Authors: John Updike
Kate would not be cheered. “It is stupid stuff,” she said. “We have had no painters since Rublyov. You treat my country
as a picnic.” Sometimes her English had a weird precision. “It is not as if there is no talent. We are great, there are millions. The young are burning up with talent, it is annihilating them.” She pronounced it
—a word she had met only in print, connected with ray guns.
it,” Bech insisted, hopelessly in the wrong, as with a third-grade teacher, yet also subject to another pressure, that of a woman taking sensual pleasure in refusing to be consoled. “I’m telling you, there is artistic passion here. This bicycle. Beautiful impressionism. No spokes. The French paint apples, the Russians paint bicycles.”
The parallel came out awry, unkind. Grimly patting her pink nostrils, Ekaterina passed into the next room. “Once,” she informed him, “this room held entirely pictures of
. At least that is no more.”
Bech did not need to ask who
was. The undefined pronoun had a constant value. The name was unspeakable. In Georgia Bech had been shown a tombstone for a person described simply as Mother.
The next day, between lunch with Voznesensky and dinner with Yevtushenko (who both flatteringly seemed to concede to him a hemispheric celebrity equivalent to their own, and who feigned enchantment when he tried to explain his peculiar status, as not a lion, with a lion’s confining burden of symbolic portent, but as a graying, furtively stylish rat indifferently permitted to gnaw and roam behind the wainscoting of a fire-trap about to be demolished anyway), he and Kate and the impassive chauffeur managed to buy three amber necklaces and four wooden toys and two very thin wristwatches. The amber seemed homely to Bech—melted butter refrozen—but Kate was proud of it. The wristwatches he suspected would soon stop; they were perilously thin. The toys—segmented
Kremlins, carved bears chopping wood—were good, but the only children he knew were his sister’s in Cincinnati, and the youngest was nine. The Ukrainian needlework that Ekaterina hopefully pushed at him his imagination could not impose on any woman he knew, not even his mother; since his “success,” she had her hair done once a week and wore her hems just above the knee. Back in his hotel room, in the ten minutes before an all-Shostakovich concert, while Kate sniffled and sloshed in the bathroom (how could such a skinny woman be displacing all that water?), Bech counted his rubles. He had spent only a hundred and thirty-seven. That left one thousand two hundred and eighty-three, plus the odd kopecks. His heart sank; it was hopeless. Ekaterina emerged from the bathroom with a strange, bruised stare. Little burnt traces, traces of ashen tears, lingered about her eyes, which were by nature a washed-out blue. She had been trying to put on eye makeup, and had kept washing it off. Trying to be a rich man’s wife. She looked blank and wounded. Bech took her arm; they hurried downstairs like criminals on the run.
The next day was his last full day in Russia. All month he had wanted to visit Tolstoy’s estate, and the trip had been postponed until now. Since Yasnaya Polyana was four hours from Moscow, he and Kate left early in the morning and returned in the dark. After miles of sleepy silence, she asked, “Henry, what did you like?”
“I liked the way he wrote
War and Peace
in the cellar,
on the first floor, and
upstairs. Do you think he’s writing a fourth novel in Heaven?”
This reply, taken from a little
article he was writing in his head (and would never write on paper), somehow
renewed her silence. When she at last spoke, her voice was shy. “As a Jew, you believe?”
His laugh had an ambushed quality he tried to translate, with a shy guffaw at the end, into self-deprecation. “Jews don’t go in much for Paradise,” he said. “That’s something you Christians cooked up.”
“We are not Christians.”
“Kate, you are saints. You are a land of monks and your government is a constant penance.” From the same unwritten article—tentatively titled “God’s Ghost in Moscow.” He went on, with Hollywood, Martin Buber, and his uncles all vaguely smiling in his mind, “I think the Jewish feeling is that wherever they happen to be, it’s rather paradisiacal, because they’re there.”
“You have found it so here?”
“Very much. This must be the only country in the world you can be homesick for while you’re still in it. Russia is one big case of homesickness.”
Perhaps Kate found this ground dangerous, for she returned to earlier terrain. “It is strange,” she said, “of the books I translate, how much there is to do with supernature. Immaterial creatures like angels, ideal societies composed of spirits, speeds that exceed that of light, reversals of time—all impossible, and perhaps not. In a way it is terrible, to look up at the sky, on one of our clear nights of burning cold, at the sky of stars, and think of creatures alive in it.”
“Like termites in the ceiling.” Falling so short of the grandeur Kate might have had a right to expect from him, his simile went unanswered. The car swayed; dark gingerbread villages swooped by; the back of the driver’s head was motionless. Bech idly hummed a bit of “Midnight in Moscow,” whose literal title, he had discovered, was “Twilit Evenings in the
Moscow Suburbs.” He said, “I also liked the way Upton Sinclair was in his bookcase, and how his house felt like a farmhouse instead of a mansion, and his grave.”
“So super a grave.”
“Very graceful, for a man who fought death so hard.” It had been an unmarked oval of earth, rimmed green with frozen turf, at the end of a road in a birchwood where night was sifting in. It had been here that Tolstoy’s brother had told him to search for the little green stick that would end war and human suffering. Because her importunate silence had begun to nag unbearably, Bech told Kate, “That’s what I should do with my rubles. Buy Tolstoy a tombstone. With a neon arrow.”
“Oh those rubles!” she exclaimed. “You persecute me with those rubles. We have shopped more in one week than I shop in one year. Material things do not interest me, Henry. In the war we all learned the value of material things. There is no value but what you hold within yourself.”
“O.K., I’ll swallow them.”
“Always the joke. I have one more desperate idea. In New York, you have women for friends?”
