Authors: Jose Manuel Prieto
In 1910, four years before the premiere of
Song of Triumphant Love,
her apotheosis, Vera Vasilievna, the future great star of Russian silent film (one of those butterflies of pleated
at her waist), took special care to exchange the crude fetter of her hard maiden name of Levchenko for the alluring and exotic double-stranded necklace of Холодная (Kholodnaya)
When this name, full of soft
s, was murmured in every salon in Muscovy, many imagined it to be a very apt pseudonym. In Russian,
means “cold woman,” and Vera Lánina, the adulterous beauty she played in
At the Fireside,
cold and distant. Russia’s so-called “Silver Age” (another lovely name) had had its tastes distorted by Игорь Северянин (Igor
, a pen name meaning “Northerner”), Андрéй Бéлый (Andrei
, whose chosen pseudonym was “White”), and Сáша Чёрный (Sasha
or “Black,” another nom de plume). Thus when, after
At the Fireside,
everyone flocked to her next film,
Forget Your Home, the Fire There No Longer Burns,
no one was inclined to lend the slightest credence to the hypothesis that Kholodnaya was simply her married name.
a) This quaintly antiquated vogue for pseudonyms has a fossil: Иосиф Виссарионович Сталин (Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, whose adopted monicker means “man of steel”).
For her husband, Vladimir Kholodny, the name had no exotic meaning: what’s more, he was the editor of Авто or
Steam and Speed)
the first Russian magazine for car enthusiasts. Vera Vasilievna Levchenko, too, seems to have had a taste for technological novelty. Four years later, metamorphosed into “the queen of the screen,” she drove only the latest model Renaults for her appearances in
Daughter of the Century, Why Do I Love So Madly?
The Chess Game of Life.
b) Already in 1918 automobiles summoned notions of power and strength. Trotsky scandalized Moses Nappelbaum, a portraitist whose studio was on Nevsky Prospekt, by having his picture taken in a chauffeur’s uniform adorned with leather and buckles, precisely the attire that would become characteristic of the civil war’s terrible commisars.
In 1914, with the outbreak of world war, the fiery glances and heavily retouched eyes of Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini suddenly caught on in Moscow. That same year, Vera Kholodnaya, a complete unknown, appeared in the offices of
Khanzhonkov, a magnate of the nascent film industry. Vera Vasilievna signed a five-year contract with Khanzhonkov, without suspecting that this
was the devil and she would die at the end of that period.
She acted in forty-seven films of love and despair. Her heroines’ laughter always contained a note of sadness: Pola, the unhappy acrobat, who executed dangerous moves and one night lost her grip on the trapeze, flew across the tent, and fell, luxuriously dressed—in a hat adorned with ostrich feathers—into a beautiful Muscovite mansion.
On October 25, by the old calendar,
The Human Beast
premiered (that cinema on Nevsky Prospekt still exhibits the film’s poster, behind glass). This prophetic title was followed in that season’s program, as we can see, by others no less foreboding:
Wounded Soul, Be Silent My Sadness,
and finally a filmed version of a story by Tolstoy that was a true premonition:
The Living Corpse.
When the contract ended in 1919 it was easier to die of typhoid fever than of
the flu pandemic with a name that sounded like one of her melodramas, the last one, and that killed La Kholodnaya on February 16 at the age of twenty-five.
As if I were called T
and she were L
I knew how to lead a false existence under those names; we had only to believe in our metamorphosis, leap onto the magic carpet of a perfect life, and contemplate from there the ciphers that denoted a bad year, any bad year—1990, 1991—as if it were 1819 or 1099 or some other historically significant combination of numerals, viewed from a distance.
I’d discovered the name in
one afternoon as I was analyzing the season’s latest accessories with all the interest and archaeological passion of a scholar who specializes in Greek togas. The alias was so perfectly suited to my project that I never hesitated for a second to make use of it. Moreover, there was L
herself, whom I encountered swimming in the fragrance of a page impregnated
. I still have the pictures: L
poses beneath the arch of a dark medieval bridge, as if abandoned there by a perverse djinni out of the
Thousand and One Nights.
