Thursday, September 21, 2017

ET: Almanac

All the people of our circle--middlemen, storekeepers, clerks in banks and steamship offices--sent their children to music lessons. Our fathers, seeing they had no prospects of their own, set up a lottery for themselves. They built this lottery on the bones of their little children. Odessa was in the grip of this craze more than any other town. And sure enough, over the last few decades our town had sent a number of child prodigies onto the stages of the world. Mischa Elman, Zimbalist, Gawrilowitsch all came from Odessa--Jascha Heifetz started out with us.

When a boy turned four or five, his mother took the tiny, frail creature to Mr. Zagursky. Zagursky ran a factory that churned out child prodigies, a factory of Jewish dwarfs in lace collars and patent leather shoes. He went hunting for them in Moldovanka slums and the reeking courtyards of the old bazaar. Zagursky gave them the first push, then the children were sent off to Professor Auer in Petersburg. There was powerful harmony in the souls of these little creatures with their swollen blue heads. They became acclaimed virtuosi. And so--my father decided to keep up with them. I had passed the age of child prodigies--I was almost fourteen--but because of my height and frailness I could be mistaken for an eight-year-old. Therein lay all our hopes.

I was brought to Zagursky. Out of respect for my grandfather, he agreed to take me at a ruble a lesson--a low fee. My grandfather was the laughingstock of the town, but also its ornament. He walked the streets in a top hat and tattered shoes, and provided answers to the murkiest questions. People asked him what a Gobelin was, why the Jacobins had betrayed Robespierre, how synthetic silk was made, what a cesarean section was. My grandfather knew the answers to all these quesitons. It was out of respect for his knowledge and madness that Zagursky charged us only a ruble a lesson. And he put a lot of effort into me, fearing Grandfather, though putting any effort into me was pointless. Sounds scraped out of my violin like iron filings. These sounds cut even into my own heart, but my father would not give up. All anyone taled about at home was Mischa Elman; the Czar himself had absolved him from military sevice. Zimbalist, from what my father had heard, had been presented to the King of England and had played at Buckingham Palace. Gawrilowitsch's parents had bought two houses in Petersburg. The child prodigies brought wealth to their parents. My father was prepared to resign himself to a life of poverty, but he needed fame.

"It's unthinkable," people who went out dining with my father at his expense assured him, "absolutely unthinkable, that the grandson of a grandfather like his wouldn't become . . ."

But I had other things in my head. Whenever I practiced my violin I placed books by Turgenev or Dumas on my music stand, and, as I scraped away, devoured one page after another. During the day I told stories to the neighborhood boys, at night I put them down on paper. Writing was a hereditary occupation in our family. Grandpa Levy-Itskhok, who had gone mad in his old age, had spent life writing a novel with the title The Headless Man. I followed in his footsteps.

Laden with violin case and music scores, I dragged myself over to Zagursky's on Witte Street, formerly Dvoryanskaya Street. There, along the walls, Jewesses sat, waiting flushed and hysterical for their turn. They pressed to their weak knees violins more magnificent than those destined to play at Buckingham Palace.

The door of the inner sanctum opened. Large-headed, freckled children came bustling out of Zagursky's chamber, their necks thin as flower stalks, a convulsive flush on their cheeks. Then the door closed, swallowing up the next dwarf. In the adjacent room Zagursky, with his red curls, bow tie, and thin legs, sang and conducted in ecstasy. The founder of this freakish lottery filled the Moldovanka and the back alleys of the old bazaar with specters of pizzicato and cantilena. This incantation of his was then fine-tuned to a diabolical brilliancy by old Professor Auer.

I had no business being a member of his sect. I too was a dwarf just as they were, but I heard a different calling in the voice of my ancestors.

