The Pacific and Other Stories
A new collection from "a master crafter of the short story" (San Francisco Chronicle)
At long last, almost ten years since his previous book, Mark Helprin returns with The Pacific and Other Stories, a collection of sixteen stories that display the remarkable scope, incomparable wit, and deft prose that have come to be his signature. A British paratrooper jumps into occupied territory; the 1958 New York Yankees gain an unexpected teammate in a puny, teenaged Hasidic Jew; a September 11th widow receives an astonishing gift from the contractor working on her new apartmentóthese and other stories exhibit the constantly changing variety of the ocean itself, the peaks and troughs of life. Lighthearted, glittering fables are met with starker tales that sound the depths of sacrifice and duty. The Pacific and Other Stories is a resplendent, powerful collection of lasting substance and emotional import.Il Colore Ritrovato
I didn't go to Venice of my own accord. I was sent there, forced to go, by that ... that woman, she who has worshippers throughout the world, she who, despite a corrupt and failing body, limitless greed, and the personality of a broom, has-still, after all these years-the voice of an angel. It isn't surprising that she has power over me. Why shouldn't she? Even after a big meal, and I mean a big meal, she can walk onto a floodlit stage, stare into darkness and blinding glare, and then, with inimitable self-possession, make thousands weep. That all her gifts have been so concentrated is a miracle, and though she has no talent or virtue but this, it's more than enough.
I've represented her since 1962, when neither of us was known and we both were unrecognizably young. She was almost beautiful then, and almost innocent. Everyone assumes that I had an office, and, one day, she, a professional singer, walked into it. I have an office now, but I didn't then. I was a bookkeeper in a dark little factory that made gears for motor scooters. Everything there had oil on it, even my ledgers, which were so splotched that sometimes you couldn't read the numbers. And when it rained, the floor was covered with ankle-deep water.
Naturally, I didn't want to stay in such a place for the rest of my life, and I believed that unless I did something impulsive and courageous, and unless I had a great deal of luck, I would. So I waited for my luck, and it came one day as I was walking home, not five minutes from the factory, in front of an industrial laundry. The doors were open, and, inside, one of the laundresses was lifting heavy wet sheets onto a cable that took them into a dryer. As she clipped them to the line, she sang. Working with arms raised is so difficult that most people would not have been able even to talk. But she was singing, and the singing, as she has proved many times since, was worthy of La Scala.
"Who the hell is that?" I asked one of her colleagues, a woman who looked distressingly not so much like a Picasso as like Picasso himself. It was a question that was to shape not only my life, but that of a substantial part of the world if art is to be accounted, even if these days art hardly is.
"Oh, she's always singing. Everyone says how good she is."
"Does she sing professionally?" I asked.
"No, she's a laundress."
"I see that, but, perhaps, on the side?"
"Her boyfriend won't let her."
"Is he a soprano, too?"
"He's in the army."
Not wanting to be killed, I was going to leave right then, but then she said, "Yes, he's in New Zealand, at the embassy, for two years. It has something to do with ostriches, I think. When he gets back, they'll be married."
"Oh," I said. "Well, please tell your friend...." I reached into my pocket and pretended to be surprised. "I seem to have left my cards in the office. Tell your friend that I'm an impresario, and that I'll come tomorrow after work-which is?"
"Which is what?"
"What time does she finish work?"
"Six. We all do," she said, looking at me as if I were an idiot.
"At six, then," I said. "She should sing at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden."
"Why don't you tell her? We can stop the line, it's just sheets, or you could wait ten minutes. People fall in love with her because of her voice." Suspicion crossed her face like a cloud. "You don't look like an impresario."
I laughed artificially. "I have an appointment," I said, "for a contract signing with Lucida Lamorella. I'll be here tomorrow. Tell her." All the while she was singing so beautifully that I could see why people fell in love with her even if I did not, because I could tell from a distance and despite a voice that one could love forever that she was-how shall I say it-spiritually blank. I don't know how I was able to tell. Certain things are more or less self-evident.
That night I pressed my shirt and thought of a plan, and the next day I put on my suit, quit my job, and made a reservation at a restaurant. I paid the headwaiter to say, "Signor Cassati, how are things at La Scala?" I bought contract papers and stamps, and an impresario's hat, a Borsalino. By the time I went to the laundry, I had become an impresario, for, after all, what is an impresario but someone who in less than a day can transform himself from a bookkeeper in a motor-scooter-gear factory into an impresario? Having convinced myself of my transformation, it was easy to convince her.
