Madison Morrison's Web / Sentence of the Gods / Each


Madison Morrison

Chapter 1

I can truthfully say that since I reached the age of discretion I have consistently drunk more than most people would say was good for me. Nor do I regret it. Wine has been to me a firm friend and a wise counselor. It has often shown me matters in their true perspective, and has, as though by the touch of a magic wand, reduced great disasters to small inconveniences. The voice was that of Alexis Lichine. We were seated together in a first class compartment aboard the Mistral, hurtling our way south from Paris through the rich wine-growing regions of France. Past Dijon, through Lyon, on toward the fabulous region known as the Languedoc — or Dog’s Tongue, as it is sometimes rendered into English. And Alexis indeed has spent much of his life rendering into English his superb connoisseurship (or knowledge) of French viticulture, taking minute pains in the last decade to reconstruct from memory a vast Encyclopedia of All Spirits, the manuscript of which he himself, if the truth be known, one dank and vinous evening set afire in a wastebasket outside the door of his melancholy study, in a corridor leading to a maid’s room, where lodged the young español lass whom he had tried earlier that evening unsuccessfully to séduire (seduce). But back to my narrative. I had, for nearly a fortnight, been hard at work on the Paris docks helping Gaspodin Lichine lift and inventory more than 10,000 bottles of Russian wine, a stock assembled from all corners of that vast empire: sweet and dessert wines from the Crimea (including the white Russian Livadia with her delicate bouquet): wines from the lower Don, where it descends into the empty Sea of Azov, or Azimov, below Rostov; kegs, huge fûts (or vats) of Bessarabian wine, from Bessarabia; the white and red fluids of the Ukraine, so vastly replanted following the scourge of Tamerlane and, latterly, of the vine louse phylloxera; the lovely sparkling liquids of Stavropol; to say nothing of tuns and tuns of stuff from Krasnodov, Azerbaijan and Armenia, or the oenological produce of Georgian provenance ― at least as much of it as James Dickey had not yet seen fit to consume single-handedly, or with the help of Burt Reynolds, as they sat of an evening about a table deep in the Georgia woods, talking of football, pompom girls and The University of South Carolina. But back to my subject. As the landscape, the gorgeous landscapes of the river Rhône, went smoothly hurtling past his head, Alexis, who had the inside seat, continued to philosophize: Perhaps, he mused, it was my Slavic background, who knows? At any rate, early did I taste the fruit of the vine and learn well to savor it, often associating the texture of a fine mouthful with the pages of literature. Indeed, wine has lit up for me the world of poetry, revealing in life romance lurking in the commonplace. The train continued to hurtle, though now more smoothly still, as Monsieur Lichine snapped his fingers at a busboy and ordered another small magnum of the light, delicate, bubbly champagne we had so knowingly been in the process of consuming for a matter of three hours — counting our layover at Dijon. Where are we going in this life, Alex? I asked (we were now on familiar terms, a veritable dictionary of terms). Where have we come from? Paris. We have come from Paris, he replied, pursing his lips and pretending that the question had no philosophical import whatsoever. And who are we? I ventured, not wishing to lose the opportunity of searching the depths of this great mind, which had so willingly submitted to my humble scrutiny. But Alexis’ thoughts were now elsewhere, as he gazed out into the darkening landscape. We’d begun our approach to Avignon, with its rich surrounding vineyards, its Palais des Papes (its Palace of the Popes) and in particular its nearby Châteauneuf du Pape (its Newcastle of the Pope). But these good things in life were not the object of our quest, and Alexis knew it. No, we were on our way to investigate one of the poorest, if most profligate, wine-growing regions in all France — the Hérault, where Alexis had unaccountably acquired a great vineyard. Yes, we were going to inspect it, to see how large and bad it actually was. Wine — Alexis’ great mind had begun to stir again — wine has made me bold but not foolish. True, words have come to me which had better not have been spoken. And yet . . . But at this he relaxed into a beatific smile, champagne bubbles drifting from his nostrils.

Chapter 2

So. We had reached the South. Here Alexis and I parted ways, he taking a “shuttle” up into the Gorge du Tarn, I setting out on foot for the West — Nîmes, Montpellier, Béziers. Soon I tired of my plan, or rather my feet grew weary, and at the first opportunity — outside the huge amphitheater at Nîmes — I thumbed a ride. My commodious hostesses were (a) a girl of twenty, a student at the nearby University of Montpellier and (b) a friend of hers, aged, I should guess, nineteen and a half. Both had the brightest of white teeth — I should compare them to pearls, or tears, except that they were smeared with a licorice-like substance, some aromatic gum (no doubt acquired at a near-Eastern bazaar) which they chewed incessantly as they spoke their unusual dialect of French — throughout our journey. As for myself I lay cramped on the back seat of their little Renault (the expression itself a redundancy), doubled up on a lap robe, brought so many miles from their native land of . . . what? I forgot to ask. A pity, but you see they were taciturn girls, always chewing that licorice-like substance and speaking when they did in that unusual accent, and, moreover, they were mildly preoccupied with the possibility of rape. So I missed an opportunity to enlarge the legs of life, so to speak, and venture into one of its commodious ports as a seaman first class might enter Tunisia on a sweltering evening in mid-August to find all about him the midnight life of large cafés, harems, small brothels, and even smaller bordellos, some under the operation of single proprietors, all against an Albert Marquet sort of backdrop of Tunis harbor seen from his hotel or bordello window: dim outlines of Russian tankers filling the bay, sands stretching out, the moon in her half-crescent sidling past Venus, and a black, gray and off-white streakiness here and there, highlighted by pinpoints or small brush dots of white to indicate those solitary souls still awake in bourgeois abodes or those windows of bordellos where the infamous women of the world have just arrived, or have recently arrived, with their prey, or willing customers, or clientele for a short spell of commercial love, their companions now kicking off their shoes and leaning back on beds with creaky springs to savor something which, for the rest of their lives, they might forget. Thus it was — where was I? Yes, in Montpellier — thus it was that I lay down on the small cot in an alcove, kicked off my shoes and settled in for a brief and buzzy sleep. Upon arrival in this bustling, noisy, “university” town, I had found no place to stay. Luckily, one of the girls inquired of someone down the hall, who knew someone up on another floor, who, though she had no space in her own room, knew of someone on another floor, with another room, and she had space. And thus it was I found my way into another bed, in another room, on another floor. The girl herself had left for the weekend. From the window — chintzy curtains blew in with the midnight breeze — I looked upon a courtyard, closed on three sides, open on a fourth, and a fifth. Below stood automobiles, perhaps an occasional paddy wagon, parked on the parterre below — if so I did not notice, hardly could have . . . for the dimness. Kicking off my shoes, I hunched up on the small bed — ’twas in truth but a cot — atop a small lap robe-like blanket, and within a trice or twinkle fell fast asleep. I dreamt first of Germany. Earlier, you see, I’d been to Germany and no doubt had stored up many impressions, which now came tumbling forth in sleep. As I recall the strange events, I found myself on a bus, holding a strap or a central pole, as we jounced downtown to the middle of old Frankfurt, the little medieval town now swelled to a large metropolis. Here — on the bus — some unpleasant or untoward event took place; yet I assuaged a difficult situation by kissing, as I remember it, the slender fingers of a pale maiden also holding on to the central silver pole. And yet, in a state of agitation, I awoke, sat upright in bed, and stared out into the Montpellier night through Venetian blinds lowered during my sleep. In the courtyard below, black-robed university students, cordoned off by local police, had begun to form into lines for their graduation march. With two fingers I opened the slats of the blinds a bit wider and searched the darkened scene but could see no more. I felt a presence in the room, seated beside me on my narrow cot. It was 9:15 am.

Chapter 3

But suddenly I was back in Paris. Having perused the first two chapters of my book, I was depressed to find such a lack of continuity. And more than that, disappointed to find so much reference to trivial events in my life, so much “backing and filling.” A line of narration was hardly begun before I would quash it with some asinine reference to some literary thing in the past, or for that matter in the present, such as Hopalong Cassidy’s visit to Norman this week. Anyway, as I said, I was back in Paris, sitting in a goddammed café, trying to get my fucking writing materials together: two blue-backed notebooks, two pencils, and a pencil sharpener (a pocket knife would have been too wasteful). There seemed to be nothing to write about aside from the goddammed writing materials and the café itself: its marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, the sweeping-out and mopping. And all the bullshit about how everything had to be just right to write, and all the fuck about luck, the luck you needed to write and how you made sure you had it by stuffing a goddammed horse chestnut in your pocket along with a rabbit’s foot and how the fur had been worn off the rabbit’s foot long ago and more bullshit about the bones and sinews being polished by wear and how the claws scratched the lining of your pocket. And how you knew your luck was still there. And as if that weren’t enough, you had to sit through a pile of shit about the pencil sharpener, the importance of the pencil sharpener, as opposed to the pocket knife, which was meant to suggest some goddam manly fishing trip in Michigan, or the way you felt like slitting Hadley’s gizzard in some fucking one-night hotel in the Pyrenees on the way to do some more manly fishing in Spain, or on the way back. And how the pencil lead might break off in the conical nose of the pencil sharpener and then you would have to use the small blade of the pen knife to “clear” it, or else sharpen the pencil carefully with the sharp blade and then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack strap to lift the goddam manly pack again and feel the weight of it on your back and the pine needles under your moccasins, ignoring the fact that you hadn’t got the other arm through the other strap yet and so you had to go back and sharpen the goddam pencil again, using first the goddam pencil sharpener, which was red, and which you’d picked up in a little tobacco kiosk outside a café in Pamplona, and then the goddam manly knife, which was blue and still had fucking fish scales stuck to the part of the blade that was hard to get at, and how you finished off that part of the sharpening job by picking the goddammed broken-off part of the pencil out of the pencil sharpener and then had to sharpen the pencil all over again. Thank god for ballpoint pens, I said, leaning over to reach into my briefcase for a piece of University of Oklahoma stationery that I could use to get my ballpoint pen working again — the goddam thing was “jumping,” or I think “skipping” is the mot juste. Jesus Christ, and all he ever wrote about was writing and then going on vacation from writing and then coming back and talking to writers and then writing some more — that, and walking around Paris and being so goddammed proud of knowing the names of the streets, which you could get out of a fucking Plan de Paris, sitting in some fucking café in Cuba, or your fucking living room in Ketchum, Idaho and how far is that anyway from Hayley, Idaho where Ez grew up? And who gives a shit? So you get so goddammed fed up with sharpening your pencils and picking that itty-bitty piece of lead out of the end of the fucking pencil sharpener, and so goddammed depressed at having nothing around the house except those goddammed Reader’s Digests and that goddammed Land Rover parked out front, and there’s nothing to look at but fucking trees and snow-capped mountains and nothing to do but write and bitch around your wife and you’re a big fucking deal in the literary world, but you never see Ez anymore, and Joyce is dead, and Scotty has been dead god knows how many years — but that’s another fucking story — so you take down one of the monstrous fucking macho bear guns you keep around the fucking house for shooting bears and you look first down the barrel and then you put it up to your temple and pull the trigger.

Chapter 4

Having passed through the many stages of western history, we found ourselves once more at the Schloß Versailles, the palace of Versailles, or more properly “the Château,” as the denizens of that pretty grimy little faubourg called it. By a stroke of luck we had escaped the elegant but claustral confines of the seventeenth century — the castle’s building had begun in 1624 — yet we sensed, like all tourists, the fatal attraction of those history-laden dates. How had we got here? we asked ourself. What was the purpose of our journey? And most important, how long could our feet hold out? We faced the balustrades of the Grand Trianon, lingering for a lecture that recreated the wigs of an earlier day and the cinematic effects of a later age. Soon we were treading again the gravelly, chestnut-ridden path to the Petit (or Small) Trianon (1762-1768). There was something . . . something German in the air, something beige, something Germanic. Perhaps it was simply our guide and the language that he spoke. “Das Shlafgemach des Königs,” he intoned. “Das Schlafgemach der Königen.” We paused before the bedrooms of the King and Queen, and elsewhere, observing a variety of noteworthy details in the history of the “main” castle. Though there was much of importance, trenchancy and impact, there was little that was merely touching or amusing. As we soberly viewed it all, it dawned on us that it was all in German, that it all somehow dated from the World War II period. The subsequent levity of the 1950s had little bearing here, Ike and Mamie scarcely a memory trace. The small birthplace-large European palace nexus but a fiction, an insubstantial “ficelle” in the mind of some latter-day, ambassadorial Henry James of the post-Vietnam era. But there it loomed! The most aufregend (exciting) part of our visit: das Theater — ze zeater, as our guide so handsomely translated it for the sprinkling of Amis among us. How, we asked ourself, had we got so far, so near, and yet so far — all the way from Saarbrücken in a second-hand Mercedes Reisenautobus — no tinted glass to shield our mechanical eyes from the placid skies and exuberant foliage of eastern France (Verdun, Rheims, etcetera)? And how, once here, had our instinct been so true: to investigate first the things of greatest importance — Louis the Fourteenth’s bed, for example, with its North-South axis, its eastern and its western side? Zo, let us pause here for a moment’s meditation, said our guide, a vintner from the Mosel region, who had finished an autumn of “stomping the grapes” and was now engaged in the harmless war crime of picking up some Taschengeld (small change). Let us pause and reflect momentarily, he said, upon the meaning and position of ze actual body of ze King, as he lies — with a gesture of his hand he recreated history — fast asleep, or awake, upon his bed. For you see, he said, looking deeply into the eyes of the attentive Saarbrücken matrons, his head is up North and his feet are down South. This, he concluded, means . . . zat his heart is in ze East and his right hand in ze Vest. Zat — a matron politely or cautiously interjected — depends, nicht wahr, on whezzer ze Sun King is on his back or his tummy. Bestimmt (true), said the guide. Zo, let us suppose, said the matron, taking over, zat ze King is on his tummy, what zen? We all fell silent till, by glancing at her light beige shoes and handbag, she gave signal for our guide to continue. Ya, said the guide, clearing his throat, ach so. In zat case ze King’s left hand would be in ze Vest. Perhaps, said a bumptious little Napoleonic clerk from Trier, perhaps in ze Mizzizzippi River. Um ya, replied the guide dryly, quashing this new intervention, and continuing. His right hand would be in ze East. Our collective mind flashed with an image of Louis the Fourteenth as Plastic Man, his long arm of justice reaching to Borodin and beyond, to the boudoir of some Catharine or Anastasia. Zen his toes, a young girl with Nazi pigtails interposed, would be in ze Sauze of France, or even Nubia. All turned toward her at once, giving her the Augenblicken (eye-signs) to indicate that she should hush (or schweigen). And ze tips of his hair — the guide was really concluding now — were up zare with Santa’s helpers at ze Norse Pole, sort of . . . sort of frozen and icky-sticky wiss ice. Jawohl, interjected another big brown matron, she herself dressed in that tone from tip to toe. Edging away from the group in a westerly direction, she seemed to be dismissing, somewhat moralistically but once and for all, the whole seventeenth siècle (century), nudging us forward to Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet and its silly, tragic aftermath.

