Although he is known, if at all, as being Paul Theroux’s less famous brother, Alexander Theroux has as much claim as anyone after Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy to having written the post-Melville, post-James Great American Novel. According to its publisher, Alexander Theroux’s long novel, Darconville’s Cat, is:
about love and hate. Among other matters, it deals with the delicate tensions between Life and Art, the Ideal and the Real, God and Satan, and, above all, with the crises and conflicts between Man and Woman, the tragic implications of which reach all the way back to the Primal Fall.
One could add Madness, Revenge and Misogyny to that list. The narrative is about a love affair between Alaric Darconville, a Professor of English at a southern U.S. women’s college, and one of his students, Isabel. The book’s style is heavily influenced by James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, and its spirit is suffused with Rabelaisian wit, as evidenced by Theroux’s satiric observation on the culture of the militaristic Southern states:
The Americanistic pitch, of course, was old hat on the Bible circuit, as were subterranean virility fears common, the latter always animating the former in the extra-defensive and recurrent dream of the evangelist in which he sees himself, in full color and cinemascope, a lantern-jawed begrenaded U.S. Marine leaping out of a trench to beat the living shit out of the Devil who, widespread was the assumption, wore perfume, spoke Russian, and carried a purse.
The opening pages of Darconville’s Cat:
Delirium is the disease of the night.
DARCONVILLE, the schoolmaster, always wore black. The single tree, however, that shanked out of the front yard he now crossed in long strides showed even more distinct a darkness, a simulacrum of the dread probationary tree—trapfall of all lost love—for coming upon it, gibbet-high and half leafless in the moonlight, was to feel somehow disposed to the general truth that it is a dangerous and pagan notion that beauty palliates evil.
He was alone. It had always seemed axiomatic for him that he be alone: a vow, the linchpin of his art, his praxis.
The imperscrutable winds of autumn, blowing leaves across the porch, had almost stripped the tree, leaving it nearly naked and essential against the moon that shone down on the quiet little town in Virginia. It was late as he let himself into the house and walked up the creaking stairs to his rooms where, pulling a chair to the window, he sat meditatively in that dark chamber like a nomadic gulsar—his black coat still unbuttoned—and was left alone with those odd retrospective prophecies borne in on one at the start of that random moment we, for some reason, choose to call the beginning of a new life.
The night, solemn and beautiful, seemed fashioned to force those who would observe it to look within themselves. He watched awhile and then grew weary. He took a late mixt of some rolls and a bottle of ale and soon dropped asleep on his bed, dreaming out of fallen reason the rhymes received with joy he shaped accordingly. It was only early the following morning that he found on the bedside table next to his pen and unscrewed cap—a huge Moore’s Non-Leakable—the open commonplace book in which, having arisen in the middle of the night to do so, he had written a single question: "Who is she?"
I thought I heard the rustle of a dress, but I don’t—I don’t see anyone. No, I imagined it.
—Peter Schlemihl; or, The Man Who Sold His Shadow
SEPTEMBER: it was the most beautiful of words, he’d always felt, evoking orange-flowers,swallows, and regret. The shutters were open. Darconville stared out into a small empty street, touched with autumnal fog, that looked like the lugubrious frontispiece to a book as yet to be read. His obligate room, its walls several shades of distemper, was spare as the skite of a recluse—a postered bed, several chairs, and an old deal desk he’d just left, confident in the action of moderating powers, to ease his mind of some congested thoughts. He looked at his watch which he kept hung on a nail. The afternoon was to have been spent, as the morning had, writing, but something else was on his mind.
There was an unfinished manuscript, tentatively called Rumpopulorum, spread out there, a curious, if speculative, examination of the world of angels, archistrateges, and the archonic wardens of heaven in relation—he appropriated without question the right to know both—to mortal man. The body of material, growing over the last few months, was formidable, its sheets pied with inky corrections and smudged with the additions that overheated his prose and yet brought it all to test.
