Vladimir Nabokov. Look at the Harlequins!
Look at the Harlequins!
I. Other books by the narrator
Pawn Takes Queen 1927
Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun) 1931
The Red Top Hat 1934
The Dare 1950
See under Real 1939
Esmeralda and Her Parandrus 1941
Dr. Olga Repnin 1946
Exile from Mayda 1947
A Kingdom by the Sea 1962
I met the first of my three or four successive wives in somewhat odd
circumstances, the development of which resembled a clumsy conspiracy, with
nonsensical details and a main plotter who not only knew nothing of its real
object but insisted on making inept moves that seemed to preclude the
slightest possibility of success. Yet out of those very mistakes he
unwittingly wove a web, in which a set of reciprocal blunders on my part
caused me to get involved and fulfill the destiny that was the only aim of
Some time during the Easter Term of my last Cambridge year (1922) I
happened to be consulted, "as a Russian," on certain niceties of make-up in
an English version of Gogol's Inspector which the Glowworm Group, directed
by Ivor Black, a fine amateur actor, intended to stage. He and I had the
same tutor at Trinity, and he drove me to distraction with his tedious
miming of the old man's mincing ways--a performance he kept up throughout
most of our lunch at the Pitt. The brief business part turned out to be even
less pleasant. Ivor Black wanted Gogol's Town Mayor to wear a dressing gown
because "wasn't it merely the old rascal's nightmare and didn't Revizor, its
Russian <3> title, actually come from the French for `dream,' réve?" I said
I thought it a ghastly idea.
If there were any rehearsals, they took place without me. In fact, it
occurs to me now that I do not really know if his project ever saw the
Shortly after that, I met Ivor Black a second time--at some party or
other, in the course of which he invited me and five other men to spend the
summer at a Còte d'Azur villa he had just inherited, he said, from an old
aunt. He was very drunk at the moment and seemed surprised when a week or so
later on the eve of his departure I reminded him of his exuberant
invitation, which, it so happened, I alone had accepted. We both were
unpopular orphans, and should, I remarked, band together.
Illness detained me in England for another month and it was only at the
beginning of July that I sent Ivor Black a polite postcard advising him that
I might arrive in Cannes or Nice some time next week. I am virtually sure I
mentioned Saturday afternoon as the likeliest date.
Attempts to telephone from the station proved futile: the line remained
busy, and I am not one to persevere in a struggle with faulty abstractions
of space. But my afternoon was poisoned, and the afternoon is my favorite
item of time. I had been coaxing myself into believing, at the start of my
long journey, that I felt fairly fit; by now I felt terrible. The day was
unseasonably dull and damp. Palm trees are all right only in mirages. For
some reason, taxis, as in a bad dream, were unobtainable. Finally I boarded
a small smelly bus of blue tin. Up a winding road, with as many turns as
"stops by request," the contraption reached my destination in twenty
minutes--about as long as it would have taken me to get there on foot from
the coast by using an easy shortcut that I was to learn by heart, stone by
stone, broom by brush, in the course of that magic summer. It appeared
anything but magic during that dismal drive! The main reason I had agreed to
come was <4> the hope of treating in the "brillant brine" (Bennett?
Barbellion?) a nervous complaint that skirted insanity. The left side of my
head was now a bowling alley of pain. On the other side an inane baby was
staring at me across its mother's shoulder over the back of the seat in
front of me. I sat next to a warty woman in solid black and pitted nausea
against the lurches between green sea and gray rockwall. By the time we
finally made it to the village of Carnavaux (mottled plane trunks,
picturesque hovels, a post office, a church) all my senses had converged
into one golden image; the bottle of whisky which I was bringing Ivor in my
portmanteau and which I swore to sample even before he glimpsed it. The
driver ignored the question I put to him, but a tortoise-like little priest
with tremendous feet who was getting off before me indicated, without
looking at me, a transverse avenue. The Villa Iris, he said, was at three
minutes of march. As I prepared to carry my two bags up that lane toward a
triangle of sudden sunlight my presumptive host appeared on the opposite
pavement. I remember--after the passing of half a century!--that I wondered
fleetingly if I had packed the right clothes. He wore plus fours and brogues
but was incongruously stockingless, and the inch of shin he showed looked
painfully pink. He was heading, or feigned to be heading, for the post
office to send me a telegram suggesting I put off my visit till August when
a job he now had in Cannice would no longer threaten to interfere with our
frolics. He hoped, furthermore, that Sebastian--whoever that was--might
still be coming for the grape season or lavender gala. Muttering thus under
his breath, he relieved me of the smaller of my bags--the one with the
toilet things, medical supplies, and an almost finished garland of sonnets
(which would eventually go to a Russian èmigrè magazine in Paris). Then he
also grabbed my portmanteau that I had set down in order to fill my pipe.
Such lavishness in the registration of trivialities is due, I suppose, to
their being accidentally caught <5> in the advance light of a great event.
Ivor broke the silence to add, frowning, that he was delighted to welcome me
as a house guest, but that he should warn me of something he ought to have
told me about in Cambridge. I might get frightfully bored by the end of a
week or so because of one melancholy fact. Miss Grunt, his former governess,
a heartless but clever person, liked to repeat that his little sister would
never break the rule of "children should not be heard" and, indeed would
never hear it said to anybody. The melancholy fact was that his sister--but,
perhaps, he had better postpone the explanation of her case till we and the
bags were installed more or less. <6>
"What kind of childhood did you have, McNab" (as Ivor insisted on
calling me because I looked, he thought, like the haggard yet handsome young
actor who adopted that name in the last years of his life or at least fame)?
Atrocious, intolerable. There should be a natural, internatural, law
against such inhuman beginnings. Had my morbid terrors not been replaced at
the age of nine or ten by more abstract and trite anxieties (problems of
infinity, eternity, identity, and so forth), I would have lost my reason
long before finding my rhymes. It was not a matter of dark rooms, or
one-winged agonizing angels, or long corridors, or nightmare mirrors with
reflections overflowing in messy pools on the floor--it was not that
bedchamber of horrors, but simply, and far more horribly, a certain
insidious and relentless connection with other states of being which were
not exactly "previous" or "future," but definitely out of bounds, mortally
speaking. I was to learn more, much more about those aching links only
several decades later, so "let us not anticipate" as the condemned man said
when rejecting the filthy old blindfold.
The delights of puberty granted me temporary relief. I was spared the
morose phase of self-initiation. Blest be my first sweet love, a child in an
orchard, games of <7> exploration--and her outspread five fingers dripping
with pearls of surprise. A house tutor let me share with him the ingènue in
my grand-uncle's private theater. Two lewd young ladies rigged me up once in
a lacy chemise and a Lorelei wig and laid me to sleep between them, "a shy
little cousin," as in a ribald novella, while their husbands snored in the
next room after the boar hunt. The great houses of various relatives with
whom I dwelt on and off in my early teens under the pale summer skies of
this or that province of old Russia offered me as many compliant handmaids
and fashionable flirts as might have done closets and bowers a couple of
centuries earlier. In a word, if the years of my infancy might have provided
the subject for the kind of learned thesis upon which a paedopsychologist
founds a lifetime of fame, my teens, on the other hand, could have yielded,
and in fact did yield, quite a number of erotic passages scattered like
rotting plums and brown pears throughout an aging novelist's books. Indeed,
the present memoir derives much of its value from its being a catalogue
raisonnè of the roots and origins and amusing birth canals of many images in
my Russian and especially English fiction.
I saw my parents infrequently. They divorced and remarried and
redivorced at such a rapid rate that had the custodians of my fortune been
less alert, I might have been auctioned out finally to a pair of strangers
of Swedish or Scottish descent, with sad bags under hungry eyes. An
extraordinary grand-aunt, Baroness Bredow, born Tolstoy, amply replaced
closer blood. As a child of seven or eight, already harboring the secrets of
a confirmed madman, I seemed even to her (who also was far from normal)
unduly sulky and indolent; actually, of course, I kept daydreaming in a most
"Stop moping!" she would cry: "Look at the harlequins!
"What harlequins? Where?" <8>
"Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are
harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together--jokes,
images--and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world!
I did. By Jove, I did. I invented my grand-aunt in honor of my first
daydreams, and now, down the marble steps of memory's front porch, here she
slowly comes, sideways, sideways, the poor lame lady, touching each step
edge with the rubber tip of her black cane.
(When she cried out those four words, they came out in a breathless
dactylic line with a swift lispy lilt, as if it were "lookaty," assonating
with "lickety" and introducing tenderly, ingratiatingly those "harlequins"
who arrived with festive force, the "bar" richly stressed in a burst of
inspired persuasion followed by a liquid fall of sequin-like syllables).
I was eighteen when the Bolshevist revolution struck--a strong and
anomalous verb, I concede, used here solely for the sake of narrative
rhythm. The recurrence of my childhood's disarray kept me in the Imperial
Sanatorium at Tsarskoe for most of the next winter and spring. In July,
1918, I found myself recuperating in the castle of a Polish landowner, a
distant relation of mine, Mstislav Charnetski (1880-1919?). One autumn
evening poor Mstislav's young mistress showed me a fairy-tale path winding
through a great forest where a last aurochs had been speared by a first
Charnetski under John III (Sobieski). I followed that path with a knapsack
on my back and--why not confess--a tremor of remorse and anxiety in my young
heart. Was I right in abandoning my cousin in the blackest hour of Russia's
black history? Did I know how to exist alone in strange lands? Was the
diploma I had received after being examined by a special committee (presided
by Mstislav's father, a venerable and corrupt mathematician) in all the
subjects of an ideal lyceum, which I had never attended bodily, sufficient
for Cambridge without some infernal entrance test? <9> I trudged all night,
through a labyrinth of moonlight, imagining the rustlings of extinct
animals. Dawn at last miniated my ancient map. I thought I had crossed the
frontier when a bare-headed Red Army soldier with a Mongol face who was
picking whortleberries near the trail challenged me: "And whither," he asked
picking up his cap from a stump, "may you be rolling (kotishsya), little
apple (yablochko)? Pokazyvay-ka dokumentiki (Let me see your papers)."
I groped in my pockets, fished out what I needed, and shot him dead, as
he lunged at me; then he fell on his face, as if sunstruck on the parade
ground, at the feet of his king. None of the serried tree trunks looked his
way, and I fled, still clutching Dagmara's lovely little revolver. Only half
an hour later, when I reached at last another part of the forest in a more
or less conventional republic, only then did my calves cease to quake.
After a period of loafing through unremembered German and Dutch towns,
I crossed over to England. The Rembrandt, a little hotel in London, was my
next address. The two or three small diamonds that I kept in a chamois pouch
melted away faster than hailstones. On the gray eve of poverty, the author,
then a self-exiled youth (I transcribe from an old diary), discovered an
unexpected patron in the person of Count Starov, a grave old-fashioned Mason
who had graced several great Embassies during a spacious span of
international intercourse, and who since 1913 had resided in London. He
spoke his mother tongue with pedantic precision, yet did not spurn rotund
folksy expressions. He had no sense of humor whatever. His man was a young
Maltese (I loathe tea but dared not call for brandy). Nikifor Nikodimovich,
to use his tongue-twisterish Christian name cum patronymic, was rumored to
have been for years on end an admirer of my beautiful and bizarre mother,
whom I knew mainly from stock phrases in an anonymous memoir. A grande
passion can be a convenient mask, but on the other hand, a gentlemanly
devotion to her memory can <10> alone explain his paying for my education in
England and leaving me, after his death in 1927, a modest subsidy (the
Bolshevist coup had ruined him as it had all our clan). I must admit,
however, that I felt embarrassed by the sudden live glances of his otherwise
dead eyes set in a large, pasty, dignified face, of the sort that Russian
writers used to call "carefully shaven" (tshchatel'no vybritoe), no doubt
because the ghosts of patriarchal beards had to be laid, in the presumed
imagination of readers (long dead by now). I did my best to put down those
interrogatory flashes to a search for some traits of the exquisite woman
whom once upon a time he had handed into a calõche, and whom, after waiting
for her to settle down and open her parasol, he would heavily join in the
springy vehicle; but at the same time I could not help wondering if my old
grandee had escaped a perversion that was current in so-called circles of
high diplomacy. N.N. sat in his easy chair as in a voluminous novel, one
pudgy hand on the elbow-rest griffin, the other, signet-ringed, fingering on
the Turkish table beside him what looked like a silver snuffbox but
contained, in fact, a small supply of bead-like cough drops or rather
droplets, colored lilac, green, and, I believe, coral. I should add that
some information obtained later showed me to be detestably wrong in
conjecturing on his part anything but a quasi-paternal interest in me, as
well as in another youth, the son of a notorious St. Petersburg courtesan
who preferred an electric brougham to a calõche; but enough of those edible
To return to Carnavaux, to my luggage, to Ivor Black carrying it, with
a big show of travail, and muttering comedy stuff in some rudimentary role.
The sun had regained full control, when we entered a garden, separated
from the road by a stone wall and a row of cypresses. Emblematic irises
surrounded a green pondlet presided over by a bronze frog. From under a
curly holm oak a graveled path ran between two orange trees. At one end of
the lawn a eucalypt cast its striate shade across the canvas of a lounge
chair. This is not the arrogance of total recall but an attempt at fond
reconstruction based on old snapshots in an old bonbon box with a
fleur-de-lis on its lid.
It was no use ascending the three steps of the front entrance, "hauling
two tons of stones," said Ivor Black: he had forgotten the spare key, had no
servants to answer bells on Saturday afternoons, and as he had explained
earlier could not communicate by normal means with his sister though she had
to be somewhere inside, almost certainly crying in her bedroom as she
usually would whenever guests were expected, especially weekenders who might
be around at all hours, well into Tuesday. So we walked round the house,
skirting prickly-pear shrubs that caught at the raincoat over my arm. I
suddenly heard a <12> horrible subhuman sound and glanced at Ivor, but the
cur only grinned.
It was a large, lemon-breasted, indigo-blue ara with striped white
cheeks squawking intermittently on its bleak back-porch perch. Ivor had
dubbed it Mata Hari partly because of its accent but chiefly by reason of
its political past. His late aunt, Lady Wimberg, when already a little gaga,
around Nineteen Fourteen or Fifteen, had been kind to that tragic old bird,
said to have been abandoned by a shady stranger with a scarred face and a
monocle. It could say allò, Otto, and pa-pa, a modest vocabulary, somehow
suggestive of a small anxious family in a hot country far from home.
Sometimes when I work too late and the spies of thought cease to relay
messages, a wrong word in motion feels somehow like the dry biscuit that a
parrot holds in its great slow hand.
I do not remember seeing Iris before dinner (or perhaps I glimpsed her
standing at a stained window on the stairs with her back to me as I popped
back from the salle d'eau and its hesitations to my ascetic room across the
landing). Ivor had taken care to inform me that she was a deaf-mute and such
a shy one, too, that even now, at twenty-one, she could not make herself
learn to read male lips. That sounded odd. I had always thought that the
infirmity in question confined the patient in an absolutely safe shell as
limpid and strong as shatterproof glass, within which no shame or sham could
exist. Brother and sister conversed in sign language using an alphabet which
they had invented in childhood and which had gone through several revised
editions. The present one consisted of preposterously elaborate gestures in
the low relief of a pantomime that mimicked things rather than symbolized
them. I barged in with some grotesque contribution of my own but Ivor asked
me sternly not to play the fool, she easily got offended. The whole affair
(with a sullen maid, an old Canniãoise slapping down plates in the margin of
the scene) <13> belonged to another life, to another book, to a world of
vaguely incestuous games that I had not yet consciously invented.
Both were small, but exquisitely formed, young people, and the family
likeness between them could not escape one though Ivor was quite plain
looking, with sandy hair and freckles, and she a suntanned beauty with a
black bob and eyes like clear honey. I do not recall the dress she wore at
our first meeting, but I know that her thin arms were bare and stung my
senses at every palm grove and medusa-infested island that she outlined in
the air while her brother translated for me her patterns in idiotic asides.
I had my revenge after dinner. Ivor had gone to fetch my whisky. Iris and I
stood on the terrace in the saintly dusk. I was lighting my pipe while Iris
nudged the balustrade with her hip and pointed out with mermaid
undulations--supposed to imitate waves--the shimmer of seaside lights in a
parting of the india-ink hills. At that moment the telephone rang in the
drawing room behind us, and she quickly turned around--but with admirable
presence of mind transformed her dash into a nonchalant shawl dance. In the
meantime Ivor had already skated phoneward across the parquetry to hear what
Nina Lecerf or some other neighbor wanted. We liked to recall, Iris and I,
in our later intimacy that revelation scene with Ivor bringing us drinks to
toast her fairy-tale recovery and she, without minding his presence, putting
her light hand on my knuckles: I stood gripping the balustrade in
exaggerated resentment and was not prompt enough, poor dupe, to acknowledge
her apology by a Continental hand kiss. <14>
A familiar symptom of my complaint, not its gravest one but the
toughest to get rid of after every relapse, belongs to what Moody, the
London specialist, was the first to term the "numerical nimbus" syndrome.
His account of my case has been recently reprinted in his collected works.
It teems with ludicrous inaccuracies. That "nimbus" means nothing. "Mr. N.,
a Russian nobleman" did not display any "signs of degeneracy." He was not
"32" but 22 when he consulted that fatuous celebrity. Worst of all, Moody
lumps me with a Mr. V.S. who is less of a postscriptum to the abridged
description of my "nimbus" than an intruder whose sensations are mixed with
mine throughout that learned paper. True, the symptom in question is not
easy to describe, but I think I can do better than either Professor Moody or
my vulgar and voluble fellow sufferer.
At its worst it went like this: An hour or so after falling asleep
(generally well after midnight and with the humble assistance of a little
Old Mead or Chartreuse) I would wake up (or rather "wake in") momentarily
mad. The hideous pang in my brain was triggered by some hint of faint light
in the line of my sight, for no matter how carefully I might have topped the
well-meaning efforts of <15> a servant by my own struggles with blinds and
purblinds, there always remained some damned slit, some atom or dimmet of
artificial streetlight or natural moonlight that signaled inexpressible
peril when I raised my head with a gasp above the level of a choking dream.
Along the dim slit brighter points traveled with dreadful meaningful
intervals between them. Those dots corresponded, perhaps, to my rapid
heartbeats or were connected optically with the blinking of wet eyelashes
but the rationale of it is inessential; its dreadful part was my realizing
in helpless panic that the event had been stupidly unforeseen, yet had been
bound to happen and was the representation of a fatidic problem which had to
be solved lest I perish and indeed might have been solved now if I had given
it some forethought or had been less sleepy and weak-witted at this
all-important moment. The problem itself was of a calculatory order: certain
relations between the twinkling points had to be measured or, in my case,
guessed, since my torpor prevented me from counting them properly, let alone
recalling what the safe number should be. Error meant instant
retribution--beheading by a giant or worse; the right guess, per contra,
would allow me to escape into an enchanting region situated just beyond the
gap I had to wriggle through in the thorny riddle, a region resembling in
its idyllic abstraction those little landscapes engraved as suggestive
vignettes--a brook, a bosquet--next to capital letters of weird, ferocious
shape such as a Gothic B beginning a chapter in old books for easily
frightened children. But how could I know in my torpor and panic that this
was the simple solution, that the brook and the boughs and the beauty of the
Beyond all began with the initial of Being?
There were nights, of course, when my reason returned at once and I
rearranged the curtains and presently slept. But at other, more critical
times, when I was far from well yet and would experience that nobleman's
nimbus, it took <16> me up to several hours to abolish the optical spasm
which even the light of day could not overcome. My first night in any new
place never fails to be hideous and is followed by a dismal day. I was
racked with neuralgia, I was jumpy, and pustulous, and unshaven, and I
refused to accompany the Blacks to a seaside party to which I had been, or
was told I had been, also invited. In fact, those first days at Villa Iris
are so badly distorted in my diary, and so blurred in my mind, that I am not
sure if, perhaps, Iris and Ivor were not absent till the middle of the week.
I remember, however, that they were kind enough to arrange an appointment
for me with a doctor in Cannice. This presented itself as a splendid
opportunity to check the incompetence of my London luminary against that of
a local one.
The appointment was with Professor Junker, a double personage,
consisting of husband and wife. They had been practicing as a team for
thirty years now, and every Sunday, in a secluded, though consequently
rather dirty, corner of the beach, the two analyzed each other. They were
supposed by their patients to be particularly alert on Mondays, but I was
not, having got frightfully tight in one or two pubs before reaching the
mean quarter where the Junkers and other doctors lived, as I seemed to have
gathered. The front entrance was all right being among the flowers and fruit
of a market place, but wait till you see the back. I was received by the
female partner, a squat old thing wearing trousers, which was delightfully
daring in 1922. That theme was continued immediately outside the casement of
the WC (where I had to fill an absurd vial large enough for a doctor's
purpose but not for mine) by the performance that a breeze was giving above
a street sufficiently narrow for three pairs of long drawers to cross over
on a string in as many strides or leaps. I commented on this and on a
stained-glass window in the consulting room featuring a mauve lady exactly
similar to the one on the <17> stairs of Villa Iris. Mrs. Junker asked me if
I liked boys or girls, and I looked around saying guardedly that I did not
know what she had to offer. She did not laugh. The consultation was not a
success. Before diagnosing neuralgia of the jaw, she wanted me to see a
dentist when sober. It was right across, she said. I know she rang him up to
arrange my visit but do not remember if I went there the same afternoon or
the next. His name was Molnar with that n like a grain in a cavity; I used
him some forty years later in A Kingdom by the Sea.
A girl whom I took to be the dentist's assistant (which, however, she
was much too holidayish in dress to be) sat cross-legged talking on the
phone in the hallway and merely directed me to a door with the cigarette she
was holding without otherwise interrupting her occupation. I found myself in
a banal and silent room. The best seats had been taken. A large conventional
oil, above a cluttered bookshelf, depicted an alpine torrent with a fallen
tree lying across it. From the shelf a few magazines had already wandered at
some earlier consultation hour onto an oval table which supported its own
modest array of things, such as an empty flower vase and a watch-size
casse-téte. This was a wee circular labyrinth, with five silvery peas inside
that had to be coaxed by judicious turns of the wrist into the center of the
helix. For waiting children.
None were present. A corner armchair contained a fat fellow with a
nosegay of carnations across his lap. Two elderly ladies were seated on a
brown sofa--strangers to each other, if one took into account the urbane
interval between them. Leagues away from them, on a cushioned stool, a
cultured-looking young man, possibly a novelist, sat holding a small
memoranda book in which he kept penciling separate items--possibly the
description of various objects his eyes roved over in between notes--the
ceiling, the wallpaper, the picture, and the hairy nape of a <18> man who
stood by the window, with his hands clasped behind him, and gazed idly,
beyond flapping underwear, beyond the mauve casement of the Junkers' W.C.,
beyond the roofs and foothills, at a distant range of mountains where, I
idly thought, there still might exist that withered pine bridging the
Presently a door at the end of the room flew open with a laughing
sound, and the dentist entered, ruddy-faced, bow-tied, in an ill-fitting
suit of festive gray with a rather jaunty black armband. Handshakes and
congratulations followed. I started reminding him of our appointment, but a
dignified old lady in whom I recognized Madame Junker interrupted me saying
it was her mistake. In the meantime Miranda, the daughter of the house whom
I had seen a moment ago, inserted the long pale stems of her uncle's
carnations into a tight vase on the table which by now was miraculously
draped. A soubrette placed upon it, amid much applause, a great sunset-pink
cake with "50" in calligraphic cream. "What a charming attention!" exclaimed
the widower. Tea was served and several groups sat down, others stood, glass
in hand. I heard Iris warning me in a warm whisper that it was spiced apple
juice, not liquor, so with raised hands I recoiled from the tray proffered
by Miranda's fiancè, the person whom I had caught using a spare moment to
check certain details of the dowry. "We were not expecting you to turn up,"
said Iris, giving the show away, for this could not be the partie de plaisir
to which I had been invited ("They have a lovely place on a rock"). No, I
believe that much of the confused impressions listed here in connection with
doctors and dentists must be classed as an oneiric experience during a
drunken siesta. This is corroborated scriptorially. Glancing through my
oldest notes in pocket diaries, with telephone numbers and names elbowing
their way among reports on events, factual or more or less fictional, I <19>
notice that dreams and other distortions of "reality" are written down in a
special left-slanted hand--at least in the earlier entries, before I gave up
following accepted distinctions. A lot of the pre-Cantabrigian stuff
displays that script (but the soldier really did collapse in the path of the
fugitive king). <20>
I know I have been called a solemn owl but I do detest practical jokes
and am bored stiff ("Only humorless people use that phrase," according to
Ivor) by a constant flow of facetious insults and vulgar puns ("A stiff
borer is better than a limp one"--Ivor again). He was a good chap, however,
and it was not really respite from his banter that made me welcome his
regular week-day absences. He worked in a travel agency run by his Aunt
Betty's former homme d'affaires, an eccentric in his own right, who had
promised Ivor a bonus in the form of an Icarus phaeton if he was good.
My health and handwriting very soon reverted to normal, and I began to
enjoy the South. Iris and I lounged for hours (she wearing a black swimsuit,
I flannels and blazer) in the garden, which I preferred at first, before the
inevitable seduction of seabathing, to the flesh of the plage. I translated
for her several short poems by Pushkin and Lermontov, paraphrasing and
touching them up for better effect. I told her in dramatic detail of my
escape from my country. I mentioned great exiles of old. She listened to me
"I'd love to learn Russian," she said with the polite wistfulness which
goes with that confession. "My aunt <21> was practically born in Kiev and at
seventy-five still remembered a few Russian and Rumanian words, but I am a
rotten linguist. How do you say `eucalypt' in your language?"
"Oh, that would make a nice name for a man in a short story. `F.
Clipton.' Wells has a `Mr. Snooks' that turns out to derive from `Seven
Oaks.' I adore Wells, don't you?"
I said that he was the greatest romancer and magician of our time, but
that I could not stand his sociological stuff.
Nor could she. And did I remember what Stephen said in The Passionate
Friends when he left the room--the neutral room--where he had been allowed
to see his mistress for the very last time?
"I can answer that. The furniture there was slipcovered, and he said,
`It's because of the flies.' "
"Yes! Isn't that marvelous! Just blurting out something so as not to
cry. It makes one think of the housefly an old Master would paint on a
sitter's hand to show that the person had died in the meantime."
I said I always preferred the literal meaning of a description to the
symbol behind it. She nodded thoughtfully but did not seem convinced.
And who was our favorite modern poet? How about Housman?
I had seen him many times from afar and once, plain. It was in the
Trinity Library. He stood holding an open book but looking at the ceiling as
if trying to remember something--perhaps, the way another author had
translated that line.
She said she would have been "terribly thrilled." She uttered those
words thrusting forward her earnest little face and vibrating it, the face,
with its sleek bangs, rapidly. "You ought to be thrilled now! After all, I'm
here, this is the summer of 1922, this is your brother's house--" <22>
"It is not," she said, sidestepping the issue (and at the twist of her
speech I felt a sudden overlap in the texture of time as if this had
happened before or would happen again); "It is my house. Aunt Betty left it
to me as well as some money, but Ivor is too stupid or proud to let me pay
his appalling debts."
The shadow of my rebuke was more than a shadow. I actually believed
even then, in my early twenties, that by mid-century I would be a famous and
free author, living in a free, universally respected Russia, on the English
quay of the Neva or on one of my splendid estates in the country, and
writing there prose and poetry in the infinitely plastic tongue of my
ancestors: among them I counted one of Tolstoy's grand-aunts and two of
Pushkin's boon companions. The forefeel of fame was as heady as the old
wines of nostalgia. It was remembrance in reverse, a great lakeside oak
reflected so picturesquely in such clear waters that its mirrored branches
looked like glorified roots. I felt this future fame in my toes, in the tips
of my fingers, in the hair of my head, as one feels the shiver caused by an
electric storm, by the dying beauty of a singer's dark voice just before the
thunder, or by one line in King Lear. Why do tears blur my glasses when I
invoke that phantasm of fame as it tempted and tortured me then, five
decades ago? Its image was innocent, its image was genuine, its difference
from what actually was to be breaks my heart like the pangs of separation.
No ambition, no honors tainted the fanciful future. The President of
the Russian Academy advanced toward me to the sound of slow music with a
wreath on the cushion he held--and had to retreat growling as I shook my
graying head. I saw myself correcting the page proof of a new novel which
was to change the destiny of Russian literary style as a matter of
course--my course (with no self-love, no smugness, no surprise on my
part)--and reworking so much of it in the margin--where inspiration finds
its <23> sweetest clover--that the whole had to be set anew. When the book
made its belated appearance, as I gently aged, I might enjoy entertaining a
few dear sycophantic friends in the arbor of my favorite manor of Marevo
(where I had first "looked at the harlequins") with its alley of fountains
and its shimmering view of a virgin bit of Volgan steppe-land. It had to be
From my cold bed in Cambridge I surveyed a whole period of new Russian
literature. I looked forward to the refreshing presence of inimical but
courteous critics who would chide me in the St. Petersburg literary reviews
for my pathological indifference to politics, major ideas in minor minds,
and such vital problems as overpopulation in urban centers. No less amusing
was it to envisage the inevitable pack of crooks and ninnies abusing the
smiling marble, and ill with envy, maddened by their own mediocrity, rushing
in pattering hordes to the lemming's doom but presently all running back
from the opposite side of the stage, having missed not only the point of my
book but also their rodential Gadara.
The poems I started composing after I met Iris were meant to deal with
her actual, unique traits--the way her forehead wrinkled when she raised her
eyebrows, waiting for me to see the point of her joke, or the way it
developed a totally different set of soft folds as she frowned over the
Tauchnitz in which she searched for the passage she wanted to share with me.
My instrument, however, was still too blunt and immature; it could not
express the divine detail, and her eyes, her hair became hopelessly
generalized in my otherwise well-shaped strophes.
None of those descriptive and, let us be frank, banal pieces, were good
enough (particularly when nakedly Englished without rhyme or treason) to be
shown to Iris; and, besides, an odd shyness--which I had never felt before
when courting a girl in the brisk preliminaries of my carnal youth--kept me
back from submitting to Iris a tabulation <24> of her charms. On the night
of July 20, however, I composed a more oblique, more metaphysical little
poem which I decided to show her at breakfast in a literal translation that
took me longer to write than the original. The title, under which it
appeared in an èmigrè daily in Paris (October 8, 1922, after several
reminders on my part and one please-return request) was, and is, in the
various anthologies and collections that were to reprint it in the course of
the next fifty years, Vlyublyonnost', which puts in a golden nutshell what
English needs three words to express.
My zabyvàem chto vlyublyñnnost'
Ne prñsto povorñt litsà,
A pod kupàvami bezdñnnost',
Nochnàya pànika plovtsà.
Pokçda snìtsya, snìs', vlyublyñnnost',
No probuzhdèniem ne mçch',
I lçchshe nedogovoryñnnost'
Chem èta shchèl' i ètot lçch.
Napominàyu chto vlyublyñnnost'
Ne yàv', chto mètiny ne tè,
Chto mñzhet-byt' potustorñnnost'
Priotvorìlas' v temnotè.
"Lovely," said Iris. "Sounds like an incantation. What does it mean?"
"I have it here on the back. It goes like this. We forget--or rather
tend to forget--that being in love (vlyublyonnost') does not depend on the
facial angle of the loved one, but is a bottomless spot under the nenuphars,
a swimmer's panic in the night (here the iambic tetrameter happens to be
rendered--last line of the first stanza, nochnàya pànika plovtsà). Next
stanza: While the dreaming is good--in the sense of `while the going is
good'--do keep appearing to us in our dreams, vlyublyonnost', but do not
torment us <25> by waking us up or telling too much: reticence is better
than that chink and that moonbeam. Now comes the last stanza of this
philosophical love poem."
"Philosophical love poem. Napominàyu, I remind you, that vlyublyonnost'
is not wide-awake reality, that the markings are not the same (a
moon-striped ceiling, polosatyy ot luny potolok, is, for instance, not the
same kind of reality as a ceiling by day), and that, maybe, the hereafter
stands slightly ajar in the dark. Voilþ."
"Your girl," remarked Iris, "must be having a jolly good time in your
company. Ah, here comes our breadwinner. Bonjour, Ives. The toast is all
gone, I'm afraid. We thought you'd left hours ago."
She fitted her palm for a moment to the cheek of the teapot. And it
went into Ardis, it all went into Ardis, my poor dead love. <26>
After fifty summers, or ten thousand hours, of sunbathing in various
countries, on beaches, benches, roofs, rocks, decks, ledges, lawns, boards,
and balconies, I might have been unable to recall my novitiate in sensory
detail had not there been those old notes of mine which are such a solace to
a pedantic memoirist throughout the account of his illnesses, marriages, and
literary life. Enormous amounts of Shaker's Cold Cream were rubbed by
kneeling and cooing Iris into my back as I lay prone on a rough towel in the
blaze of the plage. Beneath my shut eyelids pressed to my forearm swam
purple photomatic shapes: "Through the prose of sun blisters came the poetry
of her touch--," thus in my pocket diary, but I can improve upon my young
preciosity. Through the itch of my skin, and in fact seasoned by that itch
to an exquisite degree of rather ridiculous enjoyment, the touch of her hand
on my shoulder blades and along my spine resembled too closely a deliberate
caress not to be deliberate mimicry, and I could not curb a hidden response
to those nimble fingers when in a final gratuitous flutter they traveled
down to my very coccyx, before fading away.
"There," said Iris with exactly the same intonation as that used, at
the end of a more special kind of treatment, <27> by one of my Cambridge
sweethearts, Violet McD., an experienced and compassionate virgin.
She, Iris, had had several lovers, and as I opened my eyes and turned
to her, and saw her, and the dancing diamonds in the blue-green inward of
every advancing, every tumbling wave, and the wet black pebbles on the sleek
forebeach with dead foam waiting for live foam--and, oh, there it comes, the
crested wave line, trotting again like white circus ponies abreast, I
understood, as I perceived her against that backdrop, how much adulation,
how many lovers had helped form and perfect my Iris, with that impeccable
complexion of hers, that absence of any uncertainty in the profile of her
high cheekbone, the elegance of the hollow beneath it, the accroche-coeur of
a sleek little flirt.
"By the way," said Iris as she changed from a kneeling to a
half-recumbent position, her legs curled under her, "by the way, I have not
apologized yet for my dismal remark about that poem. I now have reread your
"Valley Blondies" (vlyublyonnost') a hundred times, both the English for the
matter and the Russian for the music. I think it's an absolutely divine
piece. Do you forgive me?"
I pursed my lips to kiss the brown iridescent knee near me but her
hand, as if measuring a child's fever, palmed my forehead and stopped its
"We are watched," she said "by a number of eyes which seem to look
everywhere except in our direction. The two nice English schoolteachers on
my right--say, twenty paces away--have already told me that your resemblance
to the naked-neck photo of Rupert Brooke is a-houri-sang--they know a little
French. If you ever try to kiss me, or my leg, again, I'll beg you to leave.
I've been sufficiently hurt in my life."
A pause ensued. The iridescence came from atoms of quartz. When a girl
starts to speak like a novelette, all you need is a little patience. <28>
Had I posted the poem to that èmigrè paper? Not yet; my garland of
sonnets had had to be sent first. The two people (lowering my voice) on my
left were fellow expatriates, judging by certain small indices. "Yes,"
agreed Iris, "they practically got up to stand at attention when you started
to recite that Pushkin thing about waves lying down in adoration at her
feet. What other signs?"
"He kept stroking his beard very slowly from top to tip as he looked at
the horizon and she smoked a cigarette with a cardboard mouthpiece."
There was also a child of ten or so cradling a large yellow beach ball
in her bare arms. She seemed to be wearing nothing but a kind of frilly
harness and a very short pleated skirt revealing her trim thighs. She was
what in a later era amateurs were to call a "nymphet." As she caught my
glance she gave me, over our sunny globe, a sweet lewd smile from under her
"At eleven or twelve," said Iris, "I was as pretty as that French
orphan. That's her grandmother all in black sitting on a spread
Cannice-Matin with her knitting. I let smelly gentlemen fondle me. I played
indecent games with Ivor--oh nothing very unusual, and anyway he now prefers
dons to donnas--at least that's what he says."
She talked a little about her parents who by a fascinating coincidence
had died on the same day, she at seven A.M. in New York, he at noon in
London, only two years ago. They had separated soon after the war. She was
American and horrible. You don't speak like that of your mother but she was
really horrible. Dad was Vice President of the Samuels Cement Company when
he died. He came from a respectable family and had "good connections." I
asked what grudge exactly did Ivor bear to "society" and vice versa? She
vaguely replied he disliked the "fox-hunting set" and the "yachting crowd."
I said those were abominable clichès used only by Philistines. In my set, in
my world, in the opulent Russia of my boyhood we stood <29> so far above any
concept of "class" that we only laughed or yawned when reading about
"Japanese Barons" or "New England Patricians." Yet strangely enough Ivor
stopped clowning and became a normal serious individual only when he
straddled his old, dappled, bald hobbyhorse and started reviling the English
"upper classes"--especially their pronunciation. It was, I remonstrated, a
speech superior in quality to the best Parisian French, and even to a
Petersburgan's Russian; a delightfully modulated whinny, which both he and
Iris were rather successfully, though no doubt unconsciously, imitating in
their everyday intercourse, when not making protracted fun of a harmless
foreigner's stilted or outdated English. By the way what was the nationality
of the bronzed old man with the hoary chest hair who was wading out of the
low surf preceded by his bedrabbled dog--I thought I knew his face.
It was, she said, Kanner, the great pianist and butterfly hunter, his
face and name were on all the Morris columns. She was getting tickets for at
least two of his concerts; and there, right there, where his dog was shaking
itself, the P. family (exalted old name) had basked in June when the place
was practically empty, and cut Ivor, though he knew young L.P. at Trinity.
They'd now moved down there. Even more select. See that orange dot? That's
their cabana. Foot of the Mirana Palace. I said nothing but I too knew young
P. and disliked him.
Same day. Ran into him in the Mirana Men's Room. Was effusively
welcomed. Would I care to meet his sister, tomorrow is what? Saturday.
Suggested they stroll over tomorrow afternoon to the foot of the Victoria.
Sort of cove to your right. I'm there with friends. Of course you know Ivor
Black. Young P. duly turned up, with lovely, long-limbed sister.
Ivor--frightfully rude. Rise, Iris, you forget we are having tea with
Rapallovich and Chicherini. That sort of stuff. Idiotic feuds. Lydia P.
screamed with laughter. <30>
Upon discovering the effect of that miracle cream, at my boiled-lobster
stage, I switched from a conservative caleãon de bain to a briefer variety
(still banned at the time in stricter paradises). The delayed change
resulted in a bizarre stratification of tan. I recall sneaking into Iris's
room to contemplate myself in a full-length looking glass--the only one in
the house--on a morning she had chosen for a visit to a beauty salon, which
I called up to make sure she was there and not in the arms of a lover.
Except for a Provenãal boy polishing the banisters, there was nobody around,
thus allowing me to indulge in one of my oldest and naughtiest pleasures:
circulating stark naked all over a strange house.
The full-length portrait was not altogether a success, or rather
contained an element of levity not improper to mirrors and medieval pictures
of exotic beasts. My face was brown, my torso and arms caramel, a carmine
equatorial belt undermargined the caramel, then came a white, more or less
triangular, southward pointed space edged with the redundant carmine on both
sides, and (owing to my wearing shorts all day) my legs were as brown as my
face. Apically, the white of the abdomen, brought out in frightening
repoussè, with an ugliness never noticed before, a man's portable zoo, a
symmetrical mass of animal attributes, the elephant proboscis, the twin sea
urchins, the baby gorilla, clinging to my underbelly with its back to the
A warning spasm shot through my nervous system. The fiends of my
incurable ailment, "flayed consciousness," were shoving aside my harlequins.
I sought first-aid distraction in the baubles of my love's lavender-scented
bedroom: a Teddy bear dyed violet, a curious French novel (Du còtè de chez
Swann) that I had bought for her, a trim pile of freshly laundered linen in
a Moîse basket, a color photograph of two girls in a fancy frame, obliquely
inscribed as "The Lady Cressida and thy sweet Nell, <31> Cambridge 1919"; I
mistook the former for Iris herself in a golden wig and a pink make-up; a
closer inspection, however, showed it to be Ivor in the part of that highly
irritating girl bobbing in and out of Shakespeare's flawed farce. But, then,
Mnemosyne's chromodiascope can also become a bore.
In the music room the boy was now cacophonically dusting the keys of
the Bechstein as with less zest I resumed my nudist rambles. He asked me
what sounded like "Hora?," and I demonstrated my wrist turning it this way
and that to reveal only a pale ghost of watch and watch bracelet. He
completely misinterpreted my gesture and turned away shaking his stupid
head. It was a morning of errors and failures.
