infidelity

DOCTOR GLAS BY HJALMAR SÖDERBERG

I have a [deserved] reputation for being brutally honest. I lack tact; and good manners too, probably. I will, for example, tell someone if they are boring me. Indeed, there is a guy at work who I will not even allow to speak to me. If I see him opening his mouth I walk away. I’m an arsehole, basically; but I refuse to waste my time, and other people’s, engaged in conversation that isn’t worthwhile, and I refuse to lie about my feelings. Who do these lies benefit exactly? Why are people so petrified of the truth? In any case, I have often wondered how I would react to being in a profession that demanded some level of dishonesty from me, such as a doctor. To work as a GP one must, no matter how tired or irritated or disgusted, feign interest in all your patients’ minor and major ailments, one must give the impression of absolute sympathy at all times…

Tyko Gabriel Glas, the protagonist in Hjalmar Söderberg’s acclaimed Swedish novel, is in just such a situation. It is, I believe, appropriate that Söderberg chose to present his novel in the form of diary entries, because we consider a diary to be someone’s truth, to be the one place that one can be honest, no matter how alarming that truth might be. In his private thoughts, as set down on paper, Glas makes various admissions. He acknowledges, first of all, that he perhaps entered the wrong profession. ‘How can it have come about that of all possible trades, I have chosen the one that suits me least?’ he states. His bedside manner may be faultless, and kind and helpful words always on the tip of his tongue, but, in reality, the image that he presents to his patients, and to the world-at-large, is a false one; he is not who he appears to be; necessarily so, for an honest doctor would be a doctor without visitors.

“A pregnant woman is a frightful object. A new-born child is loathsome. A deathbed rarely makes so horrible an impression as childbirth, that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood.”

One of Doctor Glas’ regular visitors is the Reverend Gregorius. While Glas fails to feel the expected good-will towards a number of his patients, he reserves a special, intense kind of disdain for the clergyman. Indeed, Gregorius’ introduction into the novel occurs while Glas is trying, unsuccessfully, to hide from him. [‘Impossible to escape!’ he laments]. As the two converse politely, the doctor considers the ‘odious physiognomy, like a nasty fungus,’ and when Gregorius admits to having a bad heart, Glas, in his thoughts, is delighted. In fact, he wishes death upon the parson, so that he might be rid of him ‘once and for all.’ This exchange, which is handled wonderfully by the author, with its mixture of blandishments and bile, occurs very early in the novel; and so one understands, almost from the beginning, that Glas isn’t merely someone who chose a career for which he is unsuited, but is potentially a very dangerous, but certainly emotionally unstable man.

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[Georg Rydeberg as Doktor Glas]

This is not, of course, to say that Glas does not have reason to feel antipathy towards Gregorius; he is, in fact, incredibly easy to dislike, at least as filtered through Glas’ lens. The main reason for this is his treatment of his wife, Helga, a woman some years his junior. Early on, Glas assumes the Reverend is ‘plaguing the life’ out of her, and as the novel progresses this proves to be the case. What this plaguing consists of is a relentless desire for sex, [almost] to the point of forcing her. There are plenty of novels – Middlemarch, for example – that deal with an unhealthy and regrettable relationship between an older man and a younger woman, but one must applaud Söderberg for not flinching in the face of the more squeamish questions these kind of unions might raise; which is to say that he directly acknowledges what we all think: that the poor woman must find being mounted by an old codger she doesn’t love deeply unpleasant. That he goes even further than this and touches upon the issue of rape within marriage, an issue that we are still not comfortable with even now, is extraordinary, especially considering that the novel was published in 1905.

In terms of Gregorius, he is shown to be, or the main characters consider him to be, a loathsome hypocrite. The idea being that he gives the impression of being a pious man, and yet he cannot  – even at the risk of his own health, and the obvious resistance from his wife – give up on getting his rocks off; that, in other words, he preaches moderation, understanding, and so on, but is incapable of these things himself. His wife even accuses him of using his religion as justification for his desires,  as though he is manipulating the word of God in order to suit himself. In this way, the heart problem from which he suffers is clearly symbolic. He has a bad heart, we’re repeatedly told, and I don’t think one is meant to take that only literally. Indeed, Glas actually has a dream in which he removes the defective organ.

However, one must not forget, as previously noted, that one only ever gets to see Gregorius as Glas does, and the doctor is, let’s say, not entirely without bias, for he has a not so innocent interest in the man’s wife. So when he is writing about the parson’s ‘grossly indecent behaviour’ one could legitimately see it as little more than jealousy. Moreover, the rest of the information, the juiciest bits in fact, the worst accusations, are provided by Helga Gregorius, and her word shouldn’t be accepted without question either, for who can say that she can be trusted? Certainly, she has a reason to want her husband dead, having mistakenly married him and then started an affair with another man. It is possible, therefore, to see her as something of a cynical manipulator, who plays upon the doctor’s feelings and naivety. Glas is a strange, ‘solitary’ man, who lacks experience with women; he is, in fact, a virgin, who has only ever once held a girl’s hand and touched her breast.

“We know so little about one another. We embrace a shadow and love a dream.”

I have now read Doctor Glas twice, and it is always interesting how one’s perception of a novel can change. The first time, I was aware of sex playing a part in the narrative, but I did not realise just how much it dominates the work.  Of course, there is the central issue of Gregorius’ libido; but sex is actually everywhere, on almost every page: Helga’s affair, her awakening as a woman in the bed of a man she actually desires;  a couple fucking in a graveyard; the multiple abortions that Glas is asked to perform, unwanted pregnancies resulting from grubby, illicit liaisons; the doctor’s frequent dreams of a naked Helga, who he calls a ‘feminine flower,’ and so on. Indeed, in terms of the the latter, one could make a case for Glas’ murderous impulse being caused by extreme sexual frustration. Again, it is Glas’ words, and observations, that we have access to, and so it is he that sees sex in everything, on every corner; and yet he considers himself to be a man who is completely in control of himself, a man who is actually disgusted by sex. ‘So much suffering for so little pleasure,’ is how he describes the act.

I hope that I have given the impression that Doctor Glas is a complex novel. One can see it as progressive, as sympathetically, seriously engaging with a multitude of important, controversial issues, such as the previously mentioned sexual rights [and rape] within marriage and abortion, as well as euthanasia and suicide. Equally, one can enjoy it as a fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ genre, with murder and psychosexual drama thrown in for good measure. Regardless, what is certain is that Glas is something of an existentialist anti-hero. By his own admission, he is not tied to conventional morality or duties. When he decides not to help the pregnant women who want him to abort their unborn children he does not do so because he thinks abortion is wrong, but rather out of fear of compromising himself. Likewise, his attitude towards murder is that it is permissible in certain circumstances, when the ‘rotten flesh’ needs to be cut away to preserve the healthy.

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SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW BY WILLIAM MAXWELL

In times of unhappiness my mind rummages around in the past for poignant or painful memories, as though seeking some kind of brotherhood or solidarity; they need not be alike, the present feeling and the memory, in any way other than sharing the quality of being hurtful. Indeed, I may lose a job or a girlfriend and what my mind will turn up, will nose out like a bloodhound, will be something like Marc Richardson standing outside Thomas Rotherham College one afternoon. Marc was an ugly ginger-haired boy who had been in my class at school, who, despite the fact that we had no common interests, had somehow managed to become my friend, in the way that children make friendships by seemingly stumbling blindly, mindlessly into them. One day, while still at school, he had turned up with a squirrel’s tail as a present for me. He had shot the creature himself and thought I would appreciate the gift as I had spoken of my admiration for the animals. I hadn’t the heart to tell him how much what he had done disgusted me.

