Translated by: Michele A. Berdy
They are nomads. Only Paris is graced with their presence for months; they are stingy to Berlin, Vienna, Neapoli, Madrid and other capitals. In Paris they feel quasi-at home. For them, Paris is the capital, their residence, and all the rest of Europe is a boring, pointless province which is best seen through the lowered curtains of grand hôtels or from the stage. They are not old, but they have already been to all the European capitals two or three times. They are bored with Europe. They have begun to talk about a trip to America and will continue to talk about it until someone persuades them that her voice is not so splendid that it must be shared on both hemispheres.
It’s hard to catch a glimpse of them. You can’t see them on the streets because they travel in carriages, and they travel in the evening or at night when it is already dark. The sleep until lunchtime. They usually awaken in poor spirits and do not receive anyone. They receive visitors only occasionally, at odd moments backstage or at dinner.
You can see her on postcards, which are for sale. On postcards she is a great beauty, although she has never been beautiful. Do not believe her postcards. She is hideously ugly. Most people see her on stage. But on stage she is unrecognizable: White face, rouge, eye shadow and someone else’s hair cover her face like a mask. It is the same at her concerts.
When she plays Margarita, this 27-year-old, wrinkled, lumbering woman with a nose covered in freckles looks like a slender, lovely, 17-year-old girl. On stage she couldn’t look less like herself.
Should you want to see them, wangle an invitation to attend a luncheon given in her honor or occasionally given by her before they depart from one capital for another. Getting an invitation isn’t as easy as it might seem at first; only the chosen few sit around her luncheon table… The chosen few include such gentlemen as reviewers; social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers, local singers, directors, bandleaders, music lovers and devotees with their hair slicked back over bald spots, theater habitués, and hangers-on who were invited thanks to their gold, their silver or their bloodlines. These luncheons are not at all boring. They are quite interesting to an observer. Dining with them once or twice is worth it.
The famous among them (and there are many) eat and talk. They are informal: neck turned one way, head the other and an elbow on the table. The older ones even pick their teeth.
The newspaper men grab the chairs closest to her. They are almost all drunk, and they take too many liberties, acting as if they’ve known her forever. Just a bit more to drink, and they’d step out of line. They make loud jokes, drink and interrupt each other (always with a “pardon!”), make high-flown toasts and don’t seem to care if they make fools of themselves. Some of them lever themselves across the table with great courtesy and kiss her hand.
The social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers chat in a patronizing tone with the music lovers and devotees. The music lovers and devotees are silent. They are envious of the newspapermen, smile beatifically and drink only red wine, which is often quite good at the luncheons.
She, the queen of the table, is dressed in attire that is modest but terribly expensive. A large diamond glitters under lacy chiffon on her neck. She wears a massive, smooth bracelet on each wrist. Her hairdo is highly controversial: ladies like it, men do not. She beams at all her fellow diners. She can smile at each person, speak with everyone, nod her head sweetly at each person at the table. If you look at her expression, you’d think that she is sitting with some of her closest and dearest friends. At the end of the luncheon, she gives some of them her postcards. Right at the table, she writes the name and surname of the lucky recipient on the back and autographs it. Naturally, she speaks French and switches to other languages at the end of the meal. Her English and German are comically bad, but poor language skills sound sweet coming from her. Indeed, she is so sweet that you can forget for a while how hideously ugly she really is.
And him? Le mari d’elle, he sits five chairs from her, where he drinks a lot, eats a lot, is silent a lot, rolls the bread into little balls and rereads the labels on the bottles. You look at him and think that he has nothing to do, that he’s bored, lazy and sick of it all.
He is extremely fair with bald streaks. Women, wine, sleepless nights and traipsing all over the world have taken a toll on his face and left deep wrinkles in their wake. He is not even 35 years old but looks older. His face seems to have been pickled in kvass. His eyes are fine, but lazy… Once he was not hideous, but now he is. Bowed legs, sallow hands, a hairy neck. In Europe they gave him the odd nickname of “pram” because of his crooked legs and strange gait. In his frock coat he looks like a wet jackdaw with a dry tail. The diners pay no attention to him. He returns the favor.
If you are at the luncheon, look at them, that husband and wife, observe them and tell me what brought these them together and keeps them together.
