Fiction is not purely literary or aesthetic; its impulse must be realism and unpleasant truth. (GS)
Illuminated under the spotlights the three snapshots spread on her studio work table stared up at Elizaveta, then shifted their inquisitive gaze upwards toward me hovering over her shoulder. Elizaveta turned and looked up at me. One after the other she identified them, placing a finger on each: “Mother, Mother and I, and my father the stranger. Umgotteswillen Clifford, how do you happen to have these photos that I’ve never even seen?”
How could I explain how the photographs that tell her life fell into my hands? Pictures representing her destroyed family. The point was not only the persons but why I had the photos. I felt like a coward that I hadn’t had the courage to tell her. I hadn’t revealed that I’d known her father practically all my life, the man she hardly knew. I would have had to tell her that I’d worked together with him … and that he was a spy who was once on my own father’s payroll.
It was anyway pure chance that I recently got my hands on the photos and learned that he was her father. I myself didn’t know what to make of the weird chain of circumstances linking me to both her missing parents. Her mother who had long since vanished in Russia and now her father murdered by my former employers. But, I thought, the fact that I’d avenged him should, might, could enhance me in Elizaveta’s eyes. First I did what I had to do and then I retired from that sordid world.
“Well, Clifford, they must mean something,” she said, a bewildered look in her eyes not greatly different from that in the picture of her and her mother.
I leaned over her shoulder and examined the pictures for the hundredth time. There was something sinister about them, the sequence of her mother Masha in the first, Masha and Elizaveta as a child in the second, her mother Masha and her father Nikitin in the third. These photos, I thought, will change our lives too. The eyes of her family are fixed on us but at the same time the pictures seem to promise the birth of a new family. Our new family. A family to replace the former family of her dead parents. A process that has always been, and always will be repeated.
(As is most fiction, as is most reality, their story is both fiction and reality. The characters of this story have leapt out of a novel in which they act as secondary characters. The novel and the characters emerge from my brain. Elizaveta is the daughter of the former spies, Masha Orlova who returned to Russia and vanished, and Anatoly Nikitin, assassinated by a rogue secret service which he suspected of being the organizer of international terrorism. Elizaveta grew up in Munich believing her father, the Russian spy, was German. A year ago she met Clifford Beecher Jr. a former American agent who grew up in Switzerland, the son of a famous spy master in St. Moritz. Is that enough background? Yes, I think it suffices for a start. I would add however that a novel about the spy life seems to me the ideal place to examine such modern phenomena through its analyses and psychological investigation.)
The New Apartment
We moved into the roof garden apartment yesterday. For Elizaveta it was love at first sight. She loves the sunlight flooding the penthouse as she loves white and yellow colours. She loves the bright light from the window doors facing the terraces, the piercing white from the skylights in the mansard room now her studio, the white of her decorations throughout the apartment, and the daffodil yellow of her dresses. Even at night Elizaveta refuses to close the blinds, so that our Bogenhausen apartment is illuminated like Times Square.
“I now have two things I never had before,” Elizaveta says in her melodious German, “you … and a lot of natural light.”
“But why me of all people?” I ask, still incredulous that she is with me. I understand her love for light since she, the artist of bright colours, had lived the last ten years in a basement apartment on a narrow Munich street. But me? As my ex-wife testified many times, I’m no prize.
“Why you? You’re my soul mate … and one of my alter egos. I mean, the spy you once were, the man you are today, and the prophet you are becoming.”
“A prophet? That’s another of your artistic creations.”
“Nein, nein, durchaus nicht. Not at all. My creation is one thing, Clifford. You are another … that is, if Clifford is even your real name. I might start out with a figure modelled on your huge figure but that image transforms and becomes something totally different. So none of my creations are the you I know … not yet anyway. No more than are you yourself my creation.”
“Do you mean creation like God’s work?”
Standing under the skylight in the mansard she seems taller than usual, her blond hair touching the ceiling at the place the roof dips sharply. Dressed in her habitual yellow, Elizaveta looks like a goddess reaching toward light.
“Yes, Clifford, it’s godlike … like you with your Odysseus beard bathed in sunshine.”
“For Chrissakes, Liza! You’d better leave me out of your art.”
“I do. I do. As I said, you, Clifford, are another matter.”
