Vladimir believes he may or may not be sitting in an elegant second-class compartment with two elegant strangers on a steam train pulling out of Alexanderplatz Station.
Perhaps he is dreaming. How, the question springs to mind, could one know? Perhaps he is really on his way to visit his mother and sister in Prague. He wants to say that is most likely the case. His mother has been doing poorly ever since his father’s death. So Vladimir is leaving Véra behind in their flat on Agamemnonstraße for ten days to become his mother’s son again. Walking toward her across the platform at Masaryk Station he will, as always, feel himself scrap one year’s age for each step he takes. He will arrive in her austere embrace an eight-year-old boy in a sailor suit.
Still, he also has the distinct impression he hasn’t yet reached his compartment, that he may be forever passing the odd chap with the shipwrecked look braked on those stairs. Not much older than Vladimir himself, good-looking in that block-jawed, dead-eyed Germanic way, he was engrossed in patting himself down as if under attack by a squadron of enraged invisible bees.
There Vladimir is, contentedly automatic, locating an empty wooden-slatted seat, sliding his beat-up brown leather suitcase into the luggage rack above it, settling in for the tedious trip. There he is acknowledging with a polite smile and infinitesimal nod the couple perched across from him: the proud elderly woman with gray-bunned hair and burnished cane; her proud elderly husband with tightly trimmed gray beard and tortoiseshell glasses. They stare back at him, expressionless, making him suffer his foreignness as long as they can.
Vladimir takes out his rumpled copy of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, ready to revisit some of his favorite passages, closes his scratchy eyes to cleanse his mental palate, and everything liquefies into golden haze, puffy quilts, feather pillows, and perhaps the second awakening into the day (if not yet the last), into a younger, lankier version of himself sitting drowsily, not in that elegant second-class compartment any more, but in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, listening carelessly to his father on stage deliver some political polemics in which Vladimir is sure he should have taken more interest … and next two baritones behind him are unexpectedly joining together in the Tsarist national anthem.
He turns to see what all the vocal flag-waving is about only to find himself surveying his Berlin housing block from across Agamemnonstraße. It is a handsome corner building, courtesy of Véra’s cousin Anna Feigin, whose subtenants they now are, and sticks out like a tremendous red modernist ship, carrying a complex and glassy turreted structure on its bow. On each of the little balconies girdling it something green blossoms. Only the Schmetterlings’ is untidily empty, with an orphaned pot on the parapet and a corpse hung out in moth-eaten furs to air. Véra’s and his two rooms (one for waking and cooking, one for sleeping and dressing) are situated on the third floor.
They have a nice view into the cobblestone courtyard with its bushy fringe punctuated by infant chestnut trees and, in the center, a faux Roman statue of Flora or Fortuna or Felicitas.
Vladimir has not been sleeping well. No doubt that is what this is all about. He is deep into the insomniac undertow of a new novel. It concerns one Franz Bubendorf, an ordinary boylike man living an ordinary boylike life who unwittingly strays into an affair with the older wife of his well-to-do uncle. Soon she (Vladimir thinks of her as a Charlotte, although he is nagged by the suspicion she may rather turn out to be more a motherly Martha or Maria, a dishy Dorothea or Dolores) begins plotting her husband’s homicide. Franz accompanies the couple on a vacation to a resort on the Baltic, where Charlotte nearly goes through with her plan — having Franz row her and her husband far from shore one cold drizzly morning, helping the former boot the lout out of the boat, and letting him (who cannot, it has been foreshadowed, swim) drown in a choppy sea of revelations while Franz and Charlotte (let’s call her Charlotte for now) merrily paddle toward their happily-ever-after.
That is as far as Vladimir has gotten.
Where things veer next is anybody’s guess.
The not-knowing wakes him up every morning between two and four.
The problem with writing, Vladimir has come to understand, is the part involving writing. Ideas, characters, places, the stuff one brings into being off the page: child’s play. Every sentence, however, spews a thousand contingencies ahead of it, and each of those a thousand more.
The proliferation of proliferations feels like what that odd chap in the shabby olive tweed jacket at the station must have felt like.
Vladimir has been working on the manuscript late into every night, rising each morning at four-thirty to get in a few more hours’ composition (shut in the bathroom — so as not to disturb Véra — cross-legged on the floor, his writing desk his valise balanced over the toilet) before setting off to earn room and board by teaching tennis to teenage numbskulls and rich philistines on the courts behind the Universum Cinema on Ku’damm. He courteously cocks his pupils’ dim-witted arms for them, swings their over-priced rackets for them, scoops up their furry balls for them, talks for them, thinks for them, and encourages them to suppose they are making rip-roaring progress while he endures their assorted banalities expressed in a laundry basket of washed-out clichés.
He bolts awake, struck by the thought this awakening might simply be another false one, the next floor in some high-rise daymare, or perhaps some bottomless narcotic ocean, as if he were floating up from dark blue stratum to dark blue stratum but never reaching the undeniable surface, never emerging into the real reality.
It seems to him as if his life has suddenly grown into a mixed metaphor.
The elderly couple across from him has been replaced by twin girls in their Sunday finest, ten or twelve, smacking pink gum, fingering each other’s braided bister hair, referring to each other as Miranda, and snickering over some inevitably predictable wisecrack concerning what must appear to them to be the gangly balding twenty-eight-year-old coffin-dodger sharing their compartment.
