It was at the Thalia that I first saw L’Avventura, with its accompanying revelation (a revelation to me, at least) that film is more like music than literature. I began to wonder if a story could be structured musically instead of arranged as literature. That is, instead of being led on a guided tour, through a unique and arresting fictional reality, the reader would be danced through it. Then Grove Press published a translation of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, which did exactly that.
The Kukhnya Zimy was a small, brightly lit, square store front, with a floor composed entirely of small, white, hexagonal tiles, which I have only seen elsewhere on the floors of men’s rooms. It was owned by a grey-haired emigre couple who were chef and hostess. She was not a babushka, but a slim, nervous woman who, in true Russian fashion, sometimes was jolly and welcoming and sometimes surly. He would occasionally emerge from the kitchen, a tall, imposing man, with a military bearing that made the white apron he wore look like a costume he was trying on for a party he would decide was beneath his dignity to attend.
In one corner of the Kukhnya Zimy was a jukebox – an old fashioned one, that played 78 rpm’s. The records were of Russian music and the hand-lettered tabs slotted beside the selection buttons were in Cyrillic. Sometimes for a lark we would put in a nickel and press a button at random. A singer, with orchestra, or the Red Army Chorus, would belt out a mournful song with all the requisite lachrymose Russian inflections.
One evening, after a film at the Thalia, George Freiberg and I went for some pierogi at the Kukhnya Zimy. Despite its antiseptic decor, dining at the Kukhnya Zimy came with the potent double frisson of stepping over the threshold into the Russian novels that we loved (years later, as an intern at Mt. Sinai Hospital, George was single-handedly responsible for the introduction and proliferation in the inner-cities of the 1970’s of the name “Natasha,” enthusiastically suggesting it to the distracted teen-age mothers at a loss for what to call the creature George had just delivered) and of consorting with the enemy. That evening George and I began to flippantly speculate that the Kukhnya Zimy, which never seemed to have enough customers to stay in business, was really a front for the NKVD.
I opined facetiously that the incongruous jukebox was there as a means for conveying secret messages. I no sooner had suggested this detail of our hypothetical NKVD operation and had begun to chortle over it, when the door opened and a large man in a black slouch hat and a black raincoat strode in. He went straight to the jukebox, put in a nickel, pressed a button, listened to the record for ten or fifteen seconds, then turned on his heel and strode out.
It was one of those isolated, infrequent, preposterous events that do not belong in the string of continuous, contiguous instances that weave the pattern of reality. There is no way to think about them, or speak about them, without the rest unravelling.