Excerpts from The Shining World

By Alexander Grin

Translated By Daria Smirnova

Translator’s note:
During the reign of social realism in Russia, Alexander Grin (1880 - 1932) was often referred to as a "taleteller," "fantastist," "surrealist," "symbolist," and "neo-Romantic." His texts, resorting to fantasy and legend, strive to strip absolute categories, such as love, freedom, happiness, eternity, unity, miracle, etc. of any ideological luggage, to rethink and reinvent them from a position of an untainted consciousness—that of a child, perhaps. These texts that largely focus on a sense of longing for a miracle as a very human trait attempt to open the mind to the ability to be surprised by an event, to perceive anew and avoid preordained and ideologically-programmed interpretations.


Half of his life, Grin lived and worked in Saint Petersburg in the company of renowned Soviet writers, many who were known particularly for their influential ideological works. The other half, he spent in the Crimea, wandering the Black Sea coast, homeless, taking odd jobs, sometimes sailing with trade ships, and drinking. Despite his many hardships, he created an unbearably romantic and lofty fantastical literary world named "Grinlandia" after his death. His writing has had great influence on current Russian popular culture and imagination. The Shining World was his first novel to be followed by his most famous The Scarlet Sails and The Waterrunner.


The Shining World is a story about a man who can fly–the reason behind this ability or “superpower” is never revealed in the text. It is a story about being different, about the temptation to use your power against people who can be cruel in their fear of difference. Drude is blessed and cursed by his ability. He is eager to share it with people but he is rejected and persecuted everywhere he appears and is doomed to loneliness, until he meets Tavie. Is one person enough to share the world with?


Part I. The Overturned Arena.
I, II, III, IV ….


The last act, that was to be followed by “The Double Star,” was called “The Failure of Fetters.” It presented a short and stout, deep-chested man, who was bound hand and foot with arm-thick ropes and wire. To crown it all, shackles begirded his wrists and ankles. He was then hidden under a sheet. He fidgeted under it for a minute or two and emerged completely free; the fetters were lying about in the sand. He left. Deep, poignant silence broke down. The music started and stopped. The circus breathed inaudibly. Infectious anticipation traveled from heart to heart, stringing up all senses; the stares were piercing the curtain, silently calling for the promised spectacle. Musicians were leafing through their notes. Five minutes passed; the tension grew. The upper levels rattled scatteringly for a while and then burst into a salvo of remonstrating plaudits; the middle levels joined them; the downstairs conversed quietly, fluttered fans, exchanged smiles.

Then, reinstalling silence over the noise of impatience, a man entered from the gateway. He was of middle height, straight as a candle flame, with manners simple and artless. He walked to the center of the arena - soft, steady steps; once stopped, he gave a glance around the sparkling bowl of the circus and lifted his head towards the orchestra.  


“Play,” he said, after a thought, the sound of his words quiet but so distinct that they reached everyone, “play something slow and liquid, Mexican Waltz, for example.”


The horns started growlingly; the wind of the melody whirled around ensnaring the human hearts with the measure of rhythm; its singing, its chimes and trills dispersed that unconceivable magic of sound which lends life festive glare and makes one bid farewell inside and feel with utmost intensity.


 “The Double Star”—as he was introduced to the audience at the time—was a man of some thirty years old. His attire consisted of a white blouse, with sleeves tied up at the wrists, black pantaloons, blue stockings and black sandals, and a wide silver belt around his waist. His forehead, bright and high as a cupola, was descending towards his dark eyes along the fine line of his high eyebrows; their arch endowed his otherwise sharp features with the arrogant clarity of ancient portraits. On this pale face, full of complacent power, hidden between the shadow of the dark mustache and the slit of his hard chin, a small, stern mouth was writhing contemptuously. The smile he entered the arena with was dubious, however it was not without poise and was full of mysterious promise. His hair, beaver-black, was slightly curly at the nape of his neck and in front fell softly on his forehead. His hands were small, shoulders – gently thrown back.


He walked back to the ring fence, lightly stamped the ground and started running. He ran calmly, pressing elbows to his chest, performing nothing of extraordinary nature. But soon the second row exclaimed: “Look, look!” The audience was cramming in the entrances; the performers and the staff swarmed forth. The runner’s motions seemed distorted; he was making giant leaps that seemed to cost him no effort. His feet lightly touched the ground and seemed to be hardly in pace with the unstoppable rush of his body. Already several times they swept the air, as if pushing the void. Thus skirred he, having finished a circle, and then, after a brief run of a regular human motion, he suddenly rose up into the air, to the level of a man’s height, and froze there, as if standing on a transparent pillar.  


