You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying overhead and crapping on your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.
An article in the Guardian online alerts me to the fact that I am quite out of touch with things on a quantum level. It would seem that some wild Neutrinos have been identified speeding down the runway at Cern at sixty billionths of a second faster than the speed of light. Ah, the wee tearaways.
I can remember speeding down the road on holiday with my dad when I was about five with the window open and seeing the speedometer nudge sixty miles an hour and thinking that was fast.
But those Neutrinos would have left my dad’s old Zephyr standing. No, sorry, they would have arrived at the beach and come back to read me a story before I went to bed the night before.
The discovery, if validated, could turn Einsteinian physics on its head. I mean, the whole caboodle of special relativity will be up for grabs.
Which demands a replay of the Neutrino joke I saw on facebook the other night. “We don’t allow faster-than-light neutrino’s in here!” said the barman. A Neutrino walks into a bar.
That’s it. Terrible, I know.
So as not to get too left behind (geddit?) I have started following Matt Strassler’s blog, which contains a sort of ‘particle physics for idiots’ link, so I can pick up a few key phrases to bandy about next time I go down the local. A Neutrino walks into a bar. So they build this bar… Et cetera, ad infinitum.
We leave the beach and set off up a path through a narrow gorge, Goril walking ahead with the French, Kurt following her like a puppy. It is night now, but the moon has risen and we have no trouble finding our way. In a sheltered spot, a greyish puddle of wet, viscous mud lies below a small waterfall, space enough for two or three to bathe. Goril and Ana take off their clothes and do not need to exercise much persuasion to get Kurt to do the same, Germans will strip off at any opportunity; even so, the girls give him a hand pulling off his pants and the three of them plunge into the soggy bath, falling about and smacking each other with dollops of gloopy clay. I cannot help but notice that Kurt has an erection, which he tries ineffectually to protect with a hand at first, but is soon so covered in wet clay that it barely matters, and the three of them lollop like imbeciles in the pool, shrieking, hooting and plastering each other with sticky mud.
With a jolt, I feel the effects of the potion rise through my body, bubbling through my veins, and I am lifted bodily to a place where everything has the semblance of itself but is undeniably other; the rocks, the cliffs, the faces of my friends, the strange mutt belonging to the French couple (which seems to be sporting an oversize Gallic moustache); everything has been replaced by a simulacrum of itself, and I too, am a new and alien version of me, and all my sense receptors, sight and touch and hearing and smell, are lodged not in me but in this impostor who has occupied the zone I once thought of as my body. So long as I keep calm, I tell myself, everything will be all right. I glance over at Callum, who, like me, has kept his clothes on. He smiles vacantly in my direction but I can tell, or think I can tell, that he is going through his own epic moment, and I decide (or whatever it is that has commandeered my brain decides) that, for now, language is something I might try and avoid. But Callum is edging over to me and is speaking, or rather, he is making sounds I cannot hope to understand. The three mud-creatures in the pool are clambering over each other, slithering like hideous aquatic lizards through the slime. I notice how long and red Ana’s tongue seems, and how it ululates as she makes strange noises in the round ‘o’ of her mouth, and how that orifice is enveloped by a grey carapace of mud on her face and in her hair and how this might reasonably be expected to diminish my attraction to her but in fact produces the opposite effect; the three of them have grey slimy bodies but red tongues and blue eyes, and the whites of those eyes are flashing horribly in the moonlight. Goril and Ana are kneeling, facing each other, and they begin to kiss, slowly and lasciviously, and Kurt is lying on his belly, flat out in the muck, staring at them, his pupils massively dilated, and then he turns on his side and begins to masturbate, mechanically, never taking his eyes off the girls. Goril looks up and sees what he is doing, cannot help but notice him thrashing away, and she shrieks, reaches for a handful of mud and throws it at Kurt, and Ana joins in, hurling fistfuls of sludge at Kurt, who rolls over and moans, in sorrow or delight, I can’t tell, he wears an expression of demented, anguished joy while the two women, who are no longer laughing, stand over him, pelting him with slushy missiles as he cowers and grovels at their feet, and I observe this macabre scene without much concern, and I hear, in the distance, the sound of a conch, blasting a hole in the petrified night air.
On cue, the assault ends, and someone, it might be me, suggests a swim and we all run back down to the beach, and the three naked mud-people race to get to the sea first, the rest of us jogging behind. The French have gone home, no doubt wishing to protect their child and dog from further scenes of depravity. Then I am very slowly stepping out of my jeans and laughing uncontrollably, which makes it hard to keep my balance, and Ana and Goril and Kurt are standing by the water’s edge, caked in the dried mud, and as I wade into the sea, the water closes around me with a lovely cool feeling, like acquiring a shiny new skin, and I am impossibly high, floating on my back beneath the moon and the stars, being swallowed up by the unimaginable vastness of the sky, and afterwards I find my blanket and curl up by the fire and weep, although with no sense of sadness, and Ana joins me and both of us sit wrapped in the blanket weeping and looking at the flames, and then Kurt is running up, also in tears, but his are unmistakeably tears of despair, he is yowling, yelping, running up to us and then running off down the beach, out of his head with grief, as well as simply out of his head, returning and asking us where is Goril and us saying, Kurt we have no idea where she is but Kurt keeps asking us where is Goril, then running off, sobbing, then coming back and begging, pleading with us to help him find Goril, he cannot live a moment longer without knowing where is his darling Goril, and when he has gone Ana turns to me and we kiss, and then a minute, or a hundred years later, I look up, and Goril is standing there, her arm around Callum’s waist, head on his shoulder, and Kurt is by the fire, silent at last, but in seething suppressed rage, and we are all tired of this performance and Ana tells Kurt to get a grip, to please, for God’s sake, just get a grip and fuck off and go to sleep.
In the morning I make a pot of coffee and decide to look around. Antonio and Pedro are asleep by the remains of the fire. I find Goril and Callum under a blanket in one of the abandoned houses, and there is no trace of Kurt. We spend all morning combing the beach and searching the gorge but do not find him. What more can we do? Ana says she refuses to feel guilty on Kurt’s behalf, and Goril agrees: that’s life, she says, that’s the way it goes, I mean, no one invited him. Callum and I are silent and uncomfortable. The Andalucians mooch, and we all smoke weed.
Later that afternoon we hear that the body of a young man has been washed up on the beach in the nearby town where we went for beers and tapas. Somehow, no one is surprised.
That same evening, I am emerging from the sea after a swim, with Ana, and we see a column of Guardia Civil moving quickly down the distant cliff path, on foot, a snake-trail of green uniforms, six of them. They must have found Kurt’s car. We rush back up the beach to warn the others.
We arrive at the house that Goril and Callum have occupied, just before the guardia. Goril is naked, and as a young officer, a lieutenant, comes into the room with two of his men, she takes her time, carelessly pulls on a shirt, one of Callum’s, from a pile on the floor, but doesn’t bother buttoning it, sits with the shirt half-open, honey-coloured legs stretched towards the lieutenant, crossed at the ankle, and she talks to him. Without prior agreement, she has become our spokesperson, answering all the questions on our behalf in near-perfect Castilian. The lieutenant is handsome and dark-eyed, interrogates her in a civil, professional manner, scribbling in a notebook as he stands, and smiles at her once, a little too freely, and he tells Goril we were seen by the bar owner talking to Kurt, were seen leaving in his car, and she says yes Capitán, we met him, but this is all we know: he was distraught, broken-hearted after a love affair, we tried to help him, we tried talking to him, to comfort him, but he must have wandered off during the night, he must have walked into the sea. She shakes her head sadly. The young guardia allows his gaze to linger, casts his eyes over her without expression, snaps his notebook shut.
Following a surprise visit yesterday from Iwan Bala, and a moment in which we discussed the profound influence of the Mabinogion stories on both of us, I fell into that state of reflection, or daydream, in which different ideas coalesce or merge. Iwan had mentioned how the ancient Welsh tribes among whom the stories in the Mabinogion emerged – they were part of an oral storytelling tradition long before they were set first down as texts in the eleventh century – sustained a shamanic tradition whose adepts almost certainly used hallucinogens of some kind; magic mushrooms and quite possibly the datura plant, the properties and effects of which I describe in section 29 of The Vagabond’s Breakfast.
Shamans would, in the cultures such as those of the British Celtic peoples of this period, provide the core transcendental experiences on behalf of the tribe, or group, which would involve visions and engagements with the ‘other world’, the place described as Annwn in the Mabinogion stories. Among such cultures the veil between worlds was perhaps not quite so thick as it has since become.
It was brought to my attention by a recent re-reading of Margaret Attwood’s Negotiating with the Dead that among certain indigenous peoples the shamanistic journey follows well-trodden paths, and overcoming an encounter with the ghost-like creatures of the kind I describe in the VB is a not uncommon feature of the Shaman’s necessary accomplishment. I found this strangely reassuring.
But this was not the only adventure that I have recounted in relation to the deadly and secretive datura plant. Another encounter with datura forms the basis of a very loosely autobiographical short story set in Andalusia. Browsing the internet, I find photos of the very deserted village in which the story is set (which I call Las Perdidas) but is actually San Pedro, in the Cabo de Gata peninsular of Andalusia.
The brief for the story was, very broadly, the theme of the handless maiden, a story that has haunted me over the years, and which appears in many versions, perhaps most famously that of the Brothers Grimm, which can be found here. It is a deeply poignant story of female disempowerment, which in my version becomes inverted; that is to say the central female character, Goril, might be a handless maiden – and is most certainly damaged – but she has taken control of her life in the only way she knows, with dramatic and, in turn, damaging consequences.
The story was first published last year in the book Sing Sorrow Sorrow (Ed. Gwen Davies, Seren, 2010). I will post the first part today, and the conclusion tomorrow.
THE HANDLESS MAIDEN
She comes in through the window, where I am enjoying a game of chess on the floor with Callum (there is no furniture in the squat) as though it were the standard way of entering a building, sidling under the half-open wooden frame, and swinging her legs over the sill, before alighting, like a cat, on the wooden floor, within inches of the chess-board. She is wearing very short cut-off denim jeans and a man’s white vest, and she springs across the room towards Ana, who lives in the house, and in whom (without going into unnecessary detail) I have an interest, before the two of them disappear out of the door and along the corridor, to Ana’s room, talking in Norwegian.
Callum (tall, Scottish, a slacker) gazes after the newcomer, admiringly. She looks as if she has emerged from an illustrated edition of Oliver Twist, a saucer-eyed urchin, small and slim, with a mess of short, wheat-coloured hair.
Goril is nineteen, perhaps the most accomplished hustler I have met, and over the next few days, due to her friendship with Ana – they knew each other back in Oslo – I get to see her in action. With her sweet, innocent face, few would suspect that her mere presence in a public place constitutes an immediate threat to any carelessly guarded wallet or handbag, which items, in her company, are likely to vanish without trace. Unlike the other vagrants here in Andalucia, she never begs, nor does conjuring tricks, nor plays a musical instrument, yet she manages to extract money and goods from people with amazing facility; tourists, bar-owners, even, alarmingly, drug-dealers – to the extent that within a week of turning up, she comes to the house one morning with a thick wad of bank notes and offers to take everyone to the seaside. She says she has been given the money by the Norwegian consulate, in order to procure a ticket home before the Guardia Civil incarcerate her for the greater good of the citizenry. I don’t know if she is telling the truth, I don’t even know if there is a Norwegian consulate in Granada, nor do I care. In the idle way that associations are formed and dissolved among vagabonds, she has become a member of our gang, although Goril is most certainly not a joiner.
The place to which we are headed is an abandoned village on a remote and undeveloped outcrop of land jutting out into the Med, east of Almeria. It is called Las Perdidas, which means The Lost Women, and I should have known better than to go there in the first place, but am intrigued by the possibilities. Among which, of course, I include Ana, who looks like a young Björk, and whose feelings towards me are a mystery, due to her apparent reluctance to engage in conversation. There are rumours of natural hot springs and healing mud baths. It sounds like paradise, and as such might provide the ambience for our relationship to blossom.
We take the morning bus to Almeria and have a two-hour wait before our connection. Antonio, along with his friend Pedro, the local boys in our little band, has the idea of buying a yearling lamb, which he acquires off some guy in the nearby market, ready-skinned. Antonio has it wrapped in preserving herbs and sacking for the bus journey to the coast. We have to carry the thing with us, but it’s going to be worth it, Antonio says: this is real food. Goril pays for the bus, the meat, everything.
Las Perdidas, it transpires, is way off the beaten track. The bus stops at a nearby town and we walk along an unsurfaced road for an hour before descending a narrow mule-path down the cliff face towards a jumble of stone cottages near the beach. Some of the buildings look as if they were deserted a century ago and are beyond repair, but others even have roofs, and a semi-permanent settlement of hippies or friquis live in the more robust houses, which are perched at a slight elevation, overlooking the sea. These inhabitants have become accustomed to a drifting population occupying the lower, more ruinous houses, or sleeping rough on the beach, and pay us no attention as we file by, the six of us, carrying our possessions, sleeping bags or blankets, and several plastic containers filled with wine.
When we arrive on the beach, we immediately set about collecting driftwood and scrub for a fire. I make up a search party with Ana, Callum and Goril, and after assembling a small mountain of fuel, we strip off and go for a swim, and although it’s April, the water is not as cold as I expect it to be; perhaps the shape of the cove protects Las Perdidas from cooler currents. Afterwards, Goril stands naked at the water’s edge, vigorously drying herself with a scrap of towel. She suggests we return to the small town where the bus dropped us off, to ‘score some beers and tapas.’ That’s how she talks. Her English, like Ana’s, is fluent, but sprinkled with a gratuitous sampling of time-warped hippy jargon. Perhaps it amuses her to talk this way. The treat will be on her, she says, or rather, on the king of Norway. Long live the King, chimes Callum. Ana, in an unprecedented demonstration of affection, links arms with me. She hasn’t honoured me with one of her rare and random excursions into conversation yet today, but this, at least, is progress. The four of us move up the beach to explain our plan to our Spanish friends.
The beach fire is going strong but will need to burn down before Antonio can start cooking the lamb on his improvised spit, and it’ll be a few hours before the meat is cooked. He and Pedro have a bag of grass and are happy to stay and tend the fire. We have a smoke with them before leaving. By now it’s late afternoon.
We’re on our fourth round of beers when Goril falls into conversation with a young German who is drinking on his own at the bar. He’s a tourist, rather than a traveller. His name is Kurt. He’s predictably blonde and red-faced, but seems friendly enough and a little lonely. Goril buys him a drink and Kurt buys us all drinks in return; in fact we can’t stop him buying us drinks, even if we were inclined to, he seems so happy to have people to talk with in his faltering English. He is staying at the hotel attached to the bar, and has just driven the length of France and Spain, as he tells us, until the land runs out, in order to get over heartbreak with a woman, pronouncing the absurd phrase with such Teutonic sincerity that Callum splutters into his beer (fortunately he is facing me, and Kurt does not seem to notice the indiscretion, although Ana does: she glares at Callum). Travel, says Callum, trying to make amends, in case he has offended Goril also, is a great healer. Travel, and alcohol. Especially alcohol. You are doing the right thing, my laddie. Drink up and forget your troubles. You’re among friends. When Kurt, bewildered by Callum’s accent, enquires of Callum and myself where we are from, he seems delighted by our reply: Ah, the Celtic peoples, he says, this I like. Myself I am a Wandal. From the Germanic tribe, you know, of Wandals.
He beams at us and we smile obligingly. But Kurt is harmless, and generous with his cash, and is obviously enamoured of our blonde Scandinavian talisman, who might be providing him with a glimpse of redemption after his experience with heartbreak woman. So it comes as no surprise that he offers to drive us back along the track in his smart BMW, parking the car where the road ends, and insists on descending with us to the beach at Las Perdidas. The light is fading but the earth is still warm, and there is the edge of a cool breeze from the sea.
The lamb is cooked to perfection, but before we get stuck in, Pedro, who is a connoisseur of plants and wildlife (as well as narcotics) tells us he has brewed a concoction, as an aperitif, he adds, thoughtfully. He seems reluctant, at first, to explain in any detail what is in the drink, but on being pressed, tells us it is made from the hallucinogenic seeds of a plant which grows abundantly in these parts. He passes around a cup filled with the brew. It tastes vile but everyone drinks some; we are a hardened band of psychotropic adepts. When it comes to Kurt’s turn, he looks questioningly at Goril. Pedro has given his explanation in Spanish, which Kurt neither speaks nor understands. Goril nods her head, saying something to him that I cannot hear; and maybe I am the only one to notice this, but she turns towards Ana, and she winks. Kurt knocks back the drink and passes the cup to Pedro to be re-filled. Everyone is in a fine mood. Antonio cuts slabs of flesh from the legs and shoulders of the lamb, and there is more to eat than the seven of us can possibly manage. A young French couple, who live in the hippy colony, venture down to the beach with their baby and attendant mongrel, following the scent of cooking. We tell them to go and get the other hippies, but they say that most of the residents are vegetarian, and would not wish to participate in this carnivorous feast. More fool them, scoffs Pedro. How could anyone resist the gorgeous smell of lamb roasting on a spit? Kurt, having demanded a translation of this exchange, agrees. He tells a vegetarian joke, very badly. He tells us we are a great bunch of guys. We help ourselves from the platter that Antonio has piled high with meat, and tear at hunks of bread and help ourselves to wine, swigging from plastic bottles or squirting the stuff into our faces from the wineskin that Antonio hands around.
Ana, I am pleased to report, is sitting at my side, and she leans close and speaks quietly.
You know, she says, glancing over at Goril, when she was about thirteen, back in Oslo, her father locked her in a room and fed her on raw meat, raw reindeer meat. For three months. And someone found out, a neighbour, he heard her howling like a dog, and called the police. When she got out, and her dad was taken away, she wouldn’t eat anything else, just raw meat.
Hell, I say, and what happened?
She got sick, says Ana.
Is that it? I ask.
Yup, she says, and smiles, pleased with herself for this little foray into anecdote.
I feel a great affection for Ana, but am startled by her story.
Didn’t she have a mother? I ask, didn’t she have someone to look after her?
Ana shakes her head. Her mum died when she was small. Her dad was a junkie. He was very bad news. She grew up on the streets. My mother, she adds, hesitating, said she was a handless maiden.
She did? I ask, curious: why did she say that?
Well, says Ana, it means her father made a devil’s bargain, like he sold her soul. In the story, the girl’s father is a miller and he makes a deal with the devil, because he is greedy, because he wants more grain from his mill, more gold, and the devil cuts off the daughter’s hands and she is left to wander in the forest. That, according to my mum, was what happened to Goril. That’s why she’s the way she is.
I watch Goril for a minute, sitting cross-legged between her admirers, Callum and Kurt. She is eating ravenously. She consumed several substantial tapas not long ago, but she launches into the meat and bread as if she has not eaten for a week.
Although Callum has the hots for Goril, I am pretty certain he will not make the first move, which is probably wise. Kurt, to her left, is picking at his meat between soulful glances at Goril, then looking around to see if anyone has noticed. While I am musing on this tableau, Goril looks up and stares straight at me, as though her radar has picked up on my surveillance. For a split second her eyes spell out an icy, impassive warning, then her face melts into a smile. She makes a little wave at me, fluttering the fingers of her hand, then turns to the French couple and asks them to show us where the mud baths are, the famous mud baths.
(to be continued)
It doesn’t give me any kind of pleasure to give a book a poor review, but having spent an awfully long time reading something, and trying to engage with it as a work of art, I do feel a bit pissed off if the thing is getting tons of media attention when more modest, but far more skilfully written works are passed over by the monolithic media machine of our publishing culture.
I started reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on my summer holidays, was interrupted, picked it up and got rather bored, was convinced by Cees Nooteboom (who I see is credited in the acknowledgements) to give it another try; and finally yesterday, after a six-hour stint of compulsory bed rest in Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I managed to get to the end.
Really, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Mitchell doesn’t write many duff sentences, at least compared with the trashier writers of the day, but then neither are there many great passages of the kind that I enjoyed in Cloud Atlas. However, like the earlier novel, The Thousand Autumns is filled with too many set pieces, and they always, but always sound like set pieces. That’s the price you pay for padding out a longer novel, I guess.
The title is mildly irritating, following as it does the clichéd formula of concept plus OF plus name (preferably an odd-sounding name). But more tiresome is the tedium of the truncated sentence formula alternating with the capacity of all the characters (but particularly de Zoet himself) to think out loud in italics.
It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.
Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.
Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .
Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.
. . . spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon once in a lifetime . . .
The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.
Jacob can hear a harpsichord: it is the doctor, playing in his long attic.
(The doctor, incidentally is one Marinus, who has all the sensibilities of a late 20th century liberal haphazardly dumped into the late eighteenth).
This is not bad writing: it just isn’t much good, and I certainly don’t see why all the leading newspapers’ reviewers swooned over it (and they all did). “I doubt there is another living English writer who is capable of such traversals of worlds and consciousness,” trilled The Guardian. But, reader, I was bored. I yawned a thousand yawns. I kept thinking I was being uncharitable towards Mr Mitchell and should give it a few more pages, but as I drew towards page five hundred and fifty, I felt that I’d been had, and that this was just a bestseller bandwagon book.
I should follow my gut instinct in future and refrain from buying books in airports simply because they have a bunch of rave reviews, but I probably won’t, as from time to time curiosity wins out.
I am listening to a Chopin nocturne here in my attic, as the rain falls on the city. It is evening and it is autumn. Tomorrow I am going into hospital where someone will poke around in my liver with a sharp instrument. This combination of factors could make for quite a melancholy mood, but instead I am reasonably jolly because I have just confirmed a longstanding suspicion: according to my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word ‘cretin’ is derived from the French Alpine dialect crétin meaning a ‘kind of dwarfed and deformed idiot . . . from Latin christianus CHRISTIAN.’ It goes on to inform me that ‘In many Romance languages the equivalents of Christian have the general meaning of human being, but as a euphemism carry the sense of poor fellow. A parallel sense of development is found in French benêt simpleton, from Old French benoit blessed . . .’
I was also interested to discover there is a French video game called Les Lapins Crétins (the cretinous rabbits), surely one of the more outstanding Gallic contributions to world culture.
The Argentinian poet Jorge Fondebrider, playing with the familiar writerly notion that worldly success is almost entirely a matter of luck, has a poem on the subject, which I reproduce below, as a spin-off from my reflections on cretinism, followed by another of Jorge’s pensées on literary matters.
