the voice of a woman repeating

They retraced their steps along the arcaded passageway, but this time Florentino Ariza knew there was someone else in the house, because the brightness in the patio was filled with the voice of a woman repeating a reading lesson.

Sunlight and a singular voice: both intangible but real things, both stimulants to the imagination — light portends hope, and a voice beckons us to find its speaker the way a door left ajar invites us to examine the room beyond its threshold.

Repeating a reading lesson: the phrase, or act, conjures the image of a young lady sitting in an upright posture, her hair immaculately done up in ponytails or ringlets, her slight frame tucked and folded into a pinafore, or some other girlish and prim dress.

In the field of desire, there is seduction and there is hope of a liberating love. This scene must surely be the latter.

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a line for each day

He did not have to keep a running tally, drawing a line for each day on the walls of a cell, because not a day had passed that something did not happen to remind him of her.

purified by forgetfulness

Though this is not the scene of a crime, one feels for sure some act of passion was committed here: unlike the detective who has recourse only to surmise and history, the catalogue of actions his quarry has left for him to discover, the reader who follows the path of that other reader, the original one, is able to effect a certain form of time travel to compare the marks left behind before and after a moment in the text. At no other point in this text is there red ink like this: elsewhere one finds the simultaneously decorative and studious stroke of a pink highlighter (suggesting a certain pleasure), or the more diligent film of blue or orange ink. Perhaps the marks closest in character are those left with a blue ballpoint, yet those suggest a reader who is simultaneously taking notes as she reads, perhaps with a slim notebook on the side. No, a set of parentheses drawn in red by a ballpoint tip was an act of inconvenience: it is likely that the reader, seized by the moment of discovery and not wanting to risk forgetfulness, reached for a writing instrument closest at hand. Perhaps there was even a shudder of regret, of self-recrimination of not having ready one’s usual set of instruments, the repertoire of colors that defines her style, method and character, her modus operandi.

he had loved in silence

… he was convinced in the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever had.

So here is the denouement: not the resolution and end of the story as a whole, but of the entire passage, baffling in the richness of apparently trivial detail given apparently for the sole purpose of “local color”, that began with the doctor’s death and continued with his widow’s stoic grief. The reader at first wonders what the point of all this description could be: the writer parades the different actors across his stage — parties, factions, schools and families — and soon the entire pageantry of exotic names and foreign practices begins to sport the appearance of a divagation, almost digressive in nature despite the always lyrical prose. Yes, this is comical, or darkly comical; and yes, we are being given passage into another world, the world of the text; but nothing seems to be happening which advances the plot or our understanding of what should matter, the complex core of every work of art.

And so it was with some relief that the passage flowed quite naturally into a portrait of Fermina Daza as a woman of preternatural or premordial strength, like something out of legend. Yet here too one could not find what in a joke would be called the punchline.

Only with the arrival of this new entrant, and the final revelation that in him we have a love that was never revealed do we see that for this entire passage consisting of a few pages the writer has been following the same formula he applies to his sentences, which is to begin with a feint, a flourish of some kind consisting of his a little wit before finishing with a grander and perhaps more sober detail.

You’re even more of a scoundrel, Doctor

To parrot is to repeat without variation what has been said; the Doctor’s parrot does more than that when called a scoundrel. The image of a bird accusing its owner in the latter’s own voice seems faintly diabolical, as if the bird was some mythic emissary of a broader truth.

In the end, the reader discovers that this vague hint of the monstrous and supernatural, or magical, is an omen; it foreshadows the Doctor’s death. Even as we learn that the parrot makes a leap from a lower branch to a higher but apparently more reachable height, the reader apprehends what is going on: the Doctor is being lured. And since his death has been hinted at so often already, advertised since the start, we cannot help but observe with a certain sense of detached horror the particular stages of this final act, as the man descends stairs his legs have difficulty managing, ascends the rungs of a ladder he has never been seen attempting and reaching out for a bird it seems he never should have let into his catalogue of obsessions.

And yet all this is not without cause: though his final moment is wreathed in pointlessness and accident, juxtaposed against a life rich with vainglorious achievement (what the lengthy catalogue of triumphs that follows this passage is supposed to cement), the tragicomic tenor of his death and the florid music of his life stand on either side of his final declaration of love, framing it like the two curtains on either end of a stage. What remains for us to figure out is why: what does this death say?

So in the first chapter, both the secular saint and his rival in chess perish. Despite their grand differences in society’s eye, it is clear that privately, if their lives were lengthy sentences tortuous and winsome by turn, they both came to rest with the same punctuation, the knowledge that at the end of things only love survives Time.

The man who has no memory makes one out of paper.

But this was a short-lived illusion, for he had reached the stage where he would forget what the written reminders in his pockets meant

In our heads, the books talk to each other, holding their invisible conversation: I’m thinking of The Housekeeper and the Professor, of that other once-brilliant man without memory, who resorts to paper too, yet who seems to have enjoyed greater success, or never had his lack of success revealed to us.

I will take these fictions seriously, remind myself: do not dismiss lightly a herald bearing tidings that may be true, though he comes dressed for theatre. So: Perhaps it is hubris to think that writing these notes will help me remember the way I read these texts, or transport me to places in the heart by then grown difficult to return to with the passage of years; perhaps the day will come when none of this makes sense, and only the knowledge will remain, knowledge that here was some passion invested, some happiness sustained. May I still be grateful for this knowledge if that should come to pass, for by then there may be little else that is both secret and joyful to inflame an aged heart.

no sleeper more elegant than she

There was no sleeper more elegant than she, with her curved body posed for a dance and her hand across her forehead

One day I will watch you sleep

waking when I shouldn’t

When eyes have no right to see

To trace without sound

the line your toes should begin

extended left by shin

before curving into knee

and sloping back with thigh

our alphabet’s last letter

Trace breathlessly

how your cursive z curls into s

the sinuous line swollen

with your deer’s rump and hip

and curving into that small of back

my hand should nestle in

Trace breathlessly

your sibilance come to stop

suddenly with shoulder blade

Half-hidden by toss and tustle

of hair black

as this night I’ve woken in

hair like curtains

either side

of your face

that stage on which

your passions play

on which I spent

an act or two

one day I will wake

restless like this

looking for rest

finding you no help

strata

If the spine of a borrowed book reveals its age, or vintage, then the lines of its fore edge reveal the industry and journey of its reader, the history of her passion. Folded corners leave pockets of air where newness might have left pages suffocated and flat; these are the strata that turn one into an archaeologist of the other reader’s traces. Yet quite unlike the members of that vocation, who labor oft in vain, guided perhaps by fine instruments but nonetheless never going forth in any certainty, the historian of this other reader’s progress knows with pleasure where the next discovery will lie, and may take his time getting there.

not only the most beautiful woman in the Caribbean but also the happiest

Abyssinian cats, premonitory curlews, perfumed crows, an anaconda: these glittering names with Latinate roots that variously trip the tongue or tap against the back of the teeth, ornate, urban, civilized. Civilized, despite the bestial things they name — perhaps in this contradiction alone one might have intuited the horror that put this Edenesque period to an end, when a man and a beautiful woman presided over a bright green space seemingly in perfect harmony with the creatures of the earth. For though it was a serpent that kept the peace and a dog, ironically, Man’s most famous defender, that put an end to the fantasy, the sense of an ending to a perfect period is clear to see.

More: what are we to make of the doctor’s command that nothing that does not speak will come to this house? Without giving us time to breed suspicion, the author is quick to forewarn his readers: this hasty generalization will cost him his life. We learn, at this point, or are reminded, that all the preceding myth making has been to prepare the stage for the entrance of the parrot, this thing that combines in one form the riveting speech of humans and the crazed, demented possibility hidden in every animal.

deplumed, maniacal parrot

He was a deplumed, maniacal parrot who did not speak when asked to but only when it was least expected, but then he did so with a clarity and rationality that were uncommon among human beings.

Some tension stalks the space between the two adjectives that describe this bird on one end of the sentence, and the same vaunted creature’s two attributes on the other. Deplumed, maniacal: if this was a man, we could see some half-wit shaven by force, raving and cackling at some joke repeated ad infinitum within his own head. (For this parrot is certainly a character, with a character’s posture and form.) Yet lucidity becomes this bird as easily as madness, as if it was touched by the same spirit that invests the words of fools in Elizabethan drama. Perhaps this foreshadows it’s eventual role in the tale.

arranged in an almost demented order

This library with too many books, clothed in covers that are as richly crafted as they are indistinguishable from each other, this sanctuary with the excessive isolation of an abbey, as if someone was toiling ceaselessly and with futile effort towards tranquility and rest — one gets the sense that even order can breed disorder, even peace can betoken restlessness.

folded corner on page 23

Here are the marks left behind: the corner bearing the page number, neatly creased and folded down; double parentheses on either end of a single paragraph in yellow highlighter; and after this paragraph, an entire sentence selected with three firm strokes that clearly received the unbending support of a good ruler.

One imagines the reader, the original owner of these pages, warming to the scent of the important and suggestive as she places the tentative brackets; she decides without deliberating too much, without wasting too much time, to accentuate the importance of this paragraph with the use of two brackets instead of just one. A dilemma: she is impatient to get on with the reading; she doesn’t dawdle over this page because she is hot on the trail of the plot, of these characters’ destinies; yet she suspects there is more to be mined here, more that with careful re-reading and time — time she does not have — might become apparent. A compromise then: she will fold the corner so that she might find her way home to the feelings that led her to identify this particular paragraph in the first place.

And then, either in repentance towards her impatient passage over that paragraph or in relief at the sight of a more definite target, she seizes her ruler and with three sidelong arcs of her forearm draws the highlighter over the sentence in the next paragraph. This is more satisfying by far, more illuminating and interesting, she thinks, and perhaps smiles in her mind though certainly not with her lips, for she is alone, alone with this text she is growing to love and learning to expect more of with every page.

love

She had been with him for half his life, with a devotion and submissive tenderness that bore too close a resemblance to love, and without anyone knowing anything about it in this sleepy provincial capital where even state secrets were common knowledge.

the innocence of age

Dr. Urbino, prepared for a confidential visit, realized too late that there was no innocence more dangerous than the innocence of age.

A mysterious sentence designed to mystify, to both rouse the reader into alertness, foreshadow some tragic turn, and prevent true discovery of what it really means. The sole clue lies in the playful reaction of the street urchins to the coachman’s attire, the link to de Saint-Amour’s reputation as a photographer of children, and the recurring mention of a letter with unsavory revelations.

what he was among us

Thanks to him, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour could become what he was among us.

A strange statement, one that provides a clue, suddenly and slyly offered, about the persona of the narrator. He is not outside this world of old respectable men and ill-deserved reputations; he is reporting its events from the inside.

Strange that I had not noted it until now: quite clearly, the two halves of this last name exist in a kind of inner tension, although not yet in contradiction. A saint is a symbol of religious passion; amour may be either a lover or the experience and activity of love itself. Both are passions. Yet perhaps there is a hint of contradiction and paradox after all if we consider how a saint is very much a public figure (we are reminded at every turn that he is regarded as a saint by all in society), whereas an amour is very much a secret, hidden figure. We ask: what is hidden from view? What is this passion that few know of?

Yet without being able to guess (or precisely because we cannot), this contradictory figure who perished alone already functions as a kind of vessel into which the reader can pour his own inner strife.

the great cholera epidemic

The first time a part of the title is mentioned should always be noted, even if there seems nothing remarkable. Especially when there seems nothing noteworthy, the reader knows the game is afoot.

Or perhaps there is something to remark. We learn here that he has preserved the same easygoing manner and festive spirit that he had on his return from Paris soon after the great cholera epidemic — surely an epidemic should not give rise to festivities of any kind, unless he was somehow inattentive to the sufferings of those afflicted by the malady or if he had by some method or stratagem gained something from it.

In any case, we have a clue, and we will surely attend more closely to any further mention of that foreign (foreign to the doctor) and utterly mythical city (Paris, that symbol, exists only between the pages of books and in the minds of delinquents, romantics and readers).

the most respectable of them all

So much respectability insisted upon and found hollow: we learn that the corpse had conducted himself as if he were the most respectable of them all, the most active and the most radical, even after it had become all too clear that he had been overwhelmed by the burden of disillusion. As if: for this man, and perhaps for all in this fictional space, eminence and respect is willed into being, something one can insist on and produce by force. At the same time the dominant image produced by these words seems to not be theatrical (as one might expect) but laborious, as if respectability was a huge rock or sack that required tremendous stamina and strength to heft and carry around with oneself as we make our rounds in society; perhaps it is the repetition of that arduous most, or the words overwhelmed and burden that produce this general impression.

