Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gogol in Egypt and America

The Wedding of Philip Dermon

Part II
(Zhenitba Philipa Philipovicha Dermona)

Editor’s Note: This amusing tale of a wedding had to be interrupted due to the disappearance of a page from the copy of a manuscript which came into the Editor’s possession, when, on a recent trip to Egypt, he became acquainted with the manuscript’s owner, one Sinuhe Osip Soueif, and subsequently purchased from him said story in manuscript form – minus, apparently, the missing page.  Moreover, due to the sudden unexplained disappearance from Egypt of Sinuhe Soueif himself, the Editor was placed in a position of considerable uncertainty, not to say discomfort, concerning the retrieval of the missing page – or indeed pages. For all the Editor knew was that he had apprehended a gap in the story which could not be explained by any artistic decision of its author, Nikolai Gogol, even bearing in mind the painful vicissitudes affecting our author in the final days of his life, when the story was almost certainly written, nor could this gap have been due to translators’ errors.

Happily, these missing pages (for I am informed that there is more than one) are soon to be restored to us, just as the mysteriously missing Sinuhe shall be restored to his native Egypt. How the repatriation of Sinuhe shall come about, and why he went missing in the first place, is another story, one with which the Editor does not want to distract the reader–and, truth to tell, this story of Sinuhe’s return still awaits the event, that is the actual return, on which it is to be based––so now let us take this opportunity to resume reading Gogol’s fine description of a wedding feast, somewhat modified, it may be, by his translators.

But enough of editorial comments! Let us resume…. 

The Wedding of Philip Dermon, Part II

     By    Nikolai Gogol

         Translated from the Russian by * Pavel Mikhailovich Manilov * and
* Naguib Fyodor Soueif  *

The Wedding of Philip Dermon

Part II

But it seems that here the author has leapt a little way ahead of the story, for none of these distinctive culinary delights were even to be sampled by the wedding guests until after the ceremony proper, and in any case, the variety of edibles that we have described above, in no way surpassed the infinite variety of human types, humane for the most part as they were, if not straightforwardly humanists or outright humanitarians, for the folks in the district don’t hold with excessive learning or showy philanthropy –– though heaven knows, they all do their due diligence at the church bazaar  and bake sale–– but yes, a great variety of human types was on display among the company of men and women who attended this memorable occasion.

The wedding guests were first glimpsed by Philip in the chapel (not plain and simple, but not gaudily bedecked with papish pictures either), where it seemed that he had been immediately transported “on the wings of love,” as the saying goes, from the ebullient crush at the florist’s shop. The crowd in the chapel –– the congregation –– appeared to Philip as an expanded version, and at the same time an embellished version, of the congregated celebrants at the florist’s shop, they who had clinked champagne flutes and toasted his success only hours before; and indeed for Philip, a mere nothing, a hollow emptiness inside of which memory swoons, existed between those two pinnacles of the day.

In the chapel then, standing up in his whitest of white shirts, so clean it gently wafted a slight soapy scent, and his well-fitting jacket with satin lapels, and his impeccably creased black pants, which just brushed the shiny tops of his patent leather shoes; standing there rather resplendent before the congregants, with the tall, boldly sounding organ at his back, Philip, whose only obligation was to wait there, had time to take note of certain individuals outstanding among the sea –– or perhaps large, imponderable pond –– of faces: a pond indeed rippling all over its merry surface, rustled and ruffled by the quickening breezes of curiosity and anticipation. And whose freshly washed, upturned faces did Philip see before him?

Tony the barber he saw at once, sitting in a second-row pew and wearing a new charcoal grey suit and brightly colored, magenta tie. Tony sported a brand new haircut which appeared to have been self-administered, and as he gazed, it seemed, through slightly filmy eyes, towards the front of the church, the barber continually patted a wayward wisp of hair that refused to stay in place. Near the back of the church, Philip could see both Mayor Monkfish and Dr. Clammyman, both of them dressed with extreme propriety, and even propinquity, appearing as they did to be wearing, each in his own inimitable way, the same suit, one that, or rather two that, had likely come right off the sales rack at the Tall Men’s Store. And Philip was delighted to see that these two unambiguous verticals in a roomful of slopes and slants (for many are the ways of pre-testing a posture for a session of clerical listening) sitting up straight (for how else would a small-town mayor and a country doctor be expected to pose on an oaken bench?) both pillars of the community, were quite literally puffing out their chests, so brimming were they with pride and admiration for Philip and his imminent bride.

