Silence

leonid

To commemorate Halloween, here’s an unsettling story by Russian writer Leonid Andreyev which is in the collection Classic Tales of Mystery, Horror and Suspense available from Amazon here:

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Silence

 

Leonid Andreyev

 

 

One moonlit night in May, while the nightingales sang, Father Ignatius’s wife entered his chamber. Her countenance expressed suffering, and the little lamp she held in her hand trembled. Approaching her husband, she touched his shoulder, and managed to say between her sobs:

‘Father, let us go to Verochka.’

Without turning his head, Father Ignatius glanced severely at his wife over the rims of his spectacles, and looked long and intently, till she waved her unoccupied hand and dropped on a low divan.

‘That one toward the other be so pitiless!’ she pronounced slowly, with emphasis on the final syllables, and her good plump face was distorted with a grimace of pain and exasperation, as if in this manner she wished to express what stern people they were – her husband and daughter.

Father Ignatius smiled and arose. Closing his book, he removed his spectacles, placed them in the case and meditated. His long, black beard, inwoven with silver threads, lay dignified on his breast, and it slowly heaved at every breath.

‘Well, let us go!’ said he.

Olga Stepanovna quickly arose and entered in an appealing, timid voice:

‘Only don’t revile her, father! You know the sort she is.’

Vera’s chamber was in the attic, and the narrow, wooden stair bent and creaked under the heavy tread of Father Ignatius. Tall and ponderous, he lowered his head to avoid striking the floor of the upper story, and frowned disdainfully when the white jacket of his wife brushed his face. Well he knew that nothing would come of their talk with Vera.

‘Why do you come?’ asked Vera, raising a bared arm to her eyes. The other arm lay on top of a white summer blanket hardly distinguishable from the fabric, so white, translucent and cold was its aspect.

‘Verochka!’ began her mother, but sobbing, she grew silent.

‘Vera!’ said her father, making an effort to soften his dry and hard voice, ‘Vera, tell us, what troubles you?’

Vera was silent.

‘Vera, do not we, your mother and I, deserve your confidence? Do we not love you? And is there someone nearer to you than we? Tell us about your sorrow, and believe me you’ll feel better for it. And we too. Look at your aged mother, how much she suffers!’

‘Verochka!’

‘And I …’ The dry voice trembled, truly something had broken in it. ‘And I … do you think I find it easy? And if I did not see that some sorrow is gnawing at you – and what is it? And I, your father, do not know what it is. Is it right that it should be so?’

Vera was silent. Father Ignatius very cautiously stroked his beard, as if afraid that his fingers would enmesh themselves involuntarily in it, and continued:

‘Against my wish you went to St. Petersburg – did I pronounce a curse upon you, you who disobeyed me? Or did I not give you money? Or, you’ll say, I have not been kind? Well, why then are you silent? There, you’ve had your St. Petersburg!’

Father Ignatius became silent, and an image arose before him of something huge, of granite, and terrible, full of invisible dangers and strange and indifferent people. And there, alone and weak, was his Vera and there they had lost her. An awful hatred against that terrible and mysterious city grew in the soul of Father Ignatius, and an anger against his daughter who was silent, obstinately silent.

‘St. Petersburg has nothing to do with it,’ said Vera morosely, and closed her eyes. ‘And nothing is the matter with me. Better go to bed, it is late.’

‘Verochka,’ whimpered her mother. ‘Little daughter, do confess to me.’

‘Akh, mama!’ impatiently Vera interrupted her.

Father Ignatius sat down on a chair and laughed.

‘Well, then it’s nothing?’ he inquired ironically.

‘Father,’ sharply put in Vera, raising herself from the pillow, ‘you know that I love you and mother. Well, I do feel a little weary. But that will pass. Do go to sleep, and I also wish to sleep. And to-morrow, or some other time, we’ll have a chat.’

Father Ignatius impetuously arose so that the chair hit the wall, and took his wife’s hand.

‘Let us go.’

‘Verochka!’

‘Let us go, I tell you!’ shouted Father Ignatius. ‘If she has forgotten God, shall we …’

Almost forcibly he led Olga Stepanovna out of the room, and when they descended the stairs, his wife, decreasing her gait, said in a harsh whisper:

‘It was you, priest, who have made her such. From you she learned her ways. And you’ll never answer for it. Akh, unhappy creature that I am!’

And she wept, and as her eyes filled with tears, her foot, missing a step, would descend with a sudden jolt, as if she were eager to fall into some existent abyss below.