I hadn’t seen him since leaving school, hadn’t, in truth, really given him that much thought. Until that day, the day I spotted him outside the entrance to my college. I have no knowledge of why he was there, because I did not ask him, although I knew that he was not a fellow student. I do not know, either, how he felt upon seeing me, whether it caused him any distress, like it did me. It was not, as may be anticipated, the encroaching of one world, my school-life and my childhood, upon another, my college-life and my adolescence, that so distressed me, although I cannot say that that was pleasurable, it was his missing tooth, one at the very front of his mouth. Marc’s missing tooth, I see now, although I didn’t see it then, was significant only in so much that it was missing, in other words it was the fact that it was once there, that I had seen it, that meant that I felt its absence so strongly. As embarrassing as it is, it made me terribly sad to see that space in his upper gum; and for some reason I have lived with a kind of guilt ever since, I have clung to it as though it was the breast of a stout motherly woman. Where is his life taking him, that once tough little boy who had tried to win my affection? What else has he lost along the way?

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[Alberto Giacometti’s Palace at 4 a.m., which is discussed in the novel]

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow trades upon similar feelings and ideas, albeit the story involves far more drama. It begins with a murder, although it cannot be called a mystery. We know almost straight away that the culprit is Clarence Smith, the victim his friend Lloyd Wilson. The narrator, however, soon moves away from the murder to discussing his own childhood, which was affected by the death of his mother. The narrator was a deeply sensitive child, almost something of a loner, but certainly quiet and thoughtful. His mother’s passing appears to have made of his childhood something of a labour, something to press on through, rather than a joy. He struggles to connect with his father, his brothers, other children. Yet one day he meets a boy, Cletus Smith, the son of Clarence, the murderer. The two play together, without communicating much.

“Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.”

On one level the novel is about grief and about how you cope with what happens to you, or around you, as a child. The landscape of the narrator’s childhood was irrevocably changed by his mother’s death; Cletus’ was altered by his father’s actions [and his mother’s – who cheated on his father, which provided the motive]. We like to think that children are robust, that they take everything in their stride. Indeed, that is the message of another book I read recently, Hughes’ High Wind In Jamaica. Maxwell disagrees. He suggests that children don’t shrug bad things off, they don’t plough on hardily. They endure, yes, they get through it, because they must, because what other option do they have? It is interesting that the adults deal with their grief differently, that they, unlike the two boys, find a solution or a way out: the narrator’s father remarries, and Clarence Smith – whose grief is losing his wife to his best friend – kills a man and then kills himself.

“Who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.”

So Long, See You Tomorrow is also, quite clearly, about memory and guilt. The narrator, who at the time of writing is an old man. admits that what he remembers of his childhood might not be entirely accurate. How can it be? No one’s memories are flawless. In the second half of the novel he actually recreates, tells the story of, what happened between the Smiths and the Wilsons, how the relationship developed between LLoyd and Fern etc, events that he could not possibly have been privy to. This is something that we all do, or certainly I do. I hear about certain incidents, and I cannot help but try and act out the before, during and after, in my imagination. What did such-and-such say, how did such-and-such feel, how did this event even come about? It’s a kind of theatrical empathy, I guess. In terms of guilt, the narrator feels as though he let Cletus down in some way, just as I do with Marc Richardson. It’s funny how powerful childhood experiences are. He barely knew Cletus; I knew Marc only superficially. Both of us wish we could have said something, done something, reached out….but we were kids ourselves, and even adults don’t know how to behave, so what chance did we have?

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”

So far, I imagine I have given the impression that the book really touched me. To a certain extent that is true. Yes, I saw something of myself in it, and that always troubles my emotional equilibrium, but large parts of the book also bored me somewhat. For example, the narrator gives us the bones of the Wilson-Smith story in the first half, and therefore much of what he relates in the second half feels like unnecessary repetition, even if it is fleshed out a little. Moreover, Maxwell’s prose is frequently praised, and while I like the general tone and I thought he provided some nice insights and some impressive lines, it never really got my pulse racing. In short, I think the dubious quality of this review is, in a way, a representation of my experience of what I read: a bit so-so, a bit lacking in inspiration.

THE RED & THE BLACK BY STENDHAL

When I was at university my best friend and I would regularly write to each other as, for the first time, we were at different ends of the country. These letters [yes, letters – we were not being pretentious; neither of us could afford a computer as kids and so didn’t know how to use email until later] would usually contain details of any, uh, girl-related activity, music recommendations and book recommendations. Parts of these letters have stayed with me – certain relationships [one in particular with a girl called Julie; my mate had issues with Wayne, her ex], certain records he urged on me and which I bought as soon as I was able, and certain books I sought out from the library. One of the books he once recommended was a French novel, about a young man trying to make his way in the world. I replied to my friend that it sounded interesting, or something of that sort, and a week later a package, rather than the expected letter, arrived. Inside was Le Rouge et la Noir by Stendhal. As I opened the book I noticed that my friend had written something on the reverse of the cover. “Julien Sorel is you!” it said.

What did he mean by that? Well, first of all, to call me, at that time, an arrogant boy with a chip on my shoulder about my upbringing is probably right on the money. Furthermore, I must admit, that I was, shall we say, a bit of a cad, and that, more specifically, I approached my relations with women almost as though they were a test of my daring or courage. I was, then, regularly getting myself embroiled in ridiculous situations, things like seeing how many girlfriends I could manage at the same time; or sleeping with my friend’s girlfriend, in the same halls of residence in which he also lived, only a couple of rooms away in fact, so that I had to hotfoot it out of there in the early hours of the morning, hoping that he wouldn’t be on the corridor and catch me. I also got up to various sordid things in photobooths, on trains and at concerts, and so on. Now, before anyone starts spamming me with negative comments, I am fully aware that this was not admirable, nor recommendable, behaviour; but, yes, it is fair to say that I was a little like Julien Sorel.

“An English traveller relates how he lived upon intimate terms with a tiger; he had reared it and used to play with it, but always kept a loaded pistol on the table.”

Julien is the poor son of a carpenter, who has ambitions to be a priest; he is, on the surface at least, a sensitive, bookish sort. In the early stages of the novel one might think that The Red and The Black is going to be a French version of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a book that will focus on the exploits of a generally good boy as he struggles to better himself. However, when Julien moves in with the de Renal’s, in the capacity of tutor to their children, it quickly becomes clear that he is a rather haughty and self-obsessed sort, who considers the world something to bring under his heel, and often sees and uses people dispassionately. This dispassionate approach is particularly interesting in relation to the lady of the house, Louise de Renal, with whom he starts an affair. Julien, whose hero is Napoleon, conducts this relationship as though undertaking a military campaign. He makes notes for himself, writes plans; he doesn’t behave intuitively, or act on passionate impulse, but, rather, does what he thinks he ought to do in order to win the mayor’s wife, making bolder and bolder plays seemingly as a way of finding out what exactly he can get away with. Crucially, he doesn’t really want the woman, but thinks it fitting that he have her, and enjoys the idea that a rich lady will fall for the likes of him; it is, for him, the winning that counts, he has no great interest in drinking the victory champagne. As suggested in my opening paragraphs, Julien, just like my good self, is particularly sensitive regarding his background; and this colours the way that he sees the world. He appears to believe that everyone undervalues him, or disdains him, and so, in a kind of retaliation, or boon to his ego, he wants to conquer them.

“Yes I’ve won a battle, he said to himself, but one must profit by it.” “I ought to keep a diary of this siege, he said to himself on returning to the hotel; otherwise I will lose track of my assaults.” “The hand was very quickly withdrawn; but Julien conceived that it was his duty to ensure that it was not withdrawn when he touched it.”

