short fiction by joaquim maria machado de assis

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis




Acclaimed as Brazil’s greatest writer and founder of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, Machado de Assis (known simply as Machado in Brazil) is an incomparable figure and an exception for his time, whether for being the grandson of slaves, for being entirely self-educated, for never having traveled beyond the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro, or for his invention of an original moral, ethical, and philosophical world in his fiction. Machado’s importance is that he changed the course of Brazilian and, by extension, other colonial literatures by making his characters, narrators, and readers self-consciously aware of their inauthenticity. His stylistic inventiveness and precocious modernity were effective in superimposing the idea that, in Brazil, old stories were being recycled in deceptively new forms. His persistent tone of irony, pessimism, and skepticism came in free doses, so as to allow his characters to meet their inexorable fates without any alteration in the eternal, measured pulse of his unorthodox and obtrusive narrative frames.


Machado published some 200 stories in the literary and social magazines of his day, many of which were reprinted in his seven books of short stories published from 1870 to 1906. The first two, Contos Fluminenses (1870) and Histórias da Meia Noite (1873), are usually grouped as early works alongwith his first four romantic novels, published every two years from 1872 to 1878 (Resurreição, A Mão e a Luva, Helena, and Iaiá Garcia). Beginning with Papéis Avulsos (1882) and followed by Histórias Sem Data (1884), Várias Histórias (1896), Páginas Recolhidas (1899), and Relíquias de Casa Velha (1906), Machado exhibits a polished, concise, and masterful style in sixty-three stories. A parallel style can be seen in his five major novels, which scholar Jorge de Sena called a “quintet” that includes two recognized masterpieces in world literature, the Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1880) and Dom Casmurro (1899). Those novels are likewise composed in a series of short chapters resembling stories or parts of stories. Whether in the short stories or the novels, Machado is known for a subtlety and perfection of form, psychological suggestion, implication involving suspense and irony, narrative play and humor, and reflective analysis of behavior, social habits, motivations, desires, and illusions. The depth of futility of human endeavors falls within the perspective of a universal human comedy staged by forces that are beyond control or influence.


Fewer than two dozen of Machado’s stories have ever been translated into English (Brazilian Tales, 1921; The Psychiatrist and Other Stories, 1963; The Devil’s Church and Other Stories, 1977), whereas the critic Antonio Candido considers that at least sixty are masterpieces of world literature. Indeed, Machado is without equal in the whole of Latin American literature.

Cover Image



Wedding Song


Just imagine that it is 1813. You are in the Carmo Church, listening in on one of those good old-fashioned celebrations that was one of the principal national pastimes and symbols of musical artistry. You know what a High Mass is, so you can imagine what a High Mass would have been like back then. I am not calling your attention to the priests and the sextons, nor to the sermon, nor to the young carioca women’s eyes, which were already beautiful at that time, nor to the mantillas of the somber women, nor to the knee breeches, the wigs, the valances, the candles, or the incense. None of them. I am not even speaking of the orchestra, which happens to be superb. I am limiting myself to pointing out a grayish head to you. It is the head of that old man conducting the orchestra with such spirit and devotion.


His name is Romão Pires. He is probably sixty years old, no younger, and he was born in Valongo, or thereabouts. He is a good musician and a good man. All of the musicians like him. Maestro Romão is his known name, and to say known and public were the same thing in such matters at the time. “Leading the mass is Maestro Romão” was equivalent to another kind of announcement years later: “Appearing on stage is Actor João Caetano” or “Musical Artist Martinho is to sing one of his best arias!” There was a certain flavor to it, a delicate and popular attraction. Maestro Romão leads the celebration!


Who did not know Maestro Romão, with his cautious air, lowered eyes, sad smile, and slow-moving pace? All of that disappeared when he was in front of the orchestra; then a spark of life spread throughout the Maestro’s entire body and all of his gestures. His gaze was brighter and his smile lit up. He was another person. Not that the mass was his. The one that he was leading in the Carmo, in particular, belonged to José Maurício. Nevertheless, he led it with the same love that he would have exhibited had it been his own.


The celebration ended. It was as though an intense light had gone out and left his face barely illuminated by ordinary light. There he was, coming down from the choir loft, supported by his cane. He went to the sacristy to kiss the hands ofthe priests and he took a place at the dinner table. He did it all indifferently and quietly. He ate dinner, left, and walked along the Rua da Mãe dos Homens, where he resided with an old black man, pai José, who was like his own mother, and who, at that moment, was conversing with a neighbor.


“Here comes Maestro Romão, pai José,” said the neighbor.


“Oh! Good-bye, sinhá!”


Pai José jumped up, went into the house, and waited for the Maestro, who, in a little while, entered in his usual manner. The house was neither luxurious nor cheerful. There was not even the slightest trace of a woman, old or young, no little birds that sang, no flowers, or lively or joyful colors. It was a gloomy, barren house. The most cheerful object was the harpsichord, which Maestro Romão would sometimes play while contemplating. On a nearby chair, there were some sheets of music. None was his.


Ah! If only Maestro Romão could, he would be a great composer. It seems as though there are two types of callings: those that have a voice and those that do not. The former are successful. The latter experience a constant and sterile struggle between inner impulses and the absence of a means of communication with others; Romão represented the latter. He possessed an innate calling for music. He carried within himself many operas and masses, a world of new and original harmonies that he did not manage to express or put down on paper. That was the real cause of Maestro Romão’s sadness. Naturally, people did not fully understand that sadness. Some used to attribute it to one thing, while others attributed it to another: illness, a lack of money, or some old grief. However, the truth is this: the reason

for Maestro Romão’s unhappiness was his inability to compose, to express what he felt. It was not as though he had not scribbled a lot down on paper or probed his harpsichord for hours on end. But everything came out of him shapelessly, without either inspiration or harmony. He recently had come to feel ashamed of his lack of originality, and now he no longer tried.


And in the meantime, if he could, he would at least try to finish a certain work: a wedding song he had begun three days after his marriagein 1779. His wife, who was then twenty-one years of age, and who died at twenty-three, was not very pretty, not even somewhat. However, she was extremely kind and loved him as much as he loved her.


Three days after their marriage, Maestro Romão felt something like an inspiration come from within. He then envisioned the wedding song and wanted to compose it. However, the inspiration could not be expressed. Like a bird that had just been captured and tried to escape through the bars of the cage. Down, up, anxious, and frightened. It was in this way that the inspiration was thrashing about within our musician, locked inside of him, not able to come out, finding no door, nothing. Some notes flowed and he wrote them down, filling only one sheet of paper, nothing more. He persisted on the following day, ten days afterwards, and on twenty occasions during the time he was married. When his wife died, he reread those first conjugal notes and was again left sadder for not having been able to put down on paper that feeling of lifeless happiness.


Pai José,” he said as he came in, “I feel out of sorts today.”


Sinhô ate something that did not agree with you . . .”


“No, I have not been well since this morning. Go to the drug store . . .”


The druggist sent over something that Maestro Romão took that night. On the next day, Maestro Romão still did not feel any better. It is important to say that he suffered from heart disease—a serious and chronic illness. Pai José became frightened when he realized that neither medication nor rest alleviated the pain. He wanted to call the doctor.


“What for?” said the Maestro, “it will go away.”


He did not get any worse that day, and he held up well throughout the night. Not so for the black man, who barely slept two hours. The neighborhood, which had just found out what was going on, spoke of nothing else. Those who had maintained a relationship with the Maestro went to visit him. They told him that there was nothing to worry about, that he was bothered by minor illnesses of the times. One added comically that it was a clever ploy on his part to avoid the beating that the druggist was giving him in backgammon. Another said it was love. Maestro Romão smiled, although he was telling himself that he was nearing the end.


“It is over,” he thought.


One morning, five days after the celebration, the doctor found him really ill, and that was exactly what Maestro Romão read into the doctor’s expression, behind the misleading words.


“It is nothing! It is better not to think of music.”


Music! The doctor’s very words gave the Maestro an idea. As soon as he was alone, with the slave, he opened the drawer where he had kept, since 1779, the wedding song that he had begun. He reread those difficultly formed and unfinished notes. Then he had an extraordinary idea. He would finish the work now, regardless of how it turned out. Whatever he could compose would be fine. At least he would leave a little of his soul on Earth.


“Who knows? If, in 1880, the work is performed, someone may say that a certain Maestro Romão . . .”


The beginning of the song ended with a certain la; this la, which fell nicely into place, was the last written note. Maestro Romão ordered his harpsichord brought to the back room, the one that looked out onto the garden. He needed fresh air. While standing by the window, he was able to see through the window at the back of another house. He saw newlyweds, who had been married for only eight days, leaning forward with their arms on each other’s shoulders, hands clasped. Maestro Romão smiled sadly. “They are just starting out, whereas I am on my way out,” he said. “I am going to compose this song, which perhaps they can play . . .”


He sat down at the harpsichord. He reproduced the notes and came to the la. . . .


La, la, la. . . .


Nothing. He did not get any farther. Nonetheless, he knew music as well as he

did people.


La, do . . . la, mi . . . la, si, do, re . . . re . . . re . . .


Impossible! There was no inspiration. It was not that he wanted a profoundly original piece; but something, at least, that was not like any one else’s, in order to complete what was already begun. He returned to the beginning again; he repeated the notes, hoping to recover a shred of the obscured sensation. He thought about his wife and the early years. In order to complete the illusion, he stared out of the window in the direction of the newlyweds. They were still there arm in arm, hands clasped. The only difference was that now they were looking into each other’s eyes instead of looking down. Short of breath from his illness and impatience, Maestro Romão returned to the harpsichord; the sight of the newlyweds failed to provide him with the necessary inspiration. The succeeding notes did not come.


La . . . la . . . la . . .


In despair, he got up from the harpsichord. He grabbed the paper on which he had written; he proceeded to tear it up. At that very moment the young girl, enraptured by her husband’s stare, spontaneously began to hum something never sung nor heard before. It had an unmistakable la, followed by a beautiful musical phrase. It was exactly the one that Maestro Romão had been pursuing, although not discovering, for so many years. The Maestro listened to it sadly, he shook his head, and that night he died.



—from K. David Jackson (ed.), Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, 2006

the rest of sartre’s the age of reason, chapter one

"I’ve only got to look at you to see that you’re born unlucky—you’re the sort that upsets glasses, and smashes mirrors. And women trust you. Well, they get what they deserve."

the_age_of_reason_jean_paul_sartre_.jpg image by romanowt13

‘Marcelle,’ said he.

She did not answer: there was a hard look in her eyes: and then she sat up abruptly. He sat down once more on the edge of the bed, irked by his own nakedness.

‘You must now tell me what’s the matter.’

‘There’s nothing the matter,’ she said, in a toneless voice.

‘Yes, there is,’ he said affectionately. ‘There’s something on your mind. Marcelle, didn’t we agree to be quite frank with each other?’

‘You can’t do anything about it, and it will only upset you.’

He stroked her hair lightly. ‘Never mind, tell me all the same.’

‘Well, it’s happened.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘It has happened.’

Mathieu made a wry face.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Quite sure. You know I never get the wind up: I’m two months late.’

‘Hell!’ said Mathieu.

And he thought: ‘She ought to have told me at least three weeks ago.’ He felt he must do something with his hands—fill his pipe, for instance: but his pipe was in the cupboard with his jacket. He took a cigarette from the night-table and put it down again.

‘There, now you know what’s the matter,’ said Marcelle. ‘And what’s to be done?’

‘Well—I suppose one gets rid of it, eh?’

‘Right. I’ve got an address,’ said Marcelle.

‘Who gave it to you?’

‘Andrée. She’s been there.’

‘That’s the old woman who messed her up last year, isn’t it? Why, it was six months before she was well again. I won’t allow that.’

‘So you want to be a father?’

She drew back, and sat down a little way off Mathieu. There was a hard look in her eyes, but it wasn’t a masculine look. She had laid her hands flat on her thighs, her arms looked like the twin handles of an earthenware jar. Mathieu noticed that her face had grown grey. The air was pink and sickly – it smelt and tasted pink: her face was grey and set, and she looked as though she were trying to stifle a cough.

‘Wait,’ said Mathieu, ‘you’ve rather sprung this on me: we must think.’

Marcelle’s hands began to quiver: and shesaid with sudden vehemence: ‘I don’t want you to think—it’s not for you to think.’

She had turned her head towards him and was looking at him. She looked at Mathieu’s neck, shoulders, and hips, and then lower down, with an air of astonishment. Mathieu blushed violently and set his legs together.

‘You can’t do anything,’ repeated Marcelle. And she added with painful irony: ‘It’s a woman’s business now.’

Her mouth snapped out the last words: a varnished mauve-tinted mouth, like a crimson insect intent upon devouring that ashen visage. ‘She’s feeling humiliated,’ thought Mathieu, ‘she hates me.’ He felt sick. The room seemed suddenly cleared of its pink haze: there were great blank spaces between the objects it contained. And Mathieu thought: ‘It is I who have done this to her!’ The lamp, the mirror with its leaden reflections, the clock on the mantelpiece, the armchair, the half-opened wardrobe, suddenly appeared to him like pitiless mechanisms, adrift and pursuing their tenuous existences in the void, rigidly insistent, like the underside of a gramophone record obstinately grinding out its tune. Mathieu shook himself, but could not detach himself from that sinister, raucous world. Marcelle had not moved, she was still looking at Mathieu’s naked body, and the guilty flower that lay so delicately on his thighs with a bland air of innocence. He knew she wanted to scream and sob but she would not, for fear of waking Mme Duffet. He gripped Marcelle round the waist and drew her towards him. She collapsed on to his shoulder, sobbed a little, but she did not cry. It was all that she could allow herself: a rainless storm.

When she raised her head, she was calmer. And she said, in an emphatic tone: ‘Forgive me, darling, I needed to explode. I’ve been holding myself in all day. I’m not blaming you, of course.’

‘Quite natural,’ said Mathieu. ‘I feel bad about this. It’s the first time… O Lord, what a mess. I’ve done this deed, and it’s you that have to pay. Well, it’s happened, and that’s that. Look here, who is this old woman, and where does she live?’

‘Twenty-four Rue Morère. I’m told she’s an odd old party.’

‘I believe you. Are you going to say that Andrée sent you?’

‘Yes. She only charges four hundred francs. I’m told that’s absurdly cheap,’ said Marcelle, in a suddenly even tone.

‘Yes, I realize that,’ said Mathieu bitterly. ‘In short it’s a bargain.’

