Books, Writings and Ideals
From our first meeting, Efremov's wealth of knowledge and understanding of the world and its people intrigued me. He knew a great deal about the culture, the diverse peoples, history and politics of the United States, not just history book facts, but a sense of the problems of the different parts of the country and the critical aspects of both local and national politics. At this time, in 1959, the racial problems that surfaced at Little Rock had stirred wide interest in the Soviet Union, and the first question I was asked after a talk in Leningrad was, belligerently, what about Little Rock? Efremov somehow was aware of the deeper aspects of this matter. I had speculated that he had a short wave radio and that his knowledge of several languages might be an explanation of his broad knowledge and understanding. But this may or may not have been true, and his knowledge was not that to be gained from overseas broadcasts anyhow. What might have been apparent to me at the time of my first visit to his old apartment, in what appeared to be a done-over factory, dawned on me only much later. This apartment, like his later one near Moscow University, was lined with shelves of books. He read everything he could get his hands on in Russian, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and I expect some other languages as well. Both his breadth of knowledge and understanding, and the sometimes strange selective twists that his thinking took, were the product of this smorgasbord of reading superimposed upon his mixed social background, his travels during geological exploration through Asia, and his early romantic encounters with the sea.
The major themes in his non-scientific writing — the dominance of dialectical balance and sources of knowledge, ideal communism, the equation of man and intelligence, a goal of happiness, history, heroism and a pervasive, creative gentle eroticism — form the olio blended on the substrate of omnivorous and largely unselective reading.
Most of the books that he read could not be obtained in the Soviet Union and much of what he could get there he felt to be trash. He would pore over booklistings in magazines, ads and the books he received, cull out interesting titles and send "wanted" lists to his network of friends around the world. Although there was really no way he could repay the favors, many of us scoured the markets and sent along what we could find. I did, Mrs. Alfred Romer did, and so did Mrs. D. M. S. Watson of London and Richard Van Frank of Boston. Book dealers knew him well and helped where possible, but usually he could not pay them for their services and books. I am sure there were other persons in many countries who received and responded to his lists. In my case, when I was in the Soviet Union, Efremov did "repay" me by aiding in the purchase of gifts for my family, payment that was not at all necessary because the real value lay in his friendship. Most books were sent freely and without any thought of obligation.
The "wanted" lists were a hodgepodge and, in all, totalled hundreds of items. One that I received in 1971 is fairly typical.
James Crazier, Runt of Cygni
R. Valum, Taurus Four
Jane Gaskell, The Serpent
Michel Millet and Jean L'ange, The School of Venus
Sax Rohmer, Daughter of Fu Manchu
Ary C. Phillipes, The Garden of Earthly Pleasures
Suzan Yorks, Agency House, Malay
Allan W. Ross, Bombay After Dark
Agnes Newton Keith, Three Came Home
Other lists contained a variety of such books as:
On the Beach
Darwin and the Naked Lady
Fantasy and science fiction magazines
and so on.
These, and many like them, were to be sent by mail. Air mail registered was the safest way. Some that I sent, such as Mystery Magazine, were intercepted because they were not licensed. They were merely taken out of the packet, and the rest of the books delivered. Books that could not be sent had to be carried in. This never posed me any problems for at no time were my bags opened.
One reason that some books would not get through was that the censors simply appropriated them, at least so I was told by Efremov. Epoxy was one of these. It was a moderately erotic French hardback "comic book" about the escapades and adventures of a member of a tribe of Amazons, females of heroic anatomy little concealed by scant cover. Efremov explained that he needed it as a basis for illustrations in his novels, being unable to obtain proper models in the Soviet Union. He had asked a British book dealer, Mr. Alan Myers, to try to get it for him from France. But, of course, he could not pay the book dealer for the book or for his service. So I was to send the needed funds to London, $10.00 if I recall rightly, and the dealer would buy the book and send it to me. Then I would carry it to Efremov when I next visited Moscow. I did, having been both pleased and amazed at this artistic and outlandish brand of comic book. Pornographic comics are a stock-in-trade in many countries, but this was rather an artistic, erotic adventure story. I would have thought it would not be allowed in, but Efremov assured me that the only problem was that the censors would steal it. It would not be rejected on technical grounds.
