Eugene Dubnov


Once, having nothing to do between two lectures, I went to have a browse in the second-hand bookshops in Kuznetsky Most. As usual, a few people were strolling up and down in front of the shops with books to sell on the quiet — for it might not be altogether legal to do it in the open. One of them, a still vigorous-looking old man who might have seen better days, showed me a book entitled "Hygiene of the Spirit" — the only item he had for sale. It was a translation from some foreign author or other, published as long ago as 1898. In seventy years nobody had bothered to read the book: its pages were still uncut. The old man was asking one rouble fifty kopecks for it — the price was pencilled on the fly-leaf. I was tempted and bought it.

In the evening in my dormitory I cut the first few pages and started to read. The book seemed to me to be vague, unnecessarily involved and contrived, and its style was very old-fashioned. I struggled through the first chapter and then put the book aside, regretting having bought it. Later, when my room-mates came back, I tried to sell it to them but they just laughed at me. Knowing the history of Psychology better than I did, they only looked at the title page and said that such pseudo-scientific tractates had been fashionable at that period, running into thousands, and had nothing but curiosity value. "He was really in luck, that fellow who flogged it to you," they chaffed me, "he found a sucker."

I was upset at having made such a fool of myself and at having thoughtlessly squandered my money. The next day I went once more to the same place, hoping to get rid of the book. The old man I'd dealt with yesterday wasn't there, and suddenly an ingenious idea came into my head. I went round the corner, extracted a pencil-stub from my briefcase and, carefully matching the writing, added a one to the book's price. It was now 11 roubles 50 kopecks — and I prided myself that no one would be able to detect that a second "1" had been added. I reckoned to stumble, with a bit of luck, on just such another sucker as myself, only even more gullible or simply richer. The book was old and in good condition, and its title likewise intriguing, with a ring of profundity. And the fact that I — not to mention my room-mates — had discovered the author to be a mere charlatan should not deter me: we were specialists, students of Psychology, but the ordinary man could not be expected to make such subtle distinctions.

When I got back to the shops, holding the book in both hands, I was immediately approached by one of those private second-hand dealers, with a canvas bag full of books.

"What have you got there, son?"

"Here," said I, "a rare early edition, it's a shame to have to sell it but I desperately need the cash."

"Indeed, indeed," he said, dwelling on the words, as he took the book from me and began to examine the cover. "`Hygiene of the Spirit,' is it? And how much do you want for it?"

"It's priced," I muttered, "the price is inside. Nothing would have ever made me sell it, it's a really wonderful book, but I do need the cash."

"Really wonderful — you don't say!" he became interested. "And why aren't the pages cut then? And this is the price — is it really worth eleven fifty? What have you added the one for, young man?"

"I... nothing of the kind... what I gave for it..." I stammered, hot under the collar. "I... it's my loss... cheap at the price..."

But he was already brandishing the book about and calling his colleagues: "Petya, come here, look at this: here's `Hygiene of the Spirit' for you for just over eleven roubles!"

"I say, it's not nice, young man, to add ones," Petya was shaking his head while the first man was already shouting to somebody over by the next shop: "Look here, we've got a unique copy of `Hygiene of the Spirit' — for just under twelve roubles — and I daresay the lad may become even more generous and may practically give it away for a mere tenner — I'm sure he'll do it, for friends!"

Feeling my cheeks burning, I tore the book out of his hands and half-ran back, to the safety of the anonymous crowd in Gorky Street.

As I turned the corner, I recovered my breath — and suddenly heard: "Is that book for sale, young man?"

I raised my eyes and stopped dead. Before me stood the very same old man from whom I had bought the book yesterday. You couldn't confuse him with anybody else: he looked at you in such an odd way, and I've never seen such strangely clear blue eyes. I opened my mouth to say that the book was not for sale but no sound came. I didn't want it out of my hands, but as he made to take it, my fingers let go of their own accord.

