The following report, reproduced here without changes or additions, was found folded up inside a sick bag, together with an undeveloped roll of film, on the first morning flight from St. Petersburg one day in September 2000. Despite the kind assistance of the airline staff and the employees at the hotel and two museums mentioned in the text, it has not been possible to ascertain who penned (or in this case pencilled) the missive. It seems likely the writer was travelling under an assumed name. When developed, the film proved to contain only everyday street scenes, images of façades and pathological specimens. Peculiarities of the handwriting and stains from various beverages do, however, provide certain clues. It thus appears that the writer possesses a nimble, if not muddled psyche, one easily affected by alcohol and air pockets. In several places, the line of thought has been interrupted, suggesting that its carrier was short of time or breath. (Indeed, it is likely he left Russia pell-mell.) These passages, as well as some others which have proven indecipherable despite repeated efforts, have been marked with a succession of full stops. The only further liberty taken has been to provide the letter with an addressee, as the original, in common with many other things in the world, lacks one.
I leave Russia empty-handed, with cold feet and my heart in my mouth. The assignment seemed so simple at first: cultivate your attentiveness, document what you see, detect the cracks and fissures in reality. What could be easier for a writer? But with each passing day, my presence became more of an embarrassment. In the end I had no choice: it was me or St. Petersburg.
Yet everything began so well! On the flight from Berlin via Helsinki, several hours delayed, I sat next to two well-tailored men, each with a few pounds of Rolex strapped to his wrist. It turned out they were into bizniz and had just clinched a deal with Finnish colleagues. We became acquainted in no time. Among the stories they told me, one in particular sticks in my mind: if you place a frog in a bowl of hot water, it will immediately jump out, shocked and dismayed by the new environment. But if you place it in a bowl of cold water and then increase the temperature, it will stay, enjoying its bath, whistling, washing itself — and slowly boiling to death.
Could it have been that my fellow passengers wished to convey some Eastern European wisdom, violence being the surest means reality has of convincing you that it exists? A hint, perhaps, of what they knew awaited me? There was no mistaking one thing: I was in educated company. For when I told my temporary neighbors what I did for a living, they filled our glasses and proceeded to analyse the literary greatness of the vodka belt. One man argued that Gogol had captured “the spirit of spirits” better than anyone before or after him, the other that Stephen King was, at least, a serious contender to the title. Finally they agreed that Dostoyevsky was number one, closely followed by Pushkin and Alla Pugachova. Whereupon we scrupulously drank to each one of the finalists, including the frog. As you may understand, my head was not in the most reliable of states when, towards evening, we touched down.
Outside the arrivals hall, a pre-ordered private taxi was waiting, an improbably filthy VW bus whose various parts seemed to be constantly trading places with each other. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, the driver stamped the accelerator through the floor as soon as I had pulled shut the door. Tires screaming, the car was off in a cloud of dust and pine needles. Really, we might have been characters in a comic strip. I did my best to keep an eye out for pursuers (which, parenthetically, was no easy task, as the man had resolved to test every pothole in the road, as well as to go through every bend on two wheels). It was not until we reached the hotel, therefore, that I realized the coast was clear and that we were actually in St. Petersburg. And at that point, it was too late to enjoy the surroundings. Evening had arrived, wrapping everything in a dusk as inscrutable as sin. Next to the hotel, which glittered opulently in the fall fog, only the cupola of St. Isaac’s cathedral was visible across the street, lit by the dirty yellow beam of floodlights. Further sightseeing would have to wait until tomorrow. At last, I was alone with my headache.
