The Man (Memories from my student life)

To Atrushan[1]

“There is a supreme and voluptuous pleasure in terror,” my friend was telling me while showing a beautiful piece of writing by Atrushan in Masis.[2] “It’s as if all the senses of a person suddenly awaken, and I don’t know what that indefinable thing is in that alarming and heady sensation that often lasts a minute, but the memory of which always remains quivering in one’s soul.”

We argued for some time. The most intense feeling–terror–can be attractive, heady…yes, I could agree with this. But I could not tolerate any nuance of pleasure in it, and to explain what I was saying, I told my friend about an incident that had happened to me, an incident that haunts me the most from my memories as a student.

It was at the beginning of my second year in Paris. At the time I lived on Boulevard Arago, on the sixth floor, in a small room that overlooked the courtyard–a small square space as deep as a well–so deep that I couldn’t see the ground from my floor. The small windows overlooking the courtyard emitted nauseating odors of badly prepared food twice a day that lingered in the air at all times. I could only see a square sky above and even that would often be covered with the black and noxious smoke of nearby factories or with despairing and humid fog. Whenever I would see a blue sky (an exceptional occurrence), my soul would fill with such childish joy that it seemed as if a blue, radiant sky was more than enough to make one perfectly happy.

Sometimes, from the depths of the courtyard, through the four walls plastered with tallow and other suspicious fatty substances, the voice of a wandering singer would spiral up, and so I would leave my study and daydream by the window . . . I would daydream . . . Should a barrel organ player bring his smothered and sobbing music there, my soul would be inexplicably permeated with a unique kind of sadness, and I would have a sentimental urge to cry in my sunless and melancholy room.

I had afflictions of despair and bitterness and I was all by myself–completely–to bear them all and to ruminate upon my worries in that cold and sad room by the window of which, at night, I would think I was on the edge of a huge and dark chasm. The first five floors of the dormitory in which I lived were occupied by families of workers, but the small rooms of the sixth floor were rented by foreign female students–sad blond girls who would tortuously climb up the six floors. They had melancholy and bloodless faces, and yet, vigor and resolve glowed calmly and endlessly in their eyes. We would smile at each other, sometimes even greet one another, but I had not developed friendships with any of them yet.

At night, when they would gather in each other’s rooms, I would listen nostalgically and desolately to the intonations of their foreign songs or to the frail and sentimental vibrations of the mandolin, and, believe it or not, in those hours, my whole strength, all of my firm decisions, my frenetic will to persist, all of it would melt like snow, and I would feel the coldness of disheartenment in my soul. Oh, that feeble and fragmented sound of the mandolin… It seems that its unnerving vibrations will always ring in my ears and remind me of the times when I was weak, of my despair in the wistful room on Boulevard Arago.

I was gripped by an increasing despair and bitterness then; none of my compatriots would come to knock on my door, and it would happen that for days, sometimes even for weeks, I wouldn’t utter a word in my native language. (It was then that I lost my habit of thinking in Armenian). I had a few acquaintances among the foreigners, almost all of them students who were extremely busy with examinations, especially during this incident, which I am about to recount. So I lived in utter isolation and after my study hours I would immerse myself in reading Edgar Allan Poe. I had been reading the works of Poe and Baudelaire more than anything else and they had become my bedside books.[3] Before falling asleep, I would recite unhurriedly, articulating each word, a sonnet from Les Fleurs du Mal, as if I were imbibing an inebriating drink, at long last! I am telling all this to convey more explicitly the emotional state I was in when one morning a friend, Mlle. Zavatska, entered my room extremely pale and terrified.

“Ah! You don’t know! You don’t know what a strange thing happened to me! It is impossible for me to stay in this building any longer. Impossible! I will die one night of fear and terror…”

She uttered many incoherent words like these–almost sobbing–of which I could only make out clearly: “It’s a terrifying, dreadful thing.”

Mlle. Zavatska was a lovely young girl, a literature student like me. I had met her at Deschanel’s classes. Blond and very delicate. Zavatska suffered from a chest disease and her days were counted. She knew this and I truly could not understand why she had come to spend the counted days of her youth in the poor student quarter of Paris, enduring life conditions full of deprivation and suffering, the deeply hidden bittersweet pleasure of which must have been completely remote to her faint-hearted, daydreaming, and delicate soul.

