Tuesday, December 22, 1998

My Father's Life

Written for G.Q. magazine in 1998

It is impossible to write about my father without speaking of my mother. This is because I knew her so much better, for I grew up with her and not with him, and because (I did not learn this until I was fourteen) they never married. And when finally they told me, their only child, what appeared to be the whole story—that my father had a mentally ill wife, who was regularly institutionalized—it made their bond seem stronger and even more romantic, the enduring love affair more powerful than any verifying document. It was only gradually, in my late twenties and thirties, especially after my mother’s death, that I began to learn how complex the truth was.

My father is ninety-one. I was born when he was fifty. He lives on the Italian coast an hour south of Rome—his base as a roving foreign correspondent for decades. A publicity release from a half-century ago sums up the father I knew from afar: One of the truly great reporters of World War II, George Weller has been bombed, machine -gunned, eaten by ants . . . And because he was always a hero to my mother, as I grew up his life always seemed heroic to me.

Most of his adulthood was spent abroad. He was one of the few correspondents to extensively cover Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, the Soviet Union, and the Pacific. During the early 1930s, while writing a couple of novels, he became a journalist in the Balkans for the New York Times, then shifted to the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, a great newspaper in its day. He won a 1943 Pulitzer Prize for a story about an emergency appendectomy performed on a pharmacist’s mate in a submarine while under Japanese attack.

Besides all this his personal life, as for many foreign correspondents, was a mess. An early first marriage begun in the Thirties ended in divorce; I have a much older half-sister whom I never see. Then, just after the war, he married a fellow correspondent who soon became highly unstable—severe manic depression. From their home in Cyprus, then Rome, his work often took him away, yet he stayed married to her for forty years while she was in and out of mental clinics.

During that time he and my mother became involved, and had me. They were as in love as any couple I’ve ever seen. Growing up, I never suspected there was anything more to the story than that my father was always being sent from one war to the next. Which was, in fact, true. Their love survived until my mother’s slow death of a brain tumor in 1988—she was sixty-five, he was eighty—still dreaming of a shared life under the same roof, rather than days or weeks stolen here or there. In the end my father’s wife outlived her by two years.

Their personal lives (so purposeful to a child’s eyes) were a jumble of making do, with occasional happy moments when they stole time together and always the prospect of more, but no happy conclusion when all was done. They lived off hope like oxygen for three decades, but for the last few years even hope went stale, could even suffocate, at least for my mother.

This is all true, but it is only an edge of the story.

When I grew up, my father was never at home. As a veteran of innumerable foreign wars, George Weller was always elsewhere in the world. Still, he was a looming presence. Exotic postcards were always arriving for me from overseas—of African jungles and teeming veldts, or Arabian deserts with camels and bedouin; from Afghanistan, Laos, Paraguay, Siberia. He could write you from the tumult of a revolution and make it sound like he was on a picnic. His workplace was much of the planet, and those postcards became my vision of it. I took it for granted that I’d become a writer one day, and travel everywhere.

A big, gusty man with extraordinarily alive blue eyes and a powerful head suggesting steel-reinforced bone structure, he always seemed much larger than a mere six feet. Abetted by an actor’s talent for exact mimicry and a voice of nuance and flexibility, he could turn on, seemingly at will, a kind of light raconteur’s charm that brought an episode alive while downplaying his own part. Contrary to the popular image of his profession, he was never a drinker or smoker. “Unfitted for simplicity” by his early years in the Balkans, he felt most American political thought belonged in a kindergarten. It amazed him that attention and even respect was paid in this country to the opinions of pundits, politicians, and tank thinkers about places they’ve never actually spent time in.

His great reportorial gift was a mask of naiveté and ignorance that was totally misleading and trapped his subjects into unwitting revelations, followed by the daggered question that went for their inner organs. A devout and eclectic reader, he felt at home everywhere and went deep into what he called the secret history of each place. His memory of all he read was astounding, but this also meant a tendency to preface a funny anecdote about some mishap in Aleppo with the entire history of the Middle East.

He was most of all a man of the world, in an old-fashioned definition of the term: a type of American gentleman who still existed mid-century and does not exist now, who was at ease in all situations, spoke six foreign languages fluently (albeit with a Boston accent), was exceedingly literate, charming, and stubbornly confident about his place in the order of things. At the same time he was not at all posh. He grew up poor —his Harvard tuition was paid by a man he caddied for every week—and has remained frugal all his life. A career under fire or trapped in difficult places, from the Hindu Kush to the wilds of New Guinea, stopped him from worrying about eating well or dressing stylishly.

Those postcards, bearing stamps that were a geography lesson in themselves, always let me know I was part of his life as he was part of mine—that no matter where he was, I was there with him—and that I was to look after my mother in his absence. I suppose not every small boy is relentlessly told this. It may have been an echo of losing his own father as a teenager. In later years I realized that the hidden import of this was that my mother was my responsibility, no matter how much he loved her. His own primary responsibility would always be his wife. (He often ruefully cited a schoolteacher who told him he would do well if only he learned to put first things first.)

A lot of his life seems a struggle to be a good son for a father who wasn’t there—a Harvard-educated lawyer who dropped out of the family on booze, but whom my father couldn’t blame entirely and remembered lovingly. From his teens my father saw himself as the head of the family for his mother and younger brother. The “dutiful son” in him hurt his fiction, for he was reluctant to write characters a reader might disapprove of. But he wasn’t scared to live his life that way—though he’d stop short of divorcing an ill wife.

My mother was a Londoner, a well-known ballet teacher and dance scholar fifteen years younger than he. (Her parents were Polish Jews who emigrated; her mother died young.) They met in Sicily when she was nearing thirty, had a prolonged affair, and split up, for he was already married. Being tired of Europe’s deprivations following the war, she moved to New York and, in a characteristically audacious and pioneering move, to Georgia, where she knew no one but realized there was no ballet company that mattered. By then my parents had hooked up again and decided to have me: it must’ve felt like a last chance for him, as well as for her. She was thirty-five when I was born, in 1957. She always spoke of how he wrote her every day during her pregnancy.

It doubtless struck them that with her renting a house in Georgia, it’d be easier to hide the facts, easier to pretend they were married. Only one family of Georgia friends knew what would’ve been in those days the very shocking truth, and acted as witness to the legal change of my mother’s last name. She told no one in her family. My father’s work was in any case sufficient excuse for the fact he was always overseas.

Due to his itinerary, and the situation I did not know about, we were lucky to see him one week a year—I never met him until I was eighteen months old, though my mother was proud that I immediately recognized him from a photo by her bedside. In those years we’d go every other summer to Europe, which my mother missed enormously, doing the ballet circuit of friends and relatives that involved London, Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam. We’d see my father for a few days snatched in a hotel here or there, or sometimes in Nassau, where we spent much of each summer until I was ten. In those days the Bahamas were inexpensive and had enough British echoes to be a kind of homecoming for my mother. I can only imagine how complicated these rendezvous must’ve been to arrange.

His odd weeks in Georgia had the fanfare of a state visit. His constant companions were a portable Olivetti typewriter and an enormous leather “grip”—a bag like a giant animal belly that held a limitless amount. I’d hurry to his airport taxi, preceding my anxious mother, insisting with my father that I was able to carry his bag, dragging it down our walk. When he did come home he was always careful to make duties fun. Plagued by bad teeth—he was ever undergoing massive dentistry in parts of the world where you’d question a Band-aid—he tried to instill good habits in me through the Toothbrush Derby. This meant a mad rush and tussle after every meal to see who got his teeth-cleaning underway first.

He could pack more efficiently than anyone I ever met. He could set up house in a hotel room in minutes.

I doubtless wouldn’t have become a novelist and journalist myself were it not for him—though it’d have been a form of rebellion had I become, say, a banker. My sense of the world being available, and seeing it being the most important part of a man’s education, came from him. He was also quick to deplore the way that journalism was an elephant’s graveyard of talent, and urged me never to let it outweigh my novel-writing. His faith in me as an artist was unwavering—partly because he had not exactly set out to be a journalist himself.

His first career overseas after Harvard had been as the only English-speaking actor in Max Reinhardt’s theater company, in Vienna, where he partnered a very young Hedy Lamarr. Later, living in Athens and Dubrovnik on practically nothing and covering the Balkans, he wrote a couple of fine novels (Not to Eat, Not for Love and Clutch and Differential) that were well-reviewed and highly praised by figures like Conrad Aiken but made him little money during the Depression.

He had quite a war. As one of the few reporters who stayed behind in Greece during the German invasion, he smuggled stories out for weeks and was “quarantined” by the Nazis. He was one of the last men to get out of Singapore and then Java, fleeing the Japanese on a leaky boat to Australia (resulting in a classic book of war reportage, Singapore Is Silent, followed by Bases Overseas). He was also the first outsider into an atom-bombed area, bucking army orders to sneak into Nagasaki a few days after the explosion. Macarthur’s censors killed all 50,000 words of that saga.

Though he wrote another novel later in life, as a Nieman Fellow, it was difficult for him to go back to literature after seeing first-hand “the world at war.” This saddened him deeply. That 1949 novel, The Crack in the Column, about the war in Greece, was dedicated to his friend George Polk, the CBS journalist murdered in Salonika in 1944. The dedication has much of my father in it:

for George Polk

At one point he confessed to me that for a time he hadn’t cared whether he lived or died, and took risks he’d never have taken otherwise. When I asked what had struck him most about war, he replied that it was how lightly young men would volunteer for missions from which they could never return.

Early in the war he tramped into Central Africa and found some of Stanley’s old adversaries—in many of his photographs the 19th century seems to have lasted until the end of WWII. In 1946 he was captured by the Red Chinese in Manchuria with several other reporters, his wife-to-be among them. He covered the Viet Nam conflict during the French era and went back to see the fall of American forces at the end. In Istanbul once for Sports Illustrated he swam the Bosphorus with an Olympic champion. His last working decades were spent as Mediterranean and Middle East correspondent for his paper, based in Cyprus and Italy.

I have said that I became a writer because of him. This is not quite true, because my literary education largely came from my mother. But from childhood I took it for granted that I could write and that to be a writer like my father was a noble calling, there was no higher profession for a man to follow, and that I could do so as naturally and easily as he. There was nothing “easy” about any of it, but this sense of self-belief, in many ways the hardest thing about becoming a writer, was one of his greatest gifts to me and kept me going for a long time.

