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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Mikhail Levitin

TOTAL IMPROPRIETY

Translated by Steve Holland

(excerpt)

(from Glas 10)

At the age of thirteen I came across this phrase about the stage director Igor Terentiev: "the most left-wing of the left". It is a contemptuous little quotation.I felt insulted on behalf of Terentiev, myself and all those who have been or may in future be "put in quotation marks".
Later, I came across some notes on Terentiev describing him as an artistic wonder of the twenties. A poet of the "left-wing", a remarkable artist, the founder of his own theatre. Still later, I met his daughter, Tatyana. But that of course is an altogether different story about my happiness, my good fortune.
Now there is a spate of writing about Igor Terentiev over here, and in the West. I am very pleased about it all, but none of it really has any significance whatsoever. I am not bothered about historical justice, any more than he was. What really matters is that there, in the past, I have found a brother.
Is the hero of my book a real figure? He is no less real than its author. Our realities coincide.
The Author

I bless you in the name of the universal up yours.
Igor Terentiev

To live for love, you should avoid relationships, but if you enter into one, it should be with a woman who will understand everything, that is if you are to live for love yet not feel like a cynical liar to that one woman. Oh, life, it slips away and leaves behind something bigger than itself but so ephemeral it is gone before you have time to savour it. What you live through, the fairy tales you believe, what you come to understand no one has any use for them except you. And when you go, they too disappear. I greet Emilia. There she is, indistinct in the distance, her little skirt hitched coquettishly above her knees to look more captivating than her five years, as if anything could be more captivating. I greet this sweet little thing knee high to a grasshopper, wife to be, mother to be, and mistress with all her passions for those she absolutely had to love, shamelessly and generously. I thank them all, the little girls born to bring happiness to my brilliant jovial friends.
But Emilia they broke the mould after they made her, and quite how unique she is, it's hard to say: you never know how much of what she tells you is true. But of course she does not lie, she finds that tedious. It is the timid who take refuge in lies. Emilia, swept up irrevocably by the wind of history and love, does not lie, but rushes on headlong: with teams of horses, on foot, in her words and actions, on stage and in bed. The little monkey. And history unfolds to the plungings and swayings of her little body, wherever she happens to be, that is where it takes place, not on the streets or in town squares, Emilia shapes it all, the teller of tall tales, the little fibber, who always speaks the truth.
She was born in Odessa. That's what she always wanted. Not in a little town like Skadovsk, where she met her future husband Vladimir, but absolutely and categorically in Odessa, into the family of a famous mill-owner, Vainshtein. He owned flour mills, oh, but of course, daddy was a good man, oh, no doubt about it, her childhood she spent in America, no, in Paris, no, in America, but then suddenly in Skadovsk, oh, but who cares about Skadovsk, when she was in America, well of course in America, where for starters the mischievous little five-year-old slipped out of the entrance of one of the most fashionable houses in Manhattan's most prestigious quarter which quarter? as if a five-year-old could remember such things scampered across the street on tiptoe, so as neither to be seen nor heard, and made her way to the basement window of a Chinese laundry, where inside the mysterious orange glow of Edison's bulb illuminated Chinese men with pigtails and love with a hint of musk, where, squatting down as though on her potty, she peeped into the sharp orangey vault of the basement and saw that on top of some sheets, the very same across which not long before her own daddy mill-owner and mother a society lady, naturally and she herself had reclined, now a Chinese man past his prime, on a table next to an iron, was going at it hammer and tongs with a completely naked black woman, grinding away with a force undreamt of by any mill-owner. Afterwards she was always certain that the sheets were the very same ones, their sheets, she always remembered, that little marvel Emilia, that in a Chinese laundry they get up to things on other people's sheets, and in matters of love she counted on nobody but herself. That decadent America, her cuckolded daddy mill-owner, the poor children.
"Catching a Chinaman by his little pigtail" was how Emilia referred to it from then on. Things got even steamier, and the little lamp they had forgotten to switch off, left to its own devices, glowed more and more incandescent, but the black woman, overwhelmed by the onslaught, still managed to remember, whispered to the Chinaman, and the laundry owner let out a shriek, jumped up, shot a glance in the direction of the window, and seeing nothing scurried over to the light switch stark naked and shameless as a billy-goat. Emilia quickly appraised, with a curiosity far from childlike, his well-buffed backside, less a backside and more like two ruddy haunches of a goat, and the last thing she managed to take in was how the woman lying on the sheets had wrapped darkness like another sheet around herself.