From that day Father Ignatius ceased to speak with his daughter, but she seemed not to notice it. As before she lay in her room, or walked about, continually wiping her eyes with the palms of her hands as if they contained some irritating foreign substance. And crushed between these two silent people, the jolly, fun-loving wife of the priest quailed and seemed lost not knowing what to say or do.

Occasionally Vera took a stroll. A week following the interview she went out in the evening, as was her habit. She was not seen alive again, as on this evening she threw herself under the train, which cut her in two.

Father Ignatius himself directed the funeral. His wife was not present in church, as at the news of Vera’s death she was prostrated by a stroke. She lost control of her feet, hands and tongue, and she lay motionless in the semi-darkened room when the church bells rang out. She heard the people, as they issued out o f church and passed the house, intone the chants, and she made an effort to raise her hand, and to make a sign of the cross, but her hand refused to obey; she wished to say: ‘Farewell, Vera!’ but the tongue lay in her mouth huge and heavy. And her attitude was so calm, that it gave one an impression of restfulness or sleep. Only her eyes remained open.

At the funeral, in church, were many people who knew Father Ignatius, and many strangers, and all bewailed Vera’s terrible death, and tried to find in the movements and voice of Father Ignatius because of his severity and proud manners, his scorn of sinners, for his unforgiving spirit, his envy and covetousness, his habit of utilizing every opportunity to extort money from his parishioners. They all wished to see him suffer, to see his spirit broken, to see him conscious in his two-fold guilt for the death of his daughter – as a cruel father and a bad priest – incapable of preserving his own flesh from sin. They cast searching glances at him, and he, feeling these glances directed toward his back, made efforts to hold erect its broad and strong expanse, and his thought were not concerning his dead daughter, but concerning his own dignity.

‘A hardened priest!’ said, with a shake of his head, Karzenoff, a carpenter, to whom Father Ignatius owed five rubles for frames.

And thus, hard and erect, Father Ignatius reached the burial ground, and in the same manner he returned. Only at the door of his wife’s chamber did his spine relax a little, but this may have been due to the fact that the height of the door was inadequate to admit his tall figure. The change from broad daylight made it difficult for him to distinguish the face of his wife, but, after scrutiny, he was astonished at its calmness and because the eyes showed no tears. And there was neither anger, nor sorrow in the eyes – they were dumb, and they kept silent with difficulty, reluctantly, as did the entire plump and helpless body, pressing against the feather bedding.

‘Well, how do you feel?’ inquired Father Ignatius.

The lips, however, were dumb; the eyes also were silent. Father Ignatius laid his hand on her forehead; it was cold and moist, and Olga Stepanovna did not show in any way that she had felt the hand’s contact. When Father Ignatius removed his hand there gazed at him, immobile, two grey eyes, seeming almost entirely dark from the dilated pupils, and there was neither sadness in them, nor anger.

‘I am going into my own room,’ said Father Ignatius, who began to feel cold and terror.

He passed through the drawing-room, where everything appeared neat and in order, as usual, and where, attired in white covers, stood tall chairs, like corpses in their shrouds. Over one window hung an empty wire cage, with the door open.

‘Nastasya!’ shouted Father Ignatius, and his voice seemed to him coarse, and he felt ill at ease because he raised his voice so high in these silent rooms, so soon after his daughter’s funeral. ‘Nastasya!’ he called out in a lower tone of voice, ‘where is the canary?’

‘She flew away, to be sure.’

‘Why did you let it out?’

Nastasya began to weep, and wiping her face the edges of her calico handkerchief, said through her tears:

‘It was my young mistress’s soul. Was it right to hold it?’

And it seemed to Father Ignatius that the yellow, happy little canary, always singing with inclined head, was really the soul of Vera, and if it had not flown away it wouldn’t have been possible to say that Vera had died. He became even more incensed at the maidservant and shouted:

‘Off with you!’

And when Nastasya did not find the door at once he added:

‘Fool!’

 

From the day of the funeral silence reigned in the little house. It was not stillness, for stillness is merely the absence of sounds; it was silence, because it seemed that they who were silent could say something but would not. So thought Father Ignatius each time he entered his wife’s chamber and met that obstinate gaze, so heavy in its aspect that it seemed to transform the very air into lead, which bore down one’s head and spine. So thought he, examining his daughter’s music sheets, which bore imprints of her voice, as well as her books and her portrait, which she brought with her from St. Petersburg. Father Ignatius was accustomed to scrutinize the portrait in established order: First, he would gaze on the cheek upon which a strong light was thrown by the painter; in his fancy he would see upon it a slight wound, which he had noticed on Vera’s cheek in death, and the source of which he could not understand. Each time he would meditate upon causes; he reasoned that if it was made by the train the entire head would have been crushed, whereas the head of Vera remained wholly untouched. It was possible that someone did it with his foot when the corpse was removed, or accidentally with a finger nail.

