Authors: Andrei Makine
Also by AndreÃ¯ Makine
Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer
The Crime of Olga Arbyelina
The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme
A Hero's Daughter
Music of a Life
Once upon the River Love
Requiem for a Lost Empire
The Woman Who Waited
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY
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Copyright Â© 1995, 2011 by Mercure de France English-language translation copyright Â© 1997, 2011 by Geoffrey Strachan Reading group guide copyright Â© 2008, 2011 by Arcade Publishing, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
[Testament franÃ§ais. English]
Dreams of my Russian summers / Andrei Makine ; translated from the
French by Geoffrey Strachan.
Â ISBN 978-1-61145-054-5 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Grandmothers--Fiction. 2. Grandparent and child--Fiction. 3. Boys
-Russia--Fiction. I. Strachan, Geoffrey. II. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
For Marianne VÃ©ron and Herbert Lottman
For Laura and Thierry de Montalembert
â¦ it was with a childish pleasure and a profound emotion that, being unable to mention the names of so many others who must have acted similarly and thanks to whom France has survived, I gave the real names here â¦
â Marcel Proust,
Le Temps retrouvÃ©
Does the Siberian ask heaven for olive trees, or the ProvenÃ§al for cranberries?
â Joseph de Maistre,
Les SoirÃ©es de St. Petersbourg
I questioned the Russian about his method of work and was astonished that he did not make his translations himself, for he spoke a very pure French with just a hint of hesitation, on account of the subtlety of his thought.
He confessed to me that the AcadÃ©mie and its dictionary froze him.
â Alphonse Daudet,
Trente ans de Paris
AndreÃ¯ Makine was born and brought up in Russia but wrote
Dreams of My Russian Summers
in French, living in France. In this novel the lives of the characters move back and forth between two countries and two languages. Makine uses a number of Russian words that evoke features of Russian life, and I have generally left these as English transliterations of Russian, for example:
(a traditional wooden house built of logs);
(a fur hat or cap, often with earï¬aps);
(the virgin pine forest that spreads across Siberia, south of the tundra);
(the staple dish of cooked grain or groats);
(a peasant farmer, working for his own proï¬t);
(a member of a collective farm).
But I have also left in French a few phrases where the foreign or evocative sound for Russian ears seems to me as important as the meaning, for example:
(the era in France before the First World War);
(“dear colleague”); an echo of Flaubert's remark,
“Madame Bovary c'est moi”
is me”); the opening couplet from La Fontaine's fable of the wolf and the lamb,
“La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure/Nous l'allons montrer tout Ã l'heure â¦”
(“The strongest always stand to win/The argument, as shown herein â¦”), which features in an elocution lesson; and the elusive French
“je ne sais quoi”
(an indefinable something).
HILE STILL A CHILD
, I guessed that this very singular smile represented a strange little victory for each of the women: yes, a fleeting revenge for disappointed hopes, for the coarseness of men, for the rareness of beautiful and true things in this world. Had I known how to say it at the time I would have called this way of smiling “femininity.” â¦ But my language was too concrete in those days. I contented myself with studying the women's faces in our photograph albums and identifying this glow of beauty in some of them.
For these women knew that in order to be beautiful, what they must do several seconds before the flash blinded them was to articulate the following mysterious syllables in French, of which few understood the meaning:
â¦ As if by magic, the mouth, instead of being extended in counterfeit bliss, or contracting into an anxious grin, would form a gracious round. The whole face was thus transfigured. The eyebrows arched slightly, the oval of the cheeks was elongated. You said
and the shadow of a distant and dreamy sweetness veiled your gaze, refined your features, and caused the soft light of bygone days to hover over the snapshot.
This photographic spell had won the confidence of the most diverse women: for example, a relative from Moscow in the only color photo in our albums. Married to a diplomat, she spoke through clenched teeth and sighed with boredom before even hearing you out. But in the photo I could immediately identify the
I observed its aura on the face of a dull provincial woman, some anonymous aunt, whose name only came up when the conversation
turned to the women left without husbands after the male slaughter of the last war. Even Glasha, the peasant of the family, in the rare photos that we still possessed of her, displayed the miraculous smile. Finally there was a whole swarm of young girl cousins, puffing out their lips while trying to hold on to this elusive French magic during several interminable seconds of posing. As they murmured their
they still believed that the life that lay ahead would be woven uniquely from such moments of graceâ¦.