And so in both men, the characters who dominate the text at the beginning, we are meant to understand that respectability eventually becomes too heavy to heave. The doctor resorts to a cocktail of drugs each day to maintain his facade of ease, felicity and brilliance, and follows the same routine each day; the atheist commands life with chess rituals he never deviates from. The formula appears simple: to earn the esteem of the people around you, show them that you are in control of Time, let no one doubt the iron grip you have over it. Yet the story begins precisely at the moment when Time is clearly ascendant, when these men can clearly no longer master it much longer.

the sufferings of love

He said: “There is bound to be someone driven mad by love who will give you the chance one of these days.” And only after he said it did he realize that among the countless suicides he could remember, this was the first with cyanide that had not been caused by the sufferings of love.

So this death had not been caused by love, though Urbino implies it and misleads the police into thinking it at every elegant turn of phrase; he behaves as it suicide is mundane, and that the use of cyanide to accomplish it is ordinary; death for the sake of love, he suggests, is nothing that should throw us off the orbit of the everyday. Perhaps the way love dominates the title of this text, and the way it shares that vaunted space with death through cholera its harbinger and avatar, has prepared us to accept such things.

Yet at the same time, and slyly too, Marquez — that other slippery, self-assured man whose words lull us into belief — reveals that all is not as it seems: Urbino possesses more knowledge than he is sharing with the policemen.

A mystery then: not simply a literary text but perhaps a crime novel, or at least something with the elements of one. But what this crime is has not yet been revealed. We know, however, and with some certainty too, that more than simple friendship or a protracted rivalry in chess, connects the two men.

Look a little deeper: Why this link, already lodged in our minds, between an experience that should provide the spark for new life, and one that is the very negation of all further experience? Perhaps it is because love has always been a bridge beyond the shell within which the self is encased, something like a plank one walks to take leave of a safe ship. Love, like death or madness, belongs to that part of human affairs where the niceties of convention and ritual lose their hold. Against the mystery of these antisocial experiences, we place hope only in a few anointed ones: the shaman, the priest, the doctor. Perhaps that is the reason for the way we follow, like the policemen, the lead of the aged gentleman.

He had said

He had said: “I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I die, but this eventuality is not yet part of my plans.”

Sometimes there are clear clues that lead us to suspect the role a particular character might play in the psychological relationship between a text and its author. In the case of Urbino, the markedly complex and clever play of syntax reminds us of the language with which Marquez opens this tale. The same strategy is at work here: begin with a simple statement that ends with a false finish that seems witty enough, eloquent enough to lull the reader into complacency, before leading him into the real trap, the actual punchline. We can draw the conclusion, or at least make the claim, that here we have a character who seems to serve as some representative of the author’s self-image, as his avatar. What fate this author chooses to put his own self-image in must point us towards the psychological utility of the text for its own creator.

both bedroom and laboratory

At one window the splendor of dawn was just beginning to illuminate the stifling, crowded room that served as both bedroom and laboratory, but there was enough light for him to recognize at once the authority of death.

So many strange bedfellows, so much is commingled here that shouldn’t be: because it is only just beginning to light up the room, one sees in the mind’s eye both the early rays of the sun and the gloom of the stifling room; a bedroom is an intimate space where the body comes for rest, yet this space is also a place of scientific machinations, where a body is currently at rest; and there is just only enough light, symbol of life and vitality, for the viewer to descry the signs of death’s dominion. If opposites occupy the same space, it is not to breed or create conflict; this is a world where the poles of every spectrum meet without blending, bringing the other into stark relief.

the scent of bitter almonds

The first paragraph always establishes its writer’s character, his idiosyncrasies and philosophy. Look to the syntax: three sentences, every one of them long though not excessively so — just long enough to string the reader along, hoodwink him at the start with something predictable and then finish him off with something lightly ironic, somewhat sad.

Take the first sentence: what, we wonder, is inevitable? Our eye sees the words almonds and cannot make any link. Continuing down the sentence, letting it lead us blind, we come to a dead end no clearer than before. What is the fate of unrequited love? The certainty, the solidity of inevitable finds nothing corresponding to it here, although if one cared to dwell on it long enough, one might find a foreshadowing of the one thing that is inevitable in all our lives — death, of course.

Move on to the second sentence. Noticed, as soon as, hurried — these words can only suggest pace, activity, haste. We picture Dr. Juvenal Urbino making a dash through the door of the house. And then we find that he has been here before, that he has hurried hence before; going further, we find at the end of the sentence that that urgent call was not the first, that in fact he must have come often enough, if all urgency had been lost many years before. A serpentine sentence, with a dissembling syntax: the sensation is not unlike what one might experience when, having searched for a way out of a forest, one finds himself back at the same tree, or fork in the path.

The third sentence confirms what we already guess. The details pile on top of each other, yet just when we think we have learnt enough of this photographer and war veteran, we find that he is dead. But it is only the last word cyanide that reveals this, because everything before it simultaneously suggests and defers the truth.

Through it all, a kind of gentle but tragic irony prevails over the opening; some kind of cosmic trickery is afoot. And it is the fate of these characters, and our fate too, of course, to endure it.

 

 

love in the time of cholera

Spend a little time on the title before you read the text itself, as you would the face of a stranger before you discover her name, before the first chat brings the flood of a history, of details; give yourself a chance to surface all the misconceptions you bear, give yourself the opportunity to misinterpret, to find out how wrong you are. The more wrong one is, the greater the pleasure that surprise will bring.

Love in the Time of Cholera. The familiar word is love, but the interesting one, the challenging one, is cholera. And so every time I hear or read this title, it is the disease that my mind alights on. Cholera: what is it? I’m sure it is a disease, and a major one, one that perhaps in man’s earlier days was a spectre or harbinger of doom. Perhaps in the history of medicine, this disease was once a jabberwocky of sorts, something close to Aids in its appearance or guise as an unfathomably difficult thing to understand and defeat. At the same time, the name reminds us of the four humours, of the word choleric, the bitter and angry spirit in us. Perhaps cholera was once thought to be caused by an excess of choler, which was supposed to be something that circulated within us.

And so cholera, both in its guise as a disease and its suggestion of anger and antipathy, exists as something diametrically opposed to love. If love finds itself in the time of cholera, then love must be endangered, or opposed, or quarantined as something strange and untenable.

A love story, then. A love story about love that should not exist, that nevertheless does.

In the story I have not read

In the story I have not read, there are two readers. He can read only in the evening, when day begins to lose its hold over the city. There is something he likes about the way a setting sun provides just enough light to read by. Each day, before reaching home, he stops by a park and sits himself down. Then he retrieves from his briefcase a slim volume and allows himself to sample a few pages.

She begins each day with a book in hand, on her way to work, to play, to every place. On a train, in a bus, on a cab, in a cafe at lunch, on her balcony overlooking the park — it seems there’s no place a book can’t go with her. Once she’s in a book, she believes it utterly, takes sides, berates villains, cries.

One day, his little stroll in his slim book is interrupted by an urgent call. With all haste, he looks for his caller and with some trouble manages to suppress the problem. What this problem is matters less than what it has led to. He collapses in bed, grateful for sleep and unaware that his book is lying on the bench in the park, unattended.

Daylight finds her making a detour, straying from her usual path to work, or the route she takes to find her friend. Again, what her destination doesn’t matter. It is the serendipity with which her eyes fall upon the slim volume on the bench that the reader should find piquant. She turns her head to see, just overhead, the balcony of her apartment. This book laid here overnight, right under my nose, she thinks.

In the story I have not read, which perhaps has been written but lies hidden from my eyes, which lies undiscovered in some dark corner in the neglected basement of an old shop, she begins to slide the tip of her index finger along the edge of the leather cover, parts it gently, almost reverently, prepared to spy the contents of his book.

To read your thoughts

Desire begins with the wish to divine the thoughts that exist in that other head, that motivate and circulate within that other self, the one we want so much and yet feel utterly separated from. Separation: that is the true experience of desire.

At breakneck speed, one wishes to collapse the space that separates himself from the beloved: note how quickly the poem moves from the need to simply see and understand to the urgent necessity of joining together and becoming commingled. Perhaps the violence of this desire is already there at the start, when the speaker states his/her desire to open up the head of the beloved. (Until the arrival of the word “crunched”, the word “open” appears curiously innocent!) This need to incorporate and incarcerate, this impulse towards internalization and possession, is so real and sudden that only the suggestion of the cannibalism taboo is able to fully express its avidity, its raw strength.

You and me

Remember

by Joyce Mansour

Remember

The jolting flight of my heart

Your excitement

The way my hair ruffles

When I laugh with you

The wind stuffed with smells

Coming before my body aflame

The rubbery grey thickness of the winter evenings

When we heard the rats jingling around

Eating poppies

You and me.

 

Reading this over and over again, one is reminded that in the end, when we consider the days, hours, moments that make up the history of our relationship with a beloved other, the one thing that matters is that there were two people together in each day, hour and moment. One can search for reasons, analyse chemistry, psychoanalyse and reduce to factors, elements, links this bond the two share; yet none of this seems adequate in the end. You and me — this alone seems sure.

a condensed drop of colour

It was as if she had dropped a condensed drop of colour into the water of the world and the colour had spread and the outlines of things had sprung into bright relief.

As with most complex metaphors, it is easy to allow what we know and expect to colour over the words themselves; here the reader may begin with the first part of the analogy and see in the mind’s eye a drop of paint that spreads across and over a sheet of paper, filling it with colour.

Yet the second half of this metaphor contradicts this expectation: instead of obscuring or distracting from view the paper on which it has landed, the spreading colour brings into stronger focus the outlines of things. And so the reader is meant to understand that Flora’s presence does not dominate the vision of those who love her; she is not all that they can see. Instead, her presence sensitizes them to the beauty or essence of the things around her, so that they can study, observe and understand.

Take the image further: in the mind’s eye, we see the outlines of things grow brighter and stronger underneath the spreading colour, but surely this also means they are no longer merely themselves, but also with a different hue or shade. And so Flora’s presence heightens others’ sensitivity to the existence and texture of the things around her, and adds a sheen, a layer of significance too. The things she touches will forever bear the signature of her presence.

the perfect number 28

The story doesn’t bring us far enough, but the reader can tell this much: the Professor’s condition will worsen, shortening his memory until he is no longer himself. Instead of the Professor, the man we end the story with is the Enatsu in his prime, who — by dint of the fact that he is also the Enatsu of the Professor’s prime — is a symbol of the Professor’s lost brilliance. It is no accident that we find in the same cookie tin baseball cards that enshrine Enatsu’s brilliance and the photograph that collects both the Professor’s intellect (according to our narrator, he radiates it) and secret passion.

Both cards and photographs are poor substitutes for the reality that has faded with the passage of time. Yet there is no regret at the end of the housekeeper’s recollections: no nostalgia or pain. Only a wish to preserve in her mind a bright vision of a past she came too late to see, but which she arrived just in time to love. Like mathematics, memories exist outside the visible, the empirical; yet both are true, both are intensely beautiful.

our favourite time of the day

Although the sky was still light, the moon and the evening star had appeared and the clouds streamed by in ever-changing patterns. Smudges of darkness were beginning to collect around the roots of the trees, but they were still faint, as if the night had agreed to hold off for a bit longer. Evening was our favourite time of the day.

the last evening

It was special because we celebrated it with the Professor, and because it turned out to be the last evening the three of us would ever spend together in the cottage.

Always, at the back of my mind, even as I sit next to cherished company, this suspicion: will this moment turn out to be the final one? When will we look at each other, sit like this again, talk like this again, feel this way again — with this ease, this confidence, this peace?

For N

A woman was seated next to the Professor. She leaned timidly toward him, the toes of her shoes poking out from under her flared skirt. Their bodies did not touch, but it was clear that they shared a bond. And in spite of the years that had passed since the picture was taken, I had no doubt that the woman was the Professor’s sister-in-law. 

There was one more thing I could read. At the top of the cover page, a single line in Japanese:

“For N, with my eternal love. Never forget.” 

A cookie tin buried under a pile of mathematics books; baseball cards hidden within the cookie tin; a thesis kept away from sight underneath the cards; a black and white photograph tucked away inside the thesis; a single letter denoting the lady in the photograph: love is layers, ellipses, silence and improbability.

Love is a single line without a sentence formed; love is a single letter without the need for a name. Because love is understanding, between lovers it is expressed through code, lacunae, mystery. Perhaps, for the lover, all manner of completeness is abhorrent, for love itself is the experience of incompleteness, of absence.

