HANDSHAKE WITH A DEAD MAN?
At the coffeehouse. Every table occupied. Every joke told. Every newspaper read. Foreigners and locals. The waiters dance. The air a lit cigar. At my table a Russian, a piano player in his youth, a forgotten celebrity. He has made his peace. Moscow, London, Vienna. Every distance bridged in the lines of a poem, every room fused together into mystery. I tried it, a sober accounting, a sunny recollection, but I failed. In the end it’s hotel rooms that you remember, more than concerts. A too-firm handshake. Pretty women who knock and then apologize, they had the wrong room. A suitcase with a broken lock. The Eiffel Tower in the fog, for two days you couldn’t see a thing. And of course you knew: art can’t do a thing, and it can’t do a thing about it.
It’s unbelievable how useless a man can become, a man like myself, who ends up slipping into a gap in memory, no shoes, no dream. His right hand, more paw now than hand, plays with a cigarette, which the doctors have prohibited him from smoking. His heart. He has it in writing. You will die. That, he answers, is what I’m hoping for. And no music, not a single note. Church bells, yes, the way they would sound in the villages of my home, the home of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles. Summer holidays, I remember, long short weeks. Caves I didn’t dare set foot in. Chickens that bled to death in your hands. Waiting for a storm. Gathering wood for a fire, which of course was forbidden, but the man who went riding past didn’t mind; he was completely caught up in the song he was singing. You didn’t have to be a good boy, you could stay up late and listen to the stories the adults told each other. If you fell asleep, the taste of sweet wild berries still on your tongue, someone carried you off to bed. Happy life! Standing barefoot in the mud. Falling from trees into the softness below. And climbing back up. Again and again, don’t stop! There were women, young strong women at work in the fields, I was ashamed to look at them. How old was I when I started having thoughts that weren’t the thoughts of a child? Oh yes, already they were calling me, girls, brash, red-cheeked girls, they had been hiding! I gathered what I could find, threw it away again, kept walking. Herds of sheep. Wagon tracks in the sand. Wandering fortune-tellers, young and old, who, because the future wasn’t in high demand, also traded in pearls and rare roots. My first white and black keys, an accordion. Blue kerchiefs, the color of love. Come to me again, I’m thinking of you. Then the Germans came. They didn’t take our money, but they took our soap and matches. Death came, and there was no one left to explain it. The old who were still alive were no longer speaking. People who went to bed didn’t get up again. If there was any singing at all, it was only in our heads, in secret. No candles burned before our icons, not for a long time. Love was warming each other’s hands. In Leningrad, no one got out and no one got in. A city held captive to hunger. The safest place, and what a joke this was, was Siberia.
I hear a man talking, a man I’ve just met, whose manner of speaking, in this language that is foreign to him, itself sounds foreign, a fragile house of cards that he takes great care to protect, even from his own breath. This is the sound of words going uphill. And another thing, which makes it no easier to understand him: his mind wanders, his thoughts get scattered. He hears the ice breaking in the canals, hears shots being fired at bears, hears the wrong notes that he, inexplicably indisposed, once played in Paris. It’s a skill, I think, you have to practice, you have to learn to give him time.
After draining the glass of water into which, without his noticing, ashes from his cigarette have fallen, he wipes his mouth dry and looks at me, as if I had given him a clever answer to a question he didn’t ask.
I look forward to it, he says. And it should rain, I always loved rain. It should rain for a long time. It should rain till it gets dark, till the stars come out. God I don’t believe in. I am a believer of a different, older kind.
DO WE NOT GET TO LIVE?
I arranged to meet with the old Russian. He suggested an Italian restaurant, not too far from his apartment.
Through the window he looked like a beggar. He was smoking. He was tired. Although he wasn’t allowed to have coffee, he ordered one, which cheered him up. The act of breaking a prohibition was always guaranteed to lift his spirits. My heart loves my follies. Not all of them, but this one and a few others, and it forgives me for them, I hope. It’s still going, still keeping the beat, it never drops out. Sometimes, it’s true, it threatens to stop. The worst time, he said, was back in Paris, when between rehearsals for a concert he had sought out the grave of the Romanian pianist Clara Haskil in the Montparnasse cemetery. There she lay in her grave, and there he stood feeling useless. She knew more than I did. I didn’t know what it was that she knew. I only knew that it was important to know it, and that I didn’t know it. A secret—yet another, if we’re talking about music. And it’s interesting, to hear something without being able to understand it, and how much music have we all heard in our lives, good, marvelous music, brilliantly performed. And still! His heart ached. It was she he admired, more than just about anyone else who’d ever sat at a piano, but he kept this to himself. To his regret, he had never seen her in concert, and of course had never met her in person, no, though the latter he didn’t really regret, since he wouldn’t have had the words to express his admiration for her, and to try to shake her hand would have seemed an impertinence to him. But there was always a gulf between them, they were kept years and kilometers apart. He was fifteen and had only just arrived in Moscow to study when Haskil died in Belgium, though she was buried in Paris. She slipped on a staircase, I think, she never recovered from the fall. A moment’s carelessness, which she would never have allowed herself at the piano. What are you supposed to make of it? Do we not get to live?
It didn’t mean much back then, neither to him nor any of the other students. That changed when he discovered her recordings on his own and wanted to know everything about her life, her training, her career, her performances. From then on, it was almost as if he loved her, as if he loved the modesty with which she had appeared before her audience, the greatness of this modesty. It could make you ache, how small she wanted to be, how she managed to escape into simplicity without betraying the music. Music isn’t a room you get to repaint. Did she speak Russian? Did she speak at all? Did her hands get cold before every appearance, too cold for Mozart, who would then warm them for her? There were doctors in her life back then, not yet any in his.
Oh right, something else I’ll never forget, Suvorin said abruptly, and in his thoughts he was back in Paris, in the early years of his life. When I visited her grave, there was a cat lying there, it didn’t pay me any mind, didn’t even look at me, just went and stretched out on the gravestone, and in such a way that it covered up the death date with its little head, as though it wanted to trick the world, no, better yet, to prove the world wrong, to make it as though her death hadn’t happened. Everything else, her name, the date and place where she was born, all that you could still see. Strange, isn’t it?
Suvorin didn’t give or attend concerts anymore. In a corner of his mind there’s still a piano, however—a place to put photos. How young they all once were. Always with one foot in prison, which even long after Stalin’s death could mean exile, a labor camp, the end, plain and simple. A dead man in no time, or at the very least a dying one. And you died slowly. It’s better we drink to it than let ourselves be discouraged.
A waiter hurrying by stopped to take his order.
I don’t drink anymore.
Copyright © 2018 by Wolf Wondratschek
Translation copyright © 2020 by Marshall Yarbrough