White Shroud written by Antanas Skema translated by Karla Gruodis, publisher Vagabond Voices, is available now in paperback format.
White Shroud (Balta drobule, 1958) is considered by many to be Lithuania’s most important work of modernist fiction. Drawing heavily on the author’s own refugee and immigrant experience, this psychological, stream-of-consciousness work tells the story of an emigre poet working as a bellhop in a large New York hotel during the mid-1950s. Via multiple narrative voices and streams, the novel moves through sharply contrasting settings and stages in the narrator’s life in Lithuania before and during WWII, returning always to New York and the recent immigrant’s struggle to adapt to a completely different, and indifferent, modern world. Skema uses language and allusion to destabilise, drawing the reader into an intimate, culturally and historically specific world to explore universal human themes of selfhood, alienation, creativity and cultural difference. Written from the perspective of a newcomer to an Anglophone country, the novel encourages an understanding of the complexities of immigrant life.
I am so pleased to be involved in the Baltic Books blogtour celebrating and showcasing some of the literary talents and their novels that have been translated in the UK for the first time. The Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are also being honoured as the Market Focus at London Book Fair (LBF), the biggest book trade event in the UK. I am pleased to share an extract from White Shroud written by Antanas Škėma and translated by Karla Gruodis.
Five minutes to start time. Antanas Garšva leaves the stall.
He looks in the mirror. The baritone has disappeared. Mine is not a painterly face. But there are signs. Green strips along the side of the nose. But I can still move my eyes and I don’t feel too bad. El Greco’s cardinal has nothing on me. The red of his vestment is more dreary than my uniform’s. I’ve cheered up, and don’t care any more about the atmosphere Elena engenders. And her scent? Elena’s or another woman’s – in the end, what’s the difference? And the swaying.
Antanas Garšva walks along the corridor to the “back” elevator. The swaying. And your acrid smell and face no longer matter. That smell that barbers get sick of: powder, hair creams, sweaty necks. You are not my beloved. You are a compliant and fetid swaying. I despise your animal magnetism. You are a shrunken anus. You are forgotten. Even though you knocked on the door and pounded it with your fists. Now you’re like any other woman to me, because I am an old bachelor who chooses nutty dames rather than streetwalkers. I’m careful. Isolde? I’m just a poet. And you are material for my new poems. About Vilnius. I will write elegant legends. About Vilnius. I’ll stop repeating your name. To the tempo of a French waltz. To Zola’s tempo. Na na na, Na na na, Na na na, Na na naa. Elena, it’s been two weeks since I had you.
Antanas Garšva is going up. The “back” elevator is packed. Black women in white smocks, Puerto Ricans with tattooed arms and the room service man with five gold stars on his uniform cuff. Every five years he’s granted the honour of sewing on a star. An unnamed constellation twinkles on his green cuff. Water gurgles in the room service man’s knees. When he retires, a still-spry German with two stars will jump into his place. Antanas Garšva is now upstairs. In a narrow corridor he punches another card: two minutes to start time precisely. He opens the doors.
The immensity of eight-million-strong New York fits into the main-floor lobby: an architect’s model created for tourists. The mathematically designed hall – the apotheosis of reinforced concrete urban real estate – is held up by square columns, painted dark red to indicate the hotel’s serious intentions, a carpet of the same colour to handle cigarette butts, armchairs upholstered in red vinyl and arranged like a waiting room for surgeries in which hundreds of doctors examine, operate, mortify. Matt bulbs shine, and tubes of “sunlight” paint visitors’ faces as though they’d been resurrected from the Valley of Josaphat. A poisonously green Plymouth stands in the middle of the space – you can win it by throwing a twenty-five-cent ticket into an urn next to which sits a very cheerful young lady, groomed and coiffured like an expensive dog, her cheek muscles hurting from hours of smiling, the violet plaster of the ceiling moulding reflected in the stone on her ten-dollar ring. The blue-uniformed concierges with slicked-back hair, plucked eyebrows and a perfect ability to understand the client, walk around slavishly proud, while the black-suited manager, balding and vigilant, a regulation white carnation in his silk lapel, runs past. Tonight, a well-known band is playing at the Café Rouge, as indicated in the framed posters – stilt- like notes arranged around the French heading, around letters stencilled on to a reddish background.