I like to watch you cook.

Usually, when he was wrestling with a problem, I hardly saw him. I wasn’t so sure whether I would be interrupting his thinking if I spoke to him, so I continued seeding the peppers and peeling the onions. He walked over, leaned against the counter, folded his arms, and stood there staring at my hands.

And

The Professor was watching me with the intense stare he normally reserved for math.

So instead of interrupting his thinking, it seems that the housekeeper replaces the subject of his study. The blend of tenderness and scholarly respect with which he regards the most homely of movements — the slicing of peppers, the frying of eggs — reminds one of the way he imbues life and personality into numbers even as he seeks out meaning among them. Numbers appear common and mundane until revealed by the Professor’s mathematical acumen to contain within them a brand of beauty and truth reserved only for those with the skill and desire to perceive them; in this passage, we see that perhaps the same logic can be applied to our everyday actions — until observed and subjected to study by the eye of love, they remain mundane and indifferent things.

Soon, we were back to our evenings in the kitchen listening to the radio.

We experience time both as a straight line that begins from the past, cuts through the present and shoots forth into the future, or as a cycle, a series of recurring sequences. Of course, neither is a more accurate perception than the other; both are valid. But time as a cycle, as a series of days with a predictable sequence, a series of weeks with regularly recurring events, is the kinder version if what we want is to see again and again some cherished face, hear some familiar voice.

There are passages in this story where the intent of the narrator is simply gratitude. No plot development takes place; perhaps it is the absence of change, the absence of the need for change that is being depicted. She and the Professor sitting in an old house in summer light or evening dusk, with the sound of trembling trees or thunder in the mountains harrying the windows and roof, as they go about their own tasks or sit together at a table in conversation: all that is happening in moments like these is the fact that they are sharing time together.

In such passages, time has been rolled into cycles and prevented from becoming a line. There is no sign of an end in sight, no tenure or duration to observe, no term or departure to trouble the peace. For the narrator, there lies only the certainty of two cycles: the 80 minute one and the daily one. When I began writing this journal, I was unconsciously entering a cycle, a happy cycle that I looked forward to every day – to read a short number of pages, to write about them on the way to and from work, and then to let the post sit, imagining them being read. And then the cycle would begin again, each day.

Yet all this is not to say that only cyclical time grants us joy. Time as a straight line intensifies its moments, rendering every pleasure keener but also bittersweet; time as a cycle engenders peace. In the end, there is nothing to choose between them.

the hidden order behind years of chaos

The housekeeper who had pinch-hit for me had been methodical, and while I had been afraid to disturb the Professor’s work and had barely touched the books in the study, she had picked them all up and stuffed them into the bookshelves, stacking any that didn’t fit in the spaces above the armoire and under the sofa. Apparently she had a single organizing principle: size. In the wake of her efforts, there was no denying that the room looked neater, but the hidden order behind years of chaos had been completely destroyed.

To those who care, even the disorder left behind by the beloved contain a certain script and story, a pattern that must needs be preserved though it might be invisible. And so taking care of someone means more than simply renovating him or her to match certain specifications, or seeing the one we love as a puzzle to solve, a heap of scattered things to sweep up.

The need to keep whole and complete the entire person of the one we cherish, to leave undisturbed the tilt and tangle of this complex structure despite our desire to rummage through and explore at leisure the threads of their life, is perhaps one of the happier paradoxes we in this life can look for, and find.

Nothing would have changed if I’d found a prime number, nor if I’d proven that one wasn’t a prime.

The numbers didn’t make things better; perhaps they even made them worse. Perhaps the ice-cream was melting in that refrigerator, I certainly wasn’t making any progress mopping the floor, and I suspected my employers would be unhappy with my work. But for all that, there was no denying that 2,311 was prime, and 341 was not.

Truths that have no place in the visible world, the world where things get done, nevertheless are real, and have an obstinate, adamantine quality to them that compels us to recognize their reality, their existence, their enduring beauty. A truth that leads to no change is nonetheless a truth discovered; there is a place reserved for it the way the night apportions space for stars, a place that nothing, perhaps not even Time, can touch.

But those moments we shared, the sights and sounds of the game, haven’t faded with the years.

We remember every detail, and when we talk about that night, we’re able to conjure up and bring back the Professor, as if he were sitting right beside us.

To remember every detail: that is impossible, surely an illusion. But it is a beautiful one to have, and I wish I believed the same way in my own memories. Years from now, will I be able to hear this rumbling of the train on electric tracks, see again the color of these pages and restore to clarity the thoughts that race ahead of me? Everything seems to be like an outline only, or silhouettes against the glare of detail. Memory is the unlucky painter who left his best colors at home.

他现在刻的东西不一样。

【他做的是人在一无所有的时候都会做的事。

他在对自己述说他的人生故事】

时间,宝物,智慧,甚至知识,这些令我们忽欢忽忧,忽喜忽惊的事物都将随风而散,随水而逝。也许只有我们的故事是真正属于我们的。

也正因为这样,我们能给的最终也是我们的人生故事。毫无保留得把最真实的记忆放在朋友的手里:这是一种幸福。

I wanted to stay here forever, just staring at the formulas

The formulas snaked across the pages by some logic of their own, ignoring the lines on the paper; and just when they seemed to resolve into a kind of order, they would divide again into apparently random strands.

An apt analogy for the link between the housekeeper and the Professor: like lines on a page, the usual orbit of their lives dictates that they never meet, or if they do, that they never intertwine. They are too different. Yet here they are, like the formulas on the Professor’s notebook — looking for a pattern to rest into, searching for a solution. We see them sometimes settle into oases of peace, moments of certitude, and although these are all too brief, there is beauty in these mysterious lines that cannot be fully understood.

the passion in a pencil smudge

In my own way, I could sense all kinds of things from the mysterious numbers and figures — the passion in a pencil smudge, the impatience of a crossed-out mistake, the certitude in a passage underscored with two thick lines. This glimpse into the Professor’s world thrilled me deeply.

To possess, if only briefly and perhaps surreptitiously, and to study the marks left by those we care about, to infer from these traces and signs a younger, perhaps more primary version of the one we see now, is to bridge the distance between us in a way even touch and sight cannot accomplish. It feels like a way to cheat Time.

Do you really understand?

The pencil rolled out of his hand and fell at his feet. The Professor was crying. I believe it was the first time I saw him in tears, but I had the feeling that I’d seen these emotions many times before. I placed my hand on his.

“Do you understand?” he said. “You can find the sums of all the natural numbers.”

And

My footsteps fell in with the Professor’s, and Root’s tennis shoes swung back and forth in time.

And

I realized I had seen two men cry this evening. I had, of course, seen Root’s tears countless times before — as an infant, when he’d wanted to be held or fed; and later, during tantrums, or when he lost his grandmother. And, for that matter, at the moment he came into this world. But these tears were different, and no matter how I tried to wipe them away, they seemed to flow from a place I could never reach.

Sometimes it is enough to notice the power of a passage without fully probing its subtleties; yesterday I’d found this final passage affecting but I saw nothing else; perhaps when language is the flower the mind is content to rest there for a while and dote upon it without trying to do too much. But this morning I see much more clearly.

Note the parallels, the unspoken parallels left to the reader and not the narrator to see, creating what we commonly call dramatic irony. At first the housekeeper has the unexplained feeling that she had seen the emotions expressed by the older man who cried many times before; later she recalls the times when she had seen her own child cry. At that later point in the plot she remarks the difference between the way Root used to cry — as a child looking for comfort and consolation — and the way he does now, which turns out to be an implicit accusation. And so we are meant to see that the feelings she saw betrayed by the Professor’s tears were perhaps those of a child, which is really another way of saying that these feelings are needs that lie at the heart of every person — a need to be told that everything is alright, a need for shelter, for the sort of sanctuary only another person can give.

To render the parallels between the two men more complete, the writer provides as backdrop their consuming passions: numbers for one, baseball for the other. Yet neither mathematics nor sports can calm the emotions that have cut into them, and the housekeeper, whose role has always been to tend to the needs of others cannot put back in order the mess of hurt and harm she can see but not fully comprehend.

Sandwiched between these two passages where the two men are in the grip of turbulent emotions, we find the narrator savoring what appears to her to be the resolution of an event where everything turns out right. It is only by considering all three passages that the reader gets a hint of the irony that wraps around her perspective.

Nonetheless, through it all, she is there, beside them, trying her best: asking questions, listening, reaching out. Perhaps full understanding will always escape us; perhaps it is enough to be present.

how peaceful

Sometimes it takes a day for the connection to form. The two passages I posted yesterday share a link I did not see then, or saw only fitfully, like the sudden apprehension of rain on the horizon; perhaps the link is what made me copy them down in quick succession.

What was said of the twin primes must apply to the housekeeper and professor, of course; yet initially I saw that application in a general, abstract way; I could not see then that the analogy foreshadowed the recollection that followed. When the housekeeper watches the professor achieve a state of deep calm after completing an exercise in mathematical genius, she watches him from afar — the very method by which he extracts that share of tranquility is the thing that keeps them in separate worlds, the spheres of domesticity and academia, the homespun and the abstract. Yet soon we see mirrored in the professor’s devoted study of how she makes dumplings the same kind of distance — the adroitness of her actions have long been established by this point as maneuvers beyond him. For both, the world in which the other operates has hitherto been something of a desert, the type of inhospitable, impossible space we are reminded of in the professor’s description of the desert in which twin primes search for each other. The housekeeper has never felt comfortable in the world of the intellect; the Professor is something of a spectacular failure when it comes to life outside the mathematical universe. Yet in these spaces long regarded by each as a kind of desert both have found a spot in which to rest and take a drink of water.

The Professor wanted peace

When he had solved a contest problem from one of his journals and was making a clean copy to put in the mail, you could often hear him murmur, “How peaceful …” He seemed to be perfectly calm in these moments, as though everything were in its rightful place, with nothing left to add or subtract. “Peaceful” was, to him, the highest compliment.

When he was in a good mood, he would sit at the kitchen table and watch me making dinner; and if I were making dumplings, he would look on with something approaching wonder. I would take a dumpling skin in the palm of my hand, spoon on a bit of filling, and then pinch up the edges before setting it on the platter. A simple process, but he was completely absorbed by it, watching me until the last dumpling had been stuffed. I have to admit that the scene struck me as so funny that I hardly could keep from laughing.

When I was done at last and the dumplings were neatly arranged on the plate, he would fold his hands on the table and nod solemnly. “How peaceful …”

Twin primes

“But when you get to much bigger numbers — a million or ten million — you’re venturing into a wasteland where the prices are terribly far apart.”

“A wasteland?”

“That’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it — only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search … until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water …”

no theory or rule

To me, the appeal of prime numbers had something to do with the fact that you could never predict when one would appear. They seemed scattered along the number line at any place that took their fancy. The farther you get from zero, the harder they are to find, and no theory or rule could predict where they will turn up next.

Do I look like the Professor?

At first, I was conscious of wanting to please the Professor, but gradually that feeling faded and I realized it had become a battle between the problem and me.

Part of life’s mystery must consist of this: that there lie scattered in hidden spots all around the world persons who at first we take to be nothing like us, and yet become doorways to different selves simply because of this dissimilarity. The greater the gap between two people, the greater the growth, the change. And this happens because we see in the perspective and habits of the other a different way to confront the same mundanity that both face, day in, day out; if we listen well enough and pay attention to the same problems the other has studied all his or her life, we become able to see life through these problems which are in fact windows with a different view, a fresh vista from which the universe may be regarded in an unexpected light.

an answer in the sum itself III

I have just realized that I have inadvertently made two posts on the same passage; this is because I had thought the first one irrecoverable after the system failed to publish it. While typing the successor, I had chafed a bit at the knowledge that those words — the originals — were lost to me forever. But these new ones might be better, I told myself, and succeeded in consoling myself. But the pleasure I experienced upon seeing the first post survive is proof that all I had done was pull the wool over my own eyes.

the dappled sunlight

After the barbershop, we sat on a bench in the park and drank a can of coffee. There was a sandbox nearby, and a fountain and some tennis courts. When the wind blew, the petals from the cherry trees floated around us and the dappled sunlight danced on the Professor’s face.

And

The lights were out in the barbershop and the park was empty. The formulas the Professor has scratched in the dirt were hidden in the shadows.

