“…but perhaps as you make her you do make her fall in. the girl falls in to love…”

1

The girl and her lover meet for the first time at a pub downtown. They had arranged this meeting over the telephone the week before and they share a liter of beer and soon the girl is high from the alcohol and she thinks that you are not beautiful and awkward and you speak slowly, as if speech were something to be careful with, like a man handling small glass figurines.

The motel is pink and a cheap one on L Street run by Pakistanis and you pay in cash and she will realize after you fuck her for the fourth time (but not today) that you always pay in cash and you hold her against your naked form in front of a mottled grey mirror and you say how beautiful she is and the girl moves her gaze to the reflection, to the image of a woman with long dark hair and brown eyes painted black that night, a red bra and black cotton underpants and she is beautiful in the mirror and not recognizing herself." some thing out of a circle of ideas, a blurred picture of eros, and you behind her with your white skin blue eyes and fatty belly pushing into her ass.

(Then later—, months after the girl’s husband has discovered the liaison and a year and a half after this initial meeting and she is sitting on the sofa in the living room of her home and looking out at the pine and cypress and beech and alone because the husband has moved out of their home, she will recall this image of herself in the mirror, of you behind her, of her sorrow like an amulet but not only for the ended marriage, something else which she can’t fathom or unfathomably put consonant and vowels to (yet?), some silence unletterable alongside her sorrow, some things and notthings which she tries to grasp with the edges of breaths (to make, or to find—like a man makes a tunnel for his underground passage)).

You remove her black shirt her trousers. You fumble with her bra as you had briefly with the snap on her jeans. And she tells you how she doesn’t want to fuck you and she doesn’t tell you that she has decided she will fuck you the next time but not tonight, hoping in part (there is always shame for the girl) that this means there is more later, around some kind of time-corner, and trained, like a good penitent, to think that the pleasures must be delimited and she says to you that she doesn’t want to fuck tonight and alright, you say, spread your legs and let me eat your cunt.

You open up her cunt with both of your hands, pull the outer brown-pink labia the smaller and wrinkled black-pink inner labia apart and she is uninitiated, the thirty-nine-year-old girl who has been fucking since eighteen and the mother of two boys, but has never had her cunt sucked properly so that her sex becomes an altar and the man prostrate there as she had imagined him many months before this affair (or the other affairs; or in her office when she was lonely and desirous, before she knew her lover, the other lovers) as he is wont to and seeking all of the women to get back inside of their fleshy slits. She is anxious and opens her legs, but not widely, as if you are a medical doctor and putting your face near to her and your instrument inside of her for medical purposes and she has always (a remembered always, because the very young girl-child was unashamed, her cunt opened to the boys and girls during play) hidden the cunt its smells and secretions; crosses her legs and tightens her thigh and buttock muscles. It takes a long time before the cunt begins to secrete its fluids and she wonders who you are: a pervert; a man who fucks whores; a violent man; a liar; perhaps you will use her body, you will arouse her only to put your cock inside and then you will lie to her again and then you will depart and she will be alone and she will be transformed and she will be in pain and ashamed of her desires, her stink.

You are patient and experienced—the hundreds of women and whores before your meeting with this girl in the pink motel late at night, it is eleven o’clock now and you eat suck lick her and she is thinking that she will never come, that what is she doing, what would her husband do if he knew of this transgression and although the husband never sucks her cunt and she has never orgasmed into a man’s mouth before and that who are you, you are dangerous; that she is in a motel with a stranger, that if her husband could see her now while he is at home with their sleeping children that with her legs splayed on the motel bed, wider now than moments ago, and three miles from her home, fucking this stranger, he is eating her pussy better and longer than any man in her lifetime as if he knows how to arouse her and how does he?, as if he knows that she has waited for him and suddenly she knows, thinks it, that she is aroused beyond the point of return, like a girl who has moved off an old and weathered path and that she will come, that he is licking patiently, sucking, pulling on the lips and rubbing the clitoris, that he understands her body’s cues, breathstops—starts and she stops breathing and begins again stops and he follows her breathing, he tells her later, and she is silent for the thirty-five minutes while he patiently learns her idiom, sticks his fingers into her vagina and she moves out in and then she wasn’t thinking and then she is listening again and he is saying please hold me while he takes his cock into his hands and rubs it with both of his hands and that her leg on top of his leg, his eyes closed and he is grunting rubbing his penis then ejaculating and she asks if he is satisfied, happy that she did not have to suck his cock at his request. He is happy to hold her, he says.

She puts her clothes on and sits on the edge of the motel bed, she is feeling guilty now, perhaps by the ease of her adultery, the pleasure of it, she doesn’t look into your eyes (has she looked at you at all tonight?, or has she simply moved along the path of your vibrations, her scent yours) and tells you that she must go, home to her children and husband who does not eat or suck her cunt and who fucks her infrequently and she masturbates daily and reads the porno books purchased from a sex shop on J Street. Later she thinks how she wouldn’t have been so hungry all of these years and eaten more than her share at every meal (the large appetites) if she had been properly and frequently fucked: every day, but this thought comes six weeks later when you fuck her for six hours on a white platform bed in a city hotel where the light comes in through the half-opened blinds in the afternoon and she is sick with a head-cold and tired and can see the highrises in the distance of downtown and will orgasm nine times and sprays you with her vaginal secretions. But now, in this first scene at the motel, you unbutton her just buttoned shirt and undo her bra again and surprise her that you would like to notfuck her arouse her again with your mouth and tongue; you don’t speak while you do it. Your penis is stiff and you don’t touch yourself or ask her to suck you as she is still expecting you to, or try to cajole her into allowing you to fuck her, but bury your face in her cunt again and late into the night and she lies there self-consciously thinking that who is this foreign blue-eyed man and that she can’t come again—the limits the edges she is accustomed to—and soon she has a second orgasm into your mouth, outsideness inside of the dingy and poorly lighted room—but not as out as she will become with this man who will become her lover, who teaches her the unteaching of the limits, that love is expansive that yearning and its disruptions areas old as the days; that he can bring her to the inside of outness and that she can arrive outward with him on each of the days that they fuck.

At breakfast the next morning. It is the day before her fourteen year wedding anniversary. You and the girl sit together at a local cafe and you eat your food with your open mouth and your hands the knuckles and fingers are fat and swollen looking, as if you have labored. You are still speaking slowly, stones turn leisurely between eachof your words. You tell her that you could love her and she sees the egg whites and yellows in your open chewing mouth. She is repulsed and attracted at the same time, to the moments of the night before, this strange man, slow-speaking and widely eyed and opaque to her with the openness of days and spaces between each word and phrase.

You will teach her about whips and small pains in bed. Each time you put your mouth to her cunt she is happy, as if this is what she was born to know and experience and is so lucky, now, in the modern world, to find the man who still worships properly, sucks her cunt with enthusiasm so that the circuit is completed, his mouth her mouth her cunt her open mouth and his and both he and she are filled with the gods.

