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Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876 – March 8, 1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a year now I have been thinking of writing a certain book. “Well, tomorrow I’ll get at it,” I’ve been saying to myself. Every night whenUnder the elevated railway, Chicago,Il I get into bed I think about the book. The people that are to be put between its covers dance before my eyes. I live in the city of Chicago and at night motor trucks go rumbling along the roadway outside my house. Not so very far away there is an elevated railroad and after twelve o’clock at night trains pass at pretty long intervals. Before it began I went to sleep during one of the quieter intervals but now that the idea of writing this book has got into me I lie awake and think.
For one thing it is hard to get the whole idea of the book fixed in the setting of the city I live in now. I wonder if you, who do not try to write books, perhaps will understand what I mean. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. It is a little hard to explain. You see, it’s something like this.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           SA190

You as a reader will, some evening or some afternoon, be reading in my book and then you will grow tired of reading and put it down. You will go out of your house and into the street. The sun is shining and you meet people you know. There are certain facts of your life just the same as of mine. If you are a man, you go from your house to an office and sit at a desk where you pick up a telephone and begin to talk about some matter of business with a client or a customer of your house. If you are an honest housewife, the ice man has come or there drifts into your mind the thought that yesterday you forgot to remember some detail concerned with running your house. Little outside thoughts come and go in your mind, and it is so with me too. For example when I have written the above sentence, I wonder why I have written the words “honest housewife.” A housewife I suppose can be as dishonest as I can. What I am trying to make clear is that, as a writer, I am up against the same things that confront you, as a reader.
What I want to do is to express in my book a sense of the strangeness that has gradually, since I was a boy, been creeping more and more into my feeling about everyday life. It would all be very simple if I could write of life in an interior city of China or in an African forest. A man I know has recently told me of another man who, wanting to write a book about Parisian life and having no money to go to Paris to study the life there, went instead to the city of New Orleans. He had heard that many people livedSA237 in New Orleans whose ancestors were French. “They will have retained enough of the flavor of Parisian life for me to get the feeling,” he said to himself. The man told me that the book turned out to be very successful and that the city of Paris read with delight a translation of his work as a study of French life, and I am only sorry I can’t find as simple a way out of my own job. The whole point with me is that my wish to write this book springs from a somewhat different notion. “If I can write everything out plainly, perhaps I will myself understand better what has happened,” I say to myself and smile. During these days I spend a good deal of time smiling at nothing. It bothers people. “What are you smiling about now?” they ask, and I am up against as hard a job trying to answer as I am trying to get underway with my book.
Sometimes in the morning I sit down at my desk and begin writing, taking as my subject a scene from my own boyhood.
Very well, I am coming home from school. The town in which I was born and raised was a dreary, lonely little place in the far western section of the state of Nebraska, and I imagine myself walking along one of its streets. Sitting upon a curbing before a store is a sheep herder who has left his flock many miles away in the foothills at the base of the western mountains and has come into our town, for what purpose he himself does not seem to know. He is a bearded man without a hat and sits with his mouth slightly open, staring up and down the street. There is a half-wild uncertain look in his eyes SA181and his eyes have awakened a creepy feeling in me. I hurry away with a kind of dread of some unknown thing eating at my vital organs.  Old men are great talkers. It may be that only kids know the real terror of loneliness.
I have tried, you see, to start my book at that particular point in my own life. “If I can catch exactly the feeling of that afternoon of my boyhood, I can give the reader the key to my character,” I tell myself.
The plan won’t work. When I have written five, ten, fifteen hundred words, I stop writing and look out at my window. A man is driving a team of horses hitched to a wagon-load of coal along my street and is swearing at another man who drives a Ford. They have both stopped and are cursing each other.
The coal wagon driver’s face is black with coal dust but anger has reddened his cheeks and the red and black have produced
a dusky brown like the skin of a Negro. I have got up from my typewriter and walk up and down in my room smoking cigarettes. My fingers pick up little things on my desk and then put them down.
I am nervous like the race horses I used to be with at one period of my boyhood. Before a race and when they had been brought out onSA228 the tracks before all the people and before the race started, their legs quivered. Sometimes there was a horse got into such a state that when the race started he would do nothing. “Look at him. He can’t untrack himself,” we said.
Right now I am in that state about my book. I run to the typewriter, write for a time, and then walk nervously about. I smoke a whole package of cigarettes during the morning.
And then suddenly I have again torn up all I have written. “It won’t do,” I have told myself. In this book I am not intending to try to give you the story of my life. “What of life, any man’s life?—forked radishes running about, writing declarations of independence, telling themselves little lies, having dreams, getting puffed up now and then with what is called greatness. Life begins, runs its course and ends,” a man I once knew told me one evening, and it is true. Even as I write these words a hearse is going through my street. Two young girls, who are going off with two young men to walk I suppose in the fields where the city ends, stop laughing for a moment and look up at the hearse. It will be a moment before they forget the passing hearse and begin laughing again.
“A life is like that, it passes like that,” I say to myself as I tear up my sheets and begin again walking and smoking the cigarettes. If you think I am sad, having these thoughts about the brevity and insignificance of a life, you are mistaken. In the state I am in such things do not matter. “Certain things last,” I say to myself. “One might make things a little clear. One might even imagine a man, say a Negro, going along a SA143city street and humming a song. It catches the ear of another man who repeats it on the next day. A thin strand of song, like a tiny stream far up in some hill, begins to flow down into the wide plains. It waters the fields. It freshens the air above a hot stuffy city.”
Now I have got myself worked up into a state. I am always doing that these days. I write again and again tear up my words.
I go out of my room and walk about.
I have been with a woman I have found and who loves me. It has happened that I am a man who has not been loved by women and have all my life been awkward and a little mixed up when in their presence. Perhaps I have had too much respect for them, have wanted them too much. That may be. Anyway I am not so rattled in her presence.
She, I think, has a certain control over herself and that is helpful to me. When I am with her I keep smiling to myself and thinking, “It would be rather a joke all around if she found me out.”
When she is looking in another direction I study her a little. That she should seem to like me so much surprises me and I am sore at my own surprise. I grow humble and do not like my humbleness either. “What is she up to? She is very lovely. Why is she wasting her time with me?”
I shall remember always certain hours when I have been with her. Late on a certain Sunday afternoon I remember I sat in a chair in aSA188 room in her apartment. I sat with my hand against my cheek, leaning a little forward. I had dressed myself carefully because I was going to see her, had put on my best suit of clothes. My hair was carefully combed and my glasses carefully balanced on my rather large nose. And there I was, in her apartment in a certain city, in a chair in a rather dark corner, with my hand against my cheek, looking as solemn as an old owl. We had been walking about and had come into the house and she had gone away leaving me sitting there, as I have said. The apartment was in a part of the city where many foreign people live and from my chair I could, by turning my head a little, look down into a street filled with Italians.
It was growing dark outside and I could just see the people in the street. If I cannot remember facts about my own and other people’s lives, I can always remember every feeling that has gone through me, or that I have thought went through anyone about me. The men going along the street below the window all had dark swarthy faces and nearly all of them wore, somewhere about them, a spot of color. The younger men, who walked with a certain swagger, all had on flaming red ties. The street was dark but far down the street there was a spot where a streak of sunlight still managed to find its way in between two tall buildings and fell sharp against the face of a smaller red-brick building. It pleased my fancy to imagine the street had also put on a red necktie, perhaps because there would be lovemaking along the street before Monday morning.
SA219Anyway I sat there looking and thinking such thoughts as came to me. The women who went along the street nearly all had dark colored shawls drawn up about their faces. The road-way was filled with children whose voices made a sharp tinkling sound.
My fancy went out of my body in a way of speaking, I suppose, and I began thinking of myself as being at that moment in a city in Italy. Americans like myself who have not traveled are always doing that. I suppose the people of another nation would not understand how doing it is almost necessity in our lives, but any American will understand. The American, particularly a middle-American, sits as I was doing at that moment, dreaming you understand, and suddenly he is in Italy or in a Spanish town where a dark-looking man is riding a bony horse along a street, or he is being driven over the Russian steppes in a sled by a man whose face is all covered with whiskers. It is an idea of the Russians got from looking at cartoons in newspapers but it answers the purpose. In the distance a pack ofSA241 wolves are following the sled.A fellow I once knew told me that Americans are always up to such tricks because all of our old stories and dreams have come to us from over the sea and because we have no old stories and dreams of our own. Of that I can’t say. I am not putting myself forward as a thinker on the subject of the causes of the characteristics of the American people or any other monstrous or important matter of that kind. But anyway, there I was, sitting, as I have told you, in the Italian section of an American city and dreaming of myself being in Italy.
To be sure I wasn’t alone. Such a fellow as myself never is alone in his dreams. And as I sat having my dream, the woman with whom I had been spending the afternoon, and with whom I am no doubt what is called “in love,” passed between me and the window through which I had been looking. She had on a dress of some soft clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light. Well, she was like a young tree you might see on a hill, in a windstorm perhaps.
What I did, as you may have supposed, was to take her with me into Italy.
The woman became at once, and in my dream, a very beautiful princess in a strange land I have never visited. It may be that when I was a boy in my western town some traveler came SA140there to lecture on life in Italian cities before a club that met at the Presbyterian church and to which my mother belonged, or perhaps later I read some novel the name of which I can’t remember. And so my princess had come down to me along a path out of a green wooded hill where her castle was located. She had walked under blossoming trees in the uncertain evening light and some blossoms had fallen on her black hair. The perfume of Italian nights was in her hair. That notion came into my head. That’s what I mean.
What really happened was that she saw me sitting there lost in my dream and, coming to me, rumpled my hair and upset the glasses perched on my big nose and, having done that, went laughing out of the room.
I speak of all this because later, on that same evening, I lost all notion of the book I am now writing and sat until three in the morning writing on another book, making the woman the central figure. “It will be a story of old times, filled with moons and stars and the fragrance of half-decayed trees in an oldSA131 land,” I told myself, but when I had written many pages I tore them up too.
“Something has happened to me or I should not be filled with the idea of writing this book at all,” I told myself going to my window to look out at the night. “At a certain hour of a certain day and in a certain place, something happened that has changed the whole current of my life. “The thing to be done,” I then told myself, “is to begin writing my book by telling as clearly as I can the adventures of that certain moment.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
SA243A task one hopes to complete and yet defers because it cannot be begun is perfectly expressed by the the word the Romans thought they heard in the cry of the raven – “cras, cras,” meaning “tomorrow, tomorrow” – and which symbolises  hope as well as procrastination. This seems to aptly echo the predicament adumbrated by Sherwood Anderson in this essay “Certain Things Last”, which he wrote sometime in the twenties, and which was found among his papers and published only in 1992.

We do not know if it was ever intended for publication; indeed, we cannot even know for certain if he completed the piece. All writers feel this way at times about the things they write, because they know what a devilishly difficult job the task of writing can present. Noah’s raven, and the first to be released from the ark, (unlike his second envoy the docile dove) never returned. We may wonder what happened to it, and how it was reunited with its mate who presumably was released after the flood subsided. But reunited they must have been, on some hopeful ‘tomorrow,’ for the world veritably teems with ravens and their ilk.

Anderson’s ‘tomorrow,’ after a difficult boyhood and adolescence in the small and typically claustrophobic town of Clyde, Ohio, led to the occupation of writer. By his own account, his best known work, a compilation of 22 stories published under the title of Winesburg, Ohio, came to him all in a rush.SA142  

“…it was a late fall night and raining…I was there naked in the bed and I sprang up. I went to my typewriter and began to write. It was there, under those circumstances, myself sitting near an open window, the rain occasionally blowing in and wetting my bare back, that I did my first writing…I wrote it, as I wrote them all, complete in the one sitting…The rest of the stories in the book came out of me on succeeding evenings, and sometimes during the day while I worked in the advertising office…”

But “Some Things Last” seems to tell a different story. As the cry of the raven suggests, the exercise of writing requires the disordering of time. Anderson’s writing career commenced after a mental breakdown, shortly after which he abandoned his family. Four days after he ‘disappeared’, he was found  thirty miles away in Cleveland, having walked that distance. He never went back home.

In order to make its way into writing, the past must be recollected, relived and recreated. It must sometimes be artificially rearranged and reordered before it can be placed in front of a reader, and if that weren’t enough cause for dismay, past and present, these two parallel and simultaneously unfolding tracks must be made to seem to come seamlessly together.

SA128The task set for himself here by Anderson, that of trying to grasp at the flickering pattern cast by scattered thoughts and  then to collect them for an arrangement to set on the page, is the perennial bane and delight of the writer. I don’t know if this is a task which may be better accomplished by a woman writer; certainly women like Virginia Woolf excelled at it, but Anderson shows us how a virtue may be made of stumbling. He conveys the slipperiness of the the whole process  so vividly that even to  someone who doesn’t think much about writing, the feeling of helplessness and unease comes wholly through. The hopeless feeling of being unable to ferry a thought from the having to the expressing of it is particularly acute when the ability to do it remains lost somewhere that is not amenable to recall.  It is like floating in dark water and trying to remember how to move one’s arms and legs. I think this is in part because the language of recall is not strictly speaking ‘language’ but a kind of code conveyed in images.

“Some Things Last” is writing thrice removed: it is writing that shows how a writer writes about writing. There is self-revelation in it, but only so much. Anderson is willing to reveal that he smokes somewhat to excess, but not that he drinks, though drink he did. His death in 1941 at the age of 64 – while  he and his fourth wife Eleanor Copenhaver were on a cruise to South America – was caused by peritonitis following the accidental ingestion of a toothpick from either a martini or an hors d’ oeuvre, though I rather think it was the former  than the latter.

Whether lubricated by alcohol or  driven by digressiveness or restlessness, Anderson’s mind, resorts to narratives of flowing images,SA216 even as he anxiously attempts to impose order and structure on his wayward thoughts in order to secure an outcome. He in turn surrenders and attempts to control in order to impose a shape or a structure or even an account of something written. Indeed one cannot be certain if this piece of writing was guided to its intended conclusion, or if it simply petered out at an impasse or a cul de sac with nowhere else to go and no way to turn back. “What is the point?” we wonder. Is it only to show that the writing of a book is a difficult enterprise, and that someone  who sets him- or herself to the task must contend with endless distractions, diversions and detours on the way to getting the job done? Or is it to reveal the unruly nature of the process, how the very thoughts that must make up the content turn out to be perturbations, which as they move away from their point of origin, take one further and further away from the goal? Writers  must learn to negotiate these obstacles, for they can never quite be overcome.

It would seem that a solution to the writer’s dilemma must be found in a skillful compromise. The kind of aimless undirected dreamy musings, the fragile repositories of vivid and detailed imagery, must be permitted to go on unimpeded SA132even as some agent of the thinking self stands by to take notes. And it seems that Anderson possessed a good note-taker, since it was he who wrote “She had on a dress of some clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light” and  “she was like a young tree you might see on a hill  in a windstorm perhaps…..”    

One of the chief difficulties of writing is that what is written about, the sights, smells and sensations of it, come almost always from a different time and place from when the writing takes place. They are imported from another world, which has to be recalled and recreated in the mind at the moment of writing. The writer has to recall them from when, like a traveller, he or she  had to keep track of that place in the country, that path,  and the details  observed while on it, and the objects which were chosen to bring back from the journey.  Then, as now, there were problems to be solved – what could properly  be packed – what carried – and how these things would look when placed in the writer’s parlour or on the mantel. Would they bring back the sights and smells they seemed to be imbued  with  at the first encounter? Or would they become lifeless and incongruous when removed from their proper context, when forced to inhabit an unnatural place? Should the suggestion of the princess who lives in the castle at the end of the path along the green, wooded hill, be permitted to intrude? Yes, perhaps because it seems to echo the diffident insecurity this writer felt about his woman friend. And the blossoming trees, the evening light and the flowers in her dark hair must come along too. Then of course, blackSA151 hair and Italian nights, which are shadowy counterparts of each other, must gain admittance as well. If in the next moments one ‘goes to his window to look out at the night,’ one might see, instead of the spark-sprinkled darkness of a sleeping city, “the moon and stars, and half-decayed trees in an old land.’

The thoughts and images we carry away from our inward travels seem to undergo a change when made to enter the outside world. They are like poems which resist being translated into a different language. The greatest care must be taken so that they do not become mere representations of what they truly are in their own voice and  tongue. The difference between the inner and outer life is not always bridgeable, something most writers simultaneously accept and struggle mightily against.

The task of moving words from mind to paper, of trapping moments vivid with life and fixing them on the page, can seem daunting at times. The troublesomeness and difficulty of committing to memory the elusive phenomena of fleeting suggestions of thoughts and brief flares of barely glimpsed images as they pass through the mind SA244seem at times quite hopeless, and recollecting them seems like gathering leaves blown by the wind. Time too is not durable. It warps and bends in the attempt to draw it through the lens of memory.  Are these what Anderson refers to as ‘the adventures of that certain moment?’ Are they fit to be the chosen subject of a piece of writing?  Or should they be consigned to some vague designation of questionable value, to occupy the limbo between something which used to be either sustaining or memorable but is no longer, but is now discarded and stale as an old torn photograph or a half-eaten meal left neglected to grow cold on the kitchen table? Are these some things that last? Are they?

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Sarah Waters

The best novels are carefully and elaborately constructed deceptions, which reveal a detailed, expansive and consistent version of the truth. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is such a book and one of the finest and most bitter novels of this century.  The artful blending of distinct narratives which describe the unravelling of a society that Petronius accomplished with so much heart in The Satyricon, might compare with Waters’ account of London during and  shortly after the Blitz, but Waters has none of Petronius’s picaresque cheerfulness and humour: unlike the fragmented Satyricon, the bridges between the narrative segments of this novel are subtle but sturdy and by this device are brought across the small bits of information which tend to enhance and shade the separate narratives in what might otherwise be too loosely connected.

The first time I finished reading The Night Watch I didn’t close it: instead I went back to the very first page and began reading it all over again. It is this unforgettable first page which has stuck with me all these years. The most remarkably memorable works enter us in a way which deftly bypasses our critical faculties. This is magic at its best. Without this singular element, books are bad, or unimpressive, or merely good: we might stand on solid ground and see the characters going about their business on a visible surface, but we do not feel the curve of the earth or the forces beneath their feet, the hidden strata, the underground streams and certainly not the tectonic plates. In the months after I read this book, I attempted several times to analyse it, but every time I began, I found I couldn’t go on. I could never find the clarity I needed to sort out its elements in a way that made sense. With my second reading, I had the chronology down, and recognised the hints and prefigurings of one section hidden in another. But a third reading was required before I was finally able to put my finger on the key that had eluded me before. The sense within it defied me until I had read the book two more times.

Waters’ bag of writerly tricks includes an inordinate profligacy of sensuous detail, a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and the casual perfection of her writing itself. Everything is fresh, right down to the coruscating horror of war-ravaged London. Waters’ movable structure, in reverse chronology and with its segments of overlapping narratives, pivots on a single axis like a live insect spinning on its pin even as it is fixed to the wax board, but the careful skirting of that impairment, the loss of memory, compels us to sleuth for context. When Kay tells her friend Micky “I’ve got lost in the rubble… couldn’t get over it” we might conclude that she is remembering the break with her lover Helen. But the forfeiture of memory is a serious casualty in The Night Watch. It means the excision of an interior space which gives people substance, and it makes for a sense of deep disquiet. We all become dedicated drunks when we dream every night. We go places and do things which are shameful, startling, frightening, embarrassing or ill-advised, and when we wake up we don’t remember them, but nonetheless we feel them, and some residue of the world we inhabited while we slept remains. It can be conjured up in the way we recall an old tune we haven’t heard in years, or the way in which a touch can set off a physical memory. This absence more than anything else amplifies the emptiness in and around Kay. It cuts a swath through her personality, because we are prevented from seeing inside her, even to the extent of having a tissue of a dream. Kay’s life is not so much a life as an afterlife: we stay in the present, we move forwards into a past, which we then have to extrapolate and insert into the puzzle, but there is nowhere that the pieces are permitted to rest in their proper place and in this  respect, The Night Watch resists a satisfactory disambiguation.

Kay Langrish, one of the characters in the dyads and triads around which The Night Watch takes shape, and significantly the one with whom Waters begins her book, stands out for me as the main character in this novel. She is at its heart and soul. Her story demands more attention than all the rest.The other segments of the book seem to be present in a supporting role but Kay is the vanishing point that gives the whole novel its sense of perspective. The distant secondariness of the other dyads were for me like the names one sees skimming by after the movie has ended. We feel they should not be ignored, that we ought to read them if only to recognise the hard work and talent and dedication that helped make the movie possible, but nevertheless they seldom command our attention: we just don’t care that much. I did not feel compelled by the other two narratives.  I recognised that they supported the novel in important ways, but they lacked suspense, and I could find no inducement to focus on them very much. I did care about the Kay/Helen/Julia story. It caught my attention and held it with the kind of buzzing insistence of a headache which demands the pressure of hands in order to suppress its throbbing compulsion.

When we find her at the beginning of the book, Kay is a ruin. Our eyes skim over the carefully faceted details of her little upstairs-room – no books, clothes hanging on a wire, darned socks, cold-water bathroom down the hall, a sour smelling bed – all instantly register as amounting to appalling conditions and decidedly at odds with our instinctive sense of who this character is. We feel the instant disconnect suggested by Waters, with something we cannot really place. We know Kay was not always like this, that she was not always accustomed to squalor and apparent, self-imposed impoverishment.

The third September after the war – September of 1948 – finds Kay unable to adjust to a post-war existence. She no longer wears her uniform and a tin hat, no longer drives an ambulance, no longer has a purpose in life. Old-maidish Mr. Mundy, a character in another segment, rather unflattering refers to Kay as ‘Colonel Barker’, but for Mr. Mundy’s young gay protégée Duncan, ‘the bold cut of her hair, her mannish clothes, her sharp, distinguished-looking profile’ makes him think ‘she might once have been a lady pilot, a sergeant in the WAAF’. She looked to him ‘like a handsome young man.’ It is a profound irony that the littered externalisation of Kay’s dreariness and fatigue lies inescapably reflected all around her. She herself is out of step, out of sequence. She prefers to watch the second part of a movie before the first: she engages in a tawdry grope and kiss with a tipsy girl in a cinema restroom: she seems to try to pick up strangers on her walks, and on an occasion buys a blond girl a drink in a bar. All this is so far removed from the way she was before, when she would have spurned such crumbs as these out of hand when she was intact, and more than equal to the challenge of driving an ambulance through the pitch-dark streets during the black-out. Then she had been able to face danger and horror, as when she and her friend Micky extricated the body of a woman who had been tossed by an explosion and impaled on a railing. She stamped out the stray fires caused by incendiary bombs and braved the bombs themselves to rescue strangers. Her senses were fully alive to the significance of the things she saw in the ruins – the glimpse of a box decorated with painted shells seen in the rubble – most likely a child’s handwork project – a small jawbone still embedded with the eruptions of its first new teeth – and no doubt she took in the hidden shape of the unseen world beneath its chaotic surface, and always  managed to respond to tragedy and exigency in the right way at the right time with the gift of her ever fully present self.

One’s ear picks up the faint crepitations of Kay’s former life from which the present is a fall from grace. We know something terrible has already happened. We sense a past of strength, and of refinement even, and we feel as if we are watching the impeccable cuff of a shirt being dipped in grime. Something has happen to Kay which is so devastating, so fell, that she has been plunged into an interiority which has detached  her completely from the outside world, even as she compulsively moves around in it and minutely observes it. Life has taken on a tinge of unreality, that seems to make everything in it go on at a distance. Nothing extends beyond the mere band of murky light that her own dullness seems to exude within the small, blear circumference surrounding her. We may rush to call it depression, but this bland and dismissive word does not begin to encompass or even describe the horror of Kay’s existence. Her ability to be a part of life, or to interact with it, disappears, while her compulsion to observe persists in the most acute manner possible. Whatever has happened to her has created a kind of insuperable severance from life and the living.

What was the distortion in Kay’s vision that caused her to idealise her lover Helen? Did Kay see potential lovers as being either virgins or whores? She was a woman of the world: the liaison, casually referred to, with a high-class prostitute who gave Kay her flat attests to a certain lack of squeamishness with regard to dissolute women, and certainly her witty comment about “the deep peace of the marital bed” compared to “the hurly-burly of the sapphic chaise lounge” shows, if nothing else, a deep sense of irony with respect to relationships. It could not be that Kay had a masculinist view of female virtue. I gave this question a great deal of thought. I wondered if Kay was in fact aware of Helen’s moral and other inadequacies: if indeed she may have picked Helen in an effort to force a happy ending out of unpromising material, in order to prove to herself that it could be done – that one could pull a pure young girl out of the ruins of the world, and that she, Kay, even as a social outsider, could aspire to and achieve a conventional domestic happiness regardless of the odds. This streak of utter conventionality in Kay’s make-up is one of the things I found naggingly inconsistent about her character. It would seem that Kay may not have loved what Helen was, but rather what she represented. It was not perception but something else, perhaps resembling recognition. The image of something already known and conceptualised in the mind is projected upon something that seems like it, or close enough. But it seems that the seeds of Kay’s dissolution were already planted in the distant past. Helen’s defection simply gave them the nourishment they needed in order to flourish with an unimpeded vigour and malignity. Kay seems to sense this when she says “We never seem to love the people we ought to, I can’t think why.”

At first it seemed to me that Kay provided the only evidence of love, and was the only one capable of it, and of devotion and constancy and marital probity. But I cannot avoid the suggestion of a darker motivation in Kay’s choice of Helen might not have been the awareness of her own superiority. She was upper-class, she was older, she owned the flat, she may even have had access to her family’s wealth. She was certainly better situated than Helen, and in this respect the relationship between her and Helen could never have been that of equals. I wonder if Helen fell in love with Julia, Kay’s former girlfriend, because of an unconscious desire for some sort of parity between herself and Kay: there could have been for her a twisted logic in making a sexual conquest of Julia, who Helen thought had rejected Kay, and thereby securing a position for herself in winning something she thought Kay had wanted and lost. Of course Helen was wrong about everything. Julia used Helen as a pawn: Julia was under no illusion about Helen. She did not think Helen was particularly interesting, or intelligent or even beautiful. The love-triangle is operatic in the way a version of Otello would be, where Otello is an English public-school educated lesbian of impeccable probity, the villainous Desdemona a bargain-basement Greta Garbo from Worthing, and Iago an elegantly aristocratic writer of lurid detective novels, who is in fact in love with Otello and could only say of Desdemona that she ‘resembled a lovely onion.’

Julia Standing and Helen Giniver are a couple entangled in a thorny and contentious relationship which appears at times to be unravelling. Helen works in what might be called a Pleistocene version of a modern dating agency, and Julia works with her architect father to assess bomb damage in buildings which have not been completely destroyed and are still standing. She does this mostly on her own, and displays an astonishing sang froid about the real dangers she confronts when she enters these unstable structures, which may collapse at any moment. Helen is a middle class girl and Julia is unmistakably upper-class: her grubby working clothes gainsay it, but her speech, despite the occasional affectation of slangy locutions, clearly affirms it. Helen is attracted by Julia’s natural hauteur and elegant beauty, but also by something hidden but sensed, about Julia’s past relationship, only mentioned in passing, with Kay.

At some point the secret that Waters almost conceals within the Helen/Kay/Julia triangle and which makes it so dynamic begins to emerge. I had become distracted by the intensity of Helen’s affair with Julia, begun within three weeks of their meeting. My eye was fixed on Helen because her emotions  were in such active ferment. There was a past in which Kay adored Helen: when she was almost tediously uxorious, in which she treated this chipped ceramic mug of a woman as if she were a perfect Sèvres tea-cup, and with never the slightest remonstration. Kay precisely fitted the role of the devoted ‘husband’ of an unsympathetic wife. She loved Helen, but her emotions seem to have reached a point of equilibrium. But in this past there is a triangle – Kay loves Helen loves Julia, whereas Julia who seems at worst cold and unloving, or at best simply removed, loved Kay.

Waters does not permit her readers to probe Julia’s inner workings as she does to a limited degree with Kay and rather more so with Helen. But Julia is the key. Hidden from me at first was that Julia and not Helen, was at the apex of the triangle. Julia and Kay have much in common – their handsome good looks, their social class, but more than any thing in either the social or cultural antecedents they have in common, they share a fundamental likeness of something resembling an existential orientation, even a condition. Though Kay strives mightily to reject and extinguish such a realisation under the illusion of security provided by her relationship with Helen, both Kay and Julia are fundamentally solitary creatures who each carry an unfathomable loneliness within themselves, and for such a sense of isolation there could be no possible remedy.  Even Helen notices “what is it about Julia? Why is she always alone?”

Kay and Julia are both women with vaulted interiors, each in her own way utterly inconsolable. Julia knows this about herself – but Kay believes she might be consoled.  Julia, despite her apparent flintiness and her cool exterior, has also failed to adapt to her losses in the ways that she would wish. She is just as much a victim of disappointed love as Kay.  Julia emerges as a character with not much feeling, without much ability or desire either to love or be loved or to connect.  But what Waters hides in plain sight, is that an open secret is fully present in that upwelling of  infinite sadness which we are allowed to glimpse when Julia’s tells Helen that she was in love with Kay for years. The sense of ruefulness, and  chagrin, even bitterness,  which surfaces in that moment when Julia tells Helen it was Kay who ended their relationship, more than suggests that Julia is still in love with Kay. This is the point at which my question about what Julia could possibly have seen in Helen begins to be answered. Julia admits to Helen that she (Julia) began her pursuit of Helen in order to see what Kay saw in Helen. But it was more than that.

The obvious explanation here, is that Julia wanted to get back at Kay for Kay’s rejection, but it seems rather that she wanted to reach Kay by a sort of proxy. How difficult to accept that ‘misaffection’ (but not disaffection – Kay’s very intelligent and subtle distinction.) Helen was the closest Julia could get to Kay, and rather than being pleased to give Kay some of her own back, it seems more likely that Julia was deeply conflicted. She must have known, even as her involvement with Helen deepened, that she had permitted impulse to lead her into a situation not of her choosing or desiring, with a woman she did not and could not ever love. In seeking to be free of Kay and taking up with Helen,  Julia appears to have renounced the received standards of behaviour of her class as well as its tacit protocols, but she is never quite free of them, as evidenced by her shocked disapproval of Helen’s lapses from propriety, as when Helen eavesdrops on the sordid conversations of the squabbling tenants in the basement apartment below them. Kay might have been able to overlook or even transcend the difference in class and upbringing between herself and Helen, but Julia, despite her best efforts, never could.

