Dead Souls

Winner, Fish Short Story Prize, 2018 

It was at the Tolstoy house where we met. Rustling through the rooms I was conscious of the plastic bags covering my shoes. These were less a device to preserve the Tolstoy family’s carpets, which must have worn away long ago, and more a winter requirement to prevent the treading about of snow. My progress through the house was therefore accompanied by a noise which I found unaccountably embarrassing. Though I could see no other visitors, an amplified voice filled every space. A symposium was underway, a lecture on some aspect of Tolstoy’s life or writing, I assumed. Approaching the place from which the voice came I found myself in a large room where row after row of middle-aged Russians listened with solemn attention to a lecture being given by a professor. Her steely hair, pinned and buttressed into a small tower, tilted first one way and then the next as she spoke, as if she were a chess piece on an uneven board. None of them, I noticed, had plastic bags over their shoes. 


Despite the walls lined with pictures, the sculptures of the author at work, despite his books, despite even the glass case with the ruby ring he had given Countess Sophia for transcribing and editing Anna Karenina, Leo was not there, and I found it hard to believe he ever had been. He had not liked his house in the city, had lived there on sufferance, and perhaps this accounted for his vacant spirit. I couldn’t read many of the Russian names below the photographs. After a day of museums the Cyrillic had worn me down. In the corner of each room a single panel about the size of a chopping board stood on a stand, carrying an explanation in English for what the room contained. I found myself competing for it with a woman in her late thirties. “I’m sorry, go ahead,” I said, gesturing towards the stand. 


She took the board and smiled. She had short red hair and a cheerful confidence, as if she had known that the board was hers all along. 


“Where are you from?” I asked. 




We went from room to room, once or twice taking an interest in the same object. After a while, exhausted by incomprehension and the rustling of my own feet I went down into the basement to collect my coat and scarf from the sombre cloakroom lady. The street was cold but welcoming. Turning I saw that the German woman was behind me, that she must have left just a moment after me. I considered slowing down, starting a conversation, even wondered if that was what she wanted. I glanced back once more and this time caught her eye, yet for some reason my recently liberated feet quickened their pace along Prechistenka Street in the direction of the Pushkin Museum. 


The next day I found that I had the Gogol house to myself. Again, not a word of English was spoken, but here the burly women who guarded the door, looked after the coats and who dispensed tickets seemed eager to talk to me, heedless of my inability to understand anything they said. Once I had put plastic bags over my shoes I was ushered enthusiastically into the first of Gogol’s rooms, a vestibule where his or some other overcoat, perhaps Akaky Akakievich’s, hung. If it was poor Akakievich’s then it was a fiction, a coat that he had saved-up for so fervently that it had cost him his life. I reached out and brushed my hand across the wool, thinking how much less real it was than the imagined cloth. The warden touched my arm and spoke to me intently, her Russian words hovering in the air, waiting to be understood. She encouraged me onwards, into Gogol’s parlour, inviting me to sit on his chair. She pressed a switch and the lights dimmed. A sound of distant bells filtered into the room, and flames appeared to dance in the fireplace. 


“Aaah!” she announced, her eyes bright.  


“Aaah,” I agreed. I was not wholly certain what I was aaah-ing to, but I knew enough about Nikolai Gogol to know that, a few days before his death, he had thrown part two of his greatest story, Dead Souls, into the fireplace. It ends mid-sentence, and is all the more complete for that. 


Preparing to leave I encountered a queue of forty teenagers depositing their jackets and school bags at the cloakroom desk. They made all the noise in the world, for that is what fifteen year-olds are required to do. Slipping between them I realised I was invisible to them. I wondered if they would see Gogol, as I had, standing at the tall writing desk in his study, staring at the page, his head brimming with ideas, fearful that he was running out of time, or that he would have to commit more of his words to the fire. 


I saw her again at the Gorky House. 


The Ryubashinsky mansion sits on what is today a busy road, but then all of the roads of today’s Moscow are busy. When it was first occupied the large bay window that curls into Malaya Nikitskaya street, framed by art nouveau stems, would have been rattled by trams and by the wheels of passing carriages. By the time Maxim Gorky moved in motor cars would have been whirring past, though not very many. 