2

She drives south to see you for your second meeting. She gets lost as she approaches your city and she doesn’t think of fucking you because she always thinks of fucking and so is not conscious, in this moment, of her perpetual adult desire, its mark upon her body, and invisible and unremovable. You have Japanese food for lunch, and she looks out the window of the restaurant and tells you of her loss of faith in speech, by how little it communicates, by the lies and half-spokens and the masks of her American brethren and the speech so degraded now, was it ever different?, banal, and she is bored by the middle class, its diversions, by her own lying phrases and postures. Did the gods ever live inside the letters sounds? You seem to understand. Look at her with a look of comprehension. She is struck by this knowing look and knows, feels, that you fall in love with her during this conversation: that she seduces you with her flight of words. Later, on the floor of your workroom, she pulls off from her body as she orgasms and returns, astonished and naked now, understands what she has not understood in her marriage, her husband as blind as she to the forces moving through them and she unable to find its electric breach until now. You have done this to her; you? You give her a second orgasm right before she must leave: you lie naked on the workroom floor with her for hours and the world passes by you and then you are touching her clitoris with your fingers, the speech evaporates and putting your fingers inside of her cunt and she is crying after orgasm, she sobs, and you are not sure what causes the girl this grief and it is not grief, she does not say, for having found you, some profound mystery she has intuited for all of her life and you have taken her across the threshold and she is free. Or simply that you fucked her twice and not the once she had been lucky to get once every two weeks or month up until this today—the one if she’d been a good and obedient girl and wife and office-worker and citizen.

You will be her guide: willing and desirous of fucking as much as she—will eat her pussy five times in a day and she will flow into your mouth, her damp underwear and your body odor on her skin remind her of you for hours. She doesn’t shower the next day to remember your fucking scent in her pussy (sticks her fingers inside) and on her neck and the blue-red marks you leave on her neck also, like fat and bruised souvenirs. When she pulls her pants down to piss the next morning, she smells her cunt filled with your day-old semen and she is happier, serves her family breakfast, dresses the children and makes lunches and drives to their school across town and the next day begins inside of its routines.

She returns to that moment in your workroom in the following months in her memory, just as she returns to the image of the girl in the grey and mottled mirror. The woman that she is then, the long dark hair and unshaved pussy naked on the tiled floor on the top of woolen blankets and your labors all around her, wooden boxes and bedside tables and wood shavings on the floor, the beautiful scent of woods as if the ancient trees themselves were present and their years in this dust and you before her: white skin and a white paunch belly; the blue eyes which see differently, one from the other, and so the world is a flat place for your eyes—and your hands which cut and shape and bevel the wood? deep inside her cunt they pull and push her up and back to a lifting-off place. And the language of it is lost to it. She begins to read the old stories, the possessions by the gods, The Thousand Nights and One Night is by her bedside, to understand, or the devils, how it is that you remade her in your workroom that afternoon in August, carved and cut an ancient woman, your mother, sister and the nymphs on the lintels of old European buildings—the language can hardly say it any longer: but with your cock inside her cunt and you are pushing it in and her orgasm opened a river inside of her and she would like it beyond language you are grunting into her ear, filling her mouth with your tongue, cunt with cock, spittle and urine and a piston inside of its fleshy destiny and she would like to die with you in this moment and to kill you, squeeze the breath from you you ask her to put her hands around your neck as she rides on your cock and you ask without asking, place her hands around your neck and press her white blue-veined fingers into your trachea, cut off the breath then your orgasm and you’re breathing again and you have not died and she rides you longer until she slaps your face comes on your cock, pisses and cries into your shoulder. And when she is feeling sad and melancholic as she often does at her job and on the week-ends with her family, she remembers that eternal moment, returns to you then endlessly in her dreams and then also in her car as she makes the drive south to your workplace and the floor upon which you will fuck her week after week month after month during your affair.

It is strange to her that no one sees the change in her. What the afternoons in your workroom do to the soul to the skin and eyes and dark hair. She doesn’t love you, she thinks, but you have made her into your acolyte. She no longer fears dying, she fears, instead, not being able to lie on the dark tiles of your workroom floor, your mouth pressed to her cunt, her mouth open and the universe inside and outside her mouth the room.

But perhaps as you make her you do make her fall in. The girl falls in to love, as if love were, what exactly?, the underground stone palace where the lover has hidden the beloved? the deepest well where the serpent lives? And you expect it, demand it: Stop fucking your husband, you tell her, I can’t bear it (fall in to love with me). She stares at you; she is silent and dark looking in the eyes. I love you, you say, and thrust this inside her like your cock: love me back love me back love me only in this possession. Or else? she thinks, she says nothing while he shoves his cock into her again; she is happy free and at ease with him inside her cunt. Or else no black tiles of opened mouth breath; no drive south on the long highway across the brown grass fields in summer, the green shoots in early spring, the bay water bright when she arrives home or grey cloudy and fogged on summer and winter afternoons.

—from Micheline Aharonian Marcom, The Mirror in the Well

The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 28.2 (Summer 2008).

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simenon’s the murderer, chapter 7: “the day before, he had still been wondering why he’d killed”


 

SEVEN

It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Kuperus had not yet finished dressing. Standing in front of the mirror, he was in the act of tying his tie when all at once he paused, motionless, listening.

Through the wall came the sound of a piano, at first a few casual notes, then some firmer chords, which formed the opening bars of one of Schumann’s compositions.

For a moment he was at a loss to know what it was that had caught him off guard. It wasn’t surprise, but, rather, some sort of wistful nostalgia. As he looked at his reflection, he saw a Kuperus different from that of the last few days, a Kuperus who was touched, agitated, bewildered.“Mia!” he whispered.

Mia had returned. Perhaps she was cured. The doctor was so affected by the idea that he almost forgot he had been summoned to appear before the examining magistrate.

The house next door, on the side toward the bridge, was smaller than the others, but it was more spick-and-span than any of them, with its woodwork freshly painted every year and its white curtains starched. In it lived the Braundts, the quietest and most respected people on the street. Braundt was a master at the grammar school; his wife was housekeeper in an upper school for girls.

They went off at the same time every day, leaving their little girl, Mia, in the care of a governess. Mia was twelve. She didn’t go to school because of her health and also because she spent a lot of time studying the piano. For the last two years, Kuperus had been used to hearing her practice while he saw his patients.

The autumn before, she had been so ill that they’d sent her off to spend the winter in Switzerland, and the doctor had so far forgotten her that he had ceased to notice the absence of the music.

And now she had come back, and the sound of her playing filled his house.

“The little girl’s come back,” said a voice behind him.

It was Neel, who was busily brushing his bowler.

“Yes, she’s back,” he murmured.

Downstairs, he didn’t go out at once, but wandered first into the living room. Against the wall was an upright piano, the top of which was littered with photographs and ornaments.

On the music stool was a cushion of dark crimson plush, which had been made specially for little Mia.

At one time, she had come in regularly every afternoon to do her practicing under the supervision of Madame Kuperus. For Alice played, too, though not well enough to give the child her lessons. For that, a teacher came to the Braundts’ every morning.

Alice had kept a special box of chocolates for Mia. Perhaps it was still there in the dining-room sideboard.

“Will you be seeing any patients while you’re out? If so, you’d better take your bag.”

Neel followed him to the front door.

“No. I won’t need it.”

He had been quite relieved, that morning, to receive the official notice asking him to be at the examining magistrate’s office by eleven o’clock. Somehow, its effect had been to set his mind at rest. But Mia’s playing had sufficed to upset him again, and it was with a heavy heart that he heard the familiar sound of the front door shutting behind him.

Many a time Mia had still been with Alice when her mother had come back from work in the evening. If so, the latter had simply banged on the wall, which was the signal for the child to return home.

It was a dull gray day. Kuperus made an effort to shake off the melancholy effect of the music. He succeeded sufficiently to be able to throw a glance of complete indifference at the veranda from which he knew Jane Van Malderen would be watching him. In fact, he was almost tempted to put out his tongue!