The mother of the groom, dressed tastefully in an understated gold satin frock with black velvet trim, was seated in the front row of the church, but to her son she appeared to be continually receding as her lacquered helmet-style coiffure bobbed, swayed and dipped amidst row after row of similarly styled female heads. Along with this glimpse of his splendidly bedecked mother, the faces of Tony the barber, Dr. Clammyman, and even the mayor began to recede into the throng of well-turned-out guests, and Philip felt himself borne aloft, beyond their newly-anonymous presence––as though in his triumph he was sailing above the air itself, and into vast regions of pure ether.

As he went sailing through these regions of pure ether, however, Philip caught sight of the large, ponderous face of Mr. Simonson (some would call it a beefy face, “beefy” being a kind of cross between bovine and bullish). In a trice this meaty imago of the influential Mr. S. prompted Philip to return to terra firma for a better look. And this is what he saw:

The gentleman was dressed in a dark suit like all of the other men, but, probably because he was Mr. Simonson and no one else, his “customary and usual” attire seemed exceptionally fine. And Simonson (for I think we can dispense now with that title which is no title – certainly not the type of title to which Simonson would indubitably have been entitled, had he not been living in a truly democratic society), yes, Simonson simply glowed, surrounded as he was with what amounted to an aura of golden respectability and – there is no other word for it – power. Simonson was what they call a larger than life fellow. His head and shoulders were literally large, and his proud torso seemed to be invested with a golden glow of timeless contentment.

To Philip the man looked at least a head taller than everyone else in the room, though in actuality he was the same height, if not fractionally shorter, than the other men. A few of the ladies were even as tall as Mr. Simonson (there I go with that “Mr.”) but that likely had to do with ladies’ hats. Indeed, as that is not the impression Simonson conveyed, it is probably not necessary to mention it. In the buttonhole of the Simonson
suit coat radiated a blood-red boutonnière, Simonson being the only man in the audience who had troubled to wear such a flower, and the vibrant red of his carnation blended with his golden aura to produce such an elegant vision of a man, that it can only be compared with a certain Russian champagne called Ay. The effect of this small bright flower upon Philip Dermon may be described as hypnotic and inebriating at the same time, and so great was the levity that filled his heart –– as though he had just taken several greedy gulps of nitrous oxide –– that to try to put it into words would be sheer travesty.  

On the other hand one must not cleave to the impression that Philip’s self-surpassing sense of satisfaction, or even his observation of the company in the chapel, lasted for more than a few moments. All of these impressions, some mundane, some fanciful, flashed before him in a trice, while the organ was playing that familiar and always lovely prelude that signals the beginning of the ceremony. This prelude ushered in some non-descript groomsmen and five willowy bridesmaids dressed in long dresses of a color that was at the same time bright and deep.

To Philip they appeared as five lovely red flowers moving towards him in a row, unfolding and blossoming before his astonished eyes. They seemed as though they were inviting him with their perpetually uncurling petals, to pluck them and wear them, all five together, in the buttonhole of his suit coat, as some kind of maximum boutonnière. He had only to reach out and grasp them! and Philip, enchanted, was on the verge of doing just that. But fortunately Philip remembered himself just in time and quelled the whimsical impulse. His hands at his sides, he glanced instead at Simonson.

The “Oh!”s and “Ah!”s  of  the women throughout the church alerted Philip to the fact that his bride had entered the chapel, and with a solemn and dutiful expression that is very touching to see on the upturned face of such a young man, he raised his eyes towards Felice. She entered like a cloud, like a white fleece, and for what seemed a full minute Philip squinted and gaped, but try as he might, he could not penetrate those veritable veils of Maya in which she was so delicately wrapped; he could not penetrate those veils, that is, well enough to be able to discern her face.

It must be remarked that this inability to detect any particularity of form or feature in his intended caused our young man considerable distress, reminding him, as it did, of his failed attempt to visualize her earlier in the day. Glancing for reassurance, as he often did, at his mother, Philip noted that her face bore an expression of ambivalence: pleasure in the occasion was there, to be sure, but there was also a something else: an odd subrosa expression, as it were, of bewilderment and consternation. This caused Philip a further pang, but then catching sight of Simonson’s benign look of approval, and even admiration, the bridegroom was once more content.

