Thursday, April 11, 2013

Scrambled Eggs, or Why the Russian Revolution Happened.

Fried eggs - яичница-глазунья.
Design by ©A.Anichkin.

I wrote about Maugham's Christmas Holiday here. Another of his Russian novels is Ashenden.

In a series of novellas Maugham recalls, through his alter-ego Ashenden, how while in the service of the British foreign intelligence he was tasked with preventing the bolshevik takeover in 1917.

Ashenden sets everything in motion to stop the revolution but in the end fails, as we know from history.

It turns out that scrambled eggs were, at least partly, to blame. The passage below describes the falling out between Ashenden and Anastasia, the Russian woman, on whom he later had to rely in St.Petersburg.

There is an awkward translation point here. The Russian translator Victor Veber (see the passage on my Russian blog post here) uses the word омлет  — omelette — for scrambled eggs.

It may be a mistake but could also be a deliberate choice to avoid readers' confusion. Fried eggs in Russian is яичница, or to be more precise, яичница-глазунья — fried eggs with eyes, as in my photo above. Scrambled eggs is also called яичница but with a different extension, яичница-болтушка — whipped, stirred or scrambled fried eggs. To build the growing antagonism between Ashenden and Anastasia on the differences between глазунья and болтушка could distract the reader from the humour of the original, the translator may have thought.

On the other hand he may have missed an opportunity to introduce a play on words: болтушка has another meaning — chatter-box, which is exactly what is Anastasia. See for yourself and enjoy the passage. It's tickling when you think what the world could have been in the past Century had it not been for Maugham-Ashenden's dislike for scrambled eggs.

I also recommend a short review of Ashenden on Tolstoy is My Cat blog.

Ashenden asked Anastasia Alexandrovna what she would have for breakfast.
'Scrambled eggs,' she said.
She ate heartily. Ashenden had already noticed that she had a healthy appetite. He supposed it was a Russian trait; you could not picture Anna Karenina making her midday meal off a bath-bun and a cup of coffee, could you?
After breakfast they went to the Louvre and in the afternoon they went to the Luxembourg. They dined early in order to go to the Comedie Francaise; then they went to a Russian cabaret where they danced. When next morning at eight-thirty they took their places in the dining-room and Ashenden asked Anastasia Alexandrovna what she fancied, her reply was:
'Scrambled eggs.'
'But we had scrambled eggs yesterday,' he expostulated.
'Let's have them again today,' she smiled.
'All right.'
They spent the day in the same manner except that they went to the Carnavalet instead of the Louvre and the Musee Guimet instead of the Luxembourg. But when the morning after in answer to Ashenden's inquiry Anastasia Alexandrovna again asked for scrambled eggs, his heart sank.
'But we had scrambled eggs yesterday and the day before,' he said.
'Don't you think that's a very good reason to have them again today?'
'No, I don't.'
'Is it possible that your sense of humour is a little deficient this morning?' she asked. 'I eat scrambled eggs every day. It's the only way I like them.'
'Oh, very well. In that case of course we'll have scrambled eggs.'
But the following morning he could not face them.
'Will you have scrambled eggs as usual?' he asked her.
'Of course,' she smiled affectionately, showing him two rows of large square teeth.
'All right, I'll order them for you; I shall have mine fried.’
The smile vanished from her lips.
'Oh?' She paused a moment. 'Don't you think that's rather inconsiderate? Do you think it's fair to give the cook unnecessary work? You English, you're all the same, you look upon servants as machines. Does it occur to you that they have hearts like yours, the same feelings and the same emotions? How can you be surprised that the proletariat are seething with discontent when the bourgeoisie like you are so monstrously selfish?'
'Do you really think that there'll be a revolution in England if I have my eggs in Paris fried rather than scrambled?'
She tossed her pretty head in indignation.
'You don't understand. It's the principle of the thing. You think it's a jest, of course I know you're being funny, I can laugh at a joke as well as anyone, Chekhov was well-known in Russia as a humorist; but don't you see what is involved? Your whole attitude is wrong. It's a lack of feeling. You wouldn't talk like that if you had been through the events of 1905 in Petersburg. When I think of the crowds in front of the Winter Palace kneeling in the snow while the Cossacks charged them, women and children! No, no, no.'
Her eyes filled with tears and her face was all twisted with pain. She took Ashenden's hand.
'I know you have a good heart. It was just thoughtless on your part and we won't say anything more about it. You have imagination. You're very sensitive. I know. You'll have your eggs done in the same way as mine, won't you?'
'Of course," said Ashenden.
He ate scrambled eggs for breakfast every morning after that. The waiter said:' Monsieur aime les oeufs brouillés.' At the end of the week they returned to London. He held Anastasia Alexandrovna in his arms, her head resting on his shoulder, from Paris to Calais and again from Dover to London. He reflected that the journey from New York to San Francisco took five days. When they arrived at Victoria and stood on the platform waiting for a cab she looked at him with her round, shining, and slightly protuberant eyes.
'We've had a wonderful time, haven't we?' she said.
'I've quite made up my mind. The experiment has justified itself. I'm willing to marry you whenever you like.'
But Ashenden saw himself eating scrambled eggs every morning for the rest of his life. When he had put her in a cab, he called another for himself, went to the Cunard office, and took a berth on the first ship that was going to America. No immigrant, eager for freedom and a new life, ever looked upon the statue of Liberty with more heartfelt thankfulness than did Ashenden, when on that bright and sunny morning his ship steamed into the harbour of New York.

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