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“Worlds” by Vladimir Zarev – Excerpt I

January 30, 2012 by · 3 comments

Vladimir Zarev. Worlds. Sofia: Five Plus, 2006

Translated by Zlatko Anguelov and Elizabeth Frank

Photo: NJ..

[Diana is the main female character in the novel. She was at one time married to Ventzi, an actor with a prestigious theatrical company in Sofia, and they have a daughter. Diana and Ventzi are divorced, but during rough times with their daughter, she gets in touch with him.

In the excerpt below, Diana remembers their first date as she waits for him in a bar after one of his performances. (pp 161-168 of the original edition)]

She had met Ventzi at the National Drama School’s annual ball. The Drama School would throw these signature balls around Christmas. Grads from the Academy of Arts had decorated the lobby, the hallways, and the big stage, trying to ridicule in their own ways both the authorities and the stuffy tone of pretended decency.

The place was full of college kids from all the faculties, of devil-may-carelessness, of young writers and rising t. v. stars; it also was full of plainclothes cops, recognizable by their short haircuts and neckties and by that tight look such types have who consider themselves more knowing than others, bearers of some deep secret and, therefore, by their omnipresence, guardians of the State.

Music blared, couples rock-and-rolled, twisting all over the place and filling up every last square meter. Everybody else tried to walk, ran into each other, exchanged smiles and nonsense, carrying cardboard cups of draft rakiya, bitter wine, or tart port; they were simply present, but in their presence there was so much intoxication and such a feeling of freedom that everyone felt as if they were dependent on everyone else, connected, like relatives gathered for a family holiday.

Ventzi played a part in some grotesque sketch, and while she couldn’t remember the plot, she recalled that the words uttered from the stage, viewed in that public limelight, had struck her as fiercely valiant. She was struck as well by his smooth confidence, naturalness, pale pointed face, and ability to draw out others that only later did she realize that he had been drunk. It had been an awfully long time ago, perhaps toward the end of 1971.

Without asking for it, without even wishing it, she later happened to be seated across from Ventzi at a table just in front of the women’s restrooms; in the commotion, someone had introduced them to one another. Now she managed to observe him up close.

Tall and athletic, though not bulked-out, but agile rather, and constantly changing. He had long, striking blond hair, lips and brows that looked penciled, but a lean face, with an absorbed expression, his eyes gray-blue like still water she might have seen if she’d leaned over a well, and they exuded malaise, “the sadness of Jesus Christ,” she then said to herself. He appeared to her handsome and, who knows why, betrayed.

[…] He talked to her a good deal, empty talk, but maybe it was exciting, because he addressed her with exclusivity. For the first time in her life, she felt not only courted, but unique and distinguished; in his magnetic way he somehow pulled her out of the common excitement and uproar, out of the leering male glances and the jealous looks of her girlfriends.

He had populated her with himself, fenced her off with himself: as if there were no one but the two of them. And she felt moved by that. This enticing but excessive loyalty was just an accessory to his learned-by-heart aptitude; he was so demonstratively obsessed with it that he gave the false impression of flirting with all the girls at the table.

“Oh well, an actor! A full-blown player,” Diana thought soberly. […]
Then they danced a sluggish blues in the coziest and duskiest hallway. He had grabbed her by the waist: no hurry, no impertinence, a bottle of grozdova rakiya “Academician Nedeltchev” behind her back as an ultimate icon of manhood: the cheapest brandy ever for just one leva and eighty stotinki. Taking sips. “Like life in a magazine …,” he told her, after which his silence was selfless and endearing, like a whisper.

Diana and Ventzi left the party at one in the morning. The street was deserted and the traffic lights on Rakovski Avenue blinked drowsily. She knew that her father was smoking anxiously in the kitchen and would wait up for her, if need be, till dawn, immersed in the sad pleasure of someone persuaded that all in the world are guilty.

Furious because of her running around so late and clad in his striped pajamas, he was most likely pacing back and forth between the “Frost” fridge and his own dauntlessness, between the oven “Rahovetz” and his need to punish her or someone.

She had a moment of indecision, but then surrendered to the melancholy in Ventzi’s eyes, to that adoration with which he had forced her away from the others and made her feel like a goddess.

An outsider to the capital—he had grown up in Pleven, a town right in the middle of Bulgaria—Ventzi carried her off to his little attic, which he rented on Count Ignatieff Avenue, just across from the statue of the Patriarch. He showed her up the staircase, breathed heavily while unlocking the cardboard door, didn’t say anything to her in the dark, didn’t even turn on the naked lightbulb, but simply took her clothes off expertly and ravenously, like someone peeling a banana.