What was the examining magistrate going to call him? Anton Groven and Hans Kuperus had been to school together, and by rights should call each other by their Christian names. They always had. It’s true they had never seen a great deal of each other, but that was only because his wife was the most disagreeable woman in Sneek. Nobody could stand her.

Why had he been summoned? Had the writer of the anonymous letter come forward at last? Or had the ticket collector been to the police?

When he’d got up that morning, Kuperus had been in a pugnacious mood, ready to confront the world and answer whatever questions they cared to put to him. But a few notes of music had cut the ground from under his feet, bringing back the past, years and years of it, right from the time of Mia’s first scales, when she’d had to have two cushions on the music stool.

The law courts were grayer than the rest of the town. The doctor walked straight upstairs and knocked on the examining magistrate’s door. Before there was any answer, he heard the sound of chairs being moved inside.

Finally the door was opened by the magistrate’s clerk. Anton Groven stood rather uneasily behind his desk, trying to look dignified.

“Come in… Take a seat…”

He didn’t shake hands. He didn’t call his visitor by his Christian name. Sitting down again, he tugged at his little beard, while with the other hand he turned over the papers of a file whose bulk surprised Kuperus.

“I had to summon you to come. There are a few questions I must ask you before winding up this inquiry. I’ve received reports from various quarters, and there are one or two points that require elucidation…”

He had obviously rehearsed the sentences beforehand, since he sounded rather like a schoolboy reciting one of the fables of La Fontaine. He hadn’t even raised his eyes from the dossier.

“For instance, I see here that at the time of the incident you were sheltering a certain Karl Vorberg, of German nationality, whose record is highly unsatisfactory. The Emden police have informed us that this Vorberg is strongly suspected of having committed a murder, but there’s not sufficient evidence to provide grounds for extradition…”

At last Groven raised his head. He looked timidly at Kuperus, as though he feared the latter would present a painful spectacle.

“Were you aware of the presence of this Vorberg in your house?”

“No.”

“In that case, I’m afraid I must quote from another report. It states here that you saw this person twice yesterday in a street of ill repute in Amsterdam. Do you deny that?”

“No.”

Kuperus tried to banish the strains of the piano from his mind. He realized now that, though he had been left alone, he had nonetheless been the subject of pretty exhaustive inquiries. He had even been followed. And he hadn’t noticed it!

He looked at the dossier. Was every page of it a trap in some form or other?

“Don’t think I’m trying to trip you up… But we must get this clear… On the one hand, you’ve told me you didn’t know Vorberg. On the other, you admit having seen him twice yesterday… ”

“That’s right.”

“Would you mind explaining that, please?”

“I didn’t know Karl at the time. I had no idea there was a man sleeping in the house…”

“How did you find out?”

“From the maid. When I took her as my mistress.”

The clerk hesitated to write that down, and Groven looked inquiringly at the doctor, who went on:

“I take full responsibility for what I’m saying. I had the maid down to sleep with me, and then it came out that she had another man upstairs… To get rid of him, I gave him some money, on condition he go to Amsterdam.”

“Has he been blackmailing you?”

“No. But it’s only natural he should expect a little compensation for obliging me. Yesterday I gave him a little more to get along with.”

For a moment there was silence while Groven studied his papers. Then he looked up again and made a sign to the clerk not to take down what he was going to say.

“The presence of this German under your roof was the most obscure part of the whole affair, and the police were almost prepared to draw certain conclusions from it…It will be easy to have your story confirmed by the servant and by Karl Vorberg himself… With that out of the way, there’s not much to bother about…” That might have been taken ironically, since there were at least a hundred typewritten sheets in the dossier, and presumably they weren’t about nothing! “I suppose,” went on the magistrate, “that, on your side, you’ve no information to give us…”

He said that rather hurriedly, as though he was afraid the doctor might have.

“I’m ready to answer your questions,” answered the latter.

“I wish I could spare myself the task of having to ask them… As you know, of course, Schutter’s wallet disappeared, which suggested an obvious motive. But we couldn’t blind ourselves to the fact that there might be another one — in other words, jealousy. I take it that you deny having shot your wife and her companion…”

Kuperus sat still for a moment, assailed by a strange temptation. He would have loved to contradict the magistrate. He would have loved to answer:

“I don’t deny any such thing!”

But it wasn’t so easy. And if, in the end, he nodded, it was because Groven, by the attitude he adopted, practically forced him to.

“That evening, when you returned from Amsterdam, you went as usual to the Onder den Linden, after which you went straight home.”

Groven breathed deeply. He was relieved. He made a little movement of his hand as though to banish the clouds.

“Of course, if it was assumed to be a crime of passion, the sentence would be correspondingly lenient, as it always is in such cases… On the other hand, it would unloose a scandal that could only be described as disastrous…”

Kuperus gave a bleak smile.

“On your side, is there anybody on whom you could throw suspicion?”

“No. Nobody,” answered Kuperus without a trace of sarcasm.

The magistrate paused while the clerk wrote that down. Then he stood up and cleared his throat. He had come to the most difficult part of all, but he was determined to go through with it.

“I hope,” he began, looking everywhere but at Kuperus, “I hope you fully realize the situation. This crime, this double crime, was committed in such a way as to leave us with no serious indications as to the perpetrator, or, at all events, with no formal proof. If the case was sent before the Assizes, it’s more than probable there’d be an acquittal, because the accused would be given the benefit of the doubt…”

The clerk had got up, too, and had disappeared into an alcove, where he was washing his hands.

“The accused?” asked Kuperus. “Who do you mean?”

“I don’t know… I’m just speaking in the abstract…But let me go on. At this stage we can hardly hope for any fresh evidence. That’s why I’ve asked you to come today. By this evening there’s every probability that the case will have been dropped…And, if it’s dropped, the important thing is that it should be forgotten; in other words, there should be nothing to keep it fresh in people’s minds… You understand me, Doctor?”

He’d said “Doctor”! That made it thoroughly official! Admittedly, it would have been difficult for Groven to call him Hans.

“As a matter of fact, one of our mutual friends, Van Malderen to be exact, told me you were intending to go away as soon as the case was finished… And I must say I think it’s a very wise decision…”

He had come out with it at last! With his hands in his pockets, he walked slowly to and fro behind his desk, pronouncing his words syllable by syllable to give full weight to all they were meant to convey.

“Your answers to my questions have been entirely satisfactory, and I feel sure that, before the day is out, what you have told me will be confirmed from other sources. That leaves us with only one or two details that are a little troublesome, though I don’t suppose they would amount to much in the eyes of a jury. At the station they’ve hunted for your railway ticket without success. The man at the barrier has admitted that some people, particularly the regular passengers, occasionally leave the station via the buffet, in which case they don’t hand in their tickets…You can imagine what capital a lawyer could make out of an admission like that!”

There was no doubt about it: his words were intended as a threat. He spoke in tones of the utmost detachment, but he was nonetheless giving orders.

“And, last, the other little point: it’s a pity that on the day in question you failed to attend the meeting of the Biological Association. Of course I’m quite sure you had a very good reason. I daresay you weren’t feeling well that day and decided to come straight home… And we mustn’t forget that you’ve never possessed a revolver, and the one with which the crime was committed has not been found… So, all things considered… But I don’t want to make a long story of it. All I wanted to do was to put my cards frankly on the table… As I said before, by tonight this dossier will have been stuffed away in a pigeonhole, and tomorrow I’ll be busy on something else… It only remains for me to wish you an interesting journey and to express the hope that this unfortunate business will soon cease to trouble people’s minds…”

He stood still and looked Kuperus squarely and coldly in the face.