She is gazing into the distance toward a love, an impossible love, and, in a gesture of farewell, has extended arms that are covered in dazzling fake gems. Heavy chains emphasize her waist; their sparkle heightens the black of a dress that clings to her body like “a second skin” but which, from the hips down, floats into airy flights of tulle, a sfumato through whose transparences can be seen, in fierce outline, L
swooningly perfect legs: fishnet stockings, a capricious pair of pointy-toed pumps. An invitation to buy a few of Yves Saint Laurent’s atomizers and also perchance to reflect upon the fleeting nature of our earthly existence.
For I would never be able to encompass all the women who floated toward me down Nevsky Prospekt, each a captive within the watertight bubble of her own beauty.
Тысячи сортов шляпок, платьев, платков,—пестрых, легких, к которым иногда в течение целых двух дней сохраняется привязанность их владетельниц, ослепят хоть кого на Не-вском проспекте. Кажется, как будто целое море мотыльков поднялось вдруг со стеблей и волнуется блестящею тучею над черными жуками мужеского пола . . . А какие встретите вы дамские рукава на Невском проспекте! Ах, какая пре-лесть! Они несколько похожи на два воздухоплавательные шара, так что дама вдруг бы поднялась на воздух, если бы не поддерживал ее мужчина; потому что даму так же легко и приятно поднять на воздух, как подносимый ко рту бокал, наполненный шампанским.
(Which is to say:
Thousands of varieties of hats, dresses, and kerchiefs, flimsy and bright-colored, for which their owners feel sometimes an adoration that lasts two whole days, dazzle everyone on Nevsky Prospekt. A whole sea of butterflies seems to have flown up from their flower stalks and to be floating in a glittering cloud above the beetles of the male sex . . . And the ladies’ sleeves that you meet on Nevsky Prospekt! Ah, how exquisite! They are like two balloons and the lady might suddenly float up into the air, were she not held down by the gentleman accompanying her; for it would be as easy and agreeable for a lady to be lifted into the air as for a glass of champagne to be lifted to the lips. —
“Nevsky Prospekt,” Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, translated by Constance Garnett.)
I was consoled by the sheer quantity of beauties I saw, each one so perfect, and they came to merge into a single being; their multiplicity—like the innumerable apparitions of L
, the real L
, in that same issue of
: strolling through a meadow in a yellow jacket and matching skirt, wearing a leopard-print cap and shirt; coming through the door of an artist’s studio dressed in strict tweeds; drinking cocktails next to a swimming pool’s fathomless blue, her striped bathrobe falling open—was merely apparent; in essence they were all the same woman. I imagined L
, my heroine, as the mathematical average of all the beautiful women I’d known in Russia, their profiles superimposed. I believed that there, along Nevsky Prospekt, I would find the woman I was seeking, and as you shall see I was not mistaken. So many Russian women are so beautiful!
Next to the Imperial Theater, I discovered a fresh face in the crowd. A specimen with sweet eyes beneath delicate brows. It might be L
. She moved forward without relaxing her straight shoulders, her gaze
cast down, pressing a slim portfolio against her chest. I radioed my urgent message to her but she passed without detecting the signals that I, a lighthouse in deep fog, was sending out. I turned to watch her walk away. She was almost what I was looking for. Her hair.
The girl with the slim portfolio was immediately replaced by others, all equally beautiful: blondes with soft faces, sharp-profiled women with light brown hair. Standing there as they streamed by, I let myself bathe in those faces and envelop each one in a story that took shape from the point zero of a pair of lips, a gesture, the Asiatic cast of a cheekbone, a story that would flash across my mind—maritime excursions, dancing until dawn—to burn out in an instant, its mistress borne off on the waters of that human river.