I made my way to the pantry for a glass or two of wine, the best
breakfast in times of distress. In the passage I trod on a shard of crockery
(we had heard the crash on the eve) and danced on one foot with a curse as I
tried to examine the imaginary gash in the middle of my pale sole.
The litre of rouge I had visualized was there all right, but I could
not find a corkscrew in any of the drawers. Between bangs the macaw could be
heard crying out something crude and dreary. The postman had come and gone.
The editor of The New Aurora (Novaya Zarya) was afraid (dreadful poltroons,
those editors) that his "modest èmigrè venture (nachinanie)" could not
etc.--a crumpled "etc." that flew into the garbage pail. Wineless, wrathful,
with Ivor's Times under my arm, I slapped up the back stairs to my stuffy
room. The rioting in my brain had now started.
It was then that I resolved, sobbing horribly into my pillow, to
preface tomorrow's proposal of marriage with a confession that might make it
unacceptable to my Iris. <32>
If one looked from our garden gate down the asphalted avenue leading
through leopard shade to the village some two hundred paces east, one saw
the pink cube of the little post office, its green bench in front, its flag
above, all this limned with the numb brightness of a color transparency,
between the last two plane trees of the twin files marching on both sides of
On the right (south) side of the avenue, across a marginal ditch,
overhung with brambles, the intervals between the mottled trunks disclosed
patches of lavender or lucerne and, farther away, the low white wall of a
cemetery running parallel to our lane as those things are apt to do. On the
left (north) side, through analogous intervals, one glimpsed an expanse of
rising ground, a vineyard, a distant farm, pine groves, and the outline of
mountains. On the penult tree trunk of that side somebody had pasted, and
somebody else partly scraped off, an incoherent notice.
We walked down that avenue nearly every morning, Iris and I, on our way
to the village square and--from there by lovely shortcuts--to Cannice and
the sea. Now and then she liked to return on foot, being one of those small
but strong lassies who can hurdle, and play hockey, and climb rocks, and
then shimmy till any pale mad hour <33> ("do bezçmnogo blèdnogo chàsa"--to
quote from my first direct poem to her). She usually wore her "Indian"
frock, a kind of translucent wrap, over her skimpy swimsuit, and as I
followed close behind, and sensed the solitude, the security, the
all-permitting dream, I had trouble walking in my bestial state. Fortunately
it was not the none-so-very-secure solitude that held me back but a moral
decision to confess something very grave before I made love to her.
As seen from those escarpments, the sea far below spread in majestic
wrinkles, and, owing to distance and height, the recurrent line of foam
arrived in rather droll slow motion because we knew it was sure, as we had
been sure, of its strapping pace, and now that restraint, that
Suddenly there came from somewhere within the natural jumble of our
surroundings a roar of unearthly ecstasy.
"Goodness," said Iris, "I do hope that's not a happy escapee from
Kanner's Circus." (No relation--at least, so it seemed--to the pianist.)
We walked on, now side by side: after the first of the half-dozen times
it crossed the looping main road, our path grew wider. That day as usual I
argued with Iris about the English names of the few plants I could
identify--rock roses and griselda in bloom, agaves (which she called
"centuries"), broom and spurge, myrtle and arbutus. Speckled butterflies
came and went like quick sun flecks in the occasional tunnels of foliage,
and once a tremendous olive-green fellow, with a rosy flush somewhere
beneath, settled on a thistlehead for an instant. I know nothing about
butterflies, and indeed do not care for the fluffier night-flying ones, and
would hate any of them to touch me: even the prettiest gives me a nasty
shiver like some floating spider web or that bathroom pest on the Riviera,
the silver louse.
On the day now in focus, memorable for a more important matter but
carrying all kinds of synchronous trivia <34> attached to it like burrs or
incrustated like marine parasites, we noticed a butterfly net moving among
the beflowered rocks, and presently old Kanner appeared, his panama swinging
on its vest-button string, his white locks flying around his scarlet brow,
and the whole of his person still radiating ecstasy, an echo of which we no
doubt had heard a minute ago.
Upon Iris immediately describing to him the spectacular green thing,
Kanner dismissed it as eine "Pandora" (at least that's what I find jotted
down), a common southern Falter (butterfly). "Aber (but)," he thundered,
raising his index, "when you wish to look at a real rarity, never before
observed west of Nieder-Æsterreich, then I will show what I have just
He leant his net against a rock (it fell at once, Iris picked it up
reverently) and, with profuse thanks (to Psyche? Baalzebub? Iris?) that
trailed away accompanimentally, produced from a compartment in his satchel a
little stamp envelope and shook out of it very gently a folded butterfly
onto the palm of his hand.
After one glance Iris told him it was merely a tiny, very young Cabbage
White. (She had a theory that houseflies, for instance, grow.)
"Now look with attention," said Kanner ignoring her quaint remark and
pointing with compressed tweezers at the triangular insect. "What you see is
the inferior side--the under white of the left Vorderflýgel (`fore wing')
and the under yellow of the left Hinterflýgel (`hind wing'). I will not open
the wings but I think you can believe what I'm going to tell you. On the
upper side, which you can't see, this species shares with its nearest
allies--the Small White and Mann's White, both common here--the typical
little spots of the fore wing, namely a black full stop in the male and a
black Doppelpunkt (`colon') in the female. In those allies the punctuation
is reproduced on the underside, and only in the species of which you see
<35> a folded specimen on the flat of my hand is the wing blank beneath--a
typographical caprice of Nature! Ergo it is an Ergane."
One of the legs of the reclining butterfly twitched.
"Oh, it's alive!" cried Iris.
"No, it can't fly away--one pinch was enough," rejoined Kanner
soothingly, as he slipped the specimen back into its pellucid hell; and
presently, brandishing his arms and net in triumphant farewells, he was
continuing his climb.
"The brute!" wailed Iris. She brooded over the thousand little
creatures he had tortured, but a few days later, when Ivor took us to the
man's concert (a most poetical rendition of Grýnberg's suite Les Cháteaux)
she derived some consolation from her brother's contemptuous remark: "All
that butterfly business is only a publicity stunt." Alas, as a fellow madman
I knew better.
All I had to do when we reached our stretch of plage in order to absorb
the sun was to shed shirt, shorts, and sneakers. Iris shrugged off her wrap
and lay down, bare limbed, on the towel next to mine. I was rehearsing in my
head the speech I had prepared. The pianist's dog was today in the company
of a handsome old lady, his fourth wife. The nymphet was being buried in hot
sand by two young oafs. The Russian lady was reading an èmigrè newspaper.
Her husband was contemplating the horizon. The two English women were
bobbing in the dazzling sea. A large French family of slightly flushed
albinos was trying to inflate a rubber dolphin.
"I'm ready for a dip," said Iris.
She took out of the beach bag (kept for her by the Victoria concierge)
her yellow swim bonnet, and we transferred our towels and things to the
comparative quiet of an obsolete wharf of sorts upon which she liked to dry
Already twice in my young life a fit of total cramp--the physical
counterpart of lightning insanity--had all but <36> overpowered me in the
panic and blackness of bottomless water. I see myself as a lad of fifteen
swimming at dusk across a narrow but deep river with an athletic cousin. He
is beginning to leave me behind when a special effort I make results in a
sense of ineffable euphoria which promises miracles of propulsion, dream
prizes on dream shelves--but which, at its satanic climax, is replaced by an
intolerable spasm first in one leg, then in the other, then in the ribs and
both arms. I have often attempted to explain, in later years, to learned and
ironical doctors, the strange, hideous, segmental quality of those pulsating
pangs that made a huge worm of me with limbs transformed into successive
coils of agony. By some fantastic fluke a third swimmer, a stranger, was
right behind me and helped to pull me out of an abysmal tangle of water-lily
The second time was a year later, on the West-Caucasian coast. I had
been drinking with a dozen older companions at the birthday party of the
district governor's son and, around midnight, a dashing young Englishman,
Allan Andoverton (who was to be, around 1939, my first British publisher!)
had suggested a moonlight swim. As long as I did not venture too far in the
sea, the experience seemed quite enjoyable. The water was warm; the moon
shone benevolently on the starched shirt of my first evening clothes spread
on the shingly shore. I could hear merry voices around me; Allan, I
remember, had not bothered to strip and was fooling with a champagne bottle
in the dappled swell; but presently a cloud engulfed everything, a great
wave lifted and rolled me, and soon I was too upset in all senses to tell
whether I was heading for Yalta or Tuapse. Abject fear set loose instantly
the pain I already knew, and I would have drowned there and then had not the
next billow given me a boost and deposited me near my own trousers.
The shadow of those repellent and rather colorless recolections (mortal
peril is colorless) remained always present <37> in my "dips" and "splashes"
(another word of hers) with Iris. She got used to my habit of staying in
comfortable contact with the bed of shallows, while she executed "crawls"
(if that is what those overarm strokes were called in the Nineteen-Twenties)
at quite a distance away; but that morning I nearly did a very stupid thing.
I was gently floating to and fro in line with the shore and sinking a
probing toe every now and then to ascertain if I could still feel the oozy
bottom with its unappetizing to the touch, but on the whole friendly,
vegetables, when I noticed that the seascape had changed. In the middle
distance a brown motorboat manned by a young fellow in whom I recognized
L.P. had described a foamy half-circle and stopped beside Iris. She clung to
the bright brim, and he spoke to her, and then made as if to drag her into
his boat, but she flipped free, and he sped away, laughing.
It all must have lasted a couple of minutes, but had the rascal with
his hawkish profile and white cable-stitched sweater stayed a few seconds
longer or had my girl been abducted by her new beau in the thunder and
spray, I would have perished; for while the scene endured, some virile
instinct rather than one of self-preservation had caused me to swim toward
them a few insensible yards, and now when I assumed a perpendicular position
to regain my breath I found underfoot nothing but water. I turned and
started swimming landward--and already felt the ominous foreglow, the
strange, never yet described aura of total cramp creeping over me and
forming its deadly pact with gravity. Suddenly my knee struck blessed sand,
and in a mild undertow I crawled on all fours onto the beach. <38>
"I have a confession to make, Iris, concerning my mental health."
"Wait a minute. Must peel this horrid thing off--as far down--as far
down as it can decently go."
We were lying, I supine, she prone, on the wharf. She had torn off her
cap and was struggling to shrug off the shoulder straps of her wet swimsuit,
so as to expose her entire back to the sun; a secondary struggle was taking
place on the near side, in the vicinity of her sable armpit, in her
unsuccessful efforts not to show the white of a small breast at its tender
juncture with her ribs. As soon as she had wriggled into a satisfactory
state of decorum, she half-reared, holding her black bodice to her bosom,
while her other hand conducted that delightful rapid monkey-scratching
search a girl performs when groping for something in her bag--in this
instance a mauve package of cheap Salammbòs and an expensive lighter;
whereupon she again pressed her bosom to the spread towel. Her earlobe
burned red through her black liberated "Medusa," as that type of bob was
called in the young twenties. The moldings of her brown back, with a
patch-size beauty spot below the left shoulder blade and a long spinal
hollow, which redeemed all the errors of animal evolution, distracted me
painfully <39> from the decision I had taken to preface my proposal with a
special, tremendously important confession. A few aquamarines of water still
glistened on the underside of her brown thighs and on her strong brown
calves, and a few grains of wet gravel had stuck to her rose-brown ankles.
If I have described so often in my American novels (A Kingdom by the Sea,
Ardis) the unbearable magic of a girl's back, it is mainly because of my
having loved Iris. Her compact little nates, the most agonizing, the
fullest, and sweetest bloom of her puerile prettiness, were as yet unwrapped
surprises under the Christmas tree.
Upon resettling in the waiting sun after this little flurry, Iris
protruded her fat underlip as she exhaled smoke and presently remarked:
"Your mental health is jolly good, I think. You are sometimes strange and
somber, and often silly, but that's in character with ce qu'on appelle
"What do you call `genius'?"
"Well, seeing things others don't see. Or rather the invisible links
"I am speaking, then, of a humble morbid condition which has nothing to
do with genius. We shall start with a specific example and an authentic
decor. Please close your eyes for a moment. Now visualize the avenue that
goes from the post office to your villa. You see the plane trees converging
in perspective and the garden gate between the last two?"
"No," said Iris, "the last one on the right is replaced by a
lamppost--you can't make it out very clearly from the village square--but it
is really a lamppost in a coat of ivy."
"Well, no matter. The main thing is to imagine we're looking from the
village here toward the garden gate there. We must be very careful about our
here's and there's in this problem. For the present `there' is the
quadrangle of green sunlight in the half-opened gate. We now start to walk
up the avenue. On the second tree trunk of the right-side file we notice
traces of some local proclamation--" <40>
"It was Ivor's proclamation. He proclaimed that things had changed and
Aunt Betty's protègès should stop making their weekly calls."
"Splendid. We continue to walk toward the garden gate. Intervals of
landscape can be made out between the plane trees on both sides. On your
right--please, close your eyes, you will see better--on your right there's a
vineyard; on your left, a churchyard--you can distinguish its long, low,
very low, wall--"
"You make it sound rather creepy. And I want to add something. Among
the blackberries, Ivor and I discovered a crooked old tombstone with the
inscription Dors, Mèdor! and only the date of death, 1889; a found dog, no
doubt. It's just before the last tree on the left side."
"So now we reach the garden gate. We are about to enter--but you stop
all of a sudden: you've forgotten to buy those nice new stamps for your
album. We decide to go back to the post office."
"Can I open my eyes? Because I'm afraid I'm going to fall asleep."
"On the contrary: now is the moment to shut your eyes tight and
concentrate. I want you to imagine yourself turning on your heel so that
`right' instantly becomes `left,' and you instantly see the `here' as a
`there,' with the lamppost now on your left and dead Mèdor now on your
right, and the plane trees converging toward the post office. Can you do
"Done," said Iris. "About-face executed. I now stand facing a sunny
hole with a little pink house inside it and a bit of blue sky. Shall we
start walking back?"
"You may, I can't! This is the point of the experiment. In actual,
physical life I can turn as simply and swiftly as anyone. But mentally, with
my eyes closed and my body immobile, I am unable to switch from one
direction to the other. Some swivel cell in my brain does not work. I can
cheat, of course, by setting aside the mental snapshot of <41> one vista and
leisurely selecting the opposite view for my walk back to my starting point.
But if I do not cheat, some kind of atrocious obstacle, which would drive me
mad if I persevered, prevents me from imagining the twist which transforms
one direction into another, directly opposite. I am crushed, I am carrying
the whole world on my back in the process of trying to visualize my turning
around and making myself see in terms of `right' what I saw in terms of
`left' and vice versa."
I thought she had fallen asleep, but before I could entertain the
thought that she had not heard, not understood anything of what was
destroying me, she moved, rearranged her shoulder straps, and sat up.
"First of all, we shall agree," she said, "to cancel all such
experiments. Secondly, we shall tell ourselves that what we had been trying
to do was to solve a stupid philosophical riddle--on the lines of what does
`right' and `left' mean in our absence, when nobody is looking, in pure
space, and what, anyway, is space; when I was a child I thought space was
the inside of a nought, any nought, chalked on a slate and perhaps not quite
tidy, but still a good clean zero. I don't want you to go mad or to drive me
mad, because those perplexities are catching, and so we'll drop the whole
business of revolving avenues altogether. I would like to seal our pact with
a kiss, but we shall have to postpone that. Ivor is coming in a few minutes
to take us for a spin in his new car, but perhaps you do not care to come,
and so I propose we meet in the garden, for a minute or two, just before
dinner, while he is taking his bath."
I asked what Bob (L.P.) had been telling her in my dream. "It was not a
dream," she said. "He just wanted to know if his sister had phoned about a
dance they wanted us all three to come to. If she had, nobody was at home."
We repaired for a snack and a drink to the Victoria bar, and presently
Ivor joined us. He said, nonsense, he <42> could dance and fence beautifully
on the stage but was a regular bear at private affairs and would hate to
have his innocent sister pawed by all the rastaquouõres of the Còte.
"Incidentally," he added, "I don't much care for P.'s obsession with
moneylenders. He practically ruined the best one in Cambridge but has
nothing but conventional evil to repeat about them."
"My brother is a funny person," said Iris, turning to me as in play.
"He conceals our ancestry like a dark treasure, yet will flare up publicly
if someone calls someone a Shylock."
Ivor prattled on: "Old Maurice (his employer) is dining with us
tonight. Cold cuts and a macèdoine au kitchen rum. I'll also get some tinned
asparagus at the English shop; it's much better than the stuff they grow
here. The car is not exactly a Royce, but it rolls. Sorry Vivian is too
queasy to come. I saw Madge Titheridge this morning and she said French
reporters pronounce her family name `Si c'est riche.' Nobody's laughing
Being too excited to take my usual siesta, I spent most of the
afternoon working on a love poem (and this is the last entry in my 1922
pocket diary--exactly one month after my arrival in Carnavaux). In those
days I seemed to have had two muses: the essential, hysterical, genuine one,
who tortured me with elusive snatches of imagery and wrung her hands over my
inability to appropriate the magic and madness offered me; and her
apprentice, her palette girl and stand-in, a little logician, who stuffed
the torn gaps left by her mistress with explanatory or meter-mending fillers
which became more and more numerous the further I moved away from the
initial, evanescent, savage perfection. The treacherous music of Russian
rhythms came to my specious rescue like those demons who break the black
silence of an artist's hell with imitations of Greek poets and prehistorical
birds. Another and final deception would come with the Fair Copy in which,
for a short while, calligraphy, vellum paper, and India ink beautified a
dead doggerel. And to think that for almost five years I kept trying and
kept getting caught--until I fired that painted, pregnant, meek, miserable
I dressed and went downstairs. The trench window giving on the terrace
was open. Old Maurice, Iris, and <44> Ivor sat enjoying Martinis in the
orchestra seats of a marvelous sunset. Ivor was in the act of mimicking
someone, with bizarre intonations and extravagant gestures. The marvelous
sunset has not only remained as a backdrop of a life-transforming evening,
but endured, perhaps, behind the suggestion I made to my British publishers,
many years later, to bring out a coffee-table album of auroras and sunsets,
in the truest possible shades, a collection that would also be of scientific
value, since some learned celestiologist might be hired to discuss samples
from various countries and analyze the striking and never before discussed
differences between the color schemes of evening and dawn. The album came
out eventually, the price was high and the pictorial part passable; but the
text was supplied by a luckless female whose pretty prose and borrowed
poetry botched the book (Allan and Overton, London, 1949).
For a couple of moments, while idly attending to Ivor's strident
performance, I stood watching the huge sunset. Its wash was of a classical
light-orange tint with an oblique bluish-black shark crossing it. What
glorified the combination was a series of ember-bright cloudlets riding
along, tattered and hooded, above the red sun which had assumed the shape of
a pawn or a baluster. "Look at the sabbath witches!" I was about to cry, but
then I saw Iris rise and heard her say: "That will do, Ives. Maurice has
never met the person, it's all lost on him."
"Not at all," retorted her brother, "he will meet him in a minute and
recognize him (the verb was an artist's snarl), that's the point!"
Iris left the terrace via the garden steps, and Ivor did not continue
his skit, which a swift playback that now burst on my consciousness
identified as a clever burlesque of my voice and manner. I had the odd
sensation of a piece of myself being ripped off and tossed overboard, of my
being separated from my own self, of flying forward and at the same time
turning away. The second action <45> prevailed, and presently, under the
holm oak, I joined Iris.
The crickets were stridulating, dusk had filled the pool, a ray of the
outside lamp glistened on two parked cars. I kissed her lips, her neck, her
necklace, her neck, her lips. Her response dispelled my ill humor; but I
told her what I thought of the idiot before she ran back to the festively
Ivor personally brought up my supper, right to my bedside table, with
well-concealed dismay at being balked of his art's reward and charming
apologies for having offended me, and "had I run out of pyjamas?" to which I
replied that, on the contrary, I felt rather flattered, and in fact always
slept naked in summer, but preferred not to come down lest a slight headache
prevent me from not living up to that splendid impersonation.
I slept fitfully, and only in the small hours glided into a deeper
spell (illustrated for no reason at all with the image of my first little
inamorata in the grass of an orchard) from which I was rudely roused by the
spattering sounds of a motor. I slipped on a shirt and leant out of the
window, sending a flock of sparrows whirring out of the jasmin, whose
luxuriant growth reached up to the second floor, and saw, with a sensual
start, Ivor putting a suitcase and a fishing rod into his car which stood,
throbbing, practically in the garden. It was a Sunday, and I had been
expecting to have him around all day, but there he was getting behind the
wheel and slamming the door after him. The gardener was giving tactical
directions with both arms; his pretty little boy was also there, holding a
yellow and blue feather duster. And then I heard her lovely English voice
bidding her brother have a good time. I had to lean out a little more to see
her; she stood on a patch of cool clean turf, barefooted, barecalved, in an
ample-sleeved peignoir, repeating her joyful farewell, which he could no
I dashed to the W.C. across the landing. A few moments <46> later, as I
left my gurgling and gulping retreat, I noticed her on the other side of the
staircase. She was entering my room. My polo shirt, a very short,
salmon-colored affair, could not hide my salient impatience.
"I hate to see the stunned look on the face of a clock that has
stopped," she said, as she stretched a slender brovm arm up to the shelf
where I had relegated an old egg timer lent me in lieu of a regular alarm.
As her wide sleeve fell back I kissed the dark perfumed hollow I had longed
to kiss since our first day in the sun.
The door key would not work, that I knew; still I tried, and was
rewarded by the silly semblance of recurrent clicks that did not lock
anything. Whose step, whose sick young cough came from the stairs? Yes of
course that was Jacquot, the gardener's boy who rubbed and dusted things
every morning. He might butt in, I said, already speaking with difficulty.
To polish, for instance, that candlestick. Oh, what does it matter, she
whispered, he's only a conscientious child, a poor foundling, as all our
dogs and parrots are. Your tum, she said, is still as pink as your shirt.
And please do not forget, darling, to clear out before it's too late.
How far, how bright, how unchanged by eternity, how disfigured by time!
There were bread crumbs and even a bit of orange peel in the bed. The young
cough was now muted, but I could distinctly hear creakings, controlled
footfalls, the hum in an ear pressed to the door. I must have been eleven or
twelve when the nephew of my grand-uncle visited the Moscow country house
where I was spending that hot and hideous summer. He had brought his
passionate bride with him--straight from the wedding feast. Next day at the
siesta hour, in a frenzy of curiosity and fancy, I crept to a secret spot
under the second-floor guest-room window where a gardener's ladder stood
rooted in a jungle of jasmin. It reached only to the top of the closed
first-floor shutters, and though I found a foothold <47> above them, on an
ornamental projection, I could only just grip the sill of a half-open window
from which confused sounds issued. I recognized the jangle of bedsprings and
the rhythmic tinkle of a fruit knife on a plate near the bed, one post of
which I could make out by stretching my neck to the utmost; but what
fascinated me most were the manly moans coming from the invisible part of
the bed. A superhuman effort afforded me the sight of a salmon-pink shirt
over the back of a chair. He, the enraptured beast, doomed to die one day as
so many are, was now repeating her name with ever increasing urgency, and by
the time my foot slipped he was in full cry, thus drowning the noise of my
sudden descent into a crackle of twigs and a snowstorm of petals. <48>
Just before Ivor returned from his fishing trip, I moved to the
Victoria, where she visited me daily. That was not enough; but in the autumn
Ivor migrated to Los Angeles to join his half-brother in directing the
Amenic film company (for which, thirty years later, long after Ivor's death
over Dover, I was to write the script of Pawn Takes Queen, my most popular
at the time, but far from best, novel), and we returned to our beloved
villa, in the really quite nice blue Icarus, Ivor's thoughtful wedding
Sometime in October my benefactor, now in the last stage of majestic
senility, came for his annual visit to Mentone, and, without warning, Iris
and I dropped in to see him. His villa was incomparably grander than ours.
He staggered to his feet to take between his wax-pale palms Iris's hand and
stare at her with blue bleary eyes for at least five seconds (a little
eternity, socially) in a kind of ritual silence, after which he embraced me
with a slow triple cross-kiss in the awful Russian tradition.
"Your bride," he said, using, I knew, the word in the sense of fiancèe
(and speaking an English which Iris said later was exactly like mine in
Ivor's unforgettable version) "is as beautiful as your wife will be!"
I quickly told him--in Russian--that the maire of <49> Cannice had
married us a month ago in a brisk ceremony. Nikifor Nikodimovich gave Iris
another stare and finally kissed her hand, which I was glad to see she
raised in the proper fashion (coached, no doubt, by Ivor who used to take
every opportunity to paw his sister).
"I misunderstood the rumors," he said, "but all the same I am happy to
make the acquaintance of such a charming young lady. And where, pray, in
what church, will the vow be sanctified?"
"In the temple we shall build, Sir," said Iris--a trifle insolently, I
Count Starov "chewed his lips," as old men are wont to do in Russian
novels. Miss Vrode-Vorodin, the elderly cousin who kept house for him, made
a timely entrance and led Iris to an adjacent alcove (illuminated by a
resplendent portrait by Serov, 1896, of the notorious beauty, Mme. de
Blagidze, in Caucasian costume) for a nice cup of tea. The Count wished to
talk business with me and had only ten minutes "before his injection."
What was my wife's maiden name?
I told him. He thought it over and shook his head. What was her
I told him that, too. Same reaction. What about the financial aspect of
I said she had a house, a parrot, a car, and a small income--I didn't
know exactly how much.
After another minute's thought, he asked me if I would like a permanent
job in the White Cross? It had nothing to do with Switzerland. It was an
organization that helped Russian Christians all over the world. The job
would involve travel, interesting connections, promotion to important posts.
I declined so emphatically that he dropped the silver pill box he was
holding and a number of innocent gum drops were spilled all over the table
at his elbow. He swept them onto the carpet with a gesture of peevish
What then was I intending to do?
I said I'd go on with my literary dreams and nightmares. We would spend
most of the year in Paris. Paris was becoming the center of èmigrè culture
How much did I think I could earn?
Well, as N.N. knew, currencies were losing their identities in the
whirlpool of inflation, but Boris Morozov, a distinguished author, whose
fame had preceded his exile, had given me some illuminating "examples of
existence" when I met him quite recently in Cannice where he had lectured on
Baratynski at the local literaturnyy circle. In his case, four lines of
verse would pay for a bifsteck pommes, while a couple of essays in the
Novosti emigratsii assured a month's rent for a cheap chambre garnie. There
were also readings, in large auditoriums, at least twice a year, which might
bring him each time the equivalent of, say, one hundred dollars.
My benefactor thought this over and said that as long as he lived I
would receive a check for half that amount every first of the month, and
that he would bequeath me a certain sum in his testament. He named the sum.
Its paltriness took me aback. This was a foretaste of the disappointing
advances publishers were to offer me after a long, promising, pencil-tapping
We rented a two-room apartment in the 16th arrondissement, rue
Desprèaux, 23. The hallway connecting the rooms led, on the front side, to a
bathroom and kitchenette. Being a solitary sleeper by principle and
inclination, I relinquished the double bed to Iris, and slept on the couch
in the parlor. The concierge's daughter came to clean up and cook. Her
culinary capacities were limited, so we often broke the monotony of
vegetable soups and boiled meat by eating at a Russian restoranchik. We were
to spend seven winters in that little flat.
Owing to the foresight of my dear guardian and benefactor
(1850?--1927), an old-fashioned cosmopolitan with <51> a lot of influence in
the right quarters, I had become by the time of my marriage the subject of a
snug foreign country and thus was spared the indignity of a nansenskiy
pasport (a pauper's permit, really), as well as the vulgar obsession with
"documents," which provoked such evil glee among the Bolshevist rulers, who
perceived some similarity between red tape and Red rule and a certain
affinity between the civil plight of a hobbled expatriate and the political
immobilization of a Soviet slave. I could, therefore, take my wife to any
vacational resort in the world without waiting several weeks for a visa, and
then being refused, perhaps, a return visa to our accidental country of
residence, in this case France, because of some flaw in our precious and
despicable papers. Nowadays (1970), when my British passport has been
superseded by a no less potent American one, I still treasure that 1922
photo of the mysterious young man I then was, with the mysteriously smiling
eyes and the striped tie and the wavy hair. I remember spring trips to Malta
and Andalusia, but every summer, around the first of July, we drove to
Carnavaux and stayed there for a month or two. The parrot died in 1925, the
footboy vanished in 1927. Ivor visited us twice in Paris, and I think she
saw him also in London where she went at least once a year to spend a few
days with "friends," whom I did not know, but who sounded harmless--at least
to a certain point.
I should have been happier. I had planned to be happier. My health
continued patchy with ominous shapes showing through its flimsier edges.
Faith in my work never wavered, but despite her touching intentions to
participate in it, Iris remained on its outside, and the better it grew the
more alien it became to her. She took desultory lessons in Russian,
interrupting them regularly, for long periods, and finished by developing a
dull habitual aversion to the language. I soon noticed that she had ceased
trying to look attentive and bright when Russian, and Russian only, was <52>
spoken in her presence (after some primitive French had been kept up for the
first minute or two of the party in polite concession to her disability).
This was, at best, annoying; at worst, heartrending; it did not,
however, affect my sanity as something else threatened to do.
Jealousy, a masked giant never encountered before in the frivolous
affairs of my early youth, now stood with folded arms, confronting me at
every corner. Certain little sexual quirks in my sweet, docile, tender Iris,
inflections of lovemaking, felicities of fondling, the easy accuracy with
which she adapted her flexible frame to every pattern of passion, seemed to
presuppose a wealth of experience. Before starting to suspect the present, I
felt compelled to get my fill of suspecting her past. During the
examinations to which I subjected her on my worst nights, she dismissed her
former romances as totally insignificant, without realizing that this
reticence left more to my imagination than would the most luridly overstated
The three lovers (a figure I wrested from her with the fierceness of
Pushkin's mad gambler and with even less luck) whom she had had in her teens
remained nameless, and therefore spectral; devoid of any individual traits,
and therefore identical. They performed their sketchy pas in the back of her
lone act like the lowliest members of the corps de ballet, in a display of
mawkish gymnastics rather than dance, and it was clear that none of them
would ever become the male star of the troupe. She, the ballerina, on the
other hand, was a dim diamond with all the facets of talent ready to blaze,
but under the pressure of the nonsense around her had, for the moment, to
limit her steps and gestures to an expression of cold coquetry, of
flirtatious evasion--waiting as she was for the tremendous leap of the
marble-thighed athlete in shining tights who was to erupt from the wings
after a decent prelude. We thought I had been chosen for that part but we
were mistaken. <53>
Only by projecting thus on the screen of my mind those stylized images,
could I allay the anguish of carnal jealousy centered on specters. Yet not
seldom I chose to succumb to it. The trench window of my studio in Villa
Iris gave on the same red-tiled balcony as my wife's bedroom did, and could
be set half-open at such an angle as to provide two different views melting
into one another. It caught obliquely, through the monastic archway leading
from room to room, part of her bed and of her--her hair, a shoulder--which
otherwise I could not see from the old-fashioned lectern at which I wrote;
but the glass also held, at arm's length as it were, the green reality of
the garden with a peregrination of cypresses along its sidewall. So half in
bed and half in the pale hot sky, she would recline, writing a letter that
was crucified on my second-best chessboard. I knew that if I asked, the
answer would be "Oh, to an old schoolmate," or "To Ivor," or "To old Miss
Kupalov," and I also knew that in one way or another the letter would reach
the post office at the end of the plane-tree avenue without my seeing the
name on the envelope. And still I let her write as she comfortably floated
in the life belt of her pillow, above the cypresses and the garden wall,
while all the time I gauged--grimly, recklessly--to what depths of dark
pigment the tentacled ache would go. <54>
Most of those Russian lessons consisted of her taking one of my poems
or essays to this or that Russian lady, Miss Kupalov or Mrs. Lapukov
(neither of whom had much English) and having it paraphrased orally for her
in a kind of makeshift Volapýk. On my pointing out to Iris that she was
losing her time at this hit-and-miss task, she cast around for some other
alchemic method which might enable her to read everything I wrote. I had
begun by then (1925) my first novel (Tamara) and she coaxed me into letting
her have a copy of the first chapter, which I had just typed out. This she
carried to an agency that dealt in translations into French of utilitarian
texts such as applications and supplications addressed by Russian refugees
to various rats in the ratholes of various commissariats. The person who
agreed to supply her with the "literal version," which she paid for in
valuta, kept the typescript for two months and warned her when delivering it
that my "article" had presented almost insurmountable difficulties, "being
written in an idiom and style utterly unfamiliar to the ordinary reader."
Thus an anonymous imbecile in a shabby, cluttered, clattering office became
my first critic and my first translator.
I knew nothing of that venture, until I found her one <55> day bending
her brown curls over sheets of foolscap almost perforated by the violence of
the violet characters that covered it without any semblance of margin. I
was, in those days, naively opposed to any kind of translation, partly
because my attempts to turn two or three of my first compositions into my
own English had resulted in a feeling of morbid revolt--and in maddening
headaches. Iris, her cheek on her fist and her eyes rolling in languid
doubt, looked up at me rather sheepishly, but with that gleam of humor that
never left her in the most absurd or trying circumstances. I noticed a
blunder in the first line, a boo-boo in the next, and without bothering to
read any further, tore up the whole thing--which provoked no reaction, save
a neutral sigh, on the part of my thwarted darling.
In compensation for being debarred from my writings, she decided to
become a writer herself. Beginning with the middle Twenties and to the end
of her short, squandered, uncharmed life, my Iris kept working on a
detective novel in two, three, four successive versions, in which the plot,
the people, the setting, everything kept changing in bewildering bursts of
frantic deletions--everything except the names (none of which I remember).
Not only did she lack all literary talent, but she had not even the
knack of imitating the small number of gifted authors among the prosperous
but ephemeral purveyors of "crime fiction" which she consumed with the
indiscriminate zest of a model prisoner. How, then, did my Iris know why
this had to be altered, that rejected? What instinct of genius ordered her
to destroy the whole heap of her drafts on the eve, practically on the eve,
of her sudden death? All the odd girl could ever visualize, with startling
lucidity, was the crimson cover of the final, ideal paperback on which the
villain's hairy fist would be shown pointing a pistol-shaped cigarette
lighter at the reader--who was not supposed to guess until everybody in the
book had died that it was, in fact, a pistol. <56>
Let me pick out several fatidic points, cleverly disguised at the time,
within the embroidery of our seven winters.
During a lull in a magnificent concert for which we had not been able
to obtain adjacent seats, I noticed Iris eagerly welcoming a
melancholy-looking woman with drab hair and thin lips; I certainly had met
her, somewhere, quite recently, but the very insignificance of her
appearance canceled the pursuit of a vague recollection, and I never asked
Iris about it. She was to become my wife's last teacher.
Every author believes, when his first book is published, that those
that acclaim it are his personal friends or impersonal peers, while its
revilers can only be envious rogues and nonentities. No doubt I might have
had similar illusions about the way Tamara was reviewed in the
Russian-language periodicals of Paris, Berlin, Prague, Riga, and other
cities; but by that time I was already engrossed in my second novel, Pawn
Takes Queen, and my first one had dwindled to a pinch of colored dust in my
The editor of Patria, the èmigrè monthly in which Pawn Takes Queen had
begun to be serialized, invited "Irida Osipovna" and me to a literary
samovar. I mention it only because this was one of the few salons that my
unsociability deigned to frequent. Iris helped with the sandwiches. I smoked
my pipe and observed the feeding habits of two major novelists, three minor
ones, one major poet, five minor ones of both sexes, one major critic
(Demian Basilevski), and nine minor ones, including the inimitable
"Prostakov-Skotinin," a Russian comedy name (meaning "simpleton and brute")
applied to him by his archrival Hristofor Boyarski.
The major poet, Boris Morozov, an amiable grizzly bear of a man, was
asked how his reading in Berlin had gone, and he said: "Nichevo" (a "so-so"
tinged with a "well enough") and then told a funny but not memorable story
about the new President of the Union of Èmigrè <57> Writers in Germany. The
lady next to me informed me she had adored that treacherous conversation
between the Pawn and the Queen about the husband and would they really
defenestrate the poor chess player? I said they would but not in the next
issue, and not for good: he would live forever in the games he had played
and in the multiple exclamation marks of future annotators. I also heard--my
hearing is almost on a par with my sight--snatches of general talk such as
an explanatory, "She is an Englishwoman," murmured from behind a hand five
chairs away by one guest to another.
All that would have been much too trivial to record unless meant to
serve as the commonplace background, at any such meeting of exiles, against
which a certain reminder flickered now and then, between the shoptalk and
the tattle--a line of Tyutchev or Blok, which was cited in passing, as well
as an everlasting presence, with the familiarity of devotion and as the
secret height of art, and which ornamented sad lives with a sudden cadenza
coming from some celestial elsewhere, a glory, a sweetness, the patch of
rainbow cast on the wall by a crystal paperweight we cannot locate. That was
what my Iris was missing.
To return to the trivia: I recall regaling the company with one of the
howlers I had noticed in the "translation" of Tamara. The sentence vidnelos'
neskol'ko barok ("several barges could be seen") had become la vue ètait
assez baroque. The eminent critic Basilevski, a stocky, fair-haired old
fellow in a rumpled brown suit, shook with abdominal mirth--but then his
expression changed to one of suspicion and displeasure. After tea he
accosted me and insisted gruffly that I had made up that example of
mistranslation. I remember answering that, if so, he, too, might well be an
invention of mine.
As we strolled home. Iris complained she would never learn to cloud a
glass of tea with a spoonful of cloying raspberry jam. I said I was ready to
put up with her deliberate <58> insularity but implored her to cease
announcing þ la ronde: "Please, don't mind me: I love the sound of Russian."
That was an insult, like telling an author his book was unreadable but
"I am going to make reparations," she gaily replied. "I've never been
able to find a proper teacher, I always believed you were the only one--and
you refused to teach me, because you were busy, because you were tired,
because it bored you, because it was bad for your nerves. I've discovered at
last someone who speaks both languages, yours and mine, as two natives in
one, and can make all the edges fit. I am thinking of Nadia Starov. In fact
it's her own suggestion."
Nadezhda Gordonovna Starov was the wife of a leytenant Starov
(Christian name unimportant), who had served under General Wrangel and now
had some office job in the White Cross. I had met him in London recently, as
fellow pallbearer at the funeral of the old Count, whose bastard or "adopted
nephew" (whatever that meant), he was said to be. He was a dark-eyed,
dark-complexioned man, three or four years my senior; I thought him rather
handsome in a brooding, gloomy way. A head wound received in the civil war
had left him with a terrifying tic that caused his face to change suddenly,
at variable intervals, as if a paper bag were being crumpled by an invisible
hand. Nadezhda Starov, a quiet, plain woman with an indefinable Quakerish
look about her, clocked those intervals for some reason, no doubt of a
medical nature, the man himself being unconscious of his "fireworks" unless
he happened to see them in a mirror. He had a macabre sense of humor,
beautiful hands, and a velvety voice.
I realized now that it was Nadezhda Gordonovna whom Iris had been
talking to in that concert hall. I cannot say exactly when the lessons began
or how long that fad lasted; a month or two months at the most. They took
place either in Mrs. Starov's lodgings or in one of the <59> Russian
tearooms both ladies frequented. I kept a little list of telephone numbers
so that Iris might be warned that I could always make sure of her
whereabouts if, say, I felt on the brink of losing my mind or wanted her to
buy on the way home a tin of my favorite Brown Prune tobacco. She did not
know, on the other hand, that I would never have dared ring her up, lest her
not being where she said she would be cause me even a few minutes of an
agony that I could not face.
Sometime around Christmas, 1929, she casually told me that those
lessons had been discontinued quite a while ago: Mrs. Starov had left for
England, and it was rumored that she would not return to her husband. The
lieutenant, it seemed, was quite a dasher. <60>
At a certain mysterious point toward the end of our last winter in
Paris something in our relationship changed for the better. A wave of new
warmth, new intimacy, new tenderness, swelled and swept away all the
delusions of distance--tiffs, silences, suspicions, retreats into castles of
amour-propre and the like--which had obstructed our love and of which I
alone was guilty. A more amiable, merrier mate I could not have imagined.
Endearments, love names (based in my case on Russian forms) reentered our
customary exchanges. I broke the monastic rules of work on my novella in
verse Polnolunie (Plenilune) by riding with her in the Bois or dutifully
escorting her to fashion-show teases and exhibitions of avant-garde frauds.
