Vanity Fea

The Pretender

The Pretender

(from ’Andrew’s Brain’, by E. L. Doctorow)

I didn’t know opera singers owned their costumes —they don’t, do the? Yet there he was in that heavy tapestry robe and that knitted crown they affected with the jeweled trimming and the little cross on top. He lifted his glass: To The Pretender, he said, looking at me, and then because he hiccuped his arm jerked back and the contents of his glass made a lovely arc through the air and hit his portrait on the wall behind him, splashing over his face made up as Boris Godunov so that the painting seemed to be shedding tears.

Did this really happen?


Your impulsively going to New Rochelle because you’d heard ’Boris Godunov’ on the radio and then finding this czarist simulacrum lying around drunk?

I’m not angry at you for asking that question because I hardly believed it myself standing there in that dark living room, which incidentally was unheated, which may have been the reason Martha’s large husband had put on that heavy regalia complete with that watch cap of a crown. And, after all, might he not have been listening with some bitterness to the same Saturday broadcast? I stood over him as he looked at me with bleary half-focused eyes. He had lost weight and was no longer the intimidating figure he’d been. He’d been a big humpy manatee of a man, huge and sleek. No more. The double chin, the wide face, the big head, it was all thinned out no, the physiognomy, with his jawline like a wishbone and the hollow cheeks with eeys staring up at me that belonged to a very sick man. I found myself furious, totally unsympathetic, and spoke to him as one speaks to a drunk.

Where is she, Martha, goddamn you, where’s my child?

He staggered to his feet and began to sing the dying scene in his raspy bass, holding his arms out to me.

I ran upstairs, looking in all the rooms. An empty crib, open empty drawers, empty coloset. In the master bedroom a rumpled bed, one closet with just the hangers hanging there. On the floor, some scraps of paper. A folded-up bus schedule. ’Ras-chee-chev. Ras-chee-chev’. [THINKING] Listen, I want to correct the wrong impression I may have given you about my feelings for Briony.

Wait a minute. What did you do then?


After you found Martha gone.

I caught the last train back to Washington. That poor drunk had no more idea where she was than I did. He couldn’t even tell me how long she’d been gone. I had the feeling looking around that it had been quite a while. Of course the kid would be safe with her. She’d left her piano. It was still there in the study. That meant to me Willa was now her life. But there was no rush, this was not an emergency, if I hadn’t impulsively taken that trip I would really have been in the dark. So relatively speaking I was up on things.

And there was a little bit of relief there too, do you suppose?

Well, why not? I’m not ashamed to say it. What is more daunting than a judgment in the eyes of a child? It would come eventually, inevitably. It just wouldn’t be now. But I was trying to tell you something.


See, the door was open and there I stood. So to a man, an opera singer costumed as Boris, and seriously drunk, singing the role there in his living room—what could be more reasonable than for Boris to see the fellow standing at the door as the Pretender Grigoriy, with his Polish-Lithuanian army, arrived to take the crown. I had thought he was talking about me, and maybe he was but somehow now also putting me in the opera. I was the false claimant to the throne, you see?

Was he that drunk?

Drunk or not, he was in the play, casting me as the enemy. Some basis for that in my being Martha’s ex. And yes he found just the term, plucked it out of Russian operatic history maybe by way of a deeper recognition. At the root, Andrew is The Pretender, OK? Is that what you want to hear? You’ve interrupted my train of thought. You guys aren’t supposed to do that.

But this is important, don’t you think? Didn’t he make you mad?

Listen, he knew I did cog science. He was not unintelligent. when I left he was singing his heart out to me, following me to the door. So don’t jump to conclusions. I felt sorry for him, to tell you the truth. He kissed me on the top of my head. And then he got down on his knees and begged for my blessing. That’s what Boris does in the opera, he begs for the blessing of the Holy Fool who stands in his mind for all of Russia. So I was no longer the Pretender to the throne. I had been recast as the Holy Fool. Or he might have been acknowledging me as one Pretender to another. After all he couldn’t exclude himself pretending to be the rightful czar. You weren’t there. We were brothers under the skin.

So it was a reprieve, is that what you’re saying? You were absolved of being Andrew the Pretender?

We’re all Pretenders, Doctor, even you. Especially you. Why are you smiling? Pretending is the brain’s work. It’s what it does. The brain can even pretend not to be itself.

Oh? What can it pretend to be, just by way of example?

Well, for the longest time, and until just recently, the soul.


(E. L. Doctorow, ’Andrew’s Brain’, London: Little, Brown, 2014; 98-102)

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