Authors: Lara Prescott
“Hear, hear!” someone called out.
“I never intended to be the first to bring this work to an audience,” Feltrinelli continued. “It was my intention to secure the foreign rights after it was published in its native land. But of course life doesn’t always go according to plan.”
A woman at Feltrinelli’s feet raised her glass.
“I’ve been told it would be a crime to publish this work. I’ve been told that to publish this book would be the end of me.” He looked around the room. “But I hold in my heart the truth Pietro spoke when he first read it, that
to publish this novel would be an even greater crime. Of course, Boris Pasternak himself asked that I delay publication. I told him that there was no time to waste, that I needed to bring his words to the world posthaste. And I did.” The crowd erupted. “Please raise your glasses for a toast to Boris Pasternak, a man I’ve yet to meet but feel tied to by fate. A man who created a work of art out of the Soviet experience, a life-changing—no, a life-
—work that will stand the test of time and place him firmly in the company of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. To a man much braver than I.
Glasses were raised and drinks downed. Feltrinelli stepped off the crate and was absorbed back into his crowd of well-wishers. Moments later, he excused himself and made his way to the restroom. I positioned myself at a telephone in the lobby so he’d have to pass me on his way back.
He did, and I hung up the phone timed to the second he noticed me. “Having a pleasant time, I hope?” he asked.
“A wonderful time. A beautiful night.”
“Unbearably so.” He took a step back, as if to admire a piece of art from another angle. “We’ve never met?”
“The universe hasn’t willed it, I suppose.”
“Indeed. Well, I’m happy the universe has made a point of correcting its grievous mistake.” He took my hand and kissed it.
“You are the reason the book has come to print?”
He placed his hand over his heart. “I accept sole responsibility.”
“The author didn’t have a say in it?”
“No, not exactly. It wasn’t possible for him.”
Before I could ask if Pasternak was in danger, Feltrinelli’s wife—a dark-haired beauty wearing a sleeveless black velvet gown and matching jeweled choker—approached. She took her husband firmly by the arm and escorted him back to the party. She looked back at me once, in case I hadn’t gotten the point.
As the party wound down, the red-jacketed waitstaff began clearing away the mounds of uneaten stuffed mussels, beef carpaccio, and shrimp crostini, along with the copious number of empty Prosecco bottles littered across the room. Mrs. Feltrinelli had left in a limousine moments earlier, and Feltrinelli called out to the dwindled crowd to join him at Bar Basso. As he left, followed by a throng of hangers-on, he turned abruptly to me. “You’ll be joining us, no?” he asked. He didn’t stop to wait for my answer, already knowing what it would be.
A silver Citroën and a small fleet of black Fiats awaited us at the front of the hotel. Feltrinelli and a young blonde who’d arrived just minutes after his wife left got into the Alfa Romeo, and the rest of us piled into the Fiats. Feltrinelli revved his engine and sped away, while we got stuck behind two men carrying dates on Vespas—tourists, judging by the fact that they drove slowly and steadily instead of weaving in and out of traffic like locals.
Our group spilled out of the cars and pushed its way inside Bar Basso, shouting out drink orders at the white-jacketed bartenders. I found a spot along a mirrored wall and scanned the bar for Feltrinelli. No sign of him. A short man with an undone bow tie and red-wine-stained lips passed me carrying an oversized cocktail glass. I recognized him as one of the photographers from the party. “Would you like a drink?” He held out the glass. “Take mine!”
I kept my hands to my sides. “Where is the guest of honor?”
“In bed by now, I imagine.”
“I thought he was coming here.”
“How do you Americans say? Plans are made to be rearranged?”
“That’s it! I believe he decided to have a more private celebration.” The photographer put his arm around my waist, the tips of his fingers drifting below the small of my back. Shuddering, I removed his hand from my body and left the bar.
I’d succeeded in obtaining the book, which I placed in my hotel room’s small safe before heading back out. But I’d failed at getting more information out of Feltrinelli. It seemed he’d been protecting Pasternak, but why? Was the author in more danger than we thought? The blonde Feltrinelli had taken off with was at least fifteen years younger than I, and I couldn’t help but think if I were that age, I’d have been the woman he pulled into his sports car and told his secrets to.
