November 18. Pompano Beach. The state of culture as advertised along the mental five-and-ten of Route USIA: invitations to bowl, roller-skate, have your fortune told; play shuffleboard, miniature golf, jai alai; buy plastic driftwood, electronic fish-finders (isn’t that “unsporting”?), “Spanish Colonial Furniture Custom Made”; patronize “U-$ave Shopping Centers,” “Drive-in Funeral Homes,” “Happy Hour Cocktail Lounges,” a “Jungle Garden Safari” (“See 100 Lions in the Wild”), the “Wigwam Village of Tuckabuck-away and Tribe” (those thrifty Seminoles?); try a garage selling “Personalized Waxing” (how personal can waxing get?), and a First Church of Christ Scientist selling a sermon: “Where Will You Spend Eternity?”
I go to the beach, despite wilting heat, a lowering sky, too many people, and paralyzing blue-bladder hydrozoans (Portuguese men-of-war which, when punctured by sharp sticks or stones, as small boys delight in doing, explode like party balloons). The people are a breed (retired necktie salesmen? exshillelagh manufacturers?) peculiar to, though not bred on, the peninsula, whose interests, to judge from my involuntary eavesdropping, are confined to Dow Jones Averages, logging the weather, and “back home.” Their daughters—some of them in decolleté-of-the-derrière bathing suits, all of them desirable but all intolerably young—are throwing frisbies, plastic discs the size of gramophone records but launched backhand, like quoits. Those Route 1A type advertisements pursue the customer even here, however, trailed from small airplanes at strafing height. “Minnie Pearl’s Chicken: All U Care to Eat,” one of them reads, somewhat ambiguously, it seems to me, in the verb.
May 2. New York. Following a consultation with his doctors, we take I.S. to the New York Hospital at noon; he has complained since yesterday of sharp pains above the left knee, which may indicate that the clot, discovered January 18, has grown.
In fact the femoral artery is found to be entirely blocked, and circulation in the by-pass veins so dangerously reduced that surgery is necessary as soon as the patient can be prepared. The preparations, incidentally, require that I.S. autograph a release, which, he says, “is like signing your own death warrant.” The operation begins under halothane and sodium pentothal,1 with simultaneous oxygen feeding to ventilate the heart, lungs, and blood; and it lasts from 7 to 10 P.M. A catheter, inserted into the artery, removes the (eleven-inch!) embolus by air pressure from below.
May 3. We learn this morning that another clot was found in the other arterial branch, and that a second embolectomy will have to be performed today, as well as a left lumbar sympathectomy, to open all of the pipe lines as widely as possible; the alternative is amputation, which he cannot survive. But can a man of eighty-seven, already weakened by long illness, survive major surgery for the second time in twenty-four hours?
We wait outside the operating theater all evening. At about 11:20 I am taken to an Intensive Care Unit occupied by a patient whose bandages are like the padding of an ice hockey goalie; another patient, muzzled with breathing machinery, whose heartbeats bounce across the screen of a cardiac monitor in the form of green blips; and I.S. who is clearheaded, sprightly (from digitalis?), and wholly in character. When I tell him that V. is anxious to see him, he says, “Why? What’s the matter with her?”
May 12. I.S. has been moved from his small, bleak, Spanish-Harlem-view cub-byhole to the spacious room 1719, which is apparently reserved for sick bigwigs; it looks over the barred sun terrace of the psychiatric clinic, a few floors below, to Welfare Island, where rookie firemen extinguish practice blazes in dummy buildings. Since he is able and eager to listen to music now, I play a recording of Handel’s Theodora, assuming it to be emotionally unharmful to him. Not far along, he says, “Very beautiful and boring. Too many pieces finish too long after the end.” He sleeps afterward, then on waking becomes intransigent, refusing to talk and excluding us all from the privacy of his mind. He will eat only a smidgen of caviar, and that apparently for the ration of whiskey allowed with it, since he knocks back the liquid in an amount disproportionate to the small substance of the solid. He is literally skin and bones now. The skin of his buttocks hangs like laundry when we lift him, and his fingers are so thin that his sapphire signet ring, an apotropaic power to him, will not stay on; his slippers, too, have to be cross-gartered to his ankles like ballet shoes, but with bandages. On the other side of the ledger, the danger of infarction has passed, the carbuncular swelling has diminished, the toe is no longer pustular, and sensation is restored to the shin. The surgical scars, too, from which long threads once protruded, like hairs of a large insect (or Gregor Samsa metamorphosed), are healing, and the skin around them, covered with black and blue maculae, is squamous and starting to peel.
May 20. When I enter the room at noon, I.S. proudly tells me he has scored four more measures of the B-minor Fugue. But in mid-afternoon his temperature flares up to 39° (the New York Hospital uses the apothecary system), from the 38.2° that has been “normal” since the operation and has aroused suspicion he may have the so-called hospital infection (or “staph disease”). His cough is more congested, too, and the respiration rate has accelerated to 44. X-rays are taken and bacterial cultures dispatched for analysis, but whatever the diagnosis, it is not the pneumonia all of us fear2—the “all” including doctors and nurses, whose anxiety is unprofessionally apparent but humanly welcome. I stay at the hospital until midnight. After that a nurse calls me hourly to report small fluctuations of temperature.
May 25. An offended letter from C., whom I.S. failed to recognize in the intermission crowd at Stony Brook last month—reasonably, it seems to me, I.S. having seen him only once in three years and then merely for a few moments. Like other acquaintances of I.S. of other eras, C. is very free in advising me about what is best for him, exactly what he needs, where he should go, what he should do, what my own attitude should be; the latter should not, above all, include any unrealistic optimism, for if I.S. has failed to recognize C., things must be bad indeed. Return to Hollywood, says C., leaving I.S.’s own feelings out of consideration—whether he himself might wish to escape the dispiriting reminders of his illness there—and unable to imagine the sheer physical impossibility of life there now, not only for I.S. but for V., neither of whom can manage the stairs anymore, let alone look after the house.
But I myself am unable now, or unwilling, to sympathize with the point of view of people like C. I do not doubt that I have been guilty of mistakes and misjudgments in trying to take care of I.S. But at least I have given all of myself to him and to the job; and if I hadn’t, not only a great deal more might have gone wrong, but his musical life would have come to an end. As I see it, every true friend of I.S. is indebted to me, at least for that.
The responsibility for every decision has been mine, furthermore, with no help from the C.s or, for that matter, from anyone in I.S.’s own family, except V. And the responsibility is becoming intolerable, and my own equilibrium ever more difficult to maintain, as I am increasingly aware, thanks to my habit of assessing every liability of a course of action for V., then giving my own opinion, and finally backing down from that and opting for another course simply to shirk the blame for any unfavorable consequences.
But it could be that I am becoming ill myself; abulia, perhaps. (Or is it bulimia?) And self-justification, certainly.
I.S. has taken an upturn and emerged from the limbo in which he has been suspended these three weeks. Best of all, that incredibly tenacious demon of his is still there. “I want to work,” he says, “and if I can’t work, I want to die.” Accordingly, we hoist him out of bed to a gantry-type table (with a windlass-like level-adjusting device) where, cocooned in blankets and with his feet resting on a pillow labeled “feet,” he transcribes Bach. Glancing back and forth from his score to the printed copy, which is propped on a reading stand, he might be a monk copying a manuscript, or Jerome translating the Bible. (I am thinking of Carpaccio’s Jerome, seated on a faldstool, in S. Giorgio di Schiavone.)