This was an arduous apprenticeship for me. One day I set out from home, laden with my music, my violin, its case, and the sum of twelve rubles, the fee for a month of lessons. I walked down Nezhinskaya Street, and should have turned into Dvoryanskaya Street to get to Zagursky's place. Yet I walked down Tiraspolskaya and ended up in the port. My alotted three hours flew past in the Prakticheskaya harbor. That was the beginning of my liberation. Zagursky's waiting room was never to see me again. More important things were occupying my mind. My classmate Nemanov and I got in the habit of going on board the Kensington to visit an old sailor called Mr. Trottyburn. Nemanov was a year younger than I, but from the time he was eight years old he had engaged in the most complex trading you could imagine. He was a genius at anything having to do with trade, and always delivered what he promised. Now he is a millionaire in New York, the general manager of General Motors, a company as powerful as Ford. Nemanov took me along because I obeyed his every command. He bought smuggled tobacco pipes from Mr. Trottyburn. These pipes had been carved by the old sailor's brother in Lincoln.

"Mark my words, gentlemen," Mr. Trottyburn said to us. "You have to make your children with your own hands. Smoking a factory-made pipe is like sticking an enema tube in your mouth. Do you know who Benvenuto Cellini was? He was a master! My brother in Lincoln could tell you about him. My brother lives and lets live. The one thing he believes in is that you have to make your children with your own hands, you can't leave that sort of thing to others. And he is right, gentlemen!"

Nemanov sold Trottyburn's pipes to bank managers, foreign consuls, and rich Greeks. He made a hundred percent profit.

The pipes of the Lincoln master exuded poetry. Each and every one of them contained a thought, a drop of eternity. A little yellow eye twinkled from their mouthpieces. Their cases were lined with satin. I tried to imagine how Matthew Trottyburn, the last of the pipe-carving masters, lived in an England of old, defying the winds of change.

"He is right, gentlemen, you have to make your children with your own hands!"

The heavy waves by the harbor wall separated me more and more from a home reeking of onions and Jewish fate. From the Prakticheskaya harbor I moved on to the breakwater. There, on a stretch of sandbar, the boys of Primorskaya Street hung out. They went without pants from morning till night, they dove under fishing boats, stole coconuts for food, and waited for the time when carts carrying watermelons rolled in from Kherson and Kamenki, and they could split these watermelons open on the moorings of the dock.

My dream now was to learn how to swim. I was ashamed of admitting to those bronzed boys that I, though born in Odessa, had not even seen the sea until I was ten, and that I still could not swim at fourteen.

How late I learned the essential things in life! In my childhood, nailed to the Gemara, I led the life of a sage, and it was only later, when I was older, that I began to climb trees.

It turned out that the ability to swim was beyond my reach. The hydrophobia of my ancestors, the Spanish rabbis and Frankfurt money changers, dragged me to the bottom. Water would not carry me. Battered, doused in salt water, I went back to the shore, to my violin and my music scores. I was attached to my instruments of crime and dragged them along with me. The battle of the rabbis with the sea lasted until the local water god--Efim Nikitch Smolich, a proofreader for the Odessa News--took pity on me. In that athletic chest of his there was a warmth for Jewish boys. Nikitch led crowds of frail little creatures, gathering them up from the bedbug-ridden hovels of the Moldovanka. He took them to the beach, built sand castles with them, exercised and dived with them, taught them songs, and, baking in the hard rays of the sun, told them tales of fishermen and animals. To grown-ups, Nikitch explained that he was simply a devotee of natural philosophy. Nikitch's stories made the Jewish children collapse with laughter. They squealed and frolicked like puppies. The sun spattered them with creeping freckles, freckles the color of lizards.

Nikitch silently watched me combat the waves single-handed. Seeing that there was no hope I would ever learn to swim on my own he let me join the other little lodgers of his heart. His cheerful heart was completely devoted to us. It was never disdainful, never miserly, and never agitated. He lay among us by the breakwater, the king of these melon and kerosene waters, with his copper shoulders, his head that of an aging gladiator, and his lightly crooked, bronze legs. I loved him as only a boy afflicted with hysteria and headaches can love an athlete. I didn't leave his side, and tried to please him every way I could.

"Calm down," he told me. "Steady your nerves, and swimming will come of its own accord. . . . What do you mean, the water won't hold you up? Why shouldn't it?"

Seeing how I was reaching out ot him, Nikitch made an exception for me among all his pupils, and invited me to come up to his place, a clean, spacious garret covered in mats, and showed me his dogs, his hedgehog, his tortoise, and his doves, In gratitude for his generosity I brought him a tragedy I had written the night before.

"I knew you were a scribbler!" Nikitch said. "You have that look in your eyes. You're no longer looking at things."

