The room and a half (if such a unit of space makes any sense in English) in which the three of us lived had a parquet floor, and my mother strongly objected to the men in her family, me in particular, walking around with our socks on. She insisted on our wearing shoes or slippers at all times. Admonishing me about this matter, she would evoke an old Russian superstition; it is an ill omen, she would say, it may bode a death in the family.
Of course, it might be that she simply regarded this habit as uncivilized, as plain bad manners. Men’s feet smell, and that was the pre-deodorant era. Yet I thought that, indeed, one could easily slip and fall on a polished parquet, especially if one wore woolen socks. And that if one were old and frail, the consequences could be disastrous. The parquet’s affinity with wood, earth, etc., thus extended in my mind to any ground under the feet of our close and distant relatives who lived in the same town. No matter what the distance, it was the same ground. Even living on the other side of the river, where I would subsequently rent an apartment or a room of my own, didn’t constitute an excuse, for there were too many rivers and canals in that town. And although some of them were deep enough for the passage of seagoing ships, death, I thought, would find them shallow, or else, in its standard underground fashion, it could creep across under their bottoms.
Now my mother and my father are dead. I stand on the Atlantic seaboard: there is a great deal of water separating me from two surviving aunts and my cousins: a real chasm, big enough to confuse even death. Now I can walk around in my socks to my heart’s content, for I have no relatives on this continent. The only death in the family I can now incur is presumably my own, although that would mean mixing up transmitter with receiver. The odds of that merger are small, and that is what distinguishes electronics from superstition. Still, if I don’t tread these broad Canadian-maple floorboards in my socks, it’s neither because of this certitude nor out of an instinct for self-preservation, but because my mother wouldn’t approve of it. I suppose I want to keep things the way they were in our family, now that I am what’s left of it.
There were three of us in that room and a half of ours: my father, my mother, and I. A family, a typical Russian family of the time. The time was after the war, and very few people could afford more than one child. Some of them couldn’t even afford to have the father alive or present: great terror and war took their toll in big cities, in my home town especially. So we should have considered ourselves lucky, especially since we were Jews. All three of us survived the war (and I say “all three” because I, too, was born before it, in 1940); my parents, however, survived the Thirties also.
I guess they considered themselves lucky, although they never said as much. In general, they were not highly selfaware, except when they grew old and malaises started to beset them. Even then, they wouldn’t talk about themselves and death in the way that terrifies a listener or prods him to compassion. They would simply grumble, or complain to no one in particular about their aches, or discuss at length some medicine or other. The closest my mother would ever come to uttering something of the sort would be when she would say, pointing to an extremely delicate set of china: “This will become yours when you get married or when…,” and she would interrupt herself. And, once, I remember her on the phone talking to some distant friend of hers who I was told was ill: I remember my mother emerging from the telephone booth on the street, where I was waiting for her, with a somewhat unfamiliar look in her so familiar eyes, behind her tortoise-shell–rimmed glasses. I leaned toward her (I was already a good deal taller) and asked what the woman had said, and my mother replied, staring aimlessly ahead: “She knows she is dying and was crying into the phone.”
They took everything as a matter of course: the system, their powerlessness, their poverty, their wayward son. They simply tried to make the best of everything: to keep food on the table—and whatever that food was, to turn it into a meal; to make ends meet—and although we always lived from payday to payday, to stash away a few rubles for the kid’s movies, museum trips, books, sweets. What dishes, utensils, clothes, linen we had were always clean, polished, ironed, patched, starched. The tablecloth was always spotless and crisp, the lampshade above it dusted, the parquet shining and swept.
The amazing thing is that they were never bored. Tired, yes, but not bored. Most of the time they were at home, they were on their feet: cooking, washing, circulating between the communal kitchen and our room and a half, fiddling with this or that item of the household. When they were seated, it was of course for meals, but mainly I remember my mother in a chair, bent over her manual-cum-pedal Singer sewing machine, fixing our clothes, turning old shirt collars inside out, repairing or refitting old coats. As for my father, the only time he spent in a chair was when he was reading the paper, or else at his desk. Sometimes in the evening they would watch a movie or a concert on our 1952 TV set. Then they would also be seated. In this way, seated in a chair in the empty room and a half, my father was found dead by a neighbor a year ago.
He had outlived his wife by thirteen months. Out of seventy-eight years of her life and eighty of his, I’ve spent only thirty-two years with them. I know almost nothing about how they met, about their courtship; I don’t even know in what year they were married. Nor do I know the way they lived the last eleven or twelve years of their lives, the years without me. Since I am never to learn it, I’d better assume that the routine was the usual one, that perhaps they were even better off without me: both financially and in not having to worry about my being rearrested.
Except that I couldn’t help them in their old age; except that I wasn’t there when they were dying. I am saying this not so much out of a sense of guilt as because of the rather egotistical desire of a child to follow his parents through all the stages of their lives; for every child, one way or another, repeats his parents’ progress. I could argue that, after all, one wants to learn from one’s parents about one’s own future, one’s own aging; one wants to learn from them also the ultimate lesson: how to die. Even if one doesn’t want any of these, one knows that one learns from them, however unwittingly. “Shall I look this way when I am old, too? Is this cardiac—or any other—problem hereditary?”
I don’t and I never will know how they felt during those last years of their lives. How many times they were scared, how many times they felt prepared to die, how they felt when reprieved, how they would resume hoping that the three of us would get together again. “Sweetie,” my mother would say over the telephone, “the only thing I want from this life is to see you again. That’s the only thing that keeps me going.” And a minute later: “What were you doing five minutes ago, before you called?” “Actually, I was doing the dishes.” “Oh, that’s very good. It’s a very good thing to do: the dishes. Sometimes it’s awfully therapeutic.”
Our room and a half was part of a huge enfilade—the Russian word for a suite of apartments—one third of a block in length, on the northern side of a six-story building that faced three streets and a square at the same time. The building was one of those tremendous cakes in so-called Moorish style that in northern Europe marked the turn of the century. Erected in 1903, the year of my father’s birth, it was then the architectural sensation of St. Petersburg, and Akhmatova once told me that her parents took her in a carriage to see this wonder. On its western side, facing one of the most famous avenues of Russian literature, Liteiny Prospect, Alexander Blok had an apartment at one time. As for our enfilade, it was occupied by the couple that dominated the pre-Revolutionary Russian literary scene as well as the intellectual climate of Russian emigration in Paris later on, in the Twenties and the Thirties: by Dimitri Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius. And it was from our room-and-a-half’s balcony that the larvaelike Zinka shouted abuse to the Revolutionary sailors.
After the Revolution, in accordance with the policy of “densing” the bourgeoisie, the enfilade was split up, with one family per room. Walls were erected between the rooms—at first of plywood. Subsequently, over the years, boards, brick, and stucco would promote this partition to the status of an architectural norm. If there is an infinite aspect of space, it is not its expansion but its reduction. If only because the reduction of space, oddly enough, is always more coherent. It’s better structured and has more names: a cell, a closet, a grave. Expanses have only a broad gesture.
In the USSR, the minimum living space per person is nine square meters. We should have considered ourselves lucky, because owing to the oddity of our portion of the enfilade, the three of us wound up with a total of forty meters. That excess had to do also with the fact that we had obtained this place as the result of my parents’ giving up the two separate rooms in which they had lived before they got married. This concept of exchange or, better still, swap (because of the finality of this exchange) is something there is no way to convey to an outsider. Property laws are arcane everywhere, but some of them are more arcane than others, especially when your landlord is the state. Money has nothing to do with it, for instance, since in a totalitarian state income brackets do not vary greatly—in other words, every person is as poor as the next. You don’t buy your living quarters: at best, you are entitled to the cubic equivalent of what you had before. If there are two of you, and you decide to live together, you are therefore entitled to an equivalent of the square sum total of your previous residences. And it is the clerks in the borough property office who decide what you are going to get. Bribery is of no use, since the hierarchy of those clerks is, in its turn, arcane, and their initial impulse is to give you less. The swaps take years, and your only ally is fatigue; i.e., you may hope to wear them down by refusing to move into something cubically inferior to what you previously had.
