Friday, April 25, 2008

A Strain for the Tsarina

The following is what happens when you ought to be working on your novel but have found a dictionary of anagrams. (The eagle-eyed reader who counts them all will win a PRIZE!*)

The aspen shook beyond the window panes, and the tsarina waited for the artisan to speak. The man had ridden hard: his back was hurting, his disks on the skids. She watched him eat, crumbs of bread clinging to his beard. At last, the survivor spoke:

‘The raid took place on an arid plain. Natives, angered and enraged, surrounded our wagons. Injustice will bestir tribes, making them biters. Caprese by birth, I am a good escaper. Besides, I’d had the foresight not to overlook that gift-horse. Alas, your notaries, Senorita, did not survive an onrush of Hurons.’

Of the goring of gringos and men who grinned while rending, the artisan said nothing. He would never forget the Flemish himself, nor the pianists cut down, visceral matter sprayed across their claviers.

The tsarina looked at her fellow exiles among the ilexes. She understood that she was ruined yet felt inured to it, knowing that none would come to her aid. ‘Ida!’ she called and her maid entered, the enigma of the gamine altered since last the artisan saw her. ‘This gentleman is our guest,’ the tsarina related. ‘He shall dine with Enid: her appetite has returned since she recovered from the seaside disease.’

Enid, though Parsi, had been raised in Paris and had the ripest esprit for a girl from Kabul. Many might baulk at the prospect, yet the artisan thanked the tsarina, and she in turn ogled him as he withdrew to the lodge.

Left alone with her thoughts, she considered what she had lost. As a girl she had been introduced to Gladstone (like many premiers, he was a simperer) and Queen Victoria herself, who used to eruct in the cruet, and silenced her critics with a regal glare. She recalled how the Tsar, who kept rats, spoke in senescent sentences. How she’d wished he’d keep stum on that smut! And there was that time in Greece, where he had grown nastier on retsina than she had ever known him.

Travel had been her consolation. She remembered Strauss played in Tarsus, tsarist artists playing sittars, an amateur production of Tosca in Ascot. Resident on the Dniester, she had seen priests exorcising sprites. Other incidents came to mind: Seneca summoned in a séance, genial louts from Ealing in the lotus position, how the evening sky reddens in Dresden… Life had been easy with the finest hotels in Europe to receive them! Then, the absence of a bidet had gone on the debit side; now she emptied her entrails above ignoble latrines. She remembered the dormitory she had stayed in upon arrival in the States – a dirty room – and the midwinter weather: wind, rime, wet earth.

The tsarina sighed, recalling New York and the hounds howling over the Hudson, the doorbells of bordellos, the abysmal and balsamy heat of summer. She was a prude, perdu among the American main race: the bathing girls in slight garb, cleanliness at best, all niceness; yet not for her.

Night waned; a bobolink greeted the dawning, and the tsarina could barely keep her bleary eyes open. Fastening her mantel, she refused to lament. The Russian noblesse was not boneless! What options remained to her? Should she marry the artist, Evelyn, who painted evenly those Etruscan centaurs? Or Graham from Armagh, who travelled the world selling enemas to seamen? Ought she to work for R. Ewing (that winger!), the itchiest ethicist in America, who once invited Mahler to Harlem? No: all of them were anodyne and annoyed her. Instead, she would write for a living. Would her subject matter be Classical or Biblical in inspiration? Jason or Jonas? Let her rather tell her own story. Forget those Slavic cavils! Her throne was lost, she had no crones to censor her. She would write her confessions: no fantasy for morose Romeos, nor filth for the midden-minded, but the nostalgia of an analogist, rousing not souring the spirit: a schematic catechism of all she believed in, a literary refuge and mensurable lebensraum for those she had loved and lost for ever.

(* Not applicable to readers of this blog.)


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