A Question of Return

A Question of Return

by Robert Carr


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A Question of Return is a novel that spans generations and continents. Opening in Toronto,1985, the story begins with émigré poet Artyom Laukhin, who has been working to transform his father Pavel’s notebook into a publishable literary journal. Artyom’s father was a popular Soviet novelist in 1930s Soviet Union, whose spy stories were enjoyed by Stalin himself. When Artyom falls madly in love with Audrey Millay, he begins to link his experiences pursuing her with the experiences detailed in his father’s journal about Marina Tsvetayev, a tragic poet betrayed during the height of Stalinism. As the story progresses, the two narratives of Laukhin and Tsevtayeva begin to merge, and when Laukhin’s affection for Audrey is finally reciprocated, the past encroaches with shattering effects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771611473
Publisher: Mosaic Press NY
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Robert Carr fled from the Communist regime at the age of twenty-four. He then moved from France to Israel and then settled in Canada. He was a trained engineer and worked in the aerospace industry. His first novel, Continuums was published in 2008 by Mosaic Press and received extremely positive reviews including the Globe & Mail.

Read an Excerpt


"Here I am unnecessary. There I am impossible." In Paris at the time, and apprehensive about a return to the Soviet Union, Tsevtayeva wrote these words in a letter to one of her friends. She fretted and delayed, but she did return in 1939. Within two years, she was dead.

Laukhin was picked up last, and in the short drive to the Bakers' house Tsvetayeva's pithy prophecy came back to him. It was in his mind when he awoke that morning, and it stayed with him throughout the day. True, on Friday Laukhin had seen Ben with a collection of her letters under his arm, yet why these two sentences? And why now? Seven years earlier, almost four decades after Tsvetayeva's, he'd made the opposite — westward — journey. Although he had become impossible there, in the Soviet Union (he had that in common with the poetess), he was not unnecessary here. Not because of his poetry, no, there had been too many dry years already, but because of what he'd promised the day he learned of his father's sentence. He'd gone along with him, of course, and remembered the cold November wind and his father's worried face. Statistically, his father was told in the poorly lit whitewashed room, he had three more years to live, and the last one would be difficult. The doctor was a tall thin Jew who, Laukhin learned later, had been imprisoned and tortured just before Stalin's death. In a neutral voice, he granted a small likelihood of more than three years, even of a miraculous remission. He talked with an otherworldly detachment, as if he were already in the realm beyond and was offering his father several conceivable timetables that would possibly get him there. He went into details about chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, which he didn't advise because of the location (assumed, they weren't entirely sure) of the brain tumor. On the metro ride back his father tried to appear cheerful. "I'm growing fond of statistics," he said. "With luck I could hope for five more years. Or ten, at lottery odds." When they climbed back to the ground level he told him about the journal he'd kept for so many years. Laukhin was stunned — how could he hide it from them for so long? Near their building, leaning pale and unshaven on his arm, his father began to swear. "Fuck Oleg, Tyoma, fuck Oleg Vinograd. The million and a half words I wrote about him are not worth one page of my journal. You must publish the journal, Tyoma, you must see to it. Promise me. Fuck Oleg Vinograd, Tyoma, fuck him."

He heard Helen say she'd park in the street. It was an evening in support of Soviet dissident poets and writers, or something like that, and Laukhin had brought along his students to lessen the pain. The fancy envelope had arrived through the dean's office, but the card inside had not been very clear, and he forgot about it until the dean reminded him that he could turn down any invitation except those from the Bakers. Most of Laukhin's chair — at least three of its legs, the dean liked a laugh — was their endowment.

The column-fronted house on Bridle Path was huge — a scaled- down, scrubbed, floodlit Union Station. The entrance hall was vast and circular, and its several statues, patterned marble floor and cloakroom gave it the look of an antiquated theatre foyer recently renovated. At the donation desk, strategically placed near the cloakroom, two young women beamed at Laukhin's small group as he removed an envelope from his breast pocket and dropped it in the large glass bowl. Ben and Paul watched him with smirks on their faces. He shrugged and said, "Back to where it came from."

Briefly blocked by a devotee who seemed to have met him before, he caught up with the others in time to hear Helen cry, "Merciful God, who are these people?"

"I think they are zeks," Ben said.

"Zeks? Zeks serving canapés?"

"An order is an order."

Grunting, a zek thrust a large tray at them.

Paul speared a glistening slice. "Yes, I'll have some herring."

"I don't know. What's this?" asked Helen.

"It's seeniye," Laukhin said. "Caviar for the working class. Try it. It's made of eggplant."

"And this?"

"Veal tongue and pickles. I think."

"Oh, I'm not sure ... Did you say tongue?"

"Now this, friends, is the real thing. Buckwheat blinis and caviar. Mmmm ..."

"These little things?"

"Is this what they serve at the camp commander's soirées?" Paul asked.

"Zeks wear grey cotton-padded jackets, that's the Gulag fashion. These fellows are in nightgowns, burlap nightgowns."

"Look, stitched numbers, and buzz cuts too. All very zek-ish."