The human skull, his pencils in its noseholes, that had been ritually placed on that desk a week previous—his first days in the South— seemed appropriate to his life, a reminder, mysteriously elate, of what actually wasn’t, something there but not, a memory of man without one, for not only had he more or less withdrawn from the world, long a characteristic of the d’Arconvilles, but the caricatures of mortal vanity were as necessary to his point of view as the unction of religious conventionality was featureless.
Darconville’s cat leaped onto the windowsill and peered up, as if collating the thoughts of his master: where were they? How had they come to be here? What reason, in fact, had they to be in this strange place? The young man, however, continued leaning by the window and reviewing what he saw. But there was another view, for behind it, or perhaps beyond somewhere, in vague, half-blind remembrances of wherever he’d been—sources of endless pleasure to him—he dwelled awhile to find himself, looking back in time, surprised at the absence in it of any figure but his own. He felt no particular responsibility to memory but accepted his dreams, to which, living altogether as a twin self in the depths of him, he could speak in inviolable secrecy.
It had long seemed clear, commandmental: to seek out a relatively distant and unembellished part of the world where, in the solitude he arranged for himself—rather like the pilgrim who lives on lentils, pulses, and the tested modes of self-denial—one might apply himself to those deeper mysteries where nameless somethings in their causes slept. He sought the obol of Pasetes, the mallet of Daikoku, the lamp of Aladdin. There were difficulties, often, in the way of carrying out his plans. But he overbore them and, hoping to fall prey to neither fascination nor fatigue, sought only to stem distraction, to learn the secrets beyond the world he felt belonged to him, and to write. It was the Beatitude of Destitution.
Alaric Darconville—insurrect, courteous, liturgical—was twenty-nine years old. He had the pointed medieval face of a pageboy, which showed less of mature steadiness than innocent deliberation, an expensive coloring backlit with a kind of intangible grace, and his eyes, of a strange tragic beauty, dark and filled with studying what’s represented by what is, could light up like a monk at jubilee when rounding the verge of a new idea and sparkle up in happy conviction as if to say “Excelsior!” He dreamed, like Astrophel, with his head in the stars. His mind was like one of those Gothic cathedrals of which he was so fond, mysterious within, and filledwith light, a brightness at once richer and less real than the light of day, flashing accompaniment, on occasion, to the long satirical tirades of which he was also capable and yet wakefully aware, in gentleness, of what in matters of difficulty he felt should either be removed, pitied, or understood. He was six feet tall. His hair he wore long, like the Renaissance prince at his lyre, and it matched in color his coat of jet which was of an obsolete but distinct cut and as black as the mundus where Romans communed with their dead.
The book he was working on—a grimoire, in the old style— recapitulated such communication. He scribbled away in the light of his gooseneck lamp that not only left the rest of the room in darkness but at such times rendered insignificant any matters of consequence beyond that. There was a private quality about him as he worked: a wizard in conical hat conjuring mastertricks; the sacristan jing-jing-jingling the bells of sext; the alchemist, counsel to caliphs, shuttling in a cellar enigmatic beaker to tort for rare demulcents and rubefacients. It was a closed world, his, arresting thoughts for words to work, to skid around, to transubstantiate: the writer is the ponce who introduces Can to Ought. He crafted his writing and loved listening to those tiny explosions when the active brutality of verbs in revolution raced into sweet established nouns to send marching across the page a newly commissioned army of words-on-maneuvers, all decorated in loops, frets, and arrowlike flourishes. Darconville was bedeviled by angels: they stalked and leaguered him by night and day, and, when sitting at his desk, he never failed to acknowledge Stimulator, the angel invoked in the exorcism of ink, for the storm and stress of making something from nothing partook no less of the supernatural than Creation itself. Was doubt the knot in faith’s muscle? And yet faith required to fill the desert places of an empty page? Then this was a day in September no different from any others on which he wrote, the mind making up madness, the hand its little prattboy hopping along after it to record what it could of measure—but there was one exception.
