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The night before leaving Bangkok to fly at 5:00 A.M. to Srinagar, Alice Parelli had this dream. She was with her husband and the tour group, as in reality. Everyone was there, even the brazen redhead. Alice was in a room, looked out a stone window and saw an immense mountain changing colors, the ice flashing from purple to green. She turned around to call someone, anyone, to the window, it happened to be the redhead.
“Look at this,” Alice tried to show her, but the apparition had vanished.
Why did she look away? Why hadn’t she just focused the vision? Why did she have to bring someone else into it?
And why Kathleen McCarthy, the redhead with Botticelli features, the pointed nose, tall and graceful, with the perfect wardrobe consisting of 3 outfits in permanently wrinkled fabrics of muted green? She was traveling alone but soon confided to Alice that she need to get away to think about a rich man who wanted to marry her, whom she couldn’t stand, but she wanted one of his houses, which she could get in a divorce. He was a wimp, not worth her time, but she had to think of her own security. From a military background, she had spent a childhood migrating from one base to the next, all identical. She did not think of any of them as home. It might be worth pandering to him to get a house. And he understood that, she’d told him in plain English, that she would marry him briefly, for a house. And that was alright with him. But she was on this trip to think it over. Alice was appalled.
The tour group was composed of about 20 people, all of them, except for Kathleen and the Parellis, over 75. The group had assembled in Hong Kong, where they met their tour guide, and had already made their way through 3 days of Tokyo and 5 in Bangkok. It had been so hot that Kathleen had not really focused on the other members. Now she noted quickly that they were, for the most part, paired and the singles were much older women. Her shark-like scanner quickly zeroed in on Charles Parelli. Of all the passengers he was the only attractive man or perhaps it was that he found her attractive, she was a professional, with eyes alone they could cut deals. He noticed it, her copper hair amid the heads of gray. Charles and Alice had never taken a tour before and hadn’t realized that it would be comprised of retirees.
The redhead Kathleen formed a loose alliance with the Parellis and they acquiesced, she was the only person remotely near their age.
There was Harry Horner, 75, retired from the Navy but still straight as a board. He and his wife Lorraine, recovering from the removal of one lung, had already been twice to China and were going again in 6 months, it was already booked.
“Why would you go to China three times?” Kathleen asked Harry when she gave him the once-over. He’d returned her nuances with a wink.
“It’s a big country,” he said.
Then there were the Tolsons, a very tall couple, also in their 70’s, who immediately became fast friends with Harry and Lorraine, they all drank scotch, and as the one couple had a divorced daughter, and the other, a single son, they embarked on a matchmaking binge. They went through the introduction, engagement and wedding in no time flat and within a week were no longer talking to each other, their rooms had to be booked at opposite ends.
A few other nondescript old couples and three old maids who were on this trip for the sole purpose of seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight. Other places were entirely lost on them with echoes of “where are we?” and “whose dogs are these?” They probably started drinking early in the day. They all carried their own bottles. They trudged through India with no complaints, not matter how hot or miserable it was. They seemed, this group of drinkers, to be impervious.
Harry took a brief interest in Kathleen, only for his son, of course, and realized immediately the sort she was. Not exactly a prostitute, though she did hang out in luxury hotels all over the world. She carried no camera and did not photograph anything. She claimed to have one in her suitcase, and that she had no use for pictures and at Gandhi’s Tomb in Delhi, while everyone had their cameras in front of their faces, Kathleen was looking around. Alice caught a picture of her making contact with a Sikh.
Right away Alice thought: Sikhs, IRA. Kathleen was of Irish ancestry, had been to Ireland recently, she claimed. Alice photographed them again a few times, just to be on the safe side. Kathleen’s copper hair looked striking against the Sikh’s white turban. It was not an accidental meeting, but an assignation. What was it, a transaction of money for weapons or information? But there was something very intimate about the way their bodies fit together, the way their eyes locked onto each other, anyone could see they had just been or would soon be lovers. The next two days she did not show for any morning tours, and skipped the Temple complex altogether.
At the Taj Mahal a few days later, Alice photographed her having a long conversation with someone dressed like a beggar. She was next seen at the Oberoi in the company of a very rich man. In the hotel’s expensive restaurant she was seen to put what looked like an envelope in her purse.