(What “other matter” she cannot know, for Elizaveta and Clifford still hardly know each other. However, for both it was love at first sight when they met. On the death of his father, Clifford Beecher, Sr. Clifford inherited a considerable fortune and intends seeking a new life with Elizaveta.)
The Stuff of Dreams
Unusual things often happen to me. It has been that way my whole life, since the village school in St. Moritz, during my work career, and again since I met Elizaveta. It’s unclear if I attract the occurrences or the occurrences attract me. What’s more, I often implicate others in the things happening to me so that the singular occurrences become a kind of complicity with others. Wherever I’ve gone, whatever I’ve done, from my university in Turin to my tour of duty in Moscow, people and objects have had a way of going haywire and then having their way with me. No wonder I’ve lost all sense of orientation. I always feel that anything at all can happen.
Already restless on the first evening in our first home together, I went out to reconnoitre the surrounding area. In the hotels and safe houses of the world of my former life I did the same. I’m constantly driven to situate myself in space and time. I have to know the past, present and future of all my places. Though time and space today were especially evasive, this particular part of the city was familiar territory. Another thing I hadn’t revealed to Elizaveta was that I’d lived on this street in another life, with another family and in a different situation. I don’t know why I hadn’t told her. It was bizarre, for reticence is not one of my characteristics.
I stepped into the Gaststube down the street and stopped short just inside the door. “What the fuck!” I muttered to myself, bewildered by the scene. The first surprise was the officious-looking young lady in red who popped up at my side, looked up at me seductively, and asked softly if I perhaps preferred a table in the Biergarten outside. I hesitated, staring open-mouthed at the second surprise: a slick mahogany bar along the side wall, the soft indirect lighting, and a swarm of chic iron tables filling the long room. The heavy dark wooden tables and benches one of them once bearing my carved initials had vanished along with the old proprietor and the place’s former Gemütlichkeit. Standardization, homogenization, uniformity, what can you do about it? Menschenskinder! You have to go to Paraguay or Argentina or the Amazon to rediscover the genuine article. All of Europe is going American. Or, I wondered, were the past style I had in mind false and the cute iron tables and slick bar now genuine?
In that moment it occurred to me that I shouldn’t have done what I did. But I did it anyway. Instinctively, without reflection, not only did I return to the same city with another woman, but I had come back to the very same street, the street where twenty years earlier my life had swirled downwards and ended in tragedy. Yet despite the aura of guilt that hangs over my relationship with Elizaveta, I’m optimistic. I’m convinced that my new happiness, my bliss, and our euphoria at being together will outweigh the unhappiness, sorrow, and misery I experienced on this street. In the end Elizaveta will conquer both the violence of my nature and above all my guilt that has begun infiltrating, bit by bit, through imperceptible cracks and crannies here and there, into our relationship. Since separation from my former family it now seems the losses of the tragic past weigh less on me than they should, so that I live with the suspicion of my own callousness. Sometimes I feel guilty that I grieve less over my losses, and I even regret that my phobias and obsessions have lessened their grip on me. I behave today as if I had no past at all. Otherwise how could I permit myself the luxury of wallowing in this new happiness?
To the lady in red I said vielen Dank, gnädiges Fräulein and turned away. I’ll forego this pub-bistro that was my favourite hangout back then. It’s no longer my place. Neither my past nor my present, certainly not my future.
A few streets over, the Prinzregententheater was as resplendent as ever, the illumination of the great theatre making the square resemble the Champs Elysées. If anything even brighter than the time Giuliana had gotten tickets for the reopening of the new opera stage in this old theatre. For the sake of my ex-wife I’d suffered through the endless hours of Tristan und Isolde. Strangely, today I can’t remember one single musical theme from the opera even though she played the record for months afterwards.
Never understood why I’m good with languages but can’t retain music. It’s a mystery. Only a few crazy words remain. Ewig einig ohne End, ohn Erwachen ... la la la, namenlos in Lieb umfangen ... la la la, der Liebe nur zu leben. We die that way so we can live in love without end, surrendering to the eternal night and sweet death-in-love, never waking, to live only in love. Tristan says that she is Tristan and he, Isolde. She answers that he is Isolde and she, Tristan, no longer Isolde. For Chrissakes! Neither knows who he or she is. Maybe that’s love. But it’s a lot of lust too. You’re me and I’m you. You don’t know who anybody really is. Sounds like people in my former profession with our cover names we ourselves forgot, causing all kinds of crazy goof-ups.