To Nabokov, Onegin, Pushkin’s alter ego, is not a dandy in the pure sense of the term. In his annotated translation of
(New York, 1956) Nabokov cites the following line from
The Life of George Brummell Esq., Commonly Called Beau Brummell: “
Brummell most assuredly was no dandy. He was a beau . . . His chief aim was to avoid anything marked,” adding, “Onegin, too, was a beau and not a dandy.” A distinction that strikes me as misguided and that seems to have been dictated by the slightly pejorative sense of the word “dandy” to the Russian ear. I don’t believe Pushkin himself would have accepted Nabokov’s dictum. His dandy-ism was as elemental as his way of breathing in French, though he did not imitate Brummell’s practice of sandpapering the silk of his brand-new suits to eliminate the shine in order to wear them with nonchalance. Pushkin’s biographers also fail to mention any invention on his part of a new type of buckle for his shoes. Nevertheless, the poet managed to coin a phrase—Денди лондонский,
that would take on singular importance for his cold country, the extension of Asia. And
that fact is of greater weight and consequence than Beau Brummell’s innocent shoe buckle. It was a title of nobility, the iron cross sported by those who boasted of belonging to the species
I was the first
of Eurasia. Not content with shaving the boyars’ beards and dressing them in European fashion, he was led by a pure and metaphysical dandy-ism to build a city for himself in much the same way one orders a bespoke suit.) This
disappeared into the depths of the Gulag toward the end of the 1920s and reappeared, intact, during the
this time beneath the inoffensive aspect of Moscow’s
a tribe of Apaches who greased their hair and wore pointed shoes, all of them deserters from the clearing of the Virgin Lands.
I do not know whether Nabokov—another authentic specimen of
who was traveling across the American Midwest in a beautiful P
driven by his wife during that period—greased his hair or wore tortoiseshell glasses. But I take it for granted that he was very well acquainted with the memoirs of Avdotya Panaeva. I read them because they offer curious glimpses of the figures who visited her salon (a young F.M., madly in love with the hostess, Turgenev and Chadeyev, each the epitome of the dandy). Panaeva writes that, as a girl, she once saw Pushkin at the opera. Nothing in her description of him supports Nabokov’s assertion that Pushkin would have avoided “anything marked.”
. . . однажды, в театре, сидела я в ложе с сестрами и братьями и с одной из теток. Почти к последнему акту в соседнюю ложу, где сидели две дамы и старичок, вошел курчавый, бледный и худощавый мужчина. Я сейчас же заметила, что у него на одном пальце надето что-то вроде золотого
наперстка. Это меня заинтересовало. Мне казалось, что его лицо мне знакомо. Курчавый господин зевал, потягивался и не смотрел на сцену, а глядел больше на ложи, отвечал нехотя, когда с ним заговаривали дамы по-французски. Вдруг я припомнила, где я его видела, и, дернув тетку за рукав, шепнула ей: “сзади нас сидит Пушкин”. Я потому его не сразу узнала, что никогда не видела его без шляпы. Но Пушкин скоро ушел изложи. Более мне не удалось его видеть. Уже взрослой я узнала значение золотого наперстка на его пальце. Он отрастил себе большой ноготь и, чтоб последний не сломался, надевал золотой футляр.
Once I was sharing a box at the opera with my sisters and one of my aunts. Before the last act, a slender gentleman, very pale and with curly hair, made an entrance into the neighboring box. Immediately I noticed a kind of golden thimble on one of his fingers that greatly intrigued me. Moreover, his face seemed familiar. The gentleman with curly hair yawned and stretched, gazing at the other boxes, paying no attention to what was happening onstage, and answering listlessly when the ladies spoke to him in French. Suddenly, I remembered where I had seen him. I tugged at my aunt’s arm and whispered: “We have Pushkin behind us.” I hadn’t recognized him because it was the first time I’d seen him without a hat. After a while Pushkin left the box and I never saw him again. As an adult, I learned what he used that thimble for. He had let the nail of his pinky finger grow long and used the golden thimble to protect it.