He stayed there only an instant longer than the natural suspense of a fall allows—a trifle, maybe one-third of a second—but on the scales of the crowd’s attention it was a kettlebell against a troy ounce—so odd was the effect of this unfathomable phenomenon. However, it brought not the heat or chill of rapture, but a stir of secret excitement: something beyond human nature entered the world. Many leaped up from their seats; others, having lost their view, were shouting through the chaos and noise, asking their neighbors, what happened? The senses were struck and overwhelmed, but not overthrown, not yet defeated; people in the audience were exchanging remarks. A ballet reviewer Fogard said: - “Here is the titan of elevation; nothing of the kind since Agness Duport. In ballet, however, in its firework of motions, she is not as astounding.” On the other side one could overhear: “In Uganda, I saw Negroes jump; they can hardly match…” “Faquir tricks, hypnosis!”  “No! It’s mirrors and light effects,” a voice asserted with authority.


Meanwhile, in a restful or thoughtful motion, The Double Star was crossing the arena at a calm pace. This view planted seeds of disturbance that quickly sprouted anticipation. Both excited and afraid, what were they expecting?  No one could answer, but each felt as if they were in a grip of two invisible hands, suspended, unable to predict whether the hands would let go or drop their pale and shaky selves, shaken/sinking by a strange anxiety. Those were the feelings confessed later by the utmost maniacs and addicts of nerve-shaking experiences, the people who had tried everything. Not for the first time a high “Ah!” soared over the ladies’ heads, colored with rather grim tones, unusual for this universal exclamation. The upper levels, seeing nothing, were bellowing “bravo!”


It had been more than ten minutes since The Double Star entered the arena. He was growing speed, apparently gaining momentum. His face was glowing, his eyes—laughing. Suddenly a child’s voice rang triumphantly: “Mama, mama! He is flying. Look his feet aren’t touching!”

All glances were chained at once to the sudden discovery. As if scales fell off their eyes; the deception of the steady motion of his legs disappeared. The Double Star was cutting the air one foot above the ground, rising still steeper and higher.


At this very moment, the public’s attention, crashed and crippled, started tossing about behind the intangible line it had cowardly crossed. Behind this line the show had out-travelled the limits of a magical trick and become a miracle. It became that very thing we spend our lives longing for, but scream and hide at the faintest shimmer of. Drude left the arena and was floating towards the chandeliers, his hands enveloping the back of his head. Instantly, all imagined weight of his body pressed the strain of the viewer’s internal labor, but it was soon gone, and everyone saw a man flying over the galleries and above the aerial bars, his head thrown back, and his silhouette crossing the dome with the smooth grace of a bird. Now he was terrifying. And his shadow, diving among the rows of spectators, rushed about below.     


The orchestra, distraught, fell silent; a lone oboe howled a wrong note and dropped its bronze sound as if brought down by a bullet.
No fire alarm would have caused the hell that broke loose in the circus. The gallery sank in howling. Outcries “Satan! Devil!” whipped up the hysteria; people became unhinged. The audience disappeared; it fell apart and turned into a wild mass; and over its heads, having broken the fetters of reason, greening and frantically roaring, leaped Terror. Many stayed in their seats hiding their faces in hands, suffering in a sudden paroxysm of vertigo and fatigue. Some women fainted, others were out of breath and rushed towards the exits; children cried and sobbed. Everywhere the sound of cracking banisters could be heard. The fleeing crowd filled the arena, bodies swarmed at the exits, clashing and knocking each other down, grabbing and pushing back the front runners. A sharp scream would at times pierce this impenetrable cacophony of moaning, swearing and rattling of overturned furniture. Far up in the height, over the aerial bars and pulley blocks, The Double Star stood in the air, hands crossed on his chest.
“Orchestra, music!!!” – Agassiz, the circus manager, was screaming, hardly knowing what he was doing.


Some trumpets sent an agonizing premortem, the sound died soon; the flipped over music-racks crackled; the stage was empty. All musicians were fleeing like everyone else. At this moment, the powerful minister Daugovet rubbed his bony hands and knitted his grey eyebrows together; quietly he gave orders to the two smart-looking but unremarkable men that swiftly entered his box. “Immediately. No compunctions. My responsibility. Report to me in person, at night, and not a word to anyone else!”

Both men left the box without a bow, ran outside and mixed with the crowd.


Then Drude started singing. Amidst the chaos, his voice had an effect of a wind gust; it was a short and obscure song. Only a few words of it were retained in some people’s memory. “That way without a road…” The cadence was lost in the buzz, but one could guess that there were three more measures ending in a masculine rhyme to the word “told.” Again the lyrics became incomprehensible until a pause in the noise revealed a mysterious and lingering: “calling to the shining world.”


From the minister’s box stepped out a girl dressed as if in white streams of silk. Looking pale and beside herself, she threw her arms up and shouted. Nobody heard the words. She was laughing ecstatically. Her shining eyes rushed upwards. She saw nothing, knew nothing, and felt nothing but the fair abyss that set the ruins of this day ablaze with a miraculous flame.


Galle approached her, took her by the hand and lead her away. Shaking all over she obeyed almost unconsciously. It was Rune Beghuam.



When The Double Star touched the ground again and dashed to the entrance, the panic increased. Everyone who could run hurried to get out of his way. Many fell on the ground in a jostle; so, he reached the backstage unobstructed, took his hat and coat, and walked through the stabling and out into the alley.