Chapter 5

And here we were, once again facing into the Revolution, the thing itself nowhere to be seen and yet its aftermath and foremath everywhere visible. We tried as best we could to get behind the buildings, manifestations, mere facades of that deeper reality. Yet we found ourselves locked in the misprison of our own conceptions. What damn fool was it, we said, who had ever invented this preposterous theory of knowledge, and for god’s sake why? Scuffing the walkway pebbles, our German guide seemed deep in thought. The great names of idealist philosophy formed and dissipated in his brain, leaving him at the end of the path facing the shabbily elegant, elegantly shabby outbuildings known as the Hamlet, with no more inkling of the true reality than we, simple bourgeois German matrons that we were. Collectively we thumbed the pages of our education, seeking a mitigating explanation. What, we asked ourselves, as though preparing for a monstrous general examination in Western Culture, what is love? What is war? No sooner had we posed the questions than, our eyes directed to the surface of Marie Antoinette’s reflecting pool, the skies shifted, opening a firmament of answers ranged among the clouds like the contents page of a book on the myth of Eros and Ares, or an outline of Western Political History, or a slim volume of verse by some promulgator of all our ideas and fantasies and conceptions. Tristan himself, with Dido seated at his side, loomed into view, suddenly enlarging so as to occupy half the sky in a monstrous cloudy apparition, Cupid, blinded and bowed, standing behind that curious pair. And behind them loomed the vogue of romance; the eighteenth-century novel; Danton and Robespierre; and the consequences of German idealism; all a grandiose collage-like effect — despite its elegant French enlightenment aspect — suggesting to us the minutely scrupulous but zanily random works of Kurt Schwitters and his Merzwelt madness. We moved a little closer to the pool, following our guide’s tacit instructions, our toes now dabbling in the sedgy table of contents. Love, read the first chapter title, followed by Love of Romance — and quickly thereafter, Love of Love Itself, and Love, yes, Love of Death. It was all an “Old Tune Full of Sadness,” of “Unhappy Mutual Love.” Naturally we wondered where the genius of the spectacle would take us next. Would we be wafted off behind the clouds and allegorical figures into some dark modern empyrean standing invisibly behind the blue? Some outer space of Religious, Passionate, Mystical Origins, or should he or she content herself/himself with a panoply of delight, a demonstration, as it were, of the topoi of western sentiment: Eros, with his boundless desire; Agapé, or Christian love; Love Herself, enthroned and filling the skies from East to West as the northern heaven darkened with Bellus and Ares, Strife and Malcontent? And how, we asked ourselves, would this great suicidal designer conjoin fact and fiction, how unite the Myth of Love and The Empire of Human Battle? Soon we had response. The clouds, so imperiously piled, so “dotted” with fictive figures, parted, dissolved into wisps of light, and scudded outward toward the four corners of that heavenly canvas. The water’s surface, in short, was once more pellucidly receptive. For a moment stillness prevailed. Then up started a quickening breeze of martial music. At each major chord, rank on rank, the figures of Western Military History began to appear, rowing through the skies and onto our watery surface in every manner of craft, ancient and modern: Achilles, helmeted and behorsed, drove to the field of battle in a skiff, followed by Roland and Charlemagne, surrounded both by hordes of Huns and Mongols. Figures from medieval tourneys in gleaming armor here bestrode the plain, their well-shod cavalry pawing the decks of galleons. In turn, as these passed to the wings of the stage, or receded toward distant galaxies, the appearance of cannon and condottieri heralded the issuance of classic Clausewitzian warfare, as the breastplates of enamored Napoleonic soldiers came at last into view. The Revolution gradually gave way to National War, which in turn produced a vast panorama of Europe and the West engulfing itself in Total Destruction, the whole canvas painted with fine dramatic gestures by a pair of lovers seated high in the Swiss Alps, using brush strokes of a post-abstractionist art to complete the ever-changing scene of Love and War.

Chapter 6

I now found myself, of all places, back in Zurich — züruck in Zurich as they say — my natal Vorort or suburb. And what a superb place it is, to sit on the Stadtplatz in Spring, or Frühling, feeling your oats as the Amis say, those friendly frisky young American tourists so well turned out in Switzerland — in der Schweiz (so sagt man). I sat, as I say, at a bright café, reminiscing of past life, the lives I had led all over central Europe, throughout the course of Mitteleuropäische Geschichte, from the Middle Ages down to the 1940s. The events were recaptured as scenes before my eyes, personages seen as though captured and imprisoned in the pages of a book of drawings, mounted on vellum for the king by a personal book page drawing on the talents of the artists of the realm. In the first such scene I appeared in one of two guises, either as a medieval king about to pardon a black man, or as the black man himself supplicating pardon of the king. The scene has something of the vagueness of dream about it. I associate the gestures of the king with the emblems on his garment — an ornate cross and the makings of fleurs-de-lis, though the posture itself is anything but cruciform, his hand and facial disposition indicating haughtiness of mien. It is the black whose arms appear outspread. Hence I rushed to the Zentralplatz again, where in the nick of time I gathered to my breast the last existing copy of a June 1, 1944 edition of the now defunct Zentralblatt announcing the latest news of the war. The saturation bombing had recommenced in Deutschland. Towns appeared on the pages nearly destroyed. In one hastily sketched line drawing firemen were shown wrestling with an immense cobra — no, a fire-hose, my mistake, the sketch had been so hastily done as to throw me into a nervous state of misapprehension. Moreover, bizarre elements kept cropping up elsewhere. To speak candidly, I felt chained by the artist’s impressions, which reduced a world of reality to the elements of (partly) absurd composition. For example, one young fireman stood on a ladder leading to nowhere, a backdrop of half-tone clouds menacing him with a gray suffocation. Another gamely stood on feet insufficiently soled, a bright white bugle either strapped or plastered or merely silhouetted on his back. All the figures were faceless and, thoughtful and energetic, like the disaster they contemplated, all stood frozen in eternal, memorial postures. Thus may the reader imagine my relief upon opening to the inner pages of the Zeitung or Blatt wherein a real — and I use the word advisedly — snowman immediately confronted the reader — in this case myself, a lad of fourteen, seated in a summer’s swing on the porch of our Swiss chalet in Küsnacht, that delightful watchmaker’s suburb of Zurich. Here I pause to count my birthdays again, arriving backwards in time at 1916, that curious date, curious in that upside down it amounts to 1619, or the date of the first heavy snowfall recorded in June in the Zurich suburb of Küsnacht. Such are the oddities of history, for 297 years later a second birth takes place, when, forked stick in hand, I spring to life in the fantastic form of a fully grown, if crudely fashioned, snowman. The residents of the small but growing suburb take little notice of this event, owing perhaps to the bitter cold of that June evening; instead, they bank their fires, retire early and hope for a more seasonable wind to arrive in the night and dispel this unseasonable burst of neige or Schnee or snow, hopefully, as we say, by dawn. Note, most of the denizens. For there is one exception, about whom I shall inform you directly. ’Tis near midnight, rather, I should say, ’tis this side of midnight. Deep in the recesses of thought sits, this night, my father, sixty years of age, though still with the mien of a young man. His own birth has occurred on the last day of May, 1854, and thus it is, after a long and uneventful Geburtstag (or anniversaire), he has lodged his melancholy corpus in his study. ’Tis late at night indeed, and yet he sits here without having lit a candle, reading by the light reflected off the snow from the beams of a full if sinister moon. Before him on the covered table lie several tomes, two apparently waiting to be perused, one in the process of having its pages actively turned. Why, you ask, do I employ such a curious idiom? Dear reader, I ask myself the same question and receive no adequate response. I can only say this: that the pages of the tome in the gentle but morbid hand of Father seem to come alive as I peruse them. Indeed, like the artichoke heart held in his clammy hand, they now begin to sprout.

Chapter 7

The first scene depicted in the pages of the book is nearly bare, at least at first sight it would seem so. And yet on closer inspection . . . And yet on closer inspection . . . And yet, as they say, on closer inspection, there is something faintly illuminating in that scene. Tightly-knit buildings stand hunched up against one another in a narrow, cobble-stoned street. That, as I say, at first sight would seem to exhaust the matter. But not so. On closer inspection (to use a phrase common in the language), we see the buildings for the unit they are. All the buildings exist as one building, (a) in the mind of God, (b) in the hand of the artist, (c) in the cogitations of the philosophical mind. And on the page, which the reader — my father, you recall — (or, more accurately, “looker”) peruses, all those buildings also form a unit, each welded to the next, not by the mortar and mortise of common walls — though that they have, nor by the common substance of the Godhead — which they share, nor even by the insubstantiation of post-Cartesian processus, but simply by virtue of “the fact”; the verum factum of intermingled cross-hatched lines which yoke them together, serving to indicate a simultaneous birth in the bookish looker’s fevered imagination. “And what,” you say, “of the ‘something faintly illuminating in that scene’ of which” I spoke? Well, let me say: at the center of those buildings — toward, that is, the center of the illustration in which they appear — stands a single, faintly illuminated lamp, a lamp, as they say, on a lamppost. The post part is black, the lamp appearing “dim.” And yet it appears — and I use that word advisedly — bright enough . . . to illuminate . . . not only the scene in question — of which, the reader will notice, it forms a part — but the adjacent illustration as well. How can this be? That we shall leave to the demented mind of the reader to puzzle out. Of greater importance here is the content or contents of the second illustration — which, you will recall, my father, seated at his table, in a house outside Zurich, continues to peruse. That house — for it is the window of his house — has a window — through which we earlier noted the intervention of moonbeams. Here — in the illustration — we view it from “outside.” No wonder the room within appears so dim: one of the two shutters has closed against the window; the other, blown by a vigorous wind — indicated here by depicted whirling leaves — is about to close, Whooosh-thump! It closes, plunging the scene — now, transferatively, Father’s — into darkness, nary a moonbeam penetrating the thick, impervious blinds of the shutter, and, as we have said, nothing in the room providing any additional light. So much for the scene as seen from the outside. Henceforth we shall regard — as regard we must — the scene from the inside, the outside remaining indubitably there, but plunged in the darkness of a general lack of interest. So, where were we? Ah, yes. In the shift from out- to in-side, on the curving path from a windy June night — unseasonably cold, recall — to a warm August interior. Yes, reader, time changes moving from outside to inside: this not the following August but the August before that June, before that last day of May on which my father was born. In fact, to be precise, we here concern ourselves with the last day of August 1853, the day on which my father was conceived. No wonder then we hear within the room a thumping and a whooshing equal to the whooshing and the thumping of the shutter. And since it is a bedroom we are now concerned with, that explains why the window is part of the second story. At any rate, Father is now asleep, inside the room, in fact inside his mother, having, as we suggested, just been conceived. Grandfather too has fallen asleep, from natural causes. And here he dreams — a dream represented in the pages of the book which Father, sixty years afterward, peruses: it is a haughty dream of Jeanne dArc, mounted on a bristling courser, a horse of unusual height — so high in fact, in truth, that her buttocks efface the faces of soldiers serried behind her as, all the while, one hand reigning the bridle, one grasping a lance, Joan — we English her name — commands their allegiance and seemingly holds the schematic clouds of a day in July still in momentous, portentous skies. At this exact moment the scene doth shift, a tree, wizened but full of foliage, supplanting the horse, heroine, lances and sky of northern medieval France. And suddenly, we are back in Switzerland, where we belong, gazing again at a tree, a tree — who knows? — whose very wood may have made the pulp from which the paper, on which the printer imprinted the very words which you, dearest reader, now lay your greedy eyes upon, was made.