Julia gave Helen plenty of cause for jealous suspicions about Julia’s involvement with other women, or rather with another woman, Ursula Waring, and Helen is ripe for suspicion. She has permitted her voyeuristic imagination to range over the intimacies engaged in by Kay and Julia, and perhaps she will do the same with Julia and Ursula if and when her suspicions are confirmed. It could be that Helen might have fared better with someone to knock her about and give her the excuse she needed to vent her suppressed plume of volcanic emotions. Instead she cannot prevent herself from grinding away at Julia, whose enthusiasm for their affair seems to diminish by marked degrees. Julia is withheld and hesitant – this plays well to Helen’s insecurity and her need. Helen seems to be the kind of woman who will always be the inferior in any relationship, and perhaps the origin of her splenetic rages lie in an occluded awareness of this fact. Helen’s authenticity as a character seems to come from her deficits, her youth, her class, and the inner demons of jealousy and insecurity and possessiveness that consume and torment her. There is nothing inconsistent about Helen. She is entirely of a piece. Helen has an instinct for survival. In her second miraculously narrow escape in two years, when the flat where she and Kay live is bombed,  she was spending the night with Julia, and her life is saved as a result of her infidelity. What are we to make of the kernel that might be hidden within that shell?

The  troubling complexity and contrariness of human relations and human desire, their insubstantiality, and brevity, their inherent susceptibility to blight, the unresolvable nature of attraction and repulsion, of hunger and satisfaction, are all found within the bounds of this  sardonic, ironic, and indeed tragic triangle. The bitter truth about relationships is that the one who wants the least comes off best. In a sense Julia is as wounded as Kay. She is certainly as lonely and as isolated. But she has come to terms with her predicament. She has a self-awareness about her suffering, whereas Kay just suffers. Julia’s accommodation of chaos and disorder, her personal slovenliness, the disorder of her flat, all suggest that in her way she had given up long before Kay. She had succumbed in the same way Kay would later on, to the loss of love. In Kay’s case  love was ventured and lost, in Julia’s case, ventured but never gained. Julia cannot forget hat near miss, that relationship that just might have been: the only time she speaks of love plausibly and convincingly is in when she speaks of Kay. Julia’s wartime job repeats the symmetry of her own interior isolation found reflected in the ghosts of shattered buildings where she spends her days. To have arrived at a place after having endured our way to the end of all our disappointments and find nothing there, that might be as close to hell as it gets.

Helen’s wide masochistic streak, and Julia’s coolness and detachment, her  terse refusal to engage in Helen’s choleric manipulations, and the natural lack of polarity of their within-gender dynamic, spells disaster from start to finish. There can be no natural chemistry here, and the fact that Julia has any reaction at all to Helen is due, I think, in large part to the element introduced by Helen in her function as a thread connecting Julia to Kay. Helen’s insecurity will not permit her to accept love where it is given, but to desire it only where it it withheld or absent. Julia’s engagement with Helen is characterised by a sense of aloofness and detachment. She does not need Helen’s love, and resents Helen’s clingy possessiveness, her tendency to behave like a shrew. It struck me immediately that Helen Giniver’s name carried the ominous echo of two of the most renowned adulteresses in literature. At first, Helen appeared to me to be at the apex of the Kay/Helen/Julia love-triangle. The knot holding that particular entanglement in place was Helen’s masochism, and Julia’s almost icy reserve and unreachability, her apparent imperviousness, her refusal to engage in Helen’s tantrums. The fact that there is any reaction at all is due to the element introduced by Kay. The troubling complexity and contrariness of human relations and human desire, their insubstantiality, and brevity, their inherent susceptibility to blight, the unresolvable nature of attraction and repulsion, of hunger and satisfaction, are all found within the bounds of this  sardonic, ironic, and indeed tragic triangle.

Julia tells Helen“Kay wants a wife, you see…. She wants a wife – someone good, I mean someone kind, untarnished. Someone to keep things in order for her, things in place.…. And elsewhere. “Kay wants a wife: she always has…… one must be the wife with Kay or nothing.”
Julia’s tragedy is that she does not in the least resemble a wife, and could never be one in the conventional sense. Perhaps this is the reason for her bitterness. Julia is correct when she characterises Kay as ‘a gentleman’, and it is this quality which makes Helen so ‘other’ to her, creating the sexual polarity, as well as the incomprehension which is at the base of a certain kind of lesbian relationship. Kay’s particular mix of gender chemistry puts her at the opposite end of the lesbian continuum from Helen, and far enough from Julia to spark an attraction, whereas for Julia there does not appear to be a similar dynamic with Helen.  There is for some of us a peculiar and potent chemistry of the upper-class British butch lesbian of a certain era: that marvellous admixture of gender indeterminacy and incorruptible propriety that is personified in Kay. There is an superiority in that which Julia would undoubtedly be able to appreciate, and it is very likely to have been at the root of her attraction to Kay. Julia admits to Helen that she had loved Kay. She does not appear to have loved anyone else. Julia and Kay would have suited each other perfectly, but for that little glitch – an insufficiency of the polarity required by Kay: and all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.

The accidental attractants we call chemistry which lead to couplings are just fuses that connect to the bomb, and when we light the match we have to not let ourselves know what we are doing. And so we wonder how Kay might have tolerated Helen’s capriciousness, her lack of refinement. Was it sufficient that Helen’s merely corresponding to Kay’s image of what a wife could be, would seem like  it might have sufficed? Did the rescue from the rubble create a script which played straight to the heart of Kay’s sense of knight-errantry? That Julia has forsaken the contextual associations of her class, more than anything else, makes her seem to have rejected her inherited moorings. It seems she has rejected them because she was rejected by Kay. I don’t know if Americans relate very well to this understated but very unshakable code of behaviour and character, and in fact ethics. Kay’s self-deprecating nobility, her conspicuous bravery, her untainted sense of honour, her gallantry towards women, her inexhaustible generosity, so heretical in the the face of fervent belief in mere survival, is what makes her so admirable. This constellation of traits is all the more remarkable because of her extreme emotional fragility.

Kay’s loss of Helen does not adequately explain the depth and extent of her grief and devastation, her sense of unbelievable desolation and how completely undone she is: the unrelenting and insuperable sense of doom and brokenness beyond all fixing that clings to her like a shadow. Helen is really no great shakes. She is too wounded and insecure herself to do anyone any good. She is driven to hide her attraction to women, and is paranoid about public displays of affection. She is unstable and shallow and immature. Even so, for Kay, such a ‘wife’ as Helen was might well have provided the perfect antidote for her insubstantiality. Women like Kay need such an anchor to keep them from drifting off into the vast uncharted expanses of their lonely interior oceans. The world becomes for them a featureless place, except for its patches of shifting darkness, and there is no torment quite like being trapped in such an existence. Though her values were far from bourgeois, her domestic expectations were beautifully conventional. Perhaps the absence of family in her life may have something to do with this. What was needed for the healing of Kay’s wounds was a stable, untroubled domesticity, but some irony of fate makes of her a ‘Samson Agonistes’ with perfect public school politesse.

The world of the London Blitz and the black-out was a world of almost primordial darkness, a world without street-signs, and of obliterated landmarks. Its inhabitants were cut loose from their accustomed moorings in the past ‘normalcy’, and order was something which had to be imposed by acts of will and ingenuity. This material darkness has its counterpart in another which can extend into the soul as insidiously as an invading mould. While Kay is intrepid in the manner in which she faces the outer darkness, she seems to have avoided a descent into her own inner darkness. Kay gives definition to an existential version of our fear of the dark: it is not a monster lurking under the bed or a vampire who comes flying in at night through a window that has carelessly been left open. These fears in us may be faced with an effort of reason and commonsense, but it is not quite as easy to dismiss the  abysmal fear of the unrelievable isolation to be found when one confronts the truth about the human condition. The unforgettable lines with which Dante began The Inferno exactly describe Kay’s predicament: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost. Oh how to speak of it, it was a thing so severe, that savage wood, and strong and harsh, the thought of it renews my fear, so bitter did it seem that death could scarce be more.”

The purpose and courage with which both Kay and Julia responded to the high degree of danger in their jobs, suggests they were at once resisting and succumbing to the same cause with a similar effect. Danger gives them a kind of focus, and each of them faces a different but equally significant encounter with devastation in the performance of her duties. It is an enormous irony that the Kay/Julia relationship did not work out, because they are a match in depth, and both of them are much deeper than Helen could ever be. They possess a more complex capacity for life experience and for confronting and adapting to its exigencies with a touch of graceful irony. But they belong to a class of women who are not whole in themselves. Though the absence of love clearly outlined its negative space in Julia’s life, she was able to face and accept it, whereas Kay attempted to fill the space imperfectly. It seems ironic that  Julia, who speaks with apparent dismissiveness about Kay being a ‘sentimentalist’ and a ‘gentleman’, could have been in love with her, but then, Julia always seemed able to downplay her emotions and take her medicine straight.

So little about why anyone falls in love is visible to anyone else on the outside of the experience. The real causes and effects, and reasons, all unfold on the inside. When Kay, on one of her nightly ambulance runs, rescues Helen out of the rubble of a recently fallen bomb, the biggest shock is finding that she is still alive, and miraculously unhurt. This is probably the moment when Kay begins to fall in love. Why this could be we may infer, but never know for certain. We sense this is a moment in life when what happens in the material world imprints itself on us in such a way as to alter the inner mechanism of perception. The moment when Kay finds the still-living and improbably intact Helen partially encased in a tomb of crumbled brick and plaster, might be just such a moment when the element of shock and joy wipes the mind clean of present awareness and replaces it with something enormously new and strange, and the rescuer and the rescued emerge from the immediate past in a mutual silence and reenter the world together. There was another Helen, who was born from an egg,  whose adulterous love brought ruin to all around her. But Kay was probably not thinking about that.

There is in Helen, for all her ability to go after what she wants, something of “a second-former swooning over a prefect”, a degree of immaturity, of heedlessness and impulsivity. She is so gripped by her passion for Julia that she cannot deduce on the basis of their characters, what might have transpired to end the relationship between Kay and Julia. The clues are all there in Kay’s nature, and Julia’s repeated mentions about Kay’s insistence of having a ‘wife’ and Julia’s repeated demonstrations that she would not fit that role. This should have made Helen pause and give the matter some thought. But Helen’s desire was really an insatiable hunger to devour the hidden parts which Julia might have previously ceded to Kay: parts which were given but refused. Helen wanted what she could never have. When it came down to it, Kay’s gallantry and refinement played just as badly to Helen’s romantic needs as did Julia’s glamour, which came packaged together with her aloof indifference.

These three women are, in different ways, incomprehensible  to each other, but any woman she loves it seems, will always be an unsolved mystery to Kay. This weakness, this inability to understand the way in which, as well as whom, she loves, is always likely to come between her and her happiness.  The reason for this disconnect becomes slightly more clear when we set aside our identification of Kay as a woman and lesbian when in fact, more than either of these designations of gender, she more accurately conforms to an older and now dismissed concept – Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness definition of the invert. Kay, (who by my calculation was born in 1910) would have been 18 when Hall’s book was published. She might have seen herself  as a sort of Steven Gordon, a person at odds with the world, and one who could not be made to fit in it. That was a perception that may have undergone some modification in the danger and uncertainty of the Blitz, but which could not be altered at a more fundamental level.

The fascination we have with novels about broken and damaged people comes from being shown in a vivid and inescapable way the specific parts of the human machine which have broken down and ceased to function because they have been smashed against the unyielding surface of the world. Through such novels, and in the reflection of their characters, we are able to take a tentative scalpel to our own psyches and check our own working and non-working parts, in an attempt  to either reassure or terrify ourselves with questions about our own soundness – or the lack of it. Such novels are themselves like incendiary bombs, burning directly downwards as if with the able collusion of gravity, through time, unstoppably and with a sinister purpose.

The mood in which I read The Night Watch had been set when my ear caught and held a subtle note of weariness in its lucid, beautifully ordinary language, innocent of all rhetorical flourishes and artifice. It is of course the weariness of wartime, the unrelenting and insuperable sense of doom and  brokenness, beyond all fixing, the nightly danger posed by bombs and fires and collapsing buildings, the cheerless, inedible food, the vitiated air, the predominant shabbiness of everything, the scarcity or even absence of hot water. Language itself must be pruned where there is no excess energy to be squandered. An economy of words takes hold when economy prevails in all else. But Waters’ economy is deceptive, and it deceived me, and its perfect balance, so poised between skillfully arranged complexity and intuition, defeated the part of my brain dedicated to critical analysis and caused it to recede and disappear. I was forced to surrender to the sense that I was playing blind-man’s buff in an unlit room. This, I think, is due to the unique fashion in which time is represented in this novel, and not just that the arrow is flying backwards. Waters’ inclination is to reveal without confiding, and to delineate detail by vivid detail, such as the small but ominous symbols which signal a seismic shift. On Helen’s birthday,Kay takes enormous care over the presents: an extravagant and exquisite pair of pearl-coloured satin pyjamas bought on the black-market, an orange carefully pricked over with ‘Happy Birthday’, coffee…. but while Helen rather uneasily accepts these tokens of love, she rebuffs all Kay’s gestures of tender affection. Helen’s irritability, the absence of warmth, her aversion to Kay’s touch, all signal the retreat and withdrawal of love. It is reminiscent of  a scene in an old movie version of Dracula, when a crack appears and rapidly spreads on the surface of the castle courtyard. It presages the presence of the vampire, and one cannot interpret it as anything but a sign of impending disaster.

The withholding of information is a device vital to carrying a plot forward. It creates suspense, and gives the reader an active role in solving a riddle. But when a novel proceeds in an opposite trajectory to the arrow of time, how can a writer create suspense with the ending already revealed on the very first page? Waters does it from the first instant, by counting on the reader’s inexperience with such a reversal, and his or her failure to grasp its significance. We enter the novel stumbling in a moment of blindness and it takes a while to begin to get oriented. I felt I was forced by Waters to care deeply about Kay in this instant of disorientation and confusion, but along with that confusion was implanted the desire to dispel and resolve it.

Waters maintained her unique purpose of temporal distortion by not permitting her characters to recall their pasts. It is not that they had amnesia, but they could not dwell on what had brought them to the present. They could  stand at the river side and gaze at the opposite bank, they had to avert their gaze from the bridge, nor could they walk across it. But The Night Watch is itself a backward glance though the characters are never permitted to recall and remember. Kay, like Orpheus, walks through the underworld with the faint echo of footsteps in her wake, but when she emerges it is not into sunlight, but into unutterable bleakness. Because the narrative recedes in time, each segment of the present is as clearly crystallised in its place as an egg in aspic. The implications of this literary device are not noticeable at first, but its consequence, the absence of past memory in the minds of the characters, creates a sense of inexplicable unease. The past is there, but it is locked fast in the future. That in itself creates a sense of helpless imbalance in the mind of the reader, which taken together with the immediate, preternaturally detailed ordinariness of the narrative, persistently denies a handhold or a foothold on its surface. Readers often sense it when information is being  gratuitously withheld, but even though Waters had tied one hand behind her back when she made the rules, it was worth it, because it worked.

Distortions in the sequencing of time are inherently confusing to a reader. A still more subtle way in which Waters manipulates time, is the accretion of detail itself – one simply does not catch that much detail in a state of normal awareness. This device distorts the perception of time by altering the speed at which time travels to something resembling slow-motion. But fortunately for us, the ‘past’  of the narrative is always consistently present in some form or another. We cannot reclaim the past in order to fill in the gaps Waters is compelled to create in the story, but neither are we exactly removed from it, because its hold on us is  never entirely absent: it never leaves us entirely alone with the present: its intrusions never cease. It did occur to me that the remedy might be to read the book backwards, or to tear it into its segments and separate the pages within each segment and rearrange them in a different order, but I was prevented by a powerful taboo in me having to do with the destruction of books.

In a sense, The Night Watch is a study of unwholesome relationships and decadence lurking beneath the smudgy ordinariness anxious to disguise and deny it. The absence of love is starkly delineated throughout. The mass of sensuous detail relentlessly adumbrates and underscores the feeling of decay both within and without the characters. Still there are almost Zen-like moments, as when a flash of irrepressible beauty intrudes and Waters’ prose simply takes flight. The fox encountered by Julia and Helen on a walk through the bombed-out streets at night, when “they watched it dart, as quick and fluid as racing water” and the distant sound of a band “swelling and sinking on impalpable gusts of air, like washing on a line”, evoke by a few deft, suggestive strokes an almost unearthly beauty. In the immediacy of this writing, our nostrils are filled with the odour of burning feathers, when a pigeon, its wings on fire flies through the darkness in the aftermath of a bomb, a rabbit-meat sandwich is described as being ‘sweet’, we almost see the aged ruin of a ninety-year-old woman in a yellow nightgown, sleeping in her bed in her bomb-damaged house, and  the school girl joke I remember about the top hat and the bra (still in currency when I was in First Form.) But occasionally and unexpectedly, the detail seems false, as when the voice of the woman in the basement apartment resembles ‘gnat-like whining’ as it insinuates itself through the floor. Do gnats really whine, or are they are a quiet race of creatures who go about their gnat-like business in total silence? And did people in war time Britain say “wow”? Did they ‘press’ rather than ‘iron’ their clothes?

Both World Wars, but more dramatically the second, caused the collapse in England of the old social contact between men and women. The lull of 22 years which lasted  between the first and second wars, was still a time during which the frayed fabric of the old social order refused to give way completely. A few strong threads of former entrenched restrictions on the freedom of women to act, to be independent and autonomous, continued to hold. But both wars afforded unexpected new opportunities to women of a certain metal and calibre. During both wars, lesbians took to the new conditions with immense alacrity and purpose, and chaos itself became the climate in which these freedoms were enthusiastically embraced by women who carried their latent heroism within them like a recessive gene. Chaos and danger were exactly the conditions they needed to come into their own.

The Night Watch has an earlier ancestor in a short story entitled “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”, written by Radclyffe Hall about two weeks before The Well of Loneliness. Hall has always (somewhat unjustly in my view) been derided  by her literary peers – or at least contemporaries –  such as Virginia Woolf, for her  flights of undisciplined and sentimental excesses, but her significance for me is not related to her writing, but to her successful effort to end lesbian invisibility. Her highly-charged, and yes, overwrought short story is about a woman who was the head of a French ambulance service in WWI. After the armistice, Miss Ogilvy’s unit is demobilised, her world dismantled, and her place within it effaced with a total and irreversible finality. The Red Cross Ambulance Brigade in Calais, France, and the vehicles she so competently ‘manned’, are lost to her forever. There will be no longer any scope for her bravery and gallantry. The qualities she so conspicuously possessed as the natural inheritance of her specific gender, as well as her sacrifice, are forgotten when she comes back to England alone and without a purpose to her life. She was used, and discarded when she was no longer needed, and  in the aftermath of this rejection her mind unravels in its effort to reestablish itself in a way which would accommodate its intrinsic wholeness. In order to find herself, the ‘invert’ Miss Ogilvy has to bypass recorded history and all traces of civilisation to enter a time in prehistory and  recreate her shattered psyche as a man in the Neolithic era, but even there, she cannot imagine that a durable happiness could be within her grasp.

In my mind, crop-headed Miss Ogilvy is in a very real sense Kay Langrish’s lesbian ancestor, and their post-war lives seem to me to be echoes of each other. Like Miss Ogilvy’s in WWI. Kay’s deracinated existence in a shattered and exhausted post-war London is merely the encompassing reverberation of her far greater psychic devastation. And a similar devastation to what appears in Radclyffe Hall’s short story lies at the heart of The Night Watch. The inescapable dreariness of life to which Kay gives herself over in resignation and  mute surrender seems very much like the conditions faced by Miss. Ogilvy in the loss of  a world in which she had temporarily fit. These two things together, the loss of that world, and the meaning it gave to a life,  in their perfect synchronicity amplified the wave of ruin to such a degree that nothing else could be audible above their sound.

It is a great tribute to Waters’ skill that her narrative ellipses tend to go unnoticed in the spell cast by the plethora of atmospheric detail. We are never shown how Kay’s break up with Helen unfolded, though we may deduce that the denouement took place on the night a bomb hit Kay’s flat in Pym’s Yard. Waters sets the scene and  glosses over the details, and we get only the briefest glimpse of Kay and Julia unexpectedly appearing together out of the darkness. When Kay’s relief that Helen has survived the bomb blast  had slightly subsided, and she recovered herself  sufficiently in order for her rational mind to reassert itself, we may suppose that she realised the reason for Helen’s escape was that she was away from her own home, and had spent the night with Julia. The happy ending is sometimes just a heightened irony in disguise, a fine coat which may easily be turned inside-out to reveal its shredded lining. One moment we share Kay’s desolation at the thought of Helen being killed when their flat was hit by a bomb, and next we share her sigh of relief at the sight of Helen returning to her home with Julia. A few pages later we are back at the beginning, with Kay as she sees Helen for the first time, trapped in the rubble in the aftermath of a bomb and so we come full circle with the beginning and the end of an affair. Waters teases and disconcerts by waving in front of us an ending of the novel, which for a moment we confuse with the ending of her story, but no sooner have we read it than we realise this is only the beginning of what was to be a tragic ending. It strikes us like the bombs Kay’s friend Micky tells us landed in a cemetery and burst open the graves, shattering the coffins.

The manner in which Waters creates a ghostly echo of her novel in a reader’s mind is something which has a durable power to fascinate me. Meaningful stories for me are those that don’t just end at a literary stopping point which sometimes seems both inevitable and arbitrary, but then keep on going. They can move backwards and forwards in time, into our present thoughts, but also into the echoes that already existed before the book was read. The stories proceed in an out-of-sync disjunction like a solid universe emerging out of the ineffable and in time transforming into a swarm of massless photons which rush headlong into darkness. We are compelled as readers to inhabit the strange space of the writer’s mind and submit to its its inexplicable laws.  It is this contract that leads us by the hand and compels us to live lives which are not ours, but which nonetheless resound with a startling echo, so that they may as well be ours.

In delving into the manner in which Waters constructed her novel, I remembered that one of my very favourite books, ever since I read it decades ago, has been Edward Abbots’s Flatland.Though I didn’t know it at the time, it taught me to think in a completely different way. The way in which a book represents itself to me has always been at the foundation of how I perceive it, understand it and remember it. Abbot’s superbly written gem, a treatise on dimensions and how we perceive them, has come to deeply inform my understanding of what I read. Life happens in three dimensions, four if you count time, though this, being a temporal dimension, is quite different from the other three, which are spatial. Books, which are not strictly speaking life, have to represent the dimensions of life in a way which admits that hidden dimension. We learned as children how this could be done with three dimensional object such as a cube. A cube has parallel sides and perpendicular angles, but when we represent a cube in two dimensions, its missing dimension can be revealed, but only if we use additional angles besides right angles. We have to off-set opposite surfaces by drawing two overlapping squares, and then joining their corners in ways that do not exist in the original cube. The additional ‘dimension’, time, which gives an object its reference in ‘reality’, is really a very secret player, and one which has to be handled carefully and creatively if life, which is the object we are attempting to pin down in a novel, is to be convincingly conveyed. The cube drawn on a sheet of paper overrides our knowledge about what cubes really  are, but nonetheless it leads us to correctly identify an image as a cube with a missing dimension. Without the ‘false’ angles we are unable to see the cube. The illusion must be created in accordance with the rules of perception, and this requires a brilliant imagination.  In order to make use of the referential nature of time in her narrative without actually unravelling it, Waters has to make a casualty of memory. When done correctly in a novel or a story, the hidden and absent dimensions of life erupt on the page. Luckily for us, we are able to manipulate time in this way as well. And time is often the key to the way in which the characters in a novel make their secret way off the page and into our minds.

Another thought that lingered after I read The Night Watch was to wonder why lesbian writers don’t write more lesbian novels. Waters has paid her dues, so to speak, with two well-written and unabashedly concupiscent lesbian novels, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, and flirted with a character of ‘lesbian sensibility’ in Affinity Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet most probably had lesbians rushing book-store counters in droves, but with The Night Watch Waters made her unfaltering way into the middle of main stream fiction. The Night Watch may or may not be a lesbian novel, but the lesbian content in it was the centrepiece for me, and I rather think it was intended as such. I will not hold it against Waters if she never creates another lesbian character. I think I understand why lesbian writers don’t go on writing lesbian books: perhaps they get tired of the subject, or perhaps it exhausts itself for them, or perhaps they feel they might not want to go on writing the same book under a different cover. What I don’t understand is how heterosexual writers go on writing heterosexual books without ever seeming to run out of  heterosexual material or tiring of heterosexual themes and subjects. Is this because a largely heterosexual reading public demands, and will pay for, an endless stream of fiction to which they can ‘relate’ and which caters to their particular literary needs? Or is it perhaps because there are more heterosexuals who want to read about other heterosexuals than there are either lesbians and gays or heterosexuals who want to read about homosexuals?  It is a vexing question and one without an immediate answer.

In the almost-historical past, the publishers of lesbian novels required that stories about lesbians end in disaster. The scripts demanded that lesbian characters had to see the error of their ways and acknowledge the superiority of heterosexual relationships, go mad, lose the girl, commit suicide or be murdered. No matter how sophisticated a reader was, and no matter how well she understood the reasons why this had to be so either from a literary or censorship requirement, the residue of hopelessness tended to linger. There were of course a few notable exceptions. I congratulate the late, great Jane Rule for her focus on lesbian subject matter. We need the Jane Rules of the world, and it is our misfortune that there could only ever be one of her. I don’t fault Patricia Highsmith for her one-off, The Price of Salt, the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, because it was a huge landmark for its time, (1952) and will continue always to be regarded as such. But I do wish there were more well-written lesbian novels by writers who are capable of taking on the subject truthfully and competently. I wish I could find more novels in which lesbians are primary and not secondary characters, and which do not end in the way the tradition has required of them for so many years. Waters has done it before, and one hopes perhaps she might do it again.

I don’t like much to think of psychology outside the reliable framework of a literary or operatic context, and as I got to the end of my own erratic progress through this rambling analysis, it suddenly came to me that Kay was, above all, a Faustian figure, but only as in Berlioz’s opera La Damnation de Faust and not as in Goethe’s original. Berlioz, I think, is more hopeful and optimistic, and if one wishes for a psychological connection, his work could well be seen as a prefiguring of Jung. Kay’s entrance at the beginning of the novel echoes the Faustian predicament, the alienation from the world, the failed search, the moment of despair, and of being on the verge of disintegration. The recapitulation of the events leading to this moment in Kay’s life, her dedicated search for fulfillment and the contract required in order to achieve it, runs parallel to Faust’s journey. Alas, the first Marguarete was false, and the true Marguarete is nowhere in sight, but where we find Faust and Mephistopheles she cannot be far off, and is fated to appear. What is now needed to set the inevitable in motion is merely the sound of the Easter Bells. We fervently hope that one day soon, when Kay is standing at her window, or when she is on one of her solitary walks through the city, or just watching a movie in the darkness of a cinema, she will hear them ring out loudly, clearly and unmistakably.

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Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Mr. Fitzgerald! It has always pleased me that we share this date in common!

 

As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anæsthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon them astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.
I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.
The Roger Buttons held an enviable position, both social and financial, in Antebellum Baltimore. They were related to the This Family and the That Family, which, as every Southerner knew, entitled them to membership in that enormous peerage which largely populated the Confederacy. This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies–Mr. Button was naturally nervous. He hoped it would be a boy so that he could be sent to Yale College in Connecticut, at which institution Mr. Button himself had been known for four years by the somewhat obvious nickname of “Cuff.”
On the September morning consecrated to the enormous event he arose nervously at six o’clock dressed himself, adjusted an impeccable stock, and hurried forth through the streets of Baltimore to the hospital, to determine whether the darkness of the night had borne in new life upon its bosom.
When he was approximately a hundred yards from the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen he saw Doctor Keene, the family physician, descending the front steps, rubbing his hands together with a washing movement–as all doctors are required to do by the unwritten ethics of their profession.
Mr. Roger Button, the president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, began to run toward Doctor Keene with much less dignity than was expected from a Southern gentleman of that picturesque period.
“Doctor Keene!” he called. “Oh, Doctor Keene!”
The doctor heard him, faced around, and stood waiting, a curious expression settling on his harsh, medicinal face as Mr. Button drew near.
“What happened?” demanded Mr. Button, as he came up in a gasping rush.
“What was it? How is she? A boy? Who is it? What – “
“Talk sense!” said Doctor Keene sharply, He appeared somewhat irritated.
“Is the child born?” begged Mr. Button.
Doctor Keene frowned. “Why, yes, I suppose so – after a fashion.” Again he threw a curious glance at Mr. Button.
“Is my wife all right?”
“Yes.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Here now!” cried Doctor Keene in a perfect passion of irritation,”
I’ll ask you to go and see for yourself. Outrageous!” He snapped the last word out in almost one syllable, then he turned away muttering:
“Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation? One more would ruin me–ruin anybody.”
“What’s the matter?” demanded Mr. Button appalled. “Triplets?”
“No, not triplets!” answered the doctor cuttingly. “What’s more, you can go and see for yourself. And get another doctor. I brought you into the world, young man, and I’ve been physician to your family for forty years, but I’m through with you! I don’t want to see you or any of your relatives ever again! Good-bye!”
Then he turned sharply, and without another word climbed into his phaeton, which was waiting at the curbstone, and drove severely away.
Mr. Button stood there upon the sidewalk, stupefied and trembling from head to foot. What horrible mishap had occurred? He had suddenly lost all desire to go into the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen – it was with the greatest difficulty that, a moment later, he forced himself to mount the  steps and enter the front door.
A nurse was sitting behind a desk in the opaque gloom of the hall. Swallowing his shame, Mr. Button approached her.
“Good-morning,” she remarked, looking up at him pleasantly.
“Good-morning. I – I am Mr. Button.”
At this a look of utter terror spread itself over girl’s face. She rose to her feet and seemed about to fly from the hall, restraining herself only with the most apparent difficulty.
“I want to see my child,” said Mr. Button.
The nurse gave a little scream. “Oh – of course!” she cried hysterically. “Upstairs. Right upstairs. Go – up!”
She pointed the direction, and Mr. Button, bathed in cool perspiration, turned falteringly, and began to mount to the second floor. In the upper hall he addressed another nurse who approached him, basin in hand.   “I’m Mr. Button,” he managed to articulate.  “I want to see my – “
Clank! The basin clattered to the floor and rolled in the direction of the stairs. Clank! Clank! I began a methodical decent as if sharing in the general terror which this gentleman provoked.
“I want to see my child!” Mr. Button almost shrieked. He was on the verge of collapse.
Clank! The basin reached the first floor. The nurse regained control of herself, and threw Mr. Button a look of hearty contempt.
“All right, Mr. Button,” she agreed in a hushed voice. “Very well! But if you knew what a state it’s put us all in this morning! It’s perfectly outrageous! The hospital will never have a ghost of a reputation after – “
“Hurry!” he cried hoarsely. “I can’t stand this!”
“Come this way, then, Mr. Button.”
He dragged himself after her. At the end of a long hall they reached a room from which proceeded a variety of howls – indeed, a room which, in later parlance, would have been known as the “crying-room.” They entered.
“Well,” gasped Mr. Button, “which is mine?”
“There!” said the nurse.
Mr. Button’s eyes followed her pointing finger, and this is what he saw. Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age. His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a long smoke-colored beard, which waved absurdly back and forth, fanned by the breeze coming in at the window. He looked up at Mr. Button with dim, faded eyes in which lurked a puzzled question.
“Am I mad?” thundered Mr. Button, his terror resolving into rage. “Is this some ghastly hospital joke?
“It doesn’t seem like a joke to us,” replied the nurse severely. “And I don’t know whether you’re mad or not – but that is most certainly your child.”
The cool perspiration redoubled on Mr. Button’s forehead. He closed his eyes, and then, opening them, looked again. There was no mistake – he was gazing at a man of threescore and ten – a baby of threescore and ten, a baby whose feet hung over the sides of the crib in which it was reposing.
The old man looked placidly from one to the other for a moment, and then suddenly spoke in a cracked and ancient voice. “Are you my father?” he demanded.
Mr. Button and the nurse started violently.
“Because if you are,” went on the old man querulously, “I wish you’d get me out of this place – or, at least, get them to put a comfortable rocker in here,”
“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Button frantically.
“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”
“You lie! You’re an impostor!”
The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”
“You’re wrong. Mr. Button,” said the nurse severely. “This is your child, and you’ll have to make the best of it. We’re going to ask you to take him home with you as soon as possible – some time to-day.”
“Home?” repeated Mr. Button incredulously.
“Yes, we can’t have him here. We really can’t, you know?”
“I’m right glad of it,” whined the old man. “This is a fine place to keep a youngster of quiet tastes. With all this yelling and howling, I haven’t been able to get a wink of sleep. I asked for something to eat” – here his voice rose to a shrill note of protest – “and they brought me a bottle of milk!”
Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face in his hands. “My heavens!” he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror.
“What will people say? What must I do?”
“You’ll have to take him home,” insisted the nurse – “immediately!”
A grotesque picture formed itself with dreadful clarity before the eyes of the tortured man–a picture of himself walking through the crowded streets of the city with this appalling apparition stalking by his side.
“I can’t. I can’t,” he moaned.
People would stop to speak to him, and what was he going to say? He would have to introduce this–this septuagenarian: “This is my son, born early this morning.” And then the old man would gather his blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market–for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black – past the luxurious houses of the residential district, past the home for the aged….
“Come! Pull yourself together,” commanded the nurse.
“See here,” the old man announced suddenly, “if you think I’m going to walk home in this blanket, you’re entirely mistaken.”
“Babies always have blankets.”
With a malicious crackle the old man held up a small white swaddling garment. “Look!” he quavered. “This is what they had ready for me.”
“Babies always wear those,” said the nurse primly.
“Well,” said the old man, “this baby’s not going to wear anything in about two minutes. This blanket itches. They might at least have given me a sheet.”
“Keep it on! Keep it on!” said Mr. Button hurriedly. He turned to the nurse. “What’ll I do?”
“Go down town and buy your son some clothes.”
Mr. Button’s son’s voice followed him down into the: hall: “And a cane, father. I want to have a cane.”
Mr. Button banged the outer door savagely….