Apart from pure arithmetic, what goes into their decision is a vast variety of assumptions never articulated in law, about your age, nationality, race, occupation, the age and sex of your child, social and territorial origins, not to mention the personal impression you make, etc. Only the clerks know what is available, only they judge what would be equivalent space and can give or take a few square meters here and there. And what a difference those few square meters make! They can accommodate a bookshelf or, better yet, a desk.
Apart from an excess of sixteen square meters, we were lucky because the communal apartment we had moved into was very small. That is, our part of the enfilade contained six rooms partitioned in such a way that they gave a home to only four families. Including ourselves, only eleven people lived there. The number of people in such communal apartments easily can amount to hundreds. The average, though, is somewhere between twenty-five and fifty. Ours was almost tiny.
Of course, we all shared one toilet, one bathroom, and one kitchen. But the kitchen was fairly spacious, the toilet very decent and cozy. As for the bathroom, Russian hygienic habits are such that eleven people would seldom overlap when either taking a bath or doing their laundry. The latter hung in the two corridors that connected the rooms to the kitchen, and one knew the underwear of one’s neighbors by heart.
The neighbors were good neighbors, both as individuals and because all of them were working and thus absent for most of the day. Except for one, they didn’t inform to the police; that was a good percentage for a communal apartment. But even the informer, a squat, waistless woman, a surgeon in the nearby polyclinic, would occasionally give you medical advice, take your place in the queue for some scarce food item, keep an eye on your boiling soup. How does that line in Frost’s “The Star-Splitter” go? “For to be social is to be forgiving”?
For all the despicable aspects of this mode of existence, a communal apartment has perhaps its redeeming side as well. It strips life to its basics: it destroys any illusions about human nature. By the volume of a fart, you can tell who occupies the toilet, you know what he or she had for supper as well as for breakfast. You know the sounds they make in bed and when the women have their periods. It is often you to whom your neighbor confides his or her grief, and it is he or she who calls for an ambulance should you have an angina attack or something worse. It is he or she who one day may find you dead in a chair, if you live alone, or vice versa.
What barbs or medical and culinary advice or tips about what’s suddenly available in this or that store are traded in the communal kitchen in the evening when the wives cook their meals! This is where one learns life’s essentials, with the rim of one’s ear, with the corner of one’s eye. What silent dramas unfurl there when somebody is suddenly not on speaking terms with someone else! What a school of mimics it is! What depth of emotion can be conveyed by a stiff, resentful vertebra or by a frozen profile! What smells, aromas, and odors float in the air around a hundred-watt yellow tear hanging on a plaitlike tangled electric cord. There is something tribal about this dimly lit cave, something primordial—evolutionary, if you will; and the pots and pans hang over the gas stoves like would-be tom-toms.
I recall these things not out of nostalgia but because this was where my mother spent one-fourth of her life. Family people seldom eat out; in Russia almost never. I don’t recall seeing either her or my father across the table in a restaurant, or for that matter in a cafeteria. She was the best cook I ever knew, with the exception, perhaps, of Chester Kallman, but then he had more ingredients. I recall her most frequently in the kitchen, in her apron, face reddened and eyeglasses a bit steamy, shooing me away from the stove as I try to fish this or that item from the burner. Her upper lip glistens with sweat; her short, cropped, dyed-red but otherwise gray hair curls in disarray. “Go away!” she exclaims. “What impatience!” I won’t hear that anymore.
Nor shall I see the door opening (how did she do it with both her hands holding a casserole or two big pans? By lowering them onto the latch and applying their weight to it?) and watch her sailing in with our dinner/supper/tea/dessert. My father would be reading the paper, I would not move from my book unless told to do so, and she knew that any help she could expect from us would be delayed and clumsy anyway. The men in her family knew more about courtesy than they themselves could muster. Even when they were hungry. “Are you reading your Dos Passos again?” she would remark as she set the table. “Who is going to read Turgenev?” “What do you expect from him?” my father would echo, folding the paper. “Loafer is the word.”
How is it possible that I see myself in this scene? And yet, I do; as clearly as I see them. Again, it is not nostalgia for my youth, for the old country. No, it is more likely that, now that they are dead, I see their life as it was then; and then their life included me. This is what they would remember about me as well, unless they now have the gift of omniscience and observe me at present, sitting in the kitchen of the apartment that I rent from my school, writing this in a language they didn’t understand, although now they should be “pan-glot.” This is their only chance to see me and America. This is the only way for me to see them and our room.
Our ceiling was some fourteen feet high, if not higher, and adorned with the same Moorish-style plaster ornamentation, which, combined with cracks and stains from occasionally bursting pipes upstairs, turned it into a highly detailed map of some nonexisting superpower or archipelago. There were three very tall arched windows through which we would have seen nothing except a high school across the street, were it not for the central window, which also served as a door to the balcony. From this balcony we could view the entire length of the street, whose typically Petersburgian, impeccable perspective ended with the silhouette of the cupola of St. Panteleimon’s Church, or—if one looked to the right—the big square, in the center of which stood the Cathedral of the Savior of Her Imperial Majesty’s Transfiguration Battalion.
By the time we moved into this Moorish wonder, the street already bore the name of Pestel, the executed leader of the Decembrists. Originally, though, it was called after the church that loomed at its far end: Panteleimonovskaya. There the street would fling around the church and run to the Fontanka River, cross over the Police Bridge, and take you into the Summer Garden. Pushkin once lived on that part of the street, and somewhere in a letter to his wife he says that “every morning, in nightgown and slippers I go across the bridge for a stroll in the Summer Garden. The entire Summer Garden is my orchard.”
His was Number 11, I think; ours was Number 27, and that was at the end of the street, which flowed into the cathedral square. Yet, since our building was at the intersection with the fabled Liteiny Prospect, our postal address read: Liteiny Pr. #24, Apt. 28. This is where we received our mail; this is what I wrote on the envelopes addressed to my parents. I am mentioning it here not because it has any specific significance but because my pen, presumably, will never write this address again.
Oddly, the furniture we had matched the exterior and the interior of the building. It was as busy with curves, and as monumental, as the stucco molding on the façade or the panels and pilasters protruding from the walls inside, skeined with plaster garlands of some geometrical fruits. Both outside and inside were a light-brown, cocoa-cum-milk color. Our two huge, cathedral-like chests of drawers, however, were of black varnished oak; yet they belonged to the same period, the turn of the century, as did the building itself. This was what perhaps favorably disposed the neighbors toward us from the outset, albeit unwittingly. And this was why, perhaps, after barely a year in that building, we felt we had lived there forever. The sensation that the chests had found their home, or the other way around, somehow made us realize that we, too, were settled, that we were not to move again.
Those ten-foot-high, two-story chests (you’d have to take off the corniced top from the elephant-footed bottom when moving) housed nearly everything our family had amassed in the course of its existence. The role filled elsewhere by the attic or the basement, in our case was performed by those chests. My father’s various cameras, developing and printing paraphernalia, and the prints themselves, dishes, linen, tablecloths, shoe boxes with shoes now too small for him yet still too large for me, tools, batteries, his old Navy tunics, binoculars, family albums, yellowed illustrated supplements, my mother’s hats and scarves, some silver Solingen razor blades, defunct flashlights, his military decorations, her motley kimonos, their mutual correspondence, lorgnettes, fans, other memorabilia—all that was stored in the cavernous depths of these chests, yielding, when you’d open one of their doors, a bouquet of mothballs, old leather, and dust. On the top of the lower part, as on a mantlepiece, sat two crystal carafes containing liqueurs, and a glazed porcelain figurine of two tipsy Chinese fishermen dragging their catch. My mother would wipe the dust off them twice a week.
With hindsight, the contents of these chests could be compared to our joined, collective subconscious; at the time, this thought wouldn’t have crossed my mind. To say the least, all these things were part of my parents’ consciousness, tokens of their memory: of places and of times by and large preceding me; of their common and separate past, of their own youth and childhood, of a different era, almost of a different century. With the benefit of the same hindsight, I would add: of their freedom, for they were born and grew up free, before what the witless scum call the Revolution, but what for them, as for generations of others, meant slavery.
