The Egyptian Stamp (pt 1) – Osip Mandelstam

“I do not like rolled up manuscripts.
Others are laden with the limnent of time,
Like an archangel’s trumpet”.

1

The Polish domestic went off to the Catholic Chapel, for a gossip and a pray to the Holy Virgin.

That night she dreamed of a Chinese, festooned with a necklace of ladies’ handbags like colourful birds. Then of an American ‘coo-ee’ duel: where the duellists fired into piles of crockery, inkpots and portraits in the dark.

I propose this for a family coat of arms: a tumblerful of boiled water. In the rubbery after-taste of Petersburg’s boiled water I can taste our household’s failed attempts at permanence. The centrifugal force of time has swept away our Viennese upright chairs and flowery blue Delft dishes Nothing is left of them. Thirty years have passed like a slow conflagration. For thirty years bailiff labels have licked the backs of our mirrors with a cold white flame.

But, how should I detach from you, dear Egypt of objects? The apparent permanence of the dining room, the bedroom and the office. How do I begin to make amends? If you want Valhalla and eternal life, I give you Kokorev’s Depositories. Store everything in there! As I write, workmen bob about in horror as they hoist a miniature piano, like a shiny black meteorite that has fallen from the sky. Sacks are strewn like vestments. A dresser floats sideways down the staircase, levering to full palm-tree height on the landings.

Since early evening Parnok had hung his short single-breasted jacket over the back of a Viennese chair. Overnight its shoulders and puckered seams should breathe and catch up with energising, gentle sleep. Soft as kid. Who knows, perhaps a jacket on a round Viennese chair back somersaults and sheds the years. In a word, has some fun? This spineless companion of young men pines for the long three-leaved mirror in the tailor’s first-floor workshop…..A simple sack for measuring up – be it knightly armour, or a more dubious shift – and an artist with a piece of tailor’s chalk can sketch something quickly like Pythagoras then breathe life and suppleness into it:

“Go, lovely one, and live! Put yourself on show at concerts. Go and give lectures. Fall in love and make mistakes!”

“Ah, Mervis, Mervis, what have you done! Why did you deprive Parnok of his public face? Why did you separate him from something close that he loves ?

“Is he sleeping?”

“He’s asleep! … He’s so tight-fisted, it’s a pity to waste electric light on him!”

The last little grains of coffee disappeared into the depth of the coffee- grinder.

A kidnap has taken place.

Mervis the tailor has thieved a bride, like one of the Sabine Wives

We count time in years, but in any apartment on Stony Island Avenue, it actually falls into dynasties and centuries.

The management of a household is always on a grand scale. The stages of life are not easily defined: from the mastery of gothic German script, to the golden baste of pastries at university.

A self-important, touchy, smell of petrol and the oily whiff of trusty kerosene stand guard over the apartment and its vulnerable back kitchen door, where yard men burst in and up-end logs for the fire. Dirty cloths and scrubbing brushes make the kitchen’s pale blood race.

In the beginning there was a workbench and A. Ilin’s cartographical map of the hemispheres. Parnok plumbed the comfort it gave. Its febrile canvas calmed him down. Prodding the oceans and continents with the end of his pen, he plotted extravagant journeys and compared the airy contours of Aryan Europe with the blunt boot of Africa and inscrutable Australia. In South America, working up from Patagonia, he also found a certain spikiness.

Respect for Ilin’s map was in Parnok’s blood since he believed in fairy tales, and he used to think the turquoise and ochre hemispheres were two huge balls in a latitude net, on a mission for a hot desk in the very bowels of the earth. He used to assume they were like stock cubes that condensed space and distance within.

Is this not what an Italian opera singer feels, preparing to tour the still New World and turning physical distance upside down with their voice, measuring the oceans with their vibrato, and probing the pulse of the liner’s new engine with their trills and tremolos…

In the tiny net of their eyes, the same two Americas turn upside down like two green hunting bags marked Washington and the Amazon. The physical map comes back with their salty track across the sea, as they try reading their future in dollars and the wintry snap of Russian 100 rouble notes.

The 1850s let them down. No amount of bel canto could disguise them. Always the same low sky everywhere like a cloth ceiling. Always the same smoky offices for read-throughs. And the same flagpoles at half-mast for the century, at The Times and The Herald. And finally, there was Russia…

The Russian words made her little ears itch: “Kreshchatik”. “Shastiye.” “Shavel”. Would her mouth open wide enough for the improbable, impossible sound: “Eey”?

Then later cavalry guardsmen will flock to her funeral at the Quarenghi Catholic Chapel. Tiny gold carrion crows will peck at the singing of her praise.

“How high they pitched it! Do you call that a funeral? “ Death is speechless in the presence of the diplomatic corps.

“In Italy we would bury her with plumes and police and Mozart!”

At this point feverish scenes from Balzac and Stendhal flashed to his mind. Where young men wiped their shoes with a hankie at doorsteps, then went on to wow Paris. And Parnok set off to recapture his jacket.

Mervis the tailor lived on Coin Street, next door to Pushkin’s famous Lycée, but whether he sewed clothes for the students was a big question. It was rather assumed that he did, the way a fisherman on the Rhine is assumed to catch trout, not other scraps. From all the signs it was obvious that Mervis’ head was not taken up with tailoring, but something more important. It was not for nothing that his relatives gravitated to him from far distant corners, while his customer hung back apologetically, over-faced.

“Who else will give my children their bread and butter?” Mervis said and made a gesture as though he was spreading butter. And in the bird air of the tailor’s apartment Parnok saw not only a little ‘asterisk’ of dairy butter, all combed and dotted with tears, but even bunches of raw radish to eat with it. Then Mervis artificially turned the conversation to Gruzenberg, the lawyer who had ordered a senator’s uniform from him in January, then for some reason dragged in his son Aaron, who was studying at the Conservatory, got mixed up, embarrassed, then hid behind a screen.

“What the hell” – thought Parnok . “Maybe that’s what he had to do, maybe that jacket is no longer here, maybe he did indeed sell it — like he says — to pay for the mohair.”

And, come to think of it, Mervis does not feel the lie of a short single-breasted jacket. He is taken up with the frock coat, which is evidently more familiar to him.

Balzac’s hero Lucien de Rubempré had coarse canvas underwear and a clumsy pair of frock coats, sewn for him by the village tailor. He ate chestnuts in the street and was frightened of lady concierges. Once he shaved on what was a red-letter day for him and his future arose out of the soap bubbles.

Parnok stood on his own, forgotten by the tailor Mervis and his relatives. His glance fell on a partition, screening a woman’s contralto voice, like thick, Jewish, honey. This partition was plastered with pictures, like a rather odd iconostasis.

Here was a picture of Pushkin, with a squint face, in a fur coat. Some gentlemen, who looked like torch-bearers, were carrying him out of a carriage as narrow as a sentry-box, and trying to dump him in a doorway, despite the astonishment of the driver in the high metropolitan hat. Next to it was the 19th-century pilot, Alberto Santos-Dumont, in double-breasted jacket and braces. He had been tossed from an air balloon basket, by a quirk of the elements, and hung from a rope, surveying a condor swooping past. Then came Dutchmen, pictured on stilts. Running over their little country like cranes.

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson