Persecution and the Art of Writing
By Sam Munson.
“They’re the kind of people, they make me embarrassed to be a Jew.”
A Short Story.
Persecution and the Art of Writing
I found out, days afterward, that the man who broke my nose was named Marvin Havlicek. My nose had no impressive structure to begin with. Breakage endowed it with lopsided, rakish character. So perhaps by driving his huge fist into my face, as I sat reading a book, he was doing me a service. This book was the source of a strange series of troubles that beset my life a few months ago. And Havlicek’s urgent and well-delivered blow ended those annoyances. Having recuperated, I can say with assurance that my life has never run more smoothly, my work has never gone so well.
The book which set off this brief, intense period of turbulence, degrading-yet-comical, suggesting the intervention of a hostile, smug power … that’s rather grandiose, though. The book in question was Arnulph von Tuzzi’s Confessions of a European Jewhater, in a handsome new translation. The cover was a deep forest green, and the typeface of the title sober and thick. I purchased it on an iced, pale-gold, wind-hollowed afternoon and read it devouringly in the train on my way home. As I stood to exit the car, I noticed a young couple staring at me. Each gripped with a whitened hand the steering-bar of a stroller, holding a baby with thatchy black hair and a pink-rimmed, slack smile. I slid the book into my jacket pocket and thought nothing further of it.
I had at this point been living with Emma for a year and a half. We’d evolved, as childless couples often do, a private, selfish means of communication, a language of glances and gestures. So when she awoke me in the middle of the night with a barrage of punches and sleep-blurred verbal abuse, followed by a collapse into thick weeping, I was shocked. The first blow landed on my bare chest, the next gaspingly near the base of my throat. I grabbed her thin wrists as she began to cry: “Why are you reading that?” I had no idea what she meant. She stabbed at the lamp’s button: there lay the Confessions, calm and green. “It’s just a book,” I said, “why are you being so sentimental.” She jerked her forearms from my grasp and slapped at me again, but I leaned back and her small, spade-like hand choughed through the air, and she planted her flat feet on the floor and stomped off, bridally trailing a comforter. I wanted, strained even, to explain to her about von Tuzzi’s book. But “You’re not even Jewish” was all I murmured. It’s true: Emma is not. She nonetheless has (or has cultivated) an abnormal sensitivity to even whiffs of what the book’s title suggests. I don’t want to call it racism. We Jews, after all, are not a race. Much more like an esoteric political concept! I couldn’t get to sleep after Emma’s outburst, and I woke up ill-tempered and late for the library. (This happened during the last month of work on my book about the social history of prison architecture.)
Emma’s outburst violated the whole tone of our relationship. We never fought: we only simulated fighting out of a sense of duty. I don’t even know how I ended up living with her. I mean, I know the facts. But they’re so usual they’re not worth repeating. We had been sleeping with each other for a long time and a centripetal force began to exert itself day by day and then we sat on the naked living room floor, exhausted and gleeful, my head in her lap, trading gulps from a bottle of cut-rate, metal-flavored champagne. These phenomena—new living arrangements and senseless joy—are connected in Emma’s mind by a process of induction I don’t understand. Her laugh is completely silent. She throws her head back and her white, white teeth glisten. This was one of the first things that drew me to her. That and the fact that she cannot finish a novel. I leaf through her orphans, sometimes, looking for the page where her brackets and underlinings dead-end. She always returns to magazines, which she flips through in bed with shot-like cracks. I caught her, one afternoon, brow corrugated as she ran her pen over page after page of a hard-to-replace folio volume of mine. I almost collapsed with laughter and she gave me two playful, virtuosic slaps, one to each of my cheeks. I fear I’ve made this all sound mysterious. It isn’t. So our morality is somewhat inertial, so we’re boring. Is that a crime? And I do care for Emma, whatever you think. We even grow herbs—mint, basil, sorrel, and nothing, according to season—on our fire escape, something I once thought affected but which provides a secret, original joy.
