INCIDENT IN BERLIN
The garden was taken over by the azaleas. The multitude of flowers stood dormant in the late Sunday afternoon. There was also a palm tree (Sergei still couldn’t get used to the palm trees), a poplar, and plenty of ivies shooting up the sunlit white stucco wall. Most of the trees were planted by the previous owner in the twenties. Nasturtiums were flaming like a bonfire by the veranda. This blend of smells, heated dryness, and southern flowers always evoked memories of Crimea: childhood trips to the Black Sea with grandparents, long afternoons in the garden, where he lay in a hammock by a bowl of dark cherries reading Dumas. The impression that life promised him was long gone, along with the feeling that there was plenty of time to read and to eat cherries. He realized that this prehistoric paradise of cherries was two lives away, still the boy in him could not help protesting. In fact, that familiar urge to send everything to hell, run out and play soccer until twilight, until grandma calls for supper three times, still visited him some afternoons at work Sergei was in Los Angeles visiting his old friend and classmate from Moscow, Vladimir. The special treat was an invitation for dinner to Vladimir’s great-aunt Marina in her home at Beverly Hills. They walked onto the veranda, Sergei elaborately letting his friend’s great-aunt in first, holding the glass door. “You fellows surely want a drink,” the old lady said. Sergei halfheartedly expressed his poorly concealed full consent, and she pointed to the low table. Much to his surprise, there was a noble selection of single malts and Sergei reinforced his aspiring gentlemanliness, never in his era or in his generation fully accomplished, by refusing ice and warming the tumbler in his hands. Marina was the great-aunt of his friend, Vladimir; slightly over 90; a rare remaining physical example of an extinct civilization.
She was from a wealthy and well-connected pre-revolutionary Moscow Jewish family, which had possessed a residency permit to live outside of the Pale of Settlement for a long time. They were much Russified but never baptized; children went to the universities. They comfortably found their niche in the second capital, less xenophobic than St. Petersburg, and when revolution and emigration cast shadows over their lives, they first went to Finland and then to Germany. The family escaped along with many Russian white émigrés, including some of the nobility. One of the dukes, who escaped with the group, stayed with them in the suburban Finnish boarding house, formerly a reclusive, cross-country ski resort established in the early era of winter sports. He was a huge, jovial, handsome, and warm man; a Tolstoy-Steve Oblonsky type; a former colonel of the elite guard troops, who was bored to death being surrounded by these still, snowy, unpromising plains. Marina, my friend’s great-aunt, remembered how he would line up all the children, mostly girls, jokingly bark military commands, and fight with them in the snow, laughing and forgetting for a moment the relentlessly sobering reality. Later she lost track of him, though she vaguely heard that he ended up as a taxi driver in Paris, and then was remarried to some French ex-patriot piano teacher from Algiers. They moved there, and since the mid-thirties no one has heard anything of him. Sergei knew the feeling, as did any person who had lived through withdrawal and alienation. The souls, crossing each others tracks and then losing track in the darkness of a merged future and past.
Marina and her family belonged to the Nabokov’s wave of Russian emigration. She went through the usual motions: Berlin, Paris, and marriage—luckily to one of the few successful Russian-Jewish émigré businessmen. They moved to Paris and then, retreating from the German advance, left for the United States. Some previously established business links in North America helped them to find their way into the undesired Promised Land. Her husband was one of two brothers, both in the same business, who came from a large provincial town in Southern Russia. They were worldly, simple, hard-focused, and rather narrow-minded. They possessed sound animal business instincts, and listened coolly to the footsteps of twentieth-century history. It interested them only in terms of its historical relevance to their business moves. This quality made them, and therefore Marina and her sister-in-law, secure and financially independent in the atmosphere of the precipitating disintegration of their civilization. Within this notion, civilization existed in a certain recognizable form only until the second quarter of the twentieth century.
By the end of the thirties they ended up in a dusty, scattered, provincial Los Angeles, where they bought a tree-shaded house in one of the unremarkable suburbs with the unpretentious name Beverly Hills. In order to put the business office somewhere in the area, the gasoline-dealing brothers picked an inexpensive building in the local town center close to home. Over the years the building—along with their investment—found itself strategically positioned on the corner of Rodeo Drive; now renting to the “Bank of Israel” and one of the many vogue boutiques, frequented by the local plastic surgeon’s clientele. Both husbands died several years ago and their surviving wives coexisted with a couple of Polish servants in the same charming old white stone house, submerged in the ivy and surrounded by flower bearing trees.
