There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Prisoner in the Mask by Dennis Wheatley (1957)



The Prisoner in the Mask by Dennis Wheatley (1957)

Only Wheatley had the authorial confidence (or arrogance) to end a novel with the lines "....After a decent interval we can be married with wedding bells and live happily ever after.'"

No one in a Wheatley novel lives happily ever after. The most they can hope for are pleasurable interludes before the next pendulum swing of Fortune again lands them in the soup.

The Prisoner in the Mask is delightfully high class. The hero is Armand, Count de Quesnoy. (He will later inherit the title Duke de Richleau.) His friends are from the same titled social layer.

Some characters and themes more fully explored in later novels about the Duke are hinted at in The Prisoner in the Mask. His mastery of occult forces and "white" magic is foreshadowed in his experiences as a soldier in Madagascar, where he developes his skills in hypnotism and mind-over-matter meditation.

He meets the father of future comrade Rex Van Ryn, a wealthy banker from the U.S. who serves the same purpose as
Blenkiron in Buchan's Leithen novels: a repository of ready cash and unconditional friendship.

The novel begins at the start of the 20th century and quickly transports the Count De Quesnoy from life as a privileged teen in Tsarist Russia to the French military school St. Cyr. His is also in romantic pursuit of Angela Syveton, wife of a powerful Royalist deputy. Wheatley spends most of the novel figuring out ways to keep the Count and Angela thwarted and apart. He does a masterful job.

This is, however, a historical thriller, not a bodice-ripper. Armand is witness to the frame-up, persecution, prosecution, and imprisonment of Dreyfus, and becomes involved in conspiracy as mentor to the young François de Vendôme, whom Royalists hope to make constitutional monarch of France. The Royalists are emboldened by the sorry spectacle of the Third Republic: internally rotting from the scourges of republicanism, atheism, and a politically organized working class movement.

(Solid Marxist analysis of French politics here).

Wheatley made no secret of his conservatism and his worship of Winston Churchill. Like his author, Armand is a staunch rightist, appalled that leaders of the French Army put their reputations ahead of justice for Dreyfus and the honor of their class.

Wheatley is a master of plot vicissitudes. One damned thing after another fouls-up Armand's hopes for his country and his desire for Angela Syveton. Patriotism and eros, however, are inexhaustible engines driving forward this classic of escapism.

And who is the prisoner in the mask? That would be telling...


Jay
25 November 2018









Saturday, November 24, 2018

Sallust 8, Germany 0








They Used Dark Forces [1964] is the eighth adventure of freelance spy Gregory Sallust. (Eighth in the internal chronology of the series, not in order of publication.)  I have read all eight in the last two years and found this pop roman-fleuve richly rewarding.

Yes, Wheatley does love employing the long arm of coincidence. Yes, he overuses the word “had” when revisions to his sentence structure would have made for sharper constructions.

But these are quibbles. The joy of these novels is their depiction of the good life.


Five hours after Gregory landed in England he was sitting in the lofty book-lined room that had been the scene of the beginnings and ends of all his secret missions. It looked out from the back of Carlton House Terrace to the Admiralty, the Foreign Office and the other massive buildings in which throbbed the heart of Britain’s war machine. The fact that it was raining did not depress him in the least.

Beside him on a small table were the remains of a pile of foie gras sandwiches off which he had been making a second breakfast, and nearby stood an ice-bucket in which reposed a magnum of his favourite Louis Roederer 1928. From it his silver tankard was being filled for the second time by his old friend and patron, Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust.



The major complaint about the Sallust novels is their unabashed admiration for European fascism.  Like John Buchan, Wheatley in his fiction has his hero fiercely extol the virtues of this anti-labor militia movement.

Here is Sallust discussing politics with his lover Sabine:



Smiling, she returned his kiss then sighed and said, ‘Oh God, how I hate this war. Just to think what a bomb has done to you and robbed us of. And the even worse things that have happened to such thousands of other people. May that filthy little Austrian that brought it on us rot in hell for all eternity.’