Laukhin said, "Ben, Paul, stop playing stupid. Now, where are the drinks?"

"I can see the bar. Artyom Pavlovich, follow me."

Artyom Pavlovich. Well, if it made them happy. It had been at least a year since his students began to use his patronymic — he couldn't remember who first addressed him that way — but he still cringed whenever he heard it. Colson Emslie was certain it was the pronunciation that offended him. "Get over it, Art," he said. "What do you want them to call you? It shows their affection and respect. I wish I had a patronymic."

They were late. Smiling broadly, Galya Baker approached them dressed in glinting black. Laukhin wondered if people smiled more with the onset of middle age. Women on this continent certainly did, and Galya did a fair imitation of a jovial North American. Her round face and spiky blonde hair made her look like a child's joyful sun. She hugged him, and began to speak quickly and with a harsh Russian accent. They were delighted he could make it. Art Laukhin's name and support meant so much to them and their cause. Could they count on a few words from him? Or, even better, one of his wonderful poems, a brief one, of course. A few stanzas? Perhaps from Sunless Seasons. Would he? Splendid. She'd tell her husband — Ian had insisted on being the MC — that the famous poet had arrived. Perhaps after Solzhenitsyn's letter, in about half- an-hour, while everybody was still sober.

She turned to his companions. "These must be your students. Helen Jeffreys? Dear Helen, it's you. I didn't ... You look splendid. Oh, let me hug you too. I had no idea you were Art's pupil. Your husband must be very proud of you. I never know how to pronounce his name."

"Nobody knows, Galya. My mother-in-law doesn't either."

"Is he here?"

"He isn't. I came as a student. And a driver."

"I hope you don't mind I brought my students with me," Laukhin said. "These two are Ben Paskow and Paul Karman."

Sweeping Ben and Paul with her eyes, Galya Baker said, "Galyna Shukin-Baker. Galya, please. I'm so glad you could come." She laughed and moved away.

The crowd was confined to two large rooms connected by wall-to-wall folding, mullioned doors. Halls would be more appropriate, he thought looking above him at the high, bleu-ciel curved ceilings sparsely flecked with golden stars and conches. Paintings, some with heavy, gilded frames, were artfully positioned on walls which were a slightly darker shade of blue than the ceiling. Clusters of armchairs and sofas were paired with coffee tables and bulky pots of tropical plants. At the back of the farthest room a few wide steps rose to a marble-tiled platform that ended at a row of French windows. A simple lectern stood near the top of the stairs, a bit to the left.

The bar was in front of a gigantic fireplace, and the scowling, hirsute bartender, in white jacket and bow tie, looked like a civilized cave-dweller topping up his income. The crowd near the bar was dense.

Laukhin said, to no one in particular, "Did you hear? A letter from Solzhenitsyn will be read. A long sermon, no doubt. It should give me time to have a drink or two. I wonder if other versifiers are unpacking their hearts for the cause tonight."

An elderly woman in a dark blue dress, leaning on the arm of a teenager, pointed a bony forefinger at Laukhin's chest and said, in Russian, "Seven years you've been here, in Toronto. How much longer, young man? When will your father's journal finally be in bookstores?"

Had he met her before? He used to boast that he never forgot a face, but he wasn't that certain anymore. "Before the end of the year," he said. "The first volume only, of course. This time I promise."

"I knew your father, you know. I want to read it before I croak. Years of promises, that's all we've had from you."

She began to swear and the teenager pulled her away, horrified.

* * *

His third drink in hand, Laukhin hid behind the foliage of a potted plant. He needed to collect himself before the ordeal. He was at best an indifferent renderer of his own poetry, and rarely agreed now to read or recite. When he did, he often rushed, and then, suddenly aware of it, he would slow down, never quite achieving the right rhythm. It was always this jarring alternation between fast and slow, like traffic on a crowded highway. His heart wasn't in it and had not been for a long time. He didn't believe in poetry readings despite the great tradition they had back home. He had grown up with them, and had read his own poems aloud many times as a young man, but now thought such displays had no merit at all, unless the act itself was the message. That had been the only reason he'd recited his own poems in Mayakovsky Square, and under Pushkin's statue, and in Moscow's crowded clubs and apartments. He was young then, and animated by the sheer exhibitionism of it, by the excited eyes and (mostly) young faces staring at him in awe, and by the adrenalin that comes from courting danger. He had lost all that years ago.

Oh well, he had promised. He took another sip from his glass. He'd recite the four stanzas from Sunless Seasons in which he implores Mandelstam, Babel, Pilniak and Tsvetayeva to come back from wherever they were, however briefly, to tell everyone what happened to them. It wasn't the main work he was known for in the West, but Galya Baker had once told him, "I simply adore Sunless Seasons, Artyom Pavlovich. The grey reflection of life, the maddening lack of answers." He'd humour her. One should humour one's patrons. These stanzas at the beginning of the collection were the easiest to follow, anyway. He wondered how many at the Bakers' gathering spoke Russian. Judging by the crowd at the bar probably quite a few.