At aperitif time, a servant walked in and he and Marina grumbled to each other about some details concerning dinner in a peculiar blend of English, with Polish and Russian accents. The deceptively profuse old-fashioned apologies of the servant belied his and his wife’s complete control over the household. Vladimir, the nephew, habitually smirked.
One could feel Marina’s stately presence, even this late in her life. Decades ago she was the center of a small but elite Russian émigré community: the first wave in Southern California. They moved their modus vivendi from Paris living rooms to Los Angeles verandas and gardens. Marina was the fateful love of the prodigious maestro-violinist Yasha Stern, an impossibly rude man who loved her all his life. Years earlier, he had asked her to leave her husband for him. Marina suggested he first divorce his wife. That he did. Nevertheless, she never left her husband and they continued their widely known affair for years, which became such an established part of the local social life that it was almost comfortably accepted. This was not at all a rarity in Russian circles. Neither is it nowadays. He was a much-aged genius who abandoned performing and touring life and in his later years, drank regularly though mostly socially. Every Sunday this great man came over for dinner in her Beverly Hills house and, being borderline obnoxious, stared at Marina, also aged, naively admiring her and getting drunk by the second course. Once, after dinner (when, as was his habit, he had too much pre-dinner vodka and then red wine) he was sent upstairs to take a nap before the dessert. On his way back he fell down the stairs and hurt his leg.
A doctor was called in and the story became known, but the artist himself and his close ones were used to such forgivable embarrassment. The important thing was, he had not forgotten the dessert. Marina had her own amazing way of treating the whole affair casually, displaying no complexes and having the charm of impersonating the very confidence of taste, pertinent only to a person that never had to struggle in order to claim the vanishing territory of comilfault, having been born in that territory. Sergei felt an inkling of connection with a no-longer-existing culture while talking to her. This was terra incognita still sending language-signals through the few, rare surviving go-betweens. Her Russian was different—chiefly not in a certain selection of words, but in unpolluted smoothness, in a nobility of speech, an absolutely natural use of slightly outdated expressions. The key feature was a different intonation. He knew that no reading or focused study could replace this direct contact with a survivor of this no-longer-existing tribe of Russian nobility and intellectuals, exterminated by a crushing human force and worn out by time.
She was a witness of the tragic night of Russian history—the accidental death of Vladimir Nabokov’s father, a prominent member of the “Kadet” Party, who threw himself as a human shield and thus saving the famous Milyukov’s life. Milyukov, one of the leading political figures of the pre-Revolutionary Russia and chairman of the party, was a target of an assassination attempt by a student, a member of a monarchist, extremist political faction. Sergei already knew the story from several sources, most notably from Vladimir Nabokov’s own memoir. Still, he became absolutely motionless, listening to Marina’s story about this incident from; she had been in the audience. There was something irreplaceable, a phenomenon of direct speech in her story—a link leading through the watersheds of several generations, like a light from a dead star.
The meeting of the Kadet Party (KD, standing for “constitutional democrats”) had been held in a large building, the Marmorsaal, in Berlin and was open to the public. Marina, a young red-haired Jewish beauty, was sitting in the third row with her beau, Volodya Gessen, the son of a well-known owner and editor of “Rus” Publishing House. She remembered rather vividly that Volodya was not handsome, but short, puny, with pimples—though nice and desperately in love with her. She remembered that they were sitting close to the stage, off to the right. The auditorium was full: Milyukov, Nabokov, everybody was somebody, the whole of Russian Berlin. Soon after Milyukov opened the meeting, the assassin dashed to the stage with a drawn revolver and rather quickly fired a shot. Athletic Nabokov senior managed to protect the leader, throwing himself in the line of fire. He was killed instantly. The panic was enormous. Everyone jumped up and headed for the door. Marina pensively recollected: “I was in a total confusion, lost my senses, stayed in my seat, and to my own surprise powdered my nose. We walked home. The home, or rather one of the rented apartments we moved into at the time, was not too far, in Scharlottenburg. At home, I naturally became hysterical, wanted to be alone and sent poor young Gessen away. I don’t even remember under what circumstances I saw him a few more times. However, a family friend named Kopelman, a middle-aged, substantial man—financially comfortable, but of an unmemorable occupation—stayed longer to comfort me. After a while, he actually tried to make advances and I noticed that his colorless eyes were probing fleetingly to the bedroom door. I managed to evade, and I can only imagine how stunned I looked after the tribulations of that evening.” This incident unexpectedly evolved into a long, but dead-end affair between the portly Kopelman and Marina’s mother, who was about 15 years older than the seducer— surely a Nabokovian story!