Out the train window the station’s clock face (it is already 10:01) slowly turns away from him. One by one the vault’s colossal iron ribs start marching past, bearing off the depot. The platform slides past as well, carrying with it a strew of used tickets, crushed cups, cigarette butts, flecks of mid-morning sunlight, gobs of spittle, and the bright aluminum flash of a single abandoned coin. A luggage cart glides by, wheels motionless, a lone red-faced passenger in an olive wool cap reading the newspaper on a crawling bench, a stall hung with seductive gray fashion magazines and piled high with pretzels and pastries, a group of puzzled people on the accelerating platform, standing still, yet striding forward, yet retreating, and all at once Vladimir is boarding a yellow open-decked bus whose first two steps are comprised of the sandy soil of Grunewald’s forest — the sole spot in umber and sooted Berlin that Véra and he wholeheartedly enjoy because of its butterflies and pine breezes and butterflies and River Havel and peace and butterflies.
The forest floor dissolves under him.
He seizes the handrail to steady himself and a glottal voice — the conductor’s — croups in his ear: Up! Up!
When the bus jerks into motion he grabs someone’s shoulder but is carried along by the force of an inexorable curve, during which the whole vehicle seems to slant toward him, zooming Vladimir up another set of steps to materialize, finally, on the swaying deck.
Shakily he lowers himself onto a seat halfway back and takes in his surroundings. He is floating high above Ku’damm, the entire surface of his skin prickling. What is left of his hair dishevels in the wind. Without warning the sun has somehow commenced setting, transforming the banal stucco ornaments along the roofs and above the entryways and balconies into translucent porticoes, friezes and frescoes, trellises covered with orange roses, winged statues that lift skyward unbearably blazing lyres.
Vladimir believes thoroughly in each floor of his dream, even though he doesn’t, and when he looks again it is the middle of the night. He finds himself both lying beside Véra in their flat and strolling up a street he can’t seem to recognize toward his housing block. The city is blurred by rain. His spectacles (which he didn’t know he wore) are foggy. All he wants to do (and somehow with the next step he is in Prague, his mother and sister having for some reason failed to meet him) is reach his hotel to wash his face, change his shirt, and go out roaming through the old town’s labyrinthine lanes that prove with every erratic turn Kafka was a realist.
Vladimir understands he is still fast asleep, has been the whole time.
Except he is awake.
He opens his eyes, which are already open, expecting Véra’s soft arm lazing across his chest, but no: he is atop that open-decked bus. It is mid-morning and he is in mid-Berlin on his way to Alexanderplatz Station to catch that train to visit his mother and sister in —
He rotates in his seat to seek a little solace in the substantiality of his fellow passengers’ faces and is flustered to pick out, far at the back, that elderly couple from his compartment on the train.
They are squinting at him in a way only Germans can squint at others, as if Vladimir were sunlight, and the sunlight too irritatingly bright for them.
The idea skims through his befuddlement that cultivation and gentility may well end at the outskirts of this metropolis … and next two baritones behind him are unexpectedly joining together in the Tsarist national anthem.
He rotates in his seat to see what all the vocal flag-waving is about only to confront a pair of brawny thugs blundering up the aisle in the concert hall on whose stage his father is presently speaking, was speaking five years ago, will always be speaking.
As they pass, Vladimir notices the one closest to him is in the process of releasing an oily blue pistol, a boxy Korovin, from the shoulder holster inside his suit coat.
Before Vladimir can react, the Korovin begins barking in the direction of a silver-haired, silver-mustached, silver-bespectacled man sitting in the front row, the publisher and politician Pavel Milyukov.
Women cry out.
In something close to a single gesture, Vladimir’s father steps from behind his podium, crosses the stage, leaps off, catches one of the assassins’ necks in the crook of his arm, and carries him to the floor with a hollow grunt-thump.
A brief, hectic wrestling match ruptures into spacetime.
Vladimir’s father is quickly on the bottom, quickly on top, straddling the assassin’s chest, quickly fisting him in the temple — yet, before anyone else can react, the second assassin, the one with the boxy Korovin, aims at Vladimir’s father’s back and fires.
Vladimir’s father flinches and was a liberal lawyer, a statesman, a journalist.
The assassin re-aims at Milyukov. Steadies his arm. Pulls his trigger.
And nothing happens.
Stumped, he glares at Milyukov, down at his empty gun, then is beneath a heap of fairly well-fed, well-dressed men pinning him to the floor, while Vladimir — heedless that one day, because of these sixty seconds, Véra will insist she carry her own small pistol in her purse to protect him from his reputation — watches the arched hulk of Alexanderplatz Station recede from present to preterite and thinks about how his dad died defending one of his own political rivals.
He turns back to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg and unveils himself strolling arm-in-arm with his father among brightly lit stalls of the Christmas market on Gendarmenmarkt. The two are spending an uneventful evening together while Vladimir is in Berlin on winter-break from Cambridge.
Their universe is tangy bratwurst, mittens, spicy glühwein, scarves, hand-carved boxes and mangers, marzipan-stuffed bread, and snow light as salt sifting down around them.
The moment is cold, gusty, simple, superb.
Nothing occurs and that, perhaps, is best of all, for this scene merely records a son and his source wandering among droves of holiday makers who speak a language from which Vladimir can retrieve only a handful of nouns and infinitives.
The duo doesn’t talk.
They merely allow the culture to lap over them until Vladimir’s father halts, tugs his son’s coat to get him to pay attention, and exclaims in his ear: Why can’t Russia do this?
Do what, papa?
Invent moments like this in places like this. Look. All these people want is to be happy. Good lord. The country’s not even sixty years old. What does Germany know that we in the land of czar-fetishists don’t?
Everything, he answers.
Isn’t that remarkable, his father says, genuinely remarkable, as they stray on through the laughter and chatter and cheer.