He felt as awkward as a newly accepted suitor. A tall awkward fellow, completely naked, who had done something he should not, and was smiling amiably, in the hope he might be overlooked. But it wasn’t possible; she saw his white, sinewy, stocky thighs, his complacent and uncompromising nudity. It was a grotesque nightmare. ‘If I were her, I should want to get my nails into all that meat.’ And he said: ‘That’s just exactly what worries me: she doesn’t charge enough.’

‘My dear,’ said Marcelle, ‘it’s lucky she asks so little: as it happens, I’ve got the four hundred francs. They were earmarked for my dressmaker, but she’ll wait. And,’ she went on emphatically, ‘I’m perfectly certain I shall be looked after just as well as in one of those discreet clinics where they charge you four thousand francs as soon as look at you. Anyhow, we can’t help ourselves.’

‘No, we can’t help ourselves,’ repeated Mathieu. ‘When will you go?’

‘Tomorrow, about midnight. I gather she only sees people at night. Rather a scream, isn’t it? I think she’s a bit cracked myself, but it suits me all right, on Mother’s account. She keeps a draper’s shop in the daytime: and she hardly ever sleeps. You go in by a yard, and you see a light under a door—that’s where it is.’

‘Right,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’ll go.’

Marcelle eyed him in amazement.

‘Are you crazy? She’ll shut the door in your face, she’ll take you for a policeman.’

‘I shall go,’ repeated Mathieu.

‘But why? What will you say to her?’

‘I want to get a notion of what sort of place it is. If I don’t like it, you shan’t go. I won’t have you messed up by some old harridan. I’ll say that I’ve come from Andrée, that I’ve got a girl friend who’s in trouble, but down with influenza at the moment—something of that kind.’

‘But where shall I go if it won’t do?’

‘We’ve got a few days to turn round in, haven’t we? I’ll go and see Sarah tomorrow, she’s sure to know somebody. They didn’t want any children at first, you remember.’

Marcelle’s excitement subsided a little, and she stroked his neck.

‘You’re being very nice to me, darling. I’m not quite sure what you’re up to, but I understand that you want to do something: perhaps you’d like her to operate on you instead of me?’ She clasped her lovely arms round his neck, and added in a tone of comic resignation: ‘Anyone recommended by Sarah is sure to be a Yid.’

Mathieu kissed her, and she dimpled all over.

‘Darling,’ she said. ‘O darling!’

‘Take off your vest’

She obeyed, he tipped her backwards on to the bed, and began to caress her breasts. He loved their taut, leathery nipples, each in its ring of raised, red flesh. Marcelle sighed, with eyes closed, passionate and eager. But her eyelids were contracted. The dread thing lingered, laid like a damp hand on Mathieu. Then, suddenly, the thought came into Mathieu’s mind: ‘She’s pregnant.’ He sat up, his head still buzzing with a shrill refrain.

‘Look here, Marcelle, it’s no good today. We’re both of us too nervy. I’m sorry.’

Marcelle uttered a sleepy little grunt, then got up abruptly and began to rumple her hair with both hands.

‘Just as you like,’ she said coldly. Then she added, more amiably: ‘As a matter of fact you’re right, we’re too nervy. I wanted you to love me, but I was a bit frightened.’

‘Alas,’ said Mathieu, ‘the deed is done, we have nothing more to fear.’

‘I know, but I wasn’t thinking sensibly. I don’t know how to tell you: but I’m rather afraid of you, darling.’

Mathieu got up.

‘Good. Well then, I’ll go and see this old woman.’

‘Yes. And you might telephone me tomorrow and tell me what you thought of her.’

‘Can’t I see you tomorrow evening? That would be simpler.’

‘No, not tomorrow evening. The day after, if you like.’

Mathieu had put on his shirt and trousers. He kissed Marcelle on the eyes.

‘You aren’t angry with me?’

‘It isn’t your fault. It’s the first time in seven years, you needn’t blame yourself. And you aren’t sick of me, I hope?’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘Well, I’m getting rather sick of myself, to tell the truth; I feel like a great heap of dough.’

‘My darling,’ said Mathieu, ‘my poor darling. It will all be put right in a week, I promise you.’

He opened the door noiselessly, and glided out, holding his shoes in his hand. On the landing he turned. Marcelle was still sitting on the bed. She smiled at him, but Mathieu had the feeling that she bore him a grudge.

The tension in his set eyes was now released, and they revolved with normal ease and freedom in their orbits: she was no longer looking at him, and he owed her no account of his expression. Concealed by his dark garments and the night, his guilty flesh had found its needed shelter, it was gradually recovering its native warmth and innocence, and began to expand beneath its covering fabrics;  the oilcan, how on earth was he going to remember to bring the oilcan the day after tomorrow? He was alone.

He stopped, transfixed: it wasn’t true, he wasn’t alone. Marcelle had not let him go: she was thinking of him, and this was what she thought: ‘The dirty dog, he’s let me down.’ It was no use striding along the dark, deserted street, anonymous, enveloped in his garments—he could not escape her. Marcelle’s consciousness remained, full of woe and lamentation, and Mathieu had not left her: he was there, in the pink room, naked and defenceless against that crass transparency, so much more baffling than a look. ‘Only once,’ he said savagely to himself, and he repeated in an undertone, to convince Marcelle: ‘once in seven years.’ Marcelle refused to be convinced; she remained in the room, and was thinkingof Mathieu. It was intolerable to be judged, and hated, away back in that room, and in silence. Without power to defend himself, or even to hide his belly with his hands. If only, in the same second, he had been able to exist for others with the same intensity… But Jacques and Odette were asleep. Daniel was drunk or in a stupor. Ivich never remembered people when they were not there. Boris perhaps… But Boris’s consciousness was no more than a dim flicker, it could not contend against that savage, stark lucidity that fascinated Mathieu from a distance. Night had engulfed most human consciousnesses: Mathieu was alone with Marcelle in the night, just the two of them.

There was a light at Camus’s place. The landlord was stacking the chairs: the waitress was fixing a wooden shutter against one side of the double door. Mathieu pushed open the other side and went in. He felt the need of being seen. Just to be seen. He planted his elbows on the counter.

‘Good evening, everybody.’

The landlord saw him. There was also a bus-conductor, drinking an absinthe, his cap pulled down over his eyes. Two kindly, casual consciousnesses. The conductor jerked his cap back, and looked at Mathieu. Marcelle’s consciousness released him, and dissolved into the night.

‘Give me a beer.’

‘You’re quite a stranger,’ said the landlord.

‘It isn’t for want of being thirsty.’

‘Yes, it’s thirsty weather,’ said the bus-conductor. ‘It might be mid-summer.’

They fell silent. The landlord went on rinsing glasses, the conductor whistled to himself. Mathieu felt at ease because they looked at him from time to time. He saw his head in the glass, a ghastly globe emerging from a sea of silver: at Camus’s, one always had the feeling that it was four in the morning, which was an effect of the light, a silvered haze that strained the eyes, and bleached the drinkers’ faces, hands, and thoughts. He drank: and he thought: ‘She’s pregnant. It’s fantastic. I can’t feel it’s true.’ It seemed to him shocking and grotesque, like the sight of an old man kissing an old woman on the lips: after seven years that sort of thing shouldn’t happen; ‘She’s pregnant’—there was a little, vitreous tide within her, slowly swelling into the semblance of an eye. ‘It’s opening out among all the muck inside her belly, it’s alive.’ He saw a long pin moving hesitantly forward in the half-darkness: there was a muffled sound, the eye cracked and burst: nothing was left but an opaque, dry membrane. ‘She’ll go to that old woman: she’ll get herself messed up.’ He felt venomous. ‘All right, let her go.’ He shook himself: these were bleak thoughts, the thoughts of four o’clock in the morning.

‘Good night.’

He paid and went.

‘What did I do?’ He walked slowly, trying to remember. ‘Two months ago… ‘ He couldn’t remember anything. ‘Yes, it must have been the day after the Easter holidays. He had taken Marcelle in his arms, as usual, in affection no doubt, rather than with any feeling of desire; and now… he’d got stung. A baby. I meant to give her pleasure, and I’ve given her a baby. I didn’t understand what I was doing. Neither in destroying nor in creating life did I know what I was doing.’ He laughed a short, dry laugh. ‘And what about the others? Those who have solemnly decided to become fathers, and feel progenitively inclined when they look at their wives’ bodies—do they understand any more than I do? They go blindly on—three flicks of a duck’s tail. What follows is a gelatinous job done in a dark room, like photography. They have no part in it.’ He entered a yard and saw a light under a door. ‘It’s here.’ He felt ashamed.

Mathieu knocked.

‘What is it?’ said a voice.

‘I want to speak to you.’

‘This isn’t a time to visit people.’

‘I have a message from Andrée Besnier.’

The door opened slightly. Mathieu saw a wisp of yellow hair and a large nose.

‘What do you want? Don’t try to pull any police stuff on me, it’s no good, everything’s in order here. I can have the light on all night if I like. If you’re an inspector, show me your card.’

‘I’m not from the police,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’m in a fix. And I was given your name.’

‘Come in.’

Mathieu went in. The old woman was wearing trousers, and a blouse with a zip fastener. She was very thin, and her eyes were set and hard.

‘You know Andrée Besnier?’

She eyed him grimly.

‘Yes,’ said Mathieu. ‘She came to see you last year about Christmas-time because she was in trouble: she was rather ill, and you came four times to give her treatment.’


Mathieu looked at the old woman’s hands. They were a man’s hands, a strangler’s hands: furrowed, cracked, with broken nails, and black with scars and gashes. On the first joint of the left thumb, there were some purple warts, and a large black scab. Mathieu shuddered as he thought of Marcelle’s soft brown flesh.

‘I’ve not come on her account,’ he said. ‘I’ve come for one of her friends.’

The old woman laughed drily: ‘It’s the first time that a man has had the cheek to turn up on my doorstep. I won’t have any dealings with men, let me tell you that.’

The room was dirty and in disorder. There were boxes everywhere, and straw on the tiled floor. On a table Mathieu noticed a bottle of rum and a half-filled glass.

‘I’ve come because my friend sent me. She can’t come today, and she asked me to fix up a date.’

At the other end of the room a door stood half open. Mathieu could have sworn there was someone behind that door.

‘Poor kids,’ said the old woman. ‘They’re too silly. I’ve only got to look at you to see that you’re born unlucky—you’re the sort that upsets glasses, and smashes mirrors. And women trust you. Well, they get what they deserve.’

Mathieu remained polite.

‘I should have liked to see where you operate.’

The old woman flung him a baleful and suspicious look.

‘Look here! Who told you that I operate? What are you talking about? Mind your own business. If your friend wants to see me, let her come herself. I won’t deal with anyone else. Youwant to make inquiries, do you? Did she make any inquiries before she got into your grip? You’ve had an accident. All right. Then let us hope I shall be better at my job than you were at yours—and that’s all I have to say. Good night.’

‘Good night, Madame,’ said Mathieu.

He went out with a sense of deliverance. He turned and walked slowly towards the Avenue d’Orléans: for the first time since he had left her, he could think of Marcelle without pain, without horror, and with a sort of tender melancholy: ‘I’ll go and see Sarah tomorrow,’ he said to himself.

“yes—you want to be free. absolutely free. it’s your vice.”

The Age of Reason (L’âge de raison) is the first novel of Jean Paul Sartre’s trilogy The Roads to Freedom (Les chemins de la liberté). Set in bohemian Paris in the late 1930s, the novel recounts an eventful two-day period in the life of Matthieu Delarue, a philosophy lecturer, who is trying to raise 4,000 francs to pay for his girlfriend’s illegal abortion. Concerned with Sartre’s conception of freedom as the ultimate aim of human existence, the novel presents detailed accountings of the characters’ psychologies as they are forced to make significant decisions in their lives.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The Age of Reason


Book I of The Roads to Freedom trilogy



First published in 1945




Half-way down the Rue Vercingétorix, a tall man seized Mathieu by the arm: a policeman was patrolling the opposite pavement.

‘Can you spare me a franc or two? I’m hungry.’

His eyes were close-set, his lips were thick, and he smelt of drink.

‘You mean you’re thirsty?’ asked Mathieu.

‘No: I’m hungry, and that’s God’s truth.’

Mathieu found a five-franc piece in his pocket.

‘I don’t care which you are; it’s none of my business,’ he said: and gave him the five francs.

‘You’re a good sort,’ said the man, leaning against the wall ‘And now I’d like to wish you something in return. Something you’ll be really glad to have. What shall it be?’

They both pondered: then Mathieu said: ‘Whatever you like.’

‘Well. I wish you good luck. There!’

He laughed triumphantly. Mathieu observed the policeman strolling towards them, and felt sorry for the man.

‘Right,’ said he. ‘So long.’

He was about to pass on, when the man clutched him: ‘Good luck isn’t enough,’ he said in a sodden voice: ‘not nearly enough.’

‘Well, what then?’

‘I’d like to give you something…’

‘I’ll have you locked up for begging,’ said the policeman. He was a fresh-faced, youthful officer, and he tried to assume a stern demeanour.

‘You’ve been pestering the passers-by for the last half-hour,’ he added, but there was no menace in his voice.

‘He wasn’t begging,’ said Mathieu sharply, ‘we were having a little talk.’

The policeman shrugged his shoulders, and walked on. The man was swaying rather precariously: he did not even seem to have seen the policeman.

‘I know what I’ll give you. I’ll give you a Madrid stamp.’

He produced from his pocket a rectangular bit of green card, and handed it to Mathieu. Mathieu read: ‘C.N.T. Diario Confederal. Ejempteres 2. France. Anarcho-Syndicalist Committee, 41 Rue de Belleville, Paris II.’ Beneath the address there was a stamp. It too was green, and bore the postmark—Madrid. Mathieu reached out a hand: ‘Thanks very much.’

‘Ah, but look…’ said the man angrily. ‘It’s… it’s Madrid.’

Mathieu looked at him: the man seemed excited, and was plainly struggling to express what was in his mind. He gave it up, and merely said: ‘Madrid.’


‘I wanted to get there, and that’s the truth. But it couldn’t be fixed.’

A gloomy look came over his face, and he said: ‘Wait a moment,’ and he slid a finger over the stamp.

‘All right. You can have it.’ ‘Thanks.’

Mathieu began to walk on, but the man shouted after him.

‘Well?’ said Mathieu. The man was holding up the five-franc piece.

‘Some guy has just slipped me a five-franc piece. I’ll stand you a rum.’

‘Not this evening.’

