In the beginning, there was canned corned beef. More accurately, in the beginning, there was a war, World War II; the siege of my hometown, Leningrad; the Great Hunger, which claimed more lives than all the bombs, shells, and bullets together. And toward the end of the siege, there was canned corned beef from America. Swift, I think, was the brand name, although I may be wrong; I was only four when I tasted it for the first time.
It was perhaps the first meat we had had in a while. Still, its flavor was less memorable than the cans themselves. Tall, square-shaped, with an opening key attached to the side, they heralded different mechanical principles, a different sensibility altogether. That key skeining a tiny strip of metal to get the can open, was a revelation to a Russian child: we knew only knives. The country was still nails, hammers, nuts, and bolts: that’s what held it together, and it was to stay that way for most of our lives. That’s why, there and then, nobody could explain to me the sealing method used by these cans’ makers. Even today, I don’t grasp it fully. Then and there, I’d stare at my mother detaching the key, unbending the little tab and sticking it into the key’s eye, and then turning the key time and again around its axis, in sheer bewilderment.
Long after their contents vanished into the cloaca, these tall, somewhat streamlined around the corners (like cinema screens!), dark red or brown cans with foreign lettering on their sides survived on many families’ shelves and windowsills, partly as aesthetic objects, partly as good containers for pencils, screwdrivers, film rolls, nails, etc. Often, too, they would be used as flowerpots.
We were not to see them ever again—neither their jellied contents nor their shapes. With the passage of years, their value increased: at least they were becoming more and more coveted in schoolboys’ trades. For a can like this, one could get a German bayonet, a navy belt buckle, a magnifying glass. Their sharp edges (where the can was opened) cost us many a cut finger. In the third grade, however, I was the proud owner of two of them.
If anybody profited from the war, it was us: its children. Apart from having survived it, we were richly provided with stuff to romanticize or to fantasize about. In addition to the usual childhood diet of Dumas and Jules Verne, we had military paraphernalia, which always goes well with boys. With us, it went exceptionally well, since it was our country that won the war.
Curiously enough, though, it was the military hardware of the other side that attracted us most, not that of our own victorious Red Army. Names of German airplanes—Junkers, Stukas, Messerschmidts, Focke-Wulfs—were constantly on our lips. So were Schmeisser automatic rifles, Tiger tanks, ersatz rations. Guns were made by Krupp, bombs were courtesy of I. G. Farben-Industrie. A child’s ear is always sensitive to a strange, irregular sound. It was, I believe, this acoustic fascination rather than any actual sense of danger that attracted our tongues and minds to those words. In spite of all the good reasons that we had to hate the Germans and in spite of the state propaganda’s constant exhortations to that end—we habitually called them “Fritzes” rather than “Fascists” or “Hitlerites.” Presumably because luckily we’d never known them in any other capacity than as POWs.
Similarly, we saw quite a lot of German military equipment in the war museums, which cropped up in the late 1940s everywhere. Those were our best outings—far better than the circus or the movies; and especially if our demobilized fathers were taking us there (those of us, that is, who had fathers). Oddly enough, they were quite reluctant to do so; but they’d answer in great detail our inquiries about the firepower of this or that German machine gun or the types of explosives used in this or that bomb. This reluctance was caused, not by their desire to spare gentle imaginations the horrors of war, or themselves the memories of dead friends and the guilty feeling of being alive. No, they simply saw through our idle curiosity and didn’t approve of that.
Each one of them—our alive fathers, that is—kept, of course, some memento of that war. It could be a set of binoculars (Zeiss!), or a German U-boat officer’s cap with appropriate insignia, or an accordion inlaid with mother-of pearl, or a sterling-silver cigarette case, a gramophone, or a camera. When I was twelve, my father suddenly produced to my great delight a shortwave-radio set. Philips was the name, and it could pick up stations from all over the world, from Copenhagen to Surabaja. At least that was what the names on its yellow dial suggested.