Throughout this parade of expressions and faces there recurred here and there that of a woman with fine, regular features and large gray eyes. Young at first, in the earliest of the albums, her smile was suffused with the secret charm of the
Then, with age, in the more recent albums, closer to our time, this expression became muted and overlaid with a veil of melancholy and simplicity.
It was this woman, this Frenchwoman, lost in the snowy immensity of Russia, who had taught the others the words that bestowed beauty. My maternal grandmother â¦ She was born in France at the beginning of the century in the family of Norbert and Albertine Lemonnier. The mystery of the
was probably the first of the legends that enchanted our childhood. And these were also among the first words we heard in that language that my mother used, jokingly, to call “your grandmaternal tongue.”
One day I came upon a photo I should not have seenâ¦. I was spending my holidays with my grandmother in the town at the edge of the Russian steppe where she had been stranded after the war. A warm, slow summer dusk was drawing in and flooding the rooms with a mauve glow. This somewhat unearthly light fell upon the photos that I was examining before an open window, the oldest snapshots in our albums. The pictures spanned the historic watershed of the 1917 revolution; brought to life the era of the tsars; and, moreover, pierced the iron curtain, which was then almost impenetrable, transporting me at one moment to the precinct of a gothic cathedral and the next into the pathways of a garden where the precise geometry of the plants left me perplexed. I was plunging into our family prehistory.
Then suddenly this photo!
I saw it when, out of pure curiosity, I opened a large envelope that had been slipped between the last page and the cover. It was that inevitable batch of snapshots that have not been judged worthy to appear on the rough cardboard of the pages, landscapes that can no longer be identified, faces that evoke neither affection nor memories. One of those batches you always tell yourself you must sort through one day, to decide the fate of all these souls in tormentâ¦ .
It was in the midst of these unknown people and forgotten landscapes that I saw her, a young woman whose attire jarred oddly with the elegance of the people who appeared in the other photos. She was wearing a big dirty gray padded jacket and a man's
with the earflaps pulled down. As she posed, she was clasping to her breast a baby muffled up in a wool blanket.
“How did she slip in,” I wondered in amazement, “among all these men in tails and women in evening dress?” And all around her in other snapshots there were these majestic avenues, these colonnades, these Mediterranean vistas. Her presence was anachronistic, out of place, inexplicable. She seemed like an intruder in this family past, with a style of dress nowadays adopted only by the women who cleared snowdrifts from the roads in winterâ¦.
I had not heard my grandmother coming in. She placed her hand on my shoulder. I gave a start, then, showing her the photo, “Who is that woman I asked her.”
A brief flash of panic appeared in my grandmother's unfailingly calm eyes. In an almost nonchalant voice she asked me, “Which woman?”
We both fell silent, pricking up our ears. A bizarre rustling filled the room. My grandmother turned and cried out, it seemed to me, joyfully, “A death's-head! Look, a death's-head!”
I saw a large brown insect, a crepuscular hawkmoth, quivering as it tried to plunge into the illusory depths of the mirror. I rushed toward it, my hand outstretched, already feeling the tickling of its wings under my palm. It was then I noticed the unusual shape of this moth. I approached it and could not suppress a cry: “But there are two of them! They're Siamese twins.”
And indeed the two moths did seem to be attached to one another. And their bodies were animated with feverish trembling. To my surprise this double hawkmoth paid me no attention and did not try to escape. Before catching it I had time to observe the white marks on its back, the famous death's head.
We did not speak again about the woman in the padded jacketâ¦. I watched the flight of the liberated hawkmoth â in the sky it divided into two moths, and I understood, as a child of ten can understand, why they had been joined. Now my grandmother's disarray seemed to make sense.
The capture of the coupling hawkmoths brought to my mind two very old memories, the most mysterious of my childhood. The first, going back to when I was eight, was summed up in the words of an old song that my grandmother sometimes murmured rather than sang, sitting on her balcony, her head bowed over a garment on which she was darning the collar or reinforcing the buttons. It was the very last words of her song that plunged me into enchantment:
...We'd sleep together there
Till the world comes to an end.