I write this in English because I want to grant them a margin of freedom: the margin whose width depends on the number of those who may be willing to read it. I want Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky to acquire reality under “a foreign code of conscience,” I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won’t resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than Russian. To write about them in Russian would be only to further their captivity, their reduction to insignificance, resulting in mechanical annihilation. I know that one shouldn’t equate the state with language but it was in Russian that two old people, shuffling through numerous state chancelleries and ministries in the hope of obtaining a permit to go abroad for a visit to see their only son before they died, were told repeatedly, for twelve years in a row, that the state considers such a visit “unpurposeful.”
To say the least, the repetition of this utterance proves some familiarity of the state with the Russian language. Besides, even if I had written all this in Russian, these words wouldn’t see the light of day under the Russian sky. Who would read them? A dozen émigrés whose parents either have died or will die under similar circumstances? They know this story only too well. They know what it feels like not to be allowed to see their mothers or fathers on their deathbed; the silence that follows their request for an emergency visa to attend a relative’s funeral. And then it’s too late, and a man or a woman puts the receiver down and walks out the door into the foreign afternoon feeling something neither language has words for, and for which no howl will suffice, either….
What could I possibly tell them? In what way could I console them? No country has mastered the art of destroying its subjects’ souls as well as Russia, and no man with a pen in his hand is up to mending them; no, this is a job for the Almighty only, this is what He has all that time of His for. May English then house my parents. In Russian I am prepared to read, write verses or letters. For Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky, though, English offers a better semblance of an afterlife, maybe the only one there is, save my very self. And as far as the latter is concerned, writing this in this language is like doing those dishes: it is therapeutic.
My father was a journalist—a newspaper photographer, to be precise—although he wrote articles as well. Since he wrote mostly for small dailies that are never read anyway, most of his articles would start with “Heavy, storm-laden clouds hang over the Baltic…,” confident that the weather in our parts would make this opening newsworthy or pertinent. He held two degrees: in geography, from Leningrad University, and in journalism, from the School of Red Journalists. He enrolled in the latter when it was made clear to him that his chances to travel, especially abroad, weren’t worth reckoning: as a Jew, a son of a print-shop owner, and a nonmember of the Party.
Journalism (to a certain extent) and the war (substantially) restored the balance. He covered one-sixth of the earth’s surface (the standard quantitative definition of the territory of the USSR) and a great deal of water. Although he was assigned to the Navy, the war started for him in 1940, in Finland, and ended in 1948, in China, where he was sent with a bunch of military advisers to help Mao and from where those tipsy porcelain fishermen and the china sets my mother wanted me to have when I got married came from. In between, he was escorting the Allies’ convoys in the Barents Sea, defending and losing Sevastopol on the Black Sea, joining—after his torpedo boat was sunk—the then marines. During the siege of Leningrad, he was dispatched to the Leningrad front, took the best pictures I’ve seen in print of the city under siege, and participated in the siege’s dislodging. (This part of the war, I believe, mattered to him most, since it was too close to his family, to his home. Still, for all his proximity, he lost his apartment and his only sister: to bombs and to hunger.)
Afterward, he was sent back to the Black Sea, landed at the ill-famed Malaya Zemlya beachhead, and held it; then, as the front advanced westward, went with the first detachment of torpedo boats to Romania, landed there, and, for a short time, was even the military governor of Constanta. “We liberated Romania,” he’d boast sometimes, and proceed to recall his encounters with King Michael. That was the only king he had ever seen; Mao, Chiang Kai-shek, not to mention Stalin, he regarded as upstarts.
Whatever monkey business he was up to while in China, our small pantry, our chests, and our walls profited from it considerably. What art objects the last displayed were of Chinese origin: the cork-cum-watercolor paintings, the samurai swords, little silk screens. The tipsy fishermen were the last of the lively population of porcelain figurines, dolls, and hat-wearing penguins that would only gradually disappear, victims of careless gestures or the need for birthday presents for various relatives. The swords, too, had to be surrendered to the state collections as potential weapons a regular citizen wasn’t supposed to have. A reasonable caution, come to think of it, in light of the subsequent police invasions I brought upon our room and a half. As for the china sets, astonishingly exquisite even to my untrained eye—my mother wouldn’t hear about a single beautiful saucer on our table. “These are not for slobs,” she would explain patiently to us. “And you are slobs. You are very sloppy slobs.” Besides, the dishes we were using were elegant enough, as well as sturdy.
I remember one dark, cold November evening in 1948, in the small, sixteen-square-meter room where my mother and I lived during and right after the war. That evening Father was returning from China. I remember the doorbell ringing and my mother and I rushing to the dimly lit landing, suddenly dark with Navy uniforms: my father, his friend and colleague, Captain F.M., and a bunch of servicemen entering the corridor carrying three huge crates, with their China catch, slashed on all four sides with gigantic, octopuslike Chinese characters. And later on, Captain F.M. and I sit at the table, where my father unpacks the crates, my mother in her yellow-pink, crepe de Chine dress, in high heels, clasping her hands and exclaiming, “Ach! oh wunderbar!“—in German, the language of her Latvian childhood and present occupation—interpreter in a camp for German POWs—and Captain F.M., a tall, wiry man in a dark blue, unbuttoned tunic, pouring himself a glass from a carafe and winking at me as to a grown-up. The belts with their anchor buckles and holstered Parabellum pistol are on the windowsill, my mother gasps at the sight of a kimono. The war is over, it’s peacetime, I am too small to wink back.
Now I am exactly the age my father was that November evening: I am forty-five, and again I see the scene with an unnatural, high-resolution–lens clarity, although all its participants except me are dead. I see it so well that I can wink back at Captain F.M. Was it meant to be that way? Is there, in these winks over the space of nearly forty years, some meaning, some significance that eludes me? Is this what life is all about? If not, why this clarity, what is it for? The only answer that occurs to me is: so that this moment exists, so that it is not forgotten when the actors are gone, myself included. Maybe this way you understand indeed how precious it was: the arrival of peace. Into one family. And by the same token, in order to make it clear what moments are. Whether they are just a return of someone’s father, an opening of a crate. Hence this mesmerizing clarity. Or maybe it’s because you are a son of a photographer and your memory develops a film. Shot with your own two eyes, almost forty years ago. That’s why you couldn’t wink back then.
My father wore the Navy uniform for approximately two more years. And this is when my childhood started in earnest. He was the officer in charge of the photography department of the Navy Museum, located in the most beautiful building in the entire city. Which is to say, in the entire empire. The building was that of the former Stock Exchange: a far more Greek affair than the Parthenon, and far better situated as well, at the tip of Basil Island, which juts into the Neva River where it is at its widest.
On late afternoons, school over, I’d wade through the town to the river, cross the Palace Bridge, and run to the museum to pick up my father and walk home with him. The best times were when he was the evening duty officer, when the museum was already closed. He would emerge from the long, marbled corridor, in full splendor, with that blue-white-blue armband of the duty officer around his left arm, the holstered Parabellum on his right side, dangling from his belt, the Navy cap with its lacquered visor and gilded “salad” above covering his disconcertingly bald head. “Greetings, Commander,” I would say, for that was his rank; he’d smirk back, and since his tour of duty wouldn’t be over for another hour or so, he’d cut me loose to loiter about in the museum alone.
It is my conviction that apart from the literature of the last two centuries and, perhaps, the architecture of the former capital, the only other thing Russia can be proud of is its navy’s history. Not because of spectacular victories, of which there have been rather few, but because of the nobility of spirit that has informed its enterprise. Call it idiosyncrasy or even psycho-fancy, this brainchild of the only visionary among Russian emperors, Peter the Great, seems to me indeed a cross between that literature and architecture. Patterned after the British Navy, but less functional than decorative, informed more by the spirit of discovery than by that of expansion, given rather to the heroic gesture and self-sacrifice than to the survival at all costs, this navy indeed was a vision: of a perfect, almost abstract order, borne upon the waters of the world’s ocean, as could not be attained anywhere on Russian soil.