I surmounted my contempt for the "serious" cinema (depicting heartrending
problems with a political twist), which she preferred to American buffoonery
and the trick photography of Germanic horror films. I even gave a talk on my
Cambridge days at a rather pathetic English Ladies Club, to which she
belonged. And to top the treat, I told her the plot of my next novel (Camera
One afternoon, in March or early April, 1930, she peeped into my room
and, being admitted, handed me the duplicate of a typewritten sheet,
numbered 444. It was, she <61> said, a tentative episode in her interminable
tale, which would soon display more deletions than insertions. She was
stuck, she said. Diana Vane, an incidental but on the whole nice girl,
sojourning in Paris, happened to meet, at a riding school, a strange
Frenchman, of Corsican, or perhaps Algerian, origin, passionate, brutal,
unbalanced. He mistook Diana--and kept on mistaking her despite her amused
remonstrations--for his former sweetheart, also an English girl, whom he had
last seen ages ago. We had here, said the author, a sort of hallucination,
an obsessive fancy, which Diana, a delightful flirt with a keen sense of
humor, allowed Jules to entertain during some twenty riding lessons; but
then his attentions grew more realistic, and she stopped seeing him. There
had been nothing between them, and yet he simply could not be dissuaded from
confusing her with the girl he once had possessed or thought he had, for
that girl, too, might well have been only the afterimage of a still earlier
romance or remembered delirium. It was a very bizarre situation.
Now this page was supposed to be a last ominous letter written by that
Frenchman in a foreigner's English to Diana. I was to read it as if it were
a real letter and suggest, as an experienced writer, what might be the next
development or disaster.
I am not capable to represent to myself that you really desire to tear
up any connection with me. God sees, I love you more than life--more than
two lives, your and my, together taken. Are you not ill? Or maybe you have
found another? Another lover, yes? Another victim of your attraction? No,
no, this thought is too horrible, too humiliating for us both.
My supplication is modest and just. Give only one more interview to me!
One interview! I am <62> prepared to meet with you it does not matter
where--on the street, in some cafe, in the Forest of Boulogne--but I must
see you, must speak with you and open to you many mysteries before I will
die. Oh, this is no threat! I swear that if our interview will lead to a
positive result, if, otherwise speaking, you will permit me to hope, only to
hope, then, oh then, I will consent to wait a little. But you must reply to
me without retardment, my cruel, stupid, adored little girl!
"There's one thing," I said, carefully folding the sheet and pocketing
it for later study, "one thing the little girl should know. This is not a
romantic Corsican writing a crime passionnel letter; it is a Russian
blackmailer knowing just enough English to translate into it the stalest
Russian locutions. What puzzles me is how did you, with your three or four
words of Russian--kak pozhivaete and do svidaniya--how did you, the author,
manage to think up those subtle turns, and imitate the mistakes in English
that only a Russian would make? Impersonation, I know, runs in the family,
Iris replied (with that quaint non sequitur that I was to give to the
heroine of my Ardis forty years later) that, yes, indeed, I was right, she
must have had too many muddled lessons in Russian and she would certainly
correct that extraordinary impression by simply giving the whole letter in
French--from which, she had been told, incidentally, Russian had borrowed a
lot of clichès.
"But that's beside the point," she added. "You don't understand--the
point is what should happen next--I mean, logically? What should my poor
girl do about that bore, that brute? She is uncomfortable, she is perplexed,
she is frightened. Should this situation end in slapstick or tragedy?" <63>
"In the wastepaper basket," I whispered, interrupting my work to gather
her small form onto my lap as I often did, the Lord be thanked, in that
fatal spring of 1930.
"Give me back that scrap," she begged gently, trying to thrust her hand
into the pocket of my dressing gown, but I shook my head and embraced her
My latent jealousy should have been fanned up to a furnace roar by the
surmise that my wife had been transcribing an authentic letter--received,
say, from one of the wretched, unwashed èmigrè poeticules, with smooth
glossy hair and eloquent liquid eyes, whom she used to meet in the salons of
exile. But after reexamining the thing, I decided that it just might be her
own composition with some of the planted faults, borrowed from the French
(supplication, sans tarder), while others could be subliminal echoes of the
Volapýk she had been exposed to, during sessions with Russian teachers,
through bilingual or trilingual exercises in tawdry textbooks. Thus, instead
of losing myself in a jungle of evil conjectures, all I did was preserve
that thin sheet with its unevenly margined lines so characteristic of her
typing in the faded and cracked briefcase before me, among other mementos,
other deaths. <64>
On the morning of April 23, 1930, the shrill peal of the hallway
telephone caught me in the act of stepping into my bathwater.
Ivor! He had just arrived in Paris from New York for an important
conference, would be busy all afternoon, was leaving tomorrow, would like
Here intervened naked Iris, who delicately, unhurriedly, with a radiant
smile, appropriated the monologizing receiver. A minute later (her brother
with all his defects was a mercifully concise phoner), she, still beaming,
embraced me, and we moved to her bedroom for our last "fairelamourir" as she
called it in her tender aberrant French.
Ivor was to fetch us at seven P.M. I had already put on my old dinner
jacket; Iris stood sideways to the hallway mirror (the best and brightest in
the whole flat) veering gently as she tried to catch a clear view of the
back of her silky dark bob in the hand glass she held at head level.
"If you're ready," she said, "I'd like you to buy some olives. He'll be
coming here after dinner, and he likes them with his `postbrandy.' "
So I went downstairs and crossed the street and shivered (it was a raw
cheerless night) and pushed open the door of the little delicatessen shop
opposite, and a man behind <65> me stopped it from closing with a strong
hand. He wore a trench coat and a beret, his dark face was twitching. I
recognized Lieutenant Starov.
"Ah!" he said. "A whole century we did not meet!" The cloud of his
breath gave off an odd chemical smell. I had once tried sniffing cocaine
(which only made me throw up), but this was some other drug.
He removed a black glove for one of those circumstantial handshakes my
compatriots think proper to use at every entry and exit, and the liberated
door hit him between the shoulder blades.
"Pleasant meeting!" he went on in his curious English (not parading it
as might have seemed but using it by unconscious association). "I see you
are in a smoking. Banquet?"
I bought my olives, replying the while, in Russian, that, yes, my wife
and I were dining out. Then I skipped a farewell handshake, by taking
advantage of the shopgirl's turning to him for the next transaction.
"What a shame," exclaimed Iris--"I wanted the black ones, not the
I told her I refused to go back for them because I did not want to run
into Starov again.
"Oh, that's a detestable person," she said. "I'm sure he'll try now to
come and see us, hoping for some vaw-dutch-ka. I'm sorry you spoke to him."
She flung the window open and leant out just as Ivor was emerging from
his taxi. She blew him an exuberant kiss and shouted, with illustrative
gestures, that we were coming down.
"How nice it would be," she said as we hurried downstairs, "if you'd be
wearing an opera cloak. You could wrap it around both of us as the Siamese
twins do in your story. Now, quick!"
She dashed into Ivor's arms, and was the next moment in the safety of
the cab. <66>
"Paon d'Or," Ivor told the driver. "Good to see you, old boy," he said
to me, with a distinct American intonation (which I shyly imitated at dinner
until he growled: "Very funny").
The Paon d'Or no longer exists. Although not quite tops, it was a nice
clean place, much patronized by American tourists, who called it "Pander" or
"Pandora" and always ordered its "putty saw-lay," and that, I guess, is what
we had. I remember more clearly a glazed case hanging on the gold-figured
wall next to our table: it displayed four Morpho butterflies, two huge ones
similar in harsh sheen but differently shaped, and two smaller ones beneath
them, the left of a sweeter blue with white stripes and the right gloaming
like silvery satin. According to the headwaiter, they had been caught by a
convict in South America.
"And how's my friend Mata Hari?" inquired Ivor turning to us again, his
spread hand still flat on the table as he had placed it when swinging toward
the "bugs" under discussion.
We told him the poor ara sickened and had to be destroyed. And what
about his automobile, was she still running? She jolly well was--
"In fact," Iris continued, touching my wrist, "we've decided to set off
tomorrow for Cannice. Pity you can't join us, Ives, but perhaps you might
I did not want to object, though I had never heard of that decision.
Ivor said that if ever we wanted to sell Villa Iris he knew someone who
would snap it up any time. Iris, he said, knew him too: David Geller, the
actor. "He was (turning to me) her first beau before you blundered in. She
must still have somewhere that photo of him and me in Troilus and Cressida
ten years ago. He's Helen of Troy in it. I'm Cressida."
"Lies, lies," murmured Iris.
Ivor described his own house in Los Angeles. He proposed <67>
discussing with me after dinner a script he wished me to prepare based on
Gogol's Inspector (we were back at the start, so to speak). Iris asked for
another helping of whatever it was we were eating.
"You will die," said Ivor. "It's monstrously rich. Remember what Miss
Grunt (a former governess to whom he would assign all kinds of gruesome
apothegms) used to say: `The white worms lie in wait for the glutton.' "
"That's why I want to be burned when I die," remarked Iris.
He ordered a second or third bottle of the indifferent white wine I had
had the polite weakness to praise. We drank to his last film--I forget its
title--which was to be shown tomorrow in London, and later in Paris, he
Ivor did not look either very well or very happy; he had developed a
sizable bald spot, freckled. I had never noticed before that his eyelids
were so heavy and his lashes so coarse and pale. Our neighbors, three
harmless Americans, hearty, flushed, vociferous, were, perhaps, not
particularly pleasant, but neither Iris nor I thought Ivor's threat "to make
those Bronxonians pipe down" justified, seeing that he, too, was talking in
fairly resonant tones. I rather looked forward to the end of the dinner--and
to coffee at home--but Iris on the contrary seemed inclined to enjoy every
morsel and drop. She wore a very open, jet-black frock and the long onyx
earrings I had once given her. Her cheeks and arms, without their summer
tan, had the mat whiteness that I was to distribute--perhaps too
generously--among the girls of my future books. Ivor's roving eyes, while he
talked, tended to appraise her bare shoulders, but by the simple trick of
breaking in with some question, I managed to keep confusing the trajectory
of his gaze.
At last the ordeal came to a close. Iris said she would be back in a
minute; her brother suggested we "repair for a leak." I declined--not
because I did not need it--I did--but <68> because I knew by experience that
a talkative neighbor and the sight of his immediate stream would inevitably
afflict me with urinary impotence. As I sat smoking in the lounge of the
restaurant I pondered the wisdom of suddenly transferring the established
habit of work on Camera Lucida to other surroundings, another desk, another
lighting, another pressure of outside calls and smells--and I saw my pages
and notes flash past like the bright windows of an express train that did
not stop at my station. I had decided to talk Iris out of her plan when
brother and sister appeared from opposite sides of the stage, beaming at one
another. She had less than fifteen minutes of life left.
Numbers are bleary along rue Desprèaux, and the taximan missed our
front porch by a couple of house lengths. He suggested reversing his cab,
but impatient Iris had already alighted, and I scrambled out after her,
leaving Ivor to pay the taxi. She cast a look around her; then started to
walk so fast toward our house that I had trouble catching up with her. As I
was about to cup her elbow, I heard Ivor's voice behind me, calling out that
he had not enough change. I abandoned Iris and ran back to Ivor, and just as
I reached the two palm readers, they and I heard Iris cry out something loud
and brave, as if she were driving away a fierce hound. By the light of a
streetlamp we glimpsed the figure of a mackintoshed man stride up to her
from the opposite sidewalk and fire at such close range that he seemed to
prod her with his large pistol. By now our taximan, followed by Ivor and me,
had come near enough to see the killer stumble over her collapsed and curled
up body. Yet he did not try to escape. Instead he knelt down, took off his
beret, threw back his shoulders, and in this ghastly and ludicrous attitude
lifted his pistol to his shaved head.
The story that appeared among other faits-divers in the Paris dailies
after an investigation by the police--whom Ivor and I contrived to mislead
thoroughly--amounted to what follows--I translate: a White Russian, Wladimir
<69> Blagidze, alias Starov, who was subject to paroxysms of insanity, ran
amuck Friday night in the middle of a calm street, opened fire at random,
and after killing with one pistol shot an English tourist Mrs. [name
garbled], who chanced to be passing by, blew his brains out beside her.
Actually he did not die there and then, but retained in his remarkably tough
brainpan fragments of consciousness and somehow lingered on well into May,
which was unusually hot that year. Out of some perverse dream-like
curiosity, Ivor visited him at the very special hospital of the renowned Dr.
Lazareff, a very round, mercilessly round, building on the top of a hill,
thickly covered with horse chestnut, wild rose, and other poignant plants.
The hole in Blagidze's mind had caused a complete set of recent memories to
escape; but the patient remembered quite clearly (according to a Russian
male nurse good at decoding the tales of the tortured) how at six years of
age he was taken to a pleasure park in Italy where a miniature train
consisting of three open cars, each seating six silent children, with a
battery-operated green engine that emitted at realistic intervals puffs of
imitation smoke, pursued a circular course through a brambly picturesque
nightmare grove whose dizzy flowers nodded continuous assent to all the
horrors of childhood and hell.
From somewhere in the Orkneys, Nadezhda Gordonovna and a clerical
friend arrived in Paris only after her husband's burial. Moved by a false
sense of duty, she attempted to see me so as to tell me "everything." I
evaded all contact with her, but she managed to locate Ivor in London before
he left for the States. I never asked him, and the dear funny fellow never
revealed to me what that "everything" was; I refuse to believe that it could
have amounted to much--and I knew enough, anyway. By nature I am not
vindictive; yet I like to dwell in fancy on the image of that little green
train, running on, round and round, forever. <70>
A curious form of self-preservation moves us to get rid, instantly,
irrevocably, of all that belonged to the loved one we lost. Otherwise, the
things she touched every day and kept in their proper context by the act of
handling them start to become bloated with an awful mad life of their own.
Her dresses now wear their own selves, her books leaf through their own
pages. We suffocate in the tightening circle of those monsters that are
misplaced and misshapen because she is not there to tend them. And even the
bravest among us cannot meet the gaze of her mirror.
How to get rid of them is another problem. I could not drown them like
kittens; in fact, I could not drown a kitten, let alone her brush or bag.
Nor could I watch a stranger collect them, take them away, come back for
more. Therefore, I simply abandoned the flat, telling the maid to dispose in
any manner she chose of all those unwanted things. Unwanted! At the moment
of parting they appeared quite normal and harmless; I would even say they
looked taken aback.
At first I tried putting up in a third-rate hotel in the center of
Paris. I would fight terror and solitude by working all day. I completed one
novel, began another, wrote forty poems (all robbers and brothers under
their motley <73> skin), a dozen short stories, seven essays, three
devastating reviews, one parody. The business of not losing my mind during
the night was taken care of by swallowing an especially potent pill or
buying a bedmate.
I remember a dangerous dawn in May (1931? or 1932?); all the birds
(mostly sparrows) were singing as in Heine's month of May, with demonic
monotonous force--that's why I know it must have been a wonderful May
morning. I lay with my face to the wall and in a muddled ominous way
considered the question should "we" not drive earlier than usual to Villa
Iris. An obstacle, however, kept preventing me from undertaking that
journey: the car and the house had been sold, so Iris had told me herself at
the Protestant cemetery, because the masters of her faith and fate
interdicted cremation. I turned in bed from the wall to the window, and Iris
was lying with her dark head to me on the window side of the bed. I kicked
off the bedclothes. She was naked, save for her black-stockinged legs (which
was strange but at the same time recalled something from a parallel world,
for my mind stood astride on two circus horses). In an erotic footnote, I
reminded myself for the ten thousandth time to mention somewhere that there
is nothing more seductive than a girl's back with the profiled rise of the
haunch accentuated by her lying sidelong, one leg slightly bent. "J'ai
froid," said the girl as I touched her shoulder.
The Russian term for any kind of betrayal, faithlessness, breach of
trust, is the snaky, watered-silk word izmena which is based on the idea of
change, shift, transformation. This derivation had never occurred to me in
my constant thoughts about Iris, but now it struck me as the revelation of a
bewitchment, of a nymph's turning into a whore--and this called for an
immediate and vociferous protest. One neighbor thumped the wall, another
rattled the door. The frightened girl, snatching up her handbag and my
raincoat, bolted out of the room, and a bearded individual <74> entered
instead, farcically clad in a nightshirt and wearing rubbers on his bare
feet. The crescendo of my cries, cries of rage and distress, ended in a
hysterical fit. I think some attempt was made to whisk me off to a hospital.
In any case, I had to find another home sans tarder, a phrase I cannot hear
without a spasm of anguish by mental association with her lover's letter.
A small patch of countryside kept floating before my eyes like some
photic illusion. I let my index finger stray at random over a map of
northern France; the point of its nail stopped at the town of Petiver or
Pètit Ver, a small worm or verse, which sounded idyllic. An autobus took me
to a road station not very far from Orlèans, I believe. All I remember of my
abode is its oddly slanting floor which corresponded to a slant in the
ceiling of the cafe under my room. I also remember a pastel-green park to
the east of the town, and an old castle. The summer I spent there is a mere
smudge of color on the dull glass of my mind; but I did write a few
poems--at least one of which, about a company of acrobats staging a show on
the church square, has been reprinted a number of times in the course of
When I returned to Paris I found that my kind friend Stepan Ivanovich
Stepanov, a prominent journalist of independent means (he was one of those
very few lucky Russians who had happened to transfer themselves and their
money abroad before the Bolshevik coup), had not only organized my second or
third public reading (vecher, "evening," was the Russian term consecrated to
that kind of performance) but wanted me to stay in one of the ten rooms of
his spacious old-fashioned house (Avenue Koch? Roche? It abuts, or abutted,
on the statue of a general whose name escapes me but surely lurks somewhere
among my old notes).
Its residents were at the moment old Mr. and Mrs. Stepanov, their
married daughter Baroness Borg, her <75> eleven-year-old child (the Baron, a
businessman, had been sent by his firm to England), and Grigoriy Reich
(1899-1942?), a gentle, melancholy, lean, young poet, of no talent whatever,
who under the pen name of Lunin contributed a weekly elegy to the Novosti
and acted as Stepanov's secretary.
I could not avoid coming down in the evenings to join the frequent
gatherings of literary and political personages in the ornate salon or in
the dining room with its huge oblong table and the oil portrait en pied of
the Stepanovs' young son who had died in 1920 while trying to save a
drowning schoolmate. Nearsighted, gruffly jovial Alexander Kerenski would
usually be there, brusquely raising his eyeglass to stare at a stranger or
greeting an old friend with a ready quip in that rasping voice of his, most
of its strength lost years ago in the roar of the Revolution. Ivan
Shipogradov, eminent novelist and recent Nobel Prize winner, would also be
present, radiating talent and charm, and--after a few jiggers of
vodka--delighting his intimates with the kind of Russian bawdy tale that
depends for its artistry on the rustic gusto and fond respect with which it
treats our most private organs. A far less engaging figure was I. A.
Shipogradov's old rival, a fragile little man in a sloppy suit, Vasiliy
Sokolovski (oddly nicknamed "Jeremy" by I.A.), who since the dawn of the
century had been devoting volume after volume to the mystical and social
history of a Ukrainian clan that had started as a humble family of three in
the sixteenth century but by volume six (1920) had become a whole village,
replete with folklore and myth. It was good to see old Morozov's rough-hewn
clever face with its shock of dingy hair and bright frosty eyes; and for a
special reason I closely observed podgy dour Basilevski--not because he had
just had or was about to have a row with his young mistress, a feline beauty
who wrote doggerel verse and vulgarly flirted with me, but because I hoped
he had already seen the fun I had made of <76> him in the last issue of a
literary review in which we both collaborated. Although his English was
inadequate for the interpretation of, say, Keats (whom he defined as "a
pre-Wildean aesthete in the beginning of the Industrial Era") Basilevski was
fond of attempting just that. In discussing recently the "not altogether
displeasing preciosity" of my own stuff, he had imprudently quoted a popular
line from Keats, rendering it as:
Vsegda nas raduet krasivaya veshchitsa
which in retranslation gives:
"A pretty bauble always gladdens us."
Our conversation, however, turned out to be much too brief to disclose
whether or not he had appreciated my amusing lesson. He asked me what I
thought of the new book he was telling Morozov (a monolinguist)
about--namely Maurois' "impressive work on Byron," and upon my answering
that I had found it to be impressive trash, my austere critic muttered, "I
don't think you have read it," and went on educating the serene old poet.
I would steal away long before the party broke up. The sounds of
farewells usually reached me as I glided into insomnia.
I spent most of the day working, ensconced in a deep armchair, with my
implements conveniently resting before me on a special writing board
provided by my host, a great lover of handy knickknacks. Somehow or other I
had started to gain weight since my bereavement and by now had to make two
or three lurching efforts in order to leave my overaffectionate seat. Only
one little person visited me; for her I kept my door slightly ajar. The
board's proximal edge had a thoughtful incurvature to accommodate an
author's abdomen, and the distal side was equipped <77> with clamps and
rubberbands to hold papers and pencils in place; I got so used to those
comforts that I regretted ungratefully the absence of toilet fixtures--such
as one of those hollow canes said to be used by Orientals.
Every afternoon, at the same hour, a silent push opened the door wider,
and the granddaughter of the Stepanovs brought in a tray with a large glass
of strong tea and a plate of ascetic zwiebacks. She advanced, eyes bent,
moving carefully her white-socked, blue-sneakered feet; coming to a near
stop when the tea tossed; and advancing again with the slow steps of a
clockwork doll. She had flaxen hair and a freckled nose, and I chose the
gingham frock with the glossy black belt for her to wear when I had her
continue her mysterious progress right into the book I was writing, The Red
Top Hat, in which she becomes graceful little Amy, the condemned man's
Those were nice, nice interludes! One could hear the Baroness and her
mother playing þ quatre mains in the salon downstairs as they had played and
replayed, no doubt, for the last fifteen years. I had a box of
chocolate-coated biscuits to supplement the zwiebacks and tempt my little
visitor. The writing board was put aside and replaced by her folded limbs.
She spoke Russian fluently but with Parisian interjections and interrogatory
sounds, and those bird notes lent something eerie to the responses I
obtained, as she dangled one leg and bit her biscuit, to the ordinary
questions one puts to a child; and then quite suddenly in the midst of our
chat, she would wriggle out of my arms and make for the door as if somebody
were summoning her, though actually the piano kept stumbling on and on in
the homely course of a family happiness in which I had no part and which, in
fact, I had never known.
My stay at the Stepanovs' had been supposed to last a couple of weeks;
it lasted two months. At first I felt comparatively well, or at least
comfortable and refreshed, but a new sleeping pill which had worked so well
at its beguiling <78> stage began refusing to cope with certain reveries
which, as suggested subsequently by an incredible sequel, I should have
succumbed to like a man and got done with no matter how; instead of that I
took advantage of Dolly's removal to England to find a new dwelling for my
miserable carcass. This was a bed-sitting-room in a shabby but quiet
tenement house on the Left Bank, "at the corner of rue St. Supplice," says
my pocket diary with grim imprecision. An ancient cupboard of sorts
contained a primitive shower bath; but there were no other facilities. Going
out two or three times a day for a meal, or a cup of coffee, or an
extravagant purchase at a delicatessen, afforded me a small distraction. In
the next block I found a cinema that specialized in old horse operas and a
tiny brothel with four whores ranging in age from eighteen to thirty-eight,
the youngest being also the plainest.
I was to spend many years in Paris, tied to that dismal city by the
threads of a Russian writer's livelihood. Nothing then, and nothing now, in
backcast, had or has for me any of the spell that enthralled my compatriots.
I am not thinking of the blood spot on the darkest stone of its darkest
street; that is hors-concours in the way of horror; I just mean that I
regarded Paris, with its gray-toned days and charcoal nights, merely as the
chance setting for the most authentic and faithful joys of my life: the
colored phrase in my mind under the drizzle, the white page under the desk
lamp awaiting me in my humble home. <79>
Since 1925 I had written and published four novels; by the beginning of
1934 I was on the point of completing my fifth, Krasnyy Tsilindr (The Red
Top Hat), the story of a beheading. None of those books exceeded ninety
thousand words but my method of choosing and blending them could hardly be
called a timesaving expedient.
A first draft, made in pencil, filled several blue cahiers of the kind
used in schools, and upon reaching the saturation point of revision
presented a chaos of smudges and scriggles. To this corresponded the
disorder of the text which followed a regular sequence only for a few pages,
being then interrupted by some chunky passage that belonged to a later, or
earlier, part of the story. After sorting out and repaginating all this, I
applied myself to the next stage: the fair copy. It was tidily written with
a fountain pen in a fat and sturdy exercise book or ledger. Then an orgy of
new corrections would blot out by degrees all the pleasure of specious
perfection. A third phase started where legibility stopped. Poking with slow
and rigid fingers at the keys of my trusty old mashinka ("machine"), Count
Starov's wedding present, I would be able to type some three hundred words
in one hour instead of the round <80> thousand with which some popular
novelist of the previous century could cram it in longhand.
In the case of The Red Top Hat, however, the neuralgic aches which had
been spreading through my frame like an inner person of pain, all angles and
claws, for the last three years, had now attained my extremities, and made
the task of typing a fortunate impossibility. By economizing on my favorite
nutriments, such as foie gras and Scotch whisky, and postponing the making
of a new suit, I calculated that my modest income allowed me to hire an
expert typist, to whom I would dictate my corrected manuscript during, say,
thirty carefully planned afternoons. I therefore inserted a prominent
wanter, with name and telephone, in the Novosti.
Among the three or four typists who offered their services, I chose
Lyubov Serafimovna Savich, the granddaughter of a country priest and the
daughter of a famous SR (Social Revolutionist) who had recently died in
Meudon upon completing his biography of Alexander the First (a tedious work
in two volumes entitled The Monarch and the Mystic, now available to
American students in an indifferent translation. Harvard, 1970).
Lyuba Savich started working for me on February 1, 1934. She came as
often as necessary and was willing to stay any number of hours (the record
she set on an especially memorable occasion was from one to eight). Had
there been a Miss Russia and had the age of prize misses been prolonged to
just under thirty, beautiful Lyuba would have won the title. She was a tall
woman with slim ankles, big breasts, broad shoulders, and a pair of gay blue
eyes in a round rosy face. Her auburn hair must have always felt as being in
a state of imminent disarray for she constantly stroked its side wave, in a
graceful elbow-raised gesture, when talking to me. Zdraste, and once more
zdraste, Lyubov Serafimovna--and, oh, what a delightful amalgam that <81>
was, with lyubov meaning "love," and Serafim ("seraph") being the Christian
name of a reformed terrorist!
As a typist L.S. was magnificent. Hardly had I finished dictating one
sentence, as I paced back and forth, than it had reached her furrow like a
handful of grain, and with one eyebrow raised she was already looking at me,
waiting for the next strewing. If a sudden alteration for the better
occurred to me in mid session, I preferred not to spoil the wonderful
give-and-take rhythm of our joint work by introducing painful pauses of word
weighing--especially enervating and sterile when a self-conscious author is
aware that the bright lady at the waiting typewriter is longing to come up
with a helpful suggestion; I contented myself therefore with marking the
passage in my manuscript so as later to desecrate with my scrawl her
immaculate creation; but she was only glad, of course, to retype the page at
We usually had a ten-minute break around four--or four-thirty if I
could not rein in snorting Pegasus on the dot. She would retire for a
minute, closing one door after another with a really unearthly gentleness,
to the humble toilettes across the corridor, and would reappear, just as
silently, with a repowdered nose and a repainted smile, and I would have
ready for her a glass of vin ordinaire and a pink gaufrette. It was during
those innocent intervals that there began a certain thematic movement on the
part of fate.
Would I like to know something? (Dilatory sip and lip lick.) Well, at
all my five public readings since the first on September 3, 1928, in the
Salle Planiol, she had been present, she had applauded till her palms
(showing palms) ached, and had made up her mind that next time she'd be
smart and plucky enough to push her way through the crowd (yes, crowd--no
need to smile ironically) with the firm intention of clasping my hand and
pouring out her soul in a single word, which, however, she could never <82>
find--and that's why, inexorably, she would always be left standing and
beaming like a fool in the middle of the vacated hall. Would I despise her
for having an album with reviews of my books pasted in--Morozov's and
Yablokov's lovely essays as well as the trash of such hacks as Boris Nyet,
and Boyarski? Did I know it was she who had left that mysterious bunch of
irises on the spot where the urn with my wife's ashes had been interred four
years ago? Could I imagine that she could recite by heart every poem I had
published in the èmigrè press of half-a-dozen countries? Or that she
remembered thousands of enchanting minutiae scattered through all my novels
such as the mallard's quack-quack (in Tamara) "which to the end of one's
life would taste of Russian black bread because one had shared it with ducks
in one's childhood," or the chess set (in Pawn Takes Queen) with a missing
Knight "replaced by some sort of counter, a little orphan from another,
All this was spread over several sessions and distilled very cunningly,
and already by the end of February when a copy of The Red Top Hat, an
impeccable typescript, lapped in an opulent envelope, had been delivered by
hand (hers again) to the offices of Patria (the foremost Russian magazine in
Paris), I felt enmeshed in a bothersome web.
Not only had I never experienced the faintest twinge of desire in
regard to beautiful Lyuba, but the indifference of my senses was turning to
positive repulsion. The softer her glances fluttered, the more ungentlemanly
my reaction became. Her very refinement had a dainty edge of vulgarity that
infested with the sweetness of decay her entire personality. I began to
notice with growing irritation such pathetic things as her odor, a quite
respectable perfume (Adoration, I think) precariously overlaying the natural
smell of a Russian maiden's seldom bathed body: for an hour or so Adoration
still held, but after that the underground would start to conduct more and
more frequent <83> forays, and when she raised her arms to put on her
hat--but never mind, she was a well-meaning creature, and I hope she is a
happy grandmother today.
I would be a cad to describe our last meeting (March 1 of the same
year). Suffice it to say that in the middle of typing a rhymed Russian
translation that I had made of Keats' To Autumn ("Season of mists and mellow
fruitfulness") she broke down, and tormented me till at least eight P.M.
with her confessions and tears. When at last she left, I lost another hour
composing a detailed letter asking her never to come back. Incidentally, it
was the first time that an unfinished leaf was left by her in my typewriter.
I removed it and rediscovered it several weeks later among my papers, and
then deliberately preserved it because it was Annette who completed the job,
with a couple of typos and an x-ed erasure in the last lines--and something
about the juxtaposition appealed to my combinational slant. <84>
In this memoir my wives and my books are interlaced monogrammatically
like some sort of watermark or ex libris design; and in writing this oblique
autobiography--oblique, because dealing mainly not with pedestrian history
but with the mirages of romantic and literary matters--I consistently try to
dwell as lightly as inhumanly possible on the evolution of my mental
illness. Yet Dementia is one of the characters in my story.
By the mid-Thirties little had changed in my health since the first
half of 1922 and its awful torments. My battle with factual, respectable
life still consisted of sudden delusions, sudden
reshufflings--kaleidoscopic, stained-glass reshufflings!--of fragmented
space. I still felt Gravity, that infernal and humiliating contribution to
our perceptual world, grow into me like a monstrous toenail in stabs and
wedges of intolerable pain (incomprehensible to the happy simpleton who
finds nothing fantastic and agonizing in the escape of a pencil or penny
under something--under the desk on which one will live, under the bed on
which one will die). I still could not cope with the abstraction of
direction in space, so that any given stretch of the world was either
permanently "right-hand" or permanently "left-hand," or at best the one
could be changed to the other <85> only by a spine-dislocating effort of the
will. Oh, how things and people tortured me, my dear heart, I could not tell
you! In point of fact you were not yet even born.
Sometime in the mid-Thirties, in black accursed Paris, I remember
visiting a distant relative of mine (a niece of the LATH lady!). She was a
sweet old stranger. She sat all day in a straight-back armchair exposed to
the continuous attacks of three, four, more than four, deranged children,
whom she was paid (by the Destitute Russian Noblewomen's Aid Association) to
watch, while their parents were working in places not so dreadful and dreary
in themselves as dreary and difficult to reach by public conveyance. I sat
on an old hassock at her feet. Her talk flowed on and on, smooth,
untroubled, reflecting the image of radiant days, serenity, wealth,
goodness. Yet all the time this or that poor little monster with a slavering
mouth and a squint would move upon her from behind a screen or a table and
rock her chair or clutch at her skirt. When the squealing became too loud
she would only wince a little which hardly affected her reminiscent smile.
She kept a kind of fly whisk within easy reach and this she occasionally
brandished to chase away the bolder aggressors; but all the time, all the
time, she continued her purling soliloquy and I understood that I, too,
should ignore the rude turmoil and din around her.
I submit that my life, my plight, the voice of words that was my sole
joy and the secret struggle with the wrong shape of things, bore some
resemblance to that poor lady's predicament. And mind you, those were my
best days, with only a pack of grimacing goblins to hold at bay.
The zest, the strength, the clarity of my art remained unimpaired--at
least to a certain extent. I enjoyed, I persuaded myself to enjoy, the
solitude of work and that other, even more subtle solitude, the solitude of
an author facing, from behind the bright shield of his manuscript, an
amorphous audience, barely visible in its dark pit. <86>
The jumble of spatial obstacles separating my bedside lamp from the
illumined islet of a public lectern was abolished by the magic of thoughtful
friends who helped me to get to this or that remote hall without my having
to tussle with horribly small and thin, sticky, bus-ticket slips or to
venture into the thunderous maze of the Mètro. As soon as I was safely
platformed with my typed or handwritten sheets at breastbone level on the
desk before me, I forgot all about the presence of three hundred
eavesdroppers. A decanter of watered vodka, my only lectorial whim, was also
my only link with the material universe. Similar to a painter's spotlight on
the brown brow of some ecstatical ecclesiastic at the moment of divine
revelation, the radiance enclosing me brought out with oracular accuracy
every imperfection in my text. A memoirist has noted that not only did I
slow down now and then while unclipping a pencil and replacing a comma by a
semicolon, but that I had been known to stop and frown over a sentence and
reread it, and cross it out, and insert a correction and "re-mouth the whole
passage with a kind of defiant complacency."
My handwriting was good in fair copies, but I felt more comfortable
with a typescript before me, and I was again without an expert typist. To
insert the same wanter in the same paper would have been foolhardy: what if
it were to bring back Lyuba, flushed with renewed hope, and rewind that
damned cycle all over again?
I rang up Stepanov, thinking he might help; he guessed he could, and
after a muffled confabulation with his fussy wife, just on the brim of the
membrane (all I made out was "mad people are unpredictable"), she took over.
They knew a very decent girl who had worked at the Russian nursery school
"Passy na Rousi" to which Dolly had gone four or five years ago. The girl's
name was Anna Ivanovna Blagovo. Did I know Oksman, the owner of the Russian
bookshop on rue Cuvier? <87>
"Yes, slightly. But I want to ask you--"
"Well," she went on, interrupting me, "Annette sekretarstvovala for him
while his regular typist was hospitalized, but she is now quite well again,
and you might--"
"That's fine," I said, "but I want to ask you, Berta Abramovna, why did
you accuse me of being an `unpredictable madman'? I can assure you that I am
not in the habit of raping young women--"
"Gospod' s vami, golubchik! (What an idea, my dear!)" exclaimed Mrs.
Stepanov and proceeded to explain that she had been scolding her
absentminded husband for sitting down on her new handbag when attending to
Although I did not believe one word of her version (too quick! too
glib!), I pretended to accept it and promised to look up her bookseller. A
few minutes later as I was about to open the window and strip in front of it
(at moments of raw widowerhood a soft black night in the spring is the most
soothing voyeuse imaginable), Berta Stepanov telephoned to say that the
oxman (what a shiver my Iris derived from Dr. Moreau's island
zoo--especially from such bits as the "screaming shape," still
half-bandaged, escaping out of the lab!) would be up till dawn in his shop,
among nightmare-inherited ledgers. She knew, hey-hey (Russian chuckle), that
I was a noctambule, so perhaps I might like to stroll over to the Boyan
Bookshop sans tarder, without retardment, vile term. I might, indeed.
After that jarring call, I saw little to choose between the tossings of
insomnia and a walk to rue Cuvier which leads to the Seine, where according
to police statistics an average of forty foreigners and God knows how many
unfortunate natives drown yearly between wars. I have never experienced the
least urge to commit suicide, that silly waste of selfhood (a gem in any
light). But I must admit that on that particular night on the fourth or
fifth or fiftieth anniversary of my darling's death, I must have <88> looked
pretty suspect, in my black suit and dramatic muffler, to an average
policeman of the riparian department. And it is a particularly bad sign when
a hatless person sobs as he walks, being moved not by lines he might have
composed himself but by something he hideously mistakes for his own and
presently flinches, yet is too much of a coward to make amends:
Zvezdoobraznost' nebesnyh zvyozd
Vidish' tol'ko skvoz' slyozy...
(Heavenly stars are seen as stellate
only through tears.)
I am much bolder now, of course, much bolder and prouder than the
ambiguous hoodlum caught progressing that night between a seemingly endless
fence with its tattered posters and a row of spaced streetlamps whose light
would delicately select for its heart-piercing game overhead a young
emerald-bright linden leaf. I now confess that I was bothered that night,
and the next and some time before, by a dream feeling that my life was the
nonidentical twin, a parody, an inferior variant of another man's life,
somewhere on this or another earth. A demon, I felt, was forcing me to
impersonate that other man, that other writer who was and would always be
incomparably greater, healthier, and cruder than your obedient servant. <89>
The "Boyan" publishing firm (Morozov's and mine was the "Bronze
Horseman," its main rival), with a bookshop (selling not only èmigrè
editions but also tractor novels from Moscow) and a lending library,
occupied a smart three-story house of the hòtel particulier type. In my day
it stood between a garage and a cinema: forty years before (in the vista of
reverse metamorphosis) the former had been a fountain and the latter a group
of stone nymphs. The house had belonged to the Merlin de Malaune family and
had been acquired at the turn of the century by a Russian cosmopolitan,
Dmitri de Midoff who with his friend S. I. Stepanov established there the
headquarters of an antidespotic conspiracy. The latter liked to recall the
sign language of old-fashioned rebellion: the half-drawn curtain and
alabaster vase revealed in the drawing-room window so as to indicate to the
expected guest from Russia that the way was clear. An aesthetic touch graced
revolutionary intrigues in those years. Midoff died soon after World War
One, and by that time the Terrorist party, to which those cozy people
belonged, had lost its "stylistic appeal" as Stepanov himself put it. I do
not know who later acquired the house or how it happened that Oks (Osip
Lvovich Oksman, 1885?--1943?) rented it for his business. <90>
The house was dark except for three windows: two adjacent rectangles of
light in the middle of the upper-floor row, d8 and e8, Continental notation
(where the letter denotes the file and the number the rank of a chess
square) and another light just below at e7. Good God, had I forgotten at
home the note I had scribbled for the unknown Miss Blagovo? No, it was still
there in my breast pocket under the old, treasured, horribly hot and long
Trinity College muffler. I hesitated between a side door on my right--marked
Magazin--and the main entrance, with a chess coronet above the bell. Finally
I chose the coronet. We were playing a Blitz game: my opponent moved at
once, lighting the vestibule fan at d6. One could not help wondering if
under the house there might not exist the five lower floors which would
complete the chessboard and that somewhere, in subterranean mystery, new men
might not be working out the doom of a fouler tyranny.
Oks, a tall, bony, elderly man with a Shakespearean pate, started to
tell me how honored he was at getting a chance to welcome the author of
Camera--here I thrust the note I carried into his extended palm and prepared
to leave. He had dealt with hysterical artists before. None could resist his
bland bookside manner.
"Yes, I know all about it," he said, retaining and patting my hand.
"She'll call you; though, to tell the truth, I do not envy anybody having to
use the services of that capricious, absentminded young lady. We'll go up to
my study, unless you prefer--no, I don't think so," he continued, opening a
double door on the left and dubiously switching on the light for a moment to
reveal a chilly reading room in which a long baize-covered table, dingy
chairs, and the cheap busts of Russian classics contradicted a lovely
painted ceiling swarming with naked children among purple, pink, and amber
clusters of grapes. On the right (another tentative light snapped) a short
passage led to the shop proper <91> where I recalled having once had a row
with a pert old female who objected to my not wishing to pay for a few
copies of my own novel. So we walked up the once noble stairs, which now had
something seldom seen even in Viennese dream comics, namely disparate
balustrades, the sinistral one an ugly new ramp-and-railing affair and the
other, the original ornate set of battered, doomed, but still charming
carved wood with supports in the form of magnified chess pieces.
"I am honored--" began Oks all over again, as we reached his so-called
Kabinet (study), at e7, a room cluttered with ledgers, packed books,
half-unpacked books, towers of books, heaps of newspapers, pamphlets,
galleys, and slim white paperback collections of poems--tragic offals, with
the cool, restrained titles then in fashion--Prokhlada ("coolness"),
He was one of those persons who for some reason or other are often
interrupted, but whom no force in our blessed galaxy will prevent from
completing their sentence, despite new interruptions, of an elemental or
poetical nature, the death of his interlocutor ("I was just saying to him,
doctor--"), or the entrance of a dragon. In fact it would seem that those
interruptions actually help to polish the phrase and give it its final form.
In the meantime the agonizing itch of its being unfinished poisons the mind.
It is worse than the pimple which cannot be sprung before one gets home, and
is almost as bad as a lifer's recollection of that last little rape nipped
in the sweet bud by the intrusion of an accursed policeman.
