All entries for August 2008
August 31, 2008
From the Elephant and Castle
to Baker Street
a towering sunset
and the tourists have gone home.
Different men are flowering
from their workclothes; strange
new women wallow in clublight,
or carried on the electric
burbles on the Underground
(some were the other previously).
In a golden, wheat-ear place,
thumping the rain's chorus,
let’s get pished, you and I,
and make all of it easier.
Precision’s a tricky thing to get right in the world of criticism, but I really do think we need more of it. The collected judgements of Dame Rebecca West on Booker Prize hopefuls in today’s Sunday supplements (her wonderfully succinct verdict on John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman; “This seems a foolish enterprise and worked out with very little talent.”) reminded me of Leslie Halliwell, late great compiler of Halliwell’s Film Guide.
The point is that dealing with almost any piece of art, literature or film, in a sentence or two, is, yes, certain to be reductive. The most fantastic aspect of Halliwell’s was that its creator was so obviously subjective and perhaps even a little insane that it gave up all false pretensions of being an objective ‘guide’ to an entire section of the arts and became instead an engrossing study of a witty, observant (and cheerfully arrogant) mind obsessed with giving its verdict on every film, no matter how banal, ever drafted into cinemas. And I may be just that strange sort of person, but I do find a compulsive delight upon reading Halliwell shrug off Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as,
“A repulsive film in which intellectuals have found acres of social and political meaning; the average judgement is likely to remain that it is pretentious and nasty rubbish for sick minds who do not mind jazzed-up images and incoherent sound.”
There is a certain sad joy, I think, in seeing works we’ve always considered
canon soundly trounced like that, especially when the critic has a genuine point. And the idea of a witty megalomaniac tossing off one-sentence critiques of all of the works of literature ever conceived, striving his entire life to finish every one and making semi-absurd, god-like pronouncements upon each (Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare; One Star. An oddly misogynistic creation, lacking in much of interest other than some quick-fire punning and the comparison of forceful, individualistic couples to bland, ‘perfect’ ones. An ambiguous final speech lifts the tone, but this is run-of-the-mill stuff…) appeals to me, partly because it’s so reductive that it becomes a pleasure to read for its sheer idiosyncracy.
I should make it clear that I’m not endorsing the idea that literature should be even more deeply canonised, to the extent to which Halliwell takes it (a ‘three-star canon’? A ‘four-star’?). My point’s really nothing more than to state that I’d admire the person who attempted the impossible with such Promethean (and possibly ironic) rashness. All we’d have in the end would be an extremely smart, no-doubt lengthy collection of ‘What Books I Like, What Books I Don’t, And Why’, but the enterprise itself…
I did realise this morning, however, that I could never smile at such unambiguous opinions spoken aloud, by a human face. It took me a few minutes to figure out why George Steiner’s interview irritated me so much. It wasn’t the poorly chosen words on the subject of racism, no matter if his intent was to show that "dark places" do exist in our minds (apparently making your neighbours’ lives hell with loud music is a trait only Jamaicans possess) so much as his claim that children who read Harry Potter don’t go on to read the classics. Then, when asked if he’d never read a trivial book in his youth, he replied Moby Dick.
It may have been simply a quip directed towards Melville’s classic, which, canon or no, in any reasonable world will outlast After Babel as dear to the minds and hearts of the young by...well, quite a few years. But it also carried, in context, the implication that a future great critic does not read ‘trivial’ books like Harry Potter- possibly it sullies his or her pure state of being. So if you want your children to grow up to be like George Steiner (perhaps my anger takes his quip too far), you should make damn sure that Moby Dick’s the most trivial book they read.
I was left uncertain whether the more humane thing wasn’t to make damn sure that my children don’t grow up to be like George Steiner.
August 30, 2008
The problems began when the Professor first learnt how to satisfy his wife.
It took him just over six months, shut alone away in the airless study, to solve the problem. With the aid of infuriatingly detailed diagrams and great reels of copper wire, he constructed a device. The far end of the machine, a mass of looped pulleys and fibreoptics, linked into the electrical system concealed within the walls of the house, and the costly computer system that made the whole thing keep ticking over. The ‘near end’, as he coyly called it, was a large catheter-style tube that slotted in (remarkably neatly, he thought) between her thighs. The heart of the device - layered ingeniously around an old barometer - he fitted onto a little trolley, so that she could wheel the whole thing about the house.
