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    AC Benus
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 23. Leo Tolstoy "The Ivins"


The Ivins


"Volodya! Volodya! The Ivins!" I shouted, catching sight from the window of three boys in blue overcoats with beaver collars. They were crossing from the opposite sidewalk to our house and being led by their young dandy of a tutor.

The Ivins were related to us, and were of about our own age; we had made their acquaintance and struck up a friendship soon after our arrival in Moscow.

The second Ivin, Serozha, was a dark-complexioned, curly-headed boy, with a determined turned-up little nose, very fresh red lips, which seldom completely covered the upper row of his white teeth, beautiful deep blue eyes, and a remarkably alert expression of countenance. He never smiled – he either looked quite serious, or laughed heartily with distinct, ringing, and very infectious laughter. His amazing beauty had struck me at first sight. I was irresistibly attracted to him. Merely to catch a glimpse of him was sufficient to make me happy. For a time, all the powers of my soul were concentrated upon this desire; when three or four days chanced to pass without my having seen him, I began to pine and feel sad to the point of tears. All my dreams, both waking and sleeping, were of him; when I lay down to sleep, I longed that I should dream of him; for when I shut my eyes, I saw him before me, and cherished the vision as my greatest bliss. I would dare entrust sharing this emotion with no one, so precious a treasure it was to me. He clearly preferred to play and talk with Volodya rather than with me, possibly because it annoyed him to feel my restless eyes constantly fixed upon him, or simply because he felt nothing for me: but nevertheless I was content; I desired nothing, demanded nothing, but was ready to sacrifice everything for him. Besides the passionate attachment he inspired within me, his presence aroused another feeling to a no less powerful degree – a fear of disappointing or offending him in any way; of displeasing him. I felt as much fear of him as devotion, perhaps because his face had a noble expression, or because – despising my own appearance – I valued the advantage of beauty too highly in others. Or, what is most probable of all, I felt this way because trepidation is as sure a sign of love as anything else. The first time Serozha spoke to me, I lost my nerve to such a degree at this unexpected joy that I turned wan, then blushed, and could make no reply. He had a bad habit – when he was lost in a deep moment of concentration – of staring at one spot, winking and twitching his nose and eyebrows continually. Everyone thought this tick spoiled his appearance; but I found it so charming I involuntarily acquired the same habit; and a few days after I had become acquainted with him, grandmamma inquired if my eyes pained me, and that explained why I was blinking like an owl. Not a word about love was ever uttered between us, but he felt his power over me, and perhaps unconsciously, exercised it tyrannically in our adolescent interactions. For, no matter how hard I wished to tell him everything in my soul, I was too much afraid of him to risk a confession. And so, I endeavored to seem indifferent, and submitted to him without a murmur. At times his influence appeared to me oppressive, intolerable; but it was not in my youthful power to try and escape.

It saddens me to think this fresh, beautiful feeling of unselfish and unbounded love had to fade away without ever being expressed or allowed to meet with a returned expression.

It is strange how, when I was a child, I strove to be like a grown-up person, and how, since I have ceased to be a child, I have often longed to be like one. How many times did this desire not to seem like a child in my intercourse with Serozha restrain the feeling which was ready to pour forth, and cause me to cloak it. Not only did I dare not kiss him – which I sometimes very much wanted to do – I did not take his hand, did not tell him how glad I was to see him, and I never dared to call him Serozha like everyone else, but kept it strictly Sergei. So it was settled between us young ones. Every display of emotion was proof of one’s immaturity, and anyone who permitted an honest expression of feeling was branded as still “a little kid.” For at that stage, without yet having gone through the bitter trials which lead adults to caution and coldness in their intercourse with each other, we deprived ourselves of the pure enjoyment of tender, childlike attachments simply through the strange compulsion to imitate the “grown-ups.”

I met the Ivins in the entrance hall, exchanged greetings with them, and then flew headlong to grandmamma. I announced that the Ivins had arrived; and, from my expression, one would have supposed that this news was intended to render her overjoyed with happiness. Then, without taking my eyes from Serozha, I followed him into the drawing-room, watching his every movement. While grandmamma told him he had grown a great deal, and fixed her penetrating eyes upon him, I experienced that sensation of terror and hope which a painter must experience when he is awaiting the verdict upon his work from a respected judge.