"Well, I think I'll buy it," he said and counted out eleven roubles and fifty kopecks. Putting the money into my still open palm, he crammed the book into his jacket pocket, politely tipped his hat in a gesture of farewell and disappeared into the crowd. I remained standing with the money in my hand.

"He must be mad," I thought, gradually coming to myself and beginning to stride in the direction of the faculty building. "Well, perhaps not totally mad — just an eccentric, there are plenty of them around. He didn't recognise his own book — and paid an extra tenner for it! And for my part, I wash my hands of the matter: did I talk him into buying it? It was he who accosted me, he also who bought it, and who paid for it likewise!"

I was just passing the "Mars" cafe when I heard the Kremlin clock strike. It was already one o'clock in the afternoon, and although my exam in Probability Theory was not due to start till two, I quickened my pace: I had my lunch to eat, and also there would be no harm in having another look at my textbooks before the exam.

As I turned into Marx Avenue, the clock-face on the Kremlin Tower was already showing five minutes past one. This puzzled me: it was no more than a three-minute walk from the "Mars" to here at an ordinary pace — and I had been going faster than that. And when had I had the opportunity to dawdle?

But the first thing to catch my eye in the faculty was the clock in the corridor which also showed five past one. By now this seemed more likely: it would have taken one about five minutes to have got from the cafe to the faculty walking briskly. But if that was so, the Kremlin clock must have been wrong, which was surely unthinkable!

There was nobody I knew in the half-empty canteen, and I was glad of it: I didn't feel like talking to anyone at the moment.

At the counter I took the soup, the meat course with potatoes, and some bread. "One rouble and eleven kopecks," the cashier counted up. There was something in her tone which I didn't like, but I didn't bother to go into it and just gave her the money: a one-rouble note and two ten-kopeck coins.

"Surely you've got a one-kopeck piece?" she asked, returning me one of the ten kopecks.

"I'll have a look," I said and tilted my purse so that all the change slid out. "Here it is, precisely one one-kopeck piece," I picked out the coin and gave it to her.

"This isn't a one-kopeck piece, young man, but a two-kopeck piece," she said reproachfully, "you should be more careful about your money: look after the kopecks, and the roubles will look after themselves!"

There, on the counter, indeed, lay a two-kopeck coin. But I could have sworn it was a one-kopeck piece I had taken out of my purse! Muttering to myself: "It can't be true," I emptied the entire contents of my purse onto the counter. The kopeck I had just seen was nowhere to be found!

"Excuse me, I must have been mistaken," I said to the cashier, collected up my change from the counter, picked up my tray and with a slightly uncertain pace went down the aisle between the tables.

"Your one-kopeck change!" with a shiver I heard the cashier's voice. "You gave me two instead of one, so I owe you one. You can't be too careful about money!"

I had already put my tray down on a table, but for some reason I picked it up again and went back, carrying it, to the cash-desk. There I put it on the counter, collected the kopeck from the cashier and returned to my table.

"You've forgotten your tray!" the cashier shouted out again. Stumbling, I went back and mechanically, in order to free both hands for the tray, put the one-kopeck piece on the counter.

The cashier was no longer smiling but was looking at me with alarm. "Don't put your kopeck there — put it in your pocket," she said, "otherwise you'll keep on running backwards and forwards, forgetting first this and then that. But anyhow, you look a bit groggy — are you sickening for something, by any chance?"

"No, no, it's nothing," I said, "I'm... just a little bit tired... I've got an exam in half an hour."

"Well, in that case that explains everything," she calmed down. "Anybody would be nervous

before an exam."

But as I hurriedly finished my food in order to leave as soon as possible, I noticed that she kept on glancing at me as if to size up the extent of my madness.

I left the canteen at half past one — that is, according to my own watch. The clock in the corridor still showed five past one, and I ceased worrying: the Kremlin clock was right, of course, and this one had merely stopped. But all at once the fact that both hands were pointing to one and that each of them in effect looked like a one impressed itself on my mind. There was something sinister, almost frightening about it, and beads of sweat broke out on my brow.

