Frustrated by his lack of access to a piano, Igor fingers a dummy keyboard in his hotel room in Paris. Reduced to silence, he sits on the floor with the keyboard ranged across his lap. His feet press at nonexistent pedals. His youngest son, the ten-year-old Soulima, sits next to him, fascinated by the odd bridges his father’s hands make as they noiselessly span the keys.
“Can I have a go now?”
“Not yet. I haven’t finished.”
“When will you finish?”
“Why don’t you watch and try to get the pitch?”
Soulima accepts the challenge. He hums along, his voice approximating the modulations in tone signaled by Igor’s fingers. His voice cracks as he reaches the upper notes.
Igor laughs. “That’s pretty good.”
“Now can I have a go?”
Igor ruffles his son’s hair. “All right.”
He loves the boy, his big guileless eyes and little upturned nose. Motioning him to sit on his lap, he supports the keyboard with his knees. He notices how Soulima has inherited his long fingers, delicate and fine; not stubby like his brother’s. His hair is thicker and his eyes darker than Theodore’s, and he is, Igor recognizes, by far the more handsome boy.
“Try leaving your right hand in the same place and changing the harmonies with your left. That’s it.”
Watching him practice, Igor imagines the sounds generated by the pressure on the keys. That pattern of black and white.
He has felt, in his three years of exile following the Revolution—and in the two years since the end of the war—a quickening sympathy for the black keys in particular. They exist at an angle to the white notes, giving them a healthful tweak. Like these black notes, he, too, has experienced a kind of otherness. They feel like he does, slightly off center, as though the world has tilted ten degrees.
Russia has been violently tilted and he has been displaced, together with thousands of fellow refugees, by the inexorable slide westward. Now he and his family are crammed into two small bedrooms of a modest Parisian hotel. And they manage thanks only to the generosity of patrons and the meager receipts from occasional concerts and published scores.
In Switzerland when hostilities broke out, Igor had lost everything: his money, his land, and—most precious of all—his language. Denied the dignity of saying good-bye to friends, refused the opportunity of gathering personal belongings, he has yet to come to terms with his loss in any meaningful way. With the ground so cruelly pulled from under him, it still feels as if he’s falling.
Catherine, his wife, has been unwell since their enforced exile. Their two sons and two daughters are growing up stateless. But while it is true that their lives are unstable, Igor consoles himself with the thought that the family is now more close-knit than ever before. They’ve learned to be self-reliant, to trust each other utterly. Never in one place long enough to establish roots or make new friends, the brothers and sisters have quickly become one another’s best friends. And, stripped of the support of an extended family, their parents’ marriage has become the one fixed star in an uncertain universe.
“How long are we going to stay here, Papa?”
“Until we find something better.”
“How long will that be?”
“I don’t know yet. Not that long probably.”
“I don’t like it here. I want my own room.”
“Well, we all have to share. You know that.”
“I don’t like being in the same room as Milène. She talks in her sleep and keeps me awake, and she’s always pinching me!”
“Well, it’s hard for her, too.”
“Would we be killed if we went back?”
“ ‘I don’t think so. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“They killed the czar and his children, didn’t they?”
“It’ll be summer soon. Things will be easier then. You’ll see.” It is a statement made more out of hope than conviction. Guilt seizes him. He senses Soulima’s fingers press more strenuously upon the keys.
Igor adores his children. He admires their resilience, the way they’ve coped with everything that has been thrown at them, the way they just get on. For him, though, the need to escape has taken on the quality of a contagion. Having fled his homeland, he feels impelled to keep moving. He experiences it as an itch. There’s a momentum now within his bones that wants to fling him on. And because there’s no longer a place he thinks of as home, he relishes that sense of elsewhere, however remote and obscure. To remain in one place too long generates an acute sense of restlessness within him. He longs for the perpetual motion of the truly free—the frictionless existence.
He feels imprisoned here. Living in such cramped conditions has strained as well as strengthened family relations. He longs for more time and space in which to compose. He’s done some fine things in recent years. The Nightingale was well received, and The Soldier’s Tale, but he’s lacked financial backing. He needs a structure to his life, some kind of support. At the moment, he finds the two givens of his existence—his family and his work—slide against each other like continental plates. Inevitably fault lines have appeared, causing the odd division between the children and their parents and local eruptions between the parents themselves. Quick-tempered, he recognizes that he can get upset for no reason. And then he feels angry with himself for taking it out on the ones he loves.