Most of the poems in Sunless Seasons were written before he turned twenty-six. He recalled doing the rounds of Moscow's literary magazines and publishing houses, manuscript under arm. No one wanted to or dared touch the collection. Not even Novy Mir. At the time, Tvardovsky was both its chief and poetry editor. He remembered the big man, surrounded by cigarette smoke, staring at him with his blue bloodshot eyes, dismissing the beginning stanzas in a long tirade. "Tell us what? What do you expect those four to tell us besides what we already know? Two of them were shot, one died of a weak heart in a transit camp, the other hanged herself. There, the truth is known. What's with this need for gruesome, grisly details? Why brood on the past and the mistakes that were made. It's done, finished, enough. Don't help our enemies. Our fight is not easy, and you're adding grist to their mills. Yes, we had our storms, but it's time for some fair weather. The people are thirsty for it. You are a poet, focus on and paint the future." Laukhin couldn't believe his ears. Was this the publisher of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona's Place? As Laukhin stood up from the oval table to gather his manuscript, a young man said, "Trifonich, we might take another look. Maybe we could publish one or two less pessimistic poems." Had the overly familiar tone made Tvardovsky turn violet? He waved the young man off without even looking.

He left the manuscript with Novy Mir, but after hearing nothing from them for two months he took it back. The editor of Moskva published a few stanzas under the title On the Riverboat, and a few short poems were published elsewhere over the next couple of years, with no introduction or commentary, buried in the back pages. And so Sunless Seasons had an undignified, slow, official death. It had a good life in samizdat, though, and he recited its poems in smoky halls and apartments, and under statues, where he was never sure anyone could hear him. And it had a new birth in the West, starting with one poem in Grani, followed by the publication of the full collection by the YMCA Press in Paris. Tvardovsky had called it an "untidy heap of grimness" that day in his large office, with the editorial board around the oval table. Perhaps he was right, it was a heap — a jumble of untitled poems and lonely stanzas that evoked the eponymous feeling of cold, of grey rivers and skies, of lives without warmth being slowly squeezed away. But that was it, wasn't it, that was the way he'd begun to see his surroundings and the life in it. Maybe Tvardovsky was just being cautious, or reserving his strength and standing for what were, undoubtedly in his mind, more important battles. Yet, as he left the board meeting, Laukhin remembered Pasternak's words to his father. "Tvardovsky likes no living poet other than himself."

His father had briefly hoped that Novy Mir, by far his best prospect, would publish his journal. A censored version of it, of course, heavily pruned by himself to start with. But after a long evening with Ehrenburg during which he asked, obliquely, many questions, he realized that hardly anything would remain of it if he were to do what Eherenburg did in order to see his memoirs in print.

* * *

Somebody began to read Solzhenitsyn's letter and Laukhin knew that he was next. He stepped out from behind the potted plant. Everybody had moved closer to the platform to hear better. Not far from him Galya Baker was whispering in the ear of a particularly attractive woman. Mid thirties? Alluring. How had he missed her? A black pantsuit hugged her waist and hips. If this was a female tux, he was all for it. Without thinking, he took a few steps toward the two women. She had dark brown hair pulled back in a chignon. A strand fell delicately in front of her ear, and he wondered whether it had escaped or had been carefully placed there. Earrings that seemed vaguely Egyptian, not unlike her profile. Endless eyelashes. Her mouth half open.

He stepped back. He'd soon be asked to say his bit. Anyway, no more follies with young women at his age. Fifty! Well, not really, not even forty-nine yet. He shouldn't think of himself as being fifty, especially not while admiring younger women. Besides, she wasn't as young as mad Erika Belov-Wang who was probably still in her twenties. Good God, such recklessness. He should have sniffed something was up when she suggested that for the second day of his interview for the Paris Review they move to his office at Alumni Hall, so that she could better understand his working environment. He didn't get it even when she asked him, after they'd talked for two hours and as he was about to suggest a lunch break, to shut the door to his office because of the noise. It's true that he had ogled Erika Belov-Wang's legs, long and in long boots, and had speculated what lay farther up, but he didn't realize he'd have an answer so soon. By the time he shut the door and turned back, her boots and skirt were off, and her panties too, if she had been wearing any. He found himself looking at a skimpy, lacy garter-belt, stockings, and a small puff of pubic hair. She said she needed help undoing her belt. He lost it, and he shouldn't have. He couldn't lock the door because he had misplaced his key the previous week and had forgotten to ask for another. He pointed to the door and said, "The door isn't locked." But she had already turned away and was stepping past his desk. She was a thin young woman. Tightly fit just under her small waist, the black garter rode two unsettling white buttocks. A familiar witches brew. When he reached her, she pulled him down with her on the small carpet and whispered, "Even better."

Somebody came into the room while they were going at it. He heard a gasp of a sufficiently high pitch that it could have been a woman, although it was more likely a man. He had not heard the door open, but he heard it shut. That was a month ago and he hoped, even prayed, that the intruder had been Colson, whose office was next to his. Colson Emslie often came in without knocking.

He heard Ian Baker mention his name, there was clapping, and he made his way through the crowd to the platform.


Excerpted from "A Question Of Return"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Robert Carr.
Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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