Some twenty minutes later we lift him back to bed, with the difference that a small gleam of confidence is showing in his eyes; but he is soon up again, and up and down a total of four times during the afternoon. He wants to listen to music, too, but his own “only if you have nothing else.” In fact, I play his tiny two-trumpet Fanfare, which draws the comment, “I have nothing against that.” We also hear the Mendelssohn Octet, Schumann’s first string quartet, Beethoven’s C-minor Variations and the Serenade (Opus 8), and Messiaen’s Cinq Rechants. He follows all of the scores but betrays no sign of pleasure or pain except during the Mendelssohn (pleasure).
His bed oscillates like a bunk on a slowly rolling ship. A sheepskin paillasse is spread over it, but he is so thin now that his back quickly becomes sore at every point of pressure and his position must be shifted every few minutes. About once an hour, moreover, he is obliged to lie totally flat while his left leg, which he crooks like a pelican most of the time, is forcefully—painfully—straightened. “I hurt everywhere,” he grumbles. But the longueurs of medicine schedules—of permuted tests for prothrombin time, of bombardments from a humidifier (like the steam from a manhole cover in a New York street)—and the indignities of bed pans, the occupational disingenuousness of nurses as well as their alternating Grosspapa-talk and baby-talk (“upsy-daisy”)—these must hurt and gall him most of all.
Still he is better, and a thousand hosannas for that. His amazing recuperative powers have again proved themselves, astonishing those who see only the outward and belying decrepitude. His temperature is normal, too, for the first time since May 3, though whether as a result of the river of intravenous effluents poured into him these five days, I cannot say. Once, in a pique, he moves his arms as rapidly as he ever did conducting an orchestra—which provokes a sibylline nurse to remark, “Obviously God doesn’t want you yet, Maestro.” But he will not eat. Nor heed our arguments that only by eating can he return to his piano, which he says is his only wish.
And the hunger strike is more difficult to break than the silence strike. In fact he can seldom forbear to supply the word one of us may be groping for in some backchat he is not supposed to be tuned in to; or resist the temptation to correct my French (no end of opportunities; I am unable to pronounce the French “muscle” to his satisfaction, for example, and the word regularly recurs in reference to the dystrophy in his abdomen and left leg). Once he seems to be on the verge of talking on his own volition, but stops short, dramatically (aposiopesis), and expresses the futility of it all with a wave of the hand. Yet when a head floor nurse—a “yenta” whose own vocal equipment could drown out the brass section of the Hamburg Philharmonic—asks him if he will please say something, anything at all, just to oblige us, he fairly yells at her: “Merde.”
From the hospital, where the parking attendants now call me “Doc,” I go to the ballet, where the main attraction, more stared at during intermission than the stage during the performance, is Mrs. Onassis. The seats are knee-jamming and ill-raked, and the applause is misplaced, except for a brief volley mocking the retractable rock-candy-like chandeliers, as well as, I like to think, the abstract antlers (?) above the proscenium arch. The tempi are stretched to groaning point for Fonteyn, too, while Nureyev, now Tarzan-maned and with hocks like a Percheron, seems to spend less time dancing than bowing, which he does with his right arm straight up like a chief of MGM Sioux. But, then, I am hardly present, being unable to take my thoughts from room 1719 and the man lying there, who has enlarged the imagination of the world as much as anyone still alive in it, but who had to be helped this afternoon in transposing a clarinet part.
June 18. I.S. returns from the hospital—having been on the rota for discharge since Sunday—and not only from the hospital but from a place so close to The Other Side that few who have been as far ever return. Before he leaves, the floor nurses bring him a birthday cake with musical notes on the icing; and seeing it he smiles—a genuine smile, not the new ritalin-induced one. Then when the women in white break into “Happy Birthday,” he conducts them. The party continues in the hotel, where his rooms are brightly, if stultifyingly, cluttered with thirty baskets of flowers, and where, while V. opens gifts and telegrams, he sips champagne. One of the gifts is a full score and recording of Le Coq D’Or, to which he listens for about three minutes before it puts him out of sorts.
Going to his room at night, I find him awake (and his nurse unarousable). “I’m used to the undulating bed,” he explains. “Besides, I am afraid of dreaming music, and I realize now that I will never again be able to compose.” I protest, of course, and try every tack I can think of to persuade him he is wrong. But he doesn’t believe anymore, and is impervious to cheer. In fact it is becoming difficult now even to record the depression.
July 12. Hollywood. At 12:20 A.M. I.S.’s nurse calls to say that his temperature has mounted to 104° and that his respiratory rate is alarmingly fast. I telephone a doctor who instructs me to bring him to the Emergency Entrance at UCLA Medical Center, which I do in an ambulance since I am not certain of being able to carry him safely inside once we arrive. The doctor in attendance is busy antidoting mushroom-poisoned (botulism toxin?) hippies. When he finally examines I.S.—under my proctoring, since we have returned from New York only two days ago and the nurse is only sketchily aware of his medical misadventures there—the verdict is pneumonia. X-rays reveal no more than the thirty-year-old tuberculosis scars, however, and two other doctors, arriving for consultation, are as baffled as their New York colleagues were by the similar incident on May 20. An oxygen cylinder is wheeled into the room, nevertheless, and I.S. spends the night unhappily with a plastic mask over his nose and mouth. It is 4 A.M. when I take V. home.
I.S. himself, temperature and respiration normal, returns in the afternoon, undiagnosed. V. fears that his tuberculosis may have become active again. (An enclosed, dormant TB bacillus is virulent if released, and could be even after 2,000 years.) She believes, moreover, that people are born to their diseases—that Bartok was born to his leukemia—and that I.S.’s born-to-disease is tuberculosis. Poor V. She can only wonder from which direction the next blow impends.
July 16. I.S. enters the Cedars of Lebanon this afternoon for further tests, on the hunch of one of his doctors that the coughing spells, the halituous constriction, the râle might be due to clotting in the lungs, a not uncommon development in polycythemiacs. The diagnosis on his admission card, however, is tracheal bronchitis. Since he coughs only when swallowing liquids, not when he eats, is it possible that the spasms are caused simply by pressure on the esophagus?
“The tests will prove nothing,” the patient protests. “Le mal est dans mon âme.” Overhearing our discussion as to whether a practical nurse will be needed for the night, he cuts in, snappishly, with, “All of my nurses are impractical, anyway; and since I already have pains everywhere else, why must you give me a pain in the neck, too?” But when V. asks if he wants anything, the answer is, “I want to compose.” Later, leaving the hospital, she reasons that “he would suffer less, of course, if he had a smaller share of intuition, but then he wouldn’t be him.”
July 19. Yesterday’s lung-scanning has unfounded our fears of clotting but not dispelled the specter of tuberculosis, or ended the suspicion that the small lung sacs might be fibrillating, as they do with emphysema. Are the doctors, obviously unable to account for the coughing fits and violent rises in temperature, simply grabbing at straws?3
He is discharged from the hospital at noon, the worst of the experience for him having been that he received someone else’s lab report yesterday, and it was less good than his own. But he needs analeptic medicine now, or, like an athlete, anabolic steroids. He weighs only eighty-seven pounds!
Three of Haydn’s Opus 76 quartets, in the evening, elicit his long-unheard grunt of pleasure (once at ms. 45-50 of the Largo, and again at ms. 169-172 of the Presto of no. 5, and then in the last ms. of the Adagio of no. 6). His attention strays, in fact, only during the thicker layers of unctuousness in the performance. “That the music may seem to be ‘like Beethoven’ is hindsight,” he says. “Certainly it should not be played as if it were by Beethoven.” But he does not cough at all during the hour and a half of music, nor has he had any linctus. We carry him upstairs afterward on a seat of crossed hands.