Darconville anxiously kept seeing the face of one of his students, someone he had noticed on the first day of class. She was a freshman. He didn’t know her name.
He might have spent an inattentive afternoon in consequence but, subdued by what had no charm for him, instead vexed himself to write as a means of serving notice to a mischief he’d been uncertain of now for too many days. Beauty, while it haunted him, also distracted him; unable to resist its appeal, he, however, longed to be above it. There is a will so strong as to recoil upon itself and fall into indecision: a deliberate person’s, often, who, otherwise prompt to action, sometimes leaves everything undone—or, better, assumes that whatever has been done is something already charged to an appointed end, relieving him then of calling into question by subsequent thought the meaning of its worth. Did Darconville’s mind, then, obsessed and overwhelmed by images and dreams of the supernatural, crave at last for the one thing stranger than all these—the experience of it in fact? It is perhaps easy to believe so.
He was born—of French and Italian parentage—on the reaches of coastal New England where the old Victorian house that was the family seat stands to this day in a small village hard by the sea. It was always a region of spectacular beauty, infinite skies and meadows and ocean, and all aspects of nature there seemed drawn together in a tie of inexpressible benediction. His youthful dreams were always of a supernatural cast, shot through with vision, and nothing whatsoever matter-of-fact could avail against the propagation of his early romantic ideals. It had beeninstilled in him early—his Venetian grandmother fairly threw her hands over her ears at the suggestion of any aspiration less noble—that the goal of a person’s life must naturally afford the light by which the rest of it should be read, a doctrine that paradoxically created in him less a strength against than a disposition to a belief in unreal worlds, a condition somehow making him particularly unsuited for the heartache of real life.
The facts of one’s childhood are always important when touching on a genius. Darconville was an ardently religious boy, much attracted to ritual. At six, he won the school ribbon for a drawing of the face of God—it resembled a cat’s—and illustrated a juvenile book of his own dramatic making which ended: “But wait, there is something coming toward me—!” There were illnesses, and a double pneumonia in childhood following a nearly fatal bout with measles left his lungs imperfect. He would never forget his father who read to him or his mother who kissed him goodnight, for he lost both of them before he was fourteen, whereupon, becoming wayward and discontented with everything else, he cut short his schooling to join the Franciscan Order, less on the advice growing out of the newly assumed regency of his grandmother, though that, than on the investigation of a dream: a nostalgia for vision, if commonly absent in others, then not so for a little boy whose earliest memory was of trying to pick up pieces of moonlight that had fallen through the window onto his bed.
Seminary life in those early years led to strange and unaccountable antipathies. It was not that he didn’t feel he fit, but if particulars went well—in everything, save, perhaps, for the occasional youthful temptation he suffered during lectio divina while reading Lucretius on the terminology of physical love—general acceptance came hard. He improvised piano arrangements at midnight, claimed he could work curses, and put it about that he believed animals, because of a universal language from which we alone had fallen, could understand us when we spoke. He astonished his fellow students, furthermore, with several rapturous edificial schemes few shared: to rebuild the tomb of St. John at Ephesus; to set up birdhouses for Christ through upstate New York; and to reconstruct—he actually stepped off the dimensions on the ballfield and began to assemble planks—Noah’s Ark. Throughout these years he showed a splendid but innocent sense of fun.
Darconville owned a great fat pen he called “The Black Disaster” —an object, he demoted, no other hand dare touch! His classmates were solemnly, ceremoniously, assured it was magic, and it was coveted by all of them only in so far as stealing it might render its owner a less vivid, if not less bumptious, antagonist. He managed never to relinquish it, however, and drew angels all over his copybooks; wrote squibs about some of his colleagues which, signed “Aenigmaticus,” he secretly distributed in various library books; and one day, for drawing a fresco—his capolavoro—of St. Bernard excommunicating a multitude of flies at Foigny, where each little creature ingeniously, but undisguisedly, bore the face of one of the college prefects, he was slapped so hard by a certain Father Theophane that it effected a stammer in him that would be activated, during moments of confrontation, for the rest of his life. Hostility eventually built up, and his unconventional conduct became the subject of such unfavorable comment in the college that it was suggested he leave. A few defended him. (He believed it was because there had once been a cardinal in his family, as indeed there had been.) The rest, some silently abusive, naggingly malevolent, or outright vindictive, more or less concurred in the bizarre if hard to be seriously taken fiat that he not only vacate the premises but withdraw, meditate, and summarily impale himself on the same wretched object that had been the source, in several ways, less of any black disaster than of their own humorless and over-pious objections.
