Before the Mirror

VA Kaverin
Before the mirror
Lisa Turaeva and Kostya Karnovsky met at the gymnasium ball. They danced together all evening, and then decided to correspond. Fate gave them very few meetings, so the long, from 1910 to 1932, correspondence became an important part of their life.
Lisa’s mother died long ago, her father, a regimental officer, married a “domineering, suspicious” woman. Having finished the boarding school, Lisa studies at the gymnasium and at the same time gives lessons in the village to be able to go to Petersburg and enroll there at the Mathematics Faculty of the Bestuzhev Courses. She has the ability to draw, but mathematics, in her opinion, is “the shortest way to independent thinking.” On the way to St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1913, Lisa secretly visits Kazan, where the student-mathematician Karnovsky lives and studies. They spend a wonderful day together.
Konstantin Pavlovich Karnovsky was born in Kazan, in a large philistine poor family. And with the father, and after his death, the children lived in constant humiliation. But Kostya managed to defend his independence: he worked hard, entered the university and began to provide the whole family. Even when Kostya was preparing to enter the gymnasium, an internal “countdown” began for him: not a minute could be lost in vain. But the established order of his life was turned every time when he met Lisa. Her “grace, sincerity and carelessness” spoke of the existence of “some immutable truth that was stronger than all of his mathematics and did not require any evidence.”
In St. Petersburg, Lisa listens to lectures, goes to theaters and museums. In one of the letters she tells about her trip to her aunt in Moscow – here, on a dispute about painting, she suddenly very much wanted to be the same as the artist Goncharova. Lisa is waiting for a meeting with Kostya: it seems to her that only with him she can share her doubts, hopes and desires. After all, Karnovsky “lives consciously, does not rush from side to side,” as she did. But a short visit to Kazan on the way to Yalta, where Lisa is going to treat her lungs, does not give her satisfaction: she doubts Karnovsky, in his love.
Lisa is fond of painting, but, realizing that this is too expensive, continues to study mathematics. Yet one day she decides more “not to pretend to herself” and enters the art studio, works a lot at Dobuzhinsky, Yakovlev. She had not seen Karnovsky for a long time. But next to her – courteous and in love Dmitry Gorin. After Kostya did not come to Petersburg, Liza sends him a bitter letter asking her not to write to her anymore.
Correspondence is still going on, but the Lysines of the letter are so cold that it worries Karnovsky, and he goes to Petersburg. Kostya is admired by Liza: she has become even more beautiful, besides, he finally realizes that before him is a born artist.
And then Lisa goes to Kazan. On a trip to Moscow, she visits the gallery of Shchukin, looks with astonishment and confusion at the paintings of Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh. The awkwardness that Lisa feels on a cold and unkind reception in the Karnovsky family, the fear of losing independence, and even the accidental mention of a “Marisha” make Lisa suddenly leave without even saying goodbye to Kostya.
Now it was Karnovsky’s turn to return unopened letters. He is busy only with work: he... teaches at the university, at the age of twenty-seven he is elected professor of the Polytechnic Institute. But when Kostya finds out that Liza can not return from the Yalta, captured by the Germans, he decides to go there, despite all the difficulties. Only the illness of the mother makes Karnovsky stay.
In 1920, Yalta was released, but Lisa was no longer there. Karnovsky receives a letter from Constantinople from her: Lisa went there with a familiar Greek merchant, who then promised to take her to Paris, but turned out to be a dirty rascal. Lisa manages to get rid of him, but I have to stay in Turkey. To earn, Lisa gives lessons, plays the piano in the pub. In letters to Karnovsky she often remembers their meetings, but now all this is a past that must be forgotten. Now Liza is married to a “simple, honest” person who has lost a leg in the war. A husband is younger than her, and she feels for him rather a feeling of pity. For a while Liza is fond of the artist Gordeev, but still finds the strength to stay with her husband.
Finally Lisa goes to Paris. Here, with the help of Gordeev, she arranges to paint cabaret and restaurants with someone else’s sketches. This work gives an opportunity to live at least, but leaves little time for their own creativity. Still, Lisa is making progress: her four works are bought by the London museum. In free moments Lisa wrote to Karnovsky. She wants to know and understand the new life of Russia. She often reflects on the art of true and false, the need for “spiritual creativity.” At the end of the letters Lisa often sends greetings to Nadya, a young actress, a companion of Konstantin Pavlovich.
In the summer of 1925, Karnovsky came to Paris. He meets with academician Shevandie, then comes to visit Lisa in Mesnil. But the jealous Gordeev, to whom Lisa returned, almost leaves them alone. Konstantin Pavlovich looks at Lisa’s works, one of the canvases looks like her letters to him: a mirror is depicted on it. Indeed, the correspondence with Karnovsky and was for Liza Turaeva the mirror, “in which she looked all her life.” Karnovsky and Lisa alone spend only ten minutes alone.
Another time, when Karnovsky is in Paris, Lisa goes to him secretly. But Konstantin Pavlovich begins an attack of malaria, and Lisa, at the price of a break with Gordeev, remains with her lover all day. Now she is free. In one of the letters Liza reflects on the love that constantly separated them, but thereby protected from vulgarity, taught morality and patience, cleansed the soul and led it to self-knowledge.
In March, the thirty-second year, Elizabeth Nikolaevna received a letter from a Moscow doctor who notified her of the serious illness of Konstantin Pavlovich. Protecting the beloved from grief, Lisa in her messages embellishes reality. In fact, there is almost no hope of returning home, it is becoming increasingly difficult to live, but she works a lot in Paris and Corsica, where she has Italian friends. Karnovsky recovers, he manages to get permission for Lisa to return to Russia. And Elizaveta Nikolaevna finally seeks recognition: in Paris her exhibition is successfully held. Only the artist has almost no strength left. “I hid from you that I’m very sick, but now that I know that I will soon see you…” – this last line completes the correspondence between Elizabeth Turaeva and Konstantin Karnovsky.


Before the Mirror