The little girl started to squeal then, fit to wake all America, all of it except the Chinaman staining the sheets of daddy the mill-owner. The little girl squealed, because she was afraid she would never see this again; it is no mean feat for a five-year-old to run out of the house and here the circus was under way with acrobatics, dexterity and pleasure by turns, the lips of the Chinaman were moist, the sheets were crumpled, the beautiful black woman lay bandy-legged like a baby, the way Emilia herself sometimes lay, the little girl began to protest, but that is where the performance ended that night.
Oppressed by her secret, Emilia returned home. Everything was quiet. The supplies of bed linen in daddy mill-owner's cupboards were inexhaustible. That, at least, is how Emilia told the tale, and I believe her, despite all advice to the contrary.
You must know how to tell a good lie, then life will be hunky-dory and you can soar up, up and away, you must know to whom you will tell your lies, so as never to be caught out and humiliated as a liar. You must be able to lie as though you lived a genuine parallel life without any embellishments or deceptions that could make that first life unbearable.
Emilia knew how, she discovered in herself an infinite capacity for invention, she went at it hell for leather, she loved all men: I was even made for Pushkin, you know, he would have been happy with me, no question of it, she would have been heroic in her love. Like a piece of some unknown mechanism flung off with terrible force, Emilia flew in my direction, struck me, the novice, full on the temple and felled me with a single blow. I love her. I love this utterly innocent child.
Later I can't remember which year, to stick strictly to the facts Emilia, still five years old, met with another of her passions, another of the fateful influences in her life. That devil, the famous director Meyerhold arrived in Kherson with his "Solidarity of the New Drama", and naturally enough chose her, of all people her, the daughter of Vainshtein the mill-owner, to take part in the play "The Sunken Bell". From a pit she uttered a couple of words of some sort, very vague but for her very resonant, the meaning of which for some reason delighted the audience. Emilia pronounced her lines, and then understood that she was not going to come out of that pit, however much Meyerhold, on stage himself, might whisper to her, entreat her, implore her out of the side of his contorted mouth:
"Young lady, open that little door this minute and clear off backstage, your mother is there, they're waiting for you there!"
She would not emerge, understanding that as they had already allowed her into the pit, she had to hold on to the end, to come out of there would not be right.
They brought the curtain down. Her nanny led an unusually silent Emilia by the hand into the wings, and Meyerhold himself, the rumpled devil, tugged at his hair and wailed: "What kind of a girl is that? Bloody hell, she's only a kid, where did she spring from?"
"I acted, didn't I?" asked Emilia at home. "You saw. I was an actress, wasn't I?""You were a disobedient little girl."
"I was an actress, and I will always be one."
But at Skadovsk there is the sea, at Skadovsk the steppes and invulnerable cicadas, they torment you, but you cannot see them. The earth is hard as rock, the sea salty, and life - singular.Everybody fussed over Emilia. Probably there was something deeply affecting about her, and whenever she began to sing with her stolen voice, daddy mill-owner would raise a finger and all the family would turn to statues wherever the enchanting sounds overtook them.
Emilia would insist that it was an aunt in Paris who taught her to sing at the age of five, the wife of daddy mill-owner's first cousin mill-owners, as is to be expected, having brothers and business affairs scattered across Europe a beauty with raven hair, gentle blue eyes and a perfect figure, descended from the Incas, a famous Parisian singer, the distinctiveness of whose powerful richly modulated voice could be attributed, Emilia would explain, to her aunt's artificial throat, into which a little tube had been skilfully inserted, and which she would press with a finger to increase the force of her delivery, much as the motorist toots the horn of a car.
Emilia decided to compete with her aunt without resorting to the operation. Like every genius she started by imitating her voice and succeeded. Along with her aunt's voice she also appropriated her tribal origins, insisting that she be called Emilia the Inca.
"I used to take singing lessons in Paris," the Emilia who remained five years old all her life would say.
Igor adored this story and always demanded that she carry on, he always adored stories with neither beginning nor end, ones that had started in the womb, that emerged out of nowhere, he knew their worth. He loved to hear anything and everything about Paris, a place he never actually reached himself, where in 1927 they buried his father and mother without him, and where his best friend Ilya stood on his soapbox and in the long run prospered. He teased Emilia, calling her Inca girl, he would guffaw and demand to be told more about Paris.