Whether he could divine her features or not, Felice was surely the most beautiful bride that ever existed. That much was evident from the sighs of the ladies and the nods of the men in the pews. And basking in the assurance (assurance, you see, is not hard to come by in the Land of Insurance) –– in the assurance, then, that his bride was nothing if not beautiful, Philip contented himself for the moment with a cloud-like vision of her that morphed, as she approached, from cumulus to cirrus, becoming wispier, more uncertain, and more insubstantial, with every passing moment.

Just then a terrible thing happened. A catastrophe!

Editor’s Note:  I am sorry to have to interrupt your reading at this precise juncture of the story, leaving you in suspense, but it is just at this point that I detected –– rather cleverly, if I do say so myself, that gap in the story that set me on the path of apprehending the missing pages ––soon to be restored––first, however, necessitating my efforts at following the traces of the recently vanished, and apparently expatriated, previous owner of the story in manuscript form, a seventy-five year-old Egyptian gentleman named Sinuhe Soueif. And it turned out, as I discovered through assiduous questioning of several of Sinuhe’s children, and especially nephews and nieces and grandchildren –– for it was they who quickly texted me back on their cell phones, and they whom I had been best able to locate through the offices of my Egyptian host – (he who opened the door for me to the strange, transformational world of Gogoliana in which I now found myself immersed) it turned out that this was not the first time Sinuhe had disappeared. Indeed, I received valuable intel from Sinuhe’s niece Basma, a teen-ager dressed in couture, including the headscarf, who peered at me from behind a pair of sunglasses, and burst into fits of giggles from time to time, when I saw her with her girlfriend at the home of my host. But she was a bright kid who knew her English, and this is what she wrote: 

Dear Mr. Trey, Robert Hollingworth,

I know not if you will remember, that we met in the courtyard when I came in through the low archway covered by the vine with red grapes growing ripe. On that dark night the red of the grapes was invisible. I came in on the arm of Sinuhe, my “Old Uncle”, who guides me now that the ankle it is sprained that one, and so I do not follow at four paces, but enter grand as any European lady before the feminist uprising. And just then you come in, with your camera, to visit Mr. Gamal! And I laughed out! But you, kind sir, will forgive my laughing at you when you learn that never before did I, Basma Soueif, see so tall of a man, also skinny, come under a low arch, and when he ducks his straw-colored head, and crouches the shoulders, I think so of the English story Alice, where she grows too big for the house. Also the camera is very big. Like we say in the only-English chat rooms, it is “ginormous”, and forgive me mentioning, you were clumsy carrying that camera. “Too heavy for him!” I think. Then after the dinner you go, and your host Mr.Gamal’s granddaughter, Isis, tells me you have taken no pictures of us anyway, at this time. Maybe it is that you have taken already enough footage pictures for your film, “Making Democracy”. Simply I do not know, and Isis does not, and Mr. Gamal, a scholar, even lacks this knowledge: why do you come to us, to Egypt, looking for democracy, when already you have so much democracy in your own land? Or so you are very fond of telling us.

So I am Basma, youngest daughter of Naguib, Sinuhe’s brother (in fact I am sixteen years), and I write you this letter to answer your questions, to answer all if I can, and it will all be in a letter, because the explanations are longer than I can write with my thumbs on the little Android in the text sentences. But even though that dark night I arrive on Sinuhe’s arm and you squeeze into the house like Alice, spindly but too tall, and then I laugh out! and we are introduced by Old Uncle, still I wonder, will you remember me? For I, my sisters and my girl cousins, and Isis, named for the great Egyptian goddess, and her sisters too – we all wear the headscarf, preferably Hermès, and we hear anyway that we all look alike to you, because one cannot say of us: “She is redhead and her cousin a blonde, and her auntie brunette”, so you cannot tell us apart the one from the other. So then Isis is the pretty one you saw standing there in the courtyard, Mr. Gamal’s granddaughter, but I have the blue eyes of my Russian grandmother.

But it is Sinuhe you have asked and asked about  –– because a page is missing from our family’s Russian short story, our Gogol story, that Sinuhe sold you, I am thinking, “for a mess of potage”.  Where did the uncle go? You are rightly wondering. And I must warn you, my uncle has disappeared before. More than once! Why do people disappear like that? May it be that when you know his story, you will be able to answer that question.