Mathieu moved off with a vague sense of regret. There had been a time in his life when he had strolled about the city and haunted bars in any sort of company, with anyone who cared to ask him. Now it was all over: that game never paid. The fellow had looked decent enough. He had wanted to fight in Spain. Mathieu quickened his step, and he thought irritably: ‘Anyway, we hadn’t anything to talk about. He took the green card out of his pocket. ‘It comes from Madrid, but it isn’t addressed to him. Somebody must have passed it on to him. He kept on fingering it before giving it to me, just because it came from Madrid.’ He recalled the man’s face, and the look with which he had eyed the stamp: an oddly ardent look. Mathieu in his turn eyed the stamp as he walked on, and then put the bit of cardboard back in his pocket. A railway engine whistled, and Mathieu thought: ‘I’m getting old.’

It was twenty-five minutes past ten: Mathieu was before his time. Without stopping, without even turning his he passed the little blue house. But he looked at it out of the corner of his eye. All the windows were dark except in Madame Duffet’s room. Marcelle hadn’t yet had time to open the outer door: she was leaning over her mother, and those masculine hands of hers were tucking her up into the great testered bed. Mathieu still felt gloomy, the thought in his mind was: ‘Five hundred francs until the 29th—thirty francs a day, or rather less. How shall I manage?’ He swung round and retraced his steps.

The light had gone out in Madame Duffet’s room. In a moment or two the light went up in Marcelle’s window. Mathieu crossed the road, and slipped past the grocer’s shop, trying to prevent his new shoes from squeaking. The door was ajar: he pushed it very gently and it creaked. ‘I’ll bring my oilcan on Wednesday and drop a little oil into the hinges.’ He went in, closed the door, and took his shoes off in the darkness. The stairs creaked faintly: Mathieu walked cautiously upstairs, shoes in hand, testing each step with his toe before putting his foot down. ‘What a game,’ he thought.

Marcelle opened her door before he had reached the landing. A pink iris-scented haze from her room pervaded the staircase. She was wearing her green chemise. Through it Mathieu could see the soft rich curve of her hips. He went in: he always felt as though he were entering a huge sea-shell. Marcelle locked the door. Mathieu made his way to the large wall cupboard, opened it, and put his shoes inside; then he looked at Marcelle and saw that there was something the matter.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, in a low tone.

‘Nothing,’ said Marcelle under her breath. ‘Are you all right, old boy?’

‘I’m broke: otherwise all right.’

He kissed her on the neck and on the lips. Her neck smelt of ambergris, her mouth smelt of cheap cigarettes. Marcelle sat down on the edge of the bed, and gazed at her legs while Mathieu undressed.

‘What’s that?’ asked Mathieu.

There was an unfamiliar photograph on the mantelpiece. He went up to look at it and saw an angular girl, wearing her hair cut like a boy’s, and a hard, nervous smile. She was dressed in a man’s jacket, and flat-heeled shoes.

‘It’s me,’ said Marcelle, without raising her head.

Mathieu turned round: Marcelle had pulled her vest up over her fleshy thighs: she was leaning forward and beneath her vest Mathieu caught the soft outlines of her rounded breasts.

‘Where did you find it?’

‘In an album. It was taken in 1928.’

Mathieu carefully folded up his jacket and put it in the cup-board beside his shoes. Then he asked: ‘Do you still took at family albums?’

‘No, but I had a sort of feeling today that I’d like to remind myself of those times, and see what I was like before I knew you, and when I was always well. Bring it here.’

Mathieu brought it to her, and she snatched it out of his hands. He sat down beside her. She shivered and drew back, eyeing the photograph with a vague smile, ‘I was a scream in those days.’ she said.

The girl was standing stiffly upright, leaning against a garden railing. Her mouth was open: she too was just about to say: ‘It’s a scream,’ with the pert assurance of the Marcelle of today. But she was young and slim. Marcelle shook her head.

‘Such a scream’. It was taken in the Luxemburg by a chemistry student. You see the blouse I’m wearing? I’d bought it that very day, for a trip to Fontainebleau we had fixed for the following Sunday. Good Lord…!’

There was certainly something wrong: her gestures had never been so brusque, nor her voice so curt and masculine. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, blankly naked and defenceless, like a great porcelain vase in that dim pink room, and it was almost painful to hear her speak in that masculine voice, and smell the dark, strong odour of her body. Mathieu grasped her shoulders and drew her towards him. ‘Do you regret those days?’

‘No,’ replied Marcelle acidly: ‘but I regret the life I might have had.’

She had begun to study chemistry, and had to give it up owing to illness. ‘One would think she bears me a grudge for it,’ thought Mathieu. He opened his mouth to ask her some more questions, but caught her expression and was silent. She was gazing at the photograph with a sad, intense expression.

‘I’ve got fatter, haven’t I?’


She shrugged her shoulders and flung the photograph on to the bed. ‘It’s true,’ thought Mathieu, ‘she’s had a rather rotten life.’ He tried to kiss her on the cheek, but she drew back, quite gently, laughed nervously, and said: ‘That’s ten years ago.’

And Mathieu thought: ‘I give her nothing.’ He came to see her four nights a week; he told her all his doings in minutest detail. She gave him advice, in a grave and slightly maternal tone. She often used to say: ‘I live by proxy.’

‘What did you do yesterday?’ he asked her. ‘Did you go out?’ Marcelle waved her hand wearily and answered: ‘No, I was tired. I read for a bit, but Mother kept on interrupting me about the shop.’

‘And today?’

‘I did go out today,’ said she, gloomily, ‘I felt I ought to get some air and see some people in the street. So I walked down as far as the Rue de la Gaité, and enjoyed it; and I wanted to see Andrée.’

‘And did you?’

‘Yes, for five minutes. Just as I was leaving her, it began to rain: it’s a funny sort of day for June, and besides the people looked so hideous. So I took a taxi and came home. What did you do?’ she asked nonchalantly.

Mathieu didn’t want to tell her. ‘Yesterday,’ he said. ‘I took my last classes at the school. I dined with Jacques, which was as boring as usual. This morning I went to the bursar’s office to see if they couldn’t advance me something: but apparently it’s not done. When I was at Beauvais I always managed to fix it with the bursar. Then I saw Ivich.’

Marcelle raised her eyebrows and looked at him. He didn’t like talking to her about Ivich. ‘She’s a bit under the weather just now.’


Marcelle’s voice was steadier, and a sage, masculine sort of look had come into her face. He said with lips half-closed: ‘She’ll be ploughed in her exam.’

‘But you told me she’d been working hard.’

‘Well—I daresay she has, in her own way—that is, she no doubt sits for hours over a book. But you know what she’s like. She has visions, almost like a lunatic. In October, she was well up in botany, and the examiner was quite satisfied: and then she suddenly saw herself opposite a bald chap who was talking about coelenterata. This seemed to her just funny, and she thought: "I don’t give a curse for coelenterata," and the chap couldn’t get another word out of her.’

‘What an odd little creature she must be,’ said Marcelle dreamily.

‘Anyway,’ said Mathieu. ‘I’m afraid she may do it again, or get some fantastic idea into her head.’

His tone, which suggested a sort of protective detachment, was surely intended to mislead. Everything that could be expressed in words, he said. ‘But what are words?’

He paused, then hung his head despondently. Marcelle was well aware of his affection for Ivich: she would not in fact have minded if he had been her lover. On one thing only she insisted—that he should talk about Ivich in just that tone. Mathieu had kept on stroking Marcelle’s back and her eyelids began to droop; she liked having her back stroked, particularly at the level of her hips and between the shoulder-blades. But she suddenly drew back, and her face hardened, as Mathieu said: ‘Look here, Marcelle, I don’t care if Ivich is ploughed, she isn’t suited to be a doctor any more than I am. In any case, even if she passed the P. C. B., her first dissection would so revolt her that she would never set foot in the place again. But if it doesn’t come off this time, she’ll do something silly. If she fails, her family won’t let her start again.’

‘What exact kind of silly thing do you mean?’ asked Marcellein a precise tone.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied, rather crestfallen.

‘Ah, I know you only too well, my poor boy. You daren’t admit it, but you’re afraid that she’ll put a bullet through her skin. And the creature pretends to loathe anything romantic. One really might suppose you’d never seen that skin of hers. I wouldn’t dare touch it, for fear of scratching it. A doll with a skin like that isn’t going to mess it up with a revolver shot. I can quite well picture her prostrate on a chair with her hair all over her face glaring at a neat little Browning in front of her, in the best Russian manner. But anything more—not on your life! Revolvers are meant for crocodile-skins like ours.’

She laid her arms against Mathieu’s. He had a whiter skin than hers.

‘Just look, darling—especially at mine, it’s like morocco leather.’ And she began to laugh. ‘I would puncture rather well, don’t you think? I can picture a nice little round hole under my left breast, with neat, clean, red edges. It wouldn’t be at all disfiguring.’

She was still laughing. Mathieu laid a hand over her mouth. ‘Be quiet, you’ll waken the old lady.’

She was silent, and he said: ‘How nervy you are!’

She did not answer. Mathieu laid a hand on Marcelle’s leg and stroked it gently.

He loved that soft and buttery skin, its silky down that sent a thousand delicate tremors through his fingers. Marcelle did not move: she looked at Mathieu’s hand. And after a while Mathieu took his hand away.

‘Look at me,’ said he.

For an instant he saw her circled eyes, and in them a flash of haughty desperation.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing,’ she said, turning her head away.

It was always like that with her: she was emotionally constricted. The moment would come when she couldn’t contain herself: then she would blurt it out. One could do nothing but mark time until that moment did come. Mathieu dreaded those noiseless explosions: the whispered caution with which passion had to be expressed in that sea-shell room, in order not to awaken Mme Duffet, had always revolted him. Mathieu got up, walked to the cupboard, and took the square of cardboard out of his jacket pocket ‘Look at this.’

‘What is it?’

‘A fellow gave it to me in the street not long ago. He looked a decent sort, and I gave him a little money.’

Marcelle took the card with an indifferent air. Mathieu felt a tie of something like complicity between himself and the fellow in the street. And he added: ‘It meant something to him, you know.’

‘Was he an anarchist?’

‘I don’t know. He wanted to stand me a drink.’

‘Did you refuse it?’


‘Why?’ asked Marcelle casually. ‘You might have found him amusing.’

‘Pah!’ said Mathieu.

Marcelle raised her head, and peered at the clock with a half smile.

‘It’s curious,’ she said, ‘but I hate you to tell me things like that: and God knows there are enough of them at the moment. Your life is full of missed opportunities.’

‘You call that a missed opportunity.’

‘Yes. There was a time when you would go out of your way to meet such people.’

‘I dare say I’ve changed a bit,’ said Mathieu, good-humouredly. ‘What do you think? Am I getting old?’

‘You’re thirty-four,’ said Marcelle soberly. Thirty-four. Mathieu thought of Ivich, and was conscious of a slight shock of annoyance.

‘Yes… But I don’t think it’s age: it’s a sort of fastidiousness. I wouldn’t have been in the mood.’

‘You very seldom are, nowadays,’ said Marcelle.

‘And he wouldn’t have been either,’ added Mathieu briskly. ‘When a man gets drunk he gets sentimental. That’s what I wanted to avoid.’

And he thought to himself: ‘That isn’t altogether true. I didn’t really look at it like that.’ He wanted to make an effort to be sincere. Mathieu and Marcelle had agreed that they would always tell each other everything. ‘The fact is—’ he began.

But Marcelle had begun to laugh: a low, rich, cooing laugh, as though she were stroking his hair and saying: ‘Poor old boy.’ But she did not look at all affectionate.

‘That’s very like you,’ said she. ‘You’re so afraid of anything sentimental! Supposing you had got a little sentimental with that poor lad, would it have mattered?’

‘Well, it wouldn’t have done me any good.’

He was trying to defend himself against himself.

Marcelle smiled a frosty smile. ‘She wants to draw me,’ thought Mathieu, rather disconcerted. He was feeling peaceably inclined, and puzzled: he was in fact in a good temper, and didn’t want an argument.

‘Look here,’ said he. ‘You’re quite wrong to catch me up like this. In the first place, I hadn’t the time. I was on my way here.’

‘You’re quite right,’ said Marcelle. ‘It’s nothing. Absolutely nothing, really: not enough to get a cat into trouble… But all the same it’s symptomatic.’

Mathieu started: if only she wouldn’t use such tiresome words.

‘Really, really,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine why it should interest you.’

‘Well, it’s that same frankness you fuss about so much. You’re so absurdly scared of being your own dupe, my poor boy, that you would back out of the finest adventure in the world rather than risk telling yourself a lie.’

‘Quite true, and you know it,’ said Mathieu. ‘But that’s an old story.’

He thought her unfair. ‘Frankness’—he detested the word, but Marcelle had acquired it some while back. The winter before, it had been ‘urgency’ (words did not last her for much more than a season), they had grown into the habit of it together, they felt mutually responsible for maintaining it—indeed it was, actually, the inner meaning of their love. When Mathieu had pledged himself to Marcelle, he had forever renounced all thoughts of solitude, those cool thoughts, a little shadowy and timorous, that used to dart into his mind with the furtive vivacity of fish. He could not love Marcelle save in complete frankness: she was his frankness embodied, his comrade, his witness, his counsellor, and his critic.

‘If I lied to myself,’ said he, ‘I should have the feeling I was lying to you as well. And I couldn’t bear that.’

‘Yes,’ said Marcelle; but she did not look as if she believed him.

‘You don’t look as if you believed me?’

‘Oh yes I do,’ she said, nonchalantly.

‘You think I’m lying to myself?’

‘No—anyway, one can’t ever know. But I don’t think so. Still, do you know what I do believe? That you are beginning to sterilize yourself a little. I thought that today. Everything is so neat and tidy in your mind: it smells of clean linen: it’s as though you had just come out of a drying-cupboard. But there’s a want of shade. There’s nothing useless, nor hesitant, nor underhand about you now. It’s all high noon. And don’t tell me this is all for my benefit. You’re moving down your own incline: you’ve acquired the taste for self-analysis.’

Mathieu was disconcerted. Marcelle was often rather hard: she remained always on guard, a little aggressive, a littlesuspicious, and if Mathieu didn’t agree with her, she often thought he was trying to dominate her. But he had rarely met her in such a resolve to be disagreeable. And then there was that photo on the bed. He eyed Marcelle: the moment had not yet come when she could be induced to speak.

‘I’m not so much interested in myself as all that,’ he said simply.

‘I know,’ said Marcelle. ‘It isn’t an aim, it’s a means. It helps you to get rid of yourself; to contemplate and criticize yourself: that’s the attitude you prefer. When you look at yourself, you imagine you aren’t what you see, you imagine you are nothing. That is your ideal: you want to be nothing.’

‘To be nothing?’ repeated Mathieu slowly. ‘No, it isn’t. Listen. I… I recognize no allegiance except to myself.’

‘Yes—you want to be free. Absolutely free. It’s your vice.’