Madame de Renal, on the other hand, genuinely loves Julien, although it is suggested that she loves him more for what he is not than what he is. I found her a fascinating character, both in terms of her personality and psychology and what she says about Stendhal as a writer. She is considered in Verrieres to be a chaste, proud and high-minded woman, who will not succumb to flirtation, having spurned the advances of Valenod. However, Stendhal portrays her as essentially artless; she is a woman who does not consider herself superior to men, but, rather, thinking them coarse and dull, she has no interest in them. There’s a really nice insight when it is said that she doesn’t find her husband boring simply because she finds other men more boring than him. I loved that; a really clever, subtle distinction. She falls for Julien, then, because he is not a man; he is, at seventeen, literally a boy; indeed, when she first sees him she likens him to, even suspects him of being, a girl dressed as a boy, and notes his fine pale complexion. Once she gets to know him a little, he also gives the impression of being cultured and well-read and in touch with his own finer feelings. Everything he is, her husband, and other provincial men, are not.

In the hands of many writers Louise de Renal would be unbearable. Dickens’ work features a number of these inexperienced, otherworldy women, and readers generally want to lynch them. Yet, while she does occasionally irritate, for the most part I found Madame thoroughly endearing. And this is because Stendhal doesn’t really judge his characters, or only in a gently satirical way, or try and tell you what to think of them; he allows them to breathe, and doesn’t make them ‘a type’ of one extreme or another. Louise, for example, is an adulteress, who adores her lover more than her own children, which is not particularly admirable, of course. Yet she is also sympathetic, primarily because she is clumsily dealing with the novel state of being in love, and because her husband is a boor. She is strangely noble, because her feelings are pure, but ignoble in her actions. Likewise, she is artless, but not dim; she is both strong and weak…she, as much as can be the case with any fictional character, like a real person.

I mentioned Dickens before, but it is particularly interesting to compare Stendhal to his contemporary Honore de Balzac, especially his novel Lost Illusions, which features another beautiful youngster with grand ambitions. The obsessive coffee-guzzler was a fan of operatic characterisation – almost everyone is one-dimensional, usually either wholly, ridiculously good [David Séchard], or demonically bad [his father]; everything with him is cranked up to ten…one imagines all his characters either sinisterly twirling a ‘tache or ringed with a halo. His women are particularly polarised, some are angels [Eve – yes, Eve] and others are snakes [Madame de Bargeton]. Furthermore, although I love Lost Illusions, Balzac comes across as a blowhard, taking cheap shots at his characters, and by extension certain elements of society, and constantly generalising and stereotyping; indeed, he does exactly what Stendhal does not do: he explicitly moralises, he demands that you view his characters in the way that he wants you to. The prose of the two authors is entirely different also; Balzac was prone to very long, complex sentences, full of clauses and classical allusions; Stendhal wrote very simply, almost conversationally. This isn’t a translation issue, it was an intentional style choice; and as a result his book fairly wallops along.

While Book One is a pretty standard, but very enjoyable, tale of a cheating milf and her young lover, featuring much roguery and melodrama, the second, which involves Julien’s relationship with Mathilde de La Mole, is something else entirely. Of course, it is different on the most literal, basic level, in that Mathilde is a younger woman, similar in age to Julien, and she is not married, but this is obviously not what makes Book Two so extraordinary. I was once in a relationship that simply would not settle down, would not work; it was, I think I have said elsewhere, an Israeli-Palestinian type deal. Anyway, after some time spent needling each other, my ex-girlfriend one day said to me, “we both want the power in the relationship; we’re too proud and bloody-minded to allow ourselves to submit, even for a moment, to the other. And so we are constantly trying to make the other submissive.” Or words to that effect. And I think she was right. What is so startling about Julien and Mathilde’s relationship is that it is just like this so modern a conflict. They are equals – not socially, but intellectually and emotionally – and they are both too proud to give in to the other; so they spend much of their time antagonising each other, butting heads; yes, they will occasionally call a truce, and so come together, but one or both will regret it almost immediately afterwards. The thing is, love can only flourish if one relinquishes one’s ego, one’s absolute power over oneself. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that, once again, Mathilde esteems Julien for what he is not, rather than what he is; he is not like the tiresome, predictable suitors she has previously attracted; she sees danger in him and reckless passion.

None of this, however, is the novel’s real selling point; I was very impressed by much of what Stendhal pulls off in The Red and The Black but there is one thing about it that had me in awe. Andre Gide said that the book was far ahead of its time, and Friedrich Nietzsche spoke glowingly of the Frenchman’s psychology, but neither, in my opinion, quite goes far enough in their praise. Ahead of its time? Reading it you’d think Sendhal had a DeLorean. The first psychological novel? It’s as though Henry James had looked at Dumas’ body of work and thought ‘I can do that – rascals, heroism, cheating women – a piece of piss!’ And, lo, he did do it, furnishing the adventure story with unrelenting, complex introspection. In all seriousness, I couldn’t believe what I was reading: there are pages and pages given over to the characters’ thought processes, so much so that for much of the second half there’s hardly any plot at all. For example, there’s a chapter in my translation called Dialogue With a Master, most of which is dedicated to de Renal’s interior monologue concerning his suspicions about Julien and his wife. Moreover, Mathilde’s presence in the text is almost entirely in her head and Julien’s. And this book was published in 1830! Truly, if Virginia Woolf is to be called a modernist, then what is Stendhal?

SWANN’S WAY [IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME VOL. 1] BY MARCEL PROUST

For a long time the prospect of re-reading Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu has terrified me. My first experience of the novel-series was so rewarding that I feared that it would not live up to the idea I had of it in my mind, that a re-reading would, in some way, sully my memories of it. It is a little bit like considering getting back together with an ex: sure, it is appealing, and it could turn out great, but one cannot help but think that one has perhaps forgotten all the bad things and retained only the good, giving you a false impression of what that earlier relationship was actually like. So, I have dithered; I have thought about picking up the first volume numerous times, only to succumb to my anxiety. Is it better to protect your positive memories of something or try to forge new ones? It’s a risk.

What eventually compelled me to re-read Swann’s Way was purchasing a different translation; this, I felt, gave me an excuse, gave me a way of defending the book, if I found it disappointing in this unfamiliar form. It’s a poor translation, I could say to myself, and so would be able to continue to hold dear my first reading. The version that I had read a few years ago was Lydia Davis’; the one I recently tried was Moncrieff’s translation, as revised by Kilmartin and Enright. I knew, of course, that Moncrieff’s original translation was considered beautiful, but suspect. The revisions, I have been told, corrected many of Moncrieff’s errors and pruned his flowery language.

However, twenty or thirty pages into Moncrieff’s book, I was struggling. My worst fears had been confirmed. Well, maybe not quite my worst fears. I liked it, of course. I hardly think it possible I could read any version of Swann’s Way and not like it at all; but I was disappointed. It felt prissy and fey and precious. As promised, it read beautifully, but it also read as though it had been written sometime in the mid-1800’s, rather than the early 1900’s. I tried to persevere but it was genuinely making me sad; I felt cheated, as though I had been informed that someone had only been nice to me in order to steal my wallet when I was not looking. I was now in crisis. I was wrong too, about my excuse; I could not just put it down to a translation issue and leave it at that. So, I pulled out my copy of Davis’ translation. And I compared them, briefly. They seemed very similar at first glance, but there was something about Davis’ version that drew me in, that made me instantly happy.

In order to understand why that is the case, one might point to the obvious stylistic differences between the two. Davis’s translation is tougher, and not as flawlessly elegant [although I would wager that she would say that this is Proust]; and, crucially, it does not read as though it was written by some smoking-jacket wearing fop. Yet I think my admiration, my affection for it goes deeper than mere style. As soon as I held the book I experienced a kind of comfort. The smell of it, the flash of recognition as I eyed the cover, the spine, the type, the bumps and folds and tears…all of these things conjured up in me an intense sensation, a sweet, almost nauseous feeling of nostalgia, and warm memories of the days I had spent with the book, with this specific copy.