Today we children call Sinuhe “Old Uncle”, and he likes to sit long over dinner and talk and talk. When he was a young man, Sinuhe liked to fight. If he wasn’t actually fighting someone, he was preparing to fight. And whom was he preparing to fight? The British, of course! They who “held us in thrall” to control the price of cotton and oil. He taught us children to call their country “Perfide Albion” for their double-dealing, he said. But that was long after he fought in the uprising. Sinuhe was born in 1938, so when Nasser took over Suez, our canal, and the British and the French and the Israelis got angry and invaded our land, Sinuhe was a young man then, and ripe for fighting. But our grandmother Amina Bella didn’t believe in fighting, and especially did she not favor fighting the English, for the simple reason that, just like her mother Bella before her, Amina Bella was a great student of the English literature.

Why did Sinuhe disappear? That time, he was given a rifle, and though Amina forbade any of her boys to bring home one of the guns that were being handed out all over Cairo, Sinuhe took a gun and hid it, and in a way unknown to Amina Bella, he joined the other Egyptian men who lay on their bellies in the heat of the sun, who lay down, stretched out in a long row behind the sandbags, and aimed and fired at the government’s targets. And when the Tripartite Aggression began, Sinuhe disappeared from home and did not come back.

Why do people disappear? Are there many reasons, or is there only one? Years later, after his adventures in Algeria and in other, secret places in Africa and the Middle East, and, after convincing Egypt to welcome him back home again, Sinuhe told us children how like an enchantment it was: the decision to leave his country. “It was like a dream,” he said, and many more things of that kind.

Was Sinuhe, a grown man, afraid of his mother, Amina? Is that why he left home? Did he simply panic and flee, first his home, then his country? For though he refused to talk about it, and still does, we who call him “Old Uncle” suspect that he went to the airfield with the Egyptian volunteers, and shot at the invaders as they parachuted from their planes.

You want to know, of course, where he went this time. That knowledge I cannot give to you, at least not yet. But know that whenever Sinuhe has gone missing – and, the truth? It has happened several times – whenever he has gone away, suddenly, leaving no explanation – on those occasions he has always come back.

So do not despair: Sinuhe will be found, and your missing page – or pages – will be found! All in the fullness of time!

Most Sincerely, 
Basma Natalia Soueif

But I fear I may have distracted you with this young person’s prattle (“mess of potage”, indeed – as though Sinuhe had sold me his birthright!) So let us return to our Gogolian cliffhanger:

Story Continued. Just then, a terrible thing happened. A catastrophe! A thing so shocking and appalling that quite literally no one  – that is to say not a single soul, including the assembled salespeople, who tend to be more well-traveled, though honestly? in the present case, that means well-traveled within the state – no one, in short, had ever beheld the like. (Or we might say more accurately, that no one had ever not beheld the like: and you will see exactly what I mean by that in just one moment.)

Know then, that at the precise moment when the bride was anticipated to arrive at the altar –– and Felice, being sui generis, or without parentage, was walking, or rather wafting, down the aisle “on the wings of love,” though not on another’s arm –– anticipated to arrive, that is, to join her expectant betrothed –– at that precise moment, when every well-coifed head in the church (and a few that were not so well-coifed) was turned upon Philip, Felice, instead of bravely stepping forth to join our eager, if somewhat befuddled, young man on the stage in the scene enacting the start of a new life, Felice, instead  of manifesting herself at long  last ––instantly and completely disappeared.

What an uproar! What horrendous confusion! For it was obvious from the rapidity of her disappearance that Felice had not simply walked or even run out of the church. No, the aisle was long and the doors behind the pulpit were locked, as everyone knew. So there was nothing at all to say, except that she had temporarily negated her presence, dematerialized her essence, transcended mere being and morphed into non-being, or, to state the case more plainly, it was just as though she had temporarily hidden herself away in a magician’s cupboard, like the lady in a vanishing act.

It was as though Felice, ever cloudlike, her paler than pale striations now attenuated to the point of invisibility, now dispersed across a blue but infinitely pallid sky, simply dwelt betimes elsewhere. It was as though she was, for the nonce, that is, merely temporarily, in absentia because, after all, what bride would miss her own wedding?

