Uncertain Weights and Measures, page 1
“The story of a Russia — and a love — at the precipice, poised between dreaming and giving in. As in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels or Bellow’s Seize the Day, Parr’s characters seem to move under the surface of the page — breathing, changing, flawed, and resilient.”
— Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors
“A historical novel that feels refreshingly contemporary, Uncertain Weights and Measures exposes the tensions between ideology and conviction, politics and art, truth and power. This remarkable debut novel is both a compelling love story and a thoughtful exploration of the human heart and mind.”
— Johanna Skibsrud, author of Quartet for the End of Time
“An illuminating and assured debut. Parr deftly incorporates her historical research into an affecting story about young woman grappling with the tense intersections between art and science, politics and idealism, duty and love.”
— Catherine Cooper, author of White Elephant
Moscow, 1921. Tatiana and Sasha meet in a bookstore the night it is bombed and fall in love.
Tatiana, a promising young scientist, soon follows her mentor to the Institut Mozga to study the source of genius, while Sasha, an artist, drifts aimlessly in a world increasingly indifferent to his art.
In this brilliantly captivating tale of a love torn apart by ideology and high-stakes politics, Jocelyn Parr portrays the heady idealism and cavernous contradictions of post-Revolutionary Russia.
Copyright © 2017 by Jocelyn Parr.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). To contact Access Copyright, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call 1-800-893-5777.
Edited by Bethany Gibson.
Cover design by Ingrid Paulson.
Cover image (brain): © BlackJack3D/iStock.com.
Page design by Julie Scriver.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Parr, Jocelyn, 1977-, author
Uncertain weights and measures / Jocelyn Parr.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-0-86492-982-2 (softcover).--ISBN 978-0-86492-983-9 (EPUB).--ISBN 978-0-86492-984-6 (MOBI)
PS8631.A7665U56 2017 C813'.6 C2017-902819-7
We acknowledge the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Government of New Brunswick.
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To my friends
It is possible, if we try, to lie our way to truth.
— Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Before Lenin was dead and before my life had properly begun, I used to spend all my time in a bookstore down on Nikitskaya. I was barely a person then, just a girl, and then just a girl staring down the women I’d meet, wondering if their fate had to be mine. The bookstore had no sign. Either you knew where it was or you didn’t. The entrance was several steps below street level. To find it, you looked for the tobacco place next door because it had a glowing green lamp in its window. When the snow shrouded the entrance on winter afternoons, that blur of green was the only indication that you’d arrived. If you knew to look.
The owners, Rachel and Mikhaíl Osorgin, lived in the back room. The place smelled like potatoes most of the time but did not smell of dust. Nothing settled in there; everything and everyone just passed through. The men who ran it were academicians: specialists in Schopenhauer and Dostoyevsky and the history of carnival and the grotesque. If they specialized in other fields, I either didn’t know it at the time or have forgotten it since. This is how memory works. We say memory is about the past, but it isn’t, and secretly we all know it. I remember them as specialists in Dostoyevsky and Schopenhauer because I loved the grotesque, because I wanted to ask the beautiful terrible questions.
None of them knew a thing about budgets or inventories, but they didn’t need to. They had no real expenses and no real income either. They called it a bookstore because they didn’t want to call it a publishing house, or couldn’t call it a publishing house, since that couldn’t capture their mandate, which was this: keep everything in motion, make all knowledge available. If a book showed up with no binding or missing pages they didn’t care, they’d bind it with rubber bands or staple together whatever pages they had, and then they’d put it on the shelves, ready for whoever wanted to spirit it away. I went there because I wanted access to everything they had; others went there because it was the only place you could find mystical and religious texts in those days. Obviously, their time was limited; dilapidated as it was, that place was a luxury. The era of thinking about the beautiful and the terrible as abstractions was coming to an end. Instead of abstractions, the beautiful and the terrible would become palpable: death would become fact, not figure. But in the era of abstractions, we weighed our riches in books and ideas, we had so many. Every book that lined the shelves or was left open on the table had either been stolen or donated, and every book was given away just as easily. Sometimes the books arrived in wheelbarrows. Sometimes on sleighs. An apartment would be subdivided somewhere in the city, and the books would be thrown out along with the bourgeois residents.
Mrs. Osorgin was always in the back room preparing one thing or another. The potato smell got into the wool of our coats. Everyone who went there left smelling the same. I sometimes fantasized that I could meet someone in an entirely other part of the city and know them as one of my own, because they’d smell like the shop and I’d know they’d been there. But the truth of the matter was most Muscovites smelled like potatoes then, since it was all anyone ate in those days, whereas very few had ever been to Osorgin’s. Sometimes we ate dinner in the back room. Then Mrs. Osorgin — I never called her Rachel — added special things to the meal: nuts, butter, chopped onions.