To contemplate at length upon the details of Vera’s death taxed the strength of Father Ignatius, so that he would pass on to the eyes. These were dark, handsome, with long lashes, which cast deep shadows beneath, causing the whites to seem particularly luminous, both eyes appearing to be enclosed in black, mourning frames. A strange expression was given them by the unknown but talented artist; it seemed as if in the space between the eyes and the object upon which they gazed there lay a thin, transparent film. It resembled somewhat the effect obtained by an imperceptible layer of dust on the black top of a piano, softening the shine of polished wood. And no matter how Father Ignatius placed the portrait, the eyes insistently followed him, but there was no speech in them, only silence; and this silence was so clear that it seemed it could be heard. And gradually Father Ignatius began to think that he heard silence.

Every morning after breakfast Father Ignatius would enter the drawing-room, throw a rapid glance at the empty cage and the other familiar objects, and seating himself in the armchair would close his eyes and listen to the silence of the house. There was something grotesque about this. The cage kept silence, stilly and tenderly, and in this silence were felt sorrow and tears, and distant dead laughter. The silence of his wife, softened by the walls, continued insistent, heavy as lead, and terrible, so terrible that on the hottest day Father Ignatius would be seized by cold shivers. Continuous and cold as the grave, and mysterious as death, was the silence of his daughter. The silence itself seemed to share this suffering and struggled as it were, with the terrible desire to pass into speech; however, something strong and cumbersome, as a machine, held it motionless and stretched it out as a wire. And somewhere at the distant end, the wire would begin to agitate and resound subduedly, feebly and plaintively. With joy, yet with terror, Father Ignatius would seize upon this engendered sound, and resting with his arms upon the arms of the chair, would lean his head forward, awaiting the sound to reach him. But the sound would break and pass into silence.

‘How stupid!’ muttered Father Ignatius, angrily, arising from the chair, still erect and tall. Through the window he saw, suffused with sunlight, the street, which was paved with round, even-sized stones, and directly across, the stone wall of a long, windowless shed. On the corner stood a cab-driver, resembling a clay statue, and it was difficult to understand why he stood there, when for hours there was not a single passer-by.

 

Father Ignatius had occasion for considerable speech outside his house. There was talking to be done with the clergy, with the members of his flock, while officiating at ceremonies, sometimes with acquaintances at social evenings; yet, upon his return he would feel invariably that the entire day he had been silent. This was due to the fact that with none of those people could he talk upon that matter which concerned his most, and upon which he would contemplate each night: Why did Vera die?

Father Ignatius did not seem to understand that now this could not be known, and still thought it was possible to know. Each night – all his nights had become sleepless – he would picture that minute when he and his wife in dead midnight, stood near Vera’s bed, and he entreated her: ‘Tell us!’ And when in his recollection, he would reach these words, the rest appeared to him not as it was in reality. His closed eyes, preserving in their darkness a live and undimmed picture of that night, saw how Vera raised herself in her bed, smiled and tried to say something. And what was that she tried to say? That unuttered word of Vera’s, which should have solved all, seemed so near, that if one only had bend his ear and suppressed the beats of his heart, one could have heard it, and at the same time it was so infinitely, so hopelessly distant. Father Ignatius would arise from his bed, stretch forth his joined hands and, wringing them would exclaim:

‘Vera!’

And he would be answered by silence.

One evening Father Ignatius entered the chamber of Olga Stepanovna, whom he had not come to see for a week, seated himself at her head, and turning away from that insistent heavy gaze, said:

‘Mother! I wish to talk to you about Vera. Do you hear?’

Her eyes were silent, and Father Ignatius raising his voice, spoke sternly and powerfully, as he was accustomed to speak with penitents.

‘I am aware that you are under the impression that I have been the cause of Vera’s death. Reflect, however, did I love her less than you loved her? You reason absurdly. I have forfeited the dignity of a father, I humbly bent my neck, when she defied my malediction and departed – hence. And you – did you not entreat her to remain, until I commanded you to be silent? Did I beget cruelty in her? Did I not teach her about God, about humility, above love?’

Father Ignatius quickly glanced into the eyes of his wife, and turned away.

‘What was there for me to do when she did not wish to reveal her sorrow? Did I not command her? Did I not entreat her? I suppose, in your opinion, I should have dropped on my knees before the maid, and cried like an old woman! How should I know what was going on in her head! Cruel, heartless daughter!’

Father Ignatius hit his knees with his fist.

