Deep in concentration he suddenly starts to sharpen a pencil stub, trying to turn its tip into a mere point: then silence sets in; afterwards the ohs and ahs rise again on the properties of some sort of world, of another one, not of ours; I observed, how he would pace boomingly back and forth, his shaggy head hung somehow bitterly and tartly, hanging down to the right and staring at the even shelves of brown bookspines from under his brow, as though he were doing an inspection of them; he always pressed to his breast his right hand with a pencil stub, throwing into the air his waving left hand and he stuck out two fingers against the background of chocolate-colored wallpaper; and suddenly he began to shine so gently with goodness, when the contours of a new calculation “ef, ex” arose before him; they had reported on it at the Sorbonne; the French mathematician Darboux had exchanged impressions about it with Papochka, and Chebyshev—had trembled.

I know that scorpions bred here—not malicious ones, but bookish ones; Papa once showed me a scorpion, having grabbed me as I was passing by; he pressed me up against the bookcase;  and opening an enormous and smelly folio: a volume of Lagrange, he placed it up under my nose; he showed me a little scorpion, rather satisfied with this event.

“Hee-hee… Hee-hee-hee!…” he passed sentence upon it, catching it on a page of Lagrange with his big index finger.

“Hee-hee”—and his face began to wrinkle up with wrinkles—humoristically, almost sarcastically, but goodspirited and joyfully:

“Ah you, look here: you know it’s crawling, the rascal is crawling!”

And having winked at me with his little Tatar eyes, he pronounced in a respectful whisper.

“Do you know, Kotenka, he eats microbes: a useful beast.”


I make out the little scorpion on the page of Lagrange; it is—tiny, it crawls, it destroys microbes; a useful rascal! And Papa, having slammed shut the useful rascal, takes it away to the bookcase; and—there came the smell of antonovka (he used to buy these antonovka apples, and bestow on us gifts of antonovka at dinner).

– Andrei Bely. Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Christened Chinaman (1921), translation by Tom Beyer.