After you look at them, you’ll reply (more or less), like this:
“She is a famous singer and he is just the husband of a famous singer, or, to use backstage jargon, he is the husband of his wife. She earns up to 80,000 a year in Russian money, and he does nothing, so he has time to be her servant. She needs an accountant and someone to deal with the theater owners, contracts, and agreements. She only spends time with her adoring public and does not stoop to deal with the box office proceeds or the prosaic side of her work. She has no time for that. So, she needs him. She needs him as a lackey, a servant… She’d get rid of him if she could take care of things herself. He gets a substantial salary from her (she doesn’t know the value of money!), and like two times two is four, together with the maid he robs her, fritters away her money, goes on wild benders, and very likely puts away something for a rainy day — and is as pleased with his place as a worm on a juicy apple. He’d leave her if she didn’t have any money.”
That’s what everyone who sees them at a luncheon thinks and says about them. They think and say that since they can’t get to the heart of their relationship and can only judge by appearances. To them, she is a diva, and they avoid him like a pygmy covered in toad slime. But actually, that European diva is tied to that toad by the most enviable, noble bond.
This is what he writes:
People ask why I love this virago. This woman truly is not worthy of love. And neither is she worthy of hatred. You shouldn’t pay a whit of attention to her. You ought to ignore her very existence. To love her, you must be either me or insane — which is, in the end, one and the same thing.
She is not pretty. When I married her, she was hideously ugly, and now she’s even worse. She has no forehead. In place of eyebrows, there are two barely noticeable lines above her eyes. Instead of eyes, there are two shallow crevices. Nothing shines out of those crevices — not intelligence, not desire, not passion. She has a potato nose. Her mouth is small and pretty, but she has terrible teeth. She has no bust or waist. That last flaw is covered up prettily by her fiendish ability to lace herself up in a corset with extraordinarily agility. She is short and stout. She is flabby. En masse, her figure has one flaw that I consider the worst of all — a total absence of femininity. I do not consider skin pallor and physical weakness to be feminine, and in that I do not share the views of a great many people. She is not a lady or a woman of fine breeding. She is a shopkeeper with bad manners: when she walks, she waves her arms around; when she sits, she crosses her legs and rocks back and forth; when she lies down, she raises her legs, and so on.
She is slovenly. Her suitcases are a prime example: she throws clean underclothes in with soiled ones, cuffs with shoes and my boots, new corsets with broken ones. We never receive anyone because our rooms are always a filthy mess. But why tell you about it? Just look at her when she wakes up at noon and lazily crawls out from under the covers. You’d never guess that she was a woman with the voice of a nightingale. Her hair unbrushed and snarled, her eyes puffy with sleep, in a nightgown torn at the shoulders, barefoot, hunched over and surrounded by a cloud of yesterday’s tobacco smoke… is that your notion of a nightingale?
She drinks. She drinks like a sailor, whenever and whatever. She’s been drinking for a long time. If she didn’t drink, she’d be better than Adelina Patti, or at least as good. She ruined half of her career because of her drinking and she’ll ruin the other half soon enough. Some nasty Germans taught her to drink beer, and now she won’t go to sleep without drinking two or three bottles before bed. If she didn’t drink, she wouldn’t have gastritis.
She is impolite, which the students who sometimes invite her to their concerts can testify to.
She loves advertising. Advertisements cost us several thousand francs every year. I loathe advertising with all my being. No matter how expensive that silly advertisement is, it is always worth less than her voice. My wife likes it when she is patted on the head. She doesn’t like to hear the truth about herself unless it is praise. For her, a Judas kiss that is paid for is finer than honest criticism. She has no sense of dignity whatsoever.
She is intelligent, but her intelligence is untrained. Her brain, flabby and torpid, lost its plasticity long ago.
She is capricious and fickle. She doesn’t have a single firm conviction. Yesterday she said that money is nothing, that the purpose of life is not money, and today she is giving concerts in four places because there is nothing on earth more important than money. Tomorrow she’ll say what she said yesterday. She doesn’t want to learn anything about her homeland; she has no political heroes, no favorite newspapers, no beloved writers.
She is rich but doesn’t help the poor. In fact, she often shortchanges milliners and hairdressers. She has no heart.
A thoroughly wicked woman!
