The Stamp Dealer
I think that you might have found my dry Scottish father rather too particular and pedantic for easy company. I know now that his students were often exasperated. He insisted that every i be dotted and every t crossed or, rather, since he was teaching them Russian, that each Cyrillic letter they inscribed be well formed and every polysyllabic word they uttered correctly stressed. The modern idea of communicative language teaching, with its emphasis on getting yourself understood with whatever means you have at your disposal, would have appalled him. He taught Russian. He did not teach how to ask street directions.
And yet pedantry, pursued to the limit, can sometimes yield unknown to itself something visionary. When my father determined to become Scotland's first University Lecturer in Russian he determined at the same time that he would have to prepare himself for this by studying Russian in Russia. I remember him telling me that this was more easily said than done, since one was surrounded by people who preferred to speak French or English. But notwithstanding that, and such other inconveniences as the 1905 uprising, it was done and done well. And it was done alone, though not in loneliness: in St Petersburg my father was The Scotsman Studying Russian. It secured his entry into a wide society. Single minded in his desire to perfect his Russian, he conversed daily about literature and politics, the theatre and the people, culture and society. I remember him telling me that he did not realise that he was being educated. He thought that he was learning Russian and, for relaxation, collecting Russian postage stamps.
Philately was a rather more respectable interest in the past than it is now, when stamp collecting is an activity to which no educated adult man is likely to admit. But if it is all right to collect butterflies, as did Nabokov, without harm to our image of him, I do not see why it is not all right to collect stamps. Yet one would be hard put - for example - to find any positive literary references to philately, whereas writers and critics are always charmed by any kind of bug hunting.
I went to Paris in 1935. I was twenty one. I was going to study French and Philosophy. I lived in a maid's room in the fifth arrondissement off the rue Mouffetard.
Paris in the 1930s provides the setting for innumerable novels, and the subject of numerous cultural and political histories. In recent years, I have read many of them as I contemplated the writing of this memoir. But my talents at the time were applied - perhaps misapplied - in ways which meant that I did not live to the full the life which Paris offered to those ready to seize it. I studied French assiduously. I read widely in post - Cartesian philosophy, pursuing such by ways as the rationalist atheism of the cleric Jean Meslier and the utopian fantasies of Charles Fourier. I collected postage stamps. I did not observe adequately or participate enough in my own time to evoke it here with the richness I now know that it possessed. I am sorry. Even my passionate life was measured, and did not disrupt the routines of my studies and my collecting.
Like my father, I collected Russian postage stamps, though he stopped with the downfall of the Romanovs, whereas I continued into the period of the Civil War and the early years of the Soviet Union. My father had told me that in Paris there was supposed to be an excellent Maison du Timbre specialising in Russian philately. It was not long before I found my way to Maison Meliko.
It was about three in the afternoon in the October of 1935 that I first entered Meliko's shop, little different in its mahoghanied gloom from many other stamp shops in the rue Drouot. I entered it with a sense of familiarity. But I was not prepared for the man I met. After some delay, there appeared from behind a red velvet curtain, screening a back room of the shop, a burly character dressed in a padded silk dressing gown of rich purple, sucking a fat cigar, and pushing back a shock of thick black hair. He looked forty to fifty years of age. This was Meliko. He looked cautiously at me before uttering a perfunctory greeting.
Nervously, in the best French I could then manage, I introduced myself - a Scottish student, studying in Paris; expecting to be here for three or four years; wanting to build up my collection of 1917 - 1923 Civil War issues. I stopped. Meliko scrutinised me. He removed his cigar, and extending a powerful hand, broke into a smile as in heavily Frenchified English he declared, "Welcome, Scottish!", before proceeding - and it was quite clear what was happening - to test me, in French, on my knowledge of Russian philately.