I brought the Confessions with me on the train to the library in the morning. Have you ever noticed how closely Charles Darwin, in that famous photograph, resembles a Hasidic rabbi? Dark homburg, dark tunic, a luminescent, winglike beard, eternal sadness in his one exposed eye? I thought for most of my adolescence that I was the only person to have noticed this astonishing coincidence, until I read the Confessions. The book dates from the middle period of von Tuzzi’s literary career, when he had begun to enjoy critical and (moderate) commercial success. This allowed him a lifestyle comparable to that of one of the numerous day-laborers his father employed during the harvest season. Of these young Arnulph was so severely, Platonically enamored that he slept for years—as he admits with acid candor—secreting one of their dropped sashes under his pillow. Von Tuzzi opens the Confessions with his observation about Charles Darwin. I hope this explains why my attention was so fixed on his book. The train began to slow. I noticed, to my shock, that the female half of the couple from the day before was seated across from me, a dark kerchief covering her hair. Her husband was absent and her child had closed his ultramarine eyes. I caught her staring, I’m delighted to say. Her child awoke with a delighted, airy gurgle and the train forced itself to a halt. I followed her kerchief, which bobbed like an artificial bird, for as long as I could among the granular flow of heads and hats in the crush of the station.
I had been immersed in my studies for almost an hour when I felt the sticky presence of Mr. Mouhibian, the sectional librarian, at my elbow. I raised my head and saw in order: crisp goaty hair; curdish forehead; flat leper’s nose. Though Mouhibian did not suffer from actual leprosy. We had been acquaintances since the beginning of my work at the Morrison Gall Memorial Library. Mouhibian wore his hypertrophied scholar’s getup, with legless spectacles on a cord and a vest (pea-green today). I found talking to him intestinally difficult, even asking for reference help. He projected the satisfied, invincible, moronic air of people who surround themselves with books. But we managed to evolve a comfortable orbit. He would stop at my desk during his rounds and nod. Today I had no reason to expect any variation. So you can imagine my surprise when he made an aggressive, catarrhal noise and I looked up to see a pair of stony (also inflamed and watery, to bring in some other elements) eyes and the deep, simian corrugations of his forehead. I smiled but he weaved away, arms stiff at his sides. Shaking my head, I returned to my work. I intended this book to be a panoramic history of the architecture of prisons, a subject that has long interested me. (And few others.) But there were mornings in the library when a quick (or even a slow) death seemed preferable to more research. The arrival of any book would have excited me, under the circumstances. But von Tuzzi’s transfixed me. I probably only have to cite his most famous—perhaps infamous—passage for you to understand why:
Arrival: You come along the flat plain, you see the first fences, the sheds and barracks. And the weather is dim and the light is flat, but among the buildings, in and out of the doorways, you can see tourists, moving in affected silence, holding hands, some of the couples, even eating. You can guess for the most part what these people are. And so, the first time I arrived—I hadn’t been back to Poland in years, I’d been in America for decades—you’ll forgive me, I hope, but the first thought that impressed itself upon me, after turning off the main road and following the path through the yellowing birches, was: what a jolly little village, a regular shtetl. Even with the guard towers. And look, you can just imagine, above the old crematorium, those jolly chimneys belching smoke into the sky, thick, greasy, truly jolly smoke, just like a forge or a small factory. Oh, how homey it all must have been; how at home you all must have felt! For you were used to isolation and restriction. Of that much we were certain. I suppose you even yearned for it, demanded it. We did not want to punish you, dear ones, but even your own holy books demand your punishment. Of that much we were certain. Can’t you forgive us (though forgiveness is not in your nature) as the agents of your mighty, inhuman god? I found a dry grin stretching my lips, chapped and windbitten in the Polish spring, and tears at the corner of my eyes, grit-laden tears.
I worked until a sudden dizziness came over me and I gathered my books before walking back to Mouhibian’s window, where you returned things. The light in his booth was half-dimmed, his face warped with shadow. He seemed to be immersed in impenetrable thought. His frown grew more and more petulant and fixed as I slid the books beneath the grate, one at a time, for him to catalog. As I pushed the last one through he held my gaze and coughed, making a sudden downward movement with his forearms. I felt a dull, quick, yellowish pain and heard a brazen thrum: he had brought the inner grate, the “closed-for-business” grate, down on my fingertips.
