Two pianists, talking and remembering

Here’s an excerpt from Summit. Daniel Fulton, our hero, is a handsome, eccentric pianist who has left the concert stage, for reasons having something to do with the Russian psychic Valentina Borisova.  He is visiting the Russian emigré pianist Dmitri Khorashev in his New York City apartment to discuss the recital he has agreed to give in Moscow — where, he believes, he will meet Valentina again.

The matryoshka doll we see in the scene is a kind of Chekhov’s gun.


The doorman seated at the security console did not like the looks of the scruffy, unshaven man with the cloth cap pulled down over his eyes. He was wearing a tattered tweed jacket and ancient stained chinos, and he held a battered briefcase in his large left hand. He looked like a rummy who retained some pretensions of respectability. He did not belong here. “Yes?” the doorman asked, hand poised over the alarm button in case the man became abusive.

“I heff come to repair ze piano of Maestro Khorashev,” the man said in a heavy accent that the doorman didn’t recognize.

The doorman paused. That seemed at least conceivable. “Is Mr. Khorashev expecting you?”

The man shrugged. “Inquire, pliz. The name is Herr Bösendorfer. Daniel Bösendorfer. He has cracked sounding board. Is very serious.”

The doorman decided it wouldn’t do any harm to inquire. He called Khorashev’s apartment. The housekeeper knew nothing about any Herr Bösendorfer, so she went to ask Khorashev himself, who immediately got on the line. “Yes, indeed,” he said. “Sounding board is not only thing that is cracked. Send Herr Bösendorfer up immediately.”

“Yes, sir.” The doorman buzzed open the inner door. The scruffy man tipped his cloth cap and headed for the elevator.

* * *

Khorashev was at the door of the apartment to greet him. They hugged. “Daniel, my idiot friend, why don’t you call like normal person?”

“If I knew the answer to that, Dmitri, maybe I’d actually be normal.”

“Well, you are a sight for hurt eyes. Come in. I am just watching The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Fulton wasn’t quite sure whether Khorashev fractured his clichés as a joke, or whether after thirty years in America he still hadn’t mastered the language. He followed the older man inside. The apartment, as always, brought back a rush of memories. Khorashev had been his teacher at Juilliard and afterward; together they had found the genius lurking behind the talent. The experience had been exhausting and exhilarating.

“I must get the name of your tailor,” Khorashev said as he led the way down the hall to the TV room. “Is a wonderful outfit you are wearing.”

“I’ll trade you for the name of your decorator.” It was an old joke. There had been a decorator once, but over the years Khorashev had so overloaded the apartment with his own peculiar collection of memorabilia that all traces of professional taste had long since disappeared under an avalanche of kitsch.

Khorashev collected Americana. If it reminded him of his adopted land, it had a place in his apartment, regardless of what other people thought of it. So his walls were plastered with movie posters and Coca-Cola signs and crocheted American flags, his tables and bookshelves were covered with Atlantic City ashtrays and ceramic Statues of Liberty and autographed baseballs. It was all junk to Fulton, but it was junk, he realized, because he was so used to it; it was part of the texture of his life, like golden arches and pepperoni pizza and Muzak. To someone like Khorashev, such things were symbols of what this new world had given him.

Fulton had come across only one reminder in the apartment of the world Khorashev had left behind. It was a doll that sat in the corner of a bookshelf in sight of Khorashev’s piano. Fulton had picked it up once, and discovered that inside the doll was another doll, which in turn had its own doll inside it—and so on, he assumed, but Khorashev had taken it away from him before he could find out. “Matryoshka doll,” Khorashev had said, putting it back together again. “From the old days.” Khorashev was not eager to talk about the old days. Fulton hadn’t mentioned the doll again.

On The Beverly Hillbillies, an old woman with a funny voice was squawking at a hapless-looking man in a suit. Fulton had never seen the program before, but he felt as if he had watched it a hundred times. “Granny and Mr. Drysdale,” Khorashev informed him. “A very clever show.” When Granny and Mr. Drysdale were replaced by an air-freshener commercial, Khorashev turned off the television. “So, my friend, what brings you back from the vallée d’Obermann? Do you come perhaps to congratulate me on my triumphant Carnegie Hall recital, which I got you a very rare and precious ticket for, but you have not bothered to mention to me as yet?”