But it was in Srinagar, Kashmir, where young local tour guides made pronouncements of mutiny against India. “Wait and see,” one told the startled group. “In one year, we win independence, like Pakistan.”
This from the fellow steering their boat, a narrow water taxi called a shakira, like a gondola with a flat roof. They were staying on houseboats and merchants came to them, bringing all their wares. The Parellis were sharing their houseboat with Kathleen, who promptly befriended the houseboy. He took her to meet his cousins in the hills and she made the only purchase of the entire trip, two enormous ceramic jars.
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll break?”
“They’re well packed,” she said with a smile and Alice realized they’d been packed with hash.
Kathleen lay by the brand new rooftop pool of the Royal Orchid Hotel in a black swim suit, like a spider at the center of its web, waiting, for the next fool.
One By One
After his surgery I went to visit Isaac Eisenberg and his wife Nadine. They were friends of my parents. Oscar is a survivor of five concentration camps and always drops odd bits of horror that fall from his lips like scorpions and purge him a bit, perhaps it’s a process of purifying himself. But more often encounters with him were tranquil affairs enhanced by Nadine. A survivor herself, she couldn’t bear to hear the details and quickly steered attention to her glamorous self, her glittering apartment and the savories and tea she presented with flair.
The place was like Ali Baba’s cave, stuffed with treasure. In their lives in America they had marked occasions with silver trays, crystal vases, figurines. On mirrored glass shelves they stood displayed like in a store. Each piece was exquisite, and then there was the cobalt and gold tea set. Romantic prints hung on the walls, elaborately framed. Crystal chandeliers covered every light fixture. An ordinary apartment had been transformed. They had reprised their pre-war lives.
Nadine told many jokes and served hot black tea in tall glasses with sugar cubes. Raspberry jam was also offered, to stir in by the spoonful. The spoons were ornate affairs with gold bowls attached to twisted silver handles.
Nadine always wore glittery clothes and tried to put a happy mask on everything. With great dark eyes, her now white hair dyed auburn.
Her husband whom I didn’t know all that well had needed a serious surgery, the 4th for cancer which kept popping up in different places, he’d already lost part of his colon and one kidney. But he was an iron mountain of a man and exuded strength. He must have been very strong when he was young, to have survived when so many others perished. And he had survived mentally intact, with a love of life. He owned five tuxedos of different colors and the Eisenbergs were to be seen around town.
They had many friends but were keeping the surgery a secret from everyone. How I happened to know hinged on the fact that Max, my 12-year old, knows all about answering machines and VCRs and Nadine had called to beg for his services. They were desperate for the answering machine because they did not want to answer the phone and have to talk to anyone. The VCR they’d never figured out how to use and now they wanted to rent some films.
At any rate, I found myself in their dining room drinking tea with Isaac while Max and Nadine worked on the machines in another room. She wanted to learn how to program it while she was at it and I knew it would be awhile.
Isaac’s white hair waves back in ridges, his large face florid, his bulk wrapped in a silk dressing gown. The sleeves only come to his elbows and I see the blue haiku of numbers running up his forearm.
He is smiling, telling jokes and anecdotes. He is telling me about someone who is a part owner in a Russian restaurant.
“I knew right away he’s Armenian,” Isaac said, “even so he’s from Turkey.”
Before us on the lace covered table sits an array of sweets and fruit. The colors of the sliced kiwi, strawberries and mango are almost blinding.
“He didn’t say he’s Armenian. He only told me he has a holocaust too. Wonderful man. I love him. And so hairy, you can’t imagine. His whole front is covered with thick hair.”
I sipped my tea.
He glanced to see if Nadine was not coming. No, they were still immersed in the other room.
“They had showers across the compound, it was the middle of winter.”
I thought he was going to repeat a story he’d once told me about how the showers in midwinter had been used to freeze 20,000 Russian POWs to death by forcing them to run around wet, a scene he had witnessed. Perhaps he wanted to tell this story again.
My parents had also told the same stories again and again, but always with some variation, some new detail, I would catch something I had missed or had been too young to comprehend.
So I listened again with interest and patience, but with a horrible sense of dread, the fear of discovering something awful I didn’t know of yet.