‘It’s not a vice,’ said Mathieu. ‘It’s… what else can a man do?’

He was annoyed: he had explained all this to Marcelle a hundred times before, and she knew it was what he had most at heart.

‘If… if I didn’t try to get my life moving on my own account, I should think it just absurd to go on living.’

A look of smiling obstinacy had come into Marcelle’s face.

‘Yes, yes—it’s your vice.’

‘It’s not a vice. It’s how I’m made.’

‘Why aren’t other people made like that, if it isn’t a vice?’

‘They are, only they don’t know it.’

Marcelle had stopped smiling, and a hard, grim line appeared at the corner of her lips.

‘Well, I don’t feel such a need to be free.’

Mathieu eyed her bent neck, and felt troubled: it was always this sense of remorse, absurd remorse, that haunted him in her company. He realized that he would never be able to put himself in Marcelle’s place. ‘The freedom I talk about is the freedom of a sound and healthy man.’ He laid a hand on her neck, and gently squeezed the luscious but no longer youthful flesh.

‘Marcelle, are you feeling bored with life?’

She looked at him with faintly troubled eyes. ‘No.’

Silence fell. Mathieu felt a thrill at the tips of his fingers. Just at the tips of his fingers. He passed his hand slowly down Marcelle’s back, and Marcelle’s eyelids drooped: he could see her long black lashes. He drew her towards him. He had no actual desire for her at that moment, it was rather a longing to see that stubborn, angular spirit melt like an icicle in the sunshine. Marcelle let her head fall on to Mathieu’s shoulder, and he could see only too clearly her brown skin, and the bluish, veined curves beneath her eyes. And he thought to himself: ‘Good Lord, she’s getting old.’ And he reflected, too, that he was old. He leaned over her with a feeling of uneasiness: he wished he could forget himself, and her. But time had passed since he forgot himself when making love to her. He kissed her on the lips: she had fine lips, firm and sharply cut. She slid gently backwards and lay on the bed with eyes closed, limp and prostrate. Mathieu got up, took off his trousers and his shirt, folded them up and placed them at the foot of the bed, and then lay down beside her. But he noticed that her eyes were wide and set, she was staring at the ceiling with her hands clasped beneath her head.


more from william gass’ the tunnel

"A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4½ times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book’s annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition."


—Michael Silverblatt, The Los Angeles Times

Bookseller Photo 

Life in a chair

Yes, I’ve sat too long, no wonder it’s painful, though this is the great Tabor’s own chair, which I had shipped from Germany.  It swivels smoothly, tips without a sound.  In the mornings he lectured at the university.  Scholars, statesmen, writers, filled his afternoons.  My day commences, he said to me once, his fingers grazing on a slope of papers, when I come to rest in here at the end of an evening and begin making Greek and Roman history up out of German words, French wit, and English observation.  He scrawled his famous smile across his face, hastily, like an autograph; but he was old, already ill, and his hand trembled.  German words, he said, not German feeling.  Tabor spoke ironically, of course, yet what he said was true: he woke because his neighbors slumbered; he spied upon their dreams; he even entered their dreams eventually, and brandished a knife in the nightmares of Europe, Magus Tabor.  Mad Meg, they called him.  One day they’d say he wore the decade like a diadem.  His baldness glistened like a forest pool.  There’ve been times when this chair’s been my only haven, he said, and his lids closed over his protruding eyes.  Night had fallen behind them-in Mad Meg
s head.  You see how obedient it is; how swiftly it turns, like fortune in history?  He spun the chair hard, his eyes still in lids.  So I find it easy to reverse my position.  He laughed with the stutter of an angry bird and I managed a low social chuckle.  It really was a dream for him, all this: our conversation, the lecture of the morning, the interrupting applause and tumult of shouts at the end, the famous I and powerful who waited for him while he spoke with an unimportant, young, and dazzled American.  Those deeply curtained eyes reminded me that we were drifting through the middle of his sleep, and that I was just a wraith who would evaporate the instant he sank into his circuiting chair-sank into the past-into death-into history.

The study of history, gentlemen

the study of history

The hall was full.  There were hundreds-crowds in the doorways, everyone still.  The heads of the great grew like blossoms from the pillars lining the walls: in a rise along one side-Lessing, Herder, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling; in a fall along the other-Möser, Dilthey, Ranke, Troeltsch, Treitschke.  My first time in that room I had sat by the bust of Treitschke and read the inscription plaqued beneath it on the column:






It was longer than I care to admit before I realized that for Mad Meg, too, truth was the historian’s gift to history.


That’s not nearly strong enough.  And my
my what?my naiveté? my admiration? my vanity?somethingprevented me from understanding what he wrotehe preachedso many times so plainly.

The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved.  My hand fell to hers, too, somewhat like a discarded glove, and she took it with a squeeze, so that the chilled soon lay within the chilled, I thought, like a bottle of champagne.  Cold hand, moist part, I said.  Hers slipped away.

Drafts lapped my neck.  I cobble history, Tabor shouted when he saw me again, placing his huge, rough-knuckled fists against my chest.  We met at a large impersonal affair, a reception held at a chancellery, and I had finally burrowed to the stair to scan the crowd, perhaps to find a friend or two, when I observed him in the middle of the room, over his head in hair and shoulders, burning quietly, the only thing alive among the potted ferns and suits of armor.  The icy marble floor was flopped with Oriental rugs and steadily enlarging spills of people.  He was alone, ill.  I was astonished to see him in such a place.  I cobble history the way a cobbler cobbles shoes, he said.  Wretched fellow, I thought: in the midst of this crush, you’re composing a lecture.  If it were not for me the Roman Empire
here he made a hard white ball of his handswould not, an instantI heard his harsh laugh bubble from the crowd-stay togetherand his hands flew apart with startling violence, fingers fanned.  There was a terrible energy in that gesture, although he was, by this time, a sick old man, so weak he tottered.  His ears seemed unnaturally fastened to his head, and his arms emerged from the holes of his sleeves as if the flesh had remained as a lining.  I swaddled my neck in my arms and would have turned my collar if I’d dared.  Light spewed from the chandeliers.  Countless pairs of glistening boots reechoed from the marble squares.  Then an angry woman in a powdered bosom passed between us, and I was glad to be carried away.  Poor Tabor.  His lips were still moving when he disappeared behind a heavily forested Prussian chest.  Wise eyes slid sneakily down the stairs.  Voices were impeccably coiffed.  A moist mouth relieved a sausage of its stick.  Long gowns whispered like breezes together, and I saw several backs begging to be amorously bitten.  Bellies were in belly bras.  Consequently postures were perfect.  Since coming to Germany and manhood at the commencement of the thirties, I had known few such opulent days.  There were so many bits of brilliant metal, so much jewelry, so many cummerbunds and ribbons, a gently undulating sea of silk-tossed light, that the gilded ceiling drew away like heat and seemed a sky.  Thus I beheld him for the first time (or anyway eyed him out); and I felt the smile I’d penciled in above my chin fade like the line beneath the last rub of an eraser.  Never mind.  There was no need then for fidelity, only for entertainment.  Elaborate and lie.  Describe the scene to your quam diu friends: Link, Hintze, and Krauske¾friends who faded, whom heat cannot bring back even in the palest outline like lemon juice on paper.  Describe¾and make it rich, make it fun, full of rhetoric and episode¾Mad Meg in the Maelstrom.

I faced the four corners, cupped the bowl of my glass like a breast, began the construction of my anecdote, and let the wine die.

gass’ the tunnel: “the world… the world, alas. it is alice committing her tampax to the trash”

The Tunnel is a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest novels of the century, a novel to set beside the masterpieces of Proust, Joyce, and Musil as well as those of Gass’s illustrious contemporaries.”  


—Steven Moore, Review of Contemporary Fiction

book cover of </p> <p>The Tunnel </p> <p>by</p> <p>William H Gass

 Anaxagoras said to a man who was grieving because he lay dying

in a foreign land, “the descent to hell is the same from every place.”





What I have to tell you is as long as life,

but I shall run as swiftly, so before you know it,

 we shall both be over.






It was my intention, when I began, to write an introduction to my work on the Germans. Though its thick folders lie beside me now, I know I cannot. Endings, instead, possess me . . . all ways out.


Embarrassed, Im compelled to smile. I was going to extend my sympathy to my opponents. Here, in my introduction, raised above me like an arch of triumph, I meant to place a wreath upon myself. But each time I turned my pen to the task, it turned aside to strike me.


As I look at the pages of my manuscript, or stare at the books which wall my study, I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language.


It should have been a simple ceremony: a wreath to honor death and my success¾the defense of my hypothesis concerning Germany.


And when I wrote my book, to whom was I writing if not the world? … the world! … the world … the world is William welshing on a bet; it is Olive sewing up the gut of a goose; it is Reynolds raping Rosie on the frat-house stair; it is a low blow, a dreary afternoon, an exclamation of disgust.  And when I wrote was I writing to win renown, as it’s customarily claimed? or to gain revenge after a long bide of time and tight rein of temper? to earn promotion, to rise above the rest like a loosed balloon? or was it from weak self-esteem? From pure funk, out of a distant childhood fear or recent shame? … the world . . . the world, alas.  It is Alice committing her Tampax to the trash.


I began, I remember, because I felt I had to.  I’d reached that modest height in my career, that gentle rise, from which I could coast out of gear to a soft stop.


Now I wonder why not.  Why not?  But then duty drove me forward like a soldier.  I said it was time for “the Big Book,” the long monument to my mind I repeatedly dreamed I had to have: a pyramid, a column tall enough to satisfy the sky.  Duty drove me the way it drives men into marriage.  Begetting is expected of us, and in those days of heavy men in helmets the seed was certain, and wanted only the wind for a womb, or any slit; yet what sprang up out of those foxholes we fucked with our fists but our own frightened selves? with a shout of pure terror, too.  That too-that too was expected; it was expected even of flabby maleless men like me.  And now, here, where I am writing still, still in this chair, hammering type like tacks into the page, speaking without a listening ear, whose eye do I hope to catch and charm and fill with tears and understanding, if not my own, my own ordinary, unforgiving and unfeeling eye? … my eye.  So sentences circle me like a toy train.  What could I have said about the Boche, about bigotry, barbarism, butchery, Bach, that hasn’t been said as repeatedly as I dreamed my dream of glory, unless it was what I’ve said?  What could I have explained where no reason exists and no cause is adequate; what body burned to a crisp could I have rebelieved was bacon, if I had not taken the tack I took?


And last night, with my lids pulled over me, I went on seeing as if I were an open window.  Full of wind.  I wasn’t lying in peaceful darkness, that darkness I desired, that peace I needed.  My whole head was lit with noises, yet no Sunday park could have been more lonely: thoughts tossed away, left like litter to be blown about and lost.  There were long avenues of footfall, leaf flutter lacking leaf or tree, barks unreturned to their dogs.


My hypothesis … My word … My world … My Germany …


Of course there is nothing genuinely German about me, though my name suggests that some distant ancestor doubtless came from that direction, for I have at least three generations of Americans safety beneath me.  My wife, a richly scutcheoned Muhlenberg and far more devoted to armorial lines and ties of blood-all such blazonry-than I could ever bring myself to be, has already tunneledthrough five layers of her own to find, to her unrelenting triumph and delight, the deepest layer lying on American soil still, and under the line of the nineteenth century, if only by a spade’s length.  So my name, and the fact that I speak the German language fluently, having spent a good many years in that exemplary country (though there is nothing genuinely German about me), help make the German nation a natural inference.  I was there first as a student in the middle of the thirties, and I must confess I was caught up in the partisan frenzy of those stirred and stirring times; yet when I returned it was ironically as a soldier behind the guns of the First Army, and almost immiediately afterward I began my term as a consultant on “dirty Fascist things” at the Nuremberg Trials.  Finally, on the fore-edge of the fifties, with my fourteen hundred francs of fame, to alter the French reviewer’s expression in my favor, I purchased my release from the paws of the military and was permitted to become a tourist and teacher and scholar again.  Yes, by that time I had a certain dismal renown as the author of the Kohler thesis concerning Nazi crimes and German guilt, and this preceded me and lit my path, so that I had to suffer a certain sort of welcome too, a welcome which made me profoundly uneasy, for I was met and greeted as an equal; as, that is, a German, a German all along, and hence a refugee: I was William Frederick Kohler, wasn’t I? wasn’t I fat and fair, with a dazzling blond wife and a troop of stalwart children fond of-heaven help them-hiking about with bare knees? and so why not? … no, there was no mistake, I had the name and knew the language, looked the part, had been wisely away through the war, and, of course (though no one said it, it was this which pinned that wretched label to my coat like a star), had written that remarkably sane, peace-seeking book, so close on the event, too; a book which was severe¾all right, it was severe, perhaps severe-yet patient, fair and calm, a Christian book really, its commentators, my hostesses, their guests, all my new friends, smiling pleasantly to pump my hand, declared (as though history had a fever); yes, so calm and peace-seeking (came Herr Kohler’s cool and soothing palm), so patient and perceptive, so serene (while he lay bitterly becalmed himself)with a quotation from Heinrich Heine just beneath the title like a tombstone with a grave-that the French reviewer (and there was only one at first) spat on his page (he had a nose like a dirk and spectacles enlarged his eyes): It will be fourteen hundred francs spent on infamy, he said, and you will get your money’s worth.  Of peace-seeking, peace-making, peace-loving Buch.  A good buy.


A friend of mine did the French version, but it was I, quite unaccompliced, who betrayed my English to the German.  At twelve marks it continues to have a brisk sale.  I redid my study with a recent check.




I had intended to introduce


This is to introduce a work on death by one who’s spent his life in a chair.




I could not hold my father in much love, my mother either.  Indeed, I learned to love far later, as it proved, than they had time for.  So perished they without it. None of us grieves.  I’ve played a few sly tricks upon insanity since then, and now life holds me as it once held them-in a dry fist.  Hearts held that way wad up eventually … trees did. Once—once only—my heart burst bloodily in that grip.  But what has this to do with me now, or with Germany?




from iris murdoch’s the italian girl

The Italian Girl considers the topics of sibling rivalry, displaced persons, suffering, and the Oedipal complex. The novel beings with the middle-aged narrator, Edmund Narraway, returning home for his mother’s funeral. Narraway arrives at night as a reluctant intruder to a dark and forbidding family home, and he immediately wants to flee: "My mother’s existence here had been the reason for my not coming. Now her non-existence would provide an even stronger reason."

