Authors: Tim Parks
The point is, Vikram Griffiths announces - and it's not hard to imagine, I tell myself, that he is actually quite happy to be away from the difficult separation proceedings with his second wife, the acrimonious child-custody battle with his first, and above all happy, I reflect, to find himself involved in a drama - our struggle with the University of Milan - where he is inconfutably on the side of justice and morality, since in the end this is what all of us long for, is it not, to be engaged in a drama where we know what we want and what we're doing, and are quite sure we are in the right and can feel a strong sense of purpose and identity and self-esteem and heroism even. How else explain, I ask myself, all the religious crusades and wars pursued up to and far beyond the point of madness, the environmental movements and concern for animal welfare, not to mention all the novels about the same? How else explain this enthusiasm for Europe? â The point is, Vikram says, that from now on we will have to behave as if
knew everything we are doing and saying. And well have to find out who it is. He grins determinedly, digging his fingers into his dog's fur: It's going to be a witch hunt.
But the moment he says the word âwitch' I'm thinking of
again. Yes, here on the big back seat of this big ugly modern coach crossing Europe, in this controlled environment, so called, of ducts and vents and conditioned air, this triumph of modern mechanics, I'm thinking of her again, as if a great divide had slid down between myself and the others, some invisible screen with enormous and surely marketable capacities for insulation, or as in a dream where one is shouting screaming clawing unheard unseen only inches from people behaving politely at mundane cocktail parties.
But what do I think of when I think of her like this, suddenly isolated, shut away against my will, or in some curious perversion of the will, in this claustrophobic space, this living tomb I am inexplicably digging for myself? What do I think of? What does it really mean, I ask myself in sudden angry rebellion, to say that
you me thinking of her?
What is this relation between the enigma that is yourself, this voice of yours, and the enigma that is her, her body, her laugh, the area she occupies in space? Why don't you turn your mind inward now, I suddenly decide, to resolve this once and for all, to confront, once and for all, these moments of sudden and tremendous alienation, so that you can then clear your thoughts and turn them freely to the pressing questions of your colleagues and your job and your future and your ability to maintain in the manner to which they are accustomed the family you have left, not to mention the wider issues of Italy and of Europe and of how you should behave on this trip in this coach where you are going to support a cause that not only do you not believe in but which you do not even remotely care about, since the only thing you care about, I tell myself, quite ruthlessly now, however much you might like to care about other things, as for example the new furniture you must choose for your flat, and the small car you would like to buy, and your daughter, yes, your daughter, the only thing you care about, I tell myself, is
, or rather what happened to you with her.
And what did happen? Do I even know? Perhaps not. Definitely not. Perhaps I shall never know what happened to me with her. Only I know that of all people I have known she was the one I was happiest with, the person I most idealized, the person I was prepared at the last to leave my wife and daughter for, and simultaneously; yes, exactly simultaneously, and both lines of thought are at once attached to and separate from a thousand corroborative details (words images songs smells moments situations), I am thinking that she is the person who most betrayed me, who most completely and so carelessly destroyed me, the person who most built me up and then casually blew me away, blew me to smithereens, made a nothing of me. Because if a man, I reflect, is already next to nothing when he can't take his work seriously and when people tell him, albeit kindly (and one is thinking here of old friends and family), that he has
failed in his vocation
, which was to have been, my vocation, but here one has to laugh, to make some sort of contribution to classical studies, so called, and above all, or so I once wrote on a piece of paper for others more important than myself who might have found a research position for me, to reconstruct, so far as such things can be reconstructed, the psychology of the ancients, to savour their minds and the way they lived inside the natural world, at home in it in a way we never can be, the patterned constellations over their heads throbbing with deities, the deep wells they drew their water from encircled by serpents, and not a single holy text (I'm thinking of pre-Orphic times) or social manifesto, or sniff of political correctness to slip a credit card between themselves and the sacred - if, as I was saying (and how relieved I am when I can digress a moment, when my mind, however briefly, finds some other channel to flood) - if a man is nothing when he can no longer follow even this most tenuous of vocations, classical scholarship, or some similar respectable spin-off, as for example teaching, or translating, or even writing a decent text-book, any sort of respectable and remunerative occupation that might have grown out of that presumptuous vocation, then he is doubly nothing when all at once at forty-three he finds himself leaving his wife and children, he finds himself without his family, so deeply betraying and betrayed that he himself cannot help,
, I tell myself, committing the ultimate betrayal of all, which is not falling into somebody else's bed (how remarkable that one should ever have imagined such a thing), but abandonment, abandonment. And certainly even if one never could and indeed one never would say that this is
fault any more than mine, or even see much point frankly now in attributing blame to anyone, still it is inescapably true that she had to do with it, with what has happened to me, she still has to do with it, she still holds me under her spell, she is or was and I don't really know what I'm saying now or what I might mean by this, but it seems to me she is or was or might still be my access to the sacred, the irreducible element in my long negotiation with the other, by which perhaps I mean death, or nature, some part of life's interminable equation that cannot come out until this harping voice, which is my mind, or part of it, is stilled forever. So that when I think of her, as I was trying to say, it is a witch I think of, a witch I cannot stop thinking of. A witch I am endlessly hunting. And at that very moment Colin leans forward and says
It could be her, he says in his execrable Brummie Italian that makes the students smile. His moustache is the kind airmen used to wear. It could be her, the spy. She's after that scholarship business they're giving away, in't she? He switches to English. And old man Ermani's something to do with that. She's in with Ermani.