This Philips radio was rather portable—by the standards of the time—a 10-by-14-inch brown Bakelite affair, with said yellow dial and a catlike, absolutely mesmerizing green eye indicating the quality of reception. It had, if I remember things correctly, only six tubes, and two feet of simple wire would do as its aerial. But here was the rub. To have an aerial sticking out of a window could mean only one thing to the police. To try to attach your radio to the building’s main antenna required a professional’s help, and that professional, in his tum, would pay unneeded attention to your set. One wasn’t supposed to have a foreign radio, period. The solution was a web-like arrangement under the ceiling of your room, which is what I made. That way, of course, I couldn’t get Radio Bratislava or, moreover, Delhi. But then I knew neither Czech nor Hindi. And as for the BBC, the Voice of America, or Radio Free Europe broadcasts in Russian, they were jammed anyway. Still, one could get programs in English, German, Polish, Hungarian, French, Swedish. I knew none of those languages; but then there was the VOA’s Time for Jazz, with the richest-in-the-world bass-baritone of Willis Conover, its disc jockey!
With what keenness did we scrutinize turrets and ramparts, vaults and moats, grilles and chambers that we’d seen on the screen! For we’d seen them for the first time in our lives!
To this brown, shining-like-an-old-shoe Philips set, I owe my first bits of English and my introduction to the Jazz Pantheon. When we were twelve, the German names on our lips gradually began to be replaced by those of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Clifford Brown, Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, and Charlie Parker. Something began to happen, I remember, even to our walk: the joints of our highly inhibited Russian frames harkened to “swing.” Apparently I was not the only one in my generation who knew how to put two feet of plain wire to good use.
Through six symmetrical holes in its back, in the subdued glow and flicker of the radio tubes, in the maze of contacts, resistors, and cathodes, as incomprehensible as the languages they were generating, I thought I saw Europe. Inside, it always looked like a city at night, with scattered neon lights. And when at the age of 32 I indeed landed in Vienna, I immediately felt that, to a certain extent, I knew the place. To say the least, falling asleep my first nights in Vienna felt distinctly like being switched off by some invisible hand far away, in Russia.
It was a sturdy machine. When one day, in a paroxysm of anger at my incessant fiddling with various frequencies, my father threw it on the floor, its frame came apart, but it kept receiving. Because I wouldn’t dare take it to a professional radio mechanic, I tried to repair that Oder-Neisse like crack as best I could, using all sorts of glue and rubber bands; but from then on, it existed in the form of two somewhat loosely connected bulky halves. Its end came when the tubes gave out, although once or twice I managed to track down their analogues through the grapevine of friends and acquaintances.
Yet even when it became just a mute box, it still remained in our family—as long as the family itself existed. In the late 60s, everyone bought a Latvian-made Spidola, with its telescopic antenna and all sorts of transistors inside. Admittedly, it had better reception and was more portable. Still, I saw it once in a repair shop with its back removed. The best I can say about the way it looked inside was that it resembled some geographic map (roads, railroads, rivers, tributaries). It didn’t look like anything in particular; it didn’t even look like Riga.
But the greatest spoils of war were, of course, films! There were lots of them, and they were mostly of Hollywood prewar production, with (as we were able to determine two decades later) Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Tyrone Power, Johnny Weissmuller, and others. They were mostly about pirates, Elizabeth I, Cardinal Richelieu, et cetera—nothing to do with reality. The closest they approached to our time was in Waterloo Bridge with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh. Since our government wasn’t keen on paying for the rights, no credits were given and, as a rule, no names of characters or actors either.
The show would start in the following fashion. The light dimmed, and on the screen, in white letters against a black background, this message would appear: THIS FILM WAS CAPTURED AS A MILITARY TROPHY IN THE COURSE OF THE GREAT WAR FOR OUR MOTHERLAND. It would flicker there for a minute or so; then the film started. A hand with a candle in it lit up a piece of parchment with THE ROYAL PIRATES, CAPTAIN BLOOD, or ROBIN HOOD in Cyrillic on it. That might be followed by an explanatory note indicating time and place of action, also in Cyrillic but often fashioned after Gothic script. Surely this was theft, but we in the audience couldn’t care less. For that, we were too absorbed in reading subtitles and following the action.