Bookseller Photo 

The Italian Girl

Iris Murdoch

First published in 1964



1. A Moonlight Engraving

I pressed the door gently. It had always been left open at night in the old days. When I became quite certain that it was locked I stepped back into the moonlight and looked up at the house. Although it was barely midnight there was not a light showing. They were all abed and asleep. I felt a resentment against them. I had expected a vigil, for her, and for me.

I moved through a soft tide of groundsel and small thistles to try the two front casements, but they were both firm and a greater blackness breathed at me from within. Calling out or throwing stones at windows in such a silence, these were abhorrent things. Yet to wait quietly in the light of the moon, a solitary excluded man, an intruder, this was abhorrent too. I walked a little, with dewy steps, and my shadow, thin and darkest blue, detached itself from the bulk of the house and stealthily followed. At the side it was all dark too and protected by such a dense jungle of ash saplings and young elder trees that it would have been impossible to reach a window, even had there been one unlatched. I measured, by the growth of these rank neglected plants, how long it was since I had last been in the north: it must be all of six years.

It had been foolish, entirely foolish, to come. I ought to have come earlier when she was ill, earlier when she wanted me and wrote in letters which for anger and guilt I could scarcely bear to read, come, come, come. To have come then would have made sense in the light of the last abstract consideration I had for her: after all she was my mother. But to come now that she was dead, to come merely to bury her, to stand in her dead presence with those half-strangers my brother and my sister-in-law, this was senseless, a mere self-punishment.

I returned across the lawn, following my own tracks in the dew. The clouded moon had spread a luminous transparent limb across the sky and showed me the silhouettes of the great trees which surrounded the house. It was still the skyline I knew best in the world. I felt for a moment almost tempted to go away, to try the door once again and then to go, like the mysterious traveller of the poem. "Tell them I came and no one answered." I looked again at the familiar shapes of the trees and shivered at the sudden proximity of my childhood. There were the old June smells, the wet-midsummer-night smells, the sound of the river and I the distant waterfall. An owl hooted, slowly, deliberately, casting out, one inside the other, his expanding  rings of sound. That too I remembered.

The thought that I might go away and leave them all there asleep made me pause with a sort of elation. There was an air of vengeance about it. That would be to leave them forever, since, if I went away now, I was sure I would never return. Indeed, whatever happened, I would probably never, after this one time, return. My mother’s existence here had been the reason for my not coming. Now her non-existence would provide an even stronger reason.

I must have been standing there for some time in a sad reverie when I saw what for a weird second looked like a reflection of myself. I had so vividly, I now realized, pictured myself as a dark figure upon that silver expanse that when I saw, emerged into the dim light in front of me, another such figure, I thought it could only be me. I shivered, first with this weird intuition, and the next moment with a more ordinary nervousness of this second night intruder. I knew at once from the outline of the man that it was not my brother Otto. Otto and I are both very big men, but Otto is bigger, although his stooping six-foot-three may pass for no more than my upright six-foot-one. The figure that now slowly advanced towards me was small and slim.

Although I am not especially a coward, I have always been afraid of the dark and of things that happen in the dark: and this night illumination was worse than darkness. The sense that I was also frightening the other man simply made me more alarmed. In a horrible silence I moved slowly towards him until we were near enough to catch a glint from each other’s eyes.

A soft voice said, "Ah—you must be the brother."

"Yes. Who are you?"

"I am your brother’s apprentice. My name is David Levkin. For a moment you frightened me. Are you locked out?"

"Yes." I hated saying this to him, and suddenly all my old love for the place, my old patriotism for it, filled me with pain. I was locked out. It was monstrous.

"Don’t worry. I’ll let you in. They are all gone to bed."

He moved across the lawn to the shadow of the house and I followed him. The moonlight fell in streaks through the overgrown lattice of the porch weighed down with honeysuckle, and revealed the fumbling hand and the key. Then the door gave softly to show the thick waiting blackness of the house, and I followed the boy out of the honeysuckle fragrance into the old stuffy, foxy darkness of the hall. The door closed and he turned on a light and we looked at each other.

I recalled now that my sister-in-law Isabel, the news-giver of the family, had written to me some time ago about a new apprentice. Otto’s apprentices were something of a sad tale and a cause of scandal always to my mother. With unerring care he had attracted to himself a notable sequence of juvenile delinquents, each one worse than the last. I scanned the boy but could not for the moment recall anything Isabel had said about him. He seemed about twenty. He did not look English. He was slim and long-necked, with big prominent lips and a lot of very straight brown hair. His nose was wide, with big suspicious nostrils, and he eyed me now with narrow eyes, very doubtfully, his lips apart. Then he smiled, and as the eyes almost vanished the cheeks broadened out in great wreaths of welcome. "So you have come."

The locution might have been impertinent or merely foreign. I could not see his face properly. My mother, intensely mean with money, had always insisted on using the weakest possible electric-light bulbs, so that there was scarcely more to be seen within than by the light of the moon. It was a weak, dirty, weary sort of dimness. I wished to be rid of him and said, "Thank you. I can look after myself now."

"I do not sleep in the house." He said it solemnly and now with a perceptible foreignness. "You will know where to go?"

"Yes, thank you. I can always wake my brother."

"He does not sleep in the house now either." I felt unable to discuss this. I felt suddenly utterly tired and ill-used. "Well, good night, and thank you for letting me in."

"Good night." He was gone, dissolving in the pale, uncertain yellow light, and the door was closing. I turned and began to go slowly up the stairs with my suitcase.

At the top of the stairs I paused as the familiar pattern of the house seemed to enter into my body magnetically: Otto’s room, my room, my father’s room, my mother’s room. I turned towards my own room, where I assumed a bed would have been made up for me; and then I paused. I had not yet really conceived of her as dead. I had thought about journeys and times, about the cremation which was to take place tomorrow, about the nature of the ceremony, about Otto, even about the property, but not about her. My thoughts, my feelings about her belonged to some other dimension of time, belonged to before whatever it was that had happened to her twenty-four or thirty-six hours ago. The sense of her mortality invaded me now, and it became inevitable that I should enter her room. The dim electric light revealed the big landing, the 12 oak chest and the fern which never grew but never died either, the fine but entirely threadbare Shiraz rug, the picture which might have been by Constable but wasn’t, which my father had got in a sale, at a price for which my mother never forgave him: and the closed, silent doors of the rooms. Before the sick feeling should make me feel positively faint I went to my mother’s door and quickly opened it and turned on the light within.

I had not expected her face to be uncovered. I closed the door behind me and leaned back against it with a violently beating heart. She lay, raised up rather high upon the pillows, her eyes closed and her hair undone. She could not have been sleeping, though it would have been hard to say quite how this was evident. Her face was a yellowish white and narrowed, shrunk already away from life, altogether smaller. But her long hair, which had been bronze once, now a dark brown striped with grey, seemed vital still, as if the terrible news had not yet come to it. It seemed even to move a little at my entrance, perhaps in a slight draught from the door. Her dead face had an expression which I had known upon it in life, a sort of soft crazed expression, like a Grünewald Saint Anthony, a look of elated madness and suffering.

My mother’s name was Lydia, and she had always insisted that we call her by this name. This had displeased my father, but he did not cross her in this or indeed in anything else. My mother’s affections had early turned away from her husband and focused with rapacious violence upon her sons, with whom she had had, as it were, a series of love affairs, transferring the centre of her affection to and fro between us, so that our childhood passed in an alternate frenzy of jealousy and of suffocation. In my first memories she was in love with Otto, who is my senior by two years. When I was six she loved me passionately, and again when I was ten, and again in my later years at school; and perhaps later too, and most fiercely of all, when she felt me slipping from her grasp. It was when it was at last clear to her that I had escaped, that I had run away and would not come back, that she turned her emotions onto her last love, her granddaughter, Flora, Otto and Isabel’s only child. She would often say that no one but she could control the little girl. It was true: Lydia bad seen to it that it was true.

She was a small woman. She had been so proud, when we were at art school, of her two huge talented sons. I can recall her walking between us and looking up at each in turn with a proud possessive leer, while we stared ahead and affected not to notice. She was, in someway, a great spirit; all that power, with some turn I of the screw, might have organized some notable empire. There was nothing of the artist in her. Yet with this she was a timid woman, convinced of the hostility of the world and incapable of crossing a hotel lounge without believing that everyone there was staring at her I and talking maliciously about her.

Isabel had put up but little fight. She lost Otto almost at once and withdrew herself into a sad, sarcastic remoteness. Almost the last serious talk I had had with my brother, many years ago now, had been when I implored him, on his marriage, to get away from Lydia. I can recall the paralysed look with which he said that it was impossible. Shortly after that I departed myself. It was perhaps the spectacle of Lydia’s ruthlessness to Isabel which finally sickened me and made me feel for my mother at last the positive hatred which was a necessity for my escape. Yet Lydia never destroyed Isabel: Isabel was strong too in her own way, another * ruined person, but strong.

It was scarcely credible that all that power had simply ceased to be, that the machine worked no longer. My father had passed from us almost unnoticed, we believed in his death long before it came. Yet my father had not been a nonentity. When he was the young and famous John Narraway, Narraway the socialist, the free-thinker, the artist, the craftsman, the saint, the exponent of the simple life, the redeemer of toil, he must have impressed my mother, he must indeed have been an impressive person, a talented and perhaps a fine person. Yet my early memories are not of my father, but of my mother one day saying to us: Your father is not a good man, he is merely a timid man with unworldly tastes. We felt for him a faint contempt and later pity. He never beat us. It was Lydia who did that. He passed on to us only, in some measure, his talents. He had been a sculptor, a painter, an engraver, a stonemason. He left us behind, two lesser men, Otto the stonemason and I, Edmund, the engraver.

I looked at what lay before me with a horror which was not love or pity or sadness, but was more like fear. Of course I had never really escaped from Lydia. Lydia had got inside me, into the depths of my being, there was no abyss and no darkness where she was not. She was my self-contempt. To say that I hated her for it was too flimsy a saying: only those will understand who have suffered this sort of possession by another. And now the weird thought that I had survived her did not increase my being, but I felt in her presence mutilated and mortal, as if her strength, exercised from there, could even now destroy me. I looked with fascination upon the live, still burnished hair and upon the white, already shrunken face. Leaving the room, I switched the light off, and it seemed very strange to leave her there in the dark.

I moved softly across the landing to my own door. The house creaked about me as if in recognition, the inarticulate greeting of some primitive dog-like house-ghost.

I had no thought of waking Otto now. The closed, doors breathed a stupefaction of slumber; and I wanted desperately to sleep myself, as if to appease with that semblance of death the angry defeated spirit. I reached my own door and opened it wide, and then stopped in my tracks. The moon shone clearly onto my bed and revealed the form of a young girl with long glistening hair.

For a moment it seemed like a hallucination, something hollow and incompletely perceived, some conjuration of a tired or frightened mind. Then the form stirred slightly and turned, the bright hair falling onto an almost bare shoulder. I started back and closed the door in a shock of guilty terror. This was a magic of exclusion which was too strong for me. A moment later, like an evil spirit put to flight, I was stumbling away down the stairs.

A woman’s voice above me softly spoke my name. I paused now and looked up. A face was looking at me over the banisters, a face which I dimly, partly recognized. Then I realized that it was only my old nurse, the Italian girl. We had had in the house, ever since we were small children, a series of Italian nurserymaids; whether one had led to another or whether this was a foible of my mother’s I never remember discovering. But one result had been that my brother and myself, with no natural gift for languages, spoke fluent Italian. The post had become, in a manner, traditional, so that I had always had, as it were, two mothers, my own mother and the Italian girl. Looking up now at the remembered face, I felt a sort of temporal giddiness and could not for a moment make out which one this was, while a series of Giulias and Gemmas and Vittorias and Carlottas moved and merged dreamlike in my mind. "Maggie."

Her name was Maria Magistretti, but we had always called her Maggie. I came back up the stairs.

"Maggie, thank you. Yes, I see. Of course, Flora is in my room. You’ve put me in Father’s old room? Yes, that’s fine."

As I whispered she pushed open the door of my father’s room and I followed her into the bleak lighted interior.

I had never known her wear anything but black. She stood there now, a small dark figure, gesturing toward the narrow bed, her long bun of black hair trailing down her back like a waxen pigtail. With her pale, framed face, in the solemnity of the hour, she seemed like an attendant nun: one expected to hear the clink of a rosary and a murmured Ave. She looked to me ageless, weary: the last of the Italian girls, left, as it were, stranded by the growing up of her two charges. She must have been, when she came, but little older than the boys she was to look after; but some trick of fate had left her behind ever since in that northern house. Otto claimed he remembered being wheeled by Maggie in his pram, but this was certainly a false memory: some previous Carlotta, some Vittoria merged here with her image; they were indeed all, in our minds, so merged and generalized that it seemed as if there had always ever been only one Italian girl.

"A hot-water bottle in the bed? How kind of you, Maggie. No, not a meal, I’ve eaten, thank you. Just bed. It’s at eleven tomorrow, isn’t it? Thank you, good night." With this came to me some old comforting breath of childhood; warm beds, prompt meals, clean linen: these things the Italian girl had provided.

I stood alone in the faded, pretty room. The patchwork bedcover was turned back for me. I looked about. A lot of my father’s pictures hung in this room, placed there by Lydia, who had, after his death, collected them from elsewhere in the house to make of this place a sort of museum, a mausoleum. It was as if she had, in the end, enclosed him in a narrow space. I looked at the pale water-colours which had once seemed the equal of Cotman, and the mannered engravings which had once seemed the equal of Bewick; and there emanated from them all a special and limited sense of the past. They looked to me, for the first time, dated, old-fashioned, insipid. I felt his absence then with a quick pathos, his presence as a sad, reproachful ghost: and it was suddenly as if after all it was he who had just died.



ballard’s terminal beach concluded

The Submarine Pens


This precarious existence continued for the following weeks. As he walked out to the blocks one evening, he again saw his wife and son, standing among the dunes below a solitary camera tower, their faces watching him expressionlessly. He realized that they had followed him across the island from their former haunt among the driedup lakes. At about this time he once again saw the distant light beckoning, and decided to continue his exploration of the island.


Half a mile further along the atoll he found a group of four submarine pens, built over an inlet, now drained, which wound through the dunes from the sea. The pens still contained several feet of water, filled with strange luminescent fish and plants. The warning light winked at intervals from the apex of a metal scaffold. The remains of a substantial camp, only recently vacated, stood on the pier outside. Greedily, Traven heaped his sledge with the provisions stored inside one of the metal shacks.


With this change of diet, the ben-ben receded, and during the next days he returned often to the camp. It appeared to be the site of a biological expedition. In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them. (Later, passing the aircraft dump on one of his forays, he found the half-buried juke-box, and tore the list of records from the selection panel, realizing that these were the most appropriate captions. Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of associations.)



