The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin: The Passage of Time

He opened a book he had borrowed from Posulov and stared with distrust at the even lines of print:

“They all promised to cling to one another, to help one another at all times, to rescue one another from danger, to sacrifice their lives for one another if necessary and to avenge the death of any of their number.”

Kozhemyakin drew the lamp nearer without taking his eyes off the book.

“So sacred was this vow that a father would take vengeance on his own son to fulfil the demands of the blood-contract made with the brotherhood.”

He closed the book for a second, then re-opened it cautiously at the first page, put his elbows on the table and began to read. He read as long as his eyes could see, and when at last he raised his head he discovered that the room was light and the trees in the orchard had thrown off the heavy robes of night.

Surprised, he got up and walked about the room, smiling to himself and shaking his weary head.

So that’s what books are for, he thought. So that you don’t notice the passage of time.

Snatches of what he had read floated through his mind like clouds, changing colour and shape, merging, separating, vanishing. He made no effort to hold on to them, so astonished was he by the magic force that could make him forget himself so utterly.

A little later he undressed, lay down and feel fast asleep.

Next morning, as he was washing himself in the kitchen, he said to Shakir:

“Tell anyone who asks for me that I’m not at home.”

“Even Nikon?”

Kozhemyakin considered.

“Yes, even Nikon. Anyone at all. I shall be very busy.”

After breakfast he seated himself by the window and opened the book again.

Reading came to be essential to him It was as if he had been going down a long pathway through open fields and had been stared at from all sides by hostile eyes which seemed to be demanding something of him; he longed to hide from them but there was nowhere to hide; and now he had found a sequestered niche from which he could not get so much as a glimpse of the irritating life around him, a niche in which he could live without noticing the dull monotonous passage of time. He read slowly, going again and again over the lines that pleased him most, and whenever he approached the end of a book he would anxiously finger the diminishing pages that remained….

“…I want some more history,” he said to Posulov.

“There is no more history.”

“What do you mean?” asked the startled and incredulous Kozhemyakin.

“I haven’t got any more books on history.”

“Then get some. When you go to Vorgorod for goods I’ll give you some money to buy books. Serious ones. Ask somebody what to buy.”

So accustomed had he become to reading that he could not get through the day without it, and if he had no new book he would re-read old ones. Amazed by the strength of his passion he said to himself:

Fancy that! I used to look down on people who had a passion for cards and other things, but look at me now….

When Posulov returned and brought him a big box of new books he was overjoyed. He instantly cut the pages of all of them and arranged them in two high stacks on the floor beside his desk; from them he selected Solovyov’s History, put it on his desk, opened it at the first page and walked up and down in front of it for some time, postponing the pleasure of beginning.

Soon he was again reading all day long; reading until his eyes ached, jealously guarding his solitude, going nowhere, taking no interest in anything, hardly bothering to glance at the hands of the clock that noted the passage of time on the yellow fly-spotted face.

—Maxim Gorky, The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin

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2 comments on “The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin: The Passage of Time

  1. Stefanie says:

    “So accustomed had he become to reading that he could not get through the day without it”

    Yup, that pretty much says it all right there. But the rest of the passage is great too 🙂

  2. Stefanie, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Poor Matvei did not discover the joy of book until late in life, but better late than never!

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