August 26. The turnover in nurses has been so rapid of late that I.S. pretends he cannot remember their names. He has taken to summoning them with “hello,” therefore, spoken weakly at first, then repeated three or four times, parrotlike and con crescendo. Should no response be forthcoming still, he will shout it in a Boris Godunov voice one is surprised to find he still has. But he is always aware of his nurse’s language; and he always chooses the right one (whether Russian, German, English, or French) in which to be understood by her when criticizing her to V. This afternoon, for example, he greatly offends his doting Russian nanya by asking us, deliberately within her earshot: “Why should I spend the whole afternoon in the company of an idiot?”
At table now, too, he prefers to officiate and direct traffic, if he can get away with it, rather than exert himself. Thus he will nod his head or crook his index finger toward an item of food on his plate that he wishes to be fed, but if no nurse is around, will eat perfectly normally by himself.
A birthday dinner for Christopher Isherwood, after which I listen with I.S. to The Stone Guest, following a score he acquired in Kiev in his youth. “If you were to ask me about the music today,” he says when it is over, “I would be less generous than I once was. In fact I prefer the libretto to the music, now, and so far as the performance is concerned, I prefer the diction of the singers to their singing. Still, it is an original score, whose best and worst qualities are the same: the evenness.” Isherwood, meanwhile, has fallen asleep in front of the television, waking at 1 A.M.
September 14. We fly to New York, via Newark, and go to the Plaza Hotel.
October 2. Berlin. At my dress rehearsal this morning, I decide, together with Nicolas Nabokov, not to play the Bach transcriptions, too little if anything of I.S. being discernible in them as they stand now, virtually unedited.
October 4. Drive with R. to Zurich for the 4 o’clock flight on Swissair to New York. Mont Blanc is unclouded and so is France, from Burgundy all the way to the Channel. New York is a multi-layered traffic tangle: in the air, at the airport, waiting for baggage, in customs, queueing for taxis, on the expressways, crossing 61st Street to the hotel. But I.S. looks almost hale, and his weight is up to 106, which is the same as it was before the operations.
October 14. We move to the Essex House, V., already acclimatized to New York, bravely signing a two-year lease.
November 21. Inscribing a copy of Retrospectives and Conclusions for Lucia Davidova tonight, I.S. writes his name in Russian on the flyleaf, then turns to the biographical blurb on the inside of the dust-wrapper, and below the phrase “lives in California,” adds the heartbreaking words “No More.”
December 17-18. I bundle I.S. into the car for an evening ride through Central Park and down Fifth Avenue to see the Christmas lights. Then, back in the hotel, we listen to the Adagio and Fugue from Opus 106. (“What do you think of that?” I ask at one point in the fugue, but he shuts me up with: “Je ne pense pas, j’écoute.”) V. advises him to go to bed early. “Auden is coming for dinner tomorrow and you will have to be sharp. Please try to be a little less gloomy, too,” she adds, and his answer to that is: “Then give me a larger Scotch.” She also reminds him that “Nicolas Nabokov is coming in the morning to say au revoir” (I.S.: “Without saying bonjour first?”). And she suggests that he be a little more méchant with his nurses, “just to get back in form.” (I.S.: “I already started today.”)
When Nabokov does come, and talks at length about his recent trip to the USSR, V. asks I.S. if he remembers who attended the banquet in his honor in Moscow in 1962. I.S.: “Well, I was there, in any case, which means that you were probably there, too.” Nabokov asks him to autograph R. & C., and V. encourages him to “add a few notes of music as well.” “Which notes?” he asks, whereupon she hums something that he writes down in a novel way. (But he never autographs the same way twice, and he always has ideas. Thus, meeting our friend Hans Popper in Tokyo, after having seen him in Vienna and New York shortly before, I.S. decorated Popper’s keepsake album with a map ingeniously relating the three cities, and in no time at all, with no apparent “fore-thought.”)
January 6. Yesterday afternoon R. comes to my room to inform me that I.S.’s left foot is cooler than the right. V. calls his regular doctor, who, after examining it, declares it is only a spasm. But the symptoms are the same as last January 18, when a clot was found; and since to hesitate could be fatal, I call N.N. and ask him to send his doctor—who duly arrives, says it is a clot, and prescribes anti-coagulants. The foot is warmer today, and my own apologia pro vita sua is defined: I am an Early Warning Station.
But not a Boswell. Which I say because no reference to me neglects to call me that. This may be due in part to the Great Cham’s own observation that “they only who live with a man can write his life….” Except that the second half of the sentence—“but few who have lived with a man know what to remark about him”—takes away what the first gives. The difference is that Dr. Johnson needed a Boswell and I.S. doesn’t, even though he himself clearly thought of me as one, even going out of his way to tell me secrets—about his brother Gury’s homosexuality, about his nurse, Bertha—that he seemed to want to have recorded.
But if I reject the Boswell role it is to claim a much bigger one, in fact that of a Goncourt (the category, not the quality, of course). In fact, the beginnings of the Goncourt relationship go back to our first week together, for I.S. inducted me into his letter writing service from the start. And his method—our method—was exactly like that of the Goncourts’ “dual dictation”! I would lean over his shoulder as he wrote, each of us contributing words and phrases, or beginning sentences which the other would finish, as we still do in actual conversations. This is the reason I can go through my journals and point to words and expressions that are really his; and go through his writings, stumbling on phrases (flippancies and pomposities, all too frequently) that are actually mine.
In short, and presumptuous as it is for me to say so—as well as difficult to prove, since our only taped conversations, at a public forum in Cincinnati a few years ago, show me only in my feed-in function and him only in his “great personality” one—a merger (exchange, osmosis) has taken place between the senior and junior, the creative and the imitative components of our partnership. And ill-assorted a pair as in many ways we are, we have very similar musical responses (which is what brought us together, after all) though they are his responses, of course, to which I am merely conditioned. Finally, numerous other resemblances to the Goncourts obtain in our ménage; but that is another story.
March 5. During the night, after months of painful thought about the matter, V. composes a letter concerning I.S.’s funeral and burial, in, if it can be arranged, the Russian corner of the cemetery island of San Michele (Venice). She does not represent this as I.S.’s own wish, which none of us has ever been able to determine because of the unmentionableness of the subject; in fact, all we know for certain is that he does not want to be cremated and scattered in the winds. And all she says is that she believes he would have concurred with the decision. (Well, you couldn’t say that it would have pleased him.) Then this morning his nurse fetches me, saying, “The maestro wants to talk to you about Venice”—which shows me how little I know about this deeply psychic man.
Later in the day we play the recording of the Requiem Canticles, which V.’s letter has specified as the work she wishes to be performed in his memory, when that terrible time comes, “since he and we knew he was writing it for himself.” But at the Libera me, where, it seems to me, the music leaves the concert hall and actually becomes part of a Requiem service, she rushes from the room in tears.
March 6. I.S. awakes with a fever. Examining him two hours later, Dr. Lax diagnoses pneumonia in the lower left lobe. Tetracycline, dijoxin, and other medications are sent for, but happily the temperature does not rise.
March 7. The fever has disappeared, and I.S. greets us in the “goodmorning-everybody” mood of the Emperor of China in “The Nightingale” after his night-long struggle with “Death.” To the doctor, however, I.S. describes his condition as “comme-ci, comme-ça,” which, says Lax, “is not only proof that his spirit is intact, but a precise scientific answer…. I have never seen such inner vitality and life-force,” he goes on, “to say nothing of the alertness, the powers of observation, the acuteness of the critical faculties—for he can formulate the subtlest distinctions. And the inner physical elasticity is no less amazing, considering the restricted outer mobility. Few people of his age are able to respond to medication not only the way he does but at all.”