“It was pretty good,” Fulton said, “although what you see in those Haydn sonatas is beyond me.”

“Everyone has his peculiarities,” Khorashev said, chuckling. “Horowitz likes Clementi, Glenn Gould’s favorite composer was Orlando Gibbons. And did you not recently make a recording of Charles Ives?”

“Yes, well, I learned my lesson with that record. Back to Chopin, I guess.”

“Another recording?”

“Well, no. That’s why I’m here, actually. I need some advice. I’m going to play in public again this fall.”

Khorashev clapped Fulton on the back. “Ah, excellent! What is the lucky city?”

This was the hard part. “Um, Moscow,” he replied.

Khorashev scowled. “Not at this Peace Festival so-called?”


Khorashev glared at him, a glare that Fulton knew all too well. It used to come when he had failed to think through a piece, had played as if he were merely reproducing notes, not recreating a work of art. It meant that Fulton had not lived up to the older man’s expectations of him. “What’s wrong with peace?” Fulton demanded.

“What’s wrong with freedom?” Khorashev replied.

“Can’t we try to have both, Dmitri?”

“Only if we are much smarter than Grigoriev and his cronies. And I do not think we are, my friend.”

“I don’t think building more and bigger nuclear weapons is particularly smart, no matter who’s doing it. At least Grigoriev appears to be making a sincere effort to get rid of them.”

Khorashev threw up his hands, as if in despair at Fulton’s ignorance. “Grigoriev is only making his proposals because Soviet Union is on brink of collapse,” he said. “Why not force him to keep on spending on military, and help bring about this collapse?”

“Should we continue risking our entire planet on the chance your analysis is correct?”

Khorashev started to reply, then sat back in his chair and laughed. “Ah, my friend, you are American, no matter how much you complain about the place. You see the good in people, and you hope for the best. While I am just an old Russian peasant who is used to the worst, and sees no reason why things should change. Go ahead and give your recital in Moscow. Now let us talk about music, where we may perhaps agree occasionally.”

That was fine with Fulton. Khorashev had actually given in rather easily, he thought—at least compared to the battle he had been expecting. “I’m scared, Dmitri,” he admitted. “It’s been a long time. What if I’ve lost whatever it was that I had? I don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of the entire world.”

“Do you still hit all the notes?” Khorashev asked.

Fulton shrugged. “I suppose so. That’s the least of my worries.”

“Then you need not worry about anything else—at least for this recital. People will just be so glad to find out you have not gone into the deep end or come up with a disease or whatever, that their standards will be much lower. Is the advantage of having a reputation, Daniel. And once you are back, it will just get easier.”

“You quit for a while in the late fifties, didn’t you? Were you scared when you returned?”

“Of course, but I was much younger and stupider then—like you are now. When I should have been scared was before that, after I defected. Not right away, because then people loved me for defecting. But a little later, when the newness was gone, and people weren’t so interested anymore. But lucky me, I was much too stupid, and I muddled through. So will you. What will you play?”

“I don’t know. Pieces I’m familiar with, I guess. One less thing to be nervous about. I thought maybe I’d begin with Les Adieux—you know, sort of programmatic, the absence followed by the return.”

“Begin with Les Adieux? God help you, Daniel, you have courage. That final movement—vivacissimamente—your fingers must be supple just to survive it. Let’s hope you do not have a cold Moscow night to stiffen them.”

“It’s only you old people who have to worry about stiff fingers. Maybe I should start off with Liebesträume, get them swooning with love for me right away.”

Khorashev shook his head. “Save it for the final encore, Daniel. Is better to leave them swooning.”

Fulton had to agree. “And what about something Russian—out of courtesy for my hosts?”

“Of course. Perhaps one of the Prokofiev war sonatas—now that would be interesting programming for Grigoriev’s Peace Festival.”

