Read Accident Online

Authors: Mihail Sebastian

Tags: #Fiction, #Espionage, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Europe; Central, #Jewish, #War & Military, #Romance Languages (Other), #Literary, #Skis and Skiing, #Foreign Language Study

Accident (10 page)

BOOK: Accident
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When it fell to her to participate in collective exhibitions at the Salon or Our Group, her paintings easily distinguished themselves from those of others by that white cardboard tab that gives prestige and lustre to a painting:
. Paul was uneasy at the swiftness with which, from the first days, this white cardboard flowered in the corners of her canvases, while other painters had such difficulty placing their paintings that several remained unsold at the end of the exhibition. He would have liked to see Ann show a little discretion in advertizing her satisfaction, a little casualness about her success, but once, when he tried to make her understand this, he attracted from her a crushing reply: “What? You want me to be ashamed that I'm successful?”
It was an even more crushing retort, given that this was precisely what he would have asked of her: that she show a little shame for the successes she enjoyed.
Ann had lost completely her earlier shyness, the doubt with which she started a painting, the school-girl fear with which she awaited others' reactions. Now she had an unerring gift for placing a painting, for using connections, for sensing in a new acquaintance a potential client. “Client” was the word that recurred most often in their shared language. The word's double meaning frightened Paul.
“What kind of client?” he asked her once with brutal directness, staring her in the eyes. She shuddered beneath the horrible
outrage, as though he had slapped her, and burst into moving, despairing tears, which he barely managed to assuage, begging her forgiveness, full of remorse, yet pleased by such sincere, almost childlike weeping, the refutation of his suspicions and fears.
Some days Ann was unreachable. His insistence on seeing her ran up against a single response, which she uttered slightly sententiously, raising it like a shield: “My painting comes first!” Nothing protected her better, nothing hid her more completely.
“I'm not available this evening. I have a business meeting: a client to whom I'm trying to sell
Blue Flowers
She had acquired the habit of meeting clients at her home or downtown, at a restaurant, at a table in a bar, and not at the exhibition, where she set foot rarely and only in passing to smoke a cigarette, to exchange a few words, dressed in her street clothes, without taking off her hat, as though just visiting. Paul had tried to persuade her that her prestige as an artist dwindled through this excessive familiarity with the public.
“Try to understand, dear Ann, that I'm not speaking to you as a jealous man, but rather as a concerned friend. An artist doesn't have the right to make to the public the concessions that you make to your purchasers. She has to be less available, prouder, more vain, more solitary.”
She listened with attention and seemed to agree with everything, to understand everything; but when he moved on from general considerations about the obligations of a “true” artist to concrete proposals (and here the impartial friend could not entirely conceal the jealous lover), and when he asked her to cancel her scheduled meeting by phoning the fan who, if he really intended to buy
Blue Flowers,
had only to enter the Dalles Gallery two days from now, between eleven AM and noon, she refused to listen to him any longer and cut him short: “What? You want me to destroy my career?”
“To destroy my career” was an expression that was beginning to appear for the first time in Ann's language. Paul knew this language too well not to be upset by her changes of vocabulary. Where
did these new words come from, which had suddenly heaved into sight in their conversations, like so many echoes from a life he wasn't familiar with and of which he wasn't aware until she carelessly let the words slip? In the early days, listening to Ann speaking had been a pleasure full of surprises. At first he had thought that she was highly loquacious, but as time went on he had observed that her volubility was composed more of gestures and smiles, alternating with short exclamations and short silences, which lent her conversation an air of perpetual excitement.
“What strange syntax you have, dear girl!” he used to say, amused by the structure of her sentences. Something of his old obsessions from when he was a student of Latin awoke in him to study the grammatical snippets of their conversation.
She spoke in simple sentences, yet complicated them with a shower of interjections and questions – “yes?” “no?” “you see?” “you know?” “you want to?” – like a series of flats and sharps in a scale with variations, which made her simplest stories into thrilling affairs in which her tone rose and fell, the inflection of her voice changed, and her gaze suddenly shifted. There was a surprised, astonished quality to all of her conversation, as though she had struggled with retorts that only she heard, and to which she would have to respond in turn, like a chess player involved in many matches at once. And, like a chess player who was in that confusing situation, she resorted to typical movements, such as waiting – the meaningless shifting of a pawn, moving a rook onto the front lines. She also had a few set phrases, which she repeated almost mechanically, since they said nothing and were at hand, like habitual old gestures that had long ago lost their original intention: “Well and for all that,” “Everything's possible,” “How am I supposed to know what to think?”
Ann took up with ease words and expressions that she happened to overhear, and which from then on became habitual parts of her speech, initially in jest perhaps, then later because she truly couldn't stop herself from remembering them, until they established themselves definitively in her personal jargon. In Sibiu she had stopped a passerby one morning to ask him whether the Bruckenthal Museum, where she wanted to go, was far away. “Far,
yeah, but no-who knows how,” was the reply – and this type of approximation amused Ann so much that she repeated it for several consecutive days, on all possible occasions. The food was good, “but no-who knows how,” the bathwater was hot, “but no-who knows how,” the night sky was starry, “but no-who knows how.” At first she said this laughing, as though underlining the words, but with time her ironic intention dissolved, even disappeared completely, while that “but no-who knows how,” which for a while had a certain commemorative value (as if she were saying indirectly to Paul: “You remember, in Sibiu ...”) became not only one of her more worn phrases, but her preferred way to lend nuance to her opinion, to express her reservations.
At the beginning, in the first days of their love, it had been one of their reciprocal pleasures to discover in each other certain physical or verbal tics, which for other people, who had known them for longer, had become imperceptible from custom or repetition, but which, observed for the first time, had something utterly unexpected.
