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Stravinsky: End of a Chronicle

And do they ever! He is processed like a product on an assembly line, the chest clamped with cathodes, the trachea scoured by a kind of vacuum cleaner, the nostrils invaded with plastic oxygen tubes, the right inner elbow embrocated to expose a vein which a Draculess then punctures to draw a remarkably copious “specimen.” The left arm, meanwhile, is strangled by a sphygamonometric pump, implanted with a tube for intravenous feeding (a rivulet of diuretics to flush the fluid from the lung), and bandaged to an ironing-board splint. Last and worst, he is catheterized, the deed done by the head of the Urology Department who, apologizing for the discomfort, says afterward, “Maestro, I hope we are still friends.” But the Maestro angrily demolishes any assumption that they ever were.

The gram on the cardiac monitor slopes like a téléphérique, then sags in a deep catenary, then drops out of sight, then stabilizes briefly in what looks like Persian script, the upper loops of which, recorded by a yellow light blinking on another part of the machine, plot the contractions of the heart. But at least some of this disjunct movement is due to nervous agitation, for the patient is too clear, not sick enough to have been subjected to so suddenly shocking an experience. He refuses to eat, trapped in this maze of machinery and plastic lariats, but when R. reasons with him, he ignores the indignity, valiantly takes up his fork, and decides to go on.

Throughout the ordeal, the quality of the man most to the fore is his precision of language, and the absence of confusion in switching from one to another according to the addressee. Thus, to V., he says, “ustal, ustal” (“tired”) and “Send them to the devil!” Turning to the doctor, he then describes the characteristics of his pangs in German, and turning to R., complains about something in French. As for my language, when I joke with him to the effect that he did not have to go to this length to avoid Liszt, he smiles.

The scene in the Intensive Care Unit is only slightly more depressing than the view from I.S.’s window: standing-room-only buildings, different in size but nearly uniform in ugliness, all with the same TV antennae, same windowsill air-conditioning boxes, same chimneys, skylights, water tanks, and, in the penthouses, same bits of shrubbery; even the narrow spire of a church, shoehorned into the middle of this squeeze, is inhabited, a vase of forsythia and some books being visible beneath the half-drawn Venetian blind of a window near the base.

And the I.C.U. is at least brisk and businesslike—infectiously so, to judge by a clergyman who pops in to administer last rites and leaves soon after, as insouciant, if possible, as the doctors and nurses. In fact the gravest faces in the ward, so far as I can tell without peeking under oxygen masks, are those of three solicitors, come, I think, to witness a nuncupative will.

At one point, in reply to V.’s “Why do you call me every minute and rap on the bed railing with your rings when you know I am here?” I.S. says something marvelously, inimitably I.S.ian: “But I want to be sure that I still exist.”

March 22. He has more edema today, as well as a moment of mental confusion, asking for “Katya.” (His first wife; V. answers that “Katya is in Paris,” though afterward she says that “If he had asked where in Paris, I would have had to say, ‘in the cemetery.’ “) But this revenant has been aroused, I think, by a nurse’s question as to how many children he has. (He hears “had” for “has” and holds up four fingers.) Otherwise he refuses to talk, and we resort to pantomime.

March 29. Trying to encourage him to drink water, R. explains, as a last resort, that he is dehydrated. “Well,” he says accusingly, “no one told me,” and he promptly swallows a quarter of a litre. He receives a transfusion in the afternoon and another in the evening.

I spend the afternoon with two European musicians, the three of us judging compositions for a prize. It is not rewarding work, partly because of the impossibility of giving enough time to it, partly because of incomparables of mediums and styles—how does one choose between an electronic Mass and a string quartet?—and very largely because of the unknowns, meaning the operas one has not seen, the multimedia pieces one cannot visualize, the scores whose notation is purely verbal, the scores not meant to sound the same way twice, and the complex works one cannot digest in a simple read-through and without the aid of performance tapes.

How, furthermore, can three jurymen with radically different inclinations keep their natural prejudices in abeyance long enough to agree even on the stylistic area of the choice? Today’s midway answer—for we do not bring down the gavel yet, lacking a really obvious winner—is that we begin to introduce such criteria as a composer’s sensitivity to color, and whether or not we can outguess him; and begin to veer toward established reputations, in the sense of giving them the benefits of our doubts.