‘You seem to have changed your views quite a lot since last we met,’ Gregory grinned. ‘Two summers ago when we talked of these things in Budapest you were a hundred per cent pro-Nazi.’

‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘But look what the Communists did to Hungary after the First World War. Those gutter-bred swine robbed families like mine of everything we had, and did their utmost to degrade everyone to their own filthy level. You British, with your stupid, pale-pink Liberalism, made no effort to stop them. Neither did the French. The only people who had the guts to stand up to them were the Italians and the Germans. Naturally, as German influence was so strong in Hungary I became a Nazi. What sensible person wouldn’t have? But I’m not a Nazi now. They’ve made themselves untouchables. Say that I’m a Fascist, if you like. But I’m not a Nazi.’

Gregory nodded. ‘There’s a lot to be said for the Fascists. Old Mussolini did a great job in cleaning up Italy. If only he’d stayed neutral he’d be on the top of the world today and Italy positively bulging with money made out of both sides during the war. That he got folie de grandeur and thought that with Hitler’s help he could become a modern Roman Emperor, ruling the whole Mediterranean, was one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Little Franco, too, has done a great job of work in Spain. What is more he has had the sense to keep his country out of the war, so given it a real chance to recover. Why people should cavil at him for having put the Moscow-inspired agitators and saboteurs behind bars I could never see. If he’d run his country on the lines the idiot British and French intellectuals and those crazy Americans would have liked to see, by this time Spain would have had a Communist Government. Quite a useful card for the war against Hitler. But what about afterwards, with Russian bombers based there only two hours’ flight from London and Paris? Some people simply can’t be dissuaded from trying to cut off their noses to spite their faces. But all this is beside the point. You say you’re no longer a Nazi; but you’re still working for them.’

‘Up to a point,’ she agreed thoughtfully. ‘I’d still turn in these dirty little Marxists who’d like to see Germany a Soviet Republic, whenever I could get the goods on them. But I’ve never yet given information about those of our own kind who would like to see Hitler as an ugly corpse.’




They Used Dark Forces is a strange title for the novel, as it suggests Berlin is employing dark forces to win their war.  But the they is Sallust himself, and a man named Malacou, with whom he has a telepathic bond.  The bond is developed when Malacou hides Sallust for several months as a leg injury heals.

They Used Dark Forces is more James Bond than Duke De Richleau. The telepathy allows Wheatley to unpack some contradictions, and it forms a line on which he can hang the last half of the novel.

One scene in particular contains a solid piece of uncanny business.  Sallust and Malacou, in Berlin and pretending to be occult mind-readers, are taken by their jailer to a March 1945 banquet at the home of Herman Goering.  There their performance certainly raises gooseflesh, since the dinner guests are dancing on the edge of a volcano.




Soon after ten Kaindl came for them. They accompanied him down to the ground floor and into a spacious dining room. It was so large that a horseshoe table occupied less than half of it, and Gregory saw that Goering’s idea of a small dinner party consisted of at least twenty people. Most of the men were in uniforms bedecked with Knight Stars, Iron Crosses and other decorations, but three of them were in dinner jackets and the women were all in décolleté evening dresses.

The Reichsmarschall sat enthroned at the outer centre of the horseshoe. As Gregory had thought might prove the case, he was clad in a white and gold toga and had a laurel wreath on his head. He had become enormously fat, his eyes were pouched, his cheeks loose and puffy and on his sausage-like fingers there gleamed rings worth several thousand pounds. No actor in a play would have given a better representation of one of the most dissolute Roman Emperors.

Kaindl led his two charges into the centre of the horseshoe and presented them as Herr Protze and Herr Malacou. Goering ran his eyes over them and spoke:

‘Colonel Kaindl tells me that you predicted our victory in the Ardennes and other matters correctly. Let us hear now what else you can tell us of the course the war will take.’