"I am deeply honored," finished at last Oks, "to welcome to this
historic house the author of Camera Obscura, your finest book in my modest
"It ought to be modest," I said, controlling myself (opal ice in Nepal
before the avalanche), "because, you idiot, the title of my novel is Camera
"There, there," said Oks (really a very dear man and <92> a gentleman),
after a terrible pause during which all the remainders opened like
fairy-tale flowers in a fancy film, "A slip of the tongue does not deserve
such a harsh rebuke. Lucida, Lucida, by all means! A propos--concerning Anna
Blagovo (another piece of unfinished business--or, who knows, a touching
attempt to divert and pacify me with an interesting anecdote), I am not sure
you know that I am Berta's first cousin. Thirty-five years ago in St.
Petersburg she and I worked in the same student organization. We were
preparing the assassination of the Premier. How far all that is! His daily
route had to be closely established; I was one of the observers. Standing at
a certain corner every day in the disguise of a vanilla-ice-cream vendor!
Can you imagine that? Nothing came of our plans. They were thwarted by Azef,
the great double agent."
I saw no point in prolonging my visit, but he produced a bottle of
cognac, and I accepted a drink, for I was beginning to tremble again.
"Your Camera," he said, consulting a ledger "has been selling not badly
in my shop, not badly at all: twenty-three--sorry, twenty-five--copies in
the first half of last year, and fourteen in the second. Of course, genuine
fame, not mere commercial success, depends on the behavior of a book in the
Lending Department, and there all your titles are hits. Not to leave this
unsubstantiated, let us go up to the stacks."
I followed my energetic host to the upper floor. The lending library
spread like a gigantic spider, bulged like a monstrous tumor, oppressed the
brain like the expanding world of delirium. In a bright oasis amidst the dim
shelves I noticed a group of people sitting around an oval table. The colors
were vivid and sharp but at the same time remote-looking as in a
magic-lantern scene. A good deal of red wine and golden brandy accompanied
the animated discussion. I recognized the critic Basilevski, his sycophants
Hristov and Boyarski, my friend Morozov, the novelists <93> Shipogradov and
Sokolovski, the honest nonentity Suknovalov, author of the popular social
satire Geroy nashey ery ("Hero of Our Era") and two young poets, Lazarev
(collection Serenity) and Fartuk (collection Silence). Some of the heads
turned toward us, and the benevolent bear Morozov even struggled to his
feet, grinning--but my host said they were having a business meeting and
should be left alone.
"You have glimpsed," he added, "the parturition of a new literary
review, Prime Numbers; at least they think they are parturiating: actually,
they are boozing and gossiping. Now let me show you something."
He led me to a distant corner and triumphantly trained his flashlight
on the gaps in my shelf of books.
"Look," he cried, "how many copies are out. All of Princess Mary is
out, I mean Mary--damn it, I mean Tamara. I love Tamara, I mean your Tamara,
not Lermontov's or Rubinstein's. Forgive me. One gets so confused among so
many damned masterpieces."
I said I was not feeling well and would like to go home. He offered to
accompany me. Or would I like a taxi? I did not. He kept furtively directing
at me the electric torch through his incarnadined fingers to see if I was
not about to faint. With soothing sounds he led me down a side staircase.
The spring night, at least, felt real.
After a moment of rumination and an upward glance at the lighted
windows, Oks beckoned to the night watchman who was stroking the sad little
dog of a dog-walking neighbor. I saw my thoughtful companion shake hands
with the gray-cloaked old fellow, then point to the light of the revelers,
then look at his watch, then tip the man, and shake hands with him in
parting, as if the ten-minute walk to my lodgings were a perilous
"Bon," he said upon rejoining me. "If you don't want a taxi, let us set
out on foot. He will take care of my imprisoned visitors. There are heaps of
things I want you to <94> tell me about your work and your life. Your
confrõres say you are `arrogant and unsocial' as Onegin describes himself to
Tatiana but we can't all be Lenskis, can we? Let me take advantage of this
pleasant stroll to describe my two meetings with your celebrated father. The
first was at the opera in the days of the First Duma. I knew, of course, the
portraits of its most prominent members. From high up in the gods I, a poor
student, saw him appear in a rosy loge with his wife and two little boys,
one of which must have been you. The other time was at a public discussion
of current politics in the auroral period of the Revolution; he spoke
immediately after Kerenski, and the contrast between our fiery friend and
your father, with his English sangfroid and absence of gesticulation--"
"My father," I said, "died six months before I was born."
"Well, I seem to have goofed again (opyat' oskandalisya)," observed
Oks, after taking quite a minute to find his handkerchief, blow his nose
with the grandiose deliberation of Varlamov in the role of Gogol's Town
Mayor, wrap up the result, and pocket the swaddle. "Yes, I'm not lucky with
you. Yet that image remains in my mind. The contrast was truly remarkable."
I was to run into Oks again, three or four times at least, in the
course of the dwindling years before World War Two. He used to welcome me
with a knowing twinkle as if we shared some very private and rather naughty
secret. His superb library was eventually grabbed by the Germans who then
lost it to the Russians, even better grabbers in that time-honored game.
Osip Lvovich himself was to die when attempting an intrepid escape--when
almost having escaped--barefoot, in bloodstained underwear, from the
"experimental hospital" of a Nazi concentration camp. <95>
My father was a gambler and a rake. His society nickname was Demon.
Vrubel has portrayed him with his vampire-pale cheeks, his diamond eyes, his
black hair. What remained on the palette has been used by me, Vadim, son of
Vadim, for touching up the father of the passionate siblings in the best of
my English romaunts, Ardis (1970).
The scion of a princely family devoted to a gallery of a dozen Tsars,
my father resided on the idyllic outskirts of history. His politics were of
the casual, reactionary sort. He had a dazzling and complicated sensual
life, but his culture was patchy and commonplace. He was born in 1865,
married in 1896, and died in a pistol duel with a young Frenchman on October
22, 1898, after a card-table fracas at Deauville, some resort in gray
There might be nothing particularly upsetting about a well-meaning,
essentially absurd and muddled old duffer mistaking me for some other
writer. I myself have been known, in the lecture hall, to say Shelley when I
meant Schiller. But that a fool's slip of the tongue or error of memory
should establish a sudden connection with another world, so soon after my
imagining with especial dread that I might be permanently impersonating
somebody living as a real being beyond the constellation of my tears and
<96> asterisks--that was unendurable, that dared not happen!
As soon as the last sound of poor Oksman's farewells and excuses had
subsided, I tore off the striped woollen snake strangling me and wrote down
in cipher every detail of my meeting with him. Then I drew a thick line
underneath and a caravan of question marks.
Should I ignore the coincidence and its implications? Should I, on the
contrary, repattern my entire life? Should I abandon my art, choose another
line of achievement, take up chess seriously, or become, say, a
lepidopterist, or spend a dozen years as an obscure scholar making a Russian
translation of Paradise Lost that would cause hacks to shy and asses to
kick? But only the writing of fiction, the endless re-creation of my fluid
self could keep me more or less sane. All I did finally was drop my pen
name, the rather cloying and somehow misleading "V. Irisin" (of which my
Iris herself used to say that it sounded as if I were a villa), and revert
to my own family name.
It was with this name that I decided to sign the first installment of
my new novel The Dare for which the èmigrè magazine Patria was waiting. I
had finished rewriting in reptile-green ink (a placebo to enliven my task) a
second or third fair copy of the opening chapter, when Annette Blagovo came
to discuss hours and terms.
She came on May 2, 1934, half-an-hour late, and as persons do who have
no sense of duration, laid the blame for her lateness on her innocent watch,
an object for measuring motion, not time. She was a graceful blonde of
twenty-six years or so, with very attractive though not exceptionally pretty
features. She wore a gray tailor-made jacket over a white silk blouse that
looked frilly and festive because of a kind of bow between the lapels, to
one of which was pinned a bunchlet of violets. Her short smartly cut gray
skirt had a nice dash about it, and all in all she was far more chic and
soignèe than an average Russian young lady. <97>
I explained to her (in what struck her--so she told me much later--as
the unpleasantly bantering tone of a cynic sizing up a possible conquest)
that I proposed to dictate to her every afternoon "right into the
typewriter" (pryamo v mashinku) heavily corrected drafts or else chunks and
sausages of fair copy that I would probably revise "in the lonely hours of
night," to quote A. K. Tolstoy, and have her retype next day. She did not
remove her close-fitting hat, but peeled off her gloves and, pursing her
bright pink freshly painted mouth, put on large tortoiseshell-rimmed
glasses, and the effect somehow enhanced her looks: she desired to see my
machine (her icy demureness would have turned a saint into a salacious
jester), had to hurry to another appointment but just wanted to check if she
could use it. She took off her green cabochon ring (which I was to find
after her departure) and seemed about to tap out a quick sample but a second
glance satisfied her that my typewriter was of the same make as her own.
Our first session proved pretty awful. I had learned my part with the
care of a nervous actor, but did not reckon with the kind of fellow
performer who misses or fluffs every other cue. She asked me not to go so
fast. She put me off by fatuous remarks: "There is no such expression in
Russian," or "Nobody knows that word (vzvoden', a welter)--why don't you
just say "big wave" if that's what you mean? When anger affected my rhythm
and it took me some time to unravel the end of a sentence in its no longer
familiar labyrinth of cancellations and carets, she would sit back and wait
like a provocative martyr and stifle a yawn or study her fingernails. After
three hours of work, I examined the result of her dainty and impudent
rattle. It teemed with misspellings, typos, and ugly erasures. Very meekly I
said that she seemed unaccustomed to deal with literary (i.e. non-humdrum)
stuff. She answered I was mistaken, she loved literature. In fact, she said,
in just the past five months she had read Galsworthy (in Russian), <98>
Dostoyevski (in French), General Pudov-Usurovski's huge historical novel
Tsar Bronshteyn (in the original), and L'Atlantide (which I had not heard of
but which a dictionary ascribes to Pierre Benoít, romancier franãais nè þ
Albi, a hiatus in the Tarn). Did she know Morozov's poetry? No, she did not
much care for poetry in any form; it was inconsistent with the tempo of
modern life. I chided her for not having read any of my stories or novels,
and she looked annoyed and perhaps a little frightened (fearing, the little
goose, I might dismiss her), and presently was giving me a curiously erotic
satisfaction by promising me that now she would look up all my books and
would certainly know by heart The Dare.
The reader must have noticed that I speak only in a very general way
about my Russian fictions of the Nineteen-Twenties and Thirties, for I
assume that he is familiar with them or can easily obtain them in their
English versions. At this point, however, I must say a few words about The
Dare (Podarok Otchizne was its original title, which can be translated as "a
gift to the fatherland"). When in 1934 I started to dictate its beginning to
Annette, I knew it would be my longest novel. I did not foresee however that
it would be almost as long as General Pudov's vile and fatuous "historical"
romance about the way the Zion Wisers usurped St. Rus. It took me about four
years in all to write its four hundred pages, many of which Annette typed at
least twice. Most of it had been serialized in èmigrè magazines by May,
1939, when she and I, still childless, left for America; but in book form,
the Russian original appeared only in 1950 (Turgenev Publishing House, New
York), followed another decade later by an English translation, whose title
neatly refers not only to the well-known device used to bewilder noddies but
also to the daredevil nature of Victor, the hero and part-time narrator.
The novel begins with a nostalgic account of a Russian childhood (much
happier, though not less opulent than <99> mine). After that comes
adolescence in England (not unlike my own Cambridge years); then life in
èmigrè Paris, the writing of a first novel (Memoirs of a Parrot Fancier) and
the tying of amusing knots in various literary intrigues. Inset in the
middle part is a complete version of the book my Victor wrote "on a dare":
this is a concise biography and critical appraisal of Fyodor Dostoyevski,
whose politics my author finds hateful and whose novels he condemns as
absurd with their black-bearded killers presented as mere negatives of Jesus
Christ's conventional image, and weepy whores borrowed from maudlin romances
of an earlier age. The next chapter deals with the rage and bewilderment of
èmigrè reviewers, all of them priests of the Dostoyevskian persuasion; and
in the last pages my young hero accepts a flirt's challenge and accomplishes
a final gratuitous feat by walking through a perilous forest into Soviet
territory and as casually strolling back.
I am giving this summary to exemplify what even the poorest reader of
my Dare must surely retain, unless electrolysis destroys some essential
cells soon after he closes the book. Now part of Annette's frail charm lay
in her forgetfulness which veiled everything toward the evening of
everything, like the kind of pastel haze that obliterates mountains, clouds,
and even its own self as the summer day swoons. I know I have seen her many
times, a copy of Patria in her languid lap, follow the printed lines with
the pendulum swing of eyes suggestive of reading, and actually reach the "To
be continued" at the end of the current installment of The Dare. I also know
that she had typed every word of it and most of its commas. Yet the fact
remains that she retained nothing--perhaps in result of her having decided
once for all that my prose was not merely "difficult" but hermetic ("nastily
hermetic," to repeat the compliment Basilevski paid me the moment he
realized--a moment which came in due time--that his manner and mind were
being ridiculed in Chapter Three <100> by my gloriously happy Victor). I
must say I forgave her readily her attitude to my work. At public readings,
I admired her public smile, the "archaic" smile of Greek statues. When her
rather dreadful parents asked to see my books (as a suspicious physician
might ask for a sample of semen), she gave them to read by mistake another
man's novel because of a silly similarity of titles. The only real shock I
experienced was when I overheard her informing some idiot woman friend that
my Dare included biographies of "Chernolyubov and Dobroshevski"! She
actually started to argue when I retorted that only a lunatic would have
chosen a pair of third-rate publicists to write about--spoonerizing their
names in addition! <101>
I have noticed, or seem to have noticed, in the course of my long life,
that when about to fall in love or even when still unaware of having fallen
in love, a dream would come, introducing me to a latent inamorata at morning
twilight in a somewhat infantile setting, marked by exquisite aching
stirrings that I knew as a boy, as a youth, as a madman, as an old dying
voluptuary. The sense of recurrence ("seem to have noticed") is very
possibly a built-in feeling: for instance I may have had that dream only
once or twice ("in the course of my long life") and its familiarity is only
the dropper that comes with the drops. The place in the dream, per contra,
is not a familiar room but one remindful of the kind we children awake in
after a Christmas masquerade or midsummer name day, in a great house,
belonging to strangers or distant cousins. The impression is that the beds,
two small beds in the present case, have been put in and placed against the
opposite walls of a room that is not a bedroom at heart, a room with no
furniture except those two separate beds: property masters are lazy, or
economical, in one's dreams as well as in early novellas.
In one of the beds I find myself just awoken from some secondary dream
of only formulary importance; and in the far bed against the right-hand wall
(direction also <102> supplied), a girl, a younger, slighter, and gayer
Annette in this particular variant (summer of 1934 by daytime reckoning), is
playfully, quietly talking to herself but actually, as I understand with a
delicious quickening of the nether pulses, is feigning to talk, is talking
for my benefit, so as to be noticed by me.
My next thought--and it intensifies the throbbings--concerns the
strangeness of boy and girl being assigned to sleep in the same makeshift
room: by error, no doubt, or perhaps the house was full and the distance
between the two beds, across an empty floor, might have been deemed wide
enough for perfect decorum in the case of children (my average age has been
thirteen all my life). The cup of pleasure is brimming by now and before it
spills I hasten to tiptoe across the bare parquet from my bed to hers. Her
fair hair gets in the way of my kisses, but presently my lips find her cheek
and neck, and her nightgown has buttons, and she says the maid has come into
the room, but it is too late, I cannot restrain myself, and the maid, a
beauty in her own right, looks on, laughing.
That dream I had a month or so after I met Annette, and her image in
it, that early version of her voice, soft hair, tender skin, obsessed me and
amazed me with delight--the delight of discovering I loved little Miss
Blagovo. At the time of the dream she and I were still on formal terms,
super-formal in fact, so I could not tell it to her with the necessary
evocations and associations (as set down in these notes); and merely saying
"I dreamt of you" would have amounted to the thud of a platitude. I did
something much more courageous and honorable. Before revealing to her what
she called (speaking of another couple) "serious intentions"--and before
even solving the riddle of why really I loved her--I decided to tell her of
my incurable illness. <103>
She was elegant, she was languid, she was rather angelic in one sense,
and dismally stupid in many others. I was lonely, and frightened, and
reckless with lust--not sufficiently reckless, however, not to warn her by
means of a vivid instance--half paradigm and half object lesson--or what she
laid herself open to by consenting to marry me.
[Anglice Dear Miss Blagovo]
Before entertaining you viva-voce of a subject of the utmost
importance, I beg you to join me in the conduct of an experiment that will
describe better than a learned article would one of the typical facets of my
displaced mental crystal. So here goes.
With your permission it is night now and I am in bed (decently clad, of
course, and with every organ in decent repose), lying supine, and imagining
an ordinary moment in an ordinary place. To further protect the purity of
the experiment, let the visualized spot be an invented one. I imagine myself
coming out of a bookshop and <104> pausing on the curb before crossing the
street to the little sidewalk cafè directly opposite. No cars are in sight.
I cross. I imagine myself reaching the little cafè. The afternoon sun
occupies one of its chairs and the half of a table, but otherwise its
open-air section is empty and very inviting: nothing but brightness remains
of the recent shower. And here I stop short as I recollect that I bad an
I do not intend to bore you, glubokouvazhaemaya (dear) Anna Ivanova,
and still less do I wish to crumple this third or fourth poor sheet with the
crashing sound only punished paper can make; but the scene is not
sufficiently abstract and schematic, so let me retake it.
I, your friend and employer Vadim Vadimovich, lying in bed on my back
in ideal darkness (I got up a minute ago to recurtain the moon that peeped
between the folds of two paragraphs), I imagine diurnal Vadim Vadimovich
crossing a street from a bookshop to a sidewalk cafè. I am encased in my
vertical self: not looking down but ahead, thus only indirectly aware of the
blurry front of my corpulent figure, of the alternate points of my shoes,
and of the rectangular form of the parcel under my arm. I imagine myself
walking the twenty paces needed to reach the opposite sidewalk, then
stopping with an unprintable curse and deciding to go back for the umbrella
I left in the shop.
There is an affliction still lacking a name; there is, Anna (you must
permit me to call you that, I am ten years your senior and very ill),
something dreadfully wrong with my sense of direction, or rather my power
over conceived space, because at this juncture I am unable to <105> execute
mentally, in the dark of my bed, the simple about-face (an act I perform
without thinking in physical reality!) which would allow me to picture
instantly in my mind the once already traversed asphalt as now being before
me, and the vitrine of the bookshop being now within sight and not somewhere
Let me dwell briefly on the procedure involved; on my inability to
follow it consciously in my mind--my unwieldy and disobedient mind! In order
to make myself imagine the pivotal process I have to force an opposite
revolution of the decor: I must try, dear friend and assistant, to swing the
entire length of the street, with the massive faãades of its houses before
and behind me, from one direction to another in the slow wrench of a half
circle, which is like trying to turn the colossal tiller of a rusty
recalcitrant rudder so as to transform oneself by conscious degrees from,
say, an east-facing Vadim Vadimovich into a west-sun-blinded one. The mere
thought of that action leads the bedded recliner to such a muddle and
dizziness that one prefers scrapping the about-face altogether, wiping, so
to speak, the slate of one's vision, and beginning the return journey in
one's imagination as if it were an initial one, without any previous
crossing of the street, and therefore without any of the intermediate
horror--the horror of struggling with the steerage of space and crushing
one's chest in the process!
Voilþ. Sounds rather tame, doesn't it, en fait de dèmence, and, indeed,
if I stop brooding over the thing, I decrease it to an insignificant
flaw--the missing pinkie of a freak born with nine fingers. Considering it
closer, however, I cannot <106> help suspecting it to be a warning symptom,
a foreglimpse of the mental malady that is known to affect eventually the
entire brain. Even that malady may not be as imminent and grave as the storm
signals suggest; I only want you to be aware of the situation before
proposing to you, Annette. Do not write, do not phone, do not mention this
letter, if and when you come Friday afternoon; but, please, if you do, wear,
in propitious sign, the Florentine hat that looks like a cluster of wild
flowers. I want you to celebrate your resemblance to the fifth girl from
left to right, the flower-decked blonde with the straight nose and serious
gray eyes, in Botticelli's Primavera, an allegory of Spring, my love, my
On Friday afternoon, for the first time in two months she came "on the
dot" as my American friends would say. A wedge of pain replaced my heart,
and little black monsters started to play musical chairs all over my room,
as I noticed that she wore her usual recent hat, of no interest or meaning.
She took it off before the mirror and suddenly invoked Our Lord with rare
"Ya idiotka," she said. "I'm an idiot. I was looking for my pretty
wreath, when papa started to read to me something about an ancestor of yours
who quarreled with Peter the Terrible."
"Ivan," I said.
"I didn't catch the name, but I saw I was late and pulled on
(natsepila) this shapochka instead of the wreath, your wreath, the wreath
I was helping her out of her jacket. Her words filled me with
dream-free wantonness. I embraced her. My mouth sought the hot hollow
between neck and clavicle. It was a brief but thorough embrace, and I boiled
over, discreetly, deliciously, merely by pressing myself against <107> her,
one hand cupping her firm little behind and the other feeling the harp
strings of her ribs. She was trembling all over. An ardent but silly virgin,
she did not understand why my grip had relaxed with the suddenness of sleep
or windlorn sails.
Had she read only the beginning and end of my letter? Well, yes, she
had skipped the poetical part. In other words, she had not the slightest
idea what I was driving at? She promised, she said, to reread it. She had
grasped, however, that I loved her? She had, but how could she be sure that
I really loved her? I was so strange, so, so--she couldn't express it--yes,
STRANGE in every respect. She never had met anyone like me. Whom then did
she meet, I inquired: trepanners? trombonists? astronomists? Well, mostly
military men, if I wished to know, officers of Wrangel's army, gentlemen,
interesting people, who spoke of danger and duty, of bivouacs in the steppe.
Oh, but look here, I too can speak of "deserts idle, rough quarries,
rocks"--No, she said, they did not invent. They talked of spies they had
hanged, they talked of international politics, of a new film or book that
explained the meaning of life. And never one unchaste joke, not one horrid
risquè comparison... As in my books? Examples, examples! No, she would not
give examples. She would not be pinned down to whirl on the pin like a
We were walking, one lovely morning, on the outskirts of Bellefontaine.
Something flicked and lit.
"Look at that harlequin," I murmured, pointing cautiously with my
Sunning itself against the white wall of a suburban garden was a flat,
symmetrically outspread butterfly, which the artist had placed at a slight
angle to the horizon of his picture. The creature was painted a smiling red
with yellow intervals between black blotches; a row of blue crescents ran
along the inside of the toothed wing margins. <108> The only feature to rate
a shiver of squeamishness was the glistening sweep of bronzy silks coming
down on both sides of the beastie's body.
"As a former kindergarten teacher I can tell you," said helpful
Annette, "that it's a most ordinary nettlefly (krapivnitsa). How many little
hands have plucked off its wings and brought them to me for approval!"
It flicked and was gone. <109>
In view of the amount of typing to be done, and of her doing it so
slowly and badly, she made me promise not to bother her with what Russians
call "calf cuddlings" during work. At other times all she allowed me were
controlled kisses and flexible holds: our first embrace had been "brutal"
she said (having caught on very soon after that in the matter of certain
male secrets). She did her best to conceal the melting, the helplessness
that overwhelmed her in the natural course of caresses when she would begin
to palpitate in my arms before pushing me away with a puritanical frown.
Once the back of her hand chanced to brush against the taut front of my
trousers; she uttered a chilly "pardon" (Fr.), and then went into a sulk
upon my saying I hoped she had not hurt herself.
I complained of the ridiculous obsolete turn our relationship was
taking. She thought it over and promised that as soon as we were "officially
engaged," we would enter a more modern era. I assured her I was ready to
proclaim its advent any day, any moment.
She took me to see her parents with whom she shared a two-room
apartment in Passy. He had been an army surgeon before the Revolution and,
with his close-cropped gray head, clipped mustache, and neat imperial, bore
a <110> striking resemblance (abetted no doubt by the eager spirit that
patches up worn parts of the past with new impressions of the same order) to
the kindly but cold-fingered (and cold-earlobed) doctor who treated the
"inflammation of the lungs" I had in the winter of 1907.
As with so many Russians èmigrès of declining strength and lost
professions, it was hard to say what exactly were Dr. Blagovo's personal
resources. He seemed to spend life's overcast evening either reading his way
through sets of thick magazines (1830 to 1900 or 1850 to 1910), which
Annette brought him from Oksman's Lending Library, or sitting at a table and
filling by means of a regularly clicking tobacco injector the
semitransparent ends of carton-tubed cigarettes of which he never consumed
more than thirty per day to avoid intercadence at night. He had practically
no conversation and could not retell correctly any of the countless
historical anecdotes he found in the battered tomes of Russkaya Starina
("Russian ancientry")--which explains where Annette got her inability to
remember the poems, the essays, the stories, the novels she had typed for me
(my grumble is repetitious, I know, but the matter rankles--a word which
comes from dracunculus, a "baby dragon"). He was also one of the last
gentlemen I ever met who still wore a dickey and elastic-sided boots.
He asked me--and that remained his only memorable question--why I did
not use in print the title which went with my thousand-year-old name. I
replied that I was the kind of snob who assumes that bad readers are by
nature aware of an author's origins but who hopes that good readers will be
more interested in his books than in his stemma. Dr. Blagovo was a stupid
old bloke, and his detachable cuffs could have been cleaner; but today, in
sorrowful retrospect, I treasure his memory: he was not only the father of
my poor Annette, but also the grandfather of my adored and perhaps still
more unfortunate daughter. <111>
Dr. Blagovo (1867-1940) had married at the age of forty a provincial
belle in the Volgan town of Kineshma, a few miles south from one of my most
romanic country estates, famous for its wild ravines, now gravel pits or
places of massacre, but then magnificent evocations of sunken gardens. She
wore elaborate make-up and spoke in simpering accents, reducing nouns and
adjectives to over-affectionate forms which even the Russian language, a
recognized giant of diminutives, would only condone on the wet lips of an
infant or tender nurse ("Here," said Mrs. Blagovo "is your chaishko s
molochishkom [teeny tea with weeny milk]"). She struck me as an
extraordinarily garrulous, affable, and banal lady, with a good taste in
clothes (she worked in a salon de couture). A certain tenseness could be
sensed in the atmosphere of the household. Annette was obviously a difficult
daughter. In the brief course of my visit I could not help noticing that the
voice of the parent addressing her developed little notes of obsequious
panic (notki podobostrastnoy paniki). Annette would occasionally curb with
an opaque, almost ophidian, look, her mother's volubility. As I was leaving,
the old girl paid me what she thought was a compliment: "You speak Russian
with a Parisian grasseyement and your manners are those of an Englishman."
Annette, behind her, uttered a low warning growl.
That same evening I wrote to her father informing him that she and I
had decided to marry; and on the following afternoon, when she arrived for
work, I met her in morocco slippers and silk dressing gown. It was a
holiday--the Festival of Flora--I said, indicating, with a not wholly normal
smile, the carnations, camomiles, anemones, asphodels, and blue cockles in
blond corn, which decorated my room in our honor. Her gaze swept over the
flowers, champagne, and caviar canapès; she snorted and turned to flee; I
plucked her back into the room, locked the door and pocketed its key. <112>
I do not mind recalling that our first tryst was a flop. It took me so
long to persuade her that this was the day, and she made such a fuss about
which ultimate inch of clothing could be removed and which parts of her body
Venus, the Virgin, and the maire of our arrondissement allowed to be
touched, that by the time I had her in a passably convenient position of
surrender, I was an impotent wreck. We were lying naked, in a loose clinch.
Presently her mouth opened against mine in her first free kiss. I regained
my vigor. I hastened to possess her. She exclaimed I was disgustingly
hurting her and with a vigorous wriggle expulsed the blooded and thrashing
fish. When I tried to close her fingers around it in humble substitution,
she snatched her hand away, calling me a dirty dèbauchè (gryaznyy
razvratnik). I had to demonstrate myself the messy act while she looked on
in amazement and sorrow.
We did better next day, and finished the flattish champagne; I never
could quite tame her, though. I remember most promising nights in Italian
lakeside hotels when everything was suddenly botched by her misplaced
primness. But on the other hand I am happy now that I was never so vile and
inept as to ignore the exquisite contrast between her irritating prudery and
those rare moments of sweet passion when her features acquired an expression
of childish concentration, of solemn delight, and her little moans just
reached the threshold of my undeserving consciousness. <113>
By the end of the summer, and of the next chapter of The Dare, it
became clear that Dr. Blagovo and his wife were looking forward to a regular
Greek-Orthodox wedding--a taper-lit gold-and-gauze ceremony, with high
priest and low priest and a double choir. I do not know if Annette was
astonished when I said I intended to cut out the mummery and prosaically
register our union before a municipal officer in Paris, London, Calais, or
on one of the Channel Islands; but she certainly did not mind astonishing
her parents. Dr. Blagovo requested an interview in a stiffly worded letter
("Prince! Anna has informed us that you would prefer--"); we settled for a
telephone conversation: two minutes of Dr. Blagovo (including pauses caused
by his deciphering a hand that must have been the despair of apothecaries)
and five of his wife, who after rambling about irrelevant matters entreated
me to reconsider my decision. I refused, and was set upon by a go-between,
good old Stepanov, who rather unexpectedly, given his liberal views, urged
me in a telephone call from somewhere in England (where the Borgs now lived)
to keep up a beautiful Christian tradition. I changed the subject and begged
him to arrange a beautiful literary soirèe for me upon his return to Paris.
In the meantime some of the gayer gods came with gifts. Three windfalls
scatter-thudded around me in a simultaneous act of celebration: The Red
Topper was bought for publication in English with a two-hundred-guinea
advance; James Lodge of New York offered for Camera Lucida an even handsomer
sum (one's sense of beauty was easily satisfied in those days); and a
contract for the cinema rights to a short story was being prepared by Ivor
Black's half-brother in Los Angeles. I had now to find adequate surroundings
for completing The Dare in greater comfort than that in which I wrote its
first part; and immediately after that, or concurrently with its last
chapter, I would have to examine, and, no doubt, revise heavily, the English
translation now being made of my Krasnyy Tsilindr by an unknown lady in
London (who rather inauspiciously had started to suggest, before a roar of
rage stopped her, that "certain passages, not quite proper or too richly or
obscurely phrased, would have to be toned down, or omitted altogether, for
the benefit of the sober-minded English reader"). I also expected to have to
face a business trip to the United States.
For some odd psychological reason, Annette's parents, who kept track of
those developments, were now urging her to go through no matter what form of
marriage, civil or pagan (grazhdanskiy ili basurmanskiy), without delay.
Once that little tricolor farce over, Annette and I paid our tribute to
Russian tradition by traveling from hotel to hotel during two months, going
as far as Venice and Ravenna, where I thought of Byron and translated
Musset. Back in Paris, we rented a three-room apartment on the charming rue
Guevara (named after an Andalusian playwright of long ago) a two-minute walk
from the Bois. We usually lunched at the nearby Le Peut Diable Boiteux, a
modest but excellent restaurant, and had cold cuts for dinner in our
kitchenette. I had somehow expected Annette to be a versatile cook, and she
did improve later, in rugged <115> America. On rue Guevara her best
achievement remained the Soft-Boiled Egg: I do not know how she did it, but
she managed to prevent the fatal crack that produced an ectoplasmic swell in
the dancing water when I took over.
She loved long walks in the park among the sedate beeches and the
prospective-looking babes; she loved cafès, fashion shows, tennis matches,
circular bike races at the Vèlodrome, and especially the cinema. I soon
realized that a little recreation put her in a lovemaking mood--and I was
frightfully amorous and strong in our four last years in Paris, and quite
unable to stand capricious denials. I drew the line, however, at an overdose
of athletic sports--a metronomic tennis ball twanging to and fro or the
ghastly hairy legs of hunchbacks on wheels.
The second part of the Thirties in Paris happened to be marked by a
marvelous surge of the exiled arts, and it would be pretentious and foolish
of me not to admit that whatever some of the more dishonest critics wrote
about me, I stood at the peak of that period. In the halls where readings
took place, in the back rooms of famous cafès, at private literary parries,
I enjoyed pointing out to my quiet and stylish companion the various ghouls
of the inferno, the crooks and the creeps, the benevolent nonentities, the
groupists, the guru nuts, the pious pederasts, the lovely hysterical
Lesbians, the gray-locked old realists, the talented, illiterate, intuitive
new critics (Adam Atropovich was their unforgettable leader).
I noted with a sort of scholarly pleasure (like that of tracking down
parallel readings) how attentive, how eager to honor her were the three or
four, always black-suited, grandmasters of Russian letters (people I admired
with grateful fervor, not only because their high-principled art had
enchanted my prime, but also because the banishment of their books by the
Bolshevists <116> represented the greatest indictment, absolute and
immortal, of Lenin's and Stalin's regime). No less empressès around her
(perhaps in subliminal zeal to earn some of the rare praise I deigned to
bestow on the pure voice of the impure) were certain younger writers whom
their God had created two-faced: despicably corrupt or inane on one side of
their being and shining with poignant genius on the other. In a word, her
appearance in the beau monde of èmigrè literature echoed amusingly Chapter
Eight of Eugene Onegin with Princess N.'s moving coolly through the fawning
I might have been displeased by the tolerance she showed Basilevski
(knowing none of his works and only vaguely aware of his preposterous
reputation) had it not occurred to me that the theme of her sympathy was
repeating, as it were, the friendly phase of my own initial relations with
that faux bonhomme. From behind a more or less Doric column I overheard him
asking my naîve gentle Annette had she any idea why I hated so fiercely
Gorki (for whom he cultivated total veneration). Was it because I resented
the world fame of a proletarian? Had I really read any of that wonderful
writer's books? Annette had looked puzzled but all at once a charming
childish smile illumined her whole face and she recalled The Mother, a corny
Soviet film that I had criticized, she said, "because the tears rolling down
the faces were too big and too slow."
"Aha! That explains a lot," proclaimed Basilevski with gloomy
I received the typed translations of The Red Topper (sic) and Camera Lucida
virtually at the same time, in the autumn of 1937. They proved to be even
more ignoble than I expected. Miss Haworth, an Englishwoman, had spent three
happy years in Moscow where her father had been Ambassador; Mr. Kulich was
an elderly Russian-born New Yorker who signed his letters Ben. Both made
identical mistakes, choosing the wrong term in their identical dictionaries,
and with identical recklessness never bothering to check the treacherous
homonym of a familiar-looking word. They were blind to contextual shades of
color and deaf to nuances of noise. Their classification of natural objects
seldom descended from the class to the family; still more seldom to the
genus in the strict sense. They confused the specimen with the species; Hop,
Leap, and Jump wore in their minds the drab uniform of regimented
synonymity; and not one page passed without a boner. What struck me as
especially fascinating, in a dreadful diabolical way, was their taking for
granted that a respectable author could have written this or that
descriptive passage, which their ignorance and carelessness had reduced to
the cries and grunts of a cretin. In all their habits of expression Ben
Kulich and Miss Haworth were so close that I now think <118> they might have
been secretly married to one another and had corresponded regularly when
trying to settle a tricky paragraph; or else, maybe, they used to meet
midway for lexical picnics on the grassy lip of some crater in the Azores.
It took me several months to revise those atrocities and dictate my
revisions to Annette. She derived her English from the four years she had
spent at an American boarding school in Constantinople (1920-1924), the
Blagovos' first stage of westward expatriation. I was amazed to see how fast
her vocabulary grew and improved in the performance of her new functions and
was amused by the innocent pride she took in correctly taking down the
blasts and sarcasms I directed in letters to Allan & Overton, London, and
James Lodge, New York. In fact, her doigtè in English (and French) was
better than in the typing of Russian texts. Minor stumbles were, of course,
bound to occur in any language. One day, in referring to the carbon copy of
a spate of corrections already posted to my patient Allan, I discovered a
trivial slip she had made, a mere typo ("here" instead of "hero," or perhaps
"that" instead of "hat," I don't even remember--but there was an "h"
somewhere, I think) which, however, gave the sentence a dismally flat, but,
alas, not implausible sense (verisimilitude has been the undoing of many a
conscientious proofreader). A telegram could eliminate the fault
incontinently, but an overworked edgy author finds such events jarring--and
I voiced my annoyance with unwarranted vehemence. Annette started looking
for a telegram form in the (wrong) drawer and said, without rasing her head:
"She would have helped you so much better than I, though I really am
doing my best (strashno starayus', trying terribly)."
We never referred to Iris--that was a tacit condition in the code of
our marriage--but I instantly understood that Annette meant her and not the
inept English girl <119> whom an agency had sent me several weeks before and
got back with wrappage and string. For some occult reason (overwork again) I
felt the tears welling and before I could get up and leave the room, I found
myself shamelessly sobbing and hitting a fat anonymous book with my fist.
She glided into my arms, also weeping, and that same evening we went to see
Renè Clair's new film, followed by supper at the Grand Velour.
During those months of correcting and partly rewriting The Red Topper
and the other thing, I began to experience the pangs of a strange
transformation. I did not wake up one Central European morning as a great
scarab with more legs than any beetle can have, but certain excruciating
tearings of secret tissues did take place in me. The Russian typewriter was
closed like a coffin. The end of The Dare had been delivered to Patria.
Annette and I planned to go in the spring to England (a plan never executed)
and in the summer of 1939 to America (where she was to die fourteen years
later). By the middle of 19381 felt I could sit back and quietly enjoy both
the private praise bestowed upon me by Andoverton and Lodge in their letters
and the public accusations of aristocratic obscurity which facetious
criticules in the Sunday papers directed at the style of such passages in
the English versions of my two novels as had been authored by me alone. It
was, however, quite a different matter "to work without net" (as Russian
acrobats say), when attempting to compose a novel straight in English, for
now there was no Russian safety net spread below, between me and the lighted
circlet of the arena.
As was also to happen in regard to my next English books (including the
present sketch), the title of my first one came to me at the moment of
impregnation, long before actual birth and growth. Holding that name to the
light, I distinguished the entire contents of the semitransparent <120>
capsule. The title was to be without any choice or change: See under Real. A
preview of its eventual tribulations in the catalogues of public libraries
could not have deterred me.
The idea may have been an oblique effect of the insult dealt by the two
bunglers to my careful art. An English novelist, a brilliant and unique
performer, was supposed to have recently died. The story of his life was
being knocked together by the uninformed, coarse-minded, malevolent Hamlet
Godman, an Oxonian Dane, who found in this grotesque task a Kovalevskian
"outlet" for the literary flops that his proper mediocrity fully deserved.
The biography was being edited, rather unfortunately for its reckless
concocter, by the indignant brother of the dead novelist. As the opening
chapter unfolded its first reptilian coil (with insinuations of
"masturbation guilt" and the castration of toy soldiers) there commenced
what was to me the delight and the magic of my book: fraternal footnotes,
half-a-dozen lines per page, then more, then much more, which started to
question, then refute, then demolish by ridicule the would-be biographer's
doctored anecdotes and vulgar inventions. A multiplication of such notes at
the bottom of the page led to an ominous increase (no doubt disturbing to
clubby or convalescent readers) of astronomical symbols bespeckling the
text. By the end of the biographee's college years the height of the
critical apparatus had reached one third of each page. Editorial warnings of
a national disaster--flooded fields and so on--accompanied a further rise of
the water line. By page 200 the footnote material had crowded out
three-quarters of the text and the type of the note had changed,
psychologically at least (I loathe typographical frolics in books) from
brevier to long primer. In the course of the last chapters the commentary
not only replaced the entire text but finally swelled to boldface. "We
witness here the admirable phenomenon of a bogus <121> biographie romancèe
being gradually supplanted by the true story of a great man's life." For
good measure I appended a three-page account of the great annotator's
academic career: "He now teaches Modern Literature, including his brother's
works, at Paragon University, Oregon."
This is the description of a novel written almost forty-five years ago
and probably forgotten by the general public. I have never reread it because
I reread (je relis, perechityvayu--I'm teasing an adorable mistress!) only
the page proofs of my paperbacks; and for reasons which, I am sure, J. Lodge
finds judicious, the thing is still in its hard-cover instar. But in rosy
retrospect I feel it as a pleasurable event, and have completely dissociated
it in my mind from the terrors and torments that attended the writing of
that rather lightweight little satire.
Actually, its composition, despite the pleasure (maybe also noxious)
that the iridescent bubbles in my alembics gave me after a night of
inspiration, trial, and triumph (look at the harlequins, everybody
look--Iris, Annette, Bel, Louise, and you, you, my ultimate and immortal
one!), almost led to the dementia paralytica that I feared since youth.
