Blog post 2: “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” (banned books)

Find a quote in “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” that helps you understand the short story. This can be a short phrase or a couple of sentences. There is no one correct phrase – the story is full of phrases that could each work as a ‘key’ to the story as interpretive puzzle. Retype the quote in your entry and explain how it shapes your interpretation of the story. Post your 200-250 word comment by 11:59 on Thursday 6/5 and come to class prepared to respond to two of your classmates’ comments.


14 thoughts on “Blog post 2: “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” (banned books)

  1. “The ancient Greeks had an admirable custom: for anyone who perished by fire, swallowed by a volcano, buried by lava, torn to pieces by beast, devoured by sharks, or whose corpse was scattered by vultures in the desert, they built so-called cenotaphs, or empty tombs, in their home-lands; for a body is only fire, water, or earth, whereas the soul is the Alpha and the Omega, to which a shrine should be erected” (74).

    This quote helps me to understand and appreciate the story. The first is that it gives the story a sense of completion as the quote above is at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story Novsky dies by jumping into fire. This creates connectivity from the beginning and to the end. This is highlighted by the way Novsky’s life events are told as the reader is told that the chronology is unknown and it is told in a somewhat messy and brief manner. Also, at the very end of the story it says that nearly twenty years after Novsky’s death, he or his ghost was spotted. This ties into the quote because it says that it is the soul of a person that last forever. It is interesting because a quote from the beginning of the story is a like a foreshadowing of Novsky’s life and death.


  2. “The guards saw him disappear before their very eyes; he rose like a wisp of smoke, deaf to their commands, defiant, free from German shepherds, from cold, from heat, from punishment, and from remorse.” (108).

    This phrase is at the ending of the story when he dies. After reading it, the first thing that came to my head was that he was finally free from his own suffering. Also tying into some other things, it does give an ending to the story which was very hard to follow in a way. When the author says “he rose like a wisp of smoke…”, I feel like it was another spiritual or ghost like reference of the fact that life does not end at death, but it becomes a part of history.


  3. “B. D. Novsky, the representative of the People’s Commissariat for communications and liaisons, was arrested in Kazakhstan on December 23, 1930, at two o’clock in the morning.” This quote in particular seems to represent the duality of Novsky’s character. Half of the short story is spent recounting his early life and exploits, some of the remarkable things he accomplished, while also hinting at a much darker side to him. The second half of the story depicts his arrest, interrogation, and trial. The second half tells of the tarnishing of this reportedly honorable man’s reputation, something that is key to the character development of Novsky. Danilo Kis paints vague picture of this forgotten person; was he a great revolutionary, someone who should be respected? Or is he a sly, cunning murderer who dispatches his victims from a distance with stealthy explosives? Kis does not say, and I think this is central to the plot of “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich”. This quote emphasizes the unclear aspect of the portrayal of Novsky; the reader is unsure, in the course of reading the story, whether or not to feel bad for Novsky during his interrogation, or to feel a sense of justice fulfilled. I prefer to think that the author wants it that way, and am content to leave it at that.


  4. “During the brief periods of my ‘freedom’ I watched, as in a movie theater, the passing of sad Russian villages, towns, people and events, but I was always in flight – on a horse, on a boat, in a cart. I never slept in the same bed for more than a month” (85).

    This quote helped me understand the story because it seems to be a summary of Novsky’s life. In the short story, This quote appears somewhat in the midpoint and it summed up all the events that happened thus so far in his life. In the beginning of the story, it starts out with him being tied on a horse and the events that follow involved him always being on the move either by foot, by boat or by car. He was moving from city to city, from one imprisonment location to another. This also relates to the part in the quote where it is mentioned he never sleeps in the same bed for more than a month. In times of when he is not on the run or going from place to place is the indicated ‘brief periods of my freedom’ where he would be reflecting. The events that happened after the appearance of this quote are still related in the sense of being on the move and the event of his wedding ceremony, for example, was held on a torpedo boat. For this particular quote, I felt like it was a summary of the Novsky’s life and also a preview for the end and this ties the short story together.


  5. “The perfection of his biography would be destroyed, his life work (his life) deformed by these final pages.” (94)

    This quote allowed me to realize how Novsky felt about his life. Throughout the whole beginning his life seemed to be full of new adventures. He was always somewhere new doing new things. Everything from his past allowed him to create this life that he felt was lived so “perfectly”. He was driven on the idea of what he would be remembered for. However, when under interrogation, Novsky realizes his life had drastically changed and that his perfect biography was now in jeopardy. He was tortured constantly, tried to kill himself multiple times, and eventually succeeded. Novsky struggled to preserve his biography while Fedukin was determined to prevent that from happening. His obsession with the preservation of his story was proven when he allowed others to die right in front of him. It was interesting to see how different Novsky’s life had become due to the contrast from his adventurous beginnings to his tortured solitudes at the ending.


