So strange and exotic is he that he could be a rare tropical bird that you might never come face to face with, even in a lifetime spent in the rain forest. The plumage is a wonder to behold: a large sapphire in the lapel of a bold striped suit, a vivid silk tie so bright that it dazzles, and when he flaps his wings the lining of his jacket glints and glistens like a prism. He sees that I am startled and he smiles. He takes my hand in his and lays it on the silk lining. You want to touch? Go on, touch
! It's best Chinese silk
. I have only the best
It is a lot to take in all at once. Under his suit he wears one pink sock, one green, two gold watches on his right arm, a platinum watch on his left, and on his fingers a collection of jewels: rubies, emeralds, diamonds. This is the jungle bird in human form--flamboyant, exaggerated, ornate--a creature whose baroque splendour surely has to be part of the male mating display. And yet the brightness of the eyes and the set of the smile give him an amused look that suggests a degree of self-parody. A touch of the court jester perhaps? Only perhaps, for nothing is yet sure. The head is large, in keeping with the frame, and the ears look as if they might have been an exuberant afterthought. The hair, dark and wiry, seems to be a separate entity, a thing apart. It perches on top like an eagle's nest.
It is a Saturday morning in 1981 and I have travelled from my home in Scotland to an address in Mayfair. A uniformed porter opens the door of my taxi and ushers me inside. He asks me to take a seat while he telephones to announce my arrival. He presses a button to call the lift and, with a touch of his cap, sends me on my way. As the lift doors open, the bird of paradise is already standing there in all his finery. I had little idea of what to expect, but the reality is a good deal odder than anything I might have imagined. A psychedelic experience without the need of drugs.
His demeanour conveys generosity and impeccable courtesy. His eyes sparkle like precious stones. His hands are large and beautiful, and they feel so soft that they seem quite new and unused. But his handshake is not the limp, wishy-washy how-do-you-do of an Englishman; it is a firm and cordial clasp, like a lingering embrace. His voice is velvet and beguilingly accented, and it is speaking now in short unfinished bursts, gentle, apologetic, cajoling, pampering. Come
. . . come
. . . please
. . . only one minute
. . . be so kind
. . . because the telephone
. . . it happens always. His body is never still but moves to the rhythm and cadences of his speech pattern. He does a low salaam and beckons me to follow, like a Bedouin prince inviting an honoured guest to his tent. Please
. . . sit
. . . two minutes
. . . then I'm back
. . . you're very kind
. He glides off leaving behind eastern scents--musk, saffron, sandalwood.
The walls of the tent are festooned with rugs, and on the floor there are more rugs with small exquisitely carved tables and dark-wood chests on top. More Marrakesh than Mayfair, it seems to me, though I am not familiar with either. The decoration is rich but not oppressive, the lines are clean and disciplined. There is no evidence of normal day-to-day living, none of the randomness of ordinary clutter. And no photographs, just a picture of a tiger in the corner by the door. On one of the chests--it could be rosewood inlaid with mother-of-pearl--there is a careful arrangement of antique ivory bracelets. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to achieve the desired effect. He glides back in. Sorry
. . . sorry
. . . can you come now
. . . we will go quickly
. . . the chauffeur is downstairs
. He hurries off down the long corridor, leaving behind a vapour trail of blandishments. I follow him, eyes down, counting the kelims as I go. It feels like an absurd passage in a dream.
Out on the pavement, the chauffeur is standing beside a silver Rolls-Royce, holding the door open for us to get into the back seat. I have never been in a Rolls-Royce before, but find myself behaving as if it is a common occurrence. I have no idea why I am pretending. It certainly does not occur to me to be myself. I give a nod to the chauffeur, decidedly de haut en bas
, and sink into the plush leather like Lady Muck.
We are on our way to Oxford, the dazzling publisher and I, to visit a woman as old as the century. It has the feel of an adventure, the beginning of something.