She was really something. She ate like a hippopotamus. God intended for one to be able to see the beauty and soul of nearly all women. And there I was, twenty-seven years of age, in a restaurant with a girl of twenty-one, who was really quite pretty, and, if not slim, possibly svelte. She could not have helped but have some of the charm of youth, and her voice must have meant something in respect to her soul, but I felt no attraction to her whatsoever. She ate olives so fast that many of them fell from her mouth and rolled across the tablecloth and onto the floor. She kept a wad of bread in each cheek pouch-just in case-while she shoveled food in through the main mouth part. It's always good to have a reserve: her smock had pockets and she used them. She never stopped eating. I was worried that I wouldn't have enough money left from my small savings to get us to Pflanzenberg, where solely by the balls of my feet I had tentatively booked her to sing the part of Norma with the opera club of one of the Volkswagen subcontractors that made windshield wipers. I could do this because I knew them through the gear factory, and had gotten their president tickets for La Scala.
"Do you know Norma?" I asked.
A black olive fell from her mouth. "Norma who?"
"Of course. Mama made me memorize it. She made me memorize everything-before she died." She went back to eating.
"What do you mean, 'everything'?"
"How many operas?"
"Oh, I don't know. Sixty or seventy."
My eyebrows went up and my face jerked forward. "Sixty or seventy?"
"Yes, what's so strange about that?"
"What's so strange about that?" I repeated in astonishment.
"Nothing," she said, as if I had really asked her. "Do they have any nuts?"
"Who?" I asked.
Before I could even think, she said, in her very powerful soprano, "Waiter, do you have nuts?"
Soon she was cracking nuts as she ate, as she spoke, and as she drank. "I know them perfectly." She closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, which, in those days, was how she emphasized a point.
"The whole thing, all the parts. It just comes to me after I've seen it once, and then I don't forget. It all makes sense, and flows naturally from one thing to another, so it's no big fuckin' deal."
"That's good," I said, "because, with your permission, I've booked you to sing Norma in the opera house at Pflanzenberg."
"Yes. You know you're good."
"But Quagliagliarello won't let me."
"Where is he?" Of course, I already knew, but I made myself look curious.
"In New Zealand."
I said nothing, letting it dawn on her. It took a while, but then she asked, "Where's Pflanzenberg?"
"In Germany, nowhere near New Zealand."
"Germany! What would Quagliagliarello think?"
"He would fly back and kill me, that's what he would think."
"So don't tell him. Why does he have to know? By the time he gets back, you'll be singing in La Scala, and it will be a fait accompli. In fact, it will be a fait accompli when, in New Zealand, he sees your picture on the cover of an LP. You know, in a gown, getting out of a carriage and alighting onto a red carpet, fountain in the background, nice shoes, glowing complexion, happiness. He won't even place you, because he won't expect to see you on the jacket of a Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft recording, but then he'll see your name, but it won't matter, because he'll be so shocked he won't be able to kill me. What is your name? Here we are having dinner, and I don't even know."
"Rosanna Scungili," she answered, as if she knew that this was soon to change, as indeed it would. Imagine an American or English opera singer whose name was Jane Octopus-Slice. She might be the greatest singer in the world, but much would stand in her way.
"How about Rosanna Cadorna?" I suggested after my eyes had swept the restaurant and stopped at a painting of the famous general.
"She would be you." Rosanna's expression was blank. "You would be she."
"You'd change your name." "I see," she said. "All right." She was the quickest to decide absolutely anything of anyone I've ever known. She still is. She has no hesitation. It's as if nothing matters to her. I think she may be psychotic. When her father died, the first thing she said was, "What time is the European Song Fest?" Back then, in the restaurant, just after she had so quickly agreed to a different name, she said, "Let's go to Germany. I already know the part. When do we leave?"
For someone who didn't like German food, Rosanna ate a lot of it. In addition to the meals we had at the Scheibenwischeroper, the windshield-wiper opera, I had to buy her several kilos of bread, sausage, and cake every day. I have heard-I have seen-that really crazy people can eat ten kilos of food a day and not gain weight. That was Rosanna until she was forty. Then something changed, and she began to gain weight as inexorably as a tank into which water is dripping. Now she cracks marble floors as she passes over them, and stalls elevators as she gets into them, but back then the Germans thought she was just a typical starving Italian girl. Indifferent to her appearance and her manner, they remained unimpressed until at the first rehearsal she opened her mouth to sing.