The pictures of her already-aging children were on the bookshelf leaning against a complete set of the collected works of Chekhov in Russian. Her daughter, a wealthy, energetic feminist, was married to old California money. She was a professor of social studies specializing in women’s liberation at one of the large universities in Southern California, a bony, dry, blonde woman. She was also a poetess. The yellowing examples of her cerebral designs: reprints—gifts to her mother—were lying on the shelf. “I don’t understand her poetry, it’s unrhymed!” Marina slightly threw her hands up. “Pushkin felt it was necessary to write in rhymed verse, didn’t he?” Sergei restrained himself from elaborating on that painful subject. The specimens of mainstream fare her daughter produced and doggedly published spoke for themselves. Her poems appeared in various, somehow invisibly connected, inbred and self-perpetuating magazines. Her son, a chubby bald man with a sad expression on his face, was an aging established businessman, vice-president in one of the major brokerage firms on Wall Street: house in White Plains, kids at Yale, Wall Street Journal on metro North, and vacation house on Nantucket. None of her children spoke any Russian.
The ritual dinner included shots of vodka with some Russian pickled fare, “herring under the coat”—herring under layers of sour cream, potatoes, onions, and beets—a nostalgic element for Marina. The house cook from her childhood had been good with herring. This was followed by some non-denominational fish with boiled potatoes, which was supposed to be pike perch Polish style—the questionable pride of the Polish help.
The after-dinner tea ceremony was almost over. Vladimir was giving Sergei the eye. It was time to split and go elsewhere. They were supposed to meet Vladimir’s girlfriend and another girl at the jazz place in a hotel—a steel and concrete monster-ship, anchored nearby the bifurcation of the freeway—somewhere around Century City. A half-full bottle of Glenlivet stood dormant by the bowl with the salty cashews. The low antique table was not far from the concert piano. In good old times the renowned professor Pyatigorsky and celebrated pianist Neigaus accompanied Yasha Stern playing for the choicest audience before the moderately grand diners. Vladimir pointed at the picture hanging above the long cold fireplace: a draughty, impeccably recognizable pencil sketch by Modigliani. This was Marina’s portrait from her time in Paris, given by him for her birthday not long before the artist’s strange death. As they were leaving the house, a beautiful small painting by Sutin flashed at them from the hall through the open door. Sergei thought: A painting departs and lives its own life fixed to some locale long after the artist is dead, while a poem flows away but lives God-knows-where, suspended in the air.
None of the people who frequented Marina’s cozy soirees were alive now. Most of them were born at the turn of the century in Southern Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia, in “Mittel Europe.” They were now lying still in orderly, mowed, modestly hilly, North American cemeteries. Their tongue-wrecking names exuded significance, engraved on the brass recognition plaques at the Los Angeles Arts Center, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and on modern, spacious reformed Synagogues, drowned in the tree-overgrown pockets in dry canyons packed with congested traffic. Canyons, trembling in the bluish haze: energetic retirees with tennis racquets; tired, sweaty Mexicans in large, fuming cars, returning from their day’s work; young women encased in sheer leather, with bright nails affixed to both ends of their bodies, ready to infest the innumerable Los Angeles bars. There was that endless California spring outside. The streets of Beverly Hills and the surrounding newer neighborhoods, never over-populated, were completely desolate this afternoon. Here, in North America, it was Super Bowl Sunday and everybody was either at friends’ or at the local bar, glued to the big screen, breathlessly watching a magic name written across the huge armored back of the famous quarterback.
Next morning it was time to go back to New York. As the plane gained altitude leaving LAX after the usual 40-minute wait on the runway, Sergei saw the huge, elongated archipelago of the city, stretched along the Pacific. As the plane drew away, the city was looking more and more like a drowned Atlantis, until they hit the rarefied air over the limitless desert stretching eastward and then there was only darkness, enveloping them, as the New York crew started serving plastic-sealed dinners. That was the last time he saw Marina. Nabokov’s “Speak Memory” was waiting for him on his night table at home.
Last night, as I was trying to fall asleep after a hard day at work and a half a pill, my bed turned into a UFO, my room into a nameless motel room. My new home was a house of cards, I was entering uncharted territory, my skin on the carpet a silvery gown in the moonlight. My cat, a gray bulky scoundrel with his unpredictable, wise eyes, was waiting for me, purring impatiently. He is perfectly capable of appearing a malleable house pet or a fat piggy bank. We looked at each other and vanished into the neighborhood bushes. I thought to myself: what does this all mean? I am here, trying to explain—I have no place to go, my home is a house of cards, the motel is closed down for unpaid taxes, my bed flies into space on its way to some woman who had planned this all along.