Anything counting as a significant happening usually involves the chance occurrence of a number of events. Each event means nothing in isolation, or so it seems at the time, but taken together and viewed from the ringside seat that is given to us by hindsight, each turns out to have played a part in what Raymond Chandler liked to call the Start of Something Big. The particular events that led to my journey from London to Oxford in the back of a Rolls-Royce that Saturday morning in 1981 were something of a rag-bag. Here is a selection from the rag-bag:
* the study of Russian language and literature
* an exhibition at an art gallery in St. Andrews
* the birth of babies (three)
* the undertaking of a translation
* visits to Oxford to look at paintings
* a commission from a London publishing house
* a Russian artist's visit to Palestine in 1924
The longer version of events is that in the early seventies I spent four years at university reading Russian and philosophy. My undergraduate thesis was a study of the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. When the University of St. Andrews opened a new art gallery with an exhibition of the works of Leonid Pasternak, father of Boris, I was asked to write a profile of the artist for the exhibition catalogue. The research for this involved reading Pasternak's memoirs in Russian and consulting with the artist's two daughters, Josephine and Lydia. After the exhibition they encouraged me to translate their father's memoirs but, since I had two small children and a third on the way, it seemed an impossible undertaking. When the third child was born it was even more impossible, but by then I knew that if I was going to be a fit mother I needed also to do something that was not mothering. Translation seemed to offer a solution.
In any case the memoirs were interesting and colourful, painting a vivid picture of Russian artistic life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They begin with a kind of miracle which hooked me and pulled me in--the story of how the artist nearly died of convulsions in 1862 when he was only a few months old. The family lived in simple rooms in the corner of a large sprawling coaching-inn on the outskirts of Odessa by the Black Sea. There were stables and a dung yard where children played amongst the poultry and pigs, and the lodgings were filled with Tartar tradesmen, coachmen and assorted merchants. They would arrive in huge tarantasses straight out of Gogol. The air was heavy with noise and liquor. Suddenly, above the din, a mother started screaming that her baby was dying. Everyone crowded round to watch helplessly as the infant convulsed and turned blue. Only one man, a Jewish tailor and sage of the local shtetl, knew what to do. He raised a huge earthenware jug above the baby's head and smashed it on the dirt floor. The baby, startled out of his fit, turned pink. "Now you must change the child's name," the tailor said to the mother, "so that the Devil can't find him again." And so Isaac Pasternak, as he was then called, became Leonid, and he went on to live and work through one of the greatest periods of Russian culture.
Leonid Pasternak knew and painted Einstein, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rubinstein, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Rilke, Chaliapin and many other eminent figures. But perhaps the main fascination of the memoirs lies in his friendship with Tolstoy who invited him to illustrate Resurrection
as he was writing it. Pasternak visited Tolstoy's home at Yasnaya Polyana many times and completed a number of portraits and studies, the last on 20 November 1910, when a telegram summoned him to draw the great man on his deathbed.
At the end of 1980 the translation of the Tolstoy chapter was complete and I sent it off to a London publisher--the exotic jungle bird who now sat beside me in the back of the Rolls-Royce. Within a week or two the book was commissioned and, to the delight of the artist's family, it was to include about a hundred reproductions from his work and an introduction by his daughter Josephine. She lived in Oxford, having moved there with her parents in 1938. At that time her father was a successful artist exhibiting in Germany, but the rise of Nazism meant that all Soviet citizens were being expelled. The family decided to move to Oxford, where Lydia, the other daughter, was already settled. Leonid and his wife Rosa hoped to return to Russia one day, but it was not to be. They both died in Oxford, Rosa a week before the start of the war, and Leonid in 1945, a few months before it ended. Josephine wrote in her introduction that when her mother died it was as if harmony had abandoned the world, and when her father died it seemed that truth had left it.