“I take it you have nothing to add?” he said sternly.

The doctor hesitated. Why should a phrase of the music once more run through his head? Finally, and with an abject air, he stammered:

“Nothing.”

“In that case, we can consider it all over. Thank you.”

He opened the door himself, keeping his right hand on the handle so that it wouldn’t be available for shaking hands. His only farewell was a stiff bow, and the doctor left ignominiously, bumped into somebody in the hall, muttered an apology, and found himself in the street without knowing how he’d left the building.

So acutely was he suffering that he had to stop in the middle of the sidewalk outside a house and stand there with his hand over his heart. It wasn’t merely a physical suffering. It affected mind and body alike. It was an utter prostration of his whole being.

But through his agony came a ray of light. The day before, he had still been wondering why he’d killed. Now he knew it. It was because of just what he was suffering now!

He had just been through the most abject humiliation of his whole life. A man who had been to school with him, and ever since had called him by his Christian name, had rapped him over the knuckles and practically ordered him out of the town.

It was impossible to interpret what he had said in any other way. He had told Kuperus he was no longer wanted in Sneek. He had told him to pack his bags and clear out!

What was humiliation? The feeling of impotence in the face of one’s fellow creature, of inferiority that has to be openly admitted, the obligation to bend before another’s will…

And wasn’t that just what he’d felt over and over again in his relations with Schutter? And when he had received the anonymous letter…

… Schutter, who was richer than he was, who had kept his youthful figure, who was a polished man of the world, who could do anything he liked, and get away with it!…

He was walking along the canal now, but with unseeing eyes. When he got home, he walked straight past Neel in the hall without so much as a glance at her, and, taking refuge in his office, he shut and locked the door.

There he paced up and down, clenching his fists because of the music. It wasn’t Schumann now, but a Chopin berceuse, whose romanticism he found absolutely unbearable. He felt like breaking down altogether, bursting into tears.

Anton Groven was no doubt saying to Van Malderen:

“It’s all arranged… He’s going!”

And when Van Malderen went home to lunch, he’d say to Jane:

“It’s all arranged… He’s going!”

And so from mouth to mouth. Later on, in the Onder den Linden, the billiard players would say between their breaks:

“Have you heard?… It’s all arranged… He’s going!”

It was a sort of bloodless execution. And the Braundts would soon be saying to the little wide-eyed Mia:

“Aunt Kuperus is dead and Uncle Kuperus has gone away.”

For Mia had been in and out of their house so much that she had been taught to call them Aunt and Uncle Kuperus.

And now, after all, it was in a sense Schutter who triumphed. He had always put Kuperus in the shade, and now he was actually banishing him!

Up and down he went, to and fro, not knowing what he was doing. Sometimes he stopped to fiddle with something on his desk.

He had been completely incapable of standing up for himself. He had left the examining magistrate’s office like a beggar who has been refused alms! Had Anton Groven been watching him as he groped his way blindly along the hall? Had he felt a spark of pity at the sight of his drooping shoulders?

If only he could have wept! Tears might have brought some relief. The music jarred on his nerves to such an extent that he suddenly walked swiftly over to the wall and banged on it. But Mia didn’t understand what he meant.

He had killed because…

It wasn’t really clear even now. At least, it was the sort of revelation that cannot be expressed in words or fitted into any logical sequence of ideas.

It was something like this: for fifteen years he, Dr. Kuperus, had lived in this house with his wife… He worked hard… In the course of the morning he saw about twenty patients, and, because they were mostly poor people, the waiting room always smelled a bit…

In the afternoon he went all over the town on foot, into stuffy rooms whose air was already heavy with impending death, and then at five o’clock he would reach the Onder den Linden, often only to be called away again before he’d finished a game…

In the evening he read the newspaper while his wife did some needlework or knitting. Once a month the Van Malderens stayed to dinner, and once a month he went to Amsterdam, where his sister-in-law put him up for the night…

He had been on a cruise to Spitzbergen and had had a holiday in Paris…

For fifteen years things had gone on like that, because that was how they had to be. He’d been quite a stickler in his way. Everything had to be in its right place, everything done at the right time.

When his wife had wanted her living room refurnished, he’d agreed because Jane Van Malderen’s had been refurnished the year before. When she had wanted a fur coat, he had thought it over for a month, which was only reasonable and proper, and then had bought it for her birthday.

Only, from time to time something gnawed at him, from time to time he was assailed by a longing to break out of this harmonious existence, to knock down this scaffolding of respectability. Such ideas, however, were no sooner entertained than they were brushed aside. That he was living his life in the right sort of way was obvious, since everybody else did precisely likewise…

If he was occasionally tempted to make a pass at Neel, he immediately reproved himself, and was even ready to judge himself very severely…

Then all of a sudden his wife… and Schutter!…

If it had been anyone else, it would have been different. But it had to be Schutter! The one man in Sneek who did not live like Dr. Kuperus and all the others. The one man who lived just as he wanted to, indulging every whim. And far from being punished for it, he was rewarded. He was made president of the Billiard Club! And no woman seemed able to withhold her favors from him.

Not even Alice Kuperus!…

What did it all amount to? That Kuperus was wrong. That he’d been wrong all his life. That he’d been led up the garden path — the straight and narrow path, into the bargain — and been led nowhere.

In other words, everything was false, rotten to the core, the house and everything in it, the new living-room furniture, the fur coat, the piano, and the crimson cushion that had been made for Mia…

There! That was why he’d killed! Because he was fed up with the whole bag of tricks, because things that for years had seemed right and proper, if not scared, now seemed idiotic, like the bottle of Burgundy that was brought up from the cellar religiously every Thursday and set by the side of the fire to take the chill off…

Because everything had been knocked sideways. Because he could no longer even listen to Mia’s playing…

He had been taken in. That was it: taken in! He’d been a fool to believe in it all, to toe the line, all for nothing… They had never even thought of making him vice-president of the club!

So why not get rid of this Schutter, and his wife into the bargain?

Having done that, he would kill himself, too. Or he could just give himself up and then have the satisfaction of telling them all exactly what he thought of them.

Things had worked out differently. Why? He really couldn’t say. He hadn’t killed himself. Nor had he given himself up. The only thing he had done to mark his protest was to take

Neel to bed with him.

And where did he stand now? He didn’t know that either. He was crushed. He didn’t even have the courage to look at himself in the mirror. Stamped on his retina was the vision of Anton opening the door and showing him out, bowing frigidly…

The music never stopped. Mia practiced six hours a day, because she was intending to become a virtuoso.

If only he could have wept! But no! He even screwed his face into a grimace, hoping to start it that way, but no sob came.

Opening the door he angrily shouted:

“Neel!”

Then, since she didn’t come immediately, he went downstairs and found her setting the table in the dining room.

“Neel!”

She turned and looked at him apathetically.

“Tell me, Neel… are there any rumors going around in the neighborhood?”

“What do you mean?”

“The people that gossip in the shops, for instance — have they been saying anything new these last few days?”

“About you?”

“Yes, of course — about me.”

“They say you’re going away.”

“Do they give any reason?”

Neel sighed.

“You know perfectly well.”

“Never mind! I want you to tell me.”