Whenever she experienced desire, he explained, a bell dangling above the trolley would ring, and wherever he was in the house, he could run and offer her his assistance in the matter. This often proved difficult, mostly due to the catheter and swathes of wire that masked the majority of her body, but nevertheless the Professor felt he had really made a difference in keeping their marriage alive.
Three days in, he began to suspect that something in the house was having an affair with her. It was impossible that there could have been another person anywhere in the grounds (he saw to that), but all the same it was galling when he’d hear the bell tolling from his work by the Japanese water garden, dash through the lawns, once even getting lost in the maze on his way, and burst into the bedroom, only to find the bell silent and his wife sitting quietly, a slight smile lingering on her carpish features.
His suspicions fell firstly on the computers. He’d never fully trusted them. They seemed to offer a doorway into another world where, he imagined, another man might be gazing back at her, raising his hand to the screen where her hand lay. So he loaded them all into the wheelbarrow and dumped them in his compost bins, where the rose-trimmings grew over them. He fixed up the machine with some gaffer-tape and went back to his gardening. But his wife’s strange, inexplicable satisfaction continued.
He started to watch the houseplants more carefully, and observed with fear the way his wife watered them- painfully, the wires clumping at the base of her arms- with love and care every morning. So he relocated them to his garden, where they were quickly overshaded and destroyed by the larger, wilder plants.
One night, he burst into the bathroom to find his wife’s own hand nestling like a serpent between her legs.
“Got you, you bastard!” he shouted, snatched up the horrid thing, and dunked it in the warm soapy water until it became limp and lifeless. He threw the hand down, watching it carefully, and backed out of the room.
The problem seemed to have died away for good; but one warm summer evening, tending to his marigolds, he heard the bell tinkle- and cut off.
“No more,” he said quietly, and walked without hurry up to the french windows of the study.
Once inside, he moved, with as much stealth as a man his age was capable of, through the rooms. All proved empty The bell sounded again, softly, as if pleased with itself. He crept up to his wife’s bedroom and opened the door.
“What-” he said, and caught a brief glimpse of his wife’s enraptured face. In the few moments before the engulfing copper wires tightened on his skull, he realised the machine had tricked him.
My task- a poem about or re-examining the phrase 'burning the midnight oil.'
Tom shivers from the cranny
of his two dimensions.
The radio bursts again;
something about the witching
hour that sends the cat
scampering down the hallway;
hidden beneath the dresser.
Grey sourpuss- was it you
taught me how to be afraid?
August 29, 2008
Another day, another abstract concept to write a poem on...
Wince of recollection;
I hope you die
shrieked over grey fields,
froth of the fury
of a child condensed into
the wrong words
and the fogs of Somerset.
It’s been twelve
years since I left the fold:
but if you have
left us, and your ashes strewn
over grey fields,
I still couldn’t say if I’d be
certain, to linger
by the stile and tell you
I never meant it.
August 27, 2008
You rarely visited;
and when you did, you were
an incautious uncle, slobbering,
showing up at the wrong place
and time (probably after something.)
I’d spot you in strangers’ faces-
sink-line, dogging-heart, faerie-arrow-
monikers I longed to hurl, like flints.
At twenty-one, it’s hard to see
how I can be rid of you. Your grip
kneads my shoulder in blue cafes;
you whisper bad advice from behind
the bushes, like a prompt who’s lost her place.
But even though you’re mine to keep,
(until death do us part, or sooner)
I refuse to do you the service
of saying your name out loud, three times.
My task, which I regretted, was a poem addressed to love (or, about love if it became problematic) which avoided "sentimentality, cliche, and the word 'love' itself", and which used kennings. My kennings were poor, and possibly on the verge of not being kennings at all.
Mabs purses her lips like a trout and says,
“I’m going to take another peek at him.” I almost drop one of the plates into the sink and her angry cluck deflates my,
“Oh, Mabs, you mustn’t...really, you mustn’t!”
