A wild, erotic novel—a daring debut—from the much-admired, award-winning poet, author of Flying Inland, A History of Yearning, and With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, and Others. A strange, haunting novel about survival and love in all its forms; about sexual awakenings and dark secrets; about European refugee intellectuals who have fled Hitler’s armies with their dreams intact and who have come to an elusive new (American) “can do, will do” world they cannot seem to find. A novel steeped in surreal storytelling and beautiful music that transports its half-broken souls—and us—to another realm of the senses.
The setting: the early 1940s, New York—city of refuge, city of hope, with the specter of a red-hot Europe at war.
At the novel’s center: Anna (known as the Rat), an exotic Hungarian countess with the face of an angel, beautiful eyes, and a seraphic smile, with a passionate intelligence, an exquisite ugliness, and the power to enchant . . . Her second cousin Herbert, a former minor Austrian civil servant who believes in Esperanto and the international rights of man, wheeling and dealing in New York, powerful in the social sphere yet under the thumb of his wife, Adeline . . . Michael, their missing homosexual son . . . Felix, a German pediatrician who dabbles in genetic engineering, practicing from his Upper East Side office with his little dachshund, Schatzie, by his side . . . The Tolstoi String Quartet, four men and their instruments, who for twenty years lived as one, playing the great concert halls of Europe, escaping to New York with their money sewn into the silk linings of their instrument cases . . .
And watching them all: Herbert’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Maria, who understands from the furtive fear of her mother, and the huddled penury of their lives, and the sense of being in hiding, even in New York, that life is a test of courage and silence, Maria witnessing the family’s strange comings and goings, being regaled at night, when most are asleep, with the intoxicating, thrilling stories of their secret pasts . . . of lives lived in Saint Petersburg . . . of husbands being sent to the front and large, dangerous debts owed to the Tsar of imperial Russia, of late-night visits by coach to the palace of the Romanovs to beg for mercy and avoid execution . . . and at the heart of the stories, told through the long nights with no dawn in sight, the strange, electrifying tale of a pact made in desperation with the private adviser to the Tsar and Tsarina—the mystic faith healer Grigory Rasputin (Russian for “debauched one”), a pact of “companionship” between Anna (the Rat) and the scheming Siberian peasant–turned–holy man, called the Devil by some, the self-proclaimed “only true Christ,” meeting night after night in Rasputin’s apartments, and the spellbinding, unspeakable things done there in the name of penance and pleasure . . .
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KATHLEEN SPIVACK is an award-winning writer. She studied with Robert Lowell and remained friends with him for eighteen years, and is the author of many books, among them Moments of Past Happiness, A History of Yearning, and With Robert Lowell and His Circle. She has had residencies at the Radcliffe Institute, Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and the American Academy in Rome, and has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Commission. She teaches in Boston and Paris.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Kathleen Spivack
In the drafty reading room of the New York Public Library, Herbert opened hislatest letter from the little Rat, his old friend Anna Zygorzka. Her letterswere slow to arrive, and each one bore the marks of a censor, who dutifullyopened and read and then indicated the readership before sending it on to NewYork. Even David, who worked in the war office somewhat connected withcensorship and foreign mail, could not predict the letters that arrivedoccasionally, tattered and humble, addressed in fine, studied handwriting.Herbert smoothed the paper, which crackled as he spread it out in front of him.He fixed his spectacles more firmly onto his nose and bent down happily.“J’arrive!”
Besidehim on the bench, his grandchildren sat quietly. Philip studied his toes whilehe held a green balloon. And Maria, in her ruffled smocked dress and littlesweater, bent over her English book as seriously as Herbert now bent over thehandwriting of his letter. Maria’s lips did not even move as she read; she wasconcentrating. Although the first signs of spring were coming to New York, theinterior of the library was cold and drafty. Herbert wrapped his coat moretightly around his shoulders, looking over to smile at the children. How goodthey were! So quiet and dear.
He went back to the letter.