He seemed in no hurry, and maybe half an hour elapsed before I was allowed to see some stamps which Meliko drew out from under the counter. It was with some relief that I proceeded to the business of purchasing material, and in an anxious endeavour to give proof of my good faith, spent two or three times as much as I had anticipated for this first expedition. I left the shop in some confusion, Meliko extending an elegant farewell and an invitation to return.
I returned many times. Meliko's stock was extraordinarily rich, and the man himself fascinating to deal with. I think he was more relaxed with me than other clients, often enough Russian emigres embroiled in business intrigues and sometimes in futile politics. He generally called me "Scottish" and, if another client was in the shop when I entered, he would exclaim, "Ah, the Scottish!" . At first, I winced at this familiarity, and was relieved that Meliko rarely attempted other communication with me in English - a language of which, I suspect, he was almost entirely ignorant. In course of time I came to call him 'Meliko', as I think did everyone who did not remain at the distance of 'Monsieur Meliko'.
But he was not in any legal sense Monsieur Meliko. His name was Paul Melik Pacher (or Pasha). He was born in Odessa (or Odesa, if you prefer the Ukrainian spelling) of a Turkish father and a Russian mother. His father worked for the Russian Company for Steam Shipping and Trade. The son began working for a stamp dealer in Odessa just before the First World War and became an emigre in 1920, when the White Armies of Denikin and Wrangel abandoned the fight against the Bolsheviks, and evacuated themselves from Odessa in any boat that would take them. Meliko got himself to Constantinople and thence to Paris, setting up shop with the philatelic contents of his suitcases.
This is the biography he gave to anyone who asked persistently enough, and it is the biography he gave to me when I had known him some while. Many had their doubts, but I think that it is substantially true. Meliko clearly spoke Russian as a native language, and I heard him speak Turkish. But I also heard him, on occasion, carry on animated conversation in Armenian with Armenian clients. I was surprised both by his fluency in an obscure language and by their presence in the shop: the animosity between Armenians and Turks was very strong: the Armenian massacres were barely twenty years in the past. When I expressed interest, Meliko replied with great formality that a philatelist is necessarily an internationalist, committed to the brotherhood of man on the basis of individual and collective self - determination. I felt reprimanded. And then he added, in a softer tone, in English, "Armenian is my friend. Scottish is my friend".
He was on that occasion, as nearly always, wearing his dressing gown and smoking his cigar. And on that occasion, it seemed like bravado. He looked tired, and for the first time in our acquaintance, offered me a drink - perhaps only because he himself wanted one. I don't drink in the shop, he said, and beckoned for me to follow him behind the red curtain.
We sat down at a large table covered with an old chenille cloth and strewn with books, papers and stamps. He cleared a space and fetched two glasses and a strange looking bottle which he held up for me to examine.
"Brandy", he declared. And, with a laugh, "Armenian. The best, though my friends the Georgians would dispute it. I am happy to drink their brandy to see if they are right".
He paused. .
Sometimes they are"..
I laughed. He sat down heavily.
"Well, Scottish, how are your studies?"
The question surprised me; hitherto we had only talked stamps. I felt embarrassed. I was not sure what Meliko would make of my Sorbonne world of French and philosophy. I replied cautiously. Meliko showed some impatience.
"But you are passionate for your stamps. You must be passionate for some part of your studies. What is it?"
Rather hesitantly at first, but responding to Meliko's encouragement, I told him that I wanted to understand the connections between Scottish and French philosophies of the eighteenth century, and I was doing this by looking at David Hume, who spent time in France both as a young man and in his mature years, when he held a diplomatic post in Paris. I paused. I wanted to introduce a lighter touch, but feared revealing too much of myself.
"I am afraid I have allowed myself to be sidetracked a little. I have become interested in his love life. The younger Hume appears only to have studied when in France; the older Hume seems to have fallen in love".
Meliko looked down at the table.
"That is nothing unusual", he remarked, then looking up at me in an amused fashion added, "But I think it is better to fall in love when one is young. You are better prepared for when it happens again, Twenty, thirty years later. I think your Hume could not manage his feelings".
