Grozni, Nikolai Wunderkind: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781451616910

Wunderkind: A Novel

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9781451616910: Wunderkind: A Novel
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Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire.

Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself.

Through it all, Konstantin plays the piano with inflamed passion: he is transported by unparalleled explorations of Chopin, Debussy, and Bach, even as he is cursed by his teachers’ numbing efforts at mind control. Each challenging piano piece takes on a life of its own, engendering exquisite new revelations. A refuge from a reality Konstantin detests, the piano is also what tethers him to it. Yet if he can only truly master this grandest of instruments—as well as his own self-destructive urges—it might just secure his passage out of this broken country.

Nikolai Grozni—himself a native of Bulgaria and a world-class pianist in his youth—sets this electrifying portrait of adolescent longing and anxiety against a backdrop of tumultuous, historic world events. Hypnotic and headlong, Wunderkind gives us a stunningly urgent, acutely observed, and wonderfully tragicomic glimpse behind the Iron Curtain at the very end of the Cold War, reminding us of the sometimes life-saving grace of great music.

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About the Author:

Nikolai Grozni began training as a classical pianist at age four, and won his first major award in Salerno, Italy, at the age of ten. Grozni's acclaimed memoir Turtle Feet follows his four years spent as a Buddhist monk studying at the Institute of Tibetan Dialectics in Dharamsala, and later at a monastery in South India. Grozni holds an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He lives with his wife and their children in France.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Rachmaninov,
“Vocalise,” op. 34, no. 14

November 3, 1987


Russian midgets are the tallest and Russian watches are the fastest, went the joke, and my watch—a Sputnik, which I had bought in Moscow after my recital at the National Conservatory—lived up to its reputation. On average it gained about two extra hours a week, which, considering my incurable habit of arriving late for every class or meeting, was quite helpful. I kept it in the front pocket of my brown leather shoulder bag, as I couldn’t bear having anything on my wrist.

“It’s somewhere between ten thirty and eleven,” I told Irina, who was rubbing the hair of her violin bow with a piece of dark-red rosin. She was leaning up against the window, her right foot pointing away, toward the door, looking at me with her turbid green eyes in a manner at once provocative and inviting. We’d locked ourselves up in room 59, on the fifth floor, skipping classes as we usually did every other Tuesday. Below and around us, the diligent hierodules in red, blue, or Komsomol ties were memorizing Mendeleyev’s periodic table, singing hymns to the gods of dialectical materialism, transcribing four-part inventions, reciting Mayakovsky. Occasionally, the voice of Negodnik, the history teacher, echoed up into the stairwell outside like a stray bassoon.

“I’m going to get you this time,” Irina said, and she tried pulling my shirt out of my blue uniform pants with her bow. “Before this is over, you’ll be running naked through the whole school.”

“That’s what you said last time,” I reminded her, and I emptied the contents of my bag on top of the piano: Chopin’s Préludes, Études, Ballades, and Scherzos; Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; Scriabin’s sonatas; Liszt’s transcendental études.

“You start first,” Irina said, and she opened to Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata no. 4 for solo violin. “Play the opening seven lines of the Allemande in real tempo, using only your right hand.”

“And if I make a mistake?”

“You’re going to run to the west-wing bathroom wearing nothing but your underwear!”

Irina laughed like a child, tossing her long black hair back and holding her stomach. I sat at the piano and scanned the chromatic zigzags of sixty-fourth notes, an army of angry ants taking the opening page by storm. Playing violin partitas a prima vista on the piano was quite tricky, since notes that seemed nearby on the violin fingerboard were often miles apart on the keyboard. But I wasn’t scared. I just wanted her.

“This is stupid, Irina,” I said, standing up and moving closer toward her. “You’re going to get me kicked out of school. Let’s just skip the duel, and the striptease, and move on to other things.”

She raised her leg and stopped me where I was, her boot digging into my ribs. “Play the Allemande!”

I sat back down at the piano and took another look at the score, noting the double sharp, the triplets, quintuplets, and septuplets, the high B, B flat, and A flat perched four and five lines above the staff, the hazardous string of sixths running up and down, the stretched-out chords. Then I played the entire page, fast and confident, like a well-rehearsed étude, even finding time to observe the accents.

“You’re such a dork!” Irina exploded, in irritation. “God, do you ever make a mistake?”

I could barely contain my joy. I was good, damn it. Really good. Plus, I had the perfect thing for Irina: “Juliet as a Young Girl,” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

“Well, honey, I think you better start undressing. You’re not going to get through this one.”

“Watch how you talk to adults!” Irina said, pointing her bow at me.

“You are just a year older.”

“Yeah, but that’s just in human years. I am talking about my soul, stupid!”

She set the score on her violin stand and studied the whimsical scales ridden with accidentals, biting her lips. “And if I screw it up?”