I looked around the room at the Lladros and Laliques. Deep down I was praying he’d merely repeat the story.
“The showers were on the other side of the compound. We had to run naked back to the barracks. I was with a good friend from my hometown, tall and handsome, he had such a hairy chest too, like a thick mat. A German officer noticed him. He called us over. He pointed to me and gave me…what you call this?” he made the motion of plucking his eyebrows.
“Yeh. Tweezers. And he told me to pluck out from mine friend every one, all of them. And just one at a time, he showed me with his fingers, not two. One by one.”
“Did you do it?”
“Yup.” He raised his hands and dropped them again. He looked toward the bedroom where Nadine and Max were deep into a lesson. “I did it. It took 5, 6 hours.”
“Was he standing there watching?” I was hoping that the German had given the order and walked away to forget about it or check up on it later.
“The whole time he stood, with a pistol.”
A large pool of silence engulfed us. Except for the distant prattle of the TV we sat in a vacuum.
“It took 5, 6 hours you were saying.”
Yeh, I pulled every one. It was so painful to him you wouldn’t believe, every one I pulled blood spurted out, he was all covered with blood. I begged him let’s stop but he said no, he’ll shoot us both.”
A burst of activity in the bedroom, they emerge triumphant and are heading towards us.
“What happened? Did he survive?” I ask quickly.
Isaac leans in close and murmurs, “He died that night. Looks like I killed him.”
Late at night in Heidelberg, Joyce and Nabokov confer. Old Soloviov, the writer, down below, has begun to imagine himself one of them. As Nobel-prize winning demigods, they play a part in the selection process, advising the committee, albeit in their dreams. They had been watching Soloviov through all the years of lonely struggle with the written word. Of late, he wrote very little, small, spare pieces caught in a clear medium. The details were there, but very few. But they were pure. Obscure literary journals had already published three of them and lanky Soloviov, starving himself to death living on nicotine, had begun to fancy himself on a podium in Stockholm. He even announced to his sister, a pale spinster, that he would take her on a cruise of the fjords.
“Those are in Norway,” she corrected him.
“I know, but it’s so close! We’ll go to Riga too!”
And she, poor soul, believed him.
“It won’t do,” said Joyce. “He was at Majdanek. Elie already covered that subject.” He didn’t mind being in Heidelberg. He never wanted the meeting held in Dublin, he still hated that place.
Nabokov, who religiously attended every session, would have preferred St. Petersburg if the Soviets hadn’t ruined it, so they had that in common with Soloviov, they couldn’t go home again. Besides, he found the subject matter more intriguing than the scenery and would go anywhere.
“Don’t get stuck there,” he said. “Soloviov has moved on, as even we did, from our pasts. You’ll notice that his recent work has transcended his norm and that his clear-cut sentences ring from the universal.”
“Must you be so pedantic? Either he defines his time or not. And as I said, Elie has done it and so admirably that there is no room for any other in that field. That time frame has been defined already.”
“Soloviov can define another time. Portions of his life are in other time frames. Things that haven’t happened yet.”
They bantered thus, while they were waiting, Joyce in a white suit, Nabokov in grey, for Kafka to arrive. There was another exile, who wouldn’t go near Prague. The beer garden they had chosen had a direct view of the castle which, now that it was night, stood illuminated by spotlights, a feature both men detested. But the river sparkled as it flowed by, with purple, black and silver sequins. And the beer was just as good as it had ever been, though Joyce was drinking white wine.
A street lamp threw the nightshade of some trees upon the garden filled with small white tables and chairs. A stone wall, probably from the Romans, surrounded it. A small green neon sign glowed over the gate.
They awaited Kafka but did not really want his opinion. He was too slanted, like the ancient slanted dwellings with their Chagallian slanted windows and slanted shadows, making even ordinary lanes look like graveyards.
Hesse’s opinion would have been welcomed, but he refused to set foot in Germany, not even as a shade, and did not really care to look at anyone else’s work. He knew he had already attained the ultimate with Glass Bead Game, as had Kawabata with Master of Go. Kawabata, as you know, after winning the Nobel prize, committed suicide. There was no point in asking him.