While translating a biography of Gershwin
and reading again of his successes,
the many testimonies of his contemporaries,
I realise that I too know illustrious people
and a few who are genuinely talented,
who bear the load of the world’s debts and bitterness.
But later I go back to work.
What I really want to say is that talent is not enough,
is never sufficient
that you have to be born in the right place, at the right time,
you have to be lucky and be noticed.
And whoever claims otherwise is a cretin.
Like Plato, chuck them out,
send them packing with a kick in the arse.
Worse still are novelists who don’t read poetry.
Translations from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 47 No 1, Summer 2011.
When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand. It is a headache, a slight case of indigestion, an infected finger; but you miss the 8:20 and arrive late at the meeting on credit extensions. The old friend that you meet for lunch suddenly exhausts your patience and in an effort to be pleasant you drink three cocktails, but by now the day has lost its form, its sense and meaning. To try and restore some purpose and beauty to it you drink too much at cocktails you talk too much you make a pass at somebody’s wife and you end with doing something foolish and obscene and wish in the morning that you were dead. But when you try to trace back the way you came into the abyss all you find is a grain of sand.
Although reflecting a certain kind of mid century American machismo – ‘you make a pass at somebody’s wife’ – where the working day would characteristically end in cocktails, there is a truly awful angle to the idea that the tiniest thing, the smallest discomfort or inconvenience might send a person reeling into oblivion. How many times has that happened, and how many times have we told ourselves it cannot, must not happen again?
And that image of the grain of sand is so entrenched in our consciousness, because we are used to regarding the grain of sand as the minimal unit of matter (which, along with the speck of dust, it was before the advent of atomic physics) and we reduce every small beginning to just such a tiny item. ‘To see a world in a grain of sand’ according to William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, is a familiar allegory to every armchair mystic.
And what Cheever is saying is not confined to the experiences of a recidivist drunk: it applies to anyone who has ever felt that quiet sliding out of control, the slow-motion disaster that the smallest, slightest disharmony begins to offset, and the offhand remark (or the not-so-offhand remark) the spillage, foot placed firmly in it, the unforeseen riposte, the fist raised, the threat made, the words that appal, the moment at which you take a step that cannot be retrieved, definitively.
Though, on the upside, that can be quite refreshing. Walking out on a job, while giving one’s boss an earful, might be the most gratifying thing that ever happens to some people.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the economy and the leaders of Europe all mouthing off about how we must do this and can’t do that, and the demos in Madrid and Nueva York (with Naomi Wolf in her evening gown, for whom I can’t feel too much sympathy, although I agree with her in principle) and the poor Greeks at the end of yet another bollocking from the Germans, and meanwhile the bankers, the bastards who got us in this mess, all have their snouts back in the trough again as if nothing had happened.
Which brings us logically to the rugby world cup final.
I never thought for a moment that the French would get ‘blown away’ in today’s match as Wales’ outstanding scrum-half Mike Phillips predicted in the heat of the moment after his team’s unlucky defeat in the semis. And on the day les bleus came good, playing more positive rugby than they have all tournament. I must confess, after indulging in a week of blatant francophobia, I was egging them on to score in that final onslaught before New Zealand regained possession of the ball. Maybe it was just a perennial desire to support the underdog. But it would have been a bitter irony for France to have walked away with the world cup, after losing to Tonga in the group stage.
So that’s done. It was all a bit of an anti-climax here in Cardiff, as everyone was rooting for a New Zealand-Wales final (and I had money on it). But despite losing to South Africa, France and Australia, the Welsh players have nothing to be ashamed of; in fact they done us proud.
Blanco is very much looking forward to the Wales-France match at the Millennium stadium next March, and will certainly be there, although he will not be dressed as a daffodil.
I was flicking through web pages, looking for nothing in particular, which in ordinary life tends to invoke a receptive and often interesting state of receptivity. Moreover I was tired, and therefore probably susceptible to sentiments that I might normally guard against (but probably do not).
Anyhow, I stumble across a poem by David St. John, not a poet I remember having read before, and fell straight for it: a musical poetry of desire, of neglect, of forgetting – in which nothing sounds quite right: the man at the party is actually saying he prefers Athens to Rome; the woman whose vest “belled below each breast”(?); the disconnect between what he is saying of Rome and what is dancing urgently beneath the text, tugging at memory. What is going on here, as the narrator jumps from place to place, zone to emotional zone? And who is he? Yet I read on, lulled by the easy rhythms as the lines spilled across the page through various absurdities (“it was here I’d chosen / To live when I grew tired of my ancient life / As the Underground Man”) – Velvet Underground?