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It struck me, as I read on with complete calmness and joy, that my relationship with this book is itself Proustian. Towards the end of the series, in Time Regained, if I recall correctly, Marcel writes about how the most intense experiences are those that are, in a sense, layered. He uses, I think, the example of music. A piece of new music may be beautiful, one may appreciate the beauty of it, but one’s emotional response will be greater if that specific piece is in some way personally connected to you, if it evokes some feeling or memory; it is, for Marcel, the combination of memory – or the mind or intellect – and the physical object or world that is significant. Of course, there is a more famous example of this idea, which involves Marcel eating a little cake, a madeleine, with his tea, the taste of which reminds him of his childhood. So, in this way, my original copy of Swann’s Way has become a madeleine for me.

On that madeleine, it is often thought to appear in the text at the very beginning. It does not, however. It actually turns up some fifty pages into Swann’s Way, after the almost equally famous mother’s kiss episode. One of the most pleasing things about re-reading a book is how much richer, or deeper, one’s understanding becomes. You are able, a second time around, to move forward and back at will, because you know the story, you know where it is going. This allowed me to make a connection, maybe a tenuous one, between the mother’s kiss episode and Swann in Love [the novella in the centre of this volume] and Marcel’s relationship with Albertine much later in the series. Young Marcel is desperate for his mother to give him a kiss goodnight, considers himself unable to sleep unless she does so; and eventually he gets out of bed in order to go to her. She is angry, because she wants him to be independent. It stuck me that this kind of behaviour, this neediness, this being prepared to anger the object of your affection, is not particular to mummy’s boys, but is also an aspect of romantic love. For example, Swann finds himself behaving in exactly this kind of manner; he knows that it is not in his long-term interests to badger Odette, but he cannot help himself.

It is my understanding, based on a large amount of reviews and articles, that many readers give up on Proust sometime during Combray, the first section of Swann’s Way. Although I like it very much I can understand why some people would bail on it, why they would find it problematic. Like Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow, Proust does not let you find your feet, but instead immediately drops you into the toughest part of his entire work. Combray is roughly 190 pages long, and is entirely plotless; it is frequently lovely, and funny, but is also occasionally tedious. However, despite being plotless it isn’t pointless. It is significant, I think, that Proust begins Combray with a discussion of sleep and, more importantly, waking; indeed, he writes that upon waking he would, in a sense, recreate his room, would bring it back, would piece it together bit by bit…first the bed, then the lamp, the walls…etc. This is exactly what he is doing with his narrative in this first section; he is forming it, he is, in a non-linear fashion, just like when one opens one’s eyes after sleep and bring back one’s bedroom in no particular order, pulling together the bones of the major themes and stories from the whole of In Search of Lost Time. So, he references Swann and Odette, he hints at his own future love troubles, he introduces his family, and Vinteuil, and mentions the Baron de Charlus, and Balbec, and so on. If you have not read all six volumes before you would not notice that he is doing this, nor would you understand the significance of the references, but as someone re-reading the work Proust’s intention becomes clear.

As already discussed, In Search of Lost Time is, amongst other things, about memory, and this scattershot opening section is an attempt at recreating how memory functions. Combray is strangely out of time; it is never made clear how old Marcel is at any one time, even though it is clear that he is not always the same age; likewise, one does not know what year, or years, the events are taking place. This is, indeed, the nature of memories; they are not time-stamped and not coherently ordered. Furthermore, they do not come to us as fully formed narratives, or stories, they come piecemeal, or as snapshots, or moments or fragments. For 190 pages Proust sorts these fragments, he examines them, and then, over the course of the following sections and volumes, he puts the pieces in order, he reveals the full picture, he, essentially, works these fragments into a coherent narrative. In this way I find Combray fascinating; and it is entirely justified to begin with it, even though it could turn people off.

That is not to say that there are no straightforwardly entertaining anecdotes and passages and insights or ideas, there are many of them. I particularly enjoyed the snobbish Legrandin, who doesn’t want to admit to having a sister in Balbec so as to avoid having to introduce her to Marcel; when the boy’s father asks Legrandin if he knows anyone in Balbec, he answers ‘I know everyone and I know no one.’ I liked Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover and what that, according to Proust, reveals about sadism. Marcel watches the two women through a window; they are carousing in front of Monsieur Vinteuil’s picture, who we are told disapproved of their union, and the lover threatens to spit on it. This leads Proust to discussing how sadists are not evil, because they must know what good is, must actually be good to some extent, in order to get a thrill from doing bad.

There are also some lovely little asides concerning Swann; such as when the aunt is said to consider any high-ranking society person as diminished if he or she knows Swann, rather than, as one would expect, it being the case that Swann knowing this person raises him in her estimation. My favourite, however, is the grandmother, who will not present someone, who has an interest in volcanoes, with a picture of Vesuvius, but will give him a painting of it; she will not buy someone a brand new chair, but an antique, even if it functions much less successfully as something to sit on. The idea, which I have already touched upon at the beginning of this review, is that the more layers of meaning a thing has, the greater it is, so that a chair that has a history is preferable to an ordinary chair, and a painting of a volcano more worthwhile than a photograph of it; it is a kind of embellished reality.

After Combray comes Swann in Love, the events in which, however, take place some time before. As intimated, this section is much easier to read than the one that preceded it. It is essentially the story of Swann’s relationship with the cocotte Odette de Crecy, who, Combray already informed you, he eventually marries, and who was considered to be, by Marcel’s family, a bad sort, so much so that they went to some lengths to avoid meeting her. [You will also know that it was suspected that Odette had an affair with the Baron de Charlus]. In Swann in Love, Proust, appropriately enough, bearing in mind the title, makes many charming observations about what it means to be in love, how one comes to love certain people, etc. More interesting, however, is the way that he shows how the dynamics of a relationship can change. Initially, Odette does all the chasing; she wants to catch Swann and, consciously or not, her traps are baited with girlish modesty; she appeals to his manly pride, she positions herself as the clearly inferior, silly, and love-stricken, little girl. Swann falls for it, and falls for her. Yet once bitten by love, once the toxin has seeped into his blood, he finds that it somehow transfers all the power over to Odette. Being intensely in love involves a kind of abdication, involves a loss of power and position. Swann needs Odette, and therefore she holds the cards; she has, in fact, taken those cards directly from his own hands.

They are chronically ill-suited; Swann is refined, and intelligent, yet prefers earthy women; Odette is rather stupid, morally dubious, but classically attractive. A large part of Swann in Love is about Swann’s fears regarding Odette’s past [she may have put it around, folks] and her current fidelity. Somehow Swann, who famously says of himself that ‘I felt my deepest love, for someone who did not appeal to me,’ makes of such meagre ingredients a feast of intense suspicion, jealousy and heartache. I tend to find books concerned with jealousy compelling, for it is thoroughly destructive and seemingly irrational. It makes the subject of it miserable, and the object also. No one wins. Swann in Love brilliantly captures the agony, the hopelessness, the hope, the mood swings, the bitterness, etc. It is, in this way, very much like Othello, but is perhaps even more true than Shakespeare’s great play, in that most often the real jealous person is both Iago and the Moor, he pours pestilence into his own ear.

During this section, Proust, although not explicitly, brings us back to sadomasochism, which I have already briefly mentioned, and which is a recurring theme in the entire work. Jealousy is, for me, both sadistic and masochistic. There is within it the desire to master, and an enjoyment in causing him or her some pain or discomfort [which we justify to ourselves as either punishment for a perceived wrong, or as necessary in order to teach a worthwhile lesson – like when Swann asks Odette if she is ‘one of those creatures in the lowest grade of mentality’ who is ‘incapable of giving up a pleasure’]. There is also a kind of pleasure in one’s own pain and discomfort. Think about how the jealous person will linger over their evidence, will go over it multiple times, will embellish, will feed their suspicions, will strive to be proved correct in their theories. Proust says of Swann: ‘he took pleasure in pursuing his evil fantasies further and further.’ The jealous person enjoys the pain, otherwise he would stop, or make a break from the person whom he cannot trust.