And speaking of China, the eclipse of the sun today, which I.S. watches, is accompanied by an eerie quiet, the opposite of the great din which the Chinese keep up during eclipses to frighten off the evil spirits. Is it because the whole city has stopped to sky-gaze? And does the greenish, deathly penumbra remind I.S. of the shadow that has passed over him during the night?
April 5. On the “Seaboard Express,” nearing Palm Beach. Memories of an automobile trip through Florida with the I.S.s twenty years ago come crowding in on me. We entered the state from the west then, partly because I was gathering local color for an article on such improbable one-time residents as the author of the “Ossian” forgeries, McPherson (in Pensacola); Prince Achille Murat (in Tallahassee); Maeterlinck (in St. Augustine); and Delius (Solano Grove—later, the would-have-been Laurentian pantisocracy or Rananim). In February, 1950, we drove from the Prince Murat Motel, Tallahassee, to Tampa and St. Petersburg; and from there by ferry across the Bay, in spite of I.S.’s fears that the boat would capsize and he would “drone”—though V. attempted to console him in this prospect by the thought that at least the water would be “lucky [i.e. luke] warm.”
In Sarasota, finding ourselves short of money and unable to pay our hotel bill, I.S. asked for a loan from Mr. and Mrs. John Alden Carpenter4 (she was Adlai Stevenson’s mother-in-law), who had a winter home there and thanks to whose generosity we were seen through to New York. We visited the Museum,5 then drove through the Everglades to Key West, and, finding no rooms there, back to Miami. The next day we stopped at an alligator farm, the only incident of the trip that I.S. still remembers, because the keeper told him that a giant gavial (?), between whose jaws he had cruelly inserted a strut in order to show us the teeth, was born during the lifetime of Dante. (I.S. still pronounces the last syllable of “crocodile” as if it were a pickle, incidentally.) We spent that night in Daytona, and the one after that in Charleston, where V. lived for a month shortly after coming to America, in January, 1940.
But these daydreams are interrupted by the arrival of the train at Palm Beach. Or, rather, at the black-belt backyard of Palm Beach. Social stratigraphers must have an easy time of it in Florida, status being almost entirely a matter of distance from the beach. The farther inland the lower the social order, and for the black people the railroad tracks provide an additional demarcation to stay on the wrong side of.
April 6. Pompano Beach. I have hardly begun to bask in the sand and eye the Nereids when V. calls from New York to tell me that I.S. has pneumonia and is to be taken to the hospital. She is distraught, of course, but has tears in her voice, too, because of anxiety about his heart, this for the first time. It seems that some weakness has been detected in the left ventricle, and from her description it sounds as if there may have been symptoms of the Stokes-Adams Syndrome. Not yet having un-packed, I go directly to Fort Lauderdale airport and add my name to several waiting lists for cancellations, flight reservations being unobtainable because of the air controllers’ strike. Then, luckily finding a seat out at 7:30, I arrive at the Essex House in time to hear the 11 o’clock newscaster announce that “The condition of composer Igor Stravinsky now in the Lenox Hill Hospital Cardiac Unit [!] is described as critical.”
One prays, of course, in spite of Galton’s Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer (i.e., inefficacy), which I have just been reading. And the thought of Galton makes me wonder about a statistical inquiry into the efficacy of “symbiotic relationships,” if the phenomenon can be extrapolated and distinguished from “coincidence,” whose numerical expression is comparatively simple. For this is the third time I.S. has been taken to the hospital on the only three occasions in as many years when I have gone away.
Not that thought keeps me awake, however, but the emptiness of I.S.’s room, which is across the hall from mine; and the silence, for I have listened to his cough, his calls for the nurse, his movements in and out of bed every night for the last six months. And not only listened, but gone to his room several times each night, quite regularly at his worst hour, 4 A.M., talking to him, giving him water, primping his pillow, helping him to turn or sit up, or simply holding his hand when he seemed confused or surprised, perhaps waking from a dream, his eyes questioning for a moment, and the next moment knowing the answers all too well.
V. asks me to leave all the lights on in his room tonight. But I hate to enter it, hate to see the icons and the photograph of the Turin shroud in the empty corner; and the Bach fugue he had been playing, still open on the piano; and, worst of all, that terribly sad wheelchair by the piano. Only three nights ago we listened to the Canticles together, after which I tried to encourage him to compose, “even two notes.” “But they must be the right two,” he came back, and the whole meaning of the man was in the answer. (Last week, a nurse who urged him to “try” to compose was rebuffed with, “I never try. I compose or I don’t compose.”)
April 7. The first volunteer pallbearer is the BBC. Its New York office calls early this morning to ask “whether Mr. Craft will be available for an interview if Mr. Stravinsky dies.”
I go with V. to the hospital, but we are obliged to wait more than an hour before seeing I.S. Meanwhile we watch his heartbeat on a master console of cardiac monitors, one for each patient in the Intensive Care Unit, which reminds us of Flight Space Control, Houston. The range of I.S.’s graph seems small (indicating weakness?) and the beat itself syncopates about once every two trips across the screen. But the others are much more erratic. One of them seesaws bumpily, one is as jagged as lightning, one is like last week’s stock market, one is alarmingly flat, and one hovers mostly very high above the equatorial line, like a profile map of the Himalayas.
I.S. is in a Pressure Breathing Unit, with clumps of wires, like the viscera of an old radio set, attached to his chest. He has a nasal cannula, too, like a diver’s noseguard; and a catheter, which drains into a plastic canteen and which is the worst of these trammels, he says: it provokes an unassuageable urge to urinate. He begs to get out of bed, turns from side to side, and finally kicks his blankets away, revealing strap-on sheepskin heel pads (as they are called, though the heels are uncovered) with which he looks incongruously Mercurial. But he betrays not the slightest opacity of mind, and whether word, object, or action, knows exactly what he wants.
He is a minefield of medical problems, to be sure, what with polycythemia, chronic bronchitis, and all the other complications to be contended with. Yet we are not disheartened by the visit. His strength, both inner and outer, is far from depleted, and his life line is more of a steel cable than a silk thread. He may once again play havoc with the laws of medical averages.
April 8. An avalanche of well-wishing cables, telegrams, letters from all over the world (and unlike last year, almost no quack-religious get-ready-to-meet-your-Maker mail). Xenia cables from Leningrad, Aaron Propes from Jerusalem. Proud parents in Holland say they have named their newborn baby after I.S. (“Igor,” presumably). A lawyer in Portugal, using no other address than “Nueva Iorque,” conveys his gratitude for the music. The pupils of a school in Delaware petition him to get well with pages of signatures. Scores of letters from every European country express appreciation for his music and hopes for his quick recovery. A cardiologist in Ventura, California, telegraphs that of all the hearts in the world, I.S.’s “is the most worth keeping going.” But whereas the Composers’ Union in Moscow has been quick to send its sympathies, few composers in America—of all the dozens I.S. has lettered to Guggenheim juries, seconded for nomination to Academies, recommended to publishers—have thought about him, or at any rate acted on the thought. Among the exceptions, however, is Leonard Bernstein, who has shown the greatest feeling for I.S. since the beginning of his illness.
As for the messages from anonymous lovers of his music everywhere, the people I.S. doesn’t know, these attempt, simply, forthrightly (no panegyrics, no dithyrambs), and often very movingly to tell him how much his music has meant to them. And I should add that “everywhere” includes New York. Scores of people here have stopped at the hospital to inquire and leave messages, some signed with peace decals and the word “Woodstockers.” Two young Juilliard students have even made their way to and stood vigil at his door.
