Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Self-Portrait with Russian Piano

A Novel

Wolf Wondratschek; Translated from the German by Marshall Yarbrough

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

I

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.


II

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.

The waiter hurried off.

Sadly, he said, as he picked a flake of tobacco from the corner of his mouth. I can’t anymore. That’s how it is. Ever since I could drink alcohol, I drank. You don’t think about it, you do it. I’m not exactly what you would call a patriot, not in the political sense, but why not admit that we’re more broad-minded about our vices than others, and in every interview I always gave the same answer to the question about our relationship to alcohol in Russia. Old Russian tradition! Which they translated as “We’re Russians, we drink.” They couldn’t get enough of the subject. Are Russians drinkers because they’re unhappy? Unhappy Communists? Was alcohol good for dealing with hunger pangs? Might that be a reason to go to the West, to avoid becoming an alcoholic? They pulled out all the stops.

I mean really! I’m not a fact sheet. But of course I had one or two lines handy that I developed over the years. Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink! That was one. We felt sorry for people who drank in secret. Most of them didn’t live long either. We didn’t drink like aristocrats. Plain water glasses were enough for us. To be so close to the flame that a bonfire envelops you, you understand? It shields people from their big country.

I didn’t need a thing so long as I was playing piano, but what were you supposed to do with your hands in your free time? Grab a glass! Even today I still have this naked feeling without one.

He looked past my head at something on the wall. The blessing of a long life? I don’t know. Just more unfulfillable dreams?

But I wanted to tell you a story. Moscow, Tchaikovsky Hall. An architectural confection. A sliced-open cake. But the acoustics aren’t bad. You can be a hero. The air full of spirits. My hands never felt colder. But on the evening of the premiere of my friend Alfred Schnittke’s Second Symphony, I was hot. I was burning up, down to my fingertips. Two of my students didn’t have tickets for this concert—which wasn’t public, no tickets were sold at all. Out of caution. And so they thought up a plan. They were obsessed with getting into that hall. You see, that’s how it was. It’s not just composers who live off inspiration. They showed up early in the afternoon, dressed like cleaning women. They were let through. In the stairwell they snuck inside a crate that had been slapped together for renovation work. They spent the next four hours in there, until shortly before the concert began.

For the first time he seemed to be aware that I was listening to him. And you, what would you jump in a crate for? But he kept talking, without waiting for an answer, which I wouldn’t have been able to give him anyway.

When my wife died a year ago—nothing but a completely senseless and yet just as fatal collision with a city bus—I called one of those two students. Works as a musicologist now. For better or worse, I was obligated to carry out the terms of a will, namely, my wife’s wish to be buried in Russian soil. Now, she didn’t mean I should ship her body to Moscow. She meant something more poetic. She was homesick. She was like that. Homesick for her native soil. And so I tasked my former student with sending me some Russian soil. Postage paid by recipient, of course. It’s heavy stuff.


III

DO YOU REMEMBER?


Vienna is full of Russians, young and old, living and dead, poor and rich. Seems like every time the phone rings there’s another one, man or woman, arriving or leaving for good. Everybody has their turn, just as it should be. And for each and every one of them I have a final farewell, a shovelful of Russian soil, a little shovelful, a little spoonful. I’ve got enough stored up, a whole suitcase full.

Suvorin chuckles to himself. A last little spoonful for myself, too.

He watches with delight as a young woman walks past. You see, he says, that’s what they looked like, our girls, only prettier, much prettier, much, much prettier. Each one of us had one or two, and each one was the prettiest. We weren’t the kind of folks who have a state funeral waiting for them, but we had a life. They loved us. The prettiest girl of them all loved a man who squinted.

His chuckle rattles with delight.

We married our muses, one after the other, to put them to the test. Of course, you weren’t always lucky. More rebuffed marriage proposals than symphonies. More tears than notes. Your head still buzzing from it even today. One guy had saved up for an engagement ring only to have to pawn it after a decree from the father of the bride. I knew a guy who was having trouble writing a love letter. This got around to the woman for whom it was intended, who is meant to have told her husband about it, laughing all the while. One guy fell in love with a fifteen-year-old poet, which aged him in an instant. I saw him again years later in Paris, he attended one of my concerts and came to see me in my dressing room afterward. But it was strange—our first embrace, after such a long time, was like a farewell. His face like snuff tobacco, his voice an octave too low, bags under his eyes, yet he was in high spirits. He was in the company of a woman, an amply endowed German, a good six feet tall and just as wide. She’s rich, he informed me, and I congratulated him. We were speaking Russian, she didn’t understand us. Very rich! He met her, I learned, on the French Riviera, where she was masquerading as a Baltic baroness. He, on the other hand, had quite truthfully presented himself as a Russian composer, which impressed her. He related to her a few episodes from his life, some true, some fabricated, and promised, after she had confessed to him her love of the violin, to write a violin concerto and dedicate it to her. She was moved almost to tears. He let on, and now at this point he was no longer quite sober, that he had connections in New York, with certain world-class violinists residing there—friends, as he described them. Was this immortality? She dismantled a lobster. She wanted to leave for Leningrad right away. She wanted to shower him with presents, and did so, too. There was no doubting it, a first night together in a Monégasque grand hotel was no longer to be avoided. This was my chance, he whispered in my ear. He did full justice, if he is to be believed, to the superstition that Russians are capable of anything in bed. He wore himself out; then, thinking it was summer and he was living in a villa in Italy rented for him by a devoted patroness, he threw open the windows—and came down with a bad cold. The kettledrum, to use a musical term, looked after him as much as he would allow; he asked for staff paper and pencils. But nothing came to him. The promised concerto for full orchestra and violin never got past the mighty drum roll with which he wanted to begin the piece. He finally managed, on various islands, to write a short first movement, an allegro, for a sonata for violin and piano—so, not much, and as he himself admitted, not exactly a significant work. He also couldn’t bring himself to decide whether the second slow movement should be an adagio or an andante, and decided instead to take an extended creative break, which was interrupted by a bout of renal colic. Barely recovered, he presented the woman with a few preliminary notes, scribbled on the margins of restaurant menus, which she then had framed.

