Authors: Lara Prescott
Sergio D’Angelo awoke to his three-year-old son beside his bed babbling on midsentence about a dragon named Stefano—a large green-and-yellow papier-mâché creature they’d seen at a puppet show back in Rome. “Giulietta!” Sergio called to his wife, hoping she’d take pity on him and fetch their child so that he could sleep another hour. Giulietta ignored his pleas.
Sergio’s mouth was dry and his temples throbbed from too many vodka shots the night before. “To the Italians!” his coworker Vladlen had cried, raising a glass to the group gathered for the Radio Moscow party. Sergio laughed and drank without pointing out that he was but one
Sergio led the charge to the dance floor. Handsome and dressed as though he’d stepped off an Italian film set, he had his choice of dancing partners. And he chose them all, until Vladlen tapped him on the shoulder to tell him the music had ended a half hour ago and the café owner was throwing them out. A petite woman with whom Sergio was dancing to no music invited them back to her apartment to continue the revelry, but Sergio declined. Not just because his wife was waiting for him at home, but because, despite the next day being Sunday, he had work to do.
Sergio translated bulletins for Radio Moscow’s Italian broadcast, but he’d also come to the USSR for another reason: he was a would-be literary agent. His employer, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli—the timber heir and founder of a new publishing company—wanted to find the next modern classic and was convinced it had to come from the Motherland. “Find me the next
” Feltrinelli had instructed.
Sergio had yet to find the next smash hit, but a bulletin that had come across his desk the previous week offered a promising lead:
The publication of Boris Pasternak’s
is imminent. Written in the form of a diary, it is a novel that spans three quarters of a century, ending with the Second World War.
Sergio telegraphed Feltrinelli and was given the go-ahead to attempt to secure the international rights. Unable to get hold of the author by telephone, Sergio made plans with Vladlen to visit Pasternak at his dacha in Peredelkino that Sunday.
That morning, with his son still at his heels, Sergio splashed cold water on his face at the sink and wished he’d asked Vladlen to make the trip the following weekend instead. Entering the kitchen, which was half the size of his kitchen back home, his wife sat at the table drinking a cup of the instant espresso she’d brought with them from Rome. His four-year-old daughter, Francesca, sat across from Giulietta and mimicked her mother, bringing her own plastic cup to her lips and setting it gently down. “Good morning, my darlings,” Sergio said, and kissed them both on their cheeks.
“Mama is angry with you, Papa,” Francesca said. “Very angry.”
“Nonsense. Why would she be angry if there’s nothing to be angry about? Your mother knows I must work today. I’m paying the most famous poet in the Soviet Union a visit.”
“She didn’t say why she is angry, just that she is angry.”
Giulietta got up and put her cup into the sink. “I don’t care who you are visiting. As long as you don’t stay out all night again.”
Sergio dressed in his best suit—a custom-tailored sand-colored Brioni, a gift from his generous employer. By the door, he polished his shoes with a horsehair brush. Throughout what had seemed like an endless Russian winter, Sergio had worn the same black rubber boots all Russians wore. Now that spring had come, Sergio felt a jolt of joy as he slipped his feet into his fine leather shoes. Clicking his heels, he bid his family goodbye and was out the door.
Vladlen was waiting for Sergio at track number seven, holding a paper bag full of onion-and-egg piroshki for their short journey. The two men shook hands and Vladlen held out the paper bag. Sergio held his stomach. “I can’t.”
“Hung over?” Vladlen asked. “You’ll need to practice if you want to keep up with us Russians.” He opened the bag and shook it. “An old remedy. Take one. We’re about to meet Russian royalty, and you need to be at your very best.”
Sergio pulled out a pastry. “I thought the Russians killed off all their royals.”
“Not yet.” Vladlen laughed, a piece of hard-boiled egg falling from his mouth.
The train pulled out of the station, and as the many tracks narrowed to one, Sergio held on to the top of the open window, letting the warm air kiss his fingertips. The spring weather felt magnificent after he had been covered head to toe all winter. He was also excited to see the countryside, as he hadn’t yet ventured out of Moscow. “What are they building over there?” he asked his companion.