Would it have been sunlight if it hadn’t danced on a face, and would they be shadows if they didn’t hide the words?

an answer in the sum itself

The Professor studied Root’s work as though it were a sophisticated proof. Unable to recall why he had assigned this problem or what connection it had to repairing the radio, he was perhaps looking for an answer in the sum itself.

Perhaps the answers we seek stay elusive, not because they are difficult to find or understand, or because we lack skill or wisdom, but because we grow so used to the problems we have become skilled in that we don’t know where else to look. Solutions are not answers.

an answer in the sum itself

The Professor studied Root’s work as though it were a sophisticated proof. Unable to recall why he had assigned this problem or what connection it had to repairing the radio, he was perhaps looking for an answer in the sum itself.

Perhaps the answers we seek cannot be found, not because they themselves are elusive and difficult, or because we lack the skill or clarity of mind to see them, but because we have applied ourselves to the same problems for so long that we fail to recognize that solving them will not bring the answers we seek. Solutions are not answers.

From the time of my earliest memories, I had no father.

Just a note for now: why is it that none of the characters have an other to count on? The Professor is alone; his sister-in-law is a widow; the housekeeper has left her husband; she herself has no father. It is a universe of absent partners.

In fact, what is a housekeeper but someone who has no relationship with the one she maintains the house for?A housekeeper maintains a structure that is not her habitat, not her shelter. It is a place of belonging to which she does not belong: the role is one rife with contradiction, paradox. Perhaps there is something symbolic about the role, perhaps through it the writer is saying something about loneliness. Do we spend our lives in some way doing the same thing, sustaining spaces and structures without finding a locus for the self to lock on to, to lay anchor?

I was free to repeat the same question until I understood

But the things the Professor taught me seemed to find their way effortlessly into my brain — not because I was an employee anxious to please her employer but because he was such a gifted teacher. There was something profound in his love for math. And it helped that he forgot what he’s taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it.

What more could one ask for? To ask, again and again, and not be found tiresome; to be asked the same question, again and again, and to regard each time as a new chance to share one’s love for something immense and greater than oneself: between the asking and the answering something broad, generous and capacious is at work, something that liberates two people from having to guess, having to hold back. Love is a patient teacher; love is a curious student.

much more than eighty minutes

He looked down, checking his suit in various places, and his gaze fell on a note clipped to his left pocket. “Oh, I see. I sent a proof to the Journal of Mathematics today.”

It had been much more than eighty minutes since I’d made my trip to the post office.

And

At some point, while we’d been talking, the sun had set and night was falling. From time to time I heard water dripping from the dishes I had left in the sink. The Professor stood close by, watching me.

Is it an accident that this episode, the first one that definitively suggests a bond forming, begins with a reminder of the 80 minute time limit, and then proceeds to produce the impression that more than that length of time elapses while the Professor and his housekeeper perform their mathematical exercises?

To talk and find that day has passed from one phase into another without notice: this happens. But in the Professor’s case this perhaps cannot happen, for the span of time between evening and nightfall must surely exceed the amount of time that takes for his memory to disappear and reset itself.

What is the reader left with then? Clearly the notion that something is afoot here to complicate the strange system that was previously in place within the Professor: something has happened to not only change his behavior, but the things that he is capable of doing. The things that can happen.

220 284

“That’s right! The sum of the factors of 220 is 284, and the sum of the factors of 284 is 220. They’re ‘amicable numbers,’ and they’re extremely rare. Fermat and Descartes were only able to find one pair each. They’re linked to each other by some divine scheme, and how incredible that your birthday and this number on my watch should be just such a pair.”

We sat staring at the advertisement for a long time. With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.

So much to say: where shall we begin? At the numbers, but at length I will return to the issue, or theme, of time. (Yet what is time but numbers?)

What is a factor? In Mathematics, it is a number by which a larger figure can be divided; in life, it is also something that pares things down, makes them comprehensible. We each possess factors too: elements or components by which we can be analysable, broken down into parts, understood. Childhood memories, events, triumphs, desires, pastimes, defeats and departures.

The assumption we normally hold is this: The things that make up our selves also become what connect us to others: the more factors we share, the easier it is to make that connection we are looking for, the one that tells us, no, we are not alone, someone else has suffered too, someone else has been watching the world through the same set of windows.

Yet the factors that apply to 220 and 284 are not the same; but added up, they form the opposing figure. Similarly, we do not need the ones we come to love to be completely ourselves; we simply need, for some reason that perhaps falls outside human reckoning (hence the choice of the word divine), these factors to lead us to them. It is a matter of pure chance for two to make such a link; like a birthday and the number engraved on the back of a watch, the link may seem completely arbitrary but hide something real and essential, that takes time and careful study to reveal.

something dramatic had changed

But I realized that something dramatic had changed when, at the end of my first week, he came to me with a bundle of papers covered with formulas and numbers, and asked me to send it off to the Journal of Mathematics.

“I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but …”

His tone was polite, and completely unexpected after the way he had scolded me in his study on my first day. It was the first request he had made of me, and he was no longer “thinking,” for the moment.

“It’s no trouble at all,” I told him. I carefully copied the mysterious foreign address onto the envelope and ran off happily to the post office.

What is this dramatic change that lies hidden here perhaps in plain sight, pointed out but left unexplained? We are meant to guess. So it is the first time he makes a request; previously he simply let her exist in the same space as him: this is the change. Yet why should this be dramatic? The word compels the reader to probe deeper, until some layer of meaning that deserves that label emerges. And then we remember that she doesn’t know how to function without knowing what her employer wants; she orientates herself around these requests the way a planet requires the gravity of the sun for direction. Being asked to leave the house to mail a letter: both the task and the mention of a foreign address suggest the idea of direction, a clear path. And this gives her happiness.

What do requests do in our lives? Do we wait for the request to come, do we too derive purpose from the things those around us ask of us? Without a request, what is there left for us to do, if we seek to establish a connection?

before the memory had vanished

At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. “The new housekeeper,” it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them was a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child — short hair, round cheeks, and a mole next to the mouth — but I knew instantly that it was a portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.

Evidently or transparently it is the Professor who has come to make room for her in his limited space, the span of time in which memory is possible. What this means has been left out, left unremarked upon: this is a narrator who wishes only to make observations, who allows herself only the occasional inference. The one at the end of this passage is an example of what she can allow herself to make. Her observations lie open on the page; her interpretations stay hidden. This is the text we are meant to study.

It is the urgency that she remarks on. More and more, it seems that the Professor’s affliction is simply a foreshortened form of what we all suffer from, the terrible decay of images, of moments, due to the passage of time. The inevitability of this process in the Professor reminds us of how fearful we are when we have caught, perhaps by accident, a moment or sight we want to retain forever, or that we wish to remain in forever.

Yet it is also true that she has noticed a detail. A difficult one to catch, given that his suit is riddled with numerous other notes; this is a clue to the reader — she is paying attention to the tiny words he writes on these scraps, these fragments that though scattered about his person nonetheless in some way offer the closest hints of who he is. Recollection and observation — are these not the most tender things two strangers newly turned friends — two people who find themselves sharing a space for a brief time — can do for each other?

always a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time

Every morning, during the entire time I worked for the Professor, we repeated this numerical q and a at the front door. To the Professor, whose memory lasted only eighty minutes, I was always a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time, and so every morning he was appropriately shy and reserved. He would ask my shoe size or telephone number, or perhaps my zip code, the registration number on my bicycle, or the number of brushstrokes in the characters of my name; and whatever the number, he invariably found some significance in it. Talk of factorials and primes flowed effortlessly, seeming completely natural, never forced.

Later, even after I had learned the meanings of some of these terms, there was still something pleasant about our daily introductions at the door. I found it reassuring to be reminded that my telephone number had some significance (beyond its usual purpose), and the simple sound of the numbers helped me to start the day’s work with a positive attitude.

Imagine that: to be always meeting, for the first time, the person who has become an irreplaceable part of your existence.

Beyond its usual purpose: what is the usual purpose of a telephone number? To contact another person; no, it’s more than that — it is to stay in touch, to have a means of always reaching someone you need to keep within the orbit of your being. Yet to ask for another person’s number brings with it other subtleties, or the not-so-subtle nuance of a special interest. Between strangers, a telephone number requested and obtained suggests a desire to prolong what for now must be only temporary contact.

There are also the other items: shoe size, zip code, the brushstrokes of a name. Numbers that describe the most personal parts of selves, intensely private numbers. The Professor’s obsession transforms these figures that hang about his housekeeper into meanings; or, to be more precise, he restores to them a significance that she never knew, or has forgotten. We are all so close to ourselves, live so near ourselves, that we sometimes lose interest in these details; it takes someone else to remind us that what we now find mundane was once new to us, and should always be worth inquiring about.

What’s your shoe size?

Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.

Mathematicians use numbers; most use the weather; some of us turn to the books we’ve read, poems or plays. The languages we learn are what we inhabit, and also tentative bridges improvised to get across the sudden rivers that flow across our path every time someone new enters the landscape of our loneliness.

He has difficulties with his memory

He’s not senile; his brain works well, but about seventeen years ago he hit his head in an automobile accident. Since then, he has been unable to remember anything new. His memory stops in 1975. He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest terms, it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes — no more and no less.

I am back here again, reading Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor again. In doing so I am leaving behind a egotist with a penchant for the prolix turn of phrase for a narrator whose simplicity hides what the complexity of the former always kept elusive: what, I wonder, does this odd problem — the problem of remembering only two specific sets of time, the long ago and the particularly recent — signify?

The automobile accident strikes one as a contrivance: it could have been anything else (a fall in a bathroom, a hammer blow from a burglar), so long as it produced this predicament, which also feels like a premise. Given that our Professor, obviously a brilliant man since he develops theorems, has only a span of 80 minutes to operate in, what can he accomplish, what kind of life can be packed into each episode? Yes, that seems to be what the videotape allusion suggests: life lived in episodes, or extremely short stories rather than chapters linked by the thread of a plot as long as a novel.

I ask myself: what can I do with this? I press ahead with the belief that there’s more to this passage than a mere gimmick (although a very good one) and I begin to understand the urgency that the 80 minute time limit imposes. Perhaps we are meant to see in the Professor what Donne saw in a flea: namely, that though we sometimes experience life as a lengthy duration, perhaps that is merely a matter of perspective; there is some wisdom squirreled away here in the need to make every 80 minutes count.

One more thread, one which we should expect in a text where math holds centre-stage: the contradiction between the accidental and the precise, the chaotic and the correct. The automobile accident underscores the power of chance over the life of a man whose command of numbers should rightly have given him some mastery over the randomness of life; the 80 minute time limit strikes one as being simultaneously, bizarrely precise and yet completely arbitrary. If the Professor’s life has been robbed of order because his memory is so short as to render him incapable of sustaining a narrative, his existence is also intensely regular, subjected as it is to the regularly recurring event of memory’s resignation and reboot. And so the regular and the random co-occur within the riot and structure of life, dashing hopes and bringing opportunity. For his condition has also made possible the entrance of the narrator, a woman who will in all certainty come to be the element of meaning in every episode, every short story.

It’s my story, I said, and I’m sticking to it.

Come on, Freddie, he said, how much of it is true? It was the first time he had called me by my name. True, Inspector? I said. All of it. None of it. Only the shame.

We are taught in Literature classes to look for change, growth, development. Yet what the ending of this text seems to suggest is that we’ve been studying what might as well be a specimen suspended in amber liquid within a glass jar: the deed has been done, dissection completed and we can look into the preserved innards of someone who cannot change. The name he’s given it is aboulia; the psychological cause is an absence of empathy. There are the facts of this case.

Yet at display too were pining and desire, although the overall impression is not unlike the sensation one might’ve obtained from watching the pointless scrabbling of legs in the air by some monstrously overgrown insect, thorax bloated from a recent feed, pincers perhaps gnawing at the air. For the armor of language he has built or grown around him hides a nothingness that perhaps only a surfeit or superfluity of words can effectively confess. Or call it instead the name he’s given it: shame. One is tempted to say that the tenderness of his feelings for one or two women might exonerate him, or that what he desired above all was simply reconciliation with a world we all find foreign in some way, alien to what we really desire. That we can share in some way the shame.

But these feelings point us only to this: that at the end of a story, be it this text or something others share, or even the one we tell ourselves about ourselves, there is this terrible rush to judgement. As if we were born to it. As if we were doomed to do it. The alternative, of course, is to defer it endlessly, to keep at bay the inquisitor and judge, and simply listen and learn. And if one recalls the reason we came to this text in the first place, not to find one more person to catch and accuse, but to find a fellow sufferer and find some consolation in hearing his case, then this insistent urge to interrogate must surely take on a sinister, compulsive edge. And if one doesn’t seek to understand, wouldn’t that mean the same failure to empathize that lies at the bottom of this narrator’s crime?