Gregory drew a deep breath. He was standing within ten feet of Goering and had escaped immediate recognition, but at any moment some expression on his features or in his voice might give him away. With a bow, he replied:

‘Excellency, it is necessary that my colleague be seated. He will then fall into a trance and I shall interpret the communications that he receives from the entities of the outer sphere.’

A chair was brought, Malacou sat down, closed his eyes and, after taking several long breaths, began to mutter. As Gregory felt sure that everyone there must realise that Germany could not now possibly win the war, and that if he held out false hopes no-one would believe him, he said:

‘Alas, through my colleague, the entities speak of no further German victories; but the soldiers of our great Führer will fight desperately in defence of the Reich. May will be the month of decision. Overtures for peace will be made. At that time there will be dissension in the Partei. Many prominent members of it will then die, but Your Excellency will not be among them. By March the Anglo-American armies will be across the Rhine and the Russians across the Oder. In May Berlin will become a doomed city; but it seems that resistance will continue in the south with the object of obtaining better terms from the Allies than they will be willing to give in May.’

Goering shrugged his massive shoulders. ‘You tell us little that from the way things are going we might not guess for ourselves.’

Now that Gregory was, as it were, right up in the firing line, he had got back his nerve and was on the top of his form. With a smile, he replied, ‘That the views of the Herr Reichsmarschall should coincide with fore-knowledge obtained from beyond confirms the soundness of his judgement. But to obtain more than an outline of general events is not possible. I can only add that war will continue to inflict the world at least until next August, and that in that month a disaster will occur in Japan that will affect the whole world.’

‘What kind of disaster?’

‘It will be in the nature of an earthquake or a violent eruption, but there are indications that it will be brought about by man.’

Suddenly Goering’s eyes lit up. ‘Lieber Gott! Could it be that the Allies are really so far advanced in developing an atom bomb?’

Gregory shrugged. ‘That is more than I can say; but many thousands of Japanese will die in the disaster. And now, if it please Your Excellency, my colleague can be the vehicle for much more precise predictions about individuals than about generalities. Would you like to be the first to have your future told?’

Goering shook his head. ‘No. I am content to wait and see what fate sends me.’ Then he gestured to a woman on his right and added, ‘Make a start with this lady here.’ Turning to the woman, Gregory bowed and asked her for the loan of something she always carried. She gave him her gold cigarette case and he handed it to Malacou. He then fetched a chair, sat down opposite the woman and asked her to lay her hands on the table, palms up. Smilingly she did so. For a few moments he studied her hands in silence, meanwhile he conveyed to Malacou what he read in them. Malacou, who was seated behind him, was at the same time psychometrising the cigarette case and communicating his thoughts. By working simultaneously on the same subject in this way they checked their findings, and when Malacou began to mutter Gregory pretended to interpret.

He told the woman that as a child she had had a serious accident that had affected her spine, that she had married twice and that her present husband was an airman, that she had two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom had been sent out of Germany, he thought to Sweden. Then he predicted that she would survive the war, have two more children and go to live in some southern country, he thought Spain.

With astonishment, she declared him to be perfectly right about her past and Goering clapped his mighty beringed hands.

The second subject was a younger woman. Having told her accurately about her past, Gregory said, ‘You, too, will survive the war, gnädige Frau. But not without injury. I regret to say that in an air-raid you will lose your right arm. You will also become a widow, but you will marry again, an elderly man who will provide you with every comfort.’

The third was a good-looking but rather sullen-faced woman. About her, spontaneously, Malacou sent Gregory a thought. As all that mattered was to impress Goering he decided to use it. When he had told her past, he said, ‘Within six months you will become the mistress of a Russian officer.’

Her eyes blazing with anger the woman sprang to her feet and slapped his face. But Goering roared with laughter and the rest of the guests followed his lead.