“Oh, very well! They say that after what’s happened you can’t go on living in Sneek, and that even if you wanted to, you’d be prevented…”

“Who says that?”

“Everybody. Even the boys run after me and put their tongues out…You asked me to tell you, didn’t you?”

“Do they say anything else?”

“They do.”

“Come on! Out with it!”

“They say that you’re much too cunning to have left any clues, but that the murderer of Schutter and your wife is not far away…”

Kuperus looked at her out of the corner of his eye.

“And you?”

“What about me?”

“What do you think?”

“You know.”

“Why should I?”

“Really?…Do you mean to say you don’t know… that you never suspected?”

Her surprise was not put on.

“Suppose we drop the subject,” she muttered, moving toward the door.

“Answer me, will you?… What do you think?”

“I’ve known all along,” she replied with a shrug of the shoulders. “You see, it was me who wrote the letter…”

She didn’t seem to think it was of any importance. The subject bored her, and her one thought was to cut the conversation short.

“Why did you write that letter?”

“Because of Madame.”

“Why?”

“I knew she came in late the nights you were in Amsterdam, and once she only got back at nine next morning…”

“Go on.”

“One day we had a fight…”

“You and my wife?”

“Yes… I’d been doing the shopping, and was half a guilder short when I gave her the change… I must have dropped it somewhere, because I’d never think of taking the trouble to steal half a guilder… A whole hour she spent in the kitchen yelling at me and saying she’d take it out of my wages… It was then that I told her…”

“What did you tell her?”

“That if she did, I’d come out with what I knew.”

Kuperus stood motionless, oppressed by the thought of the petty squabbles that had gone on around him to which he’d been utterly oblivious. His life had been so quiet, so well regulated. He must have come home from the Onder den Linden only a few minutes after scenes of this kind, and had noticed nothing.

“But she was in such a temper that she yelled back at me: ‘You’d never dare!’ ”

“But you did?”

“The same day… The next day she said she was sorry, gave me five guilders, and begged me to keep my mouth shut… But it was too late…”

“Did you tell her so?”

“No.”

“And you took the five guilders?”

“Yes.”

And from that day she had waited, surprised at having to wait so long. Because she knew that he knew.

“Did you ever ask her for money after that?”

“Toward the end, yes. On account of Karl.”

She had made her confession without shame, only with a touch of asperity, as though she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stir up memories of that kind.

“So when I came back that night and told you to bring me some tea, you knew at once?”

“I knew from the moment you touched me.”

The doctor was silent for a moment. Thenhe suddenly flared up.

“Get out of here!” he shouted. “Get out of this room.”

In the mirror, he watched her go out shrugging her shoulders, then he went over and shut the door behind her. Coming back to the table, he caught hold of the tablecloth and, with a sudden jerk, sent all the china crashing to the floor. Finally he picked up a vase from the mantelpiece and hurled it, too, to the floor. It was a vase he had once mended himself, when a former servant, long before Neel, had broken off one of the handles.

There was no relief for his suffering! He was humiliated, humiliated by everything. Humiliated by Van Malderen, humiliated by Anton Groven, who was no doubt at that very moment discussing him with his wife as they sat at lunch… Humiliated by Neel…

Alice had paid the five guilders, hoping thus to buy Neel’s silence…

A sudden stab went through him at a thought. It wasn’t Alice who kept the housekeeping accounts, but he. So to give Neel five guilders, she must have cheated on the weekly bills. Or else…or else asked Schutter for it.

That was it! Surely! She’d asked Schutter. She’d sobbed out the whole story to him, and he’d reassured her, patted her on the back, given her the five guilders.

He looked around for something else to smash. But no! What was the use? It didn’t even relieve his feelings. He was aching all over. He felt as though he were suffocating. He didn’t know what to do with himself. The constriction in his chest got tighter and tighter, until it became sharp as a spasm. He groped for the handle of the door. He called out:

“Neel!”

She came, quite casually, asking:

“What is it now?”

“Call Dr. De Greef,” he panted. “Ask him to come at once.”

He felt sure his strength was failing. He thought the spasms of his heart were squeezing it like a sponge. He listened and heard Neel in the office talking to De Greef’s maid. A moment later she came down again.

“He’ll be here in a few minutes. Do you want anything else?”

“No. Leave me.”

“You’d much better put it out of your mind. You won’t do any good by worrying over it… What’s done’s done…”

“Be quiet.”

“And what’s the matter with a bit of foreign travel, anyway?”

“Hold your tongue, will you?”

He couldn’t bear to listen to another word.

“Go away. Leave me alone.”

Perhaps he was going to die. The music, which had stopped for a few minutes, now started again. He knew every note by now, every chord. He waited for each one to come…

He left the door open, in order to be sure of hearing the bell when De Greef arrived.

 

“on what else would our anguish feed if we did not all feel we had a small part in universal evil?”


Nobel Prize–winner Imre Kertész’s novella The Pathfinder is a haunting story about the psychological dynamics experienced by those who choose to understand and reveal totalitarianism and its legacy—as well as a study in the behaviour of those who ignore, deny and conceal the past. Set in an unnamed middle-European country, a visiting government investigator finds his questions and discoveries lead him more and more into a realm characterized by fear, suspicion, and powerlessness; it is a world resonant with intimations of the barbarism of human agency and the tenuous nature of our efforts to rescue the past from falsehood and oblivion.

Here are the opening pages:

 


Visiting

 

The host—a man with a complicated family name, Hermann by Christian name—was chattering ingenuously; it seems he really did still take his guest to be only a simple colleague, and the latter, puffing on his pipe (a tiresome implement but, it had to be admitted, one that on occasion was quite indispensable) quietly studied his face. He did not see it as anything special: it was the face of a middle-aged man that radiated an untroubled self-confidence, oval in shape, ordinary nose and mouth, brown hair, blue eyes. As yet it was impossible to tell for sure if behind the show of chattering was concealed the usual trickery or merely infantile naïveté; he inclined toward the latter assumption, though in point of fact—he reflected—the difference between the two was negligible. He cast another glance at him: did he really seriously believe he had finally managed to cut the strings? Well, it made no difference; he would soon have to learn that the strings never could be cut and that, like all witnesses, sooner or later he, too, would have to confess.

 

He donated another minute to him, a single minute of unclouded freedom from care. He paid attention to his chatter; he was chattering about his occupation, or, to be more precise, the difficulties of his occupation, with the confidence, if maybe not of an accomplice, then of a colleague, pretending to be immensely concerned on their account—that is to say, pretending to have not a care in the world. Crafty, the guest granted, very crafty; it was not going to be easy to break him, that was for sure. He swept his eyes over the scene: the moment seemed opportune, with the two of them sitting in spruce-green leather armchairs in one corner of the room, behind a coffee table, while in another corner the wives were trying out shoes on each other’s feet, totally absorbed in this female whimsy. Yes, it was time to set to work. 

 

He took the pipe from his mouth and cut him short with calm, premeditated hostility. He then informed him in a single terse sentence who he was and the object of his mission and the investigation that he was to pursue. Hermann turned slightly pale. He soon pulled himself together, though, as was only to be expected: to some extent the unexpected announcement had caught him off-guard, for up till now all the signs suggested that the guest—the colleague—had come to the small town merely on account of the specialist conference that had just ended, as a result of which, offhand, he could not think what to say at this late hour…

 

“And after so many years,” the guest interjected.

 

“Just so! I can’t deny that either,” Hermann responded. “But one thing intrigues me before we go any further: Am I under any obligation at all to answer your questions?”