As it happened, he never attained to the priesthood—not, however, because he didn’t again try. For try again he did, but failed once more. And yet with what reckless audacity, with what fierce, uncompromising passion did he always charge and fight and charge again! Resignation to appointed ends? He was not of an age for that. And as there hovered before him, always, a sense of disgust in resigning the soul to the pleasures and idle conveniences of the world, his aspirations, individual and metaphysical, led abruptly to another decision. He entered a Trappist monastery at eighteen and yet, again, before long fell into confusion and a particular variety of quarrels there for which he was never directly responsible but to which, as we’ve seen, even the most saintly precincts are liable. The principal agent of the worst of them was a priggish anathemette named Frater Clement who, without the gift of reason, much less the gift of faith, had as his goal not the salvation of his soul but the acquisition in matrimony of a blond boy, another novice, who thought the world was run and possibly owned by the Order of Cistercians. His submission was naïveté, but Darconville grew impatient with the other’s venal disability. And one afternoon as the monks were proceeding to nones, he snared the hypocrite by the cowl, pulled him into a side-cloister, and—not without stuttering—adroitly gave him the lecture on spiritual discipline he found later, much to his own grief, he himself couldn’t follow, for he saw he couldn’t forgive Frater Clement, whose jug ears alone at chant and chapter phosphorized his charity on the spot. Dismal depression followed. He received the blessing of the Abbot, who repeated the famous words of the old desert fathers: “fuge, tace, et quiesce” and, leaving the following day in an egg truck—with one suitcase, a great fat pen, and all his limitations—went bouncing over the hill in the direction of the declining sunshine.
At twenty, in what was probably the climactic event of his life, Darconville discovered writing, the sole subject of his curiosity at this time being words and the possibility of giving expression to them. Now, among those fragile loves to which most men look back with tenderness and passion, certain must be singled out as of special importance: in young Darconville’s life it was to be his proud and irrepressible grandmama whose affection for him was always on the increase and who—never once having failed to give fortitude to his individuality, although in quaint deference to his family’s nobility on the paternal side she used only his surname in matters of address, a habit he would continue all his life—with rising emphasis that gave words to his inward instincts encouraged him at this critical juncture of his life to go live with her in Venice. At every point she was replete with wise suggestions, the value of which he recognized and the tenor of which he followed. Did he want to write? she had asked and upon the instant answered Darconville, who had but to follow the direction of her raised and superintendent cane to a corner where sat a beautiful desk.
It wasn’t long before his grandmother passed away. The palazzo, immediately becoming the object of what had even long before been a curious litigation, was locked up. And so with a certain amount of money earmarked for his education, belated for the clerical years, he took her cat, Spellvexit—his sole companionnow—and set sail back to the United States, looking once more for the possibilities of the possible as possible. The spirit of his youthful dreams, long, strangely enough, having retarded his purposes rather than advancing them, he studiedly refused to renounce: of justice and fair play, of living instead of dying, of loving instead of hating. Single virtue, he always believed, was proof against manifold vice. And yet all the caprices and aspects of human life that gratified curiosity and excited surprise in him continued only as incidents on the way to Glory.