Here perhaps an interlude would be in order, a literary intermission, reader, in which we mitigate these familial, visual scenes with — how shall I say? — word of the word. For we have reached the late date — 1853 — without so much as a mention of its background (I have in mind not only the 1852, but the 18 itself and the great stretch of preceding centuries). Where then to begin? Where — as Alistair Cooke says, interlacing his fingers and placing his indices together, touching them to his chin — where to begin with Henry James? Where but with Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, who makes his appearance now in a Modern Library Edition. For it is Svidrigailov who interests us, not Raskolnikov, not Dmitri, far less Luzhin, Smerdyakov and that sordid ilk. And yet ’tis not Svidrigailov for himself, but for the Dickensian, Balzacian, Gogolian interest of his dearth (notice here I say, dear proofer, dearth, not birth, earth, or girth). For you see there are two traditions here, one aristocratic and urban, the other bourgeois and rural, a distinction we shall not exhaust till we reach the fount and source of our disquisition — and that, I fear, dear reader, not presently — in the work or songs of — dare I mention his sacred name? — of Homer. But where was I? Yes. Niolai Gogol. Nikolai Gogol and his greatcoat, his trenchcoat. For you see, dear reader, we have once again returned to Napoleon’s age, to 1809, the year of Gogol’s dismal birth. At which point we are scarcely out of the nineteenth century. But notice — ah, the attentive reader will notice — notice we are not out of Goethe’s grasp, the grasp of Wolfgang Amadeus Goethe, that worldwide figure of such keen delight and historical imagination. Where were we then? Ah yes. Back with Goethe and his Faust, the Faust of Marlowe, the Faust of Faust — but I anticipate, for we have now to do first with the early Goethe, the Goethe — the young Goethe we might say — of The Sorrows, of The Sorrows of the Young Goethe (1774), difficult enough to pronounce in English, without raising the question of the myriad Polish, Arabic and Ugandan translations. Where were we then? Ah yes, Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles, the Devil — as distinct from The Devils (The Possessed ), who derives . . . or anticipates another curious figure, an upholsterer — no, I anticipate again, the son of the upholsterer, a fellow by the name of Voltaire. No, make that Molière, François-Marie Molière. How silly of me! François Arouet Voltaire. Oh for goodness sakes! “Alceste? Oh, Al-ceste? What is thy master’s name? “His name?” “Yes, prithee, his name!” “Oh, my dear, my master hath no name.” “No name? . . . Ah, fie on thee Alceste, thou pullest my leg!” Voltaire, I said to myself. Molière, I said. At which, somber and wise, eyes twinkling mis-cheevously, a doctorly figure seated behind the arras said — from his wheelchair — “Molière. Pseudonym,” he was quick to add, “of Poquelin, Jean Baptiste Poquelin.” 1622-1673, I added, glancing at my Harvey and Hesseltine. Upholsterer to the King. Actor-Manager. Bourgeois-gentleman and misanthrope. The parallels were overwhelming. Do you see what I’m driving at? Do you see, dear reader, what I am getting at? But the reader has fallen asleep. So much the worse — for him. You and I have reached an understanding, haven’t we? You, Prospero, you Alceste. Me, Hamlet, me Philinte. And thus it is he fades into Shakespeare himself. Fades, that is, after a brief respite — café and croissants. He shades his eyes against the mid-morning sun, as it sparkles on the wavelets and the swans. The citizens of Geneva scarcely pay him heed, so accustomed to swarthy visitors have they become. The Ugandan rubs his eyelids against his eyes, moves the Zeitung to a corner of his round little table and dabbles his finger once more in the tiny pool of spilt coffee at the table’s edge. Jacque’s père, he says to himself in French. “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.” And with profound regret he resumes his meditation. “Where,” he says to himself, conjuring before him an immense international audience — white-faced American college students, slant-eyed little Cambodians, Belgians, tradesmen, men and women from all walks of life — “Where to begin with Shakespeare? What to say in the mere fifty minutes here allotted me of the work of this great universal genius?” He closes his eyes again, till his lids impose their redness on his vision. “Come,” says a voice from the past, “Come seeling night, scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.” Somewhere, perhaps in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, he imagines a murder taking place. “And with” — the voix resumes — “thy bloody hand, cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me pale.” The time has come. Addis — for shall we not reveal his name? — Addis Ababa now continues his backward course, glancing at Venus and Cupid, freedom and slavery, love and romance. His knowledge, for the moment, seems transcendent — work and sin, complicity, default — and yet . . . and yet . . . and yet, “no harm is done,” his magical garment trailing in a mud of indecency quickly undone by the burials of figures of authority: Caliban, Ariosto and Li Po; Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill; Moses, Hesiod and Zarathustra. Yet it was all, all, all . . . written and performed, before the Globe was built — in 1597. Roman plays, tragi-comedies and ghosts. For yes, it is the ghost who really matters, the ghost of Thomas Kyd and his surrogate marriage, his multifold dream within a dream, his mother in nightgown-nightshade, Ophelia and Cordelia and “The Spirit I have seen.” And yet, who would be foolish enough to confuse Hamlet with the poet himself ? Are all men mad? Surely not. Surely ’twas only the poet and his fantasies, his fathers and sons, his silly dabbling séance “at table,” his cunning recreation of greenroom madness. But that, you say, is merely incidental: murder always sets in motion a second murder (or should); a second sets in motion a third, the whole play engulfed in a monstrous book bath. And where, I calmly riposte, where in all this then is the tragedy? And nervously add, I see in all this no tragedy. “Hotspur,” you eagerly reply. “Hotspur what?” say I. I for one am as fat as Falstaff (at this I mimic the magnanimous Hal shaking his belly, like a bowlful of jelly). But the battle has begun, Blunt has fallen, and the Fatman himself, sacked and sullen, declines to answer. Cowardice indeed! Black Hal, blue Francis, bright metal glittering in a sun. Time? “Grace thou wilt have none.” And  you, with all your talk of redemption, go thy way! This, lad, this is the age of the Renaissánce, the Eliza-beth (not beeth)-an age. Fecundity, entertainment and ideas. Yea, lad, ideas. Yea, lad, what place have they in all this merriment? For Henry, you see, murdered Richard, united Lancaster and York through marriage. And you, you speak of Orson Welles? Fie on Orson Welles. A punk! A mere punk, this Orson Welles. A man without a motive. A tub of lard. A punk. So think you we have had enough of Shakespeare. The early comedies, you say? He writ them not. For, you see, he had his mind on other things, and so must we: deep fantasies of process, Fortune, Will, the young man, his tongue-tied muse, idolatry and doom, the feast and beast of love, chronicles of wasted time, despair and comfort and a summer’s day, yea, how go on? “But go on thou must,” replied the lad. “To Hell and a careful housewife?” I replied. “Yea, further,” saith the lad. “To truth?” “I never saw a goddess go,” says he. “Nor I,” said I, reflecting gravely. “What,” he asked, “of Sonnet 129?” “Leave it to Kökeritz,” I said, “leave it to Helge Kökeritz.” And, recalling other matters, we fell silent a-gain. He was arguing with himself. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he said, “’tis the lesser sin. My most true mind,” and so on. His inky brain rested a trice. “What poverty,” he mused. “My love proud-pied in April, and yet, old December’s bareness everywhere! Why so barren of new pride? Black night, ruin, wrinkles, crushed and sullied as Adonis. And yet, if I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain.” The young man paused. “Let me confess,” thought Shakespeare, “that we two must be twain.” Mark well, he thought but kept his thoughts to himself. What had brought him to this pass? A change of state? Desiring art and scope? What an unperfect actor stood before him. “Him,” the masculine pronoun. “Shall I compare him to a summer’s day,” he thought, and mentally erased the line. He was reaching back “’gainst Time’s scythe,” etc. And was almost there. Unthrifty loveliness looking in a glass for forty winters (he had imagination). Yea, imagination and a grave, desiring increase, increasing desire. Creatures, fairest creatures, from fairest creatures. But we had played too long, had spent too much on Shakespeare, and time it was to continue. “Why not think it through,” I said, looking up at my young friend — but he had vanished, gone off looking for girls, as I’d advised.” Well, why not think it through at the outset,” I said to myself, “and save yourself a lot of grief.” (Apparently I was talking to myself.) The ancient world, the world of myth and mind, the world of Hesiod. His Theogony? His Works and Days? Well, yes, that was the general idea, but the shortcut didn’t wash. I was about to say, “It didn’t seem satisfactory . . . satisfying . . . satis . . .” Enough. There was, after all, the medieval world, Dante, Virgil, and the other Dark Ages. What of the Dark Ages, after all? What of Sophocles, of David, Adam, God? God, what a lost history. And their relationship. So enough of this. ’Twas time to get down to brass tacks again. What? Tristan, the number one hero “of his time.” “Send back Mark to Tristan,” shouted Iseult, gesturing toward the barons with the back of her hand. A glimpse of other characters rigging up the infamous “black sail.” The documentary was coming to a close, the panel of poets assembled in peacock color. Bully for Tristan: real red blood coursing from his wounds on ETV, covering his voluntary exile. Green boughs camouflaged the frantic Whitehaven mission. A slow start, perhaps — I a slow starter — but at least we had our grips on one of the greatest erotic myths “of all time,” surely greater than anything Lord Byron had ever dreamed up. And the history of the whole thing for once had come clear: pre-Dante, pre-Butch Petrarch, pre-nearly everyone who “mattered.” And what about Dante anyway? He paused (I paused), wondering what to say about Dante. Something that would sound witty. Witty in London? Witty in New York? Witty in the Windy City? You see the problem. Moreover, there’s a difference between a “private reading” and a public discussion,” though a range of opinion is possible. Nor is it a question of “faith and poetry.” That, to be as polite as I can, is beside the point. Likewise Virgil and Homer’s “endurance,” though I’m sure they were strong-willed — how else put up with the wit and the horseshit? No, said Professor Singleton, ’twas a question of experience and knowledge. How profound, said I, thinking of Hell and the poet’s vision of Hell. And what, remarked Confucius, of the other parts of the poem? But that was too much of a challenge. After all, you have to hold your audience. Pound for pound. And thus it was that we left her behind, the beatified little ticket Beatrice, the purgatorial mount of recta ratio, the circle game, and so on, descending back-asswards into the glosses, the Studien, the footnotes themselves, their topiary surface radiantly topical: Brutus and Cassius mixing it up with the Christian element; Ruggiers and Ugolino lounging about in jump-suits; Incontinence and Temperance; Malice and Freud. Dante, like and unlike Aquinas; and the Roman Catholic Church, with its flag flung wide over the heavy industries of Texas, Dr. Pepper, Dr. Coke, Dr. Royal Crown Cola. But the anagogical level had escaped us. “More literal meaning,” cried the camp director. “Something natural,” another introjected. “A little metaphysical,” the cut-up complained, meaning “too moral for me.” “And what about Mother and Father?” I asked in anguish. “Oh, we’re getting there,” they said for all reply. Pause. Sigh. So. If we grant (dollar signs) that Dante (Danty Alligator) is philosophical (in our special sense), who, then, is the Poet? Puzzled faces, hands tentatively raised, someone on the verge of an answer. “The Virgin Mary?” the instructor ironically proffered. All hung fire. “The three-in-one?” he caustically suggested. No one — clearly — would take that bait. At which a beastly woman stepped forward. “Incontinence, Bestiality, Malice,” she intoned. “And She-Wolf aforethought,” the instructor added, glaring at the hairy face of the leopard. Turning, she departed on soft paws. The lion growled from deep within his cage, atop which sat the grave and belaureled little twerp. He was counting on his fingers. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven. Eleven? Had he been born with an extra finger? It cropped up everywhere. He smiled, serenely indignant, recalling Latin precedent. Whatever. So he sold the girl, did he? Well, who wouldn’t have? She was only fourteen, or some such thing. And a slew of parallel seductions followed: Guinevere and Lancelot; Vanni Fucci, Campaneus; the Beast, avaricious and prodigal; Virgil and the author himself. But we were getting ahead of ourselves. You see, said Professor Singleton, the souls in Hell are images of Sin in Society. “Would you please pass the butter, Charles?” William requested. “Dorothy,” he continued, “perhaps you and I should take a walk.” A triangle formed on the screen to indicate the series had begun. Plainly the Oxford dons were puzzled. Something in the English air seemed muddy. “You’re not suggesting all society is queer?” the instructor inquired. No, just human society,” his interlocutor replied. Well, that’s better — at least for the soul’s understanding, the progress of that understanding, which leads us back, by way of our current frame of reference, to the dates of Giotto, Marco Polo, and Aquinas, those other great discoverers coeval with the Florentine. For you see, ’twas in 1300 — a nice round figure, n’est-ce pas? — that the poem begins. “That the poem begins?” said the scholar, arching his eyebrows and winking at his white-suited colleagues, two of whom were gagged and tied in their chairs. Yes, the instructor replied, you could say the poem began then. His chalk squeaked on the blackboard: “1290-1300.” The dark wood surrounding the board dissolved in grief: the little girl was dead. But she’d been dead for quite a while. “Who am I leaving out?” Poldy Bloom inquired, chomping on a large McIntosh apple. “I don’t know,” I said, “but I wish you and your friends would either keep quiet or go eat your lunch in the courtyard.” (I myself was quietly munching on a peanut butter cookie made in the shape of a peanut.) At this, they all got up and left: Yeats, tossing a scarf around his neck as he gathered up his Plato, Plotinus, McTaggart and rosary beds; Mr. Wallace Stevens and Mrs. Stevens — the big and small of the team; a woman graduate student in English doing a dissertation on the minor writers. Most of them had box lunches, so sending them out didn’t cause much inconvenience. And the fellows who were left — Jowett, Marx, George Eliot, Giambattista Vico and Angie Dickinson — were happy that we’d finally got down to business. Sensing a sexual energy in the room, the instructor picked up a piece of chalk that he’d been playing with, strode to the board and wrote in block letters: WHAT WOULD WALT WHITMAN HAVE THOUGHT OF P. VERGILIUS MARO? I don’t know about that, but I would have thought him a subject for analysis, said Sigmund Freud, who had entered the room and taken a seat next to Marx. “Well,” said the instructor, scrutinizing Dr. Freud’s jaw, which was wired together with a prosthetic device, consequence of a third operation for cancer, consequence in turn of a life spent sucking on cigars, “I bet you don’t.” This of course hardly flustered Freud. He’d made his contribution to humanity and was safe in that conviction. “Young man,” he said slowly and simply, “you have a lot to learn.” “About what?” the instructor fired back. “About yourself,” said Freud, “and about history.” “Is that why you spent the nights in Paris reading books instead of chasing women?” snapped the instructor. “No,” said Freud, “I was married.” “There were other things to do besides reading The Guide to the Louvre,” the instructor replied. “That may be,” said Freud. Clearly he was in excruciating pain. Clearly too the question had gone unanswered. Perhaps analysis was the answer. Freud suggested we begin with the last book. I was to be Walt Whitman and proceed by answering the question. The others would referee. I must say I didn’t really relish this. “Can I just sing myself, instead?” I foolishly asked. But someone, to prevent that murmur, was groping his way in through the open door. He had taken off his dark glasses and was staring about with glaucous eyes. I found it a little revolting but decided I’d better go on. You may as well start with Book XII, he said. At this there was a knock at the window. Some other people wanted in: Milton waved them aside. “Seven is enough for the time being. I can speak for the others.” Ovid, Tasso and Spenser dropped from sight. “What I want to know is what you think of Virgil and Homer.” I sighed for a moment with relief. “After that,” he continued, “I’ll of course have a few questions about the Bible . . .” At this I seemed to black out. When I came to, I found myself sitting in my study. I was no longer pretending that I was Walt Whitman. There was no seminar room. There was only my chair, my pencil, my notebook, and the table beside me, on which sat my copies of Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad, and The Holy Bible. I seemed to be balking at something. Then I recalled what Milton had said (“Seven will be enough for the time being”). “Hell,” I said, “three is enough.” I took a deep breath and blew it out. Let’s take them one at a time. At least the ships were on the shore. Turnus, clearly, was out of his mind, not to say Virgil. As for Jupiter, everything had been lost in some enormous swell of rhetoric. Aeneas and Ascanius were echoing Hector and his son, who in turn suggested Adam and Abel. Nervously Walt paced up and down along the shore, as Stevens decided against a trip to the attic — hot as blazes up there. Hopalong sat playing with his mustaches, dreaming of France. In Book VIII there was another of those god-damned shields, and sure enough Milton was looking over Gallileo’s shoulder, as he tried to find it in his microscope (ah, the conflations of history). Hate, Confusion and Death gave way to some real action (Walt pricking up his ears) as Marcellus was cut short (ivory gates indeed!). And on to Book VI, really the toughest of all: pacing, pacing back and forth at Weatherend, awaiting Marcher’s appearance, the Sibyl predicting gloom (a “foreign marriage!”), Minos, Daedelus, and Aeneas himself in tears. Five and Four came as a relief. Dido of course was crazy, but black water ? What about the author: Homeric similes indeed! Was it tragic? Enough for Book IV: only three to go, as I said. After three only two: the picture of Priam in his prime and a snaky story about some Gottfried character, name of Laocoön, less than we’d bargained for, but at least the ordeal was almost over: the stark sensualities of memory, Iopas dissolved like soap bubbles bursting one at a time, as Julius Caesar Octavius faded into Octavia, Octavia into Octavius, Octavius into Julia, and Julia into Julius himself: politics. Well, I fondly ask, is it time for Homer? I suppose so. “Wait,” said Milton, “I’m afraid there’s someone at the door.” Oh no, I said, it’s the insurance people. There were two of them, one behind the other, another out in the car for the getaway. You’ve heard all this before, I tried to reassure myself. The best thing is to listen patiently for a minute or two and then politely ask them to leave. “Oh gods!” declaimed the first, “A wonder to see!” What’s this all about, I wondered. Then I saw: he wasn’t speaking for himself, he was quoting lines. Oedipus! Nothing to do but let him finish. In a good-natured sort of drawl he recited a long speech of the hero’s, at which the other one piped up with another story. This one had to do principally with a woman never named. Then another one, and another — about the first speaker himself, smaller and small — until they brought him back from the mountainside and showed him swallowed up, first by his mother — her legs clinically spread, then by his father’s member. After that it was the second speaker’s turn. Three more steps and they put out the lights for Agamemnon. He was to have figured in the story but for the moment remained out in the car. He was honking the horn impatiently. Having sent them packing, I found myself back in my study. There apparently was no way of making short shrift of this — it had twenty-four books to start with, but I thought I’d go ahead. Polyxena indeed. I figured we’d all be better off for the effort. To hell with Paris. When in Athens, do as the Athenians. Here another knock, this time at the window. A very tall gaunt man, standing on the shoulders of a short fat man, in turn standing on a donkey, sounded as though he were tapping the pane with a lance. Luckily for me it was only a broomstick. Still it might have broken the window, had I not glowered at him so fiercely that he lost his balance, fell on top of the fat man, who in turn fell off the donkey, leaving them both flat on the ground. But enough of that. Again we had the question of tragedy before us. Why Hector? Why not Achilles? By which I mean, why not end with the burial of Ash-heels instead of Priam’s son. So that was where it was leading. Or was it? In the next book they had managed to get Patroclus under ground — but he was climbing out again. Then, more games and funerals, fights, promiscuity, glory and impetuous behavior. Book X was a funny one. Soon Agamemnon was back — but without the car. And before we knew it they were pairing off. Menelaus and Achilles, Diomedes and Achilles, Ulysses and Achilles. Finally it got down to Paris and Hector and we thought we’d got somewhere. But behind them were Hector and Achilles and behind them Achilles and Agamemnon. So there we were. And who was talking? Agamemnon, natch. Where? At Aulis — roasting his daughter, the fires receding into Helen’s hearth and the choice apple of his eye. Thetis and Peleus and, goodness sake’s alive, Leda and the Swan . . . the swansong . . . the egghead, into which the swansong finally disappeared. Bring on the Bible, boys. And what, said George, of the Hymn to Aphrodite? Oh there’ll be time for that. Percy looked dejected and turned his thoughts to “Revelations.” Revelations are full of unheard of things. Which goes as well for much of the New Testament (cf. Paradise Regained). The beginning is the best part: the birth of Christ. But that’s all predicted in the Old Testament, which we really ought to consider in more detail, especially the proverbs and the first five books. Proverbs are worth thinking about — in view of the fact they’re self-contradictory, you can find one to justify anything you want to do. (The one about the folly of fools is a good one.) You know, the Bible should be taken seriously, or not at all. It’s only when you take it piece by piece you can speak your mind. (If you don’t like the way I’m going about this you’re of course free to stop reading — or listening, as the case may be.) Well, then, Judges: notice the mutilation of the victim, the burning of the body, the descent into the underworld and the witch of Endor. David, Samuel and Jesse come as a welcome relief. Which takes us back through Joshua and Deuteronomy: the Fall and Rise of Israel, Moses and his Exodus, redemption out of Egypt, until of course we end up back in Egypt. And that perhaps explains the enormous appeal of Genesis: philosophy, history, poetry, sin, creation. And the cause of evil? Who knows. Adam don’t. Eve don’t. Only in the mind of God, where it all took place. “In the beginning,” as it says, in and back beyond.