Two elderly women and an old man were gathered around a small table which served as a ticket desk. I was given not plastic bags but old leather slippers to put over my shoes. The slippers were silent, but induced a shuffling walk which seemed in sympathy with Gorky, an invalid by the time he moved here. On the wall of his secretary’s office was pasted a large map of the Soviet Union, showing not only the towns and cities, but the industrial and agricultural production of each region, for Gorky took pig-iron and wheat as seriously as he took words. He was a serious man in all things. 


We almost walked into each other in Gorky’s narrow bedroom. She laughed at the coincidence of seeing each other two days in a row.


“We share an interest in authors, I see.” 


“More in the houses,” she said, keen to correct me.  


“Ah.” I nodded, and looked down at the sad bed.


“But you, you are an admirer?” 


Without looking up from the white sheets, thinking how they must be laundered regularly to avoid becoming grey with dust, I said “Yes, yes, I’ve always liked Gorky. It was one of the first books I read, My Childhood. I remember being terribly shocked and upset by the first page, of him being led into a room to see his father lying dead on the floor, his face white, his fingers curled on his chest. I had nightmares.” Looking up I saw that she had never read anything by Gorky and had no intention of doing so. “It’s written in language a child can understand, you see.” 


“I prefer English writers.” 


We were standing on either side of the empty single bed like a pair of care home assistants about to turn one of the elderly to save them from bedsores. 


“Well, yes,” I said. “You can visit some of their houses, too.” 


“Oh yes,” she said, “I have been to Rudyard Kipling’s house and to Virginia Woolf’s house and also to Thomas Hardy’s, as well as very many others.” 


She said Rudyard as if it were ‘Rude Yard’, though it was not this that made me dislike her. I could not have said what it was, but as we moved on I felt uncomfortable to find that she was now accompanying me through the house as if we had a shared interest; as if we were friends. We at least had no need to tussle here over information boards in English, since in each room lay a folder containing notes on yellowing paper, typed out at some point in the mid twentieth century in, respectively, French, German and English as well as Russian. They told us of Gorky’s many visitors from across the world, of his work to support other writers, of the hundreds of letters he received – and replied to – each day. In other words, they told of crippling expectations on a man who did not know how to be the hero the state had decided he must be. 


She pointed to a photograph of Gorky with Stalin. The two men looked relaxed, dressed in white (it was summertime), sitting beneath a portico around a table set for tea. Gorky was pointing a finger at Comrade Stalin, and I could not help but feel afraid for him, for what might befall him, as if both of them were still alive, as if the jeopardy he was in was something I could alert him to. 


“He was a Communist,” she said. 


“Well, yes. What else would he have been?” 


“But an eager one, you know.” 


“I don’t know how eager he was.” Realising that I sounded irritable, and noticing some hurt in her expression, I tried to be more generous. “I think he was like a caged bird here. Don’t you get that sense? That he was brought back to the Soviet Union, made into a figure of national importance, almost like a prince, and that he was appalled at himself for going along with it, but too tired, too ill to make his escape?” 


She looked at me, and then around at the room. “Ja,” she said, though it was hardly a word at all, more an intake of breath. She stepped into the hall and held up her phone to take a photograph of the elegant staircase. I followed her, though I need not have done. The designer of the house had wanted to make it seem as if the sea flowed through it. In the green, underwater light she turned to me and said “My name is Anja.” 


I don’t know why she chose that particular moment to tell me. “I am very pleased to meet you Anja.” We shook hands. 


“And you?” 


“And me, yes.” I paused for a moment as if I might give her a name other than my own, which was a ridiculous notion. I am not a man who indulges in deceits. “My name is Gavin. Gavin Sempler.” Had I added my surname in the expectation she would recognise it? Or perhaps to add some formality? 


“Well, hello Gavin Sempler. And what brings you to Moscow?” 


“I’ve been delivering some lectures here, at one of the universities.” 


“Oh? On Gorky? On Tolstoy?” Her voice was taut with the quiver of a semi-stifled tease.  


“No. No, I wish that were the case, but no.” 


She put her head to one side. “So?” 


“Oh, well, nothing very interesting at all.” 


“But you do not know what it is that interests me, Gavin Sempler, do you?” 


“First you must tell me what brings you to Moscow.” 


“I breathe the air, you know.” She raised her arms and turned a little one way and then the other, as if to demonstrate the feasibility of breathing air. The sleeves of her hand-knitted, emerald green sweater slid down from her wrists, revealing pale skin and chunky bracelets that were of Tibetan or Nepalese design. 


