Tag Archives: Pushkin

The Naked Woman on Top of the Bookcase

1 Sep

James Thurber was a rewriter.  All of his stories went through several drafts. He admits it openly in an interview with The Paris Review.

Drawing, though, was for relaxation. He tossed off the cartoons quickly.  Pure sprezzatura.  No sweat.  Or so he says.

Here’s one of my favorites:

“That’s My First Wife Up There, and This is the Present Mrs. Harris”

“I meant the naked woman to be at the top of a flight of stairs,”  Thurber says,

but I lost the sense of perspective and instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

The eye falters, the hand slips, and next thing you know: naked women perched on top of books! 

No boy from Columbus, Ohio could have intended to put a naked woman on top of a bookcase. 

But his muse (here, taking the form of faulty perspective) gets the job done.

Something similar happened to Alexander Pushkin when he was writing Eugene Onegin.  Pushkin’s heroine, Tatiana, always so obedient to the will of her creator, suddenly, independent of authorial design, up and marries some crusty, old, retired general from St. Petersburg. 

Tatiana Larina: Going rogue.

Romantically-minded Russian girls inexplicably succumbing to dull, respectable marriages and naked women hijacked from the staircase and stranded on top of bookcases.  It’s all the same thing.

Does anybody ever say what they set out to say?

The thought is born in the mouth.  That’s what the Russians say.  Mine are born as they run down my fingers and into the keyboard.


…Irresistible afterthought for those who love Thurber
(from the same Paris Review interview):

How did Harold Ross, editor at The New Yorker, respond to the naked, former Mrs. Harris?

He [Ross] called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know in a couple of hours.”

After a while I called him back and told him I’d just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can’t stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn’t support herself on all fours.

“So, Ross,” I said, “she must be alive.”

“Well then,” he said, “what’s she doing up there naked in the home of her husband’s second wife?”

I told him he had me there.


22 Jul

New Orleans.  Late July.

I’m a stranger here.  Tired, sweaty and hungry.

I’ve been walking for hours: along the riverfront, up and down the streets of the French Quarter.

If I knock back an eight-dollar jumbo margarita in a styrofoam cup, it’s because I’m justifiably thirsty.  I take up residence on a bench outside the Café du Monde.

My tipsy imagination should now, by all rights, drift to Tennessee Williams–all ‘kindness of strangers’ and ‘gentlemen callers’–but it does not.

Across the street from the Café du Monde stands an impressive statue of Andrew Jackson, astride a rearing horse.

Would you believe that I sat under the gaze of General Jackson and contemplated the Battle of New Orleans?

I didn’t.

Monuments may aim to remind us of historical events, but art has a life of its own.  And for me, art conjures more art.

That’s how I was moved, association by association, from Mr. Jackson to Peter the Great.

And then (bear with me), forward to modern-day New Orleans.

As you may know, there is an equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St.Petersburg that quickly became (and has remained) an essential symbol of that city. It’s only fair; Petersburg was his fond creation: Window to the West, and all that jazz.

I present it here so you can make your own margarita-free comparison with the bronze Andrew Jackson:

Next, it’s less likely that you are familiar with The Bronze Horseman, Alexander Pushkin’s equally monumental narrative poem starring this very statue. You will have to trust me when I say that one cannot remember the statue of Peter without recalling Alexander’s poem.

Pushkin brought the statue to life. Literally:

Evgeny, a hapless clerk (and beloved type of the Russian literary tradition), falls victim to the notorious (and very real) 1824 flood that devastated the city.

As the waters recede, he rushes to the modest home of his beloved, Parasha.

It is utterly destroyed, and Parasha is nowhere to be found.

She is, no doubt, (here, I take a few liberties with the text) at the Superdome, or worse.

Evgeny never recovers from the blow. In the final episode of the poem, he angrily curses Peter’s bronze equestrian form, whereupon the statue comes to life and chases him to his death.

Here (from a translation by Waclaw Lednicki), we find Evgeny confronting his loss:

(Again, I mix it up a bit with my choice of photograph.)

All, to his horror, is demolished,
Leveled or ruined or abolished.
Houses are twisted all awry,
And some are altogether shattered,
Some shifted by the seas; and scattered
Are bodies, flung as bodies lie
On battlefields.

I’m having fun here, of course, swinging back and forth in time and place, but for a purpose.  These gorgeous, impractical cities were both built on swamps and barely above sea level.  It’s too late now to decide that we oughtn’t build in such places; the cities are treasures, both of them; we can’t abandon them.

Peter and Andrew will always be safe atop their horses.

The next time the winds blow and the waters rise, can’t we do better for Evgeny and Parasha?