Once I ganged up with the felines, our neighbor’s wife started coughing, fatigued easily, and her smell acquired an acidic tinge, so that her own cat, a grey and pillow-like character, instantly knew what was happening to her. The woman would burst into tears and scream at her husband at night, her face turning pale, her fingertips blue. She did not make it through the summer. As time passed, I learned from the cats many things about people. Now I could look at a person and feel the primordial heartbeat of his soul, smell the spleen.
One morning in late fall she was gone. Her husband drove her away in an old Chevy with a scratched door, her bag on the back seat filled with plastic shells full of pills, a toothbrush, and plastic cards. After she vanished, her cat became desperate, ransacking our and the neighbors’ cat’s food trays, the pâté and fish treats, sneaking in through the cracks and holes in the basement that only we cats knew about.
The man grew very quiet and being tall and thin reminded me of a question mark, as if he were asking with all the bearing of his leaning posture—Why? After complaints from the other neighbors about his pet, the man, being a good neighbor, took the animal away in the same car and we never saw the wicked kitty again. Since then, the neighbor’s house has harbored for months the smells of displaced souls. Their son, a music student, would come back from school for the holidays and practice his oboe. The tenacious, slow sounds hung in the frozen November air like late fall fireplace smoke.
In the aftermath of these events, I could no longer live in the gray zone of basements and bushes, in the no-man’s-land of mice, cats, and passing silhouettes. My cat reluctantly agreed to my reverse metamorphosis. Later on, he would approach me when we were alone, put his paws on my knees, and look into my eyes as an old comrade in arms inquiring: Do you remember? After I crossed back and sneaked back into my bed, my silvery skin still on the carpet, I pretended that I was asleep the whole time. Later that morning, everyone in my house was busy washing up, brushing teeth, putting on makeup, scalding themselves with hot coffee. I managed to get up, put on my clothes, and reach work safely. Once at my office, I spent hours on the phone listening to similar survivors’ stories, told by my interlocutors, who were as open with me as I was with them, although we had never met one another.
Adapted from Russian by the author
In the land where people live through four seasons—sorrow, memory of sorrow, anticipation of sorrow, and the rainy season—I wake. Time flows along motionless damp fields toward the city and thin anemic smoke streams shyly from the chimney of the guard’s cabin.
The city grows on the horizon as its mirage of obsolete monstrous constructions emerges through the fog. People, sealed in their vehicles on the approaches to the city, think about the season, their external frames frozen, grow old, and exchange their impressions about the perennial rain, the currency exchange, and their dreams of waking up in paradise.
There are tables set by the swimming pool, loaded with produce, all-inclusive. The tenacious calling of the muezzin, lonely figures cleaning the beach after yesterday’s revelry, a day that seemingly never happened, while the wife makes out on her side of the bed. Next day I had a bad dream: friend of mine, wonderful poet, died, and we, small circle of close friends, concealing the fact, sat around, and ate dead chicken from plastic plates.
And I was thinking to myself, my friend liked chicken so much, everything could have turned out differently, and as a matter of fact, there is still time to fix everything if only the season changes on time and, at least, for the time being.
In the twilight of waking up, I could not clearly understand where I was. But the disposition of the framed prints on the wall in front of me, the outlines of a woman in the corner (a nightgown on a hanger), and an erection, convinced me that I am home, life goes on, everything goes its preconceived way, he is alive and I am alive. His widow is also alive and confined to her office; the muezzin is issuing his call somewhere safely faraway, and one can still buy fruit and vegetables at the Korean market on the corner.
Therefore I calm down, curse in two languages readily available to me, and eventually find my glasses. As I approach the window, I freeze speechless: the rainy season has just started.
FORGET THE WEDDING
Translated from Russian by Will Campbell and the author
Forget the wedding, but all will be ground into flour.
Endless flakes are behind the glass,
as if the airy mill in the sky
flung open its corn bins.
Somehow the snow is unseasonably early.
And then I tell myself
that fresh wounds will heal
by November or December, by January.
Well, I will leave, and all
will be resolved: time heals, the road is easy.
Perhaps I will visit myself—after all, it’s abroad.
My hand will not tremble,
having shown the deep blue passport
to the girl in uniform.
Yes, that’s it, a citizen of the USA.
The legs feed the wolf for the time being,
and I will rest, having sat down
before the road, in transit, by the counter, by the bar,
only there to find myself
before boarding, and there is still time
to look at the visa stamps
in the passport, its photo contains someone’s
disturbed eyes—as if a stranger’s.
We carelessly passed one another,
but our souls did not exchange
a single word. This is the way it should be:
close the door without sadness,
release the soul into the wind,
like a bird from the Garden of Eden.