I closed my eyes, savoring all the things that I could have her do. “Then I want to see you walk, slowly, across the third floor, past Teachers’ Headquarters, barefoot, wearing your uniform dress unbuttoned, with nothing underneath.”

I tapped my foot, giving her the tempo at which “Juliet as a Young Girl” is played. Irina looked as if she was going to kill me. She was prettiest when she was angry, the passion and sorcerous impulses of her Gypsy ancestors turning her skin darker, her eyes quicker, her muscles tighter.

She began phenomenally, demonstrating the best bow work I’d ever seen, but then, in bar six, she suddenly let all the notes drop and collapsed in the chair by the piano.

“I have a better idea,” she said, resting the violin in her lap.

“Don’t try to get out of it.”

“No, listen! I’m raising the stakes—I’m going to play something that will make you cry.”

“No chance.”

“If I don’t succeed, I’ll walk through the entire school completely naked. How about that? But if I do succeed, you’re going to—let me think . . . take your pants off and enter your classroom through the window, like some kind of lunatic.” She giggled with abandon, and I detected a few violet notes that reminded me of the fire with which she craved the secret pleasure.

“And how exactly am I going to enter my classroom through the window?”

“You’ll have to go out this window and walk around the ledge.”

“Walk! That ledge isn’t even wide enough for my toes! Not to mention that there’s nothing to hold on to.”

I knew the ledge in question, because not long ago I’d had to stand on it in order to retrieve my report card, which someone had tossed behind the drainpipe on the fifth floor.

“Well?”

“You’re crazy, Irina. Really. But that’s OK, because you will never make me cry.”

Smiling, Irina adjusted the pegs of her violin, drawing a long sol, re, la, and mi with her bow, tucked away her hair on both sides with bobby pins, unfastened the top three buttons of her navy blue uniform dress, and then, legs astride, began playing Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise.”

I couldn’t look at her, because she made me terribly horny. Instead, I looked out the window and thought about the frozen rain that had fallen overnight, leaving everything coated with a thin film of ice. The chestnut trees, still bearing a few yellow-brown leaves, glistened in the dull November sun like fragile glass sculptures. Across the street, the dog-rose bush by the pond in Doctors’ Garden resembled a crystal broach, its scarlet fruits shining like rubies. The gray stucco facades of the apartment buildings were wrapped in silver foil; silver tears ornamented the window sills. Irina was weaving funeral wreaths, honoring each descending note like a fallen hero. The grasping, then the sudden release—wasn’t that the fundamental trait of the Slavic soul? The downward spiral, the darkness, the melancholy, but then also the letting go of all of it, the opening of the great gates of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. I had been clutching to my miserable existence for too long; playing the piano like a machine, obsessing about things that only made me weaker, fighting with others to be number one. I knew that one day I would let go of everything that I cared about. I would rise above it, and I would be happier, for a moment. Si-do-mi-sol-la; going up, like a bird.

I thought about our first kiss, in seventh grade, when Irina and I had rented a small rowboat by the pond at Eagle Bridge; I thought about the cities I’d visited during my performances in Italy—Bologna, Venice, Naples, Rome. Perhaps the difference between me and the other kids in school was that I knew for a fact that we were all imprisoned in a counterfeit reality. I had peeked over the wall and seen what lay beyond. I had proof: a silver Parker pen given to me as a gift by a southern Italian family that had wanted to adopt me after one of my concerts.

Irina returned to the beginning, repeating the main theme. It hadn’t occurred to me before just how painful the F natural was, coming right after the firebird ascent from the underworld, as E minor moved into F major; how sobering it was, how disheartening. I suddenly remembered what Igor the Swan had said to me last time I’d met him on the street, in front of the school. “We’ve all been created idealists!” he had announced with his habitual bravado, shaking his finger at the sky.

Now my eyes were stinging, but this didn’t have much to do with Irina’s rendition of the “Vocalise.” At least not entirely. There was something devastating about my chamber music teacher’s pronouncement. Because if we were all created idealists, then life was bound to be one relentless disappointment. But then, there was also music. We unlearned the lies with one hand and repeated them with the other.

I turned to Irina. She had stopped playing and was looking at me with a mixture of amusement and pity. Would she really send me off to do something that stupid? She would, of course. A deal was a deal. One way or another, she’d made me cry.

I took my shoes off, then my ugly uniform pants and socks. Luckily, the ledge wasn’t icy. I tied the shoes together and hung them over one shoulder, my pants over the other. Then I stepped out the window and, facing the stucco wall, extended my right foot onto the ledge. Irina giggled behind me, a hand over her mouth. She found the whole thing amusing! Or maybe she thought I’d give up. Two sidesteps to the right, and there was no longer anything to hold on to. The distance to the corner of the building was about ten meters. Then another ten meters from the corner to my classroom window. And what if it was closed?