I have looked for so long into the abyss

Time passes. I eat time. I imagine myself a kind of grub, calmly and methodically consuming the future, what the world outside calls the future. I must be careful not to give in to despair, to that aboulia which has been a threat always to everything I tried to do. I have looked so long into the abyss, I feel sometimes it is the abyss that is looking into me. I have my good days, and my bad.

Perhaps it is no accident for us to find that after he pronounces upon himself the life sentence of becoming an automatic, unthinking consumer of days and nights, we find line after line that are patently unoriginal, that contain more than a whiff of mechanical repetition, or — to continue the metaphor of consumption and ingestion — regurgitation: the idea of aboulia, the near-quotation of Nietszche’s well-known aphorism, and the cliche that follows it, these all signify a kind of thoughtless spinning out of threads, of lines read or phrases recalled, spun out by the grub as it attempts to wrap itself in a cocoon from which, hopefully, something new might emerge. And this indeed is what he seeks to do, for by setting himself the task of imagining the child back into life he has created for himself a new self image.

Looking for other instances of the word abyss in the same book where Nietszche formulates the thought our narrator quotes, I came across the following passage:

In the writings of a recluse one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. He who has sat day and night, from year’s end to year’s end, alone with his soul in familiar discord and discourse, he who has become a cave-bear, or a treasure-seeker, or a treasure-guardian and dragon in his cave—it may be a labyrinth, but can also be a gold-mine—his ideas themselves eventually acquire a twilight-colour of their own, and an odour, as much of the depth as of the mould, something uncommunicative and repulsive, which blows chilly upon every passer-by. The recluse does not believe that a philosopher—supposing that a philosopher has always in the first place been a recluse—ever expressed his actual and ultimate opinions in books: are not books written precisely to hide what is in us?—indeed, he will doubt whether a philosopher CAN have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every bottom, beneath every “foundation.” Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy—this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that the PHILOSOPHER came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he HERE laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper—there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also CONCEALS a philosophy; every opinion is also a LURKING-PLACE, every word is also a MASK.

Several happy coincidences present themselves: the idea of a recluse (which our narrator has always claimed to be), who achieves an obsessive inner dialogue, or whose isolation takes the form of a constant dialogue with himself, and the observation that philsosophers have often been recluses themselves (does Freddy not strike a philosophic pose every now and then? Does he not style himself after a philosopher?) make this passage something like a key with which one may unlock one of the doors into the meaning of the text. At the end of this passage, Nietszche considers the abyss that lies at the bottom of everything that is said in a book: why, he asks, when a philosopher chooses a point to make a conclusion, does the philosopher stop here and go no further? Similarly, we could ask of every conclusion this narrator reaches: why stop here, why thus far and no further? Or, to put it more precisely: What is being hidden through a confession?

Perhaps the interrogation is what produces confessions, from here on understood as in fact distractions from what is actually happening or has happened, the way a magician’s flourishes and gesticulations draw the eye away from the trick, the very mundane set of procedures that happen to produce our impression of a fantastic event.  For it is the interrogation that has produced this book of evidence; an interrogation requires all events in the confession to derive meaning solely from their relationship to the crime it is supposed to solve, and by so doing — by keeping our eyes fixed only on the lines we can draw between a crime and these events — keeps us blinkered, blind to the meanings closer inspection could reveal, meanings that explain and tell more than merely the crime.

To what extent are the questions we ask others, or ourselves, also interrogations of this sort? Do the questions we pose, to others and ourselves, also limit the meaning of the answers they elicit, distracting ourselves from the truths and layers they could otherwise reveal, if not considered solely through the lens of the discrete things we are obsessed with?

 

like something out of Jan Steen

the smoky light, the crush of red-faced drinkers, the old boys propping up the bar, the fat woman singing, displaying a mouthful of broken teeth. A kind of slow amazement came over me, a kind of bafflement and grief, at how firmly I felt myself excluded from that simple, ugly, roistering world.

One is reminded of Bakhtin and the carnivalesque, that quality observed in certain events and texts that provide a space for the mingling of what is not normally allowed to mingle, for dialogue between the sacred and the profane. In carnival, what would normally have been punished is allowed free play, the world is turned topsy-turvy. Yet here there never is any such subversion of order, things stay, like the narrator’s self, intractable bifurcate, the word he uses to describe his own image. One could say that the text has come about because of the absence or impossibility of carnival in life, life as we live it now.

Yet in carnival there is also polyphony, the simultaneous existence and interplay of multiple voices, that other concept that Bakhtin played with. In polyphony, characters demonstrate a certain power of independence or agency, they do not seem to exist for the sake of a dominant narrative. In one sense, there is a polyphonic quality at play in the text, but these are rare moments when characters break free of the straitjackets the narrator’s distorted vision has bound them in: one recalls Daphne’s outburst, and Anna’s vulnerability as she quietly shuts the door on him forever, refusing to play the role he at that moment wanted her to play. Perhaps not so rare, because the policemen and clerks also behave as if the narrator mattered little to them.

Talk of polyphony reminds us that there actually are two voices within this narrator, though when Bunter speaks, it is not words we read but actions only, and dreams. A curious mirroring effect is produced: Bunter is kept in a cage, separate from his knowing self, the same way he has kept himself separate from what he sees as the simple world of riotous, foolish and happy humanity. In the end, he becomes Bunter, kept locked up in a cell. Perhaps, if he seems to express some sort of satisfaction at being incarcerated, it is because Bunter, the ogre inside, has always appeared to be his destiny.

How little I knew, how little I understood

How was it possible, that I could have been so wrong about her, all this time? How could I have not seen that behind her reticence there was all this passion, this pain?

One is reminded of that scene the narrator has turned into an oasis of sorts: where he chances upon her seemingly at peace and apparently in the arms of some beautiful dream. Reminded too of his descriptions of her vacant stare in the midst of love-making. When one considers what he has said of manikins and sculptures, it immediately becomes obvious that this is simultaneously what he desires and cannot abide: people without voices, just bodies that function, that pose beautifully. Daphne and Anna both belong to this type, or seem to represent the peak to which all other manikins should aspire to: poses without predicaments. At the same time, the world of the manikins is what he feels most shut out from — this space inhabited by only persons who have found their niche in the ecosystem and who seem to chug along nicely without complication. This is the same world he is thinking of when, instead of dwelling on Daphne’s passions and pains, he recalls the scene he glimpses through a doorway of a pub: people together. And this in fact is his world too, one where he has a role to play: this is really what we are meant to understand when Daphne asks the narrator what will become of her when he is gone.

And so this is what he’s done: gone through life turning everyone into drones, statues, golems without life. And life is the substance this book describes: life is the ceaseless searching and doubting, the unseen but real asking and doubting, hoping and failing that has been the theme of his recollections. The same desiccation he performed on the image of the girl he kills works on every other person he has made, letting him injure them in other ways. Yet if we remember that he is not alone in this, that perhaps we like him do not understand, beneath the apparent vacancy and reticence of those around us and next to us, their passions and pains, then this guilt extends to us all.

the essential sin

This is the worst, the essential sin, I think, the one for which there will be no forgiveness: that I never made her be there sufficiently, that I did not make her live. Yes, that failure of imagination is my real crime, the one that made the others possible. What I told that policeman is true — I killed her because I could kill her, and I could kill her because for me she was not alive. And so my task now is to bring her back to life. I am not sure what that means, but it strikes me with the force of an unavoidable imperative. How am I to make it come about, this act of parturition? Must I imagine her from the start, from infancy? I am puzzled, and not a little fearful, and yet there is something stirring in me, and I am strangely excited.

Above all, one is struck by the terrible hubris operating here: how could anyone presume to feel able, or responsible, for another’s being? For this has always been a supernatural task, the one that gods and deities have. This seems to be the implicit message of the choice of words here: made and make must remind us of Maker. Yet here we have a murderer lay claim to it as something he had neglected to do. And this theme is continued, the hubris deepens: he sets himself another task — that of bringing her back to life. Again the words ring strangely, at once hollow and prideful and mad, and at the same time resonant, suggestive of something paradoxical and true: he must imagine her from the start, from infancy. Surely there lies here, in some fragmented and perverse sense, the provocative thought that he has made himself a father of sorts. And this has been made possible through his murder of the child. How is it that destruction comes to make possible the role of a creator? As usual, it is easy to decry this as madness, as rambling, but this is not what readers come to a book to do. We have come to study and understand. (To give the criminal the benefit of the doubt, as a friend would say. Which sometimes seems the only thing we can do, outside or within a book.)

And so we try. Let us pry from under the blood and bones the question that lies beneath: is this fashioning of others into reality simply the job of a grand Other? Or is that in some way an act of abrogation, of denial? Perhaps it is indeed our duty to take, like the narrator as he studied the painting and imagined it into life, all the signs and speech offered us by those who come into view and breathe life into our image of them, the shadows that reside next to our own within the theatre of our mind, the mirror that reflects the actual universe. One recalls the science of serial killers and murder: so often there seems to have been a lack of empathy at the root of it all. And empathy is simply the understanding that behind the mask, behind the skin, lives a mind like ours, desiring, loving, asking the same insufferable questions everyday.

Flora is dreaming of the golden world.

Worlds within worlds. They bleed into each other. I am at once here and there, then and now, as if by magic. I think of the stillness that lives in the depths of mirrors. It is not our world that is reflected there. It is another place entirely, another universe, cunningly made to mimic ours. Anything is possible there; even the dead may come back to life. Flaws develop in the glass, patches of slivering fall away and reveal the inhabitants of that parallel, inverted world going about their lives all unawares. And sometimes the glass turns to air and they step through it without sound and walk into my world. Here comes Sophie now, barefoot, still with her leather jacket over her shoulders, and time shimmers in its frame.

If others appear to come from another world, itis because we have lived so long in ours. And surely this world we’ve lived in all our lives is merely the suggestion of a larger background, or theimpression of a wider space, becausewhat each of us has in fact is but the storyof our individual lives, half-understood though pored over and constantly studied.

Yet perhaps the sense of someone we meet coming from another space and time is in some way a marker of sorts: if we can identifythe day or moment whena person appears, not simplya partof our worldto borrow a word from that last passage, as a member of that troop of manikins which simply people the backdrop without coming into life — but the representative or emissary of another world altogether, perhapsthat toowouldbe the moment when that person truly comesinto being for us. Perhaps the only way a person can be saidto enter one’s world is to come from her own universe, fully realizedand richwith detail and color. And like visitors from foreign lands, we exchange storiesabout events, places, myths neither have heard before. And as we pay attention to the twists and turns in these tales, if we listen carefully enough and well enough, we may spot doorways and paths to other stories, stories kept so often in plain and unobstructed view from the perspective of the teller that they may never be deemed worthy of a retelling unless we do the asking. And with each tale one is rewarded with deeper foray into this world of the other, lulling the senses and booking safe passage into a wonderland that really has existed, really does exist.

not for pleasure, really, but to exhaust myself

And in the end, when they all had come and gone, and I lay empty on my prison bed, there rose up out of me again, like the spectre of an onerous and ineluctable task, the picture of that mysterious, dark doorway, and the invisible presence in it, yearning to appear, to be there. To live.

Why, at the end of these lonely exercises, does the image of the doorway return? Twice before it has been summoned up by the narrator’s recollections. And surely it is no accident that the word manikin is used too in one of them:

The passengers were propped up in the wide windows like manikins, they gazed at me blankly as they were borne slowly past.

Compare this to the present instance:

What a motley little band of manikins I conjured up to join me in these melancholy frottings.

And so on one hand he finds himself surrounded by people he finds unreal, while on the other there is the image of a doorway which seems to signify a nascent but never fully realized sense of coming into the presence of someone else.

I was almost happy, sitting there with him, pouring out my life story

What you can do, he said, is get your story straight, without the frills and fancy bits.

and

He had taken my story, with all its – what was it Haslet said? – with all its frills and fancy bits, and pared it down to stark essentials. It was an account of my crime I hardly recognized, and yet I believed it. He had made a murderer of me.

and

I was no longer myself. I can’t explain it, but it’s true. I was no longer myself.

To what extent is anyone ever himself? For what we are is really in the hands of others, or their heads; our self-image, the one within us and that we think is true, lacks the same flavor of decisiveness and definition. Perhaps in our relations with others we take turns playing these two roles on either side of the interrogation table: the one with the story, and the one who listens, listening with apparently infinite patience, appearing like a good friend. And what we think is a real good story turns out to be mendacious and apocryphal, full of frills and fancy bits.

