Thursday, 5 January 2017

Blavatsky's translation of Leo Tolstoy's The Imp and the Crust (1889)

Here is an original translation from the Russian by Helena Blavatsky, done just three years after the original. Now known as The Imp and the Crust  (also translated as Promoting a Devil ), it is a short story by Leo Tolstoy first published in 1886. It is a cautionary tale against the dangers of alcohol. It later appeared in book form in English in 1906, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude in Twenty-Three Tales. I think Blavatsky’s version is a little grittier. Blavatsky sent Tolstoy an inscribed copy of her Voice of the Silence, which has survived, and his acknowledgement of  her correspondence is on record as well; he even used some passages for his Calendar of Wisdom / Pathway of Life (1912/1919 in English). She also translated Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor from the Brothers Karamazov in the same year it was published, the first English translation of that great work.

“The moral lesson in "The Imp and the Crust" (1886) is a natural part of the story, in which the devil finally tricks the kind peasant into drunkenness. If Tolstoy's handling of this gem of a folk tale is regarded as a plea for temperance, it is a conclusion that must be drawn by the reader, for it is never explicitly stated in the text. Tolstoy's dramatization of the story, a comedy entitled 'The First Distiller' (1886), which will be considered in a later chapter, does turn out to be an amusing piece of forthright temperance propaganda.” ( from Introduction To Tolstoy's Writings -8. Later Short Stories- Ernest J Simmons (1968))

 For this number, however, we have selected one of a less mystical but more satirical spirit; a cap calculated to fit the head of any drinking Christian nation ad libitum, and we only hope its title, translated verbatim et literatim, will not shock still more the susceptibilities of the opponents of the title of this magazine. Russia is afflicted with the demon of drink, as much as, though not more than, England or any other country; yet it is not so much the Karma of the nation, as that of their respective governments, whose Karmic burden is growing heavier and more terrible with every year. This curse and universal incubus, drink, is the direct and legitimate progeny of the Rulers; it is begotten by their greed for money, and FORCED by them on the unfortunate masses. Why, in Karma’s name, should the latter be made to suffer here, and hereafter?


A poor peasant went out early to plough; and as he was leaving home without breaking his fast, he carried along with him a loaf of bread. Once in the field he turned over his plough, adjusted the ploughtail, put the ropes under a bush, and over them his loaf of black bread, and covered the whole with his caftan. At last, the horse got tired and the moojik felt hungry. Then he stopped his plough in the furrow, unhitched his horse, and leaving it to graze, moved toward his caftan for his meal. But when he had lifted it up––lo, no loaf was to be seen.

Our moojik searched for it here, and he searched for it there he shook his garment and turned it hither and thither—no loaf! He felt surprised. Marvellous doings! No one around, and yet the loaf is carried away by someone. That someone, in truth, was an Imp, who, while the peasant was ploughing, had stolen his loaf and was now hiding behind a bush, preparing to note down the man’s profanity, when he would begin to swear and take the devil’s name. The peasant felt a little sore. “But, after all,” said he, “this won’t starve me; and he who carried away my bread, perchance needed it. Let him eat it then, and good luck to him.”

 So, going to the well he drank some water, rested a bit, then catching his horse, he hitched it again to the plough and returned quietly to his work. The Imp felt considerably troubled at such a failure in tempting man to sin and forthwith proceeding home to hell, he narrated to his Elder—the Chief Devil—how he had robbed the moojik of his loaf, who instead of cursing, had only said “to his good luck!” Satan felt very angry at this. “If,” he argued, “the moojik had the best of thee, in this business, then it must be thine own fault; thou didst not know how to bring the thing about. It would be a bad job for us,” he added, “if the peasants, and after them their women, were to take such tricks: no life would become possible for us after this, and such an event cannot be left disregarded. “Go,” continued Satan, “and make up for the failure of the loaf. And if at the end of three years thou shalt not have the best of that man, I will bathe thee in holy water.”

The Imp got terribly frightened at this threat, and running up to earth again, he set himself to thinking how to atone for his guilt. Thus he thought, thought still, and thought more, and went on thinking until he had found what he had to do. Assuming the appearance of a good fellow, he offered himself as a labourer to the poor peasant; and as it happened to be a drought, he advised him to sow his seed in a swamp. Hence, while the fields of all the other peasants were parched, and their harvests burnt by the sun, the crop of the poor peasant grew high and thick, full and grainy. His household had bread to their heart’s content up to the next harvest, and the surplus proved considerable. The following year, the summer being wet, the imp taught the peasant to sow his seed on the mountains. While his neighbours’ corn was blasted, fell down and got rotten, the peasant’s field on the hills brought forth the richest harvest. The moojik stored still more of the corn; and did not know what to do with it.

