George Saunders

Last night went to a birthday party for the Russian émigré poet Katya Kapovich, held at the Summer Gardens. Cottonweed floating down past rows of linden trees, the trunks of which grew blacker as the sun went down. At a wide place in the gravel path: a mime on stilts and two tiny 5-year-olds doing manic but precise ballroom dancing, the girl in hot pants and halter top, the boy in a tight black suit. Their cranky mother snaps at them between numbers. Attended by a man in full footman regalia (green silk jacket, gray wig, fake mustache), the guest of honor is inexplicably getting a haircut on the footpath. Three men in peasant coats, chained at the ankles, walk by carrying lit torches. A beautifully dressed older Russian couple approaches, and we very politely discuss why, in English, a bagpipe is called a bagpipe. Nearby, a mob of Russian twentysomethings executes a complex polka, every single one of them beaming with joy, reminding me of Bakhtin’s comment on Rabelais: “Laughter must liberate the gay truth of the world from the veils of gloomy lies spun by the seriousness of fear, suffering, and violence.” An Amy Irving look-alike in a brown cloak dress personifies this by throwing back her head with wild but clean-cut abandon. As has been the case since I was a kid, I find myself feeling vaguely inadequate in the face of such happiness and functionality. It befuddles me. I’m all for it, it moves me nearly to tears, but somehow I feel unworthy of it and don’t know how to participate in it fully, which is why, I’m guessing, I became a satirist. Satire can be, maybe, a backdoor method of praising Goodness.   

Soon: In the beer garden, the footman and the mime introduce Katya, newly shorn, who reads her poetry, in Russian and in English. Her father, an architect, was arrested in the 1970s. A few years later, having made trouble in school, and being the daughter of a dissident, she was put into a mental hospital. As she reads a poem about making origami to console a little girl she met in the asylum, the sun, perched on the roof of a building across the Neva, lights up the sandaled foot of one of our party, making it suddenly appear to be lit from within. Behind us is Peter the Great’s famous fence, said to be able to cure the terminally ill, which children are forbidden to touch due to its magical powers. We are all overwhelmed by the poems we’ve heard and by Katya’s charisma and self-effacing humor and deep wisdom. She is one of these rare people, it would seem, who is capable of converting hardship into grace. She’s also a quick thinker, which we learn a few minutes later when she craftily leads a policeman away so a few of us can continue to pee in an alley. It’s midnight and bright as day, and we’re all happy as clams, walking down the cobblestone street, and Katya invites all 15 of us back to the house where she’s staying, the former home of a famous Russian poet of the 1970s who killed himself. Apparently Joseph Brodsky was often a guest here. We are greeted at the door by her friend’s father, a handsome man of great nobility wearing striped pajamas, who welcomes us warmly. I say we’re sorry if we woke him and he says, “Not at all,” and soon a bowl of cherries is going around the room. Am reminded of Isaac Babel’s line, in “Red Cavalry,” something like: “Comrade, we need a revolution of the decent!”

At 2 a.m. we walk out to watch the ritual raising of the bridge. It comes up and up, and then there it is: a vertical street, streetlights and all. At a bridge closer to the Winter Palace, there are, we will later find out, 1,000 people celebrating college graduation day, a euphoric cheering mob, but here there’s just the (now 10 or so) of us and a few policeman and the Neva and that vertical street: a moment of great warmth and happiness and it makes me wonder, for the millionth time, how a species capable of this sort of tenderness can butcher one another, withhold aid, slaughter innocents, etc. But the only sane reaction to such a moment is gratitude, of course (we’re not killing each other now), and resolve (let me work to keep others from the desperate state that causes killing). And then the long walk home with the skies already brightening.