Herbert and Anna Zygorzka, second cousins, had been writing to each other foryears. They corresponded in various languages, including Esperanto and French.Sometimes they alternated. Anna wrote to Herbert in German, and he answered inRussian. Then they corrected each other’s letters and started over again. Andduring that time, they also corresponded in chess.
Herbert smiled as he deciphered the numbers and letters. “Aha, now I have you!”Anna had written in large, distinctive handwriting. “Check to your queen!”
Herbert bent over the letter in delight. “We shall see,” he thought. “We shallsee.” He looked more closely. Undoubtedly, he could find the loophole in this.Then he laughed. She had done it. He had taught her well. But this was not theend of this particular game. Herbert still had a few tricks up his sleeve. TheRat would regret challenging the old chess master. He smiled.
“Well, my dear friend,” he read in her large triumphant hand, “are you not proudof me? Guard your queen indeed, my old fox!”
Herbert imagined her nose twitching in triumph. That exquisite ugliness! Herdark, shiny eyes, peering at the chessboard—he had loved to watch her sniffingaround the game. He imagined her little snort, a muted shriek of delight whenshe saw an opportunity for triumph. The Rat!
Underneath, Anna had written, in an equally exuberant scrawl, a few quickwords. “The good news, my old dear friend, is that I am coming. I shall arrivesoon. I cannot say more. Speak to David.” And then, as if to paraphrase herGerman, she wrote the same message hastily in French. “J’arrive!”
Herbert put the letter aside for a moment. As if disbelieving the messagewritten, he bent to it again. “J’arrive!” How could that be?
Anna’s image rose in his mind. The seaside. Summer holidays with his parents.The arrival of his second cousins from Hungary. The other side of the family.The two mysterious girls, slightly younger, both, than he and his brother. Annaand her younger sister. The two girls. The two boys who awaited their arrival;a mystery unfolding.
What a disappointment it had been when he had first seen the Rat. She wassmall, unprepossessing, with a long nose. And could it be? Whiskers growing outof the mole next to her nose. Well, three long hairs, to be exact. A Rat withsevere curvature of the spine, which caused her to move in a painful, crablikeway, hunched over, peering upward over spectacles.
Anna and Herbert had looked at each other. Could this be the fabled cousin, solong awaited? Anna’s younger sister was nor- mal in every way. Only, she wastoo young to do anything more than tag after the Rat and Herbert and hisbrother, whining to be included. So he was stuck, summer after summer, with theRat for a companion. And a deformed Rat at that. A Rat who had to spend most ofevery day lying on a sofa, a Rat who could not stand straight when she walked,who moved slowly, pain- fully, with a little cane. A Rat with the mostbeautiful eyes, the most seraphic smile. A Rat with the face of an angel, mademore beautiful by the imperfections that called attention to her beauty. ThisRat had the power to enchant. She trembled inadvertently from time to time, asif this power were far too great for her little body to bear.
One day, the Rat dared to intrude upon Herbert’s silent avoidance of her. Itwas during one of her little slow-paced promenades. Herbert hated to watch herprogress down along the sea; it was so slow and cramped. The Rat came right upto him, to the rock on which Herbert sat, thinking drearily of themeaninglessness of his life. He didn’t look at her directly, though he hadcovertly observed her approach.
Anna took a deep breath, gasping as she came to a halt beside him. “Why do youavoid me?” she asked without any preamble. “Is it the way I look?”
“No,” Herbert lied. He yawned.
“Come.” Anna held out her hand. “We can still be friends.” She touched hissleeve. A fine vibration was coming off Anna and it flowed from her handthrough his body. Anna was shaking, her breath coming quickly in little gasps.She pressed her knees together and turned her head away.
Herbert took her arm and, still not looking at her, accompanied her back to thehouse. He was furious with himself.
“You know why they call me the Rat?” Anna said, still trembling, peering at himwith deep, beautiful eyes. “Do I not resemble one?” Herbert tried to be polite.“It’s true, isn’t it?” persisted Anna. Herbert wanted to tear off her shawl,gaze at the nape of her neck, her twisted spine.