Thus, Zavatska began her story: “The other day, past midnight, there was a knock at my door. I woke up startled and shouted: ‘Who’s there?’ No answer. I must have heard it in my dream obviously and I am confusing it with reality, I told myself. Besides, who could it be at this hour…? I stayed awake for some time and listened attentively to make sure. There were no sounds. I went back to sleep. Some time passed before I woke up again, startled. It was the door again! I listened, this time with a palpitating heart: the bells of the Broca hospital across from us tolled three times; it was three o’clock![4] Cold sweat covered my forehead, I was filled with a sensation of imminent calamity or danger… But I pondered again, ‘There’s nobody there, I must be imagining things’ and I was about to convince myself…when I heard three strong pounds on my door. Everything around me was so quiet that it seemed to me as if the city had been evacuated, and my heart throbbed so violently that I thought for a minute that I had heard the poundings of my heart a moment ago… But, no! There was no room for confusion; the three knocks pounded harder on my door, as I simultaneously heard human breathing–a raspy, indistinct, spiteful breathing… What should I do? My room was in thick darkness, but my wide-open eyes were gradually able to discern the outline of the furniture…and all this time I felt that there was someone behind my door. I remained like that for quite some time in anxiety and terror, then the breathing became distant, and I heard muted footsteps as if someone was walking cautiously wearing only socks. I couldn’t sleep until the morning, and when the day broke…”

“Come on, Zavatska,” I said, interrupting her. “You have had a childish fear, it must have been a flighty neighbor who had seen you and, thinking you were some random worker, wanted to try once to…”

“I thought the exact same thing when it was light again and when I heard that everyone in the building was awake. I saw that there was nothing tangible when I started thinking about what had happened at night, that it could have just been a feat of imagination and that it was even ridiculous to tell others about something this abstract. But fear had nested in my heart, and the following night I had difficulty falling asleep.

“Broca hospital was tolling midnight when I woke up and all my senses were in such a state of excitement (I am sure without any reason) that it was as if I were hearing jumbled sounds and seeing luminous, fleeting shapes. And suddenly–the same muted and limp footsteps coming from I don’t know where, approaching my room… Yes… It was the exact same sound, no doubt, the same breathing–indistinct, spiteful… It was as if I were left hanging over a pit; a strange sensation, one that we often feel in a dream. It was turning me to naught. I lost the feeling of time as well as the instinct of self-defense, until the clear sound of knocking startled me.

“‘Who is it?’ I shouted unconsciously.

“‘Mademoiselle,’ stuttered a voice from behind the door, ‘Can you give me a few matches? I implore you; I am totally in the dark.’

“‘I don’t have any,’ I said suddenly with a stern voice.

“‘Mademoiselle, I am your neighbor. Please give me if you have any, because I forgot to buy them and…’

“Ah…! The sound of my door lock that the person tried in vain to rotate; I had bolted it…but that scoundrel, that criminal (who knows what he was?) could ultimately somehow unfasten the bolt! I turned as cold as a corpse in my bed; my limbs tensed and became paralyzed. I wanted to get up, get dressed, open the window and shout for help, but I couldn’t do anything; all these urges flowed through my head, escaping from my mind without having any effect on my willpower.

“And I stayed like this I don’t know for how long and during that time there were repeated attempts to unlock the door, until finally the raspy breathing went away and the footsteps faded in the distance in a nearby courtyard.

“In the morning, as soon as daylight broke, I went down to the concierge and complained.

“‘All of your neighbors are decent people. Such a thing could not have happened,’ he told me. I recounted in detail what had happened, the absolute truth… But the man obstinately shook his head…

“‘It’s impossible, Mademoiselle, no one could have come to bother you.’

“‘But…’

“His wife joined him at that point; it was necessary to tell the story again, and then they started to laugh, as if I were telling something amusing.

“‘What a strange girl… Your hearing must have played a trick on you; who, in this building, would want to come and ask you for matches at three o’clock at night?’ Аnd they enumerated my neighbors one by one–all honest people, according to them. I didn’t know any of them.

“‘All right,’ I said to myself when I left the building and found myself in the open air, ‘It could be that I am sick, subject to strange nervous ailments; but, dear God, everything was so clear…’ I wanted to see the doctor who is treating me, but couldn’t find him. Last night I entered my room reluctantly, but luckily Mlle. S. came by and we stayed together until midnight; I didn’t tell her anything, but after she left, I fastened the bolt and made sure it was done firmly, then I drank a lot of rum to sleep as deeply as possible, and I fell asleep as soon as I lay down.

“Again…! Ah! There was no room for doubt; someone was at my door, because I could see very clearly a line of light along the edge of the door; the crack was getting wider. The man was attempting to unlock the door; it was not a dream, it was really happening, I could hear the low and mindful noise the tools made, especially the scraping sound of the rasp–a delicate and continuous sound…and then!” Zavatska’s face blanched completely, “The door opened, there was no light anymore, but the damp air rushed in like a draft and the breathing, the hoarse panting of a wild beast approached my bed cautiously and silently.

“In the morning, I found myself stretched out on the floor… I had been unconscious for hours, my entire body hurt and my limbs were stiff like the limbs of a corpse… As soon as I recalled what had happened, I stood up in terror and I don’t know how I got dressed, alarmed, throwing around my clothes, my bed sheets…

“My door was closed as usual, the bolt was fastened. I don’t know how it is possible! I came straight to you. Now you understand, I can’t spend the night there, it’s impossible. Impossible!”