2
“Good-morning,” Mr. Button said nervously, to the clerk in the Chesapeake Dry Goods Company. “I want to buy some clothes for my child.”
“How old is your child, sir?”
“About six hours,” answered Mr. Button, without due consideration.
“Babies’ supply department in the rear.”
“Why, I don’t think – I’m not sure that’s what I want. It’s – he’s an unusually large-size child. Exceptionally – ah large.”
“They have the largest child’s sizes.”
“Where is the boys’ department?” inquired Mr. Button, shifting his ground desperately. He felt that the clerk must surely scent his shameful secret.
“Right here.”
“Well –– ” He hesitated. The notion of dressing his son in men’s clothes was repugnant to him. If, say, he could only find a very large boy’s suit, he might cut off that long and awful beard, dye the white hair brown, and thus manage to conceal the worst, and to retain something of his own self-respect–not to mention his position in Baltimore society.
But a frantic inspection of the boys’ department revealed no suits to fit the new-born Button. He blamed the store, of course – in such cases it is the thing to blame the store.
“How old did you say that boy of yours was?” demanded the clerk curiously.
“He’s – sixteen.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon. I thought you said six hours. You’ll find the youths’ department in the next aisle.”
Mr. Button turned miserably away. Then he stopped, brightened, and pointed his finger toward a dressed dummy in the window display. “There!” he exclaimed. “I’ll take that suit, out there on the dummy.”
The clerk stared. “Why,” he protested, “that’s not a child’s suit. At least it is, but it’s for fancy dress. You could wear it yourself!”
“Wrap it up,” insisted his customer nervously. “That’s what I want.”
The astonished clerk obeyed.
Back at the hospital Mr. Button entered the nursery and almost threw the package at his son. “Here’s your clothes,” he snapped out.
The old man untied the package and viewed the contents with a quizzical eye.
“They look sort of funny to me,” he complained, “I don’t want to be made a monkey of – “
“You’ve made a monkey of me!” retorted Mr. Button fiercely. “Never you mind how funny you look. Put them on – or I’ll – or I’ll spank you.” He swallowed uneasily at the penultimate word, feeling nevertheless that it was the proper thing to say.
“All right, father” – this with a grotesque simulation of filial respect – “you’ve lived longer; you know best. Just as you say.”
As before, the sound of the word “father” caused Mr. Button to start violently.
“And hurry.”
“I’m hurrying, father.”
When his son was dressed Mr. Button regarded him with depression. The costume consisted of dotted socks, pink pants, and a belted blouse with a wide white collar. Over the latter waved the long whitish beard, drooping almost to the waist. The effect was not good.
“Wait!”
Mr. Button seized a hospital shears and with three quick snips amputated a large section of the beard. But even with this improvement the ensemble fell far short of perfection. The remaining brush of scraggly hair, the watery eyes, the ancient teeth, seemed oddly out of tone with the gaiety of the costume. Mr. Button, however, was obdurate – he held out his hand. “Come along!” he said sternly.
His son took the hand trustingly. “What are you going to call me, dad?” he quavered as they walked from the nursery–”just ‘baby’ for a while? till you think of a  better name?”
Mr. Button grunted. “I don’t know,” he answered harshly. “I think we’ll call you Methuselah.”

3
Even after the new addition to the Button family had had his hair cut short and then dyed to a sparse unnatural black, had had his face shaved so close that it glistened, and had been attired in small-boy clothes made to order by a flabbergasted tailor, it was impossible for Button to ignore the fact that his son was an excuse for a first family baby. Despite his aged stoop, Benjamin Button – for it was by this name they called him instead of by the appropriate but invidious Methuselah – was five feet eight inches tall. His clothes did not conceal this, nor did the clipping and dyeing of his eyebrows disguise the fact that the eyes under were faded and watery and tired. In fact, the baby-nurse who had been engaged in advance left the house after one look, in a state of considerable indignation.
But Mr. Button persisted in his unwavering purpose. Benjamin was a baby, and a baby he should remain. At first he declared that if Benjamin didn’t like warm milk he could go without food altogether, but he was finally prevailed upon to allow his son bread and butter, and even oatmeal by way of a compromise. One day he brought home a rattle and, giving it to Benjamin, insisted in no uncertain terms that he should “play with it,” whereupon the old man took it with a weary expression and could be heard jingling it obediently at intervals throughout the day.
There can be no doubt, though, that the rattle bored him, and that he found other and more soothing amusements when he was left alone. For instance, Mr. Button discovered one day that during the preceding week be had smoked more cigars than ever before – a phenomenon, which was explained a few days later when, entering the nursery unexpectedly, he found the room full of faint blue haze and Benjamin, with a guilty expression on his face, trying to conceal the butt of a dark Havana. This, of course, called for a severe spanking, but Mr. Button found that he could not bring himself to administer it. He merely warned his son that he would “stunt his growth.”
Nevertheless he persisted in his attitude. He brought home lead soldiers, he brought toy trains, he brought large pleasant animals made of cotton, and, to perfect the illusion which he was creating–for himself at least–he passionately demanded of the clerk in the toy-store whether “the paint would come off the pink duck if the baby put it in his mouth.” But, despite all his father’s efforts, Benjamin refused to be interested. He would steal down the back stairs and return to the nursery with a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, over which he would pore through an afternoon, while his cotton cows and his Noah’s ark were left neglected on the floor. Against such a stubbornness Mr. Button’s efforts were of little avail.
The sensation created in Baltimore was, at first, prodigious. What the mishap would have cost the Buttons and their kinsfolk socially cannot be determined, for the outbreak of the Civil War drew the city’s attention to other things. A few people who were unfailingly polite wracked  their brains for compliments to give to the parents – and finally hit upon the ingenious device of declaring that the baby resembled his grandfather, a fact which, due to the standard state of decay common to all men of seventy, could not be denied. Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were not pleased, and Benjamin’s grandfather was furiously insulted.
Benjamin, once he left the hospital, took life as he found it. Several small boys were brought to see him, and he spent a stiff-jointed afternoon trying to work up an interest in tops and marbles – he even managed, quite accidentally, to break a kitchen window with a stone from a sling shot, a feat which secretly delighted his father.
Thereafter Benjamin contrived to break something every day, but he did these things only because they were expected of him, and because he was by nature obliging.
When his grandfather’s initial antagonism wore off, Benjamin and that gentleman took enormous pleasure in one another’s company. They would sit for hours, these two, so far apart in age and experience, and, like old cronies, discuss with tireless monotony the slow events of the day. Benjamin felt more at ease in his grandfather’s presence than in his parents’–they seemed always somewhat in awe of him and, despite the dictatorial authority they exercised over him, frequently addressed him as “Mr.”
He was as puzzled as any one else at the apparently advanced age of his mind and body at birth. He read up on it in the medical journal, but found that no such case had been previously recorded. At his father’s urging he made an honest attempt to play with other boys, and frequently he joined in the milder games–football shook him up too much, and he feared that in case of a fracture his ancient bones would refuse to knit.
When he was five he was sent to kindergarten, where he initiated into the art of pasting green paper on orange paper, of weaving colored mats and manufacturing eternal cardboard necklaces. He was inclined to drowse off to sleep in the middle of these tasks, a habit which both irritated and frightened his young teacher. To his relief she complained to his parents, and he was removed from the school. The Roger Buttons told their friends that they felt he was too young.
By the time he was twelve years old his parents had grown used to him. Indeed, so strong is the force of custom that they no longer felt that he was different from any other child–except when some curious anomaly reminded them of the fact. But one day a few weeks after his twelfth birthday, while looking in the mirror, Benjamin made, or thought he made, an astonishing discovery. Did his eyes deceive him, or had his hair turned in the dozen years of his life from white to iron-gray under its concealing dye? Was the network of wrinkles on his face becoming less pronounced? Was his skin healthier and firmer, with even a touch of ruddy winter color? He could not tell. He knew that he no longer stooped, and that his physical condition had improved since the early days of his life.
“Can it be––?” he thought to himself, or, rather, scarcely dared to think.
He went to his father. “I am grown,” he announced determinedly. “I want to put on long trousers.”
His father hesitated. “Well,” he said finally, “I don’t know. Fourteen is the age for putting on long trousers–and you are only twelve.”
“But you’ll have to admit,” protested Benjamin, “that I’m big for my age.”
His father looked at him with illusory speculation. “Oh, I’m not so sure of that,” he said. “I was as big as you when I was twelve.”
This was not true-it was all part of Roger Button’s silent agreement with himself to believe in his son’s normality.
Finally a compromise was reached. Benjamin was to continue to dye his hair. He was to make a better attempt to play with boys of his own age. He was not to wear his spectacles or carry a cane in the street. In return for these concessions he was allowed his first suit of long trousers….

4
Of the life of Benjamin Button between his twelfth and twenty-first year I intend to say little. Suffice to record that they were years of normal ungrowth. When Benjamin was eighteen he was erect as a man of fifty; he had more hair and it was of a dark gray; his step was firm, his voice had lost its cracked quaver and descended to a healthy baritone. So his father sent him up to Connecticut to take examinations for entrance to Yale College. Benjamin passed his examination and became a member of the freshman class.
On the third day following his matriculation he received a notification from Mr. Hart, the college registrar, to call at his office and arrange his schedule. Benjamin, glancing in the mirror, decided that his hair needed a new application of its brown dye, but an anxious inspection of his bureau drawer disclosed that the dye bottle was not there. Then he remembered – he had emptied it the day before and thrown it away.
He was in a dilemma. He was due at the registrar’s in five minutes. There seemed to be no help for it– he must go as he was. He did.
“Good-morning,” said the registrar politely. “You’ve come to inquire about your son.”
“Why, as a matter of fact, my name’s Button –” began Benjamin, but Mr. Hart cut him off.
“I’m very glad to meet you, Mr. Button. I’m expecting your son here any minute.”
“That’s me!” burst out Benjamin. “I’m a freshman.”
“What!”
“I’m a freshman.”
“Surely you’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
The registrar frowned and glanced at a card before him. “Why, I have Mr. Benjamin Button’s age down here as eighteen.”
“That’s my age,” asserted Benjamin, flushing slightly.
The registrar eyed him wearily. “Now surely, Mr. Button, you don’t expect me to believe that.”
Benjamin smiled wearily. “I am eighteen,” he repeated.
The registrar pointed sternly to the door. “Get out,” he said. “Get out of college and get out of town. You are a dangerous lunatic.”
“I am eighteen.”
Mr. Hart opened the door. “The idea!” he shouted. “A man of your age trying to enter here as a freshman. Eighteen years old, are you? Well, I’ll give you eighteen minutes to get out of town.”
Benjamin Button walked with dignity from the room, and half a dozen undergraduates, who were waiting in the hall, followed him curiously with their eyes. When he had gone a little way he turned around, faced the infuriated registrar, who was still standing in the door-way, and repeated in a firm voice: “I am eighteen years old.”
To a chorus of titters which went up from the group of undergraduates, Benjamin walked away.
But he was not fated to escape so easily. On his melancholy walk to the railroad station he found that he was being followed by a group, then by a swarm, and finally by a dense mass of undergraduates. The word had gone around that a lunatic had passed the entrance examinations for Yale and attempted to palm himself off as a youth of eighteen. A fever of excitement permeated the college. Men ran hatless out of classes, the football team abandoned its practice and joined the mob, professors’ wives with bonnets awry and bustles out of position, ran shouting after the procession, from which proceeded a continual succession of remarks aimed at the tender sensibilities of Benjamin Button.
“He must be the wandering Jew!”
“He ought to go to prep school at his age!”
“Look at the infant prodigy!”
“He thought this was the old men’s home.”
“Go up to Harvard!”
Benjamin increased his gait, and soon he was running. He would show them! He would go to Harvard, and then they would regret these ill-considered taunts!
Safely on board the train for Baltimore, he put his head from the window. “You’ll regret this!” he shouted.
“Ha-ha!” the undergraduates laughed. “Ha-ha-ha!” It was the biggest mistake that Yale College had ever made….

5
In 1880 Benjamin Button was twenty years old, and he signalized his birthday by going to work for his father in Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware. It was in that same year that he began “going out socially”–that is, his father insisted on taking him to several fashionable dances. Roger Button was now fifty, and he and his son were more and more companionable – in fact, since Benjamin had ceased to dye his hair (which was still grayish) they appeared about the same age, and could have passed for brothers.
One night in August they got into the phaeton attired in their full-dress suits and drove out to a dance at the Shevlins’ country house, situated just outside of Baltimore. It was a gorgeous evening. A full moon drenched the road to the lusterless color of platinum, and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter. The open country, carpeted for rods around with bright wheat, was translucent as in the day. It was almost impossible not to be affected by the sheer beauty of the sky – almost.
“There’s a great future in the dry-goods business,” Roger Button was saying. He was not a spiritual man – his aesthetic sense was rudimentary.
“Old fellows like me can’t learn new tricks,” he observed profoundly. “It’s you youngsters with energy and vitality that have the great future before you.”
Far up the road the lights of the Shevlins’ country house drifted into view, and presently there was a sighing sound that crept persistently toward them – it might have been the fine plaint of violins or the rustle of the silver wheat under the moon.
They pulled up behind a handsome brougham whose passengers were disembarking at the door. A lady got out, then an elderly gentleman, then another young lady, beautiful as sin. Benjamin started; an almost chemical change seemed to dissolve and recompose the very elements of his body. A rigor passed over him, blood rose into his cheeks, his forehead, and there was a steady thumping in his ears. It was first love.
The girl was slender and frail, with hair that was ashen under the moon and honey-colored under the sputtering gas-lamps of the porch. Over her shoulders was thrown a Spanish mantilla of softest yellow, butterflied in black; her feet were glittering buttons at the hem of her bustled dress.
Roger Button leaned over to his son. “That,” he said, “is young Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of General Moncrief.”
Benjamin nodded coldly. “Pretty little thing,” he said indifferently. But when the Negro boy had led the buggy away, he added: “Dad, you might introduce me to her.”
They approached a group, of which Miss Moncrief was the center. Reared in the old tradition, she curtsied low before Benjamin. Yes, he might have a dance. He thanked her and walked away – staggered away.
The interval until the time for his turn should arrive dragged itself out interminably. He stood close to the wall, silent, inscrutable, watching with murderous eyes the young bloods of Baltimore as they eddied around Hildegarde Moncrief, passionate admiration in their faces. How obnoxious they seemed to Benjamin; how intolerably rosy! Their curling brown whiskers aroused in him a feeling equivalent to indigestion.
But when his own time came, and he drifted with her out upon the changing floor to the music of the latest waltz from Paris, his jealousies and anxieties melted from him like a mantle of snow. Blind with enchantment, he felt that life was just beginning.
“You and your brother got here just as we did, didn’t you?” asked Hildegarde, looking up at him with eyes that were like bright blue enamel.
Benjamin hesitated. If she took him for his father’s brother, would it be best to enlighten her? He remembered his experience at Yale, so he decided against it. It would be rude to contradict a lady; it would be criminal to mar this exquisite occasion with the grotesque story of his origin. Later, perhaps. So he nodded, smiled, listened, was happy.
“I like men of your age,” Hildegarde told him. “Young boys are so idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to appreciate women.”
Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal–with an effort he choked back the impulse. “You’re just the romantic age,” she continued – “fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole cigar to tell; sixty is – oh, sixty is too near seventy; but fifty is the mellow age. I love fifty.”
Fifty seemed to Benjamin a glorious age. He longed passionately to be fifty.
“I’ve always said,” went on Hildegarde, “that I’d rather marry a man of fifty and be taken care of than marry a man of thirty and take care of him.”
For Benjamin the rest of the evening was bathed in a honey-colored mist. Hildegarde gave him two more dances, and they discovered that they were marvelously in accord on all the questions of the day. She was to go driving with him on the following Sunday, and then they would discuss all these questions further.
Going home in the phaeton just before the crack of dawn, when the first bees were humming and the fading moon glimmered in the cool dew, Benjamin knew vaguely that his father was discussing wholesale hardware.
“…. And what do you think should merit our biggest attention after hammers and nails?” the elder Button was saying.
“Love,” replied Benjamin absent-mindedly.
“Lugs?” exclaimed Roger Button, “Why, I’ve just covered the question of lugs.”
Benjamin regarded him with dazed eyes just as the eastern sky was suddenly cracked with light, and an oriole yawned piercingly in the quickening trees…

6
When, six months later, the engagement of Miss Hildegarde Moncrief to Mr. Benjamin Button was made known (I say “made known,” for General Moncrief declared he would rather fall upon his sword than announce it), the excitement in Baltimore society reached a feverish pitch. The almost forgotten story of Benjamin’s birth was remembered and sent out upon the winds of scandal in picaresque and incredible forms. It was said that Benjamin was really the father of Roger Button, that he was his brother who had been in prison for forty years, that he was John Wilkes Booth in disguise – and, finally, that he had two small conical horns sprouting from his head.
The Sunday supplements of the New York papers played up the case with fascinating sketches which showed the head of Benjamin Button attached to a fish, to  a snake, and, finally, to a body of solid brass. He became known, journalistically, as the Mystery Man of Maryland. But the true story, as is usually the case, had a very small circulation.
However, every one agreed with General Moncrief that it was “criminal” for a lovely girl who could have married any beau in Baltimore to throw herself into the arms of a man who was assuredly fifty. In vain Mr. Roger Button published his son’s birth certificate in large type in the Baltimore Blaze. No one believed it. You had only to look at Benjamin and see.
On the part of the two people most concerned there was no wavering. So many of the stories about her fiance were false that Hildegarde refused stubbornly to believe even the true one. In vain General Moncrief pointed out to her the high mortality among men of fifty – or, at least, among men who looked fifty; in vain he told her of the instability of the wholesale hardware business. Hildegarde had chosen to marry for mellowness, and marry she did….

7
In one particular, at least, the friends of Hildegarde Moncrief were mistaken. The wholesale hardware business prospered amazingly. In the fifteen years between Benjamin Button’s marriage in 1880 and his father’s retirement in 1895, the family fortune was doubled – and this was due largely to the younger member of the firm.
Needless to say, Baltimore eventually received the couple to its bosom. Even old General Moncrief became reconciled to his son-in-law when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers.
In Benjamin himself fifteen years had wrought many changes. It seemed to him that the blood flowed with new vigor through his veins. It began to be a pleasure to rise in the morning, to walk with an active step along the busy, sunny street, to work untiringly with his shipments of hammers and his cargoes of nails. It was in 1890 that he executed his famous business coup: he brought up the suggestion that all nails used in nailing up the boxes in which nails are shipped are the property of the shippee, a proposal which became a statute, was approved by Chief Justice Fossile, and saved Roger Button and Company, Wholesale Hardware, more than six hundred nails every year.
In addition, Benjamin discovered that he was becoming more and more attracted by the gay side of life. It was typical of his growing enthusiasm for pleasure that he was the first man in the city of Baltimore to own and run an automobile. Meeting him on the street, his contemporaries would stare enviously at the picture he made of health and vitality.
“He seems to grow younger every year,” they would remark. And if old Roger Button, now sixty-five years old, had failed at first to give a proper welcome to his son he atoned at last by bestowing on him what amounted to adulation.
And here we come to an unpleasant subject which it will be well to pass over as quickly as possible. There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.
At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son, Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-colored hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery – moreover, and, most of all, she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it been she who had “dragged” Benjamin to dances and dinners – now conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.
Benjamin’s discontent waxed stronger. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 his home had for him so little charm that he decided to join the army. With his business influence he obtained a commission as captain, and proved so adaptable to the work that he was made a major, and finally a lieutenant-colonel just in time to participate in the celebrated charge up San Juan Hill. He was slightly wounded, and received a medal.
Benjamin had become so attached to the activity and excitement of army life that he regretted to give it up, but his business required attention, so he resigned his commission and came home. He was met at the station by a brass band and escorted to his house.

8
Hildegarde, waving a large silk flag, greeted him on the porch, and even as he kissed her he felt with a sinking of the heart that these three years had taken their toll. She was a woman of forty now, with a faint skirmish line of gray hairs in her head. The sight depressed him.
Up in his room he saw his reflection in the familiar mirror – he went closer and examined his own face with anxiety, comparing it after a moment with a photograph of himself in uniform taken just before the war.
“Good Lord!” he said aloud. The process was continuing. There was no doubt of it – he looked now like a man of thirty. Instead of being delighted, he was uneasy – he was growing younger. He had hitherto hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease to function. He shuddered. His destiny seemed to him awful, incredible.
When he came downstairs Hildegarde was waiting for him. She appeared annoyed, and he wondered if she had at last discovered that there was something amiss. It was with an effort to relieve the tension between them that he broached the matter at dinner in what he considered a delicate way.
“Well,” he remarked lightly, “everybody says I look younger than ever.”
Hildegarde regarded him with scorn. She sniffed. “Do you think it’s anything to boast about?”
“I’m not boasting,” he asserted uncomfortably. She sniffed again. “The idea,” she said, and after a moment: “I should think you’d have enough pride to stop it.”
“How can I?” he demanded.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” she retorted. “But there’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate.”
“But, Hildegarde, I can’t help it.”
“You can too. You’re simply stubborn. You think you don’t want to be like any one else. You always have been that way, and you always will be. But just think how it would be if every one else looked at things as you do – what would the world be like?”
As this was an inane and unanswerable argument Benjamin made no reply, and from that time on a chasm began to widen between them. He wondered what possible fascination she had ever exercised over him.
To add to the breach, he found, as the new century gathered headway, that his thirst for gaiety grew stronger. Never a party of any kind in the city of Baltimore but he was there, dancing with the prettiest of the young married women, chatting with the most popular of the debutantes, and finding their company charming, while his wife, a dowager of evil omen, sat among the chaperons, now in haughty disapproval, and now following him with solemn, puzzled, and reproachful eyes.
“Look!” people would remark. “What a pity! A young fellow that age tied to a woman of forty-five. He must be twenty years younger than his wife.” They had forgotten–as people inevitably forget–that back in 1880 their mammas and papas had also remarked about this same ill-matched pair.
Benjamin’s growing unhappiness at home was compensated for by his many new interests. He took up golf and made a great success of it. He went in for dancing: in 1906 he was an expert at “The Boston,” and in 1908 he was considered proficient at the “Maxine,” while in 1909 his “Castle Walk” was the envy of every young man in town.
His social activities, of course, interfered to some extent with his business, but then he had worked hard at wholesale hardware for twenty-five years and felt that he could soon hand it on to his son, Roscoe, who had recently graduated from Harvard.
He and his son were, in fact, often mistaken for each other. This pleased Benjamin–he soon forgot the insidious fear which had come over him on his return from the Spanish-American War, and grew to take a naive pleasure in his appearance. There was only one fly in the delicious ointment – he hated to appear in public with his wife. Hildegarde was almost fifty, and the sight of her made him feel absurd….

9
One September day in 1910 – a few years after Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, had been handed over to young Roscoe Button – a man, apparently about twenty years old, entered himself as a freshman at Harvard University in Cambridge. He did not make the mistake of announcing that he would never see fifty again, nor did he mention the fact that his son had been graduated from the same institution ten years before.
He was admitted, and almost immediately attained a prominent position in the class, partly because he seemed a little older than the other freshmen, whose average age was about eighteen.
But his success was largely due to the fact that in the football game with Yale he played so brilliantly, with so much dash and with such a cold, remorseless anger  that he scored seven touchdowns and fourteen field goals for Harvard, and caused one entire eleven of Yale men to be carried singly from the field, unconscious. He was the most celebrated man in college.
Strange to say, in his third or junior year he was scarcely able to “make” the team. The coaches said that he had lost weight, and it seemed to the more observant among them that he was not quite as tall as before. He made no touchdowns – indeed, he was retained on the team chiefly in hope that his enormous reputation would bring terror and disorganization to the Yale team.
In his senior year he did not make the team at all. He had grown so slight and frail that one day he was taken by some sophomores for a freshman, an incident which humiliated him terribly. He became known as something of a prodigy – a senior who was surely no more than sixteen – and he was often shocked at the worldliness of some of his classmates. His studies seemed harder to him–he felt that they were too advanced. He had heard his classmates speak of St. Midas’s, the famous preparatory school, at which so many of them had prepared for college, and he determined after his graduation to enter himself at St. Midas’s, where the sheltered life among boys his own size would be more congenial to him.
Upon his graduation in 1914 he went home to Baltimore with his Harvard diploma in his pocket. Hildegarde was now residing in Italy, so Benjamin went to live with his son, Roscoe. But though he was welcomed in a general way there was obviously no heartiness in Roscoe’s feeling toward him–there was even perceptible a tendency on his son’s part to think that Benjamin, as he moped about the house in adolescent moodiness, was somewhat in the way. Roscoe was married now and prominent in Baltimore life, and he wanted no scandal to creep out in connection with his family.
Benjamin, no longer persona grata with the debutantes and younger college set, found himself left much alone, except for the companionship of three or four fifteen-year-old boys in the neighborhood. His idea of going to St. Midas’s school recurred to him.
“Say,” he said to Roscoe one day, “I’ve told you over and over that I want to go to prep, school.”
“Well, go, then,” replied Roscoe shortly. The matter was distasteful to him, and he wished to avoid a discussion.
“I can’t go alone,” said Benjamin helplessly. “You’ll have to enter me and take me up there.”
“I haven’t got time,” declared Roscoe abruptly. His eyes narrowed and he looked uneasily at his father. “As a matter of fact,” he added, “you’d better not go on with this business much longer. You better pull up short. You better – you better” – he paused and his face crimsoned as he sought for words–”you better turn right around and start back the other way. This has gone too far to be a joke. It isn’t funny any longer. You– you behave yourself!”
Benjamin looked at him, on the verge of tears.
“And another thing,” continued Roscoe, “when visitors are in the house I want you to call me ‘Uncle’ – not ‘Roscoe,’ but ‘Uncle,’ do you understand? It looks absurd for a boy of fifteen to call me by my first name. Perhaps you’d better call me ‘Uncle’ all the time, so you’ll get used to it.”
With a harsh look at his father, Roscoe turned away….

