At the head of the column rode a man whom Kesha recognized faintly from the papers — a tall man, fresh-faced and gaunt at once. Whether he had grown his beard to hide his youth or his gauntness, Kesha couldn’t have said, but the soft under-hairs hadn’t yet grown in to fill it out, and so it lay sparse and frazzled over his smooth cheeks. He sat very straight on his horse, with a posture particular to Prussian officers in well-boned supportive gear.
This was Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the second-youngest son of the Tsar.
Drakon is a book with many antagonists, but only two true villains, and one of them is very hard to spot.
In his landlady’s sitting room, a pair of Polish cartographers were having a quiet, earnest argument on the ornate French sofa. They’d kept most of the lamps burning, so he left them to their latitudes and curled up on the ceramic stove to delve into the Yekaterinburg translation.
My friends, this is a post that starts out depressing and becomes snuggly and cheerful.
Close to ten years ago, I read Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which depicts the lives and deaths of the impoverished residents of an overcrowded shelter. This play is a brutal indictment of Gorky’s Russia, of the state’s empty promises and the ugly little wars waged between and within social classes; it’s not hard at all to see the seeds of revolution in it. Perhaps because The Lower Depths is a play rather than a novel, the characters struck me more keenly than Dickens’s or even Dostoevsky’s — Gorky’s characters have a visceral immediacy to them, an urgency that comes through even in translation. I came away from my first reading with the feeling of having transgressed on real people’s lives — as though I’d been a kind of voyeur, watching poverty porn through a peephole.
Long after I’d finished, one image in particular haunted me. The Actor, the stage directions note, is privileged to be allowed to sleep on top of the stove. In my American ignorance, I was horrified — I pictured him perched atop a little potbellied stove, curled up like a cat, so grateful for the warmth that he ignored the way his big limbs spilled over in all directions. How much must they be suffering, I wondered, if that’s supposed to be a privilege?
Years later, buried under an Upstate New York snowstorm, I remembered the Actor and his stove. By that point in the winter, I was spending most of my evenings draped over the bare ribs of my radiator, and the whole stove thing no longer sounded so far-fetched. Thus, I set out to learn more about why Russians slept on stoves.
“What do you say to that, Tarasov? The dragons have a language—they even write poetry, whether or not it’s any good.”
“Are you sure it isn’t a hoax? A kind of … scholarly prank, devised by bored young men who know too much Greek and too little of the world?”
In these inspiration posts, I want to talk about events from history or cultural artifacts that inspired a few lines of Drakon. Hardly any spoilers here; only a little background.
Only a few days before I started writing Drakon, one of my professors introduced me to the greatest literary hoax of the eighteenth century: James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language. These fragments were the precursor to Macpherson’s much better-known anthology The Works of Ossian, which was what got him into real trouble.