The Prince of West End Avenue (8 page)

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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before the first salvo." "Obviously the putsch has collapsed." "It's Chamberlain at Munich all over again." "Rapprochement." "War by other means." "Zionist encirclement and annexation." In this war of nerves, Lipschitz had made an impressive first move.

Later Hamburger and the Red Dwarf came to my room. The Red Dwarf rudely pushed past me and climbed into the easy chair, almost disappearing in its embrace. For Hamburger he left the straight-back chair at my desk. They looked at me silently for a moment. I closed the door.

The Red Dwarf's gold tooth glinted. "So, comrade, you have chosen a life for the czar?"

Naturally I said nothing. To such sarcasm there is nothing to say. But since, standing there, I felt a little like the accused before his judges, I went and sat on the bed.

"What did Lipschitz want?" asked Hamburger.

"Perhaps you should ask," said the Red Dwarf, "what did Korner want?"

"For God's sake, Poliakov," said Hamburger. "Korner is no traitor. What nonsense is this? Apologize to him, or I quit this whole business."

"No offense, comrade," said the Red Dwarf smoothly.

I told them what Lipschitz had said.

"So Lipschitz knows," said Hamburger woefully.

"This is what we get for pussyfooting around," the Red Dwarf snarled. "If you'd listened to me, Lipschitz and his lackeys would be already groveling at our feet, whining for mercy. 'Let's sound the others out,' says Kerensky over here. 'Let's hear from Pinsky and Minsky and Stinksky.' Let me tell you something: if you want the people to march on the Winter Palace, you have to shtup them in their backs with a rifle butt and fire a few bullets into the air." He crossed his legs under him on the easy chair and began to sway back and forth, his eyes closed, as if in silent prayer or ill with stomachache.

"Perhaps if we'd gone right away to Scheisskopf," said Hamburger. He pulled at a long earlobe and slowly shook his head. His thin white face, gloomy at the best of times, was heavy with despair. "You don't happen to have a cookie, Korner? Perhaps a little schnapps?"

"Wodka," said the Red Dwarf.

I took some bottles and glasses from the cabinet and put oui the gingersnaps.

"With such an attitude at Valley Forge," I said, "today we would be saluting the Union Jack and singing 'God Save the Queen.' "

"Someoi us would," said the Red Dwarf.

"I have always admired," said Hamburger, "the British sense of fair play." He bit into a gingersnap musingly.

"Pip-pip," said the Red Dwarf. He put a hand behind his head before throwing it smartly back. Down his gullet went a half-tumbler of vodka.

We were in obvious disarray.

We pooled the results of our researches. Blum is with us in exchange for the role of Horatio. Salo Wittkower, our Claudius, is with us if we agree to play Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" for all his exits and his entrances—"a kind of leitmotiv," he says. (A small price to pay, even though the composition, I believe, was written for Edward VII.) Also Emma Rothschild, our costume designer (and third-floor chess champion), is with us, admirably, out of simple loyalty to Sinsheimer, whom Lipschitz, in her view, mocks by his directorship. Reynaldo and Polonius are undecided. The rest of the cast will accept whatever is decided for them.

Neither hopeful nor hopeless: there is no consensus.

"What is to be done?" asked Hamburger.

"Chernyshevsky," said the Red Dwarf dreamily, round-shouldered, rocking back and forth.

"Work more vigorously with the dramatis personae," I

suggested. "Exploit their dissatisfactions. Reason with them. Try to bring together a majority."

"It may yet not be too late," said the Red Dwarf, snapping upright. "But let me give you a warning in the form of a quotation: 'The great questions of the day are decided not by the votes and resolutions of majorities, but by blood and iron'—Comrade Lenin, 1916."

"Bismarck," I said.



"Bismarck," said Hamburger wearily.

"What difference?" said the Red Dwarf, and then, as if to cover his heresy, he took a quick drink of vodka, hand behind his head as before. "The revolutionary takes from the Black Hundred whatever is useful for the liberation of the masses."

What would he say, this disciple of Lenin, if I told him that I met his hero in Zurich in 1916? Not even the Red Dwarf would have been impressed by him then. The champion of the people was far too busy trying to make his centimes last through the week.

"It's late," I said.

"What have we decided?" asked the Red Dwarf, now on his third half-tumbler of vodka and as a consequence growing teary-eyed.

I glanced at Hamburger. He nodded. "Let's go, Poliakov. We don't have to decide anything tonight."