10
At the termination of this interview, Benjamin wandered dismally upstairs and stared at himself in the mirror. He had not shaved for three months, but he could find nothing on his face but a faint white down with which it seemed unnecessary to meddle. When he had first come home from Harvard, Roscoe had approached him with the proposition that he should wear eye-glasses and imitation whiskers glued to his cheeks, and it had seemed for a moment that the farce of his early years was to be repeated. But whiskers had itched and made him ashamed. He wept and Roscoe had reluctantly relented.
Benjamin opened a book of boys’ stories, The Boy Scouts in Bimini Bay, and began to read. But he found himself thinking persistently about the war. America had joined the Allied cause during the preceding month, and Benjamin wanted to enlist, but, alas, sixteen was the minimum age, and he did not look that old. His true age, which was fifty-seven, would have disqualified him, anyway.
There was a knock at his door, and the butler appeared with a letter bearing a large official legend in the corner and addressed to Mr. Benjamin Button. Benjamin tore it open eagerly, and read the enclosure with delight. It informed him that many reserve officers who had served in the Spanish-American War were being called back into service with a higher rank, and it enclosed his commission as brigadier-general in the United States army with orders to report immediately.
Benjamin jumped to his feet fairly quivering with enthusiasm. This was what he had wanted. He seized his cap, and ten minutes later he had entered a large tailoring establishment on Charles Street, and asked in his uncertain treble to be measured for a uniform.
“Want to play soldier, sonny?” demanded a clerk casually.
Benjamin flushed. “Say! Never mind what I want!” he retorted angrily. “My name’s Button and I live on Mt. Vernon Place, so you know I’m good for it.”
“Well,” admitted the clerk hesitantly, “if you’re not, I guess your daddy is, all right.”
Benjamin was measured, and a week later his uniform was completed. He had difficulty in obtaining the proper general’s insignia because the dealer kept insisting to Benjamin that a nice V.W.C.A. badge would look just as well and be much more fun to play with.
Saying nothing to Roscoe, he left the house one night and proceeded by train to Camp Mosby, in South Carolina, where he was to command an infantry brigade. On a sultry April day he approached the entrance to the camp, paid off the taxicab which had brought him from the station, and turned to the sentry on guard.
“Get some one to handle my luggage!” he said briskly.
The sentry eyed him reproachfully. “Say,” he remarked, “where you goin’ with the general’s duds, sonny?”
Benjamin, veteran of the Spanish-American War, whirled upon him with fire in his eye, but with, alas, a changing treble voice.
“Come to attention!” he tried to thunder; he paused for breath – then suddenly he saw the sentry snap his heels together and bring his rifle to the present. Benjamin concealed a smile of gratification, but when he glanced around his smile faded. It was not he who had inspired obedience, but an imposing artillery colonel who was approaching on horseback.
“Colonel!” called Benjamin shrilly.
The colonel came up, drew rein, and looked coolly down at him with a twinkle in his eyes. “Whose little boy are you?” he demanded kindly.
“I’ll soon darn well show you whose little boy I am!” retorted Benjamin in a ferocious voice. “Get down off that horse!”
The colonel roared with laughter.
“You want him, eh, general?”
“Here!” cried Benjamin desperately. “Read this.” And he thrust his commission toward the colonel. The colonel read it, his eyes popping from their sockets. “Where’d you get this?” he demanded, slipping the document into his own pocket. “I got it from the Government, as you’ll soon find out!” “You come along with me,” said the colonel with a peculiar look. “We’ll go up to headquarters and talk this over. Come along.” The colonel turned and began walking his horse in the direction of headquarters. There was nothing for Benjamin to do but follow with as much dignity as possible – meanwhile promising himself a stern revenge. But this revenge did not materialize. Two days later, however, his son Roscoe materialized from Baltimore, hot and cross from a hasty trip, and escorted the weeping general, sans uniform, back to his home.

11
In 1920 Roscoe Button’s first child was born. During the attendant festivities, however, no one thought it “the thing” to mention, that the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the new baby’s own grandfather.
No one disliked the little boy whose fresh, cheerful face was crossed with just a hint of sadness, but to Roscoe Button his presence was a source of torment. In the idiom of his generation Roscoe did not consider the matter “efficient.” It seemed to him that his father, in refusing to look sixty, had not behaved like a “red-blooded he-man” – this was Roscoe’s favorite expression – but in a curious and perverse manner. Indeed, to think about the matter for as much as a half an hour drove him to the edge of insanity. Roscoe believed that “live wires” should keep young, but carrying it out on such a scale was – was – was inefficient. And there Roscoe rested.
Five years later Roscoe’s little boy had grown old enough to play childish games with little Benjamin under the supervision of the same nurse. Roscoe took them both to kindergarten on the same day, and Benjamin found that playing with little strips of colored paper, making mats and chains and curious and beautiful designs, was the most fascinating game in the world. Once he was bad and had to stand in the corner – then he cried – but for the most part there were gay hours in the cheerful room, with the sunlight coming in the windows and Miss Bailey’s kind hand resting for a moment now and then in his tousled hair.
Roscoe’s son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realized that those were things in which he was never to share.
The days flowed on in monotonous content. He went back a third year to the kindergarten, but he was too little now to understand what the bright shining strips of paper were for. He cried because the other boys were bigger than he, and he was afraid of them. The teacher talked to him, but though he tried to understand he could not understand at all.
He was taken from the kindergarten. His nurse, Nana, in her starched gingham dress, became the center of his tiny world. On bright days they walked in the park; Nana would point at a great gray monster and say “elephant,” and Benjamin would say it after her, and when he was being undressed for bed that night he would say it over and over aloud to her: “Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant.” Sometimes Nana let him jump on the bed, which was fun, because if you sat down exactly right it would bounce you up on your feet again, and if you said “Ah” for a long time while you jumped you got a very pleasing broken vocal effect.
He loved to take a big cane from the hat-rack and go around hitting chairs and tables with it and saying: “Fight, fight, fight.” When there were people there the old ladies would cluck at him, which interested him, and the young ladies would try to kiss him, which he submitted to with mild boredom. And when the long day was done at five o’clock he would go upstairs with Nana and be fed on oatmeal and nice soft mushy foods with a spoon.
There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes, and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his twilight bed hour and called “sun.” When the sun went his eyes were sleepy – there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.
The past – the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather – all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been. He did not remember.
He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed – there was only his crib and Nana’s familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried – that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.
Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.

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Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through the large window that opened onto the house’s little hanging garden, the pure, fresh morning air made the pretty little room cheerful. An almond branch, which seemed to be all a-blossom with butterflies, projected toward the window; and, mingled with the hoarse, muffled gurgle of the small basin in the center of the garden, was heard the festive, peal of faraway church-bells and the chirping of the swallows intoxicated with the air and the sun-shine.

As she stepped away from the window, sighing, Anna noticed that her husband that morning had forgotten to rumple his bed as he used to do each time, so that the servants couldn’t tell that he hadn’t slept in his room. She rested her elbows on the untouched bed, then stretched out on it with her whole torso. bending her pretty blonde head over the pillows and half-closing her eyes, as if to savor, in the freshness of the linens, the slumbers he was accustomed to enjoy there. A flock of swallows flashed headlong past the window shrieking.

“You would have done better to sleep here….,” she murmured languidly after a moment, and got up wearily. Her husband was to set out that very evening, and Anna had come into his room to prepare for him the things he needed for the trip.

As she opened the wardrobe, she heard what seemed to  be a squeak in the inner drawer and quickly, drew back, startled. From a corner of the room she picked up a walking stick with a curved handle and, holding her dress tight against her legs, took the stick by the tip and, standing that way at a distance, tried to open the drawer with it. But as she pulled,  instead of the drawer coming out, an insidious gleaming blade emerged smoothly from inside the stick. Anna, who hadn’t expected this, felt an extreme repulsion and let the scabbard of the sword stick drop from her hand. At that moment, a second squeak made her turn abruptly toward the window, uncertain whether the first one as well had come from some rapidly passing swallow.

With one foot she pushed aside the unsheathed weapon and pulled out, between the two open doors of the wardrobe, the drawer full of her husband’s old suits that he no longer wore. Out of sudden curiosity she began to rummage around in it and, as she was putting back a worn-out, faded jacket, she happened to feel, in the hem
under the lining, a sort of small paper, which had slipped down there through the torn bottom of the breast pocket; she wanted to see what that paper was which had gone astray and been forgotten there who knows how many years ago; and so by accident Anna discovered the portrait of her husband’s first wife.

At first she had a start and turned pale; she quickly ran her hand, which was shaken by a shudder, through her hair, and, with her vision blurred and her heart stopped, she ran to the window, where she remained in astonishment, gazing at the unfamiliar image almost with a feeling of panic.

The bulky hair style and the old-fashioned dress kept her from noticing at first the beauty of that face; but as soon as she was able to concentrate on the features, separating them from the attire, which now, after so many years, looked ludicrous, and to pay special attention to the eyes, she felt wounded by them and, together with her blood a flush of hatred leaped from her heart to her brain; a hatred as if caused by posthumous jealousy; that hatred mingled with contempt which she had felt for that other woman when she fell in love with Vittore Brivio, eleven years after the marital tragedy that had at one blow destroyed his first household.

Anna had hated that woman, unable to comprehend how she had been capable of betraying the man whom she now worshiped, and in the second place, because her family had objected to her marriage with Brivio, as if he had been responsible for the disgrace and violent death of his unfaithful wife. – It was she, yes, it was she beyond a doubt! Vittore’s first wife: the one who had killed herself!

She found the proof in the dedication written on the back of the portrait: “‘To my Vittore, his Almira – November 11, 1873.” Anna had very vague information about the dead woman: she knew only that Vittore, when the betrayal was discovered, had, with the impassivity of a judge, ordered her to take her own life.

Now with satisfaction she recalled that terrible sentence issued by her husband, and was irritated  by that “my” and “his” of the dedication, as if the other woman had wished to flaunt the closeness of the mutual ties that had bound her and Vittore, solely to spite her.

That first flare-up of hatred, ignited, like a will-o’-the-wisp by a rivalry which by now existed only for her, was succeeded in Anna’s mind by feminine curiosity: she desired to examine the features of that face, although she was partially restrained by the odd sorrow one feels at the sight of an object that belonged to a person who died tragically – a sorrow that was sharper now, but not unfamiliar to her, because it permeated her love for her husband, who had formerly belonged to that other woman.

Examining her face, Anna immediately noticed how entirely dissimilar it was to hers, and at the same time there arose in her heart the question of how the husband who had loved that woman, that girl, whom he must have found beautiful, could ever have later fallen in love with her, who was so different.

It seemed beautiful; even to her it seemed much more beautiful than  hers – that face which from the portrait looked swarthy. There !  – those lips had joined in a kiss with his lips; but now that sorrowful crease at the corners of the mouth? And why was the gaze in those intense eyes so sad? The entire face spoke of deep suffering; and Anna was moved and almost vexed by the humble and genuine kindness expressed by those features, and after that she felt a twinge of repulsion and disgust, when all at once she believed she had observed in the gaze of those eyes the same expression her own eyes had, whenever, thinking of her husband, she looked at herself in the mirror, in the mornings, after arranging her hair.

She had barely enough time to thrust the portrait into her pocket: her husband appeared, fuming, on the threshold to the room.  “What have you been doing? The usual thing? Every time you come into this room to straighten up, you rearrange everything. . . “

Then, seeing the unsheathed sword stick on the floor: “Have you been fencing with the suits in the wardrobe?”

And he laughed that laugh of his which came only from the throat, as if someone had tickled him there; and, laughing in that fashion, he looked at his wife, as if asking her why he himself was laughing. As he looked, his eyelids constantly blinked with extreme rapidity against his sharp, black, restless little eyes.

Vittore Brivio treated his wife like a child capable of nothing but that ingenuous, exclusive and almost childish love with which he felt himself surrounded, frequently to his annoyance, and to which he had determined to pay attention only on due occasion, and even at those times displaying an indulgence partially mixed with light irony, as if he meant to say: “All right, have it your way! For a while I too will become a child along with you: this, too, must be done, but let’s not waste too much time!”

Anna had let the old jacket in which she had found the portrait drop to her feet. He picked it up, piercing it with the point of the sword stick; then, through the garden window he called the young servant who also doubled as a coachman and was at that moment harnessing the horse to the cabriolet. As soon as the boy showed up, in his shirt sleeves, in the garden in font of the window, Brivio rudely threw the dangling jacket in his face, accompanying the handout with a: “Take it, it’s yours.”

“This way, you’ll have less to brush,” he added, turning toward his wife, “and to straighten up, I hope!”  And again, blinking, he uttered that stentorian laugh of his.

On other occasions her husband had traveled out of the city, and not merely for a few days, also leaving at night like this time; but Anna, still extremely shaken by the discovery of the portrait on that very day, felt a strange fear of being left alone and wept when she said goodbye to him.

Vittore Brivio, in a great rush of fear of being late and evidently preoccupied with his business, reacted ill-manneredly to those uncustomary tears of his wife.

“What!  Why? Come on now, come on now, that’s so childish!” And he left in hot haste, without even saying goodbye.

Anna jumped at the sound of the door that he closed behind him with force; she remained in the little room with the lamp in her hand and felt her tears growing cold in her eyes. Then she roused herself and hurriedly withdrew to her room, intending to go to bed at once.

In the room, which was already prepared, the little night light was burning. “Go to bed,” Anna said to the maid who was waiting for her. “I’ll take care of things myself. Good night.” She extinguished the lamp, but instead of putting it on the shelf, as she usually did, she put it on the night table, with the feeling – actually against her will – that she might need it later. She started to undress hastily, gazing fixedly at the floor in front of her. When her dress fell around her feet, it occurred to her that the portrait was there, and with acute vexation she felt herself being looked at and pitied by those sorrowful eyes, which had made such an impression on her. With determination she stooped down to pick up the dress from the carpet and, without folding it, she placed it on the armchair at the foot of the bed, as if the pocket that hid the portrait and the tangle of the fabric should and could prevent her from reconstructing the image of that dead woman.

As soon as she lay down, she closed her eyes and forced herself to follow her husband mentally along the road leading to the railroad station. She forced this upon herself as a spiteful rebellion against the feeling that had kept her alert all day long, observing and studying her husband. She knew where that feeling had come from and she wanted to get rid of it.

In this effort of her will, which caused her an acute nervous agitation, she pictured to herself with an extraordinary second sight the long road, deserted at night, illuminated by the street lamps projecting their wavering light onto the pavement, which seemed to palpitate because of  it; at the foot of every lamp, a circle of shadow; the shops, all closed; and there was the carriage in which Vittore was riding: as if she had been lying in wait for it, she started following it all the way to the station: she saw the gloomy train beneath the glass shed; a great many people milling about in that vast, smoky, poorly lit, mournfully echoing interior: now the train was pulling out; and, as if she were really watching it move away and disappear into the darkness, she suddenly came back to herself, opened her eyes in the silent room and felt an anguished feeling of emptiness, as if something were missing inside her. She then felt confusedly, in a flash, becoming bewildered, that for three years perhaps, from the moment in which she had left her parents’ home, she had been in that void of which she was only now becoming conscious. She  had been unaware of it before, because she had filled that void with herself alone, with her love; she was becoming aware of it now, because all day long she had, as it were, suspended her love in order to look and to observe.

“He didn’t even say goodbye to me,” she thought; and she started to cry again, as if that thought were the definite reason for her tears.

She sat up in bed: but she suddenly held back the hand she had stretched out, while sitting up, to get her handkerchief from her dress. No, it was no longer any use to forbid herself to take another look at that portrait, to reexamine it! She took it. She put the light back on.

How differently she had pictured that woman Now, contemplating her real likeness, she felt remorse for the feelings that the imaginary woman had aroused in her. She had pictured a woman rather fat and ruddy, with flashing, smiling eyes, always ready to laugh, enjoying common amusements . . . And instead, now, there she was: a young woman whose clean-cut features expressed a profound, sorrowful soul; whose eyes expressed a sort of all-absorbing silence; yes, different from herself, but not in that earlier vulgar sense: just the opposite; no, that mouth looked as if it had never smiled, whereas her own had laughed so often and so gaily; and surely, if that face was swarthy (as it seemed to be from the portrait), it had a less smiling air than her own blonde and rosy face. Why, why so sad?

A hateful thought flashed across her mind, and all at once with violent repulsion she tore her eyes away from that woman’s picture, suddenly discovering in it a snare threatening not only to her peace of mind, to her love, which, as it was, had received more than one wound that day, but also to her proud dignity as an honest woman who had never allowed herself even the remotest thought hostile to her husband.

That woman had had a lover And perhaps it was because of him she was so sad, because of that adulterous love, and not because of her husband!

She tossed the portrait onto the bedside table and put out the light again, hoping to fall asleep this time without thinking any more about that woman, with whom she could have nothing in common. But, closing her eyes, she suddenly saw, in spite of herself, the dead woman’s eyes, and sought in vain to dispel that sight. “Not because of him, not because of him!” she then murmured with frenzied persistence, as if by insulting her she hoped to be rid of her.

And she made an effort to recall everything she knew about that other man, the lover, as if compelling the gaze and the sadness of those eyes to look no longer at her but at the former lover, whom she knew only by name: Arturo Valli. She knew that he had married a few years later as if to prove his innocence of the blame that Vittore wanted to ascribe to him, that he had vigorously declined Vittore’s challenge to a duel, protesting that he would never fight with a mad killer. After this refusal, Vittore had threatened to kill him wherever he came across him, even in church; and then he had left the town with his wife, returning later as soon as Vittore, remarried, had departed.

But from the sadness of those events which she now brought back to mind, from Valli’s cowardice and, after so many years, from the way the first wife had been completely consigned to oblivion by her husband, who had been able to resume his life and remarry as if nothing had happened, from the joy that she herself had felt upon becoming Vittore’s wife, from those three years she had spent together with him with never a thought about that other woman, unexpectedly a cause of pity for her spontaneously forced itself upon Anna; she saw her image again vividly and it seemed to her that with those eyes, intense from so much suffering, that woman was saying to her:
“But I’m the only one that died as a result! All of you are still living!”

She saw, she felt, that she was alone in the house: she got frightened. Yes, she was living; but for three years, since her wedding day, she hadn’t seen her parents or sister, not even once. She who adored them, a dutiful daughter, a trusting sister, had had the courage to oppose their wishes out of love for her husband; for his sake, when he was rejected by his own family, she had fallen seriously ill, and would no doubt have died if the doctors hadn’t induced her father to accede to her desire. And her father had yielded, but without giving his consent; in fact, he swore that after that wedding she would no longer exist for him or for that household. Besides the difference in age, the husband being eighteen years older than the wife, a more serious obstacle for the father had been Brivio’s financial position, which was subject to rapid ups and downs because of the risky undertakings on which this most enterprising and extraordinarily active man was accustomed to embark with foolhardy confidence in himself and his luck.

In three years of marriage Anna, surrounded by comforts, had been able to consider as unjust, or dictated by hostile prejudice, her father’s prudent misgivings as to the financial means of her husband, in whom, moreover, in her ignorance, she placed as much confidence as he had in himself; then, as for the difference in their ages, up to then there had been no manifest cause of disappointment for her or surprise for others, because Brivio’s advanced years produced in him not the slightest impairment to his small, highly animated and robust body and even less to his mind, which was endowed with tireless energy and restless eagerness.

It was something totally different that Anna, now for the first time, looking into her life (without even realizing it) with the eyes of that dead woman depicted there in the portrait on the bedside table, found to complain of in her husband. Yes, it was true: she had felt hurt at other times by his almost disdainful indifference; but never so much as on that day; and now for the first time she felt so frighteningly alone, separated from her family, who at that moment seemed to her to have abandoned her there, as if, upon marrying Brivio, she already had something in common with that dead woman and was no longer worthy of anyone else’s company. And her husband, who ought to have consoled her, it seemed that even her husband was unwilling to give her any credit for the sacrifice of her daughterly and sisterly love that she had offered him, just as if it had cost her nothing, as if he had had a right to that sacrifice and therefore had no obligation to make it up to her.  Yes, he had a right, but it was because she had fallen so totally in love with him at that time; therefore he now had an obligation to repay her. And instead . . .

“It’s always been like that!” Anna thought she heard the sorrowful lips of the dead woman sigh to her. She lit the lamp again and once more, contemplating the picture, she was struck by the expression of those eyes. So then, it was true, she too had suffered on his account? She too, realizing she wasn’t loved, had felt that frightening emptiness?

“Yes? Yes?” Anna, choking with tears, asked the picture. And it then seemed to her that those kindly eyes, intense with passion and heartbreak, were pitying her in their turn, were condoling with her over that abandonment, that unrequited sacrifice, that love which remained locked up in her breast like a treasure in a casket to which he had the keys but would never use them, like a miser.

 

 

 

Translation Stanley Applebaum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I first read Luigi Pirandello’s “With Other Eyes”, my thoughts flew immediately to Horacio Quiroga’s “The Feather Pillow”. The parallels are undeniable – a naive and inexperienced young woman is shut in a trap of marital disquiet with an unsympathetic older man. Having unwitting swallowed the poison pill of matrimony, both women find themselves isolated in echoingly large houses, far away from family and friends, with no apparent means of escape, and only their maids for company.

Quiroga proceeds to develop a gothic tale, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, in which a blood-sucking insect becomes the means and symbol whereby the life and life-blood of the young woman is gradually and fatally drained away. The young woman never realises the cause of her debilitating disease. Quiroga leads his readers to the inevitable conclusion that it is the marriage itself which is the life-destroying  ‘insect.’ We are allowed into the secret from which the protagonists are excluded, but he does not permit us access to their inner awareness – or rather the absence of such an awareness.

Pirandello is much more nuanced and more subtle. From the very outset we are privy to Anna’s thoughts, and to the process of the rapidly growing realisation of her predicament. Pirandello delves into, and allows us to eavesdrop so that we hear, the actual unfolding of Anna’s internal conversation and her insights and feelings, rather than make us rely on a plot-driven narrative, as does Quiroga.

By a mere accident, Anna finds a photograph of  her husband Vittore’s first wife, and literally overnight, she becomes chillingly conscious of her situation and indeed her fate. She has spent the entire three years of her marriage placidly drifting downstream, never looking below the surface of the water, content that her little boat afforded her a reasonable view of the embankments, and perhaps an occasional glimpse of the sky. She has passed through the pools of light and shadow, trailing her hand in the water, never noticing its murkiness or wondering about what lay, or lurked, beneath the surface.

It is reasonable to suppose that Anna married Vittore for love and security, and in this she resembles most of the women of her era. Most had reason to believe that their marriages stood on a firm and enduring foundation. These marriages were meant to last a lifetime, which is why Vittore compelled his first wife to end her life as a means of ending his marriage to her. So what can we suppose will unfold in Anna’s future?

When a crack in the underground appears, hitherto concealed and long repressed forces break through, and can no longer be denied. The outcome for Anna was earthshaking.

The little jolt of Vittore’s abrupt departure on a business trip becomes a persistent tremour when it is compounded by the accidental discovery of the photograph, with the result that a dangerous and irremediable rift tears open the foundation of Anna’s life.  She had permitted herself to be seduced by the superficial appearance of stability, the fiction of solid ground, the seemingly placid surface beneath which nature conceals her shifty proclivities.

Could it have been that until that very moment, in all of those three years, there had been no evidence, no hint, no suggestion even of a shaky foundation?  It must have been that the awareness of something was so deeply buried under such a profound and impermeable stratum of ignorance  – or denial – that no expression of it was permitted to rise to the surface.

Pirandello does not tell us directly, or in any great detail, what Anna saw when she stared into the fissure: but he doesn’t have to. She is marooned in a desolate wasteland. She has no family, and no children, and there is the strong suggestion that she will have none. Pirandello has deftly added a hovering cloud of ruin in the future, due to Vittore’s habit of reckless financial speculation. Anna may have had three years of relatively untroubled slumber, but now she is awake. She is trapped, isolated in a loveless marriage, in which the gradual decay of any previous happiness is inevitable, and death the most  probable means of escape.

In other stories with which we are familiar, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca come to mind, first wives are represented as sinister and dangerous artifacts of the past, whose resurgence into the present signals the incipience of a severe threat, or even the possible destruction of the second marriage. The sub-text, however, suggests that they represent hidden parts of the second wives’ psyches. I find myself concluding that this theory also finds its application in Pirandello’s story.

Anna’s happiness thus far has been procured at the cost of a deadened awareness, as forgotten and concealed as an old photograph in the pocket of an old suit belonging to someone else. From its place of concealment between the suit and lining, it has now emerged into the light of a lovely spring day.  She has been unconscious, but now the protection offered by that unconscious state has been stripped away. Now her only ally, the only one who shares her understanding of her predicament, is a face in an old photograph. It bears a mute witness to her newly dawning realisation that all is not as it had seemed. Two women, one dead and one who risks a living death, are each other’s only allies.  They share the knowledge of their deception by a ruthless man, a brute, a vulgar little bounder with eyes like a rodent’s, whose humanity is as vestigial as a human tail.

I had supposed when I first read this story, that Quiroga’s version was the darker, and Pirandello’s the softer and kinder, but now I am not so sure. I must suppose that Pirandello’s Anna is made of sterner stuff than either his Almira, or Quiroga’s Alicia (“rubia, angelical y tímida”), and that she is better equipped to resist than the other two.  Quiroga’s provision determined that Alicia’s suffering was to be of a relatively brief duration, and death provided her an expeditious and permanent end to it.

The only basis for any trace of optimism in a speculation of how her future might turn out, is that Anna, unlike the others, was awakened from her sleep. She has been warned by Almira, that taking a lover will not be a good option. She must constrain her emotional needs, and devise a way to negotiate the odium of all the empty years that lie ahead of her, however blighted they might be. She will have to mature, to grow wise, to rely on her own strengths, even though her only weapon appears to be one of negation, that is, to refuse to allow her heart and mind to be corrupted. I hope that she will succeed, because, I think, she must. It is imperative that she be able to find a way in which she will not merely endure, but survive a loveless life, and to go on living in spite of its horror.

There is an art, I believe, of finding a measure of freedom even within the confines a prison, and so the gaoler’s more advanced age must be allowed to count in Anna’s favour.

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Virginia Woolf (January 25 1882 – 28 March 1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Eliot was the pseudonym of novelist, translator, and religious writer Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). This article by Virginia Woolf was first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 20th November, 1919.

To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her. It is also to become aware of the credulity, not very creditable to one’s insight, with which, half consciously and partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself. At what moment and by what means her spell was broken it is difficult to ascertain. Some people attribute it to the publication of her Life. Perhaps George Meredith, with his phrase about the ‘mercurial little showman’ and the ‘errant woman’ on the dais, gave point and poison to the arrows of thousands incapable of aiming them so accurately, but delighted to let fly. She became one of the butts for youth to laugh at, the convenient symbol of a group of serious people who were all guilty of the same idolatry and could be dismissed with the same scorn. Lord Acton had said that she was greater than Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted her novels, as if they were not novels, when he banned all fiction from the London library. She was the pride and paragon of all her sex. Moreover, her private record was not more alluring than her public. Asked to describe an afternoon at the Priory, the story-teller always intimated that the memory of those serious Sunday afternoons had come to tickle his sense of humour. He had been so much alarmed by the grave lady in her low chair; he had been so anxious to say the intelligent thing. Certainly, the talk had been very serious, as a note in the fine clear hand of the novelist bore witness. It was dated on the Monday morning, and she accused herself of having spoken with due forethought of Marivaux when she meant another; but not doubt, she said, her listener had already supplied the correction. Still, the memory of talking about Marivaux to George Eliot on a Sunday afternoon was not a romantic memory. It had faded with the passage of years. It had not become picturesque.

Indeed, one cannot escape the conviction that the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power has stamped itself depressingly upon the minds of people who remember George Eliot, so that it looks out upon them from her pages. Mr. Gosse has lately described her as he saw her driving through London in a victoria:

A large, thick-set sybil, dreamy and immobile, whose massive features, somewhat grim when seen in profile, were incongruously bordered by a hat, always in the height of Paris fashion, which in those days commonly included an immense ostrich feather.

Lady Ritchie, with equal skill, has left a more intimate indoor portrait:

She sat by the fire in a beautiful black satin gown, with a green shaded lamp on the table beside her, where I saw German books lying and pamphlets and ivory paper-cutters. She was very quiet and noble, with two steady little eyes and a sweet voice. As I looked I felt her to be a friend, not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse.

A scrap of her talk is preserved. ‘We ought to respect our influence,’ she said. ‘We know by our own experience how very much others affect our lives, and we must remember that we in turn must have the same effect on others.’ Jealously treasured, committed to memory, one can imagine recalling the scene, repeating the words, thirty years later, and suddenly, for the first time, bursting into laughter.

In all these records one feels that the recorder, even when he was in the actual presence, kept his distance and kept his head, and never read the novels in later years with the light of a vivid, or puzzling, or beautiful personality dazzling his eyes. In fiction, where so much of personality is revealed, the absence of charm is a great lack; and her critics, who have been, of course, mostly of the opposite sex, have resented, half consciously perhaps, her deficiency in a quality which is held to be supremely desirable in women. George Eliot was not charming; she was not strongly feminine; she had none of those eccentricities and inequalities of temper which give to so many artists the endearing simplicity of children. One feels that to most people, as to Lady Ritchie, she was ‘not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse’. But if we consider these portraits more closely, we find that they are all the portraits of an elderly celebrated woman, dressed in black satin, driving in her victoria, a woman who has been through her struggle and issued from it with a profound desire to be of use to others, but with no wish for intimacy, save with the little  circle who had known her in the days of her youth. We know very little about the days of her youth; but we do know that the culture, the philosophy, the fame, and the influence were all built upon a very humble foundation – she was the granddaughter of a carpenter.

The first volume of her life is a singularly depressing record. In it we see her raising herself with groans and struggles from the intolerable boredom of petty provincial society (her father had risen in the world and become more middle class, but less picturesque) to be the assistant editor of a highly intellectual London review, and the esteemed companion of Herbert Spencer. The stages are painful as she reveals them in the sad soliloquy in which Mr Cross condemned her to tell the story of her life. Marked in early youth as one ‘sure to get something up very soon in the way of a clothing club’, she proceeded to raise funds for restoring a church by making a chart of ecclesiastical history; and that was followed by a loss of faith which so disturbed her father that he refused to live with her. Next came the struggle with the translation of Strauss, which, dismal and ‘soul-stupefying’ in itself, can scarcely have been made less so by the usual feminine tasks of ordering a household and nursing a dying father, and the distressing conviction, to one so dependent upon affection, that by becoming a bluestocking she was forfeiting her brother’s respect. ‘I used to go  about like an owl’, she said, ‘to the great disgust of my brother’. ‘Poor thing’, wrote a friend who saw her toiling through Strauss with a statue of the risen Christ in front of her, ‘I do pity her sometimes, with her pale sickly face and dreadful headaches, and anxiety, too, about her father.’ Yet, though we cannot read the story without a strong desire that the stages of her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity. Her development was very slow and very awkward, but it had the irresistible impetus behind it of a deep-seated and noble ambition. Every obstacle at length was thrust from her path. She knew everyone. She read everything. Her astonishing intellectual vitality had triumphed. Youth was over, but youth had been full of suffering. Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she made the decision which was of such profound moment to her and still matters even to us, and went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes.

