And he was preparing to cry out to
show that he wasn’t dead.
—Solomos, The Woman of Zakynthos
NYR: It is good to see you up and about again, Mr. Stravinsky.
I.S.: Thank you. But I am not “about” very much. The problem of locomotion was in fact one of the reasons I left New York. Since the streets there have become more like parking lots than thoroughfares, and since I am unable to perambulate myself anymore, and would in any case be let out only on a very short chain, I was practically marooned in my hotel. A litter or sedan chair would be the only method of conveyance for me now at least in mid-town.
Otherwise I might have stayed in New York. Such a clean city. And everybody so polite and amiable. And always more and more of those “relating” buildings filling the sky. And the students learning so many useful things about explosives and arson and barricades. And all those confidence-inspiring candidates for mayor. Mr. Mailer was my candidate. The city should secede, and be re-annexed, if at all, as the fifty-second state—following the moon, of course, as the fifty-first.
I returned to Los Angeles for a few weeks, although wondering how it could last even a few more minutes. The usherettes on the flight out were dressed in “the Spirit of the Revolution” (of 1776!), but the route—over Utah, where nerve gas killed thousands of sheep last year; and Smithereens, Nevada, where the atomic blasting is now measured in tens of kilotons; and California, where poisonous methyl parathion is used for crop-dusting—reminded us of more recent and forthcoming wars. Nerves are destroyed in Los Angeles, too, I hardly need to add, but purportedly from “natural,” not noxious, causes.
NYR: What did you do in exurbia, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: Lived dangerously. I was twice in hospitals for tests, and you know how risky that can be. The second time, incidentally, I was asked whether the “Russian Orthodox Church,” noted as my “Religious Preference” on a former registration card, meant that I was Jewish. I explained that this would not necessarily be the case and added that a branch of the institution in question was only two blocks up the street, which would have been useful information if, as seemed likely, worst came to worst. I was thereupon invited to refile as a Catholic, but resisted, the advantages in that having diminished, in my view, since St. Christopher was dropped last spring. Finally I was put under “U” (Unknown) “because the computer can only program Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.”
Dangerous, too, no doubt, was the nearby murder epidemic. Yet at the same time you can hardly help admiring the way Hollywood people make the most out of their murders. Thus a press agent for the husband of the slain Mme. Polanski managed not only to mention several of the prizes won by his employer’s latest film, but also to puff a work in progress, all in the course of a statement describing the prostrate director’s grief. Hollywood funerals, moreover, are like movie premieres. Camera angles, which include crane-shots, are rehearsed for the most “filmic” views of the attending “personalities,” and above all of the mini-skirted starlets as they debouch at the cemetery from motorcades of Italian sport cars and sashay toward the taxidermal exhibits of the “Slumber Room” for the last, and in some cases first, look at the victim.
Almost daily “smog alerts” were reminders of still another danger, but exactly what one is supposed to do after being alerted I have never found out: try shallow breathing? Only a mass asphyxiation leaving the area strewn like the battlefield at Ypres—except that in this case the gas would come from industrial cesspipes and machine exhausts—can provoke the long-overdue exodus of the not-yet-succumbed. When that happens, incidentally, the effect on you, distant TV-watcher, and the amount of sympathy due from you, will be assessed by the “medium” as if it were strictly a matter of your proximity to the scene of the catastrophe. Thus a famine in India killing millions is equated, in TV time, with a Freeway accident injuring two; and that, in turn, is rated as about equal to a minor fire on the next block, or the death of a favorite goldfish at home.
Whether dangerous or not in itself, the small green monkey that appeared by our swimming pool one afternoon was undoubtedly capable of causing heart failure. At first I took it as a sign of how far on the skids I must be; but at second, when it failed to dematerialize, I understood that it was an escaped pet. It nuzzled and tamped its head like Judy in “Daktari,” then swarmed up a vine to the balcony from which, half an hour before, I had been watching a neighbor in our pool practicing the Chappaquiddick crawl. The SPCA, when we called, advised us to bang some pans together, forgetting that noise is a “cruelty” to monkeys, and wholly ignoring the plight of the animal. In fact a raucous blue jay eventually drove the timorous intruder off—to my regret, for it was not baleful, and in truth I would have preferred its presence to that of at least some creatures I can think of on this side of Darwin. Our aquatic neighbor thought it might be a reincarnation, incidentally, and he suggested we notify a society of metempsychosis (such a thing being bound to exist in Los Angeles), but I was not getting any “waves” myself. Only a month or so before, I might add, the police were looking for an escaped seal in the neighborhood. Monkeys, yes, but a seal? How did it cross Sunset Boulevard? Did none of the remarkably hirsute pedestrians there, who would have had to see it, turn a hair?