 

“No,” came the quick answer. “Your own laws are the only ones applicable to you. You should definitely be cognizant of that, and it’s inexcusable of me not to have said so at the start.”

 

Hermann thanked him, he had merely been curious, and now, he declared with a smile, he was ready to give evidence, voluntarily and freely, as his guest could see. True, the guest agreed, though maybe with less appreciation than Hermann, for all his magnanimity, had no doubt been expecting. The guest was evidently of the opinion—surprising self-assurance—that Hermann would give evidence in any event. But that was precisely what was baffling. He asked nothing, just carried on calmly sitting there, sucking his pipe, looking almost bored.

 

Hermann broke the silence a minute later. What, in point of fact, he inquired, would be of interest to his guest? Would he like, perhaps, he pumped further, seeing that the guest was putting off giving an answer, as if he were still weighing something up, to quiz him, Hermann, about some personal questions? Or maybe, he continued with a ready, conciliatory little smile in anticipation of understanding, to ascertain what he, Hermann, knew, and how much?

 

“Well, certainly,” he responded. “Of course, I’d be glad to listen, insofar as you are indeed in the mood to talk about it.”

 

“Why not?” Hermann shrugged. After all, he had nothing to hide. Though it therefore followed, he added, that he did not have much to say either. There was no denying that he had heard about the case. He also knew that it had happened around there. It was painful, still painful, even to talk about it. He personally had not been able to devote much attention to it at the time. He did not wish to burden his guest with explanations, butat any rate he had good reason, at the time, for instance, to say no more; he had still been more or less a child, which was no excuse, of course, merely a circumstance, but it might go some way to explaining it. Even so, naturally, one thing and another had come to his attention. He heard that something had happened, despite the numerous impediments—indeed, it might be true to say that precisely through their conspicuous presence—it had been impossible for a person not to become aware of certain things, albeit involuntarily. Anyone who said any different was lying. However, the details and the scale, which is to say the case itself, had actually only started to assume their true shape later on.

 

At this point, Hermann relapsed into silence for a minute; perhaps to give himself a fixed point to rest on at last, he interlaced his constantly mobile hands, which had been providing a running commentary to accompany everything he said, around a knee that he had pulled up as he sat there, and a quiet popping of his knuckles was clearly audible before he commenced speaking again.

 

He could have done what others had done and just ignored the matter. Who could reproach him for that? But, he carried on, something had given him no respite; something had driven him, troubled him—curiosity, but no, that wasn’t the right word for it, yet this wasn’t the place for being modest, so was it all right for him to speak instead about duty, the agonizing duty of knowledge? He had set about feverish research: he had sought facts, indisputable facts above all, in order to see his way clearly in the matter. He had collected files, acquired evidence, accumulated an entire archive—there were things to show to the guest. All that was missing now was to work up this heap of objective evidence; it was just… Hermann sighed deeply, leaned back in his seat without letting go of his knee, and closed his eyes for a minute as if they were being bothered by the strong lamplight. “It’s just that even with the hypothesizing,” he continued, “we are going a long way, rather too far in fact. One had certain thoughts: one can’t help it. And although those thoughts don’t stem from yourself… it’s just… how to put it? You understand? In other words… there’s something intimidating about this. Something stirs inside… some inner protest… a feeling that I find hard to put a name to offhand… I’m afraid I am not making myself clear enough…”

 

He fell silent again, casting an unsure glance at the guest, and although the latter was careful that no comment of his should exercise any influence, Hermann seemed to have read encouragement from his expression, because he continued:

 

“Perhaps it’s the fact,” he said, “that it’s possible. Yes, the fact that we surmise the impossible, and all of a sudden we gain proof that… that it’s possible. I think,” working himself into a fever, “that I’ve managed to capture that certain feeling.” He leaned forward, very close to the guest, his eyes burning with a strange light, his voice switching to a whisper. “The possibility, you catch my drift? Nothing else, the mere possibility. And that what happens just once, to just one person, has now transcended the frontiers of the possible, is now a law of reality…” He broke off, staring ahead, almost crushed, before again lifting his still slightly troubled eyes to the guest. “I don’t know if you understand what I’m getting at…”

 

“Of course I understand,” the guest nodded. “Thought-provoking and, moreover, probably true, because on what else would our constant anguish feed if we did not all feel we had a small part in universal evil?”

 

“Yes, yes! I see you understand me completely!” Hermann exclaimed, stretching out his hands in sudden delight toward the guest, then, perhaps failing to find the actual target of this exuberant motion, withdrew them: “I’m glad we met, glad you’re here! Indeed, you ought to have come sooner, I’d say!”

 

“That was impossible,” the guest apologized.

 

“There was a lot we needed to talk about, a lot! There was a time when I was very much expecting. . . expecting your arrival virtually any day!”

 

—Imre Kertész, The Pathfinder

(from http://media.npr.org/programs/day/features/2008/oct/pathseeker.pdf)  

 

public enemies? more on houellebecq and bhl’s correspondence

Houellebecq and Levy believe their own hype

The odd couple of French literature are disliked because they are public figures first and writers second

Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy 

The odd couple … Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy.
Photograph: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

In Public Enemies, his recently published correspondence with Left Bank philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (also known as BHL), Michel Houellebecq makes a somewhat touching admission about that moment in 1998 when his second novel Atomised began to get talked about: "I understood that I had a chance, a little chance to escape the world of work. I made with my hands and feet to widen the breach through which I had just seen a light. I did all the media, absolutely all of them."

One sympathises. But when a writer scrabbles his way to the light of the oncoming train that is fame, he could do worse than harken to Cyril Connolly’s rumble from The Unquiet Grave: "A public figure can never be an artist and no artist should ever become one unless, his work being done, he should choose to retire into public life."

I say this not so much thinking of Houllebecq’s post-Atomised retirement into music, soft porn films, documentaries, obnoxious public statements on Islam or mai 68, since he must have at least enjoyed himself. All this noise, however, doesn’t disguise the fact that from his sloppy travelogue Lanzarote, to the passable mess that is Platform, to the dismal The Possibility of an Island ("my best work" he concludes), Houellebecq, from being a very good writer, has become a shoddy one.

Whereas Atomised was sad but fun, 10 years on only a vinegary disdain remains. Whether lamenting the loss of friends revolted by his media excesses, or contemplating suicide as a way to silence the snickers of satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé, his lack of self-awareness is increasingly predictable. There is little sense of reality in a man who muses over "the vaguely Christlike aspect my destiny has taken."

Fortunately relief is provided by BHL. Acting like a teacher who has decided to take the unpopular class slug under his wing, he provides this book with a not unwelcome sensation that a friendship is blossoming. A brilliant graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieur who made his name in the 70s teaching the French leftlessons in morality as it persisted in supporting the Soviet Union, he regales Houllebecq with tales of scraps outside pubs in Saint Germain with PLO militants, communists, and sundry outraged lefties. For all his famously derided vanity and fluffy hair, BHL is an engaging, informative and dynamic foil to Houellebecq who, with all the energy of a Parisian décadent, is soon exhausted and glum once he has cocked a snook at the pieties of the French left, including an endorsement of President Sarkozy. "Sarkozy loves France," he offers, and then rolls over.