This slumber of the two lovers, of such long duration, was beyond my childish comprehension. I already knew that people who died (like that old woman next door whose disappearance in winter had been so well explained to me) went to sleep forever. Like the lovers in the song? Love and death had now formed a strange alloy in my young head. And the melancholy beauty of the melody could only increase this unease. Love, death, beauty â¦ And the evening sky, the wind, the smell of the steppe that, thanks to the song, I perceived as if my life had just begun at that moment.
The second memory was so distant it could not be dated. There was not even a very precise “me” in its nebulousness. Just the intense sensation of light, the aromatic scent of plants, and silvery lines crossing the blue density of the air, which many years later I would identify as gossamer threads. Elusive and confused, this vision would
nevertheless be dear to me, for I would succeed in persuading myself that it was a memory from before birth. Yes, an echo sent to me by my French ancestry. For in one of my grandmother's stories I was to rediscover all the elements of this memory: the autumn sun of a journey she made to Provence, the scent of the fields of lavender, and even those gossamers floating in the perfumed air. I would never dare to speak to her of my childish prescience. It was in the course of the following summer that my sister and I one day saw our grandmother weep â¦ for the first time in our lives.
In our eyes she was a kind of just and benevolent deity, always true to form and perfectly serene. Her own life story, which had long since become a myth, placed her beyond the griefs of ordinary mortals. In fact we did not see any tears. Just an unhappy contraction of her lips, little tremors running across her cheeks, and a rapid batting of her eyelashesâ¦ .
We were sitting on the carpet, which was littered with bits of crumpled paper, and were absorbed in a fascinating game: taking out little pebbles that were wrapped in white “sweet papers” and comparing them â now a glitter of quartz, now a pebble, smooth and pleasant to the touch. On each paper were written names that we had, in our ignorance, taken for enigmatic mineralogical labels: FÃ©camp, La Rochelle, Bayonneâ¦ . In one of the wrappers we even discovered a rough and ferrous fragment, which bore traces of rust. We thought we were reading the name of this strange metal: “Verdun.” â¦ A number of pieces from this collection had been thus stripped bare. When our grandmother came in, the game had just begun to take a livelier course. We were quarreling over the most beautiful stones and testing their hardness by striking them one against another, sometimes breaking them. Those we found ugly â like the “Verdun,” for example â were thrown out of the window into a bed of dahlias. Several wrappers had been tornâ¦ .
Our grandmother froze above this battlefield scattered with white blisters. We looked up. It was then that her gray eyes seemed to be on the brink of tears â just enough to make it unbearable for us if she broke down.
No, she was not an impassive goddess, our grandmother. She
too, it seemed, could suffer unease, or sudden distress. We had always thought she moved in such a measured way through the peaceful sequence of days, yet she too sometimes hovered on the brink of tears!
From that summer onward my grandmother's life revealed new and unexpected facets to me. And above all, much more personal ones.
Previously her past had been summed up by a few talismans, a number of family relics, like the silk fan, which reminded me of a fine maple leaf, or the famous little “Pont-Neuf bag.” Our legend maintained that it had been found on the bridge in question by Charlotte Lemonnier, aged four at the time. Running ahead of her mother, the little girl had stopped suddenly and exclaimed, “A bag!” And more than half a century later, the muted echo of her ringing cry could still be heard in a town lost amid the endlessness of Russia, under the sun of the steppes. It was in this pigskin bag, with enamel plaques on the fastening, that my grandmother kept her collection of stones from days gone by.
This old handbag marked one of my grandmother's earliest memories, and for us, the genesis of the legendary world of her memory: Paris, the Pont-Neufâ¦ . An astonishing galaxy waiting to be born, which began to sketch its still hazy outlines before our fascinated gaze.
There was, besides, among these relics of the past (I remember the voluptuousness with which we caressed the smooth, gilded edges of those pink volumes,
Memoirs of a Poodle, Gribouille and His Sister
â¦ ), an even older testimony. The photo, already taken in Siberia; Albertine, Norbert, and â in front of them, on one of those artificial pieces of furniture that photographers always use, a kind of very tall pedestal table â Charlotte, a child of two, wearing a lacetrimmed bonnet and a doll's dress. This photo on thick cardboard, with the name of the photographer and replicas of the medals he had been awarded, intrigued us very much: “What does she have in common, this ravishing woman with her pure, fine face, framed in silky curls, with that old man, whose beard is divided into two rigid plaits that look like the tusks of a walrus?”
