My commentary here will be bigger than the post itself. Way back when I was still working my way towards writing a biography of Nikolai Erdman, I would use every opportunity I had to try to get information on the playwright about whom – in those days – virtually no one had written anything at all. I talked to several traveling Russian writers and scholars in the US, and then there was this one – an hour or two spent with the great Viktor Nekrasov in a Paris cafe in 1986. Almost none of the information I got ever made it into anything I wrote – it wasn’t substantial enough. But all of it helped me, a fledgling biographer, get closer to my subject before I actually took on the task of writing.
Nekrasov had 10 months left to live on the day we met. He had a cigarette in his mouth at all times, he nursed his beer relatively cautiously (telling me with a grin that we would have been drinking far stronger stuff had I got to know him a decade ago), and he had a ready smile for anything said that was remotely humorous. We were brought together by our mutual friend Charlie Allen. Charlie knew of my interest in Erdman and he suggested that Nekrasov might have something to say. So he set up the meeting – staying briefly as our chat began to help break the ice, but leaving us to our talk once it got going. Mostly Nekrasov talked about Russia and what was going on in Moscow at the time – glasnost had been declared, perestroika was yet to come. He was as astonished by it as any of us. He had a newspaper in his hand (like he does in this photo pulled from the net and taken four years before I met him), and he would refer to it from time to time. I think what I recall most about Nekrasov as a person was that he struck me as a true gentleman. He was straightforward and generous with his time and thoughts. He didn’t have to spend that hour or two with me, but he did and, maybe, he even enjoyed the opportunity to meet someone new. As for Erdman we talked about him more than is reflected in the notes below. But most of what was said was common knowledge. I jotted down the following comments after getting back to my apartment because they reflected details I had never heard (and have not heard again since). I knew of Erdman’s bout with cancer – it killed him – and I knew he had had cancer of the tongue. But I did not know the particulars about the old man and the sheep’s fat that Nekrasov told me. As for the Erdman quote, I can fully imagine the Erdman I know saying something like that – as long as it was with close friends and a couple of cognacs on the table.
Viktor Platonovich Nekrasov. At the café Le Mabillon on the corner of Rue Bucci and Bld. St. Germain in Paris, November 19, 1986.
ON ERDMAN: I didn’t know him real well, but we used to drink some together, of course not beer like you and I are drinking!” (“Konechno, ne pivo, kak my s toboj p’em!”) I knew him in the mid-60s. He had cancer of the tongue and he went to some old guy (“ded”) who lived outside of Moscow who told him to rub sheep’s fat (“baran’e salo”) on it. He had gone through x-rays and nothing had helped. Finally he went to this old guy who told him to use sheep’s fat. He did that for 6 months then went back to the doctor who couldn’t believe it. There wasn’t a trace of cancer. It was entirely gone. Erdman used to stick out his tongue and say, “See that? It’s still there!”