When the clamour had subsided Gregory started on his next subject. She was what the French term a ‘belle laide’. Her hair was a true gold and Gregory thought that he had rarely looked into a pair of more magnificent eyes; but her mouth was a thick gash across her face, and enormous. As he looked at her he suddenly wondered if she could be Sabine’s friend, Paula von Proffin of the letter-box mouth. When his reading of her hand and the thoughts Malacou sent him tallied with what Sabine had told him of Paula he felt certain of it. Malacou also conveyed to him that she would be raped to death by Russian soldiers. Looking at her with pity he decided to give her no idea of that. Instead, after telling her that she had had a hard early life as a model, then married a banker who had left her penniless, he added, ‘Your life will not be a long one, so make the most of it. At all events you are now married to an immensely rich man who can afford to indulge you in every luxury.’

Again Goering roared with laughter. Then, leaning forward towards a middle-aged man in a dinner jacket who was seated near him, he bellowed, ‘Listen to that, Hans. And you pleading poverty before dinner. You’ll not be able to deny little Paula anything after this.’

From that Gregory surmised that her new husband must be one of the chiefs of the Hermann Goering Werk, and that was why they were among Goering’s guests.

Paula gave Gregory a ravishing smile and he turned to the next woman along the table. Among other thoughts, Malacou informed him that she had a venereal disease. So in her case he ended by saying, ‘For the present I would advise you to lead the life of a nun; otherwise you will give anyone you go to bed with a present that he will not thank you for.’

She, too, jumped up in a fury, but Gregory sprang back in time to evade the slap she aimed at him. Again the cruel laughter rang out and, bursting into tears, the woman ran from the room.

‘Well done,’ wheezed Goering. ‘Well done. I shall find you invaluable.’

So it went on through the women, then the men took their turn. Most of them were to survive, but three were to die, and Gregory told them frankly that they would give their lives for the Führer; but he refused to give them particulars or dates. One among them was a Naval Captain and Malacou told Gregory, both by telepathy and by confirming it in the muttered Turkish that at times he used to ensure that Gregory got his thoughts exactly, that the Captain was a traitor in the camp and using his position to spy on Goering.

Gregory made no mention of that, but when he had told all their fortunes he addressed the Reichsmarschall. ‘Excellency, these psychic investigations into your guests have revealed one piece of information that I have not disclosed. It is for your ear alone and important to your safety. If you would give me a few minutes in private …’

Goering’s eyes held his for a moment, then the elephantine Chief of the Luftwaffe nodded, heaved himself up from his great ivory and gold throne and said, ‘Come with me.’

Picking up the skirts of his toga, he led the way out to an ante-room. On the walls there was a fabulous collection of paintings by the Dutch Masters. A great curved table desk occupied the centre of the room. With a grunt Goering lowered himself into a chair behind it, signed to Gregory to take another, and said:

‘Well, go ahead.’

‘That Naval Captain,’ Gregory replied. ‘I don’t know his name. But my colleague is certain that he has been planted here to spy on you.’

A broad grin spread over the Reichsmarschall’s fat face. ‘I know it. He is my Naval Attaché, but in the pay of Himmler. I keep him on a string. Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t. As long as he is here Himmler won’t send anyone else to spy on me. I feed him with what I want that crazy fool to know.’

Gregory smiled. ‘Then my warning is redundant, Herr Reichsmarschall. But Herr Malacou and I are deeply grateful for the way in which you have rescued us from prison and are anxious to be of service to you in any way we can.’

For a moment Goering studied Gregory’s face intently, then he said, ‘Tell me, Herr Protze, how much of this clever act of yours is trickery? There are no means by which your predictions about the future can be checked, but all my guests are well-known people; so you and this Oriental fellow for whom you appear to act as manager might have obtained particulars about their pasts from ordinary sources.’

‘No,’ Gregory replied firmly. ‘I assure Your Excellency that Herr Malacou is a genuine

mystic. After all, both of us have been confined at Sachsenhausen for the past four months; so what possible opportunity could we have had to ferret out facts about the lives of your guests?’