‘There was no love in her – that’s what! As far as I’m concerned, that’s settled, of course – I am a tyrant! Perhaps she loved you – you, who wept and humbled yourself?’

Father Ignatius gave a hollow laugh.

‘There’s love for you! And as a solace for you, what a death she chose! A cruel, ignominious death. She died in the dust, in the dirt – as a d-dog who is kicked in the jaw.’

The voice of Father Ignatius sounded low and hoarse:

‘I feel ashamed! Ashamed to go out in the street! Ashamed before the alter! Ashamed before God! Cruel, undeserving daughter! Accurst in thy grave!’

When Father Ignatius glanced at his wife she was unconscious, and revived only after several hours. When she regained consciousness her eyes were silent, and it was impossible to tell whether or not she remembered what Father Ignatius had said.

 

That very night – it was a moonlit, calm, warm and deathly still night in May – Father Ignatius, proceeding on his tiptoes, so as not to be overheard by his wife and the sick-nurse, climbed the stairs and entered Vera’s room. The window in the attic had remained closed since the death of Vera, and the atmosphere was dry and warm, with a light odour of burning that comes from heat generated during the day in the iron roof. The air of lifelessness and abandonment permeated the apartment, which for a long time had remained unvisited, and where the timber of the walls, the furniture and other objects gave fort a slight odour of continued putrescence. A bright streak of moonlight fell on the window-sill, and on the floor, and, reflected by the white, carefully washed boards, cast a dim light into the room’s corners, while the white, clean bed, with two pillows, one large and one small, seemed phantom-like and aerial. Father Ignatius opened the window, causing to pour into the room a considerable current of fresh air, smelling of dust, of the nearby river and the blooming linden. An indistinct sound as of voices in chorus also entered occasionally; evidently young people rowed and sang.

Quietly treading with naked feet, resembling a white phantom, Father Ignatius made his way to the vacant bed, bent his knees and fell down on the pillows, embracing them – on that spot where should have been Vera’s face. Long he lay there thus; the song grew louder, then died out; but he still lay there, while his long, black hair spread over his shoulders and the bed.

The moon had changed its position, and the room grew darker, when Father Ignatius raised his head and murmured, putting into his voice the entire strength of his long-suppressed and unconscious love and hearkening to his own words, as if it were not he who was listening, but Vera.

‘Vera, daughter mine! Do you understand what you are to me, daughter? Little daughter! My heart, by blood and my life. Your father – your old father – is already grey, and is also feeble.’

The shoulders of Father Ignatius shook and the entire burdened figure became agitated. Suppressing his agitation, Father Ignatius murmured tenderly, as to an infant:

‘Your old father entreats you. No, little Vera, he supplicates. He weeps. He never has wept before. Your sorrow, little child, your sufferings – they are also mine. Greater than mine.’

Father Ignatius shook his head.

‘Greater, Verochka. What is death to an old man like me? But you – if you only knew how delicate and weak and timid you are! Do you recall how you bruised your finger once and the blood trickled and you cried a little? My child! I know that you love me, love me intensely. Every morning you kiss my hand. Tell me, do tell me, what grief troubles your little head, and I – with these hands – shall smother your grief. They are still strong, Vera, these hands.’

The hair of Father Ignatius shook.

‘Tell me!’

Father Ignatius fixed his eyes on the wall, and wrung his hands.

‘Tell me!’

Stillness prevailed in the room, and from afar was heard the prolonged and broken whistle of a locomotive.

Father Ignatius, gazing out of his dilated yes, as if there had arisen suddenly before him the frightful phantom of the mutilated corpse, slowly raised himself from his knees, and with a credulous motion reached for his head with his hand, with spread and tensely stiffening fingers. Making a step toward the door, Father Ignatius whispered brokenly:

‘Tell me!’

And he was answered by silence.

 

The next day, after an early and lonely dinner, Father Ignatius went to the graveyard, the first time since his daughter’s death. It was warm, deserted and still; it seemed more like an illuminated night. Following habit, Father Ignatius, with effort, straightened his spine, looked severely about him and thought that he was the same as formerly; he was conscious neither of the new, terrible weakness in his legs, nor that his long beard had become entirely white as if a hard frost had hit it. The road to the graveyard led through a long, direct street, slightly on an upward incline, and at its termination loomed the arch of the graveyard gate, resembling a dark, perpetually open mouth, edged with glistening teeth.