She kept silent—absorbing the faint odor of cooling-off roof-tiles and urine—the smarting pain in her loins, she focused on his eyes, which were changing, now viciously bluish, now spilled gray, an entire bottle of grozdova in his blood slowing him down.

“Like life in a magazine,” he whispered in her ear, but her vagina was bleeding, and in the early morning light, this indelible symptom of her newly achieved freedom blended with the colors of the sunrise.

“So you were still, you know, a vir…? Gee, if only I’d known …” a sobered-up Ventzi said, pulling off the sheet, and throwing it in the corner, his eyes seeming to become both reasonable and contentious. Without compassion, he’d consigned her with all the others, as if it weren’t he, after all, but she, who had deceived him.

Her left arm was all pins and needles from the uncomfortable bed. An early streetcar shook the building; a pigeon was perched on the sill of the garret-window, which had been left ajar. Diana went to the pantry-turned-bathroom, scrubbed her body, and felt no regret under the shower, her lacerated innocence flushing into the rusty drain. When she came back to the room, Ventzi was asleep, half-uncovered, looking like a butcher. She bent down and kissed him.

He called her a week later, pretended to be melancholy, and then turned on his groping wit. “Like life in a magazine,” he said. Diana gave in right away and went to see him, hand-scrubbed the sheets piled up under the poky roof, washed the windows, fed the pigeons, and waited until he half-emptied the bottle of “Academician Nedeltchev.”

This time the pleasure knocked her out; she gave herself, forgetting reason and propriety. Ventzi made her a gift: a little mother-of-pearl cross. He claimed that he had inherited it from his grandma; his grandpa had been a pilgrim to God’s Tomb and brought it from Jerusalem.

They saw each other infrequently; he was the one who called from payphones since she was the one with a landline. At the end of the summer, he invited her to his premiere at the Drama School, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.

Ventzi played Lord Goring; in fact, he played it so that she forgot everything about him. He was so different, and so changed into someone other than himself that she couldn’t recognize him. After the performance, he told her that he had played for her only, but she clearly recalled how the hushed breath of the audience, followed by thunderous applause, had separated him from her. Ventzi just couldn’t belong to someone; he belonged to everyone. She knew she ought to think about it, but she didn’t.

A month later her period was worrisomely late and, following Sonya’s advice, she bought a pregnancy test from the pharmacy. It turned out to be positive. She had already gotten the money for an abortion and had set up an appointment with her friend’s gynecologist—“no need to worry, darling, it’s like pulling a tooth,” Sonya had said—when she decided to share the news with Ventzi, she thought shame and guilt might cause a temporary breakup, but death, a premeditated, innocent death, could separate them forever.

He staggered and started to whine. He was in his socks and boxers only, and in his helplessness looked ridiculous; someone had encroached on his freedom, and, consequently, on his ownership of himself, on what was different about him. The expression on his face kept shifting, as if he were constantly trying on different clothes.

He stared at her nudity as if it were a thing apart from her body, as if he were searching in his mind for some character in a drama he had memorized who could match him and shelter him, and, most important, get him to act himself out of this situation, to find a substitute for himself; but Diana believed that he was playing only himself.

“I can’t, I’m not ready. On the other hand, how can I lose all this?” he said, caressing her erect tits, then the goose-fleshy curliness under her belly button. “Even if you aren’t a goddess, you’re an attempt at a goddess, a part of the perfection.” His parochial pomposity was disturbing and annoying to her.

“You have to decide by tomorrow morning. At 9:30 I’m going to …”

Evidently for him the easiest role to act was that of a man betrayed and sacrificed. His proposal almost failed to cheer her up, since it felt somehow trite and stupid.

“Whaddya know, baby. I meet a virgin for the first time, and for the very first time I knock someone up.” Only this time he didn’t pull her out of the others, he didn’t distinguish her and fence her off with himself; he just searched for a justification for his unexpected decision, for the impossibility of acting the scene in some other way that would be more secure and beneficial to himself.

In the evening, he showed up at her home with a huge bunch of white roses, bought with money she had given him, and asked for her hand. Her parents were shocked: her mother immediately liked Ventzi and submitted to him with devotion, loved him at once with her entire devastating selflessness (“An actor! Oh my God, my little Diana, when did you grow up? … but he is theater itself!”), while her father kept irritatingly silent, chain-smoked his second-rate cigarettes, and couldn’t hide his scorn toward Ventzi, couldn’t hide his firm belief that this handsome peacock who had turned his daughter’s head must be guilty of something.