There. He said her name. Because this is the kind of person Colin is, I reflect, the kind of person who immediately names names of colleagues, speculating without a moment's hesitation on their betrayal, and also of course he is the person I sometimes spend whole evenings with, talking tottie over glasses of beer and billiards, talking nipple-hue and pubic-definition over cigarettes burning in ashtrays, because one of the things that has come out of all this, this debacle, this retreat from Moscow, is that ! have no self-respect. You have no self-respect, I tell myself, the way you talk about sex and women now, with Colin, And when I think of who I was, what I was, at thirty, at thirty-five, and of the airs I put on, discussing matters social, political and moral in appropriate tones of earnestness and concern, and then of what under those airs was really in my mind, that groping after something darker, that strange waiting as if for life to begin, or end, or begin to end, in an explosion of denial of all one imagined one had been, if I think of that then I have to laugh, a long and mirthless laugh, and in the billiard hall with Colin we discuss our most recent conquests and what we have done with them, and we refer to them by some easily distinguishable characteristic, as for example where they live or what they do or what they're like, so that they might be called Bologna-tottie, for example, or Opera-tottie, or in one case Psycho-tottie or even Armpit-tottie, because it is forbidden to mention their names, since this would suggest involvement and respect, which are taboo for those of us who have decided that boorishness is our only hope, that sex is purely physiological, with the result that the only thing I cannot, I must not, I do not, and I will not tell Colin, is how everything I do with them, with these women I find, or who find me, from time to time - and particularly most recently with one I call Opera-tottie - how everything I do with them is an attempt to
make them repeat
what I did with
and she with me those halcyon days of three years ago, and I'm talking of course about the fourth floor of the Hotel Racine in Rheims where we did everything and said we would love each other forever. Yes, yes, we went that far, and the curious thing was how we both really meant it and knew it meant nothing. All this must be taboo between Colin and myself, indeed is the difference between Colin and myself, is what is left of my self-respect.
At least we could ask her straight up, Colin says determinedly. I mean, ask her if she told him anything.
Vikram Griffiths has his fingers behind his neck, rubbing up and down intently. Dimitra turns to look up the aisle to check that
is still in her place, and I'm struck by how completely unpleasant I find Dimitra, unpleasant in her busy busyness, the denim jeans, denim jacket, and in a sort of righteous truculence that glowers even under the brightest Greek smile and lipstick. What would it be like to fuck Dimitra? Daffy-dog has his wet nose in her crotch now. And why do you always ask yourself this question even of a woman you find so unpleasant? As if you were under orders somehow. As if in this controlled environment you had no control at all.
Then with that extraordinary smoothness he has, Georg says, lightly, that all this is distasteful and that it is a mistake to start naming names. What sort of example are we setting for the students who have come to support us and who want to see us united and helping each other, and showing group spirit, not fighting amongst ourselves? If there's a spy, then let him or her be, there's only so much harm they can do. Isn't there? We have nothing to hide.
