Jules Verne’s Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours with its solid-red cover stuck out from among the other books on the shelves of the children’s library, like a sign warning of dangers ahead. The book was their French mother’s choice. His sister Agnes, who was fourteen, said it was beneath her. Her Latin class was discussing Aesop’s Rana Rupta et Bos.
Another inappropriately placed book was Huxley’s Brave New World in German translation. It belonged to Fraulein Mitzi, their Bavarian Kindergartnerin. She placed it there for her own convenience, and forbade him to read it even though since his tenth birthday last year his parents had allowed him access to most books, even in the “grownup” library. His parents were reading Brave New World in the original. The only English he and Agnes understood was their mother’s occasional warning to their father: “Not in front of the children.”
He knew that Fraulein Mitzi’s restriction had nothing to do with German translation. She always wanted him to read books written in German, “the language of magnificent literature.”
Thursday, Fraulein Mitzi’s day off, he stood on a chair to reach Brave New World on the topmost bookshelf and spent the whole day reading it on the dusty floor under his bed.
His Hungarian father, who had been a much-decorated cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, told him that Fraulein Mitzi, with her scant education, didn’t know much about German literature. Considering themselves a superior race, his father said, educated Germans would rather starve than work as a Kindergartnerin in Hungary or elsewhere.
Seventy-nine years later, in preparation for a performance of The Tempest at the University of Florida, he was looking through Volume II, The Comedies, in The London Shakespeare: A New Annotated and Critical Edition of the Complete Works in Six Volumes (1958). The calculator also told him that it was fifty-two years ago, in 1959, that this set of Shakespeare was given him by his creative writing students as a farewell present on the eve of his leaving Florida with his family for Devonshire on the south coast of England to stay with in-laws whose retirement from Nigeria coincided with a minor miracle of his own, the publication of his first novel written in English. The advance barely paid for the one-way flight to New York and the crossing on The Flanders. Outside Plymouth Harbor, the French liner dropped anchor just long enough for some of them to be collected by a large boat and deposited on British soil.
In the Miami Community Education setting a large number of his students had been older than he was, yet they insisted that he call them by their first names. He was not Americanized enough to be able to do it, especially not when they addressed him, their junior, as “professor.”
Before the Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1945 had changed the longestablished order of social intercourse, it would have been unthinkable for a young upper-class man to address an older man of the same class by his given name without adding “dear Uncle.” Different rules applied to upper-class women. He was taught the complicated verbal circumnavigation of addressing a lady without addressing her. He was also taught to address middle-class women by “Mrs.” followed by their surnames. In the villages, a woman’s marital status was obvious by her kerchiefcovered head. Cities were more complicated.
At the age of twelve he was considered grown-up enough to know all the rules and behave accordingly even though before going to any social functions with his parents, he usually got violently sick, resulting in the appearance of Dr. Sauer, the family physician, who would decide how large a “spoonful” of brandy to administer without making him drunk.
In 1950 he traveled on his wife Meg’s American passport (she was also entitled to a British one) from England on the S.S. Washington, a partially reconverted troopship—men and women slept in segregated dormitories. Their ship docked alongside New York Harbor’s magnificent shoreline. For the first time in his life he could actually look at the Statue of Liberty, the statue he was familiar with from watching newsreels while sheltering in countless “news-theatres” all over Europe. Unlike the expensive regular moviehouses, the cheap news-theatre tickets brought hours of refuge from the weather and safety from the police who occasionally stopped people on the streets to ask for their “papers.” Sometimes, he would come across D.P.’s (displaced persons) just before they moved on to the next sector, who would offer their “papers,” only asking that he wait a day before using them. Most of them tried to sell their “documents.”
Four years after their arrival he had been given the date for his naturalization exam and a book explaining the Constitution and the American republic’s political system, with an emphasis upon Florida. He was born with the peculiarity that made him able to retain, for a week or two, any text he had just read, which enabled him to recite his “naturalization book” by heart. The daily recitations kept him sane in the weeks of waiting for the most important, life-changing day of his life outside his wedding day, the day he would become a man with a country unlike any other, to end his D.P. insecurities and anxieties from illegally flitting about Europe for eight years. Without “documents” he did not exist except when he was in jail where his current assumed name would be transformed into a series of numbers.
In July 1954 American citizenship had been bestowed on him and thirty men and women of all ages. For all of them it was literally a life-changing event that gave them not only the much-sought-after citizenship but the unexpected gift of becoming equally as much an American as the native-born, most of whom did not know or had rejected the idea of the shining city on the hill of American exceptionalism.
An obverse example, Paul Sarkozy, a Hungarian noble, a former Army officer who served the required years in the Légion étrangère that gave him a French citizenship that did not make him French, unlike his Paris-born abandoned son Nicolas. Forty-eight years later, poetic justice prevailing, Nicolas Sarkozy, the forsaken son, was elected president of France.
Immigrants to the United States who did not seek citizenship achieved a higher living standard than had been possible in their native land. Their choice led them into permanent exiles whose working lives led them into a comfortable retirement in the United States, allowing them to sit in front of their computers and spend happy virtual-lives in Poland, or whichever country they had escaped from before the demise of the Soviet Union.
The Tempest was acted first at court on November 1, 1611, and again on February 14, 1613, at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth Stuart and King Frederick V. Wittelsbach.
The lines spoken by Prospero’s daughter Miranda, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t!” still had the magic in the twenty-first century to conjure up not only his first encounter with Brave New World, the forbidden Huxley novel he had read as a ten-year-old, but also the smell of dust under his bed.
What for the Greeks was crossing the Lethe, for him was the unexpected forgetfulness of old age, the blessed transformation of tortuous memories into fading, brown photographs of barely recognizable people, or the flaking oil portraits that once resided in palatial houses able to accommodate the large portraits in their elephantine frames. The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 also brought on political changes in Hungary that enabled him to retrieve for his daughter her grandmother’s formal portrait painted at the age of thirty-six and for his son a portrait of her at fourteen, dressed in a middy blouse and a navy skirt. It was a painting his mother despised.
Instead of fading memories the visit to reclaim the portraits transformed him once more into an insecure tightrope walker on a fraying rope stretched between the two poles of his birth and his coming death, with a catenary caused by a hanging cauldron of boiling liquid containing the grotesque horrors of the twentieth century he desperately tried to keep from spilling and scalding people he loved, people who surrounded him with the daily miracle of their deep affection. There was no strength left in him now to remake himself to fit the brave new world of the new century. He needed Saint Christopher whose reassuring medallion had been affixed to the dashboards of his cars for forty-six years, never mind the Canaanite transporter’s demotion for lack of authenticity that doomed him to failure and a loss of status. There was no way he could explain the sudden disappearance of the medallion from his dashboard. It remained a depressing mystery till the third morning when he awoke and saw the Christ-bearer standing by the back porch dwarfing the bird feeder. He looked the same as he did in Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Vincent Ferrer polyptych that he had seen in Venice’s huge Santi Giovanni e Paolo church in 1948. He had to nip into the closest available church (he had been illegally crossing borders from Hungary for almost two years), a huge, unattractive brick pile, to avoid the carabinieri who were checking a British tourist group’s passports. Inside, the cathedral-size space was overwhelmingly beautiful. It was here he came face-to-face with Saint Christopher, depicted while crossing a deep river, with both hands holding on to a long staff, the Christ child riding on his shoulder.
Failures always recognize each other. The demoted saint stood by the back porch towering over the bird feeder. The Christ-bearer had come to reassure him. Without words the promise was made that soon he would be carried to a place of reunions and peace.