Taxis passed, but I decided to walk. I wanted to enjoy the fresh air. And I was hungry. My first stop was at a gelato cart attached to an old mule. The teenager manning the cart told me the mule’s name was Vicente the Majestic. I laughed, and the boy said that my laugh was just as beautiful as my red dress and my red hair. I thanked him, and he handed me the lemon gelato,
“Offerto dalla casa.”
The free gelato helped soothe my damaged ego but didn’t keep me from wondering if I was getting too old for this job. It used to be so easy. Now my skin glowed only with the application of expensive creams that made more promises than they could keep, and the sheen on my hair came from a bottle of pricey exotic oils bought in Paris. And when I lay down at night sans bra, my breasts gravitated to my armpits.
When I turned thirteen, boys and men alike began to notice me, the anonymity of my prepubescent form having disappeared over the course of one summer. My mother was the first to notice. Once, after she caught me looking at my profile in the reflection of a store window, she stopped and told me a beautiful woman needs to have something to fall back on when the beauty fades, or she’ll be left with nothing. “And it will fade,” she said. Would I have nothing to fall back on? How much longer did I have until I was forced to find out?
Unlike Feltrinelli, my ambition didn’t come from my wallet. It stemmed from a delusion that I was someone special, and the world owed me something—perhaps because I was brought up with nothing. Or maybe we all hold that delusion at some point—most of us giving it up after adolescence; but I never let it go. It gave me an unwavering belief that I could do anything, at least for a while. The problem with that type of ambition is that it requires constant reassurance from others, and when that assurance doesn’t come, you falter. And when you falter, you go after the lowest-hanging fruit—someone to make you feel wanted and powerful. But that type of reassurance is like the brief buzz of alcohol: you need it to keep dancing, but it only leaves you sick the next day.
The lemon gelato tasted like summer, and I told myself to stop the self-loathing. I changed my mind about going straight back to the hotel and stopped in the Piazza della Scala to see the Leonardo da Vinci monument.
The piazza was aglow. A small team of men were hanging white Christmas lights from the trees encircling the monument at the square’s center. One man in brown coveralls was holding the ladder with one hand and smoking with the other, while a man atop the ladder was trying to undo a knot in the wires. The other men stood to the side, arguing over the best way to undo such a significant knot.
A middle-aged couple sat on one of the concrete benches near Leonardo’s feet. Their faces were close and intense, and I couldn’t tell whether they were about to break up or kiss.
I thought of Irina. I thought about how we could never be that couple—kissing, or even fighting, right out there in the open for all to see. The thought came over me like news of someone’s sudden death, and I realized I had to put a stop to whatever was happening between us and just mourn what could have been.
I walked to the edge of the square and hailed a taxi.
“Signora, si sente bene?”
the taxi driver asked when we’d arrived at the hotel. I’d fallen asleep, and the driver spoke to me with such tenderness, I surprised myself by tearing up. He looked so concerned. He held out his hand and helped me out of the car.
I thought about asking him to come up to my room with me—this prematurely balding young man who smelled of fresh mint. I didn’t want to sleep with him, but I would if he’d tell me that I’d be fine,
I’d be fine, over and over, until I fell asleep. Instead, I went up to my room alone and lay down atop the covers in my wrinkled gown.
In the morning, after two Alka-Seltzers and room service, I removed my copy of
from its safe. Before placing it in my suitcase, I opened the book. As I flipped through the pages, a business card fell out. No name, no telephone number, only an address:
SARA’S DRY CLEANERS, 2010 P ST. NW, WASHINGTON, D.C.
I knew the spot: a squat yellow brick building with a royal blue hand-painted sign, a stone’s throw from where Dulles lived. I folded the card in half and placed it in my silver cigarette case.