All through her five-year-old's life Emilia wore huge bows in her hair, maintaining that they came from her Parisian aunt's wardrobe. Paris she remembered not as a city but as her stunning success. Paris set the Inca girl reeling with inspiration.
"Say what you will, I had an excellent training," was how she put it. Then there was the trial, the mild Inca woman sued her fledgling for stealing her thunder, as a result of which she, the aunt, was losing her voice and needed now to rely on the five-year-old Emilia who had taken her place in the music-hall.
For a long time Paris was concerned only with this trial and Emilia's music-hall acts, the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge whirled round, inviting Parisians to visit and compare the talents of niece and aunt.
"You weren't allowed in without tails and a dicky-bow," Emilia would tell Igor. "They wouldn't have let you past the front door, believe you me."
"Doesn't matter. Just you tell me some more about Paris."
And what was there to tell about Paris? Well, one fine evening a Persian Shah turned up, bought up all the seats just for himself, sat down at the far end, waited for Emilia's act, was transfixed, spellbound, after which each time she re-entered she would find the Shah in the most unexpected places in the house, moving closer to the stage, always closer, till the end of the performance saw him ensconced in an armchair stage centre with Emilia smitten on his lap. They began to sing together with reedy voices, songs completely unknown to Emilia before that moment, the Shah was rocking her to sleep, and goodness knows where it might all have led, if her aunt, the artiste, had not emerged from the wings tugging the mill-owner by the arm, who simply punched the Shah on the jaw and rescued his child.
Her music-hall career was over. Paris had been taken and handed over then and there without a shot being fired.
But there was one meeting out of all her time in Paris that the little girl always remembered as though it were yesterday. A small curly-headed man with a little diamond-shaped moustache, in enormous lace-up boots, with a small waistcoat and a short walking stick, who astounded Emilia because he turned out to be the same size as her, said to her after the performance, holding her little hand in his: "You are so like me, Emilia."
"Well, and you? What did you say?" Igor would ask, thoroughly confused by now.
Emilia did not actually decide to lie.
"If only, Charlie," I answered. "If only..."
You need only to write down lies, the most believable things that happen to us, write them down and rejoice that something at least does really happen.
She loved many men in her life, and all men of course loved her, there was not a prominent man with whom she had not shared a romantic episode, or might have shared one, which in the end amounted to the same thing. When she met a great man she had at some time loved, no proof was ever needed, her little head would jerk abruptly upwards and, once she had fixed him with the most enigmatic and pointed smile in the world, she would rush past without a backward glance, while he, the man, already accustomed to interest in his personage, gazed after her with a bemused air, racking his brains as to when and where the liaison could have taken place. From that moment he was no longer of any interest to her at all, Emilia knew: he's looking at me behind my back, blinking his eyes, she was satisfied. On to the next one! On to the next one!
Her future husband she met in Skadovsk, where he had arrived to convalesce after a riding accident had injured his spine.
He was narrow-shouldered and scornful. Fate itself had singled out Skadovsk as the place of his recovery. The five-year-old Emilia tried her usual ploy, gracing him with that special smile and walking by, but, despite the injury to his spine, the young man seized her around the collar with unexpected strength and held her up in the air for some moments like a rag doll. Then he let her down and apologised. Emilia understood: this was fate.
Horseman, musician, wit, he really was a St. Petersburg man, his father was a doctor, his mother -- half Polish and half Hungarian. Later, in 1917, a caretaker in Petersburg would throttle the life out of this indescribably beautiful woman. Vladimir finished grammar school with outstanding results, among his classmates he could count Ribbentrop, the future foreign minister of Nazi Germany, and a Siamese prince. Vladimir's life-history was remarkable for its genuineness, and Emilia, comparing it with hers and horrified at the incongruity, began to make up for the gaps with great gusto."Emilia," Vladimir would stop her in mid-sentence, "you won't be upset, will you, if I don't believe you?"
"No, I won't," she would reply submissively.
"Well, that's all right then."
It was in his love for the truth and only the truth that Vladimir differed from Emilia, and from Igor, with whom some years later he became much firmer friends than with Ribbentrop or the Siamese prince, and what is more, for life. Her restless imagination drew Emilia to Igor with Vladimir she felt the awe of the transgressor faced with the sobering power of the law. His embraces were chill, but very manly. She was a waterfall of sentences he punctuated with his italics. He sifted through everything she said and committed the most important to memory. Igor, however, was quite capable of missing these important things. His cup was already running over.