Perhaps just as well. The absence of who was who on the screen imparted to these films the anonymity of folklore and the air of universality. They held us in greater sway and thrall than all the subsequent output of the neorealists or the nouvelle vague. The absence of credits made them openly archetypal at the time—the early 50s: the last years of Stalin’s rule. The Tarzan series alone, I daresay, did more for de-Stalinization than all Khrushchev’s speeches at the Twentieth Party Congress and after.
One should take into account our latitudes, our buttoned-up, rigid, inhibited, winter-minded standards of public and private conduct, in order to appreciate the impact of a long-haired naked loner pursuing a blonde through the thick of a tropical rain forest with his chimpanzee version of Sancho Panza and lianas as means of transportation. Add to that the view of New York (in the last bit of the series that was played in Russia), with Tarzan jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge—and almost an entire generation’s opting out will become understandable.
The first thing that came in was, of course, the haircut. We all turned long-haired at once. That was immediately followed by stovepipe trousers. Ah, what pains, what subterfuge, what effort it cost to convince our mothers/sisters/aunts to convert our invariably black ballooning postwar pants into straight-leg precursors of yet unknown Levi’s! But we were adamant—and so were our detractors: teachers, police, relatives, neighbors, who’d kick us out of school, arrest us on the street, ridicule us, call us names. That’s why a man who grew up in the 50s and the 60s despairs today trying to buy a pair of pants; all this ridiculous, fabric-wasting, baggy stuff!
There was, of course, something more crucial to these trophy movies; it was their “one-against-all” spirit, totally alien to the communal, collective-oriented sensibility of the society we grew up in. Perhaps precisely because all these Sea Hawks and Zorros were so removed from our reality, they influenced us in a way contrary to that intended. Offered to us as entertaining fairy tales, they were received rather as parables of individualism. What would be regarded by a normal viewer as a costume drama with some Renaissance props was regarded by us as historical proof of individualism’s precedence.
Showing humans against the backdrop of nature, a film always has documentary value. Connoting a printed page, a black-and-white film does all the more so. Given our closed, better yet our tightly shut, society, we were thus more informed than entertained. With what keenness did we scrutinize turrets and ramparts, vaults and moats, grilles and chambers that we’d seen on the screen! For we’d seen them for the first time in our lives! So we took all those papier mache, cardboard Hollywood props for real, and our sense of Europe, of the West, of history, if you will, always owed a great deal to those images. So much so that some among us who later would have landed in the barracks of our penal system frequently improved their diet by retelling plots and remembered details of that West to both guards and fellow inmates who’d never seen those trophy movies.
Among those trophies one could occasionally bump into a real masterpiece. I remember, for instance, That Hamilton Woman with Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Also, I seem to recall Gaslight with the then very young Ingrid Bergman. The underground industry was very alert, and in no time one could buy, from a shady character in the public lavatory or in the park, a postcard-sized print of this or that actress or actor. Errol Flynn in his Sea Hawk outfit was my most sacred possession, and for years I tried to imitate the forward thrust of his chin and the autonomous motion of his left eyebrow. With the latter, I failed.
And before the twang of this sycophantic note dies away, let me mention here something else—something that I have in common with Adolf Hitler: the great love of my youth, whose name was Zarah Leander. I saw her only once, in what was called, then and there, Road to the Scaffold (Das Herzeiner Konigin), a story about Mary, Queen of Scots. I remember nothing about this picture save a scene where her young page rests his head on the stupendous lap of his condemned queen. In my view, she was the most beautiful woman who ever appeared on the screen, and my subsequent tastes and preferences, valid though they were in themselves, were but deviations from her standard. As attempts to account for a stunted or failed romantic career go, this one feels to me oddly satisfactory.
