Christine Pountney

A Lesson In Handling Despair

This is a scene from Slava’s Snow Show — another product of masterful Russian clowning. Oh, that country of great soulfulness. This is the performance that originated a long passage in my novel “Sweet Jesus.” The passage is below. 

Slava Polunin, “Slava Snowshow,” (2008)

“Zeus pointed to where he wanted to take off his coat. The congregation parted and created a human corridor that led to a tall old-fashioned mahogany coat stand, pushed against the wall, with a single hanger dangling from one of its curled stems. Zeus walked solemnly towards the coat stand, unbuttoning his big white trenchcoat. It reminded him of something, this walk towards the coat stand. And then he remembered. It was the beginning of a mime Fenton had mastered and performed many times. A skit Zeus had admired, but never attempted to perform. Could he do it now? Cold, like this? Unrehearsed? There was a fine line between the cosmic and the comic. And Zeus had, at his back, an audience fully immersed in the cosmic. Could he satisfy their need for transcendence with laughter and the absurd?

Zeus removed his coat with care and hung it neatly from the hanger. He brushed the coat off with the back of his hand and they came to get him, but he held them off. Wait, his hand said, and they waited. He tugged at the shoulders of his coat and straightened it up. He tilted his head as if inspecting the results, taking stock of the coat. It was a good coat. A decent coat.

Even from behind, you could tell a transformation had taken place in the coat and the man. Zeus was no longer himself, but a charmed, enchanted being, transformed as if by magic into a character capable of funnelling down and distilling into a kind of concentrated moonshine all the pathos of the world. And he was pouring it into a cup and asking you to drink it. He untied his red scarf and wound it twice around the throat of the hanger. There was a good suggestion of a person in just the coat and scarf. Zeus dusted it off again and turned to leave the coat.

Then he changed his mind and thrust his arm into the coat’s sleeve and pivoted to face the room, his back pressed up against the coat. He held up the sleeve, now animated by his own arm, for more meticulous dusting, when suddenly the arm froze. It came to life. The arm belonged to itself — it belonged to the coat! — and Zeus was leaning away from it suspiciously. He didn’t dare move. He looked up over his shoulder at the coat stand, then back at the arm of the coat. Its hand open and hovering in the air. It made a move towards him, and Zeus recoiled. The hand inched forward, and Zeus shrunk back an inch.

The room had fallen silent. Everyone was watching him. The ones in the back making room through the gaps between the shoulders of those in front. They were intrigued. And entertained. Drawn momentarily out of themselves. Away from their lives. What was he doing? And what would he do next? Children were pushing to the front, told to hush.

Zeus’ expression was one of alarm, his eyebrows arched, his body pinned to the spot with unknowing. His eyes darted one way, then the other, as the hand moved closer. It touched the front of his shirt, felt the texture of the fabric, tidied up his collar, then swiftly, with one long officious finger tugging at his jawline, the coat swung Zeus’ face towards itself. Zeus gave the coat a nervous, obsequious smile. The audience laughed. Then the coat began to brush him off, reciprocating with the same fussy care and attention Zeus had shown it earlier. The coat dusted off his arms, his shoulders, chest and then, with a sudden flicked upswing, it had Zeus by the throat. There was a moment where you didn’t know which way it would go.

Zeus hung suspended in terror, chin in the air, until the coat relinquished and succumbed, stroking Zeus in one tender passionate caress from his neck all the way down to his belly. Zeus grovelled and swooned, in an agony of submissive pleasure. His face drawn into a grimace of longing. He was suddenly, slavishly, irrevocably in love. They embrace! The rapture!

And then just as abruptly, Zeus pulled out his arm. Extracting himself from the coat and shuffling off to catch a train. He picked up a suitcase and hesitated. It was a classic, heartbreaking farewell. He turned, rushed back to the coat, shoved his arm in, and they embraced again, cheek to cheek, facing the audience. It is all the tenderness in the world. I will never let you go. The coat reached up and lovingly traced a lazy circle on the tip of Zeus’ nose. Zeus closed his eyes and his eyebrows peaked in the centre out of wistful sadness. His mouth hung open slightly, started to blubber. He turned to bury his face in the coat, and his hand flew up to the coat’s shoulder. His hand floated up through the final distance very slowly, leading with the wrist like a piano player lifting his hands off the keys pianissimo, adagissimo, appassionato, amoroso. Zeus laid his head on the coat’s chest and his hand, having finally settled on the coat’s shoulder, gathered up a fistful of material and clung to it.

Together they rocked one way, then the other. In unison, they rose and sank on the wave of a powerful sigh. The crowd began to rock. The coat reached into its pocket and pulled out a train ticket. It is time to go. Zeus helped the coat stuff the ticket into the back pocket of his jeans. They stole another furtive embrace. Stillness again. They jumped apart. My train! I have to go! Zeus shuffle-jogged over to his suitcase, bent to pick it up, then stopped. Looked back and waved. The cuff of his coat sleeve lifted ever so slightly to wave back. The room applauds. My God, the applause! The cheer! It is like warm rain.”

I like humour, and I like when it arises out of despair. For despair exists. You can’t pretend it doesn’t. Or banish it. And so the question is how do you live with it?

I find this clown skit is a lesson in handling despair. As is the Yuri Nikulin skit. Both skits deal with heartbreak and injustice, the failure to sustain love, to be understood, to find happiness. And to turn that into something beautiful and poignent, even hilarious, is what I admire about these clips — and what made me sit slackjawed and moved to tears, as I played and replayed them until my attention was diverted by something else. My son tearing the wallpaper off the walls.

– Christine Pountney

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Christine Pountney was born in Vancouver in 1971 and grew up in Montreal, did some more growing up in London (UK), and continues to grow up in Toronto and rural Newfoundland. She has a beautiful son who is growing up too. His mother is the author of three novels, “Last Chance Texaco,” “The Best Way You Know How,” both published by Faber and Faber, and "Sweet Jesus," published by McLelland.