The colossal Teuton fell for my friend’s fakery with the guilelessness of an idiot, busy as she was finding ways to part with her money—among other things it was her hobby, after she had tired of pearl necklaces and hats, to collect earrings; and, while still in bed, which she never left before noon, she liked to have her composer massage her stomach, which, he said, felt quite revolting, like “spoiled honey.”

Is there any explanation for the things people do to themselves? And, if not, is there some method, some means of saving yourself?

I shouldn’t talk like this, he apologized, since I’m the one who’s worthless. Is it her fault that I’m all washed up as a composer? When she asks if I find her attractive, I have to control myself so I don’t get red in the face. And it’s hard to believe, but she has a sense of humor, especially when she’s been drinking. If I’m too fat for you, or too old, you can have me at half price! There’s still that at least!

That she was the one to make the decisions about everything they did went without saying. She taught him manners, dressed him in clothes that suited her taste more than his, taught him to give generous tips, to shave twice a day, and not to spit into his handkerchief at the table. Without a doubt, after many difficult years Zagursky had landed on his feet for once. Zagursky—or as his calling card now presented him, with his full name: Leonid Andreivitch Zagursky—now led the life of a bon vivant, though at this point he did so without enthusiasm and in increasingly unstable, compromised health. Gone was the vitality that at first had led him to believe himself the director of a comedy in which he appeared in the star role, gave cues to the other actors, and made the curtain rise or fall at his whim. Tragedy waited in the wings.

More and more often he asked himself: Why am I doing this?

He couldn’t bring himself to admit the truth to her, the whole truth about his complete lack of compositional inspiration—and his fondness for cabbage soup and chamomile tea. When he thought of the hopelessness of his situation, the paltriness of his existence, thought of all the personal as well as professional lies that he spouted out of vanity, but still more out of despair, from morning to night, he could feel icy sweat form on his forehead. The results issued to him by the doctors he consulted (and whom she paid for) were unambiguous. I have it in writing. My demise, my dear old friend, seems inevitable.

I had to laugh. What don’t I have in writing.

I complimented the two of them, I didn’t want to upset my friend. But I felt sorry for him. A helpless Russian, yet another, who can’t leave off trying to impress the world with sheer might. But he couldn’t fool me, his old friend. The sun, instead of tempering him, had dried him out. He was drifting toward his end, and seemed to be letting it happen. Reeling with weakness, he clung tight to me—still sweaty and wearing my tailcoat—like a man falling.

I understood it all quite well. Having to like people whom you abhor saps you of strength. As does being at a woman’s beck and call. And having to endure opulent champagne dinners every night. And after midnight, when she’s dropping a strawberry into her champagne glass, worrying about how you’ll manage to stay on your feet.

Zagursky tore at his strong, still jet-black hair. Oh gods of my youth! Oh Samara, city of my childhood! Oh happiness that has left me! No time left to work. There’s not even time to rest, to simply sit there and not think about anything.

Once upon a time there was, my friend, I said.

Once upon a time there was everything, he said, life, laughter, good times with women. Gone, gone. He called out names, names of friends. How are they?

They’re dying.

And for you, too, Zagursky, a little shovelful, I thought. We won’t see each other again, not on this earth.

Do you remember? We all made music, scribbled down notes, played them, alone, together, with each other, over one another, against one another, in private, in public. We fought. It was spring. It rained often, which it rarely does here. Here it simply rains too little. I can’t live without rain. I suffocate without rain. He took a few sheets of music that lay on the piano, ran a hand over them, and I saw how he turned away so that I wouldn’t catch him fighting back tears. In those days, if you had worked, you earned for yourself the joys of an endless night … And today?

For my part, I answered him, I go to sleep after the evening news.

Suvorin signals the waiter and asks for a glass of water. He takes from a bag one, two, three, four, five—five small different-colored pills, a little family, which he beds in the palm of his hand and stares at for a long time. Bright as they are, they won’t save me.


Copyright © 2018 by Wolf Wondratschek

Translation Copyright © 2020 by Marshall Yarbrough