At no point in my upbringing did I not feel deeply loved, and I certainly felt close to him. Yet because all my childhood was spent with a woman who loved deeply, faithfully, and passionately, but virtually never got to see the love of her life, I never held any desire to be a journalist. I could appreciate and envy my father’s sense of the world, his sense of duty to expose the truth before history and memory heaped dirt on it, but I vowed from an early age that I’d never become a foreign correspondent like him. I would never leave a woman stranded with a child, waiting, alone.

My own desire, which he heartily encouraged, was to be a novelist and poet first, and despite a good deal of magazine journalism—and a long travel memoir of India and Pakistan—I have held on to that proportion. Even now, due to these implanted boyhood judgments, I feel an unjustifiable prick of annoyance when someone introduces me as a journalist.

This isn’t to say I blamed him during my childhood for his absence, just as my mother didn’t. I told myself that even if we all lived together he’d have been away most of the time anyway. This is a child’s view of his work, yet it wasn’t far wrong— as many children of foreign correspondents from those years would attest, though our case was particularly extreme. My mother and I were always waiting: for a letter, for the absurd rarity of a phone call, for the more remarkable event of his actually arriving. One call a week would’ve changed my mother’s life, yet he would not make it. Much of the time she never knew where he was until after he’d left, since mail from him could take a month. The easiest way to keep track of his movements was by subscribing to his paper. I copied my mother’s anxiety and did my best as a little boy, and later as a less convinced teenager and young man, to allay it and reassure her.

The problem for us was, of course, that his wife survived. No one (I was told) believed that she would, not for all those decades. Even now it’s impossible for me to parse how much of his choice was a profound sense of Catholic guilt, how much the remnants of love for his wife, how much a self-centeredness reinforced by his endless travel, how much his own instinct for fucking things up, and how much a basic sense that she came first as a responsibility simply because she’d come along first. Something drove him to set himself up with not one but two women, both of whom he avoided to some degree. Though it sounds unlikely, it was clear when my parents were actually together that they were deeply happy; their letters back and forth remained full of devotion and even delight.

I used to imagine that on some level he blamed himself for the continuation of his wife’s illness, but then again he rarely blamed himself for much that went wrong. (His business choices were disasters.) He was full of speeches about what a noble suffering he underwent by sticking by her, by choosing her over my mother, and spoke as if his life might, long after he died, survive a kind of moral scrutiny because he hadn’t abandoned his wife. I’m not sure it occurred to him that the scrutiny of those closest to him might mean more.

Once he retired to the Italian coast he refused to get a phone, keeping his wife cut off from her own family, keeping himself out of reach of everybody, and wondering aloud why friends passing through Rome never drove down to visit him. His arrogant frugality with phones now seems unforgivable to me. There was more to it than penny-pinching, for he could be sweepingly generous too. I think he simply did not like giving up control of the lines of communication—or control of anything, for that matter.

As the years went by, my mother grew more despondent that this stretch of time together would never come. It never did, apart from a dozen New England summers they shared after his retirement. By 1980, when I moved to New York after Yale, he was in his mid-seventies and finding it harder to get away from the situation in Italy. My parents were back to a weird system of seeing each other only for a week snatched when my mother would go to Rome and my father join her for a couple of days at a time. His wife, with her bad heart that had survived several bypass operations, was as unstable as ever.

I found myself increasingly bitter at being made the lightning rod for all my mother’s pain and for my father’s need to pretend nothing could be done and hence everything was fine. They’d chosen this situation themselves: I had not been given a choice. To maintain compassion for them meant trying to keep a distance. In those years, living in New York, traveling as a freelance journalist, I saw my father more often than my mother did—many air routes still led through Rome.

There was other, unexpected fallout: in my own personal life I often found myself trying to go out with women who were already involved with other men. In retrospect I think I may have been vicariously attempting to put myself in my mother’s role—as the outsider stealing a partner from an established couple—but end up winning, as if on her behalf.

What I’d been dreading all along eventually happened—at his instigation, of course. I had left New York and was living in Paris with a Frenchwoman who became my first wife. We used to visit my father in Italy a few days at a time, staying in a hotel in the town near where he lived. He always picked up the bill; and without warning on one of those long weekends he insisted we stay with him, and with his wife—who had known about my mother’s and my existence almost from the beginning. She was, of course, far worse than I could have imagined, but also better than I would’ve liked. I could glimpse how difficult his life had been, and why he had gotten nothing done after his retirement. But it was now hard to resent her in quite the same way.

From now on this was the pattern of visits with him. They left me exhausted and sick, and somehow he failed to notice that his wife, who had always wanted a child of her own, would end up back in the clinic for several weeks afterward. They were rough on my mother also, and she spoke of having lost her belief in a future with him; she was enormously depressed and under great stress. At least when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he left his wife in Italy with a nurse-companion and came to stay with my mother for what amounted to about ten months before she slipped into a coma. After her death he surprised everyone by staying on for over a year in my mother’s now utterly empty rented house in Georgia. It was doubtless a kind of penance, but also an excuse for avoiding Italy.

Soon after he retired I began to press him to write his memoirs. He began them, but soon turned away—he had seen, he told me, what he needed to see.

I said earlier that my father was a man of the world. He was also a man in a box. That he put himself there does not make it any different. He was always trying to get out, trying to swim out to sea and bask on his back; he once told me he had dreamed of having a version of one of those large Polynesian families, of many children and relatives all around, with my mother at the center of it but—knowing him—maybe he imagined a house with several wives all in good health and getting along. This has part of his fault of seeing himself at the center of all things but also his deep wish for the family he was denied as a boy. He never really learned when to be selfish, and when to be unselfish.

It is pointless to try to tally what those who matter most in a life have given you alongside what was withheld. In the end the two are inseparable, and what you carry away is how you were able to respond, given your own limitations. Life is too costly, and there is too little of it, to withhold forgiveness. By my age my father had seen as much death as the world has to offer, yet he never lost his sense of beauty, or the grandeur of human achievement, or his unflagging humor. I try to keep that strength in mind.

I like to recall one time in Rome when I was on my way to the Middle East, to the Arabian Gulf, for the first time as a journalist. I had no idea what I was doing. He brushed aside my fears as if they were flies; the important thing in that part of the world, he advised, was not to lose my sense of mischief.

“Just prepare yourself for a new luxury of sentiment,” he told me at the airport. “You have to learn to enjoy things going really, really wrong. And do what I do: always try to leave the situation there just a little more confused than how you found it.”

Monday, December 7, 1998

The Talk of Moscow

Written in 1998 for Playboy magazine

“Nobody really knows what's going on in Moscow,” said Victor Pelevin, Russia's leading novelist. We were at the Temple of the Moon, the city's most exorbitant Chinese restaurant, feasting on sweet-and-sour crocodile. "But I'll tell you a joke. It's about the New Russians, who've made so much money they can afford anything -- the term connotes a bandit with a gold chain, who drives a BMW convertible and speaks on a cell phone from a sauna, surrounded by naked girls. Two New Russians are talking. One says: ‘How much did you pay for that necktie?’ ‘Five thousand dollars.’ ‘Where did you buy it?’ ‘On the corner of Tverskaya.’ ‘You fucking idiot, round the corner you could've bought the same one for seven thousand.’”

Everything is possible here. I heard this mantra constantly, but it only applied to Moscow, a city of 10 million in a vast country of 150 million that stretches over nine time zones and is so undeveloped you can't cross it by road. The other mantra I heard, sometimes as a joke, more often as a warning, was darker. Nobody else can ever fuck us up the way we can fuck ourselves.

It's said there are more $100 bills in Moscow than anywhere outside the U.S. -- mainly under people's mattresses, because no one trusts the banks. These thousands in savings are what many Muscovites have been living on since the Russian economy tumbled back in August, 1998. (The ruble fell in a couple of days from 6 to 23 to the dollar.) And despite how the ongoing crisis is portrayed in the western media, the mood on Moscow streets has remained far from doomsday, for all of Russia's money still passes through here first. Several towns outside Moscow have eaten their cats to stave off starvation, and in Vladivostok this winter people froze to death. In Moscow there was plenty of heat and plenty to eat, and anyone with any power is still making money. At night Moscow becomes lit-up, even excited -- it must be the only world capital where it's easy and free to park.

It is more corrupt than you can ever imagine was another mantra. I came expecting Dodge City, with shootouts, but I found Moscow calm, and safer than an American city; I walked all over late at night and never felt uneasy. There's a police office at each subway station, you don't see homeless people or teen gangs of hoodlums, and the mafiya, who are now much of the business establishment, don't make their millions preying on pedestrians.

“Nobody would ever bother to shoot you on the street because no one can make money on it,” said Pelevin.

He is very tall, with strong Tartar features and an acute awareness of having lived in many different countries by simply having remained in Moscow. At 38, Pelevin has received worldwide acclaim; his books, like A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, Omon Ra, and The Life of Insects, are by turns satirical, poetic, and fantastical. They are also best-sellers here, an amazing situation for a serious writer.

“The problem is that most Russians were exposed to the world too fast. Like Indians who didn't know what alcohol was, so they became alcoholics in a day. The same thing happened to Russians suddenly exposed to advertising. Americans build up a kind of immunity. But for us, because there's such a difference between what we had in Soviet times and what we have now, some people become mad consumers, and only define themselves in terms of what objects they own.

“Look, everybody who grew up in the Soviet Union believed how the official propaganda always depicted the West: as a place of absolute evil. Imagine a cartoon that showed America as black skyscrapers, a yellow sky, and no hope for ordinary people, who suffer immensely while the rich feed on their bodies. A stupid, cruel society, where all power is controlled by criminal tycoons. Imagine this idea was brainwashed into you by Soviet propaganda.

“Then, from the headquarters of the Communist party, came an order: ‘Now we are starting to build capitalism.’ The people given this task were ordinary party members. But what vision of capitalism do they have? Only these party cliches of a totally evil society, from the back page of a satirical magazine. And they succeeded. They built us a perverted image of capitalism, from a set of wild notions about the West that exist only in Soviet propaganda. And the kind of capitalism that they've made here exists nowhere else in the world.”

