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.


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.






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?












【刻】,是【时刻】的【刻】,也是【雕刻】的 【刻】,【刻意】的 【刻】。它的偏旁是立刀旁,会给人连想到切割,分析,裁断。人们的心犹如一把很小但很可靠的刀,一双我们用在时间这块布的剪刀,而记忆便是我们用心去缝的棉被,供我们在寒冷的时季用来聚取一点点的温暖,一丝丝的安慰。

Le Pont Mirabeau

Below the Mirabeau bridge there flows the Seine
As for our love
Must I recall how then
After each sorrow joy would come again

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

Hand in hand let us stay face to face
While down below
The bridge of our embrace
Roll the waves weary of our endless gaze

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

Love goes away like this water
Love goes away
Life is so slow
Life is so violent

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

Days pass and weeks pass
Neither time passed
Nor love can come again
Below the Mirabeau bridge there flows the Seine

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

Several translations of this poem exist; I have picked what sound to me like the best parts of some and assembled them here. The first time I heard it was perhaps more than a decade ago, on a bus, when we still had television on buses (I remember I was standing, and the afternoon glare); the refrain has stayed with me since, and that is the version I have included here.

I have never succeeded in reading this and writing about it; when I try, the words ring false. I only remember the refrain; they say something I feel is true, yet cannot explain or interpret. Perhaps there is nothing to explain, because Apollinaire was speaking plainly. I have written it here because so much in these books have been about Time, what it means, and how it feels. And this poem speaks to them all, addresses the topic. Let night come and the hours ring: when the seconds and minutes become charged with meaning, what can one do but listen and accept, to let the blows rain down and receive them all?





Hunting is business, practicality, a way of being in the world. Running up onto the mountain is escape, a way of being with oneself. The one we love is just such a mountain, such a space elevated and separated. Running, flight: love is not just an upward movement but also a speeding up. It burns up time. It is time you want to stay but also its acceleration. This all is bittersweet, paradoxical and perhaps therefore true.

Yet an ominous note is sounded here: there is a third party in this scene that was meant to be bucolic, the thoughts of the man personified as some other perhaps more seductive proposition. If his thoughts are with what’s ahead, surely he cannot be completely in the present.

Thus the passions, both love and ideals, work like catalysts on us and time; what we experience on a daily basis is their effervescence. It is always the things that give us life which make us fear the end of things. The febrile nature of things: wise men tell us that to stay in peace, one need merely divest oneself of all desire. Yet what would we do then with all this time?

… and looked away from her, casting about me crossly for something neutral on which to concentrate.

So every conversation begins with a desire to communicate as little as possible. It is not that he is lost for words, the narrator defends himself; it is merely because he has too much to say. He must always be the eloquent one, the one with words, in command and at ease. Yet between having too many words and finding too little, who can say where the difference lies? For if there was only one word you wished to say, but a hard and difficult word, a word that fills your mind, you could hardly call that meager.

This has happened before. With Charlie: Constrained, sad, obscurely ashamed, we blustered and bluffed, knocking our glasses together and toasting the good old days. This doesn’t last, and suddenly Charlie breaks down the charade of harmless bonhomie, only to beat a hasty retreat straight after. And so conversations here are temporary truces, like meetings between smiling heads of state who sit at tables to sign papers, uncomfortable but necessary encounters created to celebrate the armistice, the unreal peace that can last a lifetime, if you work at it.

Oh, we have time, I think.

The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden 
Hardens and grows cold, 
We cannot cage the minute 
Within its nets of gold, 
When all is told 
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances 
Advances towards its end; 
The earth compels, upon it 
Sonnets and birds descend; 
And soon, my friend, 
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying 
Defying the church bells 
And every evil iron 
Siren and what it tells: 
The earth compels, 
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon, 
Hardened in heart anew, 
But glad to have sat under 
Thunder and rain with you, 
And grateful too 
For sunlight on the garden.

I’m returning to Arcadia tonight (a strange way to put it, I know); perhaps it is because I have been talking about it, been thinking about it again. And also because when one text we love begins talking to another, we need to recognize it, and put the words down so we can read them next time.

When did McNiece’s poem start talking to Stoppard’s play? It’s been happening, I think, but in a subterranean way, in a whisper in the mind; today the whisper grew into actual sound, the suspicion became too much and I had to have evidence. So here it is.

Too many similarities, too many bridges to ignore. The sunlight on the garden hardens and grows cold: so the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold. In both cases, there is the certainty that things must, will come to an end; in both cases, heat and light are the symbols, for heat and light are what keep us warm in a universe that is universally cold and dark — this is true of existence both within and without.  So, we are all doomed! 

And soon, my friend, we shall have no time for dances: yes, we must hurry if we are going to dance. Why dancing? Because it is being together, for a moment, for a brief but harmonious moment; because it is being in step with another. The lack of time produces hurry, haste; yet to dance, to keep time with the music, surely one must resist the desire to hurry. The idea of hurry reminds us of febrile actions, gesticulation and scrambling, which are the very opposite of what a dance should be: grace, elegance, something courtly and considerate. Something polite, tender, gentle. I am come barefoot so mind my toes: very likely the line I will remember most keenly when the rest of the play has begun to fade.

We are dying, Egypt, dying: is it Cleopatra? – I hate Cleopatra! Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love. The original line, of course, belongs to a dying Mark Anthony; the poem substitutes the “I” with “we”. In what way are we all equally stricken, equally bereft? For the queen of Egypt is not merely passion but passion cut off, broken down, taken away; if she is to be hated, then it is because nothing gets past her – not philosophy, structure or law, everything the Romans represented.

And not expecting pardon, hardened in heart anew, but glad to have sat under thunder and rain with you: He gives her a final twirl, bringing them to the table where he bows to her. Literature is so often the only mercy we have left: we go to a book, not expecting pardon, but companionship, some measure of understanding. We hope to find a mind that will see and understand, not judge, not forgive, but merely to see and accept. That is why we go back to a book, that is why we keep looking for more; surely that is what we look for in a friend too, in those we find near us. To sit together under thunder and rain, to dance and then to finish with a bow: both are simple things to do, and perhaps all we could ever want, or need.

I enjoy the inappropriate, the disreputable, I admit it.

Should we be surprised that in a matter of pages, the narrator goes from recalling and mocking his father's vanity and laxity to describing in detail his own desires for the undesirable? For they truly are, even in his own mind and to himself, undesirable pursuits. He wanders into Wally's, where he finds consolation in the company of queers, for whom he declares a single-minded disdain; here there is a slight touch of sleaze that he finds congenial, here the corrupt and perverse provide a blowsy gaiety and a slight edge of threat. So the son who accuses the father of giving in to base desire himself dives for rescue into a place he links with the worst form of desire.

Dived is the word, we are told. A dive bar then, an establishment of disrepute and sinister events. But also a gesture of desperation, helplessness. And what does he dive from? What he calls a stricken city, a world he hardly recognised. And of all the structures to lend him grief, a church for sale. The very thought gives him a kind of moral horror; yet we know he is not a moral being. Yet perhaps this means he is not irreligious; even the very bad can believe that there are sacred things. The world he thinks he belongs to is a place where structures have significance, where meaning is stable; like the bandstand of his youth, the church too is a part of his childhood's fabric, something that falls outside the world of commerce. Reading this, one cannot help but remember how he mocked his own father for his attachment to his identity as a Castle Catholic, as a gentleman of the old school displaced in time.

So fathers and sons are not so different; and hate and mistrust lurks between them. This is why the narrator alludes to Oedipus, the man who kills his own father. Yet what one finds in this pattern, the way in which son and father mirror each other's moral fractures, may yet turn out to be not a wall, but a window, or a door. Perhaps the only way back, back past sins real and imagined, the way back to our fathers is the recognition of our shared burden, the understanding that, flawed and terrible though they were, we have little claim to innocence ourselves. We both find ourselves in a world we do not feel we perfectly belong in, we both seek out escape.

I liked it here when I was a child, the pier, the promenade, that green bandstand.

There was always a sweet sense of melancholy, of mild regret, as if some quaint, gay music, the last of the season, had just faded on the air.