Heavy stuff, Tristan, the kind of love I doubt artistic Elizaveta would want to comprehend. You have to be very German or an opera buff to appreciate it. I searched the billboard for a sacrifice I can make for Elizaveta. Look at it any way you want but old Nietzsche was right: things do indeed repeat themselves. Well, thank God Tristan is not on the billboard. But let’s see, here’s La Traviata.
Elizaveta says I’m confused. Sometimes I also wonder if my past even happened. Is the past necessarily reality? Or is it fantasy? Is it just my illusion of what might have happened? Only a dream? Anyway, one thing is certain, I didn’t dream the tragedy. It happened. She’s gone. Every day since, she has still been gone. And the tragedy left behind it a trail of destruction and hurt and pain and sorrow and lasting trauma that swept away the little in common Giuliana and I had … like one of Goethe’s heroes crushed by a burden he can neither bear nor cast off. Sharing that kind of tragedy impacts a relationship more than sharing successes.
Still, I never seem to get things straight in my mind. I can never distinguish between what was once real and what is my imagination of what might have occurred. Are the things I love today destined to morph into fantasy in an unpredictable future? Is my love for Elizaveta real reality? Or will it, the thing I love most in life today, turn into fantasy too? Is love itself reality? That, Clifford, is the question of questions.
My friend Franz was right about me: my mind is a bloody mess. A battleground where Reality and Fantasy fight for supremacy. Franz likes to compare me to a tram. A tram! Unaware of where it’s going and of where it’s coming from. Images and images of times and events of my past overwhelm me and become my present in the same way the illumination Elizaveta so loves overlaps the darkness creeping toward us from the direction of the River Isar.
Oh, I was so cocksure of myself, the world and the future. The world wasn’t big enough. I had to live more than one life—two, three and more lives. Everything was easy—studies, sports, languages, work and women. At some point I began to feel I was blessed with an immunity to the ills that struck less fortunate people. Maybe I believed that Fate—I don’t really believe in her—was on my side. Actually I don’t claim that Fate doesn’t exist, for the doubt exists. I’ve often wondered if other people at certain times in their lives feel the same invulnerability. Fuck it! Maybe it’s just a question of age and circumstances.
When I returned around midnight Elizaveta was still arranging her studio. Work tables, palettes and paints, canvases, an easel here and there, and paintings stacked against the walls. She glanced at me with unseeing eyes, apparently engrossed in momentous decisions.
“In your own world now, eh, Lizzy,” I said with the immense affection I felt. Yet because of her detachment in such moments, I often feel uneasy around her art. One of the last things I’d learned about her was that her real life was her art.
“One of my worlds, Clifford. Only one of them.”
“Am I in it too?” I asked still somewhat offended. The truth is I don’t know how I feel about her art now that we live together. While I was still at home in Switzerland and she here in Munich, her painting made her even more exotic and fascinating. Her job in the travel agency where I met her was only a front, the sacrifice that made her art life possible. Now, her art had become a thing apart. She seemed to disappear into a seclusion from which I was excluded.
“Oh, don’t worry, you’re fixed there.”
“I wonder.” Should have told her about my dream, I thought. We’re on a bus, I, in a front seat, she, somewhere behind me. The bus stops and she is getting off. We both reach out toward each other, and hold each other’s hand. She begins pulling her hand away, slowly it slips from mine, and she says “Lebewohl, Clifford”, and begins to descend the steps of the exit. I know she is leaving me forever. I say, “Wait Elizaveta, wait.” But she leaves the bus. I jump down after her and call her name as she walks away. “Liza, come back! Liza!” At some distance she turns and looks at me once, sadly, then again turns and walks away, away, away, and I call “Liza, Liza, Liza,” until she disappears. Should tell her about the dream.
The aftereffects of my dream hung on. It’s my insecurity. The dream seemed to presage a new reality. I feared that now that she no longer worked in the travel agency, her isolation would expand and the walls around her would thicken. Was there some spite and vengeance of destiny at play here?