Vladlen flipped through Pasternak’s first book of poetry—
Twin in the Clouds
—which he’d brought along in hopes the author might sign it. “Apartments,” he replied without looking up.
“But you didn’t even look.”
The passing landscape changed from recently constructed buildings to buildings under construction to countryside—dotted with spring-green trees and the occasional village marked by an Orthodox church and small country homes, each sectioned off with a fence and its own plot of land. Sergio waved at a young boy on the side of the tracks holding a speckled chicken under his arm. The boy didn’t wave back. “How long does it go on like this?” Sergio asked.
The two men disembarked at Peredelkino. It had rained during the night, and as soon as they crossed the railroad tracks, Sergio stepped in mud. He cursed himself for wearing his good shoes. He sat on a bench and tried to remove the muck with a lace handkerchief, but stopped when he realized he was drawing the attention of three men on the side of the road. The men were trying to hitch an elderly mule to the front of a dilapidated Volga. Sergio and Vladlen made for an odd sight. The blond Russian in his oversized pants—cuffed at the bottom—and tight-fitting vest looked like any man from the city. He was a head taller than the Italian and twice as wide. And Sergio, in his slim-cut suit, was clearly a foreigner.
Sergio dropped the useless handkerchief and asked Vladlen if there was a café nearby where he could properly clean his shoes. Vladlen pointed to a wooden building resembling a large shed across the street, and the two men went inside.
“Toilet?” Sergio asked the woman behind the counter. She had the same expression as the men hitching the mule to the car.
“Outside,” she said.
Sergio sighed and asked for a glass of water and a napkin instead. The woman left, then returned with a piece of newspaper and a shot of vodka. “This isn’t going to—”
Vladlen interrupted, and downed the shot, pounding his palm on the counter for another.
“We have important work to do,” Sergio said.
“We don’t have an appointment. The poet can surely wait.”
Sergio forced his friend off his stool and out the door.
Outside, the trio of men had successfully hitched the mule to the car. A small child was now behind the wheel and steered as the men pushed. They stopped and stared as Sergio and Vladlen crossed the street and proceeded up the path that ran alongside the main road.
Passing the Russian Patriarch’s summer residence—a grand red and white building behind an equally grand wall—Sergio wished he’d brought his camera. They crossed a small stream, swollen with melted snow and rain, and trudged their way up the small hill and down a gravel road lined with birch and pine trees.
“A place fit for a poet!” Sergio remarked.
“Stalin gave these dachas to a handpicked group of writers,” Vladlen replied. “So that they may better
converse with the muse.
That, and it makes it easier to keep track of them.”
Pasternak’s dacha was on the left and reminded Sergio of a cross between a Swiss chalet and a barn. “There he is,” Vladlen said. Dressed like a peasant, Pasternak was tall with a full head of gray hair falling in his face as he bent over his garden plot with a shovel. As Sergio and Vladlen approached, Pasternak looked up and shielded his eyes from the sun to see who’d come to visit.
Sergio called out, his enthusiasm betraying his nervousness. Pasternak looked confused, then smiled broadly.
“Come in!” Pasternak replied.
As they got closer to the famous poet, Sergio and Vladlen were struck by how attractive and young Pasternak looked. A handsome man always sizes up another handsome man, but instead of provoking jealousy, the outmatched Sergio looked at the writer with awe.
Pasternak leaned his shovel against a newly pruned apple tree and approached the men. “I had forgotten you were coming,” he said, and laughed. “And please forgive me, but I’ve also forgotten who you are. And why you’ve come.”
“Sergio D’Angelo.” He extended his hand and shook Pasternak’s. “And this is Anton Vladlen, my colleague at Radio Moscow.”
Vladlen, whose eyes were focused on the dirt in front of his shoes instead of at his poet hero, could only muster a grunt.
“What a beautiful name,” Pasternak said. “D’Angelo. Such a pleasant sound. What does it mean?”
“Of the angel. It’s actually quite common in Italy.”
“My surname means parsnip, which I suppose is suitable given my love of toiling in the earth.” Pasternak ushered the men to an L-shaped bench at the perimeter of the garden. They sat and Pasternak wiped his brow with a sweat-stained handkerchief. “Radio Moscow? You’re here to interview me, then? I’m afraid I haven’t much to contribute to the public discussion at the moment.”