Chapter 8

In the pictures — where were we then? Zurich. Back in Zurich. Or back outside Zurich. We were standing back outside Zurich, in the Alps in fact, alpenstock in hand on a small Alpine crag, shadowy in the face of the enormous wall of mountains between us and the sun, which shone nonetheless so brilliantly in the background, past the middle distances, mottled in spotty grass with touches of spring snow, on to the curvature of a rolling Alp — not as uncommon as that might seem. We ourselves were bundled up, having taken precaution against the late winter nip that often precedes spring; crook in hand; scarf scarfing the neck well; one hand held to one side, balancing us against the eventuality of fall. Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall: in fact a very quaternion of seasons, of seasonal myth, of quatrivocal forces. So, cross-hatching and all, we had arrived — nearly — back where we had begun. The difference lay in the separation from the sleeper, the post-revolutionary stance, tinged howbeit by a revisionary spirit, nonetheless a separates Zimmer approach. And this, in a very real sense a five-fold crux, one which for the light and dark of me posed no solution. That left us, where? In Vallambrosa? Close, but no cigar. Fesele? More like it. Our first “Italian adventures,” you might say. And a trip back through time to boot — no self-consciousness this time. The question of course of convexity could hardly be left unexplored. The central fact, however, lay in the situation. I myself and Milton, on friendly terms, stood quite simply there, in Gallileo’s chamber. ’Twas not a question of surmise — much less surprise. Milton had his woolens on and I, I had a muffler over my Frost-bitten nose for news. But on with the action. It would appear that Gallileo was hardly conscious of our presence, so intently did he stare into his optical device, meanwhile adjusting the axis with his left hand, the lens notation with his right. The moon — object of his quest — shone in all the while, quite brightly. It dusted the top of Gallileo’s hat with Oberon-like moon dust. It filled the vacancy with light, with that tepid light so characteristic of the moon. It even danced midway across the chamber, touching up to the buckles on Milton’s shoes. But I, all the while, remained in the shadows — the shadows of G.’s room and the blindness of M.’s ghastly, now but half-full, slowly emptying eyeballs. Anxiety? Yes I was anxious. My form required — I won’t say compelled — a fifth page (as already adumbrated). I would do four scenes (dear reader, this is “artistic process” — exciting, n’est-ce pas?) and then summarize . . . generalize . . . conclude. No, not conclude, exactly, for many pages remained; rather reach some conclusion. So, to the bugler on horseback. The bugler’s horseback? Yes, it is Spring. Spring, or Fall. The horse is really quite dashing: svelte, fast, quick of eye; in fact he veritably plunders the road now, galloping out from under the rider, the bugler, cantering off with a very horse-like superiority, twitching his head as though to look back on the Absalom catastrophe; but not in fact turning his head, only twitching it. And the poor bugler? There he is — caught in the fork of the tree’s branch: his red face still about to bugle (the mouthpiece of the French-style bugle at his lips), the rest of him dangling nearly straight down: his blue jacket forming at first a contrast to the red face, then a comparison with the blue face, as the venous supplants the arterial blood. Finally, both drain, causing the face to coincide (in color) with the white starched pants and leaving only the black boots to dangle without further correspondence. Giving: the scarecrow. Stark, of course. Stiff. Or rather, shaggy in the wind, the winter wind. Or so one would have thought. But the scene is Summer. And all the elements comprising it are ambiguous. The ashen white ground might be covered with snow; on the other hand it might be covered with potash. The sketchily puffy cloud on the dark horizon might be wintry-massive or merely summery-cumulus. In either case the prospect, though potentially conclusive, is not entirely comforting. “The trees, though, the trees,” you say; “have they leaves on their branches or not? That should lend a clue.” In fact they do. And yet the leaves they bear seem frazzled, brownish, sere. And the hills stretching out beneath or behind them are hatched with a discomfiting ambiguity too: dense nourishing verdure? Or the sooty waste of blackened snow? God knows. But all he can say is said by an old scarecrow. Not even the single eye of a cottage, bundled under the brink of a burrow, speaks of this scene, arching instead its merely receptive roof beams.


And the summary. To summarize is not to conclude — necessarily. To summarize is to provide a setting, the setting unprovided — or not provided — for by the undue attention to detail, physical detail, accessories, etc., during the foregoing excursus on the shape of things. You see, many people mistake the shape of things for the form of things, and that mistake is not an error easily rooted out. If only because form suggests in some perverse, Neo-Platonic way the essence or being of the thing. From which the attentive, intelligent but wrong-headed figure of speech then goes on solipsistically to identify the shape and the being of the thing. And so on, ad infinitum. But the children are healthy, the garden is flourishing, dinner on the table. The general economic situation is feasible. There’s no ghastly war taking place at the moment. Religion, of course, threatens — as always — to rear its ugly head. And the politicians — they too are always, always among us. But otherwise . . . if you see what I mean. Why introduce a lot of philosophical garbage into a scene like this? “Keep it on the up and up,” as my grandfather used to say. And you know I think he was right.

Chapter 9

So, where were we? Taking communion in a French provincial cathedral? Reading a letter as the blank white light of mid-morning floods the southern porch? Or merely attending to the time given by the long shadow on the town sundial? Or none of these: smoking a pipe as a peasant might in a Norman or Breton pig-sty courtyard. Clearly time as well as place implicates itself in the motive and madness of each scene, light and dark, here and there, the whole transumed, through the mind of the reader, the mind of God, to penetrate the visible, temporal, causal world, arriving at . . . what? That I must leave to you, dear reader — leave to you with all its theologico-metaphysico-ontological mystery, as well as the hoary problem of the episteme. Post-revolutionary, of course. Post-philosophical too. Post-anagogical, post-allegorical, post- . . . “Post Toasties” I was about to say, when I realized that, standing before me, dignified, grave and holy in his austere chasuble, stood the priest, the vicar of Christ Himself, extending toward me with his humble hand the very host, the bread — the daily bread — which the Lord — the greater Lord — hath given us. I take it. And I take it that the Lord hath given it. But, as I take it, will the reader forgive me if, out of the corner of my eye, in those dusty recesses of that dank and musty French provincial cathedral, I glanced and, glancing, observed not only the lacy garb about the priest’s middle but the feminine skirts that he wore as well, and, glancing again, also observe with the mind’s eye the correspondence, yea, the contiguity, of those ruffles and truffles (on the one hand) and these ruffles and truffles (on the other hand) beholden to the hand of a southern lady, reading by the southern light on the southern porch that missive, that nefarious missive sent no doubt from the North. Ruffles and truffles were the words. One could almost see them ruffling up the truffled mind of her correspondent, twisting a lock of her hair out of place, causing the apparent tensing of the forearm muscles, an indication of fear of rough trouble. What a fearful missive must it have been, for the correspondence was everywhere: flip (lid?) of the envelope and flap (lap?) of the skirt she stood in to read it. Yes, ’twas a scene to beat all scenes, and now I have reference not to the scene aforementioned, but rather, dear reader, to the scene so distinctly before us: a scene so porous as to almost defy specificity — nay, electricity. For you see we are dealing with something no less than the intervention of time itself. Time, my dear, figured at once as substantial and insubstantial. And how, the reader may ask, can I proceed (go on) in circumstances such as these? On such an ambiguous, not to say forkèd, road. For if time hath substance, let him show it (in place, motion, effect); and if it hath instead no substance, then let him ignore it. Ignore what? I calmly interjected. Ignore the whole argument, she said, throwing up her hands and bursting into tears. Fine, said I, and so I will. And so I did, for there is nothing, dear, so boring as a sundial by itself, a sundial, you see, without the sun. Its little arrow pointing meaninglessly out into space — or ether, if you will; either ether or the air — as you like; its little insipid scrollwork supporting it; its dumb flat pilasters, its imitation Corinthian columns surrounding an occasional angel here and there. Which brings me to my point here (“here and there”) that virtually nothing exists in and of itself (again the pseudo-language of the schools rears its silly head), that what does exist exists within time (“Ah,” say you, “here we go again”), and that . . . and that a place too must be intimately imbricated in among the plates or tiles or thatchings of this roof of time and causality so belligerently postulated by our western philosophical tradition. Yes, say I, but where is the roof, meaning where does the roof exist? On the page, say you, in the mind’s eye, etc. Chinese enough for a Chinaman, say I. But what I wish, say I, is to know: is the roof in Brittany, or is Brittany in the roof? Is the cart beside the house or is the cart beside the house a representation? “Wittgenstein,” you say. So what? I say. And all the while, at the middle of the scene — in some sense at the middle of all the scenes, stands the Breton-Norman peasant, taking up the foreground (and most of the middle- and background too). His pipe is in his hand and a scarf about his neck. But ’tis not with his dress that we concern ourselves, rather with his thoughts — the simple, simple, sad sad thoughts which race about his brain.


