The Call of Kiev
The Call of Kiev
New York Observed
By ALBERT FAYNGOLD
IN the summer of 1992, I was 21 and it cost $1.25 to ride the subway. The Soviet Union had been dead for nearly a year, and from the window of the F train heading from the Kensington section of Brooklyn into the city, I peered at the Lower Manhattan skyline and beyond it to my lost home across the ocean. I was a Lot’s wife in pants.
Those were dreary days. The F got me downtown, where my parents and I had to attend courses at which we were being taught new, American ways and given those dreadful E.S.L. drills — part survival English, part consumerist propaganda: “Get a job. Get a car. Get a girlfriend. Get a life.”
Because my field was fine arts, I wasn’t expected to land a job any time soon. I took some painting commissions from former immigrants, plus some odd gigs — making jewelry, delivering mail. But what really got me through that year was books. Russian books.
Before leaving Kiev, my family and I had spent months packing and shipping parcels of books we owned to a relative in New York, to be kept there until our arrival. Of the 13 parcels we sent, only six turned up.
Still, those six surviving parcels were a lifesaver. Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky. The works. To my parents’ horror, I spent most of my days hunkered down in bed in our apartment devouring all I’d read back in high school. I read as if there were no tomorrow and, moreover, no today, pages and pages of Cyrillic weaving in my mind a sort of byzantine interior, a hermetic time capsule that magically sealed off my New York present and sent me on a one-way journey to yesterday.
To be sure, I was in denial. But Russian classics made denial easy.
There was one thing in that old-book binge, however, that did take on a renewed significance. It was that exalted, if tragicomic, moment at the end of “The Brothers Karamazov.” Dimitri is in jail, wrongly convicted of patricide. Smerdyakov, the real perpetrator, has already hanged himself, but Dimitri voluntarily assumes a burden of double guilt, seeking to atone both for his own patricidal wish and for instilling it in Smerdyakov.
Briefly, however, Dimitri hedges and begins to spin wild plans of escape. Yes, he would break out of prison, rejoin his beloved Grushen’ka and flee to, of all places, America — “cheered by the thought that I am running away not for pleasure, nor for happiness, but to another exile as bad, perhaps, as Siberia.”
This is only a fantasy, of course, part of the grand Dostoyevskian narrative of redemption, something he himself found so dubious he had to channel it through Dimitri’s fevered histrionics. But now, for better or worse, that fantasy was me; I was living it; I was Dimitri. America — complacent, material America — would become my crucible. I would taste the bread of exile and dream of returning to Russia as other Jews dreamed of returning to Jerusalem.
Initially, however, I found it hard to be miserable in New York in the way I wanted. Survival came obscenely easy: Whereas back in the crisis-crippled Kiev we had to be up by 4 a.m. to assume our turn in grim lines for bread and milk, here one was always steps away from the Whitmanesque bounty of the nearest supermarket.
Whatever the city’s fabled cultural decay, I found the place not so much rotten as dull. The metropolitan gaudiness, the hustle and bustle, the fever and the throb left me cold; it all seemed so predictable, even bland. Where was the angst?
Still, I persevered in mining the city for its pockets of misery. I enrolled in college, dropped out and re-enrolled. I took commissions for family portraits, only to abandon them halfway.
Then, too, there were our Babbitt-like Americanized relatives who came by to speak of cars and loans and mortgages. There were girls who objectified you, therapists who misunderstood you, physicians who misdiagnosed you.
THE trouble, though, was that none of this self-inflicted grief amounted to authentic disaster. It wasn’t just that most of my complaints were, at bottom, predictable immigrant grievances — food has no taste, flowers have no smell, etc. It was also that this city — the big, bad monster I so desperately battled — could also be, as I was beginning to surmise, genuinely, crushingly, inescapably good. The nights out in the Village. The Brooklyn Bridge. What was I to do with all those beguiling plenitudes on this foreign ground I’d been so desperate to oppose?
Well, one thing I could do was paint. Paint the city. Increasingly, I found myself glued to the window of the F train, sketchpad in hand, turning the urban sprawl outside into another half-forgotten scene, the haze over Gowanus shading into mists over Neva and the sprinklings of roofs and church spires over Carroll Gardens recalling the vistas of Amsterdam.
On Waverly Place, at dusk, I watched the orange-tawny walls of the Jefferson Market Library clock tower fade into a blue-and-dusk-rose mass, the blurred contours reminiscent of Old World buildings I loved: Kiev’s Kostel, Prague’s Tyn Church, the Rouen Cathedral by Monet. I carried this fleeting vision onto the train, tucked away in memory, to unfold it on canvas back in my improvised studio space in Brooklyn.
The more I painted, the closer I came to making peace with this city, a feeling that both soothed and troubled me because it seemed to interfere with my grand scheme of suffering.
I might still be working on perfecting that scheme today if something else hadn’t happened. Near the end of my first American year, I checked out a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” from the library. Over the entire next month, I shuttled between the library volume and my dog-eared Russian tome, with an English-Russian dictionary as an intermediary.
I felt as if I were straddling two runaway trains speeding down parallel tracks, an experience that afforded me a double dose of suffering, to be sure, but this was also the first book in English I read from beginning to end, not wanting to stop.
In a way, I haven’t stopped. Today, I am still on that subway train with Dimitri, arguing, the two of us a pair of escaped convicts caught in the dual citizenship of words.
Albert Fayngold, a painter, is a lecturer on Russian and comparative literature at Baruch College. He is currently enrolled in the Writers’ Institute program at the CUNY Graduate Center.