Anna shuffled beside him, bent over at a strange angle, leaning on Herbert.“You know,” she said forthrightly, “it’s lucky Papa has money. For I willprobably never marry. And then,” she added sadly, “who would want to marry me?”Herbert felt her resignation. He said nothing, walking beside his cousin, agirl already burdened by rejection. Her little pawlike hands pressed his elbow.“It’s true.”
Herbert searched for something to comfort her. “But, Anna, you are intelligent,educated. Don’t give up hope. A young lady like yourself has a long lifeahead.” He repeated platitudes.
“Do you really think so? Oh, Herbert!” Anna turned her face to his, lookingupward.
“Doyou really think so? Do you think anyone will ever want to marry me?”
“Of course,” replied Herbert. “Plenty of gentlemen will want to.”
“Oh!”Anna’s lovely eyes misted over with joy, and her face crinkled into a smile.
Herbert was delighted with the effect his words had on her, although he noticedthat she looked more like a rat than ever— a happy rat. Then inspiration hithim. “Anna, do you know how to play chess?” he asked.
She looked suddenly downcast again. “No, Cousin Herbert,” she said.
“Well then, I shall teach you,” said Herbert, feeling important. “We must notbe idle just because it is summer.”
Soon Herbert found himself spending time with the Rat as she lay on her sofa.All summer Herbert and Anna played chess together, and the Rat was happy tofollow his lead in other things as well. When Herbert read philosophy, the Ratread every book he recommended. She listened when he read aloud to her— poetry,drama—and Herbert was delighted to have an audience for his developinginterests and adolescent self-importance. The Rat had a passionate intelligenceand was not afraid to debate with him. A willing pupil, her pleasure inlearning was intense. Herbert found he liked to spend time with her, liked towatch her long nose quiver at an idea, sniffing out the exact meaning of eachphrase. Her little hands trembled with excitement; her whiskers vibrated withjoy.
At the end of the summer, the Rat was disconsolate. Her eyes were magnifiedwith the tears that fell, unwiped, on the chess- board between them. She wasmore hunched than ever. They took a last walk together, their intensityaugmented to the point where neither of them could stand it. “Let me,”whispered Herbert softly. “Let me touch you just one time.” Anna squeezed hishand. Gently, Herbert pulled back her collar and exposed the top of her spine.“I just want to look at you,” he murmured. Anna held his other hand all thewhile, squeezing tightly as she trembled, her body pressed in upon itself. Helet his mouth graze her queerly shaped body. Neither of them said a word; thiswas to be their secret. When Herbert had finished letting his lips travel thelength of her deformity, Anna swooned. She would have per- mitted himeverything, but he caught himself.
He rearranged the shawl about her shoulders, helped her straighten her dress.She was still trembling. “Come,” said Herbert. He was overcome with the emotionof the situation; he wanted her, would always want her in a desperate way. “Wewill write each other during the year. And we will see each other next summer.”The Rat lifted her head, her eyes shining. “Yes,” said Herbert. “And we will correspondin different languages, we will write our thoughts and feelings and what we arereading, and we will continue our chess. Yes!” he continued, inspired by hisown brilliance, and by the happy compliance of this Hungarian girl. “And nextsummer, we shall pick up again. For this must only be au revoir, not good-bye.”He put his hand on her little paw, and her trembling stopped. She brushed atear from her whiskers.
“Oh, Herbert, what will happen to me?”
During the school year, they continued their separate lives, he in Vienna, shein Budapest. Their friendship grew through correspondence. Anna shared hispassion for literature and language. Ever since that first summer, while theyhad continued to correspond during their absences from each other, Herbertthought about her incessantly: her deformity, her eyes. Yet on the surface hewas getting to know other young ladies. It was as if Anna existed in a secretcompartment, a delight to be pulled out and played with only during thesummers. Their meetings each summer holiday were filled with joy. Always sheapproached him with shining eyes that drew him toward her secret. He loved tocaress her hump. More was forbidden, and when he tried more, she tightened herlegs and shook her head. Then the next minute she was welcoming him, and it wasHerbert who had to draw the line. He did not know if he hated or loved her; hewas fascinated, and yet there was something forbidden in the skirts of herdresses, something that he both sought and shunned.