“A little too interesting, maybe.” And the ideas began flowing then. Before long the two of them moved into Khorashev’s studio, where they took turns at his Bösendorfer, arguing about the merits and the interpretation of every piece either one suggested. It was the kind of afternoon that Fulton enjoyed immensely, and felt vaguely guilty about enjoying. There is more to life than music. It was as if he had retreated to some warm, familiar place where he could not be harmed. But he had left that place when he had gone off with Hill. Now nothing was going to be the same.

They stopped finally when a pupil arrived—a slim, serious-looking young woman whose knees almost visibly buckled when she recognized Fulton. “This man is handsome and plays like an angel, but is very stupid,” Khorashev informed her. “Go watch Gilligan’s Island till I am ready for you.”

She obediently went down the hall to the TV room, glancing behind her once or twice to imprint Fulton’s visage on her memory.

“Very talented, but no spark yet,” Khorashev remarked. “Wonderful at Scarlatti, though.”

Fulton sighed, thinking of all she had to face. “Thanks for your help, Dmitri.”

“Don’t mention it. Where will you be playing in Moscow, may I ask?”

“The Great Hall of the Conservatory—where I played before.”

Khorashev nodded. “I have played in the Bolshoi Zal too,” he murmured. “It has its memories. But keep in mind: you will be Daniel Fulton when you walk on that stage. Is all that matters.”

Fulton smiled at his old friend. “I’ll keep it in mind,” he said. Then he picked up his battered briefcase, put on his cloth cap, and walked out of the apartment.

* * *

Khorashev went back into his studio and sat at the piano. The pupil was waiting for him, but he did not want to see her just yet. He glanced at the matryoshka doll and thought of Daniel Fulton in Moscow, at the conservatory. Thought of his own days at the conservatory, practicing till his bones ached, wandering through the bookstores of the Arbat and buying dirty glasses of kvass from street vendors, picking mushrooms in the countryside, talking and drinking and laughing all night in some wretched student flat, young and happy and stupid. Thought of the glorious war, beating back the Fascists from the city’s very suburbs, the giddy, insane pride he had felt in his motherland—a pride that covered a multitude of sins.

Sins. Thought of the farm that his family had once owned, until the thugs came and dragged off his father and beat his mother while he cowered beneath the bed.

Thought of the friends who disappeared and were not spoken of again.

Thought of Zhdanov and his toady Khrennikov sitting in judgment of Shostakovich and Prokofiev and the rest, geniuses whose boots they were not fit to lick, throttling the musical spirit of the nation with their fat fingers. All to please the Great Leader, who sat in the Kremlin, invincible in his ignorance and his power, and destroyed lives with a twitch of his mustache.

Thought of the fear that permeated his life like a fog. What can I play? Who can I speak to? What can I speak about? The fear that finally made him leave, impulsively, the first chance he had—a drowning man reflexively gasping for air.

He had left, and now he would never return.

His fingers idly played the three descending whole tones that began Les Adieux. Le-be-wohl, Beethoven had written above them. Farewell. Do svidanya.

Americans expect the return to follow the farewell, the way the third movement must follow the first two; Russians know better.

Khorashev got up from the piano and went to watch the end of Gilligan’s Island with his pupil.

* * *

Fulton walked away from the elegant apartment building on Central Park, head down to avoid making eye contact with passersby. His mind was filled with music.

It was another warm, sunny day. A horse-drawn carriage clip-clopped by; inside, a young couple—newlywed tourists, maybe—gawked at the metropolis. A taxi driver leaned on his horn. A black kid’s boom box pulsated with a mindless rhythm. Life surrounded him. Why couldn’t he be a part of it?

Eventually he found himself by Rockefeller Center. He gazed across Fifth Avenue at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and after a while he crossed, making his way past the pretzel vendors to stand in front of its huge doors. Saints stared out at him from the doors, recognizing him, daring him. He went inside.

The back of the cathedral bustled with tourists. There were boxes asking him to donate money for peace, for the poor, for earthquake relief, for the maintenance of the cathedral. This wasn’t what he wanted. He moved forward up a side aisle.