April 10. Entering the room toward evening we find I.S. alone in a chair, trembling—from cold, he says, and indeed his saffron, Buddhist monk-like robe is three times too big for him. He has been given a bell to ring, but owing to its strange shape didn’t understand that that is what it was; and the nurses twittering in the corridor just outside his room have, unrung, not looked in at him for some time. We cover him with blankets and hold his hands until the chill is over and the pulse meter, which had been running riot, subsides. But he has had a fright and in consequence presses V.’s hand to his cheek and never turns his eyes from her.
Is he in pain, we ask, and he ventures a cautious nay-shake. Does he feel exhausted, then? No, again. In that case, is it boredom? A large “yes.” But the only alleviation we can promise is that tomorrow he will have his own nurses and at least be able to amuse himself outwitting them, as he does at home. Is tomorrow’s moonshot of any interest to him? It is, on the contrary, the essence of acedia (though I should add that the astronauts’ dream world weightlessness and slow-motion dancing used to fascinate him). Is he pleased by our report of the many performances of his music in New York this week? He could hardly care less.
What does matter, and uniquely, is our insistence that he can, and will again, compose. At this, anyway, he smiles. But can it be possible that he is still undiscouraged, that he still wants to go on? I myself had feared, not of course that he would capitulate, but that this time he might at least allow that dangerous debate to get on the floor.
April 13. The retention of urine, since the decatheterizing, has not been noticed until too late. (One wonders what happens to quite ordinary, as distinguished from VIP, patients who are not in Intensive Care and cannot afford the supplementary ministrations of their own private teams of round-the-clock nurses.) By evening the Blood Urea Nitrogen count has shot so high it flies off the chart. The symptoms, which V. and I recognize long before the lab tests have been completed, are, of course, the same as they were in October, 1967: trembling hands and chattering teeth.
One of our own stand-by nurses, herself with an intensive-care cough—aggravated, perhaps, by her strange perfume (glue?)—tells us that the nurse who performed the suctioning operation on I.S.’s bronchial tubes during the night asked for and was given an autograph immediately after.
April 14. I.S., now in another Intensive Care Unit, is especially miserable today (“so far, so bad”), owing to a splint bound to his left elbow to keep the i.v. in place. He changes position quite suddenly once, causing the complex in his cardiac monitor to invert and bringing a nurse on the double. She adjusts the focus of the machine, spreading out the rills (somewhat like an affine geometry transformation) to read the graph from a different and enlarging perspective; but nothing is wrong.
A woman burned nearly to death is brought into the next cubicle. And obviously it would have been better if she had died, since it is certain she will never regain consciousness or, except by machines, be able to maintain even the most tenuous connection with life. It seems, too, that her family is fully aware of this. Yet while the whole horrifying spectacle directs my thoughts to the problem of death control (hardly less important in the future, perhaps, than birth control), I overhear the family talking in the corridor; and they, at least, no matter what, do not want the woman to die.
In another cubicle a man lies near death from knife wounds inflicted in the unsafety of a local jail. He must be in a bad way, in any case, being in an oxygen tent most of the time, and all of the time chained to plasma pumps and i.v. Yet three formidably armed cops, bandoleered as if for a siege, stand in shifts at the foot of his bed, presumably to stop him from going on the lam even by dying. Meanwhile, the patient, who might reasonably have a case against the city for its lack of this kind of protection in durance, is visited by several pretty girls. The last of them, a freckled redhead wearing a wedding ring, is accompanied by a “spiv” lawyer who cross-questions the nurse in charge as to whether “experimental” drugs have been used.
April 15. The apical averages and B.U.N. are normal today. And, just as I.S. is aware of most things about himself in advance, so he knows now, by some sixth sense, that he has surmounted another crisis. (But how can he still respond to antibiotics, after the saturation bombing of the last ten days?) His eyes—which changed color in November, 1967, incidentally, the left turning darker, and the right, both iris and pupil, becoming more blue—are alive with the knowledge. A tough old nurse tells us we should be relieved, since “Most of them go from Intensive Care to Perpetual Care.” Then, leaving the room for a moment, she warns I.S. not to “run away.” Which, I suppose, is an example of nurse-ry wit.
April 17. Theodore and Denise arrive from Geneva, but too late to go to the hospital. They spend the evening telling stories about I.S., of which Theodore’s best are one about his father trying on Wagner’s beret (in the Werner Reinhart collection) and finding that it almost covered his shoulders as well as his head; and another about his father interviewing wet nurses at a breast feeding agency in Lausanne and insisting on sampling the milk of each candidate himself. Theodore says that his father had a marvelous collection of antique wood-sculpture puppets that he painted himself, in many colors, and that both Jawlensky and Malevich, who were I.S.’s neighbors in Switzerland during the First War, greatly admired the composer’s talents as a painter.
April 29. After returning to the hotel this afternoon, I.S. sits at a dinner table with us and even listens to music afterward: the Schubert B-flat Sonata first, but not much of it, both because it ill suits his mordant mood and because, as he says, “the theme is all: it doesn’t need development”; then the Fourth Symphony of Beethoven (“çanourrit l’âme“) and my own new recording of Gesualdo’s Book Six, which at last avenges Maria D’Avalos by plunging the knife into the Prince of Venosa himself: the performances are murderously bad; then Boulez’s Flute Sonatina (I.S.: “Let’s hope he doesn’t write a sonata”); and, finally, I.S.’s own String Concerto, which he obliges me to switch off before the end because of the messy, out-of-tune string-playing. “The record will be advertised as a ‘document of the composer’s wishes,’ ” he says. “Still, the tempi are right, and because of that I suppose I must accept it.”
May 20. Doctor Lax, on a routine visit, tells I.S. he is in good health. I.S.: “I wish you would come when I am sick.” But he is crusty and capricious with everyone today, and so spiteful to his nurse that even after defeating her at “three-dimensional checkers” he knocks the “triptych” over and sends the lucite marbles rolling all over the room. His asperity not a whit diminished at table, he demands a proper whisky glass for his Scotch and a proper spoon for his demitasse (he flings the teaspoon to the floor), and he describes the omelette as “une sottise rechauffée.” It is really wonderful to see him like this again. The temper changes only when we play the Canticles. After it he leans over and tells me that “the last movement was composed for Venice.”
June 12. We land at Geneva (from New York) at 7 A.M. “Prudence,” advises a large sign on the south shore approach to the city, while other signs, in the city, say “Silence” and “Ne crachez pas sur le trottoir“—this in mosaics in the “trottoir.” Immediately on the French side of the border, the emphasis switches to food, and from “casse-croûtes” (snacks) all the way up to “alimentation generale.” In one small village alone we count three shops selling “charcuterie.”
The Hotel Royal in Evian is a glorified sanatorium for the very vieux and the very riche, the latter including both nouveau and second generation types (themselves “elders of scions,” you might say). Grand Roc is in view on one side, and, directly in front, the lake—arctic-white when we arrive, but when the mountains on the Swiss side emerge, like a heat-vapored valley in the California desert. Then in late afternoon the surface becomes glassy, and the boats—spinnakers, racing sculls, a speedboat that buzzes like a Brobdingnagian wasp—seem to be sailing in the sky. Immediately below our rooms are shrub terraces, and beds of roses, coleuses, begonias, hortensias; and below that, poplars, pines, and tall red oaks. At night the Swiss shore is defined by the lights of the towns in which I.S. wrote so much music, and its distance is measured by the beetle-like Evian-Lausanne ferry plying between.
June 14. I.S., in the church at Neuvecelle, which is just beyond the hotel and a field of clover and buttercup (we have literally “gone to grass” here) dips his fingers in the stoup, touches his forehead, then uses the water to smooth down his hair. He is in marvelous form (though the latest analysis shows mild anemia) and more active both physically and mentally than at any time since he was in Europe two years ago; it is as if the ordeals visited on him in his New York dog days had never occurred.