She finishes her herbal tea with a slight smile.
“Really, Kitty,” she says. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re so afraid of.” And with that she places her mug on the side with the rest of the washing-up and totters out of the room.
All of this might never have come about, I think, stumbling after her, the teatowel slung over my shoulder, if Mamma and Papa hadn’t called me Kitty. It’s the sort of name that belongs to weak, worrisome girls and even feebler old women. Not like Mabs, with that rich tonal indication of ‘Mabel’ lingering behind it. Queen Mabs.
By the time I get to the cellar door, she’s already heaved the great sheet of cedar aside and leant it against the dining room wall, where it scrapes. I make a tentative attempt to move it and then let it alone.
“So you are coming down, then?” she says, smirking.
“Hang on,” I say- and the words turn into pleading halfway out of my mouth- “Hang on- just three seconds.”
I hurry back through the hall and into the kitchen, where there’s a slice of lemon cheesecake left in the fridge from Thursday. I give it a quick sniff to see if it’s past it, but it really just smells strongly of lemon. Through the blinds, Mrs Blair crosses, with agonising care, to her Volvo.
I assemble some custard creams around the edge of the plate and return.
“Old Mrs Blair’s out and about,” I tell Mabs. She sniffs.
“Old Mrs Blair,” she says. “She’s a year older than you.” And the same age as you, I think, clutching at the plate like a peace offering. Mabs glances down at it.
“Cheesecake,” she says.
“It’s going off,” I tell her. She dips her regal nose against the very surface of the lemon and breathes in, quickly.
“Yes,” she says, “yes, that’s going off, terrible, terrible. I can’t imagine why you keep such things in the house, Kitty.” She reaches for the torch, propped against the side of Arthur’s old rocking-chair, and then frowns.
“The Blair woman,” she says, “she didn’t see you, did she?”
“I’m sure she didn’t.”
She grunts, flicks the torch on, and descends.
There’s a smell of liquor down here, long drunk, that seems to lurk in the corners like a wistful ghost. A breath of cobweb snakes over the cheesecake; I brush it off, almost frantically.
The boy is sitting quietly in the far corner; he’s become too used to Mabs’ constant intrusions, I think. She shines the torch brightly in his eyes and he looks up.
His skin is too grey.
Mabs sits on the stool in the very centre of the cellar, forcing me to hover behind her with the plate of cheesecake and custard creams.
“I fell...” he begins, and the words come out as if he’s unused to speaking; his eyes widen, I think, too far for the eyes of any proper human being.
“You fell from the sky,” Mabs says, “Yes. Can you remember who I am?”
Her foot taps on a discarded bottle of whisky.
“My name is...” he begins.
“My name is Mabel,” Mabs says, “and this is my planet, Earth.”
He gapes at her for a moment; his long, trailing limbs seem to grasp at his face. I, too, have stumbled into another world, I think, watching Mabs’ face. I could believe her chintz pearls were the regalia of a strange alien queen.
“Can I...” he whispers hoarsely, “Can I see...”
Mabs leans forward.
“Two days after you arrived,” she says, “the population of this planet was wiped out by a new disease- something we’d never seen the likes of before. It was a miracle that my servant here and I were able to escape, and that was only by sealing ourselves in this bunker.
“Now, I don’t know what your mission was, but I suspect you can guess that you might have brought this disease upon us. Almost seven billion people are dead.”
“Dead?” he asks, and he droops as if taking in the enormity of it all. I choose to intervene, placing the plate of cheesecake in front of him and saying,
“The little biscuity things- um- well, they’re really very tasty.”
Mabs’ glance is enough to make me retreat back to the steps.
“What do you want from me?” the boy asks.
“Tell us what you know,” Mabs says, “and it may be able to help us beat this disease. That’s my advice to you. Tell us about your homeland.”
He doesn’t reply; his round eyes seem to drift and for a moment the torchlight reflects the heavy bruise on his forehead.
“Tell us what you know,” Mabs says. “Else you’re just a parasite, eating away at our dwindling supplies. Come on, now.”
Her anger is growing. Another moment, I know, and she’ll kick over the cheesecake, just to make her point.
A strange bell tolls, as if from far above.