Darconville—wherever—quite happily chose to live within his own world, w’thin his own writing, within himself. The thickest, most permanent wall dividing him from his fellow creatures was that of mediocrity. His particular sensibility forbade him to accept unquestioned society’s rules and taboos, its situational standards and ethics, syntheses that to him always seemed either too exclusive or too inclusive. His domineering sense of right, as sometimes only he saw it, and his ardent desire to keep to the fastness of his own destiny, set him apart in several ways. Reclusive, he shrank from all avoidable company with others—it was the prerogative of his faith to recognize, and of his character to overpower, objection here—and chose to believe only that somewhere, perhaps on the footing of schoolmaster, he could inoffensively foster sums, if modest, then at least sufficient to allow him the time to write. He sought the land of Nusquamia, a place broadly mapped out in James 4:4, and whether by chance or perchance by intention one day, wasting no time balancing or inquiring, he selected a school for the purpose, was hired, and disappeared again into the arcane. It didn’t really have to have a name. In fact, however, it did. It was a town in Virginia, called Quinsyburg.
The train whistle there every evening seemed to beckon, dusk, precreating a mood of sudden melancholy in a wail that left its echo behind like the passing tribute of a sigh. And Darconville, while yet amply occupied, was by no means so derogate from the common run of human emotions as not to share, upon hearing it—Spellvexit always looked up—a derivative feeling of loneliness, a disposition compounded, further, not only by the portentous evidences of the season but also by the bleakness of the place upon which it settled. The town was the quotidian co-efficient of limbo: there was no suddenness, no irresistibility, no velocity of extraordinary acts. He found hours and hours of complete solitude there, however, and that became the source, as he wrote, not of oppressive exclusiveness but of organizing anticipations he could accommodate in his work: the mystic’s rapture at feeling his phantom self. He had assumed this exile not with the destitution of spirit the prodigal is too often unfairly assigned, nor from any aristocratic weariness a previous life in foreign parts might have induced, but rather to pull the plug of consequence from the sump of the world—to avoid the lust of result and the vice of emulation.
There are advantages to being in a backwater, and at the margins, in the less symphonic underground, recriminations were few, ambition didn’t mock useful toil, and the bald indices of failure and success became irrelevant. The man beyond the context of hope is equally beyond the context of despair, and the serious vow Darconville had once made to himself, medievally sworn in the old ipsedixitist tradition of silent knights, holy knights, aimed to that still point; so it was with love as with loneliness: to fall in love would make him a pneumatomachian—an opponent of the spirit which, however, to him disposed to it, nightly blew its unfathomable afflatus down the cold reaches of the otherwise impenetrable heavens to quicken man to magic.
It didn’t matter where he was. No, the best attitude to the world, he felt, unless the Patristics belied us, was to look beyond it. Darconville was below envy and above want. And what pleasures a place denied to the sight, he hoped, were given necessarily to the imagination. He sought the broom of Eucrates, the sword of Fragarach, the horse of Pacolet. Prosperity, furthermore, had perhaps killed more than adversity, an observance fortified in him by what was not only the d’Arconville motto but also his grandmother’s most often repeated if somewhat overly enthusiastic febrifuge: “Un altro, un altro, gran’ Dio, ma più forte!” And so he had come to this plutonial grey area, a neglected spot, where passersby didn’t look for art to happen as it might and when it would—to lose himself for good, in both senses, and realize the apocalypse that is incomprehensible without Patmos. The passion for truth is unsociable. We are in this world not to conform to it.
It had grown dark.
Darconville had finished a day’s writing, took some cigarettes from his suitcase, still as yet unpacked, and walked through the disheveled light down the flight of stairs to the porch—the night was positively beautiful—when past the hedges, through the rustling leaves by the large tree, he thought he saw a girl, looking apprehensively side to side, walk quickly across the street like a tapered dream-bird in fragile but pronounced strides and then disappear. But he noticed something else. He reached down to pick up from the doorstep a small round object, studded with a hundred cloves, its pure odor a sweet orange like September. It was a pomander ball. Darconville, by matchlight, slipped the accompanying card out of its tiny envelope. It read simply: “For the fairest.”
They were the three words that had started the Trojan War.
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