  6. In this section these three men are being held against their will in a cabin that is locked up in a boat. Verschoyle is the first prisoner put in this situation. He was tricked into the ship; being told that he would be repairing a radio. “Interrupting the discussion only to gobble a piece of dried herring (the fourth day Verschoyle also began to eat) or to refresh their dry throats and take a breather from their shouting (and then the deafening noise of the engines would become only the reverse of silence), the three men spoke of justice, of freedom, of the proletariat, of the goals of the Revolution, vehemently trying to prove their beliefs, as if they had purposely chosen this semidark cabin of a ship on international waters as the only possible objective and neutral terrain for this terrible game of argument, passion, persuasion, and fanaticism” (25, Kis) My interpretation of this passage is that all three men have two things in common: either they are suspected by authorities for not complying with certain beliefs or going against the current political system. In this passage they are having conversations of self-dignity. According to this passage and others that I have briefly read, these stories will be about people being treated inhumanly due to unrighteous reasoning of people in power and even killed. This book will be stories of death imposed on people who are seen to have revolutionary ideas.


  7. “Miksha, who had already sewn the button on Herr Antonescu’s uniform, said triumphantly, “Reb Mendel, one single match could blow up all the oil fields of Ploesti.” While he imagined the distant future illuminated by a huge blaze, Reb Mendel, with two fingers still damp, quickly pulled at the button the in the uniform and twisted it as if it were the neck of a chicken. “Herr Micksat,” he said, “if you didn’t have such foolish thoughts, you could become an excellent craftsman. Do you know that the oil fields of Ploesti are estimated to have several million gallons of crude oil?” “It’ll be a wonderful flame, Reb Mendel,” said Miksha enigmatically.” (Pg. 4)

    This quote helps shape my interpretation of the story by foreshadowing and allowing me to see what Miksha intentions are. He was seeing a bright future lit up by a “huge” “wonderful” blaze, or, the sabotage of the Soviet government. It is seen that Miksha wants to start and be a part of this blaze of the revolution. He wants to be the match, or a leader, he so “triumphantly” described that will take part in the mass political dismantle. It was after reading Miksha’s confession where I was able to connect and define this foreshadow metaphor, but nevertheless, it still impacted my understanding to the “The Knife With Rosewood Handle” and the overall book. He truly believed that the “flame” would be amazing but in the end was caught and burnt by it.


    1. Sorry, read the wrong short story.

      “Following the howls of the dogs, the pursuers burst into the foundry building. The fugitive was on the ladder at the top of the furnace, illuminated by the flames. One eager guard began to climb up. As the guard approached him, Novsky leaped into the boiling mass. The guards saw him disappear before their very eyes; he rose like a wisp of smoke, deaf to their commands, defiant, free from German shepherds, from cold, from heat, from punishment, and from remorse… In late June 1956 the London Times, which still seemed to believe in ghosts, announced that Novsky had been seen in Moscow near the Kremlin wall.” (Pg. 108)

      Throughout the text it is repeatedly explained how Novsky deeply and obsessively cared about the preservation of his biography and of being a revolutionary. He was egocentric and did anything to uphold his honor and so this quote, to me, shows that even in death, people still cared enough to speak of his enigma of a story. He went to the dark lengths of suicide (multiple times) just to release himself from the torture of the interrogation. It only makes sense that the man who was defiant in life, die showing just how strong willed his was to not “let the sons of bitches” (96) get him. It’s one of the keys to the puzzle because we as readers received a great deal of the sense of his character of whom he was young to old to his death, and even, perhaps, after his death. This is important because he obviously was a very intelligent man and so he with great precision strategically made it impossible to figure out his story; which may just be his greatest story of all.


  8. “For if Novsky had discovered the saving but dangerous idea of the futility of one’s own being-in-time and suffering, this was still a moral choice; Fedukin’s intuitive genius had sense that this choice does not exclude morality-quite the contrary”(pg.94).
    Novsky is being interrogated and brutally beat by Fedukin’s men in order to break him. Novsky is fighting to preserve the memory of himself and the conclusion to his biography. However it is ironic that he sacrifices another person’s life to preserve his own biography. His entire life was driven by the desire to be remembered after death. In Novsky’s young life he accomplished much to be considered an honorable man. But as the story progresses so does his character. We see as Novsky is interrogated and arrested a different side to him. It is easy to denounce Novskys character for allowing a man to be murdered for his own selfish ambitions. It is also easy to look at Novsky as a murderer instead of a revolutionary. However I feel that regardless of Novsky’s cause or ambition this scene brought up the issue of morality. It is unclear throughout this interrogation of who is right and who is wrong. Both Novsky and Fedukin feel that they are doing what is right, and they also believe that sacrifices are necessary in order to achieve their goals.


