Jack of Diamonds

“Sergei Yablonovsky said that none of it was art whereupon Lentulov squeezed out some ochre paint on to a piece of cardboard and hung it in the exhibition he had criticized, with the caption ‘Sergei Yablonovsky’s Brain.'”

Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia


“At the meeting on Nantucket, Esvelt assured residents that he and his team fully understood the implications of manipulating the basic elements of life.”

Michael Specter, The New Yorker, “Rewriting the Code of Life.”

Leaving Pogorelka

“The last blows of fate had not only humbled her but had also thrown a light upon certain aspects of her mental horizon on which her mind had apparently never dwelt before. She understood now that human beings had certain strivings which may lie dormant for a long time but which, once awakened, irresistibly drew one towards the blessed ray of light that one’s eyes have long been watching for amidst the hopeless darkness of the present. Having once recognized the legitimacy of such a striving she could no longer oppose it. True, she did try to dissuade the girls, but she did it feebly, halfheartedly; she was anxious about their future, especially as she herself had no connections in so-called society, but at the same time she felt it was right and inevitable that they should part. What would become of them? The question haunted her every moment; but then neither question nor even more alarming ones can hold back those who long for freedom. And the girls could talk of nothing but escaping from Pogorelka. And so after hesitating a little and putting off the day of departure out of consideration for their grandmother, they went away.”

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, The Golovlyovs

Havel’s Entrance

“Across the aisle, about four rows nearer the camera and the pulpit, I noticed one of New York’s wealthier literary agents in conversation with an author noted for his patriotic fictions on the theme of America the Invincible and America the Good. They looked as sleek and soft as otters, both of them expensively manicured and glittering with gold jewelry, and it occurred to me that neither would have had much trouble serving the Communist ancien rĂ©gime in Prague. Nor, if the times demanded a change of ideology and a rearrangement of political furniture, would they find it difficult to serve any other regime (fascist or monarchist or social democratic) that generously rewarded them for their hired loyalty and praise. I was estimating the likely speed of their change of costume when Havel entered the cathedral through a side door, forty-five minutes late, invisible in a crowd of friends, dignitaries, and Secret Service agents. He was so far away that I was aware only of blurred movement, as if I were watching a wind passing through distant grass. Although almost nobody else in the cathedral could see him any better than I, the entire congregation, maybe as many as one thousand people, instinctively rose and applauded.”

Lewis H. Lapham, The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay

Bitter Water

“Here he is, making his way to Sardis with his army. He spots a plane-tree along the road which was so beautiful that he presented it with golden decorations and appointed one of the Immortals as guardian to look after it. He is still under the spell of the tree’s charms when news reaches him that a great storm in the straits of the Hellespont has destroyed the bridges which he had ordered built so that his army could cross from Asia into Europe in its advance on Greece. Upon hearing this, Xerxes flew into a rage. He ordered his men to give the Hellespont three hundred lashes and to sink a pair of shackles into the sea. I once heard that he also dispatched men to brand the Hellespont as well. Be that as it may, he did tell the men he had thrashing the sea to revile it in terms you would never hear from a Greek. ‘Bitter water,’ they said, ‘this is your punishment for wronging your master when he did no wrong to you. King Xerxes will cross you, with or without your consent. People are right not to sacrifice to a muddy, brackish stream like you!’ So the sea was punished at his orders, and he had the supervisors of the bridging of the Hellespont beheaded.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus