Insolent insomnia, he will say to his wife the following morning at breakfast. Kornfleks and kofe with kreem. The neck and jowls of an athlete, the aquiline nose, and the lips of an old camel. A few years ago he could still play a strong game of lawn tennis. Now strictly indoor games. And a jacket with black and white squares. The Composer will let the jacket drop, and then will jot down the word “Petrarch” on an index card of the sort the French call Fiches Bristol.
As soon as Véra has fallen asleep in her bedroom, the Composer starts the preparations. Whistling Glinka’s tune, the Composer lays out on the bed everything he needs for the annual trip: a denim zipper jacket, long shorts cut from grey flannel, black knee-highs, a rumpled beige cap. “As midnight descends on the earth the drummer gets up from his coffin …” Mitya has a rich velvety basso, and I — a velvet-lined casket, the Composer mutters under his breath while checking the tight-fitting box where gently stunned butterflies will find eternal sleep. He sinks into his pocket his favorite Florentine pencil and a stack of cards. “They rise from the African steppes, from burning Arabian sandhills …” Zhukovsky’s Russian version is really much better than Zedlitz’s original, the Composer muses as he presses on the door handle. Pushkin loved those verses.
He tiptoes out of the penthouse apartment at the Palace Hotel, waiting to clear his throat until he has reached the middle of the corridor. As a child he heard a legend about Pushkin visiting his wife on the eve of his birthday. This happened once a year at the suburban estate of her second husband, General Lanskoy. The Composer first learned about it from his duel-fighting Jewish governor. And many years later, in America, the Composer also read about it in a memoir by an émigré author-doctor who settled in Rhode Island. Legends came alive once every century …
At first the Composer briskly walks along the lake shore in the direction of the Chillon Castle. On this promenade Russian visitors used to flirt with Swiss maids. Across the lake, Alpine summits sparkle in lilac fog. The Composer’s path lies first southward, then westward. He leaps over the Atlantic and lands on Cape Cod. In the spring of 1942, he spent several weeks here alone, composing a story for The New Yorker. The story was lost in the mail, and for some reason the Composer never regretted its disappearance. That spring he felt an urge to resurrect his chosen favorite, the Parisian poet Shishkov, whom he liberated from a near-Arctic prison camp in the summer of 1941 only to send him to a Red Army penal battalion at the Volkhov Front. The cottage, which the Composer rented at the elbow of Cape Cod in South Chatham, later became the summer residence of a Russian Bostonian with a shaved head, his American wife, two musical daughters, and a silver mini poodle.
The Composer turns up at the American town with a Ulyssian name, lost amid dactylic lakes and situated equally far from New York and Boston. Here the Composer and his wife lived for 11 years. His former university office would later pass on to a red-headed scholar from Leningrad, who decoded each and every name in the class list of the Composer’s most beloved, most unhappy heroine. The Composer walks the somnolent streets of the college town. He stops next to the fence of the asylum, where one Ambros Adelwarth, former majordomo to a family of wealthy American Jews from Long Island, strolls the dark paths. “Aha, the butterfly man has graced us with a visit,” says Adelwarth and waves to the Composer with the soft palm of his left hand. As the night wears on, the Composer revisits more of his old haunts. Here, in the brick Colonial on Highland Road, his cousin Nika’s ex-wife visited him in the spring of 1958 to record an interview for the Voice of America. His novel about the unpronounceable émigré professor came out not long after that, and the nymphet was about to make the Composer famous, freeing him of worries over his daily bread. Was he joking then when he mentioned that Soviet publishers hadn’t yet approached him about printing his books at home?
The Composer of divine puzzles stands on the tip of Manhattan and regards Ellis Island, where transatlantic boats no longer bring refugees. Here began their life in the New World. He keeps glancing at the landings and the Statue of Liberty as he thinks of those European stations of their nomadic interwar years that he’ll never visit again. If he could only see — just for a brief moment — the places where he and Véra were in love and experienced the elation of their son’s birth. They say Russian speech can once again be heard in Charlottenburg … But the Composer would only go back to Berlin as an investigator and condemner, and it’s too late to investigate and condemn. To Paris? No, Paris feels empty and lonely. His friends are all gone: the saintly Fondaminsky was murdered at Auschwitz, the kindly Aldanov died in Nice in 1957. Bunin, his Russian master and later his rival, is also long deceased. And she — she too is dead.
Already at daybreak, the Composer finds himself at the beach in Cannes. In September of 1937, the outcome of his life, his happiness, was determined at this strip of moist sand. He stands by the edge of the water, listening to the roll of words and the hum of a maritime highway. From three minarets the muezzins call the righteous to perform the Fajr. Whence here, in Cannes, the mosques? the Composer wonders. Of late he had been drawn to warm seas, and especially to Yalta. But how to get there? By water from Turkey?
How often he had fantasized about going back … It was rumored that in the late 1950s the Composer visited the USSR with the passport of a presbyterian minister from New England. Witnesses imagined him standing in front of his parents’ home on Bolshaya Morskaya, weeping at the ashes of the ancestral manor house beyond the Oredezh river, or even taking a train to Crimea, where in April 1919 he had said goodbye. To St. Petersburg? To Crimea? the Composer had snickered at the absurdity of such rumors … He had sworn never to bow down, and yet this time an urgent task made him reverse his solemn promise. Their Swiss possessions had been given to the country of his birth, where he never again wanted to set foot. His books, knick-knacks, family photos have been deposited in the former Customs House. In whose name was this transfer executed? On whose moral authority? the Composer winces. How dare they exploit his name to add legitimacy to their regime of thugs and murderers? Especially now, after what they had done in Ukraine? The Composer hurries in the direction of the Spit of the Neva and the Rostral Columns. He doesn’t have much time before sunrise.
The Composer enters the neo-Palladian building of the Institute of Russian Literature, ascends the curving staircase, and tours the dark rooms where boxes filled with his property are housed as a national treasure. He picks up his entomologist’s suitcase but then drops it without regret. Materials objects will sooner or later turn to dust. Even precious family photos will fade. He has another plan of reclaiming his possessions. Is he an old Russian Pied Piper? No, no, he immediately corrects himself. This will be different from the miracle of Hamelin. Not rats but words will follow their master as he leaves behind the plagued city of his birth. The Composer only takes what’s truly his own, leaving behind not books but print rubble — jackets, spines, and blank pages.
Day’s breaking; the night inspection is over. Shepherds rush the herds onto the Alpine slopes. Waving a butterfly net like a baton, the Composer returns home.
Photograph: Vladimir Nabokov in Zermatt, 1965, photo by Horst Tappe. By the permission of the Horst Tappe Foundation.
Maxim D. Shrayer is the author of nearly twenty books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, including Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant. Shrayer teaches at Boston College.