Herr Frost, the Ivins' young tutor, with grandmamma's permission, went into the little garden with us, seated himself on a green bench, crossed his legs colorfully with his bronze-handled walking stick between them, and lit his cigar with the air of a man who is very well satisfied with his own demeanor.

Herr Frost was a German, but a German of a very different stamp from our good Karl Ivanitch. In the first place, he spoke Russian correctly, he spoke French with a bad accent, and generally enjoyed – especially among the ladies – the reputation of being a very learned man; in the second place, he wore a reddish mustache, a big ruby pin in his black satin cravat – the ends of which were tucked under his suspenders – and light blue trousers with spring bottoms and straps; in the third place, he was young, had a handsome, self-satisfied exterior, and remarkably fine muscular legs. It was evident that he set a particular value on this last advantage; he considered his legs’ effect irresistible on members of the female sex, and it must have been with this view that he tried to exhibit them in the most conspicuous manner, and – whether standing or sitting – always kept a calf in motion. He was a type of the young Russian-German who aspires to be gay blade and ladies’ man.

We had lively fun in the garden. Our game of cops-n-robbers was going better than ever; but one circumstance came near ruining everything. Serozha was the robber, and while he was in quick pursuit of someone to rob, he stumbled in full flight, hitting his knee so hard against a tree, I thought he had smashed it to pieces. In spite of the fact that I was the cop, and that my duty consisted in capturing him, I immediately went up and caringly asked if he’d hurt himself. Serozha got angry, clenched his fists, stamped his foot, and shouted at me in a voice which plainly betrayed that he had injured himself badly:

"Well, what's this ruckus? Are you quitting the game! Come on, you’re supposed to catch me, so why don’t you? Why don't you catch me?" he repeated several times, glancing sideways at Volodya and the elder Ivin brother, who, in their characters as robbing victims, were leaping and running along the path. And all at once, Serozha hollered and rushed after them with loud laughter.

I cannot describe how this heroic act astonished and captivated me. In spite of the terrible pain, he not only did not cry, but did not even show that he was hurt, never for a moment seeming to forgot the game.

Soon after this – after Ilinka Grap had also joined our company and we went upstairs to wait for dinner – Serozha had another opportunity of enthralling and amazing me with his fearless character of manhood and determination.

Ilinka Grap was the son of a poor foreigner who had once lived at my grandpappa's, was indebted to him in some way, and now considered it his imperative duty to send his son to us very often. If he supposed that an acquaintance with us could bestow any honor or pleasure on his son, he was entirely mistaken; for not only did we fail to befriend Ilinka, we only took note of him when we wanted to make fun of him. Ilinka Grap was a boy of thirteen, thin, tall, pale, with a bird-like face and a good-naturedly submissive expression. He was very poorly dressed, but his hair was always so excessively slicked backed that we declared on sunny days Grap's pomade must have melted and streamed down his back under his jacket. As I recall him now, I see him as one who was very willing to please, and a very quiet, kind-hearted boy; but at that time he appeared to me as a contemptible being, one whom it was not necessary to pity or even to think of.

Upstairs, we began to skylark and show off various gymnastic moves for each other. Ilinka watched with a timid smile of admiration, and when we proposed he try some of the same, he refused, saying he wasn’t strong enough. Serozha was wonderfully enchanting. He took off his jacket. His cheeks and eyes lit up; he laughed nonstop and invented new tricks; he leaped over three chairs placed in a row, did cartwheels all around the room, stood on his head on Tatischeff's dictionary and grammar books, which he placed in the middle of the room for a pedestal, and at the same time did such hilarious things with his legs that it was impossible not to laugh. After this last stunt, he became thoughtful, blinking and twitching, before going up to Ilinka with a perfectly commanding face. "You try to do that. It’s really not that difficult." Grap blushed, perceiving how the general attention was being diverted to him, and said in a voice barely audible that he’d never be able to do that.

"And why won't he join in? What kind of a girl is he! He has to stand on his head."

Then Serozha grabbed him by the hand.