I did not know how to answer this question. I was only twenty one. I did not know much about the management of feelings, though I had read avidly about Hume's passion for the Comtesse de Bouffleurs.
Meliko relieved my embarrassment momentarily by offering me another drink, but then increased it again with his next, and most unexpected question.
"Do you have a love life, Scottish?".
I tried to turn the question as lightly as I could. Gulping my drink, I replied, "I think I am like the younger Hume".
"I do not think he is a good model. A young man in Paris should have a love life. It is the convention here. Is there no one among your fellow students who interests you?"
"In my class, there are only one or two girls - they seem to be spoken for". I wanted to change the subject.
"So my studies are only disturbed by my collecting, which as you know absorbs far too much of my time and money".
Meliko dissented vigorously.
"If you did not collect, you would not be able to study. Your mind would not be at rest. It is a great mistake to think that our passions are in competition. Each passion needs the other."
He leant back in his chair.
"Though few are as fortunate as I am."
He gestured towards the shop.
"It is my passion and my livelihood."
He gestured upwards.
"And then there is Madame Meliko".
I was surprised. Meliko realised and smiled.
"You did not know I was married, Scottish? Of course, of course. But Madame Meliko does not involve herself down here. She is content. She says that some men have their mistresses, but that I have my shop. She regards herself as fortunate". Meliko looked at me. "You may meet her one day. I do not keep her hidden. But, come, we must look at some stamps".
He got up and I followed him back into the shop.
I spent many hours in Meliko's parlour. If there were other clients in the shop when I entered Meliko would signal me to stay until they had left. I did not really know why I was thus favoured. Equally, I did not know how many other clients were invited behind the curtain. I assumed not many. And, over the months, it came about that at each meeting we would more or less agree the day and time of my next visit, Meliko always promising to find something of interest for my collection. I think that our relationship as client and dealer in the front of the shop made possible our friendship in the back. And when I was introduced to Madame Meliko, she observed me carefully, saying,
"I have heard much about you. Meliko curses most of his clients. Emigres and the French are almost as difficult as each other. But he does not curse you." Meliko laughed and I was embarrassed.
She did not linger.
One day I went to Meliko's for an arranged visit. He emerged from behind the curtain, summonsed me in, and there to my astonishment introduced me to a young woman, sitting at the table, a glass of brandy before her.
"This is my niece, Lily", said Meliko with a grand gesture. "Lily, this is the Scottish".
I shook her hand, taking the opportunity to speak my own name which Meliko very rarely used. Meliko bid me to sit down.
"Lily is a student, too. In history. She is preparing a thesis".
I surprised myself by taking the cue and enquiring of Lily the subject of her research. She was beautiful. Dark haired like Meliko, she was small and olive skinned, dressed elegantly in black. She told me that she was studying Franco - Turkish relations in the nineteenth century, and anticipating my inability to follow up my initial question, promptly turned the question on me "And what are you studying?"
I found myself looking to Meliko for help. He spoke quietly but discomfited me with his answer.
"He is studying a Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who came to Paris in the eighteenth century and fell in love. Am I not right?"
"You are right, Meliko, but I won't get any marks for knowing about his biography."
I turned to Lily.
"I am interested in the relationship between Scottish and French philosophy in the eighteenth century".
Lily offered me a cigarette.
"I am a historian; I must approve of your choice. But why not the twentieth century?"
I spread my hands.
"We are now a smaller nation. We do not have our own philosophy".
Meliko was annoyed.
"That is defeatism. Every nation can have its own philosophy. Don't you think so, Lily ?"
Lily looked at me.
"It can, but it requires boldness. And circumstances sometimes deter nations from being bold".
"That is true. But perhaps the study of our past is the first step towards reinventing boldness".
"That is better!", Meliko applauded.
The conversation was interrupted by a customer coming into the shop. Meliko excused himself, leaving me with Lily.