The Red Dwarf sprang to the floor. "I've got it!" he announced, and stumbled through a little jig.

"Tomorrow you'll tell us," said Hamburger.

"It's simple, that's the beauty of it! You, Korner, you accept Lipschitz's offer. He makes the announcement: if anything happens to him, you become the director."

"You don't know what you're saying," said Hamburger.

"No, wait, listen. Once he makes the announcement, we take care of him!"

"For God's sake, Poliakov!"

"Don't you see?" said the Red Dwarf. Tears ran down his cheeks. "It's simple!"

Hamburger took him firmly by the arm. "Tomorrow. Meanwhile, we'll think about it." He led the Red Dwarf, weeping, to the door. "Good night, Korner."

"G'night," sobbed the Red Dwarf.

of our dining room one warm summer night and landed at my mother's feet. The note said simply: "Cowards should be shot." Father and I rushed to the window, but there was nothing to see.

"You are a danger to us all, not just to yourself!" my father began to shout, his eyes bulging, the veins at his temples throbbing. "You must leave Germany right away, immediately!"

"But Ludwig—" began my mother.

"Frieda, leave this to me. He must get out of here." He began to pace up and down. "Intolerable!" he said. "Intolerable!" But whether the word was directed at me or at the note that he still held in his hand, it was impossible to say.

"But where will he go?" asked my mother.

"Switzerland," said Aunt Manya.

They were talking now as if I were not there to hear them. My sister, Lola, sat on the sofa, silent, frightened, staring wide-eyed at her adored brother, who seemed to have done something truly shameful, unmentionable.

"Don't you think, Father—" I began.

"Silence!" he screamed. "You have nothing of any interest to say. You will go to Switzerland. But not to moon about with the other loafers, the good-for-nothings sitting out the war. No more poetry rubbish, thank you! You will study something that might be of use to you in a future career, useful eventually to the firm, useful perhaps in time even to the Fatherland."

"But Ludwig, Otto is a good boy, never a day's trouble from him. Why are you so angry with him? He can't help it that he can't fight. What has he done?"

My mother's tearful rebuke brought my father up short. In a softer tone he said, "Some good may come of this. In Switzerland he can also act as the firm's agent with America and the other nonbelligerents. That should count for something, cut through some of the red tape." He ran from the room and locked himself in his study.

I do not condemn my poor father for his outburst. He was distraught, fearful for his womenfolk—the stone through the window had terrified my mother—fearful for his standing in the community, fearful even for me. Perhaps, too, he had had some glimmering of the truth: the weakness of the foundation upon which he had built his trust in the Enlightenment and the Emancipation, the bacillus of anti-Semitism bred in the very marrow of the Volk y the essential capriciousness of German toleration. Like all the impotent, he vented his frustration on the innocent.

Later he knocked very softly on the door to my room. "Its not your fault, Otto," he said, reaching up to pat me on the head. "Never mind, my boy. Soon the war will be over, and you will return to us." He meant to be kind, of course; this was as close as he had ever come to an apology. In the order of things, parents do not apologize to their children. But his words stung just the same. Far better, it seemed to me then, to be unjustly accused of cowardice than to be treated as a child.

As A SMALL BOY I once watched a beetle trying to climb out of a glass bowl: up the slippery walls he went, up, up, and then— hoppla!—down he fell on his shiny back, his little legs waving frantically in the air. Turn him over and he would start again, up, up, and then hoppla! How he wanted to get out!

The Contessa would not have liked Zurich. This was no place for a claustrophobe. In Zurich, surrounded by the oppressive mountains, the Contessa would have felt like that beetle. But during the Great War this claustrophobic atmosphere was much increased. There was a tension almost palpable in the air. One lived in the eye of the storm, the peaceful dead center, while all around the battle raged, the guns thundered, the mines blew young limbs to bloody shreds, and a world, a way of life, was dying.

I arrived in Zurich (as I have elsewhere noted) in mid-September 1915, a month before the university term was to begin, time enough to get settled, to find my bearings. The city was bursting with refugees and exiles, with speculators and spies, with artists, political misfits, and literati, all beached, as it were, on the shores of the lake, all in the service of a Greater Purpose, in a city best praised for its cleanliness and parsimony. Nevertheless, in spite of myself—in spite, that is, of my stupidly "heroic" self-disgust—here in Zurich, independent, after a fashion, for the first time in my life (thanks to a generous letter of credit from my father), here, in this tiny spot in the mountains, to borrow from the cryptic remark of Senora Krauskopf y Guzman, here I felt free.