Leander died two or three years ago, I think, in Stockholm. Shortly before that, a record came out with several Schlagers of hers, among which was a tune called “Die Rose von Nowgorod.” The composer’s name was given as Rota, and it couldn’t be anyone else but Nino Rota himself. The tune beats by far the Lara theme from Doctor Zhivago; the lyrics—well, they are blissfully in German, so I don’t bother. The voice is that of Marlene Dietrich in timbre, but the singing technique is far better. Leander indeed sings; she doesn’t declaim. And it occurred to me several times that had the Germans listened to that tune, they would not have been in the mood to march nach Osten. Come to think of it, no other century has produced as much schmaltz as ours; perhaps one should pay closer attention to it. Perhaps schmaltz should be regarded as a tool of cognition, especially given the vast imprecision of our century. For schmaltz is flesh of the flesh—a kid brother indeed—of Schmerz. We have, all of us, more reasons for staying than for marching. What’s the point in marching if you are only going to catch up with a very sad tune?
I suppose my generation was the most attentive audience for all that pre- and postwar dream factories’ production. Some of us became, for a while, avid cineastes, but perhaps for a different set of reasons than our counterparts in the West. For us, films were the only opportunity to see the West. Quite oblivious of the action itself, in every frame we tried to discern the contents of the street or of an apartment, the dashboard of the hero’s car, the types of clothes worn by heroines, the sense of space, the layout of the place they were operating in. Some of us became quite adept at determining the location in which a film was shot, and some times we could tell Genoa from Naples or, to say the least, Paris from Rome, on the basis of only two or three architectural ensembles. We would arm ourselves with city maps, and we would hotly argue about Jeanne Moreau’s address in this film or Jean Marais’s in another.
On the scales of truth, intensity of imagination counterbalances and at times outweighs reality.
But that, as I said, was to happen much later, in the late 60s. And later still, our interest in films began to fade away, as we realized that film directors were increasingly of our own age and had less and less to tell us. By that time, we were already accomplished book readers, subscribers to Foreign Literature monthly, and we would stroll to the cinema less and less willingly, having realized that there is no point in knowing a place you are not going to inhabit. That, I repeat, was to happen much later, when we were in our thirties.
One day, when I was 15 or 16, I sat in the courtyard of a huge apartment complex driving nails into the lid of a wooden box filled with all sorts of geological instruments which were to be shipped to the (Soviet) Far East—where I myself was about to follow, to join my team. It was early May, but the day was hot and I was bored out of my wits and perspiring. Suddenly, out of one of the top floor’s open windows, came “A-tisket, a-tasket”—the voice was that of Ella Fitzgerald. Now this was 1955 or 1956, in some grimy industrial outskirt of Leningrad, Russia. Good Lord, I remember thinking, how many records must they have produced for one of them to end up here, in this brick-cum-concrete absolute nowhere, amid not so much drying-up as soot absorbing bedsheets and lavender underpants! That’s what capitalism is all about, I said to myself: winning through excess, through overkill. Not through central planning, but through grapeshot.
I knew the tune, partly because of my radio, partly because in the 50s every city youth had his own collection of so called bone music. “Bone music” was a sheet of X-ray film with a homemade copy of some jazz piece on it. The technology of the copying process was beyond my grasp, but I trust it was a relatively simple procedure, since the supply was steady and the price reasonable.
One could purchase this somewhat morbid-looking stuff (speak of the nuclear age!) in the same fashion as those sepia pictures of Western movie stars: in parks, in public toilets, at flea markets, in the then-famous “cocktail halls,” where you could sit on a tall chair sipping a milkshake and think you were in the West.
And the more I think of it, the more I become convinced that this was the West. For on the scales of truth, intensity of imagination counterbalances and at times outweighs reality. On that score, as well as with the benefit of hindsight, I may even insist that we were the real Westerners, perhaps the only ones. With our instinct for individualism fostered at every instance by our collectivist society, with our hatred toward any form of affiliation, be that with a party, a block association, or, at that time, a family, we were more American than the Americans themselves. And if America stands for the outer limit of the West, for where the West ends, we were, I must say, a couple of thousand miles off the West Coast. In the middle of the Pacific.