I thought of having another look at my textbook on Lie Algebras and the other one by Gelfand which contained problems but then decided not to bother. I didn't feel unduly concerned about the exam, as I was au fait with the material and in the good books of both Artemyeva, our lecturer, and Sorokina, our seminar tutor. This odd distracted state of mine would no doubt immediately vanish in the working atmosphere of the examination room.

I went down one floor and approached the door of the room opposite the Dean's Office. Kuyevda and three or four other faculty high-flyers — those who never got less than an A — were already standing there. Even they were showing signs of nervousness: the exam was not of the easiest. They were discussing whether it would be better to be examined by Artemyeva or Sorokina. Plump Artemyeva looked much more comfortable but fellows from the mech&maths department said it all depended on what mood she was in and that there were occasions when she would dole out failures without mercy. Sorokina was tall and scraggy, and her slightly crooked mouth gave her face a sour expression. Because of this mouth of hers it was sometimes difficult to understand her and you had to ask again: "Tatyana Sergeevna, would you please repeat that." She was said to have a system of favouritism: anyone who had made his mark in her seminars would automatically be given a higher grade, whereas whoever she had written off as poor would get a lower mark on his actual performance in the exam. I decided that there was nothing to choose between the two and that I would go up to whichever of them was free.

I was lucky with the questions which I drew: they all turned out to be easy ones. The problem was straight out of Gelfand: find the matrix of the above transformation relative to the basis... Very simple. Then a theoretical question: definition of a probability model. That one's in the bag too: we require that shall be equal to or lesser than zero, and so on...

I wrote my answers quickly and clearly — in just about ten minutes — and then put up my hand. I was the first among all the candidates to be ready to be examined. Catching Sorokina's eye, I raised my hand even higher and waved it energetically. She screwed up her mouth and uttered some kind of sound which signified, as I guessed, "come up then." I went to her table, sat down on a chair, placed my question and examination sheets in front of me and started to give the answers.

Again she said something — and once again I failed to understand her — but it was clear that what was intended was "first rate," "jolly good," "you've started off on the right track," or something of the kind. So I did not pause but continued to give my answers. At this point she repeated the same noises, but now with a distinctly sarcastic intonation, and I suddenly made out that what she was saying was "Are you Kuyevda?"

"No," I said. I was somewhat surprised at her not remembering my surname from her seminar and confusing me with someone in a different group. "I'm Vladimirov," — and I returned to my exposition of the proof.

"But it was Kuyevda I called up!" Sorokina cut me short, still more petulantly. I looked over my shoulder. Kuyevda who had been sitting at the desk behind mine was now standing frozen in the aisle on his way to Sorokina, work sheets in hand, with a look of bewilderment on his face. It dawned on me now that the noises from Sorokina which I had taken to be "come up then" had in fact been Kuyevda's name — and that, indeed, he had rightly interpreted them as such.

Acutely embarrassed, I apologised to both of them and went over to Artemyeva's table. She, it seemed, was in a very good mood and even joked about the zeal with which I was running from one preceptor to another, the sooner to have my knowledge and ability appreciated. "Give me your sheet," she said, "I'll look at it myself, I can see already that you know the material."

But as she read my answers, her face gradually assumed a more and more dissatisfied expression.

"What's the matter with you?" she said, half in anger, half in concern. "You've got everything muddled up here. Haven't you any idea what it's all about?"

"Where exactly have I got everything muddled up, Olga Vasilyevna?" I was put out. "It can't be so — I'm sure I've got everything right!"

"You've got it muddled up all over the place — in every formula and matrix. Look, here, for example: in this postulated matrix it ought to be one-zero-zero, zero-one-zero, and three zeros in the bottom line — and you've got everything the wrong way round — are you using looking-glass writing? And here, too: how can be greater than or equal to one and lesser than or equal to zero? How could you do a thing like that! You should use your brains, to understand what's going on in the demonstration!"

I snatched my sheet back from her and stared at it. My blood ran cold.