I have felt it too, this air of loss that hangs around a bandstand. Perhaps it stems from the recognition that once, there were people who thought the music meant to be played inside them would continue to entertain us, continue to lend us some measure of forgetfulness. These people, the ones who designed them and built them, the ones who painted them — they might have loved this music, but it will no longer be played there, in this structure built for joy.

From all the memories I have of the place I select one at random.

That is what we would like to sometimes believe. But no recollection is random; if our narrator takes the time to draw it in detail, it must serve some purpose. Remember this is a court case we’re reading.

Why bring it up then? What is this meant to evidence? The picture he paints is a bucolic one, an Arcady with marvelous women, maenads fawning over him and his fellow wizard, girls who hold files over their chests like breastplates but who eventually capitulate like flower children into his bed. These words come from the same world, a world we cannot go back to, a lost place. He calls himself sinister, says he shares something of the shark with his fellow wise man. Maenad: the word describes the women who worshipped Dionysus, who would become inebriated and submit to rituals. There is then an insistent note of something sinister about this memory, as if he was some false prophet or fake god, come into paradise to fleece and seduce.

So: nothing random at all, but evidence in every sense. He is guilty, of course; we never needed any convincing. But details like these tell us how deep his guilt is, and help us understand whether there is enough here for us to decide that he carries with him enough crimes to qualify to be an Everyman.

Better say, I took up science in order to make the lack of certainty more manageable.

It helped, to be without convictions as to the nature of reality, truth, ethics, all those big things — indeed, I discovered in science a vision of an unpredictable, seething world that was eerily familiar to me, to whom matter had always seemed a swirl of chance collisions.

When did science change its character, its role in this human drama? Once it seemed the very symbol of order: it was clad in white, it came striding with a regular gait onto the stage, it spoke clearly and quietly but always without confusion. It wore glasses and it was sure of where it was going. At some point the lines it received changed, its very pitch and tenor wavered: today it is something of a jester, the sign of the unpredictable and perhaps diabolical, the aleatory and random.

At the same time, there is some suggestion here that science began to confirm the suspicions of the scientist, for how many of us can claim to live an orderly, predictable life? The idea that existence is chaotic is comforting; suddenly it seems as if the chaos and randomness of our little lives is acceptable if all the world itself is a seething cauldron.

gradually, as I accumulated more and more past to look back on, I realised that I had done the things I did because I could do no other.

More and more past: yes, that seems right — treat the past as uncountable, a non-count noun like water, sand or dough. Not a sequence of events that can be seen as individual things but a kind of mash or paste, impossible to separate; not a deck of cards one can shuffle and deal out, but clay you grab and roll maybe into balls, infinitely divisible into smaller and smaller heaps but never reducible to a final atom. With calendars and clocks we measure out the passage of time, but when we look back — when I look back — words separated by days or months become part of a single conversation, gestures and glances made by the light of different lamps come conjoined on a single stage, in a single scene. I am afraid: as the years roll by, what will become of these images and words? Surely they will be beaten down into a single paste, or reduced to the memory of an emotion. I have read that the stars appear to twinkle in the darkness of night, not because of anything that happens within the stars themselves, but because of the movement of the atmosphere through which their light must pass, so that it is the invisible gases surrounding and sheltering us that bend or blacken these otherwise constant shafts of light. So too the past reaches us dimly: though things happened, their meaning and significance pass filtered and dimmed, muffled and sometimes blotted out altogether, though only temporarily. Like the way a half-remembered line or verse threatens to give us pleasure, trembling at the tip of our tongue and our mind, bits of the past — this present that will soon become the past — will alight fitfully on the heart but never come fully back again.



I see her, my lady of the laurels, reclining in a sun-dazed glade, a little vexed, looking away with a small frown, while some minor god in the shape of a faun, with a reed pipe, prances and capers, vainly playing out his heart for her. 

Daphne: the nymph the sun-god courted, the nymph who became a laurel tree, beautiful but forever distant, impossible to seduce. The reed pipe is a symbol, of course: music is passion, meant to bestir the human heart, incite panic, love or desire. Music is also art, or artfulness.

The same distance or vacuousness comes across in the narrator’s frequent reference to his wife’s absent gaze: a gaze that looks at his son without feeling, watches him during a prison visit without affection, looks past him at the ceiling even when they are in bed. She is described as a statue he loves to fondle, a piece of sculpture he wants to caress; she is weighty, balanced, dense. In short, someone who’s not there, an absent presence.

Sadism is the source of the narrator’s pleasure: the words are all there — helplessly, inflicting, damage, pained, defenceless, flinching. She comes alive for him when her eyes reveal disorientation, pain and helplessness, and when the source of that change is him. Importantly, she still does not look at him; it is not recognition of his presence that he seeks, or any sign of desire for him. It is purely the ability to distress that will give him satisfaction, the ability to turn a statue into a living, distraught and therefore very human thing.


The fact is, in here is like out there, only more so.

It’s just like school, really, the mixture of misery and cosiness, the numbed longing, the noise, and everywhere, always, that particular smelly grey warm male fug.

Prison-as-world, world-as-prison; prison and school, both institutions emblematic of the kind of institutionalized society we have become; and semen, suggestive of onanism, defeated desire, the turning of desire away from others and towards oneself, a symbol of waste and enervation.

One can’t help but think of Foucault, who wrote so eloquently of the disciplinary structures in our world: The discipline of armies, prisons and schools, the discipline of the Victorians against and around sex itself. His influence is felt here.

The theme is insistent, unmistakable. The tiger is a symbol of male prowess, potency; it prowls pointlessly in a cell. It is an image of curtailed strength, the kind of spiritual castration that happens in a prison among its inhabitants. So the world is a cage that keeps us pent up, disciplines us, makes us unable to live out our base desires, which are in fact vital to our sense of self? It’s easy to blame the world for that kind of thing, much more difficult to own up to the fact that it’s ourselves who have done the deed to ourselves, we who have walked into a cage and thrown away the key. Or the key’s there but we pretend not to see it. Is this what the writer is holding back here, what he is suggesting by not saying it? Too early in the book to tell.

At the same time we note what holds sway in these opening pages, what seems active and beyond control: the narrator’s words, spinning on and on. It is a creative force, granting him a kind of self-mastery. Yet we have seen too that it can flag, it can fail him.

My cell is. My cell is. Why go on with this.

Why indeed? Why continue confirming the vacancy of this life, this life-sentence, with the vacancy of these words?

Mark the use of the full stop rather than the question mark: what begins as a question isn’t a question at all, but a statement; something definitive, something clear — words will not fill up a life that is empty, devoid of substance.

But without words, how can we go on? With words we conjure up a self-image, with words we imagine the thoughts of others, we create a word we can live in, in which we can live with ourselves. With a well-chosen word one can turn into a sleek tiger and transform one’s arraigners into dull pedestrians, one can escape temporarily the mundane smells of the cell.

(Tiger, tiger. Why a tiger? Is it because of Blake’s tiger?)

Language lulls the senses, it has intoxicating properties. Give in to it, and you will find yourself free for a while from the four walls of a prison, this world, this life, this space. But there’s always the full stop waiting for you at the end.

After my capture they clawed at each other to get a look at me.

Beasts on either side of the cage: the spectators bare their teeth, claw and stare hungrily; the accused describes himself as a tiger. Only the tiger sees himself as an exotic beast, something almost extinct, an object worthy of inverse celebration; the animals around him are painted as banal, repressed, many in number and therefore profoundly ordinary. Is the mindset placed before us then, the psychology of a murderer? Is this the experiment Banville has set for himself?

My Lord

My Lord, when you ask me to tell the court in my own words, this is what I shall say.

An intentional play on words: is this lord the judge in a court of law (perhaps the most literal interpretation), or the Lord Himself who sits in judgement on all existence? Better: when a single word potentially refers to both, what is alluded to or suggested is the judging aspect of the Lord, of religion. Or: This reminds us of our need for judgement, of the way we superimpose or attribute to divinity our own need to assess the rightness or wrongness of our actions. Why this incessant need for guilt? For where there is judgement, there we find guilt.