Vera’s grave was situated in the depth of the grounds, where the sandy little pathways terminated and Father Ignatius, for a considerable time, was obliged to blunder along the narrow footpaths, which led in a broken line between green mounds, by all forgotten and abandoned. Here and there appeared, green with age, sloping tombstones, broken railings and large, heavy stones planted in the ground, and seemingly crushing it with some cruel, ancient spite. Near one such stone was the grave of Vera. It was covered with fresh turf, turned yellow; around, however all was in bloom. Ash embraced maple tree; and the widely spread hazel bush stretched out over the grave its bending branches with their downy, shaggy foliage. Sitting down on a neighbouring grave and catching his breath, Father Ignatius looked around him, throwing a glance upon the cloudless, desert sky, where in complete immovability, hung the glowing sun disk – and here he only felt that deep, incomparable stillness which reigns in graveyards, when the wind is absent and the slumbering foliage has ceased it s rustling. And anew the thought came to Father Ignatius that this was not a stillness but a silence. It extended to the very brick walls of the graveyard, crept over them and occupied the city. And it terminated only – in those grey, obstinate and reluctantly silent eyes.

Father Ignatius’ shoulders shivered, and he lowered his eyes upon the grave of Vera. He gazed long upon the little tufts of grass uprooted together with the earth from some open, wind-swept field and not successful in adapting themselves to a strange soil; he could not imagine that there, under this grass, only a few feet from him, lay Vera. And this nearness seemed incomprehensible and brought confusion into the soul and a strange agitation. She, of whom Father Ignatius was accustomed to think as one passed away forever into the dark depths of eternity, was here, close by – and it was hard to understand that she, nevertheless, was no more and never again would be. And in the mind’s fancy of Father Ignatius it seemed that if he could only utter some word, which was almost upon his lips, or if he could make some sort of movement, Vera would issue forth from her grave and arise to the same height and beauty that was once hers. And not alone would she arise, but all corpses, intensely sensitive in their solemnly cold silence.

Father Ignatius removed his wide-brimmed black hat, smoothed down his disarranged hair and whispered:

‘Vera!’

Father Ignatius felt ill at ease, fearing to be overheard by a stranger, and stepping on the grave he gazed around him. No one was present, and this time he repeated loudly:

‘Vera!’

It was the voice of an aged man, sharp and demanding, and it was strange that a so-powerfully expressed desire should remain without answer.

‘Vera!’

Loudly and insistently the voice called, and when it relapsed into silence, it seemed for a moment that somewhere from underneath came an incoherent answer. And Father Ignatius, clearing his ear of his long hair, pressed it to the rough prickly turf.

‘Vera, tell me!’

With terror, Father Ignatius felt pouring into his ear something cold as of the grave, which froze his marrow; Vera seemed to be speaking – speaking, however, with the same unbroken silence. This feeling became more racking and terrible, and when Father Ignatius forced himself finally to tear away his head, his face was pale as that of a corpse, and he fancied that the entire atmosphere trembled and palpitated from a resounding silence, and that this terrible sea was being swept by a wild hurricane. The silence strangled him; with icy waves it rolled through this head and agitated the hair; it smote against his breast, which groaned under the blows. Trembling from head to foot, casting around him sharp and sudden glances, Father Ignatius slowly raised himself and with a prolonged and tortuous effort attempted to straighten his spine and to give proud dignity to his trembling body. He succeeded in this. With measured protractiveness, Father Ignatius shook the dirt from his knees, put on his hat, made the sign of the cross three times over the grave, and walked away with an even and firm gait, not recognizing, however, the familiar burial ground and losing his way.

‘Well, here I’ve gone astray!’ smiled Father Ignatius, halting at the branching of the footpaths.

He stood there for a moment, and unreflecting, turned to the left, because it was impossible to stand and to wait. The silence drove him on. It arose from the green graves; it was the breath issuing from the grey, melancholy crosses; in thin, stifling currents it came from all pores of the earth, satiated with the dead. Father Ignatius increased his stride. Dizzy, he circled the same paths, jumped over graves, stumbled across railings, clutching with his hands the prickly, metallic garlands, and turning the soft material of his dress to tatters. His sole thought was to escape. He fled from one place to another, and finally broke into a dead run, seeming very tall and unusual in the flowing cassock, and his hair streaming in the wid. A corpse arisen from the grave, could not have frightened a passer-by more than this wild figure of a man, running and leaping, and waving his arms, his face distorted and insane, and the open mouth breathing with a dull, hoarse sound. With one long leap, Father Ignatius landed on a little street, at one end of which appeared the small church, attached to the graveyard. At the entrance on a low bench, dozed an old man, seemingly a distant pilgrim, and near him, assailing each other, were two quarrelling old beggar women, filling the air with their oaths.