Mann might have been useful in a case like this, he seemed to have a feeling for epics, diverse time frames, but he was always busy, had gone on to other things, the affairs of the world lost their interest for him, as they had for most who had been dead for more than a hundred years. If they were keenly curious about something, they might unexpectedly appear, as Proust did once, to examine some microscopic details in a set of poems.
Tonight it looked like just the three would be in attendance on the fate of Soloviov.
It wasn’t that he was by any means near to being chosen for anything, as he had only just begun his project and had not yet created any meaningful body of work. He had wasted a great deal of time, to be sure, but still had enough time in front of him to actually write it. And at the rate he was going, he was likely to have it all written in five or ten years. Once he’d had that glimpse of himself, up on the podium, accepting his prize, and then gliding through the green fjords, and even seeing Riga, nothing could stop him. He was racing like a demon through his work (with any stub of pencil that came to hand), or typing (on his neighbor’s IBM) or buying (envelopes, paper, ink), or running to the post office to mail things. He was sending everything he’d written everywhere. He lamented the works he’d destroyed – now they would have been worth something! And began to dread the thought of odd pieces of writing and correspondence surfacing without his permission. He could already see every piece in print, every word of his canonized. He could see the critics all finding their own meanings, and the biographers digging up every last scrap of information about him – not a moment of his life would be his alone.
He too had given a lot of thought to this enterprise. Did he want to take the plunge? He knew that it would be a life of toil and that his name and work, to be lasting, would have to outlast him. The deal he made one night (not with the Devil, he hoped) was that he would create a body of work on the condition that it be recognized, and he agreed, rashly perhaps, to accept recognition after death. If he saw himself in Stockholm, it must be said that he saw himself as very old, white haired and frail as a bird. He was, in fact, not interested in fame during his life. He did not want the scrutiny that came with it. The money did not matter either. He was getting by just fine, not from his writing, of course, he practically had to pay them to publish him, but he was getting along and material things did not beckon him. He was, in essence, a satisfied man.
With his wife deceased and his children grown, in desperation he had turned to his first love, the written word, and the more he read the more he knew that he, too, belonged there. As descriptions of places bloomed before his eyes, so did the scenes which he would describe. As the dilemmas and dramas of characters evoked emotions, so did he clearly recall his own emotions, his moments of joy and anguish. If he used the material of his own life, he could do it.
His only fear was that he would run out of time, die before his body of work was finished. But in deals with forces greater than ourselves, there is sometimes a hidden bonus. Deep in his bones he knew that once he had accepted recognition after death, he would be given all the time he needed.
This, of course, led him to decide to produce a great volume of work, immense, as it were, so as to ensure a ripe old age for himself.
Perhaps he could even outwit death. For that, it would be worth postponing fame indefinitely. At any rate, he knew it was in the bag and began to work feverishly.
First he disposed of all his books which were not recognized classics and began to coalesce a new library. Slowly, one by one, he bought the books he was missing. He haunted used bookshops all over the city. He acquired only hardcovers, preferably with gold lettering on the spine. Strapped for funds, he tread cautiously. Needless to say, he concentrated on Nobel prize winners. Then he read them all voraciously. Over and over until he was sure he understood how they’d done it. Hamsun, he granted the prize on Hunger alone. Faulkner, whom he could not comprehend, he granted the Nobel for a single line, for three words, in fact: “curling flower spaces.” How he delighted in the words of ink stamped on each page.
Then too, he spent a great deal of time rummaging through his mind, examining every detail for its literary value. His sojourn at Majdanek he set aside, for now. He would get to it later. He had been a child, passed himself, with the help of his height, as older and thus survived. It had been awful. He had, at one time, tried to write a few lines about his experience there. But this nightmarish block of five years was blocking his mind, his fear of facing the material paralyzed him altogether and it seemed he would never be able to write. At last it occurred to him to use material from pre and post-war life, which had until now seemed pale by comparison.
The ordinary details of ordinary life turned out to be what the immortals disclosed. The ordinary portions of his life, which he had not before considered, now jumped to the fore with a clarity of detail that astounded him. He had not thought of himself as being alive in the ordinary times – life seemed most brimming when he was desperate to hold the vessel together. Prior and subsequent years, from a distance had seemed strangely empty until now.