So in the midst of all of the tumult, it was somehow decided that Felice had really intended to be there but for some reason was not, and, in view of the cages of doves and the tables of food and of all the preparations, it was unanimously decided to substitute the first red girl in Felice’s place and to continue with the ceremony as if nothing had happened. The first girl in red consented to perform the substitution, and Philip’s mother, whose mental swoon had lasted a full three minutes, surged bravely from the depths, swam to the surface of a chaotically choppy sea of oscillating sensations, and stumbling at last upon the shore of sanity, floundering only momentarily before filling her lungs with the good, clean air of common sense –– Philip’s mother wholeheartedly agreed that it would be the best thing, to use a proxy for the missing inamorata, and to carry on as though nothing, or no one, were amiss.

As if to seal the deal, Mr. Simonson approved the new arrangements with a nod of the head, and in a matter of seconds the ceremony had been performed.

Editor’s Note:  I am sorry to interrupt your reading once again, especially as the little society painted by Gogol has just begun to “adjust” to the harrowing disappearance of what, for lack of a better term, we shall call our heroine. But I have just received another missive from the teen-ager Basma, informing me of the return of Sinuhe, and other matters germane to the very text you are reading. Basma writes:

Dear Mr. Trey Holling, Robert,

This is Basma, your faithful correspondent, writing to you in the Paul Revere Township, named for a hero of your American Revolution. Like Egypt, as you say, the American Colonies had a problem with the British, but you must admit that all else is very different for our two countries, maybe even they are opposite.

I thank you kindly for your very long letter explaining me the democracy. It is really like I have an old fashion American pen pal. “Retro”, as we say in the chat. But before you take me to school, Mr. Trey, you must study up more the Egyptian history – not the pyramids this time, but the modern. For I think as long as I try to explain you the Tripartite Aggression, and you answer me with long paragraphs about the President Jackson and “muddy boots”, it is certain that we will not understand one another.

I am sorry to hear that your project, the docudrama “Making of Democracy” got dumped by the studio. But as we say, ripeness is all. And maybe for the best. Some future time, when you have learned our modern history and our language (not the hieroglyphics this time, the Arabic), maybe then you will come back to us and we can talk again about the democracy, and the politics, drink the black coffee too, and nibble on those Egyptian sweets you so much liked. And then it may be that you can make the docudrama, and it will be better than what you make the first time. But until you will learn as much about us, as we have learned about you, we will not understand one another. So let us stop talking about democracy for the time being, and let us talk about something we can both understand, and be “on the same page”, as you used to say. And this something is our Gogol story.

So as I am telling you in the text message, Sinuhe is returned to Egypt. No explanation this time, of where he has been, only when he comes back, he bows down and kisses the earth, so glad is he to be home, and he says, “Sinuhe is a Delta man.”

When Sinuhe calms down, he tells me his message for you. And he gives to me a few extra sheets of paper that belong to the Gogol story, only they aren’t the missing pages you were looking for, for the simple reason that those missing pages never existed. Sinuhe says to tell you that you were mistaken about that gap in the story, that is just the way Gogol writes: sometimes he flies us very fast from one scene to the next, as on a magic carpet, far above the earth, and in just that way the author takes us from the florist’s shop to the wedding ceremony.

The sheets of paper enclosed here are not those missing pages that never were, but something of a gift from my fsther Naguib. For during the time Sinuhe was gone, my father made a confession, and this confession he wants you to hear. And my father says, that all those years ago, after he studied English in
Australia, and came back and wrote the new translation, my father tells me to tell you, and hopes he committed no crime, but in truth he changed the end of Gogol’s story – only the last few pages – to an ending he personally preferred.

An irretrievable act of arrogance! You may be thinking. But it is not irretrievable! For now the truth comes out! All these years, it seems, my father kept hidden the copy of the first English translation, the not very good translation, handwritten in ink that is by now quite faded, on yellowed paper! And of the last two pages, the 1852 translation of the ORIGINAL ENDING, my father has made a Xerox copy, and this he is most kindly sending to you.

But he begs your forbearance regarding his decision not to send you the rest of the 1852 translation, or even a Xerox copy
of it, for the simple reason that it is not written as well as his own version.


Basma Natalia Soueif

To Be Continued

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