There are few things which rehabilitate a person so fully, at least in his own eyes, as ten hours’ uninterrupted sleep. If the miraculous night is followed by a hot shower under a soft jet, a wrapping in smooth towels thick as thumbs and a breakfast buffet that includes everything from pitch black coffee and tomato juice to poached eggs and pickled herring, the blissful beginning is, of course, complete. As I stepped out into the street this morning, yesterday’s headache had vanished. My head was no longer in the possession of some foreign power, housing my thoughts with ill-concealed dismay. I was ready to give myself to the assignment — heart, soul, and spine. A quizzical light with splashes of smog brought my last dozing senses to life. My good mood must have shown, because the massive security guard with the plastic earpiece slightly shifted his stiff neck, more tree trunk than muscle, and nodded in my direction. Granted, it may just have been a conditioned reflex: possibly, he had already had time to scrutinize me and now dismissed me as harmless. Astonished at all the things I had not noticed the night before — guard, park, parking lot — I stood for a moment, inhaling the polluted air of the Neva a few blocks away. Then I let my gaze wander past the trees, towards the traffic along Voznensky Prospekt. Did you know that, a century ago, an ear and a finger were found in one of the lindens? Vladimir Nabokov describes the incident in his autobiography, Speak, Memory. The body parts are said to have belonged to a ham-handed terrorist who had assembled a bomb in a room rented from a widow, close to the park. “Those same trees . . . had also seen children shot down at random from the branches into which they had climbed in a vain attempt to escape the mounted gendarmes who were quelling the First Revolution (1905-06).” Perhaps I should have seen the writing on the wall, but I can assure you that no matter how fertile my imagination may be, the only thing I could make out in the trees across the street were five fat crows.
With their coarse cawing in my ears, I took a short cut between the lindens and wandered towards the pink granite building that I had visited in a dream lost during the night. As I have never been to St. Petersburg before, I was looking forward to replacing the blueprint of nightly vision with the floor, walls, and roof of waking life. I had been put up at the Astoria. While studying the small city map included in the folder in my room, I discovered that the hotel was only a few hundred yards from the former Nabokov residence. Wearing dark sunglasses and the trench coat you once gave me, with my hat pulled down over my forehead and a camera dangling around my neck, I felt like a reporter of the old school on a secret assignment in reality. Walking along Morskaya, past the buildings which in the past had housed the German and Italian embassies (numbers 41 and 43), as well as Prince Oginsky’s residence (number 45), but which now contained banks, insurance companies and multinationals, I assumed this role more and more, beginning to count my steps like a cunning snoop. I can hereby report that the distance between today and yesterday, or at least between 2000 and 1900, is exactly 541 footsteps.
I was a trifle surprised to find Morskaya 47 still looking like it does in the black and white photograph in Speak, Memory, “taken in 1955 by an obliging American tourist.” Perhaps I had not expected the granite to be quite so deep a shade of pink. The façade actually seemed like it had been powdered by an unrelenting but myopic old maid. The frescoes and the Italian ornaments were still there, as were the bay window on the second floor (it looked like the stern of a Portuguese frigate), the wrought-iron embellishments on the roof, and the slender, almost delicate drainpipes flanking the house on either side. (An unexpected thought: through these pipes a hundred years of rain had run.) Even the third floor, added in 1901 when the family became larger and needed space both for itself and for servants, could easily be distinguished from the lower ones by means of shifts in the shade and type of stone.
Did not Talbot once call the photographic machine “the pencil of history”? That was how I felt: ready to register the tiniest tremor of perception, the slightest shiver of cognition, indeed, to trace the passage of time in all its convoluted charm. Mister Observer, at your service! Perhaps a piece of literature — be it short story or tall tale, farce or fable — is nothing so much as an incarnation of time. Is that why it gives us such a spinal thrill, such a sensation of dizziness but also of dazzlement, of hilarity, joy, and consternation?
Did you know that I got taken by Nabokov the day I discovered that he, too, had a weakness for the pencil — “this enlightened descendant of the index finger,” as Invitation to a Beheading has it? Personally, I have always liked its slender exterior, its prosaic interior, and at times it is enough to stumble upon an unexpected weakness to make you interested in another writer’s work. Obsessions are more interesting than principles, are they not? With time, I discovered that virtually all of Nabokov’s books contain scenes in which pencils play a role, obscure but ingenious — as if they had been borrowed from the natural world beyond the endpapers. Could it be that he inserted these scenes in order to describe the strange pact between two kinds of reality, that of life and that of letters? His autobiography is certainly no exception. Thus it was with butterflies in my stomach that I entered the building where Vladimir Vladimirovitch had been born one April day in 1899, ascended the steps and reached the vestibule of what is now, and has been for a couple of years, a museum. There, “in a recess under the marble staircase, our shveitsar (doorman) would be busy sharpening pencils when I came home from school. For that purpose he used a bulky old-fashioned machine, with a whirring wheel, the handle of which he rapidly turned with one hand while holding with the other a pencil inserted into a lateral orifice.”