And then the extraordinary fluidity of the lines that follow the arrival in his apartment at 3.00 a.m. of Nico, with her sunken eyes, Marlene Dietrich vowels, not only in her Velvets persona but more specifically as the lowing chanteuse of the Chelsea Girls album, junk-queen heroine of my adolescence, her somber drone exciting me with visions of decadent and lonely immolations in seedy hotel rooms, dark nights of impossible desire, and the soul-barren broken wanderlust which would soon become mordant reality, and who:
Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost
Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”
And deep within the pupil of her left eye,
Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging
Lantern rocking the waves,
I could see, at the most remote end of the receding.
Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,
At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,
A tiny, dangling crucifix –
Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting
In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …
So, I will copy the poem in full, after all, although I have to keep it in italics, otherwise WordPress will re-align the text. The citation is from the eponymous poem by Meredith (1828-1909) which can be found here, the opening lines of which are: ON a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose. / Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend / Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d, / Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.
Lucifer in Starlight
Tired of his dark dominion …
It was something I’d overheard
One evening at a party; a man I liked enormously
Saying to a mutual friend, a woman
Wearing a vest embroidered with scarlet and violet tulips
That belled below each breast, “Well, I’ve always
Preferred Athens; Greece seems to me a country
Of the day—Rome, I’m afraid, strikes me
As being a city of the night … ”
Of course, I knew instantly just what he meant—
Not simply because I love
Standing on the terrace of my apartment on a clear evening
As the constellations pulse low in the Roman sky,
The whole mind of night that I know so well
Shimmering in its elaborate webs of infinite,
Almost divine irony. No, and it wasn’t only that Rome
Was my city of the night, that it was here I’d chosen
To live when I grew tired of my ancient life
As the Underground Man. And it wasn’t that Rome’s darkness
Was of the kind that consoles so many
Vacancies of the soul; my Rome, with its endless history
Of falls … No, it was that this dark was the deep, sensual dark
Of the dreamer; this dark was like the violet fur
Spread to reveal the illuminated nipples of
The She-Wolf—all the sequins above in sequence,
The white buds lost in those fields of ever-deepening gentians,
A dark like the polished back of a mirror,
The pool of the night scalloped and hanging
Above me, the inverted reflection of a last,
Odd Narcissus …
One night my friend Nico came by
Close to three a.m.—As we drank a little wine, I could see
The black of her pupils blown wide,
The spread ripples of the opiate night … And Nico
Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost
Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”
And deep within the pupil of her left eye,
Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging
Lantern rocking with the waves,
I could see, at the most remote end of the receding,
Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,
At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,
A tiny, dangling crucifix—
Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting
In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …
Some years later, I saw Nico on stage in New York, singing
Inside loosed sheets of shattered light, a fluid
Kaleidoscope washing over her—the way any naked,
Emerging Venus steps up along the scalloped lip
Of her shell, innocent and raw as fate, slowly
Obscured by a florescence that reveals her simple, deadly
Love of sexual sincerity …
I didn’t bother to say hello. I decided to remember
The way in Rome, out driving at night, she’d laugh as she let
Her head fall back against the cracked, red leather
Of my old Lancia’s seats, the soft black wind
Fanning her pale, chalky hair out along its currents,
Ivory waves of starlight breaking above us in the leaves;
The sad, lucent malevolence of the heavens, falling …
Both of us racing silently as light. Nowhere,
Then forever …
Into the mind of the Roman night.
A comment on yesterday’s blog gets things churning as I walk the dog this morning along the sunlit banks of the glorious Taf (how lucky we are to have something resembling countryside within walking distance of the centre here in Cardiff: may the gods protect us from ‘developers’ and their lapdog councillors hell bent on destroying the city’s twin lungs).
Charles comments that Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Borges and I’ argues with the Borges piece I posted yesterday: (‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being, survival meant ceasing to be what its being was’) and in which there’s at least one mirror (‘Secretly he [in this case Frank] was glad it was dirty and cracked’). So I look it up, as I am a diligent fellow.
Bidart’s prose poem, if that is what I am going to call it, as it appears in his poetry collection Desire and is written in prose, is a curious offering. Speaking of himself in the third person, and in the past tense, Frank first questions the veracity of Borges’ stance on his private and public selves:
The voice of this “I” asserts a disparity between its essential self and its worldly second self, the self who seeks embodiment through making things, through work, who in making takes on something false, inessential, inauthentic.
The voice of this “I” tells us that Spinoza understood that everything wishes to continue in its own being, a stone wishes to be a stone eternally, that all “I” wishes is to remain unchanged, itself.