“The alarm!” I snap, with a desperate ingenuity. “The alarm’s going off!”
We tread carefully back up the steps and Mabs heaves the cedar back across the cellar door. The doorbell sounds again.
“I invited him to lunch,” I say, blushing. “I quite forgot. Mabs, I’m sorry-” She brushes past me. Seconds later,
“Vicar!” (Mwah, mwah.) “How good of you to drop by! We don’t have much prepared, I’m afraid, only a few rolls and a bit of ham...”
“That’ll do nicely, thank you, my dear...is Kitty not around? I’m afraid my fiancee couldn’t make it...”
“Yes, she’s just laying up...fiancee, you say? Are churchmen even allowed to...oh, yes, of course, you must forgive me, I do get a little confused sometimes...right this way, please.”
I draw the table over the sheet of cedar just in time.
“Oh, goodness, Kitty,” Mabs says with just a hint of reproach, entering the room. “You’ve barely started.”
“Here,” says the Vicar with his strange old-world gentility, “Allow me.”
He says grace with all the trimmings, perhaps to compensate for the meagre meal of cucumber and ham I’ve scraped together.
“We would have had cheesecake,” Mabs says, “only someone ate it.” The Vicar, chuckling, begins to tell a story about some youths at his church group and the final doughnut. I watch Mabs. Her eyes show nothing but the bleariness you might have associated with our age.
“Funny things, these houses,” he says after a while. “I always feel, stepping out of the high street and down into this road, that I’ve entered another universe. Do you know what I mean? Such lovely little bungalows, like stepping back into another time- a better time, obviously.”
Mabs tells him about the hoodies who loitered on the pavement outside Mrs Blair’s house the other day, and then connects it to the story she read in the newspaper about the old lady who was mugged in Bristol.
“A different generation,” the Vicar says. “Sometimes- and I don’t mean the children at my church group, they’re a lovely lot- I get very frightened that the values we knew are dying out.” The boy in the cellar, I think. What are his values?
And then the Vicar adds, biting into his ham roll and speaking with his mouth full,
“Incidentally, I’ve been chatting with Mrs Potts next door- you’ve met her?”
“Lovely begonias,” Mabs says, with a touch of zeal.
He smiles, his eyes on me.
“Well, I went to see her the other day and she says she’s heard crying in the night- for a few nights now.”
The silence lasts only a few seconds. Then Mabs says, too quickly,
“Her husband died, didn’t he, Mrs Potts? I thought I was hearing things for weeks after Arthur went. I’d think he was calling me for cigarettes, or to say he was going down to Sainsbury’s.”
“She seems pretty certain,” he says, and the old-world gentility seems to have fallen away behind his eyes. Mabs glances at me, as if for support.
“Well,” she says at last, “we haven’t heard anything. Have we, Kitty?”
“If there was anything,” I manage, stuttering over the words, “we’d have heard it. We look out for one another on this road. We have to.”
The Vicar is still looking at me. Beneath our feet, the sheet of cedar bumps a little, on the legs of the table.
Mabs drums her fingers on the tabletop.
“He’s gone?” she asks.
“I saw him out.”
“I saw him out,” I reply, uncertainly. She gets up and begins to fumble in her pockets- a habit of hers when she gets nervous.
“He was sneaking around in the garden last night,” she says, “like he thought he was a...film star. I could see him hiding in the vegetable patch, thinking he was out of sight.”
“What did you do?” I ask. She finds her cigarette and lights it.
“Just pretended I hadn’t spotted him and called, ‘Puss, puss, puss’. When he saw me coming in his direction, he scrambled for the fence- I mean, he was hardly going to explain why he was lurking in an old lady’s courgettes at one in the morning.”
“He didn’t seem to suspect anything,” I say. It’s feeble, and I know it. She breathes Marlboro all over the lunch things.
“He’s a good actor,” she says. “Churchmen have to be, I suppose. It was those damned lights the night he arrived...everyone in the town must have seen them.”
“A little longer and people will forget, Mabs.”
“And if the Potts woman can hear him crying? What if he’d decided to shout while we were having lunch?”
“He’s too weak,” I say, honestly. She bites her lip.