As for Mr. Osorgin, when I think of him now, I cannot see his face. It is the hunch of his back that I remember, the way it told of a lifetime of loving books, though perhaps it also spoke of fear or shame; I have no way of knowing which. His voice resonated, sonorous and slow, as if it came from inside a much bigger body, as if no matter what he said, all you would remember would be the beautiful, solemn sound. He can’t have been more than forty then, but I was so young he seemed older than that. Maybe if I’d paid closer attention to what he’d been saying, rather than how he’d said it, I’d have understood why everything happened the way it did.
When we wanted new books, we stole them from the stores on Tverskaya. If we wanted to understand the new books, we’d bring them to Osorgin’s. (I say we but even if I envied the students who would steal from the stores, I couldn’t manage it myself. I sometimes went into the stores on Tverskaya with a new volume in mind, but as soon as I found it, I’d feel as if everyone were watching me and then I’d look around the store until I found someone who was.) At Osorgin’s, every wall but one was lined with shelves that sank in the middle with the weight of books. On the remaining bare wall hung a chalkboard, and every week some new idea would appear there. One week it might be a citation from Freud. Another, it might be Bertrand Russell: Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? Sometimes one citation would relate to another, but just as often there was no obvious link. Sometimes the citations were tributes and sometimes they made fun. Which was it
The students, the professors, the activists, the fighters — whoever went there, worked there, or sold books there —were my kind of people. I automatically trusted them. It was that kind of place.
On the day I met Sasha, the store was mostly empty. Sasha, Jack, and I were the only customers, but I didn’t know them yet. My impression when I first met them was that Jack was studious and Sasha was wild. A simple conclusion based on nothing, really. Jack had arrived at the bookstore first and I’d not even noticed him bent over his book in the corner by the blackboard. Sasha, on the other hand, came in clamouring. He was slight but moved with confidence: strong, powerful. His straight black hair stuck up everywhere when he pulled off his hat. When he went to stand in front of the stove, I thought, I’m cold, too. Then, standing there, next to him, I was suddenly so hot.
It seemed as if we stood there for a while, but that can’t have been the case, because when the explosion happened and the windows shattered and the shelves collapsed, so that the whole room was instantaneously a torrent of books and broken glass, that was precisely when I felt someone grab my hand. From the jolt in my shoulder I knew I was being pulled by someone strong; that someone was Sasha, and I remember distinctly that his hand was still cold.
Behind us, I heard Osorgin yell something about water. In the alley behind the store, Jack was already ahead of us, running without looking back. The sound of our footfalls ricocheted wet against the alley’s walls. Jack disappeared around a corner. We ran after him, past crumpled-up buildings that had fallen to ruin a long time ago. Jack kept too far ahead for us to see him, until finally we rounded a corner and found him, doubled over, trying to catch his breath. I heard my own breath then, felt it cold and rough against my throat. I heard voices yelling out, heard the crackle of wood catching fire, or collapsing, I couldn’t tell which.
Jack and Sasha were strangers to me, but already I felt as though I knew something about the one who’d held my hand and the one who’d run away. The one who’d grabbed my hand held on tight, and the way he did told me that he was good. That he was strong and wouldn’t let go until it was okay. The one who’d run away had fled on his own, and it told me that he was an individualist and a coward, though it would take years for me to articulate it that way. The three of us walked the rest of the way down the alley until we made it back to Nikitskaya, ending up down the street from the front entrance to the bookshop. A figure ran past us, heading to the shop. I watched him go and was about to follow, when Jack barked at me, You can’t go back.
Maybe it was the way he said it, with such conviction, or maybe it was because it was the first thing he’d ever said to me that made me listen. Somewhere in my stomach was a thought of the Osorgins, or a feeling, the feeling that I ought to do something, but what? We stood there dumbly, our sweat turning to ice.
I’m Alexandr, said the one who had held my hand, the dark-haired one who was loud and got cold in bookstores.
Sasha, I thought, what a soft name.
He’s Jack, said Sasha, at which Jack stood taller. They stood side by side then and I saw that they had been friends for a long time. Standing there, still a little out of breath, Jack seemed taut and quivering, like a bow before its release; Sasha seemed like a man who could be still for a long time.
I’m Tatiana L—, I said, too formally, I thought.
Let’s get a drink, said Sasha.
Everything’s closed, I said.
I know a place, he said.
I can’t, said Jack, and he slouched away, leaving Sasha and me like that, facing each other, on a winter’s night in 1921.