The pain in my fingers was astounding, as though their tips had been lopped, or their nails extracted. I could see, if I squinted, Mouhibian’s outline. He wasn’t moving. I flexed and clenched my hands and sucked air. The shock unbalanced me as much as the pain, and the huge vacant vaults of the Gall seemed to press down on my head. Mouhibian, with his moronic little glasses, meant me harm. I’d always known it. And he had sprung his trap, and now … with this and other circular trivialities I became nauseated, I pounded on the glass in impotent rage. Still Mouhibian failed to move, and this enraged me. “Come out, you gingery turd,” I screamed, and the stupid-boy’s phrase echoed. One of my nails had already gone a rich grapy color, and I showed it accusingly to the dark cage. I pounded the glass again, till I thought it would break, vibrating under my blows. He obdurately refused to respond. I trudged back to my desk and gathered up my belongings, my hands aching and singing. I could barely button my coat.
After leaving the library, I went to meet a woman whom Emma knew nothing about, and whose name I have decided not to reveal to you. To lend myself a bit of credibility. I’m not that bad-looking. A hair or two over six feet, large, beaked nose, deep-set eyes. Emma once told me I resembled (in profile) the Emperor Titus. My voice is deep, and if I may permit myself, warmly resonant. This, so that you won’t think my lovely Kirghiz (as you will know her) to be an exaggeration or pure invention. I would go to her sometimes in the evenings. She occupied a crammed, warm, honey-lit studio near the Gall. Five flights up, stairways a ponderous green, banisters alive to the palm with lumps and ruts from layers of previous paint. Field of study, topology; skin, unflawed; laugh, rare.
I can hear you criticizing me already. And I don’t have much to offer in the way of defense, except the following. Before I met my Kirghiz, I don’t know, a day or two, I returned home from the library to find Emma in tears. A book stood open on the kitchen table in front of her, the place weighted open with an unpeeled banana. I rushed to her and put my arms around her, kneeling so that our faces were on the same level. She had been gnawing, yet again, at the first twenty pages of Fritz Fromm’s The Annihilation Years. I don’t know how familiar you are with this book. But it differs from most others on its subject. Its opening passages are more a criticism of historiography than anything else. There are no pathos-crammed autobiographical details, no shoes, no bereft eyeglasses, no gunshots, no medical atrocities. A terrifying book, yes, but emphatically a non-literary one. Emma had never made it past the first pages. She always fell into weepy, red-faced paroxysms. Her skin crimsoned up to her golden hairline and two dark patches hovered over her cheekbones. This was, by my count, the seventh time I had found her like this. So we sat there, embracing, Emma sobbing into my neck, the banana peaceably holding the book open on a page whose first paragraph ran:
While the annihilation process took many forms, from the bureaucratic to the physically extreme, it remains a historically explicable process—not a moral unicum, not a singularity, but a complex of events and ideas, a concatenation of visible causes and effects. It was, though monstrous, not alien; not extrinsic, though catastrophic. I should, perhaps, go so far as to suggest that it belongs to the necessities that arise when high levels of political systemization are coupled with advances in industrial production. A product, in essence, of the modern state as such …
Fancy, full-throated Germanic stuff, yes! But complete personal disintegration? Emma calmed down, soon enough, as I stroked her back and rocked her. She even ate the banana. I’m not saying this justifies my behavior the my lovely Kirghiz. I’m just pointing it out, to use one of Emma’s tic-like expressions. And I admit that I behaved unceremoniously to her when she confronted me about von Tuzzi’s book, in bed. But the fat yellow hyphen of that banana, friends, stayed with me a long time.