I made several visits to Josephine during the course of the translation, checking out details of her father's life and helping to choose which pictures would go into the book. She was overjoyed that her father's memoirs were at last to be published. She had spent many years trying to promote his work--writing articles, giving interviews and, together with her sister Lydia, arranging exhibitions in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, and also London and Edinburgh. Both daughters felt their father had been unfairly overshadowed by their brother Boris, and they were determined to do everything they could to even things out. Boris, they were keen to point out, was first known in Russia as "the son of the great artist," and it was only in the west and after the publication of Dr. Zhivago
that people started to refer to Leonid as "the father of Boris." It was a travesty, they believed, and David Lean's contemptible film of Zhivago
had only made matters worse. They were both impassioned on this subject.
The house in Oxford's Park Town where Leonid had spent his last years was chaotic and ramshackle, but wonderfully so. There were pictures everywhere--on the walls, stacked in corners or crammed in large wooden crates that had been carried from country to country, surviving war and revolution. There were landscapes, portraits, still lifes, tender, intimate studies of his wife and children done in every medium--oils, chalks, charcoal, watercolours, pastels. It was a vast inheritance and evidently a formidable task for Josephine and Lydia to sort through. As they got older, the problem of how best to proceed became more urgent. Their dream was one day to establish a Pasternak museum as a permanent memorial to their father and to prevent his work being dissipated and lost.
In their attempts over the years to get the pictures more widely known there had been some bruising experiences. For example, they had given a treasured charcoal sketch of Boris to the Tate Gallery only to find that it was hung for a while next to the ladies' toilets before disappearing permanently into the stacks. They also gave a major work, a life-size portrait of the artist's four children, to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but it was never even hung. On another occasion, in the mid-seventies, they lost some of the best work to a London dealer. And so, by the time I met them a few years later, they were absolutely resolute on one matter: no more pictures would be sold. Which was awkward, because the purchase of paintings was the whole raison d’être
of our trip to Oxford that day.
Fate had ordained Leonid Pasternak to travel to the Holy Land in 1924. He had been commissioned by a Parisian art journal to produce a series of paintings of the people and the landscape. He also did a variety of drawings and sketches--figures with long flowing robes and turbaned heads, donkeys with huge loads, street scenes in Jerusalem, caravans in the desert, the Tomb of Rachel, a Palestinian city wall in dark chocolate brown with a gunpowder gate.
In an office in London some sixty years later, the publisher of Pasternak's memoirs held transparencies of these pictures up to the light and wept.
"I must buy them," he said when he telephoned me out of the blue to ask where he could see the originals.
"They're not for sale," I said, explaining the background and the firm resolve of the Pasternak sisters.
"You don't understand," he said. "I have
to have them. It's imperative. They remind me of my childhood, my homeland. It's all gone now, all destroyed. I have to have those pictures
After some discussion we made an arrangement to go together to Oxford, where he would meet Josephine Pasternak and offer to buy the paintings of Palestine.
"But she won't sell," I said emphatically.
"She'll sell to me," he said, and put down the phone.
And she did sell, which was astonishing. The Josephine I had come to know was determined and high-minded. She embodied a rich cross-cultural mix--a kind of enlightened Puritanism and intense aestheticism. She had studied philosophy in Berlin and had written on Aristotle. And though her European intellectual rigour was tempered by a soulfulness recognisably Russian in origin, she was erudite, firm of purpose, strong-minded and disarmingly candid.
But in the presence of the publisher's fine plumage and splendid colours, this sensible woman became girlish and coquettish. The exotic bird, confident of his charm, prepared for his courtly dance, sticking out his glorious chest and flapping his wings, all the while cooing and wooing, warbling and trilling. He eulogised the artist, he emoted over the lost land of Palestine, he flattered and fawned, buttered and oiled. It was a spectacular show, fascinating to watch. After a feeble fight Josephine Pasternak succumbed to the seductive display. She sold him the paintings.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ghosting by Jennie Erdal. Copyright © 2005 by Jennie Erdal. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.