And what for subject hath his cogitation? Why what but history? The history of himself and his family; the history of his commune, his region; the history of his country and his continent. Yea, the history of his world — the history of his world at war. For what, dear reader, have we yet left out of this our history of Ares’ reign? What post-revolutionary phénomène, as they say in France (and sometimes even in Brittany). Why the World War! Why indeed! Why World War I and World War II? — as we used to call them in those days. But I anticipate. And, so doing, turn your attention to the reflections of our Breton-Norman peasant, whose own date of birth — to judge from his gray hairs and palsied manner — predates the commencement of that first and foremost catastrophe. Europe, says he to himself, before the outbreak of the First World War. France, of course, and Germany, but a much expanded Germany, extending well into Poland as we know it today. England and Ireland, Iberia and Italy, all calmly settled within their natural borders. Little neutral Switzerland nestled in the Alps (those Alps again, he says, recalling a splendid vacation). Only Hungary and Austria really much distended beyond their present capacities. And the war begins: biff, bam, trench. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Ka-boom! Ka-boom!! Bam! Boom! Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. Etc. The movement of troops along the lines of the hideous warfare. Men and matériel, material men: Krauts, Frogs, Ruskies, Limeys, Yanks: the whole bloody mess coming down at last to the Belgian front, the Belgian back, the Belgian bulge. At this he touches a palsied hand to his lower lumbago region, recalling how doctors and nurses, ankle-deep in mud, had removed the shrapnel shred on that cold November day. Aye Fred — says the peasant to his son — these are not the niceties of literary warfare, but the grim, grim, grim actualities. But enough o’ that. For the troops and machines and dates are up and movin’ again (all at once): Ostende and Ypres; St. Quentin, Compeigne; Saissons and Rheims; and finally . . . Verdun. What a slaughter and what a mess (kills the appetite). Hand grenades and foot brigades and sitting in bloody mud. How to speak (in medias res) of the offal mess (in the middle of things). Aye lad, how to describe the thing and leave it at that — without the offensive political ramifications. No way, no way, no way (as they say today). The Breton-Norman peasant touches his cap and shuffles forward, leaving a pig trough a foot or two behind. Les Boches (the German pigs), he says to himself, recalling in overview the scheme of their offensives: from Aachen down to Meaux; from Eupen down past Épernay; from the Mosel to Vitry. On across and back and forth until the fighting finished. And don’t forget the Near East. The Near East? Yes, that war was fought in the Near East too (what a devilishly learned peasant, this one!). So the Germans took the Turks, and the Turks stood off the Ruskies, till the Limeys they came in and socked the boches. Fighting, fighting, fighting all the time, all the time. And then, right in the midst of the whole international mess, the Bolshies revolted; whereupon the others turned around and revolted all over again. Revolting! From Archangelsk to Murmansk, and on to the end in Georgia. “And by the end what did they have? Had they sewed the thing together?” The peasant’s young nephew has entered the picture questioning. “Aye lad, they sewed it all together, usin’ treaties and threats and a little red tape.” “And what did it all look like?” the other lad inquired. “All, Fred?” said the peasant, with a stiff upper lip. A hundred and sixteen scenes of desolation death and misery flashed before the old man’s mind. But the question called for generalization, not specifics. So, back to the drawin’ board he went, sketchin’ with a mental magic marker so’s to indicate for the lad the ultimate boundaries. When the outline was done the geopolitics emerged: a much belittled Germany, in blue; a light green Poland considerably increased; a heartily shaken-up Austro-Hungarian Empire. The latter, in red, further broken down into entities whose names, though not unfamiliar to the long-time student of this part of the globe, were for the most part rather novel: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, to name only two. Spain, France and Belgium remained where they had been, but little Luxembourg now loomed into view, an identity all its own. The Norman-Breton peasant, who had once been to visit it, here recalled it with fond personal memories: a mug of Alsatian beer, raised on high; a moment’s flirtation with the plucky blond Mädchen (waitress); a tour of the city in a bus — all under the rubric of high summer fun. But on with the war and its aftermath, for the Fred lad, with his curious quizzical glances, continued to pester the memory-ridden oldster for more reminiscences. “What of the distribution,” he learnedly inquired, “of the various nationalities in the Eastern European lands?” “What,” said the oldster, “following the war?” “Aye, how did the countries break down,” said the lad, “on a demographic basis?” He pushed on (intellectually), his smart blue eyes a-twinkle. Blinking, the oldster rubbed his forehead with a stick, which he was holding in his left hand. It jolted his brain to new thought, releasing a flow of data, to wit: Estonia, 100% Estonians; Latvia, 100% Latvians; Lithuania, 100% Lithuanians. At this the lad entered a mild demurral, in each case (or country, as the case may be) pointing out a spotty sprinkling of die Deutschen (the Germans). But the old man had moved on, had moved on to Poland — with its peculiar admixture of Poles and Ukrainians, its sprinkling of Germans and White Russian wines. Once again things were flowing in the right direction: Czechoslovakia, in its due Czech and Slovak proportions; Hungary, with its own little sprinkling of Germans; Romania, with a cute little tipple of Greeks and even Albanians. “And what about World War II?” said the lad, leaping in a single bound over the pages of maps and statistics piled up in the mind of that old Breton-Norman peasant. “What about it?” the peasant replied. “Well, for a start, when did it begin, and why?” “The immediate cause,” said he, “was Hitler’s invasion of Poland, September 1, 1939.” “Sounds more like a poem to me,” said the young man. Brushing that objection aside, the old man continued. “One could go back and seek other causes, arriving at Paris, and so on, the breakdown of the Paris Peace Pact.” “Oh,” said the young man, “but that would take us back to the First World War.”  “And so it would,” said the old man, picking up the thread of an argument that would have led backwards. “Let’s go on to World War II,” shouted the young man. “Fine,” said the oldster, sketching quickly an outline of events to serve him for the forthcoming onslaught. “From the Fall of France to the surrender of Germany and Japan” he called it, glancing at Italy and Russia to make sure he had them under his belt as well. The barnyard (courtyard) had started to fill up with spectators, word having got out that the old man was about to “do his rap” again, as the young people said. (The old folk called it “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” though some of them had reservations.) At least they were all assembled now: three large brindled milk cows; two turkeys, who, having stopped pecking for grain, were wattling attentively from one foot to the other; six new-born piglets; a goose; and a complement of rabbits, who had asked to be let out of their cages — though in this as yet unrewarded. So, with everybody ready (“Is everybody ready?” the old man inquired. “Yes,” they all replied in unison), the old man, giving one quick, perspicuous glance, began: “Well, in the first phase of the war — he scratched his right eyebrow where it itched — in the first phase of the war everybody ‘got involved’ as they say (the old man was very interested in current idiom), all, that is, but Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Turkey.” At this the two birds in the front row shook their wattles approvingly. The old man considered clearing up the misunderstanding but decided to let that pass and move ahead. “Following,” he began again, “the Conquest of Poland and the Russo-Finnish War came the capitulation of Denmark and Norway.” One of the cows mooed at the mention of milk-producing lands, but the others thought it too far-fetched to interest them. The Subjugation of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg was next. A donkey, who’d ambled into the courtyard, and who had had a cousin in Luxembourg tortured during the war, let out a sympathetic bray and nodded his head to indicate approval at the old man’s inclusion of this phase. But the rest of them clearly were waiting for what came next, or rather for what’s coming: The Fall of France. “The Fall of France,” said the old man, getting right to the point, “occurred in June of 1940, in fact, just about the time that you, young man — he scratched his eyebrow, shooting a piercing glance at the lad — were being born. This was fascinating to the lad, though the animals were growing restless for detailed action. This the old man saw and pacified them with a string of things: how Hitler had launched his attack and outflanked the highly vaunted Maginot line, how the beastly — sorry, immoral — Germans had crossed the Somme and the Marne as the French beat a hasty retreat. Several chickens took umbrage at this remark and the old man indicated deference. He mentioned Pétain and Premier Renard and how they had asked for armistice (at which several of Renard’s old natural enemies sighed with relief). And so on, down through the railroad car in the Forest of Compeigne. The young man seemed to be absolutely glued to the tale, especially to the dates — June 10, for example, when the Italians declared war on Britain, and the rest as well, right down to June 28, when he was born. He was so engrossed in it all in fact that he barely took notice of the German Blitzkrieg going on about him. Here the old man simulated the whole thing in dumb show for the animals, who, contrary to what you might have thought, weren’t amused — in fact they kept shouting (one or two of the big pigs who’d just arrived), “More analysis! More analysis! Fewer facts and more generalization!” Misunderstanding — actually understanding but pretending to misunderstand, the old man started a long history of generals during the war. This went on and on, including the battle of Britain and the Greeks’ magnificent stand, which in turn gave way to the second phase of the conflict. The animals specially liked the part about the African theater — in which the old man artfully included giraffes and elephants and other exotic “people” getting in the way of Rommel’s tanks, and so forth. And the third phase was pretty good too, until he got off the track into what he called “topics” — things like Industrial Centralization and the Importance of Western Solidarity. And there was a good deal of clucking and pawing over “Winning the Peace,” as he called it. Anyway, he did the whole thing — East and West, the Pacific Theater, V-E day, the whole works, even the “Arsenal for Democracy” and “The Road Back.” He was working up through the Air War over Tokyo to the Atom Bomb, when, glancing at Fred (who’d sat down by the pig trough), what should he see but the young man asleep! Asleep, for Christ’s sake! (He’d fallen asleep around 1940.) “Crêpes! ” said the old man, looking at the animals in disgust.

Chapter 10

“Ship ahoy!” cried the Baron, or rather the Barrister. “Hey! Ship ahoy? said Byron. “That’s no way to cry.” Apparently we were back in the 1830s. Until I realized it was merely a lawyer dressed in old robes. Actually we were back in the 1930s, in what they called the interlude between the wars (le jeu d’esprit entre les deux guerres). Some slippage had occurred — in judicial progress; yet withal a peaceful atmosphere prevailed. One of the jury members had clearly dozed off, his whole face taking the form of a walrus. Next to him another (juror) had placed his fingertips at his temple, as though to massage some anti-sleep nerve center. The whole room in fact was somnolescent. An Ionic column led from the ceiling directly into the barrister’s clavicle. A wreathèd tumbrel topped the door in suspended animation. The desk of the barrister sat punctuated with dead, deathly, and moribund objects: a watch fob; a blunt instrument; and a frog, doped in evidence and surely on the verge of croaking. It was precisely at this moment — 1:43 p.m. (all had had a heavy lunch) — that the fool barrister, landlocked as he was in central Bavaria, cried out “Ship ahoy! I say there, Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!” Well, needless to say, this had about as much effect on us as a squirt gun. We — I and my fellow jurors — had other matters on our minds. Though apparently somnolent, we were in fact under the influence of . . . hypnosis. And, as if by some mysterious process, each of us, in his individual slumber, came armed at that very moment with a common vision — common that is to anyone who has visited the magnificent baroque palace outside Munich, which, since I forget its name, will, for the present, remain nameless. But back to the common vision: it was none other, nothing less than, a fountain. Yes, a perky fountain, a devil of a nice Spritz, as we say — with long hair (I speak of course metaphorically), a long tail created, you see, by the vent, or wind. In the background — but to hell with the background (“au diable avec le background! as they say in France). In the foreground, in the pool itself, near the forelip of the basin, sailed a bright, magenta-spinnakered, forerigged, mizzenmasted, clipper-like, sloop-light vessel which Magellan, had he lived long after his time, as a Bermuda-shorted Oyster Bay playboy in the mid 1930s, might well have enjoyed sailing. But of course, given the boat’s minor scale — it was a model, you see — Magellan would have had to shrink considerably in order to man those decks. At any rate, someone — perhaps the barrister, perhaps the baron (who owned the estate), perhaps Byron himself (who was once tempted to write about the little pool, as he sat dabbling his fingers in it betwixt amours) — someone, Eveready flashlight in hand, strides through the mist of the same estate — it is dewy and dark — looking for the site of the fountain.  What a sight it is — or “’tis.” Ingenious the way they have these fountains hidden. For so vast is the scale of the man with flashlight in hand that he misses, not only the fountain and its surrounding pool, but the whole part of the estate — right under his foot! — which he crunches on, as though he were an unconscionably large and oafish giant bent on inadvertently destroying the glories of European architecture and gardening, ca. 1650-1710. So, crunch goes the foot, out goes the light (by coincidence), the man blinks in surprise, swears an Ethiopian oath and, as the sky opens to gush down torrents of rain on that scene, our scene shifts. We find ourselves, for the first time, in Africa!  Yes, we find ourselves on the eastern shores of Ethiopia. The sun is blazing down from high above — not at the zenith, but near it; the sands are brulants (very hot), as they say; absolutely nothing is on the horizon — no hope, in other words, of rescue from the heat. No hope, that is, for anyone . . . but ourselves. For we, luckily, are safe — safe as a fish — inside a cool goatskin, sitting there on the sandy desert, left behind (the goatskin) by a Moorish or European traveler (that we’ll explore later). Inside the goatskin things are not of course super-duper (are things ever really super-duper?), but they are bearable — within scale. For you see the goatskin, rather starchy, has lost about half its water (due to a leak near the bottom), and this has left room for our ship — Magellan’s ship, you recall — earlier cramped in and barely afloat against the surface of the bag — to steer, in fact to act generally as though it were a ship (the heat has even created convectionary currents that simulate wind). “And yet,” you say, “What about the leak?” Indeed, that’s a question we must take up at once.

Chapter 11

But first, the matter of civilization. In a sense it seems appropriate that this question should arise in Chapter 11, for though each and every chapter is distinct — with the interludes and summaries distinct from them — nonetheless Chapter 11 is a pivotal point in the whole scheme. On the one hand we have the ten chapters leading up to eleven — not counting two interludes and a summary; on the other hand we have the remaining ten chapters (as yet unwritten) — not counting the remaining interlude and final summary. But where does that leave us with regard to Chapter 11? What does it consist of? Four scenes, quite simply, of . . . civilization itself, to wit: one gentleman offering his card to another; a violinist performing a sonata; an individual placing a coin in a barrel-shaped bank atop the mantelpiece in a salon; and a gaming table set with thirteen chairs about it, two lamps distributing an equal and intense light across the field of combat. First, then, the gentlemen: they are both tall, and that’s not all: they are both mustachioed; nor is that the end of it. They both wear cutaways and top hats. However, here the identity ceases, and the identification commences, for the first gent, wallet and glove in hand, walking stick under his arm, offers the second gent his card. In a distinct, but as yet undetermined, relationship to these two men stands a third. I say “stands,” for that is what he does; he stands on his own two feet, or the feet of the artist, but is otherwise engaged in a most civilized activity. He plays, or is performing, a work of art — a piece of musical composition and factual detritus. Ta-ta . . . Thus would I score it, could I hear it. Hence to thy ear, dear, I shall leave the melodic invention, the interplay of harmony — to thy divine imagination. Now a violinist, appropriately attired, comes sporting forward, his hair, slightly disheveled, consummate in its “artistic” air. His mien is sober and workmanlike. His properly rosined bow catches at the catgut strings and pulls upon them till they issue forth with a raspèd sweetness implicit in the strain of his instrument, the instrumentation of the strain. I should add: the strings are muted, an ebony device having gently but firmly been attached to the white pine bridge, across which the tone-producing filaments are tightened or “strung.” And thus it is a tune of delicate and deep emotion issues from the viol’s innards. Paid for by . . . the parsimony? (or the acrimony?) of the patient audience. You know, civilization is a silly subject in one sense, and yet, in another sense — another sense of “subject” — well, it is all we have. All we have consisting of all we save, have saved, and all we spend, have spent, right? Where, you may ask, does civilization, then, take place? To which I’d reply: on the mantelpiece of the salon where, the guests not yet arrived for tea — and tea will be served — the man in a three-button “afternoon-jacket,” his left hand half in his pocket, half out, places a coin — a Louis d’or? — in the so-called “barrel-bank.” Assured and deliberate he is, as he well might be, for he knows precisely where his coins — his “funds,” we say today — are going. What relation, you may ask, do they in turn bear to the pair of triple candelabra also on the mantle? That, my dear, is a matter of simple counting. As are the hands on the dial of the ornate but elegant clock: five past seven — the figure of justice abiding atop the clock, a small scepter in her hand. Which brings us — that coin again? — to the final, the fourth and final, the fourth (but not the final) scene: the table de jeu, or gaming table. What to say of the table de jeu that has not already been said? How to describe the suffering — mental anguish, lost hopes, utter despair — that circumscribes this needful, needless, needleless aspect of civilization? Where to locate those twelve gamesters and that master magician who so recently — and in words far greater and more poignant than mine — gamed his life away upon this classic, dark green baize? And classic it is! — marked with those numerals forming the bound of a civilization which plays itself out upon its elegant surface, combed smooth by the avid eyes, the eager hearts, the calloused breasts that gouged and gorged at her, anticipating success only to realize . . . failure — there. Yes, there. For we, now, are here; civilization . . . there. We, but her lackeys and future running dogs. For nothing remains. No, I sha’n’t say that. For two little instruments do remain: the rake — the rake once nimbly employed to divest the willing gamesters of their chips and Louis d’or. And the wheel — the wheel about which spun — nay flew — that tiny sphere of fate before it settled.