At seven p.m. I proceeded downstairs to the Astoria’s restaurant to finalize the details of our dinner. I found the waiter who would be serving us that night in the kitchen, shining his shoes. He answered to the alias of R
and I spoke with him a while to make sure he would know how to play his role. He listened to me with his face turned toward the floor, spying on me through his thick eyebrows: R
, a H
of the Transcaucasus. In the dining room, I showed him a table for six next to a large window and told him I expected a fresh tablecloth. I removed a heavy candlestick from the center of the table and in its place arranged pieces of glass fruit next to every setting. For the time being, only L
and I were on the guest list, but it’s an easy matter to assemble six people around a table in the Grand Duchy of Muscovy: Russian spontaneity.
Back in the lobby—hands in my pockets—I was struck by one of those flat, two-dimensional mannequins made from a photo blown up to life size that a travel agency was exhibiting in the corridor. It seemed to be part of a campaign to promote tourism in Southeast Asia. The model’s makeup was powerfully exotic: a white mask, pale as plaster, lips of the most vivid violet, a penciled-on beauty spot. From afar, the woman seemed to be offering something (a pair of tickets?) in her extended right hand. As I approached the mannequin I bent forward to
my eyes fixed on its eyes, which were staggeringly realistic. In the dim light of that hour, they had the translucent green of those unfathomable human gazes in which we lose our way, wavering
between the eyes and the point of light reflected within them, or else they were as vacant as the holes that serve as the eyes of a fairground colossus, filled in by the faces of tourists who are the iris and the pupils. I discovered that what she had in her hand was one of the heavy knobs to which the hotel’s room keys were attached, and immediately the smiling girl became a Japanese reminder placed there by the hotel management to admonish forgetful guests who would sometimes leave the hotel still carrying their keys. Calmer now, I lowered my eyes and brought them to rest on her chest and its admirably lifelike flesh color (but why admirable? a mere photographic illusion). Still half-leaning toward her, I suddenly perceived a growing flutter, a slight agitation, a crinkle of printed silk, and my ear captured the faint whistle of air expanding through her breast. Then, into the heart of the mystery, breaking the shell of air that surrounded me, a
descended and called my name: “J
! Wake up for God’s sake!” In a flash I thought, “Yes, wake up to reality, to real life! Now, and for all time!” Shaken by this truth, I rose through the clots of air, raised my eyes and . . . it was L
! For the love of God! L
! I stared at her another fraction of a second without understanding a thing, still shaken (to the very core of my being), reorganizing my hemispheres, returning the scattered blocks of consciousness to their place. Back in the lobby of the Astoria, in Saint Petersburg, in 1991, I understood that L
was seeking to put my nerves to the test with her disconcerting rediscovery of the polychromatic nature of ancient Greek statuary. But how many years would it be before the rest of us caught up to the daring color combination that L
was trying out that evening?
Many, many years. Her taste was astonishingly developed, as I already knew (it wasn’t a question of having or not having good taste). She’d imagined I would scold her in annoyance: “My God, you’ve been playing the flute since you were seven but you still don’t know
how to put makeup on?” It surprised her when I explained patiently how futile her little last-minute protest was.
, the dress is yours, it’s a gift.”
“You’re completely inconsistent! Your thesis . . . The novel you say you’re writing . . .”
“It’s because I had warmer tones in mind for you. Look at this print. Why do you need more color? I’ll wait for you to change your makeup, but you must do it quickly. It’s almost eight.”
“знаеш!” In her indignation she switched automatically into a harder form of Russian. “
” (She meant: “Know what? I can walk out of here right now.”) She drew a breath. “Give me back the pictures!”
Ay, I was expecting this! I took out the Polaroids and held them in front of her eyes like a man about to plunge a piece of litmus paper into the test solution. L
changed color beneath her mask and stared at them in fascination. “It’s as if years had gone by, as if they were very old pictures,” she murmured.