A child is first of all an aesthete: that is, he responds to appearances, to surfaces, to shapes and forms. There is hardly anything that I’ve liked in my life more than those cleanshaven admirals, en face and in profile, in the gilded frames looming through a forest of masts on ship models that aspired to life size. In their eighteenth and nineteenth-century uniforms, with those jabots or high-standing collars, burdocklike fringe epaulets, wigs, and chest-crossing broad blue ribbons, they looked very much the instruments of a perfect, abstract ideal, no less precise than bronze-rimmed astrolabes, compasses, binnacles, and sextants glittering all about. They could compute one’s place under the stars with a smaller margin of error than their masters! And one could only wish they ruled human waves as well: to be exposed to the rigors of their trigonometry rather than to the shoddy planimetry of ideologues; to be a figment of a vision, mirage perhaps, rather than a part of reality. To this day, I think that the country would do a hell of a lot better if it had for its national banner not that foul double-headed imperial fowl or the vaguely Masonic hammer and sickle, but the flag of the Russian Navy: our glorious, incomparably beautiful flag of St. Andrew, the diagonal blue cross against a virgin-white background.
On the way home, my father and I would drop into stores, buy food or photographic materials (film, chemicals, paper), stop by shop windows. As we made our way through the center of town, he would tell me about this or that façade’s history, about what was here or there before the war. Who was the architect, who was the owner, who was the dweller, what happened to them, and, in his view, why. This six-foot-tall Navy commander knew a great deal about civilian life, and gradually I began to regard his uniform as a disguise; more precisely, the idea of distinction between form and content began to take root in my schoolboy mind. His uniform had to do with this effect no less than the present content of the façades he was pointing at. In my schoolboy’s mind this disparity would refract, of course, into an invitation to lie (not that I needed one); deep down, though, I think this taught me the principle of maintaining appearances no matter what is going on inside.
In Russia, the military seldom change into civvies, even at home. Partly this is a matter of one’s wardrobe, which is never too vast; mainly, though, this has to do with the notion of authority associated with uniform and thus with your social standing. Especially if you are an officer. Even the demobilized and retired tend to wear for quite some time, at home and in public, this or that part of their service outfit: a tunic without epaulets, tall boots, a military cap, an overcoat, indicating to everybody (and reminding themselves of) the degree of their belonging—for once in charge, always in charge. It is like the Protestant clergy in these parts; and in the case of a Navy man, this similarity is all the stronger because of his white undercollar.
We had lots of those, plastic and cotton ones, in the chest’s upper drawer; years later, when I was in the seventh grade and a uniform was introduced into school, my mother would cut and sew them to the standing collar of my ratgray tunic. For that uniform, too, was semimilitary: tunic, belt with a buckle, matching trousers, a cap with a lacquered visor. The earlier one starts to think of oneself as a soldier, the better it is for the system. That was fine with me, and yet I resented the color, which suggested the infantry or, worse still, the police. In no way could it match my father’s pitchblack overcoat with two rows of yellow buttons that suggested an avenue at night. And when he’d unbutton it, underneath you’d see the dark blue tunic with yet another file of the same buttons: a dimly lit street in evening. “A street within an avenue”—this is how I thought about my father, looking askance at him as we walked home from the museum.
There are two crows in my back yard here in South Hadley, Massachusetts. They are quite big, almost raven-size, and they are the first thing I see every time I drive to or from the house. They appeared here one by one: the first, two years ago, when my mother died; the second, last year, right after my father died. Or else that’s the way I noticed their presence. Now they always show up or flap away together, and they are too silent for crows. I try not to look at them; at least, I try not to watch them. Yet I’ve noticed that they tend to stay in the pine grove that starts at the end of my back yard and slopes for a quarter of a mile to a meadow that edges a small ravine with a couple of big boulders at the edge. I never walk there anymore because I expect to find the crows dormant atop those two boulders in the sunlight. Nor did I try to find their nest. They are black, but I have noticed that the inside of their wings is the color of wet ash. The only time that I don’t see them is when it’s raining.
In 1950, I think, my father was demobilized in accordance with some Politburo ruling that people of Jewish origin should not hold high military rank. The ruling was initiated, if I am not mistaken, by Andrei Zhdanov, who was then in charge of ideological control over the armed forces. By that time my father was already forty-seven, and he had to begin his life anew, as it were. He decided to return to journalism, to photo-reportage. To do so, however, he had to be employed by a magazine or a newspaper. That turned out to be quite difficult: the Fifties were bad years for the Jews. The campaign against the “rootless cosmopolites” was in full swing, then, in 1953, came the “Doctors’ Case,” which didn’t end in the usual blood bath only because its instigator, Comrade Stalin himself, all of a sudden, at the case’s apogee, died. But long before, and for some time after, the air was full of rumors of the Politburo’s planned reprisals against the Jews, of relocating all those “paragraph five” creatures to Eastern Siberia, to the area called Birobidzhan, near the Chinese border. There was even a letter in circulation, signed by the most prominent “paragraph five” persons—chess champions, composers, and writers—containing a plea to the Central Committee of the Party, and to Comrade Stalin personally, to permit us, the Jews, to redeem with hard labor in remote parts the great harm we had inflicted upon the Russian people. The letter was to appear any day now in Pravda as the pretext for our deportation.
What appeared in Pravda, however, was the announcement of Stalin’s death, although by that time we were preparing to travel and had already sold our upright piano, which nobody in our family could play anyhow (notwithstanding the distant relative my mother asked to tutor me: I had no talent whatsoever, and even less in the way of patience). Still, in that atmosphere, the chances for a Jew and a non–Party member to be hired by a magazine or a paper were dismal; so my father hit the road.
For several years he freelanced all over the country under contract to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibit in Moscow. This way we occasionally would get some marvels on our table—four-pound tomatoes or apple-cum-pear hybrids; but the pay was less than meager, and the three of us existed solely on my mother’s salary as a clerk in the borough’s development council. Those were our very lean years, and it was then that my parents began to get ill. All the same, my father seemed his gregarious self, and he frequently would take me about town to see his Navy pals, now running a yacht club, minding old dockyards, training youngsters. There were quite a lot of those, and invariably they were pleased to see him (I must say, I’ve never met anyone, man or woman, who held a grudge against him). One of them, the editor in chief of the newspaper for the regional branch of the merchant marines, a Jew who bore a Russian-sounding name, finally hired him, and until my father went into retirement he worked for that newspaper in the Leningrad harbor.
It appears that most of his life was spent on foot (“Reporters, like wolves, live by their paws” was his frequent utterance), among ships, sailors, captains, cranes, cargo. In the background, there was always a rippled zinc sheet of water, masts, the black metal bulk of a stern with a few white first or last letters of the ship’s home port. Except in winter, he always wore the black Navy cap with the lacquered visor. He liked to be near the water, he adored the sea. In that country, this is the closest one gets to freedom. Even looking at it is sometimes enough, and he looked at it, and photographed it, for most of his life.
To a varying degree, every child craves to be an adult and yearns to get out of his house, out of his oppressive nest. Out! Into real life! Into the wide world. Into life on his own terms.
In time he gets his wish. And for a while, he is absorbed with new vistas, absorbed with building his own nest, with manufacturing his own reality.
Then one day, when the new reality is mastered, when his own terms are met, he suddenly learns that his old nest is gone, that those who gave him life are dead.
On that day he feels like an effect suddenly without its cause. The enormity of the loss makes it incomprehensible. His mind, made naked by this loss, shrinks, and increases the magnitude of this loss even further.
He realizes that his youthful quest for “real life,” his departure from the nest, have rendered that nest defenseless. This is bad enough; still he can blame nature.
What he can’t blame nature for is the discovery that his achievement, the reality of his own manufacture, is less valid than the reality of his abandoned nest. That if there ever was anything real in his life, it was precisely that nest, oppressive and suffocating, from which he so badly wanted to flee. Because it was built by others, by those who gave him life, and not by him, who knows only too well the true worth of his own labor, who, as it were, just uses the given life.
He knows how willful, how intended, everything that he has manufactured is. How, in the end, all of it is provisional. And even if it lasts, the best way he can put it to use is as evidence of his skill, which he may brag about.
