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Authors: Andrea Goldsmith

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BOOK: Gracious Living
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And Kate did, although in the interim Vivienne had changed her mind about the value of friendship. In her youth Vivienne had considered friendship to be a yardstick of an individual’s worth: many close and faithful friends meant you were living the good and proper life. As she grew older she revised her opinion: not only was most friendship fraught with concealed ambitions, much of the time spent with others was nothing more than a gratuitous bowing to habit. You go to parties because that’s what people do; you spend your Friday and Saturday nights having dinner with friends because that’s how you’re expected to take your pleasure; you sprinkle your days with people because not to is to be antisocial; you take regular holidays, never alone, because to work all the time is considered unhealthy. Friendship, she decided, trips a shallow dance, a dance of fragile loyalties, and although it absorbs you, picks you up in its rhythm, it rejects your gaze. Besides, even if you wanted to look, and few in fact do, it’s difficult to observe a life while immersed in it; and while there should not be a tension between living a life and understanding it, there is. Who wants to know that what they do is no more than a rollicking square dance? Who is sufficiently courageous to accept that the voice of the dance caller is louder than their own? Who wants to reject today’s surface pleasures for a life without hope?

How, indeed, is it possible to reject all you know, these, the familiar movements of a life?

Vivienne, unlike Kate, had stripped her life of people, stripped her life of holidays, of dinners on Fridays and Saturdays, of coffees and wine taken when not thirsty; Vivienne had turned off the music and sat down to work. But not Kate, her life was a glittering ball, filled with hundreds of hopefuls waiting to take their turn
with the star. And Kate never seemed to understand that, although her partners changed, the dance was always the same, and the dimensions of the ballroom very small indeed.

If anyone were truly interested in where Kate’s books had gone, those books that in her youth had beckoned from the nearest horizon, they had been trampled in conversations that went nowhere. A sentence for every cup of coffee, a page for every evening stoned, a chapter for every affair and Kate Marley would have half a dozen books to her credit. And while in an ideal world a choice between serious work and serious friendship would be a nonsense, this was not an ideal world and friendship itself had become a nonsense; Vivienne cared very little for what people did to each other in its name.

The flow of traffic moved more and more slowly, finally it stopped. ‘A crash,’ someone said, ‘about a kilometre ahead.’ There was nothing to do but turn off the ignition and wait. She opened her bag and took out Daniel’s book,
Dismissal of the Postmodern Sensibility
, an advance copy Daniel had lent her to take on holiday. Now, that was friendship for you. And here was a book: a scathing, disturbing portrait of contemporary Western culture which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would render the serious writer, the artist of any kind, redundant. Daniel was clear: if writing, or any of the arts – architecture, painting, sculpture – were reduced to pastiche, and criticism became little more than a semantic game, the very essence of thought, of analysis, would be lost; where there is neither meaning nor worth, all that remains are games, puzzles, interesting within their own well-defined parameters, but without redemptive trajectories to suggest an ordering of the chaos.

Vivienne had already witnessed the trend in recent academic publications: numerous handsome books purporting to analyse and make sense of the world, and yet they were neglectful of history and disdainful of those ideas that might prescribe a better future. And it was not simply the closed discursive framework that condemned these books, it was also the language used, a language pummelled beyond recognition. Although Vivienne knew that the collapse of language could not be restricted to academe alone. Everywhere language had been reduced – by routine codes slick
with media fluency, by new words thrown together in haste and old ones discarded carelessly. And as language shrivelled, what was experienced was a simplified, reduced world, a life at the surface, with few questions, few problems and simple reflexive answers. She turned the pages of Daniel’s book, her mind on, the times in which they lived. Theirs was an age confined by the sticky reins of habit, when, given certain routines and certain material comforts – the house, the car, the latest technologies – people were happy with their answers, a smug happiness that would not bear witness to itself. This was an age suffering from the demise of language and reason, an age in which people resented the fact they did not have the latest appliances, but did not resent their own ignorance.