On the right side of the lobby stand polished wood partitions and behind them, white-shirted – short cut, brush cut, regular cut – clerks and dark-skirted girls, endlessly accommodating to clients and furious with their neighbours, why didn’t he let me use the typewriter. One thousand eight hundred and forty three hooks are installed behind a freckled clerk. That’s how many rooms there are in the hotel. Nearby, in a glade of ficus and bay trees, stands a sort of pulpit that could have been ripped out of a wooden church, and a supremely elegant head concierge (grey-tufted ears, sharp nose, red bitten lips) making announcements in a muffled bass. Miss Alison is waiting for Mister Crampton, be so kind, Mister Crampton, be so kind – Miss Alison is waiting!
A row of shops stands on the left side of the lobby. The window of the first one is stuffed with souvenirs. Chinese mandarins stand side by side with Japanese geishas, painted and costumed Europeans, artificial Far Eastern characters from the immortal opera Madama Butterfly, clay “German” beer mugs with tangled parodies of Hals and Dürer, Dutch hats – the sighs of an Americanised Dutchman, varnished Negro masks that would make someone from the Congo or Sudan laugh Homerically, Indian-patterned tablecloths carefully woven by modern looms, countless porcelain knick- knacks. Next is a window of men’s accessories. Each shirt, tie or pair of boxers embroidered with the hotel emblem: a roaring, somewhat English lion, and the hotel’s name. The same lion appears next door, embroidered on the women’s accessories. And the hotel’s greatest source of pride – the watch display case in the centre of the lobby. Contemplating it can inspire a panicked sense of one’s own commonness – a very simple, thousand-dollar watch bracelet, a fine string of pearls, mother-of-pearl earrings, small, barely visible rings studded with shimmering diamonds.
The main-floor lobby contains a drugstore that serves tasty fishcakes. And a coffee shop for the more humble clientele. The ageing waitress will be let go tomorrow; she was chewing gum on the job and the assistant manager noticed. You can also find a news and tobacco kiosk in the main-floor lobby; the bald, grey owner, a member of a sect with only eight hundred followers, plays the flute on Sundays. A few steps down, still within the main-floor lobby, is a spacious restaurant with samples of imported wine bottles arranged on a granite stand like multicoloured candles on a gigantic cake. In the main-floor lobby you can get a haircut or a shoeshine, or stop by the Ladies’ or Gentlemen’s and have a pleasant chat with an attractive black man or woman whose skin makes the white towels stand out. You can buy cigarettes from a girl in a low-cut dress who walks around with a tray hanging from her neck, and if you’re in a rush she’ll call a friend who sells herself as if it were a spring discount. Here you can complete various monetary transactions, and even go mad – an experienced doctor will rush down from the tenth floor.
The steady rhythm of the lobby is broken by the red bellhops: they attack the luggage of the arriving and departing, they chat up guests who feel like talking and are discreetly silent if a new arrival doesn’t want to, and many have the psychological insight of a psychoanalyst. It’s as difficult making it into the bellhops as getting into the French Academy. Unless someone retires or dies. In a week, an experienced bellhop can collect a hundred dollars in tips.
One minute to start time. Antanas Garšva walks along, observing himself in the mirrors. There’s Garšva, there’s Garšva, there’s Number 87. I have acquired a new coat of arms. My genealogical tree has branched out. My mother’s coat of arms contains an upright fish. Some kind of carp, maybe a crucian. The roaring lion has swallowed the rotten fish. Long live the digestive capacities of foreigners. Long live paralysed England, reincarnated into a hybrid between a fish and a lion. Long live grapefruit and the fusion of hydrogen bomb elements before the explosion. Long live my break periods. The American Dream. And the fog. You can’t come near me. The hotel guests, the manager, or the starter. Not even the starter. The last mirror. Look at yourself one last time, Antanas Garšva. Suddenly, perhaps accidentally, you look like your father. Company over for tea and wild strawberry jam would say: “Sooooo like your mother! Turn around, Antanukas. Look – a perfect copy!”19 If they thrust a violin into your hands it would befit you to play Wieniawski’s gypsy variations. My friend Joe, the baritone, is already waiting. And my friend Stanley, the drunk.
Antanas Garšva finds himself in a spacious sunken area of the lobby lined on two sides by elevators. Six to the left and six to the right. To the left – the locals. They go up to only the tenth floor, stopping at each one in between, and then return. To the right – the expresses. They stop once at the tenth floor and then at each one after that, up to the final, eighteenth, floor. The hotel elevators are automatic, manufactured by Westinghouse. Signalling machines mounted on the walls flash with green and red lights that track the movements of the elevators. Like at intersections. This area of the lobby is bordered by the window of the flower shop. Beyond the polished glass – roses, gladioli, rhododendron, carnations, azaleas, and white- and red- veined hothouse leaves, an anatomical atlas woven of human blood and nerves.