Goering nodded. ‘Yes. You certainly seem to have a point there. The Führer and Himmler swear by this sort of thing; but I never have. I’m still convinced that the occult has nothing to do with it. My belief is that you have only the ability to read people’s thoughts about themselves, and make up the rest. Still, that’s neither here nor there. The two of you provided us with an excellent entertainment, and in these days we haven’t much to laugh about. You may go now. Tell Colonel Kaindl to give you a glass of wine and to protect you from those angry women, and that I’ll rejoin my guests presently. I’ve a few notes I wish to make.’



Wheatley’s friendly portrait of Goering, like his favorable opinion of Churchill in the Sallust novels, is a perfect example of authorial bad taste. But once we accept the use of historical figures in popular fiction, I suppose portraying them all as slavering one-dimensional monsters would be a greater abuse of reality. Perhaps.



Jay
24 November 2018





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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Manly Wade Wellman




The week of Halloween this year I read seven books by Manly Wade Wellman.

Wellman slips in close to sublimity in many stories and novels, and produced consistently high quality popular fiction for decades.

The Silver John stories feel so eloquently timeless that details of everyday life come as a shock. Paper plates and plastic flatware? I assumed these stories were set in interbellum North Carolina sometime between the Coolidge and Roosevelt regimes. Turns out the fictional timeline is coincident with the time of composition.

John is not a nomad or accursed wanderer. But after brutal soldiering in Korea, his travelling and his oft-repeated revulsion over the war externalize a feeling of ethical homelessness.

One of the strengths of the Silver John stories is the absence of occult detective mummery. John never gets hired to solve a mystery. His interest in the people he meets, his sense of solidarity toward them, leads John to taking a hand in solving their problems. The threats to these rural toilers come from boss-type exploiters: witch men, real estate megalomaniacs, Shonokins, and Bonapartist magnates. John's conjurations protect himself and friends and are usually nothing more than recitations from a respected book. Along with judicious strumming of his silver-string guitar and strategic handling of a silver coin.

The guitar itself is a lovely metaphor for modesty, harmony, and resilience. A violin would be pretentious, a banjo vulgar. The guitar is the sublime expression of John's ethic.

John is not a lonesome traveller. Men skeptical and rancorous toward him - like the construction worker in The Hanging Stones - are won to his side pretty quick.

Wellman is very specific in the way he depicts the uncanny in these stories. Violence and violent death are rare. Supernatural agency is employed for material reasons: land theft, subordination of young women. John interposes himself sharply and decisively in these showdowns. No Harry Potter fireworks, just native wit and careful application of pressure.

In such conflicts John does not come on like a messiah or great white hope. He seeks unity and his reputation as a wise man precedes him. Vetoes of friends' ideas are judicious and tactical.

"One Other" and "Call Me From the Valley," two personal favorites, strike sharply the Machenean note. Though Wellman does not use the term "perichoresis," when John and Annalinda talk at the edge of the bottomless pool atop Hark Mountain, the soap-bubble analogy serves the same purpose.

Wellman's Silver John stories surpass the work of many of his contemporaries by virtue of his skill handling unique and compelling subject-matter. The novel After Dark expresses this aesthetic perfectly .



Jay
17 November 2018





Tadzio & Giovanni


....Later on, Tadzio lay in the sand resting from his swim, a white towel drawn under his right shoulder, his head on his bare arm. Even when Aschenbach stopped staring at him to read a few pages of his book, he hardly ever forgot that the boy was lying there, that it only cost him a slight rightward turn of the head to glimpse that sight which was so worthy of admiration. He could almost imagine himself sitting there for the resting boy's protection, busy with his own matters, yet ever watchful over the fine visual representation of humankind to his right, not far from him. And his heart was filled and moved by a kind of paternal pride, by the sentimental affection of the self-sacrificing creative mind that produces beauty toward someone who simply possesses it.

How quickly today would Aschenbach  be arrested?  Shadowing and stalking a teenager at a resort is not the quaint aesthetic quirk it was in 1912.

Mann uses the term "boy" dozens of times in Death in Venice in reference to Tadzio, the Polish lad vacationing with his family on the Lido. 