Speaking of stopping, I really ought to bring this review to a close. Swann’s Way does include a short third section, Place Names: the Name, which is excellent, but not really worth discussing at any length.  In any case, in order to sum up my feelings about Proust, about this volume, and the work as a whole, I want to finish with a quote from the man himself. When discussing a piece of music [Vinteuil’s phrase], he writes:

Of course although human from this point of view, it belonged to an order of supernatural creatures whom we have never seen, but whom despite this we recognise with delight when some explorer of the invisible manages to capture one, to bring it, from that divine world to which he has access, to shine for a few moments above ours.

This is exactly what Proust – an explorer of the invisible – could do; he could capture those supernatural creatures with impressive ease and frequency, and deliver them to us.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS BY ALEXANDRE DUMAS

Sangdieu! This was good fun. I mean, it’s mostly dumb fun, like Get Low by Lil Jon or Tropic Thunder or AC/DC, but sometimes that is precisely what you need. Throughout 700 – wrist taxing, if not brain taxing – pages Dumas leads us, his readers, a merry dance across France [and occasionally England], without ever really acknowledging the absurdity and joyful irreverence of his narrative. Indeed, The Three Musketeers is so absurd as to approach the level of evil genius. Morbleu! Parbleu! Etc.

It’s interesting how one’s perception of a story can be so out of whack with the source material. Perhaps influenced by movies and popular culture references I came to the book expecting a [at least semi] serious novel, whose action revolves around politics and the pursuit of power. I also expected royal intrigues and double-dealing, vengeance and murder plots. And, in fairness, I got most of that, but The Three Musketeers isn’t a 19th century House of Cards with swords and feathered hats. It’s too ridiculous for that. The motivation of the characters isn’t greed, or even righteousness; and the musketeers themselves are not honourable administers of justice.

If The Three Musketeers isn’t a serious political thriller, then what is it? In this review I have already made use of words such as irreverent and ridiculous and absurd, and yet there is probably a better one: farce. A farce is defined as ‘a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.’ That sentence pretty much sums up The Three Musketeers. Take the well-known diamond caper, when d’artagnan is dispatched to England in order to recover a diamond pendant for the Queen so that she can wear it at a ball given by her husband. Hundreds of miles travelled, people injured, lives put at risk, and all to recover some diamonds for a party. Ludicrously improbable situation? I’d say so. Indeed, a lot of what the characters do, how they behave and react, is disproportionate, is over the top when one considers what has caused their reactions or motivated their behaviour. For example, the cardinal is said to want to ruin the Queen because she would not respond to his amorous advances and Milady seemingly wants to murder anyone who doesn’t do as she says.

What about crude characterisation? Well, it is certainly the case that there is absolutely no psychological depth to any of the characters. They all have some feature, some trait, that defines them and to which they stick till the end of the novel. So, Aramis is the sensitive, reluctant musketeer, Buckingham is in love, Milady is obsessed with revenge, Athos is philosophical, and so on. The thing is, I am not complaining, nor am I criticising. I think nearly every character in the book is wonderful; I didn’t at all yearn for greater depth. There is, to my mind, nothing wrong with farce, especially when it is pulled off with such panache and wit. It is not easy to create memorable characters, be they one, two or three dimensional. Nor is a great sense of humour less impressive than complex psychological portraits. On this, The Three Musketeers is, at times, very very funny. One of my favourite moments is when Milady says to Rochefort “commend me to the cardinal” and Rochefort replies with something like “I will. And you commend me to Satan.” Ha! I actually lol’ed. Milady is absolutely bad-ass.

I guess if you wanted to credit the book with greater depth or intelligence, if you wanted to say it is something more than a brilliant farce, then you could argue that it is a satire. One of the most interesting features of the book is that the people who hold the highest positions, by which I mean kings etc, are, for the most part, the stupidest, most self-obsessed characters. Certainly, the King of France is ridiculed more than anyone else. He is shown as being a petty, jealous, easily bored and easily duped man. There is a scene near the beginning when he has his wife searched, because he believes that she has a love letter on her person. When he recovers the letter and finds out that it is not a love letter but a traitorous one he is happy! He is, in this instance, not at all bothered about the treachery, but simply relieved that his wife isn’t cheating. Indeed, the war between the English and the French only takes place because Buckingham wants an excuse to be in France in order to see the Queen. It seems that Dumas is saying that wars etc are not waged for the reasons that we think, for religion or ideology or power. In fact, in probably the only noteworthy moment of introspection d’artagnan reflects that the fates of nations are decided on the whims of their leaders. Sacrebleu!

The thing is, I think you could make too much of all that, If Dumas was trying to be scathing, you would expect that the musketeers, being the heroes, would condemn this kind of behaviour from the king et al. And yet they don’t. In fact, they accept it. The musketeers are likeable, no doubt, but their own morals are iffy to say the least. This is why I call the novel dumb fun or a great farce, because no one is entirely good and certainly no one is treated entirely seriously. The power of the book is not in its message but in making of the reader a Don Quixote, so that upon finishing it one is eager to take up a sword and romp around the country in a fancy outfit challenging people to duels. Or is that just me? In any case…en guarde, you scoundrels!

three-musketeers

EFFI BRIEST BY THEODOR FONTANE

Throughout my life, the one constant, vis-à-vis relationships, has been that I have always seemed to end up with crazy women. That has both its drawbacks, of course, and its benefits. I say crazy but maybe it would be better to say high-spirited or eccentric; in any case, I absolutely have a type. For a long time I thought that it was simply a coincidence that every person I dated was a little cuckoo, but then I realised that the things that I like, the things I am most drawn to – the spontaneity, the large personality, the artistic impulse, etc – are the consequence of a mind that does not move along the same tracks that most people’s minds do. That was an important epiphany for me, because I knew, then, that if I had to have those things of which I am so fond, those unusual qualities, I had to accept the other side too, the less stable side.

This does not mean, of course, that all eccentric women will be attractive to me, nor does it mean that all of them will possess the kind of qualities I have so often fallen for. There can and will be exceptions to all theories or ideas about humanity. One such exception was an ex of mine; she was crazy, oh absolutely, but she was also dour and lazy and unaffectionate. It’s a relationship that continues to baffle me, long after it has ceased to exist. Whatever did I see in…not her, but us [for relationships are not, of course, about individuals, but the complex interplay of two people]? We were chronically ill-suited. Was I really so attracted to her that I compromised on everything else? Perhaps. It’s a really strange situation, being with someone who you want to like, but whose entire approach is anathema to you. I was in a constant state of frustration. She must have felt the same way, I am sure. It’s like trying to waltz with someone who wants to do the mazurka.

In any case, although the two personality types involved are not the same, I was put in mind of this old relationship of mine recently when reading Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. Even more than those found in Anna Karenina [Anna and Karenin] and Madame Bovary [Emma and Charles], the central relationship in the novel, between Effi and Innstetten, is, from the very beginning, so obviously, so absolutely wrong for both parties. First of all, there is, of course, the age difference; I have never been with someone decades my junior, because, well, it would be illegal; but, setting that aside, although I can understand a man of forty or fifty being attracted to a girl of, say, twenty it has always struck me as weird that a man of such advanced age could believe that he has anything in common with someone from a completely different generation, that they could have anything to say to each other; I don’t know how, in this situation, these men could not feel a little bit ashamed, and more than a little bit ridiculous. Fontane does not at all indicate that Innstetten does feel ridiculous, but the couple do have so little in common. This is made abundantly clear when, for the Honeymoon, he takes Effi around lots of art galleries and churches, things that she has no idea about, nor real interest in. However, a lack of shared interests is not the only problem, the differences between the couple play out in many ways; for example, the first day after the honeymoon he rises early and she sleeps in. It may seem mundane, and it is, but it is part of showing that they are simply not right for each other.