Chapter 12

“But what,” you ask, “about that leak in the goatskin?” “Ah,” say I, “it had almost escaped my mind.” And so it does. It escapes my mind. For you see we are faced with more pressing matters: having done with the post-revolutionary period, we must now consider the post-civilization period (so many things stand in the way of simple explanation!). By comparison, then, with civilization itself, post-civilization is a shambles. And no longer the masterful ease and sickening grace of a Kenneth Clark to carry us through. No muzzy mounds of tantalizing Titians here to pile up before the clock-tower consciousness of I Tatti. No punting on the placid Thames. No easy lubricity with Sligger. No sullen afternoon at snooker. Or simple disaster at the Welsh Dam. Instead? Ah, dear reader, you begin to notice — to notice, or do you? Do you note, do you? Do you note my rhetoric? Do you know it? Do you know, you’re right! There’s nothing to it but rhetoric. And so behind the gasworks the scholar plods his trade. But enough o’ this. On to the scenes at hand. Prima facie, or, as we say in English, first: a man — un uomo — yea, can we call him that, he has but one good arm? — a sad, determined, wise-in-his-suffering citizen, makes his way through the vale of tears, in the aftermath of doubt of World War I. ’Twas not by a long shot, but along the marshy banks of the River Marne — of a summer day, in the second year of battle — that the ball, the sphere, the fickle bullet lodged in the wrist of this gentleman — nay let us not exaggerate, of this commoner, of this citoyen — for the Great War (perhaps like all wars before it) had an equalizing force. But, then, let us be thankful too — for the ball, recall, lodged merely in the man’s wrist (albeit the wrist of his writing hand) and not in the wrist of his spine, as they say. And now he makes his way — “trudges,” dare we say — past the bourse, past the bank, past the banks of the Seine — mad, sad, despondent with life. But cheer up. Life is not all drudgery. Finish those chores that sit on the desk before you — the nuts and bolts of life — and look ye how glorious life can be: a café (a coffee?), no, a café, a table, dominoes with a chum — a copain, a blaggard, a salonier, who cares? — another fellow like thyself; but I’m getting ahead of my story (as evangelical folk are wont to say). Concentrate on the dominoes. A shadowy waiter — see him through the glass? — arrives with a tray of dominoes, in fact a whole bottleful, two glasses stuffed with dominoes (not unlike flowers, black with white spots). Carefully he wipes the table. The man — one a clochard, one more salubrious — are deep in conversation and scarcely notice him. As I say, he wipes the table, deposits the bottle — the carafe — and the two domino glasses and prepares to leave. “Wait!” says one of the men, looking up and throwing an arm behind his chair. “The wine. Where is the red wine, the new Beaujolais we commanded?” But the waiter is taking steps, not away from the table, but steps in the other sense — toward fulfilling the order. And in fact, from his back pocket, he now withdraws a long narrow rectangular domino box, marked, strangely enough, “Dominoes.” Carefully, holding it absolutely horizontal, he removes the lid above the two gents’ eyelevel. A hush, as it appears, brimful — not of dominoes, of course, but of luscious red wine. And, owing to a careful inner coating of plastic, there is nary a leak to be seen. “Put the dominoes down on the table, would you?” says one of the men — the one with Karl Marx glasses and a Lenin goatee. Quizzically the waiter regards him. “The dominoes, sir?” he asks. The man glances again at the box, whose cover the waiter has carefully closed over the bottom of the box. “No, what am I saying?” says the man. “The Beaujolais.” The waiter smiles, a little smile of pleasure first, turning quickly to a smirk of content. He flips his white napkin back over the arm on which his left hand holds the box, takes the box in his other (right, writing) hand, balancing the cool liquid, a liquid the color of arterial blood, and carefully, slowly pours its bright, evanescent effluvium into a puddling pool at the center of the table. The two gents are spellbound, watching in utter disbelief as the liquid slowly but surely forms . . . rivulets. Yet the central pool remains, and in it — the rivulets running their course — the men witness, reflected, “The Execution of the Century.” Spellbound, his eyes in fact bound, a corporal, a cad, a traitor to his native land, stands awaiting the fatal shot. He waits. He waits. He waits. It never comes. Instead, we are suddenly back in Zurich. And my father, in his study, whence he has never moved, peruses the pages of an uncut book, leaning slightly forward so as to catch those words of history that had hitherto escaped him.

Chapter 13

“A Moorish traveler,” the narrative begins, “a Moorish or European traveler, goatskin under his arm, set out from Alexandria, in the year 1590, for Chad. Little did he know what a wasteland of desolation the next three months would bring. . . .” My father continues to read. It is snowing outside. Outside and inside. We are, as I said, back in Zurich. It is snowing all over Zurich, over Zumikon, over Zollikon, and most of all over Küsnacht, or kiss-night, as we say in English literature. My father is depressed — the pages of history hardly provide substantial relief — for although all the Alpine particles of neige, or snow, are converging on him now, all his relatives, the members of his family, are fleeing him, like ions, like little tiny particles of physics. Up over the snow-encrusted rooftop, the rooftop of his house (which he, naturally, inside the house, cannot see), is a darkening sky, the sky of death. It is shaded — hatched — above the bristling trees of winter. Suddenly his thoughts turn from the Moorish or European wanderer, traversing the sands of the Sahara, to his brother in nearby Winterthur, who sits at the console of his desk, perusing a letter addressed to his wife. It appears to concern itself with several matters: a woman opening a blind; two men engaged in a game of “footsy”; a gentleman soused on wine; and a butler placing a seal on the back of an envelope, on the back in fact of the very envelope in which the letter has been sent. For the letter that my uncle reads was penned by his brother, my father, and addressed to my aunt. It includes, my uncle soon perceives, a curious proposition: that she, my aunt, my uncle’s wife, my father’s sister-in-law, should take “a long journey” for her amusement. How curious indeed, says my uncle. Strange, passing strange, passing passing strange. Briefly perusing it again, he slips the letter back in its envelope and covertly redeposits it in the drawer of the secretary desk. I.e. his secretary’s desk, for his wife, you see — my paternal aunt, my father’s only sister, my uncle’s only wife — is also my uncle’s only secretary. And this, you see, is his secretary’s only desk. Therefore not his desk, really — except in the property sense. At any rate, presently he pushes back his chair (the chair), takes up a book (his book — in the sense that he was reading it), and returns to an armchair (fauteuil, Sessel) to continue. Meanwhile, off elsewhere — actually on her way to Bergamo — in a semi-recumbent position, Aunt Minnie, my Aunt Minnie — Aunt Meneholda — gazes out into the snow-clad, semi-rugged Alpine landscape (only “semi-rugged” because — but let that pass). So luxurious is the couch, or banquette, on which she semi-reclines that it looks like a Matratze (a mattress — not a mistress). Carefully she has arranged her “things,” and because it’s the “off-season,” she has, so to speak the “run” of her compartment. Bref (in shorts), she sits alone, contented with her things and her cozy, extramarital freedom. About her neck is the rich red of a contoured fox collar, the sleeves of her coat also “muffed,” or “miffed,” in mink. Her galoshes she has either forgotten or taken off. But she has not forgotten her gloves, one of which lies demurely, if pointedly, atop a silken purse, atop in turn the program notes to an opera — “La Traviata” — soon to be performed at Bergamo, whither this first class train now speeds, impeded only by Alps, as Aunt Minnie, and all its other first class occupants, whiz away from their spouses (and other concerns) toward a glorious night at the opera. But who is the other chap in this family-clogged-up dream, the chap with the facial hair, the forechaps, or before chops, or simple mustache? Why that chap is me — or I. Yes, the chap is I. I is the chap. And I’m looking over a map, or chart. A Carte Taride, to name it, a map of the métros (subways) of Paris. And in my hand I hold a tool, an instrument for the reading of maps, made of a stick and a wheel, designed for measuring distances, especially those involving a lot of curves, turns and suchlike. I seem to be sitting in Paris, but actually I’m still in Switzerland, Switzerland, Oklahoma. I have a little place here, up in the Alpine Apartments, where I measure my maps and figure how to get in and out of Paris on foot. For you see, what I do is trace the route of the subway to figure out how far it is; then, having memorized the distances and all the curves and turns, I blindfold myself, put on my coat, go downstairs, open the door, walk out into Central Oklahoma, and before I know it — in a matter of minutes — find myself . . . downtown in Paris!

Chapter 14

With a tremendous sense of déjà vu, I might say, for there, high above the Place du Trocadéro, is Mother — as pronounced as the Eiffel Tower but more menacing — opening the blinds of her middleclass, outrageously expensive pied-à-terre to look down disinterestedly, as she does every morning about this time, on the Musée de l’homme, the squirters in the fountains — which haven’t at this hour started to squirt, thank God; the desultory post-rush-hour traffic; and above all the bridge, the bridge to the Champs de Mars. Déja vu indeed! But she turns aside, having seen enough, having missed quite a bit already. For she is out of the 1940s and yet squarely in them: a vase or vase of flowers, leafy and firm, on the Louis Seize-Art Déco table, a volume with an andiron aspect ostentatiously left, spine forward, to show how literate we are in this part of the world (’tis a little book of Wallace Stevens’ poetry, 1941, “dropped off” by a friend of hers from the suburbs; now handsomely rebound — the book — and appropriately displayed). But the light here is also important and, if the truth be known, floods from below — as befits the perspective from which we view the scene. But this requires explanation. Off in the wilds somewhere — can’t we for once forget about where exactly? — two Siberian-looking chaps, bundled up for the temp. or time of year — have apparently taken a liking to a game which has nothing to do with Napoleon’s meteoric rise from mere meat to heroic stature. It is very cold. We are out in Siberia. Ed either forgot the goatskin, or its contents, frozen, have burst the bag. (Such the ruptures, or raptures, of life.) And thus its anti-esthetic immediacy. For what have we here if not the cyclonic turbulence of nothingness — reminiscent, on the one hand, of Switzerland’s chill, and, on the other, of the yeasty springs of my boyhood? For you see (I trust the reader to forgive a momentary narrative lapse), all experience, in a sense, is an arch wherethrough people like you, and me, and Ulysses, and Robert F. Kennedy pass to greater glory (was almost tempted to say “the greater glory of God”); but how inapt that seems in view of the chillingly anesthetic prospect of men playing footsy against the bleak be-cabinned background of wintry Siberia. Drunk, begad! And who would not be after that sort of rigamarole. You see, for a moment Mother was almost out of order. Almost turning her attention from the sorts of things that naturally and properly occupy the mid-morning thoughts of a Parisian housewife to “The Moorish Traveler,” a mildly erotic book Father had brought back from his travels to Zurich. But what am I saying? Father had long ago given up on Mother. Mother had given up on Zurich, and it was really Uncle Dan, my father’s younger brother whom the story (as told me by Sherwood Anderson) concerns itself with. For Winesville, you see, is everywhere. On a small corner in the Midwest, where a gallon of brown-bagged Gallo has been hurled from a passing Chevrolet; on the slopes of high crags in Lefcadia; in bars and cafés and hangouts the world over. But especially here in “Yugoslavia,” a small Yugoslav section of the International Café where Uncle Dan sits . . . soused. He has, quite frankly, had one, two, many. And he looks it: his amber hand droops — full of vinous blood; his mustache is “wrinkled,” as they say in Yugoslav argot. And a little Larousse Yugoslav dictionary peeks up out of his vest pocket, offering more words. More words! “Mere words!” said Goethe, as the minister of finance, or his butler, sporting a goatskin foulard, and pointing unconsciously toward the corner of the envelope, stamped and sealed the letter (already bespoken) that contained what Goethe refers to as “the ultimate secret” — the secret of the universe. Candelabra; a fancy mirror; paneling; a blind wainscot; and the usual accoutrements of hotel stationery filled the room with an upper biftek atmosphere (note, reader, for thy sake, I here eschew time and place . . . for beefsteak). The letter is in the act of having the stamp put on; though of course the wax, the candle, faintly fluttering (à la Barry Lyndon) gives away the time — the era, and, come to think of it, the armchair (cf. Chapter 13), the armchair reticence of Central Europe too. For though we may once have been concerned with Paris (Paree, Parees, we are now firmly entrenched in a Boulevard des Italiens, Montparnassien, rue Clément Marot account . . . of the letter (der Buchstab), written, sealed, but not deciphered. And how could it be? For my aunt is no Rawlinson, no Michael Ventris, no Champollion, but a simple lonely matron residing Küsnacht, en route to Bergamo.

Chapter 15

Aunt Meneholda, what hast thou beheld? Someone hath entered thy carriage. A gray-haired, but not exactly fancy, older lady seats herself “catty-cornered” across from Aunt Minnie. She seems a little gussied up — though it’s hard to say. Removing her gloves, she squirms — wriggles a bit — to get more comfortable in her corset, and carefully removes her hatpins. Now a slight flush comes into her cheeks, as she peers, cautiously, but withal boldly, toward Aunt M.’s corner. Snow has begun to fall in the landscape. Aunt Minnie, resisting an impulse to snub this upper bourgeois hussy altogether, gazes instead at a point some six inches in front of her face. Suddenly a large “How do you do!” interrupts the quiet rickety-click of the Swiss railway system. “I’m Mrs. Guy Frazer of Omaha, Nebraska.” Puzzled by the purplish glow of gums and lipstick, Aunt Minnie nonetheless fields the woman’s rudeness quite handily, in fact as though she were back in Omaha herself, of a balmy May evening, out at the ballpark, where downcast veterans from the major leagues stab ground balls to their left and right, like lizards pocketing flies for the rookies’ amusement, or their own benefit. “I recall a benefit,” Mrs. Frazer intones, “which we once had for the Omaha Orchestra” — Aunt Minnie smiles, batting her eye politely — “at which an oboist from Ohio nearly lost his breeches.” At this Mrs. F. lets out a high rodeo horselaugh. Aunt Minnie calmly turns her face to the window, wondering how far off nightfall is. As she closes her eyes, she hopes Mrs. Frazer will go to sleep, or die. But of course Mrs. Frazer is not about to. She is full of stories, they are tumbling to the surface, scrambling to get in line two abreast, so they can rush out and attack Aunt Minnie: the one about the used car salesman in Council Bluffs, and the one about the Jews who have taken over Papillion; the one about Guy’s twenty-year-old “new” coat, and the one about Bartlett pears. They come in pairs, side by side, though the pairs are unequal. Aunt Minnie blushes. Mrs. F. bats her eyes and rears back to deliver. In a desperate, defensive move, Aunt Minnie closes her eyes. Reaching into her “bag of tricks,” she pulls out a few tales of her own. E.g., the one about William Tell and his courageous son; the one about the board of directors and the angry stockholders; the one about the butler and the turkey. But first, in order thoroughly to defense Mrs. F.’s rampant American spirit, she makes up one about a tall chap and a short one. It takes place at a haberdasher’s shop in London. Two rodeo clowns from the West have deposited themselves in the off-season. Fitted out in new English duds, they stand, goofily admiring them, in front of a nearby full-length mirror (its stanchion has a pineapple cone atop it). The dude on the left — Minnie consciously adopting Mrs. F.’s idiom — holds his hat behind his back, smiling as though he were cast in bronze and seated on a horse. “Will Rogers, On His Horse Soapsuds,” Aunt M. condescendingly entitles it. The other rodeo clown, a dwarf from Tucumcari, is patting his head, as he prepares to toss his Stetson on a stake in the woods outside Rossini’s William Tell Overture, where, tricked up to look like some Atrean figure out of the Purgatory, W. Tell aims his short crossbow at the apple — the pomme de terre — which rather uneventfully sits on the apple of his eye, his only son. Whiz! Pop! Splat! The apple (luckily not the boy’s head) splits in two. Which brings the whole thing down to the last stanza (or last two stanzas) floating about in the Noah’s Ark of Mrs. Frazer’s imagination. Philips Industries — here she co-opts Aunt Minnie — a small outfit in Ohio, has been having a whale of a difficult time — or so Mrs. Frazer informs her knowing auditor. The stockholders have called a halt to the publication of rubbish — “which is very important, you see,” Mrs. F. explains, “for Philips is ‘into’ trash compactors.” “Far out,” says Aunt Minnie, who is actually on the verge of nodding out. “Anyway,” Mrs. F. continues, “all these trashed-out members of the board of directors” — the image of bottles and bottles of Quaaludes dances in her head — “are doing their best to put down this stockholder rebellion.” She here glances significantly at Minnie, but Minnie finally has nodded out. Mrs. F. goes on to her last story, the one about the butler; but Aunt M., instead of listening to it, is now simply dreaming it. There he stands, poised against the handsome wainscot, sharpening one knife against another, preparing to take that turkey limb from limb, and looking, I might add, the Devil’s likeness of the famous film critic, Mr. K.

