Vladimir Nabokov. Conversation Piece, 1945© 1945 Copyright by Vladimir Nabokov I happen to have a disreputable namesake, complete from nickname to surname, a man whom I have never seen in the flesh but whose vulgar personality I have been able to deduce from his chance intrusions into the castle of my life. The tangle began in Prague, where I happened to be living in the middle twenties. A letter came to me there from a small library apparently attached to some sort of White Army organization which, like myself, had moved out of Russia. In exasperated tones, it demanded that I return at once a copy of the Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion. This book, which in the old days had been wistfully appreciated by the Tsar, was a fake memorandum the secret police had paid a semiliterate crook to compile; its sole object was the promotion of pogroms. The librarian, who signed himself "Sinepuzov" (a surname meaning "blue belly, '" which affects a Russian imagination in much the same way as Winterbottom does an English one), insisted that I had been keeping what he chose to call "this popular and valuable work" for more than a year. He referred to previous requests addressed to me in Belgrade, Berlin, and Brussels, through which towns my namesake apparently had been drifting. I visualized the fellow as a young, very White emigre, of the automatically reactionary type, whose education had been interrupted by the Revolution and who was successfully making up for lost time along traditional lines. He obviously was a great traveler; so was I-- our only point in common. A Russian woman in Strasbourg asked me whether the man who had married her niece in Liиge was my brother. One spring day, in Nice, a poker-faced girl with long earrings called at my hotel, asked to see me, took one look at me, apologized, and went away. In Paris, I received a telegram which jerkily ran, "NE VIENS PAS ALPHONSE DE RETOUR SOUPCONNE SOIS PRUDENT JE T'ADORE ANGOISSEE," and l admit deriving a certain grim satisfaction from the vision of my frivolous double inevitably bursting in, flowers in hand, upon Alphonse and his wife. A few years later, when I was lecturing in Zurich, I was suddenly arrested on a charge of smashing three mirrors in a restaurant-- a kind of triptych featuring my namesake drunk (the first mirror), very drunk (the second), and roaring drunk (the third). Finally, in 1938, a French consul rudely refused to stamp my tattered sea-green Nansen passport because, he said, I had entered the country once before without a permit. In the fat dossier which was eventually produced, I caught a glimpse of my namesake's face. He had a clipped mustache and a crew haircut, the bastard. When, soon after that, I came over to the United States and settled down in Boston, I felt sure I had shaken off my absurd shadow. Then-- last month, to be precise-- there came a telephone call. In a hard and glittering voice, a woman said she was Mrs. Sybil Hall, a close friend of Mrs. Sharp, who had written to her suggesting that she contact me. I did know a Mrs. Sharp and didn't stop to think that both my Mrs. Sharp and myself might not be the right ones. Golden-voiced Mrs. Hall said she was having a little meeting at her apartment Friday night and would I come, because she was sure from what she had heard about me that I would be very, very much interested in the discussion. Although meetings of any kind are loathsome to me, I was prompted to accept the invitation by the thought that if I did not I might in some way disappoint Mrs. Sharp, a nice, maroon-trousered, short-haired old lady whom I had met on Cape Cod, where she shared a cottage with a younger woman; both ladies are mediocre leftist artists of independent means, and completely amiable. Owing to a misadventure, which had nothing to do with the subject of the present account, I arrived much later than I intended at Mrs. Hall's apartment house. An ancient elevator attendant, oddly resembling Richard Wagner, gloomily took me up, and Mrs. Hall's unsmiling maid, her long arms hanging down her sides, waited while I removed my overcoat and rubbers in the hall. Here the chief decorative note was a certain type of ornamental vase manufactured in China, and possibly of great antiquity-- in this case a tall, sickly-colored brute of a thing-- which always makes me abominably unhappy. As I crossed a self-conscious, small room that fairly brimmed with symbols of what advertisement writers call "gracious living" and was being ushered-- theoretically, for the maid had dropped away-- into a large, mellow, bourgeois salon, it gradually dawned upon me that this was exactly the sort of place where one would expect to be introduced to some old fool who had had caviar in the Kremlin or to some wooden Soviet Russian, and that my acquaintance Mrs. Sharp, who had for some reason always resented my contempt for the Party line and for the Communist and his Master's Voice, had decided, poor soul, that such an experience might have a beneficial influence upon my sacrilegious mind. From a group of a dozen people, my hostess emerged in the form of a long-limbed, flat-chested woman with lipstick on her prominent front teeth. She introduced me rapidly to the guest of honor and her other guests, and the discussion, which had been interrupted by my entrance, was at once resumed. The guest of honor was answering questions. He was a fragile-looking man