Effi appears to be frequently disliked by readers, certainly based on the reviews that I have encountered. However, I loved her. It perhaps comes back to my type, for she is, well, a little unconventional. She is seventeen at the beginning of the novel, and we first meet her playing outside with her friends, while dressed in some kind of a sailor suit. One could see this opening scene as the author accentuating her youth, her childishness, and that is undeniably the case, but I feel as though there is more to it than that; Fontane, in my opinion, wanted to say something about Effi’s personality, not merely her age. Later, her mother calls her something like a child of nature and that description gives depth to one’s understanding of the opening of the novel; Effi is, to use a popular phrase, a free-spirit; she has peculiar ideas, and her emotional and intellectual responses are frequently contradictory, often within the space of a single paragraph. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the kind of characters you come across in Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky. I have, in my reviews of his work, called Dostoevsky’s characters, his women in particular, profoundly bipolar, and while that phrase is maybe too strong for Effi she is certainly prone to mood swings.

While the youthful and highly-strung Effi is not like the mature and passionate Anna Karenina, Innstetten is much like her husband Karenin, in that he doesn’t appear to be equipped to deal with what he has got. Like Karenin, Innstetten may love his wife, but he is a failure as a lover. He is too conventional, too reserved to romance or court Effi in a way that would lead to a genuine intimacy between them. Indeed, he tends to treat her as a child, as someone who ought to be given the opportunity to make decisions, and exhibit maturity, where possible, but who ought not to be indulged when showing her immaturity. So, for example, he asks Effi’s opinion about which of the local resident families and households they ought to patronise, and yet when she has a turbulent night’s sleep because she thinks she hears strange, unnerving noises, which she is told is the wind sweeping the bottom of the curtains across the floor, he is resistant to do the small thing it would take to ease her anxiety [i.e. taking up the hem of the curtains].

Those strange, unnerving noises are particularly significant because they are the first suggestion of something sinister in a novel that becomes progressively eerie and odd. As already mentioned, Effi, who hears these noises soon after moving into her new home, is initially told that it is the wind and the curtains. However, they are subsequently attributed to a ghost. Effi, in fact, sees the ghost more than once; the first time it rushes past her bed and out the bedroom door and the second time it looks over her shoulder. Add to this, the story of the severed head, the frequent allusions to death, the old lady and the black hen, and Effi repeatedly, almost randomly on occasions, declaring that he feels afraid, and Effi Briest starts to resemble a Gothic novel. What is most fascinating about all this is how Fontane uses the Gothic to reveal aspects of his character’s personalities. For example, when Effi tells Innstetten about the ghost he does not deny its presence in the house, but rather gives the impression of wanting to convince her of its existence.

It is at this point that one starts to doubt one’s initial impressions of the husband. At first he seemed nice but dull, yet eventually his behaviour struck me as troubling and I came to regard him as a cold manipulator. It becomes clear that he uses the idea of the ghost to unsettle Effi, to keep her on her toes, so to speak. This is actually a torture technique, although I doubt Fontane was aware of this; the idea is that if you can prevent someone from thinking rationally, if you disturb their sleep and their peace of mind, then they will become more pliant. More than once Innstetten reminds Effi of the ghost, but he does so in very clever ways, so that it seems, on the surface, as though he is being supportive. For example, at one point he says, ‘don’t be afraid, it won’t come back,’ when Effi herself had not even mentioned the subject. Here, it seems Innstetten is bringing up the subject, is trying to keep Effi afraid, as a way of controlling her. He says it won’t come back, but is really suggesting that it will, is actually bringing it back by mentioning it. He engages in this kind of passive-aggressive bullying frequently. he makes apparently innocuous remarks, little sly digs, that mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. And yet, and yet, just when I was convinced of his villainy, I began, towards the very end of the book, to feel sympathy for him. Ultimately, Innstetten is a man lacking imagination and ambition, not in the way that one would ordinarily understand those words, but in terms of appreciating and getting the most out of his life and making himself truly happy.

If the critical essays, and the introduction to this edition, are anything to go by, much is made of Fontane’s subtlety as a writer. Deservedly so. There are times when the author holds back almost to the point of baffling the reader, or this one anyway, in a way I have only come across elsewhere in the work of Henry James. Before I read the book I was aware of Effi’s reputation as an adulteress, and yet it does not, until it actually happens, seem inevitable that she will play her husband false. Indeed, unlike most novels of this sort, I had no inkling at all as to who she would do the dirty with. Not only that, but the cheating, the cheating that we have access to at least, is so minor in form that you wonder whether it can be called cheating at all. It was only with the revelation of the letters, something like seven years after the events, that I became of the opinion that it went beyond a bit of flirting and hand-kissing. I really liked how Fontane dealt with all that. The way that he treats Effi’s ‘affair’ is to allow the reader to imagine all kinds of things by revealing only a little.

However, despite providing plenty of evidence of Fontane’s subtle touch, my one [relatively small] gripe with the novel is that it is, at times, also woefully heavy-handed. The characters are, mostly in the first half, constantly psychologically sizing each other up, and engaging in conversations about each other’s motivations and behaviours. You are seductive, Innstetten tells Effi, while she goes on to explain how he is ashamed of husbandly affection, that he deems it unrespectable. Likewise, the scene where Crampas calls Innstetten a pedagogue, and Effi replies with something along the lines of, do you think he is trying to teach me? Like, duh. The thing is, this is the opposite of what I wrote about in the previous paragraph, in that this kind of stuff gives the reader nothing to do, allows us no opportunity for thinking for ourselves. In fact, it was often the case that I would already have come to the same conclusion as the characters before they voice it, so them doing so seems like overkill. The Japanese writer Kenaburo Oe does the same thing in his work, and I find it maddening.

Having said that, it wasn’t enough to ruin my experience of the book. I found Effi Briest an engaging and moving read; I could, in fact, keep writing about it, but I have just noticed the word count. 2000. Oh dear, no one will read all this. And what about Rollo? I haven’t even mentioned him. Fucking hell. Rollo. That dog broke my heart.