I regret to report that the methodical music of pencils being sharpened could not be heard on this particular morning. Instead, loud and catarrhal coughs issued from behind a desk next to the stairs. Presumably, the lady seated there had caught a cold which she was trying to cure by keeping fur hat and shawl on (the former black as soot, the latter yellow as pus). A stubby pencil pressed to her lips, she appeared lost in thought. But the instrument had had its day as an enlightened heir to the index finger, and it was no thermometer either. The woman was quite simply stuck on a clue in the crossword puzzle spread before her. After a while, she adjusted her hat, looked up from the letters that refused to fit into the little boxes, and said something I had no hope of understanding. On the table were brochures, postcards, and small plastic icons. As she realized that I spoke no Russian, she rested her left hand on a study of Nabokov’s place in Russian literary history, written and mimeographed by a Slavist whose name rang no bells. Slowly she rose from the chair, leaned forward across the table, extended her right hand and repeated what she had just said — this time more slowly and distinctly, in the way one speaks to a recalcitrant child.
Although the words were as incomprehensible as the first time, it was not difficult to understand that the museum was closed for renovation. Plastic sheeting hung everywhere, spades and broomsticks leaned against a corner wall, and by the woman’s feet were a couple of compact bags of cement. I tried to explain to this rheumy guardian of Nullity that I had not come to look at the collections — which, I was later to find out, consist of a couple of pencil stubs (3B, with shabby hoods of rubber), photographs, and books from the family’s former library, paintings which hung on the walls when the house was confiscated in 1918, a pince-nez, and some boxes of lovingly mounted butterflies. Nor was I seeking some senile genius loci. The truth is more mundane: I was simply curious about the size of the house. After all, not even the most meticulous description of interiors allows the reader to pace out the rooms in a book, much less experience how the light filters through uncleaned windows, coaxing coy shadows out of dim corners.
In complex sign language, I explained that I would gladly pay the admission fee, even double should that prove necessary, if I were only allowed to see the empty rooms. The woman shrugged her shoulders as if she had read my thoughts. The rouble notes I extended across off-prints and plastic icons were exchanged for an improvised receipt: at the back of the book of crossword puzzles the woman found a blank page which she tore out and on which she scribbled date, fee, and signature. I do not imagine that she knew that the subject of the museum actually coined the term for “crossword” used by Russian emigrés, krestoslovitsa, but perhaps I am underestimating her. At any rate, the woman was mystery herself as she pulled aside the first piece of plastic sheeting with a studied gesture, not devoid of Orthodox suggestion, opened the door behind it, and pointed — stubby finger shaking dramatically — towards the empty drawing room beyond.
It was like stepping into an abandoned memory. In a side room full of rubbish stood a pair of trestles with a door lying across them. The painter must have interrupted his work abruptly, for only half the door had been sanded. The rest of it was still covered in poison-green paint with stains of what looked like coffee, but could just as well have been dish or sewage water. By a door post was a large bag from which broken strips of wood protruded, rows of small nails sticking out of them like the dentures of some antediluvian insect. Cables hung like bewildered italics from the ceiling, while the drawing room was adorned with a dirty, tarnished crystal chandelier. Onion-shaped light fittings had also been mounted there, on the walls, but only a few of them had lightbulbs, shining, it seemed, without much conviction. In a corner stood a stoic chest, covered by a plastic sheet; presumably too heavy to move. Sheets had also been hung to protect the elegant wall panelling of varnished walnut. The floor was covered in dirt, sawdust and the odd cigarette butt. Here and there were yellowed leaves which must have blown in through the broken window panes, like faded Post-Its reporting an approaching winter. Yet the overall impression was not without interest: it felt like being in an unfinished crossword puzzle.