And how true is this indictment? Perhaps it is worth examining whether we like this narrator present to the world something we believe it would like to see, or to be more accuratesomething less awkward or mawkish. If childhood is so often brought up in this text, perhaps it is because as children we are simultaneously really ourselves and therefore more true, and also unable to hide and dissemble, and therefore exposed. What the narrator seems unable to articulate is the fact that at its core his act of murder is almost simply an act of childish impertinence, the kind of violent fit or tantrum a boy might throw when a brilliant scheme has been thwarted by an adult, or when a toy has been taken away. If this is true, then the crime he should be accused of should be for being a child.

I had expected that the building would be agog at my arrival, that there would be clerks and secretaries and policemen in their braces crowding the hallways to get a look at me, but hardly a soul was about, and the few who passed me by hardly looked at me, and I could not help feeling a little offended.

Here’s the dichotomy that was supposed to have been set up: these clerks, secretaries and policemen, pedestrians and mundane folk on one side, foils against the hero of his own tragic tale, our narrator. And so he finds himself more than disappointed by the possibility that this distinction has not been granted him, although he seems to shy away from the truth: that he despite his crime or sin has not made himself any more interesting, or more real to himself, than these people living their workaday lives.

How true is this of us? Do we too expect to find, or get used to not being able to find, the same species of rousing welcome when we plunge or stroll or steal into the company of others? For every child is the hero of his own tale; we are taught to see ourselves that way by fairy tales in childhood, and other versions of fairy tales as we age. To find that we might be, like the minor characters the narrator hardly has time to even invent names for, simply part of the background, simply a hastily sketched figure on a grand canvas, is a kind of personal infamy, or embarrassment.

Across the road, at the harbour wall, a man in a raincoat stood with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing out to sea.

The Sunday morning crowd was long gone, but he, he was still there.

Is it merely a mistake, an error of interpretation, that the appearance of the man in a raincoat had initially seemed to represent a fellow sufferer, and then still seemed that way at the end, when in fact it seems the reader is supposed to recognize the form of some plain-clothes policeman?

Retrace your footsteps, revisit the scene: we read that there are people out and about, going about their diurnal errands, but there is a solitary man watching the sea. He seems a lonely soul, the kind the narrator typically experiences some form of sympathy with, some outcast or misfit or another fellow traveller with a secret sorrow to nurse. For who else would seek the company of the sea?

Yet when that second italicised he appears after the disappearance of the Sunday crowd, a note of menace enters the scene, and I am reminded of those other sergeants and investigators who appear in almost every story told from the perspective of the criminal, the criminal we identify with — in Borges, in Nabokov, even in Bates Motel. If the criminal and fugitive has become an easy symbol for modern man, it is because the sense of persecution is too real.

So perhaps the secret is this: conjoined in the figure of the lone man watching the sea is policeman and fugitive, persecuted and misfit. There really is little difference between the two.

We were like two messengers, meeting in the dark to exchange our terrible news.

Love? Can I call it that? What else can I call it. She trusted me. She smelled the blood and the horror, and she did not recoil, but opened herself like a flower and let me rest in her for a moment, my heart shaking, as we exchanged our wordless secret. Yes, I remember her. I was falling, and she caught me, my Gretchen.

Throughout this encounter, there is little exchanged that is clear, or articulate. Between the two, there are questions asked which work more like gestures and serve, and successfully too, to signify concern, or a kind of heightened attentiveness to the other’s presence, rather than true requests for information. The lady observes that his hand has been cut; later, he asks her why she is so sad. What strikes the reader immediately is how they have bypassed the usual courtesies, preferring to skip the decorous and formal, or safe and sociable, and have chosen instead to begin with the hurt they both see the other hiding.

In response to these questions, there is little information given, and nothing revelatory. She attempts to laugh it off; he tells a fib. If there are words spoken, they say nothing at all. Yet through the urgent pressure of arms entangled and lips left unintelligible some part of their selves is shown to the other – that element not suited for the light of society, closely guarded and forcibly muted. If they do not fully understand where this shame or pain has come from, they at least see it well enough to recognise it in themselves and love it in the other.

Games, as usual: if one looks for contradiction in this narrator, it will surely be found. One recalls the other times this word has been mentioned – love. There is Anna Behrens, cool, blonde and as unreachable as an expensive painting in a gallery, for whom he cherished a desire that is restrained and perhaps kept a secret from himself until years after their parting; there is also Daphne, for whom he declares – to the reader, at least — a love founded purely on the surface of things. Love, until this point, has only been used for these two. While the love he experiences for Foxy (whose beauty does not come close to what we’ve read described in Anna and Daphne, these two immaculate wisps of afternoon light) comes from an inarticulate, desperate zone where the heart fears to revisit, the desire he feels for these two human sculptures seems to share something with the imaginary, abstract admiration one experiences before works of art.

A dialogue, then, is set up across these passages in the text, with no resolution provided. We have seen the narrator swing (or swung?) from one form of love to another. In the end, perhaps there is no resolution needed; it seems folly to attempt to say which one is better. Perhaps it is enough to say that unlike his experiences with Anna and Daphne, here he is able to speak of something contrary to the ceaseless drift and travel he has heretofore been unable to shake: a moment of rest. Until now, serenity seems to have come only through an inward journey into a prelapsarian childhood that is already dark with portents; here we find finally a moment when he can speak of peace, although it is the briefest of truces with the world, ensuing from his contact with someone other than himself.

 

There was a path, I remember, that cut off through the oak wood a mile or so from home, which I knew must lead to Coolgrange eventually.

How green the shadows, and deep the track, how restless the silence seemed, that way. Every time I passed by there, coming up from the cross, I said to myself, Next time, next time. But always when the next time came I was in a rush, or the light was fading, or I was just not in the mood to break new ground, and so I kept to the ordinary route, along the road. In the end I never took that secret path, and now, of course, it is too late.

that he was free, that the cage door was open, that nothing was forbidden, that everything was possible

Today this thought came ringing in my head: perhaps the speakers in this text and its apparent sequel are different men. After all, they seem to be prey to different sins (or passions, call them what you will).

Let us consider the evidence: in much of Ghosts, there is little the speaker does that comes under the name of crime. We learn, of course, that he is a forger, yet that seems altogether a lesser sort of infamy when compared to the momentary stagger (I can find no other word for it) he speaks of when he finds himself in Flora’s room, when he is choked by the possibility of possessing her violently. At least, that seems to be the only comparable crime to the one perpetrated here, the murder of another innocent young woman.

Yet that is where the resemblance ends: violence, youth, a girl. The fuse that is lit in each case seems different: in Ghosts, there is more than a hint of sadism; here there seems only the promise of a liberty that one can only describe as existential. This is what he says:

Perhaps that is the essence of my crime, of my culpability, that I let things get to that stage, that I had not been vigilant enough, had not been enough of a dissembler, that I left Bunter to his own devices, and thus allowed him, fatally, to understand that he was free, that the cage door was open, that nothing was forbidden, that everything was possible.

Bunter is not the personification of a forbidden desire. He is the self. He is the speaker, for he declares: he is me, after all, and I am he. Bunter is the name given to the real self, the essential self, that version of him so unreal to him that he must be named so as to be visible, apprehendable, comprehensible.

Bunter is agency itself, the will to being; that other one, the thing held back in Ghosts, is desire, an altogether more feral force. They seek different ends: the former tastes the freedom that murder grants, the latter would have sampled something more carnal. And so if one insists that the variety of desire one is thrall to should be a tool of identification, there seems to be sufficient cause for thinking that the two speakers are different men.

Yet what would that accomplish? What is gained by this observation?

I kept at it for hours, criss-crossing the streets and the squares with a drunkard’s dazed single-mindedness, as if I were tracing out a huge, intricate sign on the face of the city for someone in the sky to read.

The analogy here is to physiognomy: more precisely, telling one’s fortune by looking for and interpreting the signs on the face. To possess all the signs and see them everyday, and yet be unable to read them — that is what the fortune teller’s existence trades on. And perhaps it is true, too, for there are signs aplenty, most of which are of our own crafting, words, actions, objects that speak not to us perhaps but nonetheless say something. We resort to a kind of automatic existence and spin out the days the way a monomaniac might mumble interminably some incantation to ward away the terrible silence of an empty cell; if not we are subject to some dry fever that infects the blood and fly from moment to moment like some bee in pointless panic. All these rambles draw out a course that intimate some deeper meaning that we in our passion for the mundane or extraordinary lose sight of.

What pains one the most is the thought that perhaps this message, the meaning of these days, will never be understood. Not by me living them out, nor by anyone else. Where do these orphaned meanings go?

Mammy was what she said, that was the word, not Tommy, I’ve just this moment realized it.

Mammy, and then: Love.

Of course: The narrator has given us a fib. The girl had, at the end, called out to her lover — this made sense. But the truth — that it was her mother she had called out to — would have distressed him too much.

Writing from memory, we introduce two errors: we do not remember what is too painful to remember, and we do not write down what is too painful to read. Perhaps, like the narrator, there is a thinking self inside us who is duplicity itself, a dissembler and illusionist who keeps the truth at bay even when we declare to ourselves that it is for us only that we write.

my fellow sufferer, dear friend, compagnon de miseres!

The phrase is Schopenhauer’s:

The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instil in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? From this point of view one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir, but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

Not having studied Schopenhauer, some parts of this at least ring true: there is something arbitrary about the world, something straight out of fiction. And, finding ourselves sharing this same uncertain space, what else indeed can we spare but — in the philosopher’s words — indulgence? Forgive the nonsensical, smile and let pass the moment of ill logic, cease expecting from others the kind of certainty and order this world has never actually known.

Bunter

Several definitions of the word bunt exist, but this one strikes me as the most apropos: (said of a goat) to strike with the horns; to butt.

Also called the ogre or the monster, Bunter is the image he has of his hidden self, the hungry and angry self, the one without reason, waiting to come out.

When we invent selves and attribute actions to them, we are making sure that some part of us remains, somehow, free from blame; the invention of sundry selves is a quarantining manoeuvre, one meant to preserve some kind of innocence for other parts of what in fact is only a single identity.

And so we find the narrator saying, earlier, when he had bought what was to become the murder weapon: I insist it was an innocent desire, a wish, an ache, on the part of the deprived child inside me — not Bunter, not him, but the true lost ghost of my boyhood to possess this marvellous toy.

And so the guilt is shared, distributed and parcelled out: it is the boy inside who buys the tool, the ogre inside who turns it into a weapon. The ingenuity here is that the self who has created these selves, the writing and speaking self, the one spinning these stories, is not mentioned. He is free.

Our visitors exist in a different element from ours, they seem more sharply defined than we, more intensely present in their world. Sometimes we catch a look in their eyes, a mixture of curiosity and compassion, and faint repugnance, too, which strikes us to the heart.

Again, with an insistent note, what appears to be a description of visiting hours must surely be a depiction of a psychological reality: how many of us actually see ourselves and those outside us with equal clarity? A difficult task to maintain such sanity: more likely, our vision is imperfect, imbalanced. Anyone who has tried to achieve focus when staring at his own thumb held immediately before him knows that each eye creates one image and these two cannot be conjoined for longer than a brief instant before separating again into things we can almost see through — the same must surely happen when we stare at what is too close to ourselves, our selves. And so the best we can achieve is the odd moment of focus before the two images separate again to create a doubling effect, two or more images that we cannot trust.

In contrast, the persons further afield, the friends, strangers, family members we see from far off come at us with almost perfect clarity. They seem so concrete, their lines are defined, and they never seem at risk of breaking apart. Somehow, this makes them seem superior, makes us vulnerable to the illusion that they are judging us, as if they weren’t themselves too trying to focus their vision and see themselves, as if they too weren’t busy fending off the feeling that they were being evaluated, judged, appraised.

The room has a touch of the aquarium about it, with that wall of greenish glass, and the tall light drifting down from above, and the voices that come to us out of the plastic lattices as if bubbled through water.

Why does it feel that the narrator might as well be describing what happens everyday out here, outside the text, when we encounter others and begin to talk, hear and try to understand or be understood? Between you and me is a wall of greenish glass, and our voices come out to each other as if bubbled through water, heard indistinctly; perhaps we think we understand, or we pretend to, because there is little visiting time to waste on requests for repetitions, since deep down we know that speaking and hearing may be all that we need, or all we can have, these words meaning less than the fact that we can be together here, in this spare visiting room, these words which make the silence bearable.

it was he, the ogre, who was pounding along in this lemon-coloured light, with blood on his pelt, and me slung helpless over his back

I think a part of me hoped — no, expected — that somehow I would be saved, that as in a fairy-tale everything would be magically reversed, that the wicked witch would disappear, that the spell would be lifted, that the maid would wake from her enchanted sleep.