(Clifford, cosmopolitan and polyglot, is by nature volatile and violent, hated and admired, and considered a genius. After the loss of their small daughter wrecked his marriage with the Italian, Giuliana, he resigned his job and created a private intelligence organization in Switzerland. Often in Munich, he met Elizaveta there. It remains a mystery also to me why Clifford chose to live with Elizaveta precisely on this Munich street, Holbein Strasse, where the tragedy of his daughter and the break-up of his marriage took place.)
Reality and Fantasy
It was on the next afternoon that I found her sitting at the work table in her studio, the spot lights from the room corners zeroed in on the three black and white photographs spread before her. I had left the pictures lying around somewhere during the move. She wasn’t supposed to see them, not yet.
What could I tell her of that crazy past? What could I say of my violent past life? Never had my past seemed so meaningless and vacuous as when I read a recent report that over fifty percent of people of living in former East Germany say they were happier when their country was Communist. In my former life I undertook momentous acts against that system with no consciousness of the consequences of my acts, simply out of habit. On the other hand, how could I disclose that today Elizaveta and I are living on my inheritance from my American father who made a fortune exploiting her father who was so confused by that world of West and East that he became a double, maybe a triple agent, in the service of each. Even to myself, these interlocking occurrences seem bizarre.
My friend Franz was right. I’ve lived such a life of make-believe that I myself hardly know what is real and what is fantasy. Yet it was real. Otherwise how did I become what I am today? Why my sense of security then and my insecurity now that I’m free. I must wonder why the pendulum has swung in my favour and brought me Elizaveta, while my daughter still lies dead in the Ostfriedhof.
“I would have told you eventually. It’s not an easy story, Elizaveta. It’s part of the story of our lives and our times.” The latter was partially untrue, for what did her personal destiny as an artist have to do with the absurd maze of the absurd lives of her parents?
“You could try now … for us. There are many blank places in both our lives. You didn’t materialize from nothing the day we met. You have a background. The blank spaces make you resemble my mother who went back to Russia such a long time ago that it seems she was never really here with me. Today, I don’t know if she is dead or alive. I don’t want you to resemble her.”
Later I will tell Elizaveta of my fruitless attempts to learn more about her mother. Like normal people Elizaveta couldn’t imagine what the word “spy” means. Or the life the word implies. That both mother and father were spies must ring like fantasy to her. Her mother will never return to life and to Germany, never return to look for her daughter. Here, today, such weird stories seem like fables.
“Elizaveta, think about it this way, you paint and the picture you create is real. Each is self-contained. You can touch it and examine it and evaluate it. Why do you think I’m always touching your paintings? Like your parents, I too am always trying to touch reality.”
“I thought you just wanted to leave your imprint in my work.”
“That too, but actually I want to check that it’s real …like a hindquarter of beef or a dead pheasant in a Dutch painting.”
“Clifford, tell me everything you know about them, please!”
(Clifford, like Anatoly Nikitin, is disillusioned and cynical. He knows from his own experience that truth is elusive and that politics and power are dirty affairs. He has come to see that rogue and not so rogue secret services organize most of the terrorism infecting the world. He knows that secret services stand behind the bombs in the subways of Europe’s capitals and in the World Trade Center. He cooperated with Elizaveta’s father, Nikitin, in an effort to unmask the Grand Old Man of terrorism running the rogue agency responsible.)
The Spy’s Life
“Your parents learned that love is dangerous,” I said, reductively of course, but how could I explain so she could appreciate them for what they were?
“Is that all?”
“The spy’s life is lonely. That’s one reason they held together for their time together. The spy stews over the what-ifs of the past and the unpredictability of the future, butterflies in his belly, phobias in his mind, ghosts in his memory.”
I recalled the visions of my own past that could have been different, the chronic hopelessness, the burgeoning evils, the outrageous miscalculations, the eternal compromises. That whole world was false. People whose real names you don’t know, your identity so multiple that you forget who you are. But how could Elizaveta comprehend this other world when I myself didn’t understand it? I didn’t try to explain that in a way we both had our origins in that underground milieu, she unawares but still the daughter of two spies, and I, a spy master’s son who followed in his father’s footsteps.