When Father Ignatius reached his home, it was already dusk, and there was light in Olga Stepanovna’s chamber. Not undressing and without removing his hat, dusty and tattered, Father Ignatius approached his wife and fell on his knees.

‘Mother … Olga … have pity on me!’ he wept. ‘I shall go mad.’

He dashed his head against the edge of the table and wept with anguish, as one who was weeping for the first time. Then he raised his head, confident that a miracle would come to pass, that his wife would speak and would pity him.

‘My love!’

With his entire body he drew himself towards his wife – and met the gaze of those grey eyes. There was neither compassion in them, nor anger. It was possible his wife had forgiven him, but in her eyes there was neither pity, nor anger. They were dumb and silent.

And silent was the entire dark, deserted house.

Kitsch

milan

The novelist Milan Kundera likes lists of definitions. I’ve still got a faded copy of a two-page spread from the Guardian in the 1980s where he set out his definitions of terms like Irony, the Novel, the West and so on. But he’s probably best known for his persistent scratching at the surface of this notion called Kitsch, a term which we would probably normally assume just to have fairly plastic aesthetic qualities, a comfortable sneer at overly sentimental art for example. Hipster shops in Spitalfields make a fortune selling knowing kitsch.

Kundera makes his own definition best in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.”

And then:

“Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements…totalitarian kitsch must banish all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously).”

The first quote is a reminder of the kitsch Like button on Facebook. When someone dies, when someone posts a condemnation of Harvey Weinstein, when someone shares a video of Artic icebergs melting, the Like click is the automatic submission to the diktat of kitsch.

The second brings to mind more than anything the line of children holding little paper flags who welcomed Tony Blair to Downing Street in 1997. Blair, the High Priest of Kitsch, grinned at them and patted their heads with that nightmarish toothy grin. But it also informs the leaden-footed antics of Theresa May’s Kitschen Cabinet as they lumber towards some unforeseen and undemocratic compromise with the unblinking uber-bureaucrats of Brussels.

The character in Kundera’s novel who fights the kitsch urge most is the painter Sabina, but even she, towards the end, recognises the limitations as she reflects on a “silly mawkish song” which keeps springing to her mind:

“Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognised for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”

Denis de Rougemont and books that change your life

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Denis de Rougemont

There are only one or two books that change your life. Milan Kundera says somewhere that his discovery of Rabelais made him realise what could be done with the modern novel. He also adores Don Quixote, the first great ironic modern novel of the West, and that novel deals hilariously with the topic at the heart of French historian Denis de Rougemont’s huge work, L’Amour et L’Occident, published in 1939 and translated into English as Passion and Society.

passion and society

I was prompted to read it as a 17-year-old schoolboy by my history teacher, Denis Collinson. He was preparing me for interviews at Oxford and he asked me what I would say if one of the tutors asked what I was currently reading. “I’m reading The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B,” I said, full of confidence. “Oh God,” Denis said, “Don’t tell them that. Everyone reads JP Donleavy. You need to be much more original than that.” And the next day he brought in a copy of Passion and Society. “Read that,” he said.

So I read it. It is a philosophical history setting out a much-disputed contention that the Western notion of passionate love derives from the heretical works of the southern European troubadors of the Cathar period. De Rougemont suggests that their opposition to the mainstream Catholic orthodoxy was expressed through the idea of romantic love: the doomed longing for the perfect yet unattainable other which ever since became the mainstay of Western popular romance (and which Cervantes ridiculed so effectively).

De Rougemont was a Christian philosopher and his objective in setting out his thesis was to demonstrate the danger of adherence to the myth. Halfway through the book, once he has delineated the key elements of the main myth, that of Tristan and Isolde, he thunders on the destructive nature of passionate love, how it essentially expresses a longing for death and how it threatens the stability of all human life.

When I reported back to my history teacher, I told him I was absolutely transfixed by the notion that passionate love could be considered as an idea that didn’t necessarily depend on the real existence of another person. “I didn’t expect you to take that from it,” he said, somewhat disingenuously. “I just thought you’d find his description of the early French heretics interesting and you could talk about it in your interview.”

Too late. I don’t think I’ve ever quite got over reading it. And now, reading for the first time the extraordinarily wonderful Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which amongst many things is a dissertation on the idea of passionate love, I am reminded once again of how de Rougemont’s book effectively let slip the rope that held me to the land.

Karaghiosis: Durrell’s Corfu evening at the shadow-play

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Still slightly fixated on Lawrence Durrell and Corfu. In Chapter 4 of Prospero’s Cell, he gives an absolutely wonderful description of an evening in Corfu watching the shadow-play performance by an itinerant group of players of one of the many tales of the Greek folklore hero Karaghiosis.