We already knew that this old man, our great-grandfather, was
twenty-six years older than Albertine. “It's as if he'd married his own daughter!” my sister said to me indignantly. Their marriage seemed to us ambiguous and unhealthy. All our textbooks at school were full of stories that told of marriages between girls without dowries and rich old men, miserly and hungry for youth, to such an extent that any other kind of conjugal alliance seemed to us impossible in bourgeois society. We strove to discover some malign viciousness in Norbert's features, a grimace of ill-concealed satisfaction. But his face remained simple and frank, like those of the intrepid explorers in the illustrations to our Jules Verne books. After all, this old man with a long white beard was only forty-eight at the timeâ¦ .
As for Albertine, supposed victim of bourgeois morality, she was soon to be standing on the slippery brink of an open grave into which the first spadefuls of earth were already flying. She would struggle so violently against the hands that restrained her and would utter such heartrending cries that even the funeral party of Russians, in that cemetery in a distant Siberian town, would be stunned by them. Accustomed as they were to tragic outbursts at funerals in their native land, to torrential tears and pitiful lamentations, these people would be stricken in the face of the tortured beauty of this young Frenchwoman. She would flail above the grave, crying out in her resonant language, “Throw me in as well! Throw me in!”
For a long time this terrible lament echoed in our childish ears.
“Perhaps it was because she â¦ she loved him,” my sister, who was older than me, said to me one day. And she blushed.
But more than that unusual union between Norbert and Albertine, it was Charlotte, in this photo from the turn of the century, who aroused my curiosity. Especially her little bare toes. By a simple irony of chance, or through some involuntary coquetry, she had curled them back tightly against the soles of her feet. This trifling detail conferred a special significance on what was overall a very ordinary photo. Not knowing how to formulate my thought, I contented myself with repeating in a dreamy voice, “This little girl who finds herself, heaven knows why, on this comical pedestal table, on that summer's day that has gone forever, July 22, 1905, right in the depths of Siberia. Yes, this tiny French girl, who was that day celebrating
her second birthday, this child, who is looking at the photographer and by an unconscious caprice curling up her incredibly small toes, in this way allows me to enter into that day, to taste its climate, its time, its colorâ¦ .”
And the mystery of this childish presence seemed to me so breathtaking that I would close my eyes.
This child was â¦ our grandmother. Yes, it was her, this woman whom we saw that evening, crouching down and silently gathering up the fragments of stone scattered over the carpet. Dumbfounded and sheepish, my sister and I stood with our backs to the wall, not daring to murmur a word of excuse nor to help our grandmother retrieve the scattered talismans. We guessed that in her lowered eyes tears were formingâ¦ .
On the evening of our sacrilegious game we no longer saw an old-fashioned good fairy before us, a storyteller with her Bluebeard or her Sleeping Beauty, but a woman hurt and vulnerable despite all her strength of spirit. For her it was that agonizing moment when suddenly the adult betrays herself, allows her weakness to appear, feels like a naked emperor under the penetrating gaze of the child. Now she is like a tightrope walker who has made a false move and who, off balance for several seconds, is sustained only by the gaze of the spectator, who is in turn embarrassed at having this unexpected powerâ¦ .
She closed the “Pont-Neuf bag,” took it into her room, then called us to the table. After a moment's silence she began to speak in French in a calm and steady voice, while pouring tea for us with her familiar gesture: “Among the stones you threw away there was one I should really like to get backâ¦ .”
And still in this neutral tone and still in French, even though at mealtimes (because of friends or neighbors who often dropped in unexpectedly) we generally spoke in Russian, she told us about the parade of the Grande ArmÃ©e and the story of the little brown pebble known as “Verdun.” We scarcely grasped the sense of her tale â it was her tone that held us in thrall. Our grandmother was addressing us like adults! All we saw was a handsome officer with a mustache emerging from the column of the victory parade, approaching a
young woman squeezed in the midst of an enthusiastic crowd, and offering her a little fragment of brown metalâ¦ .