Then his labouring man taught him to press the corn and distill it into spirit. Having distilled plenty of it, the moojik took to drinking and making others drink thereof. One day the Imp returned to the Elder boasting that he had redeemed his loaf. The Chief went up to see for himself. Then came the Elder to the moojik, and found that having invited the richest and wealthiest of his neighbours, he was entertaining them with whiskey. There was the mistress carrying the glasses to her guests. Hardly had she begun her round when stumbling over the table, she upset the drink. Out at her flew the moojik abusing his wife to his fill.“Behold,” he cried, “the devil’s fool. Takest thou good drink for slops? Thou, heavy-handed stupid, to spill on the earth such treasure!”  Here the Imp poked the Elder in the ribs, “Observe,” said he, “and see, if he won’t grudge a loaf now.”

Having abused his wife, the moojik began offering the drink himself. Just then a poor labourer returning from work happened to drop in, unasked, and wishing a merry day to all, he took a seat. Seeing the company drinking, he too, craved to have a drop after his hard day’s work. There he sat, smacking his lips time after time, but the host would offer him nought, only keeping on grumbling: “Who can afford to furnish with whiskey all of you!”This pleased the chief Devil immensely; as to the Imp, he boasted more than ever: “You wait and see what will come next!” he whispered.

Thus drank the rich peasants, thus drank the host, pandering to each other, and flattering each other, with sweet words, making honeyed and false speeches. Listened the Elder to these, and praised the Imp for this, also. “Without all peradventure,” said he, “this drink making them turn into such foxes, they will take to cheating each other next; and at this rate they will soon fall, everyone of them, into our hands.”“Wait and see,” said the Imp, “what will come next, when each has one glass more. Now they are only like unto cunning foxes; given time, and they will get transformed into ferocious wolves.”

The peasants had each one glass more, and forthwith their talk became louder and more brutal. Instead of honeyed speeches, they proceeded to abuse each other, and turning gradually fiercer, they ended by getting into a free fight and damaging each other’s noses badly. Then the host took also a turn and got soundly thrashed. As the Elder looked on, he felt much pleased with this too. “ ‘Tis good,” saith he, “very, very good.” “Wait and see,” said the Imp, “something still better is in store, as soon as they will have emptied their third glass. Now they are fighting like hungry wolves, at the third glass they will have become like swine.”

The peasants had their third round, and quite lost their reason. Grumbling and hiccupping, shouting at each other, and knowing not what they said, they rushed out, some alone, some in couples, and some in triplets, and scattered in the streets. The host trying to see his guests off, fell with his nose in a mud-puddle, rolled in it and unable to rise, lay there grunting like a hog . . . . This pleased the Elder Devil most of all. “Well,” saith he, “thou hast invented a fine drink, indeed, and redeemed thy loaf! Tell me,” he added, “how hast thou managed to compound it? Surely thou must have fermented it first, with the blood  of the fox; thence the craft of the drunken peasant, who becomes forthwith a fox himself. Then thou hast distilled it with wolf’s blood, which makes him as wicked as a wolf? Finally, thou hast mixed the whole with the blood of the swine; therefore has the peasant become like a hog.”

“Not so,” quoth the Imp. “I only helped him to get some extra cereals. The wild beast’s blood is ever present in man, but it remains latent and finds no issue so long as he has no more bread then he needs for his food, and then it is that he does not grudge to another his last morsel of bread. But no sooner did man get more corn than he needed, than he took to inventing things wherewith to gratify his passions. Then it was that I taught him the enjoyment—of intoxicating drink. And no sooner had he commenced to distill the gift of God into spirit, for his gratification, than his original foxish, wolfish and swinish blood arose in him. Let him now only go on drinking wine and liquor, and he will remain for ever a beast.” For which invention the Elder Devil freely praised his Devil’s Imp, forgave him his failure with the stolen loaf, and promoted him in Hell.

Lucifer, Vol. V, No. 27, November, 1889. pp. 195-98

see also:
(Blavatsky's review of Tolstoi's lecture transcripts)
(Blavatsky's footnotes to an essay on Tolstoi's spiritual writings)
(Blavatsky's review of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata)

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