At St. Gingolph, a village half in Switzerland, the streets are so narrow we are obliged to enter the Swiss half in order to turn our (large) car around; which means that we have to clear the border controls re-entering France. Storms are breaking in a dozen directions at this end of the lake, but many sails are out, and, in view of the water’s reputation for iciness, a surprising number of swimmers. Plaques at several points along the shore remind compatriots—“Souvenez-vous, Français“—of victims of the Nazis shot while attempting to escape to Switzerland. We pass a hayrick loaded with greens and as fragrant as a salad.
June 18. Waking from deep dreams this morning, I.S. says: “Je veux que Bertha vienne me féliciter.” Is he thinking himself back eighty years, or simply telling us that he would like to see his old nurse again? In either case the remark confirms, as he has always claimed, that Bertha was closer to him than his mother. The burden of the anniversary has been weighing on him, however, and he has been talking about the remote past as, unprompted, he seldom does. Shortly before lunch he complains of nausea, and of “another pain, just behind the nausea,” which I mention only because the identification of a pain “behind” a pain is so typical of him. But at lunch the deglutition of two prodigious helpings of caviar gives him no trouble, nor are there any ill effects from the vodka and champagne, on top of a stiff medical apéritif. He replies to our toasts to eighty-eight, moreover, with allusions to ninety.
As Auden wrote of Mozart’s two-hundredth:
How seemly then, to celebrate the
Of one who did no harm to this
Created masterpieces by the doz-
Nor while we praise the dead,
should we forget
We have Stravinsky—bless him!—
with us yet.
A cable, at night, informs us of the death, in New York, of I.S.’s physician and friend of many years, Leon Lewithin. A year ago today, Dr. Lewithin supervised I.S.’s discharge from the New York Hospital. He would hardly have believed then that a year hence his patient would be flying to Europe, though that was what he planned to do himself.
At night, the only sounds reaching our rooms are the chugging and the two-note hoot of a rickety train, the Poe-like plaints of crows, and the bells of Neuvecelle celebrating the hours.
July 4. Several times during a walk with V. in the dewy fields this morning, she stops to pick mushrooms that I do not even see and almost trample. Naturally I prefer to blame this blindness on differences of culture rather than of personality.
Suvchinsky having arrived from Paris last night, we drive around the lake to Clarens and “Les Tilleuls,” the birth-place of Le Sacre du printemps. The sight brings tears to Suvchinsky’s eyes but leaves I.S., to all appearances, unmoved; in fact he seems more interested, back on the French side, in La Tourronde, a one-time home of St. François de Sales. Suvchinsky being my only tutoyer friend, I am rusty about verb endings and obliged to think twice before almost every remark addressed to him. But it seems odd to say “tu” to him and, after twenty-three years, “vous“—as well as “Monsieur” and “Madame”—to I.S. and V., though it would be still odder to use the intimate with them.
July 14. Bastille Day. A listless morning—the mood of the cor Anglais in Tristan I reflect, until the hotel comes to life (breakfast trays appearing on balconies, waiters going through their paces on the terrace, bathers by the poolside smearing themselves with suntan oil) and I realize how inapposite the musical reference is since our own condition, socially speaking at least, is exactly the opposite: we are not lonely enough. By noontime Switzerland is premonitorially clear, and the surface of the lake is so unrippled, despite the internal hemorrhage of the Rhone, that the rhumb line of the ferry vacillating between Evian and Lausanne survives for a quarter of an hour after each passage.
Nor does Wagner’s pipeherd express the mood at dinner, which is simply the torpor, or flânerie, of the overfed. The actual dinner music, on the other hand, is a collage of La Traviata, by the “Tea for Two” hotel band, and snatches of martial airs floating up from the festivities in the town below. V. recalls that she first saw the opera with Lina Cavalieri, “the mistress of a Grand Duke who rewarded her, perhaps a little too specifically, with a gold bidet whose fountain was diamond-studded.”
After dinner we watch the fireworks display from our balcony. Some of the detonations, introduced by long, swooping whistles, are like an old-fashioned bombardment, but the girandoles and the parachute flares that hang in the sky and then dissolve in an instant are worth the noise. V. is nostalgic. Her close friendship with I.S. began in Paris on le quatorze, 1921.
July 18. I.S.’s niece, Xenia, arrives from Leningrad (via Paris, by train) for a three-day visit, the purpose of which is immediately clear. The USSR wants I.S. to “come home,” and—as they say in the Wild West—dead or alive. If it is the latter, he will be given “the world’s best medical care,” as well as a house, car, chauffeur, and every comfort and even luxury. If it is the former, he may be assured of the highest state honors as well as a niche next to Pushkin or Tolstoy.
But he is already enjoying at least some of the luxuries for the living right here (though here, incidentally, we are struck by the contrast between the old-fashioned gentility of this comrade of a communist state, and the boorish, even Gadarene behavior of the hotel’s haute bourgeoisie clientele). Xenia is a little slow in grasping the point of some of our conversations, but understandably since she has never been outside the Soviet Union and only infrequently outside Leningrad. Yet she is really only interested in what we have to say about the USSR, being really importunate, for example, to hear our opinion of the Daniel and Sinyavski affair. When the S.s describe their meeting last year with Svetlana, née Stalin, Xenia actually takes notes. A tea drinker, in the Russian tradition, she remarks on the comparatively rare addiction to this brew in France. But when V. mentions her own preference for Peking tea, Xenia’s hands go up in protest (a storm in a teacup): “Oh, no, please. Nothing from China.”
Or Israel. Xenia says that both wars passed near I.S.’s old Ukrainian home at Ustilug, devastating the neighborhood, but not his house, which sustained only a scratch—a chimney, shot off but now restored. The house is still known locally as I.S.’s, she adds, and a few elderly people claim to remember him there. Then, for my part, I tell her that during our first tour of Israel eight years ago, a kibbutz of émigrés from Ustilug presented I.S. with a history of their former Russian community. And at this, hardly less agitated than by the thought of Chinese chi, Xenia says that “probably they lie”—although one wonders what there could possibly be to lie about in that.
As for her Leningrad news, we learn that Nadejda and Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov are still alive, and that not long ago, she, Xenia, shared the same exercise yard of a Leningrad hospital with Shostakovich.
Like all Soviet citizens abroad, Xenia seems to wear blinders, seeing neither to right nor to left; which, no doubt, is the inculcation of the idea that all this will pass away, as, no doubt, it will.
July 22. We drive via Geneva to Annecy, Talloires, Bonneville, Taninges, and, via Thonon, back to Evian. Campers’ bivouacs are everywhere; and picnickers, who literally squat on the roadside as if some indispensable condiment were provided by car and truck exhausts. The mountain and gorge scenery is enhanced by one spectacular château, that of Menthon, but the towns are farragoes of modern maisonettes, chalets, barrack-style apartment buildings, and, as I.S. says, “The villas of retired dentists, each with a copy of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ in the garden.”
Back in the hotel we learn that a third transfusion of globules rouges lavées will be necessary next week, the worst of which is that an amount of painful harpooning is entailed nowadays to find an infrangible vein.
August 5. I.S. calls me in the afternoon, saying, “I have two things to tell you. First, I, personally, do not feel very well. Second, I am très inquiet about Vera”—V. having gone to Geneva for the day. But the order of the anxieties is typical; he would have said exactly the same twenty years ago.
A touching reply from him tonight, when I promise to play music with him tomorrow afternoon: “Good. I am free.”