Nevertheless, there is something unreal about BHL too, not least his "philosopher" appellation. BHL, though born in 1947, has a moral outlook shaped by the second world war, a war his father fought in and in which his intellectual heroes Malraux and Camus played distinguished roles. However much one admires his skill as a polemicist and consensus shaper, it’s puzzling nevertheless that he could be considered in the same breath as Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze. Even as an "intellectuel engagé" in the spirit of his heroes, he has yet to produce imperishable works of the order of L’Espoir or L’Etranger. Unless we decide tomorrow to startle British op-ed writers George Monbiot or Brendan O’Neill by calling them "philosophers", we should think of giving him a more measured job title.

Contemporary society does not have a strong taste for the proper measure of things though. Now that it’s possible to talk with a straight face about giving banks our money so they can lend us our money back, it might be useful to consider that in literature unreal economies also flourish. Trading off bright beginnings, Houellebecq and BHL have generated fame and wealth for themselves far beyond and above their artistic and intellectual stock. While one might have no time for the Parisian sport of deriding Houellebecq’s attempts at infamy, or gloating as BHL squares up to custard pies throwers, they are unpopular, I think, because most people have an instinctive, if not atavistic, respect for the arts and philosophy as a form of husbandry. To quote Connolly again: "The artist has roots that run a hundred feet underground in search of tea leaves, cinders and old boots."

Solitude and modesty are key words. No-one, as far as I know, begrudges the retiring Lé Clezio his Nobel, while busy BHL and Houellebecq are two public enemies who not only make the hype, they believe it too.

houellebecq & bhl: “always ready to bite… two real monsters who you love to hate” are “almost human”

The cultural whipping boys’ manifesto:

France has vomited on us for too long

 

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The Guardian, Friday October 3 2008

Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq 
Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq. Photographs: AFP/Corbis
 

France has often delighted in publicly thrashing its literary greats, from Flaubert and Baudelaire’s morality court cases to Françoise Sagan’s drug busts. But now two self-declared cultural whipping boys have joined ranks to express their outrage at being constantly "vomited on", ridiculed and victimised by their nation.

 

Michel Houellebecq, the award-winning novelist and ageing enfant terrible, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the dapper leftwing philosopher, epitomise France’s love-hate relationship with its bestselling literary exports. In a surprise joint venture, they have produced a book of confessional letters to each other, raging at the vitriol heaped on them as the "whipping boys of our era in France".

 

The book, Public Enemies — released next week and seen by the Guardian — is being billed as the publishing sensation of the year, sure to spark a fresh slanging match with critics, some of whom are already talking of a work of staggering vanity and egotism, and a precious insight into the mind of French literary celebrities.

 

Houellebecq, France‘s most controversial modern writer, was hailed as the defining voice of nihilism after his novel Atomised 10 years ago. But he now compares the chattering classes’ hatred towards him to Nazism. He says his relationship with the French media is "total hatred", and a "war of extermination" is being waged against him.

 

He writes of a pack hunting him down and says his critics would love to drive him to suicide or stop him writing. He has no qualms about living in Ireland as a tax exile, and fears he can never again do public readings in France.

 

Despite trying to cut back on the habit of scouring Google for references to himself, he admits he is paranoid, adding: "If there is anyone in France right now with excuses for being paranoid, it is me."

 

Houellebecq also talks for the first time in detail about his parents, answering his mother, who recently published her own book calling him a "stupid little bastard".

 

In a literary scandal that gripped France, she took to the airwaves to heap insults on her son, who she gave to his grandparents to raise when he was a baby.

 

Houellebecq says he has only ever seen his mother about 15 times, and she conjured up a more radical "wickedness" than the "worst mothers in modern literature". He said his friends, on reading her attacks against him, asked why she had not simply had an abortion instead of giving birth to him. He calls her an "absolutely egocentric creature, of real although limited intelligence" and says he cannot even manage to hate her.

 

It might be that never having a mother "reinforces" one, he writes, but in a way that he would not wish on anyone: one can never take love for granted, and one has difficulty believing in it, remaining a kind of "enfant sauvage", never serene, never tame, "always ready to bite". He saw his mother’s book and press tour as being the media’s attempt to get at him.

 

"Why so much hatred?" asks Lévy of the vitriol also laid at his door. Known in France as BHL, he has attracted much mockery with his short white shirts and bouffant hair, as he has with his houses across the world, his glamorous wife and ventures into geopolitics, including work in Bosnia and Darfur and travels to Afghanistan as a French envoy. He says in the book that he has a "bulletproof ego", would have been a good secret agent, and compares the attacks against him to those on Jean-Paul Sartre. He also concedes that the "temptation towards paranoia" in the book of letters might be another "zone of folly".

 

Houellebecq, despite rage at discussion of aspects his private life, volunteers that he prefers to have sex in the morning when he is only half awake. BHL prefers "open eyes" and full lucidity.

 

The daily Libération said that what could have been a circus show of "two real monsters who you love to hate" in fact showed the writers as "almost human".

 

The Nouvel Observateur news weekly said that despite the writers’ "irritating" point of departure about their contemporaries’ hatred towards them, the book contained letters which were "strong, radical, even moving" as soon as the pair "consented to come down to earth" and provide confessions and snippets of memoir. 

Extracts

Michel Houellebecq to BHL

"Everything separates us from one another, with the exception of one fundamental point: we’re both utterly despicable individuals."

"When a country is strong … it accepts any dose of pessimism from its writers … In the 1950s France accepted people like Camus, Sartre, Ionesco or Beckett without flinching. But France in the 2000s already finds it difficult to put up with people like me."

 

BHL to Houellebecq

"What brings us together: the animosity that we inspire, that’s true; the intuition that makes us immediately smell the bad scent of the manhunt… But also … the certainty that in the end, it is us who will come out on top."

beware—do not pass the black dog, lest you enter that undiscovered country from which no man returns

"…there are ghostly black dogs… generally near gates and stiles, and are of such a forbidding aspect that no one dare venture to pass them, and that it means death to shout at them."

 

—Reverend Worthington-Smith, Dunstable and Its Surrounds (1910)

chapters iv & v of williams’ the great american novel: “the word is the thing”

IV


That’s all very fine about le mot juste but first the word must be free. — But is there not some other way? It must come about gradually. Why go down into hell when —

Because words are not men, they have no adjustments that need to be made. They are words. They can not be anything but free or bound. Go about it any way you chose.

The word is the thing. If it is smeared with colors from right and left what can it amount to?

I’d hate to have to live up there, she said with a frown. It was the soul that spoke. In her words could be read the whole of democracy, the entire life of the planet. It fell by chance on his ear but he was ready, he was alert.

And the little dusty car: There drawn up at the gutter was a great truck painted green and red. Close to it passed the little runabout while conscious desire surged in its breast. Yes there he was the great powerful mechanism, all in his new paint against the gutter while she rolled by and saw — The Polish woman in the clinic, yellow hair slicked back. Neck, arms, breast, waist, hips, etc. This is THE thing — The small mechanism went swiftly by the great truck with fluttering heart in the hope, the secret hope that perhaps, somehow he would notice — HE, the great truck in his massiveness and paint, that somehow he would come to her. Oh I wouldn’t like to live up there!

FOG HOLDSUP LINERS say the head lines. It is a blackness, a choking smother of dirty water in suspension. — You should have been here this morning. You could look out and see nothing but a sea of cloud below us. Right at our feet the fog began and stretched off as far as the eye could perceive.

Up out of the trees with a whirr started the sparrows. With a loud clatter the grouse got up at his feet. The ground was full of mushrooms. Everything, no matter what it is must be re-valuated.

The red grass will soon open into feathers.