“I’m going to have another look at him,” she says.
“Our planet,” Mabs says, “was called Earth. I had a great palace carved into the side of the great chalk cliffs, and we called it Buckingham.”
The boy’s head lolls, from side to side. He looks sicker, I think. As if his body’s beginning to rot, down here, amongst the gin.
“Do you understand the sort of thing I want from you?” she says, stamping. I linger, on the steps. A yellow corner of the wallpaper is visible through the cellar door; I keep my focus on it. It reeks of the world above.
She leans in close to him.
“I had twelve husbands,” she says, “and fourteen wives. They lay before my feet and called me darling. I would slap their faces and beat them raw and they would come back to me, kissing and apologising to my toes. Are you listening to me?”
His grey eyes dance for a moment on her face, but do not settle. For one moment the pupils roll back out of sight behind the lids. Like an epileptic, I think.
“Mabs,” I venture, “I really don’t think-”
She ignores me.
“Listen to me,” she says, “I’m telling it like it was. Snow-capped mountains, where you could play for days and never come in sight of another human being. Golden suns! Are you listening to me? A horse-drawn carriage and still lakes, lakes of water, leaping fish!”
She grabs him by the throat. He splutters, but does not come to.
“The trees were all green,” she says, close to weeping, shouting into his cheek, “and there was beauty, there was beauty! Are you getting all of this? Are you listening to me?”
He opens his mouth, and screams.
I don’t hear most of what he’s saying, because I’ve already dashed up the steps and heaved the cellar door to. But I remember distinctly that every few words, the stream changes into something horrible and new, and it doesn’t stop but heaves on, and on, into a different language or sounds I’ve never heard before, and then a dash of something I recognise, and then pure noise. And it doesn’t end.
I do remember one thing, a flash of one is one two is ten four is one hundred nine is one thousand and one. Whenever I’ve tried to add up a grocery bill or count my change ever since, those numbers have surfaced in my mind and made me shiver and lose track. And then I really know something’s been lost, and won’t ever come back.
But the Vicar must have suspected something, and hurried back, or otherwise I was screaming loud enough for him to hear, because I distinctly recall him tugging the cellar door up and hurrying down the steps. And I can see, now, as if through his eyes, the fractured body of Mabs across the bottom stair where she stumbled and fell.
I can see the little grey boy against the far wall, and the Vicar cradling him in his arms, and whispering, soothing him, over and over again like a Latin mantra,
“It’s going to be all right, it’s going to be all right, it’s going to be all right-”
But the boy keeps on screaming, and every time it’s something new.
August 26, 2008
The screenwriter behind the new film of Brighton Rock, Rowan Joffé, has said publicly that, with regards to the current ‘knife crime’ situation in the UK, the story “clearly still has something to tell us about the world we live in”. It’s an interesting statement, given that Graham Greene’s novel revolves around two climactic scenes of violence, neither involving knives; you suspect that Mr Joffé’s theory has a lot more to do with the fact that the vicious protagonist is, quite prominently, a young, virginal teenager, who keeps a razor-blade in his sleeve.
There are those who seem to think that youth violence is an entirely new product of the 21st century- most prominently, Jenni Russell in the Sunday Times over the summer, who used the story of the woman who was pushed onto the railtracks by two thugs as the springboard for an illuminating article on the “widening rift between adults and children.” (The man who pushed her was actually thirty years old.) But it’s interesting that modern literature has evolved to contain as one of its main new characters a figure who would have probably been kept, in the past, to a supporting role as an ugly face of collective violence (and even then I’m not sure how true that is- Iago, after all, is the grandfather of this character type).
John Jones summed up this character while comparing Dostoyevsky’s Besy to Crime and Punishment, claiming that while Raskolnikov is a modern-day Hamlet, Peter Verkovensky, the callous mastermind of the other book, is “simply a wrecker.” Jones’ comparison lacks reasoning; Raskolnikov is a man who tries, and fails, to overcome his own innate morality, but Peter has already done just that, quite without any conscious thought. Like Pinky in Brighton Rock, he lacks the imagination for any pangs of conscience, which makes him (a distinction made very clear by Dostoyevsky) both superhuman and subhuman. Peter’s comrade, Stavrogin, is a mutant form of this type, a man truly without boundaries, who is capable of finding pleasure in both the lowest depravities and the highest ideals- a dying breed, it is implied, because unlike Peter, he is self-conscious enough to realise that there is something pathetic about his condition.