Many books, however, would have been officially rejected, either because they were not on the acceptable list or because they might raise some suspicions. Copies of my scientific monograph Late Permian Vertebrates of the USA and USSR did not get through on the first sending, as mentioned earlier. They were registered and so came back. I gather the USA-USSR did it. I sent them again and a more "liberal" censor must have been on duty and they went through. On the Beach took two tries as well.
At the time that I was going to Russia to study, Efremov would send me "to bring" lists. These give some idea of what he thought would not pass the censors, for one or another of the above reasons. One list I received in 1961 included the following:
R. Morley, A Majority of One
J. Michener, Sayonam (Michener's works would not make it, I gather, so I took several. Efremov "ate them up.")
V. Sneider, Tea House of the August Moon
N. Beddiaeff, Russian Idea
A. Burgess, Small Woman
M. Pusie, Top Secret Mission
I. Shaw, The Young Lions
L. Poca, History of Eroticism: de Erotica
Babarelle, Adventure of Jodelle (another erotic comic book)
Of the hundreds of titles he requested, I was only able to find a small percentage, for paperbacks come and go rapidly, with the old found mostly in the garrets of bookstores; take your pick — in the 1960s — at 10 cents a pound. Patterns are not at all clear in Efremov's lists. History, adventure with an erotic flavor, and sea romances stand out. There is a strong bias toward Asiatic stories. Concerning a package I had sent, Efremov wrote,
Thank you ever so much for the books. You know I read every good and exciting book. So I accept with pleasure your gift. I have tried to read Faulkner [which I had sent, unsolicited, as an example of our literature] but I am not mature in dainty language nor a philologist and I find Faulkner flows through my mind in vain.
As for mysteries and detective stories, it seems to me that this sort of literature is coming to an end over the whole world with every year loss of readers. The historical novel with good erotic are now again arisen and have more success than before. Have you noted this peculiar phenomenon? I think it comes in the face of the apprehension and uncertainty in the current life conditions in the damned atomic age.
Science fiction tends to be short on character development and anything but the most superficial romanticisms. Of course, there are exceptions. The emotional parts of Efremov's stories are somewhat subdued and often rather awkward from our point of view. But his books carry a consistently erotic flavor. His longer stories blend sexual tensions into his full concepts of the meanings of life and man, intimately tied to the erotic qualities of music and art. This unusual combination in science fiction and fantasy is critical to the deeper framework of his studies of the future and distant places. They form a medium for his deeper ideas. His library book plate and other figures he enjoyed, illustrated in figures 31-33, are suggestive of his latent tastes.
In our conversations never was there a hint of preoccupation with the erotic. It could be that, in his writing, Efremov was catering to what he perceived as a popular demand, necessary to assure a wide audience for his work. I doubt it. Rather, reticence in conversations probably reflected his preference for "the old ways" in personal contacts, in line with the use of formal names. Perhaps the reputed Victorian or Puritanical Russian treatment of sexual matters, our stereotype, did enter in. I never saw anything to refute this, but then a casual observer likely would not.
Requests for Forever Amber, Peyton Place, Epoxy and so on prompted me to send one of our "vulgar books." It came about through a slight misadventure when a friend, Paul McGrew, and I had lunch in a Washington, DC, bar. Our well intentioned plans to see the city via Gray Line Bus Tour ended in a burlesque house. The show was predictably routine, jokes a hundred years old, water squirting in improper places, awkward strips, and bumps and grinds with appropriate drum beats. As always, during the intermission, candy, watches, and "girlie" picture books were hawked. I bought a book for 25 cents and gave it to Peter Chudinov, who was in Washington for a meeting, to take to Efremov. He took it back to Moscow. In due time, Efre-mov wrote to me and I could hear his strong Russian accent and stammer as he answered,
Peter brought me the Frolics Book. What on earth is the matter with American men! Fat cows, leaning over to be milked. In Russia we prefer the broad hips!
Figure 31. The book plate Efremov used in the 1950s.
Figure 32. The fanciful image of a great, carnivorous dinosaur from the Cretaceous preserved in a photosensitive mineral slab. From Stories — Shadows of the Past as translated into English (1954) — a title in the Soviet Literature for Young People series. The illustration is by G. Petrov.
Figure 33. The "human brain" as portrayed by the use of nude females. A remarkable reproduction of the external anatomy of the brain representative of Bystrov's imaginative humor.