The next day (or the day after) I met my lovely Kirghiz for the first time, in the front hall of the library. We performed a joint balk at the lip of the revolving door. She gestured me forward and I laughed a cracked, strained laugh. The street was wet and plastered in places with tender, rent beech leaves. We walked together, two fingers’ breadth between my thick arm and her thin, round one. I suggested—my hands were shaking in my pockets—a drink, which we had and several more. Next to us, in a monstrous and expensive suit, a fat man gleamed dimly. His thin wife, muscle-faced, nipped at a glass of water. “You’re just frightened,” my Kirghiz said, raising her wineglass, “frightened and stubborn.” There’s something delightful about such moments of character summary, no? She splayed her hands on the dark table. The fat man whined into his napkin. “I’m not that frightened,” I said, staring at her neck. Minutes later we crested the last stairs in her building, silent and hand in hand like a pair of trusting schoolchildren. She opened the door with judicious haste and pulled me in after her, leading me to her couch and pressing me into the curdy cushions. I heard a bench shriek and a few pages rustle. Then a warm silence, one breath long, and then song filled the room as my Kirghiz lifted her dark, floodlike voice. This occurred at two-seventeen on the morning of March 23rd, my thirty-sixth birthday. Would the idea of a spiritual adultery make sense to you? I don’t know. Had you proposed such a thing to me before I met my Kirghiz, I might have laughed. Yet I assure you that spiritual adultery is not only possible these days, but that even an American may have the requisite depth for it. So the evenings with my Kirghiz continued. I never crossed the twelve feet that separated her broken-boned couch from her music stand. Disappointing, I know, for you. But if you want libertinism you’ll have to look elsewhere. Emma responded only with silence to my later and later returns from the library. I could hear her magazines as soon as I walked in. Whatever criticism or appeal this contained failed to pierce the dreamy, April-like stupidity that infused my mind. I still remember the sleeps of that month. I awoke from them alert and relaxed, without any of the leaden ambiguity returning to consciousness occasions, at least in me.
To abandon the pleasure of memory. I had the Confessions under my arm when I met my Kirghiz the evening of Mouhibian’s attack on my fingers. She cast a starry glance at the book and grinned up at me while digging through her purse. She fished out her own copy—of a vintage far senior to mine, foxed and dog-eared—and waved it under my nose. I demanded that we trade, and she responded with a closemouthed smile, which had played on her face all during our long meeting. I had been too absorbed in this smile to notice, at first, the couple next to us.
It was the same couple from the train. The same white skin and dark hair, the same liquid eyes, the same false and querulous up-and-down of voice. I listened to make sure: they were hard to identify without their baby. My Kirghiz put her warm palms on my cheeks. I could see my face in her dark irises, wearing a clumsy relief mask of shadow. And then, obeying some foreign (or innate, let’s be honest) impulse, I leaned toward her across our too-wide table, which lodged itself under my lowest ribs, and whispered into her ridgy ear. “They’re the kind of people, they make me embarrassed to be a Jew.” My Kirghiz bayed her light, hoarse laugh.
I didn’t realize this at the time, but Patricia Havlicek must have been crossing her father’s threshold for a first-in-years visit that same night. Over the course of the days following my brief meeting with Havlicek, certain facts about his life would come to light in the newspapers. One: he served as an interrogator in the U.S. Army after the war, stationed in Mauthausen, Germany, where von Tuzzi used to frequent a middlingly respectable whorehouse. Two: an impulse to hoard—newspapers, old telephone books, corroded pipes, anything at all, birdcages, the coins of other nations, some no longer existent—governed the whole of his adult, civilian life. Three: he kept a pet pigeon, named Peter after a favorite long-dead uncle, in a coop on the roof of his building. His broad-faced daughter served as the conduit through which these fragments entered the public imagination. The papers also, I should note, attempted to cast me as a villain. They failed in this. I’m not a good man. But I lack the frenetic, experimental busyness required for villainy. This was, I think, the last vaporous expression of whatever waiting harm had gathered itself around me, the Confessions, my stupid scholarly work, my lovely Kirghiz, and Emma. (I have no other family.)