A wizened old man in a shapeless suit grabbed Fulton’s arm and gestured at his head. Terrified, Fulton tried to break free, and then realized he was supposed to take off his cap. He obeyed. The man nodded, appeased, and wandered off. Fulton slid into a pew.

Now what? He half knelt, half leaned back against the seat and looked up at the high, vaulted ceiling. At the far end of his pew, a man in a business suit was reading the Times. A couple of rows in front of him, a black teenager with a Mohawk knelt, motionless, his face in his hands.

Now he was supposed to pray.

He remembered asking his mother once about religion. She frowned at him with the perpetual frown that seemed to be the natural state of her features. “Religion,” she said, “is the last refuge of a failure. Only those who cannot succeed in this life need the promise of another one. Go practice.”

He had practiced.

His mother was a high school teacher in Evanston, Illinois. That was not her idea of success, but success can also be experienced vicariously. She had put her husband through graduate school and helped him become a professor at Northwestern. And when Daniel came along and started picking out melodies on the old living room upright at the age of two, the course of the rest of her life was clear.

She could not understand how someone could throw away his success like a pair of old socks. It was her success too, after all, that he was throwing away. And how could he explain it to her, when he didn’t really understand it himself? They didn’t speak anymore, and Fulton didn’t know what to do about that.

A couple of middle-aged women were staring at him intently. He buried his face in his hands. The black teenager could pray; why couldn’t Daniel Fulton? Because he was successful? Hardly. Because he didn’t believe? But he wanted to believe. Wanted to believe something. Fulton tried to imagine life as a believer. Things would be so easy, so comfortable then. The answers would all be there, and the only worry would be to do what you were told, and surely that would be easier than being told nothing.

He thought about Moscow. He thought about Valentina Borisova and her frightened eyes. Tears at dawn. A rose lying on a chair. He hesitates, then picks it up, and then he walks away….

He thought about playing the piano again. It had been in Moscow, walking through the cold early-morning city, that he had decided to quit. Perhaps it was inevitable that his departure and his return were so intertwined, like voices in a Bach fugue.

Perhaps the answers are there, he thought. Yes, he was beginning to believe that they were. And that belief was better than nothing.

He looked up, gripping the back of the pew in front of him. The women were gone; the black teenager hadn’t moved. He could feel his fingers moving slightly against the hard wood. He stared at them as he listened to the music in his mind.

They were flying through the intricacies of Les Adieux‘s third movement: The Return.

Fulton smiled. It was time to start practicing.

Chekhov’s gun (and why it matters)

I’ve been rereading Senator and, as with Summit, I found myself a little hazy about some details of its complex plot.  Fairly early in the book, the senator comes across a gun in a drawer in his wife’s dresser.  And my first thought when I read this scene was: Yikes, I hope I didn’t break Chekhov’s rule about guns!

I don’t know if they teach this rule in graduate fiction-writing programs, but they should — it’s that basic.  And, wouldn’t you know, Wikipedia has an entry about it.  Apparently Chekhov stated the rule about four different ways, but his point is clear: If you introduce a gun in a story, you better use it before the story is over.  If you don’t use it, that’s not exactly a plot hole, but in some basic way you haven’t played fair with the reader (or playgoer).

The converse of this is also true: If a character uses a gun near the end of a novel, you better have introduced that gun earlier in the plot.  You can’t just say: “He recalled that his wife had a gun in a dresser drawer that she kept there for protection, so he went upstairs and got it.”

Of course, the rule isn’t just about guns.  In a meeting with his campaign staff after discovering the murder that starts off the novel, the senator notices a bruise on the arm of one of his trusted lieutenants.  If the narrator notices a bruise on someone’s arm, that bruise had better have some significance later on in the story.

So, did I break Chekhov’s rule in Senator?  Ha!  Wouldn’t you like to know!  Coming soon to an ebook store near you….

(By the way, any day now I’m going to start setting down my rules for writing.  None of them are as good as Chekhov’s gun rule, though.)