"You have to; you have to stand on your head!" we all shouted, surrounding Ilinka – who at that moment was visibly terrified and pale – before we latched onto his arms and dragged him towards the school books.

"Let me go. I'll do it myself! You'll tear my jacket," cried the unhappy victim. But these cries of despair only imparted fresh determination in us; we were dying with laughter; the green jacket was splitting at every seam.

Volodya and the eldest Ivin brother bent his head down and placed it on a fat schoolbook; Serozha and I seized the poor boy's thin legs, stripped up his trousers to the knee, and with great laughter turned them up; the youngest Ivin preserved the equilibrium of his whole body from behind.

After our noisy laughter, we all became suddenly silent; and it was so quiet in the room, that the unfortunate Grap's gasps for air alone were audible. At that moment, I had a sudden qualm of conviction that any of this was funny.

"Now, there you go," said Serozha, slapping his rump.

Ilinka remained silent, and in his endeavor to free himself, flung his legs out in all directions. In one of these desperate movements, he struck Serozha in the eye with his heel in such a painful manner, that Serozha immediately released his leg, clasped his own eye, from which the unbidden tears were streaming, and then shoved Ilinka with all his might. Ilinka, being no longer supported by us, went down on the floor with a crash, like some lifeless object, and all he could utter at Serozha through his crying was:

"Why do you pick on me like this?"

The woeful figure of poor Ilinka, with his tear-stained face, messed up hair, and his tucked-up trousers – revealing the worn-out nature of his boot legs – moved us; we did not speak, and we tried to smile in an awkward fashion.

Serozha was the first to recover himself.

"He’s such a woman; a cry-baby," he said, kicking him lightly with his foot. "It's impossible to joke with him…. Come on, enough already. Get up!"

"I told you, you’re nothing but a rotten bully," Ilinka said angrily, turning away and starting to sob.

"What! You use the heel of your dirty boot to hurt me, and then cuss me out!" screamed Serozha, grabbing a dictionary and swinging it against the head of the wretched boy, who never even thought of fighting back; who had only covered his head with his hands.

"Take that! And that! Now…I’ll let it drop, as you can't seem to take a joke.” Then Serozha said to the rest of us, laughing in an forced and unnatural way for him, “Let's go downstairs."

I gazed with sympathy at the poor fellow who lay on the floor, hiding his face in the dictionary and crying to the point that it seemed he were on the point of dying. Convulsions wracked his whole body.

"Hey, Sergei!" I cried out to him. "Why did you do that?"

"That's great! Just look at me: I didn't blubber when I nearly cut my knee to the bone today. And then look at him."

‘Yes, that is true,’ I thought. ‘Ilinka acts sometimes like nothing but a cry-baby; and then there's Serozha – he is so stoic. Such a grownup man!’

I had no idea at the time the poor boy was crying not so much from physical pain as from the thought that five boys, whom he probably liked and admired, had all ganged up, without any cause, to hate and persecute him.

I cannot explain the cruelty of my actions. Why did I not go to him, soothe him, comfort him? What had become of that sentiment of pity, which had formerly made me cry violently at the sight of a young crow kicked out of its nest, or a puppy thrown over a fence, or a chicken the cook was carrying off for soup?

How could this beautiful feeling in me be stifled by my love for Serozha and the desire to appear as the same kind of guy he was? That love and that desire to appear manly were not enviable qualities. They’ve left the only dark mark on the pages of my childhood memories.

—Leo Tolstoy,[i]




[after translations by Kevin Moss and Thomas Crowell Publishers]





[i] “The Ivins” Leo Tolstoy Detstvo (“Childhood”), Chapter 19 (New York 1899), ps. 69-74


and Out of the Blue: Russia’s hidden Gay literature: an anthology (San Francisco 1997), ps. 42-46




Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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19 minutes ago, drpaladin said:

Could this be why he named one of his sons Sergei?

...Seems one of Leo's older brothers had that name...they were Nikolai, Sergei and Dmitiri, respectively.

And the friend he said he continued to love about the time this story was written is another Dmitri, Dmitri Dyakov.

(But I have a sinking suspicious you knew all of this already ;) )

Edited by AC Benus
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