A. K. Tolstoy: The Vampire [Упырь] (1841)

The Vampire is an early work of Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, but less well known than his vampire story The Family of the Vourdalak. On his father’s side, A. K. Tolstoy was a scion of a prominent aristocratic family (which also included the famous Leo), but since his parents divorced when he was just six weeks old he spent his childhood with his mother’s literary-minded brother far away from the circles of power. That changed when his mother moved back to St. Petersburg in 1826 – Aleksey would have been 8-and-a-half years old then. The boy became a friend and companion of the 8-year-old Tsarevich and later received training for the diplomatic corps (studying languages and history, amongst other things). His frequent travels were serving his thirst for culture and knowledge much more than serving any real diplomatic purpose. Tolstoy often asked for extended vacations, and throughout his life he repeatedly quit government service in order to concentrate on his writing.

 

The Vampire is not the first piece he wrote (The Family of the Vourdalak, for example, is slightly older), but it is the first he published (in May 1841) – albeit under a pseudonym. The reception of this short Gothic novella was mixed. At any rate, Tolstoy himself considered it as a minor and insignificant work. This may have contributed to his decision not to publish his few other vampire stories during his life-time.

Tolstoy wrote some of his early, short prose not in Russian, but in French and – allegedly – German. The Vampire, however, seems to have been written in Russian because the East German edition I read was translated from Russian into German.

 

 

Although it is a very short novella, The Vampire tells several intertwined stories at once. In this regard it is similar to Matthew Lewis’s (much, much longer) novel The Monk. Other similarities include the general tone, as well as the existence of the characters and stories in a mundane environment of realism on the one hand and yet next to a supernatural fringe on the other, with doubts concerning the question if (or which) supernatural occurrences actually happened and which have been a figment of the imagination.

The frame narrative involves a young man, Runevsky, who seems to be a member of the upper middle class. The way he describes his environment and the people around him (carefully dissecting their social standing, the quality of their characters, and their cultural refinement (or lack thereof)) speaks of Tolstoy’s lifelong interest in socio-political issues; but it also has the effect of appearing a bit like a Jane-Austen-type story – especially since it also involves a blossoming love story, gossip, jealousy, etc.

Runevsky is warned by a stranger (Rybarenko) about the presence of vampires at a social event they are both attending. Runevsky seems not surprised by the existence of vampires, but he regards it as unlikely that they should move in the same circles as him.
When their paths cross again, Rybarenko seems keen to convince Runevsky that he is not crazy, but confesses that his health as well as his mental state have been affected by a supernatural event in Italy a few years earlier.

This Italian story involves Rybarenko and two other men, each of whom have more or less extended nightmares that are all recounted as well: so it is not just one story, but one story with three other stories attached. Hence this Italian episode takes up a good chunk of space, roughly half-way through the novella, interrupting the frame narrative. This extended sequence and the precise description of the Italian surroundings stand testament to Tolstoy’s love for the country which goes back as far as his first visit, aged 13.

With the frame narrative (which in itself contains at least two fever dreams or nightmares) coming to an end, a marginal character decides to tell yet another story – which provides background information for several of the events. That backstory takes place in Russia as well as Italy.

 

 

Although some of the narrative structure feels amateurish, I found this novella very interesting. Usually you associate classic vampire stories either with classic western Gothic novels, or with Eastern European folklore. The Vampire is neither. Tolstoy emulates western vampire literature he had encountered, and he uses classical Graeco-Roman myths as well as the Eastern European folklore he was no doubt familiar with, and then he turns all of it into his very own creation set firmly within contemporary Russian society. Tolstoy, who loved the literature and culture of Russia just as much as he admired that of the West and who had always firmly opposed Russian or Pan-Slavic insularity, was probably the one person uniquely suitable to create this type of work.

 

Amongst the many Graeco-Roman references in the novella are also the vampire-related empusa and lamiai, who are mentioned very briefly. The vampire-like characteristics of certain female figures in the novella do also have similarities to the lamiai-myths. There are also similarities to the titular character in Goethe’s 1797 poem The Bride of Corinth, for which Goethe had used one of the sensationalised reports compiled by the ancient Greek poikilographer Phlegon of Tralleis.

The Graeco-Roman touch extends to the description of Palladio-style and similarly classicist architecture; while the many references to buildings in decay or disarray is something readers will recognise from traditional Gothic literature.

 

Bats are mentioned as a symbol, and there is a geographical connection to Hungary, moving the setting closer to the locations of traditional eastern European vampire folklore. Another connection to that folklore is the fact that certain vampires seem to feast on relatives they love most, rather than a random person. But other than that, I could not find a lot of “traditional” vampire traits. A good part of the lore here is connected to Graeco-Roman myths on the one hand, and to mysticism, alchemy, and deals with the devil on the other.

As far as vampire-like bites are concerned, I cannot recall any mention of fangs, but the stories contain descriptions of wounds to the neck, once specifically described as “a small blue wound – like from a leech just a bit bigger.” This wound is caused by a woman “passionately pressing her rosy lips against [someone’s] neck”, causing acute pain.

 

One thing that always fascinates me in “old” literature is any type of “meta”-reference. And there are at least two such references in The Vampire. One describing certain tropes in ghost stories; and one contemplating the reason for people’s fascination with Gothic literature, hinting at the counter-movement to rationalism as well as the phenomenon of the Sublime.

 

The Vampire is probably not counted amongst the greatest works of literature, but it is an interesting novella, and at well under 100 pages there is no harm in checking it out.

 

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