A SMALL agency item, picked up from Russian TV channels, caught the eye recently. "Unknown vandals," it read, "have desecrated the grave of dissident Russian poet Boris Pasternak whose novel Dr. Zhivago won him the Nobel Prize for literature... . The modest tombstone, at a cemetery in the famed writers retreat of Peredelkino outside Moscow, was covered in soot as the vandals put wreaths around it and set them on fire last night... ."
Inevitably my thoughts went back to a windy and overcast Easter day, 23 years ago when we headed for Peredelkino, 25 miles south west of Moscow. The snow had not yet melted fully and our shoulders hunched involuntarily under our coats as we searched conspiratorially around the dacha village for Pasternak's grave. In the Soviet Union of those days — as indeed today according to the news item — he was best known as a poet, and foreigners searching for the resting place of a man known the world over as a novelist may well get into trouble.
It was here that Arthur Miller and his photographer wife Inge Morath had found a mad poet reciting lines from Pushkin and then got involved in an altercation when Miller took a photograph of a security man who had been detailed to prevent them from reaching the grave.
Finally, we chanced upon a portly and elderly Russian woman who seemed safe enough to ask. "Look for the three pines," she smiled and walked on. Sure enough, somewhere between the birches with their peeling white trunks we found the three pines and in their shadow was the grave. Other visitors had left flowers and Easter eggs there and we stood for a while in silent contemplation before we gave in to the temptation of hot coffee and sandwiches.
That day one would never have believed that anybody could vandalise that grave. Thousands had, after all, braved official reprisal to attend Pasternak's funeral in 1960. His battle had never been with the people but rather with the Soviet state because Dr. Zhivago was thought to falsify the October revolution.
Calumny and pressure had ultimately forced Pasternak to refuse the Nobel and he spent his last years in his dacha, writing and gardening, a gentle man of letters who, like his Zhivago, treasured his private world.
In the words of fellow poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "he went his way, leaving all the fuss to others/Firm and springy was the stride/of this silver headed artist/with a sailor's swarthy cheeks."
But, as Trotsky had warned, the 20th century in revolutionary Russia was not the right time for such luxuries. Somewhere the constant fear and security, the careful treading of the fine line between official acceptability and his artistic conscience must have exacted its price. For he wrote:
Am I a gangster or a murderer?/Of what crime do I stand/Condemned? I made the whole world weep/At the beauty of my land.
A pity then that a grave, which in Yevtushenko's words was to be "a raging magnet for boys, flowers, seeds, and birds," should fall prey to vandals.
Another country, another windswept, blustery day, I searched for Graham Greene's resting place below the Swiss town of Vevey, spread out among the vineyards above a lazy Lake Leman, moodily changing its blue to grey. An article in the London Magazine had indicated that Greene, who left Antibes and came here to be close to his daughter in his last days, was buried in the same cemetery as Charlie Chaplin in the village of Corsier.
An hour of peering at tombstones revealed that the author of that article had obviously got it mixed up. Chaplin was there, along with wife Oona, under an impressive large headstone but there was no sign of the enigmatic man who had made an art of exploring the frailties, ambiguities and contradictions of the human heart.
Two old ladies outside the graveyard again came to the rescue. There was another small cemetery in the village of Corseaux close by, they said. The grave — number 528 — was close to a non-descript side gate and there was no epitaph, only the name and the starkly written years 1904-1991.
Blue crocuses had sprouted out of the grave; a couple of rose bushes adorned its side and a grey cat watched uncertainly with its luminous eyes from behind the headstone. A fine snow began to fall and had soon covered the blue of the crocuses.
Scott Fitzgerald's grave
And if it took me too long to locate Scott Fitzgerald's grave in Rockville, the mistake was entirely my own. I was searching in the sprawling Rockville cemetery where Fitzgerald had been buried in 1940 because the Baltimore diocese refused to allow him to be buried in the family plot at St. Mary's Church since he had not been a devout practising Catholic.
But his daughter Scottie, supported by the Women's Club of Rockville, managed to get the decision reversed and had her parents remains removed to St Mary's Church. I finally found the grave behind the church, not too far from a busy traffic junction.
Carved on the tombstone are the memorable last words of The Great Gatsby — "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Less than an hour away from Rockville, in the city of Baltimore, a strange ceremony takes place at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe every year on January 19, the poet's birthday.
Since 1949, an elderly gentleman with a limp, draped in black and wearing a Fedora, carrying a silver-tipped cane, kneels at the grave and drinks a toast of cognac. He then leaves the half-full bottle and three roses on the grave and leaves the place quietly. He is never disturbed or followed.
In recent years, observers have said that a younger man with a pretended limp has become the toaster, leading to a belief that this may be a family tradition, carried down from father to son.
The irony, as mysteriously macabre as any Poe poem, is that there is no agreement that it is indeed Poe who is buried under that impressive monument!