She had tried to die once, it was the great failure of her life. It takes away your confidence to try again. And yet was there a future, a future other than silence? You do your work and write your books because you believe the world can accommodate scrutiny, that improvement is possible. If you can no longer justify that belief then the options are clear: there is crime, Raskolnikov’s choice, there is death, Sylvia Plath’s resort, there is retreat Wittgenstein, there is terrorism. But what if none of these appeal? What happens if, through stupidity, boredom, perhaps some quirky misplaced moral tenacity, you refuse to let go of your work? How will it be possible to penetrate reality in a world where every phrase, every gesture has become shrouded in convention and fortified by personal ambition? How is it possible to peel back the surface structure and reach the deep? Vivienne the linguist, enclosed in her car, smiled: she made so little use of formal linguistics, perhaps she would do better to treat the entire discipline as metaphor! What are the options when the excavation of meaning becomes such heavy work that after the rubbish is cleared away, the harnesses that direct our behaviours and camouflage truths, one is too exhausted to withstand the derisive blows of those with a different view?

If life were more like literature, she thinks. In literature it is different. For example, one might find in a book the following sentences: ‘Betty said, “I’m so pleased to see you again,” and
offered her hand to John. John made a face, a grimace, that the short-sighted Betty did not see.’ In life, Betty received the greeting, the handshake, an impression of friendship, in literature, the grimace stamped on our mind, we learn the truth. Art is not mindless pastiche, a selection of brightly coloured candy from a display case, but neither is it an imitation of life. What we characteristically see of our lives does not warrant imitation, it is habituated, already repeated over and over again.

Once, writing, painting, criticism showed what is not seen – could be seen but is not. Art promised to be the enemy of habit, but has now fallen hostage to it. You want the truth? Vivienne asks her students, then read a book – but choose carefully. Or shut your eyes and think. Stop the dance for a moment; look for the possibilities, study the depths.

These days there is a belief that everyone is entitled to their own view and that every view is equal. They are not, Vivienne tells her students, but they cannot see this. In a Language and Culture class held just before the semester break, a student described a man and woman she had observed in an elegant restaurant. Throughout the two and a half hours of the meal, with the exception of brief comments about the food, no conversation passed between them. ‘What does that tell you?’ Vivienne asked, ‘What does it say about that young couple?’ ‘Oh I wouldn’t pass judgement on other people,’ the student said, ‘it’s not for me to judge.’ ‘That’s not what I’m asking, I’m asking for explanation, for meaning.’ ‘No you’re not,’ the student said, ‘you want me to criticise them.’ ‘No,’ said Vivienne, ‘I am wanting you to think.’

Seeing is like a camera, but thinking, understanding, both of which require memory, are of quite a different order. Proust wrote: ‘the past is like a photographic dark-room encumbered with innumerable negatives which remain useless because the intellect has not developed them’. Kate was a good example, all she did was take her photographs and file them. She pulls one out, talks about it, puts it away, pulls out another, talks, puts it away. She does not think about the connections between things.

‘An hour is not merely an hour,’ Proust wrote. But it seems it is becoming more so.

So what about the artist? Vivienne wonders. What about those people who make a commitment to do the work, stay with the work? The sun may rise and beckon with its warmth, the voices of companions might implore, the greatest show on earth may be passing the door, but because art is not an imitation of life there is no need to respond; and if you leave the sentence hanging or the paint dripping you cannot be sure that your brush or your pen will be taken up by another.

And if the people cease to reflect, as it appears they have done, what then? Crime? Death? Withdrawal? Silence? Terrorism? If you say none of these, if you say that all you can do is paint or write then there is nothing else to do but to paint or write. It is an old problem: Raskolnikov’s society was no more willing to house the thinker than our own.

So what’s to be done. Keep writing? Keep looking? Keep waiting for the gaze that will meet your own? Or do you try it again? Do you return to that decrepit bed-sit at the top of a dingy rooming house deep within a clapped-out London suburb? Do you sit in the armchair, not the one on which a former tenant has carved a swastika into the wooden armrest, but the other one? Do you line up your favourite books on the mantelpiece so you might die in the best of company? Do you wait until midnight on a Friday night, knowing your friends are away for the weekend and you are entirely alone? Do you swallow your barbiturates, with water not whisky for you do not want to vomit, and watch the covers of your books grow blurry?