My father had determined that I would study political economy under the world-famous Professor Dr. Max Winkel-Ecke, a scholar who might, if any could, transform an idle dreamer into a useful, functioning member of bourgeois society. In the unlikely event that the war should outlast the completion of my course of studies, said my father, perhaps I should move on to commercial law. We would see. He would in any case, purely as a matter of precaution, make suitable inquiries about the law faculty at the university.

My protests were halfhearted and anyway hopeless: I was, after all, a dutiful son. Besides, I did not seem able to write anymore; the flame of inspiration had been quenched. Oh, yes, I had the occasional "poetic moment," a phrase, an image, a thought that pleased me. But I could bring nothing together. The world's events marched gloriously by, and I stood on the curbside, not even waving a flag. I became a diligent student. The wonder is that despite the unutterable boredom of my studies and the abandonment of my youthful expectations of literary achievement, already chained, as it seemed to me, to the dull grind of a duller future, I still retained a heady sense of freedom.

No, I had not forgotten Magda Damrosch. All that autumn and into the following winter I combed Zurich looking for her, her image ever before me. Through jostling streets and lonely alleys, in the marketplaces, the shops and tearooms, in the theaters and concert halls I searched, and searched in vain. I filled my empty nights with thoughts of her, ran through my mind again and again the words we had spoken to one another, now magical in memory, and tossed on my narrow bed in lustful imaginings: "Magda, Magda." By the end of February 1916 I had given up hope of ever finding her. My wanderings through Zurich were now habitual, not purposeful. For all I knew, she had long since left Switzerland.

And then I met Lenin. It was late afternoon, already dark outside. I was sitting in the overheated reading room of the cantonal library, plowing my way, with heavy lids, through yet another of those vast (and vastly dreary) tomes required by my studies, when Lenin appeared beside me. Of course, I did not know who he was, though I had seen him often before in the library. Neither he nor I nor anyone else knew yet what he would become. There is no need to describe him; all the world knows what he looked like. Still, there was nothing there of the fiery zealot who is the central figure of countless historical scenes painted in the tiresome school of Soviet socialist realism, nothing of the awesome, brooding face with its piercing eyes that hangs on giant banners in Red Square on May Day, along with the faces of Karl Marx and whoever rules the Kremlin at the moment. What I saw was a balding, middle-aged man of middle height, sweating slightly in a heavy, worn suit of some dull brown stuff. He looked like a petit bourgeois down on his luck, a minor civil servant who had recently been given the sack, someone battered by circumstances but gamely not complaining, though perhaps a little bewildered.

He asked if he might have temporary use of the journals

stacked at my elbow, since I did not seem to be needing them at the moment. I told him he was welcome to them (not mentioning that in fact they were not mine), and supposed that was that. But when, an hour or so later, weary beyond reckoning, I got up to leave, he scampered after me into the hall. His name, he said, was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. He hoped he had not interfered too severely with my studies. Not in the least, I assured him. Dare he invite me, he asked, to a lecture he was to give at the Volkhaus the following evening? In view of my youth and my evident interests, I might find it worthwhile. After the lecture perhaps we would have a drink together. I thanked him and said I hoped I would be able to attend. A mildly ironic smile played on his lips. Perhaps he knew I had no intention of going to hear him.

I went, of course. (There is a universally acknowledged truth enshrined in the proverbs of the folk: Man proposes, but God disposes.) It was an evening of bone-chilling damp. The Volkhaus is a pseudo-Gothic building, then the headquarters of the Swiss Socialist party, ill lighted and drafry. On the other side of the street paced a portly policeman flapping his arms across his chest to keep warm. The lecture was sparsely attended; only about thirty-five or forty seats in the cavernous hall were taken, a polite audience of young Swiss workers. Lenin spoke of the lessons to be learned from the revolution of 1905. He spoke fluently and softly, only occasionally glancing at his notes. The Russian revolution of 1905, he said, was to be regarded as a dress rehearsal for the European revolution that still lay years in the future. He did not expect to witness it; he spoke, rather, as one who was ready to hand on the torch to the next generation, which might, with luck and determination, live to see the victory of socialism in Europe. There was scattered applause.

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
12.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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