Chapter 16

The ad in the paper had read, “The Short but Exquisite Life of Don Pellegrino,” and Mr. K., the well-known critic, had very much looked forward to just that. Checking the marquee as he arrived at the theater, he confirmed his expectations. However, no sooner had the screening begun than they (his expectations) met with defeat. There was to be — a maroon-suited usher announced — not a feature-length film but instead four figures, four short subjects, a program, as he styled it, of “delightful imagination.” At this Mr. K. scratched his chop and reluctantly, with dubiety, settled in for this fortuitous eventuality. “Starring Welliver B. Wickwood,” read the first credit, placed (the credit) in the modern fashion before the title, which followed directly: “The Poker Chips.” Mr. K. sipped a fudge sludge and gazed wittily at the pinchbeck. A face resembling that of Eduardo Cinelli had appeared on the screen, the stationary face of a character full of envy at the winnings of his fellow players. The film proceeded to describe — represent — the game itself, the winnings and losings, the eventual coming out even of Welliver B. Wickwood. An actor acting his own image, Mr. K. reflected. Nothing of great moment. He turned his attention to the second film, which presently made its appearance on the screen. So like the Downtown Roxy to present four short subjects instead of a full-length film. He considered requesting his money back but decided he rather enjoyed the passivity of the spectacle. Instinct was at war with wit. At least that appeared to be the subject. The title had a fussy quality: “Bean-Bag Bonnerman Meets the Bandits’ Demand for Ransom.” He adverted at once to the Kenyon Critics and their hatchet-job on Hopkins, but quickly reverted to the film, to the major art form of the twentieth-century fox. Bean-bag Bonnerman was a kind of modern Volpone in sheep’s clothing. His bland exterior gave no inkling of the desperate rumbling beneath his cranial dome. His hand was made of cardboard, as the critical idiom had it, and the scratching of his impudent pen across the page nearly did him in. Nearly, for he too was rescued in the end by the generous, kind, not to say magnanimous critical reprieve of the critic K. (prolepsis). Poetry buffs, said K. to himself — he had returned to his hobbyhorse chair with a bag of freshly popped popcorn — poetry buffs (amplificatio) are rare enough, but to combine that facility with the film critic’s expertise, well, that’s a little much (mucho). He thought of his own modestly immense bibliography (macho), the next film looming into view. ’Twas a Universal Production entitled “Critic/Aficionado.” It concerned a dapper man and a somewhat drably colorful parrot, with whom the man had occasional conversations. This all took place, well, nowhere exactly — it could have been Luxembourg, Hamburg, or Dentonville, Ohio; or, for that matter, Tokyo, Brazil, or even Alabama (the cleanness of the streets seemed to rule out New York City). “Polly,” as the parrot was called, winked at the dapper man as he walked past the corner of a building. ’Twas a case of entrapment, not for the parrot (played by the famous Edmund Wilson) but the dapper man (played by a near-great critic), who, cigarillo betwixt his teeth, considered how to criticize what might bear repeating. Au dernier moment (at the film’s conclusion), he decided however simply to walk on, hugging under his arm a combination raincoat-atlas. “Barnaby Goes Hunting with the Aid of a Trained Guide,” read the title of the final film. I wouldn’t miss this for anything, said the critic, who’d overcome his reservations concerning the “montage of attraction” effect of the four different subjects and, quick as anyone, had seen through to the “unity of presentation,” as he felicitously termed it (he made a mental note to congratulate the manager regarding his selection of such interesting works). “Generosity will out,” intoned a narrative voice, as the camera “panned in” on Barnaby’s handsome (if somewhat donkey-like) steed, whose name of course was . . . Generosity. She wanted out, out of the stable and on to the hills, the hills of Montparnasse, whither the knowing steps of the curiously-dressed Italian guide now hied. Italian, because the entire spectacle — a representation of late eighteenth-century Paris — had been filmed in the famed Cinecittà, the only studio capable of representing the whole outdoor world indoors. When they had reached the mountain itself, Barnaby dismounted and began his solitary climb to the summit. “The End” (“Fine”), said the film. K. put on his coat and walked out into the brightly lit outdoor-indoor Broadway scene.

Chapter 17

And suddenly we were back in Zurich — Bach in Zurich as they say — with a fugal quavering effect. The subject of poets had come up, the poet of poets, etc. But it all occurred in a prose book. ’Twas the book of prose, or Prosabuch, as they say in Zurich, and it cost a buck or two. It had come all the way from San Francisco — and smelled it. At least my father smelled it (he liked the smell of his books). But back to the subject. It took up in turn, the book, the lives of the poets, graphically representing them in typical proses, or poses: a posture, a stature, an artichoke, or rather a picture of Baudelaire, a Baudelaire-type poet examining the contents page of a poison bottle, a basket of fruit, a bucket of nothing, all sitting on the mantle behind his head, over his shoulders. The table was set with interesting things too. But back to the overall subject: my father . . . no; my poetic ancestry . . . no; ah yes, the principal poets in the book my father was reading. Listen. Let us look, as he reads, over his shoulder, at the words of that famous critic, Alexander Schaeffer, the inventor of the rhetoric of impressionistic analysis. “Victor  Hugo,” the text begins, “is asleep. Unlike the style of his waking life, so high in rodomontade the style of his dreams is crisp, taut, abrupt. For example: a pear tree. Victor dreams of a pear tree. In it, djinns. A maiden, hair down to her knees, arrives. She seats herself. Under the tree. Swallows de-branch. A coney leaps forth. Victor Hugo records in his journal — the journal of his dreams — the suggestion of — how shall we call it? — sex. The maiden is met by her mother (note the alliteration). The mother, no maiden, is mad. No maiden (anadiplosis), naked, horny as hell (simile), would welcome a horny-as-hell mother (epanothorsis). ‘To hell with rhetoric!’ explodes the maiden. ‘Mother, get thee hence! Leave me a pence, and I’ll find me a man!’” Well, dear reader, you can imagine the outcome yourself. Hugo, that lousy loser, goes on dreaming of victory; the djinns take up their fizzes (long cool drinks from England); and the history of literature tells the sequel. In the form of . . . Rainer Maria Rilke’s literary agent, the story of his Odyssean wanderings in the maze of the Crédit Lyonnais. It seems that Rilke, much enamored of the person and poetry of Paul Valéry, rebuffed, nonetheless makes repeated attempts to meet his maker. In pursuance of which he sends ahead his agent from Bonn to do his preliminary banking and to make those arrangements so necessary when a figure from one culture visits another: in this case the neurasthenic, not to say febrile, Rilke, and the cool, calm, authentic Valéry. So, the man from Bonn goes banking, taking care first to fit a fine bowler to his head (for the look of austere dignity). He tightens his tie, twirls the tips of his mustaches, and makes his way across the rue de Rivoli. He passes the Madeleine (recalling Proust); he enters the grands boulevards (Capucines? Italiens? No, echt Deutsch). And steers his way into the banque, heading naïvely toward the window marked caisse (Konto, cash), hoping to cash a check. In fact the check he hopes to cash he lays under the cashier’s nose, on the counter. Whereupon the dirty little cashier, a diamond ring on his pinky, places a pale white finger on the check and slides it back at Rilke’s agent. “It has not been countersigned,” says he (using French). “It has not been what?” the agent replies. “It has not been countersigned.” My father looks up, glancing out the window at the snowfall, growing heavier by the minute (the snowfall). He wonders about Aunt Meneholda and whether she’ll make it over the Alps to Bergamo. He is hungry. He is weary. But he will read one more story. Bored by the way the Valéry-Rilke “friendship” is developing, he turns to Chapter 3, which concerns F., an American poet of Italian abstraction, a beatnik Rod McKuen, about to commit suicide at the Sorbonne, on the eve of his doctoral examination. Seated alone in a moderately priced restaurant along the rive gauche (left bank — not to be confused with the rive droite, or Rilke’s bank), he carefully examines what appears to be a bottle of soy sauce. In fact, it is . . . poison. What he thinks of doing is dripping a drop or two in his mock-crystal glass, tipping some Burgundy in from a nearby carafe and taking himself out of his present misery. Instead, suddenly inspired, he puts the bottle down, musses up his hair and declares, to the waiter and the world, “Je suis poète!” (I am a poet!) Of course no one believes him. Whereupon the page turns to an illustration of northern Italy (the Marches, the Marches), and my father gets up to go have something to eat.


Nikita Khrushchev loved it. So did Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. So, for that matter, does a whole new turned-on generation. The voice was that of our guide, a native, in fact third-generation, San Franciscan. Her subject? Frisco. Plucky, petite, her hair pulled back, she had a tongue-in-cheek manner acquired at an eastern school (she’d also studied in Germany and learned how to make cheese in Wisconsin). She was pointing out to our tour group of well-to-do Swiss matrons how many songs had been written about San Francisco: “Gretchen’s in the kitchen,” for instance — about an S.F. girl who went to work as a short-order cook in L.A. It was set, she told us, half in the Bay Area, half in Southern Cal. “I left my heart in  . . .” she began quietly singing; but the monstrous diesels of the tour bus had started up, and we found ourselves “making the scene” again: Chinatown, packed with import-export shops; downtown, with its frenzy of finance; Nob Hill; and finally . . . the Haight, that “melting pot” of races and different forms of behavior. We saw San Franciscans everywhere. Descending from the bus, we even felt like San Franciscans ourselves, though we’d only been in town for twelve hours. Europe had nothing to equal it. You couldn’t walk ten feet without someone making some remark or other. True, our formality set us apart — our beige outfits (calf-length skirts and fur-trimmed jackets). And ’twas informality the locals were into: spaced-out hippie boys glad-handing everyone, girls with bare midriffs asking for change — everyone, it seemed, kissing one another. But, you see, we were digging it. These young people, as our guide told us, are just as much “San Francisco” as their parents up on Nob Hill; or those suburbanites out North Beach way; or the arty singles down Marina way; or the groovy types at the north end of Fillmore. And suddenly we found ourselves up at the Top of the Mark, in search of that “treasured commodity,” a View of the City. “The fog,” said our cute little guide, “is not smog (that’s L.A.). It’ll burn off by noon.” We glanced about, beginning to realize how “out of it” we looked in our European togs. “Where might we go,” I inquired, “to pick up some, say, jeans and boots, something neutral enough for us to ‘pass’?” The plucky little girl understood at once and, before we knew it, had us cruising the local shops: The Blushing Peony (psychedelic chick wear); Brooks Brothers (Ivy League status); Dunhill (“Quality London”); The Emporium, Gumps and Miki’s; Roos-Atlans (for collegiate wear). Things were popping. But now we were feeling . . . hungry! So, after a pit stop back at our motel (to drop our old duds off), we set out restaurant-hopping. Soon we’d centered in on the North Beach-Chinatown Area. Here the group split up: the older folk, off to Dottie’s Sandwich Shop (for turtle soup), the youngsters opting for The Brighton Express, with its “mud pies.” Some of us thought The Black Sea sounded attractive, and soon we’d settled in at 620 Broadway, whose garrulous proprietor chatted in six languages. Famished, I munched on shish kabob, along with other Turkish specialties, and soon felt satisfied. Soon fell asleep, in fact, only to be awakened by the younger members of the group, hot for nightspot-hopping. And it was off to The Attic, The Basement, Earthquake McGoons, topped by the hungry i, where, pooped, we called it a day, dreaming of what tomorrow held . . . Southern California! So what we did next morning was . . . tool down the coast. Long drive, man! But what scenery! We were there quick as a wink: pink hotel, color TV, vibrator bed, and . . . nodsville, man . . . . “O, Los Angeles! Dare I dribble a few more words of unwonted praise upon thy neon brow?” The voice was that of our new guide, mother of cliché and mentor of California culture. “Glorious L.A.,” she continued, “ribboned with freeways . . .” Well, it ain’t Geneva, we said, it ain’t Lausanne, it sure ain’t Zurich. But we had to agree with our guide: there couldn’t be a more American city than L.A. “Chicago without the Loop,” “St. Looey without the river,” “New York City without the York,” she said. “Mindless as an Angelena,” we said, a phrase that popped into our heads many times in the next twelve hours, as we witnessed old, middle-aged and young people alike all contributing themselves to this freak construction of humanity they call L.A. How to pin it down? Neurotic, maybe; ego-tripping, yes; but . . . well . . . “L.A.” — our guide gave it a try — “is a crippled bum, twirling his crutches, a live theater with no one watching.” No one, that is, except . . . us! But we had the inside track, were still young enough to understand (we knew a pink flamingo when we saw one, as they say). We did wonder, from time to time, what our fellows back in Zurich would think of all this; but we salved our consciences by saying to ourselves, “They simply don’t understand; they have never seen a pink flamingo.” And once more we found ourselves . . . “making the scene.” Having toured U.S.C., we were cruising Sunset Strip — the Via Veneto of Hollywood, with its go-go galaxy of bright things to look at. Again the question of clothes came up, and we asked our guide for help. “Nudity,” she said, “is out. The idea that anything from fishnets to fig leaves goes in L.A., that’s simply wrongheaded. U.S.C. students,” she continued, “are generally well-dressed; though if you’re on your way to a love-in, or the beach, or the Strip, the story’s different. Then,” she said emphatically, “if you have the guts to wear it, it’s acceptable. Looking about, we saw bright colors everywhere and did our best to adapt. Except for the older women, who mostly wore Bermudas, the rest of us hit the beach in bright, strappy little nothings. Speaking of the beach, that was something else! All night long we ran up and down the P.C.H. (Pacific Coast Highway, known locally as El Camino Real.) What we saw: kids surfing by spotlight; older couples — in their twenties and thirties — dining out in glass-enclosed seafood shops; others — older and younger folk alike — sleeping on the beach, or cruising in their cars and vans and bikes. Again and again the subject of the P.C.H. came up. In L.A. they said, “If all has failed in one town, get on P.C.H. and go the other way.” As for the beach itself, wow, you could see everything: beach bunnies sacked out; bikers drinkin’ beer; everyone doin’ his own thing. Man, there was dancin’ and smokin’ and yellin’ everywhere. It’s hard to describe it all. And then, the ocean itself — The Pacific Ocean! You could walk right up and dabble your toes in the surf ! (By now most of the girls had painted their toenails.) Or, you could wade out, pushin’ a surfboard in front of you, or shove it aside and “take the plunge,” as they say, take the plunge and swim on out to sea.