In the world of athletic games there has never been, I think, a World
Champion of Lawn Tennis and Ski; yet in two Literatures, as dissimilar as
grass and snow, I have been the first to achieve that kind of feat. I do not
know (being a complete non-athlete, whom the sports pages of a newspaper
bore almost as much as does its kitchen section) what physical stress may be
involved in serving one day a sequence of thirty-six aces at sea level and
on the next soaring from a ski jump 136 meters through bright mountain air.
Colossal, no doubt, and, perhaps, inconceivable. But I have managed to
transcend the rack and the wrench of literary metamorphosis.
We think in images, not in words; all right; when, however, we compose,
recall, or refashion at midnight in our <122> brain something we wish to say
in tomorrow's sermon, or have said to Dolly in a recent dream, or wish we
had said to that impertinent proctor twenty years ago, the images we think
in are, of course, verbal--and even audible if we happen to be lonely and
old. We do not usually think in words, since most of life is mimodrama, but
we certainly do imagine words when we need them, just as we imagine
everything else capable of being perceived in this, or even in a still more
unlikely, world. The book in my mind appeared at first, under my right cheek
(I sleep on my non-cardial side), as a varicolored procession with a head
and a tail, winding in a general western direction through an attentive
town. The children among you and all my old selves on their thresholds were
being promised a stunning show. I then saw the show in full detail with
every scene in its place, every trapeze in the stars. Yet it was not a
masque, not a circus, but a bound book, a short novel in a tongue as far
removed as Thracian or Pahlavi from the fata-morganic prose that I had
willed into being in the desert of exile. An upsurge of nausea overcame me
at the thought of imagining a hundred-thousand adequate words and I switched
on the light and called to Annette in the adjacent bedroom to give me one of
my strictly rationed tablets.
The evolution of my English, like that of birds, had had its ups and
downs. A beloved Cockney nurse had looked after me from 1900 (when I was one
year old) to 1903. She was followed by a succession of three English
governesses (1903-1906, 1907-1909, and November, 1909, to Christmas of the
same year) whom I see over the shoulder of time as representing,
mythologically, Didactic Prose, Dramatic Poetry, and the Erotic Idyll. My
grand-aunt, a dear person with uncommonly liberal views, gave in, however,
to domestic considerations, and discharged Cherry Neaple, my last
shepherdess. After an interlude of Russian and French pedagogy, two English
tutors more or less <123> succeeded each other between 1912 and 1916, rather
comically overlapping in the spring of 1914 when they competed for the
favors of a young village beauty who had been my girl in the first place.
English fairy tales had been replaced around 1910 by the B.O.P., immediately
followed by all the Tauchnitz volumes that had accumulated in the family
libraries. Throughout adolescence I read, in pairs, and both with the same
rich thrill, Othello and Onegin, Tyutchev and Tennyson, Browning and Blok.
During my three Cambridge years (1919-1922) and thereafter, till April 23,
1930, my domestic tongue remained English, while the body of my own Russian
works started to grow and was soon to disorb my household gods.
So far so good. But the phrase itself is a glib clichè; and the
question confronting me in Paris, in the late Thirties, was precisely could
I fight off the formula and rip up the ready-made, and switch from my
glorious self-developed Russian, not to the dead leaden English of the high
seas with dummies in sailor suits, but an English I alone would be
responsible for, in all its new ripples and changing light?
I daresay the description of my literary troubles will be skipped by
the common reader; yet for my sake, rather than his, I wish to dwell
mercilessly on a situation that was bad enough before I left Europe but
almost killed me during the crossing.
Russian and English had existed for years in my mind as two worlds
detached from one another. (It is only today that some interspatial contact
has been established: "A knowledge of Russian," writes George Oakwood in his
astute essay on my Ardis, 1970, "will help you to relish much of the
wordplay in the most English of the author's English novels; consider for
instance this: `The champ and the chimp came all the way from Omsk to
Neochomsk.' What a delightful link between a real round place and <124>
`ni-o-chyom,' the About-Nothing land of modern philosophic linguistics!") I
was acutely aware of the syntactic gulf separating their sentence
structures. I feared (unreasonably, as was to transpire eventually) that my
allegiance to Russian grammar might interfere with an apostatical courtship.
Take tenses: how different their elaborate and strict minuet in English from
the free and fluid interplay between the present and the past in their
Russian counterpart (which Ian Bunyan has so amusingly compared in last
Sunday's NYT to "a dance of the veil performed by a plump graceful lady in a
circle of cheering drunks"). The fantastic number of natural-looking nouns
that the British and the Americans apply in lovely technical senses to very
specific objects also distressed me. What is the exact term for the little
cup in which you place the diamond you want to cut? (We call it "dop," the
pupal case of a butterfly, replied my informer, an old Boston jeweler who
sold me the ring for my third bride). Is there not a nice special word for a
pigling? ("I am toying with `snork' said Professor Noteboke, the best
translator of Gogol's immortal The Carrick). I want the right word for the
break in a boy's voice at puberty, I said to an amiable opera basso in the
adjacent deck chair during my first transatlantic voyage. ("I think, he
said, "it's called `ponticello,' a small bridge, un petit pont, mostik...
Oh, you're Russian too?")
The traversal of my particular bridge ended, weeks after landing, in a
charming New York apartment (it was leant to Annette and me by a generous
relative of mine and faced the sunset flaming beyond Central Park). The
neuralgia in my right forearm was a gray adumbration compared to the solid
black headache that no pill could pierce. Annette rang up James Lodge, and
he, out of the misdirected kindness of his heart, had an old little
physician of Russian extraction examine me. The poor fellow drove me even
crazier than I was by not only insisting on discussing <125> my symptoms in
an execrable version of the language I was trying to shed, but on
translating into it various irrelevant terms used by the Viennese Quack and
his apostles (simbolizirovanie, mortidnik). Yet his visit, I must confess,
strikes me in retrospect as a most artistic coda. <126>
Neither Slaughter in the Sun (as the English translation of Camera
Lucida got retitled while I lay helplessly hospitalized in New York) nor The
Red Topper sold well. My ambitious, beautiful, strange See under Real shone
for a breathless instant on the lowest rung of the bestseller list in a West
Coast paper, and vanished for good. In those circumstances I could not
refuse the lectureship offered me in 1940 by Quirn University on the
strength of my European reputation. I was to develop a plump tenure there
and expand into a Full Professor by 1950 or 1955: I can't find the exact
date in my old notes.
Although I was adequately remunerated for my two weekly lectures on
European Masterpieces and one Thursday seminar on Joyce's Ulysses (from a
yearly 5000 dollars in the beginning to 15,000 in the Fifties) and had
furthermore several splendidly paid stories accepted by The Beau and the
Butterfly, the kindest magazine in the world, I was not really comfortable
until my Kingdom by the Sea (1962) atoned for a fraction of the loss of my
Russian fortune (1917) and bundled away all financial worries till the end
of worrisome time. I do not usually preserve cuttings of adverse criticism
and envious abuse; but I do treasure the following definition: "This is the
only known case <129> in history when a European pauper ever became his own
American uncle [amerikanskiy dyadyushka, oncle d'Amèrique]," so phrased by
my faithful Zoilus, Demian Basilevski; he was one of the very few larger
saurians in the èmigrè marshes who followed me in 1939 to the hospitable and
altogether admirable U.S.A., where with egg-laying promptness he founded a
Russian-language quarterly which he is still directing today, thirty-five
years later, in his heroic dotage.
The furnished apartment we finally rented on the upper floor of a
handsome house (10 Buffalo St.) was much to my liking because of an
exceptionally comfortable study with a great bookcase full of works on
American lore including an encyclopedia in twenty volumes. Annette would
have preferred one of the dacha-like structures which the Administration
also showed us; but she gave in when I pointed out to her that what looked
snug and quaint in summer was bound to be chilly and weird the rest of the
Annette's emotional health caused me anxiety: her graceful neck seemed
even longer and thinner. An expression of mild melancholy lent a new,
unwelcome, beauty to her Botticellian face: its hollowed outline below the
zygoma was accentuated by her increasing habit of sucking in her cheeks when
hesitative or pensive. All her cold petals remained closed in our infrequent
lovemaking. Her abstraction grew perilous: stray cats at night knew that the
same erratic deity that had not shut the kitchen window would leave ajar the
door of the fridge; her bath regularly overflowed while she telephoned,
knitting her innocent brows (what on earth did she care for my pains, my
welling insanity!), to find out how the first-floor person's migraine or
menopause was faring; and that vagueness of hers in relation to me was also
responsible for her omitting a precaution she was supposed to take, so that
by the autumn, which followed our moving into the accursed Langley <130>
house, she informed me that the doctor she had just consulted looked the
very image of Oksman and that she was two-months pregnant.
An angel is now waiting under my restless heels. Doomful despair would
invade my poor Annette when she tried to cope with the intricacies of an
American household. Our landlady, who occupied the first floor, resolved her
perplexities in a jiffy. Two ravishing wiggly-bottomed Bermudian coeds,
wearing their national costume, flannel shorts and open shirts, and
practically twins in appearance, who took the celebrated "Hotel" course at
Quirn, came to cook and char for her, and she offered to share with us their
"She's a veritable angel," confided Annette to me in her touchingly
I recognized in the woman the Assistant Professor of Russian whom I had
met in a brick building on the campus when the head of her remarkably dreary
department, meek myopic old Noteboke, invited me to attend an Advanced Group
Class (My govorim po-russki. Vy govorite? Pogovorimte togda--that kind of
awful stuff). Happily I had no connection whatever with Russian grammar at
Quirn--except that my wife was eventually saved from utter boredom by being
engaged to help beginners under Mrs. Langley's direction.
Ninel Ilinishna Langley, a displaced person in more senses than one,
had recently left her husband, the "great" Langley, author of A Marxist
History of America, the bible (now out of print) of a whole generation of
morons. I do not know the reason of their separation (after one year of
American Sex, as the woman told Annette, who relayed the information to me
in a tone of idiotic condolence); but I did have the occasion of seeing and
disliking Professor Langley at an official dinner on the eve of his
departure for Oxford. I disliked him for his daring to question my teaching
Ulysses my way--in a purely textual <131> light, without organic allegories
and quasi-Greek myths and that sort of tripe; his "Marxism," on the other
hand, was a pleasantly comic and very mild affair (too mild, perhaps, for
his wife's taste) compared to the general attitude of ignorant admiration
which American intellectuals had toward Soviet Russia. I remember the sudden
hush, and furtive exchange of incredulous grimaces, when at a party, given
for me by the most eminent member of our English department, I described the
Bolshevist state as Philistine in repose and bestial in action;
internationally vying in rapacious deceit with the praying mantis; doctoring
the mediocrity of its literature by first sparing a few talents left over
from a previous period and then blotting them out with their own blood. One
professor, a left-wing moralist and dedicated muralist (he was experimenting
that year with automobile paint), stalked out of the house. He wrote me next
day, however, a really magnificent, larger-than-nature letter of apology
saying that he could not be really cross with the author of Esmeralda and
Her Parandrus (1941), which despite its "motley style and baroque imagery"
was a masterpiece "pinching strings of personal poignancy which he, a
committed artist, never knew could vibrate in him." Reviewers of my books
took the same line, chiding me formally for underestimating the "greatness"
of Lenin, yet paying me compliments of a kind that could not fail to touch,
in the long run, even me, a scornful and austere author, whose homework in
Paris had never received its due. Even the President of Quirn, who
timorously sympathized with the fashionable Sovietizers, was really on my
side: he told me when he called on us (while Ninel crept up to grow an ear
on our landing) that he was proud, etc., and had found my "last (?) book
very interesting" though he could not help regretting that I took every
opportunity of criticizing "our Great Ally" in my classes. I answered,
laughing, that this criticism was a child's caress when set alongside the
public lecture on <132> "The Tractor in Soviet Literature" that I planned to
deliver at the end of the term. He laughed, too, and asked Annette what it
was like to live with a genius (she only shrugged her pretty shoulders). All
this was trõs amèricain and thawed a whole auricle in my icy heart.
But to return to good Ninel.
She had been christened Nonna at birth (1902) and renamed twenty years
later Ninel (or Ninella), as petitioned by her father, a Hero of Toil and a
toady. She wrote it Ninella in English but her friends called her Ninette or
Nelly just as my wife's Christian name Anna (as Nonna liked to observe)
turned into Annette and Netty.
Ninella Langley was a stocky, heavily built creature with a ruddy and
rosy face (the two tints unevenly distributed), short hair dyed a
mother-in-law ginger, brown eyes even madder than mine, very thin lips, a
fat Russian nose, and three or four hairs on her chin. Before the young
reader heads for Lesbos, I wish to say that as far as I could discover (and
I am a peerless spy) there was nothing sexual in her ludicrous and unlimited
affection for my wife. I had not yet acquired the white Desert Lynx that
Annette did not live to see, so it was Ninella who took her shopping in a
dilapidated jalopy while the resourceful lodger, sparing the copies of his
own novels, would autograph for the grateful twins old mystery paperbacks
and unreadable pamphlets from the Langley collection in the attic whose
dormer looked out obligingly on the road to, and from, the Shopping Center.
It was Ninella who kept her adored "Netty" well supplied with white knitting
wool. It was Ninella who twice daily invited her for a cup of coffee or tea
in her rooms; but the woman made a point of avoiding our flat, at least when
we were at home, under the pretext that it still reeked of her husband's
tobacco: I rejoined that it was my own pipe--and later, on the same day,
Annette told me I really ought not to smoke so much, especially indoors; and
she also upheld another absurd <133> complaint coming from downstairs,
namely, that I walked back and forth too late and too long, right over
Ninella's forehead. Yes--and a third grievance: why didn't I put back the
encyclopedia volumes in alphabetic order as her husband had always been
careful to do, for (he said) "a misplaced book is a lost book"--quite an
Dear Mrs. Langley was not particularly happy about her job. She owned a
lakeside bungalow ("Rustic Roses") thirty miles north of Quirn, not very far
from Honeywell College, where she taught summer school and with which she
intended to be even more closely associated, if a "reactionary" atmosphere
persisted at Quirn. Actually, her only grudge was against decrepit Mme. de
Korchakov, who had accused her, in public, of having a sdobnyy ("mellow")
Soviet accent and a provincial vocabulary--all of which could not be denied,
although Annette maintained I was a heartless bourgeois to say so. <134>
The infant Isabel's first four years of life are so firmly separated in
my consciousness by a blank of seven years from Bel's girlhood that I seem
to have had two different children, one a cheerful red-cheeked little thing,
and the other her pale and morose elder sister.
I had laid in a stock of ear plugs; they proved superfluous: no crying
came from the nursery to interfere with my work--Dr. Olga Repnin, the story
of an invented Russian professor in America, which was to be published
(after a bothersome spell of serialization entailing endless proofreading)
by Lodge in 1946, the year Annette left me, and acclaimed as "a blend of
humor and humanism" by alliteration-prone reviewers, comfortably unaware of
what I was to prepare some fifteen years later for their horrified
I enjoyed watching Annette as she took color snapshots of the baby and
me in the garden. I loved perambulating a fascinated Isabel through, the
groves of larches and beeches along Quirn Cascade River, with every loop of
light, every eyespot of shade escorted, or so it seemed, by the baby's gay
approbation. I even agreed to spend most of the summer of 1945 at Rustic
Roses. There, one day, as I was returning with Mrs. Langley from the nearest
liquor <135> store or newspaper stand, something she said, some intonation
or gesture, released in me the passing shudder, the awful surmise, that it
was not with my wife but with me that the wretched creature had been in love
from the very start.
The torturous tenderness I had always felt for Annette gained new
poignancy from my feelings for our little child (I "trembled" over her as
Ninella put it in her coarse Russian, complaining it might be bad for the
baby, even if one "subtracted the overacting"). That was the human side of
our marriage. The sexual side disintegrated altogether.
For quite a time after her return from the maternity ward, echoes of
her pangs in the darkest corridors of my brain and a frightening stained
window at every turn--the afterimage of a wounded orifice--pursued me and
deprived me of all my vigor. When everything in me healed, and my lust for
her pale enchantments rekindled, its volume and violence put an end to the
brave but essentially inept efforts she had been making to reestablish some
sort of amorous harmony between us without departing one jot from the
puritanical norm. She now had the gall--the pitiful girlish gall--to insist
I see a psychiatrist (recommended by Mrs. Langley) who would help me to
think "softening" thoughts at moments of excessive engorgement. I said her
friend was a monster and she a goose, and we had our worst marital quarrel
The creamy-thighed twins had long since returned with their bicycles to
the island of their birth. Plainer young ladies came to help with the
housekeeping. By the end of 1945 I had virtually ceased visiting my wife in
her cold bedroom.
Sometime in mid-May, 1946, I traveled to New York--a five-hour train
trip--to lunch with a publisher who was offering me better terms for a
collection of stories (Exile from Mayda) than good Lodge. After a pleasant
meal, in the sunny haze of that banal day, I walked over to the <136> Public
Library, and by a banal miracle of synchronization she came dancing down
those very steps, Dolly von Borg, now twenty-four, as I trudged up toward
her, a fat famous writer in his powerful forties. Except for a gleam of gray
in the abundant fair mane that I had cultivated for my readings in Paris,
more than a decade ago, I do not believe I could have changed sufficiently
to warrant her saying, as she began doing, that she would never have
recognized me had she not been so fond of the picture of meditation on the
back of See under. I recognized her because I had never lost track of her
image, readjusting it once in a while: the last time I had notched the score
was when her grandmother, in response to my wife's Christmas greetings, in
1939, sent us from London a postcard-size photo of a bare-shouldered flapper
with a fluffy fan and false eyelashes in some high-school play, terribly
chi-chi. In the two minutes we had on those steps--she pressing with both
hands a book to her breast, I at a lower level, standing with my right foot
placed on the next step, her step, and slapping my knee with a glove (many a
tenor's only known gesture)--in those two minutes we managed to exchange
quite a lot of plain information.
She was now studying the History of the Theater at Columbia University.
Parents and grandparents were tucked away in London. I had a child, right?
Those shoes I wore were lovely. Students called my lectures fabulous. Was I
I shook my head. When and where could I see her?
She had always had a crush on me, oh yes, ever since I used to
mesmerize her in my lap, playing sweet Uncle Gasper, muffing every other
line, and now all had come back and she certainly wished to do something
She had a remarkable vocabulary. Summarize her. Mirages of motels in
the eye of the penholder. Did she have a car?
Well, that was rather sudden (laughing). She could <137> borrow,
perhaps, his old sedan though he might not like the notion (pointing to a
nondescript youth who was waiting for her on the sidewalk). He had just
bought a heavenly Hummer to go places with her.
Would she mind telling me when we could meet, please.
She had read all my novels, at least all the English ones. Her Russian
The hell with my novels! When?
I had to let her think. She might visit me at the end of the term.
Terry Todd (now measuring the stairs with his eyes, preparing to mount) had
briefly been a student of mine; he got a D minus for his first paper and
I said I consigned all the D people to everlasting oblivion. Her "end
of the term" might bend away into Minus Eternity. I required more precision.
She would let me know. She would call me next week. No, she would not
part with her own telephone number. She told me to look at that clown (he
was now coming up the steps). Paradise was a Persian word. It was simply
Persian to meet again like that. She might drop in at my office for a few
moments, just to chat about old times. She knew how busy--
"Oh, Terry: this is the writer, the man who wrote Emerald and the
I do not recall what I had planned to look up in the library. Whatever
it was, it was not that unknown book. Aimlessly I walked up and down several
halls; abjectly visited the W.C.; but simply could not, short of castrating
myself, get rid of her new image in its own portable sunlight--the straight
pale hair, the freckles, the banal pout, the Lilithan long eyes--though I
knew she was only what one used to call a "little tramp" and, perhaps,
because she was just that.
I gave my penultimate "Masterpieces" lecture of the spring term. I gave
my ultimate one. An assistant distributed <138> the blue books for the final
examination in that course (which I had curtailed for reasons of health) and
collected them while three or four hopeless hopefuls still kept scribbling
madly in separate spots of the hall. I held my last Joyce seminar of the
year. Little Baroness Borg had forgotten the end of the dream.
In the last days of the spring term a particularly stupid baby-sitter
told me that some girl whose name she had not quite caught--Tallbird or
Dalberg--had phoned that she was on her way to Quirn. It so happened that a
Lily Talbot in my Masterpieces class had missed the examination. On the
following day I walked over to my office for the ordeal of reading the
damned heap on my desk. Quirn University Official Examination Book. All
academic work is conducted on the assumption of general horror. Write on the
consecutive right- and left-hand pages. What does "consecutive" really mean,
Sir? Do you want us to describe all the birds in the story or only one? As a
rule, one-tenth of the three hundred minds preferred the spelling "Stern" to
"Sterne" and "Austin" to "Austen."
The telephone on my spacious desk (it "slept two" as my ribald neighbor
Professor King, an authority on Dante, used to say) rang, and this Lily
Talbot started to explain, volubly, unconvincingly, in a kind of lovely,
veiled, and confidential voice, why she had not taken the examination. I
could not remember her face or her figure, but the subdued melody tickling
my ear contained such intimations of young charm and surrender that I could
not help chiding myself for overlooking her in my class. She was about to
come to the point when an eager childish rap at the door diverted my
attention. Dolly walked in, smiling. Smiling, she indicated with a tilt of
her chin that the receiver should be cradled. Smiling, she swept the
examination books off the desk and perched upon it with her bare shins in my
face. What might have promised the most refined ardors turned out to be the
tritest scene in this memoir. I hastened <139> to quench a thirst that had
been burning a hole in the mixed metaphor of my life ever since I had
fondled a quite different Dolly thirteen years earlier. The ultimate
convulsion rocked the desk lamp, and from the class just across the corridor
came a burst of applause at the end of Professor King's last lecture of the
When I came home, I found my wife alone on the porch swinging gently if
not quite straight in her favorite glider and reading the Krasnaya Niva
("Red Corn"), a Bolshevist magazine. Her purveyor of literatura was away
giving some future mistranslators a final examination. Isabel had been out
of doors and was now taking a nap in her room just above the porch.
In the days when the bermudki (as Ninella indecently called them) used
to minister to my humble needs, I experienced no guilt after the operation
and confronted my wife with my usual, fondly ironical smile; but on this
occasion I felt my flesh coated with stinging slime, and my heart missed a
thump, when she said, glancing up and stopping the line with her finger:
"Did that girl get in touch with you at your office?"
I answered as a fictional character might "in the affirmative": "Her
people," I added, "wrote you, it appears, about her coming to study in New
York, but you never showed me that letter. Tant mieux, she's a frightful
Annette looked utterly confused: "I'm speaking," she said, "or trying
to speak, about a student called Lily Talbot who telephoned an hour ago to
explain why she missed the exam. Who is your girl?"
We proceeded to disentangle the two. After some moral hesitation ("You
know, we both owe a lot to her grandparents") Annette conceded we really
need not entertain little strays. She seemed to recall the letter because it
contained a reference to her widowed mother (now moved to a comfortable home
for the old into which I had recently turned my villa at Carnavaux--despite
my <140> lawyer's well-meaning objections). Yes, yes, she had mislaid
it--and would find it some day in some library book that had never been
returned to an unattainable library. A strange appeasement was now flowing
through my poor veins. The romance of her absentmindedness always made me
laugh heartily. I laughed heartily. I kissed her on her infinitely
"How does Dolly Borg look now?" asked Annette. "She used to be a very
homely and very brash little brat. Quite repulsive, in fact."
"That's what she still is," I practically shouted, and we heard little
Isabel crow: "Ya prosnulas'" through the yawn of the window: "I am awake."
How lightly the spring cloudlets scudded! How glibly that red-breasted
thrush on the lawn pulled out its unbroken worm! Ah--and there was Ninella,
home at last, getting out of her car, with the string-bound corpses of
cahiers under her sturdy arm. "Gosh," said I to myself, in my ignoble
euphoria, "there's something quite nice and cozy about old Ninel after all!"
Yet only a few hours later the light of Hell had gone out, and I writhed, I
wrung my four limbs, yes, in an agony of insomnia, trying to find some
combination between pillow and back, sheet and shoulder, linen and leg, to
help me, help me, oh, help me to reach the Eden of a rainy dawn. <141>
The increasing disarray of my nerves was such that the bother of
getting a driver's license could not be contemplated: hence I had to rely on
Dolly's use of Todd's dirty old sedan in order to seek the conventional
darkness of country lanes that were difficult to find and disappointing when
found. We had three such rendezvous, near New Swivington or thereabouts, in
the complicated vicinity of Casanovia of all places, and despite my muddled
condition I could not help noticing that Dolly welcomed the restless
wanderings, the wrong turns, the torrents of rain which attended our sordid
little affair. "Just think," she said one especially boggy June night in
unknown surroundings, "how much simpler things would be if somebody
explained the situation to your wife, just think!"
On realizing she had gone too far with that proposed thought, Dolly
changed tactics and rang me up at my office to tell me with a great show of
jubilant excitement that Bridget Dolan, a medical student and a cousin of
Todd's, was offering us for a small remuneration her flat in New York on
Monday and Thursday afternoons when she worked as a nurse at the Holy
Something Hospital. Inertia rather than Eros caused me to give it a try; I
kept up the pretext of having to complete the literary <142> research I was
supposed to be conducting in the Public Library, and traveled in a crowded
Pullman from one nightmare to another.
She met me in front of the house, strutting in triumph, brandishing a
little key that caught a glint of sun in the hothouse mizzle. I was so very
weak from the journey that I had trouble getting out of the taxi, and she
helped me to the front door, chattering the while like a bright child.
Fortunately the mysterious flat was on the ground floor--I could not have
faced a lift's closure and spasm. A surly janitrix (reminding me in mnemonic
reverse of the Cerberean bitches in the hotels of Soviet Siberia which I was
to stop at a couple of decades later) insisted on my writing down my name
and address in a ledger ("That's the rule," sang out Dolly, who had already
picked up some intones of local delivery). I had the presence of mind to put
down the dumbest address I could produce at the moment, Dumbert Dumbert,
Dumberton. Dolly, humming, added unhurriedly my raincoat to those hanging in
a communal hallway. If she had ever experienced the pangs of neuralgic
delirium, she would not have fumbled with that key when she knew quite well
that the door of what should have been an exquisitely private apartment was
not even properly closed. We entered a preposterous, evidently ultra-modern
living room with painted hard furniture and one lone little white rocker
supporting a plush biped rat instead of a sulky child. Doors were still with
me, were always with me. The one on the left, being slightly ajar, let in
voices from an adjacent suite or asylum. "There's a party going on there!" I
expostulated, and Dolly deftly and softly drew that door almost shut.
"They're a nice friendly group," she said, "and it's really too warm in
these rooms to choke every chink. Second on the right. Here we are."
Here we were. Nurse Dolan for the sake of atmosphere and professional
empathy had rigged up her bedroom in hospital style: a snow-pure cot with a
system of levers <143> that would have rendered even Big Peter (in the Red
Topper) impotent; whitewashed commodes and glazed cabinets; a bedhead chart
dear to humorists; and a set of rules tacked to the bathroom door.
"Now off with that jacket," cried Dolly gaily, "while I unlace those
lovely shoes" (crouching nimbly, and nimbly recrouching, at my retreating
I said: "You have lost your mind, my dear, if you think I could
contemplate making love in this appalling place."
"What do you want then?" she asked, angrily brushing away a strand of
hair from her flushed face and uncoiling back to her natural length: "Where
would you find another such dandy, hygienic, utterly--"
A visitor interrupted her: a brown, gray-cheeked old dackel carrying
horizontally a rubber bone in its mouth. It entered from the parlor, placed
the obscene red thing on the linoleum, and stood looking at me, at Dolly, at
me again, with melancholy expectation on its raised dogface. A pretty
bare-armed girl in black slipped in, grabbed the animal, kicked its toy back
into the parlor, and said: "Hullo, Dolly! If you and your friend want some
drinks afterwards, please join us. Bridget phoned she'd be home early. It's
"Righto, Carmen," replied Dolly, and turning to me continued in
Russian: "I think you need that drink right away. Oh, come along! And for
God's sake leave that jacket and waistcoat here. You are drenched with
She forced me out of the room; I went rumbling and groaning; she gave a
perfunctory pat to the creaseless cot and followed the man of snow, the man
of tallow, the dying lopsided man.
Most of the party had now invaded the parlor from the next room. I
cringed and tried to hide my face as I recognized Terry Todd. He raised his
glass in delicate congratulation. What that slut had done to ensure a
thwarted beau's complicity, I shall never know; but I should never have put
<144> her in my Krasnyy Tsilindr; that's the way you breed live
monsters--from little ballerinas in books. Another person I had once seen
already--in a car that kept passing us somewhere in the country--a young
actor with handsome Irish features, pressed upon me what he called a
Honolulu Cooler, but at the eoan stage of an attack I am beyond alcohol, so
could only taste the pineapple part of the mixture. Amidst a circle of
sycophants a bull-size old fellow in a short-sleeved shirt monogrammed
"J.B." posed, one hairy arm around Dolly, for a naughty shot that his wife
snapped. Carmen removed my sticky glass on her neat little tray with a
pillbox and a thermometer in the corner. Not finding a seat, I had to lean
against the wall, and the back of my head caused a cheap abstract in a
plastic frame to start swinging above me: it was stopped by Todd who had
sidled up to me and now said, lowering his voice: "Everything is settled.
Prof, to everybody's satisfaction. I've kept in touch with Mrs. Langley,
sure I have, she and the missus are writing you. I believe they've already
left, the kid thinks you're in Heaven--now, now, what's the matter?"
I am not a fighter. I only hurt my hand against a tall lamp and lost
both shoes in the scuffle. Terry Todd vanished--forever. The telephone was
being used in one room and ringing in the other. Dolly, retransformed by the
alchemy of her blazing anger--and now untellable from the little girl who
had hurled a three-letter French word at me when I told her I found it wiser
to stop taking advantage of her grandfather's hospitality--virtually tore my
necktie in two, yelling she could easily get me jailed for rape but
preferred to see me crawling back to my consort and harem of baby-sitters
(her new vocabulary, though, remained richly theatrical, even when she
I felt trapped like a silver pea teased into the center of a toy maze.
A threatening crowd, held back by J.B., the head doctor, separated me from
the exit; so I retreated to <145> Bridget's private wardette and saw, with a
sense of relief (also "eoan" alas) that beyond a previously unnoticed,
half-opened French window there extended to a fabulous distance an inner
court, or only one comforting part of an inner court, with lightly robed
patients circulating in a geometry of lawns and garden walks, or quietly
sitting on benches. I staggered out, and as my white-socked feet touched the
cool turf I noticed that the vagabond wench had undone the ankle strings of
the long linen underpants I was wearing. Somehow, somewhere, I had shed and
lost all the rest of my clothes. As I stood there, my head brimming with a
blackness of pain seldom known before, I became aware of a flurry of motion
beyond the court. Far, far away, nurse Dolan or Nolan (at that distance such
nice distinctions no longer mattered) emerged from a wing of the hospital
and came running to my assistance. Two males followed her with a stretcher.
A helpful patient gathered up the blanket they had dropped.
"You know, you know . . . you should have never done that," she cried
panting. "Don't move, they'll help you to get up (I had collapsed on the
turf). If you'd escaped after surgery you might have died right where you
are. On such a lovely day, too!"
And so I was carried by two sturdy palanquiners who stank all the way
(the hind bearer solidly, the front man in rhythmic wafts) not to Bridget's
bed but to a real hospital cot in a ward for three between two old men, both
dying of cerebritis. <146>
13. IV. 46
The step I have taken, Vadim, is not subject to discussion (ne
podlezhit obsuzhdeniyu). You must accept my departure as a fait accompli.1
Had I really loved you I would not have left you; but I never loved you
really, and maybe your escapade--which no doubt is not your first since our
arrival in this sinister (zloveshchuyu) "free" country"2--is for me a mere
pretext for leaving you.
We have never been very happy together, you and I, during our twelve3
years of marriage. You regarded me from the start as a cute, dutiful, but
definitely disappointing little circus animal4 which you tried to teach
immoral disgusting tricks--condemned as such according to the faithful
companion without whom I might not have survived in ghastly "Kvirn"5 by the
latest scientific stars of our fatherland. I, on the other hand, was so
painfully nonplussed by your trenne (sic)6 de vie, your habits, your
black-locked7 friends, your decadent novels, and--why not admit it?--your
<147> pathological revolt against Art and Progress in the Soviet Land,
including the restoration of lovely old churches,8 that I would have
divorced you, had I dared upset9 poor papa and mama who were so eager in
their dignity and naîvetè to have their daughter addressed--by whom, good
Lord?--as "Your Serenity" (Siyatel'stvo).
Now comes a serious demand, an absolute injunction. Never, never--at
least while I am still alive--never, I repeat, shall you try to communicate
with the child. I do not know--Nelly is better versed in this--what the
legal situation is, but I know that in certain respects you are a gentleman
and it is to the gentleman that I say and shout: Please, please, keep away!
If some dreadful American illness strikes me, then remember I wish her to be
brought up as a Russian Christian.10
I was sorry to learn about your hospitalization. This is your second,
and I hope last, attack of neurasthenia11 since the time we made the mistake
of leaving Europe instead of waiting quietly for the Soviet Army to liberate
it from the fascists. Good-bye.
PS. Nelly wishes to add a few lines.
Thank you, Netty. I shall indeed be brief. The information imparted to
us by your girl-friend's fiancè and his mother,12 a saintly woman of
infinite compassion and common sense, lacked, fortunately, the element of
dreadful surprise. A roommate of Berenice Mudie (the one that stole the
cut-crystal decanter Netty gave me) had already been spreading certain odd
rumors a couple of years ago; I tried to protect your sweet wife <148> by
not allowing that gossip to reach her or at least by drawing her attention
to it in a very oblique, half-humorous way long after those prostitutes had
gone. But now let us talk turkey.13
There can be no problem, I am sure, in separating your things from
hers. She says: "Let him take the countless copies of his novels and all the
tattered dictionaries"; but she must be allowed to keep her household
treasures such as my little birthday gifts to her--the silver-plated caviar
bowl as well as the six pale-green handblown wine glasses, etc.
I can especially sympathize with Netty in this domestic catastrophe
because my own marriage resembled hers in many, many ways. It began so
auspiciously! I was stranded and lost in a territory suddenly occupied by
Estonian fascists, a poor little war-tossed Moscow girl,14 when I first met
Professor Langley in quite romantic circumstances: I was interpreting for
him (the study of foreign languages stands at a remarkable level in the
Soviet Land), but when I was shipped with other DP's to the UK, and we met
again and married, all went wrong--he ignored me in the daytime, and our
nights were full of incompatibility.15 One good consequence is that I
inherited, so to speak, a lawyer, Mr. Horace Peppermill, who has consented
to grant you a consultation and help you to settle all business details. It
will be wise on your part to follow Professor Langley's example and give
your wife a monthly allowance while placing a sizable "guarantee sum" in the
bank which can be available to her in extreme cases and, naturally, after
your demise or during an overprotracted terminal illness. We do not <149>
have to remind you that Mrs. Blagovo should continue to receive regularly
her usual check until further notice.
The Quirn house will be offered for sale immediately--it is overflowing
with odious memories. Consequently, as soon as they let you out, which I
hope will happen without retardment (bez zamedleniya, sans tarder), move out
of the house, please.16 I am not on speaking terms with Miss Myrna
Soloway--or, in reality, simply Soloveychik--of my department, but I
understand she is very good at ferreting out places for rent.
We have fine weather here after all that rain. The lake is beautiful at
this time of the year! We are going to refurnish our dear little dacha. Its
only drawback in one sense (an asset in all others!) is that it stands a wee
bit apart from civilization or at least from Honeywell College. The police
are always on the lockout for bothers in the nude, prowlers, etc. We are
seriously thinking of acquiring a big Alsatian!17
En franãais dans le texte.
The first four or five lines are no doubt authentic, but then come
various details which convince me that not Netty but Nelly masterminded the
entire communication. Only a Soviet woman would speak like that of America.
At first typed "fourteen" but expertly erased and replaced by the
correct "twelve," as seen clearly in the carbon copy that I found pinned,
"just in case," to the blotter in my study. Netty would have been totally
incapable of producing such a clean typescript--especially with the New
Orthography machine used by her friend.
The term in the text is durovskiy zveryok, meaning a small animal
trained by the famous Russian clown Durov, a reference <150> less familiar
to my wife than to a person of the older generation to which her friend
Contemptuous transliteration of "Quirn."
Symptomatic misspelling of train. Annette's French was excellent.
Ninette's French (as well as her English) was a joke.
My wife coming as she did from an obscurant Russian milieu was no
paragon of racial tolerance; but she would never have used the vulgar
anti-Semitic phraseology typical of her friend's character and upbringing.
The interpolation of those "lovely old churches" is a stock platitude
of Soviet patriotism.
Actually my wife rather liked to upset her people on every possible
I might have done something about it had I known for sure whose wish it
was. To spite her parents--a strange but constant policy on her
part--Annette never went to church, not even at Easter. As to Mrs. Langley,
devotional decorum was the motto; the woman made the sign of the cross every
time American Jupiter split the black clouds.
A totally new character--this mother. Myth? Impersonation act? I turned
to Bridget for some explanation; she said there was no such person around
(the real Mrs. Todd died long ago) and advised me "to drop the subject" with
the irritating curtness of one dismissing a topic as the product of
another's delirium. I am ready to agree that my recollection of the scene at
her apartment is tainted by the state I was in, but that "saintly mother"
must remain an enigma.
En Anglais dans le texte.
The little Muscovite must have been around forty at the time.
En Anglais dans le texte.
This I did not dream of doing before my lease expired, which it did on
August 1, 1946.
Let us refrain from a final comment.
Good-bye, Netty and Nelly. Good-bye, Annette and Ninette. Good-bye,
Nonna Anna. <151> <152>
Learning to drive that "Caracal" (as I fondly called my new white
coupè) had its comic as well as dramatic side, bat after two flunks and a
few little repairs, I found myself legally and physically fit at last to
spin off West on a protracted tour. There was, true, a moment of acute
distress, as the first distant mountains disowned suddenly any likeness to
lilac clouds, when I recalled the trips Iris and I used to make to the
Riviera in our old Icarus. If she did occasionally allow me to take the
wheel, it was only in a spirit of fun, for she was such a sportive girl.
With what sobs I now remembered the time when I managed to hit the postman's
bicycle which had been left leaning against a pink wall at the entrance of
Carnavaux, and how my Iris doubled up in beautiful mirth as the thing
slithered off in front of us!
I spent what remained of the summer exploring the incredibly lyrical
Rocky Mountain states, getting drunk on whiffs of Oriental Russia in the
sagebrush zone and on the North Russian fragrances so faithfully reproduced
above timberline by certain small bogs along trickles of sky between the
snowbank and the orchid. And yet--was that all? What form of mysterious
pursuit caused me to get my feet wet like a child, to pant up a talus, to
stare <155> every dandelion in the face, to start at every colored mote
passing just beyond my field of vision? What was the dream sensation of
having come empty-handed--without what? A gun? A wand? This I dared not
probe lest I wound the raw fell under my thin identity.
Skipping the academic year, in a kind of premature "sabbatical leave"
that left the Trustees of Quirn University speechless, I wintered in Arizona
where I tried to write The Invisible Lath, a book rather similar to that in
the reader's hands. No doubt I was not ready for it and perhaps foiled too
much over inexpressible shades of emotion; anyway I smothered it under too
many layers of sense as a Russian peasant woman, in her stuffy log house,
might overlay (zaspat') her baby in heavy oblivion after making hay or being
thrashed by her drunken husband.
I pushed on to Los Angeles--and was sorry to learn that the cinema
company I had counted upon was about to fold after Ivor Black's death. On my
way back, in early spring, I rediscovered the dear phantasmata of my
childhood in the tender green of aspen groves at high altitudes here and
there, on conifer-clothed ridges. For almost six months I roamed again from
motel to motel, several times having my car scratched and cracked by
cretinous rival drivers and finally trading it in for a sedate Bellargus
sedan of a celestial blue that Bel was to compare with that of a Morpho.
Another odd thing: with prophetic care I took down in my diary all my
stops, all my motels (Mes Moteaux as Verlaine might have said!), the
Lakeviews, the Valley Views, the Mountain Views, the Plumed Serpent Court in
New Mexico, the Lolita Lodge in Texas, Lone Poplars, that if recruited might
have patrolled a whole river, and enough sunsets to keep all the bats of the
world--and one dying genius--happy. LATH, LATH, Look At The Harlequins! Look
at that strange fever rash of viatic tabulation in which I persevered as if
I knew that those <156> motor courts prefigured the stages of my future
travels with my darling daughter.