“For some the spy business during the Cold war was a job like any other. Others thrived on the power to influence events. But today? Secret services are crammed with mercenaries looking for adventure like medieval knights, attracted anywhere by intrigue and money. A few others like your father are given to seeking parallel lives, thirsty for the sense of another dimension, and fearful of having only one life to live. It’s the necessity of living every single hour of every single day because you fear that moment happens only once. Your father once told me that his desire to live many lives in one lifetime was irrepressible. It’s the striving for immortality. If not for another life, then another side of life, in order to diminish the impact on you of the limited life you’ve been given. Unlike in real life, spies like figures of myth live many lives.”
“Sounds like a fairytale.”
“Yes. Yet the occurrences of their lives happen … or could happen, which also counts. For who doesn’t want to break out of the circle of one life? Who doesn’t want to be free to change? Who doesn’t need more living space?”
“You mean they left me for more living space?”
“Not in that sense. In his different lives I think your father entered a new myth each time he felt a certain coherence … among all the incompatibles of life. If he had a philosophy it was that lived life comprises everything human … and more too. Yet he became a sceptic, disillusioned by the idea of magical solutions. But your mother, I think, still believed that there is space for unchanging values like equality and brotherhood.”
“But what kind of woman abandons her daughter for a spy’s life?”
“Your mother continued to defend the idea of social change. That was what the Cold War was about.”
“Clifford, what importance can that have for me. She abandoned me.”
“But for a cause. She believed. Both of them lived a fairytale. Still, in a world where everything was false and lies they probably came to feel like fugitives. Their search for a purer existence was futile.”
“But why would anyone want the kind of life they led?” Elizaveta insisted. “What kind of people were they then?”
“They were tolerant and non-judging … incapable of taking permanent sides for or against, never didactic. Alone and different. Your father said each of us is a one-man state. They examined the world but without drawing conclusions, tending toward neutrality. Yet they also wanted to participate in history. A contradiction, of course. But they also found delight in life and wanted more of it. Your father lived as inside a hall of mirrors where everything is transformed into something else and everything is possible. In that sense his life was like a fairytale.
“But how do you know all this? Are you yourself for real?”
“Elizaveta, it was my life too. I know those people, many of them traitorous and greedy. And I broke away. But today’s world wants to make everyone a spy. Look around you. Video cameras everywhere. E-mails controlled. Certain websites called criminal. Loitering is a security threat. Some places just walking on the streets is a security breach. A bug in every household. The world will only be safe when every citizen is a spy.”
“You’re describing a crazy world. Your world and theirs. And I’ll never understand why they abandoned me,” Elizaveta said, the glint of tears in her illuminated eyes. “And what will it mean for us?”
“Don’t think they were immoral, Elizaveta. On the contrary. You can be proud of both. Love makes spies unpredictable. They needed love. Both understood the difference between good and evil. Your father came to blame the world he worked in for the loss of his great love, your mother. Both of them were exploited and then betrayed by the underground world. From the start your father understood that many wrong people were on the side of the victors, many of the right people on the side of the losers. He believed he did the right things, though sometimes for the wrong reasons. Even though in the end he became sceptical, he never gave up hope. In a way that’s why we’re here together.”
(Elizaveta’s father, Nikitin, was trained as a spy in the USSR and sent to West Europe as a sleeper. His controller was in East Berlin. After a life as a Russian displaced person among the Soviet emigration in the aftermath of World War II he was hired by the U.S. Committee in Munich, as he was supposed to, and became a double agent. There he met Masha Orlova who was a Soviet informer in the U.S. Committee. But after the birth of Elizaveta his work took him afar and he hardly knew his daughter. Later, Masha Orlova went to Russia to search for her own father who had disappeared in the same period of turmoil, thus blowing her cover in Germany. She was not allowed to return to the West. Elizaveta grew up with her mother’s friends in Munich. This is definitely much too much background. Perhaps the story would be stronger without it. But, I believe, it would be less complete, less true.)
The pictures still lie on Elizaveta’s work table. From time to time she turns the spots on them. The sequence of photographs of father and mother and daughter, like a chain of life, I believe, prefigure other significant changes to come in our lives. They are signposts. If not, I keep asking, why then did they fall into my hands?
© Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor and European Correspondent for Cyrano’s Journal, is a novelist, reporter and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He resides in Rome.