Puzinkin “Pushkin, Puzinkin, go to sleep Pushkin, Puzinkin, don’t you weep…”
A Life of My Grandmother in Seven Authors Leo Tolstoy “Much earlier than most, I understood that Levin was the hero of Anna Karenina, not Anna. It was the only thing on which my mother and I agreed.”
Heinrich Heine “‘At first I was almost about to despair, I thought I never could bear it — but I did bear it. The question remains: how?’”
Alexander Pushkin “Would you like to hear my theory? After each great poem was born, he tried to kill himself with a duel. If he survived, he would write again. If not, it was time…”
Rainer Maira Rilke “In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke said that a true writer would get up in the middle of a night to write down his thoughts. But here I am, in the middle of the night, writing down someone else’s thoughts.”
Agatha Christie “I would never speak in this way, really, but I do wonder: What would it be like to kill someone in the English countryside? Oh, it’s horrible! And they are so polite out there!”
Franz Kafka “I’ve spent my whole life not reading Kafka.”
God “In my heart of hearts I know that God is the loneliest of creatures. Why else would He have brought this world into being?”
Ping-Pong My grandmother ran a foster home for 17 years. In the basement she had a ping-pong table where she took the quietest and stubbornest children. When I was 12 I asked her why.
“What they wanted to say was always hiding underneath what they didn’t say. I was severely educated, in the German model. My parents never said anything without a footnote hanging in the air, which I was expected to see and understand. And so I imagined each kid’s ping as a test of whether I could see the footnote explaining who they were, and why they were here. I always beat them though, and somehow – afterwards – they knew that I understood them. Someone else, someone with academic training, might interpret our game differently. Our regional manager, for instance. He couldn’t stand the back and forth, the pregnant air of conversation unspoken, and when he visited always told me to stop. That particular game went on for years. Sad to say, I never got to the bottom of him.”
You and I I have to tell you something. When I was your age there was “me,” and also “the other me.” These were quite distinct characters. I even had two journals, which I called “you” and “I.” The first one, that is, “you,” I might allow to be read one day. It was written in Russian, and is mostly reflections on literature. The other one, in German, was about all the other stuff. You can’t imagine what “I” said about me. This journal was hidden inside my mattress, and even the first me wasn’t allowed to see it. I told someone about this once, a young woman I met at the art museum in Antwerp, but she laughed. This was in the winter of 1923.
Love in a Minor Language Lonely, studying abroad, I once asked my grandmother for romantic advice. I had met a girl from Spain, and she didn’t understand me.
“Our courtship took place in French,” she wrote back, “all by letter, and focused almost exclusively on the recent death of my father. That’s how I fell in love with him. Your grandfather, I mean. When things got bad, I just translated everything we discussed back into that peculiar language spoken only by us, and only for a little while.”
1. I want to become a writer, and my grandmother tells me this story. “But first you have to understand that my cousin, who was also my aunt, moved to Israel with her grandparents. From the other side of the family. Which explains everything.”
2. “It works like this. You walk into the house and put down your glasses who knows where. Ten minutes later you need to read the mail, but you can’t find them. ‘Where’s my glasses?’ you shout. Your aunt answers, ‘On the balagan!’ Balagan is Hebrew for ‘chaos,’ and Polish for ‘wooden house,’ and Russian for ‘whorehouse.’ What your aunt means to say is that balagan is the place where everything changes, where something is always happening, where you need your glasses most desperately, but where you will miss the most important thing anyway, because it’s happening upstairs, in a private room, where you have no business. No one understands this better than your aunt. But this is irrelevant, you’ve got me off track…you still need to read the mail, and right now you are merely shuffling the bills from back to front.”
3. When you finally visit your aunt, after many years, she barely recalls her own name. It’s summer, and she is fanning herself outside her broiling cottage, hardly more than a wood shack. Then you remember the story from your grandmother, so you ask, kind of slyly, “Aunt Zsa Zsa, where’s the balagan?” She laughs, like you’ve finally come to your senses, and she answers with a girl’s voice: “When we lost something in our house, we turn a glass upside down. Immediately afterwards, the object is found. And the place the object is found is the balagan.”
4. I tried this at home. I don’t have to tell you how the story ends. I walked into the house, the bills stuffed into my jacket pocket, my glasses left God knows where. I begin to straighten up. When it was time to find my story I took a glass from the cupboard and turned it upside down, which was followed by a crash and a pop, as if my grandmother were still alive and making fun of my aunt’s accent – “which was, it has to be said, all over the place.” It’s possible, it’s likely, that I misheard my aunt’s instructions, for when I finished my investigation both the glass and my glasses were broken to pieces.
Pushkin’s Secret Journal “I finally found my journals,” she told me. “I’m pleasantly surprised with what I wrote about Pushkin when I was a girl. Everything else, unfortunately, has to go.”
“Will you translate something for me?”
She looked at the yellowed paper with a terrifying blankness.
Finally she spoke: “That’s the thing with Pushkin. You can’t translate him. How to explain this in English?”
Von Clausewitz Plays Scrabble For years I thought “Von Clausewitz” was just a funny name Grandma called me when we dueled over the chessboard.
Towards the end we switched to Scrabble; each turn was 20 minutes, but when she pulled the trigger on her tiles the most surprising words came out. Once, late in the evening, I thought I had the jump on her. I told her that “you can’t have Clausewitzwithout…” and here I spelled out C-L-A-U-S-E. “You know, like a phrase.”
She stared at me over her glasses: “I know what a clause is.” We burst out laughing. Only then did she lay it all out: Q-U-A-G. “You know, short for quagmire.”
Much later, I found this in Von Clausewitz’ “On War”: “War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or less extent. The first thing needed here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.”
Her chessboard is put away, but the Scrabble tiles still spill out every Sunday afternoon. I stir the pieces around with my finger, like a spoon in tea, until the old card table has a new white skin.
And then, one by one, we turn the letters over.
-- Daniel Schifrin writes fiction and journalism; he’s been a curator for SFMOMA. He was a visiting scholar at Stanford and has done radio interviews for KALW and KQED.