"I... I've no idea how it came out like that," I uttered the words with difficulty. "When I was writing it everything was correct, everything was the other way round — that is, not the other way round in relation to how it ought to be but the other way round in relation to what's the other way round here. That's the way I wrote it, honestly, everything the other way round!"

"Are you feeling quite well, Vladimirov?" Artemyeva looked at me with solicitude. "You sound a bit confused, too."

"Yes, I've been, as it were, a little bit just recently, so to speak, thinking things," I admitted. "And because of this it does indeed sometimes happen that I get slightly absent-minded. But it only happens from time to time and I... Please, believe me, I do know all the material inside out — don't you remember my answers from the floor to the questions you put in the course of your lectures? And Tatyana Sergeevna over there can confirm my participation in her seminars. Please, please, set me something else, something different — and I will rightaway, here and now, give you both the proof and the solution."

"All right, then," said Artemyeva hesitantly after she had looked at me once again. "Give me the proof of this Lie Algebra."

I nearly jumped for joy — it was a classical matrix. My pen started scratching away as if of its own accord: Let be instead ... ... ...

Artemyeva followed me as I wrote. No sooner had I finished than she picked up my sheet without a word and took it over to Sorokina. Once there, she poked her finger at it, whispered something to her colleague, and both of them began to confer together with much shaking of heads.

Having come back to her own table, Artemyeva gave me a pitying look and said: "You'd better see a doctor, Vladimirov — and Tatyana Sergeevna thinks so too. Don't worry, we're both sure it's nothing serious and everything will clear up. You just must have overworked yourself. The doctor is bound simply to tell you to have a good sleep, to take things easy, or to have a hot bath. And after that you can arrange to re-sit the exam: I won't mark your answers now, it's obvious that it's not from any lack of knowledge... And when you're feeling better and re-sit the exam you're certain to get the A you deserve. But do go and see the doctor straightaway: I'll phone the university clinic myself, in an hour's time, and check!"

"Olga Vasilyevna," I asked with a terrible presentiment, "was there a mistake in that last solution too?"

"Something's wrong with your digits," she said in an apologetic tone and returned me my sheet.

Instead of zeros, twos and threes there were ones everywhere.

I rushed at break-neck speed straight from the faculty building to Kuznetsky Most. Petya from yesterday saw me coming, recognised me and waved at me, announcing loudly: "Here's our young friend, running full pelt — the chap who keeps on adding ones. Why are you in such a hurry, young man? Nobody's going to buy your `Hygiene' for eleven roubles."

"Where is he — that old man?" I blurted out. "The tall one, with blue eyes — the one who was here the other day? He sold it to me — and then bought it back."

"And how much did he buy it back for?" Petya started to laugh, but, having had a better look at me, paused and grew grave. "I haven't seen any old man like that, but wait, I'll go and ask my mates."

He went up to two young men who were standing around and after a few words with them looked back at me with a shake of his head and went into the next-door bookshop.

"Somebody here did see an old man like that," he told me a couple of minutes later as he came out of the bookshop, "the afternoon of the day before yesterday. But he says that your old man simply seemed to be waiting for somebody: when people asked him what he wanted to buy or sell he said he wasn't intending to do either. And apart from that nobody knows anything about him."

"How on earth am I to find him then?" I nearly burst into tears. "I've just failed an exam because of him — and generally I'm going completely round the bend!"

"It wouldn't be me you're looking for, by any chance?" a voice behind me said. I turned round and stood numb: I could have sworn that only a couple of seconds before there had been nobody there. Petya likewise was gawping, open-mouthed, at the old man with blue eyes.

"Yes, it is you," I hurried to say, "I owe you money, for the `Hygiene' — ten roubles — I made a mistake — a mistake in the price — here, please, take your money and forgive my error."

"These things happen," said the old man gently, pocketing the ten-rouble note. "We all make mistakes sometimes, and it's a good thing when we can put them right."

I wanted to say something more to him, but he was already off, quickening his pace as he went out of sight.

Translated from the Russian by John Heath-Stubbs and the author

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3
Published in:
Wascana Review 34-1,