That was what she said, in a very small thread of voice. “It’s as if years had gone by . . .” I wasn’t expecting such a crushing reaction. A devastating chill advanced along my spine and L
smooth face became impenetrable once more. She raised her eyes slowly to ask me another question, to tell me something I could no longer hear and her two obols flecked with green and black settled a cold gaze upon me, a gaze that was
In biographies of Thomas Aquinas we find the same alarm followed with sudden rage triggered by a serious mistake on the part of his mentor, Albertus Magnus: the automaton or alchemical doll. Allow me to explain: the construction of an android is a false path, a dead end by which we will never reach the
. It offers a mechanical solution—creation not in the image but in the semblance—when the
true solution verges on ghostliness, the generation of a mental world created entirely out of such stuff as dreams are made on.
(Necesse est ponere aliquas creaturas incorporeas. Id enim quod praecipue in rebus creatis Deus intendit est bonum quod consistit in assimilatione ad Deum. Perfecta autem assimilatio effectus ad causam attenditur, quando effectus imitatur causam secundum illud per quod causa producit effectum; sicut calidum facit calidum. Deus autem creaturam producit per intellectum et voluntatem, ut supra ostensum est. Unde ad perfectionem universi requiritur quod sint aliquae creaturae intellectuales. Intelligere autem non potest esse actus corporis, nec alicuius virtutis corporeae, quia omne corpus determinatur ad hic et nunc. Unde necesse est ponere, ad hoc quod universum sit perfectum, quod sit aliqua incorporea creatura.)
There must be some incorporeal creatures. For what is principally intended by God in creatures is good, and this consists in assimilation to God Himself. And the perfect assimilation of an effect to a cause is accomplished when the effect imitates the cause according to that whereby the cause produces the effect; as heat makes heat. Now, God produces the creature by His intellect and will. Hence the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures. Now intelligence cannot be the action of a body, nor of any corporeal faculty, for every body is limited to “here” and “now.” Hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature.—Treatise on the Angels
(QQ  a. 1, Saint Thomas Aquinas, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province)
Мáстер и Маргар
“Listen, we have makeup experts who can spend a whole hour just preparing
the face for a normal workday. You’ll have to get through a short trial period during which we decide whether or not to hire you, but that will be better for you than playing the
at the cathedral. We’ll be working on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg—there are extremely beautiful spots there; ever visited the (C
?—and then, if you really are what we’re looking for (and I’m almost sure you are), we’ll travel south, to Y
, for a cover photo—redheads are big this year. The work will be exhausting, I’m warning you, but there are a lot of girls who’d give almost anything to be in your place.
“You never wanted to be a model? You think it’s a job for women who are stupid? You’re wrong. There is an intelligence in beauty, a true feeling that can alter the silhouette of a pair of legs, penetrate the occult meaning of rouge and expensive face creams. What interests me is the possibility of removing you from your animal state, endowing you with eyes that will allow you to contemplate the world in a more precise way. This will be easy; you have the natural intelligence of your red hair. A while ago, as I watched you playing in the cathedral, nothing in your face, neither your speckled eyes nor your Slavic cheekbones, caught my attention. Everything changed, as you know, when I watched your hair fall over your shoulders.
“I seek to expand the borders of the moment, to capture all signals, painstakingly, to stop the passage of time in a perfect second of heightened perception: the pleasing touch of a linen shirt, your full, arched eyebrows, the breeze that dries us off after a warm bath. It’s as if I were to tempt you with immortality, though I am not an emissary from the devil. Notice my shoes. Aren’t they beautiful? The signals arrive in such profusion and are so dissimilar that they demand a keen eye, a highly trained intelligence.”