Respect for others in the full knowledge of one's own worth: that was the essence of Vladimir, but imagine also the narrow haughty face reflected in the lid of the piano, the thin white fingers on the keys, and you will understand why Emilia wanted to scream every time she looked at Vladimir.
They would stroll along the sea front at Skadovsk under a large umbrella of coarse silk, and the whole way along the shore a yacht would follow after them, on the yacht a sailor with a spy glass kept track of his master's movements while above them horses were led along the top of the steep cliffs in case they should want to finish off their outing with a gallop.
Vladimir talked a great deal about Scriabin, making it clear that he was a genius who had not fully flowered, that the fate of a genius was to die, as it were, unopened. It is as though a registered parcel has arrived and is lying on the table in the cool of a dacha, ignored by everybody, gathering a film of dust, crumbs, flies settle on it, and yet again and again no one thinks to open it, and sometimes it even gets sent back for want of an addressee. It was just like that for Scriabin.
It remained to choose between selfless devotion to music and love for Emilia. Vladimir manifestly preferred love. But to go down the aisle with her was impossible, he was sixteen, she, as we know, was an eternal five. All they could do was to steal a wad of money from daddy mill-owner, run off to Odessa, take a room in the most expensive hotel where nobody, of course, would think to look for them, spend the best week of their lives and only then telegram Skadovsk: "Congratulate me I'm pregnant ever yours Emilia".
And within the hour the mayor accompanied by a policeman was knocking on the door of their room, then moved his gaze over Emilia a long while, nervously clearing his throat, until finally, having announced that daddy mill-owner was on his deathbed in hospital, offered the use of his own car so they could set off immediately for Skadovsk.
Emilia wore her most exquisite Parisian bow. It fluttered above the town, above the astonished citizens of Odessa, as the mayor's car drove out of Odessa with Emilia and her languorous young man. It fluttered like the light of love, and the light of hope.
The alarm turned out to be a false one, daddy mill-owner endured, nor did anything terrible happen to Emilia. Vladimir returned to Petersburg making off with her virginity and leaving in exchange a vow of faithfulness.
Later, much much later, in 1941, when the still five-year-old Emilia's train, carrying her out of Kharkov, was bombed and she, having managed to snatch from her luggage her most precious possession, the string bag of letters from Igor and Vladimir, and to wrap round her neck a red fox fur, went running headlong with all the others, keening, staggering with all this wealth, running towards a wood where she flung her arms around a tree, clung to it as to a reliable man who knew how to protect her, when she fell stunned, only coming round two days later in an infirmary to see that the string bag of letters was gone, then she began to cry and cried for a long time, until she realised that both husband and lover would be far more worried about the fox-fur stole, hurled up onto a branch by a blastwave, than about the letters written who knows why or on what occasions?
Where are they now, these occasions?
She always talked of her husband as a great composer, experts turned up, asked to be given the music to examine, and then she would remember with bewilderment, that there was no music, everything he had written had been sent out to different publishers and somehow always got lost on the way. Here undoubtedly was that same parcel with its seal unbroken. Scriabin, one could say, had been luckier, at least something of his work had survived.
"Is there really absolutely nothing at all, not even a single sheet?"
"Most definitely!"
"Oh this really is too terrible!"
Actually there was no need to be horrified, the scores would surface, others would claim them as their own, what difference did it make whose name attached to the music written by her husband, it was common property.
Emilia was raised by her men as a gypsy girl: no possessions, no lessons to take to heart, leave everything at last night's camp and start again from scratch. Of course in Igor this attitude was to be expected, it could be traced back through his father in a direct line to his horse-thief of a grandfather, but Vladimir, how had Vladimir come to it? Could unselfishness really be so contagious?
Later even in the Gulag Igor was liked by everyone: ordinary people, guards, thieves. He was not fastidious about his friendships, and the fact that his mother was a noblewoman only added a poignancy to his unfussiness, his desire to sup with all the others from the same bitter cup.
We should not subject our loved ones to intense scrutiny, but, looking at Vladimir, she realised that this scornful man, who had won her heart back then in Skadovsk, was a mass of neuroses, and that he reached out to Igor, tried to fasten onto Igor to resolve and untangle them. Also he needed Igor in order not to be alone with his own company too long. The way a child, left on its own, needs a song or a fairy tale.
Oh, how they sang together, these two men so unlike. Harmoniously, endlessly, Cossack songs worn out in the winds of the Ukraine, songs plucked from Igor's Ekaterinoslav childhood, songs from Gogol, songs of the Dnieper. They sang in a way that left Emilia wanting nothing more, but all this was in the hours free of debates and rehearsals, intimate hours, uncommitted and unclaimed.