He prays each night for a change in their fortunes, for a new turn in their luck. Meanwhile, he awaits news from Diaghilev on future funding for his projects. A couple of new commissions would do the trick, would bring in some revenue and allow them to live more comfortably. Now, though, pressing soundlessly at the keys, he guides Soulima’s trusting hands in runs along the board.
This, he reflects, could be the way he’ll spend the rest of his life. A faint shudder runs through him at the prospect of teaching counterpoint to bored housewives and adolescent boys.
Soulima ceases playing. They both stop to listen as the room is wrapped in a high-pitched hum. The rain that has been falling all day has suddenly become torrential. They can hear it drumming in the gutters. With his son, he moves close to the open window. Stray droplets leak through, touching their hands and faces, spotting the marble floor. He places first his palms then his brow against the cool of the glass.
He remembers as a young boy blowing on a five-kopeck piece and holding it to the frost-covered window until the heat of the coin melted through to a view of the world outside. And for a moment in his head a vanished world revives. As if glimpsed through a peephole, his childhood is revealed: promenades down the Nevsky Prospekt, sleighs drawn by elks, and light from a porcelain stove in a corner of his old room. As if on a miniature stage, there is St. Petersburg, the city of his birth: the Admiralty’s spire and the Maryinsky Theater with its dome and perfumed interior. It all comes back to him. Fragments catch and gain a shape, like the bits of scenery he used to see transported to the theater down the Krukov Canal. And with these privileged glimpses drift the smell of tar, the odor of wet fur from his hood, and the distinctive fragrance of Mahorka tobacco lingering on the streets. Accompanying these smells, and overwhelming them, are the city’s sounds: the clangor of streetcars, the cry of vendors, the awkward rhythms of hooped wheels on cobbles, and the sudden crack of a whip.
Abruptly thunder shakes the room. Igor feels the window shudder against his forehead. In an instant the peephole closes over. The odors fade, the rhythms recede, and with a start he remembers where he is: in a cheap hotel, in exile with his family, his breath in this cold room clouding the glass.
Catherine emerges from the bedroom and hands Igor a musical manuscript, heavily annotated.
“How was it?”
“I’ve written it all down.”
He looks at her quizzically.
“It was good.”
“It’s too controlled,” she concedes. “It needs more energy. Passion.”
He flicks through the pages, reading some of her comments and looks up, a little hurt.
“You want me to be honest, don’t you?”
“Nothing gets past you, does it?”
“I’m hun-gry,” Soulima complains.
Rain falls like the long train of a mauve gown over Paris and its environs. The city is infused with an odor of damp. Streetlights shed vague halos on the pavement. Into one of these pools of light steps Igor, shaking out the wings of his umbrella.
He arrives with customary precision on the dot of eight o’clock. He apologizes to Diaghilev on behalf of his wife, who cannot attend owing to ill health. The damp weather is doing her no good, he says, and the little one, Milène, is sick at the moment, too.
By contrast, Igor feels galvanized by the downpour. The spring rain always does this to him—that sense of renewal and the impression, irresistible amid fresh blossoms and the scent of lengthening grass, of things simmering away. He wipes spots of rain from his spectacles and pushes his hair back with his hand.
“To take away the chill . . . ,” Diaghilev offers, pouring him a glass of wine.
“Thank you,” he says, putting his handkerchief away.
The guests tonight are mostly émigré artists associated with the Ballets Russes. Also present are José-Maria Sert, a Catalan painter, and his French wife, Misia. A man of seignorial charms and passions, Sert comes over and pumps Igor’s hand. “Good to see you again.” His mouth opens a gap within his beard.
“Likewise,” Igor says.
Misia approaches. An inveterate socialite, her combination of wealth and beauty has made her as influential as she is distrusted in artistic circles. Despised by many as a treacherous meddler, she has always been good to Igor, helping him through the lean months following his exile. They greet each other with respect as well as a faint wariness. She receives his kiss with a little hint of the proprietorial. He bestows it with the courtesy of a subject introduced to his queen.
“I see your husband is here,” Igor says.
“Which one?” she asks, laughing.