We talked about being students in Paris. Lily let me know that she had come to Paris alone, from Istanbul where her emigre family lived. Before Meliko returned to the back room, it was agreed between us that we would meet for dinner. Lily named the restaurant and, when Meliko reappeared, told him of our arrangement.
"My dear Lily, if you take Scottish to restaurants like that he won't have any money to spend here".
Meliko regarded me severely.
"She is a dangerous woman. Be careful, Scottish, and remember your collection!".
He poured us both another brandy (Georgian this time, I noticed) and was exuberant.
"I had reserved a very fine Romanov for Captain Sushenko and he has just obliged me with a thousand francs. For the moment, I am content. Drink, my friends!"
A thousand francs was a very considerable sum in 1936 and I was curious to know which Romanov had commanded this sum. The basic set was issued in 1913 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty. Enormous effort was expended on the design and the printing, and it could have been an essay or a proof which Meliko sold to Sushenko, a leading figure in emigre politics. Equally, the basic series of seventeen stamps was overprinted before the Revolution for use by Russian Post Offices in the Levant, and after the Revolution small quantities were overprinted (mainly at the instigation of collectors) in Armenia and Ukraine, and for General Wrangle's Refugee Post. Some of those overprints were rare, and could have commanded a thousand francs. But it was more likely that Sushenko had purchased an essay or a proof, I decided.
My dinner with Lily cost me a small fraction of a thousand francs, and as if to prove Meliko's mock fears unfounded, I spent a considerable sum on my next visit to the shop. I was building up a collection of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan . Meliko had (I was discovering) a spectacular stock of these stamps from the early 1920s.
"I was the only one who had someone in Baku", he said to me, then looked momentarily distressed.
"But dead now".
There was no encouragement to pursue the topic, and Meliko concluded our transaction by proposing a drink to celebrate.
"I will be able to tell Madame Meliko that today I am a successful dealer. She does not believe I am a businessman. She thinks I want to talk politics and drink brandy. Well, let us at least drink brandy".
We adjourned to the parlour. Meliko poured me brandy, lit himself a cigar ( it was understood that these were never offered to anyone else ) and straightaway asked me about Lily. He regarded me intently.
'What do you think of her?'
I was expecting some enquiry, though not so direct as this. I imagined that Meliko was in some way acting as his niece's guardian, on behalf of her family, but equally it seemed that he was happy for us to have arranged our dinner together.
I replied to Meliko's question that I found Lily interesting and attractive. Meliko could not wait for me to finish my sentence.
"Very interesting, very attractive!", he exclaimed, leaning back in his chair, flourishing his cigar, laughing but also it seemed agitated.
"She is a fascinating woman, isn't she?".
You must understand that I was a rather shy and serious young man, not given to Meliko's expressions of passionate opinion and enthusiasm. Yes, I was taken by Lily, and we had arranged to meet again. But I was too young to recognise or say that she was a fascinating woman, older and more sophisticated than me, and that I had listened with rapt attention while she talked and flirted. So I could only nod a weak affirmative in response to Meliko's rhetorical question . But I told him that I hoped we would meet again. To this, he responded with a vigorous "Excellent!" and raised his glass in a toast.
"You know, Scottish", he continued, " I would have liked to study more than I was able. The war and the civil war did not make things easy for me, you know. It pleases me that my niece is a student, serious and successful. It pleases me that you are a student, Scottish. So many of my clients are without real career, real engagement with life. Emigre life is uncentred. I do not think that emigre politics is any longer real. Ten years ago, yes. Now, I find it hard to listen. The Soviet Union is here to stay. Don't you think?"
I agreed that it was, and began to express some cautious praise for Soviet achievements. Meliko cut across me.
"But I am an emigre. I can never go back. Except that now I will".
I looked puzzled. Meliko laughed.