But, argues Frank, who is really fooled by this? Most certainly Borges wasn’t, whatever he wishes us to believe:
When Borges’ “I” confesses that Borges falsifies and exaggerates it seems to do so to cast aside falsity and exaggeration, to attain an entire candor unobtainable by Borges.
This “I” therefore allows us to enter an inaccessible magic space, a hitherto inarticulate space of intimacy and honesty earlier denied us, where voice, for the first time, has replaced silence.
– Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.
The illusion of an integral, perceptive ‘self’ which stands in isolate and unsullied contrast to the public face of the writer (in his case ‘Borges’) is therefore a conceit; even, very neatly, a literary conceit, one in fact I use on my students – as another of the commentators on yesterday’s post, ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ reminds me – to illustrate . . . something (what exactly?) about the other, the double, the doppelganger, the ‘secret sharer’.
Borges wrote two short stories about meetings with himself, one set in Cambridge, Massachusets in the 1970s, and a late one, set in 1983, both of them highly self-conscious and rather arch creations, the first better than the second. But they deal with a rather different notion, that of meeting an older or younger version of oneself.
I am concerned about the contemporaneous double, the secret sharer, as he is familiar to me. I came into close contact with him during the illness I describe in The Vagabond’s Breakfast. This is the one you get used to talking to in the delirium of illness, or the one that is conjured for you by the opiate deities. He is the absent other of the encephalopathic brain, and my first realisation that he was infringing on my sanity took place at a book launch in February 2007, when my mobile phone went off while I was speaking to the assembled public and my thoughts were if I answer, it will be myself at the other end, wandering the streets, asking where the event is taking place.
The second time that I was made aware of this concretisation of the other self was after a prolonged bout of insomnia, when I miraculously managed a full eight hours’ sleep one night, and woke with “a sense of panic, as though by sleeping for so long I had missed something essential; what precisely, I could not have said, but the closest I can get to an explanation for my panic, or guilt, would be this: that I had slept while the other me, the insomniac me, had suffered the night in terrible solitude, and that I (who had been asleep) should have been keeping him (i.e. myself) company.”
I believe, as I say in the book, that this is called the disintegration of the self. And I know that it was caused by a state of disorder brought about by illness and the effect of ammonia on the brain and so on, but I am equally certain that the potential for this kind of double-act (or hell, multiple division of the self) is only a step away from the apparent safety of the stable self, with its illusions of a fixed identity. As psychologists like RD Laing were saying decades ago.
Borges’ piece, with its leanings (some might say pretensions) towards a Tao whereby stones are stones and tigers tigers, alerts the reader to the doubleness of life for the famous writer Borges and his private, unassuming ‘I’ (who likes hourglasses and Stevenson’s prose for what they are rather than the affections they become in the words of ‘Borges’). But is this just too twee and self-congratulatory for its own good?
It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard if you have recently emerged from the gaseous belly of the many-headed beast, or crawled, wailing, through the dark, sticky entrails of the labyrinth, although, to be fair, this cannot be a reasonable judgement to level against a piece of creative writing: charging it for what it is not.
But am I, are we, in danger, in fact, of sanctifying Borges just a bit? After all, it has been argued, quite convincingly, that apart from some poems, not much of what he wrote after the 1950s was really much good. In his essay on Borges, Coetzee has written of some of the later works that “there is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature” and: “The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, ‘baroque’ pieces. Though he lived until 1986 he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.”
Anyhow, it gave me something to think about, along the muddy riverbank, as the dog wrestled with a big fish, which, on closer inspection, became a log.
The idea that we contain a double, or a secret other, is a strangely pervasive one, and has fascinated writers from different traditions and in distinct genres. Among those who have famously approached the topic are Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Joseph Conrad in his long story The Secret Sharer. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short piece, reproduced below (in the translation Norman di Giovanni made with Borges himself rather than the travesty published by Andrew Hurley in the Collected Fictions) the writer focuses on the schism between the public persona of the famous writer Borges, and the individual, private Borges in whose first person the piece is written. Or is it that straightforward? While this is the apparent message of the text, we, the readers, are nonetheless engaging with it in the knowledge that it is written by Borges, the famous writer, so the dualism is in a sense perpetuated by that knowledge, driven by our relationship to Borges the writer rather than Borges the private individual. In the end, as Borges intended, we are faced with a hall of mirrors, in which Borges’ self-confessed tendency to falsify and magnify things (as do all writers of fiction) reaches into the very representation of the ‘I’ that claims to reject such things. We are all the products of an insidious dualism, the piece tells us, and to attempt to deny it only draws us deeper into the labyrinth.
Borges and I
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork of the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.