NORTH

He emerged out of the swamp, to walk into the swamp, or so it seemed, leaving nothing but his dirty footprints, mud-stain, bog-stain, on carpets and floors. He was mad, or else everyone except him was mad. He remained calm – no: sullen – in the face of that madness, and threw everyone off. Some doubted his madness and believed in their own. He came looking, as others came looking after, for him. He found nothing, as they found nothing; for there is nothing. He circled nothing, circled empty space, and everyone was hypnotised by that circling, so that they didn’t notice how they’d been pulled into the circle itself, and how the circle expanded until it became a wrecking ball. The day he came back it rained buckets, not as portent, no, but to show that this city would not raise an eyebrow and would not be diverted from its own normal course due to the arrival, or return, of such as him. No, he wasn’t in control of the weather, at least. Or if he was he’d brought on the rain five years earlier, in leaving, rain like tears of relief, like my own tears that day. So he came back, and so it rained; came back like from the dead, bringing death. He’d tried to be better, to be clever, and found that he was worse and more stupid than anyone here, these people who he had rejected, had attempted to leave behind. So it was retribution, or corrective punishment, when Lily was taken; it was the north twisting his ear, caning the back of his legs, for running away. There was a while when he looked as though he might outrun his own nature, when he began to build and fortify the fence; his brother acted as his press officer then, and poured eagerly into my ear reports of his progress abroad, as though he was Achilles taking Troy; with the arrogance of Achilles, no doubt, and the preening of Paris. He prospered; aye, he prospered in that interim time, before he was blown back here as though by Aeolus’ winds. And, if you believed him, what greeted him as he stepped off the train was a multitude of miseries, like a welcoming party or homecoming guard of honour. No, it was he who brought his denizen of demons. Within weeks we were a city besieged, I tell you, by Poles and Slovaks, Pakis and Blacks. A coincidence? In every dark corner a darker, uglier face; he returns and the city becomes a Boschean hell. A coincidence? No, he stealthily led his legion beyond the walls of the Citadel, and there they set up camp. And before too long we were a populace possessed; a once peaceful people infected by the ogre-blood he had introduced. He circled nothing, I tell you, while our city burned. While everything seethed and writhed he looked on blank and calm, with sullen bewilderment, even while his self-created hell swallowed him up, while the demons and the possessed, for which he was responsible, ate him, and his kin, alive. And it was his choice; he came home, mark that. He came here: the place, I am under no illusion, he abhorred and was so intent on leaving permanently behind, dismissing forever from his mind. The north, this city, yes, those too, but more than anything: home, or not-home. Aye, he chose to come not-home, and yet quite shuddered at the prospect, no doubt, and, once here, continued to shudder and wince and, in private perhaps, claw at his face and curse the curse he undoubtedly felt he was under; except he was the curse, of course. And it wasn’t he who told me, no, he had his brother announce that the prodigal son was to return with his tail tucked between his legs. He couldn’t even tell me himself, not out of shame, a filial feeling of having let me down, but out of arrogance and anger and bitter disappointment. Not that I expected otherwise, no, I did not expect a humble plea for help or motherly affection. I had received no word from him for five years, except through the agency of his brother, would never have heard otherwise. He had become a myth to me, some strange creature far removed from my experience of the world, who existed only in his brother’s fairytales and was therefore of no importance to me except to serve as some cautionary parable. So why did he come back when to come back was so objectionable to him? Because, for all his so-called intelligence and maturity, he couldn’t smell crazy cunt even when it was under his nose, that’s why; or, because, like most of his sex, he couldn’t turn up his nose at any cunt, no matter how clearly crazy. Of course, that’s not how it was told, first to the brother, then, like flotsam moving on the currents of a river, from him to me. No, it was much more poetically put; it was, to hear it from my youngest, who’d had it from the lying lips of his brother, a veritable Greek tragedy, which cast him (my eldest son) as an unfortunate Agamemnon, and me and the north as Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. But it took so little reading between the lines to see the truth; strip away the bombast, the melodrama, and there is my naked son, cowering and cunt-compromised. That he would not have had it that way doesn’t make it any less so. No. As he, in his severe self-pity, would have it he who never experienced any stability or normality – in his childhood situation, by way of his mother – subconsciously sabotaged himself. Ah, see, it was his malevolent mother who unbuttoned his flies and whipped out his perky prick and burrowed it deep in some slut’s slit – against his will, mark that – and brought him low. Not only his mother, but the north; we, in tandem. He sabotaged himself, we are to believe, because stability and comfort and loving-goodness made him panic, not having ever had any from his mother, nor the north; we, the north and me, sowed these seeds of self-destruction in my sad and sorry son, he merely, unwittingly, acted out the script we had written. So that he lost his lover, and his slut, and hobbled not-home with his trousers round his ankles. But he was not contrite. Sullen, aye, but contrite? No. To look at him, you’d not think he had taken all, had endured all, that a human heart could take and endure, which is how his brother had told it, the impression, in his epic re-telling, he had given of this courageous, ill-fated man, a man haunted by hopelessness and fallibility and, not ego, but, rather, the sins of his Machiavellian mother; a man who had stared into the depths of his bruised soul and found lurking there, no, nimbly moving from tree to tree, doing its best to hide, with only its head peering occasionally around the trunks of those close-standing trees, the evil gargoyle image of his mother. Yet how well he kept it hidden, this anguish, this internal sturm and drang. Docile? No. Say, sullen; but more than anything: closed. At least to his gargoyle mother, who, so his little brother said, he cast as something like the Iago of the piece, who was off-stage, yes, but still whispering hate into his ear; and yet it was he who hated, not me. No, I claim no hate; suspicion, yes, and fear, but not hate. He hated, in that passive aggressive manner so particular to him, by being in my presence so sullenly unresponsive, so unanimated, while pouring pestilence into the ear of his brother; he Iago, ironically. And I, yes, rudely stamped, deformed, disfigured, and deathless, but not hateful, although I have every reason to be. What reason, has he? He who left without a word, and lived without a word for five years. He who sought his glory abroad, who puffed himself up, when he thought victory assured, and looked down upon the mother, the place, he’d used as the motivation to better himself. What reason? Was it the realisation that the land he’d claimed, the spoils he’d claimed, weren’t ever really his? That what you steal, what you appropriate, does not ever truly belong to you, even if you never relinquish it? Someone should have told him: you are wretched with or without possessions, because you are you, regardless of your university education, your high-flying job or your pretty perky-titted partner, you cannot outrun yourself, even if you outrun your mother and the north. But they didn’t, or if they did he paid it no mind. And so, unwilling to blame himself – the real villain of the piece, mark that – he blamed the two things he’d so thoroughly rejected, the two things more removed from him than anything else, and did it convincingly. Someone should have told him: the fence you erect around yourself and your new life, in order to keep your mother and the north out, is pointless when the real threat to yourself is the one who erected it. He fenced himself in, and, in doing so, frustrated and enraged his enemy (himself), because suddenly everything (except the mother, the place) outside, everything beyond the fence, became more important, more necessary, more tempting, more alluring; and so he burrowed deep in some slut’s slit in order to claw, to dig his way out of the trap he had set, the prison he had built for himself. Yes, stability may have made him anxious, may have made him panic, but not because he who had never experienced stability couldn’t cope with it, as he claimed via his brother, but because it was only when he’d agreed to forsake all others, to settle in one place, to every day accept responsibility, in private and in public, at home and at work, that he realised how little excitement there was in that. So he burrowed deep, made a bid for freedom, with the only tool at his disposal; only, being a man, he didn’t actually want to escape, not completely, no, he simply wanted to be able to come and go as he pleased without consequences. And that may even have been possible had he been able to smell crazy cunt in front of his nose, but he could not, not until after he had had it and the slut had revolted, with the volatile, immolating, retributive fury of a crazy slut who has been treated like exactly what she is. Oh then he could smell it, certainly, when it was too late, when the whole infrastructure of his comfortable life had been torn down and set on fire. So, as much as he abhorred the place, he returned, because only here could be find a sympathetic ear (his brother’s, not mine), someone naïve enough to believe his cowardly lies and embellish and spread them, someone who believed entirely in his heroism; he returned, not merely out of financial necessity, as he claimed, but for that, for a credible, gullible, audience; and for revenge, let’s not forget that. He sought revenge against his mother and this city, because only in seeking revenge could he fully convince himself and his audience that what he said and thought about his gargoyle mother and his (yes, his) city was true, that without the desire for revenge he would be revealed as a charlatan. To his (little) brother he was extraordinary, be it in victory or defeat; or