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?