NYR: Were you able to work while convalescing from your embolectomy last spring?
I.S.: Actually two embolisms were removed, and in addition to that a left lumbar sympathectomy was performed, or short-circuiting of the nerve. The incisions were large but the skin healed quickly. It was the skin of my teeth I was worried about. So were the doctors, and for a time I think they were convinced that I had gone down for the count. I was as pale as a dybbuk, and so thin that I resembled my former self like a photograph taken by a thermal camera, the former me having departed, so to speak, but leaving enough warmth behind so that a human-shaped mirage is limned on the print. But I was unable to eat, and for days I would sit at table as dead Roman noblemen sat at table in their graves, with meat and bread and cups of wine in front of them. I was not “medically dead,” of course, since no cessation was recorded (and since these mémoires have not had to be smuggled back, d’outre tombe, on strips of winding sheet); yet it would have been perfectly accurate to describe the state I was in as afterlife.
But the lid was not nailed down. And I began to revive, feeling at first as if I had come unsoldered and, as economists are saying of the economy, held together by chewing gum. I managed to walk a few steps, too, although the knee of my operated leg did not respond to drumming by a rubber-headed hammer. For “mental” mitigation I played cards, as old generals are said to do petitpoint, then read Solzhenitsyn, which helped to unfuddle me in a limited sense because of a new-to-me Russian vocabulary, and in a larger sense because the people in his “ward” had and still have it so much worse, and by that I am not referring to blastomas and other oncological horrors only. The Solzhenitsyn prepared me for my own long-accumulated mail which, thanks to a news bulletin saying where I was, included a number of requests for autographs, some of them apparently posted even before I was out of the operating theater, and expressing no concern whatever about the reasons for my new address.
Finally, having been close enough to Kingdom Come to know that I wanted to co-exist a little longer, I began to work. My transcriptions from the Well-Tempered Clavier were finished in the hospital, and the next day, my birthday as it happened, I was paroled back to the hotel.
NYR: Will you tell us something about the Bach?
I.S.: I had planned to set four fugues—one each in two, three, four, and five voices—for solo winds (clarinets and bassoons), and to set their preludes for string orchestra. But the four-voiced fugue that I finally chose suited solo strings only, besides which I later doubled the instruments in the two-voiced fugue, for the sonority.
The music has hardly been altered in the transferal—certainly it has not acquired any Technicolor or any Stereo—but a character of performance has been imposed on it through the phrasing, articulation, and rhythmic alteration. The ornamentation is not florid, I might add, for while under- not over-embellishment is the commonplace of mis-performance today, I am still mindful of the complaint of Mrs. Delaney, the Handelian, concerning a performance of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto in Dublin in 1750, that the final cadence, instead of being “clear and distinct [was] filled up with frippery and graces…”
As for my “aim,” if I must pretend to have one, I simply wished to make the music available in another instrumental form than the keyboard, which may also have been Mozart’s “aim” in transcribing five fugues from the same collection for two violins, viola, and bass. But I could not have done any more than that in the case of the middle pieces. The act of writing, which was the psyche’s way of defending itself, was all that mattered then, not what was written.
The pre-hospital preludes and fugues will be played in Berlin in October, after which…. But never mind. In a recent dream I somehow identified music critics with those creatures of Goya’s, rodent-like and with padlocked ears.
NYR: What is the state of your health now, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: Ask me another. I am not exactly thriving as you can see, nor are all of the late returns in. Still, for the moment—and sufficient unto the moment—it does not look like curtains. I feel awful, of course, like Tristan Bernard when he saw a hearse in the street and hailed it as if it were a taxi, saying “Are you free?” But medical discoveries are announced every day now (you can even get plastic eardrums if you are willing to live in a padded cell), and something may yet be found to help me, perhaps in the enzyme racket when it gets over its laundry phase.
Nature is witty, as Peer says, but you discover with age that the wit is méchant. It gives you a vatic streak and denies you tomorrow; endows you with memory crypts and safe-deposit boxes for the past but locks them and throws away the keys; grants you eighty-eight years but at a rate of interest for the borrowed time that hardly makes the loan worth while. Then on top of everything it taunts you with being still “too young to be told” what you most want to know. But if you were to protest to a court of Nature that none of this was part of the bargain, the answer would come back that it was all in that small print young people never read.
And speaking of that vehicle from which Tristan Bernard tried to hitch a ride, I wonder if “any resemblances to persons actually living or dead” were noticed in Robert Graves’s latest rhymes:
…What envious youth cares to compete
With a lean sage hauled painfully upstage—
Bowing, gasping shuffling his fro- zen feet—
A ribboned hearse parked plainly down the street?
October 23, 1969