''This is not yet public, but I am going to Moscow. The Soviets are desperate for foreign currency. They are selling anything they can. They have emptied their cupboards and assembled all the stamps seized from the Whites and called in from the former republics. Goodness knows what they have found. I am going to Moscow with an American dealer next month. He has the money. I have the Russian.
'I have never been to Moscow before. What do you think?'
This was astonishing news. In course of time, Meliko's trip to Moscow became a legend of Russian philately. I was privileged to share in the aftermath.
Soon after his return, Meliko summonsed me by pneumatique to the shop and took me straight into the parlour. Lily was there. It was clear that they had both been drinking from a bottle of Russian vodka, the remains of which were promptly emptied into a tumbler for my benefit.
"Look, Scottish!" exclaimed Meliko , pointing to a score of stout cardboard boxes festooned with certificates and sealing wax, his French taking on a Russian accent as he grew more excited.
'The American will have to wait for his boxes to arrive by sea, but the Soviets flew mine to me: Moskva - Berlin - Paris. Lily and I collected them from the airport last night. I took two taxis".
"In case one crashed. He had ten boxes in his cab, and made me travel in the other with the rest. Then he said he wouldn't open them until today, until you were here. He's like a child".
"But, Lily, this only happens to a man once in a lifetime. Explain to her, Scottish, explain to her!"
Lily and I exchanged laughter, while Meliko took one of the boxes and carefully unwrapped it. We turned to watch him as he pulled out the folders it contained. "Armenia", said Meliko, holding one up to me, "1922 Gold kopeck surcharges. In complete sheets, recalled from Yerevan to Moscow, now exclusively available from Maison Meliko!".
Lily looked fondly at him.
"Are you going to be rich, Meliko?" she teased.
"Da, da, da" , he replied, "If I was not your uncle, you would have to marry me!"
Meliko did become rich on those boxes, which for many years supplied the needs of every leading Russian philatelist in Europe. I pressed my father for additional funds in those exceptional circumstances. I was fortunate that he too was a collector and understood these things and so, in a short space of time, I was able to build up a quite remarkable collection.
We had continued to meet and, while Meliko was in Moscow, we had become lovers. She led the way, and made it easy for me to follow. I learnt from her something of the nature of passion. I am glad that I did not have to wait so long as did Hume.
That was sixty years ago. I left Paris in 1938, but the War returned me to France. I was in Army intelligence. Then I had my career as an interpreter and translator.
Meliko has been dead for twenty years now, though surviving into his eighties. He had his shop in Paris until the end, abandoned only during the War when he thought it prudent to move to Vichy Nice.
It was Madame Meliko who informed me of his death. I went over to Paris and visited her. Even then, I did not go upstairs to her flat. She came down to Meliko's parlour and poured me a brandy. It was she who raised the question of the shop, gesturing beyond the red velvet curtain.
On impulse, I offered to buy the stock, some of it the residue from those exciting boxes . I reckoned I could finance the venture by taking an early retirement and I found myself exhilarated at the prospect of transforming myself, at sixty, from stamp collector into the stamp dealer I still am. Madame Meliko was delighted by my offer. But I was not prepared for the revelation with which she accepted my proposal.
"You see, Scottish, you played a special part in our lives. Perhaps you know that you saved us from Lily?".
I did not understand her.
"Oh, it is very simple, really. Didn't you realise? He brought you together. It did not harm her. She had her career - she is very distinguished now, you know. "
I nodded. I knew that Lily had become a Professor in Istanbul.
"It did not harm her, and it meant that Meliko stayed with his brandy, his stamps and me".
Madame Meliko looked at me wistfully.
"So, Scottish, I have something to thank you for".
I looked away.
"Meliko was in love with Lily?".
"Yes", she said.
I looked back at her .
"And she with him?"
Madame Meliko smiled.
Written around 1995. Not previously published. Website version 2006. All the characters are fictional. I am not Scottish, nor was my father a University lecturer. And I never met Meliko.