I went to London to see a friend about a book. After settling in for the eleven-hour flight, I signaled for the stewardess to hang up my suit jacket and bring me a whiskey—with ice, seeing how it was still before noon. Kit wore Pan Am’s blue and white uniform with the capped hat and white gloves well—the type of woman who’d place second or third in any Midwestern beauty pageant. “Here you go, Mr. Fredericks,” she said with a wink.
I’d gone by many names: names given to me and names given to myself. My parents named me Theodore Helms III. In grade school I became Teddy. In high school I went by Ted, but was back to Teddy by college.
To Kit, or anyone who asked over the next two days, my name would be Harrison Fredericks, or Harry to friends. Twenty-seven and from Valley Stream, New York, Harrison Edwin Fredericks was an analyst for Grumman Aerospace Corp. who—get this—hated to fly. He always made a point to keep the curtain closed and preferred not to sit next to anyone. If by chance you were to look in his pockets, you’d find a receipt from a Texaco five miles from his house, a half pack of Juicy Fruit, and a handkerchief with
embroidered on it.
I placed my briefcase on the empty seat next to me. My father had had it custom made in Florence: fine chestnut-brown leather with a single brass lock. He’d given it to me when I graduated from Georgetown, twenty-two years to the day after he’d graduated from Georgetown. He’d handed it to me, unwrapped, after a quiet dinner with Mother at the Club and said he envisioned me carrying it into the Senate chamber one day, or to the Supreme Court, or to the law firm that carried our last name. What my father hadn’t known at the time was that by my junior year, I’d switched from prelaw to Slavic languages.
It was the summer after my sophomore year when I knew for sure I didn’t want to join our family’s firm. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead. That feeling of being lost, compounded with my older brother’s death, brought on a depression that came over me like a cloud shadow moving across a sunbather. I stopped leaving the house and picked at my meals. After I dropped down to my high school freshman weight and my skin took on the color of a city sidewalk, it wasn’t my parents or the doctor they forced me to “just talk to” that pulled me out of it; it was
The Brothers Karamazov.
Crime and Punishment,
then everything the man ever wrote. Dostoyevsky threw me a rope in the fog and began to tug. When he wrote that “the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for,” I thought
Yes! This is it!
I was convinced, as only a young man can be, that deep down I had the soul of a Russian.
I poured myself into studying the Greats. After Dostoyevsky came Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov. When I finished the geniuses of old, I went to the undergrounds, those rejected by the great Red Monster: Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva and Mikhail Bulgakov. And when I returned to school in the fall, the fog, though still there, had lifted a bit. That semester, I left prelaw and enrolled in Russian.
Six years later, the briefcase carried not legal memos or briefs, but the primary source of my anxiety: my own unfinished novel.
I took a sip of whiskey and reached into the briefcase. Instead of pulling out my novel as the plane left the ground, I pulled out someone else’s: Jack Kerouac’s
On the Road.
He was rumored to have written it in a three-week, Benzedrine-induced sprint on one continuous roll of paper. Maybe that’s what I was doing wrong. Maybe I needed drugs and scrolls. I cracked it open and read the first few sentences, then closed it. I gulped down my drink and dozed off.
When I awoke, we were over the Atlantic. I decided I could finally take a look at my draft. The night before, after an early dinner with Irina, I’d started on a revised plot, tacking up notecards on my bedroom wall to see if I could make sense of the thing. I could, almost, and thought that maybe I was on the path to becoming a real writer. Or maybe not.
I never told anyone about my novel—or that I even aspired to be a writer. Not my parents, not Irina, not even Henry Rennet, who’d been my closest friend since Groton. Some people thought Henry was a striving brownnoser, and others thought he was just a jerk. And they might’ve been right. But he was also there for me when my brother died. When the months following Julian’s death seemed to stretch as long and gray as a Russian landscape, Henry would sit in my apartment and drink whiskey with me and talk for hours.
My original plan was to publish my debut novel a year after college, surprising everyone with it. My parents had never said as much, but I could tell they were disappointed that I never went into the family business. A novel would be something they could brag to their friends at the Club about, an accomplishment they could actually hold.