After supper, armed with a flashlight, I vainly combed through the bed of dahlias in front of our apartment block: the “Verdun” was not there. I found it the following morning on the pavement, a little metallic pebble surrounded by several cigarette stubs, broken bottles, and streaks of sand. Under my gaze it seemed to stand out from these banal surroundings like a meteorite fallen from an unknown galaxy, which had almost disappeared amidst the gravel on a pathâ¦ .
Thus we guessed at our grandmother's hidden tears and sensed the existence in her heart of that distant French lover who had preceded our grandfather, Fyodor. Yes, a dashing officer from the Grande ArmÃ©e, the man who had slipped that rough splinter, the “Verdun,” into Charlotte's palm. This discovery made us uneasy. We felt bound to our grandmother by a secret to which possibly no one else in the family had access. Beyond the dates and anecdotes of family legend we could now hear life welling up, in all its sorrowful beauty.
That evening we joined our grandmother on the little balcony of her apartment. Covered in flowers, it seemed suspended above the hot haze of the steppes. A copper sun nudged the horizon, remained undecided for a moment, then plunged rapidly. The first stars trembled in the sky. Powerful, penetrating scents rose to us with the evening breeze.
We were silent. While the daylight lasted, our grandmother darned a blouse spread out on her knees. Then, when the air was impregnated with ultramarine shadow, she raised her head, abandoning her task, her gaze lost in the hazy distance of the plain. Not daring to break her silence, we cast furtive glances at her from time to time: was she going to share a new and even more secret confidence with us? or would she fetch her lamp with the turquoise shade, as if nothing had happened, and read us a few pages of Daudet or Jules Verne, who often kept us company on our long summer evenings? Without admitting it to ourselves, we were lying in wait for her first word, her intonation. Our suspense â the spectator's fascination with the tightrope walker â was a mixture of rather cruel curiosity and a
vague unease. We felt as if we were seeking to trap this woman who faced us alone.
However, she seemed not even to notice our tense presence. Her hands remained motionless in her lap; her gaze was lost in the transparency of the sky. The trace of a smile illuminated her lipsâ¦ .
Little by little we abandoned ourselves to this silence. Leaning over the handrail, we stared wide-eyed, trying to see as much sky as possible. The balcony reeled slightly, giving way under our feet, and began to float. The horizon drew closer, as if we were hurtling toward it across the night breeze.
It was above the line of the horizon that we discerned a pale reflection â it was like the sparkle of little waves on the surface of a river. Incredulous, we peered into the darkness that surged over our flying balcony. Yes, far away on the steppe there shone an expanse of water, rising, spreading the bitter cold of the great rains. The sheet seemed to be lightening steadily, with a dull, wintry glow.
Now we saw emerging from this fantastic tide the black masses of apartment blocks, the spires of cathedrals, the posts of street lamps â a city! Gigantic, harmonious despite the waters that flooded its avenues, a ghost city was emerging before our eyesâ¦ .
Suddenly we realized that someone had been talking to us for quite a while. Our grandmother was talking to us!
“At that time I must have been almost your age; it was the winter of 1910. The Seine had turned into a real sea. The people of Paris traveled round by boat. The streets were like rivers; the squares, like great lakes. And what astonished me most was the silenceâ¦ .”
On our balcony we heard the sleepy silence of flooded Paris. The lapping of a few waves when a boat went by, a muffled voice at the end of a drowned avenue.
The France of our grandmother, like a misty Atlantis, was emerging from the waves.
VEN THE PRESIDENT WAS REDUCED
to cold meals by it.”
This was the very first remark to ring out through the capital of our France-Atlantisâ¦ . We imagined a venerable old man â combining in his appearance the noble bearing of our great-grandfather Norbert and the pharaonic solemnity of a Stalin â an old man with a silvery beard, sitting at a table gloomily lit by a candle.