And the truth about my relations with Emma is worse than I’ve made it seem, less appealable. She possesses great reserves of inner kindness. But she requires also requires reasons to act, principles. I think at least part of her attachment to me stemmed from my involvement with what are called “ideas.” Emma works for a non-profit organization that helps place second- and even third-time recidivist criminals with host families. That’s how she satisfies her inner stringency. I, on the other hand, admit my own powerlessness. I’ve had long since adjusted my principles to conform with my own nonexistent higher aims: that is to say I’ve abandoned even the idea of principles. Not that I’ve become a hedonist. I am unbreakingly faithful (in a physical sense) to Emma, moderate in my consumption and luxuries. For a long time I even spent my days grinding away in that miserable library, listening to Mouhibian breathe and leafing with increasing disgust through archival records in three languages, detailing pounds of mortar, plans of construction, deaths, escapes, fires, hunger, infestation, plague.
I returned home, late, after Mouhibian’s assault and my meeting with my Kirghiz, and found Emma at the kitchen table. She had taken the trouble of preparing a late meal for me. The moon glanced through our tall, narrow window. I lifted one of the sandwiche-halves and stared at its booklike cross-section. “Did you see this article,” asked Emma. She held up a magazine, half-folded, showing a page crazed with her annotations. “Holocaust reparations. They’re not going to pay them. The government, I mean. Don’t you think that’s fucked up?” “Which government? What do you mean the government?” She began, in the buttery light, to resemble someone. I didn’t know who. “You know. Swiss, German. America too. It doesn’t even matter.” For a single moment, as though an invisible malevolent passerby had whispered some true scurrility, I hated her. It was actually rather a relief. “It’s fucked up, I guess.” This came out more quietly than I’d meant. “I just wanted to point it out. Do you really not think it’s fucked up?” Still holding my sandwich-half I muttered—and please, please forgive me for this—I muttered low and hard: “You stupid cunt.” I hadn’t even gotten the word “cunt” out of my mouth before Emma began to stare, her lower lip trembling, at my forehead. “Why did you call me a cunt,” she whimpered. I walked out of the kitchen and lowered myself onto our sofa and removed, from my coat pocket, the Confessions. Before I opened it I stared up at her, at the soft, frightened wrinkle at the bridge of her nose, between her fine, ash-blonde eyebrows. “You’re not even Jewish,” I shouted, “you stupid cunt.”
I find that I have no clear memory of Emma’s response. Only that it went on for some time, without stopping, that her pitch lifted and fell, obeying some inner rhythm. Von Tuzzi’s voice canceled hers, reduced it to a clatter, a soughing buzz, the unhindered speech of a young child. I said nothing, nothing at all, for the hour (two, maybe) it took Emma to unburden herself. When she’d finished she stood waiting for my rebuttal. I turned another page. She strode away and slammed the bedroom door. I heard her engage the lock and found myself on my feet; when I reached the door, the Confessions still in hand, I threw my shoulder into it and burst the flimsy, false-copper lock and stumbled six steps into the room. Emma bulged her eyes at me, over her shoulder, her lips parted. We stood without moving and a rattle-lunged car turned down our street. I turned my back, saying nothing and laid myself on the couch again. And how else, exactly, was I supposed to respond? I read, horizontally, until my neck grew numb. Silence from the bedroom. I checked my watch. The trains were running infrequently now, and I had to wait almost seventeen minutes in the station. I used the time, though: I watched a homeless man crouched on his milk-crate explaining something I could not catch to an invisible audience. He continued to speak through the thundering squeal of the arriving train. I found his self-absorption admirable. And in the subway car, there was still more to see. An elbowy kid in a green tracksuit hawked off-brand newspapers to the passengers in his reedy, menacing voice. A delegation of young girls, despite the late hour still wearing blue blazers with golden crests and gray plaid skirts, murmured to each other, now and then raising a tender cough or laugh. The endless play of becoming, as some insufferable bastard once described it.