But that didn’t happen. The summer after graduation, I began a hundred novels, never getting beyond the first twenty pages. I did manage to make a career out of my love of books, though—well, that and being fluent in Russian. And my connections. Professor Humphries had recruited me at Georgetown. One of Frank Wisner’s old OSS buddies, Humphries resumed his position as a professor of Slavic linguistics after the war and became one of the Agency’s top talent scouts. I wasn’t the first man Humphries recruited, nor the last. The higher-ups referred to us as Humphries’ Boys, a nickname that made us sound more like an a capella group than spies.
The Agency wanted to stack its ranks with intellectuals—those who believed in the long game of changing people’s ideology over time. And they believed books could do it. I believed books could do it. That was my job: to designate books for exploitation and help carry out their covert dissemination. It was my job to secure books that made the Soviets look bad: books they banned, books that criticized the system, books that made the United States look like a shining beacon. I wanted them to take a good hard look at a system that had allowed the State to kill off any writer, any intellectual—hell, even any meteorologist—they disagreed with. Sure, Stalin was dead, his body embalmed and sealed under glass, but the memory of the Purges was also preserved.
Like a publisher or editor, I was always thinking of what the next big novel would be and how to get it into as many hands as quickly as possible. The only difference was that I wanted to do it without any fingerprints.
My jaunt to London wasn’t just about a book; it was about
book. We’d been after
for months. We had obtained the first printing in Italian and decided it was indeed all it had been cracked up to be. It was deemed an operational imperative to get the manuscript in its native Russian, “lest any of its potency be lost in translation.” I didn’t know if the concern had more to do with ensuring maximal impact on Soviet citizens or preserving the purity of the author’s words. I liked to think it was the latter, or at least a bit of both.
My job was to convince our friends the Brits to hand their Russian-language copy over to us—or at least to let us borrow it for a while. A tentative deal had been made, but they’d been dragging their feet, probably to buy some time so as to determine whether they could do something with it first. I was sent to the Big Smoke to put the matter to bed.
Not that I minded. I needed to get out of the swamp and clear my head. Irina had been distant, whereas I had thought we were headed down the aisle. I’d even asked my mother for my grandmother’s ring and planned to pop the question over Christmas. But after some canceled dates and the feeling that something was off, I wasn’t so sure it was the right move. And when I asked Irina about it, it only seemed to make things worse. I’d never met anyone like her. Up to that point, every girl I’d dated only had ambitions of landing my grandmother’s ring. Irina wanted what I wanted: to move up in the Agency, to be treated with respect, to do her job well and be patted on the back for it. She was my equal, and someone who challenged me. I knew if I married one of the girls I’d dated back in college I’d be bored before the first child was born, and I didn’t want to turn into the cliché Agency man with a woman or two on the side.
And she was Russian! How I loved her Russianness, although she claimed to be even more American than I. Eating homemade pelmeni in their quaint basement apartment; Mama—which she insisted I call her from day one—poking fun at my patrician Russian accent every chance she could get; I loved it all.
But when she pulled away, I’m ashamed to say I even tailed her home once or twice—to see if she was meeting another man. She wasn’t. But still.
So yeah, it was good to get away, and I was happy my destination was London. I loved the city: Noël Coward at the Café de Paris, rain jackets, rain bonnets, rain boots, Teddy boys, Teddy girls. Of course, I also loved the literature. I wished I could stay a week and visit the house where H. G. Wells died or the pub where C. S. Lewis had pints with Tolkien. But if all went according to plan, I’d get the job done in one night and be on a plane back to the States the following morning.
The friend I was meeting, code name Chaucer, wasn’t really a friend. I knew him, yes, and our lives had crossed over the subject of books several times. He was of medium height and medium build, and unremarkable in the ways we spooks strove to be. The one exception was his teeth: so white and straight you’d think he’d grown up in Scarsdale, not Liverpool. He could also switch accents to suit his company: posh among the posh, working-class among the working-class, Irish if speaking to a redhead. People found him charming, but I could only stand him for an hour or so.
