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Sunday
Jan102010

Conversation Piece, 1945

During my wonderful days and nights as a graduate student, I happened to peruse a German book on the life and times of this famous Russian author.  The book, picture-laden, almost worthy of an equally lovely coffee table, was surely condensed from the two Nabokov biographies extant, but one quote in particular from the old master tickled my memory.  What distinguished his wife Vera from other women he had met was that "she was one of the few women who do not view the world as a reflection of their femininity."  Perhaps my young age prevented me from seeing the incredible truth behind these words; perhaps one of the more painful things to admit is how people find excuses for their behavior that will accompany them to their graves.  And anyway, one supposes for Europeans there was really only one conversation piece in 1945, a year that brought as much relief as incredulity.  All of which provides a brief introduction to this story.

Our narrator begins his tale with a complaint: he has a double.  Or, we should say, there are two Russian emigrants "complete from nickname to surname" (a much greater likelihood in that language's narrow nomenclature) who have been confused and confuted by others with such regularity as to foment doubts about their distinction.  Our narrator claims no similarities with his "disreputable namesake" save a boundless travelogue and White Russian heritage – and here we are quickly turned away from what could become a game in identity and directed towards the main event.  Our man, still nameless, has moved from Europe to Boston and begun to separate his past from his present.  That is, until he receives an invitation to attend a small gathering in one of those New England houses that exist in structure but no longer in inhabitants.  He accepts, puzzled at how a Mrs. Sharp, a name he does know, has mistaken him for his revenant twin, but the matter seems aboveboard and he has, it becomes quite clear, really nothing better to do. 

The life of the party appears as a German professor by the name of, well, he doesn't catch his name (our man is not one for focussing on such bureaucratic details), but who will be known to us as Dr. Shoe.  Shoe is surrounded by a  particular brand of spectator:

None of the women was pretty; all had reached or overreached forty-five.  All, one could be certain, belonged to book clubs, bridge clubs, babble clubs, and to the great, cold sorority of inevitable death.  All looked cheerfully sterile.  Possibly some of them had had children, but how they had produced them was now a forgotten mystery; many had found substitutes for creative power in various aesthetic pursuits, such as, for instance, the beautifying of committee rooms.  As I glanced at the one sitting next to me, an intense-looking lady with a freckled neck, I knew that, while patchily listening to Dr. Shoe, she was, in all probability, worrying about a bit of decoration having to do with some social event or wartime entertainment the exact nature of which I could not determine.  But I did know how badly she needed that additional touch.  Something in the middle of the table, she was thinking.  I need something that would make people gasp – perhaps a huge bowl of artificial fruit.  Not the wax kind, of course.  Something nicely marbleized.

The women, we notice, are at least as old as the century – and a miserable century it has been so far.  One cannot conclude with any affirmation that our narrator thinks little of women; much better to say that he thinks little of women who think little.  Dr. Shoe proceeds, in disgusting fashion, to present a point of view that would now gain him imprisonment in his native land; even more horribly, his interlocutors all agree.  Among them sits a colonel, or a general, or in any case, a bald-headed Soviet soldier who chimes in with some funny English about the greatness of the leader now in power – now in 1945 – whom he sadly associates with fantastic feelings of patriotism and religious fervor.  The skeptic would suggest that all of this must be hogwash; the open-eyed critic would detect a political parable (so would, as it were, the close-eyed critic, but no matter); the artist, on the other hand, knows people like this and knows that they are legion.  Was this scene sadder as war was extinguished, or now when sixty-five years have increased both our knowledge of what did occur and diminished, by dint of temporal distance, its wicked and banal reality?  There is no doubt that Dr. Shoe could still have an audience somewhere on whose naive prejudice he can regale himself, but we certainly don't need to attend.

About those women and that double.  The ending of our tale implies that our double has not been truthful with us, which might also imply that he has also not been truthful about a web of other details.  Only a gormless fool would believe, all this data seemed to insinuate – only a gormless fool could think that two men could waltz across Russia, then Europe, then the United States in some kind of perpetual and distanced synchronicity and be constantly taken for one another.  A French consul even refused the fellow entry because his last stay had been quite unofficial.  Perhaps I should forget all about those women (perhaps I already have) and focus on our double.  He leaves the horror show in the form of a casual tea party with a few, unkind, albeit stammered words, and escapes with his coat and, as he learns soon enough, not his hat.  The hat belongs to the Shoe, so to speak.  And when the Shoe knocks, he has more conversation in a frantic and almost absurd vein while we ponder the intricacies of his having been invited to a social event where he could not possibly be welcome.  The hat, that is to say, the Shoe hat, ends up flying out a window in the general direction of its owner, landing near a puddle, and is retrieved with a grateful, unseen smile.  And I won't mention the odd correspondence our double receives in the end.  But then again, who would believe such a thing if not a fool.

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