Extremely shaken, Zavatska started crying like a child.

I stood lost in thought for a moment. There was such genuine horror in her entire being, that I could easily believe the poor girl’s words, but one detail prompted me to doubt her story.

“Was everything in order in the room in the morning? Was anything messed up, the shelves and so on?”

“Nothing, everything was in its place except for me; I found myself on the floor along with my bed sheets.”

“And you say that the dead bolt was locked from the inside.”

“Yes. I checked it even before trying to open the door and was very surprised.”

“You know, Zavatska,” I said holding her now frozen hands, “It seems to me that you had a hallucination, which must have repeated a few nights in a row…”[5]

“Oh no! No! You shouldn’t talk to me like the concierge… You should have understood me…”

“All right! Do you want me to come over tonight and stay with you?”

After hesitating a little, Zavatska accepted my proposal.

It wasn’t my courage that I was relying on, naturally, but I was convinced that what Zavatska had experienced were anxiety attacks. Besides, fear had not yet stepped into my soul until then, and I hadn’t had an occasion to be subjected to its truly invading, annihilating affect–terror.

But, nevertheless, I thought about what had happened to Zavatska and the question “What if it were true?” pricked me repeatedly like a venomous sting.

We dined together in the evening and after taking a stroll returned to her room. When the water for tea started hissing on the alcohol stove, we seemed to have forgotten everything and were telling each other stories from our birthplaces–sweet and fragrant memories; mine lustrous and gilded with sun rays, hers mellifluous and soft like a melody. Despite the distance between our countries and our foreignness to each other, we felt very close to each other in those moments, as close as sisters. There was so much mutual affection in our words and our gestures.

Poor Zavatska, do you sometimes remember that night, or has the doctor’s prediction come true and nothing remains of your blond, delicate head, of your limpid and pure eyes…?

When it was time to go to bed, we had completely forgotten the nightmare that Zavatska called “the Man” with a particular enunciation. We even started to joke about it:

“We are going to get into bed now and wait for the Man.”

“He must have seen you and won’t come tonight, you’ll see…”

“Well thank you for the compliment, Zavatska! Am I such a frightening scarecrow that I have scared the Мan away?”

“Oh no, that’s not what I meant at all, my dear!”

Then Zavatska made me drink–almost forcibly–half a flask of rum so that I would fall asleep, and drank the rest herself.

“I am so drunk,” I told her, “that I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘men’ appeared to me. You should also beware of the same thing.”

I was telling the truth: the room was filled with cigar smoke, and when I was nearly forced to gulp down half a flask of rum, I thought that everything around me was spinning in a dance of lights.

I lay down on a couch facing Zavatska’s bed and we were still chatting after turning out the lights. And because I was trying to warn Zavatska against stimulating drinks, she was trying to convince me:

“Don’t you see, rum is a harmless drink and an aid for destitute students! It’s true, I wouldn’t have been able to hold on for so long if it weren’t for rum…”

Then a deep and heavy slumber closed my eyelids…

Suddenly, I woke up and sat up on the couch…

“What is it?” I was about to say, when I felt my tongue getting heavy in my mouth and I noiselessly fell back on my pillow. Zavatska was peacefully sleeping. “Why did I wake?” I thought to myself. The room was in thick darkness, and I was trying to peer all around me with wide-open eyes in vain like a blind person when I noticed a long line of light, at first flickering, then steady, in the direction of the door, and I heard the grating of a rasp on steel–subtle, though persistent…

All of a sudden the thought that what Zavatska had told me could be true filled me with such unparalleled anxiety, that I thought I would vanish into thin air from an extremely high temperature, and this feeling was immediately followed by a cold and shiver-inducing sweat along my spine.

Indeed, the city was quiet, as if it were deserted; only the rumbling of a carriage spitefully echoed in the distance. And at our door, the Man–this time real and dreadful–was grating his rasp on the steеl. Zavatska was still sleeping reassured by my presence and I did not dare make a move to wake her up and have her take part in my terror that was gradually growing and stupefying me.

Slowly, the door started to creak–yes, distinctly–as the breathing of the Man, thick and hoarse, became audibly synchronous to the metal sounds.

Then the grating stopped. I fixed my widening eyes on the door: the light flickered, then went out. And then… Ah! Is it ever possible to express the supreme horror that seemed to freeze my blood? The door opened and in the darkness of the room stood an even blacker silhouette that was advancing. A damp and cold draft entered the half-open door and froze the sweat on my forehead. Like an inert corpse, I stared at the black silhouette, as it noiselessly moved forward like an indistinct and shapeless heap that had nothing human at all, except for a catarrhous and awful breathing, whose tepidness I even seemed to feel on my frozen face.

