Louis Begley

Louis Begley

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 5 1997 3:30 AM

Louis Begley

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       During the visit to Warsaw concluded two days ago, I stayed at the Bristol, which, together with the Europejski Hotel diagonally across the street from it, is the stuff of legends about Polish high life between the two wars. In '32, my wife's late father stayed at the Europejski during his honeymoon. The word got out, and thousands of poor orthodox Jews from the neighborhoods that under the German occupation became the Warsaw Ghetto converged on the square before the hotel and waited until the bridegroom, who had once been one of them, and his trophy bride, a daughter of "the French Baron de Rothschild," obligingly appeared on the balcony of their suite to submit to applause, good wishes, and envy. The Europejski is now in shambles; its carpeting and furniture, which date from the Soviet-style rebuilding of Warsaw, are stained or in tatters. Butler's holiday clients sprawl obesely in the lobby where officers and their ladies in chiffon and raw silk once worked their way through sets of fox trots, tangos, and English waltzes.
       It's a different story at the Bristol. It has had its face lifted, no expense spared, so as to be just like before World War II, only better, by the Forte organization, the chain that also operates the Ritz in Madrid and the Grand in Amman and many other caravanserais.
       In Ferdydurke, the great novel by Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish novelist of genius (fortunately available in English translation), the narrator's degenerate cousin Zygmunt relates, with fatuous admiration, the exploits of a Warsaw toff named Henryk Pas--particularly how Pas slapped the face of the doorman of a Warsaw hotel, an activity that instantly turned into a fad among the upper set. I cannot help thinking of young Henryk each time I pass through the door of the Bristol, for the slap, without question, was administered here, and it must have been on a stool at the bar where I drink kosher vodka (a fad in today's Poland) that Henryk perched to rest after the excitement of having disciplined a servant for the pure hell of it. His long legs, ending in feet that were also long and very thin, would have been encased in the sort of brogues that were bench-made for feet like his only in Warsaw. Should he have noticed any imperfection in their high shine, his valet, too, was in for a beating about the face.
       And those slaps, first to the right cheek, then, with the back of the hand, to the left, resound in my memory with the violence of bells calling the faithful to prayer. Pif paf! How well I know them. During my one year of attendance at a gimnazjum (high school) in Cracow, our recreation periods took place in an enclosed courtyard. As in Ferdydurke, sooner or later someone would slap you in the face. You slapped him back. He slapped you again, harder, and this exchange continued until your ears and cheeks were red like blood and one of you (usually me) began to cry. Then came the laughter of one's colleagues, gathered in a circle to judge the contest. Or, you might be walking in the Planty, the public garden that took the place of the wall that once surrounded Cracow. Awkwardly, or perhaps on purpose, you brushed against a young woman promenading on the arm of a black-market operator turned out in a suit of preposterously light-gray plaid. Wham! A slap in your face, and, if you had the misfortune to turn around, a kick in your rear end.
       In the end, it was all the same: those slaps and kicks and the savage game of tag played in the schoolyard, which had you ducking the soccer ball that two seniors hurled at you as though you were a rabbit nibbling their lettuce.

Louis Begley is the author of four novels: Wartime Lies, The Man Who Was Late, As Max Saw It, and About Schmidt. He practices law and lives in New York City.