He hid his face in a scarf and disappeared to the left, towards the streetlamps. He hardly moved forward when a few deadly blows fell onto his head and shoulders; a blade caught the light of a streetlamp. He turned back; the sharp edge sank in his clothes. Trying to free his left arm from the clutch of two men, he gripped someone’s face with his right and violently pushed away; then, soared up in an instant. Two hands lost their grip, two others clung to his elbow with the frenzy of a bulldog. Drude’s arm was going numb. Having risen over the roofs he saw the city’s illumination and stopped. All of it happened in a minute. He looked down and stared at the agent’s face writhing with terror; it disgusted him. The agent pulled up his legs and was hanging on Drude’s arm: he was struggling to stay conscious and soon fainted. Drude wrenched his arm; the agent’s body darted down. The road below produced a dull sound of landing, soon buried in the noise of rattling wheels.


“He has died,” said Drude.  “A life has been extinguished, and, no doubt, a great reward. I was almost killed.”


He had had a feeling about it and his intuition proved right. He had been waiting for the day of the show with a sad smile – it was a sadness pertaining to the eyes of a mountain dweller when he is glancing down at the fogs of the valley, where sound cannot reach. And if he was smiling, it was meant for the pleasant and improbable things —things like a marveled choir of faces shining with joy who would gently poke and pester him to inquire: so, what is there, in this world, in which he flies and breathes so freely? And could they perhaps escort him there, with their eyes closed in fear?


Drude was soaring over the city lights, enraged and triumphant. Reluctant to return home, he was thinking about the assault. Snake attacked eagle. At the same time he realized he was seen as a threat. They will try to destroy him, and if they fail, will surround him with dangers until the end of his life. His goals were incomprehensible. At that, his very existence was an absurd and unbearable phenomenon. There are conditions that are clear without further logical extrapolations: the Venus de Milo in a grocery store, a trunk with lightning balls on the railroad, induced detonation. He remembered the circus—so lucidly that it seemed to have generated a spotlight in which all the dark scenes of recent frenzy were reproduced. The only consolation was the figure of an unknown woman lifting her arms with a victorious cry; it reminded him of a flock of domestic geese gabbling at the sight of their wild brothers under the clouds: one bird wanted to fly too—up there, he started stretching his neck towards them, flickering his wings frantically, but the fat kept him down.  


He heard the whizz of feathers; a night bird hit his chest, fluttered near his face, and disappeared in the dark taking with it a cry of terror. Drude left the city behind. Over the harbor, he crossed a projector light, knowing that someone was going to rub the mirror or his own eyes wondering if the human silhouette against the cliffs was only a trick of imagination. Something must have really happened at the fortress for the beam of a projector started slashing the darkness in all directions, finding nothing but clouds. Drude turned back launching his favorite game; he filled his way with sailboats emanating the whisper of loving couples into the air, they were sliding towards the moon, its silver gauze throwing its fine white lace on the carpets. Their helmsmen, merry little spirits of air were hoisting the sails, their wings tucked under their arms.


A solemn void lay above it all in the depth of myriad miles, beams of needle-like starlight spanned towards its squinted eye. Little chubby moors scurried up and down the beams sliding like schoolboys on banisters; they hustled, pushed each other and grimaced like little monkeys. All sounds coming from the ground had their physical reflections: here, horses were carrying high a spectral chariot filled with a jolly crowd; cigar smoke blurred the moonlight; the coachman cracked his whip to catch a high hat lost on the way. There, bright-lit tram windows were swimming by; a gentleman was reading a paper, a dandy was sucking at the tip of his cane and casting sidelong looks at his pretty neighbor. Here and there, balconies were overhanging, pierced by the door lights, covered in greenery which at times would reveal a tip of a shoe or a dangerous glint of an eye, as if staring from an ambush. A paper boy made of air was carrying his heavy load; a cat darted off over the invisible roofs; and the flanuers would stop in a bow above the city to greet the warm clouds of darkness.


But as soon as Drude felt tired, this picture evaporated like a swarm of mosquitoes lashed by a sudden rain. He landed on a frontispiece of a tower clock which from below looked like a shining circle the size of a plate; now it presented a view of a loophole two fathoms tall, the glass was about three-inches thick with arshin-long iron digits on it. Behind the glass, one could see cogs, wheels and chains dredging; a mechanic was sipping his coffee in the corner, one greasy unshaven cheek turned to the glass; among instruments, rolls of hemp and jugs of oil a coffee pot was steaming on the stove. Two giant clock hands on the other side of the glass were showing ten past one. The pin of the clock twitched, the minute-hand made a screeching noise and fell one foot lower to mark the eleventh minute. Rows of sleepy pigeons snuggled together on the eaves, cooing and clinking their beaks. Drude yawned. The circus and the attack exhausted him. He waited till the clock bells chimed to the beat of an ancient song marking a quarter past three and flew off to his inn.