The Book of Evidence

I am about to begin my foray into what I’m told is the first book in the trilogy I began this journal with. (Foray: a strange word. At first I had assumed something pastoral or rustic in its etymology but on a hunch that there might be something more, I checked — the word is militant in character and refers to an incursion, a sallying forth. Funny that I had imagined some peasant or naturalist scrabbling among dirt for edible roots when it should have been a legionnaire or cavalier on mounted steed. In what way is my reading a book an attack, a crossing past enemy lines?)

Begin diligently, practice what you preach: since I began this journal as a pedagogical experiment, I should start with how a student would be asked to start. With a bit of over-analysis, a bit of studiousness. I’m cheating a bit, because I’ve read some things on the web and had conversations about it. But I’m going to do what I do best and forget reality for a while. Just a little while.

The Book of Evidence. Of course, the phrase recalls the world of legality, which again implies criminality. Law and lawlessness. The law is aligned with reason, both being tools we use — if a wall, a cell, a structure can be called a tool — to master the lawlessness of things, of us. A book, then, about something criminal and transgressive.

At the same time, evidence: from Latin evidentia, what is obvious or clear to the eye or mind. (The eye or mind: when did these two things become mistaken for the same thing or confounded for similar phenomena? For language fossilizes through its forms moments in the evolution of thought, and at some time what was visible or concrete became married to what was apprehensible, what could be imagined or thought.) Will this be a book about what we can see or think, about the obviousnesses or facts we need to live, the proofs that make it possible to function?

I am eager to meet the man arraigned in this book, eager to find out which crime of mine I can experience anew, with more intensity than is allowed in my own mind, through the words of this fellow lawbreaker. Then again, why this eagerness, this keen desire to perpetrate fictional crimes and receive illusory punishment? Perhaps, having walked narrow roads drawn out by our architects, one is eager to see again the desire lines padded over by the maintenance crew.

Having read Ghosts, there are certain expectations. Expectations of culture, of culture gone bad; strange that the word refers both to civilization and the proliferation of bacteria and the smallest things of life, but lucky too, because it matches what I perhaps want to see again — language luxuriating in polysemy to the point of unreasonableness, reason beating its head against a glass wall. Things I love doing the things I’m afraid of.

Yes, we must hurry if we are going to dance.

Septimus So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold. Dear me. 

Valentine The heat goes into the mix.

He gestures to indicate the air in the room, in the universe.

Thomasina Yes, we must hurry if we are going to dance.

Valentine And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly.

Septimus Oh, we have time, I think.

Valentine … till there’s no time left. That’s what time means.

Septimus When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.

Thomasina Then we will dance. Is this a waltz?

Septimus It will serve. 

What changes Septimus’s mind about the serviceability of the music for a waltz? For earlier he had used it as an excuse, a reason, to refuse to give his student the lesson she has requested: it is too slow for waltzing, he tells us. We know that this is music from without: the piano is not playing for them inside the room. So music is symbolic of the way the circumstances we find ourselves in, the conditions that rarely play according to what our hearts desire, what our minds wish. This music is being played at a remove, ill-suited to the purpose of the characters inside the room; in the same way, the world always feels outside, exterior, often contrary to our interior universe, the world within. It is party music, played for a purpose that suits the many; it is not a waltz, music for two, music for two people to dance to. The space of the intimate, that fugitive and small world big enough for only two people, moves to a beat at odds with the rhythm of the visible, the social, the ritual.

Again, what changes Septimus’s mind? Thomasina’s argument, and the realization or understanding that comes along with it: he, Thomasina, they, we have little time left. For unlike a clockwork universe — Newton’s universe — that chugs along perfectly forever in perpetual motion, the universe drawn by Thomasina is a world forever and always already is tending towards its end. The machine of the world is not just a combination of gears and cogs; it is also a body that uses up energy, fuel that is lost and will never be regained again; in the end the machine will break down. And if existence itself can end, what meaning is left? This is what Septimus is reeling from, what confronts him, when he sees all mankind as people left on an empty shore, having nothing left to look for and nothing to guide us. An empty shore: the phrase recalls the lines from Arnold’s Dover Beach:

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 


What faith is now no longer there when we stand and search from the shore? Faith in the meaning of things, perhaps, or faith in things that have lasting meaning; either way, this faith is no longer what we can look to for meaning. When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning: is this, the play seems to ask, what all our science, our scholarship and striving towards truth, all this human enterprise, has brought us — namely, the end of faith and meaning?

Confronted by this, Septimus makes a choice: the music may not be perfect for waltzing, but it will serve. The world, or the conditions of our existence, may no longer be tethered to our need for meaning and coherence, this machine may have turned out to have never been constructed for us at all, but that does not mean we cannot create that coherence ourselves, with what we can find. Coherence is the dance that Septimus allows himself to have, against convention, decorum and his own better judgement; an inner coherence shaped within the confines of a secret space, shared with another person. This space is lit only by the frail light of candles, and filled with music borrowed from outside — nothing seems to be fit for the purpose, nothing seems to be exactly what is needed, everything seems to be wrong; yet if these circumstances are all that we have, then all we can do is make what we can of them and craft something meaningful with them. If we are indeed on a shore that is empty, confronted by an implacable sea that laps at its borders and threatens to consume it, then all we have left are the ones we find next to us, watching it together. In the end, that may explain why the phrase “we will be alone, on an empty shore” strikes one as being not altogether despairing in tone; in fact, it betokens too the finding of a shared space, a world away from society, strife, business and parties. By the end of the play, Gus and Hannah, Septimus and Thomasina, dance without words, and in a play where words have led only to erroneous scholarship and meaningless wit, this seems pointed; perhaps being in each other’s company, in this moment and at this time, is all the meaning they need.

Then I will not go.

Thomasina I will wait for you to come.

Septimus I cannot.

Thomasina I may.

Septimus I may not.

Thomasina You must.

Septimus I will not.

She puts the candlestick and the essay on the table.

Thomasina Then I will not go. Once more, for my birthday.

So the hermit, if there was one in the end, could only be Septimus, who shuts himself off from the world after his pupil's death. Does the fact that these two waltzed once, kissed before, felt sudden love for each other — do these make his silence and her disappearance, their end, any more bearable?

What do you mean by writing to her of rice pudding, when she has just suffered the shock of violent death in our midst?

So, the skeptic, the schoolmaster writes to his ingenue. His enfant terrible, the one who asks the difficult questions so that he can give his wrongful answers. She without whom he would not be Septimus learned in Latin and philosophy, but perhaps merely Hodge, wit without poetry and common seducer. What we learn in drama is that no role is single: characters come into being in concert with or in opposition to others, selves are woven by juxtaposition and foil. Yes, of course he would write to her for whom he has a special regard, both approaching what he feels for Croom and Chater and at the same time distant from the suggestion of gross desire, something more restrained and denied, almost scholarly, if affection can be described that way.

Rice pudding. We have come across this dish before. Let us go back then, and read the relevant parts again:

Thomasina When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?

Septimus No.

Thomasina Well, I do. You cannot stir things apart.

Septimus No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it for ever. This is known as free will or self-determination. 

So things only become more confused. To attempt to restore order to life, we try to analyze and examine, part by part, the elements that make up our complexity; yet things are inexorably blended together, and we are faced with a mess, one hot mess that can never be unravelled, a ball of thread that cannot be disentangled and straightened out. Science is like that; history and memory too. As the play proceeds, we see Bernard and Hannah trying to untangle the past in Sidley Park, a past muddled by factors entirely human and thus impossible to fully reconstruct.

It seems that our only choice is to add to the confusion by living and plying action upon action, stirring onward; but if we cannot turn back Time, this is not a choice at all, and free will is only an illusion. Hence Septimus’s contention that this is only known as free will.

What then could go into a letter — a scandalous letter — on the subject of rice pudding? Several possibilities, depending on our understanding of the letter writer at this point in the play: if he is a scoundrel, then surely the idea of mixing and stirring, appetite and disorder should be uppermost; if he is a lover, then he might have sought to court his young pupil one last time with a final bit of philosophy, he might have used the final tangled skein of his days to share with her one last lesson; more likely, he is both.

Well, the other thing is, you’d have to be insane.

Hannah Do you mean that was the only problem? Enough time? And paper? And the boredom?

Valentine We're going to get out the dressing-up box.

Hannah (driven to raising her voice) Val! Is that what you're saying?

Valentine (surprised by her. Mildly.) No, I'm saying you'd have to have a reason for doing it.