Most of Russia's cash is in Moscow, though this wealth comes from natural resources -- oil, gas, and minerals -- thousands of miles away. Step outside Moscow and you're in a peasant countryside that, despite a concrete diarrhea left everywhere by Stalin, holds 19th century echoes of horse-carts and mud.

The city is surprisingly lovely and staggeringly ugly. It's huge (the ring road is 80 miles long) and under constant, very sketchy repair due to a mayor who still harbors presidential ambitions, Luzhkov. Parks give it many neighborhoods; skyscrapers are rare. The historic center, surreally litter-free, is all lollipop colors, mansions with rococo icing and stately columns. Lubyanka, the massive KGB headquarters, could be a 1920s Miami hotel that took a sadistic turn.

Boulevards are wide enough for tank brigades; to cross them is suicidal. Instead you traverse underneath, through passages of shops selling videos, CDs, books and lingerie. Leave the historic center and you're among hideous, grimy 20-story apartment blocks, where most Muscovites live. I couldn’t see how they could afford any of it, until I spoke to a lawyer.

“In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, everybody was given ownership of their apartments,” he pointed out. “So they don't pay rent. Water, heat, electricity cost virtually nothing. My girlfriend spends only $25 a week for food, and never dines out. Any extra money goes to clothes. Even somebody who makes half what she does will spend it all trying to be fashionable.”

Two years ago middle-class Muscovites were like kids spending all their allowances from week to week. In those few days when the ruble plummeted and prices on foreign goods dropped as well, people couldn't buy up the Versace underwear fast enough.

“Everyone, but everyone in Moscow, is lying all the time,” said Natasha. “Why? Because they feel that is the only way to survive.” She was in her twenties, a bubbly, successful literary agent; she'd been a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. We were in a cafe, and she was trying to explain this new world she was helping to invent.

“You see,” said Natasha, “Muscovites are always lying to the government because there are so many taxes, so many laws. Not one person in this country tells the truth, and they all understand this is the only way. If they don't lie to their friends, they still lie to the people below them and the people above. And they feel, if not afraid, still very worried.

“I’m lucky. My salary’s paid in dollars. But it’s difficult to plan day to day. We lost contracts, because many publishers’ banks failed. Everyone lost something at the banks, even if it wasn’t their life savings.

“Before, for everyone, in Soviet days, their whole life was secure. When there were difficult times they knew the reasons and knew why there were problems. Now, though things are better, they feel only vulnerable. Unless you're a New Russian, you miss the security of the old days. Children don't have any idea how it was before, it's all boring to them. They don't know the history and they don't care. For them Lenin means nothing, and they would rather listen to pop music than read.

“Yet, more than ever, Moscow is not Russia. It wasn't Russia before and it isn't now. Moscow is still the only place in this country with possibilities.”

Few Muscovites have any sense of how much enormous wealth flows through. Most is controlled not by the federal government, which is broke, but by the rich city government, which has a stake in everything. The city owns all the land; besides rent and many taxes, it grabs a percentage off every deal. That might be a fourth, say, of what the twenty-plus McDonald’s, open round the clock, take in.

Little is actually spent improving the city. Most goes into people's pockets. For all the talk of the mafiya, the biggest gangster in Moscow is undoubtedly the city itself.

Besides a residence permit to avoid endless hassles and fines, everyone also needs a krysha (“roof”), i.e. protection -- the most important mantra of all. For a normal business, besides payoffs to city collectors, this means extortion money paid to gangs -- or else. “He was murdered because of his business activities,” was a frequent police quote in the press.

Every inch of Moscow sidewalk is spoken for, but a babushka selling cigarettes in the subway needs a different roof than a law firm. No gang would pressure a McDonald's -- if your business is 25% owned by the city you have plenty of krysha. But you might need a security force.

Bribery is routine. To improve their salaries, the Moscow police just stop cars and demand money. Need an operation? Bribe a doctor and bring your own sheets.

These days Red Square is the place to shop, for across from the Kremlin stretches a transformed GUM. Built shortly before the 1917 revolution, GUM was for a time the largest department store in Europe. Inside it’s belle-epoque industrial: a crystal palace of sunlit halls and iron-and-glass ceilings. Famous in Soviet days for offering shirts in one style, two colors, and three sizes, GUM is now full of familiar names -- Sony, Reebok, Lancome, Pierre Cardin, Estee Lauder, Ray-ban, Lego, Revlon, and the rest; the Levi's shop sells 501 jeans for $95. Despite the ruble collapse, plenty of Muscovites can still afford to shop here.

The new Manezh subterranean mall nearby is even more lavish, with its space-age elevators whispering three floors below the square, its marble atriums, its glittering shops. It burrows right beside the Kremlin, for 75 years the headquarters of the Communist world. All the names missing from GUM are here: Nike, Guess, Next, Benetton, Rockport. Shop windows drool with Swiss watches, French bikinis, jewelled golden swords, high-end Japanese electronics, and Italian fuck-me outfits. A toy store sold dolls for $1000, a kid's gas-powered Mercedes for $5000. What made it stranger was that the embalmed corpse of Lenin also lay on view in a glass case, 200 yards away.

One Sunday afternoon I decided to see where ordinary, hard-pressed Muscovites, who survive on $50 a month, were shopping. I rode the metro, arguably the best subway system in the world: it carries more people daily than those of New York and London put together, and trains arrive every minute. Each station in the city proper is magnificently different, a Stalinist-era vision, but all are marble, and insanely expensive to keep up with their bronze statues and ornate mosaics.

By the Sportiviny sports stadium people were stampeding a muddy tract of close-knit booths selling cheap clothes and electronic goods, housewares, videos, leather coats, shoes, Marlboro cigarettes ($1), sunglasses, and pins with Elvis Presley and Madonna. There were Port-o-sans for those who gorged on Coke, Pringles, and hot dogs.

Now the ex-middle class were shopping at flea markets like this rather than downtown at GUM. It was imports that weren’t affordable. Gas and vodka and food, anything of Russian origin, were cheaper if you were living off dollars from your mattress.

The Sandunovskiy Baths, in two historic buildings, seemed a possible element of changeless Moscow. I went for the lux men's baths, up a marble staircase, past nude statues. There I chose a sheaf of leafy birch twigs and reflected on the masochism in many of this culture's pleasures. The idea is to sweat the vodka from your pores, then lie on a stone slab and pay an attendant to wreak an invigorating birch revenge on you.

In a polished-wood salon of hard benches and lackeys serving tea, fat men in towels sat around gossiping. A decrepit marble antechamber led to the sauna. In stultifying heat I was joined by two New Russians in their twenties who determined I was American, then joyfully went through obscenities (“Motherfucker! Don't try that shit on me!”) until we hit a barrier in the universal language.

Rather than asking them, I gave myself a few cursory thwacks with my birch sheaf and visualized the place in its heyday, full of chubby party officials hiring it for co-ed parties. Nowadays you came here to avoid the mafiya and ended up naked with them.

Mutual friends told me that Sasha, in his thirties, had been a star at the KGB. A Ukrainian, he lived with his wife and child in a decaying apartment block, with dark entryways that stank of urine. It was a typical Moscow flat: flowered wallpaper, ornate cabinets, golden drapes, and an upright piano. The only oddities were Bruce Lee posters, and the tall Japanese swords and battle axes that Sasha had made himself.

“I loved martial arts as a boy -- boxing and a Russian form of judo. For two years I was a sergeant in the army and a driving instructor in the tank corps. To do that you have to have steel teeth and steel balls. This was in Afghanistan. I was young and felt sorry for myself. I saw a lot of blood, but my division came back. I met some KGB officers there, and ended up doing my higher education at the Moscow KGB university, specializing in law, studying to be a KGB officer.

“Before, questions about Communism meant little to me. I learned a lot. Afterward, I was ready to struggle against the enemies of my motherland -- terrorists, spies, foreign armies. I was ready to be James Bond.

“I also became a karate champion, one of the top three KGB martial arts instructors. Along the way, I realized that KGB political officers were idiots. They could barely read, they spoke of nothing but the Great Russian Party that Ruled the World. I stopped being afraid of them, and maybe that's why they fired me. I was twenty-three.”

But it wasn't that simple, what had happened to him.

“The KGB school had strange rules. One was no Jewish wives -- because they must be spies for the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. My wife is Jewish, though we were not married then. One day my KGB chief asked me, 'Why do you think Jews are normal?' I answered that I'd met a lot of assholes in my life, and they were from all kinds of backgrounds and nationalities.

“This was too impudent to tolerate. To be fired was very painful -- I cried and cried. A few years ago that guy was thrown into prison for selling weapons, which made me happy. In those days I really believed in the ideals of the KGB. I felt wounded because I wasn’t given a chance to carry them out abroad.”

Eventually, with the collapse of the USSR, Sasha found his way to a good salary, first as a bodyguard, then at a foreign embassy, now with a private security company.

“And what happened to your old KGB colleagues?”

“The ones with brains became big businessmen. Some are with gangs, some are still in the KGB. Selling weapons and drugs. Their official salary is under $100 a month now, that's the problem.” He shrugged. “A little bit of democracy creates a big vacuum and a big mafiya to fill it. They gave so much money to the church that in one part of Moscow the priests were saying mass for gangsters killed in action, can you imagine? But the real mafiya here isn’t gangsters, it's the police and the KGB.” He sighed. “In America your police motto is To Serve and Protect. In Moscow it's Give us your money and fuck off.”

Alexander was a blond Russian in his forties who trained in the States and has his own p.r. firm. “Five years ago the spin doctor business didn't exist here,” he told me. “All media were controlled by the government -- an absolutely perfect propaganda machine that broke down. Then lots of money came into Russia from the west. Now it's bankrupt. Political factions are fighting for control of the media; elections are always going on somewhere in this country and big money gets spent on p.r. In the States, you have to be clever to convince journalists of your agenda. Here you just need a thick wallet. The result is armies of ‘image consultants’ marching through the streets telling people they can make Swiss chocolate out of a piece of shit.

“You get completely different coverage of internal politics just by changing TV channels. People are rioting on one channel and it disappears on another. Russians are naive. My sister-in-law said, ‘Isn't it funny that airplanes started to fall out of the sky a few years ago?’ It never crossed people's minds that they hadn't been told the truth before. That's why trips abroad were forbidden in the Soviet years.