This recalled to me the use of the term "boy" in James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room, which I read a few days ago.  The term was used by a trio of louche male homosexuals stalking youths they hope to seduce.

The objectified "boy" as target of sexual fantasy by adult men might be dismissed as a classically-inspired allusion of contemplative character in Death in Venice.  Mann certainly demonstrates its self-destructive character for Aschenbach .  In Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room the self-destructiveness is there to a degree, but the real destruction is visited upon Giovanni himself.




****

Monstrous tentacles








Tonio Kröger, martyr to his art and craft, suspected con-man in his home town, voyages to a vacation stop on Elsinore. A monstrous storm at sea gives Mann the chance to strike a Lovecraftian note:





….In his berth Tonio Kröger stretched out on the narrow bunk but couldn't drift off. The strong wind and its sharp aftertaste had left him extremely flushed, and his heart was restless, as though he were anxiously awaiting something sweet. Moreover, the vibrations from the ship sliding down a steep ocean swell and the propeller as it emerged sputtering from the water made him terribly queasy. He got dressed again and climbed up onto the open deck.

Clouds raced past the moon. The sea was dancing. No longer were smooth, even waves rolling at regular intervals; instead, at some distance in the pale, flickering light, the sea was torn, whipped, churned into a frenzy. Gigantic, sharp-crested tongues licked up like flames, leaping skyward, hurling spray and spitting out jagged, unlikely shapes between froth-filled chasms, as though somewhere below monstrous tentacles were playing some crazy game.











***

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin






Quite a book for 1956. U.S. creep David whiles away his time procrastinating like a Peter Pan narcissist in Paris, living off friends and indulging himself.

In the process of finding himself (or hiding from himself) David destroys the psyches of two U.S. women and sends a discarded male  lover into such a downward spiral he gets executed for murder courtesy of Madame guillotine.

Not a great day for normalizing homosexuality. Like the original edition of Vidal's City and the Pillar, homosexuals are self-loathing and murderous.

                          * * *

...."What are we staying here for? How long do you want to sit in this house, eating your heart out? And what do you think it's doing to me?" She rose and came to me. "Please. I want to go home. I want to get married. I want to start having kids. I want us to live someplace, I want you. Please David. What are we marking time over here for?"

I moved away from her, quickly. At my back she stood perfectly still.

"What's the matter, David? What do you want?"

"I don't know. I don't know."

"What is it you're not telling me? Why don't you tell me the truth? Tell me the truth."

I turned and faced her. "Hella—bear with me, bear with me—a little while."

"I want to," she cried, "but where are you? You've gone away somewhere and I can't find you. If you'd only let me reach you—!"

She began to cry. I held her in my arms. I felt nothing at all.

I kissed her salty tears and murmured, murmured I don't know what. I felt her body straining, straining to meet mine and I felt my own contracting and drawing away and I knew that I had begun the long fall down. I stepped away from her. She swayed where I had left her, like a puppet dangling from a string.

"David, please let me be a woman. I don't care what you do to me. I don't care what it costs. I'll wear my hair long, I'll give up cigarettes, I'll throw away the books." She tried to smile; my heart turned over. "Just let me be a woman, take me. It's what I want. It's all I want. I don't care about anything else." She moved toward me. I stood perfectly still. She touched me, raising her face, with a desperate and terribly moving trust, to mine. "Don't throw me back into the sea, David. Let me stay here with you." Then she kissed me, watching my face. My lips were cold. I felt nothing on my lips. She kissed me again and I closed my eyes, feeling that strong chains were dragging me to fire. It seemed that my body, next to her warmth, her insistence, under her hands, would never awaken. But when it awakened, I had moved out of it. From a great height, where the air all around me was colder than ice, I watched my body in a stranger's arms.

It was that evening, or an evening very soon thereafter, that I left her sleeping in the bedroom and went, alone, to Nice.