Durrell can be, even his most fervent admirers must accept, a slightly cold fish sometimes when it comes to his depiction of his Greek neighbours on the island of Corfu. The younger brother whom he protected so well, Gerald of My Family And Other Animals, betrayed a curiously similar distance to the bugs and reptiles he loved so much: oh look, how they wriggle! One longs sometimes for them both to be stripped of the protagonist’s armour.

But on the occasion of the shadow-play “in a little sunken garden by the Italian school”, Durrell seems to be so transfixed by the drama – both on the stage and in the audience amongst him – that he appears to forget himself and allows the power of the art presented to him and his neighbours seated beside him to hold sway.

The shadow-play tells a comic story of how the imbecile Hadjiavatis (“He is to Karaghiosis what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes – his butt and feed at the same time”) is encouraged by Karaghiosis to spend his last two drachma on a scheme to sell wine in order to make sufficient profit to buy votes at the forthcoming election: “It is simple, says Karahhiosis. We will buy a bottle of wine for one drachma. We will sell it to the public at a drachma a glass. In that way we shall make a considerable profit. With our profit we will buy more bottles of wine and sell them at a drachma a glass. In this way we shall become extremely rich and bribe enough voters to launch a party.” Inevitably, the pair end up drinking the wine themselves.

The passage needs to be read for its brilliant immediacy, but here’s Durrell’s conclusion: “On this little dazzling screen you have the whole laic mystery of Greece which has been so long dormant in the mountains and islands – in the groves and valleys of the archipelago. You have the spirit and the unconquerable adaptability of the Greek who has penetrated with the leaven of his mercuric irony and humour into every quarter of the globe.”

Note to self: next visit to Greece, seek out a shadow-play. Meanwhile, here’s the great Karaghiosis with his legendary phallic arm in action:

Stinker

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This was the headline the London Review of Books team gave to the late and much missed writer Jenny Diski’s 1994 piece on Roald Dahl, where she reviewed Jeremy Treglown’s biography of the author.

The ‘Stinker’ of the title referred to Dahl’s dreadful anti-semitic comment : ‘Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’.

Diski, as ever, is very good on the foibles: ‘There is something in us that wants good writers to be good people. There’s also something in us that knows pigs can’t fly.’

Diski saves her best quote for the end, where she quotes from Treglown on the ultimatum that Dahl’s American publisher Robert Gottlieb of Knopf sent the English author:

‘In brief, and as unemotionally as I can state it … you have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility … unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you.’

Diski’s sign-off: ‘Apparently, everyone at Knopf stood on their desks and cheered as the letter went off.’

The review is here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v16/n08/jenny-diski/stinker.

 

 

 

 

Durrell’s Corfu

White House Durrell

“The little bay lies in a trance, drugged with its own extraordinary perfection – a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses.”

This beautiful phrase from Lawrence Durrell wasn’t actually about the bay where he and his family had a house in Corfu before the outbreak of the Second World War; rather, he was speaking of nearby Paleokastritsa but he could just have been talking of the bay at Kalami where the family lived their curious life together:

The Durrells in Corfu

The Durrells left Corfu in 1939, never to return, and Lawrence famously regretted his own writing about it, thinking that he had encouraged the mass tourism which he abhorred. Yet on a recent visit, the beauty of those bays in both Corfu and neighbouring Paxos remain intact, seeming quite able to absorb the bobbing white charter yachts and the ferries filled with selfie-sticked visitors. There is an uncomfortable snobbishness inherent in the denigration of tourism – it’s OK for me to visit, but not you. The Greek islands seem still to offer a lesson in kind welcoming.

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What is that song you sing for the dead?

It’s a couple of years since the American artist Sufjan Stevens released his album Carrie and Lowell, a cycle of songs inspired by the death in 2012 of his mother Carrie. Carrie was an alcoholic and schizophrenic who left the family when he was young, only to be reunited later on when his stepfather, Lowell (with whom he now runs his own independent record label Asthmatic Kitty) encouraged her to contact him again.

The album gained universal plaudits when it came out: devastating, compelling, heartbreaking. In it, he tells extraordinarily poignant stories of seemingly random incidents: when his mother left him in a video store, when his swimming teacher who held him “like a father” couldn’t pronounce his name and so called him Subaru.

The most overwhelming song, in both its emotional intensity and its lyrical skill, is The 4th Of July, in which he sings of the night Carrie died in hospital. “It was night when you died, my firefly.” He captures with such dexterity the swings from introspective depth to stark banality which moments such as that bring: “I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right” he sings, and then a few seconds later, “The hospital asked, should the body be gassed, before I say goodbye, my star in the sky.” I watched him sing that song at the End of the Road Festival in 2015 and towards the close, 10,000 people quietly sang along with him as he repeated: “We’re all gonna die.”