“Russians have become very nostalgic about a beautiful past: the stability they did have, and a lost prosperity they think they had. People were shocked by what happened in the fall of ‘98, they lost money, life became more expensive. But the crisis is behind us, we're in some kind of stable situation which people can deal with okay -- though it might get worse.

“Some groups, like miners and teachers, hadn't been paid for months anyway, so nothing changed in their nightmare. The ones who got hit were the emerging middle class, young white-collar professionals who got laid off.

“But one phenomenon of Moscow that hasn't changed is the big black Mercedes with someone important, followed by an Escort jeep full of bodyguards with thick necks, driving other cars off the road. Imagine: back in the 1970s a real pair of Levi's jeans were a status symbol. This is how far we've come.”

Nothing here is changing as fast as TV. “People love game shows,” said Yuri, a former television producer. “Most are copies of American shows. A Wheel of Fortune, a Name that Tune. Our talk shows are also based on Western models. We never had true-life stuff before glasnost in the late '80s. People can't get enough.

“The new trend is sex talk shows. On one the host is a black girl from America who speaks Russian like a native and has fake blonde hair. Her guests are homosexuals, transvestites, people who have never had sex, nymphomaniacs. And they discuss sex openly. On another show a young couple have to do different tasks and if they fail they take off their clothes. For some reason we keep seeing lots of topless girls.”

One of the most popular shows (85 million viewers) has been a game with the Moscow police. On Perechvat (Interception) a “thief” -- the contestant -- “steals” a car in mid-city and has 35 minutes to elude three squad cars. The police have tracking devices, so they're on his trail quickly. If they arrest him, he loses; if he can keep moving, he wins a new Korean car, waiting back in the TV studio with a howling audience.

The cops can't shoot, and the thief's not allowed to break the speed limit. (In an episode I saw, one contestant drove onto a train and escaped; another used a boat.) Most head for the wasteland of an abandoned airfield, where they can't be cornered.

Meanwhile the police cars charge through Moscow streets, sirens blaring, TV cameramen hanging out the windows and people scattering. The chase looks convincing, though the thief maps out his route with the producers. They don't tell the police, they just set up their cameras.

It's not hard to grasp the popularity of Interception. Each year in Moscow 18,000 cars are reported stolen. There's also no tradition of cop shows, so this is the first time Russians have seen their police in action. Most of all, it's the fantasy of winning a car worth a family's life savings by evading a hated, corrupt authority figure.

Night life for most Muscovites means drinking as much vodka as possible with a video on. This vast intake makes men impotent -- you simply can't down a lot of vodka and still perform. As one joke said: When two Moscow ladies Moscow want a wild sex weekend, what do they need? Nine Russian men.

Moscow is a late-night town: people routinely telephone you at 1 a.m., and most clubs stay open until morning. The most useful biweekly guide rates night spots by calculating the odds of having sex or getting hurt. * = You have a better chance of getting iced than laid, ** = You have a better chance of getting laid than iced, *** = You WILL get laid, and afterwards, you'll want to ice yourself.

They also rate a club's “Flathead Factor,” i.e. its gangster density. *** = If you come here, you WILL wind up on our Death Porn pages.

Among clubs with names like Propaganda, Taxman, Rasputin, Plasma, and Buchenwald, the most notorious was the Hungry Duck (“Thank God for antibiotics, folks!”) -- a rampaging, howling riot that the police sometimes shut down, where you got spilled on and trampled and were lucky to avoid a brawl.

Despite what you read, every woman is not for sale, though you do see prostitute brigades after dark, waiting like a line of taxicabs. In the fancier clubs, with cover charges around $50, security's tight, with courteous gorillas wearing walkie-talkies and Kalashnikovs. Single women came to dance and meet someone -- but most wanted to be kept mistresses, maybe for the night, maybe for life. This financial reliance is built into the promiscuous society, but it was hard to tell who was a professional and who a gold-digger, since every woman dressed and danced outrageously but flirted with restraint.

The result was a dance floor shaking to techno-pop, full of ravishing women dancing solo -- those years of state-sponsored ballet training really pay off. Impossible to exaggerate their sheer overwhelming beauty, which surpasses even Havana: long-limbed goddesses with high cheekbones, elongated eyes, a refined pout, a headlong confidence, and a penchant for high boots.

The weirdest Moscow custom was the Jealousy Game -- that blonde angel in skintight leather dancing alone, smoldering at you, who wanted you to join her so she could make her mafiya boyfriend with the nine-foot wingspan, drinking with his cronies, jealous and exceptionally violent.

Under stroboscopic lights, with dry ice spewing past at high speed and athletic bodies gyrating in spandex beneath psychedelic streamers, one gorgeous young prostitute said to me, “There are women here who will not sleep with anyone. And others who will do everything you want without a condom. Which type you prefer?”

Moscow's opportunism-with-the-gloves-off owes as much to the old totalitarian approach as the recent capitalist mess. What astonished me is how much many people miss one of the most brutal regimes in history.

This attitude was exacerbated by a profound conviction that the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment. Nothing was predictable: anyone who said he knew what would happen here was deluded.

A refrain I heard often was how much people missed the security of the Soviet system, when you could afford everything that was in the stores. Of course, back in the good old days there was nothing in the stores.

“It's simple,” said Tania, one Sunday afternoon. “Our lives, for most of us, fifteen years ago, were much, much better.”

Tania was twenty-seven, tall, dark-haired, with a pixie smile and a slant-eyed gaze that bespoke Tartar blood. Her English was good. Trained as an economist, she worked for a communications company. She'd gotten her job immediately after university, on merit (she claimed), not connections; she was now looking for another. When I asked what she earned, she shrugged. “Don't laugh, please. $60 a month. But two years ago, it was about $250. This is why so many people miss old days. Because now there is only rich and rest of us. Before, life for most of us was more similar. Not only rich and poor.”

Tania wasn't complaining, but her salary clearly didn't go far in an expensive city. Nevertheless, she was well-dressed, a residue of the boom years. She lived in a flat with her mother and brother. She and her friends rarely went to movies, or even a cafe -- too much of a splurge. They went for walks or watched videos at someone's flat.

“About half my friends live with parents,” she said. “That's why I don't travel. Until last year I was saving money to get my own apartment, to have a private life. There aren't mortgages for someone like me.” As there's no credit, every ruble is due up front.

We'd met at the Tretyakovskaya Museum, a favorite outing for Muscovites because it’s affordable and contains only Russian art, mostly 18th and 19th century paintings. This mirrors the fad of wealthy New Russians for collecting Tsarist-era stuff, no matter how schlocky. Later (the river aglow in dusk light) we walked over the bridge to Red Square and a glory of Old Europe: the Kremlin spreading its walls and turrets past the gold-tipped tulip domes of St. Basil's Cathedral. As we entered the square Tania indicated a group of men arguing.

“Communists,” she said. “Organizing another revolution.”

“Will they succeed?”

She rolled her eyes. “No way.”

Tania had come of age in a new Moscow, having grown up on another planet. Clearly she had mixed feelings. But what about her parents' generation? How did her mother feel about Stalin?

“She and her friends have great memories for their youth,” she said. “Their lives were clear and secure. Russia was strong, Stalin was our strongest leader. Very popular. They miss him.”

“Miss him? What about all the millions of his own countrymen he murdered? Thirty? Forty?”

“They didn't know that then. So they remember other things.”

In Moscow, everything is possible.

Saturday, December 5, 1998

Macon, Georgia

From the bottom of night
through the ravine
at the end of our street
go back, go back
faint shuffle of a train passing
slowly, not to wake anyone
go back to sleep, go back
a steady line of freight
moving through the South, men on board,
wives somewhere at home
in bed in another state
go back, go back to sleep
faint dreams of a train passing
slowly through the ravine of night
the country will survive


Thursday, August 20, 1998


Written in 1998 for Condé-Nast Traveler magazine

It is hard to get any rest in Biarritz, and there’s little point even trying. The shore itself is restless, an alternating sequence of long beaches and formidable bastions of rock that seemingly belong to different seascapes but characterize La Côte Basque in France’s southwest corner, near the Spanish frontier. The surf crashes day and night as if kneeling in homage to the stone resort of tan hotels, shops, and cafe-bars hovering above, linked by switchback lanes and hydrangea-encrusted staircases systematically curlicued around the coast’s idiosyncracies.

The town, a balmy version of Proust, has a kind of fickle grandeur. Its casino happily chewed up the continent’s great fortunes and eventually, like the habit of coming for a season to promenade and take the waters, sank out of fashion. But the Basques are survivors: Biarritz is chic again, energized with concerts and parties spilling onto the street until all hours, ready to surf after morning coffee. You will not get much sleep here.

I went for the week when July shifted to August, not knowing what to expect besides sunshine and cool breezes. There was Biarritz of the fabled name: the grand wedding-cake hotels, the majestic beach captured by Picasso in Les Baigneuses (1918) where a young Nabokov had met his first love amid the lavish, mildly louche “Monte Carlo of the Atlantic.” I wondered if any history was still alive from the days when society required you to make a splash at the casinos of Biarritz, Cannes, Deauville. All my French friends told me Biarritz had ascended in recent years, a balearic phoenix—for them it was riding a healthy wave of European youth.

There was no mystery why after my first sight of La Grande Plage, an expansive stretch of golden sand dotted at each end with dramatic boulders and islets that exaggerate the surf as if placed deliberately. At dawn no one’s on the beach; at eight-thirty (when it’s still hard to get café and a croissant) the surfers are already out. By ten it’s in full swing, with flags to signify which areas are for swimming and which for surfing or body-boarding.

Meanwhile the red, blue, green, or mustard white-striped umbrellas, with shade flaps down one side like a kepi, are being set up in important rows just below the art deco Casino. By noon one of the loveliest beaches in Europe is full of children scampering through the aftermath of crashing five-foot waves, the parents in up to their waists with that easy chattiness peculiar to French resorts; young men are paddling balls at each other, busy ignoring the demi-mini-bikinis attacking with bronzed flesh from all sides.

And the surfers put on the best show of all, all day long.

“Biarritz,” says Robert Rabagny, “is now the California of France.”