with sleek, dark hair and a glistening brow, and he was so brightly illumined by the long-stalked lamp at his shoulder that one could distinguish the specks of dandruff on the collar of his dinner jacket and admire the whiteness of his clasped hands, one of which I had found to be incredibly limp and moist. He was the type of fellow whose weak chin, hollow cheeks, and unhappy Adam's apple reveal, a couple of hours after shaving, when the humble talcum powder has worn off, a complex system of pink blotches overlaid with a stipple of bluish gray. He wore a crested ring, and for some odd reason I recalled a swarthy Russian girl in New York who was so troubled by the possibility of being mistaken for her notion of a Jewess that she used to wear a cross upon her throat, although she had as little religion as brains. The speaker's English was admirably fluent, but the hard "djair" in his pronunciation of "Germany" and the persistently recurring epithet "wonderful," the first syllable of which sounded like "wan, -"proclaimed his Teutonic origin. He was, or had been, or was to become, a professor of German, or music, or both, somewhere in the Middle West, but I did not catch his name and so shall call him Dr. Shoe. "Naturally he was mad!" exclaimed Dr. Shoe in answer to something one of the ladies had asked. "Look, only a madman could have messed up the war the way he did. And I certainly hope, as you do, that before long, if he should turn out to be alive, he will be safely interned in a sanatorium somewhere in a neutral country. He has earned it. It was madness to attack Russia instead of invading England. It was madness to think that the war with Japan would prevent Roosevelt from participating' energetically in European affairs. The worst madman is the one who fails to consider the possibility of somebody else's being mad too." "One cannot help feeling," said a fat little lady called, I think, Mrs. Mulberry, "that thousands of our boys who have been killed in the Pacific would still be alive if all those planes and tanks we gave England and Russia had been used to destroy Japan." "Exactly," said Dr. Shoe. "And that was Adolf Hitler's mistake. Being mad, he failed to take into account the scheming of irresponsible politicians. Being mad, he believed that other governments would act in accordance with the principles of mercy and common sense." "I always think of Prometheus," said Mrs. Hall. "Prometheus, who stole fire and was blinded by the angry gods." An old lady in a bright blue dress, who sat knitting in a corner, asked Dr. Shoe to explain why the Germans had not risen against Hitler. Dr. Shoe lowered his eyelids for a moment. "The answer is a terrible one," he said with an effort. "As you know, I am German myself, of pure Bavarian stock, though a loyal citizen of this country. And nevertheless, I am going to say something very terrible about my former countrymen. Germans"-- the soft-lashed eyes were half-closed again-- "Germans are dreamers." By this time, of course, I had fully realized that Mrs. Hall's Mrs. Sharp was as totally distinct from my Mrs. Sharp as I was from my namesake. The nightmare into which I had been propelled would probably have struck him as a cozy evening with kindred souls, and Dr. Shoe might have seemed to him a most intelligent and brilliant causeur. Timidity, and perhaps morbid curiosity, kept me from leaving the room. Moreover, when I get excited, I stammer so badly that any attempt on my part to tell Dr. Shoe what I thought of him would have sounded like the explosions of a motorcycle which refuses to start on a frosty night in an intolerant suburban lane. I looked around, trying to convince myself that these were real people and not a Punch-and-Judy show. None of the women were pretty; all had reached or overreached forty-five. All, one could be certain, belonged to book clubs, bridge clubs, babble clubs, and to the great, cold sorority of inevitable death. All looked cheerflilly sterile. Possibly some of them had had children, but how they had produced them was now a forgotten mystery; many had found substitutes for creative power in various aesthetic pursuits, such as, for instance, the beautifying of committee rooms. As I glanced at the one sitting next to me, an intense-looking lady with a freckled neck, I knew that, while patchily listening to Dr. Shoe, she was, in all probability, worrying about a bit of decoration having to do with some social event or wartime entertainment the exact nature of which I could not determine. But I did know how badly she needed that additional touch. Something in the middle of the table, she was thinking. I need something that would make people gasp-- perhaps a great big huge bowl of artificial fruit. Not the wax kind, of course. Something nicely marbleized. It is most regrettable that I did not fix the ladies' names in my mind when I was introduced to them. Two willowy, interchangeable maiden ladies on hard chairs had names beginning with W, and, of the others, one was certainly called Miss Bissing. This I had heard distinctly, but could not later connect with any particular face or facelike object. There was only one other man besides Dr. Shoe and myself. He turned out to be a compatriot of mine, a Colonel Malikov or Melnikov; in Mrs. Hall's rendering it had sounded more like "Milwaukee."' While some soft, pale drinks were being passed around, he leaned toward me with a