Vital Signs

Triptych of a Tartar

"The terrible thing, my dear, is not that they call Schnabel the Michelangelo of our time. They call everybody the Michelangelo of our time. The terrible thing is that Michelangelo was really the Schnabel of his time, and I'm the only one who will tell you so." The speaker, red-bearded and blue-eyed, is so slight of build that nothing he says sounds as a challenge. His accent is more peculiar than Russian, and it helps him make the girl from Boston laugh. "You know, Igor," she says, at once playful and conspiratorial, basking in the strange weightlessness of intellectual freedom that seems to fill the old house, "I never really liked Michelangelo." She wants to go on; to tell him she never heard anyone say things like this in college; to ask him if he really means it all; and a thousand other questions; but she doesn't know where to begin, and anyway, he interrupts. "You nice girl, dear," he says, pouring iced, gem-green vodka from a crystal decanter half-filled with black currant leaves. "But you need husband."

Thus passes a Sunday afternoon at Igor Galanin's studio, the top floor of his house, hidden in the woods of Westchester County, New York. But on weekdays the scene is different. Or is it? The stereo murmurs Verdi, the exotic plants have been watered, the morning pours in through the windows and the skylight, and the little man stands by his worktable, painting the...

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