“I’ve not come on behalf of Radio Moscow. I’ve come to discuss your novel.”
“Another topic on which I haven’t much to say.”
“I represent the interests of the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. You may have heard of him?”
“I have not.”
“The Feltrinelli family is one of the wealthiest in Italy. Giangiacomo’s new publishing company recently published the autobiography of the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. You may have heard of it?”
“I’ve heard of Nehru, of course, but not of his book.”
“I’m to bring Feltrinelli the very best new work from behind the Iron Curtain.”
“Are you new to our country?”
“I’ve been here less than a year.”
“They don’t care for that term.” Pasternak looked to the trees as if addressing someone watching. “Iron Curtain.”
“Forgive me,” Sergio said. He shifted on the bench. “I’m in search of the best new work from the Motherland. Feltrinelli is interested in bringing
to an Italian audience, then perhaps beyond.”
Boris brushed a mosquito from his arm, careful not to kill it. “I’ve been to Italy once. I was twenty-two and studying music at the University of Marburg. During the summer, I toured Florence and Venice, but I never made it to Rome. I ran out of money. I wanted to visit Milan and go to La Scala. I dreamed of it. I still dream of it. But I was a student, poor as a pauper.”
“I’ve been to La Scala many times,” Sergio said. “You must go someday. Feltrinelli can get you the best seat in the house.”
Boris laughed, his gaze downward. “I long to travel, but those days are behind me now. Even if I wanted to, they make it so hard for us.” He paused. “I wanted to be a composer then, when I was a young man. I had some talent, but not as much as I would have liked. Isn’t that always the case with such things? One’s passion almost always outweighs talent.”
“I’m very passionate about literature,” Sergio said, attempting to bring the conversation back to
“And I’ve heard your novel is a masterpiece.”
“Who told you that?”
Sergio crossed his legs and the bench wobbled. “Everyone’s talking about it. Isn’t that right, Vladlen?”
“Everyone is talking,” Vladlen said, his first words to Pasternak.
“I haven’t heard a word from the publishing houses. I’ve never had to wait a day to hear word about my work.” Pasternak stood from the bench and walked down the center row of his garden, between freshly tilled soil on the left and freshly seeded soil on the right. “I think their silence is clear,” he said, his back to the men still sitting on the bench. “My novel will not be published. It does not conform to their
Sergio and Vladlen got up and followed. “But its publication has already been announced,” Vladlen said. “Sergio translated the bulletin for Radio Moscow himself.”
Pasternak turned back toward them. “I am not sure what you’ve heard, but the novel’s publication is impossible, I’m afraid.”
“Have you received an official rejection?” Vladlen asked.
“Not yet, no. But I’ve already put the possibility out of my mind. It’s best that way, you see. Otherwise I’d drive myself mad.” He laughed again, and Sergio wondered if that outcome had already occurred.
Sergio had not anticipated that
might be banned in the USSR. “That’s impossible,” he said. “They surely wouldn’t suppress such an important work. What about this
we’ve heard rumors of?”
“Khrushchev and the rest can make their speeches and their promises, but the only thaw I’m concerned about pertains to my spring planting,” Pasternak replied.
“What if you were to give me the manuscript?” Sergio asked.
“For what purpose? If they won’t allow it to be published here, it cannot be published anywhere.”
“Feltrinelli could get a head start on the Italian translation, so when it does come out in the USSR—”
“I believe it will,” Sergio continued, “and when it does, Feltrinelli will be ready at the printing press. He is a member in good standing of the Italian Communist Party, and there will surely be no reason to stall its international publication with him at the helm,” Sergio said. He was the consummate optimist, believing nothing impossible. “
will be in the window of every bookshop from Milan to Florence to Naples, and then onward. The whole world needs to read your novel. The whole world
read your novel!” It didn’t matter that Sergio had never read
and couldn’t comment on its literary merit, and he was well aware he was making promises he wasn’t sure he could keep, but he went on and on, as flattery did seem to have a positive effect on the writer.