August 24. We return from Geneva in late afternoon, and at six, Lord Snowden calls. Joining him in the bar, I find him taller than photographs have led me to expect, and more freckled, more wrinkled, more blond—as well as less, in fact not at all, o’erweening. His young assistant—Beatles’ hairdo, black velvet suit, pink shirt unbuttoned to a gold cross, high and super-shiny shoes—opens with: “I’d like to drive a very fast car through this hotel.” And His Lordship—himself rather trendily gotten up as to hair length, shirt, cravat, gold chain bracelet, gadgety Omega wrist-clock—orders a vodka and tomato juice (not described as a “Bloody Mary,” of course) and opens with a reference to something of mine he has read. I retaliate with a compliment on his film about old age, which inspires him to put on a very droll imitation of the jactations, German accent and all, of the great rejuvenator, Dr. Niehans.
October 23. New York. Who can say what condition I.S. is in? (I have just come from a doctor to find out what condition I am in and, whatever the verdict, so much of the medical machinery resembles instruments of torture that I feel lucky to have survived the checkup. I am wired for a cardiogram like a man condemned to the electric chair; my head is fitted to the chin-rest of an X-ray machine as if for guillotining; I am obliged to run up and down stairs like a hazed recruit in the Marines; and—the ultimate indignity—I am placed on an operating table and made to go on all fours for a rude and painful examination of the prostate.)
To return to I.S., he is, of course, very frail, a bright light in a thin shell; and partly because of this, has acute ochlophobia: he dreads his afternoon sorties on Fifty-Ninth Street, and is no sooner out than he insists on returning. But he is not declining into “anility”—softening and slowing down, yes, but no crossing over—as someone who doesn’t know him assumed in a recent article. And the vital signs are all very good: his blood pressure is perfect, his heart is “that of a man of thirty” (Dr. Lax), and the neurological evidence has not shown any cardio-vascular “spasm” for at least eight months. Though we were assured, too, a year and a half ago that the synpathectomy would deprive him of the use of his left leg, yet he is able to walk, with the support of a walking machine, and his muscle tone improves with each visit of the therapist. He has some necrosis in his left toe, owing to poor circulation, but even that condition is responding to dermatological treatment. He uses four languages, both in reading and conversation; plays the piano daily; sometimes wears a hearing aid but removes it when listening to music and nearly always complains that the volume is too high.
The state of his mind is far more difficult to describe, but always was; one never knew exactly what was occurring there. Certainly I would not attempt to diagnose it even now, though I am closer to him in some ways than V. I do know that at times he behaves like a character in Beckett, turning off simply because he feels that nothing can be said, or is worth saying. Yet he takes in everything. N.N., on a recent visit, reading aloud and translating the paragraph which I.S. appended in 1968 to the last page of the Sacre manuscript score, found himself stuck for a word which I.S. instantly supplied (“guarantee”) though he did not seem even to be following.
Thus, too, at dinner tonight, when V. cannot remember the Russian and German words for certain precious and semiprecious stones (“jasper,” “chrysoberyl,” “garnet,” “amethyst,” etc.), I.S. provides them with the speed of an infant prodigy on a rigged quiz show. Nor has his lifelong quest for precision lost any of its force. The well-worn dictionaries and encyclopedias are still stacked on his reading tables and still resorted to. “Which is more correct, ‘every day’ or ‘each day’?” he asks me at one point, today, and a friend who asks whether he is “drinking,” is rather curtly told that “I drank, of course, a while ago, but obviously I am not drinking now.”
Nor has his fussiness at table diminished an iota. He still gathers crumbs, sweeps and tidies the tablecloth, shunts aside and calls for the instant removal of each (or is it every?) plate and glass the moment it is emptied. And certainly his acquisitive powers are intact as we see tonight when he switches from his customary “Hello” to “Hi,” to acknowledge in kind the greeting of a substitute nurse.
But if his critical faculties are unimpaired, he remains loyal to most of his old prejudices. He has been execrating Berlioz as harshly as ever, for example, dismissing most of Les Troyens (to which we have been listening recently) as “n’importe quoi,” and replying to my question about what he would like to hear after tonight’s dose of it, with, “Something better.” When at length I am able to prize a more specific critique out of him, it is that the music “does not evidence any real harmonic and melodic gifts”; and he cites the “flatness” of Chorèbe’s Cavatina, speculating about what Verdi might have done with it. (Nor is the comparison entirely unfair, for the big choral scene, “Chatîment effroyable,” is handled in a Verdian manner, and—so I think—quite as ably as Verdi.)
What he does like, in La Prise de Troie, are some of the orchestral novelties: the high strings and woods at the very end of act 2; the two-note orchestral figure at “J’ai vu l’ombre d’Hector,” and the six measures in eighteenth-century suite-style that follow. What he dislikes are the long March and Hymn, with its dull “Dieu des mers” choral echoes. And the Waltz finale, which he describes as “bad French ballet music,” committing, if possible, a double pleonasm.
November 2. I.S. receives an offer of a huge sum to appear on a television talk program. When V. tells him the kind of questions he would be expected to answer, however, he interrupts her, protesting: “Is this already a rehearsal?”
November 12. I.S. is in high spirits today, though the lab reports that his hemoglobin is as low as six and his hematocrit is down to twenty; a transfusion is scheduled for tomorrow.6 He pens a message for a Festschrift to be presented to Aaron Copland the day after tomorrow (in our own hotel, ironically—250 “composers” downstairs, one Composer upstairs): “Dear Aron, 70 is pretty good. Congratulations, Stravinsky.” V., however, happening to read this not exactly dripping testimonial, remarks that Mr. C. spells it “Aaron.” Whereupon R. suggests that I.S. write a small “°” over the A, like a string harmonic, this being the Scandinavian vowel-repeating sign. But I.S. vetoes that idea on the reasonable grounds that “Mr. Copland isn’t Scandinavian.” And he rewrites the whole, grumbling that “if he doesn’t like this, je m’en fous.”
R. reads to him, then, but he is impatient and keeps asking, “How long does this description go on?” “Well, you can’t get into the book without an introduction,” R. argues, not mollifying him in the slightest. “Well,” he says, imitating her, “it’s very boring. Let me read it myself, if I must.” But when R. gives it to him he slams it shut. “You’re not being very nice today,” she says, going out. And this time he withholds his retort. Then five minutes later, not at all contrite but having found the compromise that suits him, he calls to her, saying, “After all, I’ve decided I’d like to read a bit, this afternoon.”
November 22. Before we go in to dinner I tell I.S. that V. has trudged about to buy the ingredients of his favorite soup, “shchi” (sh-chee); and that he must remember to say he likes it. Then at table, when I ask his opinion of the wine, he says, “I can’t tell you; I’m still thinking about the soup.”
We listen to Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, which I.S. likes; to two late Haydn Piano Trios, of which he is particularly fond of the First Movement of no. 30 in D; and to Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, one of which, Feux follets, might make a good ballet solo number, he suggests, though another, Mazeppa makes him laugh out loud. Moving on to Beethoven’s Eighth, he notes his oversight—in a recent interview citing a type of Pastoral Symphony melodic design recurring in other symphonies—in neglecting to mention the variation in the violins beginning at ms. 44, as well as the music at ms. 70, both in the Allegretto. After that, hoping he will have had enough music for the night, I say, “What could we possibly listen to after the Beethoven?” “That’s easy,” he says, “lui-même.”
December 2. A summer’s day. In fact it is so warm that some of the trees in the Park seem confused, in the absence of a proper cue, whether or not to go ahead and shed their leaves.
Auden for dinner, in top, even euphoric form, dispensing greatly needed shots of mental B12. “I’ve just written about Igor,” he tells me. “I talk about him as the great exemplary artist of the twentieth century, and not just in music.”
