Lina Prokofiev, Moscow, late 1960s.
Although we also had Italian and French in common, she preferred to carry out our conversations in English, which she still spoke fluently and, on the whole, correctly despite the sixty years that had elapsed since she had lived in New York. (As I recall, her English had a cultivated, East Coast American accent.) She was also fluent in Spanish and Catalan – her father’s native languages – as well as Russian, of course, and she could get by in at least one or two other languages (possibly Polish and/or German). In whatever language she chose for conversation, however, she was childishly irascible and intolerant of opinions that differed from her own on any subject; this was understandable, in view of what she had gone through in Stalin’s Russia, but it made any sort of collaborative effort with her absurdly difficult. Indeed, it made any sort of contact with her absurdly difficult. “Life is beautiful – if you never stop fighting”, she said grimly on several occasions. But fighting, in her case, meant not only protecting or defending what she held to be important but also, and much more frequently, intervening or miring herself in the most trivial matters. Once, when I arrived at her flat in the Rue Récamier for a work session, she told me that the suit I was wearing reminded her of what the Paris street cleaners wore. I burst out laughing, which made her angry: “You’re just like my son Oleg!” she exclaimed. “You boys have no taste in clothes.” (“Boy” Oleg was fifty-five at the time; I was thirty-six.) And I once heard her berate a telephone receptionist for not knowing who Madame de Récamier was, when Mrs Prokofiev was trying to spell out her address. “Mais ce n’est pas possible – et vous êtes Française!” Incidents of this sort would put her in a rotten mood for long stretches, but probably also energised her.
Having interviewed many people on the radio, I would automatically nod in response to Mrs Prokofiev’s comments when the tape recorder was running, rather than frequently interjecting “yes”, “no”, “uh-huh” and the like, which I knew I would not want to hear when I transcribed the tapes later on. During one session, she suddenly said, crossly: “Stop shaking your head! You’re making me dizzy!” My explanation did not interest her in the least. (No doubt her comment can still be heard on one of the tapes.) And I still laugh to myself whenever I recall an incident that occurred during my last series of working encounters with her. She had wanted to attend a concert by the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, but she said that she wouldn’t go alone and asked whether I would accompany her. I gladly accepted; she phoned the orchestra’s office, identifying herself as la veuve de Prokofiev – always her trump card – and asking for free tickets, which were granted. She wanted to go by bus, but as it was a cold, rainy November evening and at least one change of bus would have been necessary to get from the Rue Récamier in the 7th arrondissement to the Salle Gaveau in the 8th, on the other side of the Seine, I suggested that we phone to order a taxi. “A waste of money!” she said. I offered to pay. “Nonsense! We’ll take the bus.”
“Do you know which buses we have to take?” I asked.
“I’m sure we’ll find our way.”
We walked out into the driving rain, and I began to search the various bus stops scattered around the intersection of the Boulevard Raspail with the Rue de Babylone and the Rue de Sèvres, without being able to figure out the best route. “My God, the weather is terrible,” Mrs Prokofiev said, when I got back to her. “Can’t you find a taxi?” This took some doing, given the meteorological conditions, but I finally managed to make a cab stop for us. I held the door open for her. “GET IN FIRST!” she positively screamed. “Do you expect me to slide across the seat?”
“Actually, I was going to go around and get in the other side,” I said, as I slid across the seat.
The taxi began to move, and after two or three minutes of silence Mrs Prokofiev said, “I’ve behaved badly, haven’t I?” I smiled, in part because I excused her behaviour but mainly because I realised that this was the closest she had ever come to apologising for any of her irrationally angry outbursts. Had she not been old and had I not considered the task at hand important, the project would not have lasted even as long as it did.
I am happy that I managed to glean some valuable recollections from Lina Prokofiev, but in the end our venture shipwrecked on that most fatal of reefs, misunderstanding. I took my defeat badly – until 1984 or ‘85, when I was working on a different project with a well-known American arts journalist who, I discovered, had tried before me to help Mrs Prokofiev write her memoirs and had given up after a single afternoon. “How did you manage to last so long?” she asked. “You must have the patience of Job!”
What is truly sad, however, is the fact that when Lina Llubera Prokofieva died early in 1989, at the age of 91, she still had not managed to bring her project to fruition with anyone. We are left with nothing but disorganised fragments of what could have been a useful and colourful account of a remarkable slice of 20th-Century cultural history. BACK
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