Rabagny looks Californian, with the deep tan and sun-streaked hair of a lifelong surfer. He took up the sport here over thirty years ago; indeed, most Europeans under fifty know the place not for its associations with Jean Cocteau, Pierre Loti, and Charlie Chaplin, but for having the biggest surf on the continent. Rabagny, who opened the very successful Le Surfing above the beach at Côte des Basques with its view of the Spanish mountains, is the major-domo of surf hereabouts. His restaurant-bar is not just the epicenter of the new Biarritz but also a surfing museum, its walls and ceiling lined with Hawaiian shirts and fifty boards dating back to 1949.

“In the ’60s and ’70s,” an architect who comes every year told me, “Biarritz lost its allure. Spots like St. Tropez on the Côte d’Azur became the places to go. But now they’re seen as crowded, ruined, artificial. Show-off places for the new money. Biarritz is much more discreet; an important gentleman from Paris can stay anonymous here. It’s old money—and now also the young, with not much money maybe but plenty of energy. And surfboards. Plus all France is mad for anything to do with surfing; the clothes, for example. So the fashion people are here non-stop—Karl Lagerfeld keeps a villa. At the same time the luxury era that Biarritz represents, the classic lifestyle, is chic again. So it’s got both French obsessions covered.”

Not just the French. Each summer Biarritz pulls in the athletic youth of Europe who come to swim, tan, and enjoy the scene. Rabagny (who surfs here year-round) runs the Biarritz Surf Festival every July, a week-long fête which is much more than an international competition.

“It’s a meeting of cultures, a celebration of the art of following the surf lifestyle. Many older grand masters come, like Fred Hemmings, Clyde Aikau, Greg Noll, Donald Takayama. We have tandem surfing—pairs on one board. For 2000 our theme will be young surfers. In 1999 it was Surf ‘n’ Rock. My dream was always to bring the Beach Boys here—I kept in contact with Brian Wilson. But, anyway, we have groups playing Sixties rock all week. It begins with a ceremony that’s an exchange of waters. Each person brings water from his continent, it’s mixed in a big bowl with the others, from Japan, from Hawaii, from Australia, from Tahiti, from America, you see? A man carries it on horseback into the sea. It’s enormously touching to start the week this way.

“There’s a huge European youth movement for surfing. The big boom began seven or eight years ago, and expanded around many things that come out of surfing, like skateboards and body boards and windsurfing and all the rest. I started the Surf Masters competition here at la Grande Plage twenty years ago. At the moment it’s the Spanish and the Italians who are coming up fastest as surfers in Europe, but it’s really everyone—Germans, Scandinavians, English, Dutch. Everyone. You know why? Because surfing isn’t expensive, and it means freedom. Before, Biarritz was only an expensive place. Now it’s also surfing, which anyone can afford.”

These surfers who filled the beaches and the clubs and bars every night were staying in inexpensive campsites on the town’s outskirts, or sleeping in vans. No wonder so much of the music in clubs was thirty years old. In many ways the young crowd here were seeking an innocent ’60s lifestyle. They only enlarged the spirit of the place; Biarritz still looked swank.

One morning on the beach by the Casino I watched a surf school get underway—for kids aged seven to twelve. In wet suits, they carried the short yellow and blue and red boards down to the water’s edge, laid them in the sand, and practiced getting smoothly upright from their bellies to their feet.

Along the casino’s esplanade a skateboarder was getting going, too.

I asked Patrice, the surfing school director, about the relation. At the airport the arriving skateboarders had seemed a parody of the blond guys dragging their big boards. He said, “Sure, there’s the whole similar problem of balance. But waves move, that’s what makes it so difficult! A sidewalk doesn’t move.”

I wondered whether there was any point in someone in his forties starting to surf. It turned out he’d started “late, at fourteen.” I personally didn’t feel ready to try what those eight-year-olds were eager for. He shrugged. “Maybe the inspiration is harder as you age. You won’t become a champion. But can you learn well, and enjoy it? Absolutely.”

Another who started late—at sixteen—was Emmanuelle Joly. Born in Biarritz, a long-legged, confident blonde, at twenty-eight she’s been French national champion twice and European champion twice. She’s also the only woman surfer in France who earns her living from the sport, and the only French surfer of either sex to ascend to the top circuit of professionals.

“Every year there are more and more surfers in Biarritz, more and more foreigners,” she says. “In France the mentality is different than somewhere like Hawaii. Here’s it’s not even considered a sport yet. But that’s changing. The young ones coming after us are very strong. Now there’s a whole generation of surfer parents. Our parents, in general, were afraid of the sea: we had to start ourselves. But to ride the waves, from the very beginning, for me was wonderful.”

Surfing was brought to Biarritz (and Europe) by an American screenwriter and director, Peter Viertel, at work here filming The Sun Also Rises in 1957. He saw the waves, missed California, and had someone make him a board. A group of a dozen or so locals who saw him took it up with evangelistic enthusiasm, calling themselves Les Tontons Surfeurs—“The Surf Daddies.” Half are still alive. I watched one, Claude Durcudoy, out on his long board at Côte des Basques, his white hair evident from a distance. For him the changes in the sport were not necessarily improvements—back then, he said, it was more about a group of friends. Now, with short boards, surfing was “more individualist, more competitive, more aggressive.” But like the young zooming beside him across the curling lips of the waves, he stayed out there for hours.

Viertel had changed the history of Biarritz. An ex-fishing port, it has in many ways been an invention of foreigners since the mid-19th century. When Eugénie, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III, fell in love with its echoes of her childhood, he built his princess an imperial vacation palace in 1855. Due to her, a resort of high architectural beauty grew up. Wealthy English and Russians (as well as the French haute société) came in droves. Biarritz still remains an Anglophile town, with avenues named for Queen Victoria and Edward VII.

The emblems of grand Biarritz were easy to find. There was a Russian Orthodox church, L’Église Alexandre Nevsky, with an exquisite blue dome (1892), and Arosteguy, the sumptuous “Grande Épicerie de Biarritz” from 1875. I took breakfast daily at a belle-époque pâtisserie, the Miremont, in a salon tiled with mirrors, and its blue-mosaic ’30s equivalent, the Café de la Grande Plage, right on the beach. The monumental art deco Casino and its large theater were recently restored, though only the outside is original. Its atrium of slot machines is always crowded, but not the sleek, smaller, faux-marble salon des jeux with its few roulette wheels and vingt-et-un tables.

Très triste,” said a casino employee. “Very sad. But the slots bring in far more money, these days.”

And the town itself is a remarkably lucky situation of architectural preservation, now officially protected. A good deal of Biarritz was either built between 1860 and 1930 or looks like it was—tall shutters and balconies, carved stone heads and angular domes, an austere elegance amid palm trees.

Presiding over all that past is the Hôtel du Palais, built in 1905 on the site of the original imperial palace. It is a wonderful vanity to sit, borne by the inspiration of a couple of gin fizzes, beneath the eminent gaze of Napoleon III and the Princess Eugénie in the rotunda dining salon, amid the gleaming chandeliers hung like brilliant earrings, the urns of ferns and flowers, the gilded moldings, the elaborate candelabras on each table reflecting the room’s ghosts in enormous windows atop the background of unfurling surf. The Palais is a changeless image of wealthy France: stodgy, imperial, lavish, theatrical, and proper, its dining salon one of France’s most eminent. It was there I heard a father lean over to his son, brooding with distaste over a plate of peculiar crustaceans, and say, “Look, go ahead and try some. It’s just like escargots.”

The adjoining bar was also a good place to observe that French trademark, the romantic couple of different generations, each splendidly enjoying a contradictory sense of power. If you stay late you can watch the white-coated, epauletted waiters setting the tables for tomorrow’s breakfast after the other diners have gone, talking and joking through their gavotte of preparations, the white tablecloths levitating in their hands and billowing.

A lot of foreign sports enthusiasts were here to surf or watch surfers. For me an equal lure was cesta-punta, the Basque sport which many Americans know as jai-alai and which makes other team ball sports look timid. I had the good fortune to catch the finals of the world professional championships, for the sport is a uniquely Basque obsession. About two thousand spectators filled the town’s main fronton; I got a good seat the evening of the finals and sat transfixed by the fastest ball game on earth. Every Biarrot I spoke to had told me with delight, “You’ll love it, it’s so beautiful.” They didn’t say what a thrilling match it’d be, or even mention the rigorous athleticism. It was the beauty they noticed.

The Basques have several versions of the sport, using bare hands or a wooden racquet. The most spectacular uses a hard heavy ball slightly smaller than a tennis ball, and a cistera: the long woven basket, curved like an eagle’s beak, that turns a man’s right arm into a hyper-extended claw twice its normal length. A leather glove secures it, wound with a white bandage. Teams are two players, one forward, one back. Each team wears either red or white shirts, and always white helmets and chin guards, trousers, sneakers, and often elbow pads. They play on a hardwood court fifty-four meters long and about as wide as a tennis court, with three very high walls. A netting like a sheer veil separates the crowd from the court, making the fourth side.

The players neither walk nor look like athletes, yet they launch themselves impossibly through the air to snag the ball, landing in a crouch while spinning around so that, creating a nearly 360-degree arc with the woven claw, they can hurl the excitable ball from their basket at two hundred miles an hour so it caroms hard off the front wall, hugs the entire side wall, bounces off the back, then rebounds the entire length of the court toward the opposing player positioned up front. A point may go on for twenty such exchanges, team to team, as the crowd murmurs and gasps in French, Basque, and Spanish, and finally erupts at a death-defying save or a nasty-angled kill.

“The objective,” said the older man sitting next to me, who wiped his glasses after every other point, “is to put the ball as far back as possible. Because if we leave out a possibility of error—these men do not make many accidents or errors—they win most of their points up close, eh?”

He meant the putaways near the front wall, where they could achieve a double carom that bounced very low, then veered wildly and unplayably to the side. The sport was all anticipation and concentrated calm, for in the most furious point usually only one player out of four was moving at any moment. There was also a suitably ancient aspect to this sport invented by the people with the oldest language in Europe. Sometimes the men seemed like versions of Icarus, flying and falling, tumbling and hurling, but always getting up to fly again.

It was astonishingly beautiful—the powerful sight of a man running backward, whipping his body into a long curve to throw a ball at a wall behind him which he essentially does not see until the ball has left his basket. The players ranged from seventeen to thirty-four; some were from Spain, some local, but all were Basques, come back from around the world to compete. No wonder the crowd surged with such a current of Basque pride. If anyone else wanted to try cesta-punta, God help them.