Chaucer was twenty minutes late to our meeting at the George Inn. Making me wait, I was sure, was some sort of MI6 psych shit. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’d arrived early and been watching me from a distance as I entered the pub, that he’d checked his pocket watch—definitely a pocket watch—and waited twenty minutes before entering. They were always pulling petty stuff like that and were quick to remind us lowly Americans at every opportunity that the Brits had hundreds of years over us in perfecting the craft. As Chaucer would say, he’d been in the game since I was in diapers.
Rumor had it that MI6 had acquired
in its original Russian when a plane carrying Feltrinelli was grounded in Malta after a sham emergency landing. Word was, officers posing as airport employees escorted Feltrinelli off the plane while another officer photographed the manuscript. I didn’t know if it was true, but it sure made a hell of a story.
I sat at the two-top under the head of a glass-eyed stag and downed two Irish whiskeys—my own psych move, I guess. The barman plunked down my fish and chips and mushy peas just as Chaucer stepped in from the rain, the collar of his black overcoat pushed up to his ears. He took off his hat and shook it, wetting the two French tourists sitting next to the door. He bowed in apology, then lumbered over to my table. I noticed he’d gained a little weight since the last time I’d seen him.
He noticed me looking him up and down. “You look thin,” he said.
He held up his left hand. “Married now.”
“That explains it.”
“That infamous dry Yank wit. How I’ve missed it.” He took a seat. “Heard you’re engaged yourself.”
“Not quite yet, but I’ll drink to it anyway.” I raised my glass and downed my whiskey.
“Want another glass of that Irish swill?” Before I could reply, he got up and went to the bar. He brought back two pints and handed me one. “They no longer carry Bushmills,” he said. “You know, Dickens used to frequent this place.” He reached for a soggy chip on my plate and pointed at the other end of the pub with it. “That was his spot. Wrote about it, even.
“I think I read that somewhere.”
“Of course you did. What’s that motto you Americans have?
“That’s the Boy Scouts. And the Dickens novel you’re thinking of was
“Yes!” he said leaning back in his chair. “Clever boy. I’ve missed our repartee.” He sighed. “But look at this place now. Just us tourists, overfoamed pints, soggy chips.” He reached for another. “Speaking of great works, how’s yours coming along?”
I wasn’t surprised he knew of my failing aspirations. After all, I knew many things about him, too—like that he was indeed recently married but had continued to sleep with his longtime clerk, Violet, without pause, except for the two weeks he spent honeymooning in Bali. It just annoyed me that he was familiar with my major weakness. “Very well, thank you,” I replied.
“Bloody fantastic,” he said. “Can’t wait to read it.”
“I’ll be sure to sign a copy for you.”
He put a hand to his heart. “I’ll surely treasure it.”
“Speaking of books,” I said, wanting to get on with it, “read any good ones lately?”
Diamonds Are Forever.
Have you read it? Bloody brilliant.”
“No,” I said. “Not my taste.”
“A Fitzgerald type, I suppose.”
“Compared to Fleming?”
“That Daisy! What a gal! I practically fell in love with her myself.”
“I think men are really more in love with Gatsby than they care to admit.”
“Not love. But we do want to be him. All men, all women, for that matter, secretly long for some great tragedy. It sharpens the lived experience. Makes for more interesting people. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Only privileged men romanticize tragedy.”
He slapped his meaty thighs. “I knew we had something in common!”
My fish sat cold on my plate, the breading soggy with grease, but I slowly cut off a piece and swallowed it. “I
looking to pick something up for the trip home, though. Know of any good bookshops around here?”
He stood up, downed his pint, and wiped away his foam mustache with his sleeve. “Fancy a game?” We headed to the back of the pub. I was terrible at darts but beat him handily, which I took as his way of saying he was willing to do business.
“Well, then,” he said after I bested him again. “Looks like I’m a little rusty.” He pulled out his pocket watch and I couldn’t help but smile at having called his choice of timepiece. “Have to be going. Taking the little missus to see
at the Garrick.”