This news report came from a man of about forty with a lively eye and a resolute expression, who appeared in photos in our grandmother's oldest albums. Coming alongside the wall of an apartment block in a boat and putting up a ladder, he was climbing toward one of the first-floor windows. This was Vincent, Charlotte's uncle and a reporter for the
Since the start of the flood he had been working his way up and down the streets of the capital in this fashion, seeking out the key news item of the day. The president's cold meals was one such. And it was from Vincent's boat that the mind-boggling photo was taken that we were contemplating. It was on a yellowed press cutting: three men in a precarious little craft crossing a vast expanse of water flanked by apartment blocks. A caption explained: “Messieurs the deputies, on their way to a session of the AssemblÃ©e Nationale.” â¦
Vincent stepped over the windowsill and sprang into the arms of his sister, Albertine, and of Charlotte, who were taking refuge with him during their stay in Parisâ¦ . Atlantis, silent until now, was filling up with sounds, emotions, words. Each evening our grandmother's
stories uncovered some new fragment of this universe engulfed by time.
And then there was the hidden treasure. The suitcase filled with old papers, the massive bulk of which, when we had ventured under the big bed in Charlotte's room, alarmed us. We tugged on the catches, we lifted the lid. What a mass of paper! Adult life, in all its tedium and all its disturbing seriousness, stopped our breath with its smell of dust and things shut away â¦ How could we have guessed that it was in the midst of these old newspapers, these letters with inconceivable dates, that our grandmother would find us the photo of the three deputies in their boat? â¦
It was Vincent who had passed on to Charlotte the taste for such journalistic sketches and urged her to collect them by cutting these brief chronicles of the day out of the newspapers. After a time, he must have thought, they would be seen in quite a different light, like silver coins colored by the patina of centuries.
During one of those summer evenings filled with the scented breeze of the steppes, a remark from a passerby under our balcony jolted us out of our reverie.
“No, I promise you. They said it on the radio. He went out into space.”
And another voice, dubious, answered, receding into the distance, “Do you take me for a fool or what? âHe went out â¦' But up there there's nowhere you
go out. It's like bailing out of a plane without a parachuteâ¦ .”
This exchange brought us back to reality. All about us there stretched the huge empire that took a particular pride in the exploration of the unfathomable sky above our head. The empire with its redoubtable army; with its atomic icebreakers disemboweling the North Pole; with its factories that would soon be producing more steel than all the countries of the world put together; with its cornfields that rippled from the Black Sea to the Pacific â¦ with this endless steppe. And on our balcony a Frenchwoman was talking about a boat crossing a great flooded city and drawing alongside the wall of
an apartment blockâ¦ . We shook ourselves, trying to understand where we were. Here? Back there? The whispering of the waves in our ears fell silent.
It was by no means the first time we had noticed this duality in our lives. To live alongside our grandmother was already to feel you were elsewhere. She would cross the courtyard without ever going to take her place on the babushkas' bench, that institution without which a Russian courtyard is unthinkable. This did not stop her greeting them very cordially, inquiring after the health of one she had not seen for several days, and doing them little kindnesses, for example, showing them how to remove the slightly acid taste from salted milky mushrooms. But in addressing her friendly remarks to them, she remained standing. And the old gossips of the courtyard accepted this difference. Everyone understood that Charlotte was not entirely a Russian babushka.
This did not mean that she lived cut off from the world or that she clung to any social prejudice. Early in the morning we were often roused from our childish sleep by a sonorous cry that rang out in the midst of the courtyard: “Come and get your milk!” Through our dreams we recognized the voice and, above all, the inimitable intonation of Avdotia, the milkwoman, arriving from the neighboring village. The housewives came down with their cans toward two enormous aluminum containers that this vigorous peasant woman, some fifty years of age, dragged from one house to another. One day, awakened by her shout, I did not go back to sleepâ¦ . I heard our door close softly and muffled voices passing through into the dining room. A moment later one of them whispered with blissful abandon, “Oh, it's so cozy here, Shura! I feel as if I'm lying on a cloud.” Intrigued by these words, I peeped behind the curtain that separated off our bedroom.
Avdotia was stretched out on the floor, her arms and legs flung out, her eyes half closed. From her bare, dust-covered feet right up to her hair spread out upon the ground, her whole body lolled in deep repose. An absentminded smile colored her half-open lips. “It's so cozy here, Shura!” she repeated softly, calling my grandmother by
that diminutive that people generally used in place of her unusual Christian name.