But look at that virago when she is made-up, corseted and every hair in place as she approaches the footlights to begin her duel with nightingales and larks as they welcome the May dawn. Such dignity and such loveliness in her swan-like walk. Look at her; look carefully, I beg you. When she first raises her hand and opens her mouth, the crevices are transformed into enormous eyes, glimmering with passion… Nowhere else will you find such magnificent eyes. When she, my wife, begins to sing, when the first trills fly through the air, when I begin to feel my tumultuous soul quietening under the influence of those marvelous sounds, then look at my face and you will understand the secret of my love.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” I ask my neighbors.
They say, “yes,” but that is not enough for me. I want to destroy anyone who might think that this extraordinary woman is not my wife. I forget everything that came before, and I live only in the present.
Do you see what an artist she is! How much profound meaning she puts in every one of her gestures! She understands everything: love, hatred, the human soul… It is no wonder that the applause nearly brings the theater down.
After the last act, I escort her from the theater. She is pale, exhausted, having lived an entire life in one evening. I am also pale and fatigued. We get into the carriage and go to the hotel. In the hotel, without a word and fully dressed, she throws herself onto the bed. I silently sit on the edge of the bed and kiss her hand. That evening she doesn’t push me away. Together we fall asleep. We sleep until morning and wake up to curse each another…
Do you know when else I love her? When she is at balls or luncheons. On those occasions I love the fine actress in her. What an actress she must be to get around and overcome her own nature the way she does! I don’t recognize her at those silly luncheons… she turns a plucked chicken into a peacock.
This letter was written in a drunken, barely legible hand. It was written in German peppered with spelling mistakes.
This is what she wrote:
You ask if I love that boy? Yes, sometimes. Why? God only knows.
He really is not handsome or likeable. Men like him are not born for requited love. Men like him can only buy love; they never get it for free. See for yourself.
He’s drunk as a sailor day and night. His hands shake, which is very unattractive. When he is drunk, he is ill-tempered and gets into fights. He hits even me. When he is sober, he lies on whatever is around and doesn’t say a word.
He always dresses very shabbily although he has plenty of funds for clothing. Half of my earnings slip through his hands, who knows where.
I’ll never check up on him. Accountants are so very expensive for poor married artists. Husbands receive half the box office take for their work.
He doesn’t spend it on women — I know that. He looks down on women.
He is lazy. I have never seen him do anything. He drinks, eats and sleeps. And that’s all.
He never graduated from school. In his first year, he was expelled from the university for insolence.
He is not a nobleman. He is the very worst — a German.
I don’t like the German people. Ninety-nine out of Hundred Germans are idiots and the last one is a genius. I learned that from a prince, a German with some French blood.
He smokes repulsive tobacco.
But he does have some good qualities. He loves my noble art more than he loves me. If they announce before a performance that I can’t sing due to illness — that is, if I’m acting up — he stomps around, clenching his fists and looking like death.
He is not a coward and is not afraid of people. I love this quality most of all in people. I’ll tell you a little story from my past. It was in Paris, a year after I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was still very young and learning to sing. Every night I caroused as much as my youthful strength would allow. And, of course, I caroused in a group. On one spree, as I was clinking glasses with my distinguished admirers, a very unattractive boy I didn’t know walked up to the table, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Why do you drink?”
We laughed. My boy wasn’t embarrassed.
The second question was more insolent and came straight from the heart.
“Why are you laughing? These blackguards pouring you glass after glass of wine won’t give you a cent when you ruin your voice from drink and lose all your money!”
Such cheek! My guests became very upset. I seated the boy next to me and ordered him wine. It turned out that this worker from the temperance society enjoys wine very much indeed. A propos, I call him a boy only because he has a very small moustache.
I paid for his impudence with marriage.
Most of the time he says nothing. When he speaks, it’s usually just one word. When he uses a chest voice to say this word, it catches in his throat and his cheek twitches. He might say the word when he is sitting with some people at a luncheon or a ball… When someone — it doesn’t matter who — tells a lie, he raises his head, and without a glance and not the least bit ill at ease, he says: “Untrue!”
That’s his favorite word. What woman could resist the glint in his eye when he says that word? I love that word. I love the way his eyes shine and his face twitches. Not just anyone can say that fine, bold word, but my husband says it everywhere and any time. I love him sometimes, and that “sometimes” — as far as I recall — is when he utters that fine word. But really, God only knows why I love him. I’m a bad psychologist, and in this case, I suspect a psychological issue is involved…
That letter is written in French in splendid, almost masculine handwriting — and without a single grammatical error.
Nurulova Samaria | Beginning. World | Oil on canvas
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