Why this incessant reminder of the fairy tale, both its aptness and its unlikeliness? Scattered throughout the text are suggestions again and again of the fairy-tale quality of things, though it is usually the dark bits of wonderland that strike us as real, such as the comparison of Wally’s pub to a witch’s lair, and the narrator’s description of himself as a kind of ogre. In contrast, the idea of the fairy tale can also be used as a sign of the impracticality, or insouciance of a thought, such as the wish here for a reversal of fortune, an undoing of the deeds that have done him in.

Perhaps the lesson is less about the text than the fairy tale, for if a motif can be used doubly, as a sign of one concept and its opposite, than what we have here is a two-headed beast: what the fairy tale seems to contain is both the authentically dark and intractably grim side of life as we know it, and the very human and also very illusory belief that somehow this reality can be undone, redeemed, transformed. The fairy tale is honest, it speaks of pain and disappointment and loss; the fairy tale is wish-fulfilment, idealism and the belief that somehow the spirit can conquer what the flesh knows is real, as real as the hairy on an ogre’s back. The first half is undeniably adult; the second requires a child.

Where fairy tales begin (the forest without end, the wolf waiting, the clock striking twelve) is entirely real; how they end is where we begin to leave our senses.

I would have told him, if he had been prepared to listen. As it was, I merely let a silence pass, and then I asked if I might borrow a razor, and perhaps a shirt and tie.

Suddenly, though, I did not want him to go — alone, I would be alone! — and I rushed after him and made him come back and tell me how the stove worked, and where to find a key, and what to say if the milkman called. He was puzzled by my vehemence, I could see, and faintly alarmed.

How many silences do we let pass? A strange logic persists here, as it often does in life: one substitutes the muted message with a workaday act of intolerable triviality, as if how pointless the act is should match the depth of emotion being held back, or held down. And so a declaration shut up becomes a request for a shirt and razor, a muffled plea for companionship becomes a question about the whereabouts of a key.

Yesterday, the last day of the old world.

Perhaps that was the moment in my life at which — but what am I saying, there are no moments, I’ve said that already. There is just the ceaseless, slow, demented drift of things.

The ravings of mad men are delirious and persuasive, they are uttered with a calm conviction they do not deserve. That enforced caesura, the long pause between the first thought and the second, a reminder to himself to stay coherent, to stick to his story: that em dash is a clue to the contradiction he has fallen into.

A contradiction made clear by the end of this chapter, when he sees and comments upon the clear separation between the old world of his former life and the new one. So there do exist moments after all, if by a moment what we mean is what the narrator has been suggesting: an event that serves as a marker of sorts, a single stone laid on the vast and fervid stretch of forest that time feels like as we lose our way through it, a single stone that can serve as a way-marker bringing us to another one laid before, and another one before that, so that like those two children left deserted by their parents to starve and die in the wild, we can find our way back. But back to what? To the beginning, one supposes, but for what is anybody’s guess.

But what would one gain by the argument that time is slow, demented, a kind of pointless drift we find ourselves in? What sort of comfort, perhaps served cold but served nonetheless? Chiefly this: the relief of finding oneself not at all necessary, if that self is the deciding self, the thinking thing, that sense of an agent who has to chip away at this thing called life, the mechanism we mistake by necessity as ourselves, the only tool with which we can sculpt meaning out of the rough-hewn granite face of existence, if time indeed has no branching forks and way-stones, then there can be neither remembrance nor regret. Time would have no claim on the human heart.

Ever since I had reached what they call the use of reason I had been doing one thing and thinking another

What I said was never exactly what I felt, what I felt was never what it seemed I should feel, though the feelings were what felt genuine, and right, and inescapable. … To do the worst thing, the very worst thing, that’s the way to be free. I would never again need to pretend to myself to be what I was not.

The use of reason: why use? Because reason is a tool, something you wield. It is not the self, because that came out bawling, hungry and afraid. Reason is what it uses to clamp the jaws shut when crying might be called for, to sit and stare though meat is offered, to explain away nightmares. Reason is a role that when played often enough, one mistakes for the actor.

Nothing is justified, of course. The very worst thing — in this instance, murder — cannot be condoned. No, nothing can make the worst thing seem justified, because justification belongs to the province of reason, and here we are speaking only of freedom, the space to act and be. Radical freedom prances and frolics wherever it can, and here, in this text, it has been found in the badlands, the desert. There is nothing good or laudable about freedom: perhaps that is what is being said. But we want it nonetheless, that space to cry, and eat, and give in to panic.

I had never felt another’s presence so immediately and with such raw force.

She was quite ordinary, and yet, somehow, I don’t know — somehow radiant. She cleared her throat and sat up, and detached a strand of hair that had caught at the corner of her mouth.

Why notice, at this point of calamity and crisis, a detail as infinitesimal and minute as a strand of hair? There is something sensual, or verging on the intimate, in the noticing, the way the eye of infatuation picks up the small things the beloved doesn’t, as if by so doing one proved one’s devotion: one imagines noting this apparently trivial act (trivial only to the one performing it) across the table while conversing with a friend over lunch, or fixing it into one’s mind during a stroll along the boardwalk of a beach.

And why should this thought, this intimate observation, be the immediate precursor to the first blow of what would become a fatal barrage? What we are offered here contradicts what we like to think: that violence is possible only between persons who cannot see each other as actual personalities, unique and real identities. Resist the urge to call it bad psychology, pursue this argument to it’s necessary end, accept for a moment that this is possible: could it be that one could still do violence to others one sees completely? If so, then surely there can be no exoneration or explaining away, no hope of ratiocination or rescue. If the moment of murder can also be the time when victim and monster see each other at their most truthful and honest — when one is real in his or her vulnerability and the other is just as real in his or her beastliness — if a moment of radical honesty does not engender love, then morality is simply a prison, a path, and not the natural flower of the human heart.

How grave we were, how pensive, with what attentiveness we handled each other’s flesh. No one spoke a word.

They were saying goodbye. Of course, It's just occurred to me. They were not finding each other, but parting. Hence the sadness and the sense of waste, hence Daphne's bitter tears. It was nothing to do with me, at all.

In a text where all relationships go wrong, or are wrong, it is a surprise to find bodies enraptured without trouble. That there are three bodies involved suggests some form of transgression, but the comparison again and again is to a ritual, pagan to be sure, but something ceremonial, orderly yet organic, and somehow attending to the needs of the soul rather than the flesh: as if engaged in an archaic ceremonial of toil and worship, miming the fashioning and raising of something, a shrine, say, or a domed temple.

So how could such a moment signify leave-taking? Consider what we have: prior to this, the two women, Anna and Daphne, had appeared complete in themselves, entirely self-sufficient. They lived together, occupied the same space, but did not seem to require each other: yet they are conjoined in the narrator's mind as two halves of a partnership.

So in this moment of the greatest, softest intimacy, the two break through the superficial closeness that mere friends share, and reach a new honesty beyond what witticisms and telephone calls can convey. Perhaps, because there can be nothing closer than this, because the communion is perfect, the circle complete, all that follows can only be a lesser embrace, and so mean only a drifting away from what they now know was possible. Yes: because up to now their lives had consisted solely of clever remarks and ridicule, everything must now, in comparison with what they have experienced, appear debased and unnecessary. And because the moment cannot be manufactured again, all the days that come can only already appear fatigued before they start and denuded of possibility, almost like photographs that appear yellowed with age the moment they are developed.

oh, all sorts of mad notions came into my head, I am too embarrassed to speak of them

I must slow down, pause for a minute, examine all the signs. I am hurtling ahead, looking for the denouement when in fact I should be enjoying the build, the suspense. Let me lay out the words, passage by passage, connect the dots and see what they suggest.

First: Waking dreams assailed me with grotesque and bawdy visions. Once, on the point of sleep, I had a sudden, dreadful sense of falling, and I sprang awake with a jerk. Though I tried to put her out of my mind I kept returning to the thought of Anna Behrens.

So he is caught, he is in the grip of desire. If his dreams are grotesque and bawdy, and his thoughts turn always to Anna Behrens, one supposes that she is the subject of these dreams. So it is natural for the reader to presume that the plan he hatches will fit the flavour of the only grotesque dream we have read about so far, the one about flesh becoming meat.

Then: And as I was thinking these things, another thought, on another, murkier level, was winding and winding its dark skein. So it was out of a muddled conflation of ideas of knight errantry and rescue and reward that my plan originated. 

Here the path becomes confused, for knight errantry, rescue and reward all point toward some quixotic and noble action, something heroic, rash but debonair. All things far removed from the grotesque and bawdy. So he wishes to save Anna – from what? Her loneliness? Perhaps from the same kind of pointlessness and drift that he sees infecting his own life. As usual, we look for people whose problems bear a family resemblance to our own, so that we can solve their problems and alleviate a little of our own pain; it’s rare that we try to fix our own problems — that’s too much trouble.

Finally: In the night, when the egg hatched and the thing first flexed its sticky, brittle wings, I had told myself that when morning came and real life started up again I would laugh at such a preposterous notion.

The analogy is that of a fly, or some other malevolent insect. This plan must therefore be something noisome, something alien to human feeling, hateful to society. It cannot be anything good. So we are left with a few possibilities, all of which could be entirely wrong. We know for sure that it is an act meant to be a form of rescue, and that could mean some romantic gesture: perhaps he intends to surprise her at her home? And even so, rescue her from what? Her inaction, her wasting away? Or her father? Given that this narrator is capable of anything, we imagine that murdering the old man would not be beyond him; perhaps he thinks disposing of the father would free both him and her to live, unmolested by society, within their quaint house, free him to satisfy his desire for her at last. A notion transgressive and self-serving enough to deserve the analogy to an loathsome insect.

Another possibility: perhaps he intends to steal the painting (of this I already am aware, since I began the trilogy in the middle), and to use the money he would obtain from its sale to furnish him and Anna safe flight away to a different life altogether, a new beginning. Such a plan would appear decidedly in character: after all, it seems that every place he finds himself in is a refuge from the last place he left.

this breathless, blurred, eternal turning towards her

I turned then, and saw myself turning as I turned, as I seem to myself to be turning always, as if this might be my punishment, my damnation, just this breathless, blurred, eternal turning towards her.

There is more than a suggestion of Sisyphus and Tantalus about this line, this pattern of a eternal return to the same state, caught between the desire to act and the act itself: Sisphyphus, of course, would roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down so that it could be rolled back up again, and Tantalus, who gave us the word tantalize, would neither reach the fruit suspended on a branch above him, nor catch a drink of water from the pool below him, as it would always recede from his grasp. Action without fruition, desire without satisfaction, repeated without end.

Turning towards: imagine what this means. Mark the clues: breathless and blurred. The first suggests a moment in between breaths, that infinitesimally short interval when one breath ends and another one is yet to begin; the second implies half-blindness, the kind that comes when something is seen only with the corner of one’s eyes, or when the image of something becomes shifty and uncertain because of our own motion. When we turn towards someone, or something, we do not initially see her; suddenly some part of her comes into view, and at some point there is enough to spur the brain to complete the picture and engender hope, hope that what is coming into view really is as splendid as the image conjured by our heart. It is this admixture of half-seen, half-apprehended beauty, this anticipation of pleasure, a pleasure that will come to suffuse our heart, that comes with a turning towards.

 

 

 

Anna struck a match and lighted a candle on the table between us, and for a moment there was a sense of hovering, of swaying, in the soft, dark air.

At the door, I don’t know what I was thinking of, I fumbled for her hand and tried to kiss her. She stepped back quickly, and I almost fell over. The taxi tooted again. Anna! I said, and then could think of nothing to add. She laughed bleakly. Go home, Freddie, she said, with a wan smile, and shut the door slowly in my face.

We gazed at each other with blank interest, like strangers, as she went by. I recognised her, of course.

I remembered, with a soft shock, how one day long ago I stole the envelope of one of her letters to Daphne, and took it into the lavatory and prised open the flap, my heart pounding, so that I might lick the gum where she had licked. The thought came to me: I loved her! and I gave a sort of wild, astonished laugh.

Can one love someone without knowing it? Examine the evidence here placed before us: this is Anna, amused and impossible Anna, Anna before whom he feels ridiculed, impotent, outré. Perhaps he did not dare to allow himself to know he loved her.