leathery, creaking sound, as if he wore a harness under his shabby blue suit, and informed me in a hoarse Russian whisper that he had had the honor of knowing my esteemed uncle, whom I at once visualized as a ruddy but unpalatable apple on my namesake's family tree. Dr. Shoe, however, was becoming eloquent again, and the Colonel straightened up, revealing a broken yellow tusk in his retreating smile and promising me by means of discreet gestures that we would have a good talk later on. "The tragedy of Germany," said Dr. Shoe as he carefully folded the paper napkin with which he had wiped his thin lips, "is also the tragedy of cultured America. I have spoken at numerous women's clubs and other educational centers, and everywhere I have noted how deeply this European war, now mercifully ended, was loathed by refined, sensitive souls. I have also noted how eagerly cultured Americans revert in memory to happier days, to their traveling experiences abroad, to some unforgettable month or still more unforgettable year they once spent in the country of art, music, philosophy, and good humor. They remember the dear friends they had there, and their season of education and well-being in the bosom of a German nobleman's family, the exquisite cleanness of everything, the '..songs at the close of a perfect day, the wonderful little towns, and all that world of kindliness and romance they found in Munich or Dresden." "My Dresden is no more," said Mrs. Mulberry. "Our bombs have destroyed it and everything it stands for." "British ones, in this particular case," said Dr. Shoe gently. "But, of course, war is war, although I admit one finds it difficult to imagine German bombers deliberately selecting for their target some sacred historical spot in Pennsylvania or Virginia. Yes, war is terrible. In fact, it becomes almost intolerably so when it is forced upon two nations that have so many things in common. It may strike you as a paradox, but really, when one thinks of the soldiers slaughtered in Europe, one says to oneself that they are at least spared the terrible misgivings which we civilians must suffer in silence." "I think that is very true," remarked Mrs. Hall, slowly nodding her head. "What about those stories?" asked an old lady who was knitting. "Those stories the papers keep printing about the German atrocities. I suppose all that is mostly propaganda?" Dr. Shoe smiled a tired smile. "I was expecting that question," he said with a touch of sadness in his voice. "Unfortunately, propaganda, exaggeration, faked photographs, and so on are the tools of modern war. I should not be surprised if the Germans themselves had made up stories about the cruelty of the American troops to innocent civilians. Just think of all the nonsense which was invented about the so-called German atrocities in the First World War-- those horrible legends about Belgian women being seduced, and so on. Well, immediately after the war, in the summer of 1920, if I am not mistaken, a special committee of German democrats thoroughly investigated the whole matter, and we all know how pedantically thorough and precise German experts can be. Well, they did not find one scintilla of evidence to prove that Germans had not acted like soldiers and gentlemen." One of the Misses W. ironically remarked that foreign correspondents must make a living. Her remark was witty. Everybody appreciated her ironical and witty remark. "On the other hand," continued Dr. Shoe when the ripples had subsided, "let us forget propaganda for a moment and turn to dull facts. Allow me to draw you a little picture from the past, a rather sad little picture, but perhaps a necessary one. I will ask you to imagine German boys proudly entering some Polish or Russian town they had conquered. They sang as they marched. They did not know that their Fuhrer was mad; they innocently believed that they were bringing hope and happiness and wonderful order to" the fallen town. They could not know that owing to subsequent mistakes and delusions on the part of Adolf Hitler, their conquest would eventually lead to the enemy's making a flaming battlefield of the very cities to which they, those German boys, thought they were bringing everlasting peace. As they bravely marched through the streets in all their finery, with their wonderful war machines and their banners, they smiled at everybody and everything because they were pathetically good-natured and well-meaning. They innocently expected the same friendly attitude on the part of the population. Then, gradually, they realized that the streets through which they so boyishly, so confidently, marched were lined with silent and motionless crowds of Jews, who glared at them with hatred and who insulted each passing soldier, not by words-- they were too clever for that-- but by black looks and ill-concealed sneers."' "I know that kind of look," said Mrs. Hall grimly. "But they did not,"' said Dr. Shoe in plaintive tones. "That is the point. They were puzzled. They did not understand, and they were hurt. So what did they do? At first they tried to fight that hatred with patient explanations and little tokens of kindness. But the wall of hatred surrounding them only got thicker. Finally they were forced to imprison the leaders of the vicious and arrogant coalition. What else could they do?" "I happen to know an old Russian Jew," said Mrs. Mulberry. "Oh, just a business acquaintance of Mr. Mulberry's. Well, he