not-defeat, never defeat, because even though he appeared to have been brought low, even though it looked like he had lost all, and had come back, and filled his (his brother’s) ear with melodramatic psychobabble dressed up as high tragedy, I’d say he (his gullible brother) saw not real defeat in it, but a temporary, even necessary, regrouping of mental forces, a mere episode, one small, yet still engrossing, segment of his (his elder brother’s) tapestry of war and ultimate victory. Aye, he was, I think, in his eyes a sort of Zeus, a powerful, and sometimes gloomy, god of sky and thunder; which makes me a kind of Cronus, a child-eater. (Aye, and now banished to, and chained up in, the cave of Nyx; dreaming and prophesying). The perfect partner, the slut, the job, the swanky apartment: all were lost. (And Lily, too, later). And he a hero, still? Yes, it seemed so. His losses were heroic; when really it, the situation, could have, or should have, been, for him, for his little brother, like seeing his father bested in a physical confrontation. The scales ought to have fallen from his eyes, as he (his elder brother) fell. Yet, I’d say his admiration for him was never compromised, in fact he gained from his fall, which for him wasn’t a fall but a regrouping, a greater mystique, a quixotic gloss. Even the slut escaped the youngest’s ire, for she was necessary too, she was part of the fabric of his epic tapestry, the heroic narrative; she, with her madness, her looseness, her excoriating temper, was equally quixotic. (That some dangerous, and exotic, knickerless lass should want to ruin his brother was, doubtless, exciting; it screamed: femme fatale). My son never saw the slut, he never saw the lover neither; and wouldn’t have seen them even if he had stood in front of both, no, he would have seen the character, the part they had been given to play, the role they had been assigned. Believe it or not, my son saw no malice in his brother, no callousness; he exonerated him on the basis of the psychobabble he had been fed, while simultaneously elevating him to ever greater heroic heights in the epic narrative he was feeding himself. So, no, he saw not a flawed unfeeling man who had shlupped some slut out of boredom or vanity or that male need for distraction or novelty and then discarded her as though she was no more than what she was; he did not see an ignoble sordid soul who, although already attached, had pursued a crazy cunt, not yet knowing how crazy she was, and bedded her without bad conscience. No, he saw no evil in him, spoke no evil of he who had never laughed nor flirted with her (his slut) because he didn’t need to, because it wasn’t required, for she asked for no effort from him, no narrative, no promises, nothing other than to not be forced to acknowledge what she was. She knew, of course; of course, she knew what she was and what he was too, and how much of nothing they had, how little of lasting worth, but she needed to be able to convince herself in her quiet moments that they understood each other, that they were both the same and that they met each other’s needs, at least. So when he turned her out, literally turned her out of the hotel room 3am one morning as though she was his whore, not merely his slut, when she realised that he hadn’t sought in her what he found wanting in the other, that the other did her duty, that she satisfied just as well as she, she vowed vengeance and immediately put her plan into practice with the reckless enthusiasm that only a woman who has been given the means, the opportunity, to make another woman unhappy is capable of. No, my youngest son saw no malice in the slut, or at least apportioned no blame to her, for these things had to be, had to happen, so that the brother could come back and regroup his mental forces, and so that he (my youngest son) could be his audience, his collaborator, his confidant, his champion, and his messenger too, so that he could pass on to the mother the tall tale of a man who had looked deep inside himself and been stricken, panicked by the ghostly presence of his parent and the north, a mother and a city, let’s not forget, that had at no point pleaded nor prayed for his return. I would never have prayed nor hoped for his return, not even in my weakest moments, because I knew that if he did there would be no good in it. I thought: let him ruin, and spread his bad luck, his hurt, elsewhere, and, if I must record them at all, let me record the tremors from here, with him there, anywhere, away. My youngest son would be his champion, and his victim; aye, that I knew. And so it proved. He came back death-faced, bringing death. How could he? If he had had a slip of sense, a modicum of goodness, he would have known himself and stayed away. I lost, not he. They lost; all lost, except he. He endured, sullenly. Would that I had never pushed him out into the world. Let me not be accused of hate, for I don’t hate. Never hated. I don’t hate him, I fear him. Within weeks of his return I saw orgres on every corner, demons in dark places. It was an invasion, don’t believe otherwise. And he was at its head. Not that you’d have known it to look at him, not that anyone would have believed you. Did he control the demons? No, I don’t believe so, simply that he loosed them upon us. A coincidence? No such thing. Aye, it would have been better for us all had he never been born; for his brother, his mother, his lovers, his sluts (don’t presume that there was only one). And for his daughter too, who, having sprung from the loins of such as he, never stood a chance. Tragedy and misery, like twin dark-coated dogs, stalked her heels from her first breath, ever gaining ground. As father, lover, brother, son: he failed, he fucked-up. If he had one true talent it was for engineering endings, for full-stops. I don’t say that he always profited by them, all those endings he engineered; no, for he made also an end of the comfortable life that he had worked for, strove for, that he had rejected the north and his family for, when he threw, with such serenity, with perfect poise and composure, as though she was not even worthy of his anger, his slut out of that hotel room at 3am. Profitted? No. He was the bad penny in his own pocket, too. Aye, when you court chaos you may find that you cannot control that force and that it may do for you too, in doing for others. She did not rouse his temper when she woke him from his drunken and dreamless sleep that early-morning, armed with an accusation she expected him to deny; that is how deep his disdain ran. No, he merely threw her out, or, not even that: he told her to leave, without once raising his voice or displaying any hostility or ill will, as though he spoke in a sleeping state still. He did so without even getting out of bed, like a decadant young lord dismissing from his presence an incompetant servant. Would she have credited his denial? Maybe not, but she expected it in any case, out of politeness perhaps, or to prove his continued commitment to the status quo. But he neither affirmed nor denied the charge; it didn’t register with him at all. And to think she had spent all evening choking it back; while mounted and bucked she put in from her tongue, into her cheek, to let her low moans pass unobstructed. Of course, from the very beginning she could not have discounted the possibility, even the likelihood, that there was someone else, someone other than herself and the full-time lover. She knew that for a man relationships are a sliding-scale arrangement, that what you ask of them is precisely what they give. And she asked for very little, thus giving him more to spend elsewhere. Likewise, she knew that a man’s commitment to fidelity is like a hymen, that its strength and importance exists more so in the mind than in reality, and that once prodded it is shown to be thin and easily broken. So she could not have convinced herself that she was the only one to pass through that gaping hole. Yet, she tried, because she had to, because the alternative was to acknowledge what she was. And so she sought a denial from him, one that, if it was given, she would not truly trust in, but which was necessary to preserve, to keep going, the small fire she warmed herself on during her quietist moments, when the cold wind of doubt and self-loathing swirled about her. But he didn’t deny it, mark that. Oh no he did not deny that he had others like her, or at least one other. Nor did he confirm the truth of the charge; he would not even entertain discussion of that subject, because, in his bloodymindedness, he would not pay to this girl what he owed to his lover. He accepted that she (his lover, his partner) was entitled, should she ever enquire or accuse, to an explanation, a confession, an admittance of guilt, or at least a carefully constructed lie. That was his duty to her, or more likely his duty to himself and his self-interest; but with his slut he felt as though he had no duty whatsoever and, importantly, no long-term vested interest; and so he acted accordingly. Aye, he told her to leave and then went back to sleep. And she, while he lay once again drunk and dreamless and unfettered by conscience, had those hours in which to work her art unchallenged. Did she hate him? I don’t say that, no, though perhaps she had reason to, in her own mind and her own way. I don’t believe she would have hated him, not even when he threw her out of the hotel room at 3am and she contemplated the prospect of walking, unescorted, home. Yet, as my son, his brother, saw it, told it, she was, as she left the hotel, a raging Dido, beating her breast and fixing to throw herself onto a pyre; in the icy early-morning air, he said, she walked with crisp steps, conspicuously unaccompanied. She did not flag down a taxi cab, nor call one. No, she went forth with crisp steps, mouthing her threats into the icy air, under an early morning sky that hung over her head like a large bruise. The streets, he said, were not empty as, here and there, Shades slouched in shadows; and some – the youngest, the most lost – stepped slowly, forlornly, forward, come from the strange houses in which they had slept. But she in her agitation did not see them, he said. She, in chaos of mind, with all her elements convulsed, moved dark and jarring with perturbed force. But she did not hate him; he had dismissed her so nonchalantly and yet she did not hate. If she ever did after, she did not yet. No, she loved him, despite never having loved him before. Aye, suddenly she loved him with an intense and perilous passion, with a great and furious anger that struck hard at her heart and ignited her eyes and her terrible tongue. No, she loved, not hated, though she would have had him whipped to death, he said.