The books which followed so soon after her union testify in the fullest manner to the great liberation which had come to her with personal happiness. In themselves they provide us with a plentiful feast. Yet at the threshold of her literary career one may find in some of the circumstances of her life influences that turned her mind to the past, to the country village, to the quiet and beauty and simplicity of childish memories and away from herself and the present. We understand how it was that her first book was Scenes of Clerical Life and not Middlemarch. Her union with Lewes had surrounded her with affection, but in view of the circumstances and of the conventions it has also isolated her. ‘I wish it to be understood’, she wrote in 1857, ‘that I should never invite anyone to come and see me who did not ask for the invitation.’ She had been ‘cut off from what is called the world’, she said later, but she did not regret it. By becoming thus marked, first by circumstances and later, inevitably, by her fame, she lost the power to move on equal terms unnoted among her kind; and the loss for a novelist was serious. Still, basking in the light and sunshine of Scenes of Clerical Life, feeling the large mature mind spreading itself with a luxurious sense of freedom in the world of her ‘remotest past’, to speak of loss seems  inappropriate. Everything to such a mind was gain. All experience filtered down through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching and nourishing. The utmost we can say, in qualifying her attitude towards fiction by what we know of her life, is that she had taken to heart certain lessons learnt early, if learnt at all, among which, perhaps, the most branded upon her was the melancholy virtue of tolerance; her sympathies are with the everyday lot, and play most happily in dwelling upon the homespun of ordinary joys and sorrows. She has none of that romantic intensity which is connected with a sense of one’s own individuality, unsated and unsubdued, cutting its shape sharply upon the background of the world. What were the loves and sorrows of a snuffy old clergyman, dreaming over his whisky, to the fiery egotism of Jane Eyre? The beauty of those first books, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, is very great. It is impossible to estimate the merit of the Poysers, the Dodsons, the Gilfils, the Bartons, and the rest with all their surroundings and dependencies, because they have put on flesh and blood and we move among them, now bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning acceptance of all that they say and do, which we accord to the great originals only. The flood of memory and humour which she pours so spontaneously into one figure, one scene after another, until the whole fabric of ancient rural England is revived, has so much in common with a natural process that it leaves us with little consciousness that there is anything to criticize. We accept; we feel the delicious warmth and release of spirit which the great creative writers alone procure for us. As one comes back to the books after years of absence they pour out, even against our expectation, the same store of energy and heat, so that we want more than anything to idle in the warmth as in the sun beating down from the red orchard wall. If there is an element of unthinking abandonment in thus submitting to the humours of Midland farmers and their wives, that, too, is right in the circumstances. We scarcely wish to analyse what we feel to be so large and deeply human. And when we consider how distant in time the world of Shepperton and Hayslope is, and how remote the minds of farmer and agricultural labourers from those of most of George Eliot’s readers, we can only attribute the ease and pleasure with which we ramble from house to smithy, from cottage parlour to rectory garden, to the fact that George Eliot makes us share their lives, not in a spirit of condescension or of curiosity, but in a spirit of sympathy. She is no satirist. The movement of her mind was too slow and cumbersome to lend itself to comedy. But she gathers in her large grasp a great bunch of the main elements of human nature and groups them loosely together with a tolerant and wholesome understanding which, as one finds upon rereading, has not only kept her figures fresh and free, but has given them an unexpected hold upon our laughter and tears. There is the famous Mrs Poyser. It would have been easy to work her idiosyncrasies to death, and, as it is, perhaps, George Eliot gets her laugh in the same place a little too often. But memory, after the book is shut, brings out, as sometimes in real life, the details and subtleties which some more salient characteristic has prevented us from noticing at the time. We recollect that her health was not good. There were occasions upon which she said nothing at all. She was patience itself with sick child. She doted upon Totty. Thus one can muse and speculate about the greater number of George Eliot’s characters and find, even in the least important, a roominess and margin where those qualities lurk which she has no call to bring from their obscurity.

But in the midst of all this tolerance and sympathy there are, even in the early books, moments of greater stress. Her humour has shown itself broad enough to cover a wide range of fools and failures, mothers and children, dogs and flourishing midland fields, farmers, sagacious or fuddled over their ale, horse-dealers, inn-keepers, curates, and carpenters. Over them all broods a certain romance, the only romance that George Eliot allowed herself- the romance of the past. The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. In Adam Bede there is a hint of her in Dinah. She shows herself far more openly and completely in Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. She is Janet in “Janet’s Repentance”, and Romola, and Dorothea seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what in marriage with Ladislaw. Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar. Yet if you could delete the whole sisterhood you  would leave a much smaller and a much inferior world, albeit a world of greater artistic perfection and far superior jollity and comfort. In accounting for her failure, in so far as it was a failure, one recollects that she never wrote a story until she was thirty-seven, and that by the time she was thirty-seven she had come to think of herself  with a mixture of pain and something like resentment. For long she preferred not to think of herself at all. Then, when the first flush of creative energy was exhausted and self-confidence had come to her, she wrote more and more from the personal standpoint, but she did so without the unhesitating abandonment of the young. Her self-consciousness is always marked when her heroines say what she herself would have said. She disguised them in every possible way. She granted them beauty and wealth into the bargain; she invented, more improbably, a taste for brandy. But the disconcerting and stimulating fact remained that she was compelled by the very power of her genius to step forth in person upon the quiet bucolic scene.

The noble and beautiful girl who insisted upon being born into the Mill on the Floss is the most obvious example of the ruin which a heroine can strew about her. Humour controls her and keeps her lovable so long as she is small and can be satisfied by eloping with the gipsies or hammering nails into her doll; but she develops; and before George Eliot knows what has happened she has a full-grown woman on her hands demanding what neither gipsies, nor dolls, nor St Ogg’s itself is capable of giving her. First Philip Wakem is produced, and later Stephen Guest. The weakness of the one and the coarseness of the other have often been pointed out; but both, in their weakness and coarseness, illustrate not so much George Eliot’s inability to draw the portrait of a man, as the uncertainty, the infirmity, and the fumbling which shook her hand when she had to conceive a fit mate for a heroine. She is in the first place driven beyond the home world she knew and loved, and forced to set foot in middle-class drawing-rooms where young men sing all the summer morning and young women sit embroidering smoking-caps for bazaars. She feels herself out of her element, as her clumsy satire of what she calls ‘good society’ proves.

Good society has its claret and its velvet carpets, its dinner engagements six weeks deep, its opera, and its faery ball rooms… gets its science done by Faraday and its religion by the superior clergy who are to be met in the best houses; how should it have need of belief and emphasis?

There is no trace of humour or insight there, but only the vindictiveness of a grudge which we feel to be personal it its origin. But terrible as the complexity of our social system is in its demands upon the sympathy and discernment of a novelist straying across the boundaries, Maggie Tulliver did worse than drag George Eliot from her natural surroundings. She insisted upon the introduction of the great emotional scene. She must love; she must despair; she must be drowned clasping her brother in her arms. The more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower of disillusionment and verbosity. It is partly that her hold upon dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration. She allows her heroines to talk too much. She has little verbal felicity. She lacks the unerring taste which chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within that. ‘Whom are you doing to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley, at the Weston’s ball. ‘With you, if you will ask me,’ said Emma; and she has said enough. Mrs Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.

Yet, dismiss the heroines without sympathy, confine George Eliot to the agricultural world of her ‘remotest past’, and you not only diminish her greatness but lose her true flavour. That greatness is here we can have no doubt. The width of the prospect, the large strong outlines of the principal features, the ruddy light of her early books, the searching power and reflective richness of the later tempt us to linger and expatiate beyond our limits. But is it upon the heroines that we would cast a final glance. ‘I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl,’ says Dorothea Casaubon. ‘I used to pray so much – now I hardly ever pray. I try not to have  desires merely for myself…’ She is speaking for them all. That is their problem. They cannot live without religion, and they start out on the search for one when they are little girls. Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness, which makes the place where she stands in aspiration and agony the heart of the book – still and cloistered like a place of worship, but that she no longer knows to whom to pray. In learning they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the wider service of their kind. They do not find what they seek, and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something – they scarcely know what –  for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. George Eliot had far too strong an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one. Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself. For her, too, the burden and the complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge. Clasping them as few women have ever clasped them, she would not renounce her own inheritance – the difference of view, the difference of standard – nor accept an inappropriate reward. Thus we behold her, a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification, at the same time reaching out with ‘a fastidious yet hungry ambition’ for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind and confronting her feminine aspirations with the real world of men. Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her  – sex and health and convention –  she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To read Woolf’s essay on George Eliot is to gain an insight on how writers view other writers. Her slightly breathless and decidedly quirky style belies Woolf’s deep absorption with Eliot’s life and craft, and how deeply she had immersed herself in Eliot’s books. Close attention to the details that bypass our normal low-grade awareness became a characteristic of Woolf’s writing, and in her essay on Eliot we can see a flash or two of gleeful recognition of the same trait in Eliot.

The way in which moments of life, become the fragments and images that are deeply embedded in our minds is one of the mysteries that forms the core of a writer’s art. Bits and pieces of the past resurface with their sensory complements – smells, sounds, colours, and the charge of feeling which accompany them, and these in turn stick to the strings of language the mind works at formulating, so that the shapes they take may be conveyed in a way that evokes those moments in a fashion as close to their first enactment as possible.

Eliot wrote about the country-life she cared deeply about, and what she felt compelled to discuss and comment upon, but she wrote best and most feelingly about the world she loved, her own, which she saw swiftly passing away, as the voracious machine of the industrial revolution tore away and consumed in large bites the natural and habitual ways of  her country life.

Woolf too saw her world overturned and transformed from the  certainties of the Victorian era in which she was born and the rambling old house of her childhood and girlhood, which smelled of meat and port and cigars, to the unravelling social strictures of the Edwardian era.

The beginning of the end of the British Empire and larger complexities and ambiguities of post WWI Britain followed by the changes in the social structure shattered the accepted mould into which older writers with all their old assurances had poured life-times of their work. Gone was the authorial voice with its overarching commentary. The moderninsts, with Woolf leading the way, had arrived on the scene.

Though far from missing the wider perspective of her times, throughout her life Woolf kept her focus on the intimate and the immediate, carefully observing and laying by the observations she made of the slivers of awareness that connect moments to each other to form a larger whole.

I think it is possible that her reading of Eliot may have shown her that they shared a sense of the importance of seeing and feeling and taking in the details out of which a general impression of life is formed. A somewhat darker commonality seems to have been the proclivity for watery deaths of some of Eliot’s characters in Adam Bede, Romola, The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda. Later this was to find its tragic coincidence in Woolf’s suicide by drowning.

Eliot, being a Victorian, had a strong taste for melodrama, which deeply colours her narratives. This was something which Woolf, a Georgian, fervently eschewed, but in a sense they both wrote passionately about the immediacy of world they knew, and heard, and touched, and saw and felt. These are worlds that have passed away and are no more, but ones we nonetheless can enter at will, when we read their writing.

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 – December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pinch of Salt                       

When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor stain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You’ll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.
Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you seize at the salt-box,
Over the hedge you’ll see him sail.

 
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.
Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself, and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Babylon

The child alone a poet is:
Spring and Fairyland are his.
Truth and Reason show but dim,
And all’s poetry with him.

 

 

 

 
Rhyme and music flow in plenty
For the lad of one-and-twenty,
But Spring for him is no more now
Than daisies to a munching cow;
Just a cheery pleasant season,
Daisy buds to live at ease on.

 

 

 

 
He’s forgotten how he smiled
And shrieked at snowdrops when a child,
Or wept one evening secretly
For April’s glorious misery.

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made him old and wary
Banishing the Lords of Faery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made a breach and battered
Babylon to bits: she scattered
To the hedges and ditches
All our nursery gnomes and witches.

 

 

 

 

 
Lob and Puck, poor frantic elves,
Drag their treasures from the shelves.

 

 

 

 

 

 
Jack the Giant-killer’s gone,
Mother Goose and Oberon,
Bluebeard and King Solomon.

 

 

 

 

 
Robin, and Red Riding Hood
Take together to the wood,
And Sir Galahad lies hid
In a cave with Captain Kidd.

 

 

 

 

 
None of all the magic hosts,
None remain but a few ghosts
Of timorous heart, to linger on
Weeping for lost Babylon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Is Teresina here?”
The servant – still in his shirt-sleeves, but with his neck already squeezed into an extremely high collar and with his sparse hair carefully dressed and arranged on his cranium  – raised his thick, joined eyebrows, which resembled a displaced mustache that had been shaved off his lips and pasted up there so he wouldn’t lose it, and examined from head to foot the young man stranding in front of him on the staircase landing: a rustic from the look of him, with the collar of his rough overcoat raised up to his ears and his hands-purple, numbed with cold – holding a dirty little sack on one side and a small old suitcase on the other, as a counterweight.
“Who is Teresina?”
The young man first shook his head to get rid of a little water drop on the tip of his nose, then replied:
“Teresina, the singer.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the servant with a smile of ironic amazement.
“That’s her name, just plain Teresina? And who are you?”
“Is she here or isn’t she?” asked the young man, knitting his brows and sniffling. “Tell her that Micuccio is here, and let me in.”
“But there’s no one here,” continued the servant with his smile congealed on his lips. “Madame Sina Marnis is still at the theater and. . .”
“Aunt Marta, too?” Micuccio interrupted him.
“Ah, you’re a relative, sir? In that case, step right in, step right in . . . No one’s at home. She’s at the theater, too, your aunt. They won’t be back before one. This is the benefit night of your . . . what is she to you, the lady? Your cousin, perhaps?”
Micuccio stood there embarrassed for a moment.
“I’m not a relative . . . I’m Micuccio Bonavino, she knows . . . I’ve come on purpose from our hometown.”
Upon receiving this reply, the servant deemed it suitable above all else to take back the more polite ‘lei’ form of address and go back to the ordinary ‘voi.’ He led Micuccio into a small unlighted room near the kitchen, where someone was snoring noisily, and said to him:
“Sit here. I’ll go and get a lamp.”
Micuccio first looked in the direction from which the snoring was coming, but couldn’t make out anything then he looked into the kitchen, where the cook, aided by a scullery boy, was preparing a supper. The mingled aromas of the dishes being prepared overpowered him; their effect on him was like a heady intoxication; he had hardly eaten a thing since that morning; he had traveled from Reggio di Calabria, a night and a full day on the train.
The servant brought the lamp, and the person who was snoring in the room, behind a curtain hung from a cord between two walls, muttered sleepily:
“Who is it?”
“Hey, Dorina, get up!” the servant called. “Look, Mr. Bonvicino is here. . .”
“Bonavino,” Micuccio corrected him, as he blew on his fingers.
“Bonavino, Bonavino . . . an acquaintance of the mistress. You really sleep soundly: they ring at the door and you don’t hear it.  I have to set the table; I can’t do everything myself, understand – keep an eye on the cook, who doesn’t know the ropes – watch for people who come to call . . .”
A big, loud yawn from the maid, prolonged while she stretched and ending in a whinny caused by a sudden shiver, was her reply to the complaint of the man servant, who walked away exclaiming:
“All right”
Micuccio smiled and watched him depart across another room in semidarkness until he reached the vast, well-lit ‘salon’ at the far end, where the splendid supper table towered; he kept on gazing in amazement until the snoring made him turn once more and look at the curtain.
The servant, with his napkin under his arm, passed back and forth, muttering now about Dorina, who went on sleeping, now about the cook, who was most likely a new man, called in for that evening’s event, and who was annoying him by constantly asking for explanations. Micuccio, to avoid annoying him further, deemed it prudent to repress all the questions  that he thought of asking him. He really ought to have told him or given him to understand that he was Teresina’s fiancé, but he didn’t want to, though he himself didn’t know why, unless perhaps it was because the servant would then have had to treat him, Micuccio, as his master, and he, seeing him so jaunty and elegant, although still without his tailcoat, couldn’t manage to overcome the embarrassment he felt at the very thought of it. At a certain point, however, seeing him pass by again, he couldn’t refrain from asking him:
“Excuse me . . . whose house is this?”
“Ours, as long as we’re in it,” the servant answered, hurriedly.
And Micuccio sat there shaking his head.
By heaven, so it was true! Opportunity seized by the forelock.
Good business. That servant who resembled a great nobleman, the cook and the scullery boy, that Dorina snoring over there: all servants at Teresina’s beck and call. . .  Who would have thought so?
In his mind he saw once again, the dreary garret, way down in Messina, where Teresa used to live with her mother . . . Five years earlier, in that faraway garret, if it hadn’t been for him, mother and daughter would have died of hunger. And he, he had discovered that treasure in Teresa’s throat. She was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the rooftops , unaware of her own treasure was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the roof-tops. unaware of her own treasure: he would sing to annoy, she would sing to keep from thinking of her poverty, which he would try to alleviate as best he could, in spite of the war his parents waged with him at home, his mother especially. But could he abandon Teresina in those circumstances, after her father’s death? – abandon her because she had nothing, while he, for better or worse, did have a modest employment, as flute player in the local orchestra? Fine reasoning – and what about his heart –  Ah, it had been a true inspiration from heaven, a prompting of fortune, when he had paid attention to that voice of hers, when no one one was giving it heed, on that very beautiful April day, near the garret window that framed the vivid blue of the sky. Teresina was singing softly an impassioned sicilian arietta, the tender words of which Micuccio still remembered. Teresina was sad, that day, over the recent death of her father and over his family’s stubborn opposition; and he too – he recalled – was sad, so much so that tears had come to his eyes when he heard her sing. And yet he had heard that arietta many other times; but sung that way, never. He had been so struck by it that the following day, without informing her or her mother, he had brought with him his friend, the orchestra conductor, up to the garret. And in that way the first singing lessons had begun; and for two years running he had spent almost all of his small salary on her; he had rented a piano for her, had purchased her sheet music and had also given the teacher some friendly remuneration. Beautiful  faraway days! Teresina burned intensely with the desire to take flight, to hurl herself into the future that her teacher promised her could be a brilliant one; and, in the meantime, what impassioned caresses for him to prove to him all her gratitude, and what dreams of happiness together!
Aunt Marta, on the other hand, would shake her head bitterly: she had seen so many ups and downs in her life, poor old lady, that by now she had no more trust left in the future; she feared for her daughter and didn’t want her ever to think about the possibility of escaping that poverty to which they were resigned and, besides, she knew, she knew how much the madness of that dangerous dream was costing him.
But neither he nor Teresina would listen to her, and she protested in vain when a young composer, having heard Teresina at a concert, declared that it would be a real crime not to give her better teachers and thorough artistic instruction: in Naples, it was essential to send her to the Naples conservatory, cost what it might.
And then he, Micuccio, breaking off with his parents altogether, had sold a little farm of his that had been bequeathed to him by his uncle the priest, and in that way Teresina had gone to Naples to perfect her studies.
He hadn’t seen her again since then; but he had received her letters from the conservatory and afterwards those of Aunt Marta, when Teresina was already launched on her artistic life, eagerly sought by the major theaters after her sensational debut at the San Carlo. At the foot of those shaky and hesitant letters, which the poor old lady scratched onto the paper as best she could, there were always a few words from her, from Teresina, who never had time to write: “Dear Micuccio, I go along with everything Mother is telling you. Stay healthy and keep caring for me.” They had agreed that he would leave her five or six years, time to pursue her career without impediment: they were both young and could wait.
And in the five years that had already elapsed, he had always shown those letters to anyone who wanted to see them, to combat the slanderous remarks his family would hurl at Teresina and her mother. Then he had fallen sick; he had been on the point of dying; and on that occasion, without his knowledge, Aunt Marta and Teresina had sent to his address a large sum of money; part had been spent during his illness. but the rest he had violently torn out of  his family’s hands, and now  precisely he was coming lo return it to Teresina. Because money – no! He didn’t want any.  Not because it seemed like a hand-out, seeing he had already spent so much on her; but . . . no!  He himself was unable to say why, and now,  more than ever, there in that house. . .  money, no!  Just  as he had waited all those years, he could wait some more. . .  Because if Teresina  actually had money to spare, it was a sign that the future was open to her, and therefore it was time for the old promise to be kept, in spite of anyone who refused to believe it.
Micuccio stood up with his brows knitted, so as to reassure himself about that conclusion:  once again he blew on his ice-cold hands and stamped on the floor.
“Cold?” the servant said to him passing by. It won’t be long now. Come here into the kitchen. You’ll be more comfortable.”
Micuccio did not want to follow the advice of the servant, who confused and irritated him with that lordly air. He sat down again and resumed thinking in dismay Shortly afterward a loud ring roused him.
“Dorina, the mistress!” screamed the servant, hurriedly slipping on his tailcoat as he ran to open the door; but seeing that Minuccio was about to follow him, he stopped short and issued an order:
“You stay here, let me notify her first.”
“Ohi, ohi, ohi . . . ,” lamented a sleepy voice behind the curtain; and after a moment there appeared a large, stocky, carelessly dressed woman who trailed one leg on the ground and was still unable to keep her eyes open; she had her woolen shawl pulled up over her nose, and her hair was dyed gold.
Micuccio kept looking at her foolishly. She too, in her surprise, opened her eyes wide when confronted by the outsider.
“The mistress, ” Micuccio repeated.
Then Dorina suddenly returned to consciousness:
“Here I am, here I am. . . .” she said, taking off her shawl and flinging it behind the curtain, and exerting her whole heavy body to run toward the entrance.
The apparition of that dyed witch, and the order given by the servant, suddenly gave Micuccio, in his dejection, an anguished presentiment. He heard Aunt Marta’s shrill voice:
“Over there, into the salon, into the salon. Dorina!”
And the servant and Dorina passed by him, carrying magnificent baskets of flowers. He leaned his head forward so he could observe the illuminated room at the far end, and he saw a great number of gentlemen in tailcoats talking confusedly. His sight grew dim; his amazement and agitation were so great that he himself didn’t realize that his eyes had filled with tears; he closed them, and he shut himself up completely in that darkness, as if to resist the torment that a long, ringing laugh was causing him. It was Teresina laughing like that, in the other room.
A muffled cry made him open his eyes again, and he saw before him – unrecognizable – Aunt Marta, with her hat on her head. poor thing! and laden down by a costly and splendid velvet mantilla.
“What! Micuccio . . . you here?”
“Aunt Marta . . . ,” exclaimed Micuccio, almost frightened, pausing to examine her closely.
“Whatever for?” continued the old lady, who was upset. “Without letting us know? What happened? When did you get here?
Tonight of all nights . . . Oh, God, God . . .”
“I’ve come to . . . ,” Micuccio stammered, not knowing what more to say.
“Wait!” Aunt Marta interrupted him. “What’s to be done? What’s to be done? See all those people, son? It’s Teresina’s celebration . . . her night . . . Wait, wait here for a bit. . . “
“If you,” Micuccio attempted to say, as anxiety tightened his throat, “if you think I ought to go . . .”
“No, wait a bit, I say,” the kind old lady hastened to reply, all embarrassed.
“But,” Micuccio responded, “I have no idea where to go in this town. . . at this hour. . . “
Aunt Marta left him, signaling to him with one of her gloved hands to wait, and entered the salon, in which a moment later Micuccio thought an abyss had opened; silence had suddenly fallen there. Then he heard, clear and distinct, these words of Teresina:
“One moment, gentlemen.”
Again his sight grew dim with the imminence of her appearance.
But Teresina did not come, and the conversation resumed in the salon. Instead, after a few minutes, which seemed an eternity to him, Aunt Marta came back, without her hat, without her mantilla, without her gloves, and less embarrassed.
“Let’s wait here for a while, would that be all right?” she said to him. “I’ll stay with you . . . Now they’re having supper . . . We’ll remain here. Dorina will set this little table for us, and we’ll have supper together, here; we’ll reminisce about the good old days, all right? . . . I can’t believe it’s true that I’m here with you, son, here, all by ourselves . . . In that room, you understand, all those gentlemen . . . She, poor girl, can’t avoid them . . . Her career, you get my meaning? Ah, what can you do!. . . Have you seen the newspapers? Big doings, son! As for me, I’m all at sea, all the time . . . I can’t believe I can really be here with you, tonight.”
And the kind old lady, who had gone on talking, instinctively, to keep Micuccio from having time to think, finally smiled and rubbed her hands together, looking at him compassionately.
Dorina came to set the table hastily, because there, in the salon, the meal had already begun.
“Will she come?” Micuccio asked gloomily, with a troubled voice. “I mean, at least to see her.”
“Of course she’ll come,” the old lady immediately replied, making an effort to get out of her awkward situation. “Just as soon as she has a minute free: she’s already told me so.”
They looked at each other and smiled at each other, as if they had finally  recognized each other.

Despite the embarrassment and the excitement, their souls had found the way to greet each other with that smile.
“You’re Aunt Marta,” Micuccio’s eyes said.
“And you’re Micuccio, my dear, good son, still the same, poor boy!” said Aunt Marta. But suddenly the kind old lady lowered her own eyes, so that Micuccio might not read anything else in them. Again she rubbed her hands together and said: “Let’s eat, all right?”
“I’m good and hungry!” exclaimed Micuccio, quite happy and reassured.
“Let’s cross ourselves first: Here, in front of you, I can do it,” added the old lady in a mischievous manner, winking an eye, and she made the sign of the cross.
The manservant came, bringing their first course. Micuccio observed with close attention the way that Aunt Marta transferred her helping from the serving platter. But when his turn came, as he raised his hands, it occurred to him that they were dirty from the long trip; he blushed, he got confused, he raised his eyes to steal a glance at the servant, who, now the height of good manners, nodded slightly to him and smiled, as if inviting him to serve himself. Fortunately Aunt Marta helped him out of his predicament.
“Here, here, Micuccio, I’ll serve you.”
He could have kissed her out of gratitude! Once he received his helping, as soon as the servant had withdrawn, he too crossed himself hurriedly.
“Good boy!” Aunt Marta said to him.
And he felt carefree, contented, and started eating as he had never eaten in his life, no longer thinking about his hands or the servant.
Nevertheless, each and every time the latter, entering or leaving the salon, opened the glass double door, and a sort of wave of mingled words or some burst of laughter came from that direction, he turned around uneasily and then looked at the old lady’s sorrowful, loving eyes, as if to read an explanation there. But what he read there instead was an urgent request to ask no more for the moment, to put off explanations till a later time. And again they both smiled at each other and resumed eating and talking about their far-off hometown, friends and acquaintances, concerning whom Aunt Marta asked him for news endlessly.
“Aren’t you drinking?”
Micuccio put out his hand to take the bottle; but, just at that moment, the double door to the ballroom opened again; a rustle of silk, amid hurried steps: a flash, as if the little room had all at once been violently illuminated, in order to blind him.
“Teresina . . .”
And his voice died away on his lips, out of amazement. Ah, what a queen!
With face flushed, eyes bulging and mouth open, he stopped to gaze at her, dumbfounded. How could she ever. . . like that! Her bosom bare, her shoulders bare, her arms bare . . . all ablaze with jewels and rich fabrics . . . He didn’t see her, he no longer saw her as a living, real person in front of him. . . What was she saying to him? . . . Not her voice, nor her eyes, nor her laugh: nothing, nothing of hers did he recognize any more in that dream apparition.
“How are things? Are you getting along all right now, Micuccio?
Good, good . . . You were sick if I’m not mistaken . . . We’ll get together again in a little while. In the meantime, you have Mother with you here. . . Is that a deal? . . .”
And Teresina ran off again into the salon, all a-rustle.
“You’re not eating any more?” Aunt Marta asked timorously after a brief pause, to cut short Micuccio’s silent astonishment.
He looked at her in bewilderment.
“Eat,” the old lady insisted, showing him his plate.
Micuccio raised two fingers to his smoke-blackened, crumpled collar and tugged at it, trying to draw a deep breath.
“Eat?”
And several times he wiggled his fingers near his chin as if waving goodbye, to indicate: ‘I don’t feel like it anymore, I can’t.’ For another while he remained silent, dejected, absorbed in the vision he had just seen, then he murmured:
“How she’s turned out . . .”
And he saw that Aunt Marta was shaking her head bitterly and that she too had stopped eating, as if in expectation.
“It’s not even to be thought of . . . ,” he then added, as if to himself, closing his eyes.
Now he saw, in that darkness of his, the gulf that had opened between the two of them. No, she – that woman – was no longer his Teresina. It was all over . . .   for some time, for some time, and he, the fool,  the imbecile, was realizing it only now. They had told him so back home, and he had stubbornly refused to believe it . . . And now, how would he look staying on in that house? If all those gentlemen, if even that servant. had known that he, Micuccio Bonavino, had worn himself out coming such a distance, thirty-six hours by train, seriously believing that he was still the fiancé of that queen, what laughs they would raise, those gentlemen and that servant and that cook and the scullery boy and Dorina! What laughs, if Teresina had dragged him into their presence, in the salon there,saying: “Look, this pauper, this flute player, says he wants to become my husband!” She, yes, she had promised him this; but how could she herself suppose at that time that one day, she would become what  she now was? And it was also true, yes, that he had opened the path for her and had given her the means to travel it; but, there!  by this time she had come so very far, how could he, who had stayed where he was, always the same, playing his flute on Sundays in the town square, catch up to her anymore?  It wasn’t even to be thought of ! And, then, what were those few paltry cents spent on her back then, now that she had become a great lady? He was ashamed merely to think that. Someone might suspect that he, with his coming, wanted to assert some rights in exchange for those few miserable pennies . . . – But at that moment he remembered he had in his pocket the money sent him by Teresina during his illness. He blushed: he felt a twinge of shame, and he plunged one hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, where his wallet was.
“I’ve come, Aunt Marta,” he said hastily, “also to return to you this money you sent me. Is it meant as a payment? As repayment of a loan? What would that have to do with anything? I see that Teresina has become a . . . she looks like a queen to me! I see that . . . never mind.  It’s not even to be thought of any longer! But as for this money, no: I didn’t deserve such treatment from her . . . Where does that come in? It’s all over, and we won’t talk about it any more . . . but money, no way! I’m only sorry that it’s not all here . . .”
“What are you saying, son?” Aunt Marta tried to interrupt him, trembling, pained and with tears in her eyes.
Micuccio signaled to her to be silent.
“It wasn’t I who spent it: my family spent it, during my illness, without my knowledge. But let’s say it makes up for that trifle I spent back then . . . you remember? It doesn’t matter . . . Let’s think no more about it. Here is the difference. And I’m leaving.”
“What! Like that, all of a sudden?” exclaimed Aunt Marta, trying to hold him back. “At least wait until I tell Teresina. Didn’t you hear that she wanted to see you again? I’m going over to tell her. . .”

“No, it’s no use,” Micuccio replied, with determination. “Let her stay there with those gentlemen; it suits her there, she belongs there. I, poor fool . . . I got to see her; that was enough for me . . .No, now that I think of it, do go over there . . . you go there, too . . . Do you hear how they’re laughing? I don’t want the laugh to be on me . . . I’m leaving.”