They got married. On the wedding day, Ventzi showed up about an hour or so late. He looked emotional and rather confused, but this was because he was sober. Diana stepped on his foot during the ceremony; from his friends’ and colleagues’ eyes he got the point that Diana was memorably gorgeous. She felt happy. “Was I really happy?” she later asked herself without pity.


[Samuel is the main male character in the novel. In the following scene, he is shown in bed with his wife, shortly before she leaves him for good. (pp 9-15 of the original edition)]

The closet mirror reflected her back, the shape of a perfect violin that glistened with sweat, as if the instrument, which his fingers clutched convulsively, were soaking up its own silence. Then the quenching ups-and-downs of her bottom, pacing the rhythm of their shared oblivion.

He felt her belly like the foreboding of twilight and the beginning of night, yet outside the day was just about to break. In this instance of madness he wished she were another kind of woman.

Once in a bar on the next block, he had glimpsed a prostitute with spilling breasts and ample cleavage, smeared make-up, and white socks. She drank Coke and stared though the window at the rain.

Just minutes ago she had been made love to, her insides were still overpopulated with somebody, but she looked lonely. She had come in to warm up, to rest, and to get away from herself for a moment. She didn’t look sad, abandoned rather, a dreamy, inscrutable smile crawling along her lips; she reminded him of a violin encased in its self-sufficiency, cast aside, yet still sounding.

He stared at her hypnotized, unable to unglue his eyes from her lurking impropriety. Aware of his nailed stare, she turned, grinned, opened her white teeth, and jerked her legs open as if biting him. It struck him that under the lassitude of her wilted laces she might be naked. He couldn’t spot anything; hence, he saw everything.

He was twelve and she was a colored. She stuck out her tongue, and he blushed. Giddy, crushed by his sudden hard-on, he rushed into the house, and, ignoring his mother’s wail that the hamantashen had failed to rise, locked himself in the bathroom. To jerk off. “A Jewish boy and a brown-skinned girl,” he thought then, stunned that he had been trying to imagine God since the age of five.

To find the right word for Him, for His desert-like omnipotence yet helplessness in the real world. To have a glimpse of His exhilarating image in the reverberating emptiness of the synagogue, that inscrutable oneness of simultaneously unimaginable greatness and utter impotence. His own hope … The sanctity in himself. He pulled the handle to flush the toilet, and the water tempered his vision of the Almighty with the mocking eyes of the girl.

For five long months he saved every penny; he kept the piggybank under the mattress, away from his brothers. When at last the pennies made up the cherished twenty dollars and he consolidated them in the pharmacy, and when, squeezing the creased banknote with President Jackson’s face on it, he went to search for the brown-skinned prostitute—to compare her with God—she was no longer at the corner of the movie theater on the next block. He burst into tears. At his powerlessness before her endearing impudence. Out of shame—shame like the blow of a fist right in his face.

Doris’s hair fell around and obstructed her reflection in the mirror of this unnerving Munich hotel. He was gripped by the sucking-in sensation that she wasn’t with him; it was like pain, like the pleasure in his tense groin.

Finally, he heard her breathing as it rose in frequency and frenzy, and his worries dissipated. Now she was the same, like her true self. Habitually, at the moment of mounting excitement, she would start talking. Clear, brief, and business-like, as though she were cutting a deal in a Wall Street office.

“So?” her voice scratched the air between them.
“No,” he said.
“This isn’t an answer … at least, it isn’t the answer I’m expecting, darling.”
“No,” he said again.

She threw her hair back and made herself comfortable on top of him, but did so using the curve and fierceness of her thighs. Her back didn’t budge.

Two months after their wedding, he had stumbled upon her frigidity: a frigidity so crushing and so tempered by her crotchety character, like a wall. All his life his innate potency had remained unsatisfied.

First, at Brooklyn Tech, where only boys were admitted, then at Penn State, because there he had to support himself: he had worked as a waiter in the cafeteria at lunch and in the college restaurant at night, and there had been no time for girls. Later, the drought continued in the Navy where they hung for months in the blue transparent femininity of the Mediterranean, and finally, his jobs at AT&T and on Wall Street sucked him up like a vacuum cleaner.

The girls he knew from high school and college had turned into women who changed clothes, haircuts, and habits, gave birth to kids and ruled over the boredom in their tacky households. They were other, no longer familiar creatures.

Doris … Six months after the wedding, she took her heating pad, nightgown, and cantankerous un-belongingness and moved into the next room. She fell asleep hugging a ragged little stuffed bear and sucking on her right thumb, like a child who can’t grow up.

