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What’s So Special about a Small Provincial Town?

This is the question that the narrator of Mikhail Bulgakov’s slim Morphine asks. His answer:

But if someone has has sat, like me, in snow in winter, and in stern, sorry woods in the summer, for a year and a half, without being away for a single day, if someone has ripped open the postal wrapping on the previous week’s newspaper with beating heart, the way a happy lover does a light-blue envelope, if someone has travelled eighteen versts [kilometers] to a woman in labour in a sledge with horses harnessed in single file, he, one must assume, will understand me.

A kerosene lamp is a very cosy thing, but I’m in favor of electricity!

And now I saw them again, at last, seductive electric lamps! The little town’s main street, well smoothed down by peasants’ sledges, the street in which, enchanting one’s gaze, there hung a shop sign with boots on it, a golden pretzel, red flags and an image of a young man with insolent little piggy eyes and an utterly unnatural hairstyle…At the crossroads stood a live policeman; dimly visible in a dusty shop window were iron trays, bearing crowded rows of fancy cakes with ginger-colored buttercream; hay covered the square; people walked, and rode, and conversed; on sale in a booth were the previous day’s Moscow papers containing stunning news; nearby, the Moscow trains exchanged whistles of invitation. In a word, this was civilization, Babylon, Nevsky Avenue.

I wonder if this particular experience of the small town as an outpost, an extension of modern civilization, as opposed to an escape from it, is lost.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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