Why, upon hearing Valentine's verdict, do we feel a chill settle like a pall over proceedings? In contrast, everything before has smacked of tomfoolery, of mistakes that require nothing more than a figurative slap on the wrist, the kind that comedies end with. Yet the pistol shot and cries from crows that end this scene feel like echoes rippling out from the suggestion that insanity has entered the scene, a kind of death knell.

When would insanity, or the lack of reason, be the reason for doing anything? Is that something we accept, something that strikes us as reasonable? Coming from the lips of the scientist and statistician in this scene, we are meant to understand that, yes, the absence of logic has entered the logic of the everyday, something by which things become, well, acceptable. Like the full-stop to a sentence, closure comes in the form of a stalemate: having nothing left to postulate, no more reasons left to find, we compromise by turning to madness, obsession, disorder.

Yet what could the authoress of these curves and equations be driven by, save the pursuit of logic to its very end? Is there something else behind this devoted and unending spinning out of line after line, text after text, chasing after seemingly nothing — a reason behind the lack of reason? Dig deeper, look further back: we recall her saying to Septimus …

I will plot this leaf and deduce its equation. You will be famous for being my tutor when Lord Byron is dead and forgotten.

Another person: that is the reason.

She won’t let anyone kiss her.

Bernard I said he was dead. What year? 1810! Oh my God, 1810! Well done, Hannah! Are you going to tell me it’s a different Mrs Chater?

Hannah Oh no. It’s her all right. Note her Christian name.

Bernard Charity. Charity … ‘Deny what cannot be proven for Charity’s sake!’

Hannah Don’t kiss me!

Valentine She won’t let anyone kiss her.

First we are reminded of the embrace, stolen a century ago; then we see Hannah remembering the kiss and embrace stolen from her. More than just remembering: a desiring, a hope perhaps, or signs of a hope, for the same to happen. For she has conjured up the same set of circumstances that led up to the first transgression: first a gift of information, then a softening of her own stance on things, both of which we know, she seems to know, frees Bernard from politeness, stealthy and constraint.

Yet here the mystery deepens: why will Hannah not let anyone kiss her? Deeper still: if so, why Bernard? It is significant that this bit of information comes from a fiancé, a role which guarantees a kiss. A role that divests the carnal embrace of its carnality, absolves and rectifies it. And yet she will not give it him. (Prior to this, Valentine had asked whether she would bet everything she has to lose, and she refuses.)

We recall Hannah and Valentine’s earlier exchange: This mystifies us the way the heavens used to mystify the Greeks. And the understanding that we have here, not merely on solid earth but inside a single room, something utterly real and yet impossible to explain, is a wonder in itself.

what happens in a cup of coffee

Relativity and quantum looked as if they were going to clean out the whole problem between them. A theory of everything. But they only explained the very big and the very small. The universe, the elementary particles. The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about — clouds — daffodils — waterfalls — and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in — these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.

Armed thus, God could only make a cabinet.

God’s truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?

If existence was reducible to numbers and equations, it would be within our grasp, within our range of understanding, for numbers promise a kind of order that words cannot; each number has only one meaning – the quantity it refers to. It is not slippery and many-faced the way every word can be.

It is, perhaps, possible to devise an equation for a rose and predict the angle and trajectory of its apparently unpredictable curves. Yet a rose is more than simply curve and line; it is, of course, symbol too, so utterly associated with desire and love that it is almost a word in itself. One cannot think of a rose without recalling the passions that seem to reign and prevail over logic and forethought with sufficient regularity in Arcadia’s gazebo.

No, numbers cannot describe human folly. Latin, philosophy, numbers — with these, we seek to understand and master, predict and regulate. But they are only as effective as academic exercises in a schoolroom. Outside that room, beyond the window, birds are getting shot. The grand discourses and institutions operate much like parents and teachers, deciding what we should know and what we can know, and sometimes we are asked to leave the room like good children when the truth is in danger of getting found out.



How can we sleep for grief?

We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it.

The march Septimus refers to is that of Time itself. Thomasina grieves for the literature lost during the Romans’ sack of Alexandria, she wonders what could have been if the plays and poems of the Greek masters had not been destroyed, but this is what Septimus says: Time is the only thing there is, and so the things that have disappeared need not be regretted; we need only concern ourselves with what we have, what Time has chosen to preserve. To this piece of advice he adds a claim: that what has disappeared need not be mourned or regretted because they will return. And so he claims that the missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.

And yet when he pretends to demonstrate to his pupil how he might translate the Latin work she has so far struggled to translate, we immediately learn that nothing can in fact be brought back to life, that the uniqueness of things means that their disappearance should indeed be mourned. By the time he completes the first line (The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne), we know that it is in fact Shakespeare that Thomasina has been trying in vain to translate — Shakespeare translated into Latin by Septimus, and then handed to his pupil for translation back into English. Yet Thomasina could not bring Shakespeare back.

Or, to be more accurate, one should say: Thomasina could bring back what Shakespeare meant, but because beauty resides in the words he had chosen and the rhythm in which they were cast, she could never recreate the original. To be accurate, one should say: what is lost when Time marches on is the beauty immanent in the uniqueness of things, their inimitable grain, their signature. Suppose that Antony and Cleopatra had been destroyed and lost to the ravages of Time’s implacable march; perhaps, given enough time, someone else might come along and produce a play about the brief and untimely love that united a Roman general and an Egyptian queen, and the play might be a good one, or even a superior effort. Nonetheless, this would not be the same play, it would not be flawed or beautiful the same way. And so, while what is lost to us, as Septimus claims, is indeed lost, we also know, contrary to what Septimus believes, that the lost can never be duplicated or imitated, and the gap it produces upon its disappearance is a wound that cannot be healed, because it was utterly, uncompromisingly unique. What has come to pass, and then retreated into the past, can never truly come again.



Aren’t you glad I’m here?

How shall we understand this kiss? It is a complete surprise; nothing prepares us for it. It resists interpretation.

How did we get here? Hannah is in command throughout; Bernard is completely at a disadvantage, constantly thrown off, always slightly caught off-balance. Power is in the lady's hand, and she uses it mercilessly, bending language to her will, turning his words against him. She threatens to kick his balls, and at the plane of the linguistic, succeeds exactly in doing so, subverting his absolutely, his of course, all the meaningless words thrown into a conversation to keep the steady flow steady.

Perhaps the romantic conquest (if it is not the war that is won, it is at least a battle decided) parallels Bernard's satisfaction, for the knowledge that Byron and Hodge were schoolmates will certainly advance the argument he seeks to build his career on. At least we know it is a gesture of pure happiness : it should be understood as sincere, which is entirely at odds with the pitch and flavour of the entire exchange that precedes the embrace, being rife with self-contradiction, disguise and false names. And so, unlike the first scene where Eros is essentially a disquieting force, associated with the reduction of the human to the beastly and fleshly, here Eros arrives late at the scene to relieve the audience of the contortions and confusion of speech — the kiss and embrace are simple and true, easy to understand and an utter relief. We are back on safe ground, almost.

If we return to the question we began with, we have a possible answer. We asked: What are we to make of a kiss that resists interpretation? This kiss needs no interpretation. It happened. It is a fact.

On the above principle, the ink and pens etc., of the first scene can remain. Books and papers associated with Hannah’s research, in Scene Two, can have been on the table from the beginning of the play.

"To my best friend Septimus Hodge, who stood up and gave his best on behalf of the Author — Ezra Chater, at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, April 10th 1809."

Things don't change; our interpretations do. That the books and papers on the table survive the first scene and display a certain obstinacy reminds us that the humans on stage, our representatives, are the only untethered ones, both capable of and doomed to movement, flight, speech that never comes close to the heart of things.

What was written out of folly becomes, a century later, marks for close inspection. A hermit drawn by a child for a lark becomes the genius of the place. We already know that words are forever taken out of context; yet this is a keener form of miscomprehension, the kind that comes from a desire to reconstruct the past in as obsessive, dedicated and perfect a manner as possible: the ones who take these marks out of context are scholars both, who devote their lives to understanding their subjects. Perhaps the lesson here is that if we leave the past alone, gaps remain simply gaps, and our folly comes to a close; stare hard enough and dig with enough skill, search with an eye expert and passionate enough, and the mistakes only increase.