Hence this recollection and scene: it is a moment of thievery, of desire hidden from view. Because he cannot touch her lips and what they keep, he seeks out the parts of the gum where her tongue had left its moisture. Perhaps he knew then that such an act — ridiculous, fugitive and yet true — already precluded him from Anna’s perfectly scornful universe. And perhaps the dissembling went deeper: he did not merely keep this desire away from her, but from himself as well.

Why, then, should he recall it now? Time is his protector: because it is already in the past, it cannot hurt him anymore, so he can confess it to himself. And so the mind is its own guardian, devising ways whereby we keep from ourselves the things we want but feel we cannot have, keeping us safe from the discovery of our own limits.

This is the only way another creature can be known: on the surface, that’s where there is depth.

That time, years ago, I can’t remember where, when I came upon her at the end of a party, standing by a window in a white dress in the half-light of an April dawn, lost in a dream — a dream from which I, tipsy and in a temper, unceremoniously woke her, when I could — dear Christ! — when I could have hung back in the shadows and painted her down to the tiniest detail, on the blank inner wall of my heart, where she would be still, vivid as in that dawn, my dark, mysterious darling.

It seems a matter of course to declare this bad: to adore the surface of someone, to prefer the apparent to the real. For when we think we have found love, what gives us more pleasure than the thought that here, standing right before us in the same square of space and light, is another human being who sees into the heart of us and yet neither judges nor scolds, but understands and accepts?

Yet what we want from others can be different from what we want for ourselves, that’s the bitter pill of it. One can wish to be loved despite one’s flaws, yet desire only the flawless, or — to put it more accurately — search for those who contain no trace of that same flaw that so haunts one’s every step.

For that seems precisely what we see here: Daphne found by the speaker in a moment where she is wholly self-sufficient, wholly at peace with herself and the place she has found herself in. Standing by a window at the end of a party, she is simultaneously found in the liminal space between society and solitude, the claustrophobic yet safe space of the house and the free but uncertain air of the world outside. She is bathed in the half-light of dawn, between the fragile peace of night and constant but violent glare of day. And that sense of finding oneself always in transition, always between places without one to call his own, is what dogs and hunts the speaker all his life-long way.

So, if one can be forgiven for anything at all in this little life, let it be for this: in our search for a liberating kind of beauty, we injure those we love by seeking in them what we fail to find in ourselves, and by so doing place them in the same place of scrutiny and judgment we constantly fly from ourselves. That is not fair at all, not fair at all.

Anna’s amused, appraising glance, that appraising smile

It seemed to me the garden was watching me, in its stealthy, tightlipped way, or that it was at least somehow aware of me, framed here in the window, wringing my hands, a stricken starer-out — how many other such there must have been, down the years! — with the room’s weightless dark pressing at my back.

Recall what has already been said and suggested: never wholly with any place or anyone. It is not simply an inability to identify with people and places that characterizes the speaker of these words, not merely apathy. Not an absence of feeling but rather an excess, an extraordinary apprehensiveness. Paranoia, a perpetual sense of persecution or guilt, or both — this theme is introduced early in his depiction of the house, then developed in his encounter with Anna, who is as beautiful as a statue, an inert and impossibly desirable object: when he first sees her she is at home in the art gallery where she works, clearly a work of art itself; when he visits her she is at once seductive in her long legs and shorts and impossible to possess in the way she seems to go about her day without his presence seeming to make any difference to her.

Anna: she who has that air of detachment, of faint remote amusement; she who watched my lips as I talked. She who leads the narrator to groom and spruce himself up, to shave and put on a new shirt, and hate himself for doing it, to see himself as an obscurely shameful, lewd object, exposed and cringing.

Why should the onset of desire always occasion shame? No, to be more accurate it is not shame but the fear of being found out, not for a crime committed but for pretension and presence, a fear of being seen for who you are and a fear, not truly of accusation or arrest, but of being mocked and sniggered at, of being ridiculed. In short, a deep and essential embarrassment.

Here we have the old story, then, of postlapsarian disorder, the story of displacement — out of the garden and never to be in it again, out of contact with the source of things and never to be in its presence again. Never to do anything without self-consciousness or the premonition of guilt again. The old story, retold as human drama, as psychological possibility, or reality.

Never wholly anywhere, never with anyone, either, that was me, always. Even as a child I seemed to myself a traveller who had been delayed in the middle of an urgent journey.

What would it mean to be wholly anywhere or with anyone? One's first instinct is to reject it as fantasy, that this idea of complete identification with a place or person is impossible: after all, if we cannot describe it, we cannot believe it. Yet perhaps this is worth some experimentation.

Wholly with someone: this is the more interesting proposition, possibly due to the dire dream that begins the chapter:

I had dreamed I was gnawing the ripped out sternum of some creature, possibly human. It seemed to have been parboiled, for the meat on it was soft and white. …That was all there was to it, really, except for an underlying sensation of enforced yet horribly pleasurable transgression.

There is, therefore, already the suggestion of cannibalism, and what it connotes: the transgression of a code that defines what it means to be human, civilised, safe. The eating of flesh is possession, elimination, obsession: it is a taking apart in order to take in, a process of consumption. It turns the other into a consumable thing, reduces it to an object. And eating is sustenance, a breaking down of meat into something molecular and atomic, small enough in size to digest and turn into ourselves, part of ourselves: a living thing becomes protein, which when eaten becomes a part of our selves. Surely this is a way to be with another.

Beyond this, there is pleasure too, a complex pleasure: it is enforced and born of transgression. And so it is the pleasure that comes from simply performing the forbidden thing, and also the pleasure of obedience, of doing the commanded thing. What is this force that does the commanding? We are being pointed in the direction of a maleficient will within the soul, not evil per se but a desire to step beyond a line simply because a line has been drawn, an inner voice who is the dark twin of conscience, perhaps what Freud named the id but certainly something driven underground, away from the light of the visible world.

More evidence (this is a book of evidence, after all): in the same chapter, the narrator watches the stable girl, enjoys the power he seems to wield simply through his gaze.

She was wearing a mouse-grey dressing gown belted tightly around her mid-riff. Her hair was tied up at the back in a thick, appropriately equine plume. It really was remarkable in colour, a vernal russet blaze. … She had red heels and very white, thick calves.

Here is a gaze that breaks another person down into parts: mid-riff, hair, heels, calves. It remarks the fleshly, associates the human with the animal, for why else would it see her hair as bound up in an equine plume, equating her with the ponies she is in charge of? It is also a gaze that sees only two colours: the hair is russet, the heels red, the calves very white. And of course, these are the same colours we remember from the dream: the soft, white parboiled meat, the crimson blood we cannot help but conjure in the mind's eye upon the mention of a ripped sternum. Here we find the stink of lust, its predatory flavour and thrust; this is the desire that turns the desired into parts, into something to possess, not to understand or know, but to take and seize, to rip apart, to consume. Again, like the cannibal, the lover who seeks to possess is a eater of things, a digester and transformer of others into parts of oneself. A glutton and a monster.

Therefore, although there is little to help us in terms of explaining what being wholly with another person might be, there is plenty of evidence of what it is not. Better: call it evidence of what being wholly with another might be misinterpreted as being, evidence of its perversion. If wholly being with another person is what this narrator has never experienced, and this dream of cannibalism and the experience of lust are his perpetual bedfellows, then we are meant to understand that they exist as contradictory elements, perhaps not diametrically opposed but certainly not the same. Perhaps one is mistaken for the other, often enough. Or perhaps the point is this: this crime for which the narrator stands accused, this dream and desire, is not his alone. Happy must be those who believe they are innocent.

他紧闭双眼,努力回憶所有细节。

【过去他会和艾莉一同去大河边汲水,两人对着水中倒影微笑。之后他就没再看过自己的模样。】

爱也可以是一种解放。人的一生中,时时刻刻顾忌着自己这张脸:我们望着镜子批评它,寻找可以改正的地方,寻觅别人或许可能喜爱的优点。但它永远似乎美中不足,甚至给人带来自卑。

当然,我们对脸的执着象征人内心世界的困绕。人以【我】为中心,思潮被自己的故事牵着走,就犹如行星环绕着太阳一样,被这巨大躯体的重力摆步,脱离不了,挣扎不开。

只有心上人的脸可以把我们从内心的结释放。

Days go by and I remain

Let night come and the hours ring
Days go by and I remain

On the cab, watching the world rush by and having finally a moment to let thoughts rush in, or having finally time to let thoughts bear the mind up, I suddenly understand this poem that has always eluded me: love and desire has a transfixing power, pinning one to a moment, refusing to let go. Outside of us, time is still ever the despot, urging the world forwards; inside us, time has stopped. The speaker of this poem cannot leave; he haunts Le Pont Mirabeau; or more precisely, despite the passing of days and weeks, despite the onward flow of the river, time, this world, his mind cannot move on — it has fixed itself on this bridge where he and her once shared something important to both. And it is not love that holds him enthralled to that moment: it is the loss of that love, its passing, that he is caught in. Now I am speculating (but why not?): at the time when he composed this, the poet lived in this world and therefore had business to attend to, everyday business, mundane affairs, perhaps urgent work but mundane work all the same; to all around him he was apparently functioning, the machinery was chugging along nicely. But in fact he was still there, on the bridge, reeling again and again from what he had lost, what could never come back again.

Everything, always, turns to farce.

I have been reading my infrequent diary; I suppose that is the kind of mood I’m in. On 11 March 2016, at 6:30PM, I wrote: “I want a book that will offer me consolation. A book with an ineffectual hero who never amounts to much, a sentimental sort who loves but never rises to tragic heights. Someone who fails to fail.” Of course, I can’t remember what prompted that thought, but it couldn’t have been anything good. What happened last March?

In any case, I have found that book (or books) and that hero (or heroes). And so I’ve decided to take a break from The Timekeeper (that book which insists on inspiring you) and return to The Book of Evidence (the book that never wants to).

My ineffectual hero is visiting his mother. There is a stable girl there in jodhpurs looking after ponies. Jodhpurs: the detail is significant, telling. He can’t say whether her name is Joan, Jane, or Jean. (If I were psycholoanalyzing, I would remark at the repetition of ‘j’, both in the name and the apparel. But I shouldn’t.) Joan, Jane, or Jean shows up again, and our hero tries to live up to the name I’ve given him:

I gave her one of my special, slow smiles, and saw myself through her eyes, a tall, tanned hunk in a linen suit, leaning over her on a summer lawn and murmuring dark words.

Just a few sentences later, we find that he has put his hand on one of the ponies she is caring for, and this reaction:

Suddenly I had a vivid, queasy sense of myself, not the tanned pin-up now, but something else, something pallid and slack and soft. I was aware of my toenails, my anus, my damp, constricted crotch. And I was ashamed. I can’t explain it. That is, I could, but won’t.

So much is clear: he had wished to appear romantic to himself by seeing himself through the eyes of the girl, to appear to be in control, smooth, unruffled; yet the beast he put his hand on was not the trick or sleight of hand he was seeking to achieve through his little act of flirtation — this beast was the truth, it was him. He and this stupid, stubborn animal are really not so different.

Why ashamed? We needn’t look far for an explanation. He had said that obviously mother had felt an affinity after noting the similarities between the stable girl and his parent. By extrapolation it is easy to guess that what he could explain and won’t is his desire for his own mother. There is nothing civilized about such sentiments; there is only the animal, the brutish and stupid.

This refusal to find words is repeated elsewhere. He recalls the scene of his father’s death:

His hands. The rapid beat of his breathing. His —

Enough. I was speaking of my mother. 

Although he allows himself to begin to think of his father, his recollection only succeeds in bringing him to the brink of the truth, and no further. Beyond that point lies only the ellipsis, white space. Again, what he refuses to declare is already hinted at. Previously he had accused himself of accidie; here he says his father had become a potterer, he who all his life had been driven by fierce, obsessive energies. So what’s past is prologue: that is the horror. If we hate our parents, then surely there can be no greater punishment for that great sin of hatred than the process of becoming like them, and nothing more poetically just either.

Two places then, in the space of a few pages, where the narrator breaks off, where he abandons or makes obvious the charade he has been putting up with this welter of words. He is eloquent where he has no need to be, is dumb on the subject of his loss.

Uncannily, I am reminded of what I started this entry with. Why can I not remember the events, or thoughts, that triggered that desire for just such a book, just such a hero? If I were the narrator now, and there is a reader picking at my words and my silences, what would be clear to that reader, which to me is impossible to see, or appear too well-hidden to require confession?