Chapter 18

Father had missed all this. He’d been out in the kitchen — Gretchen’s kitchen — looking for Faustwurst, his favorite midnight snack. Aunt Minnie’s train continued to hurtle on toward Bergamo, beginning the difficult climb up over the Alps: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” it puffs. And the Moorish traveler, depleted goatskin bag under his arm, having traversed the whole of Chad, makes his way into the foothills of Upper Volta, hoping to find water and, eventually, peace. The firemen have reassembled their hoses; it has nearly stopped snowing. Jeanne d’Arc is feeling renewed by her recent diplomatic successes. The moon is bright. The ecclesiastical railing takes an inverted heart shape. Twilight descends on the Nymphenburgallee. Precious minutes are lost awaiting a late piano-tuner. The light cobblestones of the courtyard bulk large, and a woodsman sleeps. The candle gutters. With his right hand the gentleman forms a half fist. Someone prematurely opens a volet; and, in the skies of northern Italy, a shooting star presages the arrival of Aunt Menneholda, who closes her unusual book and reflects upon its sequence of images. Soon she is sound asleep and dreaming of the past. In her dreams are conjured up the discontinuous images of my father’s life — of those decades before his decline, in which all had gone so swimmingly. For he was a dapper fellow in his forties and fifties and, though quite despondent in his sixties (for a moment on the verge of killing himself), he survived quite handily into the present decade — the seventies, which he now endures with the icy calm of an Alpine glacier (an image owing perhaps to the scenery out Aunt Minnie’s window a moment ago). With the typical non sequitur of dream, Aunt M. focuses next on the image of Dad at the latter end of his fifties, in fact at fifty-eight. We see him in Milan at the opera. He has descended the grand staircase to visit the gents’ room, the tiles of the floor fairly glittering. The atmosphere, generally, is tinseled with anticipation: Romeo and Juliet is entr’acte, and Dad, having set his business cares aside, is feeling splendid. Cane under his arm, top hat jauntily askew, he glides across the parterre to rejoin Mother and the others in the party. Here Aunt Minnie feels a chill — jealousy perhaps? Who knows. At any rate, she dreams next of the Matterhorn in the dead of winter. So huge and icy her sheer and unfathomable faces, nothing seems mountable at the moment, erect and cavernous the images of Minnie’s vision. But soon her proper subject returns. Father, aged sixty-nine, is seated once more in his study, his desk neatly — suspiciously neatly — arranged. On a blotter, perfectly aligned with the edge of his desk, sits a note, in turn aligned with the edge of the blotter, on which the nib of his Number 2 pen has scratched some ominous lines: “To Whom It May Concern: Dear World, I’ve had it. My only solace lies now in my hand. I put this pen — gun — to my head with deliberate, steady intention.” Aunt M. watches aghast. My actual father is only sixty-eight. Is this a presage of the end? Her eyes move beneath their lids. Slowly, slowly, Father removes the gun from his temple, opens the middle drawer of the desk and returns the weapon to its fine mahogany case. Aunt Minnie goes on dreaming, happier moments of her brother’s life now cresting to the surface. Father is in his forties. What a relief to see him so spiffily dressed, without the formality of tie and tails, and without the somber, dark-suited threat of suicide. He sports instead a beige Panama suit, complete with Panama hat and walking stick. He is seated, yes . . . somewhere in Panama, in the village square of a small Panamanian village. (The characteristic thatched roofs of Central America give away the geographical location.) He is seated, if not serenely, at least quite nonchalantly, on the lip, or rim, of a well. (One sees here — Aunt Minnie sees — the nomenclature of rigs and pulleys.) A gentle, balmy air pervades the scene, a light — one might even say playful — air. As in the earlier semi-suicidal scene, Father’s face is somber, his eyes serenely confirmed, or closed. The difference here? He seems to have just completed a “wish.” He has wished for . . . the bliss of blisses; and perhaps not altogether wishfully. For, in order that he might insure some measure of success, he has folded his very own birthright into a one-inch cube. And now, as we and Aunt Minnie witness the act, he drops the cube down the well.

Chapter 19

Aunt Minnie, of course, will eventually reach Bergamo. There is no more reason to doubt that than to doubt the eventual quenching of the Moorish traveler’s thirst. My father too will eventually shuffle off to sleep. What am I leaving out? The Tonight Show will finish. Mr. K. will evolve into a less than major critic. Mrs. Guy Frazer will return to Omaha. My mother will die alone in Paris. Are there any loose ends that remain untied? Well, there were other incidents; and there was the matter of Interludes — California, World Wars I and II, the History of Western Man; and of course my relationship with Alexis Lichine. But more about Alexy in a moment. And as for the rest, the less said now the better. I will make only a few more generalizations before we return to Paris, and I may as well do so by telling you one last story. It concerns a baker’s man; a pistolet — yes, dear reader, one last little piece of violence; a vacated bench; and a cautious Alpine climber. (We are never, in the Swiss pudding of life, very far from the Alps; that’s one of the cardinal facts.) It is the baker’s story, not his bread, that counts. And this — as with so many of my bakers — is no ordinary baker. He wears a cardinal’s toque to begin with and an ordinary baker’s cap. (Three and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? — but let that pass.) He has about him an air, the air of a mechanic — slightly diabolical, and given to extra-bakery. One of the most annoying things he does — and this, in part, leads to the violence — is keep both hands and arms constantly under his cardinal’s toque. Another: instead of simply baking, baking, baking, he stands around the bakery giving orders. And another: his hair, down by the back of his neck, curls up. That alone enough to drive someone to murder. And in fact that’s our story’s motif: direct, premeditated gunplay (place your Freudian bets on that). Well, to the plot: this booger of a baker, ordering his helpers to roast in the flushed ovens of his shop, took a liking to his niece one day, a niece given over to his custody and pressed into service. The baker had long been making furtive eyes at her and she, in all her fifteen-year-old innocence, thinking them a sign of family friendship, had returned them. Moreover, since she paid little heed to her dress, she frequently let show a bit, or piece, of her bosom. So, as you can imagine — and imagine you had better, for this is no pornographic book — one thing led to another: a coffee break to a visit to the baker’s flat, a visit to the flat to  . . . well, I said I wasn’t gonna help you. Anyway, he knocked her up. “His own niece?!?” you cry. Well, that ain’t the first time an uncle’s knocked up his niece, say I. “But why,” you say, “does the story all come down to such dreary dough?” But it ain’t over, say I, and besides, quit interrupting. So, what happens next is the baker’s brother-in-law, father of the niece, comes after him with a gun (the niece now three months pregnant). “Family tragedy?” you say, “or the aftermath of the outback?” Hold your questions, say I. The brother-in-law stalks the baker to a bare bench in the park. “To a bare bench? In that case,” say you, “where’s the baker?” Uh, he just run up around a tree. He knowed what he was in for. “And what was that?” He knowed that he was in for a shootin’. “Say, is this Oklahoma or somethin’?” No, this is anywhere. But shut up. You’re ruinin’ the story. “O.K.” So, seein’ as how the baker got up and run off in the woods, the father of the niece goes runnin’ off after him. And afore long he catches up (catches up, ’cause the baker run plumb into a wall). Says the brother-in-law, “Git up, I’m a-goin’ to shoot you.” The baker, slowly scramblin’ to his feet, says, “No, brother-in-law, don’t shoot. I’m sorry for what I done. I am.” “Hell,” says the brother-in-law (actually both of them are brothers-in-law), “this ain’t no time to be sorry. I’m a-goin’ to kill you. Shoot you dead. Apologies or no apologies.” Well, you can imagine how the baker feels at this point — his back to the wall, apology rejected, brother-in-law (a mean lookin’ character at that) with a big revolver pointed right at the baker’s head. So what happens? Well, I’m afraid you’re in for a little disappointment. I don’t know exactly what happens next. All I do know is the scene shifts; maybe the baker turns and tries to run; perhaps the brother-in-law, just as the baker turns around, shoots him in the back of the head; at any rate, a fairly enigmatic Alpine climber appears on the scene, either scratching the back of his head or cupping his hand to his ear, perhaps to eavesdrop on the next two incidents.

Chapter 20

And cup his ear he’d better, because the next two incidents take place in France, and though he himself is in France (cf. the French Alps), still the incidents are not taking place in, say, Grenoble, or even Lyon (however good the cuisine there), but way the hell over in Bordeaux, at least the first incident. For you remember I said I was going to get back to Alexy Lichine, with his Chinese eyes — and I will. The trouble is the story I have to tell involves a well-dressed man (looking suspiciously like Mr. K.) who stands in front of an ornate door (looking suspiciously like the front door of Adams House at Harvard). He is either ringing the bell or about to ring it, his feet planted in the wedgy, massy grass of a plush foot mat. By “well-dressed” I mean: top hat, cane, bumber-shoot-type frock coat, spats, etc. The doorway is equally elegant: little egg-shaped elements in the fluting; heavy Parisian-American doors with about three hundred coats of enamel; a cricket-type wallpaper veneer of stones. In short, an object world simply on the verge of . . . madness. Hence the movement to the inner world. For you see modern man made a bad mistake when he got involved with science. Science leads nowhere. History based on science leads nowhere. Philosophy based on history leads nowhere. Psychology leads nowhere. And thank God no one yet has ever figured out how to write poetry based on science. There is nothing at all mysterious about science. You simply take the object world and give it more importance than the subject world, more importance, that is, than it deserves. As for the subject-object problem, it has no solution — it but a spatial analogue to the temporal (Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?) conundrum. But there is a way to solve it (by “it” I mean its being there). And that’s . . . to forget it. Put it aside and go about your business. “Now what about history? ” you ask. Philosophy is one thing, history’s another. Did you say that? Or did I? Well, who cares, one of us did. History isn’t the same as philosophy, and, neither of them the same as science. (All women are different, Hoppy, and, no, they don’t have penises.) So, where were we? Yes. Looking at Mr. K., who was about to ring that bell. Or who had already rung the bell. Who, at any rate, is standing in front of the door. What in the world do you suppose is going on, inside his head. Dunno, you say. What is going on inside his head, I say, is his story, or history — in the sense, you see, that Mr. K. frequently steps to the door of Adams House, rings the bell, and waits for the master to answer — to open the door. Which the master of course does, since he and Mr. K. are friends, and opening the door is the most natural thing in the world when a friend rings the doorbell. So, where did Mr. K., with all that intelligence, and all those close friends, go wrong? “’Hard to say,” you say. “By dabbling in poetry?” Perhaps. At any rate, the question gives me pause. For you see, philosophy, history, science, poetry — what place do they have in the university? By which I mean, what place does Mr. K., the renowned film critic and poetry buff, have at the lintel of Adams House? Do you follow me? Do you see? But my auditor has fallen asleep. So much the worse — for me. Here, I confess, I had considered stopping altogether. I had lost the thread. But suddenly my auditor revived. “A poem,” said he, “a poem should not be about history, a poem should be history.” “Think of all that research,” you interrupt. What? What about all the research? I say. “Just think of it,” you say. What? I say. “Well, if you’re going to write history . . . ,” you say. Shouldn’t it be in your head? I say. “What do you mean?” you say. I mean, sure you might read some books, but as far as history, that’s in your head. “You mean you should write without any notes or anything?” Oh you can use some notes if you want, but the point is to say what’s in your head. “That makes history sound like poetry or something.” Well? So history is . . . just a kind of poetry?” Yes, I suppose you could say that. History should be just one kind of poetry. I glanced at my interlocutor, who was still asleep. Apparently he had never woken up. Is poetry, I said to myself, a kind of history then? But the life had gone out of the argument. Perhaps it is history that goes forward, poetry that . . . But here I leave the reader to her own devices.

Chapter 21

Before I knew it I was back in Paris, or at least approaching the City of Light. I was back on the train, back in a first class compartment, seated across the aisle from Alexis Lichine, who was deep in conversation with the ubiquitous, polymathic Mr. K. Some way back, it seems, he (Mr. K.) had made the mistake of asking Alexy about the history of Bordeaux. (It had in fact been Mr. K. ringing that doorbell, but the house was not Adams House, you see, but the house of Lichine, Alexy Lichine’s house in Bordeaux.) K. was on his annual pilgrimage to the wine-growing regions of France, and, fortunate for him, he had arrived precisely at that glorious moment when Alexy presented his prize — the Tasse d’or, or Russian News Agency Portal — to the best film critic of the year. So, that was why it seemed such a coincidence: the door opening for K., who’d have made his trip to southwest France had there been no question of reward. But, there Alexy had stood, the golden cup in hand, brimful of wine-dark Bordeaux from his own Château (Château Lichine), and K. couldn’t have been happier. But I’m interrupting Alexy’s history — his history, that is . . . of Bordeaux. “Mene, tekel, phares,” he continued. (Having started at the beginning, he was working toward the present.) Compté, pesé, divisé, he added for K. — unnecessarily, for K. was one of those uncanny critics who knew everything. Counted, weighed, divided, K. murmured to himself. A gargling sound interrupted his translation, as Alexy, head thrown backwards, sampled a glass from his own Château, his train of thought hurtling forward. He had “done” the Romans, their conquest of Burdigala in 56 B.C.; he had passed by Pliny with an insouciant wave of his glass; touched lightly on the Dark Ages, pausing only to note the many setbacks viticulture suffered at the hands of the Barbarians. Glancing now at the marriage of Eleanor to Henry Plantagenet — K. thought of Shakespeare — he moved through medieval history like a Gascon through a leper colony. The critic was impressed, though ’twas hardly for K.’s benefit that A. had indulged in such an orotund display. ’Twas in fact for my benefit, for I, you see, had earlier masqueraded as an adept of history. My mistake, since Alex had quickly taken up the glove, gained steam — self-esteem — and was doing the fourteenth century as though he owned it — much of which he did. Using a crescent-like gesture, he sketched for us the port de la lune (or impoverished duck). K. listened intently, absorbed in every word, oblivious to the heavy acrid smoke of Alexy’s cigar, whose odor had, you see, already driven me across the aisle.  “As late,” Alexy droned, “as late as the sixteenth century, the Médoc was still but a savage little district.” K. nodded affectedly. I couldn’t for the life of me see what he saw in all this history. “In vino veritas,” said A., sotto voce, as if to answer my half-asked question. And continued with his tale: “The Black Prince held the French King prisoner” — prisonyer,” he said, mispronouncing the word — “and it cannot be recorded,” he added, switching to English, “zat great feast and cheer zat zay of ze city” — well, almost to English — “zat zay of ze city, with ze clergy, made to ze Prince.” He dropped the accent and returned to France, to French. King John, it seems, had had a good time in France, until, that is, he was taken off to England. “But not before,” Alexy added, “those destructive raids on the countryside were carried out with ruthless malice.” At this point I frankly dozed off, waking for a moment at what I took to be the belle époque — it turned out to be the mid-eighteenth century. I dozed again. Alexy had taken up technical questions regarding the shape of the claret bottle. K. continued absorbed, his own glass empty. I myself napped, prudently, anticipating Alexy’s view of the Revolution and its effect on Bordeaux. I dozed on into the early years of the century. “By 1808,” Alexy pronounced, “no life was to be found in the port, and even the claret was flat.” Napoleon, of course, paid a visit, but not even he could do much about that situation.” It is all in your head, young man,” he said. Or did he? I was half asleep at the time. At the Paris Exhibition and the mention of the pre-phylloxera years I perked up again but continued to doze through the end of the century, beginning to stir only as the master mentioned how stubborn the ’34s and ’37s had proven. At any rate I swore to myself never to have anything more to do with history, and luckily I woke up to find myself not in Paris but in  . . . Oklahoma. The stars were out and I was sitting with a book in my lap.

Final Summary

It hadn’t been a bad dream — it had been something worse. I glanced at my book, hoping for a clue. “We have been engaged,” it said, “in a great civil war, testing whether that notion so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.” I was fully aware of the risk of re-treading tired and obvious truth; but I kept on going. “We are met,” it said, “on a great battle-field.” That much I understood. A good many things, in fact were at last coming clear. And it was altogether fitting and proper that this should happen. But, in a larger sense, well, that’s where I didn’t really understand — “dedication,” “consecration,” and so forth. The men were dead, brave men, good men, willing men at least, and the world still remembered them, or at least, if not them, then it remembered the war, and, of course, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I guess it was the tone of false modesty that put me off. That, and the part about the new birth of freedom. “The new birth” sounded O.K. But I had my doubts about freedom, doubts left over no doubt from the revolution. But, there’s plenty of time to clear up doubts. And anyway, here I am, feeling quite good. So, I said, to myself, why not leave well enough alone.