Somewhere in the early 60s, when the power of suggestion, headed by garter belts, began its slow exodus from the world, when we found ourselves increasingly reduced to the either/or of pantyhose, when foreigners had already started to arrive in planeloads in Russia, attracted by its cheap yet very sharp fragrance of slavery, and when a friend of mine, with a faintly contemptuous smile on his lips, remarked that perhaps it takes history to compromise geography, a girl I was courting gave me for my birthday an accordion-like set of postcards depicting Venice.
They belonged, she said, to her grandmother, who went to Italy for a honeymoon shortly before World War I. There were twelve postcards, in sepia, on poor quality yellowish paper. The reason she gave them to me was that, at about that time, I was full of two books by Henri de Regnier I’d just finished; both of them had for their setting Venice in winter: Venice thus was then on my lips.
Because the pictures were brownish and badly printed, and because of Venice’s latitude and its very few trees, one couldn’t tell for sure what season was depicted. People’s clothes were of no help, since everyone wore long skirts, felt hats, top hats, bowlers, dark jackets: turn-of-the-century fashions. The absence of color and the general gloom of the texture suggested what I wanted them to suggest: winter, the true time of the year.
In other words, the texture and the melancholy it conveyed, because so familiar to me in my own hometown, made these pictures more comprehensible, more real. It was almost like reading relatives’ letters. And I read them and reread them. And the more I read them, the more apparent it became that this was what the word “West” meant to me: a perfect city by the winter sea, columns, arcades, narrow passages, cold marble staircases, peeling stucco exposing the red-brick flesh, putti, cherubs with their dust-covered eye balls: civilization that braced itself for the cold times.
And looking at these postcards, I made a vow that, should I ever get out of my native realm, I’d go in winter to Venice, rent a room on the ground—nay, the water floor, sit down there, write two or three elegies, extinguishing my cigarettes on the damp floor, so that they’d hiss; and when the money was up, I’d purchase not a ticket back but a Saturday-Night Special and blow my brains out on the spot. A decadent fantasy, of course (but if you are not decadent at 20, then when?). Still, I am grateful to the Parcae for allowing me to act out the better part of it. True, history is doing a rather brisk job at compromising geography. The only way to beat that is to become an outcast, a nomad; a shadow briefly caressing lace-like porcelain colonnades reflected in crystal water.
And then there was the Renault 2CV that I saw one day parked on an empty street in my hometown, by the Hermitage’s caryatided portico. It looked like a flimsy yet self-contained butterfly, with its folded wings of corrugated iron: the way World War II airfield hangars were and French police vans still are.
I was observing it without any vested interest. I was then just 20, and I neither drove nor aspired to drive. To have your own car in Russia in those days, one had to be real scum, or that scum’s child: a Parteigenosse, an academician, a famous athlete. But even then your car would be only of local manufacture, for all its stolen blueprints and know-how.
Up to the 1920s, I suppose, even up to the 30s, Russia enjoyed some semblance of parity with the West as regards existential gadgetry and know-how. But then it snapped.
It stood there, light and defenseless, totally lacking the menace normally associated with automobiles. It looked as if it could easily be hurt by one, rather than the other way around. I’ve never seen anything made of metal as unemphatic. lt felt more human than some of the passersby, and somehow it resembled in its breathtaking simplicity those World War II beef cans that were still sitting on my windowsill. It had no secrets. I wanted to get into it and drive off—not because I wanted to emigrate, but because to get inside it must have felt like putting on a jacket—no, a raincoat—and going for a stroll. Its side-window flaps alone resembled a myopic, bespectacled man with a raised collar.
If I remember things correctly, what I felt while staring at this car was happiness.