He did have a healthy interest in the slightly vulgar, but his erotic sense was more sensitive and idealistic, coupled with his love of beauty, which found its finest expression in the perfect human body. His book plate, his love of ballet and gymnastics, and abhorrence of contact and violence in sports are all in this vein. His novels often raise erotic tensions, but just as quickly lower them in the face of social and moral discipline. This is nowhere clearer than in his story Cors Serpentis.
Far from earth, some 78 light years away:'
It was a wonderful world, but man, in his insatiable desire for knowledge had reached the very chasms of cosmic space, searching the solution to the riddle of the Universe. The space warp ship, the latest triumph of human genius, made it possible to answer the call of distant worlds.
"Yes, there's the other side," Kari Rami [a man] said aloud, unaware that he had spoken until Moot Ange's deep resonant voice singing an old song brought him to with a start.
The other side of love
Now rolling deep as the ocean's flood
Now narrow as a winding star
There's no escape, it's in your blood
Around the swimming pool of the starship, a sexual tension builds as divers, "their tawny skins gleaming with the glint of bronze that only a healthy outdoor existence can give, plunge in physical contact into the water." Tensions and momentary jealousies arise between the physically perfect males and females, build during waking periods, always giving place to inbuilt disciplines.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful, Kari, to find some secret passage on board?" The speaker was Taina, a tall, slender girl in a short tunic of shining green fabric that matched her eyes. Often she irritated the staid, level-headed Kari by her impulsiveness.
"Leading to some mysterious chambers where ...," Kari replied.
"Yes Kari, go on . ..."
"That's as far as my imagination goes
But Taina had got into the spirit of the thing, she pulled Kari after her into a dimly lit passage. An unfamiliar emotion seized him as he took the girl's hand.
"Let's go to the library," he said. "I still have two hours before my watch."
She followed him obediently. The air grew vibrant as the door opened with the tumultuous sounds of electromagnetic viono.
"It's Moot Ange," she said, pressing Kari's fingers.
The music flowed in intervening harmonies .... Just then the door opened and Afra Devi, the doctor, slipped into the room to report an emergency ....
4The quotations are from a translation of Cors Serpentis, somewhat edited. In a few places the continuity has been slightly altered to give the basic flow without extensive attention to the non-essential.
Two space ships from different parts of the galaxy — one with an oxygen-based life, the earth ship, and the other with a fluorine-based life — had made a close approach encounter, exchanging information, although no direct personal contact was possible because of the antagonistic life support media. Near the end of the meeting . . .
The stranger switched on terrestrial lighting and the earth men turned off the blue light. Two of the strangers, a man and a woman, threw off their dark red clothing and stood naked, hand in hand, before the earth men. The harmonius proportions (of their bodies) accorded fully with the earthly concept of beauty.
Their heads sat proudly on their long necks. The man had broad shoulders and the general physique of a worker and fighter, while the wide hips of the woman in no way jarred with the intelligent power that emanated from these inhabitants of the unknown planet.
The terrestrial light went out. At the commander's request, Tey Eron and Afra Devi stepped up hand-in-hand before the transparent partition. Their superb beauty caused a sharp gasp of admiration from their comrades. The strangers too seemed similarly affected. They looked briefly at one another in wonder and exchanged brief gestures. "Now I have no doubt that they know what love is," said Taina. "True, beautiful human love — since their men and women are so beautiful and clever."
So much of Efremov is in these passages!
Sometime in the far future, an ideal state of man, not the cataclysmic rises and falls of "Leibowitz," will be attained through the dialectical processes which are the structure of reality. Such is the deepest hope and the message that runs through many of Efremov's major, non-scientific later works. Man and intelligence are one and the same and, where one arises, the other must be. No force-field intelligences; no melding in an Omega Point of a matterless, Teilhardian spiritual skein; no monsters and no ruling robots.
Again, Cors Serpentis:
Only now, perhaps, did the astronauts fully realize that the driving force of all their searches, dreams and struggle was the good of Man. The most valuable thing in any civilization, on any star, in any island universe was Man, his reason, emotions, strength and beauty — his life!
Man's happiness, preservation and development was the main prospect of the future — now that the 'Heart of the Serpent' had been vanquished and there was no mad, ignorant, malicious waste of vital energy as there had been at lower stages of development.
Man was the only future force in the Universe that was capable of acting intelligently at overcoming the more formidable obstacles and advancing to a rationally organized world — the triumph of all-powerful life and the flowering of human personality.
Merging everything that he was, Efremov had this magnificent dream.