In late August, 1947, suntanned, and more edgy than ever, I returned to
Quirn and transferred my belongings from storage to the new dwelling (1
Larchdell Road) found for me by efficient and cute Miss Soloway. This was a
charming two-storied gray-stone house, with a picture window and a white
grand in the long drawing-room, three virginal bedrooms upstairs and a
library in the basement. It had belonged to the late Alden Landover, the
greatest American belle-lettrist of the half-century. With the help of the
beaming Trustees--and rather taking advantage of their joy at welcoming me
back to Quirn--I resolved to buy that house. I loved its scholarly odor, a
treat seldom granted to my exquisitely sensitive Brunn's membrane, and I
also loved its picturesque isolation amidst a tremendous unkempt garden
above a larched and golden-rodded steep slope.
To keep Quirn grateful, I also decided to reorganize completely my
contribution to its fame. I scrapped my Joyce seminar which in 1945 had
attracted (if that is the word) only six students--five grim graduates and
one not quite normal sophomore. In compensation I added a third lecture in
Masterpieces (now including Ulysses) to my weekly quota. The chief
innovation, however, lay in my bold presentation of knowledge. During my
first years at Quirn I had accumulated two thousand pages of literary
comments typed out by my assistant (I nonce I have not introduced him yet:
Waldemar Exkul, a brilliant young Balt, incomparably more learned than I;
dixi, Ex!). These I had the Photostat people multiply to accommodate at
least three hundred students. At the end of every week each received a batch
of the forty pages that I had recited to them, with certain addenda, in the
lecture hall. The "certain addenda" were a concession to the Trustees who
reasonably remarked that without this catch nobody would <157> need to
attend my classes. The three hundred copies of the two thousand typed pages
were to be signed by the readers and returned to me before the final
examination. There were flaws at first in the system (for example, only 153
incomplete sets, many unsigned, were returned in 1948) but on the whole it
worked, or should have worked.
Another decision I took was to make myself more available to faculty
members than I had been before. The red needle of my dial scale now
quiver-stopped at a very conservative figure, when, stark naked, arms
hanging like those of a clumsy troglodyte, I stood on the fatal platform and
with the help of my new housemaid, an enchanting black girl with an Egyptian
profile, managed to make out what lay midway in the blur between my reading
glasses and my long-distance ones: a great triumph, which I marked by
acquiring several new "costumes," as my Dr. Olga Repnin says in the novel of
that name--"I don't know (all `o's' as in `don' and `anon') why your
horseband wears such not modern costumes." I visited quite frequently the
Pub, a college tavern, where I tried to mix with white-shoed young males,
but somehow ended up by getting involved with professional barmaids. And I
entered in my pocket diary the addresses of some twenty fellow professors.
Most treasured among my new friends was a frail-looking, sad-looking,
somewhat monkey-faced man with a shock of black hair, gray-streaked at
fifty-five, the enchantingly talented poet Audace whose paternal ancestor
was the eloquent and ill-fated Girondist of that name ("Bourreau, fais ton
devoir envers la Libertè!") but who did not know a word of French and spoke
American with a flat Midwestern accent. Another interesting glimpse of
descent was provided by Louise Adamson, the young wife of our Chairman of
English: her grandmother, Sybil Lanier, had won the Women's National Golf
Championship in 1896 at Philadelphia! <158>
Gèrard Adamson's literary reputation was immensely superior to that of
the immensely more important, bitter, and modest Audace. Gerry was a big
flabby hulk of a man who must have been nearing sixty when after a life of
aesthetic asceticism he surprised his special coterie by marrying that
porcelain-pretty and very fast girl. His famous essays--on Donne, on Villon,
on Eliot--his philosophic poetry, his recent Laic Litanies and so forth
meant nothing to me, but he was an appealing old drunk, whose humor and
erudition could break the resistance of the most unsociable outsider. I
caught myself enjoying the frequent parties at which good old Noteboke and
his sister Phoneme, the delightful Kings, the Adamsons, my favorite poet,
and a dozen other people did all they could to entertain and comfort me.
Louise, who had an inquisitive aunt at Honeywell, kept me informed, at
tactful intervals, of Bel's well-being. One spring day in 1949 or 1950 I
happened to stop at the Plaza Liquor Store in Rosedale after a business
meeting with Horace Peppermill and was about to back out of the parking lot
when I saw Annette bending over a baby carriage in front of a grocery store
at the other end of the shopping area. Something about her inclined neck,
her melancholy concentration, the ghost of a smile directed at the child in
the stroller, sent such a pang of pity through my nervous system that I
could not resist accosting her. She turned toward me and even before I
uttered some wild words--of regret, of despair, of tenderness--there she was
shaking her head, forbidding me to come near. "Nikogda," she murmured,
"never," and I could not bear to decipher the expression on her pale drawn
face. A woman came out of the shop and thanked her for tending the little
stranger--a pale and thin infant, looking almost as ill as Annette. I
hurried back to the parking lot, scolding myself for not realizing at once
that Bel must be a girl of seven or eight by <159> this time. Her mother's
moist starry stare kept pursuing me for several nights; I even felt too ill
to attend an Easter party at one of the friendly Quirn houses.
During this or some other period of despondency, I heard one day the
hall bell tinkle, and my Negro maid, little Nefertitty as I had dubbed her,
hasten to open the front door. Slipping out of bed I pressed my bare flesh
to the cool window ledge but was not in time to glimpse the entrant or
entrants, no matter how far I leant out into a noisy spring downpour. A
freshness of flowers, clusters and clouds of flowers, reminded me of some
other time, some other casement. I made out part of the Adamsons' glossy
black car beyond the garden gate. Both? She alone? Solus rex? Both, alas--to
judge by the voices reaching me from the hallway through my transparent
house. Old Gerry, who disliked unnecessary stairs and had a morbid fear of
contagion, remained in the living room. Now his wife's steps and voice were
coming up. We had kissed for the first time a few days before, in the
Notebokes' kitchen--rummaging for ice, finding fire. I had good reason to
hope that the intermission before the obligatory scene would be brief.
She entered, set down two bottles of port for the invalid, and pulled
off her wet sweater over her tumbled chestnut-brown, violet-brown curls and
naked clavicles. Artistically, strictly artistically, I daresay she was the
best-looking of my three major loves. She had upward-directed thin eyebrows,
sapphire eyes registering (and that's the right word) constant amazement at
earth's paradise (the only one she would ever know, I'm afraid),
pink-flushed cheekbones, a rosebud mouth, and a lovely concave abdomen. In
less time than it took her husband, a quick reader, to skim down two columns
of print, we had "attired" him. I put on blue slacks and a pink shirt and
followed her downstairs.
Her husband sat in a deep armchair, reading a London <160> weekly
bought at the Shopping Center. He had not bothered to take off his horrible
black raincoat--a voluminous robe of oilskin that conjured up the image of a
stagecoach driver in a lashing storm. He now removed however his formidable
spectacles. He cleared his throat with a characteristic rumble. His purple
jowls wobbled as he tackled the ordeal of rational speech:
GERRY Do you ever see this paper, Vadim (accenting "Vadim" incorrectly
on the first syllable)? Mister (naming a particularly lively criticule) has
demolished your Olga (my novel about the professorsha; it had come out only
now in the British edition).
VADIM May I give you a drink? We'll toast him and roast him.
GERRY Yet he's right, you know. It is your worst book. Chute complõte,
says the man. Knows French, too.
LOUISE No drinks. We've got to rush home. Now heave out of that chair.
Try again. Take your glasses and paper. There. Au revoir, Vadim. I'll bring
you those pills tomorrow morning after I drive him to school.
How different it all was, I mused, from the refined adulteries in the
castles of my early youth! Where was the romantic thrill of a glance
exchanged with one's new mistress in the presence of a morose colossus--the
Jealous Husband? Why did the recollection of the recent embrace not blend
any longer as it used to do with the certainty of the next one, forming a
sudden rose in an empty flute of crystal, a sudden rainbow on the white
wallpaper? What did Emma see a fashionable woman drop into that man's silk
hat? Write legibly. <161>
The mad scholar in Esmeralda and Her Parandrus wreathes Botticelli and
Shakespeare together by having Primavera end as Ophelia with all her
flowers. The loquacious lady in Dr. Olga Repnin remarks that tornadoes and
floods are really sensational only in North America. On May 17, 1953,
several papers printed a photograph of a family, complete with birdcage,
phonograph, and other valuable possessions, riding it out on the roof of
their shack in the middle of Rosedale Lake. Other papers carried the picture
of a small Ford caught in the upper branches of an intrepid tree with a man,
a Mr. Byrd, whom Horace Peppermill said he knew, still in the driver's seat,
stunned, bruised, but alive. A prominent personality in the Weather Bureau
was accused of criminally delayed forecasts. A group of fifteen
schoolchildren who had been taken to see a collection of stuffed animals
donated by Mrs. Rosenthal, the benefactor's widow, to the Rosedale Museum,
were safe in the sudden darkness of that sturdy building when the twister
struck. But the prettiest lakeside cottage got swept away, and the drowned
bodies of its two occupants were never retrieved.
Mr. Peppermill, whose natural faculties were no match for his legal
acumen, warned me that if I desired to relinquish the child to her
grandmother in France, certain <162> formalities would have to be complied
with. I observed quietly that Mrs. Blagovo was a half-witted cripple and
that my daughter, whom her schoolteacher harbored, should be brought by that
person to my house AT ONCE. He said he would fetch her himself early next
After weighing and reweighing every paragraph of the house, every
parenthesis of its furniture, I decided to lodge her in the former bedroom
of the late Landover's companion whom he called his nurse or his fiancèe
depending on his mood of the moment. This was a lovely chamber, east of
mine, with lilac butterflies enlivening its wallpaper and a large, low,
flouncy bed. I peopled its white bookshelf with Keats, Yeats, Coleridge,
Blake, and four Russian poets (in the New Orthography). Although I told
myself with a sigh that she would, no doubt, prefer "comics" to my dear
bespangled mimes and their wands of painted lath, I felt compelled in my
choice by what is termed the "ornamental instinct" among ornithologists.
Moreover, knowing well how essential a pure strong light is to reading in
bed, I asked Mrs. O'Leary, my new charwoman and cook (borrowed from Louise
Adamson who had left with her husband for a long sojourn in England) to
screw a couple of hundred-watt bulbs into a tall bedside lamp. Two
dictionaries, a writing pad, a little alarm clock, and a Junior Manicure Set
(suggested by Mrs. Noteboke, who had a twelve-year-old daughter) were
attractively placed on a spacious and stable bedtable. All this was but a
rough, naturally. The fair copy would come in due time.
Landover's nurse or fiancèe could rush to his assistance either along a
short passage or through the bathroom between the two bedrooms: Landover had
been a large man and his long deep tub was a soaker's delight. Another,
narrower bathroom followed Bel's bedroom easterly--and here I really missed
my dainty Louise when racking my brain for the correct epithet between
well-scrubbed and perfumed. Mrs. Noteboke could not help me: her daughter,
<163> who used the messy parental facilities, had no time for silly
deodorants and loathed "foam." Wise old Mrs. O'Leary, on the other hand,
held before her mind's eye Mrs. Adamson's creams and crystals in a Flemish
artist's detail and made me long for her employer's speedy return by
conjuring up that picture, which she then proceeded to simplify, but not
vulgarize, while retaining such major items as the huge sponge, the jumbo
cake of lavender soap, and a delicious toothpaste.
Walking still farther sunriseward, we reach the corner guest room
(above the round dining room at the east end of the first floor); this I
transformed with the help of a handyman, Mrs. O'Leary's cousin, into an
efficiently furnished studio. It contained, when I finished with it, a couch
with boxy pillows, an oak desk with a revolving chair, a steel cabinet, a
bookcase, Klingsor's Illustrated Encyclopedia in twenty volumes, crayons,
writing tablets, state maps, and (to cite the School Buyer's Guide for
1952-1953) "a globe ball that lifts out of a cradle so that every child can
hold the world in his or her lap."
Was that all? No. I found for the bedroom a framed photograph of her
mother, Paris, 1934, and for the studio a reproduction in color of Levitan's
Clouds above a Blue River (the Volga, not far from my Marevo), painted
Peppermill was to bring her on May 21, around four P.M. I had to fill
somehow the abyss of the afternoon. Angelic Ex had already read and marked
the entire batch of exams, but he thought I might want to see some of the
works he had reluctantly failed. He had dropped in some time on the eve and
had left them downstairs on the round table in the round room next to the
hallway at the west end of the house. My poor hands ached and trembled so
dreadfully that I could hardly leaf through those poor cahiers. The round
window gave on the driveway. It was <164> a warm gray day. Sir! I need a
passing mark desperately. Ulysses was written in Zurich and Greece and
therefore consists of too many foreign words. One of the characters in
Tolstoy's Death of Ivan is the notorious actress Sarah Bernard. Stern's
style is very sentimental and illiterative. A car door banged. Mr.
Peppermill came with a duffel bag in the wake of a tall fair-haired girl in
blue jeans carrying, and slowing down, to change from hand to hand, an
Annette's moody mouth and eyes. Graceful but plain. Fortified by a
serenacin tablet, I received my daughter and lawyer with the neutral dignity
for which effusive Russians in Paris used to detest me so heartily.
Peppermill accepted a drop of brandy. Bel had a glass of peach juice and a
brown biscuit. I indicated to Bel--who was displaying her palms in a polite
Russian allusion--the dining-room toilet, an old-fashioned touch on the
architect's part. Horace Peppermill handed me a letter from Bel's teacher
Miss Emily Ward. Fabulous Intelligence Quotient of 180. Menses already
established. Strange, marvelous child. One does not quite know whether to
curb or encourage such precocious brilliance. I accompanied Horace halfway
back to his car, fighting off, successfully, the disgraceful urge to tell
him how staggered I was by the bill his office had recently sent me.
"Let me now show you your apartàmenty. You speak Russian, don't you?"
"I certainly do, but I can't write it. I also know a little French."
She and her mother (whom she mentioned as casually as if Annette were
in the next room copying something for me on a soundless typewriter) had
spent most of last summer at Carnavaux with babushka. I would like to have
learned what room exactly Bel had occupied in the villa, but an oddly
obtrusive, though irrelevant-looking, recollection <165> somehow prevented
me from asking: shortly before her death Iris had dreamed one night that she
had given birth to a fat boy with dusky red cheeks and almond eyes and the
blue shadow of mutton chops: "A horrible Omarus K."
Oh yes, said Bel, she had loved it. Especially the path down, down to
the sea and the aroma of rosemary (chudnyy zapakh rozmarina). I was tortured
and charmed by her "shadowless" èmigrè Russian, untainted, God bless
Annette, by the Langley woman's fruity Sovietisms.
Did Bel recognize me? She looked me over with serious gray eyes.
"I recognize your hands and your hair."
"On se tutoie in Russian henceforward. All right. Let's go upstairs."
She approved of the studio: "A schoolroom in a picture book." She
opened the medicine chest in her bathroom. "Empty--but I know what I'll put
there." The bedroom "enchanted" her. Ocharovatel'no! (Annette's favorite
praise word.) She criticized, though, the bedside bookshelf: "What, no
Byron? No Browning? Ah, Coleridge! The little golden sea snakes. Miss Ward
gave me an anthology for Russian Easter: I can recite your last duchess--I
mean `My Last Duchess' "
I caught my breath with a moan. I kissed her. I wept. I sat, shaking,
on a fragile chair that creaked in response to my hunched-up paroxysm. Bel
stood looking away, looking up at a prismatic reflection on the ceiling,
looking down at her luggage, which Mrs. O'Leary, a dumpy but doughty woman,
had already brought up.
I apologized for my tears. Bel inquired in a socially perfect
let's-change-the-subject manner if there was a television set in the house.
I said we'd get one tomorrow. I would leave her now to her own devices.
Dinner in half-an-hour. She had noticed, she said, that a picture she'd like
<166> to see was being shown in town. After dinner we drove to The Strand
Says a scribble in my diary: Does not much care for boiled chicken. The
Black Widow. With Gene, Ginger, and George. Have passed the "illiterative"
sentimentalist and all the rest. <167>
If Bel is alive today, she is thirty-two--exactly your age at the
moment of writing (February 15, 1974). The last time I saw her, in 1959, she
was not quite seventeen; and between eleven and a half and seventeen and a
half she has changed very slightly in the medium of memory, where blood does
not course through immobile time as fast as it does in the perceptual
present. Especially unaffected by linear growth is my vision of her
pertaining to 1953-1955, the three years in which she was totally and
uniquely mine: I see it today as a composite portrait of rapture, in which a
mountain in Colorado, my translating Tamara into English, Bel's high school
accomplishments, and an Oregon forest intergrade in patterns of transposed
time and twisted space that defy chronography and charting.
One change, one gradational trend I must note, however. This was my
growing awareness of her beauty. Scarcely a month after her arrival I was
already at a loss to understand how she could have struck me as "plain."
Another month elapsed and the elfin line of her nose and upper lip in
profile came as an "expected revelation"--to use a formula I have applied to
certain prosodic miracles in Blake and Blok. Because of the contrast between
her pale-gray iris and very black lashes, her eyes seemed rimmed <168> with
kohl. Her hollowed cheek and long neck were pure Annette, but her fair hair,
which she wore rather short, gave off a richer sheen as if the tawny strands
were mixed with gold-olive ones in thick straight stripes of alternate
shades. All this is easily described and this also goes for the regular
striation of bright bloom along the outside of forearm and leg, which, in
fact, smacks of self-plagiarism, for I had given it both to Tamara and
Esmeralda, not counting several incidental lassies in my short stories (see
for example page 537 of the Exile from Mayda collection, Goodminton, New
York, 1947). The general type and bone structure of her pubescent radiance
cannot be treated, however, with a crack player's brio and chalk-biting
serve. I am reduced--a sad confession!--to something I have also used
before, and even in this book--the well-known method of degrading one
species of art by appealing to another. I am thinking of Serov's
Five-petaled Lilac, oil, which depicts a tawny-haired girl of twelve or so
sitting at a sun-flecked table and manipulating a raceme of lilac in search
of that lucky token. The girl is no other than Ada Bredow, a first cousin of
mine whom I flirted with disgracefully that very summer, the sun of which
ocellates the garden table and her bare arms. What hack reviewers of fiction
call "human interest" will now overwhelm my reader, the gentle tourist, when
he visits the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, where I have seen with my own
rheumy eyes, on a visit to Sovietland a few years ago, that picture which
belonged to Ada's grandmother before being handed over to the People by a
dedicated purloiner. I believe that this enchanting little girl was the
model of my partner in a recurrent dream of mine with a stretch of parquetry
between two beds in a makeshift demonic guest room. Bel's resemblance to
her--same cheekbones, same chin, same knobby wrists, same tender flower--can
be only alluded to, not actually listed. But enough of this. I have been
trying to do something very difficult and I will tear <169> it up if you say
I have succeeded too well, because I do not want, and never wanted, to
succeed, in this dismal business of Isabel Lee--though at the same time I
was intolerably happy.
When asked--at last!--had she loved her mother (for I could not get
over Bel's apparent indifference to Annette's terrible death) she thought
for such a long time that I decided she had forgotten my question, but
finally (like a chessplayer resigning after an abyss of meditation), she
shook her head. What about Nelly Langley? This she answered at once: Langley
was mean and cruel and hated her, and only last year whipped her; she had
welts all over (uncovering for display her right thigh, which now, at least,
was impeccably white and smooth).
The education she got in Quirn's best private school for Young Ladies
(you, her coeval, were there for a few weeks, in the same class, but you and
she somehow missed making friends with each other) was supplemented by the
two summers we spent roaming all over the Western states. What memories,
what lovely smells, what mirages, near-mirages, substantiated mirages,
accumulated along Highway 138--Sterling, Fort Morgan (El. 4325), Greeley,
well-named Loveland--as we approached the paradise part of Colorado!
From Lupine Lodge, Estes Park, where we spent a whole month, a path
margined with blue flowers led through aspen groves to what Bel drolly
called The Foot of the Face. There was also the Thumb of the Face, at its
southern corner. I have a large glossy photograph taken by William Garrell
who was the first, I think, to reach The Thumb, in 1940 or thereabouts,
showing the East Face of Longs Peak with the checkered lines of ascent
superimposed in a loopy design upon it. On the back of this picture--and as
immortal in its own little right as the picture's subject--a poem by Bel,
neatly copied in violet ink, is <170> dedicated to Addie Alexander, "First
woman on Peak, eighty years ago." It commemorates our own modest hikes:
Longs' Peacock Lake:
the Hut and its Old Marmot;
Boulder field and its Black Butterfly;
And the intelligent trail.
She had composed it while we were sharing a picnic lunch, somewhere
between those great rocks and the beginning of The Cable, and after testing
the result mentally a number of times, in frowning silence, she finally
scribbled it on a paper napkin which she handed to me with my pencil.
I told her how wonderful and artistic it was--particularly the last
line. She asked: what's "artistic"? I said: "Your poem, you, your way with
In the course of that ramble, or perhaps on a latter occasion, but
certainly in the same region, a sudden storm swept upon the glory of the
July day. Our shirts, shorts, and loafers seemed to dwindle to nothing in
the icy mist. A first hailstone hit a tin can, another my bald spot. We
sought refuge in a cavity under a jutting rock. Thunderstorms to me are
agony. Their evil pressure destroys me; their lightning forks through my
brain and breast. Bel knew this; huddling against me (for my comfort rather
than hers!), she kept giving me a quick little kiss on the temple at every
bang of thunder, as if to say: That one's over, you're still safe. I now
felt myself longing for those crashes never to cease; but presently they
turned to halfhearted rumbles, and the sun found emeralds in a patch of wet
turf. She could not stop shivering, though, and I had to thrust my hands
under her skirt and rub her thin body, till it glowed, so as to ward off
"pneumonia" which she said, laughing jerkily, was a "new," was a "moon," was
<171> a "new moon" and a "moan," a "new moan," thank you.
There is a hollow of dimness again in the sequence, but it must have
been soon after that, in the same motor court, or in the next, on the way
home, that she slipped into my room at dawn, and sat down on my bed--move
your legs--in her pyjama top to read me another poem:
In the dark basement, I stroked
the silky head of a wolf.
When the light returned
and all cried: "Ah!,"
it turned out to be only
Mèdor, a dead dog.
I again praised her talent, and kissed her more warmly, perhaps, than
the poem deserved; for, actually, I found it rather obscure, but did not say
so, and presently she yawned and fell asleep on my bed, a practice I usually
did not tolerate. Today, however, on rereading those strange lines, I see
through their starry crystal the tremendous commentary I could write about
them, with galaxies of reference marks and footnotes like the reflections of
brightly lit bridges spanning black water. But my daughter's soul is hers,
and my soul is mine, and may Hamlet Godman rot in peace. <172>
As late as the start of the 1954-1955 school year, with Bel nearing her
thirteenth birthday, I was still deliriously happy, still seeing nothing
wrong or dangerous, or absurd or downright cretinous, in the relationship
between my daughter and me. Save for a few insignificant lapses--a few hot
drops of overflowing tenderness, a gasp masked by a cough and that sort of
stuff--my relations with her remained essentially innocent. But whatever
qualities I might have possessed as a Professor of Literature, nothing but
incompetence and a reckless laxity of discipline can I see today in the
rearview reflection of that sweet wild past.
Others forestalled me in perspicacity. My first critic happened to be
Mrs. Noteboke, a stout dark lady in suffragettish tweeds, who instead of
keeping her Marion, a depraved and vulgar nymphet, from snooping on a
schoolmate's home life, lectured me on the upbringing of Bel and strongly
advised my hiring an experienced, preferably German, governess to look after
her day and night. My second critic--a much more tactful and understanding
one--was my secretary, Myrna Soloway, who complained that she could not keep
track of the literary magazines and clippings in my mail--because of their
being intercepted by an unscrupulous and avid little reader--and who <173>
gently added that Quirn High School, the last refuge of common sense in my
incredible plight, was astounded by Bel's lack of manners almost as much as
by her intelligence and familiarity with "Proust and Prèvost." I spoke to
Miss Lowe, the rather pretty petite headmistress, and she mentioned
"boarding facilities," which sounded like some kind of wooden jail, and the
even more dismal ("with all those rippling birdcalls and wickering trills in
the woods, Miss Lowe--in the woods"!) "summer instruction" to replace the
"eccentricities of an artist's (`A great artist's, Professor') household."
She pointed out to the giggling and apprehensive artist that a young
daughter should be treated as a potential component of our society and not
as a fancy pet. Throughout that talk I could not shake off the feeling of
its all being a nightmare that I had had or would have in some other
existence, some other bound sequence of numbered dreams.
An atmosphere of vague distress was gathering (to speak in verbal
clichès about a clichè situation) around my metaphorical head, when there
occurred to me a simple and brilliant solution of all my problems and
The tall looking glass before which many of Landover's houris had
onduled in their brief brown glory now served me to behold the image of a
lion-hued fifty-five-year-old would-be athlete performing waist-slimming and
chest-expanding exercises by means of an "Elmago" ("Combines the mechanical
know-how of the West with the magic of Mithra"). It was a good image. An old
telegram (found unopened in an issue of Artisan, a literary review, filched
by Bel from the hallway table), was addressed to me by a Sunday paper in
London, asking me to comment on the rumors--which I had already heard--to
the effect that I was the main candidate in the abstract scramble for what
our American kid brothers called "the most prestigious prize in the world."
This, too, might impress the rather success-minded person I had in view.
<174> Finally, I knew that in the vacational months of 1955 a series of
strokes had killed off in London poor old Gerry Adamson, a great guy, and
that Louise was free. Too free in fact. An urgent letter I now wrote her,
summoning her back to Quirn at once, for a serious Discussion of a matter
concerning both her and me, reached her only after describing a comic circle
via four fashionable spots on the Continent. I never saw the wire she said
she sent me from New York on October 1.
On October 2, an abnormally warm day, the first of a week-long series,
Mrs. King telephoned in the afternoon to invite me with rather enigmatic
little laughs to an "impromptu soirèe, in a few hours, say at nine P.M.
after you have tucked in your adorable daughter. I agreed to come because
Mrs. King was an especially nice soul, the kindest on the campus.
I had a black headache and decided that a two-mile walk in the cool
clear night would do me good. My dealings with space and spatial transitions
are so diabolically complicated that I do not recall whether I really
walked, or drove, or limited myself to pacing up and down the open gallery
running along the front side of our second floor, or what.
The first person to whom my hostess introduced me--with a subdued
fanfare of social clarion--was the "English" cousin with whom Louise had
been staying in Devonshire, Lady Morgain, "daughter of our former Ambassador
and widow of the Oxford medievalist"--shadowy figures on a briefly lit
screen. She was a rather deaf and decidedly dotty witch in her middle
fifties, comically coiffured and dowdily dressed, and she and her belly
advanced upon me with such energetic eagerness that I scarcely had time to
sidestep the well-meant attack before getting wedged "between the books and
the bottles" as poor Gerry used to say in reference to academic cocktails. I
passed into a different, far more stylish world as I bent to kiss Louise's
<175> expertly swanned cool little hand. My dear old Audace welcomed me with
the kind of Latin accolade that he had especially developed to mark the
highest degree of spiritual kinship and mutual esteem. John King, whom I had
seen on the eve in a college corridor, greeted me with raised arms as if the
fifty hours elapsed since our last chat had been magically blown-up into
half a century. We were only six people in a spacious parlor, not counting
two painted girl-children in Tyrolean dress, whose presence, identity, and
very existence have remained to this day a familiar mystery--familiar,
because such zigzag cracks in the plaster are typical of the prisons or
palaces into which recrudescent derangement merrily leads me whenever I have
prepared to make, as I was to do now, a difficult, climactic announcement
that demanded absolute clarity of concentration. So, as I just said, we were
only six animal people in that room (and two little phantoms), but through
the translucid unpleasant walls I could make out--without looking!--rows and
tiers of dim spectators, with the sense of a sign in my brain meaning
"standing room only" in the language of madness.
We were now sitting at a round clockfaced table (practically
undistinguishable from the one in the Opal Room of my house, west of the
albino Stein), Louise at twelve o'clock, Professor King at two, Mrs. Morgain
at four, Mrs. King in green silk at eight, Audace at ten, and I at six,
presumably, or a minute past, because Louise was not quite opposite, or
maybe she had pushed her chair a sixty-second space closer to Audace
although she had sworn to me on the Social Register as well as on a Who's
Who that he had never made that pass at her somehow suggested by his
magnificent little poem in the Artisan.
Speaking of, ah, yesternights,
I had you, dear, within earshot <176>
of that party downstairs,
on the broad bed of my host
piled with the coats of your guests,
old macks, mock minks,
one striped scarf (mine),
a former flame's furs
(more rabbit than flipperling),
yea, a mountain of winters,
like that upon which flunkeys sprawl
in the vestibule of the Opera,
Canto One of Onegin,
where under the chandeliers
of a full house, you, dear,
should have been the dancer
flying, like fluff, in a decor
of poplars and fountains.
I started to speak in the high, clear, insolent voice (taught me by
Ivor on the beach of Cannice) by which I instilled the fear of Phoebus when
inaugurating a recalcitrant seminar in my first years of teaching at Quirn:
"What I plan to discuss is the curious case of a close friend of mine whom I
Mrs. Morgain set down her glass of whisky and leaned toward me
confidentially: "You know I met little Iris Black in London, around 1919, I
guess. Her father was a business friend of my father, the Ambassador. I was
a starry-eyed American gal. She was a fantastic beauty and most
sophisticated. I remember how thrilled I was later to learn that she had
gone and married a Russian Prince!"
"Fay," cried Louise from twelve to four: "Fay! His Highness is making
his throne speech."
Everyone laughed, and the two bare-thighed Tyrolean children chasing
each other around the table bounced across my knees and were gone again.
"I shall call this close friend of mine, whose case we are about to
examine, Mr. Twidower, a name with certain connotations, as those of you who
remember the title story in my Exile from Mayda will note."
(Three people, the Kings and Audace, raised three hands, looking at one
another in shared smugness.)
"This person, who is in the mighty middle of life, thinks of marrying a
third time. He is deeply in love with a young woman. Before proposing to
her, however, honesty demands that he confess he is suffering from a certain
ailment. I wish they would stop jolting my chair every time they run by.
`Ailment' is perhaps too strong a term. Let's put it this way: there are
certain flaws, he says, in the mechanism of his mind. The one he told me
about is harmless in itself but very distressing and unusual, and may be a
symptom of some imminent, more serious disorder. So here goes. When this
person is lying in bed and imagining a familiar stretch of street, say, the
right-hand sidewalk from the Library to, say--"
"The Liquor Store," put in King, a relentless wag.
"All right, Recht's Liquor Store. It is about three hundred yards
I was again interrupted, this time by Louise (whom, in fact, I was
solely addressing). She turned to Audace and informed him that she could
never visualize any distance in yards unless she could divide it by the
length of a bed or a balcony.
"Romantic," said Mrs. King. "Go on, Vadim."
"Three hundred paces away along the same side as the College Library.
Now comes my friend's problem. He can walk in his mind there and back but he
can't perform in his mind the actual about-face that transforms `there' into
"Must call Rome," muttered Louise to Mrs. King, and was about to leave
her seat, but I implored her to hear me <178> out. She resigned herself,
warning me however that she could not understand a word of my peroration.
"Repeat that bit about twisting around in your mind," said King.
"I did," said Audace: "We suppose the Liquor Store happens to be
closed, and Mr. Twidower, who is a friend of mine too, turns on his heel to
go back to the Library. In the reality of life he perfoms this action
without a hitch or hiatus, as simply and unconsciously as we all do, even if
the artist's critical eye does see--A toi, Vadim."
"Does see," I said, accepting the relay-race baton, "that, depending on
the speed of one's revolution, palings and awnings pass counterwise around
you either with the heavy lurch of a merry-go-round or (saluting Audace) in
a single brisk flip like that of the end of a striped scarf (Audace smiled,
acknowledging the Audacianism) that one flings over one's shoulder. But when
one lies immobile in bed and rehearses or rather replays in one's mind the
process of turning, in the manner described, it is not so much the pivotal
swing which is hard to perceive mentally--it is its result, the reversion of
vista, the transformation of direction, that's what one vainly strives to
imagine. Instead of the liquor-store direction smoothly turning into the
opposite one, as it does in the simplicity of waking life, poor Twidower is
I had seen it coming but had hoped that I would be allowed to complete
my sentence. Not at all. With the infinitely slow and silent movement of a
gray tomcat, which he resembled with his bristly whiskers and arched back,
King left his seat. He started to tiptoe, with a glass in each hand, toward
the golden glow of a densely populated sideboard. With a dramatic slap of
both hands against the edge of the table I caused Mrs. Morgain to jump (she
had either dozed off or aged tremendously in the last few minutes) and
stopped old King in his tracks; he silently <179> turned like an automaton
(illustrating my story) and as silently stole back to his seat with the
empty Arabesque glasses.
"The mind, my friend's mind, is baffled, as I was saying, by something
dreadfully strainful and irksome in the machinery of the change from one
position to another, from east to west or west to east, from one damned
nymphet to another--I mean I'm losing the thread of my tale, the zipper of
thought has stuck, this is absurd--"
Absurd and very embarrassing. The two cold-thighed, cheesy-necked
girleens were now engaged in a quarrelsome game as to who should sit on my
left knee, that side of my lap where the honey was, trying to straddle Left
Knee, warbling in Tyrolese and pushing each other off, and cousin Fay kept
bending toward me and saying with a macabre accent: "Elles vous aiment
tant!" Finally I pinched and twisted the nearest buttock, and with a squeal
they resumed their running around, like that eternal little pleasure-park
train, brushing the brambles.
I still could not disentangle my thoughts, but Audace came to my
"To conclude," he said (and an audible ouf! was emitted by cruel
Louise), "our patient's trouble concerns not a certain physical act but the
imagining of its performance. All he can do in his mind is omit the
swiveling part altogether and shift from one visual plane to another with
the neutral flash of a slide change in a magic lantern, whereupon he finds
himself facing in a direction which has lost, or rather never contained, the
idea of `oppositeness.' Does anybody wish to comment?"
After the usual pause that follows such offers, John King said: "My
advice to your Mr. Twitter is to dismiss that nonsense once for all. It's
charming nonsense, it's colorful nonsense, but it's also harmful nonsense.
Yes, Jane?" <180>
"My father," said Mrs. King, "a professor of botany, had a rather
endearing quirk: he could memorize historical dates and telephone
numbers--for example our number 9743--only insofar as they contained primes.
In our number he remembered two figures, the second and last, a useless
combination; the other two were only black gaps, missing teeth."
"Oh, that's good," cried Audace, genuinely delighted. I remarked it was
not at all the same thing. My friend's affliction resulted in nausea,
dizziness, kegelkugel headache.
"Well yes, I understand, but my father's quirk also had its side
effects. It was not so much his inability to memorize, say, his house number
in Boston, which was 68 and which he saw every day, but the fact that he
could do nothing about it; that nobody, but nobody could explain why all he
could make out at the far end of his brain was not 68 but a bottomless
Our host resumed his vanishing act with more deliberation than before.
Audace lidded his empty glass with his palm. Though swine-drunk, I longed
for mine to be refilled, but was bypassed. The walls of the round room had
grown more or less opaque again, God bless them, and the Dolomite Dollies
were no longer around.
"In the days when I longed to be a ballerina," said Louise, "and was
Blanc's little favorite, I always rehearsed exercises in my mind lying in
bed, and had no difficulty whatever in imagining swirls and whirls. It is a
matter of practice, Vadim. Why don't you just roll over in bed when you want
to see yourself walking back to that Library? We must be going now, Fay,
it's past midnight."
Audace glanced at his wristwatch, uttered the exclamation which Time
must be sick of hearing, and thanked me for a wonderful evening. Lady
Morgain's mouth mimicked the pink aperture of an elephant's trunk as it
mutely formed the word "loo" to which Mrs. King, fussily <181> swishing in
green, immediately took her. I remained alone at the round table, then
struggled to my feet, drained the rest of Louise's daiquiri, and joined her
in the hallway.
She had never melted and shivered so nicely in my embrace as she did
"How many quadruped critics," she asked after a tender pause in the
dark garden, "would accuse you of leg pulling if you published the
description of those funny feelings. Three, ten, a herd?"
"Those are not really `feelings' and they are not really `funny.' I
just wished you to be aware that if I go mad it will be in consequence of my
games with the idea of space. `Rolling over' would be cheating and besides
would not help."
"I'll take you to an absolutely divine analyst."
"That's all you can suggest?"
"Oh. I'm also going to marry you. Yes, of course, you idiot."
She was gone before I could reclasp her slender form. The star-dusted
sky, usually a scary affair, now vaguely amused me: it belonged, with the
autumn fadeur of barely visible flowers, to the same issue of Woman's Own
World as Louise. I made water into a sizzle of asters and looked up at Bel's
window, square c2. Lit as brightly as e1, the Opal Room. I went back there
and noted with relief that kind hands had cleared and tidied the table, the
round table with the opalescent rim, at which I had delivered a most
successful introductory lecture. I heard Bel's voice calling me from the
upper landing, and taking a palmful of salted almonds ascended the stairs.
Rather early next morning, a Sunday, as I stood, shawled in terry
cloth, and watched four eggs rolling and bumping in their inferno, somebody
entered the living room through a side door that I never bothered to lock.
Louise! Louise dressed up in hummingbird mauve for church. Louise in a
sloping beam of mellow October sun. Louise leaning against the grand piano,
as if about to sing and looking around with a lyrical smile.
I was the first to break our embrace.
VADIM No, darling, no. My daughter may come down any minute. Sit down.
LOUISE (examining an armchair and then settling in it) Pity. You know,
I've been here many times before! In fact I was laid on that grand at
eighteen. Aldy Landover was ugly, unwashed, brutal--and absolutely
VADIM Listen, Louise. I have always found your free, frivolous style
very fetching. But you will be moving into this house very soon now, and we
want a little more dignity, don't we? <183>
LOUISE We'll have to change that blue carpet. It makes the Stein look
like an iceberg. And there should be a riot of flowers. So many big vases
and not one Strelitzia! There was a whole shrub of lilac down there in my
VADIM It's October, you know. Look, I hate to bring this up, but isn't
your cousin waiting in the car? It would be very irregular.
LOUISE Irregular, my foot. She won't be up before lunch. Ah, Scene Two.
(Bel wearing only slippers and a cheap necklace of iridescent glass--a
Riviera souvenir--comes down at the other end of the living room beyond the
piano. She has already turned kitchenward showing the beau-page back of her
head and delicate shoulder blades when she becomes aware of our presence and
retraces her steps.)
BEL (addressing me and casually squinting at my amazed visitor) Ya
bezumno golodnaya (I'm madly hungry).
VADIM Louise dear, this is my daughter Bel. She's walking in her sleep,
really, hence the, uh, non-attire.
LOUISE Hullo, Annabel. The non-attire is very becoming.
BEL (correcting Louise) Isa.
VADIM Isabel, this is Louise Adamson, an old friend of mine, back from
Rome. I hope we'll be seeing a lot of her. <184>
BEL How do you do (question-markless).
VADIM Well, run along, Bel, and put on something. Breakfast is ready.
(To Louise) Would you like to have breakfast too? Hard-boiled eggs? A Coke
with a straw? (Pale violin climbing stairs)
LOUISE Non, merci. I'm flabbergasted.
VADIM Yes, things have been getting a little out of hand, but you'll
see, she's a special child, there's no other child like her. All we need is
your presence, your touch. She has inherited the habit of circulating in a
state of nature from me. An Edenic gene. Curious.
LOUISE Is this a two-people nudist colony or has Mrs. O'Leary also
VADIM (laughing) No, no, she's not here on Sundays. Everything is fine,
I assure you. Bel is a docile angel. She--
LOUISE (rising to leave) There she comes to be fed (Bel descends the
stairs in a skimpy pink robe). Drop in around tea time. Fay is being taken
by Jane King to a lacrosse game in Rosedale. (Exits)
BEL Who's she? Former student of yours? Drama? Elocution?
VADIM (moving fast) Bozhe moy! (good Lord!). The eggs! They must be as
hard as jade. Come along. I'll acquaint you with the situation, as your
schoolmistress says. <185>
The grand was the first to go--it was carried out by a gang of
staggering iceberg movers and donated by me to Bel's school, which I had
reasons to pamper: I am not an easily frightened man but when I am
frightened I am very much frightened, and at a second interview that I had
had with the schoolmistress, my impersonation of an indignant Charles
Dodgson was only saved from failure by the sensational news of my being
about to marry an irreproachable socialite, the widow of our most pious
philosopher. Louise, per contra, regarded the throwing out of a symbol of
luxury as a personal affront and a crime: a concert piano of that kind
costs, she said, as least as much as her old Hecate convertible, and she was
not quite as wealthy as, no doubt, I thought she was, a statement
representing that knot in Logic: the double-hitch lie which does not make
one truth. I appeased her by gradually overcrowding the Music Room (if a
time series be transformed into sudden space) with the modish gadgets she
loved, singing furniture, miniature TV sets, stereorphics, portable
orchestras, better and better video sets, remote-control instruments for
turning those things on or off, and an automatic telephone dialer. For Bel's
birthday she gave her a Rain Sound machine to promote sleep; and to
celebrate my <186> birthday she murdered a neurotic's night by getting me a
thousand-dollar bedside Pantomime clock with twelve yellow radii on its
black face instead of figures, which made it look blind to me or feigning
blindness like some repulsive beggar in a hideous tropical town; in
compensation that terrible object possessed a secret beam that projected
Arabic numerals (2:00, 2:05, 2:10, 2:15, and so forth) on the ceiling of my
new sleeping quarters, thus demolishing the sacred, complete, agonizingly
achieved occlusion of its oval window. I said I'd buy a gun and shoot it in
the mug, if she did not send it back to the fiend who sold it to her. She
replaced it by "something especially made for people who like originality,"
namely a silver-plated umbrella stand in the shape of a giant
jackboot--there was "something about rain strangely attractive to her" as
her "analyst" wrote me in one of the silliest letters that man ever wrote to
man. She was also fond of small expensive animals, but here I stood firm,
and she never got the long-coated Chihuahua she coldly craved.