The lights come up in the same room, on the same sort of morning, in the present day, as is instantly clear from the appearance of Hannah Jarvis; and from nothing else.

Perhaps this is what we are meant to understand: that we have never left Arcadia. Arcadia, where death — the end of things, a chastising force, absence and loss — also dwelt. Appearance, of course, could mean the character’s being on stage and also what she wears, how she looks like. So the changes we go through from epoch to epoch, the developments and discoveries, change only our image of ourselves, making little difference to what is outside our ability to change, the context in which humanity finds itself, the facts we don’t want to face.

Gus doesn’t speak. He never speaks. Perhaps he cannot speak.

In contrast to the wit and vivacity of the first scene, where language was what it’s meant to be, here everything is fragment and misunderstanding. The Valentine brothers enter and exit, seemingly at random, one silent without a reason to make that silence meaningful, the other repeating the same word over and over, implying sound without significance. What does sod actually mean? Given the primacy of the garden in this text, one could deny it its pejorative sense and think it refers to the turf; more likely we will remember it’s less polite association with foolishness, idiocy. Together, the Coverley brothers form a kind of symbol for what goes on here, or what fails to go on: we are in a different age now, and it seems we swing only between the fallibility of words and silence itself, the only safe place.

Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

So we begin with a question, or a topic, that the stage set was designed to make surprising. Immediately the question comes: why should we find it surprising, why do we find the two contrary? Because an English home is a castle of decency, because collectible furniture does not belong in the same field as the bodily and the fleshly, because architecture belongs to the realm of the mathematical and artistic, the same space that Fermat and his theorems belong in; and because quartos, primers, books and ink are the very things that are supposed to keep us safe.

Septimus’s reply is at once accurate and sardonic: the carnal truly is meat, yet we are accustomed to viewing the act of intercourse as something more than merely fleshly. There is disappointment here in the joke, a kind of fatalism, a wish to not be hoodwinked by grand discourses, handed down by wise men, seeking to make something basic and primal at heart more spiritual and less offensive to those who would like to see Man as closer to the angels than beasts. Which reveals a fear that we really are simply meat and that what desire, gross desire, unveils is the truth that we have not gotten far from what we share with the animals we eat (hence the mention of grouse, beef, venison and mutton) and hunt (the birds that Thomasina’s father loves to shoot).

The dialogue quickly advances, bringing us to the argument that makes sex safe, less wasteful: what the tale of Onan tells us (remember that he gave us the word onanism) is that intercourse is fine if it advances the interests of the human race, swells its numbers and adds to its tribe; it is not acceptable if seed is wasted, used frivolously, spilt merely for pleasure. Seed spilt on stony ground: the allusion is scriptural, of course; its complete version goes something like this: seed spilt on stony or shallow ground grows quickly. A dual implication then: desire leads quickly to false accomplishments, tall edifices that have weak roots, things without deep foundations. Merely for pleasure: when did pleasure become a trivial thing?

No, that would be asking the wrong question, for if pleasure were trivial there would be no laws governing against it, no myths drawn up to prevent it. No literature either to bring it back into view, to remind us of it.

Therefore we find couched in wit the primal questions of philosophy, which clearly is very much at home in an English manor: what are we, if we are not beasts? How shall man govern himself? What is the role of stories in all of this?

Et in Arcadia ego

A calendar of slaughter. “Even in Arcadia, there am I!”

Death is there, in both the painting and the English manor: what happens to fowl and game happens also to shepherds.

Is it an accident that Brice, Noakes and Mr. Chater form a trio of men who follow her ladyship submissively the same way the three shepherds in the painting bend and look up towards the maiden, as if looking for direction? Surely not, for they have been fussing over the meaning and representation of the manor as fervidly as the three in the painting seem to regard the sarcophagus.

So death is in this play, though it has a silent role up till now. Merriment is in ascendancy, love’s folly, always material for comedy, prevails as the theme, for we begin first with the carnal in Hodge’s game with the Chaters, and then proceed to what Thomasina sees as love. Both sides of Eros. Yet death, or time itself, the end, is already there, in the picture. We watch these characters prance and escape punishment, get duped and fooled, but surely such play cannot last.

Mrs Chater demanded satisfaction and now you are demanding satisfaction.

Comic routines, enacted again and again, across text and text:

Septimus, Felix, Harlequin, vanity and speech, the belief that we can talk, think our way out of anything, the fugitive side of life;

Mrs Chater, Flora, Columbina, the secret, the desired object;

Mr. Chater, Licht, Pierrot, the fool, the butt of the joke, more like us than we want to be.

The old cosmic joke: thus love and desire makes fools of us all.


The room looks bare despite the large table which occupies the centre of it. The table, the straight-backed chairs and, the only other item of furniture, the architect’s stand or reading stand, would all be collectable pieces now but here, on an uncarpeted wood floor, they have no more pretension than a schoolroom … What elegance there is architectural, and nothing is impressive but the scale.

Arcadia: paradise, a golden age, a point from which we have fallen. From where have we fallen? From a time or moment when a room like this would not look bare, when the furniture in it sufficed to lend it fullness and promise, when these pieces were collectable and therefore of value. What was life like when things in a room were sufficient to give it the impression of life, significance? Furniture is art too, craft and devotion: a straight-backed chair implies a straight-backed person, someone of dignity, of culture and breeding; a large table takes time to shape, polish, build, and requires a large family to complete, its central position in a room implies the centrality of that institution it was created to be something like a vessel for — the family. Arrayed around a table, seated at dinner, the family becomes a symbol for what human beings are supposed to be: a group. We share bonds, and these bonds define us.

Yet now all this is pretension. If nothing is impressive but the scale of it, then what we perceive is only space, lots of it: in other words, there is a vacuum here, emptiness and abandonment.

This then is the space into which the audience wanders in Stoppard’s play, a space that is merely space, lots of it with hardly any meaning inside it. Do we see in this pointlessness and apathy any signs of what we experience outside the play, every day? Perhaps, impressed by the scale of things, we do not realize that we no longer find anything truly collectable, or what we collect is no longer worth the time. Scale: the idea reminds one of grand projects – technological, architectural, social. Men in this time routinely move mountains, legions of men, societies; the scale of things is impressive. Is there distraction at work here, so that as we marvelled with gaping mouth and staring eye, no one noticed the diminution of meaning itself?

There is funny stuff ahead, precious dialogue; what are we to make of these words, comic or fine, in a world as dilapidated and emptied as this? One’s mind returns, curiously, to the word collectable: in what way are words, texts, this play itself collectable, worthy of being kept close, promising something that we really need? It must be a challenge the playwright has posed himself, his art: write characters into this wasteland, pour words into this space, bring into existence again things we want to keep by our side, always. Though these be but words, the meaning is all.


He had a special feeling for what he called “the correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers.

I have begun a new book, Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor. A third book in almost as many months! For me, we are entering the realm of the miraculous.

The start of a fresh encounter cannot help but excite: a new mystery is afoot and there are clues aplenty, so much foreshadowing. It is almost the entire body of the novel were slipping into view, though it is just our imagination playing tricks. The special pleasure of the brand new start is the spectral and altogether unwarranted belief that perhaps this is the one, this is the novel I’ve been waiting for. In fact, as one picks up the scent of what the writer seems to be suggesting, one is already replacing the writer, already reading in advance another story, drawing on a future text that possibly cannot exist.

What is the sort of story that proceeds from a love for miscalculation, tenderness for the meaningful mistake? Already speculation takes hold: a professor is a thinking machine, an architect of intellectual edifices, almost a symbol of human vanity, hubris; a housekeeper is the person in the background of things, without whom edifices, houses, rooms become disordered, unkempt. The two share an equal desire and responsibility for the order we look for in human affairs, although they work in separate realms, the grand and invisible on one hand, and the real and concrete, indispensable on the other. And for those who tend to order, whose work is the keeping and building of structure and system, miscalculation is a fiend but also what makes them necessary, the foe without whom an army would be just cartloads of aimless men. I begin to enjoy the story then by looking for the first sign of this miscalculation; it cannot be too far off.

Remember what I say: not everything will pass.

