The Vampire by Aleksey Tolstoy or Fire is Always a Good Conversation Starter

The short biographical note in my edition told me three interesting things about A.K. Tolstoy: 1.) he was a cousin of the more famous Leo Tolstoy, 2.) he wrote in Russian and French, and 3.) during a trip to Germany as a child, he was apparently really impressed with sitting on Goethe’s lap. Somehow this left me favourably inclined towards The Vampire right from the get-go.

The story starts with a blaze. The first scene – and in my opinion the strongest of the novella – is brilliant.  Runewski, the protagonist, is at a ball and sees a man who is so distracted by his surroundings that he doesn’t notice that his coat-tails are getting singed in the fireplace. Like the suave gentleman he is, Runewski judges this as a golden opportunity to engage the stranger in conversation. Of course, you can take the plain, well-trodden path and simply offer someone a light, but this has so much more fanfare.

Burning clothes are quickly forgotten, however, because the man, Rybarenko, is bemused by the fact that there are vampires at the ball. Strangely enough, Rybarenko – a simultaneously comic and tragic figure – seems to be more upset by the lack of manners of the vampires present than the whole undead, bloodsucking and murdering of innocents schtick. But really, the gall of some vampires: being at a ball among the very people who attended their funerals. That’s just tacky.

Rybarenko’s delicate sensibilities aside, he has some useful advice for Runewski, namely how to identify a vampire. According to Tolstoy’s story it’s not the lack of a mirror image (supremely useful in a ball room) or the inability to enjoy a sunbath, but rather a particular noise like the clicking of one’s tongue that the vampires use to greet one another. Or to be more precise, something resembling the sound of lips sucking an orange.

This peculiar but lovely beginning gives a taste of the absurd and sets the tone of the whole novella. Without going into further detail, Runewski has a busy night, after learning about the vampires: he falls in love with a girl after one dance; meets her aunt, cousin and allegedly vampiric grandmother;  gets invited to visit them all at their country house; and finds out that Rybarenko is supposedly insane. And that’s only the first part.

The Vampire jumps back and forth between the fantastical and the mundane, playing at gaslighting both characters and readers. Tolstoy presents the natural as well as the supernatural explanations for the occurring events as equally viable options, and lets the reader decide, whether to take up with vampires, satanic rituals, an old family curse, suspicious scars and odd behaviour, or stick to drug and fever induced hallucinations, dreams and mental illness.

The deliberate non-explicitness and ambivalence, while rather uncommon for gothic tales, is actually the charm of the story. Although Tolstoy takes the dream sequences a bit too far, which curbs the overall pacing, especially when the story delves into Rybarenko’s experiences, it’s still forgivable in a novella with less than 90 pages.

For something I picked up ages ago in a second-hand bookshop because of its campy cover, I was delighted to find a mischievous and fun take on vampire lore in at times surprisingly poetic language.

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