Sufjan’s trademark vocal delivery – the multilayered whisper – delivers these lyrics with the same level of raw revelation as Dylan did on Blood on the Tracks in the ‘70s. When Dylan wailed on Idiot Wind, “I can’t even touch the books you read” he plumbed the same grief-ridden depths which Sufjan appears driven to on this album. There are similarities between the two, not only in their unassailable status as lyricists, but also in the restlessness which characterise their careers.

With this album, however, Sufjan comes close to both an artistic and existential despair which is as unsettling as it is compelling. As he says in one song:

“What’s the point of singing songs, if they’ll never even hear you?”

The Way of Life

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My friends at the social enterprise publishing house, The Word Machine, have put their edition of Tao on a free offer as an Amazon Kindle download for the next five days, so do go to Amazon here to download your free copy. It is I think the most beautiful of the many translations of the Tao and was written by the late American poet Witter Bynner.

As he says in his introduction:

“Legends as to Laotzu are more or less familiar. Immaculately conceived by a shooting-star, carried in his mother’s womb for sixty-two years and born, it is said, white-haired, in 604BC, he became in due time keeper of imperial archives at Loyang, an ancient capital in what is now the Chinese province of Honan.”

For those who have not read a translation of the Tao and wonder what the fuss is all about, it essentially does what it says on the tin: it outlines a Way of Life which these days might be termed sustainable. Written as a guide to those who govern, it provides sensible advice on the management of societies while simultaneously offering profound thoughts for the individual on how best to conduct one’s life.

Here’s the second of the eighty one verses:

People through finding something beautiful
Think something else unbeautiful,
Through finding one man fit
Judge another unfit.
Life and death, though stemming from each other, seem to conflict as stages of change,
Difficult and easy as phases of achievement,
Long and short as measures of contrast,
High and low as degrees of relation;
But, since the varying of tones gives music to a voice
And what is is the was of what shall be,
The sanest man
Sets up no deed,
Lays down no law,
Takes everything that happens as it comes,
As something to animate, not to appropriate,
To earn, not to own,
To accept naturally without self-importance:
If you never assume importance
You never lose it.

The Stab In The Back

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When I was earning very little reading manuscripts for Robert Hale in 1982, I got an evening job working at the pub opposite the old Daily Mirror building in Holborn Circus. The pub was called The White Hart, although it was known to everyone connected with the Mirror as The Stab In The Back. In those days, the newspaper was printed in the Mirror building and the pub had a self-regulating and mutually approved apartheid system: the printers drank in the saloon bar at the back, the journalists drank in the lounge bar at the front. There was a wide doorway connecting the two, but the two tribes kept to their own, tending only to merge when a particularly raucous song begun normally by one of the printers would be carried along by some of the hacks.

I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such industrial levels of drinking since. During the evening, I would sweep around the shelves against the walls and pick up semi-finished G and T’s and half-full pint glasses. Journalists would leave their drinks somewhere and forget they’d ordered them so instead would just come up to the bar and order more. Every so often, in perfect order and never late, one or other of them would heave himself or herself off a bar stool and head back up to the office to write some copy. The leader writers in particular were masters of timing, leaving just a few minutes before the leader column needed to be put to press.

They were raucous and argumentative and terrifically horny. Often after the chaos of Last Orders, I would have to help amorous couples into the back of black cabs, pretending not to notice the musical chairs changes from the previous evening. The hacks tended to be more reactionary than the printers: once, I was spotted by one of the journalists while I was sitting in the back room during my tea break reading the newspaper. “He’s reading the bloody Guardian, the bloody Leftie!” he shouted, and I came out to howls of abuse.

One evening, one of the more famous columnists was particularly worse for wear, having come back from Buckingham Palace where he’d received an Honour for his reporting during the Falklands War. We had a regular in the lounge bar who was one of the few drinkers there not connected with the Mirror. He was known to be deaf and dumb and he normally sat sipping a pint on his own at the bar. The famous columnist spent a long time trying to explain patiently to him exactly what it was about his superlative reporting which had merited the Royal honour. Eventually he gave up, slurring something about “where’s the bloody respect I deserve?” As he staggered off to speak to someone else, the deaf and dumb man looked at me, smiled and winked.

The Daily Mirror building is now a Sainsburys with the London HQ of the chain occupying all the floors above it. The Stab is a Pizza Express. I’m not sure I even know where the Mirror is based any more.