Or: everything will pass except what has been said. Because, like the buried cache of papers and documents that came to light in a world where their authors and subjects no longer exist, what is written down has a life of its own. Texts cannot bring back to life their authors, but they contain enough clues to write a history, form conjecture, mistaken or otherwise.

Perhaps this will happen: I, of course, will be gone one day; I and the thoughts that led to these words, who and when this journal was written for — they are as fragile as a pile of sand. That is what we are. Yet someone might come along by accident and read them, and descry or uncover the themes, understand the motifs running through them. And by so doing, bring back to life some of the feelings that hold me in their grip now as I finish another borrowed book, almost as if that reader’s mind were like a small room within which music from an old record could be played.

Or, more likely, I will be that reader, come to meet a former self flown away, come to dust off a beloved record in order to hear the old music play. Will I recognise myself then, having left him behind perhaps five, ten, twenty years ago? And will I remember what he felt, now, as he writes these words, keeping sleep at bay for fear of not putting these thoughts into words in time? Perhaps, fearing loss and amnesia, I have been placing evidence and clues in every nook and cranny I can find. Yet what these signs will mean to him, that self I am yet to meet, I cannot know.



So take my hand and hold it,
bend it gently to the light.

Discover me, in a way
that I do not know myself.

Speak what you will, of my
health, fame and fortunes,

but know that I will put a finger
to your gentle lips,

if on love, you try to say
the things I should not know,

like where you’re going to
and how I will stay behind,

how our separate ways
are written in these lines.

By Gilbert Koh

We begin in mid-sentence: What comes before so? A conjunction that comes after a cause or a reason, so reminds us that there is speech left out of this poem, an explanation or a source, a situation that has led to the persona's invitation to hold his or her hand. Why is it missing? One suspects that the reason is unnecessary; the fact that they, the speaker and spoken to, have found themselves in this posture is what matters most.

What posture? The mind imagines closeness, two people separated by a small table, the scene typical of fortune tellers. They are facing each other, their eyes meet; one of them has reached out the hand, perhaps it is on the table but someone I imagine it half-lifted, balanced on the point of the elbow. Curiously, though the poem does not describe action (it is, after all, in fact only a piece of supplication or request), the mind races ahead of itself: we cannot resist seeing the speaker's hand resting in two palms before being turned slowly like a page towards a lamp. Like a page: that phrase surprised me — perhaps it could not be helped.

There is irony here in the speaker being the one who asks for his or her hand to be taken, for is it not usually the palm reader who does the asking? So there is surrender here too, rather than importunity or persuasion. The speaker knows the palm reader's intent: he or she is aware.

The idea of awareness reminds us that these words are perhaps never spoken aloud, for what else is poetry but the refuge of the unspeakable and unspoken? No speech then: as one reaches out, the other proffers. Is there understanding here? Some degree of mutual agreement maybe, but there is muteness too, a kind of restraint.

Why gently? Is it a request to take things slow, to slow things down? Perhaps it is also a hope that this one will be the right one, the one who will respect the tenderness that relationships require.

He remembered something Zhuli had once said.

Luckily, joy seeps into all your compositions.

What joy can this be but the joy of composition itself? The joy of having something rich and deep to draw on, the joy of having the means to record the ebb and flow. The joy of keeping a lasting record.

For Sparrow, this recollection must have brought a secondary pleasure: the knowledge that he was understood by another, perhaps better than he understood himself.

Sparrow had never made a sustained sound, the music came in beginnings and endings like the edges of a table.

What would it feel like, to make a sustained sound — to devote oneself to one art, one passion, and draw the notes, words, meaning out of oneself continuously like a stream? Unimaginable, because life is discordance, life is not a sonnet or a melody. We get what music we can find.

The music is there, but living among its notes, being too close, we cannot make sense of it. Time will come and remove us, help us view our lives from afar; with the passage of time, a theme or two become perceptible, giving a semblance of order or significance, like a distant rhythm half-heard.

For that reason, the fugue is the central analogy of this text: for the fugue contains at least two, and perhaps more, voices; and the fugue, like Sparrow’s life described here, comes in a tripartite structure, having an exposition, a development and an ending where what we hear in the beginning comes back, different but still recognizable. In the middle portion, the voices sing against one another, dizzying the listener with mimicry and invention, doubling and dissembling; order returns at the end, lending the listener clarity, a measure of peace, letting go. Clarity and euphoria: never the twain shall meet.

But living here and now, being in the middle of what is happening, there is no order, only surprise, sometimes soft and bright, and always impossible to hold in the hand. No sustained sound, but a recurring melody that drops into view and then disappears again, gossamer and light. Not being able to grasp it, not wishing to detain anything either, we let the tide of sound, by turns brittle and bold, wash over and carry us towards the end of things.


Was that really how it had begun? Ai-ming wondered. Could it have been so simple?

A rhetorical question, of course: this is, after all, a story without a start. Or more precisely: it is a story with starting point after starting point. The narrator’s story, her own, is merely the first frame; it contains her parents’ story, which in turn frames and is begun within their parents’ narrative; cutting through all these is the Book of Records, whose stories blend with the lives of those who read them. Who shall say where the story begins?

Searching for the beginning of things is an obsession for us; we look for it the way a traveller in the desert looks for water, and when we find it, it must be akin to how that traveller mistakes a mirage for an oasis. To find the beginning of things gives us hope of understanding who we are now, how we came to be; I search, all the time, for an event that can explain an emotion, as if reducing it to a single moment could somehow render the emotion smaller, more manageable, less volatile. Yet this quest for the original moment also appears, disappointingly, to be false; for could anyone claim to understand a story simply by retracing its plot? No, the place where things begin is not bound by time; it is found not by walking backwards.

My words ring false; when the hour is late, one can afford to be honest. We walk backwards, retracing our steps, not to search for the beginning, or to make sense of things, for that would make us all philosophers or scientists; because we are fools, we walk in circles, re-visiting the old scenes again and again, saying to ourselves we are trying to think and understand, when in fact it is all a second, third or fourth tour of places we saw once in haste, having no time to pause; it is going back again and again, perhaps further back but never far enough to find that imaginary beginning, back again and again simply to forestall and delay the future that is all too close and of course cannot be delayed, a future that already seems to be part of the present.

Why had Gould gone back to record the same piece of music again?

Why does anyone do anything again? Is it because simply completing something is not in itself sufficient or satisfying? After we’ve read a book, why do we read it again? Is it to experience the same flush of feelings, the exact facsimile of emotions, almost as if one were treating oneself to a replay, in slow motion, of the inner theatre? Is it a sign of addiction, a mania, a compulsion?

Reading about the Goldberg Variations — recollections by pianists about their attempts to master the pieces — produces a deep impression of its maddening character. Virtuosos who overcome the most complex pieces crumble before Bach’s machinations, as if he had conspired with the harpsichord to produce something destined to be a dream to listen to, but a nightmare to play. Why had Gould, who had made his name playing them perhaps faster and with greater precision than many before him, chosen to return to this mania?

Listening to just the first aria of both versions, one after another, we mark some clear differences in the character of the playing: where the first was fast, marked by something fiery and trenchant, there is now a holding back and slowing down, a desire to construct something more delicate; where the first was decisive and strong, almost impetuous, a hurtling forward, there is now a gentle tentativeness that is not indecision but surely something more wise, something that comes with the passing of the years. Perhaps the Gould of 1955 was compelled by the music, perhaps the pianist was driven forward by it; in constrast, the man behind the 1981 recordings seems to have a statement to make, a plan and a strategy, a wish to mould the music to his newfound character.

And so perhaps we return to the things we love, the things that madden us, again to find out how much we have changed, how much we have learnt. We come back to the things that hold us and captivate us to see if we have moved forwards at all.

And here was Yiwen, just ahead of her. Ai-ming halved the distance between them and halved it again.

What feeling could equal what we experience at the sight of a looked-for face, a silhouette we suddenly find, amidst a sea of bodies and faces?

Yet hiding here is a quiet reminder of Zeno's paradox, hanging like a shadow over this moment that is so apparently infused with joy: halved and halved again – in his race against the tortoise, Achilles allows his opponent to have a head start, believing that he can close it in an instant. But to get from his starting line to that plodding tortoise, Achilles must first halve the distance between them; when he arrives at that halfway point, he finds himself facing yet another halfway point, and another and another, so that what appears within reach, what appears at first glance assailable, is in fact forever out of reach.