Yet, for all his skill, he’ll never be able to reconstruct that primitive, sturdy nest that heard his first cry of life. Nor will he be able to reconstruct those who put him there. An effect, he can’t reconstruct his cause.
The biggest item of our furniture—or rather, the one that occupied the most space—was my parents’ bed, to which I suppose I owe my life. It was a large, king-sized affair whose carvings, again, matched to a certain degree the rest, yet they were done in a more modern fashion. The same vegetation motif, of course, but the execution oscillated somewhere between art nouveau and the commercial version of constructivism. This bed was the subject of my mother’s special pride, for she had bought it very cheaply in 1935, before she and my father got married, having spotted it and a matching dressing table with three mirrors in a second-rate carpenter shop. Most of our life gravitated toward this low bed, and the most momentous decisions in our family were made when the three of us gathered, not around the table, but on that vast surface, with myself at my parents’ feet.
By Russian standards, this bed was a real luxury. I often thought that it was precisely this bed that persuaded my father to get married, for he loved to stay in it more than anything else. Even when he and my mother were engaged in the bitterest possible acrimony, mostly on the subject of our budget (“You are just hellbent on dumping all the cash at the grocer’s!” comes his indignant voice over the bookshelves separating my “half” from their “room.” “I am poisoned, poisoned by thirty years of your stinginess!” replies my mother), even then he’d be reluctant to get out of it, especially in the morning. Several people offered us very good money for that bed, which indeed occupied too much space in our quarters. But no matter how insolvent we were, my parents never considered selling it. The bed was clearly an excess, and I believe they liked it precisely for that reason.
I remember them sleeping in it on their sides, backs turned to each other, a gulf of crumpled blankets in between; I remember them reading there, talking, taking their pills, fighting this or that illness. The bed framed them for me at their most secure and their most helpless. It was their very private lair, their ultimate island, their own inviolable, by no one except me, place in the universe. Wherever it is now, it stands as a vacuum within the world order. A seven-by-five-foot vacuum. It was of light-brown polished maple, and it never creaked.
My “half” was connected to their room by two large, nearly ceiling-high arches which I constantly tried to fill with various combinations of bookshelves and suitcases, in order to separate myself from my parents, in order to obtain a degree of privacy. One can speak only about degrees, because the height and the width of those two arches, plus the Moorish configuration of their upper edge, ruled out any notion of complete success. Unless, of course, one could fill them up with bricks or cover them with wooden boards. But that was against the law, for it would result in our having two rooms instead of the one and a half that the borough housing order stated we were entitled to. Short of the fairly frequent inspections by our building’s super, the neighbors, no matter how nice the terms we were on with them, would report us to the appropriate authorities in no time.
One had to design a palliative, and that was what I was busy at from the age of fifteen on. I went through all sorts of mind-boggling arrangements, and at one time even contemplated building in a twelve-foot-high aquarium, which would have in the middle of it a door connecting my half with the room. Clearly, that architectural feat was beyond my ken. The solution, then, was more and more bookshelves on my side, more and thicker layers of drapery on my parents’. Needless to say, they liked neither the solution nor the nature of the problem itself. Girls and friends, however, grew in quantity more slowly than did the books; besides, the latter were there to stay. We had two armoires with full-length mirrors built into their doors but otherwise undistinguished. But they were rather tall, and they did half the job. Around and above them I built the shelves, leaving a narrow opening through which my parents could squeeze into my half, and vice versa. My father resented the arrangement, particularly since at the farthest end of my half he had built himself a darkroom where he was doing his developing and printing, i.e., where the large part of our livelihood came from.
There was a door in that end of my half. When my father wasn’t working in his darkroom, I would use that door for getting in and out. “So that I won’t disturb you,” I told my parents, but actually it was in order to avoid their scrutiny and the necessity of introducing my guests to them, or the other way around. To obfuscate the nature of those visits, I kept an electric gramophone, and my parents gradually grew to hate Bach.
Still later, when books and the need for privacy increased dramatically, I partitioned my half further by repositioning those armoires in such a way that they separated my bed and my desk from the darkroom. Between them, I squeezed a third one that was idling in the corridor. I tore its back wall out, leaving its door intact. The result was that a guest would have to enter my Lebensraum through two doors and one curtain. The first door was the one that led into the corridor; then one would find oneself standing in my father’s darkroom and removing a curtain; the next thing was to open the door of the former armoire. Atop the armoires, I piled all the suitcases we had. They were many; still, they failed to reach the ceiling. The net effect was that of a barricade; behind it, though, the gamin felt safe, and a Marianne could bare more than just her breast.
The dim view my mother and father took of these transformations brightened somewhat when they began to hear from behind the partition the clatter of my typewriter. The drapery muffled it considerably but not fully. The typewriter, with its Russian typeface, was also part of my father’s China catch, little though he expected it to be put to use by his son. I had it on my desk, tucked into the niche created by the bricked-up former door once connecting our room and a half with the rest of the enfilade. That’s when that extra meter came in handy! Since my neighbors had their piano on the opposite side of this door, I fortified my side against their daughter’s “Chopsticks” with a walled bookcase that, resting on my desk, fit the niche perfectly.
Two mirrored armoires and the passage between them on one side; the tall draped window with the windowsill just two feet above my rather spacious brown cushionless couch on the other; the arch, filled up to its Moorish rim with bookshelves behind; the niche-filling bookcase and my desk with the Royal Underwood in front of my nose—that was my Lebensraum. My mother would clean it, my father would cross it on his way back and forth to his darkroom; occasionally he or she would come for refuge in my wornout but deep armchair after yet another verbal skirmish with the other. Other than that, these ten square meters were mine, and they were the best ten square meters I’ve ever known. If space has a mind of its own and generates its own distribution, there is a chance some of these square meters, too, many remember me fondly. Now especially, under a different foot.
I am prepared to believe that it is more difficult for Russians to accept the severance of ties than for anyone else. We are, after all, a very settled people, even more so than other Continentals (Germans or French), who move around more, if only because they have cars and no borders to speak of. For us, an apartment is for life, the town is for life, the country is for life. The notions of permanence are therefore stronger; the sense of loss as well. Yet a nation that has lost in half a century nearly sixty million souls to its carnivorous state, not to mention twenty million killed in the war, surely was capable of upgrading its sense of stability. If only because those losses were incurred for the sake of the status quo.
So if one dwells on all this, it is not necessarily to comply with the native realm’s psychological makeup. Perhaps what is responsible for this outpouring is exactly the opposite: the incompatibility of the present with what’s remembered. Memory, I suppose, reflects the quality of one’s reality no less than utopian thought. The reality I face bears no relation and no correspondence to the room and a half and its two inhabitants, across the ocean and now nonexistent. As alternatives go, I can’t think of anything more drastic than where I am now. The difference is that between two hemispheres, between night and day, between a cityscape and a countryside, between the dead and the living. The only points in common are my own frame and a typewriter. Of a different make and with a different typeface.
I suppose that had I been around my parents for the last twelve years of their lives, had I been around them when they were dying, the contrast between night and day or between a street in a Russian town and an American country lane would be less sharp; the onslaught of memory would yield to that of utopian thinking. The wear and tear would have dulled the senses enough to perceive that tragedy as a natural one and leave it behind in a natural way. However, there are few things more futile than weighing one’s choices in retrospect; similarly, the good thing about an artificial tragedy is that it makes one pay attention to the artifice. The poor tend to make use of everything. I make use of my sense of guilt.
It is an easy sentiment to master. After all, every child feels guilty toward his parents, for somehow he knows that they will die before him. So all he needs to alleviate his guilt is to have them die of natural causes: of an illness, or old age, or both. Still, can one extend this sort of cop-out to the death of a slave? Of someone who was born free but whose freedom was altered?
I narrow this definition of a slave neither for academic reasons nor out of lack of generosity. I am willing to accept that a human being born in slavery knows about freedom either genetically or intellectually: through reading or just by hearsay. Yet I must add that his genetic craving for freedom is, like all cravings, to a certain degree incoherent. It is not the actual memory of his mind or limbs. Hence the cruelty and aimless violence of so many revolts. Hence, too, their defeats, when they turn into tyrannies. Death to such a slave, or to his kin, may seem a liberation.