Coco arrives an hour late, just as they are about to eat. Her tardiness is compounded by the fact that, of all the guests, she has the least distance to travel. The rue Cambon, where she lives, runs parallel to the rue Castiglione, where Diaghilev is staying. She apologizes with a flourish and in rapid French that Igor has trouble following. She dismissed the driver early, she says, intending to walk, but then the weather was terrible, so she waited for it to let up, but of course it never did. She shrugs winningly and is forgiven. A maid takes her hat and coat. Her hair matches the blackness of the dress she has on.
Old friends, Coco and Misia exchange sisterly kisses. Diaghilev gives her a hug. They met the previous summer in Venice through the Serts.
“Delighted you could make it.” For a stout man, his voice, Coco is reminded, is pitched surprisingly high.
He has put on weight, she notices, since she saw him last. His fingers are plump around his several rings. A lush double chin rests on his necktie, which is fastened at the throat with a fat black pearl. As he bends low to kiss her fingers, she sees again the white streak that runs like a flaw through his dark hair.
He proposes they postpone the meal while Coco dries herself. But she will have none of it.
“At least accept a towel for your face and hands.”
Blinking, she dabs at her pinkened face and rubs her hands vigorously. While she does so, Diaghilev introduces her to the rest of the guests. “I’d like those of you who don’t know her already to meet Gabrielle Chanel. She designs the most exquisite clothes.”
“You’re too kind.”
She feels nervous among this gathering of talent. A certain entrepreneurial verve, though, makes her seem animated and vibrant.
“And what can you tell us of the latest fashions?” Diaghilev asks, offering her an entrée into the conversation.
“Hemlines are going up, and waistlines coming down,” she says, hitching up her knitted skirt.
“Let’s hope the two soon meet,” says José, winning a dig in the ribs from Misia and drawing a chorus of laughter from everyone else.
Coco is seated opposite Igor, who rises to shake hands over the table. She’s an attractive black-haired woman, he notices, with carbon-dark eyebrows, a wide mouth, and a little tipped-up nose. He feels, as their palms make contact, a low current shoot through his body. His fingers tingle, having experienced a mild electric shock. He gazes first at his charged hand and then at Coco in astonishment. It’s from rubbing her hands on that towel, he thinks.
Coco sees him recoil a little and wonders if he’s fooling. She regards him quizzically. Her first impression is of a man trying too hard to appear bohemian. She finds his neckerchief comically debonair. The cigarette holder seems a dandyish accessory, as does the monocle he has just put on.
“I see your name everywhere,” he says, reestablishing his grip on her hand.
“And I never stop hearing yours.”
He’s as short as she remembers him from seven years earlier, though a little balder perhaps. Close up, she notices his teeth are bad, and his smile is tight-lipped to conceal the fact. But she notes with admiration his large hands and broad knuckles, his long clean manicured fingers. He has the scrubbed white hands of a clinician—in contrast to her own, which have been coarsened by years of sewing.
With perfect courtesy, Igor presses her fingers to his lips. They stare at one another for a moment, the way strangers do on the Métro. Her smile chases him around the table. She senses his reluctance to release her hand. Embarrassed, she gasps, “This looks fabulous.”
Between them, the table is prepared for a feast. Each place is laid deep in silver cutlery. At both ends of the table huddle flasks of vodka and carafes of wine. Whiskey decanters in the shape of the Kremlin make their own bronze square in the center of the table.
Two maids bring in the food. Glistening hams, salads, salvers of caviar, Black Sea oysters, mushrooms, and sword-fish are unveiled. Igor cracks his fingers, stretching them as though about to launch into a demanding piano solo.
Candlelight fills the tables. Conversations are struck up. The talk is of music, opera, ballet, and the day-to-day gossip concerning the arts. Diaghilev reminds the company how Igor was arrested recently for urinating against a wall.
“Well, it was Naples!” Igor says, in his defense.
Diaghilev adds, “And what about the time you were arrested on the Italian border during the war?”
Coco asks, “You were arrested again?”
“The man’s a common criminal!”
“Really, Serge, your guests will form a very dim opinion of me.”
But he tells the story. While searching his luggage, the guards had found a strange drawing. Igor claimed it was a portrait by Picasso, but the guards refused to believe it. All those squiggly lines—they’d never seen anything like it before. Instead they concluded the sketch must be a secret military blueprint or a coded invasion plan.