I sensed the exhaustion of this great female body slumped in the middle of the dining room. I understood that Avdotia could only allow herself such a lack of constraint in my grandmother's apartment. For she was confident of not being snubbed or disapproved ofâ¦ . She would finish her grueling round, bent under the weight of the enormous churns. And when all the milk was gone she would go up to “Shura's,” her legs numb, her arms heavy. The floor, uncarpeted and always clean and bare, still had a pleasant morning coolness. Avdotia would come in, greet my grandmother, take off her bulky shoes, and go and stretch out on the bare floor. “Shura” brought her a glass of water and sat beside her on a little stool. And they would chat softly until Avdotia had the courage to continue on her wayâ¦ .
That day I heard some of what my grandmother was saying to the milkwoman as she sprawled in blissful oblivion. The two of them were talking about the work in the fields, the buckwheat harvestâ¦ . And I was amazed to hear Charlotte talking about this farm life with complete authority. But above all the Russian she spoke, very pure, very refined, did not jar at all with Avdotia's rich, rough, and vivid way of talking. Their conversation also touched on the war, an inevitable topic: the milkwoman's husband had been killed at the front. Harvest, buckwheat, Stalingrad â¦ And that evening she would be talking to us about Paris in flood, or reading us some pages from Hector Malot! I sensed a distant past, obscure â a Russian past, this time â awakening from the depths of her life long ago.
Avdotia got up, embraced my grandmother, and continued on her way, which led her across endless fields, beneath the sun of the steppes, on a farm wagon submerged in the ocean of tall plants and flowersâ¦.This time, as she was leaving the room, I saw her great peasant's fingers touch, with tentative hesitation, the delicate statuette on the chest in our hall: a nymph with a rippling body entwined with sinuous stems, that figurine from the turn of the century, one of the rare fragments from bygone days that had been miraculously preservedâ¦ .
Bizarre as it may seem, it was thanks to the local drunkard, Gavrilych, that we were able to gain insight into the meaning of that unusual “strange elsewhere” that our grandmother carried within her. He was a man whose very teetering silhouette, looming up from behind the poplar trees in the courtyard, inspired apprehension. A man who defied the militiamen when he held up the traffic in the main street with his capricious zigzag progress; a man who fulminated against the authorities; and whose thunderous oaths rattled windowpanes and swept the row of babushkas from their bench. Yet this same Gavrilych, when he met my grandmother, would stop, attempt to inhale the vodka fumes on his breath, and articulate with an accentuated respect, “Good day, Sharlota Norbertovna!”
Yes, he was the only person in the courtyard who called her by her French Christian name, albeit slightly Russified. What is more, he had got hold of Charlotte's father's name â no one knew any longer when, or how â and formed the exotic patronymic “Norbertovna,” on his lips the pinnacle of courtesy and eagerness to please. His cloudy eyes lit up, his giant's body recovered a relative equilibrium, his head sketched a series of somewhat uncoordinated nods, and he forced his alcohol-soaked tongue to perform this act of verbal acrobatics: “Are you well, Sharlota Norbertovna?”
My grandmother returned his greeting and even exchanged some thoughtful remarks with Gavrilych. On these occasions the courtyard had a very singular appearance: the babushkas, driven away by the tempestuous appearance onstage of the drunkard, took refuge on the steps of the great wooden house that faced our apartment block; the children hid behind the trees; at the windows one could see half-curious, half-frightened faces. And down in the arena our grandmother held conversation with a tamed Gavrilych. Nor was he by any means a fool. He had long since understood that his role went beyond drunkenness and scandal. He felt that he was in some way indispensable to the psychic well-being of the courtyard. Gavrilych had become a character, a type, a curiosity â the spokesman for that unpredictable and capricious fate so dear to Russian hearts. And suddenly there was this Frenchwoman with the calm gaze of her gray eyes, elegant despite the simplicity of her dress, slim, and so different
from the women of her generation, the babushkas, whom he had just driven from their perch.
One day, wanting to say something other than a simple “Good morning” to Charlotte, he gave a little cough into his great fist and rumbled, “So that's it, Sharlota Norbertovna, you're all alone here in our steppesâ¦ .”
It was thanks to this clumsy remark that I found it possible to picture (as up until then I had never done) my grandmother without us, in winter, alone in her room.
