Magic is almost ubiquitous in Roth’s books; and gives them their eastern European atmosphere; a world that hasn’t quite entered the modern era. Here he goes further east. This is his Russian novel, and is a tale of passion and madness; of the noble soul of a bad man; and confession as the safety valve for a troubled conscience. It is about a police informer, a scoundrel, we hardly need say, who is also an honest man. Dostoevsky would have been in the room when Roth was writing it. There are even direct touches of that strange genius in this book; there are times we can see his hands guiding the author’s pen:
…I realised that I was far from possessing the necessary determination to commit a murder. At that time, my friends, I was not nearly clean enough to be able to kill.
Not clean enough to kill! A wonderful phrase and a crazy insightful: the police informer is too shabby and corrupt to be a murderer. How true! It is extremely hard to kill another human being; one must have some rare quality: from pure rage to virginal cruelty; or the innocence of adolescent reason – murdering for an ideal can be easy.
It is not only the paradoxes of good and evil that give this novel its Dostoevskian feel. It is also the atmosphere of superstition that pervades these characters; and which turns strange or extraordinary actions, and unusual and gifted (in the black arts of social trickery) people, into inexplicable mysteries. Life, because it is poorly understood, becomes metaphysical and magical.
Golubchik is a bastard, born of a Russian prince and a poor forester’s wife. He has never seen the prince, but he dreams of wealth and power; believing he will receive his rightful inheritance if only his father will see him. When he is old enough he leaves his mother and travels to Odessa to find the old man. He thinks himself special, a real aristocrat, his peasant’s clothes temporary camouflage. Almost inevitably his egoism betrays him. Thinking himself a rare breed he gives others magical powers. Thus a cultivated European talks to him because he recognises his princely blood; although the skill of Roth is always to keep the mundane reasons close to the surface of his hero’s mind: Golubchik knows the truth but suppresses it; time and time again. So Herr Lakatos speaks to him because he is an aristocrat, for Golubchik thinks his secret must be visible to a European; the flesh of a superior being seen through the clothes of a country bumpkin. A cruel irony, which the author develops to show the awe and contempt of the Russian for a Europe they want both to emulate and avoid. The Hungarian talks to Golubchik not because he is an obvious stranger in this cosmopolitan city, and thus a fellow alien; nor because he looks innocent, young, and a little lost; an easy mark; just waiting to be conned. No! It is because he is a prince! And aristocrats can always identify each other. However, even innocents must occasionally learn the lessons of banality, and he quickly discovers that Herr Lakatos has other reasons to befriend him. A moment when high hopes are shattered, but reality though seen cannot be fully accepted – Golubchik recognises his failure but has to create imaginary fantasies to explain it.
It is this conflict between the fantastic and the prosaic that drives him on, creating the power of uncontrollable hate, of a thwarted fantasist; and generating the pure rage where murder is possible.
Golubchik comes to believe that Jenö Lakatos is the devil. Through a complicated series of events he ends up in jail, and when given the chance of freedom he freely chooses to become a secret policeman; the fateful decision of his life. Now Golubchik knows the reasons for his incarceration – the poor are scapegoated for the petty crimes of the prince’s adopted son -, and he also knows that the decision to become an informer is his own; he had been given other career options in the state bureaucracy; which he rejected without thought. But he cannot accept these reasons. This is the motive force of the novel; and the source of the magic it creates. For Golubchik there has to be some deeper reason why he chose the police, and why a decent man willingly becomes a scoundrel. It must be the devil’s fault! It is the only sensible explanation for a person who believes himself exceptionally gifted in blood, and morally impeccable; for only someone equally powerful, but malign, his polar opposite, could thwart such destiny. There are small truths in this belief, for it was Lakatos who helped him approach Prince Krapotkin; facilitated the disposal of his father’s gift, and later shares his cell; when it becomes obvious that he is a police informer. Golubchik also knows that his arrest is a matter of chance and small town calculation, but he cannot accept it. He is too important for that. The simple and the banal do not happen to a great prince. Someone must be plotting his downfall, creating the web, making the conspiracies, into which he will fall; removing him from his rightful place in society. Lakatos is the devil, but he is merely an instrument of his decline; he is the agent of some more divine power.
I was about to speak of his hands, which had been so hard and thin and had stroked my head so paternally – when suddenly the door flew open, the dog jumped up and began to bark joyfully, and the face of the Prince cleared suddenly and lit up. A young man, scarcely older than I, sprang into the room. The Prince opened his arms and kissed the boy several times on both cheeks. Then at last there was silence. The dog was still waving his tail. And suddenly the boy noticed me. “Herr Golubchik”, said the Prince, “my son!”