After the two players from Miami won against the two from Dania, in northern Spain, I said to my neighbor, “It’s too bad so many of the best players end up leaving, no?”

He shrugged. “They’ve played here for years and years already, every week of the year. So we know them. It’s normal they should go to the U.S. to make their careers. Because Americans bet on the game, players earn a lot more there than here. But they come back for championships like this one, and if you look, you’ll see they all have Basque names.”

The French rate the Côte Basque high for its cuisine, and I’d heard rumors of an odd, ongoing convocation of “the big names.” The small Bar St. Pierre at first seems ordinary, until you notice the period red and white formica of the tables and of the bar itself, and the 1940s cone lamps set on the walls. Most of all, on any Friday morning for the last thirteen years, around 8:30, eight of the greatest chefs in this part of France are assembled around morning coffee, having done their market work at Les Halles a few steps away.

They are sober, well-put-together men, with the wide-eyed concentration of masters who stay up too late and get up too early, who work much too hard because they know they are at the top of their game—I counted as many Michelin stars as chefs. They each sipped a single espresso, stirring and nursing it for a half-hour, trading the news.

“—and the lady was running after him like a pigeon, warbling, ‘Monsieur Bocuse! Monsieur Bocuse! Sign my book!’”

“Incredible how these scoundrels talk about those herbs, it’s like they’re selling you contraband.”

“You know what I’m talking about, no? You were cooking in Paris for a while, right?”

“Twenty-three years.”

“See that lady? You know who she was? Her husband, for a belle époque, had the most beautiful cuisine in Biarritz. A small place, I’m talking about thirty years ago. Then he had a heart attack, poof.”

I asked Christian Parra, from the Auberge de la Galupe (two stars) how long it took to be a great chef. He said, “I don’t know yet. All your life. Then your restaurant closes. And you have to be a little crazy. I went to sleep at one-thirty, I’ve been up since six. And you must love people. Your clients and your colleagues. That’s why all the chefs are invited to this bar every Friday. Anyone who wants to come can come.”

Another morning in the Bar St. Pierre I met Bob Ausnit, a retired American who lives most of each year in Biarritz, the rest in Aspen. Over a late-morning aperitif, while skimming a Spanish newspaper, he told me about his life.

“I was born here in 1936,” he said. “My mother was Spanish, my father Rumanian. We had a beautiful villa by the lighthouse, but when the war began we had to leave. I’m half-Jewish, you see. We moved to Madrid. After the war we recovered the villa without any problem, but eventually my parents split up and I went to the States, to a boarding school I hated and then to Harvard. My mother sold the house in the ’50s, which broke my heart. I wound up in the film business and began returning, and about seven years ago I moved back. The weather’s reliable—we get about two beautiful days out of three, year-round. I like to stay through Christmas. September’s my favorite month. There’s a great deal of art always going on here, between the concerts and dance and everything else. You have to realize, when I was a boy this was the top resort in Europe. Coco Chanel kept a salon of seventy seamstresses for visiting ladies. This fad of spending the hot months, the summer, on the Côte d’Azur, is a recent idea. Back then the Riviera was for the winter. You came to Biarritz to cool off in the summer, you see? But this place has remained more discreet than the Riviera, luckily.”

There is still a social whirl here, primarily Parisians who come down to their villas during summer or, if they have children, more often—in the French school system children get two weeks’ vacation after every six weeks of school, then another two months in summer. This means the population of Biarritz doubles every six weeks for about ten days, then triples in July and August to about 110,000. Golf is extremely popular with a certain crowd; within thirty miles there are ten courses, including the second oldest in Europe. In France golf is a game for only the wealthy.

The word everyone used about Biarritz was “discreet” (to distinguish it from the Riviera) and one of the most discreet couples of all were M. Pierre and Mme. Genevieve Hebey: I was fortunate to be shown their home. Somewhere near their seventies, though neither looks it, they are often in Paris, where he is an eminent business lawyer. They are also often here. Frequent house guests have included Isabelle Adjani, Jacques Chirac, Catherine Deneuve, and Karl Lagerfeld, before he bought his own villa. Likewise their friend the publisher Daniel Filipachhi, introduced to them by their old friend Max Ernst, whose works hung everywhere. . . .

Their property was in Anglet, just outside Biarritz—two spacious, traditional white-walled Basque houses that were farms a hundred fifty years ago. Now their gardens of exploding flowers and quiet passageways adjoin the Duke of Spain’s. The Hebeys have, over several decades, filled the two houses with modern art and books and an unbelievable panorama of furnishings from the great designers in Europe of, say, 1890-1930. This autumn in Paris, for example, they would be auctioning off their collection of fifty-three Ruhlmanns.

M. Hebey was clear about what kept the old Biarritz alive. “Here there are no show-offs. For retired people it’s very safe, and people do things here—sports, the beach—they don’t just consume, unlike the Côte d’Azur. Another difference: there isn’t that awful heat. You can concentrate, which helps my writing. It’s a revitalizing climate. Everyone comes to see us and is seduced by the Côte Basque. I have never grown tired of it. Five minutes from Biarritz you’re in the country. In a half hour you’re in Spain. When Franco was in charge all the Spanish drove here to gamble, or see forbidden films. We come as often as we can. Lagerfeld came to stay with us and it was raining and after two days he said, That’s it, I’m buying a property, the rain here doesn’t bother me. In Biarritz famous people are accepted, they can walk around without problems. One day the postman opened our door and saw Catherine Deneuve in the kitchen, preparing the vegetables. He nearly fainted.”

There was another kind of social scene here, too, with plenty of bars open late. One of the trendiest was Le Caveau: a beautiful brunette in a skimpy outfit greeted me at the door, wearing a tank on her back that spritzed, via an obscene tube, a drink that tasted like “banana chewing gum.” This was how a young Dutch investment banker put it. He’d been here a week, surfing in front of the Casino. Now he and his friends were heading down for “a few days of culture” to the new Guggenheim museum just over the Spanish border in Bilbao.

The bar was sleek, post-modern deco, full of a very high proportion of attractive men and women. I mentioned this and he said, Well, of course, didn’t anyone tell you it was a gay bar? Well, no. And the disco underground? Gay, too, at least mid-week; on weekends it became much more heterosexual. He wished me better luck in a different kind of bar and I moved on.

The small Ventilo Caffe, on two levels, was the most branché (literally, plugged-in) spot, so dark you could barely make out the sparse ’60s and ’70s kitsch on the walls. The music was mostly French rap, which is less aggressive than American. Many of the crowd were Parisians, under forty, drinking hard and shouting; the surfers, who look healthy even after drinking all night, were elsewhere. I ended up in a conversation with a Parisienne who designed financial software and came down here every chance she got. She had no interest in surfing; she liked the Biarritz bar scene, the food, the Basque countryside, the beaches, and especially the African bouncer.

The place where all the different social strands meet, however, is outside town. The Blue Cargo—once a serene private house—activates a cliff above the beach of Ilbarritz from lunch until deep into the night, and in the evening its two lower levels, under billowing white tents, can get eight hundred celebrants a night. French society takes pride in being seen, and this is one of Biarritz’s top choices. The house itself is not so large: a bar decorated with an old Victorian-era street lamp and a gold record, African masks and whirling deco fans. The restaurant, which is superb, is one white-walled room open to the winds, with wood benches and tables, bas-reliefs of pelota players, post-modern lamps, local pimentos dangling in dark bunches, sculptures of swimsuited surfing babes, a Thirties tourist poster of La Côte Basque, and an enormous painting of men in a seaside tug-of-war.

I ate dinner there one night and was gone by eleven. It was still quiet. Another night I arrived at two, and under a white tent on the spit of sand above that glimmering beach several hundred people were dancing or at least drinking to the Rolling Stones; grey-haired bankers from Paris, surfers from Australia, Biarrots checking out the foreign men and women. It was a simple formula: a fine sound system, a bar, the beach, the breeze, plenty of space.

I remembered then what the mayor, Didier Borotra—much responsible for permanently protecting Biarritz’s architecture—had told me. “The constant party here is truly the Basque personality. It’s spontaneous, and maybe the most important part of our lives. In many ways Biarritz is not Basque, not even French, but in that way it is very Basque. We Biarrots love to drive to Spain for a party and come back the same evening, or the next morning. What pleases me most is that this town began by living off the sea. The beach attracted people here for years. And now, because of the surf, the sea is looking after Biarritz once more.”

Monday, June 15, 1998


Written in 1998 for Sky magazine

To anyone over thirty, Rio de Janeiro represents fantasy—a bossa-nova vision of tropical sea, eternal beach, and luxuriant mountains. Alone of the world's great cities, its chic status is wholly a product of the 20th century, aptly summed up in one Brazilian song of a girl, a man, a guitar, Ipanema. I went there fearing the worst: that Rio's physical glory would be no more, and that its severe, well-known poverty, with a corollary of street crime, made it a city impossible to enjoy and relax in. I was glad to be so wrong, to find Rio so much cleaner, greener, calmer, and more joyful than I expected, and to learn how much you could enjoy it even when the season wasn't carnaval.

Because so much of Rio life and culture revolves around its beaches, and the natural beauty of the place and its people, it’s easy for a visitor to overlook everything else. That said, if there is a more wondrous natural location for humans to live en masse, I do not know it. A succession of massive hills, crags, and upheavals, undulant and forested a thick green, stretch off into islets; ingenious landfill has completed the design. Water is everywhere. The colors are simple: blue sea, green mountains, and the white pillboxes of modern man that endlessly multiply. A giant interior lagoon gives the illusion that the entire city is a cutout laid on the sea, all lassoed by nearly fifty miles of beach.

Every great city has an energy of its own—and Rio’s does not resemble that of any other, for its denizens have a vibrant, unmatched genius for pleasure no matter what their circumstances. Beyond the outrageous splendor of the setting, you are first also struck by the glow and athleticism of the people. To say that cariocas (as Rio-dwellers are known) seem to spend all their free time at the beach misses the essential point, which is that they’re always doing something there, always in motion: playing volleyball, or sand soccer, or a horrendously difficult local specialty, foot-volleyball, which combines both. Walk along the hotel-lined Avenida Atlantica that follows the gentle arc of Copacabana Beach, and from dawn till past midnight you see men and women of all ages running, walking, doing yoga, exercising, or tossing a ball; kids are busy on their own bungee-swings and trampolines. The beach is Rio’s gym, its sports arena, and its savior—miraculous, that in a city of so much poverty there should be so many free pastimes granted by nature. No wonder the cariocas have such a finely developed sense of ironic humor.