Aunt Marta interpreted that sudden determination of Micuccio’s in the worst possible light: as an act of anger, a jealous reaction.
By now it seemed to her, the poor woman, as if everybody – seeing her daughter – ought immediately to conceive the meanest of suspicions, that very one which caused her to weep inconsolably as, without a moment’s rest, she bore the burden of her secret heart-break amid the hubbub of that life of detestable luxury which ignominiously dishonored her old age.
“But I,” the words escaped her, “by this time there’s no way for me to stand guard over her, son . . .”
“Why?” asked Micuccio, suddenly reading in her eyes the suspicion he had not yet formulated; and his face turned dark.
The old lady became bewildered in her sorrow and hid her face in her trembling hands, but failed to check the onrush of the tears that now gushed forth.
“Yes, yes, go, son, go . . .,” she said , strangled by sobs. “She’s not for you anymore, you’re right. . .  If the two of you had listened to me. . . “
“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: “

“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: “And so she, she. . .  she is no longer worthy of me. … Enough, enough, I’m leaving just the same . . . in fact, all the more, now. . .  What a dumbbell, Aunt Marta: I hadn’t understood!  Don’t cry. . . . Anyway, what  does it matter? Fate . . . fate . . .”
He took his little suitcase and little sack from under the table and was  on his way out when he recalled that there, in the sack were the beautiful citrons he had brought for Teresina from their hometown.
“Oh, look,  Aunt Marta,” he continued. He opened the top of the sack and, creating a barrier with one arm, he emptied that fresh, aromatic fruit onto the table. “And what if  I started tossing all these citrons I brought for her at the heads of those honorable gentlemen?”
“For mercy’s sake,” the old lady groaned amid her tears. once more making a beseeching sign to him to be silent.
”No, of course I won’t,” added Micuccio, smiling sourly and putting the empty sack in his pocket. “I’m leaving them for you alone, Aunt Marta. And to think that I even paid duty on them. . . Enough. For you alone, mind me now. As for her, tell her ‘Good luck!’ from me.”
He picked up the valise again and left. But on the stairs, a sense of anguished bewilderment overpowered him: alone, deserted, at night, in a big city he didn’t know, far from his home: disappointed dejected, put to shame. He made it to the street door, saw that there was a downpour of rain. He didn’t have the courage to venture onto those unfamiliar streets in a rain like that. He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.
When the supper was finished, Sina Marnis made another appearance in the little room, but she found her mother alone crying while back there the gentlemen were clamoring and laughing.
“He left?” she asked in surprise.
Aunt Marta nodded affirmatively, without looking at her. Sina stared into space, lost in thoughts, then sighed:
“Poor guy. . .”
“Look,” her mother said to her, no longer stemming her tears with the tablecloth. “He had brought citrons for you . . . “Oh, what beauties!” exclaimed Sina, cheering up. She clutched one arm to her waist and with the other hand gathered up as many as she could carry.
“No, not in there!” her mother vigorously protested.
But Sina shrugged her bare shoulders and ran into the salon shouting:
“Citrons from Sicily! Citrons from Sicily!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had so many thoughts whirling around in my head when I read this story that it took me hours to simply watch them  pass by. Since there is no chance at all  of my being able to organise them I will just let them appear in their own disorderly fashion.

My first encounter with Pirandello was about thirty years ago, when I saw the movie Kaos (meaning Chaos, and named for the village of Pirandello’s birth). I think it was in a run-down art deco theatre on Broadway called The Mayan, here in Denver.  The movie was based on five stories by this brilliant writer and dramatist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.  One story in particular stuck in my my mind and that was “Moon Sickness”. “Citrons from Sicily” was not one of the five stories told in Kaos, which centred around rural life, but I wish someday a movie will be made of Pirandello’s ‘bourgeois’  stories, including this one. Pirandello did adapt “Citrons from Sicily” for the stage, (and “Citrons from Sicily” clearly displays his flair for stage drama) but the compromises which had to be made in order to flesh-out Micuccio’s past, did not allow for effective stage direction, whereas in a movie, well-spliced narrative, or even a back-story, would serve the purpose very well.

Pirandello was born in a part of Sicily which had deep Greek roots. The city closest to his village, Kaos, is now called Agrigento, but it used to be called Grigenti. It figures prominently in Tomasso Lampedusa’s classic, posthumously published novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) set in the period of Italy’s risorgimento Italy, which was Italy in its previous incarnation of separate semi-autonomous states. This was when the Bourbons ruled both Naples and Sicily as a single entity, called “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Pirandello’s life bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and while his literary contemporaries  were experimenting with new forms and ideas, he stuck steadfastly to an older and more balanced and perhaps more effective form of storytelling in which sympathy and irony were put to excellent use in fleshing out the characters. Pirandello created characters who are are fundamentally enigmatic, and whom we can never truly know. So when a character grabs hold of our imaginations, she or he tends to retain an obsessive hold on us, which is never quite relinquished.

I sense in “Citrons from Sicily” a veiled mockery of Dumas and Verdi, or rather their works  – La Dame aux Camélias and La Traviata. Pirandello published “Citrons from Sicily” in two installments in the Italian periodical Il Marzocco in May of 1900. I feel certain that Verdi’s La Traviata (first produced in 1883) and La Dame aux Camèlias (published in 1848) were lurking in the shadows of his mind when he wrote it. But Pirandello’s Teresina is no Camile, and certainly no Violetta. Courtesan she may be, but she possesses the particular weapon that sets her apart from those women – a voice.  She is unwilling to be exploited by the middle-class values – and proscriptions –  from which she could hope to derive no possible benefit. Her voice is her fortune, and in the few fords she has for Micuccio, it would seem that she takes care to not lavish it on him.

Pirandello makes a strong, and I think a very successful bid to divert sympathy form a female role and redirect it towards a male one, when he decides to turn the tables on the conceit of the self-sacrificing heroine, who gives up all for love, and presents us with Micuccio, the man behind Teresina’s unbounded success. Now risen well above her impoverished and seemingly hopeless beginnings as a village girl, who with her widowed mother lives on the very brink of destitution, she is the head of a household, the employer of several servants, and a cynosure of Neapolitan salon society. Her career as a singer has taken off, and she has shed her virtuous antecedents as easily as an old worn-out dress.

Divas in literature (and sometimes in real life) have tended to serve as symbols of a kind of demonic femininity. They disdain marriage because they dedicate themselves first and foremost to their voices and their art rather than to husband and children, and for this reason they are envied and reviled, even as they are venerated. On the stage, and sometimes off, they embody the mythical aspects of womanhood, of virgin, enchantress and whore. They are powerful, profligate, ruthless, solipsistic, superficial, brilliant and destructive They are arrogant, narcissistic, and careless of everyone’s feelings but their own. They are financially independent, beholden to none, beautiful, talented and unstoppable. None of these things endear them to a society in which conventional values are admired and aspired to, hence the powerful feeling of ambivalence divas inspire.

Aunt Marta is the female foil to Teresina. A virtuous widow who is appalled by her daughter’s new-found fame and the anticipated damage to her reputation. Aunt Marta is a fish out of water in the world in which she now finds herself. One might suppose that despite its bitter lessons of destitution and widowhood, she longs for her uncomplicated past, where her station in life was respectable and beyond reproach. Her life has been one of perennial dependence, first presumably, on her father, then her husband, and now her daughter. Her needs, we can safely deduce, have never been anyone’s priority, nor does it occur to her that they should be otherwise – which is to say, she is a ‘good woman.’

Divas are truly freaks of nature. Perhaps this is no longer seen as such in the world today where women are entitled to claim their legitimate position and wield their exceptional talent as they wish, but this was not so in the past.  To claim her own voice, to become the object of public adoration, to acquire and spend her own wealth, and revel in her own power to enthrall the public, were behaviours that ran counter to those approved by convention.  A diva’s voice was a highly sexualised  phenomenon, and the lives of the women who possessed these voices carried with them the whiff of scandal and sulphur. They were reputed to have and loose morals, to be promiscuous, and self-serving. The reversal of male and female roles in a story has the tendency to make us uneasy, and if we are to regain our composure as readers, the abandoning of female virtue cannot be permitted to go unpunished.

Micuccio, despite his strongly masculine character, plays a strangely feminised role in this story. He is really the spurned sweetheart, and young wife, who sacrifices herself to the ambitions of her spouse. He immediately wins our sympathy (as Teresina our contempt) for his faithful love and loyalty in the face of familial and social opposition. His more modest musical talents go unrewarded, and now even his masculinity is threatened by the unnatural diva status of his Teresina. She has usurped the well-established male prerogative of deserting a lover.  We ache to think of Micuccio being condemned to a shredded existence, as in our mind’s eye we watch him fade away into the distance to play his flute in the town square, for the pennies that must sustain him in his landless state for the rest of his bitter life. A ‘real’ Sicilian man might have slit Teresina’s throat – the symbol of her power and of her corruption –  then and there, and society would have thought well of him for it, but instead he sneaks back up the steps in the pouring rain, stranded in a strange city at night, to cry his eyes out in  bitter dejection.

The Citrons, in the story, stand for purity and unsullied virtue, and the values embodied by Micuccio but spurned by Teresina. She has gotten away with usurping the male prerogatives of power and ambition, and is now famous and wealthy. Though there is no explicit mention of her beauty, we can safely surmise that she is a beautiful woman. She is the object of male adoration and desire, and her professional success entitles her to both. In Pirandello’s story, her talent has made her into a monster – an ‘unnatural woman’, whose meteoric rise has commenced.

Pirandello’s Greek roots dispose him to have a predilection for tragedy, and there is a dark hint of a fall in the future in Micuccio’s question “whose house is this?” and the servant’s off-hand answer “Ours, as long as we’re in it.”  Pirandello expects us his readers to take note of this hint. We are unwillingly led to imagine what the future holds for Teresina.  Now we see her in her glittering salon, like the woman in a John Singer Sargent painting, What will happen when her beauty fades and her voice deserts her? The throat with its beauty emphasised and enhanced with jewels and rich fabrics will be emptied and abandoned, and her voice made dumb. Her wealth will be gone, and with it her fickle admirers and her chance of happiness. These are the misgivings that come to disturb us, even though we know that in terms of a literary symmetry we wish it as a counterbalance to allay our unease.

And when it comes to tragedy, Micuccio also must be given a fatal flaw. In his case it is a certain obdurate idealism which makes him ignore the crass suspicions of his more realistic family. He ignores their pragmatic warnings, and brushes aside all the evidence of Teresina’s lack of reciprocity for his love. He barely notices that her communications with him are trivial and impersonal, and her professions of affection vague, dilute and insincere. He believes implicitly in the promises he received, and expects that they will be kept, despite the inducements to Teresina (which he should have at least suspected) of money, success and vastly elevated social standing. He expects that despite being surrounded and immersed in change, Teresina will stay the same in relation to him. But Micuccio’s flaw is that of loyalty, trust and idealism and not blindness, and it is for this reason that he gains our sympathy. His loyalty and devotion and all the sacrifices he makes, despite the fact that he can ill-afford them, the purity of his male pride in not accepting money from a woman even when it is to save his life, endears him to us in way that makes us want to ignore or deny the implications that could show Teresina to us in a sympathetic light. In this sense Pirandello (who joined, and then repudiated the Fascist party a few decades after this story was written) is a revisionist and a reactionary.

At some point in my ruminations, I asked myself what other choice Teresina  could have made. What would have happened if she had married Micuccio instead of devoting herself to her talent? She might have been a typical Sicilian wife, living a meagre existence on a small stony piece of land, and her voice restricted  merely to sing lullabies to the children she would unavoidably have to bear. If Micuccio was fated to fall ill, (as he did) and there was no money to secure his care, he would have died, and Teresina would have been left a widow with no means of support, as her mother was when her own father died. She would have been a prisoner of dire circumstances, in that most patriarchal of cultures, and she would never have been able to contend with the oppressiveness it exerted in all that was rural as well as all that was Sicilian.  And what a reservoir of resentment and anger would have then accumulated. Sina might have to pay for her choices, but at least they would first pay her, but more importantly they would be her own choices.

Had she not received her musical training and instead become Micuccio’s wife, Teresina could never have realised her own potential. Now she seems willing to have repudiated marriage with him – or for that matter marriage with anyone –  in order to be her own woman. That she also seems to have lost some of her humanity in the process seems to have been an unfortunate collateral, but, at the time of the story she is still a young girl, and it is possible that some balance might be restored as her life continued to unfold.  Though she revels in being treated in society like a lady, she is not. She is a performer and a courtesan, two roles  associated with female promiscuity that the society of her time delighted to deride, and retribution is bound to follow as the price she must pay in the future for her present autonomy. She must conceal her mean provincial beginnings, and the sense of inferiority implicit in them. Beauty and talent even the odds, but only for the present. Seen in this sympathetic light, her subversion in defying social convention would appear to be amply justified,but at the same time we might feel pity or compassion for her, because we know what it will lead to.

But there is sufficient fateful condemnation for all in this story. Life is a punishing business, and none is exempt, and the piper must be paid in full. Now it is Micuccio’s turn to pay (there is the small irony that he is a flute-player). Aunt Marta,  despite her incongruous finery and new-found opulence, still continues to pay. She is a fish out of water, and is uneasy with the changes in her life .  Teresina pays as well, though she is oblivious to the fact, and she will pay still more in the future. Though Aunt Marta could not possible have foreseen the brilliant change in Sina’s and her fortunes which was to come, she had some presentiment that her daughter’s ambitions would have a dark side. She shares with Micuccio the feeling that despite appearances, all is not well, and that all will not be well in the future either.

Three poems I posted elsewhere in this blog, seem to me to express the rancour of rejected men, who perhaps incurred losses similar to Micuccio’s.  They are by Propertius, Francisco de Medrano and the other by Giacomo Leopardi, whose “Sopra il ritratto di una bella donna” unfolds such a scene as might exactly have played itself out in Sina’s salon.  I wonder that Micuccio too, will not later succumb to even an greater bitterness than he is now experiencing. Neither was the subject of ruin ever far from Pirandello’s life. His family wealth was lost when their sulphur mines flooded, and his wife’s dowry, which was invested in them, was lost as well. Her health was ruined, and her sanity forfeit, and Pirandello was compelled to commit her to an asylum. Though it is to our benefit that he was forced to earn his living by his pen, he could not have relished his lot in life.

In  Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the hero Hoffmann falls in love with a diva who is a mechanical doll. He discovers the reality behind her appearance only when her squabbling creators smash her to bits. The siren-like soul-stealing spell of the diva can only be broken by a similar act of destruction. Micuccio’s suffering has only begun. We leave Sina as she is still wearing her crown. The village lass Micuccio loved is lost, gone forever, never to return, but this is not his loss alone. Sina’s dual personality consists of two halves which can never come together on their own. Only a third, larger self could ever integrate them. We have no way of knowing if that will happen, and she has only her art to redeem her. Will she go on to have a brilliant career, to break the rules of the stage as Maria Malibran did when she sang the role of  Otello? Or will she be like Olimpia the loftily named mechanical doll-diva in whose artificially brilliant voice was found the perfect exaggerated mingling of the natural and unnatural?  Will she too be a plaything of male passions, then to be cast down from her lofty height?

“He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.”
Micuccio’s female ‘virtue’ is in stark contrast to Sina’s male ‘vice’. He went back in. Did he re-enter the house?  And did he then overhear the humiliating exchange in Sina’s conversation? What happened the next day? Did he wander abjectly through the rain-drenched city and find his way back to the train station to go back home?He must have choked to swallow the bitter dose of reality which must have extinguished forever his youthful idealism. He was severely punished for his foolishness, his, naivety, his passivity and his love. He has only his pride left, and we hope he will succeed in retaining it in the days to come. I remember an old aunt repeating the axiom that “love and pride don’t mix” – so when love is forfeit pride must step in to serve as redemption, however false it might be.

This is, in a way, a story that sticks in the craw, as I am certain Pirandello intended it to be. I fantasize a sequel, which combines elements from Lampedusa’s  Il Gattopardo,  Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover and parts taken form the time Leopardi spent in Bologna and his ill-fated ‘romance’ with Fanny Targioni. I persist in hoping that there is an alternative to ruin, that is neither simple nor moralistic and which can satisfy the rigorous requirements of a good story. Pirandello has supplied us with sufficient grist for the mill, and were I a competent writer of fiction and a good researcher, I would be tempted to try.

The period of transition and dissolution of “The kingdom of the two Sicilies” is as Lampedusa has shown, a particularly fertile setting for a story in which change pervades everything, and past and present overlap in a dense cloud. Despite Pirandello’s apparent reservations, (in this story) the empowerment of women is not an intrinsically evil thing – far from it. The re-writing of a new script for old social roles  in the context of historical change can be the subject of fascinating drama. There is no need to stay stuck in the moribund dictates of social stratification and expectation, and above all, there is no need for every tale to always be either overtly or covertly cautionary. And this perfect story need not always be the only perfect kind of story.

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Margaret Caroline Anderson (November 24 1886 – October 19 1973)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story I want to tell, and which I love to remember, began on an old-fashioned summer day. . . .
As usual, we had gone to the lake in June, and all summer our lake-side cottage was filled with music – piano music and the murmur of water. These were the elements in which I floated through the long and lovely hours.

We had an old mahogany square piano, too ancient and beautiful for beautiful sound, but which served our needs for the two days after arrival until a good piano could be sent in from the village. From then until the end of September anyone passing along the lake-front could stop and listen to a concert of Chopin’s most haunting music.

The cottage stood a few yards from the lake, with a shaded path between it and the water that slapped softly against the pier. A canoe, a steel rowboat with “feather” oars, a motor launch and a small sailboat rocked slowly on the lake. To the right of the pier there was a leaning oak tree whose branches hung out over the water. Around it a low stone wall had been built on which you could sit, under the tree’s heavy branches, and plan what you wanted from life.

What I wanted was love; and it was what I found.

I was eighteen, it was June, I was entranced by the cadence of music and flowing water, and it was in this melodious place that my great experience of romantic love had its beginning.

Later I was to know real love – boundless, changeless, deathless. But the romantic miracle lasted for thirty years, like a prolonged adolescence; and though it had an ending, it never came to an end.

Day by day, all the boys who were supposed to stir our young hearts strolled along the path between cottages and lake. I can still remember their names, I can still count ten of them who, I was told, were in love with me. One day a girl who lived in the cottage next door confided to me, “Every night I wish on a star to be as popular as you are.” These words were pleasing, but meant little to me. I thought the girl was prettier than I was, and, since she was so interested in boys, wondered why they didn’t choose her instead of me?  I was interested in pianos.

Our cottage porch was furnished like a living-room, with a deep red carpet and white lounge-chairs cushioned in green. There was a low wide swing piled with green pillows, and a round table which held vases of white flowers. Beside them stood a large crystal bowl, always filled with slices of fresh pineapple.

One night a boy sat beside me on the swing, trying to speak of love. I heard him say in a strangled voice, “l know I’m being too persistent in the face of your indifference.” This didn’t seem to me an inspired approach, but then whom did I know who was inspired? Myself, I answered; and this was true – I really thought that I was a repository of unparalleled, unrecognized or untalked-of emotions, acquainted with an effulgence that no one else shared or demanded. I listened to people’s talk about ideas, or about love, and discovered that none of it offered any challenge to my own standards or feelings. The boy’s fumbling words made me uncomfortable, and I made an effort to find a kind way of asking him, “Then why persist?” But at that moment the girl next door began to play a Chopin nocturne and all I said to the boy was, “listen! how wonderful!”

He listened for a few minutes, then said goodnight and strode away – defiant and ineffectual. I watched him go, unmoved. How could I listen to his halting emotions while Chopin was so lyrically expressing my own? The nocturne floated out over the lake, like a shining light on the water, and I listened with all my being, convinced that such magic was all I asked of life. When at last the music ended I left the porch in a daze and went up to my flower-filled bedroom.

I had chosen a room at the back of the cottage instead of on the lake-front because its windows looked over acres of wheat fields, and at midnight a distant train sent its whistle through the wheat – a long sound, a rest for the heart. Night after mysterious night I listened for this sound, and once when I was very ill I lay in this room listening to Chopin all day. Our music teacher had been invited to the lake to play for me, since that was all I asked for. Between breakfast and lunch she played waltzes and mazurkas, and my favorite “Fantasy-Impromptu.” Between lunch and tea she played all the etudes, and between tea and dinner the twenty-four preludes. Still I hadn’t had enough; so after dinner she played nocturnes. Her love of Chopin was as enduring as mine, and the day seemed to have been as happy for her as it was life-giving to me. . . . The train whistle ran through the night, toward far cities where I would one day go, alone and free, and live only for music, love, poetry and magnificent ideas. And then, one day. . .  my great experience began.

. . . A golden summer afternoon, and friends of Mother’s were coming to tea, bringing with them a guest from London. I usually avoided teas, but the word “London” held a spell for me; so I waited with the others for the guest to appear” She walked slowly toward us, under the summer trees, holding out her hand to Mother. She was so different from anyone I had ever seen that I thought she must be a great actress. There was a kind of silence around her, as there would be for a heroine making her first entrance in a stage play. Her friends served merely as a background; she stood out from them like a legendary figure moving within the boundary of her own irradiation. The long silver chain she wore swung to the rhythm of her walk with a sound of soft chimes. She seemed so incredibly lovely to me that when she gave me her hand, looking directly into my eyes and saying “Ah?,” I felt a little movement of pain in my heart. Afterward we sat in a far corner of the porch, barely conscious of voices and the tinkle of tea-cups. From time to time she looked at me and smiled slowly, and I thought I had never seen so beautiful a face – more than beautiful, some power in it I had never felt before, stillness and swift changes, something so compelling that I couldn’t fix her features on my mind or even remember them later. But I remembered ever afterward a mirage that appeared as the afternoon light began to fade – a changed mise en scene as if a camera had photographed a different assemblage: the porch suddenly became as dark as night, the people and objects on it disappeared and only she remained, sitting in a circle of light which held in its center a large topaz ring and the whiteness of her dramatic hands.

The day was fading, as if a storm were coming, and everyone began to talk of leaving before the rain fell. But Mother, charmed by the new guest, urged her to stay to dinner. ‘Thank you,” I heard the blurred voice say, “l think I should love to.” And she smiled at me again. By dinner time the storm had become violent and we were all nervous. From our living-room windows high waves rushed toward us as if they would enter the cottage. The brilliance of the lightning made us shudder and we knew that our guest couldn’t leave. Mother said, “Miss Leigh, you must spend the night here, the storm may go on till morning. I’ll telephone to your friends.” But the wires were down, so Mother said, “It doesn’t matter. They’ll know you’re safe with us.” Our guest room was on the ground floor, and as Mother was showing it to her I heard Audrey Leigh say, “Oh dear, I’m terribly afraid of lightning, I’m afraid I shan’t be able to sleep.” And then Mother said, ‘Margaret, why don’t you sleep down here with Miss Leigh? Then neither of you will be afraid.” There was a little silence, then the lovely voice said, “Oh yes, do, I shall be so comforted.”

My heart and all things stood still . . .

What had happened? Nothing had happened, but something immense, something unimaginable was taking place. Did Mother realize what she had said? It was as if some unknowable situation were opening before me, some consequence announced, and weighed; something portentous, and yet at the same time redolent with a more exquisite happiness than anyone had ever known.

We dined, and as the evening and the storm went on I kept feeling and thinking, “What am I feeling?” I knew that I was experiencing a rapture too mysterious to be understood; it was like music – far, far beyond life. One didn’t try to explain such mysteries, they were inexpressible. “l shall be so comforted” . . .  In the space of a few seconds I felt that I had lived a full lifetime of experience, and suddenly knew all there was to know about love. Everyone was eating and drinking and talking, but I was living. All the others except Audrey Leigh had disappeared, like the people and objects on the darkened porch. Seated in her circle of light, she alone existed – and she was visible only to me. Our communication was secret and complete, and consisted of one essential word: “Ah?”

When I came downstairs to the guest room she was already in bed. The dressing-table held perfumes and powders in profusion, and the maid had brought nightgowns and negligees for her to choose from. She lay wrapped in a glow of amethyst and candlelight. Her face was in shadow, but I felt her compelling eyes on me. ‘Are you frightened?” she asked, and I said “No.” She said nothing more. I blew out the candles and lay down beside her. I tried to say something inconsequent, but she didn’t answer. Waves of emotions engulfed me. I wasn’t questioning or puzzled, I was overcome with ecstasy. In silence we listened to the storm; in silence I felt that I was listening to the vibrations of her presence, of her life. Finally she turned toward me and in a flash of lightning I saw that her eyes had deepened. For an instant I felt her fragrant face against my cheek. “Lovely one,” she said, “goodnight.” And she touched her lips softly to mine. All night I lay awake, held motionless in an infinite seduction. When lightning illuminated the room I tried to see her face again. If she too were awake, had she been looking at me? If so, her eyes had closed before I could be certain. Was she conscious of what I was feeling? Was it possible that she shared this strange and turbulent enchantment? Then I realized that she was sleeping. Toward morning I too fell asleep. And when I wakened she had already dressed and left the room. The sun was shining.The amethyst gown and negligee lay over a chair.

She stayed two more days at the lake and I saw her once. Her friends gave a party for her, and as she moved about among them she talked with Mother and the others but made no gesture toward me, though at moments I thought I saw her eyes turn in my direction. At last I went to speak to her, but I was puzzled and hurt because her manner was withdrawn, almost as if she didn’t know me, as if no miracle had occurred. I felt thrust back into the world I had lived in “before.” We were still exchanging words like strangers when someone called to her. She didn’t seem to hear, so I put my hand on her arm. I made the gesture without thinking, and no one could have been more surprised than I was at the vibration that shot through my fingers – an electrical voltage as if I had touched a live wire. Gently withdrawing her arm, she gave me her hand, smiling and saying, “It’s been charming.” Then she moved away, disappearing from me into the world of people and teacups, words and gestures. I left the party and went back to my room in the cottage where I could think and try to discover what had happened, why and wherefore and therefore . . . what I must do. The next day I was still in such a paralysis of emotion that I walked for hours, without even thinking of trying to see her again. I would wait until I could decide what to do; I didn’t know until the day after that she was leaving for New York and London. Which she did, without a sign or a word.

After this shock, life was like death to me.

Why had she been different? What had become of the miracle? It had existed from the first moment I saw her; she too had felt it, she had let me see that she recognized it, she couldn’t deny that it had happened. So what was I to do now without it? I would have to go to London . . . At eighteen, what does one know? Everything and nothing. But “everything” becomes distorted later; one has to fight for the everything that one began with. I began by quickly accepting the fact that what had happened to me wasn’t the kind of thing that happened to other people. Boys fell in love with girls, girls fell in love with boys, but for some reason I didn’t fall in love with boys. This was something I had always known, but never thought about. Boys were prevalent, but none of them could ever make me fall in love. They were hard and strong, they were unattractive, they had ugly muscles and rough skins and no faint trace of charm. What could they know about drowning in charm, as I was now doing? How could girls find anything in boys to compare with this rapture? How strange girls were, not to be like me! It never occurred to me that I was “strange”; I was merely different, had been born different. So much the better. I even thought for a long time that I was the only person in the world made in my image.

And even in later years, when I knew boys with beautiful faces and muscles, my feeling never changed. Once, in France, I saw a boy of such startling beauty walking over a bridge in Perpignan that I turned the car and followed him for a long time, gazing at his face and rhythmic walk as if I could never absorb enough of such perfection. But to have related this aesthetic emotion to a personal one – to imagine being in love with him – never, never could it be. I had fallen in love with a face, with an emanation; for the first time my heart had been shaken by a human discovery that was like my long-ago discovery of the meaning of music. Years later, in Paris, I watched an artist’s intense face as he tried to describe the moment in his youth when he had discovered Proportion. He was so concentrated in trying to find words for his sudden insight that I had never forgotten what he said. And now I had had a comparable experience: a face, a voice, a vision of overwhelming beauty. . . she had become for me love in all its madness, and every other emotion vanished from the world.

In my desolation I could endure no one else, and no one, it seemed, could endure me. I didn’t know what parents, sisters, friends, thought of my state, what plight they imagined I was in. They had ceased to exist for me; everything ceased – nature no longer held magic, days and hours no longer led me toward infinite delights, only music still had power. All I could think of for months, all I could accept from life as worthy of acceptance, was my need to be charmed. Charm became for me a
voracious appetite. Until I saw her again, how could I go on living? And if I never saw her again, what would become of my life? If I found her, what mystery would it lead to? If I never found her, whom would I find who could produce such a miracle of adoration? A boy? Such a suggestion would have astounded me if anyone had ever offered it, but no one did. Perhaps I would find another fabulous apparition from some unknown world? I didn’t believe it. . . no one could compare with her. And the truth is that, when I came to know her, her qualities surpassed even those I had first sensed in her. No one else knew how to talk about love, how to write about love, how to be in love, as she did. I didn’t of course talk to my parents about what had happened. They lived in a world far removed from mine, which their imaginations would never help them to understand. But to everyone else I could talk, and did, never suspecting that they might not understand me either. I always began by saying, “Oh, if you only knew!” – as if all that I felt and knew wasn’t at the disposition of anyone else. I was spared any need to defend my position by my ignorance of how people might judge it. If I had ever felt the guilt and isolation which I was later to read about as stigmatizing this “sharper love,” I would have fought to the death for my authentic right to it. As it was, this occasion never arose. My conviction of possessing personal authority was so rooted that I continued to pursue my life as if no one would ever dare to criticize me about anything. And in fact no one ever did . . .  I mean, only one person did. And that was she.

Autumn came to the lake, poplar leaves fell in flurries of gold, and sadness was in the air. September came. I had to go back to college, but I was still under such intoxication that even the hatred of returning to an institution of learning had little reality to me. How drab everyone and everything there appeared to my new eyes and sensibilities. Had these college girls never heard of love? Were they all – even the attractive ones – untouched by all that I had become aware of?

And then one day a rumor ran through the corridors and the campus – a story to be talked of only in whispers – . . the story of a girl, a junior, who had a “crush” on one of the teachers. Her family had become alarmed because she had begged to stay on in college during the vacations, when the teacher was there; they didn’t want her to return for her senior year, and she had begun to “pine away.” The teacher was a mouse-like creature whom no one could possibly associate with love – or so I thought. But even the family doctor could prescribe nothing for the girl’s “anemia” but to send her back to college, where the menace to her health would be less than if she were deprived of the beloved presence. The rumor persisted, but the girl returned. I think no one quite believed in the somber repercussions of the story. We speculated about it for weeks, in the vague excitement created by ignorance, but finally the gossip died. I remember no talk of penalties or consequences.
And then, before the end of the year, I was surprised to find myself falling in love. It was merely an episode, nebulous and uncommitted, a substitute experience – no betrayal of my allegiance to the fabulous face, the mythical essence lost to me somewhere in London. It came about through a blend of music and love, since the attractive junior – who at first awed me and then seemed to cherish me – was a musician who played the piano with a haunting talent. This furnished all the spring days and nights with the required exaltations, and college became a temple for me. There was a balcony under the stars where I sat, night after night, listening to strains of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn pouring out over the moonlit campus.

Her presence made another year of college bearable, but when she graduated I refused to go on with the academic boredom I loathed. I had decided to face and force the world, manage somehow to get to New York and start a career, equip myself for the great impetus which would one day take me to London and to her. I made these plans with a confidence that seems fictional to me today. I was sure that my resolution would never falter, and confident that its fulfillment would be all that I planned it to be.