Golubchik’s dream was over before this sudden intrusion. The prince had told him that he was one of many illegitimate children; and that he cannot even remember his mother, so many women has he slept with. But an egoist will not be relegated to an ordinary person, a Krapotkin will not accept he is just a Golubchik. This is impossible! He is a prince. And so there must be some extraordinary power preventing him from realising his rights and living within society’s natural order. That power is the prince’s adopted son. For Golubchik the young prince entered that room at that particular time purposively to impede his success; just as the old man was going to bestow his wealth and power on him, his natural heir. But no! The wicked intervention of this boy has destroyed all his pretensions. This delusion is exacerbated by other facts: the young prince steals the gifts his father gives to his guests, one of which he gave to Golubchik. The police arrest foreigners to save the prince from this shameful knowledge; blaming it all on unknown aliens. It is easy for the righteous to believe this is part of some diabolic master plan; the young prince stealing not only his birthright, but mocking him too – he is responsible for putting Golubchik into prison. And so the logic runs on; into superstition and madness. No wonder he wanted to be part of the secret police: to act out on the streets of Russia what he is creating in his own mind; a maker of intrigue, a keeper of secrets, the centre of squalid conspiracies– in short, another kind of aristocrat.
These beliefs are so strong Golubchik cannot give them up. He therefore has to create a world where this faith can find nourishment and life; although it be a bitter and cruel world where illusions are protected by the obstacles he imagines others (particularly the Great Conspirator, the prince’s son) find to block his way. It is a place where the complex interactions of oneself with the local environment, of the conflicts and compromises with other people, the influence of background and the wider history, are reduced to one simple idea and to a single cause: the young prince walked into that room to purposively stop his destiny from being fulfilled. A single fact is given an extraordinary meaning, and becomes the basis of religious belief; the reason for his fall. Golubchik’s mistake is a fault of a particular kind of mind; which believes that a fact in itself can explain an event, rather than be just evidence for it. The result? The causes are either ignored or personified. Yet a single fact explains nothing very much; if anything at all: it has to be explained by causes we must both reason out and guess at – we can only infer causes not see them.[i] The larger and deeper the causes the richer will be our explanations; and more profound our understanding. But this is not for Golubchik. This would explain away his problem; reduce him to an ordinary secret policeman, playing with the dirt of his own and other people’s psychology. He does not want to be reduced to just another tiny fact within a matrix of causes – personal, historical, social and political. He doesn’t want to be understood and explained away. He is too significant for that. He is a prince! So he finds a fact, the boy’s entry into the room, and he makes it the cause of his failure. It is his religious faith. His great conspiracy.
Faith creates its own reality. He becomes a successful informer and, a typical touch, is assigned to the surveillance of a Parisian dressmaker and his beautiful mannequins.[ii] He falls in love with one of them, Lutetia, and for the first time in his new career he fails; for he is too human, infected with too much goodness; a bad quality for a scoundrel.
Because of this failure Golubchik is punished by being sent to Paris to carry out surveillance on Lutetia; and to spy on the regime’s exiles. He is given the name Krapotkin as an alias. Both are punishment – it is his boss’ irony. It is the book’s only weakness: too pat and too sentimental; and too novelistic. It doesn’t matter, for we soon drive into Paris, centre of the action, backdrop to the book’s murder. In Paris Krapotkin acts the typical Russian prince, and becomes Lutetia’s lover. Soon, however, he runs into difficulties – he cannot afford her. This compounds his own psychological difficulties. For now he is a prince; Prince Krapotkin; and everyone he knows treats him as a real Russian aristocrat. Yet he knows he is a fake; and that his success with his lover depends upon his own lies. As his debts rise, and the real Krapotkin arrives in the city (and uses his contacts to remove Golubchik from the French capital), his fantasies collapse; and his artifice disintegrates:
I ate, without appetite, and I must admit that, for all my love, I observed Lutetia’s healthy appetite with some ill-will. I was, at that time, petty enough to think of the eight thousand francs. A great many other things too, came into my mind. I thought of myself, the real Golubchik. A few hours earlier I had been glad to be a real Golubchik again. Yet now, with Lutetia at the same table, the thought that I was to be a Golubchik once more filled me with bitterness. But at the same time I was still somehow a Krapotkin, and I had eight thousand francs to pay. As a Krapotkin, I had to pay them. Suddenly I felt embittered at the amount of the sum, I who have never counted or calculated. There are, my friends, certain moments in which the money one has to pay for a passion seems almost as important as the passion itself – and its object. I never gave a thought to the fact that I had wooed and won Lutetia, the beloved of my heart, with shameful and villainous lies. On the contrary, I used it as a reproach against her, that she believed my lies and lived on them. A strange, unknown fury rose up within me. I love Lutetia. But I was angry with her. Soon it seemed to me, while we were eating, that she alone was responsible for my debt. I searched, I scrutinized, I delved for faults in her. I discovered that it was tantamount to a betrayal to have told me nothing about the clothes.
A real Krapotkin wouldn’t have cared about the debt. A real prince would not have stayed and allowed a woman to argue about money. Golubchik is too small for such magnanimity. It is the end of his illusions, the death of his fantasy; the loss of Lutetia into the arms of her rightful lover; the real prince for which she was created. Seeing her naked breasts next to the man responsible for his corruption Golubchik at last achieves the purity he needs. Finally he is clean enough to kill…
Later we must look for the corpses.
[i] Though writing about something else – the network of relationships within a city – this description from Calvino is a wonderful metaphor for that invisible causal world:
“In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that establish the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.
“From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.
“They will rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.
“Thus, when travelling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spider webs of intricate relationships seeking a form.”
For a slightly different reading of this passage see my Real Artifice.