“How strangely you frown!” Ann had observed in the first days. She had tried to imitate him, leaving her left brow lowered and raising the right, tightly arched, something which at first she did not succeed in doing except by cheating a little and opening wide her right eye with two fingers, as though she wished to fix a monocle in her socket.
It was the sum of petty gestures, which at first she had observed jokingly in him, with an ironic tenderness, and which she imitated with laughter, as though she were trying to wean him of them, which, with the passage of time, entered her own habits. Paul watched, initially with indifference, or rather with amusement, but later touched and surprised, this unthinking transmission of words and gestures that he rediscovered in Ann's language, slightly modified by her movements or pronunciation, as if they had been adapted to her vocal register, like a man's aria rewritten for a soprano voice. They were the same words, the same gestures, yet they often conserved a strange air, as if they had been pressed onto Ann's speech with special type, transferred into her sentence like words read in a foreign language, like a proverb in quotation
marks, until these last lines of resistence also fell, while the gesture or word that until then had been a kind of neologism for Ann, was permanently incorporated into her current vocabulary. She made Paul aware for the first time of the persistence with which he repeated expressions of affirmation or negation: “Sure, sure,” “Not once, not once,” “Out of the question, absolutely out of the question.”
How little I watched myself
, Paul had thought,
if I was able to talk that way for years without even being aware of it. It took Ann to come and observe me.
Sometimes, in the middle of a sentence, when that double, “Sure, sure,” came back, she underlined the fact with an explosion of laughter.
“Don't get angry, dear Paul, that I'm laughing. I told you I'm a bit afraid of you and – what do you want? – when I notice something childish like that, it's as if I feared you less, as if I felt closer to you. I'd like you to have thousands of small failings, I'd like you not to roll you r's, I'd like you to be unable to pronounce s, I'd like to be able to laugh at you, my love, do you understand?”
Yet without understanding how, she herself later ended up speaking in his way, and among the things she borrowed from him was precisely his manner of stressing through repetition certain words and exclamations in order to confirm or negate something. Her speech was full of “Sure, sure,” “Don't even think about it, don't even think about it,” “Out of the question, out of the question,” which he sometimes uttered in a mechanical way, not paying attention, his aggressive, convinced, intransigent tone highlighting these phrases even more. There were some words that disappeared from his current expressions and which, over time, reappeared, now not in his vocabulary, but rather in hers, just as a mountain spring can slip under the earth and, by way of a long underground channel, return to the surface somewhere completely different. On Ann's lips, words he had forgotten gained a new life, while in her lively hands, gestures he had abandoned at some point in the past were resurrected with a kind of mechanical faithfulness, which later might survive the end of their love.
Not for anything, not for anything, do I want to see you again
, she wrote to him once, after a quarrel, but that double “not for
anything” seemed almost to bear its own refutation, since, at a point where Ann was convinced that they were going to separate, her language preserved, like a pledge of faithfulness, that tic of repeating words in which, without her wishing it to be so, Paul's memory persisted. But other new words and expressions appeared, which he heard for the first time and memorized, startled, wondering where they came from and suspecting that she was concealing from him a whole world of events, adventures, secrets that he longed to decipher. Above all, in recent days, Ann's vocabulary had undergone innumerable small innovations, and after each longer separation – whether because of a quarrel, because he had to leave for a trial in the provinces, or finally because she was too busy with her work – when they were reunited, he noticed with desolation new changes in her way of conversing, new gestures or new words.
“It's rolling,” Ann used to say when something struck her as excessively comical, and then she would shake her head, laughing loudly, with her mouth open. And, with her childlike insistence on repeating a new word, because it amused her to hear it, just as it would have amused her to open and close a new cigarette lighter or a new powder case innumerable times, she would say, dozens of times a day, after every event, after every piece of foolishness, “It's rolling ... It's rolling ... It's rolling ...” Each time Paul shuddered as though she had jabbed him since it seemed to him that behind that expression was a man's gaze: the man from whom Ann had acquired her new favourite word. He was tempted to ask her, as though he had glimpsed a new ring on her finger: “Tell me! Where did it come from? Who gave it to you?”
In her painter's jargon there was an expression that had charmed him at the beginning, but which later on, through a secret shift in meaning, became unbearable: “I'm going out for the cause.”
To Ann, “to go out for the cause” meant to find again a given spot in which to set up her easel, to relocate a spot determined once before – a tree, a house, a stone – as delimiting “on the ground” the landscape she had begun to paint.
Ann's “causes” were impenetrable. For some of them, especially in the spring, or at the close of autumn, at the beginning of March or the end of October, when it was too early or too late to head off to Balcic, she pleaded with Paul, but particularly at the beginning of their love, when she had the feeling that she could ask him the biggest favours, she pleaded with him to take off with her to the outskirts of the city, beyond Herăstrău Park, or more frequently, because the spots were less well known, beyond Filaret, beyond the Ciurel mill, in search of “causes.”
“I've done all the work I can at home. I want to go off to the country. Come with me, we'll find something to paint.”
There were long reconnaissance walks beyond the railway line, beyond the last hovels at the edge of Bucharest, through the barely thawed March countryside, or the dirty rust-colour of October. The region looked completely unknown. If there hadn't been planes taking off and landing in the direction of Băneasa Airport, flying low, close to the earth with their engines throbbing like a factory, he could have believed he was anywhere, a long way from Bucharest. A few acacias growing close together marked the beginning of the woods, water rising from who-knew-where – perhaps from the last melting snows, perhaps from the last autumn rain – looked like a tributary wandering lost across the path. Paul never succeeded in understanding by which hidden logic Ann chose one spot rather than another, why where he saw nothing in particular she would suddenly stop, regarding with a kind of concerned attention a point that for him was invisible, which she signalled with a decisive gesture: “Here.”
BOOK: Accident
7.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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