Traven: In Parenthesis


Elements in a quantal world: The terminal beach.


The terminal bunker.


The blocks.




The landscape is coded.


Entry points into the future=Levels in a spinal landscape=zones of significant time.


August 5. Found the man Traven. A strange derelict figure, hiding in a bunker in the deserted interior of the island. He is suffering from severe exposure and malnutrition, but is unaware of this or, for that matter, of any other events in the world around him He maintains that he came to the island to carry out some scientific project – unstated – but I suspect that he understands his real motives and the unique role of the island… In some way its landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths. The attractions and dangers of such an architecture, as the past has shown, need no stressing.


August 6. He has the eyes of the possessed. I would guess that he is neither the first, nor the last, to visit the island.


—from Dr C. Osborne, ‘Eniwetok Diary.’



Traven lost within the Blocks


With the exhaustion of’his supplies, Traven remained within the perimeter of the blocks almost continuously, conserving what strength remained to him to walk slowly down their empty corridors. The infection in his right foot made it difficult for him to replenish his supplies from the stores left by the biologists, and as his strength ebbed he found progressively less incentive to make his way out of the blocks. The system of megaliths now provided a complete substitute for those functions of his mind which gave to it its sense of the sustained rational order of time and space. Without them, his awareness of reality shrank to little more than the few square inches of sand beneath his feet.


On one of his last ventures into the maze, he spent all night and much of the following morning in a futile attempt to escape. Dragging himself from one rectangle of shadow to another, his leg as heavy as a club and apparently inflamed to the knee, he realized that he must soon find an equivalent for the blocks or he would end his life within them, trapped inside this self-constructed mausoleum as surely as the retinue of Pharaoh.


He was sitting helplessly somewhere in the centre of the system, the faceless lines of tomb-booths receding from him, when the sky was slowly divided by the drone of a light aircraft. This passed overhead, and then returned five minutes later. Seizing his opportunity, Traven struggled to his feet and made his exit from the blocks, his head raised to follow the faintly glistening beacon of the exhaust trail.


As he lay in the bunker he dimly heard the aircraft return and carry out an inspection of the site.



A Belated Rescue


‘Who are you? Do you realize you’re on your last legs?’


‘Traven… I’ve had some sort of accident. I’m glad you flew over.’


‘I’m sure you are. But why didn’t you use our radio-telephone? Anyway, we’ll call the Navy and have you picked up.’


‘No…’ Traven sat up on one elbow and feltweakly in his hip pocket. ‘I have a pass somewhere. I’m carrying out research.’


‘Into what?’ The question assumed a complete understanding of Traven’s motives. He lay in the shade under the lee of the bunker, and drank weakly from a canteen as Dr Osborne dressed his foot. ‘You’ve also been stealing our stores.’


Traven shook his head. Fifty yards away the striped blue Cessna stood on the concrete apron like a brilliant dragonfly. ‘I didn’t realize you were coming back.’


‘You must be in a trance.’


The young woman sitting at the controls of the aircraft climbed out and walked over to them. She glanced at the grey bunkers and towers, and seemed uninterested in the decrepit figure of Traven. Osborne spoke to her and after a downward glance at Traven she went back to the aircraft. As she turned Traven rose involuntarily, recognizing the child in the photograph he had pinned to the wall of the bunker. Then he remembered that the magazine could not have been more than four or five years old.


The engine of the aircraft started. As Traven watched, it turned on to one of the roadways and took off into the wind.


Later that afternoon the young woman drove over to the blocks by jeep and unloaded a small camp-bed and a canvas awning. During the intervening hours Traven had slept. He woke refreshed when Osborne returned from his scrutiny of the surrounding dunes.


‘What are you doing here?’ the young woman asked as she secured the guy-ropes to the roof of the bunker.


Traven watched her move about. ‘I’m… searching for my wife and son.’


‘They’re on this island?’ Surprised, but taking the reply at face value, she looked around her. ‘Here?’


‘In a manner of speaking.’


After inspecting the bunker, Osborne joined them. ‘The child in the photograph – is she your daughter?’


Traven hesitated. ‘No. She’s adopted me.’


Unable to make any sense of his replies, but accepting his assurances that he would leave the island, Osborne and the young woman drove back to their camp. Each day Osborne returned to change the dressing, driven by the young woman, who seemed now to grasp the role cast for her by Traven. Osborne, when he learned of Traven’s previous career as a military pilot, appeared to suspect that he might be a latter-day martyr left high and dry by the moratorium on thermonuclear tests.


‘A guilt complex isn’t an indiscriminate supply of moral sanctions. I think you may be overstretching yours.’ When he mentioned the name Eatherly, Traven shook his head.


Undeterred, Osborne pressed: ‘Are you sure you’re not making similar use of the image of Eniwetok – waiting for your Pentecostal wind?’


‘Believe me, Doctor, no,’ Traven replied firmly. ‘For me the hydrogen bomb was a symbol of absolute freedom. I feel it’s given me the right the obligation, even – to do anything I want.’


‘That seems strange logic,’ Osborne commented. ‘Aren’t we at least responsible for our physical selves, if for nothing else?’


‘Not now, I think,’ Traven replied. ‘After all, in effect we are men raised from the dead.’


Often, however, he thought of Eatherly: the prototypal Pre-Third Man – dating the Pre-Third from August 6, 1945 carrying a full load of cosmic guilt.


Shortly after Traven was strong enough to walk, he had to be rescued from the blocks for a second time. Osborne became less conciliatory.


‘Our work is almost’ complete,’ he said warningly. ‘You’ll die here, Traven. What are you looking for among those blocks?’


To himself, Traven murmured: the tomb of the unknown civilian, Homo hydrogenensis, Eniwetok Man. ‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘your laboratory is at the wrong end of this island.’


Tartly, Osborne replied: ‘I’m aware of that, Traven. There are rarer fish swimming in your head than in any submarine pen.’


On the day before they left, the young woman drove Traven over to the lakes where he had first arrived. As a final present, an ironic gesture unexpected from the elderly biologist, she had brought from Osborne the correct list of legends for the chromosome charts. They stopped by the derelict juke-box and she pasted them on to the selection panel.


They wandered among the supine wrecks of the Superfortresses. Traven lost sight of her, and for the next ten minutes searched in and out of the dunes. He found her standing in a small amphitheatre formed by the sloping mirrors of a solar energy device built by one of the visiting expeditions. She smiled to Traven as he stepped through the scaffolding. A dozen fragmented images of herself were reflected in the broken panes – in some she was sans head, in others multiples of her arms circled about her like the serpent limbs of a Hindu goddess. Confused, Traven turned and walked back to the jeep.


As they drove away he recovered himself. He described his glimpses of his wife and son. ‘Their faces are always calm,’ he said. ‘My son’s particularly, though really he was always laughing. The only time his face was grave was when he was being born—then he seemed millions of years old.’


The young woman nodded. ‘I hope you find them.’ As an afterthought she added: ‘Dr Osborne is going to tell the Navy that you’re here. Hide somewhere.’


Traven thanked her.


From the centre of the blocks he waved to her the following day when she flew away for the last time.



The Naval Party


When the search party came for him Traven hid in the only logical place. Fortunately the search was perfunctory, and was called off after a few hours. The sailors had brought a supply of beer with them and the search soon turned into a drunken ramble.


On the walls of the recording towers Traven later found balloons of obscene dialogue chalked into the mouths of the shadowy figures, giving their postures the priapic gaiety of the dancers in cave drawings.


The climax of the party was the ignition of a store of gasoline in an underground tank near the airstrip. As he listened, first to the megaphones shouting his name, the echoes receding among the dunes like the forlorn calls of dying birds, then to the boom of the explosion and the laughter as the landing craft left, Traven felt a premonition that these were the last sounds he would hear.


He had hidden in oneof the target basins, lying among the broken bodies of the plastic models. In the hot sunlight their deformed faces gaped at him sightlessly from the tangle of limbs, their blurred smiles like those of the soundlessly laughing dead.


Their faces filled his mind as he climbed over the bodies and returned to his bunker. As he walked towards the blocks he saw the figures of his wife and son standing in his path. They were less than ten yards from him, their white faces watching him with a look of almost overwhelming expectancy. Never had Traven seen them so close to the blocks. His wife’s pale features seemed illuminated from within, her lips parted as if in greeting, one hand raised to take his own. His son’s face, with its curiously fixed expression, regarded him with the same enigmatic smile of the child in the photograph.


‘Judith! David!’ Startled, Traven ran forwards to them. Then, in a sudden movement of light, their clothes turned into shrouds, and he saw the wounds that disfigured their necks and chests. Appalled, he cried out. As they vanished, he ran off into the safety of the blocks.



The Catechism of Goodbye


This time he found himself, as Osborne had predicted, unable to leave the blocks.


Somewhere in the centre of the maze, he sat with his back against one of the concrete flanks, his eyes raised to the sun. Around him the lines of cubes formed the horizon of his world. At times they would appear to advance towards him, looming over him like cliffs, the intervals between them narrowing so that they were little more than an arm’s length apart, a labyrinth of corridors running between them. They then would recede from him, separating from each other like points in an expanding universe, until the nearest line formed an intermittent palisade along the horizon.


Time had become quantal. For hours it would be noon, the shadows contained within the blocks, the heat reflected off the concrete floor. Abruptly, he would find that it was early afternoon or evening, the shadows everywhere like pointing fingers.


‘Goodbye, Eniwetok,’ he murmured.


Somewhere there was a flicker of light, as if one of the blocks, like a counter on an abacus, had been plucked away.


Goodbye, Los Alamos. Again, a block seemed to vanish. The corridors around him remained intact, but somewhere in his mind had appeared a small interval of neutral space.


Goodbye, Hiroshima.


Goodbye, Alamagordo.


‘Goodbye, Moscow, London, Paris, New York…’


Shuttles flickered, a ripple of lost integers. He stopped, realizing the futility of this megathlon farewell. Such a leave-taking required him to fix his signature upon every one of the particles in the universe.



Total Noon: Eniwetok


The blocks now occupied positions on an endlessly revolving circus wheel. They carried him upwards into the sky, from where he could see the whole island and the sea, and then down again through the opaque disc of the concrete floor. From here he looked up at the under-surface of the concrete cap, an inverted landscape of rectilinear hollows, the dome-shaped mounds of the lake-system, the thousands of empty cubic pits of the blocks.


‘Goodbye, Traven.’


Near the end, he found to his disappointment that this ultimate rejection gained him nothing.


In the interval of lucidity, he looked down at his emaciated arms and legs, decorated with a lace-work of ulcers. To his right was a trail of disturbed dust, the wavering marks of slack heels.


To his left lay a long corridor between the blocks, joining an oblique series a hundred yards away. Among these, where a narrow interval revealed the open space beyond, was a crescent-shaped shadow, poised in the air above the ground.


During the next half an hour it moved slowly, turning as the sun swung, the profile of a dune.



The Crevice


Seizing on this cipher, which hung before him like a symbol on a shield, Traven pushed himself through the dust. He climbed precariously to his feet, and shielded his eyes from the blocks. He moved forward a few paces at a time.


Ten minutes later he emerged from the western perimeter of the blocks, like a tottering mendicant leaving behind a silent desert city. The dune lay fifty yards in front of him. Beyond it, bearing the shadow like a screen, was a ridge of limestone that ran away among the hillocks of the wasteland beyond this point of the atoll. The remains of an old bulldozer, bales of barbed wire and fifty-gallon drums lay half-buried in the sand. Traven approached the dune, reluctant to leave this anonymous swell of sand. He shuffled around its edges, and sat down in the mouth of a shallow crevice below the brow of the ridge.


After dusting his clothes, he gazed out patiently at the great circle of blocks.


Ten minutes later he noticed that someone was watching him.



The Marooned Japanese


This corpse, whose eyes stared up at Traven, lay to his left at the bottom of the crevice. That of a man of middle age and strong build, it rested on its back with its head on a pillow of stone, hands outstretched at its sides, as if surveying the window of the sky. The fabric of the clothes had rotted to a bleached grey vestment, but in the absence of any small animal predators on the island the skin and musculature of the corpse had been preserved. Here and there, at the angle of knee or wrist, a bony point glinted through the leathery integument of the skin, but the facial mask was still intact, and revealed a male Japanese of the professional classes. Looking down at the strong nose, high forehead and broad mouth, Traven guessed that the Japanese had been a doctor or lawyer.


Puzzled as to how the corpse had found itself here, Traven slid a few feet down the slope. There were no radiation burns on the skin, which indicated that the Japanese had been there for five years or less. Nor did he appear to be wearing a uniform, so had not been some unfortunate member of a military or scientific party.


To the left of the corpse, within reach of his left hand, was a frayed leather case, the remains of a map wallet. To the right was the husk of a haversack, open to reveal a canteen of water and a small mess-tin.


Traven slid down the slope until his feet touched the splitting soles of the corpse’s shoes, the reflex of starvation making him for the moment ignore that the Japanese had deliberately chosen to die in the crevice. He reached out and seized the canteen. A cupful of flat water swilled around the rusting bottom. Traven gulped down the water, the dissolved metal salts cloaking his lips and tongue with a bitter film. The mess-tin was empty except for a tacky coating of condensed syrup. Traven prised at this with the lid, and chewed at the tarry flakes, letting them dissolve in his mouth with an almost intoxicating sweetness. After a few moments he felt light-headed and sat back beside the corpse. Its sightless eyes regarded him with unmoving compassion.



The Fly


(A small fly, which Traven presumes has followed him into the fissure, now buzzes about the corpse’s face. Guiltily, Traven leans forward to kill it, then reflects that perhaps this minuscule sentry has been the corpse’s faithful companion, in return fed on the rich liqueurs and distillations of its pores. Carefully, to avoid injuring the fly, he encourages it to alight on his wrist.)


DR YASUDA: Thank you, Traven. In my position, you understand


TRAVEN: Of course, Doctor. I’m sorry I tried to kill it – these ingrained habits, you know, they’re not easy to shrug off. Your sister’s children in Osaka in ’44, the exigencies of war, I hate to plead them. Most known motives are so despicable, one searches the unknown in the hope that YASUDA: Please, Traven, do not be embarrassed. The fly is lucky to retain its identity for so long. ‘That son you mourn, not to mention my own two nieces and nephew, did they not die each day? Every parent in the world grieves for the lost sons and daughters of their earlier childhoods.


TRAVEN: You’re very tolerant, Doctor. I wouldn’t dare – YASUDA: Not at all, Traven. I make no apologies for you. Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives. But your son, and my nephew, are fixed in our minds forever, their identities as certain as the stars.