The first thing every visitor should do is take the cable car up Sugarloaf, the higher of two adjacent peaks. It gives an immediate sense of how, edging up to a jungle like broccoli, the fortunate city has spread its many neighborhoods around the bays, beaches, and green pillars that stand like bodyguards for its bays. The cable car makes the ascent easy; for fourteen hours daily it carries you to Morro da Urca (705 feet) then up to Pao de Acucar (1,300 feet). Seen from miles away, the Christ statue on Corcovado peak pokes through the cloud layer, and Copacabana, the curving beach lined with big hotels that is Rio’s emblem, seems pristine amid the peace a vista imposes—especially at sunset, as the lights begin to twinkle and the view becomes surreal. That so many people are living amid such poetry lifts your heart.

The other essential expedition is up Corcovado, “The Hunchback,” by road or cogwheel train. From the granite mountain’s summit, at 2,300 feet, rises Christ the Redeemer, a hundred feet tall. The statue, a thousand graceful tons of him, floats into your gaze as you climb the sunlit steps; its genius is that first you see only his white-robed back, his outstretched arms; you cannot see his face until you reach the top and walk around the massive pedestal. This statue is with you constantly in Rio—tremendous arms embracing a swimming sky, his pose a gentle echo of crucifixion, turning his back on jungly hillsides to gather in his city of seven millions. He is a reminder of the Brazilian paradox: that as the largest Catholic country on earth, much of its cultural strength comes from the syncretism of its many other religions and beliefs.

Carnaval is the ultimate proof. Though it’s widely known as the time to be in Rio, there’s a lot to be said for visiting in the winter leading up to the great event instead. One reason is that the city’s youthful energy is increased because it’s the southern hemisphere’s summer—school holidays last from mid-December until after carnaval. Many cariocas say the New Year’s Eve celebrations are preferable and nearly as monumental. (This is the second largest open-air party in the world, after carnaval.) An enormous beach party stretches up the shore, with music, candles, and flowers thrown on the waves as offerings to Iemenja, goddess of the sea—a version of the Virgin Mary who’s Rio’s patron saint. Hovering over all are fireworks and laser displays off Sugarloaf and Corcovado.

For a winter visitor, the way to experience carnaval is to take part in a Rio samba “school”—though team or club is closer to the reality. Everyone in Brazil has loyalty to one samba school; each one here has about 4,000 cariocas. Each year, every samba school has its own colors and theme behind the inevitably graceful, incandescent dancing and singing, the legion of drummers and lavish costumes—its theme might be criticizing the government, or making an ecological statement, for example. When carnaval comes in mid-February, the sixteen samba schools (who’ve been practicing since August) compete by passing through the Sambodromo stadium.

An outsider can witness and take part in the samba schools’ rehearsals, usually Saturday but sometimes Friday and Sunday nights as well, starting around ten p.m. This will mean learning to undulate: cariocas like to see you joining in, not chickening out. (Three samba schools to try are Mangueira, Salgueiro, and Portela.)

Ultimately, the great idea and ideal Rio has given the world is of the beach as a place of physical as well as social chic. In most harbor cities the rich live on hillsides and the poor live below; in Rio the opposite is true, which testifies to the enduring allure of its sands. Physical beauty can also be a powerful class-crossing democratizer, and as a result Rio’s beaches have specific areas with the human display at its most competitive—based around seven women per man (the local legend goes), though contrary to repute the women rarely go topless. Rio has twenty-three beaches, stretching forty-five miles; a visitor should try several.

The craze for the city as a glamorous destination dates from the Thirties, built around the dual glow of carnaval and the beach life. Over the years Rio has kept spreading at such speed that yesterday’s wild, untouched beach is today’s big development. The most famous stretch, the three miles of Copacabana hotels, turns a sharp corner to Ipanema and Leblon, with their richer and more residential feel. At Sao Conrado there’s small Pepino beach; next comes Barra di Tijuca, eleven clean miles that at the moment are sprouting the condominiums of choice, though part is a protected ecological zone. Beyond it, Recreio is a gorgeous empty beach, with a few coconut-water shacks and real estate getting more expensive by the minute; at the end, Prainha is the beach for surfistas. After it, near the Pontal museum, is Grumari, almost virginal, where I saw old men fishing with poles for anchovies. It’s out here the old Rio exists, if you go far enough: the long ribbons of sand, quiet mile after mile narrowing and widening.

To make finding friends easier there are numbered lifeguard stations along each beach (on Ipanema the primo meeting-point is near Lifeguard Station #9). The absolutely chic spot is on Barra beach between kiosk #1 and #2 and especially around the snack bar Pepe’s, famous for its fruit juices and health food. Named after a champion surfer and hang-glider, over the years Pepe’s has become a meeting-point for the young, hip, beautiful people. Rocky islets add to the view. Here the beach is wide, the bikinis narrow; fierce volleyball games are under way. Both the men exercising, and the women striding up and back, up and back, seem equally competitive.

Rio is a vast city of articulated neighborhoods; the one where I’d happily move is hilly Santa Teresa. All tiny mansions, cobblestones, labyrinthine lanes, walled gardens, wheezing trams, and almost no concrete, it should be explored on foot. Its epicenter is the Bar do Arnaudo (a restaurant as well), frequented by celebrity exile Ronnie Biggs, leader of England’s 1963 Great Train Robbery.

A profound pleasure of this country is its coffee—readily available at about $1 a pound in any supermarket—and to seek out Rio’s best cafes is an admirable project if you find yourself, as I did, falling asleep on the beach. One of the most popular modern salons, as intimate as a large walk-in closet, is in Ipanema: the Armazem do Café, with thirty types of coffee, plenty of Cuban cigars, books celebrating the national drink, and a vivid wall-mural of a coffee plantation, circa 1830. (Ask for a cafezinho, a “little coffee”). Not far away, en route to the beach, is the Garota da Ipanema (“The Girl from Ipanema”) Bar, where the song was written in 1962 by Antonio Carlos Jobim and his friend, lyricist Vinicius de Morais, sitting there watching her go by.

Apart from coffee, the best deal in Rio is the city’s virtual uniform, the swimsuit. To cariocas they mean even more than T-shirts do to North Americans, and as a result they are available everywhere in a million designs and at bargain rates. Brazil may be the only country in the world where bikinis are priced not by the chic of the design but by the centimeters of fabric, for they are remarkably skimpy and inexpensive. This is only good news, as long as it’s Brazilians wearing them.

The venerable cafes from Rio’s deep past are all downtown. The oldest is the modest Casa Cave, which occupies a busy corner and is easily overlooked. Founded in 1790, rebuilt in 1920, it’s somewhat time-worn. Nearby, the Confeitaria Colombo is the most famous surviving 19th century café—a grand art-nouveau salon, with marble walls, tiled floors, belle-epoque lamps, and a stained glass ceiling. Lunch is its busiest time; traditionally the street was full of fashion boutiques, and the cafe (founded 1894) was where Rio’s high society came to relax. One octogenarian, a former cabinet minister, has visited daily for over fifty years.

An even more lavish luncheon cafe is the Cafe de Theatre, from 1909, on one side of the Teatro Municipal—done up in grandiose Assyrian style, with winged bulls with bearded heads, Oriental hanging lamps, muscular columns, gorgeous tilework; on the outside are mosaics of opera scenes. The theater itself is a copy in granite, marble, and bronze, of the Paris Opera. It stands at one end of the Avenida Rio Branco, the city’s 1905 version of the Champs-Elysees; that era’s one-hundred-fifteen classical buildings have over the decades been reduced to ten, victims of the postwar concrete boom.

What does remain from the colonial centuries is wonderful. (The Portuguese arrived in 1502; Brazil became independent in 1822.) Rio’s wealth was built on gold, sugarcane, and coffee, and the most evocative patch of Old Rio’s prosperity is off Praza Quinza—the intimate Arco do Teles. A late-18th century tract of townhouses and cobbled lanes, it now has chic renovated bars with live music and modern art galleries.

Other real treasures, mostly churches, have survived. The most impressive is the stone-towered Sao Bento Monastery, from 1630. Its interior is full extraordinary Portuguese baroque: a teeming, scrolled universe of wriggling gilded figures, walls, and altars, carved from jacaranda wood, all lit by stained glass whose colors seem ethereal against the dark gold everywhere. Another treasure is the Gloria, a sparse white church (1714) with well-preserved tiles of angels playing harps and the imperial Portuguese crown. Delicate painted ceilings portray the small church amid flowers on Rio’s hills.

And below Corcovado is the Largo do Boticario, a small square named after the royal druggist who settled here in 1831. Architecturally the seven townhouses in the big-stoned courtyard, shaded by enormous trees, represent an eclectic 19th century style: latticework balconies, massive doors, elaborate ironwork, and pink, yellow, green, and blue colonial-era tiles showing large parrots, Maltese crosses, and Dutch windmills.

Rio’s profound European heritage is most evident at the city’s many museums, which visitors often skip. Downtown are the exhaustive National History Museum and the National Museum of Fine Arts, with a huge collection of Brazilian art from the last two centuries. The Museum of the Republic, with a courtyard of royal palms, was in the 1860s a coffee planter’s lavish mansion and then the presidents’ palace for six decades. After one committed suicide in 1954 it became a museum devoted to the country’s history, with a healthy dose of self-criticism.

The Museum of Modern Art boasts changing contemporary exhibitions and sculptures by Brancusi, Rodin, Leger, Lipchitz, Giacometti, Arp, and Moore. The best modern art museum is the Chacara do Ceu, an industrialist’s personal collection that includes Dali, Monet, Picasso, Degas, Modigliani, Braque, Matisse, and the Brazilian master Portinari.

There’s even a museum devoted wholly to Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian singer-dancer who made it big in Hollywood (“Bananas is my business!”) in the 1940s. Here she’s become a saint of carnaval culture, especially among Rio’s transvestites. The museum is full of her trademark blue, red, yellow, and green umbrellas, her jewelry, her elaborate embroidered and fishnet costumes, her high platform shoes and complex gargantuan headdresses.