I roamed all the bars of that glittering town, and at the end of the first night, blind with alcohol and grim with lust, I climbed the stairs of a dark hotel in company with a sailor. It turned out, late the next day, that the sailor's leave was not yet ended and that the sailor had friends. We went to visit them. We stayed the night. We spent the next day together, and the next. On the final night of the sailor's leave, we stood drinking together in a crowded bar. We faced the mirror. I was very drunk. I was almost penniless. In the mirror, suddenly, I saw Hella's face. I thought for a moment that I had gone mad, and I turned. She looked very tired and drab and small.

For a long time we said nothing to each other. I felt the sailor staring at both of us.

"Hasn't she got the wrong bar?" he asked me, finally.

Hella looked at him. She smiled.

"It's not the only thing I got wrong," she said.

Now the sailor stared at me.

"Well," I said to Hella, "now you know."

"I think I've known it for a long time," she said. She turned and started away from me. I moved to follow her. The sailor grabbed me.

"Are you—is she—?"

I nodded. His face, open-mouthed, was comical. He let me go and I passed him and, as I reached the doors, I heard his laughter. We walked for a long time in the stone-cold streets, in silence. There seemed to be no one on the streets at all. It seemed inconceivable that the day would ever break.

"Well," said Hella, "I'm going home. I wish I'd never left it."

_____

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sickness unto self-congratulation: Ravelstein by Saul Bellow


Chick, older than Ravelstein, has borne witness to his great friend's death. Ravelstein had charged him to write an intimate biography of him.  Chick finds he cannot proceed. He talks with his latest wife, Rosamund, about the situation, and about what Ravelstein tried to show him about incidents in Chick's life with previous spouse  Vela and a character named Radu Grielescu. (This leads Chick and Rosamund to some typically bourgeois wool-gathering about the "inexplicable" horrors of the 20th century.)


…. for me the challenge of portraying him (what an olden-days' word "portraying" has become) by and by turned into a burden. Rosamund, however, believed that I was exactly right for the job. And in fact I went through a rehearsal of my own with death. But at that time we were only considering Ravelstein's death.

"It's just a matter of getting started," she said. "As he said, it's the premier pas qui coûte."

"Yes. Some French Ravelstein equivalent of bottled-in-bond or sur papier timbre, in perfect legal order, solemnized by the state."

"There it is—exactly the joke-tone he hoped you'd take. You can leave it to others to comment on his ideas."

"Oh, I intend to. I'm going to leave intellectual matters to the experts."

"All you need is to get yourself in the right position."

But as the months—years—went by, I couldn't for the life of me find this starting point. "It should be easy. 'Easily or not at all,' or as what's-his-name said, 'If it isn't like birdsong, it ain't right.'"

Rosamund occasionally answered, "Do Ravelstein and birdsong mix? Somehow they don't."

With exchanges of this sort, years went by, and it became apparent that I was unable to begin, that I faced a humongous obstacle. Rosamund no longer offered encouragement or advice. It was wise of her to let me be.

We continued, however, to talk almost daily about Ravelstein. It was I who recalled his basketball evening parties, the student dinners in Greektown, his shopping expeditions, and the racy but serious seminars he used to do. Another woman might have pressed me unpleasantly. "After all, he was a dear friend and you swore you'd do this," or, "In the life-to-come he's disappointed." But Rosamund understood all too well that I thought of this myself, and oppressively too often. I sometimes imagined him in his shroud, lying next to the father he had hated. Ravelstein used to say, "That hysterical man who beat my bare bottom and shrieked gibberish—and later, no matter how well I did he'd hold it against me that I never made Phi Beta Kappa. 'So you published a book and it was well received—but no Phi Beta Kappa?'"

Rosamund would only say, "If you did no more than this Phi Beta Kappa sketch it would cheer Ravelstein in the afterlife."

And my answer to this was, "Ravelstein didn't believe in an afterlife. And if he does exist somewhere, what possible pleasure could it give him to remember his dumbhead father or any part of what we call our mortal span? I'm the one who imagines seeing the dead parents on the other side. And brothers, friends, cousins, aunts and uncles …"

Rosamund often nodded. She admitted that she had a similar tendency. She sometimes added, "I ask myself what they're doing in the life-to-come."