TRAVEN: (not entirely convinced) That may be so, Doctor, but it leads to a dangerous conclusion in the case of this island. For instance, the blocks – YASUDA: They are precisely what I refer to, Traven. Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This islandis an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?


TRAVEN: Excuse me (The fly has flown back to the corpse’s face and sits in one of the dried-up orbits, giving the good doctor an expression of quizzical beadiness. Reaching forward, Traven entices it on to his palm. He examines it carefully) Well, yes, these bunkers may be ontological objects, but whether this is the ontological fly is doubtful. It’s true that on this island it’s the only fly, which is the next best thing


YASUDA: You can’t accept the plurality of the universe – ask yourself why, Traven. Why should this obsess you? It seems to me that you are hunting for the white leviathan, zero. The beach is a dangerous zone. Avoid it. Have a proper humility, pursue a philosophy of acceptance.


TRAVEN: Then may I ask why you came here, Doctor?


YASUDA: To feed this fly. ‘What greater love – ?’


TRAVEN: (Still puzzling) It doesn’t really solve my problem. The blocks, you see


YASUDA: Very well, if you must have it that way


TRAVEN: But, Doctor


YASUDA: (Peremptorily) Kill that fly!


TRAVEN: That’s not an end, or a beginning.


(Hopelessly, he kills the fly. Exhausted, he falls asleep beside the corpse.)



The Terminal Beach


Searching for a piece of rope in the refuse dump behind the dunes, Traven found a bale of rusty wire. After unwinding it, he secured a harness around the corpse’s chest and dragged it from the crevice. The lid of a wooden crate made a crude sledge. Traven fastened the corpse to it in a sitting position, and set off along the perimeter of the blocks. Around him the island remained silent. The lines of palms hung in the sunlight, only his own motion varying the shifting ciphers of their criss-crossing trunks. The square turrets of the camera towers jutted from the dunes like forgotten obelisks.


An hour later, when Traven reached the awning by his bunker, he untied the wire cord he had fastened around his waist. He took the chair left for him by Dr Osborne and carried it to a point midway between the bunker and the blocks. Then he tied the body of the Japanese to the chair, arranging the hands so that they rested on the wooden arms giving the moribund figure a posture of calm repose.


This done to his satisfaction, Traven returned to the bunker and squatted under the awning.


As the next days passed into weeks, the dignified figure of the Japanese sat in his chair fifty yards from him, guarding Traven from the blocks. He now had sufficient strength to rouse himself at intervals and forage for food. In the hot sunlight the skin of the Japanese became more and more bleached, and Traven would wake at night and find the sepulchral figure sitting there, arms resting at its sides, in the shadows that crossed the concrete floor. At these moments he would often see his wife and son watching him from the dunes. As time passed they came closer, and he would sometimes find them only a few yards behind him.


Patiently Traven waited for them to speak to him, thinking of the great blocks whose entrance was guarded by the seated figure of the dead archangel, as the waves broke on the distant shore and the burning bombers fell through his dreams.




ballard’s new wave & the terminal beach (part one)

j.g. ballard, the terminal beach

The Terminal Beach by monkeyiron. 


The Terminal Beach


At night, as he lay asleep on the floor of the ruined bunker, Traven heard the waves breaking along the shore of the lagoon, like the sounds of giant aircraft warming up at the ends of their runways. This memory of the great night raids against the Japanese mainland had filled his first months on the island with images of burning bombers falling through the air around him. Later, with the attacks of ben-ben, the nightmare passed and the waves began to remind him of the deep Atlantic rollers on the beach at Dakar, where he had been born, and of watching from the window in the evenings for his parents to drive home along the corniche road from the airport. Overcome by this long-forgotten memory, he woke uncertainly from the bed of old magazines on which he slept and went out to the dunes that screened the lagoon.


Through the cold night air he could see the abandoned Superfortresses lying among the palms beyond the perimeter of the emergency landing field three hundred yards away. Traven walked through the dark sand, already forgetting where the shore lay, although the atoll was little more than half a mile in width. Above him, along the crests of the dunes, the tall palms leaned into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet. The landscape of the island was covered by strange ciphers.


Giving up the attempt to find the beach, Traven stumbled into a set of tracks left years earlier by a large caterpillar vehicle. The heat released by the weapons tests had fused the sand, and the double line of fossil imprints, uncovered by the evening air, wound its serpentine way among the hollows like the footfalls of an ancient saurian.


Too weak to walk any further, Traven sat down between the tracks. Hoping that they might lead him to the beach, he began to excavate the wedge-shaped grooves from a drift into which they disappeared. He returned to the bunker shortly before dawn, and slept through the hot silences of the following noon.



The Blocks


As usual on these enervating afternoons, when not even a breath of on-shore breeze disturbed the dust, Traven sat in the shadow of one of the blocks, lost somewhere within the centre of the maze. His back resting against the rough concrete surface, he gazed with a phlegmatic eye down the surrounding aisles and at the line of doors facing him. Each afternoon he left his cell in the abandoned camera bunker among the dunes and walked down into the blocks. For the first half an hour he restricted himself to the perimeter aisle, now and then trying one of the doors with the rusty key in his pocket – found among the litter of smashed bottles and cans in the isthmus of sand separating the testing ground from the air-strip – and then inevitably, with a sort of drugged stride, he set off into the centre of the blocks, breaking into a run and darting in and out of the corridors, as if trying to flush some invisible opponent from his hiding place. Soon he would be completely lost. Whatever his efforts to return to the perimeter, he always found himself once more in the centre.


Eventually he would abandon the task, and sit down in the dust, watching the shadows emerge from their crevices at the foot of the blocks. For some reason he invariably arranged to be trapped when the sun was at zenith – on Eniwetok, the thermonuclear noon.


One question in particular intrigued him: ‘What sort of people would inhabit this minimal concrete city?’



The Synthetic Landscape


‘This island is a state of mind,’ Osborne, one of the scientists working in the old submarine pens, was later to remark to Traven. The truth of this became obvious to Traven within two or three weeks of his arrival. Despite the sand and the few anaemic palms, the entire landscape of the island was synthetic, a man-made artefact with all the associations of a vast system of derelict concrete motorways. Since the moratorium on atomic tests, the island had been abandoned by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the wilderness of weapons aisles, towers and blockhouses ruled out any attempt to return it to its natural state. (There were also stronger unconscious motives, Traven recognized: if primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, 20th century man had reversed this process; by this Cartesian yardstick, the island at least existed, in a sense true of few other places.)


But apart from a few scientific workers, no one yet felt any wish to visit the former testing ground, and the naval patrol boat anchored in the lagoon had been withdrawn three years before Traven’s arrival. Its ruined appearance, and the associations of the island with the period of the Cold War – what Traven had christened ‘The Pre-Third’ were profoundly depressing, an Auschwitz of the soul whose mausoleums contained the mass graves of the still undead. With the Russo-American détente this nightmarish chapter of history had been gladly forgotten.


The Pro- Third

The actual and potential destructiveness of the atomic bomb plays straight into the hands of the Unconscious. The most cursory study of the dream-life and fantasies of the insane shows that ideas of world-destruction are latent in the unconscious mind… Nagasaki destroyed by the magic of science is the nearest man has yet approached to the realization of dreams that even during the safe immobility of sleep are accustomed to develop into nightmares of anxiety.


Glover: ‘War, Sadism and Pacifism’

The Pre-Third: the period was characterized in Traven’s mind above all by its moral and psychological inversions, by its sense of the whole of history, and in particular of the immediate future – the two decades, 1945-65 – suspended from the quivering volcano’s lip of World War III. Even the death of his wife and six-year-old son in a motor accident seemed only part of this immense synthesis of the historical and psychic zero, the frantic highways where each morning they met their deaths the advance causeways to the global armageddon.



Third Beach


He had come ashore at midnight, after a hazardous search for an opening in the reef. The small motorboat he had hired from an Australian pearl-diver at Charlotte Island subsided into the shallows, its hull torn by the sharp coral. Exhausted, Traven walked through the darkness among the dunes, where the dim outlines of bunkers and concrete towers loomed between the palms.


He woke the next morning into bright sunlight, lying halfway down the slope of a wide concrete beach. This ringed an empty reservoir or target basin some two hundred feet in diameter, part of a system of artificial lakes built down the centre of the atoll. Leaves and dust choked the exit grilles, and a pool of warm water two feet deep lay below him, reflecting a distant line of palms.


Traven sat up and took stock of himself. This brief inventory, which merely confirmed his physical identity, was limited to little more than his thin body in its frayed cotton garments. In the context of the surrounding terrain, however, even this collection of tatters seemed to possess a unique vitality. The desolation and emptiness of the island, and the absence of any local fauna, were emphasized by the huge sculptural forms of the target basins set into its surface. Separated from each other by narrow isthmuses, the lakes stretched away along the curve of the atoll. On either side, sometimes shaded by the few palms that had gained a precarious purchase in the cracked cement, were roadways, camera towers and isolated blockhouses, together forming a continuous concrete cap upon the island, a functional, megalithic architecture as grey and minatory (and apparently as ancient, in its projection into, and from, time future) as any of Assyria and Babylon.


The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudogeological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration, of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist’s maxim, ‘The key to the past lies in the present.’ Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton.


Traven knelt in the warm pool, and splashed his shirt and trousers. The reflection revealed the watery image of gaunt shoulders and bearded face. He had come to the island with no supplies other than a small bar of chocolate, assuming that in some way the island would provide its own sustenance. Perhaps, too, he had identified the need for food with a forward motion in time, and that with his return to the past, or at most into a zone of non-time, this need would be eliminated. The privations of the previous six months, during his journey across the Pacific, had already reduced his always thin body to that of a migrant beggar, held together by little more than the preoccupied gaze in his eye. Yet this emaciation, by stripping away the superfluities of the flesh, revealed an inner sinewy toughness, an economy and directness of movement.


For several hours Traven wandered about, inspecting one bunker after another for a convenient place to sleep. He crossed the remains of a small landing field, next to a dump where a dozen B-29s lay across one another like dead reptile birds.



The Corpses


Once he entered a small street of metal shacks, containing a cafeteria, recreation rooms and shower stalls. A wrecked jukebox lay half-buried in the sand behind the cafeteria, its selection of records still in their rack.


Further along, flung into a small target lake fifty yards from the shacks, were the bodies of what at first he thought were the former inhabitants of this ghost town – a dozen life-size plastic models. Their half-melted faces, contorted into bleary grimaces, gazed up at him from the jumble of legs and torsoes.


On either side of him, muffled by the dunes, came the sounds of waves, the great rollers on the seaward side breaking over the reefs, and on to the beaches within the lagoon. However, he avoided the sea, hesitating before any rise or dune that might take him within its sight. Everywhere the camera towers offered him a convenient aerial view of the confused topography of the island, but he avoided their rusting ladders.


Traven soon realized that however random the blockhouses and towers might seem, their common focus dominated the landscape and gave to it a unique perspective. As he noticed when he sat down to rest in the window slit of one of the bunkers, all these observation posts occupied positions on a series of concentric perimeters, moving in tightening arcs towards the inmost sanctuary. This ultimate circle, below ground zero, remained hidden beyond a line of dunes a quarter of a mile to the west.



The Terminal Bunker


After sleeping for a few nights in the open, Traven returned to the concrete beach where he had woken on his first morning on the island, and made his home – if the term could be applied to that damp crumbling hovel – in a camera bunker fifty yards from the target lakes. The dark chamber between the thick canted walls, tomb-like though it might seem, gave him a sense of physical reassurance. Outside, the sand drifted against the sides, half-burying the narrow doorway, as if crystallizing the immense epoch of time that had elapsed since the bunker’s construction. The narrow rectangles of the five camera slits, their shapes and positions determined by the instruments, studded the west wall like runic ideograms. Variations on these ciphers decorated the walls of the other bunkers, the unique signature of the island. In the mornings, if Traven was awake, he would always find the sun divided into its five emblematic beacons.


Most of the time the chamber was filled only by a damp gloomy light. In the control tower at the landing field Traven found a collection of discarded magazines, and used these to make a bed. One day, lying in the bunker shortly after the first attack of ben-ben, he pulled out a magazine pressing into his back and found inside it a full-page photograph of a six-year-old girl. This blonde-haired child, with her composed expression and self-immersed eyes, filled him with a thousand painful memories of his son. He pinned the page to the wall and for days gazed at it through his reveries.


For the first few weeks Traven made little attempt to leave the bunker, and postponed any further exploration of the island. The symbolic journey through its inner circles set its own times of arrival and departure. He evolved no routine for himself. All sense of time soon vanished, and his life became completely existential, an absolute break separating one moment from the next like two quantal events. Too weak to forage for food, he lived on the old ration packs he found in the wrecked Superfortresses. Without any implement, it took him all day to open the cans. His physical decline continued, but he watched his spindling legs and arms with indifference.


By now he had forgotten the existence of the sea and vaguely assumed the atoll to be part of some continuous continental table. A hundred yards to the north and south of the bunker a line of dunes, topped by the palisade of enigmatic palms, screened the lagoon and sea, and the faint muffled drumming of the waves at night had fused with his memories of war and childhood. To the east was the emergency landing strip and the abandoned aircraft. In the afternoon light their shifting rectilinear shadows made them appear to writhe and pivot. In front of the bunker, where he would sit, was the system of target lakes, the shallow basins extending across the atoll.


Above him, the five apertures looked out upon this scene like the tutelary symbols of a futuristic myth.



The Lakes and the Spectres


The lakes had been designed to reveal any radiobiological changes in a selected range of fauna, but the specimens had long since bloomed into grotesque parodies of themselves and been destroyed.


Sometimes in the evenings, when a sepulchral light lay over the concrete bunkers and causeways, and the basins seemed like ornamental lakes in a city of deserted mausoleums, abandoned even by the dead, he would see the spectres of his wife and son standing on the opposite bank. Their solitary figures appeared to have been watching him for hours. Although they never moved, Traven was sure they were beckoning to him. Roused from his reverie, he would stumble forward across the dark sand to the edge of the lake and wade through the water, shouting soundlessly at the two figures as they moved away hand in hand among the lakes and disappeared across the distant causeways.


Shivering with cold, Traven would return to the bunker and lie on the bed of old magazines, waiting for their return. The image of their faces, the pale lantern of his wife’s cheeks, floated on the river of his memory.



The Blocks (II)


It was not until he discovered the blocks that Traven realized he would never leave the island.


At this stage, some two months after his arrival, Traven had exhausted his small cache of food, and the symptoms of ben-ben had become more acute. The numbness in his hands and feet, and the gradual loss of strength, continued. Only by an immense effort, and the knowledge that the inner sanctum of the island still lay unexplored, did he manage to leave the palliasse of magazines and make his way from the bunker.