Towards the end of the Confessions, von Tuzzi recounts an episode from the final months of his youth, a sordid-sublime love affair conducted in a Budapest suburb before the war began. He had arranged—to the disgust of his ennobled parents—for employment as a machine operator at the Bird of Paradise soap factory, where he worked amid the stench of lye and potash and the edenic fragrances the management added to mask the soap’s true origins. The young Arnulph finds himself taken with one of the women who comes to sell wine to the workers when they get off their shifts, a thick-bodied, dark woman whom he takes for a gypsy but turns out, of course, to be … I don’t have to supply the rest. Suffice it to say that von Tuzzi savages both the woman and his younger self as he narrates the affair, which ends in a single instant, like a human life. Young Arnulph goes every afternoon from the factory to this woman’s house and encounters an enormous bazaar, upon which the older von Tuzzi lavished much descriptive care: apricots, Berlin pornography, a sapphiric parrot chained to a metal roost, sacks of meal, graphite, brass rings and rings of gold, colored glass, votaries to Mary, monkeys carved from ebony, laudanum, chickens and geese, violins of cheap manufacture, prayer books, incense burners, an enormous teak throne studded with empty sockets resembling large chancres (the bazaar’s owner claimed that it belonged once to the Prince Regent of Siam and had been adorned with rubies), barrels of preserved fish, ribbons of fresh tripe, salt, Bird of Paradise soap. I know that I’ve left things out of this list; it runs for pages in von Tuzzi’s book, an insane profusion in thundering rhythm, a tide. And as I came to the end of that long catalogue, I realized who Emma reminded me of: Mouhibian, somehow. I saw Emma standing behind me as I hunched at my desk and typed and Mouhibian bathed in a coppery glow at the Gall, the sallow tips of his fingers together. My windpipe widened and my tongue leapt to the roof of my mouth. I don’t know to whom I was preparing to speak. Near the opposite corner of the car, a scuffling sound rose. A woman’s voice shouted “No, Dad, no,” and was cut off by rapid footsteps.
I saw someone looming above the upper left corner of the page and then a rushing, unsure movement. A red-black, flowerlike thunderbolt passed through the middle of my head, darkening my vision and loosening my limbs. When my sight returned, I was on the floor, a bowlegged, thick-armed man crouching over me. The paper seller sang out a long, high “Daaaaaaaaaaamn.” The chorus of murmuring schoolgirls burst into breathless tittering. Blood flowed over my lips and chin; I sneezed and sprayed a pink mist into the man’s face. He seemed not to know what the next step was. I noticed that he was old. Or if not old, then about the same age as my father. He had a snowy moustache and bright, bright blue eyes, and was now, to my astonishment, offering me his hand. I found I was still clutching over my solar plexus, like an inadequate plate of armor, the Confessions.
The old man yanked me up. His squarish frame, in a tight, neat, gray suit and flimsy blue windbreaker, blocked the aisle. He jerked the book out of my hand and hurled it to the wet, gritty floor, grinding the heel of his wingtip into it while clasping his left fist in his right palm and choking out the word “sir,” over and over. Tears globed in his eyes. Finally a broad-faced, blonde woman, short and squat like him, came and took his elbow as he stumped away. Before he sat, he raised both fists in triumph and the crowd began to applaud, a trickle at first, then with its full vigor and depth. The paper seller jammed his pinkies into his mouth and shrieked out a whistle. The noise continued for a full half minute and followed me as I darted through the opening doors of the car, shouldering aside an astonished woman in a sable busby attempting to board.
Arnulph von Tuzzi lived to the age of eighty-eight. He died in a beach cottage in northern California, alone with his nurse. His autobiographical novel The Confessions of a European Jewhater was published in the States, shortly after his immigration here. The book was naturally and stupidly greeted with outrage and disgust. His literary career was over—but he continued to write for another four decades in calm solitude. I have, since he first entered my literary consciousness, sought out as much of his correspondence as I could find: letters to Mann, to lesser members of the Frankfurt School, to the women he pursued with unceasing, childish abandon and success till he became too ill to walk. He makes no mention of the sudden absence of literary success from his life. His books continued appearing to greater and greater indifference under the auspices of a house in London operated by his first patroness, Lady Anja Kostolanyi. Von Tuzzi never even made the attempts at comedy or professions of gladness that usually accompany sudden failure. He resented nothing. It’s as though no setback or disaster ever befell him. I’ve tried my utmost to find a model of conduct in this. But such angelic coldness lies far beyond my capacities. I do, though, derive a strange solace from the thought of von Tuzzi at his desk beneath the enormous western moon, in earshot of the empty Pacific—a bent, reserved old man, his narrow, surely-built face adorned with lamplight, in the midst of a vaultlike, leafy silence. Von Tuzzi himself, I imagine, would excoriate me without mercy for such sentimental thinking.