Now he had a deal, a hand worth playing. Now he would show them what he could do. He lived in a flurry of tiny bits of paper showing addresses of all the literary publications extant. He made dozens of copies and sent out his stories at random, choosing only by required length. He was feverishly running in circles with his project, neither eating nor sleeping, when he suddenly became very ill.
I can’t die, he told himself. I have a deal, a contract.
He hadn’t even begun his magnum opus, he hadn’t even decided on its topic yet.
When the doctor told him to go immediately to the hospital, he ran home instead. He dragged himself into his modest library, now cleansed of mediocrity, and studied the shelves. The immortals were arranged alphabetically. He looked for his name. Not there yet!
I will stand, he noticed, as if for the first time, between Singer and Solzhenitsyn. That will do. I accept the position. He moved a book from the end over to another shelf and created some space, the space where his books would stand. He wedged a talisman to hold the space open, but had only given himself an inch. “An inch here is a mile out there,” he chuckled to himself. Then, overcome with fever, drenched in perspiration, weak in the knees and unable to breathe, he pushed everything after Singer aside and gave himself a foot of space.
“You just wait and see,” he whispered to his immortal friends, their surnames on the bindings glinting. “I’ll do you proud,” he announced and then caved in.
When Kafka arrived it was past midnight. He looked at his watch repeatedly. “It’s broken, not moving at all!” he exclaimed, much annoyed. They ordered a pitcher of foggy beer. “So what is it?” he asked. “I really must drop out of our little society and take rebirth.”
“Oh, come now,” said Joyce, “you don’t want to go through all that again. You could never outdo your most famous life. Face it, you’ve already hit the jackpot and you may as well spend eternity here, drinking beer. And have you no interest in your compatriot? Look at him, he’s near death. Do we yank him out and restore him to his delusional contract? Is he worth it? Is his work worth it? That’s what we’re here to establish. Do we have a candidate?”
“Well,” said K., “I think he’s too linked to his origins.”
“Who cares about that?” asked Nabokov. “We are looking at his words, not him.”
“Yes,” said Joyce. “He is a sorry specimen, looks worse even that I ever did. But his work has become very clear. He doesn’t drink so his liver will hold out but his lungs are shot.”
“What are you saying?” asked K., in black, looking like a mortician.
“He probably won’t live long enough to achieve anything.”
“What about what he’s got already?”
“Written, you mean? Not much. Not much at all. He seems to view himself as an arsenal of potential,” Nabokov said. “Cannon, rockets and missiles waiting to go off. I’ve been watching him. His mind is capable of exploding into a landscape as rich as you want. And yet, his control is good. He seems to have his finger in a dike and threatens at any moment to remove it. A deluge is waiting, trembling like a living wall of water.”
“Enough,” said Joyce, “you’re already famous.”
“I mean, he has enough material to actually do it.”
“You mean, if he doesn’t die,” said K. “He’s already outlived me by 20 years. If he didn’t do it when he was young, why would he do it now? I don’t think he’s a very good choice. Say, isn’t that Goethe over there?” At a table in a leafy corner sat a very old man, large as a titan. “Let’s consult him.”
The three approached, relieved that he seemed to recognize them.
“Ahem,” said Joyce, “you know that we participate in the Nobel prize committee’s nominations and have quite a bit of pull with the final selection, sometimes decades in advance. We have also the power, as you well know, to assist the writer himself. It’s a task but someone must do it and we’ve deferred our rebirth, both on earth and anywhere else, in order to lend our services. We have in mind someone who believes he is worthy.”
“I wouldn’t dream of intervening.”
“Why not?” demanded Nabokov. “He’s near death from pneumonia and lung complications and yet has much to do.”
“Soloviov. Anton Soloviov.”
“Never heard of him.”
“We were all of us unheard of at one time.”
“But I have never heard of him in the future either. From where I stand I see both ways. Looking forward a century or two I do not see any Anton Soloviov.”
The three conferred then turned to the grand master. Joyce stepped forward in his wrinkled white suit, his eyes invisible behind bright lenses. “What names DO you see?”
The astral body of Soloviov stood trembling at the gate, overhearing.
“No problem,” he shouted. “I’ll change my name!”
Goethe looked up. “In that case, it’s a deal. As long as you don’t mention Majdanek.”
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...