These songs made Emilia feel sorry for herself, she wanted to crawl away somewhere and sit so quietly that the songs would always remain with her. Which is what she did.
She would clamber under a table, imagining that she had disappeared to the sounds of those songs, that they were not singing but calling out to her. They were searching for her and could not find her. She would get ready to surprise them with her sudden reappearance and, while she prepared, would fall asleep, and when she woke up they would be gone completely from the room. Emilia was from the city, a refined woman, but that meant she was not worthy of these songs, these minutes. Her skin had freckles, she was a stippled, restless creature. Life was never tedious with those two, she knew the value of that. Igor's voice was impressive, a low baritone reverberant like an organ, not powerful enough for opera, forceful for friendship, indispensable for reciting poetry. He was proud of it. He would be good to go hunting with, his voice would soothe wild animals.
Emilia would die each time he murmured something affectionate in her sweet little ear at night. Once he said:
"I am God and some day I will be crucified for the sins of others."
"But what about your own sins, what about yours?"
We all of us make friends and fall in love because we are afraid of death, if we stop being afraid, we stop loving. But just what is this mood that has come over me again, some sediment in my soul unconnected to Emilia, to anything at all. Perhaps it was she who became lost in thoughts? And all those enchanting evenings came back to her, the five-year-old, when life pretended it would not desert us. Friends, call out there, call out if you are there, friends, I am still here but already I am with you, reach out your arms to me, do not hurry, I will see when I can pull myself up to join you, I'll be following you soon myself, I'll be following soon.
Igor could bridge in an instant the distance between himself and the person he wanted to conquer, he did not allow himself to be tortured by uncertainty, everything must become clear immediately. What happened next would look after itself, whether events took their course or not. This was so like Emilia, that they were compatible here for ever. A game of pretence, a game of fear, life demanded action. There was a kind of mound underneath the blanket, when Emilia entered the room where he rested between rehearsals at the Red Theatre, the sort of mound shaped not like one but two people locked in some wild skirmish. But it was Igor underneath, with the prickly woollen blanket pulled up over his head, another soldier's habit. But why say soldier's, for he had never served, never been to war, it was the habit of someone often without work, the habit of a convict fated to carry his house around on his back, to build a shelter from whatever came to hand, whenever he had to.
And although the slender girl moved soundlessly unsure how near she was to her goal, his arm shot out like a tentacle and pulled Emilia under the blanket.
Emilia had no chance even to look round and check if anyone else was in the room apart from them. Nor, believe you me, would she have begun to look around. A sort of merry carousel started up underneath the blanket, a swapping of clothes like a children's game, and what else was there to expect from a three-year-old, a Christmas party, fancy dress. After that she emerged from under the blanket transfigured, she emerged as his wife.
"Well, I never," was all Emilia could find to say.
And then he jumped to his feet, just as cheerful and pure as a real three-year-old, he embraced her as though he were seeing her for the first time, which was exactly the case, he kissed her.
"You've come to me? Why? Are you an actress? How do you know me? Why especially me?"
And she began to explain, as though she too were talking to a stranger she did not know yet, with an unusual meekness, that the day before she had seen his play, and that was why she had come to him, why she had chosen him.
"It's a good play, isn't it? Did you like it? I like it myself you know. I keep waiting and waiting for the time when I stop liking it."
"But why?"
"Do you think I couldn't produce something better, then? Do you know how many ideas I've got?"
But instead of confiding in her, he lifted her onto his shoulders.
"Oy-yoy!"
"Who do you imagine yourself to be? An actress? Have you seen many? And clownesses, seen any of them? I've hardly seen any. If you're not a clown, you're not an actress, you're awkward and graceful at the same time. I mean, you will be. And there's some kind of word inside you too that you're always trying to get out, it's got stuck inside you, it's driving you mad, but you can't get it out. And that's why it's interesting to watch you. It's right that you came. I'm your fate, and you think that too now, don't you?"
"Can you hear me disagreeing?" Emilia answered softly and fainted.
He danced in front of her like a boxer who has delivered the fatal blow but keeps on the alert, tensed in case his victim should come round, in case he needs to deliver a fresh blow. And while he danced, and Emilia lay unconscious, a different version of this meeting with him rushed through her mind, a version that suited her better, and maybe it really was that other version that happened first.