I did not expect much of Louise the Intellectual. The only time I saw
her shed big tears, with interesting little howls of real grief, was when on
the first Sunday of our marriage all the newspapers carried photographs of
the two Albanian authors (a bald-domed old epicist and a longhaired woman
compiler of childrens' books) who shared out between them the Prestigious
Prize that she had told everybody I was sure to win that year. On the other
hand she had only flipped through my novels (she was to read more
attentively, though, A Kingdom by the Sea, which I began slowly to pull out
of myself in 1957 like a long brain worm, hoping it would not break), while
consuming all the "serious" bestsellers discussed by sister consumers
belonging to the Literary Group in which she liked to assert herself as a
I also discovered that she considered herself a connoisseur of Modern
Art. She blazed with anger at me when <187> I said I doubted that the
appreciation of a green stripe across a blue background had any connection
with its definition in a glossy catalogue as "producing a virtually Oriental
atmosphere of spaceless time and timeless space." She accused me of trying
to wreck her entire view of the world by maintaining--in a facetious vein,
she hoped--that only a Philistine misled by the solemn imbeciles paid to
write about exhibitions could tolerate rags, rinds, and fouled paper rescued
from a garbage can and discussed in terms "of warm splashes of color" and
"good-natured irony." But perhaps most touching and terrible of all was her
honestly believing that painters painted "what they felt"; that a rather
rough and rumpled landscape dashed off in the Provence might be gratefully
and proudly interpreted by art students if a psychiatrist explained to them
that the advancing thundercloud represented the artist's clash with his
father, and the rolling grainfield the early death of his mother in a
I could not prevent her from purchasing specimens of the pictorial art
in vogue but I judiciously steered some of the more repulsive objects (such
as a collection of daubs produced by "naîve" convicts) into the round dining
room where they swam blurrily in the candlelight when we had guests for
supper. Our routine meals generally took place in the snackbar niche between
the kitchen and the housemaid's quarters. Into that niche Louise introduced
her new Cappuccino Espresso Maker, while at the opposite end of the house,
in the Opal Room, a heavily built, hedonically appareled bed with a padded
headboard was installed for me. The adjacent bathroom had a less comfortable
tub than my former one, and certain inconveniences attended my excursions,
two or three nights per week, to the connubial chamber--via drawing room,
creaky stairs, upper landing, second-floor corridor, and past the
inscrutable chink-gleam of Bel's door; but I treasured my privacy more than
I resented its drawbacks. I had the "Turkish toupet," as Louise <188> called
it, to forbid her to communicate with me by thumping on her floor.
Eventually I had an interior telephone put in my room, to be used only in
certain emergencies: I was thinking of such nervous states as the feeling of
imminent collapse that I experienced sometimes in my nocturnal bouts with
eschatological obsessions; and there was always the half-full box of
sleeping pills that only she could have filched.
The decision to let Bel stay in her apartment, with Louise as her only
neighbor, instead of refurnishing a spiral of space by allotting those two
east-end rooms to Louise--"perhaps I too need a studio?"--while transferring
Bel with bed and books to the Opal Room downstairs and leaving me upstairs
in my former bedchamber, was taken by me firmly despite Louise's rather
bitchy counter-suggestions, such as removing the tools of my trade from the
library in the basement and banishing Bel with all her belongings to that
warm, dry, nice and quiet lair. Though I knew I would never give in, the
very process of shuffling rooms and accessories in my mind made me literally
ill. On top of that, I felt, perhaps wrongly, that Louise was enjoying the
hideous banality of a stepmother-versus-step-daughter situation. I did not
exactly regret marrying her, I recognized her charm and functional
qualities, but my adoration for Bel was the sole splendor, the sole
breathtaking mountain in the drab plain of my emotional life. Being in many
ways an extraordinarily stupid person, I had simply not reckoned with the
tangles and tensions of what was meant to look like a model household. The
moment I woke up--or at least the moment I saw that getting up was the only
way to fool early-morning insomnia--I started wondering what new project
Louise would invent that day with which to harass my girl. When two years
later this gray old dolt and his volatile wife, after treating Bel to a
tedious Swiss tour, left her in Larive, between Hex and Trex, at a
"finishing" school (finishing childhood, <189> finishing the innocence of
young imagination), it was our 1955-1957 period of life þ trois in the Quirn
house, and not my earlier mistakes, that I recalled with curses and sobs.
She and her stepmother stopped speaking to each other altogether; they
communicated, if need be, by signs: Louise, for instance, pointing
dramatically at the ruthless clock and Bel tapping in the negative on the
crystal of her loyal little wristwatch. She lost all affection for me,
twisting away gently when I attempted a perfunctory caress. She adopted
again the wan absent expression that had dimmed her features at her arrival
from Rosedale. Camus replaced Keats. Her marks deteriorated. She no longer
wrote poetry. One day as Louise and I were packing for our next trip to
Europe (London, Paris, Pisa, Stresa, and--in small print--Larive) I started
removing some old maps, Colorado, Oregon, from the silk "cheek" inside a
valise, and the moment my secret prompter uttered that "shcheka" I came
across a poem of hers written long before Louise's intrusion into her
trustful young life. I thought it might do Louise good to read it and handed
her the exercise-book page (all ragged along its torn root but still mine)
on which the following lines were penciled:
At sixty, if I'll look back,
jungles and hills will hide
the notch, the source, the sand
and a bird's footprints across it.
I'll see nothing at all
with my old eyes,
yet I'll know it was there, the source.
How come, then, that when I look back
at twelve--one fifth of the stretch!--with
visibility presumably better
and no junk in between, <190>
I can't even imagine
that patch of wet sand
and the walking bird
and the gleam of my source?
"Almost Poundian in purity," remarked Louise--which annoyed me, because
I thought Pound a fake. <191>
Cháteau Vignedor, Bel's charming boarding school in Switzerland, on a
charming hill three hundred meters above charming Larive on the Rhòne, had
been recommended to Louise in the autumn of 1957 by a Swiss lady in Quirn's
French Department. There were two other "finishing" schools of the same
general type that might have done just as well, but Louise set her sights on
Vignedor because of a chance remark made not even by her Swiss friend but by
a chance girl in a chance travel agency who summed up the qualities of the
school in one phrase: "Many Tunisian princesses."
It offered five main subjects (French, Psychology, Savoir-vivre,
Couture, Cuisine), various sports (under the direction of Christine Dupraz,
the once famous skier), and a dozen additional classes on request (which
would keep the plainest girl there till she married), including Ballet and
Bridge. Another supplèment--especially suitable for orphans or unneeded
children--was a summer trimester, filling up the year's last remaining
segment with excursions and nature studies, to be spent by a few lucky girls
at the home of the headmistress, Madame de Turm, an Alpine chalet some
twelve hundred meters higher: "Its solitary light, twinkling in a black fold
of the mountains, can be <192> seen," said the prospectus in four languages,
"from the Cháteau on clear nights." There was also some kind of camp for
differently handicapped local children in different years conducted by our
medically inclined sports directress.
1957, 1958, 1959. Sometimes, seldom, hiding from Louise, who objected
to Bel's twenty well-spaced monosyllables' costing us fifty dollars, I would
call her from Quirn, but after a few such calls I received a curt note from
Mme. de Turm, asking me not to upset my daughter by telephoning, and so
retreated into my dark shell. Dark shell, dark years of my heart! They
coincided oddly with the composition of my most vigorous, most festive, and
commercially most successful novel, A Kingdom by the Sea. Its demands, the
fun and the fancy of it, its intricate imagery, made up in a way for the
absence of my beloved Bel. It was also bound to reduce, though I was hardly
conscious of that, my correspondence with her (well-meant, chatty,
dreadfully artificial letters which she seldom troubled to answer). Even
more startling, of course, more incomprehensible to me, in groaning
retrospect, is the effect my self-entertainment had on the number and length
of our visits between 1957 and 1960 (when she eloped with a progressive
blond-bearded young American). You were appalled to learn the other day,
when we discussed the present notes, that I had seen "beloved Bel" only four
times in three summers and that only two of our visits lasted as long as a
couple of weeks. I must add, however, that she resolutely declined to spend
her vacations at home. I ought never, of course, have dumped her in Europe.
I should have elected to sweat it out in my hellish household, between a
childish woman and a somber child.
The work on my novel also impinged on my marital mores, making of me a
less passionate and more indulgent husband: I let Louise go on suspiciously
frequent trips to out-of-town unlisted eye specialists and neglected her in
the meantime for Rose Brown, our cute housemaid who took <193> three
soapshowers daily and thought frilly black panties "did something to guys."
But the greatest havoc wrought by my work was its effect on my
lectures. To it I sacrificed, like Gain, the flowers of my summers, and,
like Abel, the sheep of the campus. Because of it, the process of my
academic discarnation reached its ultimate stage. The last vestiges of human
interconnection were severed, for I not only vanished physically from the
lecture hall but had my entire course taped so as to be funneled through the
College Closed Circuit into the rooms of headphoned students. Rumor had it
that I was ready to quit; in fact, an anonymous punster wrote in the Quirn
Quarterly, Spring, 1959: "His Temerity is said to have asked for a raise
In the summer of that year my third wife and I saw Bel for the last
time. Allan Garden (after whom the genus of the Cape Jasmin should have been
named, so great and triumphant was the flower in his buttonhole) had just
been united in wedlock to his youthful Virginia, after several years of
cloudless concubinage. They were to live to the combined age of 170 in
absolute bliss, yet one grim fateful chapter remained to be constructed. I
foiled over its first pages at the wrong desk, in the wrong hotel, above the
wrong lake, with a view of the wrong isoletta at my left elbow. The only
right thing was a pregnant-shaped bottle of Gattinara before me. In the
middle of a mangled sentence Louise came to join me from Pisa, where I
gathered--with amused indifference--that she had recoupled with a former
lover. Playing on the strings of her meek uneasiness I took her to
Switzerland, which she detested. An early dinner with Bel was scheduled at
the Larive Grand Hotel. She arrived with that Christ-haired youth, both
purple trousered. The maítre d'hòtel murmured something over the menu to my
wife, and she rode up and brought down my oldest necktie for the young lout
to put around his <194> Adam's apple and scrawny neck. His grandmother had
been related by marriage, so it turned out, to a third cousin of Louise's
grandfather, the not quite untarnished Boston banker. This took care of the
main course. We had coffee and kirsch in the lounge, and Charlie Everett
showed us pictures of the summer Camp for Blind Children (who were spared
the sight of its drab locust trees and rings of ashed refuse amidst the
riverside burdocks) which he and Bella (Bella!) were supervising. He was
twenty-five years old. He had spent five years studying Russian, and spoke
it as fluently, he said, as a trained seal. A sample justified the
comparison. He was a dedicated "revolutionary," and a hopeless nincompoop,
knowing nothing, crazy about jazz, existentialism, Leninism, pacifism, and
African Art. He thought snappy pamphlets and catalogues so much more
"meaningful" than fat old books. A sweet, stale, and unhealthy smell
emanated from the poor fellow. Throughout the dinner and coffee-drinking
ordeal I never once--never once, reader!--looked up at my Bel, but as we
were about to part (forever) I did look at her, and she had new twin lines
from nostrils to wicks, and she wore granny glasses, and a middle part, and
had lost all her pubescent prettiness, remnants of which I had still
glimpsed during a visit to Larive a spring and winter ago. They had to be
back at half-past-twenty, alas--not really "alas."
"Come and see us at Quirn soon, soon, Dolly," I said, as we all stood
on the sidewalk with mountains outlined in solid black against an aquamarine
sky, and choughs jacking harshly, flying in flocks to roost, away, away.
I cannot explain the slip, but it angered Bel more than anything had
ever angered her at any time.
"What is he saying?" she cried, looking in turn at Louise, at her beau,
and again at Louise. "What does he mean? Why does he call me `Dolly'? Who is
she for God's sake? Why, why (turning to me), why did you say that?"
"Obmolvka, prosti (lapse of the tongue, sorry)," I <195> replied,
dying, trying to turn everything into a dream, a dream about that hideous
They walked briskly toward their little Klop car, he half-overtaking
her, already poking the air with his car key, on her left, on her right. The
aquamarine sky was now silent, darkish and empty, save for a star-shaped
star about which I wrote a Russian elegy ages ago, in another world.
"What a charming, good-natured, civilized, sexy young fellow," said
Louise as we stamped into the lift. "Are you in the mood tonight? Right
away, Vad?" <196>
This penultimate part of LATH, this spirited episode in my otherwise
somewhat passive existence, is horribly hard to set down, reminding me of
the pensums, which the crudest of my French governesses used to inflict upon
me--some old saw to be copied cent fois (hiss and spittle)--in punishment
for my adding my own marginal illustrations to those in her Petit Larousse
or for exploring under the schoolroom table the legs of Lalage L., a little
cousin, who shared lessons with me that unforgettable summer. I have,
indeed, repeated the story of my dash to Leningrad in the late
nineteen-sixties innumerable times in my mind, to packed audiences of my
scribbling or dreaming selves--and yet I keep doubting both the necessity
and the success of my dismal task. But you have argued the question, you are
tenderly adamant, yes, and your decree is that I should relate my adventure
in order to lend a semblance of significance to my daughter's futile fate.
In the summer of 1960, Christine Dupraz, who ran the summer camp for
disabled children between cliff and highway, just east of Larive, informed
me that Charlie Everett, one of her assistants, had eloped with my Bel after
burning--in a grotesque ceremony that she visualized more <199> clearly than
I--his passport and a little American flag (bought at a souvenir stall
especially for that purpose) "right in the middle of the Soviet Consul's
back garden"; whereupon the new "Karl Ivanovich Vetrov" and the
eighteen-year-old Isabella, a ci-devant's daughter, had gone through some
form of mock marriage in Berne and incontinently headed for Russia.
The same mail brought me an invitation to discuss in New York with a
famous compõre my sudden Number One position on the Bestselling Authors
list, inquiries from Japanese, Greek, Turkish publishers, and a postcard
from Parma with the scrawl: "Bravo for Kingdom from Louise and Victor." I
never learned who Victor was, by the way.
Brushing all my engagements aside, I surrendered again--after quite a
few years of abstinence!--to the thrill of secret investigations. Spying had
been my clystõre de Tchèkhov even before I married Iris Black whose later
passion for working on an interminable detective tale had been sparked by
this or that hint I must have dropped, like a passing bird's lustrous
feather, in relation to my experience in the vast and misty field of the
Service. In my little way I have been of some help to my betters. The tree,
a blue-flowering ash, whose cortical wound I caught the two "diplomats,"
Tornikovski and Kalikakov, using for their correspondence, still stands,
hardly scarred, on its hilltop above San Bernardino. But for structural
economy I have omitted that entertaining strain from this story of love and
prose. Its existence, however, helped me now to ward off--for a while, at
least--the madness and anguish of hopeless regret.
It was child's play to find Karl's relatives in the U.S.; namely, two
gaunt aunts who disliked the boy even more than they did one another. Aunt
Number One assured me he had never left Switzerland--they were still
forwarding his Third Class mail to her in Boston. Aunt Number <200> Two, the
Philadelphia Fright, said he liked music and was vegetating in Vienna.
I had overestimated my forces. A serious relapse hospitalized me for
nearly a whole year. The complete rest ordered by all my doctors was then
botched by my having to stand by my publisher in a long legal fight against
obscenity charges leveled at my novel by stuffy censors. I was again very
ill. I still feel the pressure of the hallucinations that beset me, as my
search for Bel got somehow mixed up with the controversy over my novel, and
I saw as clearly as one sees mountains or ships, a great building, all
windows lit, trying to advance upon me, through this or that wall of the
ward, seeking as it were a weak spot to push through and ram my bed.
In the late Sixties I learned that Bel was now definitely married to
Vetrov but that he had been sent to some remote place of unspecified work.
Then came a letter.
It was forwarded to me by an old respectable businessman (I shall call
him A.B.) with a note saying that he was "in textiles" though by education
"an engineer"; that he represented "a Soviet firm in the U.S. and vice
versa"; that the letter he was enclosing came from a lady working in his
Leningrad office (I shall call her Dora) and concerned my daughter "whom he
did not have the honor to know but who, he believed, needed my assistance."
He added that he would be flying back to Leningrad in a month's time and
would be glad if I "contacted him." The letter from Dora was in Russian.
Much-respected Vadim Vadimovich!
You probably receive many letters from people in our country who manage
to obtain your books--not an easy enterprise! The present letter, however,
is not from an admirer but simply from a friend of Isabella Vadimovna Vetrov
with <201> whom she has been sharing a room for more than a year now.
She is ill, she has no news from her husband, and she is without a
Please, get in touch with the bearer of this note. He is my employer,
and also a distant relative, and has agreed to bring a few lines from you,
Vadim Vadimovich, and a little money, if possible, but the main thing, the
main thing (glavnoe, glavnoe) is to come in person (lichno). Let him know if
you can come and if yes, when and where we could meet to discuss the
situation. Everything in life is urgent (speshno, "pressing," "not to be
postponed") but some things are dreadfully urgent and this is one of them.
In order to convince you that she is here, with me, telling me to write
you and unable to write herself, I am appending a little clue or token that
only you and she can decode: "...and the intelligent trail (i umnitsa
For a minute I sat at the breakfast table--under the compassionate
stare of Brown Rose--in the attitude of a cave dweller clasping his hands
around his head at the crash of rocks breaking above him (women make the
same gesture when something falls in the next room). My decision was, of
course, instantly taken. I perfunctorily patted Rose's young buttocks
through her light skirt, and strode to the telephone.
A few hours later I was dining with A.B. in New York (and in the course
of the next month was to exchange several long-distance calls with him from
London). He was a superb little man, perfectly oval in shape, with a bald
head and tiny feet expensively shod (the rest of his envelope looked less
classy). He spoke friable English with a soft Russian accent, and native
Russian with Jewish <202> question marks. He thought that I should begin by
seeing Dora. He settled for me the exact spot where she and I might meet. He
warned me that in preparing to visit the weird Wonderland of the Soviet
Union a traveler's first step was the very Philistine one of being assigned
a nomer (hotel room) and that only after he had been granted one could the
"visa" be tackled. Over the tawny mountain of "Bogdan's" brown-speckled,
butter-soaked, caviar-accompanied bliny (which A.B. forbade me to pay for
though I was lousy with A Kingdom's money), he spoke poetically, and at some
length, about his recent trip to Tel Aviv.
My next move--a visit to London--would have been altogether delightful,
had I not been overwhelmed all the time by anxiety, impatience, anguished
forebodings. Through several venturesome gentlemen--a former lover of Allan
Andoverton's and two of my late benefactor's mysterious chums--I had
retained some innocent ties with the BINT, as Soviet agents acronymize the
well-known, too well-known, British intelligence service. Consequently it
was possible for me to obtain a false or more-or-less false passport. Since
I may want to avail myself again of those facilities, I cannot reveal here
my exact alias. Suffice it to say that some teasing similarity with my real
family name could make the assumed one pass, if I got caught, for a clerical
error on the part of an absentminded consul and for indifference to official
papers on that of the deranged bearer. Let us suppose my real name to have
been "Oblonsky" (a Tolstoyan invention); then the false one would be, for
example, the mimetic "O. B. Long," an oblong blursky, so to speak. This I
could expand into, say, Oberon Bernard Long, of Dublin or Dumberton, and
live with it for years on five or six continents.
I had escaped from Russia at the age of not quite nineteen, leaving
across my path in a perilous forest the felled body of a Red soldier. I had
then dedicated half a century to berating, deriding, twisting into funny
shapes, wringing <203> out like blood-wet towels, kicking neatly in Evil's
stinkiest spot, and otherwise tormenting the Soviet regime at every suitable
turn of my writings. In fact, no more consistent critic of Bolshevist
brutality and basic stupidity existed during all that time at the literary
level to which my output belonged. I was thus well aware of two facts: that
under my own name I would not be given a room at the Evropeyskaya or Astoria
or any other Leningrad hotel unless I made some extraordinary amends, some
abjectly exuberant recantation; and that if I talked my way to that hotel
room as Mr. Long or Blong, and got interrupted, there might be no end of
trouble. I decided therefore not to get interrupted.
"Shall I grow a beard to cross the fronder?" muses homesick General
Gurko in Chapter Six of Esmeralda and Her Parandrus.
"Better than none," said Harley Q., one of my gayest advisers. "But,"
he added, "do it before we glue on and stamp O.B.'s picture and don't lose
weight afterwards." So I grew it--during the atrocious heartracking wait for
the room I could not mock up and the visa I could not forge. It was an ample
Victorian affair, of a nice, rough, tawny shade threaded with silver. It
reached up to my apple-red cheekbones and came down to my waistcoat,
commingling on the way with my lateral yellow-gray locks. Special contact
lenses not only gave another, dumbfounded, expression to my eyes, but
somehow changed their very shape from squarish leonine, to round Jovian.
Only upon my return did I notice that the old tailor-made trousers, on me
and in my bag, displayed my real name on the inside of the waistband.
My good old British passport, which had been handled cursorily by so
many courteous officers who had never opened my books (the only real
identity papers of its accidental holder), remained, after a procedure, that
both decency and incompetence forbid me to describe, <204> physically the
same in many respects; but certain of its other features, details of
substance and items of information, were, let us say, "modified" by a new
method, an alchemysterious treatment, a technique of genius, "still not
understood elsewhere," as the chaps in the lab tactfully expressed people's
utter unawareness of a discovery that might have saved countless fugitives
and secret agents. In other words nobody, no forensic chemist not in the
know, could suspect, let alone prove, that my passport was false. I do not
know why I dwell on this subject with such tedious persistence. Probably,
because I otlynivayu--"shirk"--the task of describing my visit to Leningrad;
yet I can't put it off any longer. <205>
After almost three months of fretting I was ready to go. I felt
lacquered from head to foot, like that naked ephebe, the bright clou of a
pagan procession, who died of dermal asphyxia in his coat of golden varnish.
A few days before my actual departure there occurred what seemed a harmless
shift at the time. I was to wing off on a Thursday from Paris. On Monday a
melodious female voice reached me at my nostalgically lovely hotel, rue
Rivoli, to tell me that something---perhaps a hushed-up crash in a Soviet
veil of mist--had clogged the general schedule and that I could board an
Aeroflot turboprop to Moscow either this Wednesday or the next. I chose the
former, of course, for it did not affect the date of my rendezvous.
My traveling companions were a few English and French tourists and a
goodish bunch of gloomy officials from Soviet trade missions. Once inside
the aircraft, a certain illusion of cheap unreality enveloped me--to linger
about me for the rest of my trip. It was a very warm day in June and the
farcical air-conditioning system failed to outvie the whiffs of sweat and
the sprayings of Krasnaya Moskva, an insidious perfume which imbued even the
hard candy (named Ledenets vzlyotnyy, "take-off caramel," on the wrapper)
generously distributed to us before the start <206> of the flight. Another
fairy-tale touch was the bright dapple--yellow curlicues and violet
eyespots--adorning the blinds. A similarly colored waterproof bag in the
seat pocket before me was ominously labeled "for waste disposal"--such as
the disposal of my identity in that fairy-land.
My mood and mental condition needed strong liquor rather than another
round of vzlyotnyy or some nice reading matter; still I accepted a publicity
magazine from a stout, unsmiling, bare-armed stewardess in sky blue, and was
interested to learn that (in contrast to current triumphs) Russia had not
done so well in the Soccer Olympics of 1912 when the "Tsarist team"
(consisting presumably of ten boyars and one bear) lost 12-0 to a German
I had taken a tranquilizer and hoped to sleep at least part of the way;
but a first, and only, attempt at dozing off was resolutely thwarted by a
still fatter stewardess, in a still stronger aura of onion sweat, asking me
nastily to draw in the leg that I had stuck out too far into the aisle where
she circulated with more and more publicity material. I envied darkly my
windowside neighbor, an elderly Frenchman--or, anyway, scarcely a compatriot
of mine--with a straggly gray-black beard and a terrible tie, who slept
through the entire five-hour flight, disdaining the sardines and even the
vodka which I could not resist, though I had a flask of better stuff in my
hip pocket. Perhaps historians of photography could help me some day to
define how, by precisely what indices, I am enabled to establish that the
recollection of an anonymous unplaceable face goes back 1930-1935, say, and
not to 1945-1950. My neighbor was practically the twin of a person I had
known in Paris, but who? A fellow writer? A concierge? A cobbler? The
difficulty of determination grated less than the riddle of its limits as
suggested by the degree of perceived "shading" and the "feel" of the image.
I got a closer but still more teasing look at him when, toward the
close of our journey, my raincoat fell from the rack and landed upon him,
and he grinned amiably enough as he emerged from under the sudden awakener.
And I glimpsed again his fleshy profile and thick eyebrow while submitting
for inspection the contents of my only valise and fighting the insane urge
to question the propriety of the phrasing in the English form of the Customs
Declaration: "...miniature graphics, slaughtered fowl, live animals and
I saw him again, but not as clearly, during our transfer by bus from
one airport to another through some shabby environs of Moscow--a city which
I had never seen in my life and which interested me about as much as, say,
Birmingham. On the plane to Leningrad, however, he was again next to me,
this time on the inner side. Mixed odors of dour hostess and "Red Moscow,"
with a gradual prevalence of the first ingredient, as our bare-armed angels
multiplied their last ministrations, accompanied us from 21:18 to 22:33. In
order to draw out my neighbor before he and his riddle vanished, I asked
him, in French, if he knew anything about a picturesque group that had
boarded our aircraft in Moscow. He replied, with a Parisian grasseyement,
that they were, he believed, Iranian circus people touring Europe. The men
looked like harlequins in mufti, the women like birds of paradise, the
children like golden medallions, and there was one dark-haired pale beauty
in black bolero and yellow sharovars who reminded me of Iris or a prototype
"I hope," I said, "we'll see them perform in Leningrad."
"Pouf!" he rejoined. "They can't compete with our Soviet circus."
I noted the automatic "our."
Both he and I were billeted in the Astoria, a hideous pile built around
World War One, I think. The heavily bugged (I had been taught by Guy Gayley
a way of finding that <208> out in one gleeful twinkle) and therefore
sheepish-looking room "de luxe," with orange curtains and an orange-draped
bed in its old-world alcove, did have a private bath as stipulated, but it
took me some time to cope with a convulsive torrent of clay-colored water.
"Red Moscow's" last stand took place on a cake of incarnadine soap. "Meals,"
said a notice, "may be served in the rooms." For the heck of it I tried
ordering an evening snack; nothing happened, and I spent another hungry hour
in the recalcitrant restaurant. The Iron Curtain is really a lampshade: its
variety here was gemmed with glass incrustations in a puzzle of petals. The
kotleta po kievski I ordered took forty-four minutes to come from Kiev--and
two seconds to be sent back as a non-cutlet, with a tiny oath (murmured in
Russian) that made the waitress start and gape at me and my Daily Worker.
The Caucasian wine was undrinkable.
A sweet little scene happened to be enacted as I hurried toward the
lift, trying to recall where I had put my blessed Burpies. A flushed
athletic liftyorsha wearing several bead necklaces was in the act of being
replaced by a much older woman of the pensioned type, at whom she shouted
while stomping out of the lift: "Ya tebe eto popomnyu, sterva! (I'll get
even with you, dirty bitch)"--and proceeded to barge into me and almost
knock me down (I am a large, but fluff-light old fellow). "Shtoy-ty
suyoshsya pod nogi? (Why do you get underfoot?)" she cried in the same
insolent tone of voice which left the night attendant quietly shaking her
gray head all the way up to my floor.
Between two nights, two parts of a serial dream, in which I vainly
tried to locate Bel's street (whose name, by a superstition current for
centuries in conspiratorial circles I had preferred not to be told), while
knowing perfectly well that she lay bleeding and laughing in an alcove
diagonally across the room, a few barefooted steps from my bed, I wandered
about the city, idly trying to derive some <209> emotional benefit from my
being born there almost three-quarters of a century ago. Either because it
could never get over the presence of the bog on which a popular bully had
built it, or for some other reason (nobody, according to Gogol, knows), St.
Petersburg was no place for children. I must have passed there insignificant
parts of a few Decembers, and no doubt an April or two; but at least a dozen
winters of my nineteen pre-Cambridge ones were spent on Mediterranean or
Black Sea coasts. As to summers, to my young summers, all of them had
bloomed for me on the great country estates of my family. Thus I realized
with silly astonishment that, except for picture postcards (views of
conventional public parks with lindens looking like oaks and a pistachio
palace instead of the remembered pinkish one, and relentlessly gilded church
domes--all of it under an Italianate sky), I had never seen my native city
in June or July. Its aspect, therefore, evoked no thrill of recognition; it
was an unfamiliar, if not utterly foreign, town, still lingering in some
other era: an undefinable era, not exactly remote, but certainly preceding
the invention of body deodorants.
Warm weather had come to stay, and everywhere, in travel agencies, in
foyers, in waiting rooms, in general stores, in trolleybuses, in elevators,
on escalators, in every damned corridor, everywhere, and especially where
women worked, or had worked, invisible onion soup was cooking on invisible
stoves. I was to remain only a couple of days in Leningrad and had not the
time to get used to those infinitely sad emanations.
From travelers I knew that our ancestral mansion no longer existed,
that the very lane where it had stood between two streets in the Fontanka
area had been lost, like some connective tissue in the process of organic
degeneration. What then succeeded in transfixing my memory? That sunset,
with a triumph of bronze clouds and flamingo-pink meltings in the far-end
archway of the Winter Canalet, <210> might have been first seen in Venice.
What else? The shadow of railings on granite? To be quite honest, only the
dogs, the pigeons, the horses, and the very old, very meek cloakroom
attendants seemed familiar to me. They, and perhaps the faãade of a house on
Gertsen Street. I may have gone there to some children's féte ages ago. The
floral design running above the row of its upper windows caused an eerie
shiver to pass through the root of wings that we all grow at such moments of
Dora was to meet me Friday morning on the Square of the Arts in front
of the Russian Museum near the statue of Pushkin erected some ten years
before by a committee of weathermen. An Intourist folder had yielded a
tinted photograph of the spot. The meteorological associations of the
monument predominated over its cultural ones. Frock-coated Pushkin, the
right-side lap of his garment permanently agitated by the Nevan breeze
rather than by the violence of lyrical afflatus, stands looking upward and
to the left while his right hand is stretched out the other way, sidewise,
to test the rain (a very natural attitude at the time lilacs bloom in the
Leningrad parks). It had dwindled, when I arrived, to a warm drizzle, a mere
murmur in the lindens above the long garden benches. Dora was supposed to be
sitting on Pushkin's left, id est my right. The bench was empty and looked
dampish. Three or four children, of the morose, drab, oddly old-fashioned
aspect that Soviet kids have, could be seen on the other side of the
pedestal, but otherwise I was loitering all alone, holding the Humanitè in
my hand instead of the Worker which I was supposed to signal with discreetly
but had not been able to obtain that day. I was in the act of spreading the
newspaper on the bench when a lady with the predicted limp came along a
garden path toward me. She wore the, also expected, pastel-pink coat, had a
clubfoot, and walked with the aid of a sturdy cane. She also carried a
diaphanous little umbrella which had not figured in the list of <211>
attributes. I dissolved in tears at once (though I was farced with pills).
Her gentle beautiful eyes were also wet.
Had I got A.B.'s telegram? Sent two days ago to my Paris address? Hotel
"That's garbled," I said, "and besides I left earlier. Doesn't matter.
Is she much worse?"
"No, no, on the contrary. I knew you would come all the same, but
something has happened. Karl turned up on Tuesday while I was in the office
and took her away. He also took my new suitcase. He has no sense of
ownership. He will be shot some day like a common thief. The first time he
got into trouble was when he kept declaring that Lincoln and Lenin were
brothers. And last time--"
Nice voluble lady, Dora. What was Bel's illness exactly?
"Splenic anemia. And last time, he told his best student in the
language school that the only thing people should do was to love one another
and pardon their enemies."
"An original mind. Where do you suppose--"
"Yes, but the best student was an informer, and Karlusha spent a year
in a tundrovyy House of Rest. I don't know where he took her now. I even
don't know whom to ask."
"But there must be some way. She must be brought back, taken out of
this hole, this hell."
"That's impossible. She adores, she worships Karlusha. C'est la vie, as
the Germans say. It's a pity A.B. is in Riga till the end of the month. You
saw very little of him. Yes, it's a pity, he's a freak and a dear (chudak i
dushka) with four nephews in Israel, which sounds, he says, as `the dramatic
persons in a pseudoclassical play.' One of them was my husband. Life gets
sometimes very complicated, and the more complicated the happier it should
be, one would think, but in reality `complicated' always means for some
reason grust' i toska (sorrow and heartache)."
"But look here, can't I do something? Can't I sort of <212> hang around
and make inquiries, and perhaps seek advice from the Embassy--"
"She is not English any more and was never American. It's hopeless, I
tell you. We were very close, she and I, in my very complicated life, but,
imagine, Karl did not allow her to leave at least one little word for
me--and for you, of course. She had informed him, unfortunately, that you
were coming, and this he could not bear in spite of all the sympathy he
works up for all unsympathetic people. You know, I saw your face last
year--or was it two years ago?--two years, rather--in a Dutch or Danish
magazine, and I would have recognized you at once, anywhere."
"With the beard?"
"Oh, it does not change you one droplet. It's like wigs or green
spectacles in old comedies. As a girl I dreamt of becoming a female clown,
`Madam Byron,' or `Trek Trek.' But tell me, Vadim Vadimovich--I mean
Gospodin Long--haven't they found you out? Don't they intend to make much of
you? After all, you're the secret pride of Russia. Must you go now?"
I detached myself from the bench--with some scraps of L'Humanitè
attempting to follow me--and said, yes, I had better be going before the
pride outstripped the prudence. I kissed her hand whereupon she remarked
that she had seen it done only in a movie called War and Peace. I also
begged her, under the dripping lilacs, to accept a wad of bank notes to be
used for any purpose she wished including the price of that suitcase for her
trip to Sochi. "And he also took my whole set of safety pins," she murmured
with her all-beautifying smile. <213>
I cannot be sure it was not again my fellow traveler, the black-hatted
man, whom I saw hurrying away as I parted with Dora and our National Poet,
leaving the latter to worry forever about all that wasted water (compare the
Tsarskoselski Statue of a rock-dwelling maiden who mourns her broken but
still brimming jar in one of his own poems); but I know I saw Monsieur Pouf
at least twice in the restaurant of the Astoria, as well as in the corridor
of the sleeping car on the night train that I took in order to catch the
earliest Moscow-Paris plane. On that plane he was prevented from sitting
next to me by the presence of an elderly American lady, with pink and violet
wrinkles and rufous hair: we kept alternately chatting, dozing and drinking
Bloody Marshas, her joke--not appreciated by our sky-blue hostess. It was
delightful to observe the amazement expressed by old Miss Havemeyer (her
rather incredible name) when I told her that I had spurned the Intourist's
offer of a sightseeing tour of Leningrad; that I had not peeped into Lenin's
room in the Smolny; had not visited one cathedral; had not eaten something
called "tabaka chicken"; and that I had left that beautiful, beautiful city
without seeing a single ballet or variety show. "I happen <214> to be," I
explained, "a triple agent and you know how it is--" "Oh!" she exclaimed,
with a pulling-away movement of the torso as if to consider me from a nobler
angle. "Oh! But that's vurry glamorous!"
I had to wait some time for my jet to New York, and being a little
tight and rather pleased with my plucky journey (Bel, after all was not too
gravely ill and not too unhappily married; Rosabel sat reading, no doubt, a
magazine in the living room, checking in it the Hollywood measurements of
her leg, ankle 8 1/2 inches, calf 12 1/2, creamy thigh 19 1/2, and Louise
was in Florence or Florida). With a hovering grin, I noticed and picked up a
paperback somebody had left on a seat next to mine in the transit lounge of
the Orly airport. I was the mouse of fate on that pleasant June afternoon
between a shop of wines and a shop of perfumes.
I held in my hands a copy of a Formosan (!) paperback reproduced from
the American edition of A Kingdom by the Sea. I had not seen it yet--and
preferred not to inspect the pox of misprints that, no doubt, disfigured the
pirated text. On the cover a publicity picture of the child actress who had
played my Virginia in the recent film did better justice to pretty Lola
Sloan and her lollypop than to the significance of my novel. Although
slovenly worded by a hack with no inkling of the book's art, the blurb on
the back of the limp little volume rendered faithfully enough the factual
plot of my Kingdom.
Bertram, an unbalanced youth, doomed to die shortly in an asylum for
the criminal insane, sells for ten dollars his ten-year-old sister Ginny to
the middle-aged bachelor Al Garden, a wealthy poet who travels with the
beautiful child from resort to resort through America and other countries. A
state of affairs that looks at first blush--and "blush" is the right
word--like a case of irresponsible <215> perversion (described in brilliant
detail never attempted before) develops by the grees [misprint] into a
genuine dialogue of tender love. Garden's feelings are reciprocated by
Ginny, the initial "victim" who at eighteen, a normal nymph, marries him in
a warmly described religious ceremony. All seems to end honky-donky [sic!]
in foreverlasting bliss of a sort fit to meet the sexual demands of the most
rigid, or frigid, humanitarian, had there not been running its chaotic
course, in a sheef [sheaf?] of parallel lives beyond our happy couple's ken,
the tragic tiny [destiny?] of Virginia Garden's inconsolable parents, Oliver
and [?], whom the clever author by every means in his power, prevents from
tracking their daughter Dawn [sic!!]. A Book-of-the-Decade choice.
I pocketed it upon noticing that my long-lost fellow traveler,
goat-bearded and black-hatted, as I knew him, had come up from the lavatory
or the bar: Would he follow me to New York or was it to be our last meeting?
Last, last. He had given himself away: The moment he came near, the moment
his mouth opened in the tense-lower-lip shape that discharges, with a
cheerless up-and-down shake of the head, the exclamation "Ekh!," I knew not
only that he was as Russian as I, but that the ancient acquaintance whom he
resembled so strikingly was the father of a young poet, Oleg Orlov, whom I
had met in Paris, in the Nineteen-Twenties. Oleg wrote "poems in prose"
(long after Turgenev), absolutely worthless stuff, which his father, a
half-demented widower, would try to "place," pestering with his son's
worthless wares the dozen or so periodicals of the emigration. He could be
seen in the waiting room miserably fawning on a harassed and curt secretary,
or attempting to waylay an assistant editor <216> between office and toilet,
or writing in stoic misery, at a corner of a crowded table, a special letter
pleading the cause of some horrible little poem that had been already
rejected. He died in the same Home for the Aged where Annette's mother had
spent her last years. Oleg, in the meantime, had joined the small number of
littèrateurs who decided to sell the bleak liberty of expatriation for the
rosy mess of Soviet pottage. His budtime had kept its promise. The best he
had achieved during the last forty or fifty years was a medley of publicity
pieces, commercial translations, vicious denunciations, and--in the domain
of the arts--a prodigious resemblance to the physical aspect, voice,
mannerisms, and obsequious impudence of his father.
"Ekh!" he exclaimed, "Ekh, Vadim Vadimovich dorogoy (dear), aren't you
ashamed of deceiving our great warm-hearted country, our benevolent,
credulous government, our overworked Intourist staff, in this nasty
infantile manner! A Russian writer! Snooping! Incognito! By the way, I am
Oleg Igorevich Orlov, we met in Paris when we were young."
"What do you want, merzavetz (you scoundrel)?" I coldly inquired as he
plopped into the chair on my left.
He raised both hands in the "see-I'm-unarmed" gesture: "Nothing,
nothing. Except to ruffle (potormoshit') your conscience. Two courses
presented themselves. We had to choose. Fyodor Mihaylovich [?] himself had
to choose. Either to welcome you po amerikanski (the American way) with
reporters, interviews, photographers, girls, garlands, and, naturally,
Fyodor Mihaylovich himself [President of the Union of Writers? Head of the
`Big House'?]; or else to ignore you--and that's what we did. By the way:
forged passports may be fun in detective stories, but our people are just
not interested in passports. Aren't you sorry now?"