I did finally get to New York – I scarcely remember how– and three intense years flew by: a job in a publisher’s office, reviewing books, reading and editing manuscripts. I was happy too. Every morning dawned for me like a morning in May, with vistas of enchantment at the end of every path through the spring woods. And it wasn’t long before I discovered, for the first time, the “reality” of love. But it was a reality that failed to turn into a dream; therefore it wasn’t what I was seeking. It was an artless, natural, explicit experience – so simple that it could create no spell for me. Even at its height I could only contrast it with what it could have been, if only. . .

One of my friends from the lake had also found a job in New York, and it was through her – after nearly five years – that my dream began to form again. She was a friend of the friends who had brought Audrey Leigh to tea on that faraway afternoon, and it was she who telephoned me, one day in October, to announce in an excited voice: “She’s coming to New York to spend the winter!”

Thus it was in New York and not in London, that Audrey Leigh appeared in my life once more….

Several years later….

We were to drive to Dieppe, to the channel ferry for Newhaven. We would drive slowly, savoring the countryside, and stop for a night in one of those inns on the Seine, at Le Petit Andely, where you dine beside the river and listen to the movement of olive-green water against the embankment, and to the slow boats that pass, with their red and green lights, so close to your table that you could almost reach out and touch them. The visit had ended on a flawless note, untroubled by tensions or antagonisms.

“I’m learning how to act,” I said to Claire the night before we left. ‘And now I don’t have to learn what will follow, since I know it so by heart: all the days to come when that face, that presence, are as needed as electricity, when every hour holds the hope of a letter. All the old ‘enslaving factors’ of which I’m such a willing victim.”
“Quand meme, tout cela a une certaine grandeur,” Claire said. ‘And it’s strange,” I said, “but I begin to feel something else. I’ve a dim impression that I’ve been colossally stupid. I don’t know just what I mean, but it’s like a new idea in my brain.”

When we reached the inn on the river, we found it filled with lilacs, and our table on the terrace held a great vase of them, as if by command. Two, three hours went by as we dined and boats drifted up and down the river, filling the air with that putt-putt peculiar to Seine river boats and which, once heard, can never be forgotten.

As darkness fell, the waitress brought candles to our table, and in their flickering light I watched the shadows on Audrey’s changing face.

Of all that we talked about, I remember three things she said. One was, “What about the person who has what you call ‘personal effulgence’ – who has it for many people; do you say she has more to give to ‘the one person,’ or less?”

“Oh,” I said, “more, much more.” And she turned on such a powerful current of charm that I could only wonder, blinded, what would be its incandescence if she ever decided to choose me as the one person. She went on talking about love as if she alone in the world knew what it could be, and I knew that I would never forget this night –  the silence, the water and lilacs, the soft candle-light, the rising moon, the cadences of an incomparable voice, and the display of all the most potent allurements offered by a connoisseur for my expert appreciation. We lingered over coffee and she asked, “Shall we put out the candles and have only the moon?”

We sat on for a long time. I was preoccupied with the realization that we were sharing that special communication which is beyond the power of words to bestow. And in the fullness of peace that invaded my heart I heard her say, “l think no one has ever really loved me. It has always been simply a question of attraction.”

“But Audrey,” I said, with quiet desperation, “l love you.” “Do you?” she said. “Really. . . ?” And for the first time since I had known her I saw sadness in her face.

I had never felt so close to her – to her, the person she really was, separate from her ideas, from all that was distorted by  her by a constricting religion. ‘You must know” –  I began; and then rushed on, “Oh I have so many new things to tell you! . . .”

She looked at me as she had in the little roadside cafe.

”Perhaps I feel them,” she said. She put her hand across the table and I covered it with mine – that vital hand, so vibrant that even to touch it held a wildness more keen than any other I have known. We sat looking at one another in a slow dream and finally she said, “Perhaps there is no need, now, to tell me.”

Then she withdrew her hand and rose from the table, turning abruptly from me and walking to the balustrade,  where she stood looking out over the water.
“Should you like to walk along the river?” I asked,
But she merely said, “No. Shall we go?”

It was late as we entered our rooms, with their balconies on the river and the moon shining full into  their   shadowed alcoves, and lilacs everywhere. We said goodnight as if we shouldn’t say it, and I went to my room in a daze of loveliness and love.

I undressed quickly and stood for a long time on my balcony, looking at the moon and its image on the water’ conscious of the divinity of night; conscious too that it was not a night to be made more divine by the divinity of love. Why? Why? I kept asking, as I had done for so long, but after a moment the flood of new impressions that had been racing through my mind quieted and cleared. Stupid – hadn’t I been too stupid, somewhere, in my rationalizations? Why, even, had I rationalized at all  –  or, if at all, why not all the way? Tonight for the first time in my “love” for Audrey I had felt the stab in the heart that belongs to love. This was what she had known was lacking; this was what the sadness in her face had meant? I had talked for years about being in love; I had basked in the love of love, but what had l really felt of Love? l had made a distinction between the love that is based on total admiration and the love that stops short of it. This was immaturity,  and was I never to advance beyond it? I had been so convinced of the superiority of my ideas! Well, they were superior, but was love dependent on ideas? In romantic love (l remembered Kaye saying) the ideas in one’s head are of no more importance than the food in one’s stomach.

And l had believed that a divergence of faith was fatal. Wasn’t this also a blindness of immaturity? No one should try to destroy the faith of another – l had heard this said, but l had never given it a moment’s real thought. I had spent my time with Audrey in challenge, defiance, even scorn. Of course if she never given it a moment’s real thought. I had spent my time  with Audrey in challenge, defiance, even scorn Of course if she hadn’t attacked my faith first perhaps I wouldn’t have attacked hers (Oh, be honest, I thought, Of course I would.)

But the point lay elsewhere. Nothing is superior except that understanding which understands all things. And that is the meaning of “the greatest of these is love”? It alone produces miracles? Not the mind but the heart? And this is part of the “objective love” Douglas talked about and which, until now, I had thought I had understood? How blind I had been for years. …  Oh, oh, I must remember to tell her in the morning. Perhaps she had already felt the change in me. Was this why she had said there was no need to tell her now? And then, did I hear my name called – softly, from the next  room? No, it couldn’t be – but it was only a last hope of my heart. But I heard it again . . . that blurred voice I had loved for so many years. I felt my life stop in my veins. But no, it could only mean another goodnight – “Goodnight, and again and yet again goodnight”. . . I left the balcony and walked slowly toward  the voice, without hope or design. She was holding out her beautiful arms. “l shan’t fight it any longer,” she said . . . “l love you.”

Had I wept with love, with an ecstasy outshining all I had known this love would be? My eyes were clear of tears as I watched hers open in the morning light. ‘Audrey, Audrey,” I said  – “a state of love?”
Her dominant head lay against my cheek. She raised her eyes and looked at me clearly and held my face in her hands as  she murmured breathless words I had thought never to hear again.

“l am radiant of heart,” she said.

Years and years ago. . .
I shan’t say that it lasted “forever.” It had a deeper time, a time in height and depth. It gave us unbearable partings, unbelievable meetings – a full life-span. It had its ending, but it never came to its end. She knew the perfect moment to part, as I had always known she would, the parting that cheats life of its repetitions, its reductions, and that belongs to a knowledge outside the possession of nearly all human beings. She took up her life once more, and I mine. We never discussed religion again. She kept hers, and I kept mine. She had cherished her own too long to change it, but I think she understood something of mine, at last. And then there were letters that created for us once more a secret bond beneath all the other events of living. Thus all was kept in the regions of the heart’s great longings, and withheld from those regions where they have been over-fulfilled. All had belonged to the young, the too-beautiful, the endlessly-renewed. And years later, as she lay dying in a country far away, she sent me a last letter. The strength of her handwriting had not diminished; it still swept forward like the sails of a ship riding the seas. I have always kept the letter near me, for in it she evoked once again the radiance we had known. Even today that memory has such a poetry and permanence that it moves beside me like a sustaining power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forbidden Fires, from which these passages have been excerpted, is probably the best of Margaret Anderson’s several autobiographical works. It is presented as an ‘autobiographical novel’ and  in it she recounts the long traverse of her amorous obsession with a woman seventeen years older than she was, and which bridged a more than thirty-year span, beginning in her eighteenth year in 1904. The object of Anderson’s obsession was Josephine Plows-Day, a minor theatrical celebrity of her era.

Plows-Day, (who appears under the pseudonym Audrey Leigh in the book,)  figures as the connecting thread  throughout. The memoir begins with Anderson’s  coup de foudre, and peaks, towards the end of the book, with the tastefully expressed and vaguely alluded to consummation.

I wonder if the name ‘Audrey Leigh’ was selected by Anderson as a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s prolix and  protracted poetical work Aurora Leigh, a long-winded account of a meandering love-affair,  fraught with much drama and misunderstanding, which culminates in a Jane Eyre-like twist, with the heroine, after many adventures and misadventures,  marrying her humbled and blinded first love.

I remember the old insect-bored volume which reposed in one of the dusty bookshelves in in my grandfather’s house, an unwieldy work  which I read – or attempted to read – with the dazed and uncomprehending faculties of a child, somehow caught in the kind of drunken intoxication that words can wield even when their meanings are but partially and  imperfectly grasped.  Perhaps Anderson experienced something of the sort when she fell in love with Plows-Day.

What appears to be the only surviving photograph of Plows-Day (taken in 1937 when Plows-Day was around 68 years old)  is of an older woman with a prominent nose, who gazes into a dark indeterminate distance from under heavy-lidded eyes. The rather owlish face, reminiscent to me of the cartoons of Ed Koren of New Yorker fame, bears a strong suggestion of inwardness and secrecy, and even perhaps a subdued echo of the impressive former beauty, this last fervently attested to by Anderson in her story.

Anderson first met Plows-Day in 1904 when she was eighteen and Plows Day thirty-five. The encounter appears to have swept over Anderson like a heavy and intoxicatingly voluptuous  breeze, latent with heat. The result was a  grande passion   which bridged her entire adult life, overarching several relationships and affairs with other women, including  Jane Heap, (co-founder with her of The Little Review and one of the several former lovers of Djuna Barnes), Georgette Leblanc (soprano and movie actress the former mistress of Morris Maeterlink), Solita Solano (writer and journalist, who was at the time in a relationship with Janet Flanner, the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker), and, finally, Dorothy Caruso (the widow of tenor Enrico Caruso.)  In fact, in Forbidden Fires,  Jane Heap appears (by my surmise)  pseudonymously as ‘Kaye’, and Georgette Leblanc as ‘Claire’.

Anderson describes the effect Plows-Day had on her psyche thus: “I felt as if my nature was being manipulated by an expert”, and that appears to have been as neat a summing-up as could ever be made of her condition as she fell under the the thrall of a woman who was  in complete control of her seductive and erotic powers, which she then exerted with a ferocious and nuanced virtuosity on a mind already emphatically predisposed to fulfilling its ambition of romantic fulfillment.

Plows-Day was indubitably a grand seductress – the sort of woman who dedicates her life to that art – which is, nowadays, something that cannot be readily understood because it no longer exists in the world we know today. Nevertheless, it used to be cultivated  with great assiduousness by many fascinating women in the past. It was an art which was  cultivated and deployed with the seriousness of an army general prosecuting a war, with every battle calculated to result in the acquisition of more power and more territory. It consisted, in part, of never allowing oneself  to be fully seen or completely viewed, and never permitting oneself to be understood, or one’s actions to be predicted. Success depended on of keeping one’s motives well-concealed, and rationing out tantalising glimpses and intimations, and employing a highly finessed apportionment of rewards and punishments. Favours had to be withheld and granted in an unerring calculus. This was seduction elevated to a fine art: the art of  setting the stage to perfection, of managing a long-term seduction almost as a grand opus, and involving specialised skills and gifts such as a beautiful speaking voice, a felicity of phrase, beautiful handwriting, personal grace and a personal aesthetic which asserts itself like an unseen power that eclipses the ordinary and sets an almost audible tone in the background of all unfolding happenings.

Anderson responded with a giddy helplessness in the face of the full panoply of these awesome powers. Nor was she deterred, in any practical sense, by the terrible neurological disease of Plows-Day’s religious fundamentalism and her ridiculous convictions about the heinous and soul-destroying influence of ‘sexual deviance.’ Anderson remained stolidly unconvinced by the crude religious preachments, perhaps because of their sheer stupidity, which in her opinion blotted out the whole field of what religion at its best might have been meant to convey.  Plows-Day’s arguments did nothing to weaken or diminish Anderson’s  conviction that love, regardless of its orientation, was not in the least bit wrong, let alone evil.

One gains the impression that in contrast to her simplistic attempts at religious fear-mongering, Plows-Day’s romantic manipulations were full of subtlety and complex feelings, shot through with the chiaroscuro of ambiguity and implication.  These were tacitly conveyed, in their wholeness and entirety without the detriment of being snipped into bits of words.

Of course Anderson’s  life-long passion had its inception in a day were when telephone calls could not be made when “wires were down,” and at a time when pianos provided the music – and people played them. There were no t.v.s, no radios, no computers on which to listen to music: it took someone within earshot actually touching the keys, for music to find its way into the air. That, I think, brought an immediacy to the experience of hearing – and of listening, – an absence of the remoteness, that we now seem to take for granted, since music and its source are seldom found together.  I imagine, this was a time which was unaffected by many of the other disconnectedness that plague us as well. A kind of wordless ‘language of  of emotion’ facilitated by music, seems to have created a climate of mind in Anderson, which made her susceptible to the kind of music played on her inner ear by Plows-Day,

Anderson gives us one of the most giddy – and yet one of the most detailed and convincing accounts of romantic thrall. The retrospective confluence of her mature mind flowing back into the immature stream of her younger self  give her account some of its inexplicability.  Immense and unassailable self-possession keeps company throughout with her uncertainties, which, one might expect, had more to do with not fully understanding what she felt as ‘love’ than the actual feelings she felt stirring inside her. What befell Anderson would seem to be a kind of parturition of the soul – when something which has its own life and life force first emerges and then makes itself deeply felt.   It then seems as if  another self is beginning to emerge, and then to merge its separate bloodstream with one’s own: another heart begins to beat, and soon it will assume its own demanding life, which in this case happens to be a lesbian identity.

The excerpts I have selected here only cover the books of  ‘genesis and revelation,’ with all the intervening books left out, but they neatly bracket the thirty year course of her passion from ‘genesis’ in 1904 to the unspecified date, several years later, of  ‘revelation.’ It is akin to the slow process that befalls a fly who has stepped into what will later transform to amber.

But I can’t help wondering if Anderson’s unconventional attitudes about love, which demanded an absence of jealousy, may have led her to misread the root of Plows-Day’s erotic reservations. Anderson and Leblanc lived together in an intimate – or as we might say ‘committed’  relationship right up to Leblanc’s death of breast cancer in 1941. Plows-Day, who grew up in the Victorian era, might have had very valid reservations about the vulnerability of her feelings, were the much younger Anderson to have injured her own sensibilities – and pride – by engaging in simultaneous open involvements with other women. Her questions about jealousy, (expressed in portions of the book not included in these excerpts) may have been  intended to allude to her real reason for holding back, but Anderson, who had her own obdurate ideas of how things should be, appears  not to have considered this aspect.

Instead, she cherishes the slightly preposterous conviction, steeped in a sort of magical thinking, that Plows-Day could sense her own flawed and limited understanding of love, patiently awaiting the ‘perfect moment’ to act, even though this took several decades to occur. But besides that, there is a chemistry here, which occurs when there is a match on other unseen and unobvious, but nevertheless vast and influential levels, which creates incongruous but enduring connections.

One wonders if perhaps ‘love’ has its own being, and its own life, and its own exigent purposes, which inspire it to deploy us as its puppet government over a kingdom over which we do not rule. Perhaps this is also the way in which our genes write their indelible script of our inheritance – a script which depends on  the direction of our erotic impulses for its survival. This could have been the relentless  force which drove Anderson to persist in her obsession for three decades.

Still, I can’t help asking why Plows-Day’s elegant artifice wasn’t obvious to Anderson as such – or was it? Certainly Anderson was the more intelligent and pragmatic of the two,  and her actions were based on a constellation of faculties which included keen insights, reasoned arguments, and an instinctive clarity of purpose, whereas the other woman may have been prompted to act by a combination of native intelligence and good instincts.

Religious fundamentalism tends to be a feature of an unformed and ignorant mind, one which is unequal to the challenge of dealing with subtlety and complexity, of ambivalence, and the challenge to evolve as a human being. It is just the opposite of  expansive wisdom, being narrow and blinkered by crude dogmas. Plows-Day’s beliefs might have occasioned, if not directly caused, the useless waste of what might have been many rich years of her life. But I have a hunch that her religious convictions were a screen behind which Plows-Day concealed her real human doubts and fears. I suspect she used them as a front, because she could use God as a screen behind which she could hide her human insecurities and reservations, bending religious dogma to her cause in order to conceal her own personal vulnerabilities. Religious dogma which made homosexuality a sin, could also be used as a weapon, particularly if  its principles could be employed to undermine Anderson’s self-possession and self-assurance, under the guise of asserting the authourity of a divine decree, and it must have been immensely vexing to Plows-Day that this usually potent ploy failed to gain any traction with Anderson.

Anderson believed in art with a big  ‘A’ and love with a big ‘L’.  Plows-Day’s rather stilted (and doubtless well-chosen and rehearsed)  phrase “I am radiant of heart”, and all her other well-placed locutions so ardently admired by Anderson, strike us now as a little trite, and a little foolish, but for Anderson they resonated with the heady harmonies of girlhood  impressions, and girlhood memories of  falling in love and beginning her passionate lifelong obsession.

These passions shaped forever the person Anderson was to become, and fueled a process of self-investigation and self-knowledge, and the rooted, habitual reflectiveness which makes her a reliable chronicler of a process of growing up and falling in love, much written about by heterosexuals, but kept very much occluded in the case of lesbians.

The word ‘Lesbian’ appeared openly in Forbidden Fires, though it did not in Anderson’s three other autobiographical volumes. First published in 1958, it was written much earlier, when such explicit words were rarely, openly pronounced. It seems  a sad coincidence, that so many superb lesbian writers flourished at a time when their personal voices had to be muffled and censored.  Worse, even today,  access to the personal papers, records and correspondence of these women, which they and their heirs bequeathed to various colleges, is severely limited by them. I cannot imagine that equivalent restriction of access  of their historical and cultural records would be denied to black people.

As I look at the many rare photographs in this book, all posed with the heavily contrived pretension of dramatic intensity much favoured at the time, they reveal to me women who insisted on asserting their own realities about both the substance and the appearance of life, and how they took their places in it. The ‘heavenly’ arching of necks, presentation of profiles and extension of limbs, the elaborate costumes and make-up, the insistence on elegance and the awareness of what was to them a sense of fashion, soften my judgement about what I might otherwise tend to think of as faintly ridiculous.  Plows-Day, with her alert, yet somnolent gaze, which slips its suggestive way from its narrow ocular gap and past the emphatic nose in a way that seems to me almost cartoonish, reminds me unwittingly of a satiric poem of Francisco Quevedo entitled “To a Nose,” (“A una Nariz”) but it also seems to also reveal a quiet tenderness.  It seems, despite a vaguely owlish cast, to possess an uncanny girlishness, which makes it a plausible as the inspiration of all the commingled elation and chagrin which ignited Anderson’s ‘forbidden fires.’ and the unyielding certainty of her idèe fixe.

Such uneasy accommodations with the ultimately unattainable Muse, are frequently the inspiration for much that gives purpose to life.

 

 

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Jane Vance Rule (March 28, 1931 – November 27, 2007)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’m sorry I’m late, darling,” Virginia said, having to pick up and embrace three-year-old Clarissa before she could kiss Katherine hello. “My last patient needed not only a new crown but some stitches for a broken heart. Why do people persist in marriage?”
“Your coat’s cold,” Clarissa observed soberly.
“So’s my nose,” Virginia said, burying it in the child’s neck. “It’s past your bath time and your story time, and I’ve probably ruined dinner.”
“No,” Katherine said. “We’re not eating until seven-thirty. We’re having a guest.”
“Who?”
“Daddy’s new friend,” Clarissa said. “And I get to stay up until she comes.”
“Really?”
“She said she needed to talk with us,” Katherine explained. “She sounded all right on the phone. Well, a little nervous but not at all hostile. I thought, perhaps we owe her that much?”
“Or him?” Virginia wondered.
“Oh, if him, I suppose I should have said no,” Katherine decided.
“People who don’t even want to marry him think this is odd enough.”
“Odd about him?”
“Even he thinks it odd about him,” Katherine said.
“Men have an exaggerated sense of responsibility in the most peculiar directions,” Virginia said. “We can tell her he’s a perfectly nice man, can’t we?” She was now addressing the child.
“Daddy said I didn’t know who was my mommie,” Clarissa said.
“Oh?”
“I have two mommies. Will Elizabeth be my mommie, too?”
“She just might,” Virginia said. “What a lucky kid that would make you.”
“Would she come to live with us then?” Clarissa asked.
“Sounds to me as if she wants to live with Daddy.” Virginia said.
“So did you, at first,” Clarissa observed.
Both women laughed.
“Your bath?” Virginia ordered and carried the child up the stairs while Katherine returned to the kitchen to attend to dinner.
Clarissa was on the couch in her pajamas, working a pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland with Virginia, when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get that,” Katherine called from the kitchen.
Elizabeth, in a fur-collared coat, stood in the doorway, offering freesias.
“Did he tell you to bring them?” Katherine asked, smiling.
“He said we all three liked them,” Elizabeth answered. “But don’t most women?”
“I’m Katherine,” Katherine said, “wife number one.”
“And I’m Virginia, wife number two,” Virginia said, standing in the hall.
“And I’m Elizabeth, as yet unnumbered,” Elizabeth said. “And you’re Clarissa,”
Clarissa nodded, using one of Virginia’s legs as a prop for leaning against or perhaps hiding behind.
Elizabeth was dressed, as the other two women were, in very well cut trousers and an expensive blouse, modestly provocative. And she was about their age, thirty. The three did not so much look alike as share a type, all about the same height five feet seven inches or so (he said he was six feet tall but was, in fact, five feet ten and a half), slightly but well proportioned, with silky, well cut hair and intelligent faces. They were all competent assured women who intimidated only unconsciously.
Virginia poured three drinks and a small glass of milk for Clarissa,who was allowed to pass the nuts and have one or two before Katherine took her off to bed.
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed.
“Yes, she has his lovely eyes, ” Virginia agreed.
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Elizabeth confessed. “Oh, I intend to tell him. I just didn’t want it to be a question, you see?”
“He did think it a mistake that Katherine and I ever met. We didn’t, of course, until after I’d married him. I didn’t t know he was married until quite a while after he and I met.”
“He was a patient of yours?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes.”
“He’s been quite open with me about both of you from the beginning, but we met in therapy, of course and that does make such a difference.”
“Does it?” Virginia asked. “I’ve never been in therapy.”
“Haven’t you?” Elizabeth asked, surprised. “I would have thought both of you might have considered it.”
“He and I?”
“No, you and Katherine.”
“We felt very uncomplicated about it,” Virginia said, “once it happened. It was such an obvious solution.”
“For him?”
“Well, no, not for him, of course. Therapy was a thing for him to consider.”
Katherine came back into the room. “Well, now we can be grownups.”
“She looks like her father,” Elizabeth observed again.
“She has his lovely eyes,” it was Katherine’s turn to reply.
“I don’t suppose a meeting like this could have happened before the women’s movement,” Elizabeth said.
“Probably not,” Katherine agreed. “I’m not sure Virginia and I could have happened before the women’s movement. We might not have known what to do.”
“He tries not to be antagonistic about feminism,” Elizabeth said.
“Oh, he always been quite good about the politics. He didn’t resent my career,” Virginia offered.
“He was quite proud of marrying a dentist,”  Katherine said. “I think he used to think I wasn’t liberated enough.”
“He doesn’t think that now,” Elizabeth said.
“I suppose not,” Katherine agreed.
“The hardest thing for him has been facing. . . the sexual implications. He has felt. . .unmanned.”
“He put it more strongly than that in the past,” Virginia said.
“Men’s sexuality is so much more fragile than ours,” Elizabeth said.
“Shall we have dinner?” Katherine suggested.
“He said you you were a very good cook,” Elizabeth said to Katherine
“Most of this dinner is Virginia’s. I got it out of the freezer,” Katherine explained. “I’ve gone back to school, and I don’t have that much time.”
“I cook in binges,” Virginia said, pouring the wine.
“At first he said he thought the whole thing was some kind of crazy revenge,” Elizabeth said.
“At first there might have been that element in it,” Virginia admitted. “Katherine was six months’ pregnant when he left her, and she felt horribly deserted. I didn’t know he was going to be a father until after Clarissa was born. Then I felt I’d betrayed her too, though I hadn’t known anything about it.”
“He said he should have told you, ” Elizabeth said, “but he was very much in love and was afraid of losing you. He said there was never any question of his not supporting Katherine and Clarissa.”‘
“No, I make perfectly good money,” Virginia said. “There’s no question of his supporting them now, if that’s a problem. He doesn’t.”
“He says he’d rather he did,” Elizabeth said.
“He sees Clarissa whenever he likes,”  Katherine explained. “He’s very good with her. One of the reasons I wanted a baby was knowing he’d be a good sort of father.”
“Did you have any reservations about marrying him?”  Elizabeth asked Virginia.
“At the time?  Only that I so very much wanted to,” Virginia said. “There aren’t that many marrying men around for women dentists, unless they’re sponges, of course. It’s flattering when someone is so afraid of losing you he’s willing to do something legal about it. It oughtn’t to be but it is.”
“But you had other reservations later,” Elizabeth said.
“Certainly, his wife and his child.”
“Why did he leave you, Katherine?”
“Because he was afraid of losing her. I suppose he thought he’d have what he needed of me anyway, since I was having his child.”
“Were you still in love with him?” Elizabeth asked.
“I must have been,” Katherine said, “but I couldn’t have been quite so unhappy, so desperate. I was desperate.”
“He’s not difficult to be in love with, after all,”  Virginia said. “He’s a very attractive man.”
“He asked me if I was a lesbian,” Elizabeth said. “l told him I certainly didn’t think so. After all, I was in love with him. He said so had two other women been, in love enough to marry him, but they were both lesbians. And maybe he only attracted lesbians even if they didn’t t know it themselves. He even suggested I should maybe try making love with another woman before I made up my mind.”
There was a pause which neither Katherine nor Virginia at tempted to break.
“Did either of you know. . . before?”
Katherine and Virginia looked at each other. Then they said,
“No,”
“He’s even afraid he may turn women into lesbians,” Elizabeth said.
Both Virginia and Katherine laughed, but not unkindly.
“Is that possible?” Elizabeth asked.
“Is that one of your reservations?” Katherine asked.
“It seemed crazy,” Elizabeth said, “but…”
Again the two hostesses waited.
“l know this probably sounds very unliberated and old-fashioned and maybe even prejudiced, but I don’t think I could stand being a lesbian, finding out I’m a lesbian; and if there something in him that makes a woman . . . How can either of you stand to be together instead of with him?”
“But you don’t know you’re a lesbian until you fall in love,” Katherine said, “and then it’s quite natural to want to be together with the person you love.”
“What’s happening to me is so peculiar. The more sure I am I’m in love with him, the more obsessively I read everything I can about what it is to be a lesbian. It’s almost as if I had fallen in love with a woman, and that’s absurd.”
“l don’t really think there’s anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“One is just so naturally drawn, so able to identify with another woman,” Virginia said. “When I finally met Katherine what he wanted and needed just seemed too ridiculous’
“But it was you he wanted,” Elizabeth protested.
“At Katherine’s and Clarissa’s expense, and what was I, after all, but just another woman.”
“A liberated woman,” Katherine said.
“Not then, I wasn’t,” Virginia said.
“I didn’t feel naturally drawn to either of you,” Elizabeth protested. “l wasn’t even curious at first. But he is so obsessed with you still, so afraid of being betrayed again, and I thought, I’ve got to help him somehow, reassure him, understand enough to let him know, as you say, that there’s nothing peculiar about him…or me.”
“I’m sure there isn’t,”  Katherine said reassuringly and reached out to take Elizabeth’s hand.
Virginia got up to clear the table.
“Mom!” came the imperious and sleepy voice of Clarissa.
“I’ll go,” Virginia said.
“But I don’t think you mean what I want you to mean,” Elizabeth said.
“Perhaps not,” Katherine admitted.
“He said he never should have left you. It was absolutely wrong; and if he ever did marry again, it would be because he wanted to make that commitment, but what if his next wife found out she didn’t want him, the way Virginia did?”
“I guess anyone takes that risk,” Katherine said.
“Do you think I should marry him?” Elizabeth asked.
Katherine kept Elizabeth’s hand, and her eyes met Elizabeth’s beseeching, but she didn’t answer.
“You do think there’s something wrong with him?”
“No, I honestly don’t. He’s a perfectly nice man. It’s just that I sometimes think that isn’t good enough, not now when there are other options.”
“What other options?”
“You have a job don’t you?”
“I teach at the university, as he does.”
“Then you can support yourself.”
“That’s not always as glamorous as it sounds.”
“Neither is marriage,” Katherine said.
“Is this?” Elizabeth asked, looking around her, just as Virginia came back into the room.
“It’s not nearly as hard as some people try to make it sound.”
“Clarissa wanted to know if her new mother was still here.”
“Oh my,” Elizabeth said.
“Before you came, she wanted to know, if you married her father, would you be another mother and move in here.”
Elizabeth laughed and then said, “Oh, God, that’s just what he wants to know!”
They took their coffee back into the living room.
“It must be marvelous to be a dentist. At least during the day you can keep people from telling you all their troubles,” Elizabeth said.
“That’s not as easy as it looks,” Virginia said.
“He says you’re the best dentist he ever went to. He hates his dentist now.”
“I used to be so glad he wasn’t like so many men who fell in love with their students,” Katherine said.
“Maybe he’d be better off,” Elizabeth said in mock gloom. “He says he isn’t threatened by my having published more than he has. He had two wives and a baby while I was simply getting on with it; but does he mean it? Does he really know?”
“We’re all reading new lines, aren’t we?” Virginia asked.
“But if finally none of us marries them, what will they do?” Elizabeth asked.
“I can hardly imagine that.” Katherine said.
“You can’t imagine what they’ll do?”
“No,  women saying ‘no,’ all of them. We can simply consider ourselves for instance,”  Katherine said.
“Briefly anyway,” Virginia said. “Did you come partly to see if you were at all like us?”
“I suppose so,” Elizabeth said.
“Are you?”
“Well, I’m not surprised by you. . .and very surprised not to be.”
“Are you sorry to have married him?” Virginia asked Katherine.
“I could hardly be. There’s Clarissa, after all, and you. Are you?” she asked in return.
“Not now,” Virginia said, “having been able to repair the damage.”
“And everyone knows,” Elizabeth said, “that you did have the choice.”
“Yes’ Virginia agreed, “there’s that.”
“But I felt I didn’t have any choice,” Katherine said. “That part of it humiliated me”
“Elizabeth is making a distinction.” Virginia said, “between what everyone knows and what each of us knows. I shared your private humiliation, of course. All women must.”
“Why?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Not to believe sufficiently in one’s own value,” Virginia explained.
“But he doesn’t believe sufficiently in his own value either,” Elizabeth said. “He doesn’t even quite believe he’s a man.”
“I never doubted I was a woman,” Katherine said.
“That smug,” Elizabeth said, “because you have a child.”
“So does he,” Katherine replied.
“But he was too immature to deal with it; he says so himself. Don’t you feel at all sorry for him?’
“Yes,” said Katherine.
“Of course,” Virginia agreed.
“He’s been terribly hurt. He’s been damaged,” Elizabeth said.
“Does that make him more or less attractive do you think?” Virginia asked.
“Well, damn it, less, of course,” Elizabeth shouted. “And whose fault is that?”
Neither of the other two women answered.
“He’s not just second, he’s third-hand goods,” Elizabeth said.
“Are women going to begin to care about men’s virginity?” Katherine asked. “How extraordinary!”
“Why did you go into therapy?” Virginia asked.
“l hardly remember,”  Elizabeth said. “I’ve been so caught up with his problems since the beginning. The very first night of group, he said I somehow reminded him of his wives…”
“Perhaps that is why you went,” Katherine suggested.
“You think I’d be crazy to marry him, don’t you?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Why should we?” Virginia asked. “We both did.”
“That’s not a reassuring point,” Elizabeth said.
“You find us unsatisfactory,” Katherine said, in apology.
“Exactly not,” Elizabeth said sadly. “I want someone to advise me. . .to make a mistake. Why should you?”
“Why indeed?” Virginia asked.
They embraced warmly before Elizabeth left.
“Perhaps I might come again?” she asked at the door.
“Of course, Katherine said.
After the door closed, Katherine and Virginia embraced.
“He’d be so much happier, for a while anyway, if he married again,” Katherine said.
“Of course he would,”  Virginia agreed, with some sympathy for him in her voice. “But we couldn’t encourage a perfectly nice woman like Elizabeth…”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Katherine said. “That’s just it.”
“She’ll marry him anyway;” Virginia predicted, “briefly.”
“And have a child?” Katherine asked.
“And fall in love with his next wife,” Virginia went on.
“There really isn’t anything peculiar about him,” Katherine said.
“I’m sorry he doesn’t like his dentist.”
“He should never have married you.”
“No, he shouldn’t,” Virginia agreed. “Then at least I could still be taking care of his teeth.”
Barring that, they went up together to look in on his richly mothered child, sleeping soundly, before they went to their own welcoming bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
I must admit I spent several frustrating days going over the OCR of this story, hunting down every garbled word and broken line, every comma, apostrophe and quotation mark – but it was most assuredly worth the while to be able to post Jane Rule’s finely crafted short story, sparkling as it does with nuanced insight into women’s minds, and her pitch-perfect ear for the delicacy of women’s conversation.