It is often claimed that Nabokov was a “cold” writer. With studied calm and exquisite restraint, he scribbled his texts on index cards which were fashioned into façades and turrets, into wings, attics, and basements — an architecture of words! Scenes were slid into and out of each other, the tableaux lined up like pictures at an exhibition. What is suggested is the image of the writer as dispassionate conjurer, one who treats his characters like pieces in fixed settings, indeed in chess problems, with the secret aim of placing the reader in check — a notion not exactly contradicted by Nabokov when, in response to intrusive questions by interviewers, he claimed he preferred “to compose riddles with elegant solutions,” that he wrote purely for the pleasure and difficulty of writing. In this attitude one may discern the traits of a manipulator, divinely gifted, who despite his acute sense of detail, magical style, and spacious sort of prose, fails to make the reader feel moved. The image, or rather emblem, corresponding to such writerly temperament is of course the brain, that uncrowned master of chessboards and crosswords. And indeed, in one of his lectures on literature, Nabokov does argue that “the mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.”
But I find it hard to believe that this can be the whole truth. It is one thing to place the reader in check, quite another to checkmate him. Why should literature be less true to the heartbeat of life just because its inventor constructs it with the same standards of precision as the watchmaker his watch? The anecdote my fellow passengers told me came to mind. Was the sort of literature which immediately turns the heat up to checkmate its reader anything else than antiquated avantgardism? Does shock possess a value in and of itself — reaching some deeper stratum of experience, forging a broadened knowledge? Literature which only gradually raises the temperature does something else. More cagey, it gives the audience time enough to consider its own mortality. Naturally, the object of such narrative art is not to take readers’ lives, yet if they become aware of their own transience, much is to be gained. Thus its strategies will often be indirect. As a reader, you are put into a state which is slowly undermined. As you continue to read, you are strengthened by your impressions, while secretly the text plays its insidious game. Then, with a jolt as certain as it is startling, you are faced with the irrefutable: you are no longer reading the work, but being read by it. The response may be of delight or dismay, your situation a dream or a trauma, but one thing remains the same: you will always be given proof of being alive. Nabokov’s investigation of the conditions of reality, his dexterity and gaminess, often wished to make the reader feel alive in this way. After all, a body is not made up of the spine alone. It has muscles, nerves, and fatty tissue, skin, hair and membranes — all this software which is ephemeral, and therefore surrounded by so much pathos and ideology, odd and alluring at once. Only such a body can experience that singular tingle down the vertebral column, as dreadful as it is delicious.
Thus I mused when suddenly I heard the familiar sound of someone tapping on a keyboard. Through the doorway of one of the rooms facing the street, I saw a woman seated in front of a huge computer, worthy of a Cold War space station. It turned out that she spoke English and would be happy to show me around — on the two upper floors as well, despite their not being open to the public. If I understood her correctly, a newspaper’s offices are still in operation there; at least she asked me to be as quiet as an immigrant mouse as she led the way up the stairs, index finger pressed to pursed lips. Carefully we opened the door to the second floor, which proved to be in good repair. After speaking to an editor, we obtained permission to visit the eastern corner room, which originally had been the mother’s quarters, and where the eldest son had been born. Behind an overburdened writing desk the open fireplace could be seen — an impressive feat of the imagination reminiscent of a wall clock whose cabinet had been put to new uses. But the third floor was in a sorry state. Seventy years of Soviet use had altered the original floor plan beyond recognition. Piles of broken linoleum tiles, rickety metal lockers, dripping taps, floors as filthy as, well, Hell, and winding corridors between walls thin as paper: the top floor had become a run-down office labyrinth whose innermost quarters, Vladimir’s former bedroom, proved impossible to locate. My guide doubted that it still existed. Might it have disappeared together with the apparatchik who had once used it as an interrogation room?
