In this entry we’re looking at Aleksandr Chayanov’s story “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin”. It’s an odd one.
“The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” by Aleksandr Chayanov (1918)
We start in Moscow. Our protagonist is a popular architect noted for his romantic conquests. The scene’s less Russian and more French as our protagonist is both a dandy and flaneur. One night’s he’s out and about doing his best to defeat his ennui, when he gives up and decides to take a vacation in the provinces. Soon he’s infatuated with the red-headed wife of a local veterinarian and is all set to begin a new romance, when he comes upon a beautiful red-headed mannequin in a hairdresser’s shop window. He quickly purchases it and so begins his new obsession. Where did it come from? Who sculpted it? More importantly, who was the model? Etc. Etc.
And so a tangled tale is spun. The models were Siamese twins and the mannequin is but one of a set of two. The artist who sculpted them went mad and killed himself. No. No one knows where the twins are now. Mystery piles upon mystery. The architect is now in deep. By now he’s purchased both mannequins and is traveling with them all around Europe. Where are the twins? He becomes an expert in the side show-carnival-panopticon circuit. A chance encounter with another carnival aficionado provides him with the twins’ name, the Henrickson sisters. But there the trail goes cold. The twins have retired into seclusion for some reason. All hope is lost for our architect until he spies a billboard in Venice announcing the return of the Henrickson Sisters.
From there the downward spiral really kicks in. Yes, he goes to the show. Yes, he goes backstage. Yes, he succeeds in wooing one of the sisters (Berthe). And yes, she gets pregnant. All this we learn from the diary of the other sister (Kitty). Kitty also explains about the sculptor’s tragic death (he didn’t know it but he was the twins’ half-brother a fact he found out only after he too slept with Berthe). Of course, Berthe gets pregnant, and also of course she dies during childbirth. This allows Kitty to be separated from her sister, and she takes off with her newly-born niece while our protagonist abandons everyone (including the mannequins he’s been carrying around) and returns to Moscow.
Back home once more, the ennui returns. This time instead of the provinces he decides to go back to Venice. And he books the same room he stayed at before when he first saw the poster advertising the Henrickson sisters. Unfortunately all he can see are the mannequins he abandoned. They have been reunited in another hairdresser’s shop window. The sight of which promptly causes him to have a nervous breakdown. The end. Except there’s a bit of an epilogue as a fat rat back in his abandoned Moscow apartment gnaws the ribbon off a stack of love letters hidden in his desk.
As I said this story is an odd one, and if you told me Chayanov meant it as a parody of the Gothic style I’d absolutely believe you. The fat rat at the end inclines me to this idea. It’s there gnawing away at the ribbon that ties it all together. When the rat succeeds, it only unleashes an avalanche of old love letters.
Midway through I was struck by how science fictional this whole story was in an Albert Robida kind of way. I could imagine clones and robots alongside the stereo-cinematographs. Oddly the Europe depicted doesn’t appear to have just fought a terrible war. And the Russia depicted doesn’t appear to be undergoing a terrible war, so that date of 1918 might be when published instead of when composed. This story also made me look back at the Oskar Kokoschka/Alma Mahler affair. You’d think if two cultural icons had an affair that ended with one making a life-sized anatomically correct plush doll of the other it would earn a mention on one of theirs wikipedia pages. But no. Fortunately, the Paris Review has us covered. (Content warning for pictures and description of life-sized anatomically correct plush dolls and the men who buy and decapitate them.)
Next time… A mirror? A mannequin? Another excuse for me to share unsettling facts from the past? Who knows?
.. and welcome back to Yesterweird.
I did a brief post over on patreon looking at the introduction. Red Spectres is going to be a very different read than our last one. For one, it’s not in the pulp tradition. For two, I can’t think of any Weird Tales writer who ever got “disappeared” by government agents. As a patron said, Soviet Lit is “too real”. But don’t be scared. Our first story, “In the Mirror” by Valery Bryusov, isn’t quite as real as all that. With it we’re still firmly in the late 19th century weird story tradition.
Bryosuv’s one of the big figures in Russian Symbolist literature in the first decade of the 20th century. The only other thing I’ve read by him is The Fiery Angel – which I absolutely recommend if you like weird 19th century novels. (You can read my reaction to it here.) It might not be as over-the-top as The Monk, but it’s still pretty juicy. “In the Mirror” is enjoyable too and works well as our first step into the anthology.
“In the Mirror” by Valery Bryusov (1903)
A young woman with a fascination for mirrors gets drawn into a confrontation with her own reflection after she buys a cheval-glass. Is the reflection a ghost? An other worldly being? A sign of the narrator’s disordered mind? The story does have “From the archive of a psychiatrist” as its subheading. If you stuck to the surface details you could certainly find an allegory against vanity here. But that doesn’t feel nearly as interesting as the ideas of identity boiling away under the story’s surface.
“There were mirror worlds that I loved; and there were some that I hated. I loved to project myself into some for hours on end, losing myself in their enticing spaces. Others I avoided. Secretly, I did not love all my doubles. I knew that all of them were hostile towards me, if only because they were forced to don my hated appearance.”
Our narrator isn’t vain or simply self-absorbed, but she’s fascinated by the possibilities mirrors offer her. She not only loses herself in these reflected worlds, but she becomes other selves. The mirror is a psychological comfort and escape. But when she buys a new cheval-glass and looks into it, the reflection there frightens her with its visibly cruel gaze and haughtiness. Soon the contest of wills begins, and very quickly the woman realizes her reflection is the stronger of the two. She fears what she sees, but remains compelled to look anyways. Then one day, her reflection commands her to approach the mirror. The woman does and when she reaches forward to touch the glass, her reflection takes hold and swaps places with her.
From there our narration starts to outline the world beyond the cheval-glass. It’s good and creepy: a numb fluid world of slumbering souls, longing for some stable reality where they no longer serve as puppets for those who live beyond the glass. And the more the free reflection stands before the mirror insulting the trapped woman, the more conscious of her predicament the trapped woman becomes. Before too long each duel returns her more to her self and a stronger desire to break free. The reflection senses this and orders to mirror boxed up and sent away. The woman, realizing it’s now or never, commands her reflection to stand before the mirror one last time. The reflection orders the workers away, and then the final duel begins. The woman emerges from the glass and throws the reflection back in its place. Free and overwrought by her experiences, the woman promptly has a nervous breakdown and collapses on her bedroom floor.
But there are a couple paragraphs more, as the woman tells us how certain she is that she is really herself and not her reflection. She is sure. Really, she is. But she wants to be absolutely sure – so she wants to look in the cheval-glass once more. One last time, to be absolutely, one hundred percent, completely, pneumatically sure. Let her look in the glass one last time and after that she’ll be cured.
Like I said it’s a good story. It delivers the weird without feeling like an over-wrought ad for a particularly salacious brand of soap. No offense to Everill Worrell and Greye La Spina, but the pulps aren’t far from that.
Next story brings us mannequins.
(Artwork by Berthe Morisot)