The garden was taken over by the azaleas. The multitude of flowers stood dormant in the late Sunday afternoon. There was also a palm tree (Sergei still couldn’t get used to the palm trees), a poplar, and plenty of ivies shooting up the sunlit white stucco wall. Most of the trees were planted by the previous owner in the twenties. Nasturtiums were flaming like a bonfire by the veranda. This blend of smells, heated dryness, and southern flowers always evoked memories of Crimea: childhood trips to the Black Sea with grandparents, long afternoons in the garden, when he was lying in a hammock by a bowl of dark cherries and reading Dumas. The impression that life promised to him was long gone along with the feeling that there was plenty of time to read and to eat cherries. He realized that all this prehistoric paradise with cherries was two lives away, still the boy in him could not help protesting. In fact, that familiar urge to send everything to hell, run out and play soccer until twilight, until grandma calls for supper three times, still visited him some afternoons at work.
Sergei was in Los Angeles visiting his old friend and classmate from Moscow, Vladimir. The special customary treat was invitation for dinner to Vladimir’s great-aunt Marina in her home at Beverly Hills. They walked onto the veranda, Sergei elaborately letting his friend’s great-aunt in first, holding the glass door. “You fellows surely want a drink,” the old lady said. Sergei halfheartedly expressed poorly concealed full consent, and she pointed to the low table. Much to his surprise, there was a noble selection of single malts and Sergei reinforced his aspiring gentlemanliness, never in his era or in his generation fully accomplished, by refusing ice and warming the tumbler in his hands. Marina was the great-aunt of his friend, Vladimir; slightly over 90; and a rare remaining physical example of the extinct civilization. She was from a wealthy and well-connected pre-revolutionary Moscow Jewish family, which had possessed a residency permit to live outside of the Pale of Settlement for a long time. They were much Russified but never baptized; children went to the universities. They comfortably found their niche in the second capital, less xenophobic than St. Petersburg, and when revolution and emigration cast shadows over their lives, they first went to Finland and then to Germany. The family escaped along with many Russian white émigrés, including some of the nobility. One of the dukes, who escaped with the group, stayed with them in the suburban Finnish boarding house, formerly a reclusive, cross-country ski resort established in the early era of winter sports. He was a huge, jovial, handsome, and warm man; a Tolstoy-Steve Oblonsky type; a former colonel of the elite guard troops, who was bored to death being surrounded by these still, snowy, unpromising plains. Marina, my friend’s great-aunt, remembered how he would line up all the children, mostly girls, jokingly bark military commands, and fight with them in the snow, laughing and forgetting for a moment the sobering and relentless reality. Later she lost track of him, though she vaguely heard that he ended up as a taxi driver in Paris, and then was remarried to some French ex-patriot piano teacher from Algiers. They moved there, and since the mid-thirties no one has heard anything of him. Sergei knew the feeling, as did any person who had lived through withdrawal and alienation. The souls, crossing each others tracks and then losing track in the darkness of merged future and past.
Marina and her family belonged to the Nabokov’s wave of Russian emigration. She went through the usual motions: Berlin, Paris, and marriage—luckily to one of the few successful Russian-Jewish émigré businessmen. They moved to Paris and then, retreating from the German advancement, left for the United States. Some previously established business links in North America helped them to find their way into the undesired Promised Land. Her husband was one of two brothers, both in the same business, who came from a large provincial town in Southern Russia. They were worldly, simple, hard-focused, and rather narrow-minded. They possessed sound animal business instincts, and coolly listened to the footsteps of the world’s twentieth-century history. It interested them only in terms of its historical relevance to their business moves. That quality made them, and therefore Marina and her sister-in-law, secure and financially independent in the atmosphere of the precipitating disintegration of their civilization. The notion of civilization existed in a certain recognizable form until the second quarter of the twentieth century.
By the end of the thirties they ended up in a dusty, scattered, provincial Los Angeles, where they bought a tree-shaded house in one of the unremarkable suburbs with the unpretentious name Beverly Hills. In order to put the business office somewhere in the area, the gasoline-dealing brothers picked an inexpensive building in the local town center close to home. Over the years the building—along with their investment—found itself strategically positioned on the corner of Rodeo Drive; now renting to the “Bank of Israel” and one of the vogue boutiques, frequented by the local plastic surgeon’s clientele. Both husbands died several years ago and their surviving wives coexisted with a couple of Polish servants in the same charming old white stone house, submerged in the ivy and flower bearing trees.