So how does an author portray a ‘wrecker’, a new breed of Hamlet who is capable of great unconscious wickedness? The easiest option, and the one which appeals most to our sense of comfort, is to suggest the presence of a kind of elemental evil that exists beyond the individual: the fact that two of Hollywood’s most popular villains of the last few years, Anton Chigurh and Heath Ledger’s Joker, have been basic abstractions of evil, without any backstory, (both described, in an ever-growing cliché, as a “force of nature”) is something to bear in mind here. But the “force of nature” image is deceitful, because it eliminates all responsibility: why does this person exist? Is there any chance of them breaking free of their own mindless actions?
Anthony Burgess took the magnanimous route, by responding to the brutal treatment of his wife at the hands of thugs by narrating through one of them in A Clockwork Orange, and even arguing passionately that it is better to be freely evil (“everything is permitted”, perhaps) than to be forcedly good. I think he goes too far. His Alex is vivacious, a lover of the fine arts, and even a little likeable; his desire to murder and rape comes unexplained, and is all the more baffling because he’s clearly more self-conscious than his (far more realistic) cronies. The famous movie tagline about “ultra-violence and Beethoven” is an obvious shock-line, because the elements are so clearly disparate. Out of a desire not to condemn, Burgess does not give his Alex a subhuman side- his attitudes towards women, for example, are lightly danced across.
It’s not so with Greene in Brighton Rock; his anti-hero, who is, much more memorably, called Pinky, is constantly referred to as “the Boy.” It’s a shock statement, of course, regarding his worryingly young age, but the moniker’s also meant to remind us that Pinky has no method of sexual communication other than the violence he has been taught since he was a child; attempts to find comfort or desire result invariably in his threatening his young fiancée. He’s a true ‘wrecker’, in that (like King Midas turning his daughter to gold, say), he is capable only of destruction- a “motiveless malice” becomes a force which even he cannot control, and which will strike down everyone around him in time.
That the ‘wrecker’ may be the Hamlet of modernity should not be underemphasised, but where Hamlet’s incurable disease was that he saw too much, the ‘wrecker’ sees too little. Stavrogin’s mother claims that he resembles Prince Harry (essentially, that he will ‘grow out’ of his mischief, much as Burgess suggests in the third act of A Clockwork Orange) but then decides that he is actually a little more like Hamlet. The comparison’s interesting: Prince Harry loses something of himself in order to become a king; Prince Hamlet does not, and self-destructs. Stavrogin, of course, will be unable to shake off his curse and find any kind of untainted pleasure in life. Greene also calls upon Shakespeare in the scene where Pinky finds his lawyer, Prewitt, quoting Hamlet drunkenly at his desk. Here the roles have been reversed; Prewitt, a Polonius if ever there was one, has been driven to madness by his inability to drown out the death of Spicer. Pinky, the supposed Hamlet, is troubled by the lawyer’s condition, but unable to understand it, and “the flood” which eventually drowns him is little more than the oblivion of his own animal mind.
Your sickness permeates
the scattered playtime things;
casting shades of sundial,
the baking, solitary
rockery of Venus.
I would have liked to ask
you about your children;
a knub of flesh in a silver
swimming-costume, the surge
of foam as she dove-
perhaps I should have asked
you, Do you walk?
The real, incurable
you, sweating, unconsoled,
bears no resemblance
to the kind, straw-hatted man
who smiled to his wardens
and threw his cases in the car,
sitting with me in the garden-chairs,
watching his children play.
August 25, 2008
Poetry exercises so far;
1) A poem about daffodils: the aim being to beat the cliché.
2) A verse form, with a refrain, about growing older.
3) A poem about exploration which doesn't use adjectives.
4) A poem on the subject of ‘belief’.
5) A poetic dialogue between the self/persona and a historical/fictional figure of some importance to the self.
6) A villanelle about war or conflict.
7) A terza rima on the subject of mutation or mutability.