Peter Broom, yes sah, my grandfather sah, the greatest man in Prince George County. He had three hundred children.

So many things, so many things: heat.

What then are you trying to say in THIS chapter? And what of your quest of THE word? What of A.N.T. ant?

Why someone has offended Wells. He has retorted with NEO-ACADEMICIAN: And: No new form of the novel required. Lack of substance always takes the form of novelty mongering. Empire must be saved! Saved for the proletariat.

On the side of the great machine it read: Standard Motor Gasoline, in capital letters. A great green tank was built upon the red chassis, FULL of gas. The little car looked and her heart leaped with shy wonder.

Save the words. Save the words from themselves. They are like children. Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Save them while they’re still young. Words must not be allowed to say, to do — Geld them. They are not REALLY words they are geldings. Save the words. Yes, I repeat SAVE THE WORDS. When Voronoff would have had words to transplant, interstitial words — he said save the words.

And what has anything Wells says to do with serious writing. FIRST let the words be free. The words are men, therefore they are not men. They cannot, must not, will not be mustered of the people, by the people, for the people. They are words. They will have their way.

Puh, puh, puh, puh! said the little car going up hill. But the great green and red truck said nothing but continued to discharge its gasoline into a tank buried in the ground near the gutter.

And the fog had coalesced into rain. Rain to soak the firewood the boys had left beside their old fire, like good scouts, for those to come after and the great car continued to discharge.

V


What then is a novel? Un novello, pretty, pretty Baby. It is a thing of fixed form. It is pure English. Yes, she is of Massachusetts stock. Her great grandfather was thrown out of the Quaker church for joining the Continental army. Hates the English. Her life is a novel — almost too sensational.

The story of Miss Li — so well told.

Qu’avez-vous vu? Or they that write much and see little. Not much use to us.

Speak of old Sun Bow pacing his mesa instead of Felipe Segundo in the barren halls of El Escorial — or asleep in his hard bed at one corner of the griddle.

My mother would have a little Negro boy come with a brush and sit at her feet and brush her legs by the hour.

Expressionism is to express skilfully the seething reactions of the contemporary European consciousness. Cornucopia. In at the small end and — blui! Kandinsky.

But it’s a fine thing. It is THE thing for the moment — in Europe. The same sort of thing, reversed, in America has a water attachment to be released with a button. That is art. Everyone agrees that that is art. Just as one uses a handkerchief.

It is the apotheosis of relief. Dadaism in one of its prettiest modes: rien, rien, rien. — But wait a bit. Maybe Dadaism is not so weak as one might imagine. — One takes it for

granted almost without a thought that expressionism is the release of SOMETHING. Now then Aemilius, what is European consciousness composed of? — Tell me in one word. — Rien, rien, rien! It is at least very complicated. Oh very.

You damned jackass. What do you know about Europe? Yes, what in Christ’s name do you know? Your mouth is a sewer, a cloaca.

Complicated consciousness quite aside from a possible re-valuation. It has no value for ME. It is all very interesting and God knows we have enough to learn. The swarming European consciousness. But there it is much simpler — No good to us.

Swarming European consciousness: Kreisler and Ysaye were the only ones with any value. They had a few pennies over and above expenses. They swarm here now for something to eat. But the funniest are the ones from Russia; each excoriates the playing of the other and calls the other a Sheeny. Wow!

Really you are too naive. They are merely reacting to the American atmosphere — It is their work that counts. And besides a virtuoso is not really creative in any serious sense. Would a great artist, say Kandinsky —? In any case it all seems to preoccupy you so, and in a book about America, really —

Take their work. I resent it all. I hate every symphony, every opera as much as a Negro should hate Il Trovatore. Not perhaps hate it in a purely aesthetic sense but from under. It is an impertinence. Where in God’s name is our Alexander to cut, cut, cut, through this knot.

Europe is nothing to us. Simply nothing. Their music is death to us. We are starving — not dying — not dying mind you — but lean-bellied for words. God I would like to see some man, some one of the singers step out in the midst of some one of Aida’s songs and scream like a puma.

But you poor fellow, you use such inept figures. Aida has been dead artistically in Munich for fifty years.

Wagner then — Strauss. It is no difference to me. Tear it all apart. Start with one note. One word. Chant it over and over forty different ways.

But it would be stupid —

It would, if it were what I mean — it would be accurate. It would articulate with something. It would signify relief. Release I mean. It would be the beginning.

Do not imagine I do not see the necessity of learning from Europe — or China but we will learn what we will, and never what they would teach us. America is a mass of pulp, a jelly, a sensitive plate ready to take whatever print you want to put on it — We have no art, no manners, no intellect — we have nothing. We water at the eyes at our own stupidity. We have only mass movement like a sea. But we are not a sea —

Europe we must — We have no words. Every word we get must be broken off from the European mass. Every word we get placed over again by some delicate hand. Piece by piece we must loosen what we want. What we will have. Will they let it go? Hugh.

I touch the words and they baffle me. I turn them over in my mind and look at them but they mean little that is clean. They are plastered with muck out of the cities. —

We must imitate the motivation and shun the result. We are very few to your many -But what is all this but waste energy.

No it is not. It is as near as I can come for the present to the word. What good to talk to me of Santayana and your later critics. I brush them aside. They do not apply. They do not reach me any more than a baby’s hand reaches the moon. I am far under them. I am less, far less if you will. I am a beginner. I am an American. A United Stateser. Yes it’s ugly, there is no word to say it better. I do not believe in ugliness. I do not want to call myself a United Stateser but what in — but what else am I? Ugliness is a horror to me but it is less abhorrent than to be like you even in the most remote, the most minute particular. For the moment I hate you, I hate your orchestras, your libraries, your sciences, your yearly salons, your finely tuned intelligences of all sorts. My intelligence is as finely tuned as yours but it lives in hell, it is doomed to eternal — perhaps eternal — shiftings after what? Oh to hell with Masters and the rest of them. To hell with everything I have myself ever written.

Here’s a man wants me to revise, to put in order. My God what I amdoing means just the opposite from that. There is no revision, there can be no revision —

Down came the rain with a crash. For five days it had been pending. With a loud splash it seemed to strike the earth as if it were body meeting body. The poplar leaves swirled and swirled. The gutters were wedged with water.

Oh you fool you are thicker than rain drops.

Give me to Musorgski. I am tired. Take me to the opera tonight and let me see Nijinsky dance his Till Eulenspiegel for I am tired to death with looking for sense among American poets. Igor will retrieve my courage. I could sit and listen in his lap for ever. Were not the American Indians Mongols? Or they must have been. Why could they not have been Chinese? Why could not the early Emperors have discovered America? Tell me, wet streets, what we are coming to, we in this country? Are we doomed? Must we be another Europe or another Japan with our coats copied from China, another bastard country in a world of bastards? Is this our doom or will we ever amount to anything?

Drown me in pictures like Marsden, make me a radical artist in the conventional sense. Give me the intelligence of a Wells. God, Ford is so far beyond him that what Wells says really sounds sensible.

Must it be a civilization of fatigued spirits? Then give me Ford. My God it is too disgusting.

Great men of America! O very great men of America please lend me a penny so I won’t have to go to the opera.

Why not capitalize Barnum —?

Bravo, bravo mon vieux! A noble apostrophe to your country but don’t you realize that it is not a matter of country but the time — The time.

For God’s sake Charlie bring a lemon pie.

So they lay in the little brook and let the cold water run up their bare bellies.