He read my play, shrugged his shoulders, ran his fingers through his stiff, gray locks, and paced up and down the garret.

"I believe," he said in a slow drawl, pausing between words, "that there is a divine spark in you."

We went out into the street. The old man stopped, banged his stick hard on the sidewalk, and peered at me.

"There's something lacking in your work, but what is it? That you are young is no problem--that will pass in time. What you lack is a feeling for nature."

He pointed his stick at a tree with a reddish trunk with a low crown.

"What kind of tree is that?"

I didn't know.

"What's growing on this bush?"

I didn't know that either. We walked through the little park on Aleksandrovsky Boulevard. The old man poked at all the trees with his stick, grabbed my shoulder whenever a bird flew by and had me listen to their different calls.

"What bird is that singing?"

I couldn't answer. The names of birds and trees, what families they belonged to, where the birds flew, on which side the sun rose, when the dew was at its heaviest--all this was unknown to me.

"And you have the audacity to write? A man who does not exist in nature the way a stone or an animal exists in it will not write a single worthwhile line in all his life. Your landscapes resemble descriptions of stage sets. Goddamn it! What could your parents have been thinking of these past fourteen years?"

What had they been thinking of? Of contested bills and the mansions of Mischa Elman. I didn't tell Nikitch that, I remained silent.

At home, at the dinner table, I didn't touch my food--it wouldn't go down.

"A feel for nature!" I thought. My God, why hadn't this occurred to me? Where could I find someone to tell me what the different birdcalls and the names of trees were? How much did I know about these things? I could perhaps idenitfy lilacs--that is, if they were in bloom. Lilacs and acacias. Deribasovskaya and Grecheskaya Streets were lined with acacias.

At dinner, father told us a new story about Jascha Heifetz. On his way to Robyn's, father had run into Mendelson, Jascha's uncle. It turned out that the boy was getting eight hundred rubles a performance: "So go ahead and add up how much that comes to at fifteen concerts a month!"

I added it up. The result was twelve thousand a month. As I multiplied the number, carrying the four in my head, I looked out the window. My music teacher, Mr. Zagursky, wearing a lightly billowing cape, red ringlets jutting out from under his soft hat, and propping himself up with his cane, came marching through our cement yard. It cannot be said that he had been quick to notice my absence: more than three months had already passed since the day my violin had sunk to the sandy bottom off the breakwater.

Zagursky came up to our front door. I rushed off to the back door. It had been boarded up the night before to keep out thieves. So I locked myself in the toilet. Within half an hour my whole family had gathered outside the toilet door. The women were crying. Aunti Bobka, quivering with sobs, was grinding her fat shoulder against the door. My father was silent. He began speaking more quietly and distinctly than ever before in his life.

"I am an officer," my father said. "I have an estate. I ride out on hunts. The muzhiks pay me rent. I sent my son to the Cadet Corps. There is no reason for me to lose any sleep over my son."

He fell silent. The women sniffled. Then a terrible blow came crashing against the toilet door. My father began throwing himself on it with his whole body; he took runs and hurled himself against it.

"I am an officer!" he howled. "I ride out on hunts! I will kill him! That's it!"

The hook went hurtling off the door, but the bolt was still there, held by a single nail. The women threw themselves on the floor, grappling for my father's legs. Raving, he trid to tear himself loose. Hearing the rumpus, my old grandmother, my father's mother, came hurrying in.

"My child," she said to him in Yiddish. "Our sorrow is great, it knows no bounds. The last thing we need in our house is blood. I do not want to see blood in our house!"

My father moaned. I heard his footsteps. The latch was hanging on its last nail.

I sat in my fortress till nightfall. When everybody had gone to bed, Aunti Bobka took me to my grandmother's. It was a long walk. The moonlight froze on unknown shrubs, on nameless trees. An invisible bird whistled once and then was quiet, perhaps it had fallen asleep. What kind of bird was it? What was it called? Was there dew in the evenings? Where was the constellation of the Great Bear in the sky? On what side did the sun rise?

We walked along Pochtovaya Street. Aunti Bobka held my hand tightly so that I wouldn't run away. she was right. I was thinking of running away.

Isaac Babel - The Awakening

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