The bright blue stairwell we retired to was intact, however, wallpapered with parts of the sort of sky found only at St. Petersburg’s latitude. Even the two stained-glass windows were still there — artworks of light and movement “blending,” according to The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, “the spiritual grace of a Russian household with the very best treasures of European culture.” They reminded me of aristocratic cousins of the illustrations you find in crossword puzzles. Out of curiosity I asked my temporary Beatrice which riddle the window might illustrate. She shook her head. That the intricate pattern of vines and trellises, bouquets, and garlands should contain some concealed message was a notion she had never heard of, much less entertained. Embarrassed, we lingered a while at the top of the stairs, shuffling our feet and watching as the morning light was caught by the flat panes, mellowed and darkened into the sated yellow of a lead pencil.
Having left the museum as the guard downstairs laid out her packed lunch on top of her crossword puzzle and waved goodbye wielding a diminutive fork, I strolled towards Kunstkammer on the other bank of the Neva. I had been told that the czar’s famous collection of curios included a set of aborted foetuses. I regret to report that it was not an encouraging sight. In discreetly lit tableaux, lovingly arranged within sealed glass vessels placed atop velvet-covered pedestals, stillborn creatures hovered in the eternal weightlessness of spirit solutions. Most anatomical peculiarities seemed possible: at least there were a number of heads without bodies; a small boy with double sets of extremities and his nose pressed myopically against the glass; a head that ended suddenly above the eyebrows, with an astonished smile still lingering on thin lips; bowed legs which evolved into hands instead of feet . . . The poses were reminiscent of those of lost souls in altarpieces: supplicating or impassive, impudent or desperate — visions of a limbo outside of human time.
A Buddha-like creature caught my eye. He appeared tranquil, almost serene as he sat in his jar, covering his sex with long, slender fingers. The body seemed strong, like a miniature boxer’s, agile and athletic — except for his head, that is, which was twice the size it should have been, looked like a swollen apple, and featured two fully developed faces. Or were there three? One pair of eyes had merged, forming a third mien in the middle, between the hairline and the tip of the chin, with a large, rotund cheek where the nose and mouth should have been. His waxy skin was yellow as only timelessness can be. Slowly, I began to realize that this must be the limit of empathy. For is the border not there, precisely, running along the thin shell of the cranium?
I sought refuge in a café, had a glass of tea and some piroshkis while leafing through a local paper. Circuitously I then returned to the hotel. Afternoon had arrived, and I needed to rest a while before evening. Having drawn the heavy curtains and turned down the volume of the television, I lay on the bed and perused Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I had brought along as reading material. I am aware you are not supposed to mention the names of Conrad and Nabokov on the same day, much less in the same breath, but I must confess I appreciate them both. Leafing through the book, my impressions from earlier in the day made some of the scenes appear in full relief. Like this one, from the beginning: Marlow is describing a visit to his employer to sign some papers. As he enters the office, he encounters two women knitting — latter-day relations, it seems, to the graces — and notes “on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow.” Conrad pauses remarkably long over this flat, abstract world, as if more were at stake than an unequivocal representation of the white man’s exploitation of a dark continent: “There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the center.”
After signing the contract, Marlow is asked to visit the company physician. He is assured that this is a simple formality, which all employees must subject themselves to: “The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. ‘Good, good for there,’ he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully . . . ‘I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,’ he said. ‘And when they come back, too?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I never see them,’ he remarked; ‘and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.’”
There you have it: the crucial difference, as thin as the crust of a cranium. Usually, the task of literature is said to be that of making inner changes accessible, of translating soul into signs. But Conrad seems to be on to an uncannier possibility: “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” Is this the art of “cold” literature, a power of empathy turned inside out? Is that why its narratives so often take the form of tableaux, occasionally as one-dimensional as comic strip frames? Although everything occurs on the same plane, coexisting in the same dimension, the individual elements originate from diverse times. The effect is a form of simultaneity, like that of memory, but happening on the outside. Is that what gives rise to the vexed feeling that one is oneself being “seen,” “read,” and perhaps, well, yes, compromised?
I awoke a few hours later, opened the curtains, and turned up the volume on the television. Late afternoon light, gangsta rap. The usual ritual followed: having shaved, I brushed my teeth and pulled a comb through my hair, put on a clean shirt and made sure cigarettes, wallet and identification papers were safely pocketed. After polishing my shoes with one of the bathroom towels, I took the lift down to the lobby.