“This is the place your grand-
father fished.” For girls
walking home from Butlins; and
for excuses when the old girl
lashed out or raised hell.
You’d remember that curl
of cowrie, because it smelt
quite unlike sea; upended,
a salt-white Protestant hall
for fishspawn. I found it again
this morning, at the place
where my grandfather sat, intent:
the same palm-lines tracing
an identical, unbroken surface.
If I still had the art of prayer,
I’d have wished my face
onto the face of our cowrie,
which lasted, and not the ocean,
shattering on the horn of the cliffs.
A new wave flowers, and strikes again.
August 06, 2008
Her eyes are very bright. The man calls something to her from the doorway in German and she performs a little pirouette in her torn satin dress as if showing it off to her father.
He sits on the bed. The man moves to the window and jolts the curtains across; he gives them both a curt nod and moves into the corridor, closing the door behind him. The rooftops and church steeples have been erased, he thinks, as if by magic. It’s just you, and her, in the room.
She sits beside him, waiting for him to begin. She must have done this, he thinks, a hundred times before; no coquettry, no inappropriate flirtation, just the instinctive timidity and submission of a good girl. This wasn’t how he’d imagined it- not like the baths.
-How old are you? he asks her, in German.
She does not reply.
-How old are you? You must tell me at once, before I get cross.
-Nine. The curtains waft; a needle of sunlight penetrates the room. Of course, he thinks, she knows what ‘cross’ means- beatings in the back room, bruises that can be hidden beneath cheap mascara and whitener.
-Have you ever been to the spa? he asks her.
She shakes her head. He struggles to talk, to make her feel relaxed.
-You should go, if you can find anyone to take you. It’s very- very-
He gets up suddenly and walks to the curtains, drawing them back across. It takes him several attempts before the external world is completely erased.
She has not looked up- and for a second he thinks he imagines a flash of a sneer across her face. She’s laughing at me, he thinks with sudden venom. She thinks I’m pathetic because I’ve come to this place.
He strides back to the bed, stands before her- and stops.
-I could never hurt you, he says. I’m sure of it- that I couldn’t cause you pain. I wouldn’t be capable of it.
She doesn’t move. Somewhere through the next wall he can hear a rhythmic, masculine moaning, building to a crescendo. Then something like a scream, then quiet. A door slams.
-I’m sorry, he says. I’m so sorry.
She doesn’t move.
And he opens the door to find Anna sleeping and thinks, everything’s the same. The world should have changed- she should be gone. She shouldn’t still be here, with me.
At breakfast the next morning she asks,
-Were you doing what I think you were doing, last night when you didn’t come back to the hotel?
And he replies,
-Yes, gambling. I was gambling. I’m so sorry.
When she finds him on the staircase, three years later, crouching by the bannister, he knows it must be the end of it all. She bustles back into the drawing room and re-emerges with a wet cloth. She kneels beside him.
She thinks I’m sick, he realises. She thinks it’s a fit.
-Anna, he says. I have to tell you...something-
-Don’t talk, she says, shushing him like a child.
-I have to, Anna...why don’t I stop?
-Stop what? she asks, distracted, patting the cloth on his forehead.
-Where, not what- other men seem to stop, they have boundaries, or rules- there are places they won’t go, thoughts they won’t have-
She says, laughing,
-Darling, you see more than they do. That’s why you’re an artist.
-Christ has only one boundary, he says. Any man may be saved- except those- except those...
He stops. She is gazing at him with patience- an angel, he thinks.
-So, he asks, with sudden ferocity, if something is in your nature, Anna, what’s best? To fight it and keep on fighting it, though you know you can never beat it, or to find some way of living with it so that nobody else is hurt but you?
-You’re a good man, she says, and kisses him on the cheek. Like a doting daughter, he thinks, and pushes her back.
-I’m not a good man, he says, and I’m not happy, though I should be, being with you.
And for the first time she seems to look at him rather than gaze upon him. She’s searching for me, he realises, in my own eyes.
-What do you mean? she asks at last. From somewhere upstairs there is the sound of childish laughter. She frowns, and says,
I told them to stay in bed, and begins to rise. He holds her back.