Two museums over a half hour’s drive from Copacabana might accompany a day’s beach expedition. The first is the estate of Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994), the country’s preeminent landscape architect, who designed the wavery tiled sidewalks that are a symbol of Rio. On a former plantation, with its winding cobbled road, Marx’s garden is an organized jungle. Here he planted 250 species of palm trees alone, and designed a house incorporating diverse European, Brazilian, and African elements—his trademark.

A few miles farther out is my favorite, the Casa do Pontal. It is a nuisance to get to but not to be missed: the world’s largest collection of Brazilian folk art, in a country house set between the sea and an ecological preserve. Among 5,000 sculptures by over two hundred artists from all regions of Brazil, the majority are amazing small painted clay figures—musicians, street sweepers, medical operations, farmers, a levitating magician, skeletons and robots copulating, wrestlers, fishermen with nets, a soccer team, billiards players, knife swallowers, and an entire circus scene in mid-performance. The most stunning is a mechanized panorama of carnaval, showing two samba schools in high gear, complete with headdresses, teams of drummers, pell-mell crowds.

Rio lives not just for its beaches but for its nightlife. For dancing, El Turf is an elegant annex of Rio’s racing club, turned into a high-tech disco within a classical shell. Each marble table has the innovation of a self-service tap for draft beer, with a meter tallied by the waiter when you’re ready to go. The mood is gentle, like a New York club full of dancing young Brazilians who, from the neck down, could not possibly be Anglo-Saxons.

The national genius for music ranges in this century from the classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to the many genres of popular music which seem to be everywhere in this city. The best known outside Brazil, of course, is the bossa nova, which so hypnotized the world in the 1960s. A reliable spot to hear first-rate bossa is Chiko’s—a sleek, elegant club with a jungle of tropical plants behind the piano. Another is the renovated Banco do Brasil Cultural Center downtown, with several concert spaces.

Best of all, though, is to visit one of the samba clubs—like the Casa da Mae Joana, where I heard some of the most beautiful music of my life one breezy midnight; or Sobrenatural, up in Santa Teresa just near the Bar de Arnaudo. Of the big dance-halls, I preferred Estudantina Musical. (These places often don’t get going till midnight.) A tiny spot where you can hear great samba at dinnertime and get a good pizza is the Butiquim do Martinho, set improbably in a huge shopping mall.

No matter where you are, though, no matter what instruments, the magic seems the same: the glorious melodies unfurl, the lyrics follow in their soft Portuguese diction. These songs will always be Rio, and evoke the era when Rio was an ideal to the rest of the world. The 1950s and ’60s were its time; to hear that music is to dwell in the eternal Rio, that majestic beach of the soul between verdant mountains— the city which the sea folds in an endless embrace as Christ the Redeemer looks down on the beautiful men and women dancing and blesses them with a loving melody that time cannot silence, a melody that will go on as long as these things matter.

Thursday, January 15, 1998


Written in 1998 for the Boston Review of Books

Time is what we are made of: every passing year makes us more aware of it. Time is also what novels are made from, no matter how aware of this the author chooses to make us. It is what gives a novel limits, and gives meaning to character and action. Finally, that sense of an invented world continuing after the cover has been closed can be among a book's most sublime aspects, the fading echo ever audible in our own imaginations, the ultimate collaboration between reader and writer.

Not, I believe, since Nabokov's Ada have we had a serious fiction so obsessed with the plural possibilities of time (in an utterly different way) as Ronald Wright's A Scientific Romance. This complex, extraordinary first novel arrives on our shores with plenty of accolades—a David Higham Award for Fiction from the U.K.; rave reviews from there and Canada. In its haunting sense of opportunity squandered, of being witness at the fall of the world, of love and friendship attempting to cheat time, of time itself as a river down which we drift, it is like no other novel I have read, written in a prose at once highly flexible, muscular, lyrical, full of pointed jokes and contrary tensions.

Wright comes to this novel with five books of non-fiction behind him. As historian he wrote the lauded Stolen Continents, which examines the invasion of the New World from the point of view of five "discovered" peoples. He has also written four books of travel—that curious, in-between form which demands some of the novelist's skills—set in Peru (Cut Stones and Crossroads), the South Pacific (On Fiji Islands) and Central America (Time Among the Maya) as well as an essay collection (Home and Away). As a British writer, educated in archaeology at Cambridge, who has lived for years in Canada while roaming the world, he brings a wide learning to a novel partly set five hundred years in the future—the overgrown, empty, devastated ruin of today. Only a man with Wright's training could have written this novel; for once we are in the presence of a future portrayed by someone who understands the forces that bring down civilizations and what it means to cut back the lianas, sift through debris, read clues.

To reduce it to a summary without giving too much away is not simple. The book is told by David Lambert, a London-based archaeologist, at first living and writing a few years from now. His narrative—like a message in a bottle floated across time as well as space—is addressed to two friends from Cambridge days: Bird (failed scholar, failed saxophonist, successful con artist and seducer) and Anita (lover they shared, brilliant Egyptologist, dead years ago, more than that I must not say). The tone of a letter—a diskette, in fact—flung out to long-lost friends permeates the narrative; indeed, the "adventure story" driving the book is carefully balanced by Lambert's moody memory freely roving the messy, dangerous three-way relationship.

I make a solemn vow before you now, in the summoned presence of both your shades, that I shall do the decent thing—do my damnedest to . . .confound our enemy, send him back to unbend his bony finger and rewrite his heartless works . . .[I'll] reverse across time's banks and shoals, run back and fetch the age of gold: the time when all of us had options left to play. And we shall live again, my love. We all shall live again!

In late 1999, when the book begins, Lambert is a specialist in Victorian machines at a London museum. A fellow scholar sends him a copy of a document purportedly from H.G. Wells, left with his solicitors. It recounts a love affair the novelist had with a young scientist named Tania Cherenkova (a protege of the famous Tesla), who helped advise Wells on his novel The Time Machine. Tania had wanted to continue the affair and, furthermore, she'd gone so far as to construct a time machine on her own principles which actually worked. According to a dubious Wells, he watched her disappear in it in 1899. The purpose of his document is to advise that she will be reappearing with it, possibly, a hundred years later, at the flat Wells had taken for their trysts.

Lambert, skeptical, checks out the strands of the story and is surprised to confirm what had initially struck him as a hoax. He locates the flat—an unrented slum—in time for the New Year's Eve of the millennium. Then:

A ball of light or fire had formed in mid-air. The light grew, filling much of the room yet fading as it did so, resolving into something dark and bristly—a sphere like a sea-urchin, a flattened ball of copper spines, vivid one moment, insubstantial the next, hovering and spinning, slowing down. Horsewhips of light arced from the spikes to walls and floor . . . .

But there is no Tania in the machine, only a few scraps of clothing that carry a whiff of her perfume. Is it possible that one can go forward but not back in time? Has she become consigned to a kind of temporal limbo, or oblivion, where Lambert (should he wish to return) may join her? This is only the first quarter of the novel; at this point it becomes very difficult to give away the story without spoiling it. Lambert knows, however, that he carries within him the ticking machine of a mortal illness. He has literally nothing to lose by launching himself five hundred years into the future, where he hopes to find Tania.

The main body of the book, aptly titled "After London," is unlike any time-travel story I know. Here is a horrific, fully-conceived future British Isles that has been extrapolated with relentless logic from our day. Forget overpopulation, forget space travel, forget the vision of two nations ruling the world. This is a future imagined by a man who has gone into what brought down the great empires of one, two, three thousand years ago. The London he foresees resembles a massive Tikal, a towering ruin in seething tropical jungle, for with global warming and more the Kew Gardens have burst out and covered a now-unpopulated country.

It is an unforgettable vision, and at the heart of the book is the way we follow Lambert—recording it all for his friends, like an archaeologist on the strangest dig of any lifetime, in his laptop computer journal—as he explores the fetid, empty, lichened, shattered and jungle-choked remains of the great city he left heartbeats and five centuries ago. We are with him every step of the difficult way as he tries to find out what happened to us, to our civilization, because it soon becomes evident to Lambert that the catastrophe ensued not too long from now. This is, as he says, "a guess made with inside knowledge (an advantage no other archaeologist has had)."

On his explorations—for he journeys up to Scotland, into Macbeth country—he is befriended by a deformed black panther he calls Graham who has, he realizes, never seen a human being. One of my favorite images of a book rich in such visions is of the sleek dark animal striding alongside Lambert across the ruined lawn of his former school. Among the book's many secondary pleasures are Lambert's cynical remarks about what we are doing to the world, now turned into wisdom by what amounts to colossal hindsight ("like all true pessimists, proved right in the end"):

Remember Teach a man to fish and you'll feed him for life? Well, he's fished the ocean dead and his twelve-year-old daughter's selling blowjobs in Bombay.

It is refreshing to read a new novel that is not full of revelations about, say, the static crappiness of suburban life, nor the wisdom and suffering of itinerant cowpokes as imagined from a writers' graduate degree program, nor a smart-aleck post-modernist fantasy of comic book heroes come to life. A Scientific Romance is, in fact, about as postmodernist as a story can be. Best of all, it is deeply pleasurable to read page after page of superb prose which, though never pretentious or putting on a learned dog, assumes that a reader is intelligent and takes that intelligence for granted. In this respect Wright's novel reminds me of James Buchan's High Latitudes, and made me wonder why U.S. novelists seem rarely able to spin a natural texture that assumes a reader can make the leaps (and catch some of the references) without sounding too clever by half.

There is probably no way that any of us will know if Wright has got it right. Unlike Orwell with 1984, or Huxley with Brave New World, he has protected himself by setting his prediction far enough in the future to have no one to answer to. The difficulty with foresight is that the parts which are not remarkably prescient in, say, Jules Verne (or even the science fiction of mid-century), look to future generations only hopelessly quaint.

Yet A Scientific Romance, for all it appears to be set centuries away, is really about what is happening now, and the course we are on for the next few decades. It is a disturbing and very moving book whose allegories continue to vibrate long after it has been put aside; a work of great beauty built on nightmare, the vision of a wounded man—of all mankind—consumed by a cruel immortality, "here at the quiet limit of the world."