For N

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

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

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

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

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


I like to watch you cook.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the hidden order behind years of chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

the passion in a pencil smudge

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

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

Do you really understand?

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

how peaceful

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

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

The Professor wanted peace

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

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

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

Twin primes

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

“A wasteland?”

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

no theory or rule

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

Do I look like the Professor?

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

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

an answer in the sum itself III

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

the dappled sunlight

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


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

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

an answer in the sum itself

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

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

an answer in the sum itself

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

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

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

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

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

I was free to repeat the same question until I understood

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

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

much more than eighty minutes

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

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


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

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

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

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

220 284

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

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

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

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

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

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

something dramatic had changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

before the memory had vanished

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

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

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

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

always a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your shoe size?

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

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

He has difficulties with his memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have looked for so long into the abyss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


like something out of Jan Steen

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

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

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

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

How little I knew, how little I understood

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

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

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

the essential sin

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

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

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

Flora is dreaming of the golden world.

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

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

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

not for pleasure, really, but to exhaust myself

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

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

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

Compare this to the present instance:

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mammy, and then: Love.

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

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

my fellow sufferer, dear friend, compagnon de miseres!

The phrase is Schopenhauer’s:

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

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


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.