They smiled shyly at the girls, who giggled. Everyone exhaled, like a rest between sets.

What is here but coquetry and courtship? Here's the scene conjured: at the head of the student body are young women pushing forward, their faces unabashed, provoking; on the other side, apparently placed against them, but clearly on the receiving end, a thin line of men in uniform. One is reminded of how chess works as a symbol of the duel between the lover and the beloved, a duel where winning and losing lose all significance.

The students heaved through the centre and the green police lines dissolved to the sides like a soft leaf curling open.

Unmistakable, then, the reversal of roles: the weak and oppressed part, push into, break through and spill past the line that is now soft, pliant; what was masculine and meant to keep at bay the feminine has given way, been broken down, not by sheer force but persuasion, passion. What we see in this scene is not a battle of ideas or a war of wills; it is a game between willing bodies, dalliance and play. A kind of happiness.

“Sparrow, do you think it’s possible to love something too much?” She had grasped his hand, the way a child does.

"But each phrase it so full, if I tried to hear all its overtones and undertones, nothing would ever get played!"

What is true of music, is true too of reading: stopping to savor every word makes reading itself impossible, for reading is a kind of intentional blindness. Worry over every word, assess every phrase, and you succeed only in isolating and breaking into islands what should be continuous ground. Devote yourself to loving every word, and you lose the entire plot. The good reader knows that he's leaving gaps behind him even as he ploughs forward, gaps he hopes he can come back to, gaps he hopes he remembers.

So it is with symbols, so it is with life, the moment-to-moment passage of time: can we stop ourselves for a moment to take it all in – admire the way the light falls on a face, the colour of lamps, the distance and the closeness, sentences begun and unfinished – and still be in the moment? No, you can't stop time, time hurries you along like a train, you're watching the scenery and although you have a deep impression of its beauty, it's all a blur, just a vivid hash of colour and dream; and if you're too busy trying to hear all the overtones and undertones of a moment, you're not playing any music at all, you're a member of the audience. Every moment is full, too full, so our understanding and memory will always be ridden with holes, a word missed and a sigh misplaced, a gesture not completely understood. We live with the knowledge that we cannot know everything, that if memory is a book, its pages have had entire passages erased, figures and phrases that might have helped, that might have given comfort, or helped us understand a little more.


Zhuli, he thought. I’m sorry that I came too late. Of course he knew that she had forgiven him long ago, so why did he hold on to this guilt? What was the thing he was most afraid of?

Better guilt than nothing at all, better guilt than forgetfulness: perhaps what one should fear most of all is not death itself or departure, but the dying away of memories, the disappearance of what we once felt most intensely. Because what we feel most strongly gives rise to the most vivid impressions, the strongest colours, and without them, we have nothing to call our own, we have little with which to recognise ourselves.

What about the boy with the glasses slipping down his nose? She had wanted to reach out and touch his slender waist and ask him … ask him what?

Doesn't it all seem absurd to you? Why do we have no words for what we truly feel? What's wrong with our parents?

Nothing wrong at all with our parents, or their parents. Words fail us even as they sustain us. This is what we've recognised for a long time:


The truth that can be spoken is not the truth;
The name that can be spoken is not the real name.
Absence begets space;
Presence is in all things.
Possessing nothing, one peers into the heart of things;
Pursuing things, one sees only the visible.
Yet having and nothing are inseparable,
They come from the same source:
A mystery,
A mystery folded within itself,
A door to understanding all things.

And so we've always known that words cannot be trusted: they are rude attempts (everything is) at an approximation of the truth. Calling an apple an apple, knowing its name — this is not knowledge; it is only a label for something we don't understand. And yet we fool ourselves into thinking it is sufficient, that knowing the word for something somehow brings us closer to its truth. And so words are an illusion, they create the impression that we know, and by doing so hold reality at bay. I put words on the page night by night, and it sometimes seems enough, but I know I am getting nowhere. Yet they are all I have.

Now she started singing by herself: “I’ve never stopped asking you, when will you come with me? But you always laugh at me because I have nothing”


我曾经问个不休 妳何时跟我走
可妳却总是笑我 一无所有
我要给妳我的追求 还有我的自由
可妳却总是笑我 一无所有

喔 妳何时跟我走 喔 妳何时跟我走

脚下这地在走 身边那水在流
可妳却总是笑我 一无所有
为何妳总笑个没够 为何我总要追求
难道在妳面前我永远 是一无所有

喔 妳何时跟我走 喔 妳何时跟我走

(脚下这地在走 身边那水在流 脚下这地在走 身边那水在流)

告诉妳我等了很久 告诉妳我最后的要求
我要抓起妳的双手 妳这就跟我走
这时妳的手在颤抖 这时妳的泪在流
莫非妳是正在告诉我 妳爱我一无所有

喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走

(脚下这地在走 身边那水在流 脚下这地在走 身边那水在流)

喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走
喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走
喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走

Today, the afternoon wind had an unkind bite, April could not let go of winter.

Moon Reflected in Two Springs is playing and I am waiting for the bus, watching the rain break little ripples in a puddle by the curb. For a merciful moment I am only watching but on the bus these lines remind me, I know not why, of the man from whom this music came, and I become conscious of the tremendous distance between him and I, musician and audience, composer and listener: is this an illusion, this vivid impression that somehow we can share a common emotion?

If April cannot let go of winter, then surely it lingers the way this composer stood and admired the unreal moon, at once understanding and regretting the way it must have dawdled, apparently almost but certainly not touchable. The song from the erhu starts, lengthens and thins, deepens and grows and sometimes attentuates almost till it is inaudible, but it is there, it is a single thread of sound that the player doesn't let go … until a sudden break, a rude caesuras punctuated by percussion, a single note. When the music resumes, it doesn't take long before arriving at a frantic sawing motion, to and fro like a bee or man mad; yet this panic departs as soon as it comes, and the same lingering resumes, pulled and stretched and never fully abandoned. Thin and shrill, the song reminds us of the shocks the world subjects us all to; slow and mellow, it reminds of the comfort that illusions bring — a moon reflected in dark pools, a line from a song or a poem, memories.

But some were known, including Wang Wei’s “Farewell”







Pausing in my journey to share a drink with you, dear friend,

I ask where your journey will bring you;

You say you are weary of striving,

that you are returning to the shelter of mountains in the south.

Be on your way and ask me nothing more, you say.

Overhead, above us both, the clouds are endless, infinite.






One night he dreamed that he sat in a concert hall.

Giddy with joy, full of nervous anticipation, he awaited the performance of his own Symphony No. 3. A chime summoned the last members of the audience. The lights dimmed. Quiet settled. He watched, unable to move, as Zhuli walked onto the stage in a long blue dress. She searched the auditorium for him. Her hands were empty. He woke.

So now that she is very much beloved, she can no longer love; she is no longer there to love him although she has become a part of him.

Her hands are empty, so there is no music although there is a symphony to be played. He has wedded his art to her image; without her, what he has written has no sound, it is not music, just signs on a page.

When Ozawa came, he said our ability to interpret the music had fundamentally changed

As if an entire emotional range was lost to us, but we ourselves couldn’t hear it. Every musician in the orchestra knew they’d been cheated. But until that moment, we never had to face it so directly. 

Back, then, to what Zhuli said: Does it alter us more to be heard, or to hear? To hear is to be able to hear, to be sensitive, to possess an emotional range — almost as if one had access to a whole other world.

What must it feel like, to be a musician, to have committed one’s life to the life of the ear, only to be told that you cannot hear the gap in your own music? It is as if a man had spent his whole life building and making, only to find out that he had lost the use of his arms a long time ago, that he had had his hands amputated slowly, a digit at a time maybe, so quietly and yet so assuredly that he had continued to flail and wave limbs that were no longer his to lose.

So in this case, at least, in the case of the amputated musicians without ears to hear, alteration comes through hearing. For by the time they were heard by Ozawa, they had only come to be informed of their change, and the change had happened a long time ago; if they could listen to themselves and truly hear the music, they would not be thus surprised.