I believe my first English utterance was indeed “His Master’s Voice,” because one started to learn languages in the third grade, when one was ten, and my father returned from his tour of duty in the Far East when I was eight. The war ended for him in China, yet his hoard was not so much Chinese as Japanese, because at that end of the story it was Japan that was the loser. Or so it seemed at the time.
The bulk of the hoard was records. They sat in massive but quite elegant cardboard albums embossed with gilded Japanese characters; now and then the cover would depict a scantily attired maiden led to a dance by a tuxedoed gent. Each album would contain up to a dozen black shiny disks staring at you through their thick shirts, with their gold-and-red and gold-and-black labels. They were mostly “His Master’s Voice” and “Columbia”; the latter, however, although easily pronounced, had only letters, and the pensive doggy was a winner. So much so that its presence would influence my choice of music.
As a result, by the age of ten I was more familiar with Enrico Caruso and Tito Schipa than with fox-trot and tangos, which also were in abundance, and for which in fact I felt a predilection. There were also all sorts of overtures and classical hits conducted by Stokowski and Toscanini, “Ave Maria” sung by Marian Anderson, and the whole of Carmen and Lohengrin, with casts I no longer recall, though I remember how enthusiastic my mother was about those performances. In fact, the albums contained the whole prewar musical diet of the European middle class, which tasted perhaps doubly sweet in our parts because of the delay in its arrival. And it was brought to you by this pensive doggy, practically in its teeth. It took me at least a decade to realize that “His Master’s Voice” means what it does: that a dog is listening here to the voice of its owner. I thought it was listening to the recording of its own barking, for I somehow took the phonograph’s amplifier for a mouthpiece too, and since dogs normally run before their owners, this label all my childhood meant to me the voice of the dog announcing his master’s approach. In any case, the doggy ran around the world, since my father found those records in Shanghai after the slaughter of the Kwangtong Army. Needless to say, they arrived in my reality from an unlikely direction, and I remember myself more than once dreaming about a long train with black shining records for wheels adorned with “His Master’s Voice” and “Columbia,” trundling along a rail laid out of words like “Kuomintang,” “Chiang Kai-shek,” “Taiwan,” “Chu Teh” or were those the railroad stations? The destination was presumably our brown leather gramophone with its chromium steel handle powered by my measly self. On the chair’s back hangs my father’s dark blue Navy tunic with its golden epaulets, on the hat rack there is my mother’s silver fox clasping its tail; in the air: “Una furtiva lagrima.”
Or else it could be “La Comparsita”—the greatest piece of music in this century, as far as I am concerned. After this tango, no triumph is meaningful, either your nation’s or your own. I’ve never learned to dance, being both self-conscious and truly awkward, but I could listen to these twangs for hours and, when there was no one around, move.
Like many a folk tune, “La Comparsita” is a dirge, and at the end of that war a dirge rhythm felt more suitable than a boogie woogie. One didn’t want acceleration, one craved restraint. Because one vaguely sensed what one was heading for. Put it down, then, to our dormant erotic nature that we clung so much to things that as yet hadn’t gone streamline, to the black-lacquered fenders of the surviving German BMWs and Opel-captains, to the equally shining American Packards and bearlike windshield-squinting Studebakers, with their double rear wheels—Detroit’s answer to our all-absorbing mud.
A child always tries to get beyond his age, and if one can’t picture oneself defending the motherland, since the real defenders are all around, one’s fancy may fly one into the incoherent foreign past and land one inside a large black Lincoln with its porcelain-knob-studded dashboard, next to some platinum blonde, sunk to her silk knees in the patent leather cushions. In fact, one knee would be enough. Sometimes, just touching the smooth fender was enough. This comes to you via one of those whose birthplace went up in smoke, courtesy of a Luftwaffe air raid, from one of those who tasted white bread for the first time at the age of eight (or, if this idiom is too foreign for you, Coca-Cola at 22). So put this down to that dormant eroticism and check in the yellow pages where they certify morons.