As he sat in the drift of sand by the doorway that evening, he noticed a light shining through the palms far into the distance around the atoll. Confusing this with the image of his wife and son, and visualizing them waiting for him at some warm hearth among the dunes, Traven set off towards the light. Within a hundred yards he lost his sense of direction. He blundered about for several hours on the edges of the landing strip, and succeeded only in cutting his foot on a broken coca-cola bottle in the sand.


After postponing his search for the night, he set out again in earnest the next morning. As he moved past the towers and blockhouses the heat lay over the island in an unbroken mantle. He had entered a zone devoid of time. Only the narrowing perimeters warned him that he was crossing the inner field of the fire-table.


He climbed the ridge which marked the furthest point in his previous exploration of the island. From the plain below it the recording towers rose into the air like obelisks. Traven walked down towards them. On their grey walls were the faint outlines of human forms in stylized poses, the flash-shadows of the target community burnt into the cement. Here and there, where the concrete apron had cracked, a line of palms hung in the motionless air. The target lakes were smaller, filled with the broken bodies of plastic models. Most of them lay in the inoffensive domestic postures into which they had been placed before the tests.


Beyond the furthest line of dunes, where the camera towers began to turn and face him, were the tops of what seemed to be a herd of square-backed elephants. They were drawn up in precise ranks in a hollow that formed a shallow corral, the sunlight reflected off their backs.


Traven advanced towards them, limping on his cut foot. On either side of him the loosening sand had excavated the dunes, and several of the blockhouses tilted on their sides. This plain of bunkers stretched for some quarter of a mile, the half-submerged hulks, bombed out onto the surface in some earlier test, like the abandoned wombs that had given birth to this herd of megaliths.



The Blocks (III)


To grasp something of the vast number and oppressive size of the blocks, and their impact upon Traven, one must try to visualize sitting in the shade of one of these concrete monsters, or walking about in the centre of this enormous labyrinth that extended across the central table of the island. There were two thousand of them, each a perfect cube 15 feet in height, regularly spaced at ten-yard intervals. They were arranged in a series of tracts, each composed of two hundred blocks, inclined to one another and to the direction of the blast. They had weathered only slightly in the years since they were first built, and their gaunt profiles were like the cutting faces of a gigantic dieplate, devised to stamp out rectilinear volumes of air the size of a house. Three of the sides were smooth and unbroken, but the fourth, facing away from the blast, contained a narrow inspection door.


It was this feature of the blocks that Traven found particularly disturbing. Despite the considerable number of doors, by some freak of perspective only those in a single aisle were visible at any point within the maze. As he walked from the perimeter line into the centre of the massif, line upon line of the small metal doors appeared and receded.


Approximately twenty of the blocks, those immediately below ground zero, were solid: the walls of the remainder were of varying thicknesses. From the outside they appeared to be of uniform solidity.


As he entered the first of the long aisles, Traven felt the sense of fatigue that had dogged him for so many months begin to lift. With their geometric regularity and finish, the blocks seemed to occupy more than their own volumes of space, imposing on him a mood of absolute calm and order. He walked on into the centre of the maze, eager to shut out the rest of the island. After a few random turns to left and right, he found himself alone, the vistas to the sea, lagoon and island closed.


Here he sat down with his back to one of the blocks, the quest for his wife and son forgotten. For the first time since his arrival at the island the sense of dissociation set off by its derelict landscape began to recede.


One development he did not expect. With dusk, and the need to leave the blocks and find food, he realized that he had lost himself. However he retraced his steps, struck out left or right at an oblique course, oriented himself around the sun and pressed on resolutely north or south, he found himself back again at his starting point. Only when darkness came did he manage to make his escape.


Abandoning his former home near the aircraft dump, Traven collected together what canned food he could find in the waist turret and cockpit lockers of the Superfortresses. He pulled them across the atoll on a crude sledge. Fifty yards from the perimeter of the blocks he took over a tilting bunker, and pinned the fading photograph of the blonde-haired child to the wall beside the door. The page was falling to pieces, like a fragmenting mirror of himself. Since the discovery of the blocks he had become a creature of reflexes, kindled from levels above those of his existing nervous system (if the autonomic system was dominated by the past, Traven sensed, the cerebro-spinal reached towards the future). Each evening when he woke he would eat without appetite and then wander among the blocks. Sometimes he took a canteen of water with him and remained there for two or three days on end.



ballard’s final warning: the soft fascism of the consumer society . . .

The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.


—J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come

j.g. ballard’s new wave science fiction

…from the outset, it was impossible to mistake Ballard’s dry voice and curious obsessions:


‘Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.’


Or in his pungent, nonlinear ‘condensed novels’:


‘Narcissistic. Manythings preoccupied him during this time in the sun: the plasticity of forms, the image maze, the catatonic plateau, the need to re-score the C.N.S., pre-uterine claims, the absurd – i.e., the phenomenology of the universe . . .’



Inner space

The first begetter of this heretical tradition, or at least most prominent, is often held to be James Ballard, whose account of an uprooted childhood in wartime Singapore, brought to a close by the distant science-fictional flash of a nuclear weapon bursting over Japan, would be filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987 as the movie Empire of the Sun.


J. G. Ballard was launched in an unlikely venue: the venerable, dull pages of John Carnell’s British magazines New Worlds and Science Fantasy, which against the odds were also responsible for Brian W. Aldiss, John Brunner and several other brilliant autodidact harbingers of the revolution. Strictly, these few slick British innovators were fifties writers, but each came into his – or very, very rarely her – own during the ferment of the sixties’ New Wave. With his achingly dry surrealist wit, clarified prose and devotion to recurrent ‘properties’ (empty swimming pools, damaged astronauts, catastrophic and numinous landscapes), Ballard was from the outset a goad to traditionalists. By that very token, he was a gift to the quirky US anthologist Judith Merril, whose Year’s Best SF series featured his work, together with an increasingly agitated propaganda for new ways of writing something she dubbed ‘speculative fiction’ – new ways that were generally, in the larger literary world, rather old. Alongside unnerving tales by Aldiss, Ballard and Cordwainer Smith, Merril paraded pieces by Borges, Romain Gary, Dos Passos, Lawrence Durrell, plus the usual literate-to-brilliant sf suspects: Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Zenna Henderson, Algis Budrys. In 1960, impeccably, she selected Daniel Keyes’s superb ‘Flowers for Algernon’, a gentle emergent superman story with a bittersweet twist; today, it seems scarcely sf at all, more like Norman Mailer’s account of the Apollo Moon landing. By 1965 Merril had Thomas M. Disch’s bleak, absurdist ‘Descending’, the louche poetry of Roger Zelazny’s ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ and Ballard’s paradigmatic ‘The Terminal Beach’: ‘In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them . . . Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of cryptic association.’6 As, indeed, did Ballard’s ever stranger body of work. When Carnell’s New Worlds expired of terminal blandness in 1964, a youthful Michael Moorcock tore to its rescue, changing the magazine utterly as its backlog cleared. Now, with Ballard as house patron saint, and under the sign of William Burroughs, the New Wave began to roll relentlessly toward sf’s crusted shores. Donald Wollheim found Norman Spinrad’s gonzo novel Bug Jack Barron, serialized in New Worlds, a ‘depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive and thoroughly degenerate parody of what was once a real SF theme’.7 Still, the undeniable detritus carried along with the New Wave was not necessarily welcome even to devoted surfers.8 Half the names on New World’s contents pages are now forgotten – Langdon Jones, Michael Butterworth, Roger Jones – and some were pseudonymous: ‘Joyce Churchill’ hid M. John Harrison, a fine artist who grew disenchanted with sf’s mode (although he released a new sf novel, Light, in 2002). What is striking in retrospect is how enduring, even so, the impact of the major New Wave writers has been, and the longevity of its biggest names: Ballard (although he has largely abandoned sf), Aldiss, Moorcock himself and sojourning Americans during the swinging sixties: brilliant funny, caustic John Sladek (d. 2000), Pamela Zoline, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Norman Spinrad. The work of Robert Silverberg, formerly a prodigious writing machine, deepened markedly in a New Wave direction after 1967, winning him a special Campbell Memorial award in 1973 ‘for excellence in writing’. Still, James Blish, another important writer-critic, was disenchanted by the hype and declared the Wave washed-up by the decade’s close.9


Its brief moment is displayed in raucous glory in several anthologies: Merril’s proselytizing England Swings SF (1968; in Britain, The Space-Time Journal), Harlan Ellison’s immensely ambitious fusion of New Wave and American can-do, Dangerous Visions (1967), Spinrad’s The New Tomorrows (1971) and Damon Knight’s important long-running not-quite-New Wave series of original anthologies, Orbit (1966 and later), showcasing such offbeat and consequential talents as R. A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm and Gardner Dozois. The mood of bewildered antagonism from the old guard is caught perfectly in Isaac Asimov’s bitter remark, cited by Ace Book’s editor Donald Wollheim on the jacket of Merril’s showcase: ‘I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.’ Wollheim had already taken care to distance himself, to comic effect. On the back jacket, in bold red capitals, he shouted:




and underneath, in black and a smaller font:


(or it may be the least. You must judge for yourself!)


By 1968, however, Wollheim had proved himself an editor of some courage, if little discrimination, publishing amid a constant drizzle of mediocre consumer product several exceptional novels at the margins of the NewWave: Delany’s romantic, flushed The Jewels of Aptor (1962), Babel-17 and Empire Star (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Ursula K. Le Guin’s first Hainish novels (Rocannon’s World, 1964; Planet of Exile, 1966; City of Illusion, 1967) appeared under the dubious Ace imprint. Le Guin’s triumph at the cusp of the seventies as the thoughtful, elegant anthropologist of sf and fantasy, begun with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), was established with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) under a revitalizing Ace Special imprint by New Wave-sympathetic editor Terry Carr and confirmed by The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974).


An error easily made when considering these several trajectories is to suppose that one literary movement follows another in a parable of progress, dinosaurs giving way to eager young mammals – or, in an allegory of regression, gains arduously accumulated are lost to the onrush of barbarians. Neither image is valid. Writers, publishers and readers are always somewhat out of step. By the time a ‘fashion’ is visible, built from the latest work available to readers, a year or more has passed since those texts were created and sold. Unless a movement is geographically concentrated – as the London New Wave scene largely was – mutual influence straggles.


Moreover, in a marginal mode like sf, read most enthusiastically by the penniless young, genre history is piled up indiscriminately in libraries and second-hand book stores. Near the start of the 1960s, fresh inductees to the sf mythos could read the latest coolly ironic Ballard slap at bourgeois prejudice or Zelazny MA-trained gutter poetry – ‘where the sun is a tarnished penny, the wind is a whip, where two moons play at hot-rod games, and a hell of sand gives you the incendiary itches’10 – then turn at once to a paperback of ‘Doc’ Smith’s tone-deaf Lensmen series from the Golden Age and earlier, meanwhile soaking up scads of Asimov, Heinlein, annual ‘Year’s Best’ gatherings and comic book adventures. We must apply Stephen Jay Gould’s evolutionary insight: in every era most species are simple life-forms, fitted almost from the outset to a range of environments and tremendously persistent. So the classics of sf, at least until fairly recently, have always remained alive in the humus. Certainly that was so in the 1960s and 1970s, when the backlists of many publishers formed a reliable backstop to their annual income.


Nor is the distinction between NewWave and Old as simple as pessimism versus triumphalism. Several sets of coordinates overlap, to some extent by accident. It is true that much of the ‘experimental’ sf of the 1960s took a gloomy cast, while the continuing mainstream of commercial sf was distinctly upbeat, constructing a universe in which technological salvation arrives through virtuous human efforts.Was that distinction necessarily echoed in the contrast between a disruptive textuality seeking to enact its ideas in richly modernist symbol and vocabulary, versus traditional sf’s adherence to a ‘clear windowpane’ theory of writing? It is more likely that stylistic differences derived from the filiations (and education) of its writers.


Even if the science of classic sf was often laughable or wholly invented, it did borrow something structurally important from the lab: scientific papers, after all, are meant to rid themselves of any taint of the subjective, uttering their reports in a disembodied, timeless Voice of Reason (even as those findings are acknowledged to be fallible, provisional, awaiting challenge). New Wave writers – and those signing up as established middle-aged veterans, such as Philip José Farmer – took, as their model, narratives drenched in artful subjectivity, even when, as in Ballard’s remote constructs, personality seemed wilfully denied. From the outset, it was impossible to mistake Ballard’s dry voice and curious obsessions: ‘Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.’11 Or in his pungent, nonlinear ‘condensed novels’: ‘Narcissistic. Many things preoccupied him during this time in the sun: the plasticity of forms, the image maze, the catatonic plateau, the need to re-score the C.N.S., pre-uterine claims, the absurd – i.e., the phenomenology of the universe . . .’12


The brilliantly iconoclastic Philip K. Dick was forging a powerful new vision from sf’s generic trash, which he dubbed ‘kipple’. Dick was driven by routine commercial urgencies, but something wonderful happened when his hilariously demented tales ran out of control inside the awful covers of pulp paperbacks. Australian critic Bruce Gillespie has posed the central quandary, not just of Dick’s oeuvre but for sf as a maturing yet weirdly shocking paraliterature: ‘how can a writer of pulpy, even careless, prose and melodramatic situations write books that also retain the power to move the reader, no matter how many times the works are re-read?’ Part of his answer is that Dick repeatedly takes us on an ‘abrupt journey from a false reality to a real reality’ or, in the extreme case, ‘a roller coaster ride down and down, leaving behind ordinary reality and falling into a totally paranoid alternate reality. By the book’s end, there is nothing trustworthy left in the world.’13






6. Ballard, reprinted in Judith Merril, ed. 10th Annual SF (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 259.


7. Cited in M. John Harrison, ‘A Literature of Comfort’, in New Worlds Quarterly 1 (London: Sphere Books, 1971), p. 170.


8. Colin Greenland’s usefully analytical and admirably waspish study, The Entropy Exhibition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), emphasizes Moorcock’s role.


9. Blish (writing as ‘William Atheling, Jr’), ‘Making Waves’, in Atheling, More Issues at Hand (Chicago: Advent, 1970), p. 146.


10. ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ [1963], in Merril, ed., 10th Annual SF, pp. 21148.


11. ‘The Voices of Time’, 1960, in Ballard, The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 11.


12. ‘You and Me and the Continuum’, 1966, reprinted in Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) (London: Panther, 1972), p. 106.


13. Bruce Gillespie, 2001, interviewed by Frank Bertrand, ‘My Life and Philip K. Dick’:



—from Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2003