“You’re obviously very dangerous,” Coco says.
“They let me go eventually, and the portrait was sent on later.” He takes a long swallow of wine.
“It must be worth a lot now,” she says.
Igor purses his lips and makes a so-so gesture with his hand. All this, he knows, is a prelude to the real reason Diaghilev has assembled his guests tonight: his wish to revive The Rite again early next year—eight years after its initial succès de scandale. The plan is revealed between courses. Diaghilev expresses a hope that the ballet might enjoy a longer run this time. But there is a desperate lack of funding, he says, and the prospects do not look good. They need sponsors badly, he goes on. There seems something urgent now about the evening and his hospitality.
Coco notices Igor grow suddenly despondent. Discussion of The Rite provides an overture to his woes. He’s thinking back with a shudder to that riotous first night. Some critics have since declared his music emptily avant-garde. As a victim of Bolshevism, he has a horror of being called revolutionary, even in the arts. The epithet leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. Others, meanwhile, already consider his music reactionary and bourgeois. He can’t win. No one seems willing to back a revival. Worse, his wife is ill, his children growing up in exile, and his mother languishing in Russia having been refused a visa. Moreover, the Communists have confiscated his property, and all his savings have been seized.
Watching him and knowing something of his predicament from Misia, Coco realizes his dandyism is an act. It masks a deep sense of insecurity and a profound sense of loss. Loss of state and selfhood. The man is clinging on, she thinks.
It is Coco who proposes the toast. Extending her glass with casual vehemence to Igor, she says, “To The Rite!”
Solemnly they all raise their glasses: “The Rite.”
For a second, Coco dominates the space around her. The glasses, chinked, vibrate like the drawn-out note of a tuning fork, slow in dying and returning infinitely to the same true ringing note.
There’s a moment’s silence after they drink. Then Igor becomes conscious of voices recombining around him, conversations rushing in to fill the void. He puts a few stripped fish bones onto a separate plate.
“I was there, you know,” Coco says.
Almost whispering, “In the audience, the first night of The Rite.” Suddenly the candle between them seems the only light there is.
She recalls that explosive night in the theater seven years before, and the savage rhythms that made her feel as if her insides were being pulled out. It’s hard to believe she’s sitting here now with the man responsible for all that.
“Really? That’s extraordinary.” Igor winces. A wave of self-loathing sweeps over him. Another witness to his shame.
“I remember it vividly.”
Bitterly, “Me, too.”
Overhearing, Diaghilev adds, “Come on, it was the best thing that could have happened.”
“It didn’t seem so at the time.”
Coco says, “We both survived, at least.”
There’s more than a touch of the gamine about this woman, Igor decides. The insolence with which she shoots oysters into her mouth. He’s reminded of the heroines in Charlie Chaplin’s films. She has that southern temperament, loquacious and fiery. And there’s a residual coarseness about her, too, that a late effort of breeding has softened into something fine and vital. Her mouth is wide and expressive. Her skin sparkles, vibrantly alive.
He can’t keep his eyes off her, and she knows it. Yet he barely registers what she says. It’s partly that he’s drunk too much. But there’s something else besides. They are both aware that something subtle and wonderful is going on. There’s a warping of the air between them, a distortion of the usual boundaries that outline figures and make them distinct. They share a rare attentiveness, a depth of connection, a complementary reaching out. It lasts only a few seconds, but both are sensitive to a strange pull within them. At its simplest, it’s a longing to be happy, and in the sympathetic tilt of their heads they each seek an answering happiness.
“To The Rite,” Coco says again, this time only to Igor. She feels the champagne ripple deliciously like a melted icicle down her throat.
She does not address him again directly throughout the rest of the meal. Or even afterward as they relax at the table with cigarettes. She does not need to. For every incidental remark, every gesture she makes, each gleam of her eyes is meant for him alone. Her whole being dances silently in front of him in a language beyond words.
Looking at her shining hair, her dark eyes and vivid lips, Igor feels something rise from within as if to swallow him. The pearls around her neck glimmer milkily. And there’s a wickedness in her that twists her whole face sideways when she smiles.
He feels a heat in being near her. A taste of something burned enters his mouth.
“The clay was warm the day God made her,” Igor says.