But what about someone born free but dying a slave? Would he or she—and let’s keep ecclesiastical notions out of this—think of it as a solace? Well, perhaps. More likely, they would think of it as the ultimate insult, the ultimate, irreversible stealing of their freedom. That is what their kin or their child would think, and that is what it is. The last theft.
I remember how once my mother went to buy a railroad ticket to the south, to the Mineral Waters Sanatorium. She had her twenty-one-day vacation after two years in the borough development’s office, and she was going to that sanatorium because of her liver (she never learned it was cancer). In the city ticket office, in the long queue where she had already spent three hours, she discovered that her money for the ticket, four hundred rubles, had been stolen. She was inconsolable. She came home and stood in our communal kitchen and cried and cried. I led her to our room and a half; she lay on her bed and kept crying. The reason I remember this is that she never cried, except at funerals.
In the end my father and I came up with the money, and she went to the sanatorium. However, it wasn’t the lost money she was crying about…. Tears were infrequent in our family; the same goes to a certain extent for the whole of Russia. “Keep your tears for more grave occasions,” she would tell me when I was small. And I am afraid I’ve succeeded more than she wanted me to.
I suppose she wouldn’t approve of my writing all this, either. Nor would, of course, my father. He was a proud man. When something reprehensible or horrendous was drawing near him, his face assumed a sour yet at the same time challenging expression. It was as if he was saying “Try me” to something that he knew from the threshold was mightier than he. “What else could you expect from this scum?” would be his remark on those occasions, a remark with which he would go into submission.
This was not some brand of stoicism. There was no room for any posture of philosophy, however minimalist, in the reality of that time, which compromised every conviction or scruple by demanding total submission to the sum of their opposites. (Only those who did not return from the camps could claim intransigence; those who did were every bit as pliable as the rest.) Yet that was no cynicism, either. It was simply an attempt to keep one’s back straight in a situation of complete dishonor; to keep one’s eyes open. That’s why tears were out of the question.
The men of that generation were the either/or men. To their children, who were much more adept in transactions with their conscience (very profitable at times), these men often seemed simpletons. As I said, they were not highly selfaware. We, their children, were brought up—or rather brought ourselves up—to believe in the complexity of the world, in the significance of the nuance, of overtones, of gray areas, of the psychological aspects of this and that. Now, having reached the same age, having acquired the same physical mass and wearing clothes their size, we see that the whole thing boils down precisely to either/or, to the yes/no principle. It took us nearly a lifetime to learn what they seemed to know from the outset: that the world is a very raw place and doesn’t deserve better. That “yes” and “no” pretty well include, without anything left out, all that complexity which we were discovering and structuring with such relish, and which nearly cost us our willpower.
Had they looked for a motto for their existence, they could have taken a few lines from one of Akhmatova’s “Northern Elegies”:
Just like a river,
I was deflected by my stalwart era.
They swapped my life: into a dif-
past different landscapes, it went
And I don’t know my banks or
where they are.
They never told me much about their childhood, about their parents or grandparents. I know only that one of my grandparents (on my mother’s side) was a Singer sewing machine salesman in the Baltic provinces of the empire (Lithuania, Latvia, Poland) and that the other (on my father’s side) owned a print shop in St. Petersburg. This reticence had less to do with loss of memory than with the necessity of concealing their class origins during that potent era, in order to survive. Engaging raconteur that my father was, he would be quickly stopped in his reminiscing about his high-school endeavors by the warning shot of my mother’s gray eyes. In her turn, she would not even blink at hearing an occasional French expression on a street or coming from some of my friends, although one day I found her with a French edition of my works. We looked at each other; then she silently put the book back on the shelf and left my Lebensraum.
A deflected river running to its alien, artificial estuary. Can anyone attribute its disappearance at this estuary to natural causes? And if one can, what about its course? What about human potential, reduced and misdirected from outside? Who is there to account for what it has been deflected from? Is there anyone? And while asking these questions, I am not losing sight of the fact that this limited or misdirected life may produce in its course yet another life, mine for instance, which, were it not precisely for that reduction of options, wouldn’t have taken place to begin with. No, I am aware of the law of probability, I don’t wish that my parents had never met. I am asking these questions precisely because I am a tributary of a deflected river. In the end, I suppose, I am talking to myself.
So when and where, I ask myself, does the transition from freedom to slavery acquire the status of inevitability? When does it become acceptable, especially to an innocent bystander? At what age is it least harmful to alter one’s free state? At what age does this alteration register in one’s memory least? At the age of twenty? Fifteen? Ten? Five? In the womb? Rhetorical questions, these, aren’t they? Not really. A revolutionary or a conqueror at least should know the right answer. Genghis Khan, for instance, knew it. He just carved out everyone whose head was above a cart wheel’s hub. Five, then. But on October 25, 1917, my father was already fourteen; my mother, twelve. She already knew some French; he, Latin. That’s why I am asking these questions. That’s why I am talking to myself.
On summer evenings all three of our tall windows were open, and the breeze from the river tried to acquire the rank of an object in the tulle curtains. The river wasn’t far, just ten minutes’ walk from our building. Nothing was too far: the Summer Garden, the Hermitage, the Field of Mars. Yet even when they were younger my parents seldom went for a stroll, together or separately. After a whole day on his feet, my father wasn’t keen on going out again. As for my mother, standing in queues after eight hours in the office produced the same results; besides, there were plenty of things she had to do at home. If they ventured out, it would be mostly to attend a relative’s gathering (a birthday or a wedding anniversary), or for a movie, very seldom for the theater.
Living near them all my life, I wasn’t conscious of their aging. Now that my memory is shuttling between various decades, I see my mother watching from the balcony the shuffling figure of her husband down below and muttering under her breath, “A real oldster, aren’t you. A real old man.” And I hear my father’s “You just want to drive me into the grave,” which concluded their quarrels in their sixties, instead of the door banging and the receding sound of his steps a decade earlier. And I see, while shaving, his silver-gray stubble on my own chin.
If my mind gravitates now to their images as old people, it has to do with the knack of memory for retaining last impressions best. (Add to this our addiction to linear logic, to the principle of evolution—and the invention of photography is inevitable.) But I think my own getting to old age has something to do with it: one seldom dreams even about one’s own youth, about, say, being twelve. If I have any notion of my future, it is made in their likeness.
Like most males, I bear more resemblance to my father than to my mother. Yet as a child I spent more time with her—partly because of the war, partly because of the nomadic life my father had to lead. She taught me how to read at the age of four; most of my gestures, intonations, and mannerisms are, I presume, hers. Some of the habits, too, including the one of smoking.
By Russian standards, she was rather tall, five foot three, fair, and slightly plump. When she was young she had dishwater-blond hair, which she wore short all her life, and gray eyes. she was especially pleased that I inherited her straight, almost Roman nose, and not the arching, majestic beak of my father which she found fascinating. “Ah, this beak!” she would start, carefully punctuating her speech with pauses. “Such beaks”—pause—“are sold in the sky—six rubles apiece.” Although resembling one of the Sforza profiles by Piero della Francesca, the beak was clearly Jewish, and she had reasons for being glad that I didn’t inherit it.
In spite of her maiden name (which she retained in marriage), the “fifth paragraph” played in her case a lesser role than usual: because of her looks. She was positively very attractive, in a general northern European, I would say Baltic, way. In a sense, that was a blessing: she had no trouble getting a job. As a result, she had to work all her life. Presumably having failed to disguise her petit-bourgeois class origins, she had to give up her hopes for higher education, and spent her entire life in various offices, as either a secretary or an accountant. The war brought a change: she became an interpreter in a camp for German POWs and received the rank of junior lieutenant in the Internal Ministry forces. When Germany signed the surrender, she was offered a promotion and a career within that ministry’s system. Not anxious to join the Party, she declined and returned to the graph sheets and abacus. “I don’t intend to salute my husband first,” she told her superior. “And I don’t want to turn my wardrobe into an arsenal.”