Georg is right, or at least extremely persuasive, and above all
, as the Italians would add, which is as much as to say even and reasonable and calm, such admirable qualities. As
, I remember, when saying almost the same thing to me: what did it or could it matter if there had been a betrayal, so long as we were so happy together? What difference did it make, what harm could it do? she demanded. Why should she tell me who it was? Why should I care to know the name? So that it wasn't so much the fact that she confessed, quite unnecessarily, what had happened that bewildered me, as that
she didn't see it as a confession
, she didn't perceive it as a problem. She was principally mine, she said, as I well knew, it was only - and really she was just trying to explain, not to apologize - only that there had been all those times, hadn't there, when she hadn't been able to see me because I was married and had a child and had insisted for so long on keeping up appearances so that inevitably â¦
She said these words to me in French, but I recall them now, and have recalled them if once a thousand times, in English, suggesting how quickly one makes things one's own, how everything that is said to you is as much your hearing of it as their saying. For indeed everything she said to me she said in French, or Italian, and ninety per cent of it I remember in English (though I believe it is what
said that I remember).
But what galls me now is that perhaps she was right about this. Perhaps she was right and had I behaved differently, one way or the other, I could at least have had something, or perhaps everything, I wanted, if only I had known or decided what that was (unless it was the not knowing that I wanted, the delirium of the impossible decision?). Yes, had I left home immediately our affair began, I could surely have had her, and had I let things ride a bit more and not been so intense and jealous, then I could still perhaps be married, even happily married, or at least pleasantly, and still be seeing my mistress too, and fucking her and telling her I loved her and cared for nobody else, and perhaps occasionally fucking others too just for good measure and generally living a life of
perfectly manageable hypocrisy
to the benefit of everyone, and one thinks particularly here of my eighteen-year-old daughter whose coming-of-age party will be held tomorrow in my no doubt much censured absence.
She said my terrible problem was my mulish Anglo-Saxon Protestant absolutism, extremism, so mulishly absolute and so extreme that I was atheist without my atheism bringing me the slightest of benefits, so absolute and extreme that I attached such ludicrous pluses and minuses to words likeÂ
, not understanding that those two ideas were never truly incarnate but in constant negotiation a fusion you could never separate out, and if only I would loosen up and become more
and appreciate that while it was important, supremely important, to have values and ideals, it was a halfwit's mistake to insist anybody live by them - as I myself hadn't lived by them, had I? - then everything would be okay. Everything was okay, she said. Because nothing had really happened. Had it? She laughed and said not to worry, everything was okay,
nothing had really happened
, and I hit her, perhaps to show that something had happened, I hit her, hard, and that was the beginning of the end for me. The moment I hit her, I tell myself sitting here slightly right of centre on the long back seat of this coach, was the beginning of the end for me. Something shifted, something
happened. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if Colin were not right that she is the spy, and I say this not because it would suit her personal interests, which of course it would in a way, but because she probably would not even bring the whole thing to consciousness unless someone challenged her about it, the way I challenged her earlier that fateful day, though only very casually, just wishing to be reassured, about the receipt from a cafÃ© in VÃ¡rese being between the pages of the book she had lent me, and even then, even when she brought it to consciousness, she wouldn't really feel it was wrong talking to Ermani, as she never really felt it was wrong fucking Georg. She wouldn't feel it was wrong telling him which lectors were in favour of what and which against, since Ermani is friendly to hex and went to school with her ex-husband and is helping her with her Euro-scholarship application, her essay on a constitution for the whole of Europe which should win her a year's paid research, so called, in Brussels. I wouldn't be surprised in the least. After all, we're talking about someone who throughout a long and, if it was nothing else, torrid adultery not only continued to go regularly to Sunday morning mass, but even to help at church functions and encourage her young daughter to participate in every way and to take her first communion in a beautiful lace-trimmed dress that
made herself and frequently showed me and discussed the details of, the lace, the trim mings. We laughed together, I remember, thinking how similar those trimmings were to the laciness of her underwear. She laughed her French laugh. So no, I wouldn't be at all surprised if she were the spy. But clearly Georg, who of course lives in VÃ¡rese (and who,, she says, though she never actually told me the name,
insisted so much that what could she do?
phoning her every day like that and even sending her flowers), Georg is right that it would be a mistake to suggest to the students that we are divided, though of course he is saying this in front of the girls in the back and next-but-back seats and in rebuke, though
, of Vikram and Colin and DimitirÃ¡, all seething, you can see, for drama and vendetta, all feeling personally injured by what has happened, the presence of this spy, the evidence of this betrayal, and thus in many ways not unlike myself. You are not unlike your colleagues, I tell myself, however much you may choose to despise them. What did she mean,
what could she do?
How could she imagine you wouldn't feel betrayed?