-I have to say it now, he says, quietly, or I may not dare again.
-At Brandenburg, at the spa, I remember I saw a little girl, with her governness, walking through the baths. A beautiful little German girl, in a sort of bathing costume, and her governness, so prim and haggard-looking, amongst all of these gawking, loathsome men! And the steam- like being back in Siberia- and the shouting of the Germans joking and slapping around like beasts, and there was just this girl, like an innocent creature in the fires of hell, and-
She is looking at him, quite still.
-What did you do.
-Nothing, he says, but I dreamt of doing it. I keep dreaming of it and I can’t stand it- and all the time in the baths I might have gone up and seized my chance, when the governness turned away or she skipped too far-
-And all of the time I kept imagining, were all the other men thinking the same thing? Did they have their eyes on her as I did, and were they looking as loving fathers on a sweet, harmless child, or...the other thing?
-And that’s the truth? she asks. Nothing more? There is a clatter from upstairs. Someone begins to cry, great wailing sobs calling out to be heard.
-I would never, he says, watching the staircase, harm our children. I couldn’t be capable of that. You know I wouldn’t.
-But have you pictured it? she says.
He does not move.
-I can picture anything, he says at last. Isn’t that terrible? Where does the end lie, if I can picture anything as bad as...that? Does it mean I could go through with it? If other people never think about it-
-I have to put them back to bed, she says.
-Anna, he says, what shall I do? I can promise you I’ll fight it, but how can I overcome it?
-Christ gave you a burden, she replies after a second, and he gave you a gift. One has caused the other, but perhaps the second can save you from the first.
She goes back inside.
He sits still for a moment.
-No, he tells himself, no, I can’t write this, surely not-
His feet carry him through the front door and out onto the street. Market vendors and beggars pass him by until, at last, he comes to the Neva. Across the river’s surface, he makes out the gaslights as they’re ignited, one by one.
-Viskovatov’s salon, he thinks. I’ll announce it to the world, accept the stigma of society upon me...and I can suffer.
He comes to Viskovatov’s house. The doorman, recognising him, lets him in without a word.
-Hullo! someone says. He stares vaguely into the warmth of the room. Viskovatov comes towards him in great strides, unsmiling.
-I wasn’t expecting you tonight, he says, and there is an immediate lack of warmth in his manner. Come in, I’ll introduce you to everyone.
A circle of faces opens up before him.
-This is the writer Dostoyevsky- yes, you’ll have heard of him through Strakhov- now, may I introduce you to Lavinov- one of our foremost journalists- and you’ll already know Carburov- and this is the delightful Marya Ivanovna, the new rising star of my latest production.
-Oh, Pavel! Marya Ivanovna giggles, and winks. Viskovatov is sleeping with her, he thinks. Carburov hands him a glass and he accepts it.
The conversation drags on and on; he stands, as if forgotten, on the edge of the circle. Viskovatov is planning to sack one of his tenors so that he can poach a better one from an Italian opera currently running in Petersburg.
-But you won’t be able to understand a thing the man says, Carburov says, laughing.
-Oh, he’s quite proficient in Russian. The only problem is, he’s very temperamental- apparently he struck one of their orchestra in rehearsal yesterday.
-The artistic mind, Lavinov says drily. Fyodor Mikhailovich will be able to fill all of us in on that subject, I imagine?
Their eyes turn on him.
-I was in Brandenburg, he says, in a spa. There was a girl there- no more than eight years old- with her governness. I took her away from her governness, and I raped her.
He begins to reply, but before he can speak Lavinov has already added,
-I agree. He’s trying to impress us- he’d like to shock us. How grubby!
-I had to tell you, he says, as loudly as he can. I had to suffer the humiliation of you knowing, of you knowing...
He trails off into silence. Viskovatov points to the door.
-Get out, he says, simply.
He hesitates, then puts his glass down and goes. Below, the doorman lets him out into the street without saying a word.
Twilight has sunk. The far bank has vanished; the Neva seems to stretch on forever. A millstone tied about the neck, he thinks, but there’s no bottom to it.
-Where are the old laws? he asks the sky. Did they just go? Can I still obey them?
-Was I confessing, or was I boasting?