We called her Marusya, Manya, Maneczka (my father’s and his sisters’ diminutives for her), and Masya or Keesa, which were my inventions. With the years, the last two acquired a greater currency, and even my father began to address her in this way. With the exception of Keesa, all these nicknames were diminutive forms of her first name, Maria. “Keesa” is a slightly endearing form for a female cat, and she resisted being addressed in this way for quite some time. “Don’t you dare call me that!” she would exclaim angrily. “And in general, stop using all these feline pet names of yours! Or else you’ll end up having cat brains!”
That meant my predilection as a boy to enunciate in a catlike fashion certain words whose vowels seemed to me to invite such treatment. “Meat” was one, and by the time I was fifteen, there was a great deal of meowing in our family. My father proved to be susceptible to this, and we began to address or refer to each other as Big Cat and Little Cat. A “meow” or a “purrneow,” or a “purr-murr-meow,” covered a substantial part of our emotional spectrum: approval, doubt, indifference, resignation, trust. Gradually, my mother started to use those, too, but mainly to denote detachment.
“Keesa,” however, stuck to her, especially when she was really old. Rotund, wrapped in a couple of brown shawls, with her terribly kind, soft face, she looked very cuddly and very much self-contained. It seemed as if she might purr. Instead, she would say to my father: “Sasha, have you paid this month’s electricity?” or to nobody in particular: “Next week is our turn for cleaning up the apartment.” Which meant scrubbing and washing the floors in the corridors and the kitchen, as well as cleaning the bathroom and the john. She would address nobody in particular because she knew she was the one who had to do it.
How they managed all those chores, cleanups especially, for the last twelve years, I have no idea. My departure, of course, meant one less mouth to feed, and they could hire someone from time to time to do these things. Still, knowing their budget (two meager pensions) and my mother’s character, I doubt that they did. Besides, in communal apartments, this practice is rare: the natural sadism of neighbors, after all, needs some degree of satisfaction. A relative, perhaps, may be allowed, but not a hired hand.
Croesus though I became, with my university salary, they wouldn’t hear of changing US dollars into rubles. They regarded the official rate of exchange as a rip-off; and they were both fastidious and fearful of having anything to do with the black market. The last reason was perhaps the strongest: they remembered how their pensions had been revoked in 1964, when I received my five-year sentence, and they had to find work again. So it was mostly clothes and art books that I sent them, since the latter command very high prices with bibliophiles. They took pleasure in the clothes, especially my father, who was always a sharp dresser. As for the art books, they kept them for themselves. To look at after scrubbing the communal floor at the age of seventy-five.
Their reading tastes were very catholic, my mother preferring Russian classics. Neither she nor my father held definite opinions about literature, music, art, although in their youth they knew personally a number of Leningrad writers, composers, painters (Zoshchenko, Zabolotsky, Shostakovich, Petrov-Vodkin). They were just readers—evening readers, to be more precise—and they were always careful to renew their library cards. Returning from work, my mother would invariably have in her string bag full of potatoes or cabbage a library book wrapped in a newspaper cover to prevent it from getting soiled.
It was she who suggested when I was sixteen and working at the factory that I register at the city public library; and I don’t think she had in mind only to prevent me from loitering about in the streets in the evening. On the other hand, as far as I knew, she wanted me to become a painter. At any rate, the rooms and corridors of that former hospital on the right bank of the Fontanka River were the beginning of my undoing, and I remember the first book I asked for there, on my mother’s advice. It was Gulistan (The Garden of Roses) by the Persian poet Saadi. My mother, it turned out, was fond of Persian poetry. The next thing that I asked for, on my own, was Maupassant’s La Maison tellier.
What memory has in common with art is the knack for selection, the taste for detail. Complimentary though this observation may seem to art (that of prose in particular), to memory it should appear insulting. The insult, however, is well deserved. Memory contains precisely details, not the whole picture; highlights, if you will, not the entire show. The conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in a blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life, is groundless. More than anything, memory resembles a library in alphabetical disorder, and with no collected works by anyone.
The way other people mark the growth of their children with pencil notches on the kitchen wall, every year on my birthday my father took me out to our balcony and photographed me there. In the background lay a medium-size cobblestone square with the Cathedral of the Savior of Her Imperial Majesty’s Transfiguration Battalion. In the war years its crypt was designated a local bomb shelter, and my mother kept me there during air raids, in a big box with remembrance notes. This is one thing that I owe to Orthodoxy, and it has to do with memory.
The cathedral, a six-story-tall neoclassicist affair, surrounded by a considerable garden full of oak, linden, and maple, was my playground after the war, and I remember my mother collecting me there (she pulls, I stall and scream: a tableau of cross-purposes) and dragging me home to do homework. With similar clarity I see her, my grandfather, and my father, in one of this garden’s narrow alleys, trying to teach me to ride a two-wheel bicycle (a tableau of common goal, or of motion). On the rear, eastern wall of the cathedral, there was, covered with thick glass, a large, dim icon depicting the Transfiguration: Christ floating in the air above a bunch of bodies reclined in fascination. Nobody could explain to me the significance of that picture; even now I am not sure I grasp it fully. There were a great many clouds in the icon, and somehow I associated them with the local climate.
The cathedral garden was surrounded by a black cast-iron fence held up by equally spaced groups of cannons, standing upside-down, captured from the British by the Transfiguration Battalion’s soldiers in the Crimean War. Adding to the décor of the fence, the cannon barrels (three in each case, on a granite block) were linked by heavy cast-iron chains on which children swung wildly, enjoying both the danger of falling on the spikes below and the clang. Needless to say, that was strictly forbidden and the cathedral wardens chased us away all the time. And needless to say, the fence was far more interesting than the inside of the cathedral, with its smell of incense and much more static activity. “See those?” asks my father, pointing at the heavy chain links. “What do they remind you of?” I am in the second grade, and I say, “They are like figure eights.” “Right,” he says. “And do you know what the figure eight is a symbol of?” “Snakes?” “Almost. It is a symbol of infinity.” “What’s infinity?” “That you had better ask in there,” says my father with a grin, pointing to the cathedral.
Yet it was he who, having bumped into me on the street in broad daylight when I was skipping school, demanded an explanation. I told him that I was suffering from an awful toothache, and he took me straight to the dental clinic, so that I paid for my lies with two hours of terror. And yet again it was he who took my side at the Pedagogical Council when I was about to be expelled from my school for disciplinary problems. “How dare you! You who wear the uniform of our Army!” “Navy, madam,” said my father. “And I defend him because I am his father. There is nothing surprising about it. Even animals defend their siblings. Even Brem says so.” “Brem? Brem? I…I will inform the Party organization of your outfit.” Which she, of course, did.
“On your birthday and on the New Year you must always put on something absolutely new. At least, socks”—this is the voice of my mother. “Always eat before you are going to see somebody superior: your boss or your officer. That way you’ll have some edge.” (This is my father speaking.) “If you’ve just left your house and have to return because you forgot something, take a look in the mirror before you leave the house again. Else you may encounter trouble.” (She again.) “Never think how much you’ve spent. Think how much you can make.” (That’s him.) “Don’t you ever walk in town without a jacket.” “It’s good that you are red-haired, no matter what they say. I was a brunet, and brunets are a better target.”
I hear these admonitions and instructions, but they are fragments, details. Memory betrays everybody, especially those whom we knew best. It is an ally of oblivion, it is an ally of death. It is a fishnet with a very small catch, and with the water gone. You can’t use it to reconstruct anybody, even on paper. What’s the matter with those reputed millions of cells in our brain? What’s the matter with Pasternak’s “great god of love, great god of details”? On what number of details must one be prepared to settle?
I see their faces, his and hers, with great clarity, in the variety of their expressions—but these are fragments also: moments, instances. They are better than photographs with their unbearable laughter, and yet they are as scattered. At times, I begin to suspect my mind is trying to produce a cumulative, generalized image of my parents, a sign, a formula, a recognizable sketch; is trying to make me settle for these. I suppose I could, and I fully realize how absurd the grounds of my resistance are: these fragments’ lack of continuity. One shouldn’t expect so much from memory; one shouldn’t expect a film shot in the dark to develop new images. Of course not. Still, one can reproach a film shot in the daylight of one’s life for missing frames.