The metal doors had barely parted before I realized that the world left a few hours earlier had changed, irreparably. Perhaps I was still a bit groggy from sleep, but guests and staff actually moved as if in a trance. Nobody said anything, or else they were whispering softly and mysteriously behind cupped hands. At first I thought I was the one who was not quite right. But then I noticed an elderly lady seated in a rococo chair, frantically fanning herself with a brochure while rolling her wide-open eyes at me. The beautiful woman behind the information desk, usually so cool and collected, was nervously twisting the lid of her fountain pen on and off, clearly avoiding my gaze. Members of a Swedish package group were restlessly running back and forth between the windows and the settee, like children on their first day at school. Bemused, I walked towards the exit. Before I got very far, however, my passage was blocked by the security guard. It was clear that he had no intention of letting me leave the hotel. He wore that expression, simultaneously resolute and distant, that people of his sort don when they intend to follow regulations to the letter. But then he suddenly received orders through his earpiece. Turning away, he pressed his hand against his ear. As he then turned back to face me, twitching his neck irritably, he nodded wordlessly towards the rear exit. The veins on his forehead were swollen and throbbing, sweat glistened in his blond crewcut. Adjusting his tie knot, he nodded once again, and spread out his arms. And it was at that moment that I saw them, between distended fingers: the two lifeless bodies in the street outside, lying in front of a badly parked Range Rover in which a man was slumped over the wheel.
I cannot deny there was something theatrical about the scene. In the half hour that followed I stood with my nose pressed against the window, watching as the plain-clothes policemen went about their work. First they turned away passers-by, then they cordoned off the scene of the crime and covered the dead with sheets from the hotel. The corpses were of a man and a woman, aged between 35 and 40. They lay on their sides, turned towards each other almost affectionately, like lovers on a bed. Some dignitaries arrived, issued a few curt orders, and drove off. Using a ballpoint pen, a man with the looks of Lyle Lovett inspected the bullet holes in the hotel’s windows while speaking incessantly into a mobile phone. Finally, two figures in white coats, wearing condom-like gloves, stepped forward. Methodically, they began to examine the bodies. From their bags, some instruments were retrieved. With a pair of tweezers, one of the pathologists placed one, two . . . three . . . four cartridges on the asphalt, which the other then put, one after the other, into what looked like a freezer bag. When they at last were finished, they pulled off their gloves, closed their bags, and were off, quiet as mice.
How long did I stand there, for how long did I follow what happened before I realized I felt compromised? For as long as it takes a person shot to death to bleed through a hotel sheet.
When at last I started to walk towards the rear exit, both relieved and embarrassed, I heard the sound of bagpipe music. In front of the newsstand at the other end of the lobby, a dozen or so teenage girls had just began dancing. They were dressed in highland costumes and seemed not to have the barest inkling of what had happened in the street outside. Cheerfully they clapped their hands, slapped their knees and heels and seemed on the whole to be hysterically delighted — while hotel waiters brought chilled champagne on large silver platters to an Asian group. Believe me, there was nothing else to do but to get the hell out of there.
I did not return to the hotel until well after midnight. By then, the cordon had been removed and the Range Rover towed off. Quietly, the lindens swayed on the other side of the street. Only the security guard was up, vigilant as ever. Standing in the middle of the street with a hose in his hand he confided in fragmented English that the murdered man had been a Georgian mafia boss, the woman his mistress, and the man in the car their driver. Then he wished me a good night and carried on washing the blood off the street.
Dear friend, it was St. Petersburg or me. Next morning I was on the first flight out of the city. Before the plane had passed through the cloud cover and we rose into the pure oblivion of the upper spheres, I could see quite a lot of blue, the odd patch of white, plenty of grey, and then rows of yellow stains, vague as searchlights in mist. But when I shut my eyes and felt the morning sun warm my face, there was only red, lots of red . . . I send you cordial greetings, still 37 degrees warm, from Russia with love,