The Germans, after all, produced Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms: it's not as if they're insensitive to music. And at the end of her first aria all those stolid Germans were so moved they were in tears. They were astounded that she was there with them, and they had the touched, trembling, holy air of those present at the creation, for it was easy to see that she was going straight to the great stages of the world.
It wasn't exactly straight. After her flawless performances in Pflanzenberg, we went on to one flawless performance after another in-if memory serves, and it should, for these were glorious days of rising and success-Wachenrauss, Hofheim, Würzburg, Karlsruhe, and Heilbronn. The engagements in these cities were all in opera clubs. She had to sing near machine tools, gymnastic equipment, and walls of boxes. Once, she brought down the house-that is, the people on blankets on the grass-while a Turkish soccer game raged off to her left. She was as unconcerned as if she were playing in the hushed spaces of the greatest opera house. There she stood, despite the most despicable noise and distraction, a monstrous woman, really, floating in a sea of ineffable beauty and transforming the world about her without either self-consciousness or delicate temperament.
You know how great singers and musicians are always supposed to be prisoners of temperament? It's the opposite of what's true. In fact, what so distinguishes them in this regard is that they have no temperament: they are absolute. It is we, who are not great, who are prisoners of mood. It is we who vary and change, and when we who spend our lives trimming and ducking encounter those who make no adjustments we imagine that it is they who are in a frenzy, such are the laws of relative motion.
I have never seen Rosanna sing with adjustment for anything. She could be in a dirty garage in Saarbrücken or at a command performance for the queen of England, and it would be-indeed, it was-exactly the same. Indeed, she is a miracle of temperament, or lack of it. She is seized each time by the divinity of the music and she neither varies nor falters. Well, she does sometimes falter, but only when her body has failed her and she is sick. Even then, though she may not sing well, she sings better than most, and when you see her struggling against her affliction-she is not anymore a healthy woman-you know that to finish her aria she would sing even unto death.
But when not singing, she's intolerable. She has always been intolerable. In our almost forty years of association I have seen several hundred of the scores of thousands of young men who have fallen in love with her voice. These are the ones who, like the hardier sperm that can swim close to the egg, come to her entranced and obsessed. And then, unlike sperm, they turn away in horrified disillusion. Most women would have been suicidal after two or three such rejections, but (though it doesn't happen anymore, because she is too fat) it did not affect Rosanna. "They're idiots," she used to say. "They're in love with something Mozart or Bellini plucked from the ether, not with me. That's why they could never sing themselves. They try to make their lives something other than pedestrian, because they have nowhere else to go. When I come back from where I go, I want just to be a laundress. And when I come back from where I go, I have no strength left to be anyone else. Besides, I never loved anyone but Quagliagliarello, until you took him away from me."
"I didn't take him from you, he was jealous of your career."
"Can you blame him? He got back from New Zealand and what did he see? Did he see Rosanna Scungili, laundress, who hangs wet sheets and sings like a nightingale?"
"And eats like a hippo."
"I had a high metabolism. No, he sees Rosanna Cadorna, just become world famous, who rides around in long cars and talks to the Pope, who makes in one night by opening herself to others like a whore, more than he has made in his life, who lives in the most expensive suites of the best hotels, and who, in two years, has become old. What was he supposed to do?"
"Anything but what he did."
"He was a soldier, he had a gun."
"He should have killed me, not himself. That's what I would have done."
"No. I was gone, and could never come back. It was too late."
"Do you think, Rosanna, that had you stayed a laundress and married Quagliagliarello when he got back from New Zealand, you would have been happy?"
"I don't know. I loved him. We could have had children."
"You would have given everything up for your singing. You wouldn't have been able to help it. If I hadn't found you, someone else would have. You could have waited for Quagliagliarello, but remember how quick you were to go to Pflanzenberg?"
"Yes," she said. "I know. I hardly hesitated an instant."
Helprin reaffirms his place as our most elegant moralist... [His] range is staggering. (Entertainment Weekly, Editorís Choice)
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