  9. “…Novsky fought to preserve in his death and downfall the dignity of not only his own image but also that of all revolutionaries, while Fedukin, in his search for fiction and premises, strove to preserve the sternness and consistency of revolutionary justice and of those who dispense this justice; for it was better that the so-called truth of a single man, one tiny organism, be destroyed than the higher interests and principles being questioned. (98-99)

    This quote was taken from when Novsky was being interrogated and being forced to provide confessions. When I was reading this part of the story I found it interesting how Novsky did his best to try and maintain his own image despite being imprisoned and questioned repeatedly. If I remember correctly, Novsky and Fedukin were constantly trying to have the confession benefit their own purposes. The whole process showed me that Novsky was keen on maintain his own legacy and that according to some, Novsky, at least in those moments, could not understand that his own egocentricity was stronger than his sense of duty.


  10. “He therefore seemed to have realized that even this last trial was not only the final page of the autobiography which he had been consciously writing with his blood and brain for some forty years, but also that this was indeed the sum of his living, the conclusion on which everything hinged, and all the rest was (And had been) only a minor treatise, the arithmetical calculation whose value was insignificant in relation to the final formula that gave meaning to these subordinate operations.” (92)

    This excerpt from Tomb for Boris Davidovich revealed the most about Novsky due to the fact it shows how much importance Novsky places on his own legacy acknowledging how important these potential final moments of his life are. This passage also briefly explains how much Novsky also focuses on all his other actions saying that his life is the culmination of forty years of minor treatsies that were coming to a climax in his interaction between himself and his interrogators. Later on Novsky also talks about how potentially his entire biography could be destroyed in this moment once again show just how much importance Novsky places on his life as well as how much he is remembered.


  11. “Novsky was already a man of failing health; the long years of hard labor and revolutionary zeal, which feeds on blood and glands, had weakened his lungs, kidneys, and joints” (90).

    Here we see a physical description of Novsky which reflects a greater theme about the effects of the revolution. In this section, Novsky is described unfavorably as aged and decaying, and this contrast is made especially poignant when compared to Novsky’s previous description of cleanliness and awe. The reasons for such an extreme transformation is due his obsessiveness over the revolution, and it shows the narrators stance on the revolution is unfavorable for the revolution is something which decays those involved; this line foreshadows and emphasizes the negative effects of participating in a revolution. However, that being said, this quote also evokes a sense of respect for Novsky for even though his body is now unattractive and sick, these wounds show his dedication, a rather favorable characteristic. In short, this phrase shows that while the revolution can tarnish those involved, it also gives them a sense of worthwhile and admirable purpose.


  12. “History recorded him as Novsky, which is only a pseudonym (or, more precisely, one of his pseudonyms). But what immediately spawns doubt is the question: did history really record him?” pg 73. These were the first two lines of the section. At first these lines confused me. I did not understand the meaning of this passage until reading through the story. This quote outlines the elusiveness of Boris Davidovich. No one has been able to stop Novsky. He has been so elusive that even history has not been able to capture Novsky. He has been recorded to participate in strikes, revolutions, smuggling, bomb crafting and various forms of organized crimes. He was known by multiple aliases. He has been caught by police, government officials, interrogated, tortured and forced to sign framed confessions of crimes only punishable by death. And each time we feel his end has come, he is subsequently found free, under a different name in a different place. In the last passage of the chapter, after supposedly jumping into a fiery death, he is once again recorded to be alive and free by some way unrecorded and unknown to history.


  13. [92] “the conclusions on which everything hinged … the arithmetical calculation whose value was insignificant in relation to the final formula that gave meaning to these subordinate questions.”

    The context of this quote becomes abundantly clear for me during the account of his time under the custody of the interrogator Fedukin. In desperate attempts to elicit a confession, Fedukin executed countless innocent lives right in front of Davidovich, making sure to expose him to the full traumatic experience. Although it seems as though through his stoicism Davidovich felt remorse at the expense of the innocent lives he had repeatedly snuffed before him, he did not break and give a false confession. It was only then when his own reputation, legend, and biography was at stake that he ‘had no choice’ [104]. Fedukin was then able to easily gain a confession that in effect betrayed many of Davidovich’s key supporters in his journey.

    In a simple interpretation of the quote from page 92, it seems that all accessories to Davidovich’s life and experiences such as when under interrogation, served only to be ‘arithmetical calculations’ if you will, by Fedukin as a means to his own ends. Davidovich’s biography and legacy which he paid much attention to can be considered his ‘final formula’ through which the calculations give meaning and context. In the interest of his ego centrism and the preservation of his legacy, he decides to meet cooperate Fedukin and throw everyone he knew under the proverbial bus.


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