But he eulogizes I.S. more than I have ever heard him do, attributing his own discovery of the sense of the Modern to I.S.’s music. And he asks I.S. to appreciate the difference between the “love” which he feels for him, and the “admiration” which he feels for Wagner, “who was an indisputable genius, but apart from that an absolute shit.” I.S. does not like being told such things to his face, of course, and a few weeks ago replied very rudely to N.N. for telling him much the same. But he is on his best behavior tonight—he can be très enfant de la nature!—listening and watching very intently, and observing to V. (in Russian) that “Auden has marvelous ideas.” Otherwise he obdurately refuses to talk, though once when V. asks him why he did not respond to a joke, he says, “I smiled inside.”
Auden is preparing a lecture on Freud for a public reading in Philadelphia next month, and for homework has been going through the New Introductory Lectures and The Interpretation of Dreams (“Now the trouble with dreams, of course, is that other people’s are so boring”). All that we hear about the content of his own lecture, however, is that “it makes a case against analyzing works of art as if they were people. Incidentally, I was delighted to find that Freud has so much common sense. I mean, for example, he does see that a cigar can be simply a cigar…. Incidentally, I have been doing a bit of amateur psychiatry myself these days. Mostly young people. You know the type; every experience in life except work. Some are on drugs and some have sex problems—Gay Liberation Front and so on. I am no advocate of the Uranian Society myself, of course. I mean, I certainly don’t want to live only with queers.”
He reels off lists of books we should have read—Blythe’s East Anglia, Leontiev on Tolstoy (well, I have read that), the new biography of Scott, etc., etc. “By the way, how much Scott have you actually read?” he asks, but fortunately doesn’t wait for an answer. “Rereading him now myself I see that he was more of an eighteenth-century Rationalist than I’d thought.”
“I have given up sleeping pills,” he confesses. “They are too difficult to procure in Austria. As a substitute, I keep a glass of vodka by my bed, which tastes better.” Is his greater sociability attributable in any measure to this chemical change, I wonder? I ask about the fortunes (Tyche sense) of his operas, and am told that “Henze wears a Mao tunic now, but with lots of money in the pockets.”
The great poet has not given up gaspers, though, and in fact forges a small chain of them at regular intervals from a pack of Lucky Strikes. “We all know that smoking is bad,” he says, “but I can’t see why in heaven’s name anybody would ever want to stop drinking.” In that case would he care for another martini, I ask, and the answer is “Jolly.” He has a remarkably spruced, almost-washed appearance tonight, and even his slippers are in better repair than the floppy tartans he was wearing last time. His mind, of course, is always tidy, and even after the martinis, the claret, the champagne, he can remark that “an artist must be able to see the relationship and balance, for himself, between tradition and change. But does anyone see it anymore? Now surely you, Igor, composed what you had to compose without asking yourself first: ‘Well, let’s see, what sort of thing should I be doing now?’ ”
He confides in us that “the Burger-meister of Kirchstetten cannot be invited to dinner because he hasn’t got a degree, and for this reason it would embarrass him to be asked; whereas the chemist could be asked simply because he has one—at least I hope he has. Incidentally, the village priest’s name is Schicklgruber, and he is said to be a relative.” Wystan has lately switched his own religious affiliations to the Orthodox Church, “because I can’t put up with all the Reformist nonsense in my own.”
I congratulate him on The Aliens and he owns to being “pretty well pleased with it, too,” and as for the Commonplace Book, well, that is “at least fun.” Then promptly at 9 o’clock he looks at his watch, mutters something about bedtime, bolts from the table, and vanishes.
January 1. Pompano Beach. I play tennis this morning for the first time in years, paunching about, panting and perspiring, sometimes missing the ball entirely, three times sending it on a straight-up aerial course, twice lobbing it over the fence, and once adding it to the game in the neighboring court where it must make the players feel like jugglers.
Orthography along Federal Highway One tends to purely alphabetic forms. Thus “ex” is always “x,” a household appliance is advertised as “E-Z-ER,” an oceanside motel is called the “C-Breeze,” and the established way of writing a common synonym for rapid is “kwik.” But some of the other innovatory English is difficult to accustom to. Item: “Orange Juice Freshly Squozen.”
On the beach this afternoon, I lie under a sea-grape tree whose trunk is like aboveground roots. The dunes are littered with palm fronds, coconut husks, shells (I find a small, exquisitely gadrooned white one), and seaweed. A flock of sandpipers busies itself with the latter, and when a dead fish is washed ashore a gull instantly swoops on it, plucking out its eyes. Most of my fellow bathers, all of whom regularly anoint themselves with protective lotions, are elderly women, in spite of which they regale each other as “gals.” Another of their ghastly euphemisms is “shedding a tear” for micturition. Many of their male coevals are as much in need of “bras” as they are themselves, if not more (two sets of boobs).
The expression “rubber goods” does not mean here what it does on Eighth Avenue, nor are there any uterine double-entendres in “inner tubes,” “skin-diving sheaths,” etc. The reference is rather to bathing caps, snorkels, and fins, inflatable beach furniture and surfing mats, rubber surfboards with sharklike rubber fins, and tublike rafts, large enough to hold three paddlers, as in the nursery rhyme. I ride the waves myself, trying to catch them between the curl and the break, my only thought, the while, being how quickly “Thought” disappears under the pressures of the apolaustic life.
The sky, lightly flaked at first, turns stormy, like a Winslow Homer, in the later afternoon, at which point a small blimp appears above the beach trailing an advertisement from the nacelle: Try the Library at the Hilton.
January 16. New York. A cold spell, everyone breathing steam. Buildings too, smoke plumes hovering over parts of Harlem like anti-aircraft balloons. the earflaps and woolen headgear are an unexpectedly rural touch, but a pity on all those unskirted knees.
After two hours at Bonnier’s, V. buys a Calder-type toy, a bouquet of hollow, billiard-size balls attached to flexible wires and anchored in a wooden plaquette; when knocked together, these globes emit a variety of soft, more or less agreeable clucking noises. But how is such an object to be packaged and transported? This one is fitted into a cylindrical cardboard tube, large enough for a missile or nerve gas shell, and with a handle in the center like a violin case. V. cuts a wide swathe boarding the Fifty-Seventh Street bus, as if the other passengers suspected the contents of being exactly that; until, that is, she is overheard asking the driver if he stops at Carnegie Hall. And at this, speculation no doubt turns on the nature of the instrument in the parcel, since V.’s Russian accent obviously marks her as a musician.
At tea-time the S.s receive a visit from the violinist Leonid Kogan, who has even more of a Russian accent, but who does not mention fiddling. In fact the Mavra-like conversation is all about the servant problem in the USSR. It is as bad as here, he says.
January 23. With the Liebersons, Bernsteins, and Avedons to a screening of Ken Russell’s film of Delius, which we hate at first, but are moved by at the end, and so deeply that when the lights go on I find V. in tears. There are striking resemblances to I.S. in his present condition, the locking-in musical imagination, the wheelchair, and—perhaps in a similar way, as V. no doubt thinks—a death.
February 25, 1971
Which I.S. describes later as “felicity. You have hardly extended your arm for the shot when you are told that the operation is over.” ↩
It was but we were not told until later. ↩
One more crisis of the same kind occurred at the beginning of August, at which time, too, the tests for tuberculosis were positive; but this was reversed before the move to New York. ↩
I.S. had known the Carpenters since his first American tour in 1925, and had stayed with them in Chicago in 1940. ↩
One of its curators, the late Everett Austin, another friend of I.S. in his first years in America, had been among the pioneer promoters of “Monsù Desiderio,” whose work he acquired for both Sarasota and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. A dozen years later, Eugene Berman gave a “Monsù” to I.S. on his eightieth birthday. ↩
He has not had polycythemia since April. ↩