And how can you know you will succeed? For there are, without doubt, certain things, in life now and not in books, that you cannot know beforehand. You cannot know, not in life, that Daniel would have a fight with his lover, cannot know that in the middle of the night he would take the car but not the keys to his flat and drive back to London. Cannot know that he has left his locked flat and is driving to your place where you sleep in the heaviest of sleeps, a little bit of life trickling down your chin, nor that he would see your light – it asks too much to die in the dark – and knows you are in your room and makes such a noise that the landlady, her beehive hairstyle falling to one side, lets him in the front door and
then into your flat. You cannot know that Daniel who had an argument with Lorenzo would arrive at your London flat at four o’clock on a Saturday morning and catch you before you were dying. He saved you. He was apologetic, knowing you always behave responsibly, but, he said, it is against nature to allow someone to die.

Keep writing, keep looking, or try it again? Vivienne made the choice years ago, and yet it was important to keep asking the question. There would be another book at the end of the year and another two years after that. A fair and reasonable thing to do.

The traffic began to move and twenty minutes later Vivienne was home to her converted stables at the rear of an old bakery. The bakery had ceased to function long ago and was now home to quiet people, a retired couple who, in the amiable sun of spring and autumn, would sit on the small patch of green that separated the stables from the house, sit with their dog, their books, occasionally with friends, sit at the edge of Vivienne’s life. All very quiet, strangely so for this inner-city area, and with a sense of space. Perhaps it was the rare patch of inner-city green, perhaps the fact that neither the bakery nor the stable had a street frontage, just a seldom-used cobbled lane that offered protection against the traffic. Whatever the reason, there was repose in the old bricks and mortar.

She unloaded her work from the car and took it up the narrow staircase to the upper storey which served as both study and bedroom. There she arranged her papers, everything in its place, ready for the morning. She returned to the car and emptied it, clothes to the bedroom, food to the kitchen – Kate had wanted none of it because of her diet. In the refrigerator was a dish and a note: ‘Welcome home. A curry for the returned traveller. Rice in the oven, just requires heating. Ring me so we can meet, I need to hear your opinion before the critics attack. Daniel.’

Vivienne smiled, put the curry in the oven and turned on the gas. She walked to the telephone to ring Daniel and was stopped by the sight of
Doublet
, Elizabeth’s sculpture. A card was caught at the base of the statue. She drew it out, Elizabeth’s handwriting:
I would like to give this to you myself

with my love
.

Dear Elizabeth, it was just this response that had prevented Vivienne from telling her how much she wanted the sculpture. She dialled Elizabeth’s number, they spoke briefly, Vivienne protested, Elizabeth insisted. ‘It is as it should be,’ Elizabeth said. And when Vivienne hung up she stood there a long time stroking the cold smooth stone, stroking and thinking, a faint smile on her face. Then she carried the sculpture to the sideboard and placed it next to her mother’s work.

Finally she rang Daniel. What would I do without you? she said, and laughed at Daniel’s reply. But why would I bother, she responded, when you take care of all my needs: curry for my body the book for my mind. Yes, she had finished it, it was brilliant, he ought to be proud. She was looking forward to speaking with him about it. Tomorrow evening was perfect. Her place at six.

She filtered through the mail while eating dinner – little of interest – and added it to a pile which included one of Adrian’s tinfoil invitations. ‘You’ll come?’ Elizabeth had asked when the invitation arrived. ‘You’ll come,’ Kate had insisted as she walked with Vivienne along the beach. And she probably would. ‘To collect data,’ she said to Kate. ‘If it would help,’ she said to Elizabeth.

She ate a large meal, Daniel was an excellent cook, read again from his book and, shortly before ten, went up to bed. From her bed – the room was now dark – she saw the sky. A bright sky, the moon recently full, the stars surprisingly clear. She expected to lie awake thinking of Daniel’s book, instead it was Himmelfarb who entered her mind and stayed there even while she slept.

BOOK: Gracious Living
11.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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