(I patted my portfolio.) “I have here a dossier I’ve been assembling for several months. I’ll keep the photos I’ve taken of you today here,
too, so that half a year from now you can see yourself as you once were. You’ll be amazed at how vague your eyes were, without the fixity of a subtler appreciation, a purer decanting. I’m sure you’ll get there soon. That’s what I’m here for. The main thing is to meet the person who can give you this kind of polish. It will be as if I were teaching you to sing and, in fact, that’s exactly what I want to do: nuance the voice of your gaze, your bearing, so you won’t be swept along by your natural tone, but will build constructions that shift at every moment, leave an empty space, create a hollow that then becomes your voice, which hits a note that rings from a thousand points like one of those amazing singers of
“In fact, I must now confess: I don’t actually work for a fashion house. But that in no way alters the meaning of my invitation. I deal in real life; I seek to confer upon it the luster of a finished product, ready for the marketplace. I move the clouds in the sky, add light and air to distant vistas, accentuate the green of trees and lawns, seek to awaken a reality that will be more blue and more red. This is a private initiative, and I require a woman, a redhead such as yourself, to help me bring the project to a successful conclusion. You had already almost agreed to pose for a fashion magazine. What I’m proposing is that you
for this novel. It amounts to the same thing, essentially. In fact it’s better, because you’ll actually experience everything that’s generally left outside the frame in photography. Okay, I know that in the O
very rich models make two million dollars a year and wouldn’t see the life you’ll lead as even remotely luxurious. That’s just a detail, a small incongruence of scale. You’ll get used to it, L
,” I said, calling her by her name for the first time. “It’s as if you’d been working at a soda fountain or a cheap café and were discovered there and cast in the role of
The Rise and Rise of the Girl from Nowhere.
She had been listening attentively but then let out a shriek. “My God, something’s happening to your shoes!”
As if abandoned there on the gravel and entirely alien to me, my
were emitting a fluorescent glow that pulsated more intensely from time to time. In just a few seconds they grew to several times their normal size and stretched all the way across the path, inflating to a malevolent roundness.
I. That same voice, previously: “. . . though I’m not an emissary from the devil.” (An entirely superfluous justification.) The M
who, weakened by a strange malady, knows his death is approaching and makes a pact with the devil. For a while now, T
has toyed with the idea of an essay on
and has disposed of the amount of whalebone necessary to elaborate a
(Basel, 1650). Finally, he decided upon an essay in the primitive sense of the word: an alchemical experiment. To mix all his dandified knowledge within the vessel of a young soul, to bequeath his vision to an innocent girl. To gain her consent, T
tempts her with a model’s life and even resorts to a brief demonstration of his alchemical powers, transforming his shoes before her eyes. Булгáков (Bulgakov), in T
, describes a similar scene, from which I excerpt this passage:
Удивленная Маргарита Николаевна повернулась и увидела на своей скамейке гражданина, который, очевидно, бесшумно подсел в то время, когда Маргарита загляделась на процессию и, надо полагать, в рассеянности вслух задала свой последний вопрос . . .
Рыжий оглянулся и сказал таинственно:
—Меня прислали, чтобы вас сегодня вечером пригласить в гости.
—Что вы бредите, какие гости? . . .
—К одному очень знатному иностранцу—значительно сказал рыжий, прищурив глаз . . .
—Я приглашаю вас к иностранцу совершенно безопасному. И ни одна душа не будет знать об этом посещении. Вот уж за это я вам ручаюсь.
—А зачем я ему понадобилась?—вкрадчиво спросила Маргарита.
—Вы об этом узнаете позже.
—Понимаю . . . Я должна ему отдаться—сказала Маргарита задумчиво.
Nikolayevna turned with a start and found an individual beside her on the bench. He must have taken advantage of her absorption in the procession—the same absorption that had made her speak her question aloud—to sit down there.
The red-haired man looked around, then said in a mysterious tone, “I’ve been sent here to deliver an invitation for this evening to you.”
“You must be mad. What sort of invitation?”
“An invitation to the home of a very illustrious foreigner,” said the red-haired stranger, narrowing one eye with an air of great significance. “I’m inviting you to the home of a foreign gentleman who can do you no harm. Furthermore, no one will be aware of your visit. You have my word on that.
“And what does he need me for?” M
“You’ll learn that in time.”
. . .
I must let him have his way with me,” said M