It was my impression that the conversation itself sounded as if it belonged to an era which predated the women’s movement (the mention of which rather dated the story) by at least a couple of decades. Katherine, Virginia and Elizabeth, with the careful economy and refinement of their speech, sound to me as if they belong in the more formal ‘fifties – or even an earlier time –  rather than the radical ‘seventies, and their dress suggested to me the same sense of propriety. But then I wondered, would a hostess of  the ‘fifties have entertained a dinner guest with food from the freezer?  And what about the absence of cocktails and canapes, which made the period – culinarily at least – indeterminate and difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty.

This was essentially the problem I ran into when attempting to reconcile the ‘movie’ of the story which floated in my head with the actual text.  Despite the ‘progressive’ touches, (Elizabeth’s therapy, Katherine’s school) this stuck in my mind as a ‘fifties story. The only way I could think of to reconcile content and context was to give in and embrace the anachronism, and be faithful to my own imagination – hence, my admittedly frivolous, choice of images for this post!

Rule’s one small slip (if it could even be said to be one) notwithstanding, one cannot but be impressed with how deftly she expresses the gentle and amused, but unmistakable sense of superiority, the faintest denigration camouflaged, but not quite concealed in the word ‘nice’. Rule’s perfect balance of irony, humour and seriousness aptly suited the setting of the story. The personalities and characters of these three women with their similarly old-fashioned names, sense of style and initial marital predisposition, cast them as kindred spirits.

We know that Elizabeth’s fatal evening with these two wholesome and classy paragons of lesbian virtue – intelligent, ethical, self-aware, transparent, reflective and  fearless as they are – is an initiation – an induction as it were into their way of life – a way of life that has already begun to wield its fascination on her readily susceptible mind. It sounds the knell of doom for her forthcoming marriage even before it begins. Distillation is fore-ordained once the elements of the alchemical process have been brought together in the alembic, and so we cannot, for all the world, imagine her settling happily ever after for an ordinary relationship with even the most perfectly nice man in the world.

It is difficult to discern exactly where the note of inevitability is struck, but once we have heard it, it resounds like a persistent chord over the background of conversation. We know that the already sprouted seeds of Elizabeth’s ambivalence have received a thorough watering as she absorbs the implications of the perfect choreography of Katherine and Virginia’s well-ordered lives, ensconced in their chosen niche of unruffled domestic happiness. Elizabeth is uncomfortably aware of their well-meant condescension, their kindly but amused sympathy for the former spouse (referred to here only by a pronoun and to whom Rule refrains from conferring the dignity of a name) who no longer has any personal significance in their lives beyond his services rendered in fathering their child and serving as a stepping stone to their alliance.

Despite her determined struggle to resist it, the inevitability of her own future must have become terribly clear to Elizabeth over the course of the evening. Elizabeth will arrive at her destination in her own way, making her own mistakes and charting her own ambivalent course, but we needn’t fear for her happiness or security, because we know she will land on her feet, and when she does, she will have a couple of discerning and sympathetic allies.

But what about ‘the perfectly nice man?’ Whatever did he do to deserve the terrible marital curse that dogs his every romantic effort? His confidence, already undermined, will end in utter ruin. What is it about him that so sadly and comically pairs him with incipiently lesbian women? We hope for Clarissa’s sake he will not take to drink, but somehow gain an insight into the chemistry of his attractions. Fate seems indifferent to his happiness, so it is entirely up to him to save himself – if indeed such a thing is at all possible.

We hope that in accordance with Katherine’s prescient announcement, his brief marriage to Elizabeth will be happy. We hope Clarissa will have a new little sister, who will be given a suitably old-fashioned name, in honour of a woman writer, as do all the women in her life. I think Rule would have it so, because she must have been thinking of Clarissa, Virginia Woolf ‘s niece, when she picked the names for these two characters. I am also reminded of Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen… so perhaps the new addition might be christened ‘Sylvia,’ after Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of my own personal favourite lesbian writers.

That would be as neat a summing up as we could wish for, to follow the rueful, yet oracular pronouncements made by Katherine and Virginia on their way to bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Renée Vivien, born Pauline Mary Tarn (11 June 1877 – 18 November 1909

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Told by Gesa Karoly

I promised you, my curious little girl, to tell you the true story of Sarolta Andrassy. You knew her,  didn’t you? You remember her black hair with blue and red highlights, and her eyes like a lover’s begging and melancholy.

Sarolta Andrassy lived in the country with her old mother. For neighbours she had the Szecheny family, who had just left Budapest forever. Really, they were a bizarre family! It was easy to mistake Bela Szecheny for a little girl, and his sister, Terka, for a little boy. Curiously enough, Bela possessed all the feminine virtues and Terka, all the masculine faults. Bela’s hair was a copper blond; Terka’s was a livelier, rather reddish blond. The brother and sister strangely resembled each other – and that’s very rare among members of the same family, no matter what they say.

Bela’s mother was not yet resigned to cutting off the beautiful blond curls of the little boy or to exchanging his graceful muslin or velvet skirts for vulgar pants. She coddled him like a little girl. As for Terka, she kept shooting up, like a wild weed . . . She lived outdoors, climbing on the trees, marauding, robbing the kitchen gardens. She was unbearable and at war with the world. She was a child who was neither tender not communicative. Bela, on the other hand, was gentleness itself. He showed his adoration for his mother by making much of her and by caressing her. Terka loved no on€, and no one loved her.

Sarolta came one day to visit the Szecheny family. Her loving eyes in her thin, pale face seemed to be begging. Bela greatly pleased her, and they played together  great deal. Looking wild, Terka prowled around them.When Sarolta spoke to her, she fled.

She could have been pretty, this incomprehensible Terka . . . But she was too tall for her age, too thin, too awkward, too ungainly, whereas Bela was so dainty and so sweet! . . . Several months later, the Szecheny family left Hungary. Bela had an excessively delicate chest, being in general rather frail. On the advice of the doctor, his mother took him to Nice, along with his recalcitrant little sister. Sarolta cried bitterly over losing her playmate.

In her dreams, Sarolta always evoked the too frail and too pretty little boy whom she remembered constantly. And she would say to herself, smiling at the blond fantasy: ‘If I must get married when I’m older, I would like to marry Bela.’

Several years passed – oh, how slowly for the impatient Sarolta! Bela must have reached the age of twenty, and Terka, seventeen. They were still on the Riviera. And Sarolta grieved through the joyless, long years, which were lit up only by the illusion of a dream.

One violet evening, she was dreaming by her window when her mother came to tell her that Bela had returned . . . Sarolta’s heart sang as if it would break. And, the next day, Bela came to see her.

He was the same, and even more charming than before. Sarolta was happy that he had kept this feminine and gentle manner which had so pleased her. He was still the fragile child . . . But now this child possessed an inexpressible grace. Sarolta searched in vain for the cause of this transformation which made him so alluring. His voice was musical and faraway like the echo of the mountains. She admired everything about him, even his stone-grey English suit. And she even admired his
mauve necktie.

Bela contemplated the young woman with different eyes, with eyes strangely beautiful, with eyes that did not resemble the eyes of other men . . . ‘How thin he is!’ observed Sarolta’s mother after he had left. ‘Poor thing, he must still be in delicate health.’ Sarolta did not answer. She closed her eyes in order to again see Bela under her closed eyelids . . . How handsome, handsome, handsome he was! . . .

He returned the next day, and every day after that. He was the Prince Charming who is seen only in the childish pages of fairy tales. She could not look him in the face without feeling ardently and languishingly faint . . . Her face changed according to the expression of the face she loved. Her heart beat according to the rhythm of that other heart. Her unconscious and childish tenderness had become love.

Bela would turn pale as soon as she appeared, diaphanous in her white summer dress. Sometimes he looked at her without speaking, like someone communing with himself in front of a faultless Statue. Sometimes he took her hand . . . His palm was so burning and dry that she thought she was touching the hand of an invalid. Indeed, at those times a little fever would show in Bela’s cheeks.

One day she asked him for some news of the undisciplined Terka.
‘She is still in Nice,’ he answered indifferently. And then they spoke of something else. Sarolta understood that Bela did not love his sister at all. This was not surprising, what is more –  a girl who was so taciturn and wild!

What should come next, came next. A few months later Bela asked to marry her. He had just turned twenty-one.  Sarolta’s mother had no objections to the union

Their betrothal was unreal, as delicate as the white roses that Bela brought each day. Their vows were more fervent than poems: their very souls trembled on their lips. The nuptial dream came to be in the deepest silence.

‘Why,’ Sarolta would ask her fiancé€, ‘are you worthier of being loved than other young men? Why do you have gentle ways that they do not? Where did you learn the divine words that they never say?’

The wedding ceremony took place in absolute privacy. The candles brightened the red highlights in Bela’s blond hair. The incense curled towards him, and the thunder of the organs exalted and glorified him. For the first time since the beginning of the world, the Groom was as beautiful as the Bride.

They left for those blue shores where the desire of lovers runs out of patience. They were seen, a Divine Couple, with the eyelashes of one stroking the eyelids of the other. They were seen, lovingly and chastely intertwined, with her black hair spread over his blond hair . . .

Oh, my curious little girl! Here the story becomes a little  difficult to relate . . . Several months later, the teal Bela Szecheny appeared . . . He was not Prince Charming, alas! He was only a handsome boy, nothing more.

He furiously sought the identity of the young usurper . . . And he learned that the usurper in question was his own sister, Terka.

….Sarolta and Prince Charming have never returned to Hungary. They are hiding in the depths of a Venetian castle or of a Florentine mansion. And sometimes they are seen, as one sees a vision of ideal tenderness, lovingly and chastely intertwined.

 

Translated by Karla Jay and
Yvonne M. Klein

 

 

Who, we wonder, was Gesa Karoly, and who was the curious little girl to whom this little gem of a story was related? The writer would have us believe that legend of Sarolta and her lover went on being retold, and the little girl, who remembered Sarolta, we may fondly imagine, may have been influenced by its hearing, to form her own views and ideas about the possibilities of love, and so not simply accept at face-value the norms embraced and upheld by society at large.

Renée Vivien’s charming tale of lesbian love and marriage is one in a long string going all the way back to Ovid – Iphys and Ianthes, in Metamorphosis,  and Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem  Orlando Furioso, which has the a brother and sister fall in love with the same woman. Though both narratives disappoint (Ariosto’s narrative, degenerates into a heterosexual romance, even though the two women marry each other, and in Ovid’s tale Iphys is transformed into a man) Vivien gives her readers every satisfaction.

Hers is a story told by a lesbian, for lesbians, and happily for us she does not succumb to trite and banal heterosexual anticlimaxes resorted to by precedent (even Shakespeare is guilty here), but sends her lovers off to live in Italy, where we are free to imagine that they in true fairy-tale fashion, revel in each others’ company for the rest of their lives.

I hear a pianissimo echo in Vivien’s language of Oscar Wilde but without his excesses, of Baudelaire, without his decadence and also of Virginia Woolf, without her usual ornately satirical social embellishments; but above all  I hear in Vivien’s writing the sweetness and magic, as well as the dark glimmer of falling in love.

No doubt an argument can be made that the romantic ethereality of her language and its high-art aesthetic confers on it the gloss of dated unreality, but I think that beneath the cultured patina lies the solid core of a complex analysis of gender and sexual orientation, albeit sans the associated component of sexuality. Prince Charming is in fact a stylish fable – a myth –  chronicling a stylised adaptation of gender to fulfil the imperatives of personal individuation.

Though the traits of the opposite sex predominate in the characters of Bela and Terka, Terka’s maleness bears the imprint of  divine virginity, whereas Bela’s femaleness is mere passivity. Terka is in fact a young Diana, withholding herself from trivial social interaction, and purely dedicated to her own wild self.

What sets the sequence of this story in motion? Sarolta loves Bela (meaning ‘white’ in Hungarian, and here perhaps implying ‘pure’) for his girlish nature, and she is aware that a liaison is one which is still within the ambit of what is considered socially sanctioned as a basis for marriage. But this is her first step on the lesbian continuum, when her heart’s intimations reveal to her that it is a certain quality –  a particular nature – a singular constellation of characteristics that draw her, and this attachment, though nascent and diffuse, forms the basis of her enduing romantic dream.

But I question if  Bela’s muslin skirts, delicate health and a general tendency to be ‘sweet’, though they may suffice to inspire Sarolta’s  childish love, go beyond being merely social traits? For in this case they do not seem to me to sink their taproot into the substratum of human nature itself. Not so in the case of Terka. Her wild coltishness, and her vital intensity –  the active reality of her nature –  does not permit the trivial and social interactions which convention approves. Why does she run away when addressed by Sarolta? Could it be that she cannot bear the intensity of her feelings for Sarolta? She is untouchable and most of all untouched. For her the potency of touch is not something to be squandered in idle caresses.  Neither is she sullied by any prior loves, not even the maternal, and certainly not the fraternal – and this is the purity Vivien so values, in her emphasis on ‘chasteness’. It is this chasteness, this virginal quality and its underlying power is what makes Terka’s love pure and exclusive. She is after all, the one who initiates the relationship with Sarolta, while valetudinarian Bela lacks the acumen to take the next logical step in Sarolta’s direction.

Vivien makes it undeniably clear that it was what was female in Bela that inspired Sarolta’s early affection. Bela was effete and epicene and these were the qualities that appealed to Sarolta. His nerveless languor and passive nature devoid of masculine traits – in fact his effeminacy  –  is what makes Bela acceptable to her. Vivien relates a myth of gender ambivalence, describing a subtle process which begins with the unreal and concludes with the real. It is a sacrament in which separate and disparate splinters of gender components coalesce in Terka and transform to comprise a whole, which then concludes in the Hierosgamos  – the sacred marriage.

Bela himself is hidden behind the veil of the personality he projectes, and which Sarolta percieves.  When she again sees  Terka in the guise of Bela, after the long separation in all his travested beauty, she falls truly in love. She knows intuitively this is a ‘different’ kind of love. She senses the difference, though she finds it inexplicable, but the shift of her affections from childish love to ardour and from Bela to ‘Terka as Bela’ and from girlish boy to boyish girl, is accomplished in one swift gliding movement. It resembles a bloodless revolution, when a usurper displaces a former monarch and seizes the throne without the least evidence of conflict. Neither do we sense in Sarolta any trace of an emotional disconnect.

The alchemical progression in Sarolta’s mind of a dawning realisation from languid to intense, from Bela to Terka seems almost imperceptible. The process is so smooth, so deftly accomplished, it is almost invisible as a progression in the object of  Sarolta’s affections. Sarolta’s attachment begins with a male, Bela, in whom feminine traits predominate –  Terka, in whom the masculine traits predominate remains, present, but in the distance, unapproachable and unapproaching.

Then comes the vital hiatus  – the quiescence in which Terka enters the cocoon of her metamorphosis. When she reappears she has achieved the perfect balance of integrated feminine and masculine traits – a fusion of the requisite romantic and social qualities which form the fabric of Sarolta’s Prince Charming.  And so, one wonders if for Terka, early gender ambivalence was transformed into a mature personality largely in relation to Sarolta, and if Terka’s motivation in creating her adult self was in order to be desired by Sarolta…. and to go even a step further, if Terka’s transformation into ‘Prince Charming was in fact a wrought by  the alchemy of Sarolta’s desire…

But it is shimmering awareness that makes the wedding secret, and silent, and the love sacrosanct. The mere touching of hands is fevered, and  between Terka and Sarolta there is none of the casualness in it of Bela’s maternal caresses. Farouche Terka is transformed in young adulthood into a Prince Charming of hidden depths. Bela remains a feeble, social creature, prodded to action only when concerns about his social identity compel him.

Vivien’s story boldly celebrates the strange and ineffable nature of lesbian love when it is first felt, as a force that surfaces mysteriously, asserts itself and makes itself felt in ways that cannot be explained or understood: as something which demands to be acknowledged and honoured, to the extent that it subverts and usurps and adapts to its own necessity the heterosexual prerogative of marriage.

The appearance of  femininity and masculinity – even maleness and femaleness –  is shown to be deceptive and misleading; a mere mask and masquerade, which makes  impersonation of the opposite sex (and not mere transvestism)  a valid and genuine act. It is not merely a use of sartorial deception, but something undertaken in order to accomplish a serious end. With her ‘Prince Charming’ Vivien creates a space where same-sex love can be conceived of as something which can – and should –  flourish undisturbed and unhindered. This idea seems particularly valuable at a time when the self-knowledge of a woman’s sexual and affectional orientation was not a simple given – not an external endowment as perhaps it is in our own time  –  but something to be arrived at intuitively, empirically and with conviction, in contravention of accepted  social norms.

In Vivien’s charmingly extravagant myth, the stock trope of ‘Prince Charming’ is stood on its head. It is appropriated and made to serve a subversive purpose. It validates same-sex relationships between women, and recognises  the importance of personal as well as social imperatives for lesbians, and the claim to a socially recognised pair bond such as marriage, is something that women might wish to claim for themselves and their female partners.

And so we are given an unambiguously happy ending to a thoroughly romantic escapade – a lesbian fairy-tale in which girl gets girl.

Vivien lived most of her adult life in the Paris of the ‘Belle Époque’, in the company many brilliant literary lesbians – she was  the lover of Natalie Clifford Barney, the neighbour of Collette and she knew Djuna Barnes and many other brilliant women who frequented Barney’s salon. She chose for herself a life far removed from the rigid and limiting confines of domesticity, heterosexual marriage, and the burden of childbearing and child-raising, and had several intense love affairs, relationships and liaisons with women. Fortunately for her, she lived in a time which pre-dated, and was therefore unpolluted by Freud’s malignant and pernicious theorising. She was free to think for herself in ways that most of her female contemporaries outside of her charmed circle could not.

Although Vivien became the heiress of a very large fortune at a very early age, wealth did not bring much happiness with it. Vivien’s mother attempted – unsuccessfully –  to claim a share of the inheritance by having her daughter declared insane. Vivien’s personal difficulties – anorexia, drug, and alcohol abuse exacerbated by a weak constitution, did not detract from her awareness and intense exploration of  the possibilities of passionate love between women, something she expressed much more explicitly and emphatically in her poetry than her prose.

Permanently bereft by the death of her first love, Violet Shillitoe, (in 1901 at the age of 24) Vivien slipped into a steep physical and emotional decline. Her grief was probably exacerbated by guilt, since she had begun an affair with Natalie Clifford Barney shortly before Violet’s death. Violet’s body, which had been buried in France, was exhumed by her father and shipped back to England for reburial in 1904, leaving behind an empty grave in the cemetery of Saint Germain en Laye in Passey. It is  interesting to speculate what impact this morbid event may have had on Vivien, who was already obsessed with death. With the windows of  her apartment nailed shut, and living a reclusive life in her dark, incense-scented rooms, she continued to compose feverishly impassioned poetry, writing obsessively to the very end of her life in November of 1909.

Not very much of Vivien’s original work (written in French,) has been translated into English, which seems to be the reason it is not well-known to English readers. Her poetry, defiantly and uncompromisingly Sapphic, did not catch on in France, though the French could hardly have found its content to be more shocking than the decadent poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century (consider Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Louys). Perhaps the fact that it was written by a woman may have been more than bourgeois sensibilities of the notoriously sexist French of that era could tolerate.

Despite her short and tragic life, (there was at least one attempt at suicide) and the fact that her poetry was never really ‘in style’ the mere fact that Vivien wrote more openly and unapologetically about lesbian love than would be attempted for another seventy years and more, makes her an important figure to us. I am certain that had she written and been published in English and had those publications survived unscathed by censorship, our history as lesbians would have unfolded along a very different trajectory.  A voice in the wilderness is still a voice, and had hers been heard it might have reached the ears of those who most needed to hear its affirmation. Instead there was only the occasional murmur until Radclyffe Hall published  her 1928  novel The Well of Loneliness  –  which was in in fact more of a reasoned plea for understanding and acceptance for ‘inverts’ rather than any confident claim.

So are left, as is usual in such cases when brilliance and bad luck collide, with a sense of  satisfaction tinged with regret, wishing that Vivien’s life could have been as happy, and had as happy an ending as that of Sarolta and Terka in this story.

A week ago, this June 11th was the 135th anniversary of her birth, so Happy Birthday, Renée Vivien – we still remember you, fondly and well.

 

 

Le Prince Charmant

Conté par Gesa Karoly.

Je vous ai promis, ô petite curieuse, de vous conter l’histoire véritable de Saroltâ Andrassy. Vous l’avez connue, n’est-ce pas?  Vous vous souvenez de ses cheveux noirs, aux reflets bleus et roux, et de ses yeux d’amoureuse, suppliants et mélancoliques.

Saroltâ Andrassy vivait à la campagne avec sa vieille mère. Elles avaient pour voisins les Szécheny, qui venaient de quitter définitivement Buda-Pesth. Une bizarre famille, en vérité ! On aurait pu prendre Bêla Szécheny pour une petite fille, et sa sœur Terka pour un jeune garçon. Chose curieuse, Bêla possédait toutes les vertus féminines et Terka tous les défauts masculins. Les cheveux de Bêla étaient d’un blond vert, ceux de Terka, plus vivants, d’un blond rose. Le frère et la sœur se ressemblaient étrangement, — cela est très rare entre gens de la même famille, quoi qu’on en dise.

La mère de Bêla ne se résignait pas encore à couper les belles boucles blondes du petit garçon et à échanger ses gracieuses jupes de mousseline ou de velours contre une vulgaire culotte. Elle le choyait comme une fillette. Quant à Terka, elle poussait à sa guise, pareille à une herbe sauvage… Elle vivait au grand air, grimpant sur les arbres, maraudant, pillant les jardins potagers, insupportable et en guerre avec tout le monde. C’était une enfant sans tendresse et sans expansion. Bêla, au contraire, était la douceur même. Son adoration pour sa mère se manifestait par des câlineries et des caresses incessantes. Terka n’aimait personne et personne ne l’aimait.

Saroltâ vint un jour chez les Szécheny. Ses yeux d’amoureuse imploraient, dans son mince visage pâle. Béla lui plut beaucoup et ils jouèrent longtemps ensemble. Terka rôdait autour d’eux, d’un air farouche. Lorsque Saroltâ lui adressa la parole, elle s’enfuit.

Elle aurait été jolie, cette incompréhensible Terka… Mais elle était trop longue pour son âge, trop maigre, trop gauche, trop dégingandée. Tandis que Béla était si mignon et si doux !…

Les Szécheny quittèrent la Hongrie quelques mois plus tard. Saroltâ pleura amèrement son compagnon de jeux. Sur l’avis du médecin, sa mère l’avait emmené à Nice, ainsi que sa récalcitrante petite sœur. Béla avait la poitrine délicate à l’excès. Il était, d’ailleurs, peu robuste.

À travers ses rêves, Saroltâ évoquait toujours l’enfant trop frêle et trop joli dont le souvenir persistait en elle. Et elle se disait, en souriant à l’image blonde :

« Si je dois me marier plus tard, je voudrais épouser Béla. »

Plusieurs années se passèrent, — oh ! combien lentement pour l’impatiente Saroltâ ! Béla devait avoir atteint vingt ans, et Terka dix-sept. Ils étaient toujours sur la Riviera. Et Saroltâ se désolait de ces années sans joie, éclairées seulement par l’illusion d’un songe.

Elle rêvait à sa fenêtre, par un soir violet, lorsque sa mère vint lui dire que Béla était revenu…

Le cœur de Saroltâ chantait à se briser. Et, le lendemain, Béla vint vers elle.

Il était le même, et pourtant bien plus charmant qu’autrefois. Saroltâ fut heureuse qu’il eût gardé cet air efféminé et doux qui lui avait tant plu. C’était toujours l’enfant fragile… Mais cet enfant possédait aujourd’hui une grâce inexprimable. Saroltâ chercha en vain la cause de cette transformation qui le rendait si attirant. Sa voix était musicale et lointaine, ainsi qu’un écho des montagnes. Elle admira tout de lui, jusqu’à son complet anglais, d’un gris de pierres, et jusqu’à sa cravate mauve.

Béla contemplait la jeune fille de ses yeux changés, de ses yeux étrangement beaux, de ses yeux qui ne ressemblaient pas aux yeux des autres hommes…

« Qu’il est donc mince ! » observa la mère de Saroltâ, après son départ. « Il doit être encore d’une santé bien délicate, ce pauvre petit. »

Saroltâ ne répondit point. Elle ferma les yeux afin de revoir Béla sous ses paupières closes… Comme il était joli, joli, joli !…

Il revint le lendemain, et tous les jours. C’était le Prince Charmant qui ne se révèle qu’à travers les pages enfantines des contes de fées. Elle ne pouvait le regarder en face sans défaillir ardemment, languissamment… Son visage variait selon l’expression du visage désiré. Son cœur battait selon le rythme de cet autre cœur. L’inconsciente et puérile tendresse était devenue de l’amour.

Béla pâlissait dès qu’elle entrait, diaphane en sa blanche robe d’été. Il la regardait parfois, sans parler, comme quelqu’un qui se recueille devant une Statue sans défaut. Parfois il lui prenait la main… Elle croyait toucher une main de malade, tant la paume en était brûlante et sèche. Un peu de fièvre montait alors jusqu’aux pommettes de Béla.

Elle lui demanda un jour des nouvelles de Terka l’indisciplinée.

« Elle est toujours à Nice, » répondit-il négligemment. Et l’on parla d’autre chose. Saroltâ comprit que Béla n’aimait point sa sœur. Ce n’était pas étonnant, au surplus. Une enfant si taciturne et si farouche !

Ce qui devait arriver arriva. Béla la demanda en mariage quelques mois plus tard. Il entrait dans sa vingt et unième année. La mère de Saroltâ ne s’opposa point à l’union.

Ce furent d’irréelles fiançailles, délicates à l’égal des roses blanches que Béla apportait chaque jour. Ce furent des aveux plus fervents que des poèmes, et des frissons d’âme sur les lèvres. Au profond des silences, passait le rêve nuptial.

« Pourquoi, » disait Saroltâ à son fiancé, « es-tu plus digne d’être aimé que les autres jeunes hommes ? Pourquoi as-tu des douceurs qu’ils ignorent ? Où donc as-tu appris les parôles divines qu’ils ne prononcent jamais ? »

La cérémonie eut lieu dans une intimité absolue. Les cierges avivaient les lueurs roses de la blonde chevelure de Béla. L’encens fumait vers lui, et le tonnerre des orgues l’exaltait et le glorifiait. Pour la première fois, depuis le commencement du monde, l’Époux fut aussi beau que l’Épouse.

Ils partirent vers les rives bleues où s’exaspère le désir des amants. On les vit, Couple Divin, les cils de l’un frôlant les paupières de l’autre. On les vit, amoureusement et chastement enlacés, les cheveux noirs de l’Amante répandus sur les blonds cheveux de l’Amant…

Mais voici, ô petite curieuse ! où l’histoire devient un peu difficile a raconter… Quelques mois plus tard, le véritable Béla Szécheny apparut… Ce n’était pas le Prince Charmant. Hélas ! Ce n’était qu’un joli garçon, sans plus.

Il rechercha furieusement la personnalité du jeune usurpateur… Et il apprit que l’usurpateur en question était sa sœur Terka.

… Saroltâ et le Prince Charmant ne sont plus revenus en Hongrie. Ils se cachent au fond d’un palais vénitien ou d’une maison florentine. Et parfois on les rencontre, tels qu’une vision de tendresse idéale, amoureusement et chastement enlacés.

 

 

 

 

http://www.valkyria.ca/renee_vivien_page.html

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