In the fall, just a few months before meeting Sasha, I had met Dr. Vladimir Bekhterev, a man who very quickly felt like a father to me. Earlier that same year, I’d lost my own father in a manner that was all too common at the time.
Then, as now, the single most important factor determining one’s access to everything, from a job to an apartment to a good man to work on your teeth, was connections. In the early years of Lenin’s rule a temporary but insidious capitalism was reintroduced (small shops and tiny plots of land for individualized farming were permitted again, a good thing I suppose, but it made some people very rich). Those were the NEP years, after the innocuously named New Economic Policy, and we called the newly rich class it created the NEP men and NEP women. In those years two incompatible systems further complicated the power of “knowing a guy.” Under NEP, the first system concerned one’s identification as a member of the proletariat; the second concerned one’s ability to contribute to the revolutionary effort. For this reason, a soil scientist from the upper classes could still, in the early to mid-twenties, be considered useful to society, despite a bourgeois background.
By the time Lenin died, it was clear the era of bourgeois experts was coming to an end. Anyone with a damning background had taken whatever measures possible to rewrite family histories. Faces were scratched out of family portraits. Loving couples divorced. Children denounced parents. People moved from country to city or city to country and, in the process, changed names.
So, a soil scientist could work in the office of the People’s Commissar for Agriculture, could even have worked at the same desk in the same office for so long that he remembered the days under the Tzar when it was called the Ministry of Agriculture, and then one day, he might decide he ought to change his name and move far, far away.
My father was that kind of soil scientist.
One day he stopped being my father. He told me about it in a letter, which I read, and then, following his instructions, lit on fire. I was eighteen years old. Whether he’d decided to leave or had been forced to, I don’t know. Apart from the salutation, which read Dearest Daughter, the letter barely mentioned me at all. In as few words as possible, he explained that his situation at work had changed and that if he stayed, his future (and mine) would be compromised, which was something he couldn’t bear. The letter was written with such concision that I could hear the anguish behind every word. In life, my father had used all the words, all the stories, all the time. Never in my life had he been so cold, never so reasonable. It was as if he were already gone when he wrote that letter. I cried in angry confusion as it burned but shared my feelings with no one, this also according to his instructions. The only thing he left behind was his pocket watch and something less tangible: a belief in hard work. Amazing how lucky you get, he always said, when you work really hard.
When he was my father, he helped me with my studies and said that, of the sciences, it was the only field of study that would not be corrupted by politics.
In his letter, he admitted that he had been wrong.
It was his friend, then, a man I’d met only once, who got me into university on the strength of Communist connections I did not have and, as such, into one of the only classes Dr. Bekhterev ever taught in Moscow. I called this man my uncle, but we were not related. Connections were different than beliefs. I believed in the Revolution and I believed we could sacrifice our way to progress, but I never joined the Party, so I had no real connections. I couldn’t have. In those years, getting into the Party was harder than becoming an academician. I’d attended the Communist youth meetings before the loyalty tests became a standard rite of passage, which was a good thing, because if they’d asked after my loyalties I would have said I believed in what my father had believed: science, and science was separate from politics. Like him, I would also come to realize that I was wrong. Unlike him, I came to believe the reason science wasn’t separate from politics was that nothing was separate from politics. Not science. Not art. Not love. In this way, I was like my mother.
So, that first class with Dr. Bekhterev was held in the fall of 1921, two or three years into my studies. The lecture hall, shaped like an arena, seated about fifty students. The wooden desks p
Luria was right. Bekhterev was almost an hour late for that first class, but not a single student left the room.I would have left if they had, but they didn’t. He arrived carrying a bundle of manuscripts and an overcoat. He was in his early sixties and had the shape and heft of a butcher: broad shoulders, thick gut. From his neck up, he was all hair. His beard, moustache, nose hairs, eyebrows, and the hair on his head sprouted out of him as if from an unremitting spool of thin, pepper-coloured wire.I imagined someone brushing up against him might come away with small cuts and scrapes.
When I try to describe the force with which Dr. Bekhterev entered my life I feel certain I will fail. I was practically a child then: too young, for example, to know anything about the reputations of my professors. From where I sat, on the outer ring, in my tenuous orbit, ready to be flung out into the deepest black, I had the vague notion that my professors existed only where I saw them: in the lecture hall, in the lab, in their offices. They’d been born with their specializations, just as they’d been born with their eye colour, fingerprints, and dispositions. They had not studied. No commissar had appointed them, no colleague had denounced them, no experiment had failed, no book had been rejected. They had never been intoxicated by the smell of a woman passing them on a darkening street, nor had they ever experienced rage. They’d never been left off the guest list, nor put on. They had been born professors and would die that way. In short, they were not people.