Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sketching Lukomorye (The Invisible Dogs)

The real reality, the flickering of seen and unseen actualities, the moment under the moment, can't be put into words; the most that a writer can do--and this is only rarely achieved--is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page. --Russell Hoban

When I was around six years old, I read a book that left an indelible mark on my internal clockwork: The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I have forgotten much of the plot of the book. The enduring image that has remained with me is  that of a small wind-up mouse and his father. A tiny mouse-child is staring at a dog food can. Depicted on the label is a dog-chef holding a tray with a can of the dog food, which has its own label, a miniature of the larger image, and so on, and so forth until the mouse's vision blurs, and with his beady toy eyes he has glimpsed The Last Visible Dog.

At that moment, gripping the small paperback--and this was long before I had heard of Mandelbrot sets, or fractals--the realization dawned on me that beyond The Last Visible Dog, there are always more, infinitely more invisible dogs. I give full credit to the subtle magic of the author's pen for this abrupt epiphany.
“Here below the surface one studies the depths of TO BE, as manifest in AM, IS, and ARE. And if you don't hold up your end of the conversation I may very well snap you in two.” --Russell Hoban
The final dog reference I will make today will be to several discarded hotdogs that I once found floating in a gilded fountain on Old Arbat, across from the statues of Alexander Pushkin and Natalya Goncharova. Many years had passed since my childhood, and yet, like a young girl, I scampered over to the fountain and fished the debris from it. The monuments of Moscow held a strange grip on my imagination that summer, and I could not endure their desecration in my presence; nor in Pushkin's, for that matter.

The last days in that city encircled by boulevards and highways I spent sweating languidly in its outskirts in an unventilated cement apartment on the 4th floor, across from a row of tin garages that barely concealed several freight train tracks, behind which lurked the electric train line. Every few minutes, an invisible train thundered by, and the windows rattled in time to the hum in my teeth.

Frontispiece, A.S. Pushkin, Prologue to Ruslan and Lydmila, by Tatiana Mavrina

I kneeled on the garish linoleum, which was new, but not quite firmly glued to the floor, and stared fixedly at the illustrations of a children's book. Eventually, I took one of my children's paintbrushes, and opened a box of watercolors. Hour after hour, while the trains rumbled along, I painted. I painted until the linoleum was streaked with pigment, and I was forced to fetch the scrub brush and a floor rag in order to erase the remnants of my watery, unvoiced longings.

Whimsy, or the extreme heat got the better of me: when I walked out of the apartment, in a strange and wistful gesture of farewell, I left behind my humble attempts to sketch the learned Cat, who strides around an oak tree in Pushkin's Lukomorye.

For those who are unfamiliar with Lukomorye, the paintings of Tatiana Mavrina might be a good place to begin a tour. Lukomorye is a place where the creatures of the old folktales come to life: where mermaids perch on tree branches in order to comb their green hair, where bylini wander around muttering, until you aren't sure whether it is your uncle, or Leschy muttering over there behind a bush. Pushkin did not invent this place, but he set the old tales of the Slavic lands to rhymed verse, and, in the process, became a cornerstone of libraries, and a pillar of Russian literature.

Tatiana Mavrina  (1900 - 1996) devoted most of her long life to painting. She illustrated more than 200 books, including many Russian folk tales. In 1976, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen prize for her contribution to children's literature.

Tatiana Mavrina

Although I did not know her personally, it is my privilege to imagine that Tatiana Mavrina abides to this day in Lukomorye, enjoying the company of at least one Learned Cat.

While I am looking through the eyes of my inner mouse-child, I believe I'll join her there.

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