“I lecture on international law.”


“Ah yes,” she said, as if she already knew. 


International law is, to me, a subject of great fluidity, based on high principles and low and grubby precedent. But I understood that it sounded dull. “And you, apart from breathing the air. Are you here as a tourist?” 


“I am advising the Russians on cheese.” 


“Cheese?” I thought I had misheard, or that something had been lost in translation. 


“Yes, cheese. Since the sanctions were imposed they have been making all of their own cheeses, every type. Some of their cheeses are better than the originals.” 


“So you’re a sanctions-buster?” 


She came close to me, close enough that I felt her breath on my ear. “I know, isn’t it exciting?” Then seeming to think I might take her at her word she added “But not really. You know the sanctions do not say that the Russians cannot make cheese, only that they cannot buy our European camembert and ricotta and gouda. I suppose you know this already?” 


“The Russians never ask about sanctions, and I don’t bring up the subject. My lectures are on the origins of international law. We’re on safer territory there.” 


“Safe territory, yes. That is important.”


We were now drifting somewhat uneasily together through the house, and I felt obliged to say something amiable. “How does someone become an expert on cheese?” 


“My doctorate is in microbial development in Bavarian goat cheese but in fact I have my own television programme in Germany. On ZDF. It is all about food from the land, country cooking. It’s surprisingly popular.” 


“So you’re a celebrity?”


She laughed at my clumsy recognition of the fact. “Well, yes. In Germany people know who I am. And in Russia, too, a little.” 


“The diplomacy of cheese.” 


We walked into Gorky’s study. It had a connecting door to his bedroom so that he could shuffle into it and begin work each morning, looking briefly through its broad, leafy curving window and noting the weather beyond. His desk was a rectangular expanse the size of a small fishing boat, on which sat two trays filled with pencils sharpened to fierce points and a pile of typed sheets which he had edited with neat rows of notes in the margins. Everything on the desk was covered with a fine layer of dust, but sat beneath a polished glass lid, as if the dust itself was intended to be preserved alongside the papers, the pencils, the blotter, the Chinese ornaments and the walnut shells which he had broken, perhaps on the last day he had ever sat there, thinking of a story, or replying to letters. 


Anja stood a little way away from me but seemed expectant, as if waiting for me to say something about the room, the desk. Instead I asked her about celebrity. “If you are on television regularly, you must find that it changes your life.” 


“Yes, it does. I think it’s  unavoidable. You never know when someone talks to you whether they are talking to you or to the image of you that they have seen on their television.” 


“Don’t we all have a doppelgänger, in a way?” 


“Do we?” 


“I am Professor Sempler, quite a formal man, somewhat guarded, not wanting to be misquoted.” 


She waited for me to continue. 


“Or I am Gavin.”


“And what sort of a man is Gavin?” 


I gave a little laugh, not knowing what to say.


“It seems to me that he is just as guarded as the professor.”


I raised my hands in a gesture of defeat. “I suppose I am a man who loves books, and wants to get to know the imaginations of those who wrote them. Perhaps I envy them.” 


“Perhaps you do. I have a theory that we all envy some talent very much. That we…what is the word in English for something you want very much that someone else owns?” 




“Covet, yes. I like this word.” 


“It’s in the bible.” 


She raised an eyebrow. “So you covet the imagination of Tolstoy and Gorky?” 


“And Gogol especially. I went to his house this morning.” 


“Without me? How selfish of you, Gavin Sempler.” 


“And what is it that you covet?” 


She sighed. “The ability to be invisible to all but those to whom I choose to reveal myself.” 


“And who is it that has this remarkable power?”


She came up to me and took my hand in her long fingers. Her nails were painted bright red. “Why you, Professor Sempler. You have this power.” She let my hand slip out of hers. I saw her walk slowly up the stairs, her red-tipped fingers bright on the dark wooden banister. 


Unsettled I went into the dining room, where Gorky held meetings of the writers’ union that he founded when he moved into the house. On a sideboard was a pile of photographs. Most were of him with his visitors. I recognised a few of them, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair. Gorky’s place was still set at the dining table. He chose to sit at a corner, not at the table’s head. He had chosen the place where he could best observe others without being the centre of attention. 


I looked upstairs, but there was no sign of Anja. Coming back down I went from room to room, but it seemed she had left without making any effort to speak to me again. Had I considered inviting her for dinner that evening? More probably I had expected her to make some arrangement, for she’d seemed keen to continue the conversation. For the first time in many days I felt alone. 