"If you could take a poll on the subject you'd find that a majority of us expect to see their dead, whom they loved and continue to love—the very people they had, now and then, cheated and sometimes despised or hated or habitually lied to. Not you, Rosamund, you're exceptionally honest. But even Ravelstein, a man who was too hard to have such illusions, said … He gave himself away when he told me that of all the people close to him I was the likeliest to follow him soon—to follow him where? Would I catch up with him, and would we see each other?"

"You can't build too much on remarks like that," said Rosamund.

"It's easy enough to argue that childish love is the source of these illusions. This is my way of admitting that half a century later I feel I haven't seen the last of my mother. Freud would have trashed this as sentimental and inane. But Freud was a doctor, and nineteenth-century doctors were rough on the sentiments. They'd say the human being represented chemical components worth about sixty-two-cents—they were severe rationalists and tough guys."

"But Ravelstein was far from simpleminded," said Rosamund.

"Of course he was. But let's go a step or two further—I'll let you in on a kinky thought. I wonder what might happen. If I were to write my memoir of Ravelstein there would be no barrier between death and me."

Rosamund laughed outright at this. "Do you mean that your duties would end, and there would be no reason to live on?"

"No, no. Luckily I'd still have you to live for, Rosamund. What I'm probably trying to say is that in Ravelstein's view I may have nothing more to do in this life than to commemorate him."

"That is an odd thought for anyone to have."

"He felt he was giving me a great subject—the subject of subjects. And that is an odd thought. But I've never assumed that I was a rational, modern person. A rational person wouldn't be meeting his dead in the gloaming—wherever the gloaming is."

"All the same," said Rosamund, "the fact that it's so persistent makes it something to reckon with."

"And why me? In less than a minute I can name five people better qualified."

"About his ideas, yes," said Rosamund. "But they mightn't have the color to put into it. Also—you two became friends late in life and, as a rule, older people don't form such attachments…."

Perhaps she meant, also, that the old didn't fall in love. They weren't apt to blunder into the magnetic field where they had no business to be.

"For a year or two Ravelstein kept after me because Vela and I saw Radu Grielescu and his wife so often," I said to Rosamund.

"They entertained you?"

"They took us to good restaurants—the most expensive ones, anyway. Vela loved all the hand-kissing, bowing, fussing over the ladies, the corsages, and the toasting. She was terribly pleased. Grielescu put on such a show. Ravelstein was extremely curious about those evenings. He said that Radu had belonged to the Iron Guard. I paid no particular attention to this. I didn't get the drift, and that bothered Ravelstein."

"You didn't spot him for a Nazi?" Rosamund said.

"Ravelstein went a step further and told me that Grielescu about ten years ago had been scheduled to lecture in Jerusalem but that the invitation was canceled. Somehow even this didn't register with me. I must have been too busy to put it together. I do shut off my receptors sometimes and decide, somehow, not to see what there is to be seen. Ravelstein noticed that, naturally. I was the one who failed to notice.

"Ravelstein wanted to know just what Grielescu's line was like and I told him that at dinner he ."

I date this particular conversation about two years after Ravelstein's death. After the Guillain-Barré he had worked very hard at walking and recovering the use of his hands. He knew that he had to surrender, to decline but he did it selectively. It didn't matter that he was unable to operate the coffee grinder, but he did need his hand skills for shaving, writing notes, dressing, smoking, signing checks. Few fail to recognize that if you don't apply yourself to recovery you're a basket case, a goner.




Ravelstein is a moderate and mild, but not soporific, novel. It is filled with self-contented writerly effects, the rhetorical nonsense upon which Bellow glides like a greased ball bearing.

(Ravelstein also features a gruelling, brilliant and prolonged depiction of Caribbean vacation food poisoning, just to demonstrate Bellow is not a hard-hearted stylistic genius.)    



Jay

11 November 2018