There was that wonderful khaki-green American thermos made of corrugated plastic, with a quicksilver, mirrorlike glass tube, which belonged to my uncle and which I broke in 1951. The tube’s inside was an optical infinity-generating maelstrom, and I could stare at its reflections of itself in itself forever. That’s presumably how I broke it, inadvertently dropping it on the floor. There was also my father’s no less American flashlight, also brought from China, for which we pretty soon ran out of batteries, but its shining refractor’s visionary clarity, vastly superior to the properties of my eye, kept me in thrall for most of my school years.
Eventually, when rust started to fray its rim and its button, I took it apart and, with a couple of magnifying lenses, turned its smooth cylinder into a totally blind telescope. There was also an English field compass, which my father got from somebody with one of those doomed British PQs he’d meet off Murmansk. The compass had a phosphorescent dial and you could read its degrees under a blanket. Because the lettering was Latin, the indications had the air of numerals, and my sense was that my position’s reading was not so much accurate as absolute. That’s perhaps what was making that position unpalatable in the first place.
And then there were my father’s Army winter boots, whose provenance (American? Chinese? certainly not German) I can’t recall now. They were huge, pale yellow buckskin boots lined with what looked to me like coils of lamb’s wool. They stood more like cannonballs than shoes on his side of the king-size bed, although their brown laces never were tied, since my father wore them only at home, instead of slippers; outside, they’d call too much attention to themselves and therefore their owner. Like most of that era’s attire, footwear was supposed to be black, dark gray (boots), or, at best, brown.
Up to the 1920s, I suppose, even up to the 30s, Russia enjoyed some semblance of parity with the West as regards existential gadgetry and know-how. But then it snapped. Even the war, finding us in a state of arrested development, failed to fish us out of this predicament. For all their comfort, the yellow winter boots were anathema on our streets. On the other hand, this made these shizi-like monsters last longer, and as I grew up, they became a point of contention between my father and me. Thirty-five years after the war they were good enough for us to argue at length about whose right it was to wear them. In the end he won, because he died with me far away from where they stood.
Among flags we preferred the Union Jack; among cigarette brands, Camel; Beefeater among liquors. Clearly our choice was dictated by sense of form, not substance. We can be forgiven, though, because our familiarity with the contents was marginal, because what circumstances and luck were offering didn’t constitute choice. Besides, we weren’t so much a mark vis-a-vis the Union Jack and, moreover, vis-a vis Camels. As for Beefeater gin bottles, a friend of mine observed upon receiving one from a visiting foreigner that perhaps in the same way we get kicks from their elaborate labels, they get their kicks from the total vacancy on ours.
I nodded in agreement. He then slid his hand under a pile of magazines and fished out what I seem to remember as a Life magazine cover. It depicted the upper deck of an aircraft carrier, somewhere on the ocean. Sailors in their white tops stood on the deck looking upward—presumably at a plane or chopper from which they had been photographed. They stood in formation. From the air, the formation read: E=mc2. “Nice, isn’ t it?” said my friend. “Uh-huh,” I said.
“Where was it taken?” “Somewhere in the Pacific,” he said. “Who cares?”
Let’s tum the light off, then, or let’s shut our eyes tight. What do we see? A US aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific. And it’s me there on the deck, waving. Or by the 2CV’s wheel, driving. Or in the “green and yellow basket” rhyme of Ella’s singing, etc., etc. For a man is what he loves. That’s why he loves it: because he is a part of it. And not a man only. Things are that way, too. I remember the roar produced by the then newly opened, imported from Lord knows-where, American-made laundromat in Leningrad when I threw my first blue jeans into a machine. There was joy of recognition in that roar; the entire queue heard it. So with eyes shut let’s admit it: we recognized something in the West, in the civilization, as our own; perhaps even more so there than at home. What’s more, it turned out that we were prepared to pay for that sentiment, and quite dearly—with the rest of our lives. Which is a lot, of course. But anything less than that would be plain whoring. Not to mention that, in those days, the rest of our lives was all we had.
From On Grief and Reason, by Joseph Brodsky, available now via Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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