Wednesday, June 04, 2008
On the stairs Natasha ran into her neighbor from across the hall, Baron Wolfe. He was somewhat laboriously ascending the bare wooden steps, caressing the bannister with his hand and whistling softly through his teeth.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry, Natasha?”
“To the drugstore to get a prescription filled. The doctor was just here. Father is better.”
“Ah, that’s good news.”
She flitted past in her rustling raincoat, hatless.
Leaning over the bannister, Wolfe glanced back at her. For an instant he caught sight from overhead of the sleek, girlish part in her hair. Still whistling, he climbed to the top floor, threw his rain-soaked briefcase on the bed, then thoroughly and satisfyingly washed and dried his hands.
Then he knocked on old Khrenov’s door.
Khrenov lived in the room across the hall with his daughter, who slept on a couch, a couch with amazing springs that rolled and swelled like metal tussocks through the flabby plush. There was also a table, unpainted and covered with ink-spotted newspapers. Sick Khrenov, a shrivelled old man in a nightshirt that reached to his heels, creakily darted back into bed and pulled up the sheet just as Wolfe’s large shaved head poked through the door.
“Come in, glad to see you, come on in.”
The old man was breathing with difficulty, and the door of his night table remained half open.
“I hear you’ve almost totally recovered, Alexey Ivanych,” Baron Wolfe said, seating himself by the bed and slapping his knees.
Khrenov offered his yellow, sticky hand and shook his head.
“I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but I do know perfectly well that I’ll die tomorrow.”
He made a popping sound with his lips.
“Nonsense,” Wolfe merrily interrupted, and extracted from his hip pocket an enormous silver cigar case. “Mind if I smoke?”
He fiddled for a long time with his lighter, clicking its cogged screw. Khrenov half-closed his eyes. His eyelids were bluish, like a frog’s webbing. Graying bristles covered his protruding chin. Without opening his eyes, he said, “That’s how it’ll be. They killed my two sons and heaved me and Natasha out of our natal nest. Now we’re supposed to go and die in a strange city. How stupid, all things considered. . . .”
Wolfe started speaking loudly and distinctly. He spoke of how Khrenov still had a long time to live, thank goodness, and how everyone would be returning to Russia in the spring, together with the storks. And then he proceeded to recount an incident from his past.
“It was back when I was wandering around the Congo,” he was saying, and his large, somewhat corpulent figure swayed slightly. “Ah, the distant Congo, my dear Alexey Ivanych, such distant wilds—you know . . . Imagine a village in the woods, women with pendulous breasts, and the shimmer of water, black as karakul, amid the huts. There, under a gigantic tree—a kiroku—lay orange fruit like rubber balls, and at night there came from inside the trunk what seemed like the sound of the sea. I had a long chat with the local kinglet. Our translator was a Belgian engineer, another curious man. He swore, by the way, that, in 1895, he had seen an ichthyosaur in the swamps not far from Tanganyika. The kinglet was smeared with cobalt, adorned with rings, and blubbery, with a belly like jelly. Here’s what happened—”
Wolfe, relishing his story, smiled and stroked his pale-blue head.
“Natasha is back,” Khrenov quietly and firmly interjected, without raising his eyelids.
Instantly turning pink, Wolfe looked around. A moment later, somewhere far off, the lock of the front door clinked, then steps rustled along the hall. Natasha entered quickly, with radiant eyes.
“How are you, Daddy?”
Wolfe got up and said, with feigned nonchalance, “Your father is perfectly well, and I have no idea why he’s in bed. . . . I’m going to tell him about a certain African sorcerer.”
Natasha smiled at her father and began unwrapping the medicine.
“It’s raining,” she said softly. “The weather is terrible.”
As usually happens when the weather is mentioned, the others looked out the window. That made a bluish-gray vein on Khrenov’s neck contract. Then he threw his head back on the pillow again. With a pout, Natasha counted the drops, and her eyelashes kept time. Her sleek dark hair was beaded with rain, and under her eyes there were adorable blue shadows.
Back in his room, Wolfe paced for a long time, with a flustered and happy smile, dropping heavily now into an armchair, now onto the edge of the bed. Then, for some reason, he opened a window and peered into the dark, gurgling courtyard below. At last he shrugged one shoulder spasmodically, put on his green hat, and went out.
Old Khrenov, who was sitting slumped on the couch while Natasha straightened his bed for the night, observed indifferently, in a low voice, “Wolfe has gone out to dinner.”
Then he sighed and pulled the blanket more tightly around him.
“Ready,” Natasha said. “Climb back in, Daddy.”
All around there was the wet evening city, the black torrents of the streets, the mobile, shiny cupolas of umbrellas, the blaze of shopwindows trickling down onto the asphalt. Along with the rain the night began to flow, filling the depths of the courtyards, flickering in the eyes of the thin-legged prostitutes, who slowly strolled to and fro at the crowded intersections. And, somewhere above, the circular lights of an advertisement flashed intermittently like a spinning illuminated wheel.
Steven Daedelus's (James Joyce's) distinction between "proper" and "improper" art:
"The feelings excited by improper
art are kinetic, desire or loathing.
Desire urges us to possess, to go to
something; loathing urges us to aban
don, to go from something. The arts
which excite them, pornographical or
didactic, are therefore improper arts."
The aesthetic emotion (i.e., proper art)
is static. The mind is arrested and
raised above desire and loathing. "Proper art," as Joyce calls it, "catches the breath, arrests the mind,
and the world stops. For a fleeting
moment, the self that stands in opposition
to the world disappears. We
merge into a note, a linage, and a
movement and come out the other
side refreshed and renewed."
[Qtd. in Dong Coodkin, "What Is Aesthetic Education?"] http://www.orff.org.tw/news/periodical9307/What_is_aesthetic_education.pdf
I could use more if this emotional state of being... :)
Thanks! That was awesome to read...appreciate this...
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