Outside the Tchaikovsky concert hall I spent some time studying the Russian posters before deducing that the concert that evening was an eclectic mix of Sibelius, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, though really anything would have been fine. I went to the first of the four ticket counters to ask for a ticket for that evening. I was directed to each in turn until, at the fourth, I was met with a shrug. ‘Bilyeta’, I said. Another shrug. ‘For tonight.’ I pointed to my watch, then at the ground, in the hope that this indicated today, imminence.  Another look of incomprehension. Realising that the lack of assistance was not going to subside unless I used the Russian word for today, I looked it up in my guidebook and said: ‘Sivodnya’. Obstinacy transmuted in an instant into warm collaboration. A seating plan was produced, and a long list of prices, none expensive, was inscribed with a pencil as sharp as one of Gorky’s own and slid beneath the glass. I chose a middling price and left the concert hall suffused with the lightness of small victories. 



On the way back to my rented apartment I passed one of the many small churches that are tucked away behind bigger, newer buildings all over the city. A sound something like singing drew me in. In the dim interior a few elderly men and women sat on benches resting against the frescoed walls continuing low and reverential conversations that may have lasted for decades. In the middle of the room others stood, crossing themselves and, ducking to their own rhythm, kissing the floor. Two tall, bearded priests, one facing us, the other with his back turned, chanted the catechism in earth-crackingly deep bass voices. I paid thirty roubles for a candle which I lit and to which I addressed an embarrassed prayer. I left with the impression that I had been unseen. 


The orchestra had already tuned up and the conductor was walking onto the stage to loud applause when she came and sat in the empty seat beside me. It seemed an impossible coincidence that we should have bought adjacent seats, that we should even have both thought of attending this concert on this night. I turned to her to say something, but at that moment the first loud notes sounded. During the first movement I glanced at her, at her bright red nails, at her white wrists, at her neat red hair. When the interval came I turned to invite her to join me for a glass of champagne, but she had already gone. I went quickly out to the bar and, assuming that she had gone to the toilet, I bought two glasses. It was only when the third summoning bell sounded that I drank down the second glass and returned for Shostokovich. There was no sign of her but, once again just as the conductor raised his baton, she took her place. I smiled at her but she was staring straight ahead. Had I offended her at the Gorky house? With a dreadful apprehension it occurred to me that she must have thought that I had followed her, that the adjacent seats were no coincidence. She imagined me a stalker.  


The Shostokovich was more melodic than some of his pieces and I was quite caught-up in the music when I became aware that I was being observed. Turning to face her I again attempted a smile but her expression did not change. It was as if I was not there at all. Returning my gaze to the orchestra, I noticed that the music had in that moment become dissonant and jarring. After a few more minutes I began to feel breathless and uneasy. I looked about to see if others were suffering as I was, but everyone seemed settled in their own worlds, unaware of my singular plight. 


I left the auditorium as discreetly as I could. Anja did not look up when I stood, or when I stepped past her. No-one seemed to see me at all, though the youth at the cloakroom counter delivered my coat to me when I gave him my token. 


Returning to my apartment I googled Anja, ZDF, cheese, Russia, farm food, but all I found was page after page about sanctions.


The next day at the university no-one arrived for my lecture and when I went to the administration office to check that I had not mistaken the time or day it was to take place, I was told that it had been cancelled, and that I had been informed of this the previous week. I pondered for a moment the meaning of the word ‘informed’, and on whether it required receipt of the information, or merely its transmission. It did not seem worth starting a discussion. 


As I had a free afternoon I decided to go to the Chekhov house, which I had not yet visited. Arriving at its gate it appeared that the museum was closed, though there were some workmen in the courtyard sawing planks of wood. They did not acknowledge me, but nor did they stop me going up to the front door and trying the handle. It was locked. Going to the nearest window and peering through it I saw a room, empty but for a desk and some papers. Whether it had been Chekhov’s study or was merely an administrative office for the museum was unclear. One of the workmen came to the window and stood beside me. ‘Closed’, he said, in perfect English. ‘Closed today, tomorrow, for long, long time.’ I continued staring through the window when, to my surprise, seeming to sense my need for consolation, he placed a hand on my shoulder. We stood there looking through the window for quite some time, until it was clear that nothing would change.