Presumably the whole point is that there should be no continuity: of anything. That failures of memory are but a proof of a living organism’s subordination to the laws of nature. No life is meant to be preserved. Unless one is a pharaoh, one doesn’t aspire to become a mummy. Granted, the objects of one’s recollection possess this sort of sobriety; it may reconcile one to the quality of one’s memory. A normal man doesn’t expect anything to continue; he expects no continuity even for himself or his works. Often a man doesn’t remember what he has had for breakfast. Things of a routine, repetitive nature are meant to be forgotten. Breakfast is one; loved ones are another. The best thing to do is attribute this to economy of space.
And one can use those prudently saved brain cells for pondering whether failures of memory are not just a mute voice of one’s suspicion that we all are only strangers to one another. That our sense of autonomy is far stronger than that of unity, let alone of causality. That a child doesn’t remember his parents because he is always outbound, poised for the future. He, too, presumably, saves his brain cells for future use. The shorter your memory, the longer you live, says a proverb. Alternatively, the longer your future, the shorter your memory. That’s one way of determining your prospects for longevity, of telling the future patriarch. The drawback, though, is that patriarchs or not, autonomous or linked, we, too, are repetitive, and a Big Somebody saves His brain cells on us.
It is neither aversion to this kind of metaphysics nor dislike of the future, evidently guaranteed by the quality of my memory, that keeps me poring over it in spite of small returns. The self-delusions of a writer, or the fear of facing the charge of conspiring with the laws of nature at the expense of my father and mother, have very little to do with this also. I simply think that natural laws denying continuity to anyone in concert with (or in the guise of) deficient memory serve the interests of the state. As far as I am concerned, I am unwilling to work for their advancement.
Of course, twelve years of dashed, rekindled, and dashed-again hopes, leading a very old couple over the thresholds of numerous offices and chancelleries to the furnace of the state crematorium, are repetitive in themselves, in view not only of their duration but of the number of similar cases as well. Yet I am less concerned with sparing my brain cells this monotony than the Supreme Being is with His. Mine are quite polluted, anyway. Besides, remembering even mere details, fragments, not to mention remembering them in English, is not in the interests of the state. That alone keeps me going.
These two crows get a bit too brazen. Now they have landed on my porch and loiter about its old woodpile. They are pitch-black, and although I avoid looking at them, I notice they differ in size somewhat from each other. One is shorter than the other, the way my mother was up to my father’s shoulder; their beaks, however, are identical. I am no ornithologist, but I believe crows live long; at least ravens do. Although I can’t make out their age, they seem to be an old couple. On an outing, I don’t have it in me to shoo them away, nor can I communicate with them in any fashion. I also seem to remember that crows do not migrate. If the origins of mythology are fear and isolation, I am isolated all right. And I wonder how many things will remind me of my parents from now on. That is to say, with this sort of visitor, who needs a good memory?
One of memory’s faults is that it retains odd items. Like the five-digit phone number (our first) that we had right after the war. It was 265-39, and I suppose I still remember it because the phone was installed when I was memorizing the multiplication tables in school. It is of no use to me now: in the same way as our last number, in our room and a half, is of no use anymore. I don’t remember it, the last one, although for the past twelve years I called it almost every week. Letters wouldn’t go through, so we settled for the telephone: it is evidently easier to monitor a phone call than to pore over and then deliver a letter. Those weekly calls to the USSR! ITT never had it so good.
We couldn’t say much during those exchanges, changes, we had to be either reticent or oblique and euphemistic. It was mostly about weather or health, no names, a great deal of dietetic advice. The main thing was to hear each other’s voice, assuring ourselves in this animal way of our respective existences. It was mostly nonsemantic, and small wonder that I remember no particulars except Father’s reply on the third day of my mother’s stay in the hospital. “How is Masya?” I asked. “Well, Masya is no more, you know,” he said. The “you know” was there because on this occasion, too, he tried to be euphemistic.
Or else a key is thrown up to the surface of my mind: a longish, stainless steel key which was awkward to carry in our pockets, yet which fit easily in my mother’s purse. This key would open our tall white door, and I don’t understand why I recall it now, since that place no longer exists. I doubt that there is any erotic symbolism to it, for among us we had three replicated versions. For that matter, I don’t understand why I recall the wrinkles on my father’s forehead, and under his chin, or the reddish, slightly inflamed left cheek of my mother’s (she called it “vegetative neurosis”), for neither those marks nor the rest of their bearers exist any longer either. Only their voices somehow survive in my conscience: presumably because my own blends them the way my features must blend theirs. The rest—their flesh, their clothes, the telephone, the key, our possessions, the furniture—is gone, and never to be found, as if our room and a half had been hit by a bomb. Not by a neutron bomb, which at least leaves the furniture intact, but by a time bomb, which splinters even the memory. The building still stands, but the place is wiped out clean, and new tenants, no, troops, move in to occupy it: that’s what a time bomb is. For this is a time war.
They liked opera arias, tenors, and the movie stars of their youth, didn’t care very much for painting, had a notion of “classical” art, enjoyed solving crossword puzzles, and were bewildered and upset by my literary pursuits. They thought me wrong, worried about the way I was going, but supported me as much as they could, because I was their child. Later on, when I managed to print something here and there, they felt pleased, and at times even proud; but I know that should I have turned out to be simply a graphomaniac and a failure, their attitude toward me wouldn’t have been any different. They loved me more than themselves, and most likely wouldn’t understand my feelings of guilt toward them at all. The main issues were bread on the table, clean clothes, and staying healthy. Those were their synonyms for love, and they were better than mine.
As for that time war, they fought it valiantly. They knew that a bomb was going to explode, but they never changed their tactics. As long as they were upright, they were moving about, buying and delivering food to their bedridden friends, relatives; giving clothes, what money they could spare, or refuge to those who now and then happened to be worse off. They were that way always, as long as I remember them; and not because deep down they thought that if they were kind to some people, it would somehow be registered on high and they would be treated one day in kind. No, this was the natural and uncalculated generosity of extroverts, which perhaps became all the more palpable to others now that I, its main object, was gone. And this is what ultimately may help me to come to terms with the quality of my memory.
That they wanted to see me before they died had nothing to do with a desire or an attempt to dodge that explosion. They didn’t want to emigrate, to live their last days in America. They felt too old for any change and, at best, America for them was just the name of the place where they could meet their son. It was real for them only in their doubt whether they could manage the trip, should they be allowed to travel. And yet what games these two old, frail people tried to play with the scum in charge of granting permission! My mother would apply for a visa alone in order to show that she was not intending to defect to the United States, that her husband would stay behind as a hostage, to guarantee her return. Then they would reverse roles. Then they wouldn’t apply for a while, pretending that they had lost interest, or showing the authorities that they understood how difficult it was for them, the authorities, to make a decision under this or that climate in US–Soviet relations. Then they would apply just for a oneweek stay in the US, or for permission to travel to Finland or Poland. Then she would go to the capital, to seek an audience with what that country had for a president, and knock on all the doors of the foreign and internal ministries that there are. All in vain: the system, from top to bottom, never made a single mistake. As systems go, it can be proud of itself. But then inhumanity is always easier to structure than anything else. For that job, Russia never had to import the know-how. In fact, the only way for that country to get rich is to export it.
For their sake, I would like to think that they didn’t allow themselves to build their hopes too high. Perhaps my mother did; but if so, that had to do with her own kindness, and my father didn’t miss a chance to point this out to her. (“Nothing pays less, Marusya,” he used to retort, “than self-projection.”) As for him, I recall the two of us walking one sunny afternoon together in the Summer Garden when I was already twenty or perhaps nineteen. We’d stopped before the wooden pavilion in which the marine brass band was playing old waltzes: he wanted to take some pictures of the band. White marble statues loomed here and there, smeared with leopard-cum-zebra patterns of shadows, people were shuffling along on the gravel, children shrieked by the pond, and we were talking about the war and the Germans. Staring at the brass band, I found myself asking him which concentration camps in his view were worse: the Nazis’ or ours. “As for myself,” came the reply, “I’d rather be burned at the stake at once than die a slow death and discover a meaning in the process.” Then he proceeded to take pictures.
February 27, 1986