Excerpt of The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell
(Page 4 of 9)
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"And if, God forbid, something were to happen to you?"
The little persifleur had touched a nerve. I wondered if Mandelstam had spoken of the matter with her. Knowing him, probably. Confiding intimate secrets was an unerring way of gaining a woman's confidence; of persuading her you were not violent in order to seduce her into what, in the end, is an essentially violent act. "You have put your finger on a sore point between my husband and me," I admitted. (I was not above sharing intimate secrets to tempt someone of either sex into my bed.) "Mandelstam has few illusions about his own survival, or that of his oeuvre. Since Stalin decreed that nothing contradicting the Party line could be published, Mandelstam considers his fate has been sealed. Let's face it: an unpublished poet makes as much noise as a tree falling in a forest with nobody around to hear it. Stalin's position -- which boils down to Either you are for us or you are against us, my darlings -- leaves no middle ground for the likes of Mandelstam. So you see, my dear Zinaida, my husband had something in addition to his literary legacy in mind when he encouraged me to commit his poems to memory. As we have chosen not to have children, he has convinced himself that my being the last repository of his oeuvre would give me an incentive to survive."
I must have shrugged, which is how I usually evade answering silly questions. Who can say what, besides the hard-to-kick habit of breathing or the ephemeral gratification of sexual congress or the utter satisfaction of disappointing those in power who wish you dead, would push one to cling to life?
Zinaida studied her reflection in the glass door. "If my husband were to disappear into a camp -- they have been arresting agronomists of late to account for the long lines at bread shops -- it would solve all my problems." She tossed her pretty head to suggest she was making a joke, but I knew enough about her marriage -- her husband was twelve years her senior and had little interest in the theater or in the arts -- to understand she was at least half serious. "I would be legally entitled to divorce him and keep the apartment, as well as my Moscow residence permit."
Mandelstam turned up before I could educate her -- wives of enemies of the people were more often than not being sent into exile with their arrested husbands these days. Catching sight of him, Zinaida arranged the shabby fox stole around her delicate neck so that the head of the animal, its beady eyes surveying the world with unblinking indifference, was resting on her breast. Never one to let pass something he considered sexually suggestive, Mandelstam noticed this immediately. "For the first time in my forty-three years of existence I am green with jealousy of a dead fox," he confessed, causing Zinaida to avert her eyes in feigned embarrassment. (She was, you will remember, the mistress -- and I might add, the master -- of shamefaced glances.) I pulled the ratty collar of my late aunt's winter coat, made, if you believed my husband, of skunk fur, up around my neck and dragged open the heavy door of the building. A blast of icy air filled with frozen clots of snow singed our faces. Mandelstam lowered the earflaps on his fur-lined leather cap. "Cigarettes," he announced, and linking his arms through ours he pulled us into the wintry Moscow street.
Like many men -- perhaps I should say like most men -- Mandelstam sailed through life with a cargo of manias. He lived in terror of his muse and his erection one day deserting him. He lived in everlasting fear of fear. He never thought twice about where the next ruble or the next hard currency coupon would come from -- he simply assumed that when he needed one or the other, I would somehow magically produce it, which was more often than not the case. But he worried himself sick that he would run out of cigarettes in the middle of the night when the ringing in his ear roused him from a troubled sleep and he spent the restless hours before dawn prowling the miniscule rooms of the flat we were lucky enough to have, sucking on cigarette after cigarette as he waited for the arrival of those disjointed words and phrases. And so, having sponged two cigarettes from members of the audience upstairs and discovering that he himself had only five Herzegovina Flors left in a crumpled packet, he led us, gripping the white knob of the walking stick he had begun using because of occasional shortness of breath, on a mad quest for cheap cigarettes. We wound up, our heads bent into an eye-tearing snowstorm, making the rounds of the coffee shops and the canteens in the neighborhood, hoping to beg or borrow or buy a full packet of cigarettes. It was at the third stop, actually a late-night canteen for trolley car workers hidden in a small alleyway behind the Kremlin terminal, that Mandelstam found what he was looking for (a shady character who claimed to have a vendor's license was selling individual Bulgarian cigarettes from a cigar box), along with something he wasn't looking for: humiliation.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Littell