“Letme look at you,” he said. “I just want to look.”
Herbert, of course, was to make a proper marriage, a proper Christian marriage,as was appropriate to his career in the Austrian government. His mother hadfound him Adeline, and Herbert fell dutifully, romantically in love with thebeautiful pianist.
The Rat was unable to attend the wedding. Anna, the emblem of his youth, wasfar away at that point. Her family had achieved the unimaginable. They hadmanaged to buy for Anna and them- selves a Russian count. A penniless Russiancount, but a count nevertheless. The terms of this marriage were, among others,that the Rat was to leave immediately for Saint Petersburg, taking her fortunewith her.
“And so, dearest cousin,” the Rat wrote, “what choice do I have? They do notexplain to us the need for such a rush. But I am only a lady Rat after all, andso I go to meet my husband happily.”
Now, so many years later, in this suburb of war-torn Europe named New York, theRat’s letters began to reach Herbert again. “Our last game, do you remember?”she wrote. “I was so stupid not to cover my bishop. I lost the whole game onthat. Well, now we begin again.” Herbert smiled at her resolute handwriting anddecisive approach. “I shall go first, my friend. Do not think you can so easilywin now. I have been studying, yes, studying chess. And other things as well!”And then, as if there had been no break ever in their correspondence, Anna,choosing the first black pawn, opened the game again.
Of the intervening years, she wrote not one word. And Herbert, hardly knowingwhere to begin on his and Adeline’s life and experiences, also wrote not onepersonal word in response, except to mention that he was living now in New Yorkwith David and Ilse and their dear children. Herbert had decided that it was nouse writing anything too personal, especially as he was now writing to a posterestante in Leningrad rather than to a real address. Who knew who might bereading, in fact, might even be writing, these letters concerning chess?
“Andso, my dear lady, we will write of books. Literature. Yes, the literature weare reading and what is new and what is happening and what we both think aboutit,” Herbert decreed. “I have just discovered a new Italian writer,” heappended hastily to one letter to Anna, in which he had successfully avoided athreat to his last remaining knight. “His name is Leopardi. Do you know him?”Herbert then proceeded into a quick discussion of Leopardi. “Perhaps I shallfind a copy and send it to you,” he suggested at the end of the postscript,knowing it was a futilely generous suggestion.
Anna’s response came six months later. “Leopardi, no, I have not heard of him.But then, I do not hear of many writers here. . . .” The words were faint andwistful. “Now, dearest Herbert, watch out for my bishop,” she wrote moreinsistently.
Try as he might through his many connections, Herbert could not locate theactual whereabouts of the Rat. Perhaps she was a spy. Always the letters borethe return address of the central post office. He was careful to write verylittle of importance in his letters—not even in invisible ink.
At first, it had been a surprise when her notes had started to come to him inNew York. He had been waiting in the Public Library for a meeting with a memberof a committee for refugees, when a shabby man had jostled him. “I beg yourpardon, Herr Doktor,” the man had muttered, showing bad teeth. “But I believethis is for you.” He had shoved the small envelope into Herbert’s hand, andthen, just as furtively, disappeared some- where into the stacks again.
“Who is that man?” Herbert later asked some of his commit- tee members. But noone, of course, knew. “Who are you?” Herbert demanded the second time thishappened.
“A friend,” replied the man. He looked at Herbert, shook his head once inwarning, and disappeared again.
From then on, Herbert never asked. “Thank you, my friend,” was all he said,receiving these infrequent letters. Herbert smoothed out the crumpled paper andtried to figure out why, after all these years, Anna had decided to play chessagain.
At night, Herbert held Anna’s letters up to a candle to decipher if there werean invisible message beneath her spidery inked scrawl of numbers and letters.But there was none, just the chess game, the continuation of their adolescentpassion shared.
There was very little else in the Rat’s letters. The Rat had always includedparagraphs in numerous languages, not forget- ting Esperanto. Thecorrespondence between Herbert and Anna had always includ...
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