I looked over my shoulder and down at the tin roof extending over Chamber Hall No. 1, littered with textbooks, brooms, and sponges. What an absurd way to die! Yet not so much more absurd than my life in Tartarus, under the granite skies, during the reign of the red midgets. But I couldn’t afford to panic now, tiptoeing sideways five stories aboveground, bearing my white underwear to the elderly devushki next door. I knew the feeling of becoming suddenly self-aware while playing in front of a large audience; the halfway panic that seizes your mind and body when you realize that you’ve been playing a Chopin ballad for what seems like ages, and you’ve yet to go through the coda. To forget oneself again, once you’ve woken up in the middle: that’s the hardest thing to do onstage, and perhaps in life. I would make a mistake one day, that much I knew for sure. One day I would fall. Just not today.

From where I stood, I could hear the high-register notes of the Yamaha in Chamber Hall No. 2, five stories below. Someone was rehearsing Chopin’s Prélude in A Minor with unabashed barbarism, exaggerating the inherent ugliness in the chord progression. Balancing on the ledge of the building with nothing to hold on to except my will, I thought back to my twelfth birthday, when Ladybug had given me the sheet music of the complete preludes and instructed me to spend a night reading the A-minor prelude, without touching the piano. In this way, before I ever heard this prelude played, I’d heard it in my mind. I’d heard the raw chromaticism in the left hand and the bleak, determined voice in the right. I’d heard the voice and the accompaniment drifting apart until the voice was completely alone, a quiet monologue going nowhere, saying nothing. What I hadn’t heard while reading the sheet music was the left-hand groove, evoking the sound of a broken barrel organ played in the streets of Paris, or Warsaw, in the middle of winter, an eternal winter with gray skies and chandeliers of ice and stray dogs sleeping on steaming manhole covers. On the bottom staff—the taste of earth, worms, and dust; the smell of dead leaves and frankincense. On the top—the luminosity of awareness making sense of transience and predestination. Three quiet major chords marked the moment of death, because death was sweet. It was our true home, the home we’d left and been trying to get back to. It’s what we had passed through before and would pass through again, a moment of truth that suspended the weight of thought, the weight of the will to inhabit a dead universe.

The third bell rang just as I reached the corner and edged myself toward the window of my classroom, which, fortunately, was open. “Here she comes,” I heard Lilly announce inside. “All students rise!”

Six more meters, maybe seven. I moved slowly sideways, imagining that my fingers were magnets that snapped onto the stucco wall with great force. I felt the frightened eyes of passersby on Oborishte Street, but I refused to look down or behind me. One last step and I was safe. I sat comfortably inside the wide window frame and put on my shoes and pants. The fear was gone now, along with the nausea.

I peeked in through the curtains just as the Raven, flanked by Angel and Ligav and shaking all fifty-six bracelets, entered the door and toddled to the middle of the classroom, placing a triangle, a pair of compasses, a daybook, and her purse on the large teacher’s desk. It deserves to be pointed out that the teacher’s desk—in itself an instrument of power—was marred by five white horizontal lines that stood as a permanent reminder of the laborious task of sanding down graffiti that had been etched into the wood with a knife and then filled in with ink, an anonymous five-line manifesto articulating the reality of dating girls who are also professional musicians. The manifesto read: “Lesbians play the piano. Whores play the violin. Airheads play the flute. Bears play the cello. Singers have no brain.” Even the girls in our class had to admit that the manifesto contained some incontrovertible truths, though they were quick to point out that all boy musicians, for their part, were socially retarded, total imbeciles, pussies in love with their mothers, or all of the above—which was pretty much true as well.

Angel had volunteered to be on duty again. Being on duty meant that you were responsible for making sure that the blackboard was spotless, the water in the bucket was clean, the sponge was sitting on the board sill, and there was enough chalk to last until the Americans dropped the bomb on us.

I glanced at the exemplary students in the middle file—Lilly, the violinist; Dora, the cellist; the two Marias; and the twins, Ligav and Mazen, both untalented French horn players who always acted like sixty-year-old pedants—nodding while holding their chins, contemplating the life-altering wisdom of arithmetic with furrowed brows, ever ready with an Aha! were, for example, our history teacher to announce that the French Revolution had actually started in 72 B.C. in southern Italy and had been led by Spartacus, a natural Communist who well understood the works of Marx and Engels without even having to read them.

Normally, I sat alone at the second-to-last desk in the right row, behind Bianka and Isabel. Bianka’s parents were Hungarian Jews, but that wasn’t something you talked about. She wasn’t a particularly good pianist, which was kind of hard for me to swallow because I’d had a mild crush on her since seventh grade. Even now, in ninth grade, with everything that had happened between me and Irina, I was still curious about Bianka, not least because she was an aspiring young apparatchik and it was fun to imagine what it’d feel like to do it with the enemy. Once in a while we met before school or hung out in the afternoon. We sat together during the evening recitals and walked in Doctors’ Garden. We’d been doing all of this for two years and we hadn’t ever touched hands. My friend Alexander—last desk in the left row—claimed it all had to do with the fact that Biank...

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