Alone with Diaghilev after dinner, he experiences that familiar sense of light-headedness he gets whenever he is drunk or inspired. The image of Coco smolders in his memory. Its heat generates the softness of a mold, merging with the warmth of alcohol in his stomach.
Diaghilev pours two brandies and draws two fat cigars from a tin. He hands one of each to Igor. “She may not be from the best stock, but she’s rich, Igor. Rich,” he confides with a smile. “Can’t you just smell the money?” He runs his nose luxuriously along one side of his cigar.
“What do you mean, not from the best stock?” Choosing to stand, Igor twists his brandy in slow circles below his waist.
“Well, she was born illegitimate—though she’ll never admit it. Her father was an itinerant peddler . . .”
“I’m sure I heard her say he owned horses. I presumed he ran a stable.”
“And she went to an orphanage run by nuns after her mother’s death—though the word ‘orphanage’ never passes her lips . . .”
“Rumor has it”—Diaghilev’s voice lowers as he goes on—“she even pays off her brothers to pretend they don’t exist.”
“No.” Igor feels the brandy burn a hole in his solar plexus.
With a shrug: “She’s a seamstress. She likes to embroider.”
Cigar in hand, Diaghilev strokes with a bent forefinger the furrow below his nose. “I suppose she’s needed to be ruthless to succeed.”
“I still don’t understand how she became so wealthy, though.”
“She had men who kept her for a while, I think—most of them, I believe, in the Tenth Light Cavalry! Then she started making her own hats and clothes, gathering a few clients. Eventually she opened a small shop. And when the war came along, all the male designers were drafted into the army and most of them were killed.”
“So she was able to mop up?”
Cigar smoke issues in a cloud from Igor’s mouth. “She was lucky, then.”
“She’s talented. She works hard, too. And now she has clients like the Duchess of York and the Princesse de Polignac and employs upwards of three hundred staff in Paris, Biarritz, Deauville . . .” Rubbing the thumb and index finger of his right hand together, Diaghilev continues, “She’s loaded, with no one to spend it on. And she’s desperate to be accepted.” He looks for Igor to complete the logic of his thoughts.
“You think she’d finance the revival?”
Satisfied, Diaghilev relaxes. He sits back and draws deeply on his cigar. “She might. She just might.” He removes a bit of tobacco from his lip. “She can certainly afford it. The whole of society is clamoring for her clothes.”
“So I gather.”
“Half of her staff these days are émigrés. You might know some of them.”
Suddenly wary, Igor says, “I’m not willing to humiliate myself.”
“My dear boy, nobody’s asking you to.” Diaghilev gives him a trusting look.
Reassured: “She’s a remarkable woman.”
“Indeed she is.”
“And she’s not married, you say?”
“She’s a modern woman in every respect.”
“I’m not sure I approve.”
“I’m not even sure I know what it means.”
“It means she’s rich and single, for a start.”
“What are you suggesting?”
Diaghilev holds his hands up. “Nothing, old boy. I swear it.”
With a decisive movement they both finish their drinks and stab the last of their cigars into an ashtray.
Igor shakes his head. “I must go,” he says, straightening. “Thanks for a marvelous evening.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s not been wasted.”
As he pulls on his coat and scarf, Igor adds, serious for a moment, “As always, I appreciate your help.”
Diaghilev nods and says, “Give my love to Catherine and the children.”
“And I’ll let you know if there’s any news.”
“Yes, do.” Embracing, they pat each other warmly on the back.
After closing the door, Diaghilev sighs and shakes his head, then pours himself another drink.
Outside it has stopped raining. The streets are damp from the departed shower. Igor pulls his collar up close around his neck. The fresh air seems to revive him. He feels as if he could walk for miles. Tapping his umbrella on the pavement, he walks back smartly toward his hotel. The sound echoes on the cobbled streets, beating time.
Half an hour later, Igor slips into bed next to his wife. In the humidity of sleep, Catherine’s body smells faintly rank. Her face has taken on wrinkles from the pillow. Squiggles of hair are plastered to her brow. She’s in the throes of another night sweat. And he knows, if touched, she would feel hot. But he does not touch her; nor does he wish to particularly. His body is still vibrating with the charge from Coco’s hand.
Lying there, he feels as if he could stay awake forever. His eyes remain open, staring upward. The heat of the brandy still lingers on his tongue. Around him the temperature seems to have risen.
Something deep within him sways.