Her voice had gone shy, as when broaching Jewishness; she was asking him if he were a homosexual. How little, after a month, these two knew each other! “Yes. I have
women for friends.”
“Then perhaps we could buy them some furs. Not a coat, the style would be wrong. But fur we have, not leather suitcases, no, you are right to mock us, but furs, the world’s best, and dear enough for even a man so rich as you. I have often argued with Bobochka, he says authors should be poor for the suffering, it is how capitalist countries do it; and now I see he is right.”
Astounded by this tirade, delivered with a switching head
so that her mole now and then darted into translucence—for they had reached Moscow’s outskirts, and street lamps—Bech could only say, “Kate, you’ve never read my books. They’re
“Yes,” she said, “but coldly observed. As if extraterrestrial life.”
To be brief (I saw you, in the back row, glancing at your wristwatch, and don’t think that glance will sweeten your term grade), fur it was. The next morning, in a scrambled hour before the ride to the airport, Bech and Ekaterina went to a shop on Gorky Street where a diffident Mongolian beauty laid pelt after pelt into his hands. The less unsuccessful of his uncles had been for a time a furrier, and after this gap of decades Bech again greeted the frosty luxuriance of silver fox, the more tender and playful and amorous amplitude of red fox, mink with its ugly mahogany assurance, svelte otter, imperial ermine tail-tipped in black like a writing plume. Each pelt, its soft tingling mass condensing acres of Siberia, cost several hundred rubles. Bech bought for his mother two mink still wearing their dried snarls, and two silver fox for his present mistress, Norma Latchett, to trim a coat collar in (her firm white Saxon chin
in fur, is how he pictured it), and some ermine as a joke for his house-slave sister in Cincinnati, and a sumptuous red fox for a woman he had yet to meet. The Mongolian salesgirl, magnificently unimpressed, added it up to over twelve hundred rubles and wrapped the furs in brown paper like fish. He paid her with a salad of pastel notes and was clean. Bech had not been so exhilarated, so aërated by prosperity, since he sold his first short story—in 1943, about boot camp, to
, for a hundred and fifty dollars. It had
been humorous, a New York Jew floundering among Southerners, and is omitted from most bibliographies.
He and Ekaterina rushed back to the Sovietskaya and completed his packing. He tried to forget the gift books stacked in the foyer, but she insisted he take them. They crammed them into his new suitcase, with the furs, the amber, the wristwatches, the infuriatingly knobby and bulky wooden toys. When they were done, the suitcase bulged, leaked fur, and weighed more than his two others combined. Bech looked his last at the chandelier and the empty brandy bottle, the lovesick window and the bugged walls, and staggered out the door. Kate followed with a book and a sock she had found beneath the bed.
Everyone was at the airport to see him off—Bobochka with his silver teeth, Myshkin with his glass eye, the rangy American with his air of lugubrious caution. Bech shook Skip Reynolds’s hand goodbye and abrasively kissed the two Russian men on the cheek. He went to kiss Ekaterina on the cheek, but she turned her face so that her mouth met his and he realized, horrified, that he should have slept with her. He had been expected to. From the complacent tiptoe smiles of Bobochka and Myshkin, they assumed he had. She had been provided to him for that purpose. He was a guest of the state. “Oh Kate, forgive me; of course,” he said, but so stumblingly she seemed not to have understood him. Her kiss had been colorless but moist and good, like a boiled potato.
Then, somehow, suddenly, he was late, there was panic. His suitcases were not yet in the airplane. A brute in blue seized the two manageable ones and left him to carry the paper one himself. As he staggered across the runway, it burst. One
catch simply tore loose at the staples, and the other sympathetically let go. The books and toys spilled; the fur began to blow down the concrete, pelts looping and shimmering as if again alive. Kate broke past the gate guard and helped him catch them; together they scooped all the loot back in the suitcase, but for a dozen fluttering books. They were heavy and slick, in the Cyrillic alphabet, like high-school yearbooks upside down. One of the watches had cracked its face. Kate was sobbing and shivering in excitement; a bitter wind was blowing streaks of grit and snow out of the coming long winter. “Genry, the books!” she said, needing to shout. “You must have them! They are souvenirs!”
“Mail them!” Bech thundered, and ran with the terrible suitcase under his arm, fearful of being burdened with more responsibilities. Also, though in some ways a man of our time, he has a morbid fear of missing airplanes, and of being dropped from the tail-end lavatory.
Though this was six years ago, the books have not yet arrived in the mail. Perhaps Ekaterina Alexandrovna kept them, as souvenirs. Perhaps they were caught in the cultural freeze-up that followed Bech’s visit, and were buried in a blizzard. Perhaps they arrived in the lobby of his apartment building, and were pilfered by an émigré vandal. Or perhaps (you may close your notebooks) the mailman is not clairvoyant after all.
See Appendix A,
See Appendix A,
See Appendix A,
wearing an astrakhan hat purchased in Moscow, Bech was not recognized by the United States Embassy personnel sent to greet him, and, rather than identify himself, sat sullenly on a bench, glowering like a Soviet machinery importer, while these young men ran back and forth conversing with each other in dismayed English and shouting at the customs officials in what Bech took to be pidgin Rumanian. At last, one of these young men, the smallest and cleverest, Princeton ’51 or so, noticing the rounded toes of Bech’s American shoes, ventured suspiciously, “I beg your pardon,
, but are you—?”
“Could be,” Bech said. After five weeks of consorting with Communists, he felt himself increasingly tempted to evade, confuse, and mock his fellow Americans. Further, after attuning himself to the platitudinous jog of translatorese, he found rapid English idiom exhausting. So it was with some relief that he passed, in the next hours, from the conspiratorial company
of his compatriots into the care of a monarchial Rumanian hotel and a smiling Party underling called Athanase Petrescu.