Sisters of the Cross
by Alexei Remizov
Translated by Roger Keys and Brian Murphy
Thirty-year-old Piotr Alekseevich Marakulin lives a contented, if humdrum life as a financial clerk in a Petersburg trading company. He is jolted out of his daily routine when, quite unexpectedly, he is accused of embezzlement and loses his job. This change of status brings him into contact with a number of women—the titular “sisters of the cross”—whose sufferings will lead him to question the ultimate meaning of the universe.
The first English translation of this remarkable 1910 novel by Alexei Remizov, an influential member of the Russian Symbolist movement, Sisters of the Cross is a masterpiece of early modernist fiction. In the tradition of Gogol’s Petersburg Tales and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it deploys densely packed psychological prose and fluctuating narrative perspective to tell the story of a “poor clerk” who rebels against the suffering and humiliation afflicting both his own life and the lives of the remarkable women whom he encounters in the tenement building where he lives in Petersburg. The novel reaches its haunting climax at the beginning of the Whitsuntide festival, when Marakulin thinks he glimpses the coming of salvation both for himself and for the “fallen” actress Verochka, the unacknowledged love of his life, in one of the most powerfully drawn scenes in Symbolist literature. Remizov is best known as a writer of short stories and fairy tales, but this early novel, masterfully translated by Roger Keys and Brian Murphy, is perhaps his most significant work of sustained artistic prose.
About the Author
Alexei Remizov (1877-1957) was a Russian novelist and short-story writer known for his unique style, which blends a popular Russian idiom with the language of old Russian tales and folklore.
Roger Keys is the author of The Reluctant Modernist: Andrei Belyi and the Development of Russian Fiction, 1902–1914 (1996) and numerous articles on Russian Symbolism.
Brian Murphy (1923–2017) was professor emeritus of Russian at the University of Ulster. His publications include works on Mikhail Sholokhov and Mikhail Zoshchenko.
In Sisters of the Cross, we get an expertly accurate translation of perhaps the only masterpiece of Russian prose before 1917 that remains unknown to Anglophone readers. Keys and Murphy capture Remizov’s teeming, intensely human post-Dostoevskian Petersburg, where the sordid, the surreal, and the spiritual are inextricable.
Sisters of the Cross, is a tale set in Burkov’s boardinghouse—a microcosm of Petersburg and the whole of Russia—filled with minor civil servants, wronged women, and holy wanderers, accident-prone circus artistes set to conquer the heart of Europe, the indifferent rich, and a Moscow merchant, haphazard patron of the protagonist. All this buzzes and sings, expands and contracts in mesmerizing spirals—until the shock of the last line, a scream for help in an empty world. Wisely, Keys and Murphy preserve the authorial intonation, and thereby achieve simplicity and poetic resonance without losing immediate human interest among the echoes of another culture.
An English translation of Alexei Remizov’s Sisters of the Cross has long been overdue. Roger Keys and Brian Murphy successfully tackle the challenges of Remizov’s unique and quirky style, which fuses archaic and folkloric traits with a modernist flair reminiscent of surrealism.