At the aperitif time, a servant walked in and he and Marina grumbled to each other about some details concerning dinner in a peculiar blend of English, with Polish and Russian accents. Deceptively profuse old-fashioned apologies of the servant were giving away his and his wife’s complete control over the household. Vladimir, the nephew, habitually smirked.
One could feel Marina’s stately presence, even this late in her life. Decades ago she was the center of small but elite Russian émigré community: the first wave in Southern California. They moved their modus vivendi from Paris living rooms to Los Angeles verandas and gardens. Marina was the fateful love of the prodigious maestro-violinist Yasha Stern, an impossibly rude man who loved her all his life. Years earlier, he had asked her to leave her husband for him. Marina suggested he first divorce his wife. That he did. Nevertheless, she never left her husband and they continued for years their widely known affair, which eventually became so established as part of the local social life that it almost became comfortably accepted. That was not at all a rarity in Russian circles. Neither it is nowadays. He was a much-aged genius who abandoned performing and touring life and in his later years, drank regularly though mostly socially. Every Sunday this great man was over for dinner in her Beverly Hills house, being borderline obnoxious, staring at Marina, also aged, naively admiring her and getting drunk by the second course. Once, after dinner (when he habitually had too much pre-dinner vodka and then red wine) he was sent upstairs to take a nap before the dessert. On his way back he fell down the stairs and hurt his leg. A doctor was called and the story became known, but the artist himself and his close ones were used to such forgivable embarrassment. He did not forget the dessert.
Marina had her own amazing way of treating the whole affair casually, displaying no complexes and having the charm of impersonating the very confidence of taste, germane only to a person that never had to struggle in order to claim the vanishing territory of comilfault. She was born in that territory. Sergei felt an inkling of connection with a no-longer-existing culture while talking to her. That was terra incognita still sending language-signals through the rare surviving go-betweens. Her Russian was different—chiefly not in a certain selection of words, but in unpolluted smoothness, in a nobility of speech, an absolutely natural use of slightly outdated expressions. The key feature was a different intonation. He knew that no reading or focused studying can replace this direct contact with a survivor of this no-longer-existing tribe of Russian nobility and intellectuals, exterminated by crushing human force and worn out by time.
She was a witness of the tragic night in Russian history—the accidental death of Vladimir Nabokov’s father, a prominent member of the “Kadet” Party, who threw himself as a human shield, saving the famous Milyukov’s life. Milyukov, one of the leading political figures of the pre-Revolutionary Russia and chairman of the party, was a target of the assassination attempt by a student, a member of a monarchist, extremist political faction. Sergei already knew the story from several sources, most notably from Vladimir Nabokov’s own memoir. Still, he became motionless, listening about this incident from Marina, who was in the audience. There was a phenomenon of irreplaceable direct speech in her story—a link leading through the watersheds of several generations, like a light from a dead star.
The meeting of the Kadet Party (KD—constitutional democrats) was held in the large building Marmorsaal in Berlin and was open to the public. Marina, a young red-haired Jewish beauty, was sitting in the third row with her beau, Volodya Gessen, the son of a well-known owner and editor of “Rus” Publishing House. She remembered rather vividly that Volodya was not handsome, but short, puny, with pimples—though nice and desperately in love with her. She remembered that they were sitting close to the stage, off to the right. The auditorium was full: Milyukov, Nabokov, everybody was somebody, the whole of Russian Berlin. Soon after Milyukov opened the meeting, the assassin with a revolver dashed to the stage and rather quickly fired a shot. Athletic Nabokov senior managed to protect the leader, throwing himself in the line of fire. He was killed instantly. The panic was enormous. Everyone jumped up and headed for the door. Marina pensively recollected: “I was in a total confusion, lost my senses, stayed in my seat, and to my own surprise powdered my nose. We walked home. The home, or rather one of the rented apartments we moved into at the time, was not too far, in Scharlottenburg. At home, I naturally became hysterical, wanted to be alone and sent poor young Gessen away. I don’t even remember under which circumstances I saw him a few more times. However, a family friend named Kopelman, a middle-aged, substantial man—financially comfortable, but of an unmemorable occupation—stayed longer to comfort me. After a while, he actually tried to make advances and I noticed that his colorless eyes were probing fleetingly to the bedroom door. I managed to evade, and I can only imagine how stunned I looked after the tribulations of this evening.” This incident unexpectedly evolved into a long, but dead-end affair between the weighty Kopelman and Marina’s mother, who was about 15 years older than the seducer—a purely Nabokovian story!