confessed to me once that he would gladly strangle with his own hands the very first German soldier he met. I was so shocked that I just stood there and did not know what to answer." "I would have," said a stout woman who sat with her knees wide apart. "As a matter of fact, one hears much too much about punishing the Germans. They, too, are human beings. And any sensitive person will agree with what you say about their not being responsible for those so-called atrocities, most of which have probably been invented by the Jews. I get mad when I hear people still jabbering about furnaces and torture houses which, if they existed at all, were operated by only a few men as insane as Hitler." "Well, I am afraid one must be understanding," said Dr. Shoe, with his impossible smile, "and take into account the workings of the vivid Semitic imagination which controls the American press. And one must remember, too, that there were many purely sanitary measures which the orderly German troops had to adopt in dealing with the corpses of the elderly who had died in camp, and, in some cases, in disposing of the victims of typhus epidemics. I am quite free from any racial prejudices myself, and I can't see how these age-old racial problems have anything to do with the attitude to be adopted toward Germany now that she has surrendered. Especially when I remember the way the British treat natives in their colonies." "Or how the Jewish Bolsheviks used to treat the Russian people-- ai-ai-ai!" remarked Colonel Melnikov. "Which is no more the case, is it?" asked Mrs. Hall. "No, no," said the Colonel. "The great Russian people has waked up and my country is again a great country. We had three great leaders. We had Ivan, whom his enemies called Terrible, then we had Peter the Great, and now we have Joseph Stalin. I am a White Russian and have served in the Imperial Guards, but also I am a Russian patriot and a Russian Christian. Today, in every word that comes out of Russia, I feel the power, I feel the splendor of old Mother Russia. She is again a country of soldiers, religion, and true Slavs. Also, I know that when the Red Army entered German towns, not a single hair fell from German shoulders." "Head," said Mrs. Hall. "Yes," said the Colonel. "Not a single head from their shoulders." "We all admire your countrymen," said Mrs. Mulberry. "But what about Communism spreading to Germany?" "If I may be permitted to offer a suggestion," said Dr. Shoe, "I would like to point out that if we are not careful, there will be no Germany. The main problem which this country will have to face is to prevent the victors from enslaving the German nation and sending the young and hale and the lame and old-- intellectuals and civilians-- to work like convicts in the vast area of the East. This is against all the principles of democracy and war. If you tell me that the Germans did the same thing to the nations they conquered, I will remind you of three things: first, that the German State was not a democracy and couldn't be expected to act like one; secondly, that most, if not all, of the so-called slaves came of their own free will; and in the third place-- and this is the most important point-- that they were well fed, well clothed, and lived in civilized surroundings which, in spite of all our natural enthusiasm for the immense population and geography of Russia, Germans are not likely to find in the country of the Soviets. "Neither must we forget," continued Dr. Shoe, with a dramatic rise in his voice, "that Nazism was really not a German but an alien organization oppressing the German people. Adolf Hitler was an Austrian, Lev a Jew, Rosenberg half-French, half-Tartar. The German nation has suffered under this non-German yoke just as much as other European countries have suffered from the effects of the war waged on their soil. To civilians, who not only have been crippled and lulled but whose treasured possessions and wonderful homes have been annihilated by bombs, it matters little whether those bombs were dropped by a German or an Allied plane. Germans, Austrians, Italians, Rumanians, Greeks, and all the other peoples of Europe are now members of one tragic brotherhood, all are equal in misery and hope, all should be treated alike, and let us leave the task of finding and judging the guilty to future historians, to unbiased old scholars in the immortal centers of European culture, in the serene universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, Jena, Leipzig, Munchen. Let the phoenix of Europe spread its eagle wings again, and God bless America." There was a reverent pause while Dr. Shoe tremulously lighted a cigarette, and then Mrs. Hall, pressing the palms of her hands together in a charming, girlish gesture, begged him to round out the meeting with some lovely music. He sighed, got up, trod upon my foot in passing, apologetically touched my knee with the tips of his fingers, and, having sat down before the piano, bowed his head and remained motionless for several audibly silent seconds. Then, slowly and very gently, he laid his cigarette on an ashtray, removed the ashtray from the piano into Mrs. Hall's helpful hands, and bent his head again. At last he said, with a little catch in his voice, "First of all, I will play 'The Star-Spangled Banner. ' " Feeling that this was more than I could stand-- in fact, having reached a point where I was beginning to