It was something like a death–throe, because I felt that I was about to die of terror, and if it weren’t for my heartbeats–so strong that they almost reverberated in my terrified being–I would have believed that everything was already over, finished!

The Man was advancing, and as the minutes passed by, an even more severe anguish kept widening my eyes until I thought that my eyes were flashing from the unconditional desire to see and that the Man could probably see the light reflecting from my eyes. That’s when I closed them, and under my lukewarm eyelids I felt that my pupils too had frozen… How many minutes, how many hours did all this last? I don’t remember. But when I opened my eyes, the dull and sad dawn was casting its foggy gloominess upon the objects and the Man was not in the room. Zavatska was still sleeping. A little later, footsteps on the stairway reassured me completely, I tried to get up but couldn’t and, exhausted, I put my weary head on the pillow.

When Zavatska woke up, she tried to make a joke:

“Didn’t I tell you that tonight the Man…?”

But turning toward me she suddenly got up and asked anxiously:

“What is it? What’s wrong? Why are you so pale? Tell me!”

I saw myself in the mirror–white as a ghost; my teeth were chattering, and there were wide dark circles under my eyes . . .

“Zavatska, you should not stay in this building. What you said was true!”

After this incident, Zavatska had to spend months in the hospital; she was suffering from anxiety attacks and frequent hallucinations. The Man had appeared many times during her anxiety attacks. I myself ailed for a long time too and, to tell the truth, I still do not know whether the Man was real or whether I had fallen under the spell of Zavatska’s nightmares.


[1] Atrushan is the pen name of the writer, editor, and literary critic Father Simon Yeremian (1895-1936), who was a member of the Mechitarists, the Armenian Catholic congregation of St. Lazarus in Venice.

[2] An Armenian literary magazine published in Constantinople between 1852-1908.

[3] In her book A History of Armenian Women Writing: 1880-1922, Victoria Rowe indicates that Yesayan read Poe in French in Baudelaire’s translation.

[4] Hôpital Broca, a hospital in the 13ème arrondissement of Paris.

[5] Yesayan uses the French term illusion in the original.

Bios

Zabel Yesayan

Ottoman Armenian novelist Zabel Yesayan was born in 1878 in Constantinople. She is best known for her psychological analysis of character and remarkable insight into the state of foreignness. She lived in Paris during the period of 1895-1902, studying literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Returning to Constantinople and refusing the profession of teaching, the only career path for literary women, she began publishing essays on French literature, women’s issues, and culture. In 1909, Yesayan was commissioned to investigate the aftermath of the massacres of Cilicia, which became material for her chilling first-person account Among the Ruins (1911). During World War I, Yesayan was listed as one of the Armenian intellectuals to be arrested in April 1915; she escaped the arrest and hid several months in Constantinople before eventually fleeing to Bulgaria. In exile, Yesayan served as a spokesperson for the Armenian refugees and orphans, traveling through the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt, and helping set up orphanages. She wrote and published numerous articles on the plight of the Armenian people and the survivors of the Genocide, among them “The Agony of a People” (1917) and “Le Rôle de la femme arménienne pendant la guerre” (1922).

After her husband’s death, Yesayan settled in Paris in 1922 with her mother and two children, where she lectured and continued to write. In 1933, at the invitation of the Soviet Armenian government, Yesayan repatriated to Armenia with her children. She read lectures on French and Armenian literature as well as the history of Western European literature at Yerevan State University, and wrote several new books including her memorable autobiography Gardens of Silihtar (1935). Marked as an anti-revolutionary and a nationalist, Yesayan was heavily criticized and hounded by the Stalinists. During the height of the Great Terror involving the show trials of 1936-37, Yesayan was arrested and deported to Siberia along with other Armenian writers. According to the official death certificate, Yesayan died in 1937, the year of her arrest, but her daughter, Sophie Yesayan, recorded that her mother’s death occurred sometime between 1942 and 1943. In her appeal to the Soviet government, Sophie Yesayan wrote: “I would have liked to bury [my mother] at the National Pantheon, in her beloved homeland, among her people. That would have been her most desired final home, ‘at the foot of Mount Ararat’ as she liked to say.”

Shushan Avagyan and Chaghig Chahinian

Shushan Avagyan is the translator of Viktor Shklovsky's Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, and A Hunt for Optimism (Dalkey Archive), and I Want to Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian (AIWA). She currently teaches at the American University of Armenia. .................................................................................................................................... Chaghig Chahinian was born and raised in the cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope of Beirut, Lebanon. She moved to Armenia in 1991. Her first attempts in translation were a natural consequence of her knowing Western languages in a former Soviet republic. She has focused mostly on the translation of texts relating to Armenian classical music.

English translation copyright (c) Shushan Avagyan and Chaghig Chahinian, 2013.