: in 1959 ”The Monkey Comes” appeared; in 1964 ”The Keeper of Antiquities”; in 1969 ”The Dark Lady”; and in 1978 ”The Faculty of Useless Knowledge,” the master work of the last years, which Dombrovsky began in 1964, finished in 1975, then saw into print (in Paris, not in Russia) only shortly before his death in 1978.”

The conditions of Dombrovsky’s death have long been a subject of speculation.

photo (5)
The Keeper of Antiquities by Yury Dombrovsky (tr. Michael Glenny; McGraw-Hill, 1969.)

“Weighed in the balance and found wanting,” the old weighing-woman Themis will say to her sister Clio, the muse of history. “Take it, sister, it belongs to you – it will provide enough material for a dozen doctoral theses.”

“H’m, he’s still asleep. Hey, d’you call this discipline? You’re supposed to be at work.” The director pulled off my blanket.

I jumped up. It was daylight. The lamp was still burning and the radio set still blaring flat out.

“Look what junk Kornilov has found up in the mountains.”

This “junk” was lying on my bedside table on the director’s carefully smoothed-out handkerchief. There was a round bronze fragment of indeterminate origin, a green arrowhead of Scythian type, a fragment of a bone disc with traces of carving, and finally a small potsherd almost pure orange in colour. I picked this up first of all. The potsherd was richly decorated with a triple-banded pattern. In the first band was an insignificant curly decoration, in the second were broad solar discs. In the third were the same solar discs, but fewer of them, attached to a little stalk and drawn as though from a different angle. The significance of the decorative pattern was clear. The upper row of solar discs represented a god, the lower one symbolized the flower dedicated to him – almost certainly the ox-eye daisy or marguerite. This was a remarkable discovery, the like of which we had never had before.

Dombrovsky, “The Keeper of Antiquities,” (p. 195)





3 thoughts on “A Day in a Read State (4)

    1. Thanks, Mukul! Have you read any Dombrovsky? This will be my first encounter.

      I enjoyed browsing through your blog as well! Feel free to follow if you’re interested!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s