feel physically sick-- 1 got up and hurriedly left the room. As I was approaching the closet where I had seen the maid store my things, Mrs. Hall overtook me, together with a billow of distant music. "Must you leave?" she said. "Must you really leave?" I found my overcoat, dropped the hanger, and stamped into my rubbers. "You are either murderers or fools," I said, "or both, and that man is a filthy German agent." As I have already mentioned, I am afflicted with a bad stammer at crucial moments and therefore the sentence did not come out as smooth as it is on paper. But it worked. Before she could gather herself to answer, I had slammed the door behind me and was carrying my overcoat downstairs as one carries a child out of a house on fire. I was in the street when I noticed that the hat I was about to put on did not belong to me. It was a well-worn fedora, of a deeper shade of gray than my own and with a narrower brim. The head it was meant for was smaller than mine. The inside of the hat carried the label "Werner Bros. Chicago" and smelled of another man's hairbrush and hair lotion. It could not belong to Colonel Melnikov, who was as bald "as a bowling ball, and I assumed that Mrs. Hall's husband was either dead or kept his hats in another place. It was a disgusting object to carry about, but the night was rainy and cold, and I used the thing as a kind of rudimentary umbrella. As soon as I got home, I started writing a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but did not get very far. My inability to catch and retain names seriously impaired the quality of the information I was trying to impart, and since I had to explain my presence at the meeting, a lot of diffuse and vaguely suspicious matter concerning my own namesake had to be dragged in. Worst of all, the whole affair assumed a dreamlike, grotesque aspect when related in detail, whereas all I really had to say was that a person from some unknown address in the Middle West, a person whose name I did not even know, had been talking sympathetically about the German people to a group of silly old women in a private house. Indeed, judging by the expression of that same sympathy continuously cropping up in the writings of certain well-known columnists, the whole thing might be perfectly legal, for all I knew. Early the next morning I opened the door in answer to a ring, and there was Dr. Shoe, bareheaded, raincoated, silently offering me my hat, with a cautious half-smile on his blue-and-pink face. I took the hat and mumbled some thanks. This he mistook for an invitation to come in. I could not remember where I had put his fedora, and the feverish search I had to conduct, more or less in his presence, soon became ludicrous. "Look here," I said. "I shall mail, I shall send, I shall forward you that hat when I find it, or a check, if I don't." "But I'm leaving this afternoon," he said gently, "and moreover, I would like to have a little explanation of the strange remark you addressed to my very dear friend Mrs. Hall." He waited patiently while I tried to tell him as neatly as I could that the police, the authorities, would explain that to her. "You do not understand," he said at length. "Mrs. Hall is a very well-known society lady and has numerous connections in official circles. Thank God we live in a great country, where everybody can speak his mind without being insulted for expressing a private opinion." I told him to go away. When my final splutter had petered out, he said, "I go away, but please remember, in this country-- " and he shook his bent finger at me sidewise, German fashion, in facetious reproof. Before I could decide where to hit him, he had glided out. I was trembling all over. My inefficiency, which at times has amused me and even pleased me in a subtle way, now appeared atrocious and base. All of a sudden I caught sight of Dr. Shoe's hat on a heap of old magazines under the little telephone table in my hall. I hurried to a front window, opened it, and, as Dr. Shoe emerged four stories below, tossed the hat in his direction. It described a parabola and made a pancake landing in the middle of the street. There it turned a somersault, missed a puddle by a matter of inches, and lay gaping, wrong side up. Dr. Shoe, without looking up, waved his hand in acknowledgment, retrieved the hat, satisfied himself that it was not too muddy, put it on, and walked away, jauntily wiggling his hips. I have often wondered why is it that a thin German always manages to look so plump behind when wearing a raincoat. All that remains to be told is that a week later I received a letter the peculiar Russian of which can hardly be appreciated in translation. "Esteemed Sir," it read. "You have been pursuing me all my life. Good, friends of mine, after reading your books, have turned, away from me thinking that I was the author of those deprayed,, decadent writings. In 1941, and again in 1943, I was arrested in trance by the Germans for things I never had. said or thought. Now in America, not content with having caused me all sorts of troubles in other countries, you have the arrogance to impersonate me and to appear in a drunken condition at the house of a highly respected person. This I will not tolerate. I could have you jailed and branded as an impostor, but I suppose you would not like that, and, so I suggest that by way of indemnity. . . " The sum he demanded was really a most modest one.