Chronic sexual hunger sharpened his senses; like any cruelty, it cleared his mind yet rendered him irritable, and most of all it amplified his fatigue. This thumb in her mouth drove him crazy, while the recesses of her body under the covers and the piercing innocence in her sleep made him so dizzy that he retreated into the sticky whiteness of the sheets, into the desolation of the family bed. He tossed and turned in it; sometimes, to shake off the pent-up yearning, he masturbated, just like a college boy enamored of a virgin girl.

“I missed you, my dear,” Doris said edifyingly, “in truth and a lot. Not just sometimes, but all the time. Not just on the street or in the grocery store, but everywhere, which means I missed you in my thoughts and my little soul. The same way that I miss Dad. Something that’s unimaginably far away is in fact awfully close to you.”

He gathered his saliva and swallowed. It had a bitter taste.

“Something that’s not there is there. It comes over you without your having experienced or remembered it.”
“No,” he moaned.
“Don’t cut me off.” Her behind stopped for a second, erect like a question mark. “So, that magnetic feeling recurs constantly, torments me exactly because it’s inside me but it isn’t there. Do you get it? If I knew that Dad had passed away, if I was sure that he’d found peace at last and was gone forever, that would mean that I’d found him. In the same disturbing way I also feel your absence, darling. Can you imagine?”

Goosebumps crawled up his body, but the ecstasy was stronger than the horror that had befallen him. In their rare and precious instances of intimacy, so well memorized by him, Doris would sometimes change beyond recognition, as if she turned into some totally unknown woman.

She, who was shy about undressing in front of him, who blushed when hearing the word “ass” and who imagined mental disorder behind every inadvertently uttered obscenity, turned into a street whore. She made him whisper obscene words in her ear; herself spoke with delight those spicy “teasers” that, during the following six months of sexual drought, she would find gross.

This seemed to be a part of her lie, a part of her eternal misfired search, as if their life were a show and Doris an actress fully immersed in her next role. She found substitutes for herself; she slipped out just because she constantly played somebody else within herself …

And now, in this Munich hotel, he had the feeling of attending her new show: Doris treating herself to the role of woman betrayed, who, despite her un-belongingness, and despite her growing disgust with fleshly contact, was ready to lay herself down, to sleep with her man, to realize herself with her legal spouse of twenty years. It was her latest impossible state of delirium. He was just a supernumerary boy or a supporting actor or, worse, just the audience.

“No,” he groaned.
“And you know what … when we’re apart, you kind of stop being Jewish; something mysteriously liberated and Irish comes out in you. Like a smell, Samuel, like clean sweat. Don’t answer me, because I say yes, yes, yes …”

She rode on him astride, as if she were on a horse that had driven them right into the heart of combat, right into the ferocious burnish of the fight. Her behind was dancing wild, rounded, playful, like the keys of that upright piano that his brother Paul had gotten for his tenth birthday.

It was a German Blüchner with an ivory keyboard, two brass chandeliers, and chiseled front legs. To extend the pleasure, to delay the explosion, Samuel found her back with his fingers and played on it the “Cat March.”

She was really an admirable actress and simulated real passion. The fleshy sound of the contact between her belly and his belly erupted like applause. Sucked him in and squeezed him. He knew her body, its china color, its tang of sea, the taste of fresh oysters between her legs. But her womb, where time had stopped, didn’t bear his child.

Cunningly throughout those years, Doris hadn’t wanted to or couldn’t get pregnant! He used to take her by surprise either hanging over the dishes in the kitchen or bent over the vacuum cleaner on the rug in the living room or sitting on the uncomfortable edge of the bathtub, because they did it on even rarer occasions, they did it with offending rarity.

To possess her, he had to force her, even though Doris was his spouse under the law and before God. They scuffled, he tore down her underwear, she pulled his hair until he could break open her tightened legs. She was unpredictable, quite often crying while he made love to her. Her tears were without reason, just another expression of the reproach in her steadfast repulsion.

She cried and smeared her snot. He used to take her by surprise even in his own forgetfulness, when he exploded prematurely in order to stamp his slimy seal in her, then, bitterly kept her in his embrace to prevent her from washing it out.

“A child,” his mother used to say ”a wild and unmanageable child like you were, Samuel, would turn her around, would change her like a glove turned inside out.” But this dreamed-of child escaped him, delayed himself eternally; it was like bad luck in a lottery. Yes, they’d had Michael for three years, but Michael was not his son: Doris had taken him; maybe she had bought him, from a home for abandoned children in Florida.

Her strong, pleasurably softened breasts, which had nursed nobody, pressed upon his face and smothered him. He got a mouthful of one of them, wanted to play, and began sucking. Men exchange their toys, but remain children forever, especially as their fifties creep up on them.

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