In Moscow or Leningrad everything would have turned out otherwise. The motley humanity of the big city would have eclipsed what was different about Charlotte. But she had found herself in this little Saranza, ideal for living out endless days, each like the last. Her past life remained intensely present to her, as if lived only yesterday.
She was Saranza: transfixed at the edge of the steppes in profound astonishment before the boundlessness that opened at its gates. Winding, dusty streets that constantly climbed up hillsides; wooden fences beneath the greenery of gardens. Sun, sleepy vistas. And passersby who, appearing at the end of a street, seemed to be perpetually approaching without ever drawing level with you.
My grandmother's building was situated at the edge of the town in the “Western Glade” district: a coincidence (West EuropeâFrance) that amused us greatly. According to the plan of an ambitious governor, this three-story apartment block, built in the second decade of the century, was intended to inaugurate a whole avenue bearing the imprint of the modern style. Yes, the building was a faint replica of the fashion of the turn of the century. It was as if all the sinuosities, twists, and curves of that architecture had flowed in a stream from its European source and, diluted and partly effaced, had reached the depths of Russia. And in the icy wind of the steppes this flow had become frozen into an apartment block with strange oval bull's-eye windows and ornamental rose stems around the doorwaysâ¦ . The enlightened governor's scheme had foundered. The October Revolution put a stop to all these decadent tendencies of bourgeois art. And this building â a narrow segment of the dreamed-of avenue â
had remained the only one of its kind. Indeed, after many repairs, it retained only a shadow of its original style. It was in particular the official campaign of struggle against “architectual excesses,” which we had witnessed as young children, that had dealt it the death blow. All of it seemed “excessive”: workmen had torn off the rose stems, condemned the bull's-eye windowsâ¦ . And, as there are always individuals who want to make a show of their zeal (it is thanks to them that campaigns really succeed), the downstairs neighbor had excelled himself in detaching the most flagrant architectural superfluity from the wall: the faces of two pretty bacchantes, who had exchanged melancholy smiles on each side of our grandmother's balcony. To achieve this, he must have performed feats of great daring, standing up on his own windowsill with a long steel tool in his hand. The two faces, one after the other, had come unstuck from the wall and had fallen to the ground. One of them had shattered into a thousand fragments on the asphalt; the other, following a different trajectory, had hurtled into the dense vegetation of the dahlias, which had broken its fall. We had recovered it at dusk and carried it home. Henceforward, during our long summer evenings on the balcony this stone face, with its faded smile and its tender eyes, would gaze at us from among the pots of flowers and seem to listen to Charlotte's stories.
On the other side of the courtyard, overhung with the foliage of lime and poplar trees, stood a large two-story wooden house, quite black with age, with little dark, suspicious windows. It was this and its fellows that the governor had wanted to replace with the graceful lightness of the modern style. In this structure, two centuries old, lived the most picturesque of the babushkas, straight out of fairy tales with their thick shawls, their deathly pale faces, their bony, almost blue hands resting on their knees. When we had occasion to enter this dark dwelling, the bitter, heavy, but not totally unpleasant smell that hung in the cluttered corridors always caught in my throat. It was that of the old life, dark and very primitive in the way it welcomed death, birth, love, and grief. A kind of oppressive climate, but filled with a strange vitality, and in any case the only one that would have suited the inhabitants of this enormous
The breath of Russia â¦
Inside it we were astonished by the number and the asymmetry of the doors that opened onto rooms plunged in smoky shadow. I sensed, almost physically, the carnal density of the lives that intermingled here.
Gavrilych lived in the cellar, which three families shared with him. The narrow window of his room was located at ground level, and when spring came, it was obstructed by wild plants. The babushkas, sitting on their bench a few yards away, would cast anxious glances at it from time to time â it was not uncommon to see the broad face of the “scandalizer” between the stems at the open window. His head looked as if it were rising out of the earth. But at these moments of contemplation Gavrilych always remained calm. He would tip his face backwards, as if he wanted to glimpse the sky and the brilliance of the sunset in the branches of the poplar treesâ¦ . One day, making our way right up to the loft of this great black
underneath its roof, warmed by the sun, we pushed open the heavy shutter of a skylight. On the horizon a terrifying fire was setting the steppe ablaze: the smoke was soon going to eclipse the sunâ¦ .