I made as if to move to another seat, but he made as if <217> to
accompany me there. So I stayed where I was, and feverishly grabbed
something to read--that book in my coat pocket.
"Et ce n'est pas tout," he went on. "Instead of writing for us, your
compatriots, you, a Russian writer of genius, betray them by concocting, for
your paymasters, this (pointing with a dramatically quivering index at A
Kingdom by the Sea in my hands), this obscene novelette about little Lola or
Lotte, whom some Austrian Jew or reformed pederast rapes after murdering her
mother--no, excuse me--marrying mama first before murdering her--we like to
legalize everything in the West, don't we, Vadim Vadimovich?"
Still restraining myself, though aware of the uncontrollable cloud of
black fury growing within my brain, I said: "You are mistaken. You are a
somber imbecile. The novel I wrote, the novel I'm holding now, is A Kingdom
by the Sea. You are talking of some other book altogether."
"Vraiment? And maybe you visited Leningrad merely to chat with a lady
in pink under the lilacs? Because, you know, you and your friends are
phenomenally naîve. The reason Mister (it rhymed with `Easter' in his foul
serpent-mouth) Vetrov was permitted to leave a certain labor camp in
Vadim--odd coincidence--so he might fetch his wife, is that he has been
cured now of his mystical mania--cured by such nutcrackers, such shrinkers
as are absolutely unknown in the philosophy of your Western sharlatanchy. Oh
yes, precious (dragotsennyy) Vadim Vadimovich--"
The swing I dealt old Oleg with the back of my left fist was of quite
presentable power, especially if we remember--and I remembered it as I
swung--that our combined ages made 140.
There ensued a pause while I struggled back to my feet (unaccustomed
momentum had somehow caused me to fall from my seat).
"Nu, dali v mordu. Nu, tak chtozh?" he muttered <218> (Well, you've
given me one in the mug. Well, what does it matter?). Blood blotched the
handkerchief he applied to his fat muzhikian nose.
"Nu, dali," he repeated and presently wandered away.
I looked at my knuckles. They were red but intact. I listened to my
wristwatch. It ticked like mad. <219> <220>
Speaking of philosophy, I recalled when starting to readjust myself,
very temporarily, to the corners and crannies of Quirn, that somewhere in my
office I kept a bundle of notes (on the Substance of Space), prepared
formerly toward an account of my young years and nightmares (the work now
known as Ardis). I also needed to sort out and remove from my office, or
ruthlessly destroy, a mass of miscellanea which had accumulated ever since I
That afternoon--a sunny and windy September afternoon--I had decided,
with the unaccountable suddenness of genuine inspiration, that 1969-1970
would be my last term at Quirn University. I had, in fact, interrupted my
siesta that day to request an immediate interview with the Dean. I thought
his secretary sounded a little grumpy on the phone; true, I declined to
explain anything beforehand, beyond confiding to her, in an informal
bantering manner, that the numeral "7" always reminded me of the flag an
explorer sticks in the cranium of the North Pole.
After setting out on foot and reaching the seventh poplar I realized
that there might be quite a load of papers to bring from my office, so I
went back for my car, and <223> then had difficulty in finding a place to
park near the library where I intended to return a number of books which
were months, if not years, overdue. In result, I was a little late for my
appointment with the Dean, a new man and not my best reader. He consulted,
rather demonstratively, the clock and muttered he had a "conference" in a
few minutes at some other place, probably invented.
I was amused rather than surprised by the vulgar joy he did not trouble
to conceal at the news of my resignation. He hardly heard the reasons which
common courtesy impelled me to give (frequent headaches, boredom, the
efficiency of modern recording, the comfortable income my recent novel
supplied, and so forth). His whole manner changed--to use a clichè he
deserves. He paced to and fro, positively beaming. He grasped my hand in a
burst of brutal effusion. Certain fastidious blue-blooded animals prefer
surrendering a limb to the predator rather than suffer ignoble contact. I
left the Dean encumbered with a marble arm that he kept carrying in his
prowlings like a trayed trophy, not knowing where to put it down.
So off to my office I stalked, a happy amputee, more than ever eager to
clean up drawers and shelves. I began, however, by dashing off a note to the
President of the University, another new man, informing him with a touch of
French malice, rather than English "malice," that my entire set of one
hundred lectures on European Masterpieces was about to be sold to a generous
publisher who offered me an advance of half-a-million bucks (a salubrious
exaggeration), thus making transmissions of my course no longer available to
students, best regards, sorry not to have met you personally.
In the name of moral hygiene I had got rid long ago of my Bechstein
desk. Its considerably smaller substitute contained note paper, scratch
paper, office envelopes, photostats of my lectures, a copy of Dr. Olga
Repnin (hard-back) which I had intended for a colleague (but had <224>
spoiled by misspelling his name), and a pair of warm gloves belonging to my
assistant (and successor) Exkul. Also three boxfuls of paper clips and a
half-empty flask of whisky. From the shelves, I swept into the wastebasket,
or onto the floor in its vicinity, heaps of circulars, separata, a displaced
ecologist's paper on the ravages committed by a bird of some sort, the
Ozimaya Sovka ("Lesser Winter-Crop Owl"?), and the tidily bound page proofs
(mine always come in the guise of long, horribly slippery and unwieldy
snakes) of picaresque trash, full of cricks and punts, imposed on me by
proud publishers hoping for a rave from the lucky bastard. A mess of
business correspondence and my tractatule on Space I stuffed into a large
worn folder. Adieu, lair of learning!
Coincidence is a pimp and cardsharper in ordinary fiction but a
marvelous artist in the patterns of fact recollected by a non-ordinary
memoirist. Only asses and geese think that the re-collector skips this or
that bit of his past because it is dull or shoddy (that sort of episode
here, for example, the interview with the Dean, and how scrupulously it is
recorded!). I was on the way to the parking lot when the bulky folder under
my arm--replacing my arm, as it were--burst its string and spilled its
contents all over the gravel and grassy border. You were coming from the
library along the same campus path, and we crouched side by side collecting
the stuff. You were pained you said later (zhalostno bylo) to smell the
liquor on my breath. On the breath of that great writer.
I say "you" retroconsciously, although in the logic of life you were
not "you" yet, for we were not actually acquainted and you were to become
really "you" only when you said, catching a slip of yellow paper that was
availing itself of a bluster to glide away with false insouciance:
"No, you don't." <225>
Crouching, smiling, you helped me to cram everything again into the
folder and then asked me how my daughter was--she and you had been
schoolmates some fifteen years ago, and my wife had given you a lift several
times. I then remembered your name and in a photic flash of celestial color
saw you and Bel looking like twins, silently hating each other, both in blue
coats and white hats, waiting to be driven somewhere by Louise. Bel and you
would both be twenty-eight on January 1, 1970.
A yellow butterfly settled briefly on a clover head, then wheeled away
in the wind.
"Metamorphoza," you said in your lovely, elegant Russian.
Would I care to have some snapshots (additional snapshots) of Bel? Bel
feeding a chipmunk? Bel at the school dance? (Oh, I remember that dance--she
had chosen for escort a sad fat Hungarian boy whose father was assistant
manager of the Quilton Hotel--I can still hear Louise snorting!)
We met next morning in my carrel at the College Library, and after that
I continued to see you every day. I will not suggest, LATH is not meant to
suggest, that the petals and plumes of my previous loves are dulled or
coarsened when directly contrasted with the purity of your being, the magic,
the pride, the reality of your radiance. Yet "reality" is the key word here;
and the gradual perception of that reality was nearly fatal to me.
Reality would be only adulterated if I now started to narrate what you
know, what I know, what nobody else knows, what shall never, never be
ferreted out by a matter-of-fact, father-of-muck, mucking biograffitist. And
how did your affair develop, Mr. Blong? Shut up, Ham Godman! And when did
you decide to leave together for Europe? Damn you, Ham!
See under Real, my first novel in English, thirty-five years ago! <226>
One little item of subhuman interest I can disclose, however, in this
interview with posterity. It is a foolish, embarrassing trifle and I never
told you about it, so here goes. It was on the eve of our departure, around
March 15, 1970, in a New York hotel. You were out shopping. ("I think"--you
said to me just now when I tried to check that detail without telling you
why--"I think I bought a beautiful blue suitcase with a zipper"--miming the
word with a little movement of your dear delicate hand--"which proved to be
absolutely useless.") I stood before the closet mirror of my bedroom in the
north end of our pretty "suite," and proceeded to take a final decision. All
right, I could not live without you; but was I worthy of you--I mean, in
body and spirit? I was forty-three years older than you. The Frown of Age,
two deep lines forming a capital lambda, ascended between my eyebrows. My
forehead, with its three horizontal wrinkles that had not really
overasserted themselves in the last three decades, remained round, ample and
smooth, waiting for the summer tan that would scumble, I knew, the liver
spots on my temples. All in all, a brow to be enfolded and fondled. A
thorough haircut had done away with the leonine locks; what remained was of
a neutral, grayish-dun tint. My large handsome glasses magnified the senile
group of wart-like little excrescences under each lower eyelid. The eyes,
once an irresistible hazel-green, were now oysterous. The nose, inherited
from a succession of Russian boyars, German barons, and, perhaps (if Count
Starov who sported some English blood was my real father), at least one Peer
of the Realm, had retained its bone hump and tip rime, but had developed on
the frontal flesh, within its owner's memory, an aggravating gray hairlet
that grew faster and faster between yanks. My dentures did not do justice to
my former attractively irregular teeth and (as I told an expensive but
obtuse dentist who did not understand what I meant) "seemed to ignore my
smile." A furrow sloped <227> down from each nosewing, and a jowl pouch on
each side of my chin formed in three-quarter-face the banal flexure common
to old men of all races, classes, and professions. I doubted that I had been
right in shaving off my glorious beard and the trim mustache that had
lingered, on try, for a week or so after my return from Leningrad. Still, I
passed my face, giving it a C-minus mark.
Since I had never been much of an athlete, the deterioration of my body
was neither very marked, nor very interesting. I gave it a C plus, mainly
for my routing tank after tank of belly fat in a war with obesity waged
between intervals of retreat and rest since the middle Fifties. Apart from
incipient lunacy (a problem with which I prefer to deal separately), I had
been in excellent health throughout adulthood.
What about the state of my art? What could I offer to you there? You
had studied, as I hope you recall, Turgenev in Oxford and Bergson in Geneva,
but thanks to family ties with good old Quirn and Russian New York (where a
last èmigrè periodical was still deploring, with idiotic innuendoes, my
"apostasy") you had followed pretty closely, as I discovered, the procession
of my Russian and English harlequins, followed by a tiger or two,
scarlet-tongued, and a libellula girl on an elephant. You had also studied
those obsolete photocopies--which proved that my method avait du bon after
all--pace the monstrous accusations leveled at them by a pack of professors
in envious colleges.
As I peered, stripped naked and traversed by opaline rays, into
another, far deeper mirror, I saw the whole vista of my Russian books and
was satisfied and even thrilled by what I saw: Tamara, my first novel
(1925): a girl at sunrise in the mist of an orchard. A grandmaster betrayed
in Pawn Takes Queen. Plenilune, a moonburst of verse. Camera Lucida, the
spy's mocking eye among the meek blind. The Red Top Hat of decapitation in a
country <228> of total injustice. And my best in the series: young poet
writes prose on a Dare.
That Russian batch of my books was finished and signed and thrust back
into the mind that had produced them. All of them had been gradually
translated into English either by myself or under my direction, with my
revisions. Those final English versions as well as the reprinted originals
would be now dedicated to you. That was good. That was settled. Next
My English originals, headed by the fierce See under Real (1940), led
through the changing light of Esmeralda and Her Parandrus, to the fun of Dr.
Olga Repnin and the dream of A Kingdom by the Sea. There was also the
collection of short stories Exile from Mayda) a distant island; and Ardis,
the work I had resumed at the time we met--at the time, too, of a deluge of
postcards (postcards!) from Louise hinting at last at a move which I wanted
her to be the first to make.
If I estimated the second batch at a lower value than the first, it was
owing not only to a diffidence some will call coy, others, commendable, and
myself, tragic, but also because the contours of my American production
looked blurry to me; and they looked that way because I knew I would always
keep hoping that my next book--not simply the one in progress, like
Ardis--but something I had never attempted yet, something miraculous and
unique, would at last answer fully the craving, the aching thirst that a few
disjunct paragraphs in Esmeralda and The Kingdom were insufficient to
quench. I believed I could count on your patience. <229>
I had not the slightest desire to reimburse Louise for being forced to
shed me; and I hesitated to embarrass her by supplying my lawyer with the
list of her betrayals. They were stupid and sordid, and went back to the
days when I still was reasonably faithful to her. The "divorce dialogue," as
Horace Peppermill, Junior, horribly called it, dragged on during the entire
spring: You and I spent part of it in London and the rest in Taormina, and I
kept putting off talks of our marriage (a delay you regarded with royal
indifference). What really bothered me was having also to postpone the
tedious statement (to be repeated for the fourth time in my life) that would
have to precede any such talks. I fumed. It was a shame to leave you in the
dark regarding my derangement.
Coincidence, the angel with the eyed wings mentioned before, spared me
the humiliating rigmarole that I had found necessary to go through before
proposing to each of my former wives. On June 15, at Gandora, in the Tessin,
I received a letter from young Horace giving me excellent news: Louise had
discovered (how does not matter) that at various periods of our marriage I
had had her shadowed, in all sorts of fascinating old cities, by a private
detective (Dick Cockburn, a staunch friend of mine); that the tapes <230> of
love calls and other documents were in my lawyer's hands; and that she was
ready to make every possible concession to speed up matters, being anxious
to marry again--this time the son of an Earl. And on the same fatidic day,
at a quarter past five in the afternoon, I finished transcribing on 733
medium-sized Bristol cards (each holding about 100 words), with a
fine-nibbed pen and in my smallest fair-copy hand, Ardis, a stylized memoir
dealing with the arbored boyhood and ardent youth of a great thinker who by
the end of the book tackles the itchiest of all noumenal mysteries. One of
the early chapters contained an account (couched in an overtly personal,
intolerably tortured tone) of my own tussles with the Specter of Space and
the myth of Cardinal Points.
By 5:30 I had consumed, in a fit of private celebration, most of the
caviar and all the champagne in the friendly fridge of our bungalow on the
green grounds of the Gandora Palace Hotel. I found you on the veranda and
told you I would like you to devote the next hour to reading attentively--
"I read everything attentively."
"--this batch of thirty cards from Ardis" After which I thought you
might meet me somewhere on my way back from my late-afternoon stroll: always
the same--to the spartitraffico fountain (ten minutes) and thence to the
edge of a pine plantation (another ten minutes). I left you reclining in a
lounge chair with the sun reproducing the amethyst lozenges of the veranda
windows on the floor, and barring your bare shins and the insteps of your
crossed feet (right toe twitching now and then in some obscure connection
with the tempo of assimilation or a twist in the text). In a matter of
minutes you would have learned (as only Iris had learned before you--the
others were no eaglesses) what I wished you to be aware of when consenting
to be my wife. "Careful, please, when you cross," you said, without <231>
raising your eyes but then looking up and tenderly pursing your lips before
going back to Ardis.
Ha! Weaving a little! Was that really I, Prince Vadim Blonsky, who in
1815 could have outdrunk Pushkin's mentor, Kaverin? In the golden light of a
mere quart of the stuff all the trees in the hotel park looked like
araucarias. I congratulated myself on the neatness of my stratagem though
not quite knowing whether it concerned my third wife's recorded frolics or
the disclosure of my infirmity through a bloke in a book. Little by little
the soft spicy air did me good: my soles clung more firmly to gravel and
sand, clay and stone. I became aware that I had gone out wearing morocco
slippers and a torn, bleached denim trousers-and-top with, paradoxically, my
passport in one nipple pocket and a wad of Swiss bank notes in the other.
Local people in Gandino or Gandora, or whatever the town was called, knew
the face of the author of Un regno sul mare or Ein Kænigreich an der See or
Un Royaume au Bord de la Mer, so it would have been really fatuous on my
part to prepare the cue and the cud for the reader in case a car was really
to hit me.
Soon I was feeling so happy and bright that when I passed by the
sidewalk cafe just before reaching the square, it seemed a good idea to
stabilize the fizz still ascending in me by means of a jigger of
something--and yet I demurred, and passed by, cold-eyed, knowing how
sweetly, yet firmly, you disapproved of the most innocent tippling.
One of the streets projecting west beyond the traffic island traversed
the Corso Orsini and immediately afterwards, as if having achieved an
exhausting feat, degenerated into a soft dusty old road with traces of
gramineous growth on both sides, but none of pavement.
I could say what I do not remember having been moved to say in years,
namely: My happiness was complete. As I walked, I read those cards with you,
at your pace, your <232> diaphanous index at my rough peeling temple, my
wrinkled finger at your turquoise temple-vein. I caressed the facets of the
Blackwing pencil you kept gently twirling, I felt against my raised knees
the fifty-year-old folded chessboard, Nikifor Starov's gift (most of the
noblemen were badly chipped in their baize-lined mahogany box!), propped on
your skirt with its pattern of irises. My eyes moved with yours, my pencil
queried with your own faint little cross in the narrow margin a solecism I
could not distinguish through the tears of space. Happy tears, radiant,
shamelessly happy tears!
A goggled imbecile on a motorcycle who I thought had seen me and would
slow down to let me cross Corso Orsini in peace swerved so clumsily to avoid
killing me that he skidded and ended up facing me some way off after an
ignominious wobble. I ignored his roar of hate and continued my steady
stroll westward in the changed surroundings I have already mentioned. The
practically rural old road crept between modest villas, each in its nest of
tall flowers and spreading trees. A rectangle of cardboard on one of the
west-side wickets said "Rooms" in German; on the opposite side an old pine
supported a sign "For Sale" in Italian. Again on the left, a more
sophisticated houseowner offered "Lunchings." Still fairly far was the green
vista of the pineta.
My thoughts reverted to Ardis. I knew that the bizarre mental flaw you
were now reading about would pain you; I also knew that its display was a
mere formality on my part and could not obstruct the natural flow of our
common fate. A gentlemanly gesture. In fact, it might compensate for what
you did not yet know, what I would have to tell you too, what I suspected
you would call the not quite savory little method (gnusnovaten'kiy sposob)
of my "getting even" with Louise. All right--but what about Ardis? Apart
from my warped mind, did you like it or loathe it? <233>
Composing, as I do, whole books in my mind before releasing the inner
word and taking it down in pencil or pen, I find that the final text remains
for a while committed to memory, as distinct and perfect as the floating
imprint that a light bulb leaves on the retina. I was able therefore to
rerun the actual images of those cards you read: they were projected on the
screen of my fancy together with the gleam of your topaz ring and the beat
of your eyelashes, and I could calculate how far you had read not simply by
consulting my watch but by actually following one line after the other to
the right-hand brink of each card. The lucidity of the image was correlated
with the quality of the writing. You knew my work too well to be ruffled by
a too robust erotic detail, or annoyed by a too recondite literary allusion.
It was bliss reading Ardis with you that way, triumphing that way over the
stretch of colored space separating my lane from your lounge chair. Was I an
excellent writer? I was an excellent writer. That avenue of statues and
lilacs where Ada and I drew our first circles on the dappled sand was
visualized and re-created by an artist of lasting worth. The hideous
suspicion that even Ardis, my most private book, soaked in reality,
saturated with sun flecks, might be an unconscious imitation of another's
unearthly art, that suspicion might come later; at the moment--6:18 P.M. on
June 15, 1970, in the Tessin--nothing could scratch the rich humid gloss of
I was now reaching the end of my usual preprandial walk. The ra-ta-ta,
ta-ta, tac of a typist's finishing a last page came from a window through
motionless foliage, reminding me pleasantly that I had long since eschewed
the long labor of having my immaculate manuscripts typed when they could be
reproduced photographically in one hum. It was now the publisher who bore
the brunt of having my hand transformed directly into printed characters,
and I know he disliked the procedure as a well-bred <234> entomologist may
find revolting an irregular insect's skipping some generally accepted stage
Only a few steps--twelve, eleven--remained before I would start to walk
back: I felt you were thinking of this in a reversal of distant perception,
just as I felt a kind of mental loosening, which told me you had finished
reading those thirty cards, placed them in their proper order, tidied the
stack by knocking its base slightly against the table, found the elastic
lying there in the assumed shape of a heart, banded the batch, carried it to
the safety of my desk, and were now preparing to meet me on my way back to
A low wall of gray stone, waist-high, paunch-thick, built in the
general shape of a transversal parapet, put an end to whatever life the road
still had as a town street. A narrow passage for pedestrians and cyclists
divided the parapet in the middle, and the width of that gap was preserved
beyond it in a path which after a flick or two slithered into a fairly dense
young pinewood. You and I had rambled there many times on gray mornings,
when lakeside or poolside lost all attraction; but that evening, as usual, I
terminated my stroll at the parapet, and stood in perfect repose, facing the
low sun, my spread hands enjoying the smoothness of its top edge on both
sides of the passage. A tactile something, or the recent ra-ta-tac, brought
back and completed the image of my 733, twelve centimers by ten-and-a-half
Bristol cards, which you would read chapter by chapter whereupon a great
pleasure, a parapet of pleasure, would perfect my task: in my mind there
arose, endowed with the clean-cut compactness of some great solid--an altar!
a mesa!--the image of the shiny photocopier in one of the offices of our
hotel. My trustful hands were still spread, but my soles no longer sensed
the soft soil. I wished to go back to you, to life, to the amethyst
lozenges, to the pencil lying on the veranda table, and I could not. What
used to happen so often in thought, now <235> had happened for keeps: I
could not turn. To make that movement would mean rolling the world around on
its axis and that was as impossible as traveling back physically from the
present moment to the previous one. Maybe I should not have panicked, should
have waited quietly for the stone of my limbs to regain some tingle of
flesh. Instead, I performed, or imagined performing, a wild wrenching
movement--and the globe did not bulge. I must have hung in a spread-eagle
position for a little while longer before ending supine on the intangible
There exists an old rule--so old and trite that I blush to mention it.
Let me twist it into a jingle--to stylize the staleness:
The I of the book
Cannot die in the book.
I am speaking of serious novels, naturally. In so-called
Planchette-Fiction the unruffled narrator, after describing his own
dissolution, can continue thus: "I found myself standing on a staircase of
onyx before a great gate of gold in a crowd of other bald-headed angels..."
Cartoon stuff, folklore rubbish, hilarious atavistic respect for
And yet I feel that during three weeks of general paresis (if that is
what it was) I have gained some experience; that when my night really comes
I shall not be totally unprepared. Problems of identity have been, if not
settled, at least set. Artistic insights have been granted. I was allowed to
take my palette with me to very remote reaches of dim and dubious being.
Speed! If I could have given my definition of death to <239> the
stunned fisherman, to the mower who stopped wiping his scythe with a handful
of grass, to the cyclist embracing in terror a willow sapling on one green
bank and actually getting up to the top of a taller tree on the opposite
side with his machine and girlfriend, to the black horses gaping at me like
people with trick dentures all through my strange skimming progress, I would
have cried one word: Speed! Not that those rural witnesses ever existed. My
impression of prodigious, inexplicable, and to tell the truth rather silly
and degrading speed (death is silly, death is degrading) would have been
conveyed to a perfect void, without one fisherman tearing by, without one
blade of grass bloodied by his catch, without any reference mark altogether.
Imagine me, an old gentleman, a distinguished author, gliding rapidly on my
back, in the wake of my outstretched dead feet, first through that gap in
the granite, then over a pinewood, then along misty water meadows, and then
simply between marges of mist, on and on, imagine that sight!
Madness had been lying in wait for me behind this or that alder or
boulder since infancy. I got used by degrees to feeling the sepia stare of
those watchful eyes as they moved smoothly along the line of my passage. Yet
I have known madness not only in the guise of an evil shadow. I have seen it
also as a flash of delight so rich and shattering that the very absence of
an immediate object on which it might settle was to me a form of escape.
For practical purposes, such as keeping body-mind and mind-body in a
state of ordinary balance, so as not to imperil one's life or become a
burden to friends or governments, I preferred the latent variety, the
awfulness of that watchful thing that meant at best the stab of neuralgia,
the distress of insomnia, the battle with inanimate things which have never
disguised their hatred of me (the runaway button which condescends to be
located, the paper clip, a thievish slave, not content to hold a couple of
humdrum <240> letters, but managing to catch a precious leaf from another
batch), and at worst a sudden spasm of space as when the visit to one's
dentist turns into a burlesque party. I preferred the muddle of such attacks
to the motley of madness which, after pretending to adorn my existence with
special forms of inspiration, mental ecstasy, and so forth, would stop
dancing and flitting around me and would pounce upon me, and cripple me, and
for all I know destroy me. <241>
At the start of the great seizure, I must have been totally
incapacitated, from top to toe, while my mind, the images racing through me,
the tang of thought, the genius of insomnia, remained as strong and active
as ever (except for the blots in between). By the time I had been flown to
the Lecouchant Hospital in coastal France, highly recommended by Dr. Genfer,
a Swiss relative of its director, I became aware of certain curious details:
from the head down I was paralyzed in symmetrical patches separated by a
geography of weak tactility. When in the course of that first week my
fingers "awoke" (a circumstance that stupefied and even angered the
Lecouchant sages, experts in dementia paralydea, to such a degree that they
advised you to rush me off to some more exotic and broadminded
institution---which you did) I derived much entertainment from mapping my
sensitive spots which were always situated in exact opposition, e.g. on both
sides of my forehead, on the jaws, orbital parts, breasts, testicles, knees,
flanks. At an average stage of observation, the average size of each spot of
life never exceeded that of Australia (I felt gigantic at times) and never
dwindled (when I dwindled myself) below the diameter of a medal of medium
merit, at which <242> level I perceived my entire skin as that of a leopard
painted by a meticulous lunatic from a broken home.
In some connection with those "tactile symmetries" (about which I am
still attempting to correspond with a not too responsive medical journal,
swarming with Freudians), I would like to place the first pictorial
compositions, flat, primitive images, which occurred in duplicate, right and
left of my traveling body, on the opposite panels of my hallucinations. If,
for example, Annette boarded a bus with her empty basket on the left of my
being, she came out of that bus on my right with a load of vegetables, a
royal cauliflower presiding over the cucumbers. As the days passed, the
symmetries got replaced by more elaborate inter-responses, or reappeared in
miniature within the limits of a given image. Picturesque episodes now
accompanied my mysterious voyage. I glimpsed Bel rummaging after work amidst
a heap of naked babies at the communal day-nursery, in frantic search for
her own firstborn, now ten months old, and recognizable by the symmetrical
blotches of red eczema on its sides and little legs. A glossy-haunched
swimmer used one hand to brush away from her face wet strands of hair, and
pushed with the other (on the other side of my mind) the raft on which I
lay, a naked old man with a rag around his foremast, gliding supine into a
full moon whose snaky reflections rippled among the water lilies. A long
tunnel engulfed me, half-promised a circlet of light at its far end,
half-kept the promise, revealing a publicity sunset, but I never reached it,
the tunnel faded, and a familiar mist took over again. As was "done" that
season, groups of smart idlers visited my bed, which had slowed down in a
display hall where Ivor Black in the role of a fashionable young doctor
demonstrated me to three actresses playing society belles: their skirts
ballooned as they settled down on white chairs, and one lady, indicating my
groin, would have touched me with her cold fan, had <243> not the learned
Moor struck it aside with his ivory pointer, whereupon my raft resumed its
Whoever charted my destiny had moments of triteness. At times my swift
course became a celestial affair at an allegorical altitude that bore
unpleasant religious connotations--unless simply reflecting transportation
of cadavers by commercial aircraft. A certain notion of daytime and
nighttime, in more or less regular alternation, gradually established itself
in my mind as my grotesque adventure reached its final phase. Diurnal and
nocturnal effects were rendered obliquely at first with nurses and other
stagehands going to extreme lengths in the handling of movable properties,
such as the bouncing of fake starlight from reflecting surfaces or the
daubing of dawns here and there at suitable intervals. It had never occurred
to me before that, historically, art, or at least artifacts, had preceded,
not followed, nature; yet that is exactly what happened in my case. Thus, in
the mute remoteness clouding around me, recognizable sounds were produced at
first optically in the pale margin of the film track during the taking of
the actual scene (say, the ceremony of scientific feeding); eventually
something about the running ribbon tempted the ear to replace the eye; and
finally hearing returned--with a vengeance. The first crisp nurse-rustle was
a thunderclap; my first belly wamble, a crash of cymbals.
I owe thwarted obituarists, as well as all lovers of medical lore, some
clinical elucidations. My lungs and my heart acted, or were induced to act,
normally; so did my bowels, those buffoons in the cast of our private
miracle plays. My frame lay flat as in an Old Master's Lesson of Anatomy.
The prevention of bedsores, especially at the Lecouchant Hospital, was
nothing short of a mania, explicable, maybe, by a desperate urge to
substitute pillows and various mechanical devices for the rational treatment
of an unfathomable disease. My body was "sleeping" as a giant's foot might
be "sleeping"; more accurately, however, <244> my condition was a horrible
form of protracted (twenty nights!) insomnia with my mind as consistently
alert as that of the Sleepless Slav in some circus show I once read about in
The Graphic. I was not even a mummy; I was--in the beginning, at least--the
longitudinal section of a mummy, or rather the abstraction of its thinnest
possible cut. What about the head?--readers who are all head must be
clamoring to be told. Well, my brow was like misty glass (before two lateral
spots got cleared somehow or other); my mouth stayed mute and benumbed until
I realized I could feel my tongue--feel it in the phantom form of the kind
of air bladder that might help a fish with his respiration problems, but was
useless to me. I had some sense of duration and direction--two things which
a beloved creature seeking to help a poor madman with the whitest of lies,
affirmed, in a later world, were quite separate phases of a single
phenomenon. Most of my cerebral aqueduct (this is getting a little
technical) seemed to descend wedgewise, after some derailment or inundation,
into the structure housing its closest ally--which oddly enough is also our
humblest sense, the easiest and sometimes the most gratifying to dispense
with--and, oh, how I cursed it when I could not close it to ether or
excrements, and, oh (cheers for old "oh"), how I thanked it for crying
"Coffee!" or "Plage!" (because an anonymous drug smelled like the cream Iris
used to rub my back with in Cannice half a century ago!).
Now comes a snaggy bit: I do not know if my eyes remained always wide
open "in a glazed look of arrogant stupor" as imagined by a reporter who got
as far as the corridor desk. But I doubt very much I could blink--and
without the oil of blinking the motor of sight could hardly have run. Yet,
somehow, during my glide down those illusory canals and cloudways, and right
over another continent, I did glimpse off and on, through subpalpebral
mirages, the shadow of a hand or the glint of an instrument. <245> As to my
world of sound, it remained solid fantasy. I heard strangers discuss in
droning voices all the books I had written or thought I had written, for
everything they mentioned, titles, the names of characters, every phrase
they shouted was preposterously distorted by the delirium of demonic
scholarship. Louise regaled the company with one of her good stories--those
I called "name hangers" because they only seemed to reach this or that
point--a quid pro quo, say, at a party--but were really meant to introduce
some high-born "old friend" of hers, or a glamorous politician, or a cousin
of that politician. Learned papers were read at fantastic symposiums. In the
year of grace 1798, Gavrila Petrovich Kamenev, a gifted young poet, was
heard chuckling as he composed his Ossianic pastiche Slovo o polku Igoreve.
Somewhere in Abyssinia drunken Rimbaud was reciting to a surprised Russian
traveler the poem Le Tramway ivre (...En blouse rouge, þ face en pis de
vache, le bourreau me trancha la téte aussi...). Or else I'd hear the
pressed repeater hiss in a pocket of my brain and tell the time, the rime,
the meter that who could dream I'd hear again?
I should also point out that my flesh was in fairly good shape: no
ligaments torn, no muscles trapped; my spinal cord may have been slightly
bruised during the absurd collapse that precipitated my voyage but it was
still there, lining me, shading my being, as good as the primitive structure
of some translucent aquatic creature. Yet the medical treatment I was
subjected to (especially at the Lecouchant place) implied--insofar as now
reconstructed--that my injuries were all physical, only physical, and could
be only dealt with by physical means. I am not speaking of modern alchemy,
of magic philtres injected into me--those did, perhaps, act somehow, not
only on my body, but also on the divinity installed within me, as might the
suggestions of ambitious shamans or quaking councilors upon a mad emperor;
what I cannot get over are such imprinted images <246> as the damned braces
and belts that held me stretched on my back (preventing me from walking away
with my rubber raft under my arm as I felt I could), or even worse the
man-made electric leeches, which masked executioners attached to my head and
limbs--until chased away by that saint in Catapult, Cal., Professor H. P.
Sloan, who was on the brink of suspecting, just when I started to get well,
that I might be cured--might have been cured!--in a trice by hypnosis and
some sense of humor on the hypnotist's part. <247>
To the best of my knowledge my Christian name was Vadim; so was my
father's. The U.S.A. passport recently issued me--an elegant booklet with a
golden design on its green cover perforated by the number 00678638--did not
mention my ancestral title; this had figured, though, on my British
passport, throughout its several editions. Youth, Adulthood, Old Age, before
the last one was mutilated beyond recognition by friendly forgers, practical
jokers at heart. All this I re-gleaned one night, as certain brain cells,
which had been frozen, now bloomed anew. Others, however, still puckered
like retarded buds, and although I could freely twiddle (for the first time
since I collapsed) my toes under the bedclothes, I just could not make out
in that darker corner of my mind what surname came after my Russian
patronymic. I felt it began with an N, as did the term for the beautifully
spontaneous arrangement of words at moments of inspiration like the rouleaux
of red corpuscles in freshly drawn blood under the microscope--a word I once
used in See under Real, but could not remember either, something to do with
a roll of coins, capitalistic metaphor, eh, Marxy? Yes, I definitely felt my
family name began with an N and bore an odious resemblance to the surname or
pseudonym of a presumably <248> notorious (Notorov? No) Bulgarian, or
Babylonian, or, maybe, Betelgeusian writer with whom scatterbrained èmigrès
from some other galaxy constantly confused me; but whether it was something
on the lines of Nebesnyy or Nabedrin or Nablidze (Nablidze? Funny) I simply
could not tell. I preferred not to overtax my willpower (go away,
Naborcroft) and so gave up trying--or perhaps it began with a B and the n
just clung to it like some desperate parasite? (Bonidze? Blonsky?--No, that
belonged to the BINT business.) Did I have some princely Caucasian blood?
Why had allusions to a Mr. Nabarro, a British politician, cropped up among
the clippings I received from England concerning the London edition of A
Kingdom by the Sea (lovely lilting title)? Why did Ivor call me "MacNab"?
Without a name I remained unreal in regained consciousness. Poor
Vivian, poor Vadim Vadimovich, was but a figment of somebody's--not even my
own--imagination. One dire detail: in rapid Russian speech longish
name-and-patronymic combinations undergo familiar slurrings: thus "Pavel
Pavlovich," Paul, son of Paul, when casually interpellated is made to sound
like "Pahlpahlych" and the hardly utterable, tapeworm-long "Vladimir
Vladimirovich" becomes colloquially similar to "Vadim Vadimych."
I gave up. And when I gave up for good my sonorous surname crept up
from behind, like a prankish child that makes a nodding old nurse jump at
his sudden shout.
There remained other problems. Where was I? What about a little light?
How did one tell by touch a lamp's button from a bell's button in the dark.
What was, apart from my own identity, that other person, promised to me,
belonging to me? I could locate the bluish blinds of twin windows. Why not
Tak, vdol' naklñnnogo luchà
Ya vùshel iz paralichà.
Along a slanting ray, like this
I slipped out of paralysis.
--if "paralysis" is not too strong a word for the condition that mimicked it
(with some obscure help from the patient): a rather quaint but not too
serious psychological disorder--or at least so it seemed in lighthearted
I was prepared by certain indices for spells of dizziness and nausea
but I did not expect my legs to misbehave as they did, when--unbuckled and
alone--I blithely stepped out of bed on that first night of recovery.
Beastly gravity humiliated me at once: my legs telescoped under me. The
crash brought in the night nurse, and she helped me back into bed. After
that I slept. Never before or since did I sleep more deliciously.
One of the windows was wide open when I woke up. My mind and my eye
were by now sufficiently keen to make out the medicaments on my bedside
table. Amidst its miserable population I noticed a few stranded travelers
from another world: a transparent envelope with a nonmasculine handkerchief
found and laundered by the staff; a diminutive golden pencil belonging to
the eyelet of a congeric agenda in a vanity bag; a pair of harlequin
sunglasses, which for some reason suggested not protection from a harsh
light but the masking of tear-swollen lids. The combination of those
ingredients resulted in a dazzling pyrotechny of sense; and next moment
(coincidence was still on my side) the door of my room moved: a small
soundless move that came to a brief soundless stop and then was continued in
a slow, infinitely slow sequence of suspension dots in diamond type. I
emitted a bellow of joy, and Reality entered. <250>
With the following gentle scene I propose to conclude this
autobiography. I had been wheeled into the rose-twined gallery for Special
Convalescents in the second and last of my hospitals. You were reclining in
a lounge chair beside me, in much the same attitude in which I had left you
on June 15, at Gandora. You complained gaily that a woman in the room next
to yours on the ground floor of the annex had a phonograph playing bird-call
records, by means of which she hoped to make the mockingbirds of the
hospital park imitate the nightingales and thrushes of her place in Devon or
Dorset. You knew very well I wished to find out something. We both hedged. I
drew your attention to the beauty of the climbing roses. You said:
"Everything is beautiful against the sky (na fone neba)" and apologized for
the "aphorism." At last, in the most casual of tones I asked how you had
liked the fragment of Ardis I gave you to read just before taking the little
walk from which I had returned only now, three weeks later, in Catapult,
You looked away. You considered the mauve mountains. You cleared your
throat and bravely replied that you had not liked it at all.
Meaning she would not marry a madman? <251>
Meaning she would marry a sane man who could tell the difference
between time and space.
She was awfully eager to read the rest of the manuscript, but that
fragment ought to be scrapped. It was written as nicely as everything I
wrote but happened to be marred by a fatal philosophical flaw.
Young, graceful, tremendously charming, hopelessly homely Mary Middle
came to say I would have to be back when the bell tinkled for tea. In five
minutes. Another nurse signaled to her from the sun-striped end of the
gallery, and she fluttered away.
The place (you said) was full of dying American bankers and perfectly
healthy Englishmen. I had described a person in the act of imagining his
recent evening stroll. A stroll from point H (Home, Hotel) to point P
(Parapet, Pinewood). Imagining fluently the sequence of wayside
events--child swinging in villa garden, lawn sprinkler rotating, dog chasing
a wet ball. The narrator reaches point P in his mind, stops--and is puzzled
and upset (quite unreasonably as we shall see) by being unable to execute
mentally the about-face that would turn direction HP into direction PH.
"His mistake," she continued, "his morbid mistake is quite simple. He
has confused direction and duration. He speaks of space but he means time.
His impressions along the HP route (dog overtakes ball, car pulls up at next
villa) refer to a series of time events, and not to blocks of painted space
that a child can rearrange in any old way. It has taken him time--even if
only a few moments--to cover distance HP in thought. By the time he reaches
P he has accumulated duration, he is saddled with it! Why then is it so
extraordinary that he cannot imagine himself turning on his heel? Nobody can
imagine in physical terms the act of reversing the order of time. Time is
not reversible. <252> Reverse motion is used in films only for comic
effects--the resurrection of a smashed bottle of beer--
"Or rum," I put in, and here the bell tinkled.
"That's all very well," I said, as I groped for the levers of my
wheelchair, and you helped me to roll back to my room. "And I'm grateful,
I'm touched, I'm cured! Your explanation, however, is merely an exquisite
quibble--and you know it; but never mind, the notion of trying to twirl time
is a trouvaille; it resembles (kissing the hand resting on my sleeve) the
neat formula a physicist finds to keep people happy until (yawning, crawling
back into bed) until the next chap snatches the chalk. I had been promised
some rum with my tea--Ceylon and Jamaica, the sibling islands (mumbling
comfortably, dropping off, mumble dying away)--" <253>
Italics, <page numbers>, [text in square brackets], ISO8859-1 accents
Possible misprints in the book (left as is):
Words: "recolections", "sharlatanchy" (Russian: "sharlatany"?), "Anna
Ivanova" (instead of "Ivanovna"?)
No closing quote after the phrases:
"resurrection of a smashed bottle of beer--"
"tucked in your adorable daughter"
Extra two lines "marked by a marvelous surge of the exiled arts, and it
would be pretentious and foolish of me not to admit that whatever" repeated
after "and especially the cinema. I soon realized that" -- lines excluded in