What do small moments of cruelty bring the bully? I can say without fear of perjury that I have never investigated an answer to that question since bullies are the nadir of the majority of privileged childhoods and adolescences (some childhoods, alas, are plagued by far worse events). Every green goose in every classroom is examined by those miniature savages and deemed ripe for a certain kind of prolonged humiliation. Do we gain from these episodes? Maybe the tormented learn to defend themselves, to push back enough to dissuade, to become impervious to verbal assault – a talent that will serve them well as they age and realize that, with the proper amount of misclassification, everything anyone says can be interpreted as an attack. Regardless of the age of the afflicter, cruelty is the worst act of this world because it is the absence of pity, and pity is what distinguishes us from all the brutish beasts of this realm. An introduction to this short but poignant tale.
The time and place is mid- to late Weimar, and our protagonist will be a thin, innocuous-looking Polish émigré, but more on him in a moment. Our two non-heroes – it may be going too far to call them villains, if you know how this all ends – are a pair of layabout brothers, Gustav and Anton. They are, the narrator assures us, separate beings, yet they seem to combine into a single miscible oaf:
The elder one, Gustav, had a furniture-moving company; the younger one happened to be temporarily unemployed, but did not lose heart. Gustav had an evenly ruddy complexion, bristling fair eyebrows, and an ample, cupboardlike torso always clothed in a pullover of coarse gray wool. He wore elastic bands to hold his shirtsleeves at the joints of his fat arms, so as to keep his wrists free and prevent sloppiness. Anton's face was pockmarked, he trimmed his moustache in the shape of a dark trapezoid, and wore a dark red sweater over his spare wiry frame. But when they both leaned their elbows on the balcony railings, their backsides were exactly the same, big and triumphant, with identically checkered cloth enclosing tightly their prominent buttocks.
Simple household tasks could not be expected of such a duo, so that lot predictably falls to Anna, a "plump-armed buxom woman" with one of her front teeth knocked out. A modern reader may well wonder why less is made of this missing fang, with the aim of fortifying his suspicion that the brothers may have been responsible for its loosening – but we need to move on. The lives of the three are not quite hardscrabble, but these are tough times and any flash of affluence in their "sinister district" is immediately noted and envied. And so, one fateful April morning, they espy from the aforementioned balcony perch "a little pushcart with a suitcase and a heap of books" entering their courtyard. And ingressing that same space in vague control of these personal effects is the new lodger Romantovski.
Romantovski will be heard muttering in his native language towards the conclusion of our tale, yet little if anything is made of his foreignness in the sense of birthplace or accent. The problem has much more to do with his slantindicular relationship to the wheezing and violent world of the two brothers, who one might imagine were destined in the next decade to champion a certain thuggish cause. Romantovski bothers the siblings because, like most imbeciles, they feel threatened when others will not resort to their Neanderthal means of interaction. Our newest lodger also distinctly seems to be operating in a different plane of human experience:
Normally, one would not discern anything special in him at a casual glance, but the brothers did. For example, he walked differently: at every step he rose on a buoyant toe in a peculiar manner, stepping and flying up as if the mere act of treading allowed him a chance to perceive something uncommon over the common heads. He was what is termed a 'slank,' very lean, with a sharp-nosed face and appallingly restless eyes. Out of the too short sleeves of his double-breasted jacket his long wrists protruded with a kind of annoying and nonsensical obviousness ('here we are; what should we do?'). He went out and came home at unpredictable hours. On one of the first mornings Anton caught sight of him near a bookstand: he was pricing, or had actually bought something, because the vendor nimbly beat one volume against another and carried them to the nook behind the stand. Additional eccentricities were noted: his light remained on practically until dawn; he was oddly unsociable.
One cannot really fault him for being unsociable when so few options present themselves (the options being beer-swilling and boorish). But it is when Romantovski confesses to his late-night readings ("old, old tales," he insists) that his separation from the world of the brothers becomes dangerously clear. To confirm this hateful habit, Anton pays the Pole a few unannounced late-night visits only to discover that both the light beneath the door crack and its master are still on ("Anton shook the door handle. The golden thread snapped"). There is nothing more frightening to a chest-pounding bully than an intellectual because he will not respond in kind, and any response on his part will be appropriately condescending or at least thought of as such. That is why after a few attempts to make him jollier, the brothers resort to "a series of trivial torments," beginning on a Monday, with their repertoire of nasty tricks "exhausted ... by Thursday." That is, until they decide to involve Anna more deeply in their schemes.
The Leonardo has remained an old favorite of mine among Nabokov's works, perhaps because it is devoid of the bitter nostalgia that marks so many of his Berlin tales (importantly, no Russian characters seem to participate). That said, I do at times appreciate a dose of bitter nostalgia, especially when directed at a person, not at an amorphous government or even more amorphous theory of the means of production. We are not quite sure what Romantovski might enjoy; even an eleventh-hour revelation says more about his career path than his person. But at one critical juncture in our story he senses the entrapment common to those who endure forced migration, and his despair clouds his survival instincts. His weary mind runs and yet his wearier legs cannot run at all:
Far away from him a bright twinkle promised safety; it meant a lighted street, and although what could be seen was probably one lone lamp, that slit in the blackness seemed a marvelous festive blaze, a blissful region of radiance, full of rescued men.
What he is running from, I cannot share. It is extremely likely that he has always found the need to escape to another world which he can fashion to his liking. But hardly, one would say, in his own image.