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The Dream Journey
He travelled. She travelled. But they did not travel; never again. She visited him at his estate, she swam in his pond - "the Undine of Saint Petersburg" he called her - and when she left he named the room in which she had slept after her. He kissed her hands, he kissed her feet. They met, they corresponded until his death, after which she protected his memory from vulgar interpretation. But thirty miles was all they travelled together.
They could have travelled. If only... if only.
But he was a connoisseur of the if-only, and so they did travel. They travelled in the past conditional.
She was about to marry for the second time. NN Vsevolozhsky, officer of hussars, clank, clank. When she asked his opinion of her choice, he declined to play. "It is too late to ask for my opinion. Le vin est tiré - il faut le boire." Was she asking him, artist to artist, for his view of the conventional marriage she was about to make to a man with whom she had little in common? Or was it more than this? Was she proposing her own if-only, asking him to sanction the jilting of her fiancé?
But Grandpa, who himself had never married, declines either to sanction or applaud. Le vin est tiré - il faut le boire. Does he have a habit of lapsing into foreign phrases at key emotional moments? Do French and Italian provide the suave euphemisms which help him evade?
Of course, if he had encouraged a late withdrawal from her second marriage, that would have let in too much reality, let in the present tense. He closes it off: drink the wine. This instruction given, fantasy can resume. In his next letter, twenty days later, he writes, "For my part, I am dreaming about how good it would be to travel about - just the two of us - for at least a month, and in such a way that no one would know who or where we were."
It is a normal dream of escape. Alone together, anonymous, time on one's hands. It is also, of course, a honeymoon. And where would the sophisticated artistic class go for their honeymoon if not to Italy? "Just imagine the following picture," he teases. "Venice (perhaps in October, the best month in Italy) or Rome. Two foreigners in travelling clothes - one tall, clumsy, white-haired, long-legged, but very contented; the other a slender lady with remarkable dark eyes and black hair. Let us suppose her contented as well. They walk about the town, ride in gondolas. They visit galleries, churches, and so on, they dine together in the evening, they are at the theatre together - and then? There my imagination stops respectfully. Is it in order to conceal something, or because there is nothing to conceal?"
Did his imagination stop respectfully? Ours doesn't. It seems pretty plain to us in our subsequent century. A crumbling gentleman in a crumbling city on a surrogate honeymoon with a young actress. The gondoliers are splish-sploshing them back to their hotel after an intimate supper, the soundtrack is operetta, and we need to be told what happens next? We are not talking about reality, so the feebleness of elderly, alcohol-weakened flesh is not an issue; we are very safely in the conditional tense, with the travelling rug tucked round us. So... if only... if only... then you would have fucked her, wouldn't you? No denying it.
Elaborating the Venice honeymoon fantasy with a woman still between husbands has its dangers. Of course, you have again renounced her, so there is small risk that by exciting her imagination you might find her outside your front door one morning, perched on a travelling trunk and coyly fanning herself with her passport. No: the more real danger is of pain. Renunciation means the avoidance of love, and hence of pain, but even in this avoidance there are traps. There is pain to be had, for instance, in the comparison between the Venetian capriccio of your respectful imagination and the impending reality of her getting disrespectfully fucked on her actual honeymoon by an officer of hussars, NN Vsevolozhsky, who is as unfamiliar with the Accademia as he is with the unreliabilities of the flesh.
What heals pain? Time, the old wiseacres respond. You know better. You are wise enough to know that time does not always heal pain. The conventional image of the amatory bonfire, the eyeball-drying flame which dies to sad ashes, needs adjusting. Try instead a hissing gas-jet that scorches if you will but also does worse: it gives light, jaundicing, flat-shadowed and remorseless, the sort of light that catches an old man on a provincial platform as the train pulls out, a valetudinarian who watches a yellow window and a twitching hand withdraw from his life, who walks after the train a few paces as it curves into invisibility, who fixes his eye upon the red lamp of the guard's wagon, holds on that until it is less than a ruby planet in the night sky, then turns away and finds himself still beneath a platform lamp, alone, with nothing to do except wait out the hours in a musty hotel, convincing himself he has won while knowing truly that he has lost, filling his sleeplessness with cosy if-onlies, and then return to the station and stand alone once more, in a kinder light but to make a crueller journey, back along those thirty miles he had travelled with her the previous night. The passage from Mtsensk to Oryol, which he will commemorate for the rest of his life, is always shadowed by that unrecorded return from Oryol to Mtsensk.
So he proposes a second dream journey, again to Italy. By now she is married, a change of status that is not an interesting subject for discussion. Drink the wine. She is going to Italy, perhaps with her husband, though travelling companions are not inquired after. He approves the journey, if only because it lets him offer her an alternative; not a rivalrous honeymoon this time, but a trip back in the painless past conditional. "I spent ten of the most delightful days in Florence, many, many years ago." This use of time anaesthetises pain. It was so many, many years ago that he was then "still under forty" - before the basis for life became renunciation. "Florence left on me the most fascinating and poetic impression - even though I was there alone. What it would have been like, had I been in the company of a woman who was understanding, good and beautiful - that above all!"
This is safe. The fantasy is manageable, his gift a false memory. A few decades later, the political leaders of his country would specialise in airbrushing the downfallen from history, in removing their photographic traces. Now here he is, bent over his album of memories, meticulously inserting the figure of a past companion. Paste it in, that photograph of the timid, appealing Verochka, while the lamplight rejuvenates your white hair into black shadow.
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