March 30. At the ages of, respectively, seventy-nine and eighty-eight, but looking forward to a new life, V. and I.S. move to their new home, he coming directly from the hospital, she coming from the hotel and, following the Russian superstition, bringing bread and salt. Weak as he is, I.S. insists on two full tours of the apartment, which seems to please him, for he kisses V. again and again. But of all the new furnishings and accouterments, his greatest interest is in the new occupant of the birdcage, the canary Iago; which is not surprising in a man who once composed music for a “real” as well as a mechanical nightingale. When Iago repeats a note several times at near A-440 pitch, I.S. says that “he must be tuning up.”

Auden comes at seven, sniffs the fresh paint, observes (without overtaxing his acumen) that the apartment “needs to be lived in,” embraces I.S. (says to me, “You never know when it’s the last time”), accompanies V. and myself to the Pavillon, where he orders a British dinner. Waiting for it, he shows his new book of clerihews, reciting a few yet to be included. Some are about composers, and when we reach the “B.’s,” he asks V., “What made Igor stop being catty about Beethoven?”

He talks about his just completed lecture tour, and expounds a bit on what is “in” on the campuses. Lévi-Strauss is, of course, “though he writes such bad prose. And Buckminster Fuller, for whom I feel very sorry: it was most unkind of the Times to publish that full-page ‘poem’ of his the other day.” The audience for his own Philadelphia Freud lecture “consisted entirely of analysts and hippies,” and he adds that “I read it from my own longhand, which made it seem even longer than it is.” In Toronto, he found himself “in a symposium with Marshall McLuhan, a confrontation that, according to the press, I won. Voznesensky was there, too, and I read for him. And speaking of Canada, I now own Dominion oil stocks, for tax purposes, of course, an arrangement that looks a little louche to me, but my lawyer seems to know what the traffic will bear.”

Recalling a symposium in Stockholm last year, he says that “the scientists were bigger prima donnas than artists ever are, and though they may know everything knowable about microbiology, they don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground about human beings. Furthermore, when a speaker is asked to limit himself to twenty minutes, it is infuriating to have him take forty-five.” All of this is said in a voice whose normally quite substantial carrying-power has been appreciably increased by the effects of two double vodka martinis and several glasses of champagne; which seems to be the reason that so many people at other tables are finding us more and more deserving of their undivided attention.

Switching to the subject of old age, he confesses to sleeping longer—“From nine to nine, in fact”—and is astonished to hear that I.S. rarely retires before ten or eleven. (He is also incredulous that I.S. had two teeth extracted last month—that he had two teeth, that is—and he mentions some recent work on his own “lowers” by Dr. Kallman, the father of the poet, “who, incidentally, charged only two hundred and fifty dollars, though in the case of a genius like Igor, it would certainly be much more.”) “I could never live in a siesta culture,” he goes on. “If mama had found me resting in the afternoon, she would have said, ‘Are you ill?’ ” And the thought of his mother reminds him that he received a letter from her shortly after her death, in 1941, written just before. “I tore it up, of course. I simply could not bear to open and read it.”

His one intellectual enthusiasm is Oliver Sacks’s book on migraines, a review of which he expects to finish next week in Pisa. He confesses that he “turned down the Norton Lectures because I didn’t have anything to say. Now I think that at least one requirement for a lecturer is that he should have something to say,” which may not be one of his own immortal apothegms. He tells us that his adaptation of L.’s L.’s L. does not contain any anagrams because they would have been too patent. “Plays are for people who like that sort of thing, not operas. But this opera is more fun than the play, I think, in the sense that Kiss Me Kate is more fun than The Taming of the Shrew.”

But why Pisa? Are migraines in some way related to the architectural oddity there?

March 31. Twenty-three years ago today I met the I.S.’s. We observe the date with a short musical banquet, the First Rasumovsky Quartet. I.S. is in good spirits and much amused by a remark that he read today, in a TLS review, on Herder’s concept of Kraft: “a…hovering in status between an inanimate causal agency and a personified and intelligent agency.”

April 1. Happy as he is in the apartment, I.S. is greatly concerned whether he can afford it. “Vraiment, tout ça appartient à moi?” he asks, and it is hard to convince him that it does.

April 2. I.S. is obliged to write a short note in Russian, which he does, but signs his name in Latin letters. V. asks him to do the signature over in Russian, whereupon he takes the pen, and, aware that she is watching him, writes not his name, but “Oh, how I love you!”

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