The news trumpeted Havlicek’s death for the next three days. The effort of punching me and wresting the book from my hands was, it seems, too much for him. He had worn only his blue, salt-stained windbreaker on against the cool and damp, in defiance of his daughter Patricia’s admonitions. Patricia, when her father punched me, was carrying two tall brown paper bags brimming with gerbera daisies and ratty sunflowers. Her father collapsed moments after I left the subway car, according to the reports, and died surrounded by applause and whistles on a pillow of his daughter’s wet, broken flowers. The papers cast the situation into the crudest possible relief. So I choose to imagine him sinking to his knees after his triumphant gesture, as I ascend the crowded stairs and the train bears him off under the heavy night of tile, steel girders, earth, stones, asphalt, trash, and starlight. His daughter Patricia, I learned, is a physical therapist in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She is Havlicek’s only child. His wife predeceased him by decades. According to Patricia, she and her father spoke on the phone constantly, although she had found it hard to make the time to visit him, ya know? (Admitted during a segment of the local news. Emma asked me why I was staring so intently at the woman speaking.) She arranged to have the corpse flown to Sheboygan and interred in her parish cemetery. This detail the papers seized on with particular relish. There were a whole series of slighting references to me, the putative Jew-hater. But no-one could remember what I looked like clearly enough to help the police. (The paper seller did inform them that I had failed to buy a paper.)
But all of this rushing around and speechmaking, I find, is far less clear (if also less fragmentary) in my memory than what happened after Havlicek’s attack. I caught sight of myself in the window of a dark car: crimson stains on my collar and vacancy in my eyes. I was going, I realized, to see my Kirghiz, and the pleasurable stupid fog that hovered around her had poured into my soul (is it acceptable to disinter that word?). I saw the constellation Lyra above a building, which shocked me: normally the light pollution masks the stars. The one person I saw on my way, a woman with a dowager’s hump walking a corgi on a slack leash, moved the stiffness and self-importance of a second-rate actoress. My right shoulder ached. I could think of nothing. The soft air crept in and out of my lungs without arousing my gratitude. I found myself at the library, footlighted now. It looked like a cathedral or house of correction in my empty confusion. I sat on the cold steps, next to a rhododendron blooming half in the rigid light of a stubby lamp and half in the dark of the library’s lee. The enormous desire for sleep flooded my chest and eyes but I began to walk again, hands spaded into my pockets. And soon enough I was leaping up the stairs to her door, which she’d painted violet, and knocking. No answer. I knocked again. The gap between sill and door remained dark. She probably hasn’t gotten back from the library, I reassured myself, and slumped down against the dead hall radiator, swiping at the tacky blood on my upper lip and chin with a white cuff. I heard three footsteps. And then a long hesitation. “You cunt,” I muttered, with infant pride, “you cunt, you cunt, you cunt.” According to Von Tuzzi, you should know, a certain Anfim Antonovich Kutyrev, a minor star in the constellation of émigré geniuses circling through Berlin, Paris, and Ankara in the first half of the last century, shot himself through the heart for the love of a woman he called “his lovely Kirghiz.” Kutyrev failed to die. He lived a full, even accomplished, life, publishing several monographs on meter in Pushkin, coughing, sputtering, wheezing, needled and spurred onward by his dementedly faithful wife Lydia. (The two would perish in a boating expedition off the Dalmatian coast, in 1967, proposed by the initials-only N.N.V.)
Sam Munson is a writer living in New York. He is the online editor of Commentary; his writing has also appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Sun and the New York Observer.