To hear, then, is be open to beauty itself: it is to see and know, listen and understand; it is embracing and believing, it is receiving.

You could close a book and forget about it,

… knowing it would not lose its contents when you stopped reading, but music wasn't the same, not for him, it was most alive when it was heard.

No, you don't close a book and forget about it; the words stay with you, and if they cut deep, they wound you forever. And like a mad patient you scratch at the scab without thinking.

Echo, ripple, ricochet: words don't end when out of sight; in the dark they come at you with greater insistence, in insomnia they come at you with redoubled strength, melding with your own words, breeding distrust.

She said the music made her wonder

Does it alter us more to be heard, or to hear? Is it better to have been loved, or to love?

Difficult questions, but the second seems, at first glance at least, the easier one to answer. Being loved is pleasure: it is flattering to know that you, mundane, fallible, culpable you, could inspire interest in another. Loving is fever, a mania you cannot shake: it is pleasure at meeting and the prospect of loss, it is sight itself, supercharged with significance. You see differently when you love, so if we modify these questions to Does it alter us more to have been loved, or to love, the answer is simple.

One recalls the statues and myths of the previous book and understands that even things that don't live can be loved. But can one be loved into being? Only if existence, or our sense of our reality and substance, requires a kind of recognition, only if we think we become ourselves only in the eyes of others. Which is not completely untrue, but utterly melancholy.

So though one cannot find a definite answer, there are clues to be considered, and text (our own days and hours, our thoughts) to be pored over. There is hope for an answer.

The first question, however, is the more elusive. Or deceptive: for how could being heard alter you? Perhaps being heard is knowing that someone wants to hear you, finds you worthy of being listened to. Perhaps it is the thought, or hope, that there exists a mind outside your own that may divine or suspect seams of meaning that you do not see yourself, almost as if this other could hear you more intensely, read you more clearly than you can. It would be, if such an improbable thing could come to pass, as if our mind and memories were a familiar and perhaps favored book pored over and examined to the point where we thought there was little else to find; as if we'd shared it carelessly with a friend, only to find fresh interpretations coming from this new reader. Thoughts which bring us back to those statues again, which had no words of their own but were granted speech by the manic monologues of madmen.

What, then, of hearing? In this text, hearing is entry, privileged and secret; it is passage into a sacred space. Zhuli thinks she sees into Sparrow what he cannot himself observe. Surely there can be no greater intimacy.

Because music is nothing. It is nothing and yet it belongs to me.

Tofu Liu's words remind one of Wen the Dreamer and Sparrow, both reduced to essentials: just clothes and a suitcase. Pianos and violins can be smashed, books and symphonies turned to ash, even the tiles of houses can't be spared: things are brittle.

Yet the dreamer can copy, night after night; though he has no words of his own he can use them to speak for him; because he has copied them over and over again their syntax and sound have cut themselves into the whorls and curlicues of his brain like so many dotted paths along a secret map, so that the smallest difference could stand out like a beacon on a windswept night, guiding the lost ship home.

Reduced to nothing, Zhuli becomes a part of Sparrow:

… it was as if Zhuli, in some invisible way, had reattached herself to Sparrow's life, to his consciousness and his being.

To his consciousness: that is not nothing at all.

What was a zero anyway?

In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, stuck qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life?

So much unrecorded: the hours that intervene between farewell and meeting, the days that pass without comment. Months later, years, or a decade — one day I will come back and read these records, and in my surprise at recovering a former self, I may not notice that they are hopelessly incomplete. What did I do in-between each note? What was I thinking, what feelings came, knocked, and perhaps left without waiting to see if the door would open? Not every sentiment is loud enough for the waking mind to hear; their presence is but a rumour.

Note to self: here's a bookmark to remind you – you were stupid, you were dull, you did not manage to set anything down at all.

For every word written down, perhaps a hundred more, all lost now, and will be lost: why? I thought them waking up at night; I felt them crossing the road; I was with people; I was trying not to think at all. It would have been inconvenient, impolite, or unwise, to write. Or the thoughts came like a hive of bees, too maddening to remember though their echo can be felt. Was every thought important? I'm not sure, that's the problem. But they are gone, of that I'm sure, every one of them. So many zeros. Of this, too, I am certain: At end of life when I try to recall what I have thought, it will appear as if I had formed so many whole and complete opinions. Like bricks, like columns. Even this entry, this very note, seems to have a shape it does not deserve. Perhaps, if I am wise, when I read this journal again, what I will see is the silence squatting toadlike, imperious, what I will read are the blanks that huddle deep and massive as mountains, entirely white and wholly resistant.

They rushed into the Square like water pouring into a single container. “Ten thousand years, ten thousand years!” they shouted under the gaze of those imaginary animals.

Love, that simple little thing, needs to be quiet; shouted and declared, it loses the intimacy that honest and real things possess. It matters little whether a person or a country is the object. It is a personal thing too, destined to be guarded jealously like a secret; when shared among thousands, it begins to take on the shape of mania, delusion, hyperbole. There are some things that should never be put into words, much less song.

Did shoving their way into Tiananmen turn them into real revolutionaries with true love for the chairman? There is a reason why the love in this book — be it love for books, music or between people — why love in these pages blooms in little rooms, small and spare, some buried, others guarded, all hard to find. A square is a container the way verse or performance are containers; water remains water no matter whether the goblet or chalice is dross or gold. Setting sentiments to meter doesn't make them fine. Away from the grandstand and the waving flags, safe from the dances and performances, one begins to restore some of that affection and belief, some of that faith the songs trumpet.

She did not want to hear a violin and so the record she put on was Bach.

I am listening to Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, probably the same one referred in the text, as I re-read this scene; there are 30 variations to get through, but the first aria is what I focus on, what I try to understand. Not having learnt music, I feel incredibly stupid as I attempt this task; it is as if I were a child playing at surgery with a plastic knife. I play the first aria again and again, I look for something, anything to unlock its mystery, and for some reason I resort to images: first it's rain, each note a drop striking the street or roof; and then I happen upon the impression of someone dancing across a dark stage, each note a step. This helps; this is something I can cope with. In the first five seconds she is tentative, but still in control: first that one quiet yet decisive step, followed by another, and then a sudden tripping forwards, totalling at most three or four steps, before the resumption of control and grace, so that the earlier faltering appears to be mere coquetry, promising and then withholding passion. In the next five seconds the tempo picks up and then pauses, resumes and stops, as if multiple ripples were being beat out by bursts of rain on the even face of a dark pool. And this goes on, there is caprice here, order yet surprise, as what the ear is taught to expect descends into a muffled pause or rise, sometimes close to panic, but never quite losing composure. But through it all, there is a perceptible rise in volume: something is gathering force, gaining momentum.

Why not a violin but Bach? Because she is not interested in listening to herself; she wishes to remember Sparrow. For we know that Bach's genius is what Sparrow strives for, and Bach's music is at once what he fears and loves, because the Variations is that towering achievement which inspires him and worries him, it represents what he wants to create but fears he will never attain. She had told herself "Sparrow will understand"; in the end, the reader does not know whether Sparrow notices that record left on the gramophone, whether he understands.

Time extended inside Bach, there were repetitions and canons, there were circles and spirals, there were many voices and honest humility as if he knew that reincarnation and loss were inseparable.

Time is compressed, hurried, measured out in spoons, and stretched and quartered in the Variations. The first two variations practically hurtle forward with careless haste, like chariots or horses; the thirteenth appears completely dainty and gracious, ladylike, and consequently somewhat unmemorable. The fourth reminds one of a general marching without looking back to check if his troops are following behind. The 25th may be the slowest of all: it is elegiac and nostalgic, it is practically sadness itself; if music is to convey silence, this is how it's to be done, by the introduction of pauses long enough to threaten the integrity of a piece — the question it poses seems to be: how long can a pause be before a piece of music gets broken into two? And so I see and feel what I previously only understood: yes, the Variations contains an interpretation of the story itself; yes, there is hurry and urgency, there is work and industry, and there will be pomposity and vanity, and of course loneliness, loss, dreams deferred. And in each and all of these the same theme is at work, or being reworked; life itself, like an aria, finds itself re-formed or subject to reformation, progress or reversal, but its original shape and rhythm, sometimes sure but often faltering, in the main beautiful and rare, remains.