The pictures of her already-aging children were on the bookshelf leaning against a complete set of works by Chekhov in Russian. Her daughter, a wealthy, energetic feminist, was married to old California money. She was a professor of social studies specializing in women’s liberation at one of the large universities in Southern California, a bony, dry, blonde woman. She was also a poetess. The yellowing examples of her cerebral designs: reprints—gifts to her mother—were lying on the shelf. “I don’t understand her poetry, it’s unrhymed!” Marina slightly threw her hands up. “Pushkin felt it was necessary to write the rhymed verse, didn’t he?” Sergei restrained himself from elaborating on that painful subject. The specimens of mainstream fare her daughter produced and doggedly published spoke for themselves. Her poems appeared in various, somehow invisibly connected, inbred and self-perpetuating magazines. Her son, a chubby bald man with a sad expression on his face, was an aging established businessman, vice-president in one of the major brokerage firms on Wall Street: house in White Plains, kids at Yale, Wall Street Journal on metro North, and vacation house on Nantucket. None of her children spoke any Russian.
The ritual dinner included shot of vodka with some Russian pickled fare, “herring under the coat”—herring under the layers of sour cream, potatoes, onions, and beets—nostalgic for Marina. The house cook from her childhood had been good with herring. This was followed by some non-denominational fish with boiled potatoes, which was supposed to be pike perch Polish style—questionable pride of the Polish help.
The after-dinner tea ceremony was almost over. Vladimir was giving Sergei the eye. It was time to split and go elsewhere. They were supposed to meet Vladimir’s girlfriend and another girl at the jazz place in a hotel—a steel and concrete monster-ship, anchored by the bifurcation of the freeway—somewhere around Century City. A half-full bottle of Glenlivet stood dormant by the bowl with the salty cashews. The low antique table was not far from the concert piano. In good old times the renowned professor Pyatigorsky and celebrated pianist Neigaus accompanied Yasha Stern playing for the choicest audience before the moderately grand diners. Vladimir pointed at the picture hanging above the long cold fireplace: a draughty, impeccably recognizable pencil sketch by Modigliani. This was Marina’s portrait from her time in Paris, given by him for her birthday not long before the artist’s strange death. As they were leaving the house, a beautiful small painting by Sutin flashed at them from the hall through the open door. Sergei thought: A painting departs and lives its own life fixed to some locale long after the artist is dead, while a poem flows away but lives God-knows-where suspended in the air.
None of the people who frequented Marina’s cozy soirees were alive now. Most of them were born at the turn of the century in Southern Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia or in “Mittel Europe.” They were now lying still in orderly, mowed, modestly hilly, North American cemeteries. Their tongue-wrecking names exuded significance, engraved on the brass recognition plaques at the Los Angeles Arts Center, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and on modern, spacious reformed Synagogues, drowned in the tree-overgrown pockets in dry canyons packed with congested traffic. Canyons, trembling in the bluish haze: energetic retirees with tennis racquets; tired, sweaty Mexicans in large, fuming cars, coming back from the day’s work; young women encased in sheer leather, with bright nails on both ends of their bodies, ready to infest the innumerable Los Angeles bars. There was an endless California spring outside. The streets of Beverly Hills and surrounding newer neighborhoods, never too populated, this afternoon were completely desolate. Here in North America, it was Super Bowl Sunday and everybody was either at friends’s or at the local bar, glued to the big screen, breathlessly watching a magic name written over the huge armor of the famous quarterback.
Next morning it was time to go back to New York. As the plane gained altitude leaving LAX after the usual 40-minute wait on the runway, Sergei saw the huge, elongated archipelago of the city, stretched along the Pacific. As the plane was moving away the city was looking more and more like drowned Atlantis until they hit rarefied air over the limitless desert eastward and then there was only darkness, enveloping them, and the New York crew started serving plastic-sealed dinners. That was the last time he saw Marina. Nabokov’s “Speak Memory” was waiting for him on his night table at home.