The above picture in Moussia’s albums has made it irresistible for me to quote and compare two accounts of the same trip in the Ballot in 1927. One account by Sergey Prokofiev, the proud owner and driver of the car, the other one by Alexander Borovsky, one of his passengers. This comparison provides a rare insight into their personalities.
In April 1927, just before Moussia left for Russia, Prokofiev had bought a secondhand car, a Ballot. He had to pay 27,000 Francs and he found that a pretty good deal. He writes: “New they cost, I am told, 85,000.” He had never driven a car yet and still had to obtain a drivers licence. So he went to see it with an expert, who did a test drive with him. “It runs splendidly: 90 versts an hour without even thinking about it” (90 versts equals 60 miles)
I am not so sure it was a good deal. Until October 1929, when Prokovev had a major accident with the Ballot and the car was declared a total loss (the insurance refused to pay on the grounds of ‘lack of maintenance’), his Ballot was in and out of garages with electrical and starting problems, not counting numerous instances of body repairs, like bumped mudguards. At one stage, its engine had to be stripped down completely.
Prokofiev loved fast driving which, given the poor condition of most French roads in those days, his lack of driving experience, his overconfidence and personal interpretation of traffic rules and other people’s road behaviour must often have produced a certain feeling of uneasiness in his passengers.
In the summer of 1927, he had rented what he called a dacha, a beach house on the Atlantic coast, in St Palais-sur-Mer, near Royan. On 27th June, he drove there with Lina and Svyatoslav, the car loaded with an enormous quantity of sheet music and other papers. In August, it was agreed that the Borovskys would spend a fortnight with them. The entertaining and often hilarious account of this holiday covers four full pages in his Diaries, Volume Three, which I strongly recommend to my readers.
Moussia and Natasha arrived by train on August 13. Prokofiev picked them up at the station in the Ballot. “Maria Viktorovna arrived in wonderful spirits and is full of admiration for our dacha, especially its balcony overlooking the sea.” Borovsky arrived on the 22nd, and Prokofiev and Moussia went to collect him at the station, in the Ballot of course.
“The same disorganised baby bear as ever, wildly glad to see his daughter. Talked to him for a while, and then settled to work. But Borovsky had left his beautiful cane at the station, so before lunch we went back to Royan to fetch it. We discussed a possible motor trip to Biarritz; the Borovskys are very keen on this plan.”
Leaving the children under the care of Lina’s mother Olga Vladislavovna, the two couples spent four days in the Ballot, traveling 738 kilometers to Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de Luz and back. The very first day, at noon, they had lunch in Bordeaux, at “Le chapeau rouge”, a renowned restaurant.
“They did indeed give us a lunch of great artistry, and the vintage Haut-Sauternes we drank was truly outstanding, going straight to our heads so that before I could take the wheel again we had to get some air by strolling around Bordeaux. On our way once more we proceeded towards Biarritz through an extensive forest – Les Landes. Tormented at first by a road composed of stones and bricks, we then emerged onto a superb carriageway and pressed on with exemplary speed, doing 70, 80 and even up to 90 km per hour.”
Not counting the occasional flat tyre, the first Ballot problems arose getting into Biarritz. Prokofiev writes: “All would have been well if, just as we were getting into a real traffic-jam, something had not broken in the foot-brake. Worse still was when after some proddings backwards and forwards it brought the car to a complete standstill and then, freeing itself, stopped working altogether leaving the car at the mercy of the handbrake. With enormous difficulty, accompanied by the imprecations of the police, we managed eventually to get to a garage and left the car to be repaired while we went on foot to have lunch. To add insult to injury it came on to rain hard, and we had dressed up to the nines for Biarritz.”
Two eventful days later, on the way home, after having overcome further serious brake problems in the foothills of the Pyrenees, they were looking forward to yet another good lunch in Bordeaux, this time at the “Le Chapon Fin”. They passed through Mimizan,“where we arrived safely although not without running over a white cockerell en route. This was not my fault: the road was clear, the hens were all on the left and the cock on the right, but realising at the last moment that he was alone, without warning, he launched himself at the hens straight under the car and all I saw was his severed wing beside the wheel… The sun and the long drive had somewhat exhausted me, but I rested over lunchtime and afterwards we continued on our way. Driving fast, we ran into a cart that was on the wrong side of the road. It was not much of a bump, however, and the only only damage was to a mudguard while the other idiot escaped unscathed.”
One evening, Prokofiev mentions, in passing, that Maria Viktorovna complained of a stiff neck. The probable cause can be found in Alexander Borovsky’s account of the same trip, written about thirty years later, while on the subject of the Prokofievs:
“Once we met on the Atlantic beach in summer. It was decided to make a tour from Royan, near Bordeaux, to the south. We left our children in the care of his mother-in-law and we took our wives on the road. Prokofiev had the car only since a short while, but he was very sure of his driving skill. I remembered how sure he was in Russia playing all the games with his chums, and how he was always a winner. This time he took a brisk speed, and if there was a dog lying on the road he would not mind to injure him or even kill him, and he never stopped for roosters or hens, several were left strewn on the pavement, and some were flying from under the wheels into freedom.
He did not want to slow down when we had to pass over small elevations on the road. Once, his wife was thrown to the roof of the car and next time it was my wife’s turn. It was impossible to argue with him, his intransigence spoiled all the impressions which the beautiful country was ready to offer us. Once we went into the middle of a herd of sheep and he rudely stopped the car, but not one sheep was under our wheels. We stopped at the best restaurants and took their best wines, and then the driving was getting still more hazardous and risky. But after returning to our respective children four days later we continued to have a very good time together.”
(to be continued)