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Authors: Nicholas Murray

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BOOK: Remembering Carmen
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“The fact is you do understand. It's just that you aren't prepared to indulge her.”

“Coming back to what you said about success not being good for her. What did you mean exactly?”

“She can't seem to handle it in the way that it ought to be handled – with both hands outstretched and begging for more. It doesn't last so you should bank it up, make the most of it while you can. But she's always at odds with it. I don't know why.”

“The usual suspects. Guilt. Puritanism. The English class-fetish.”

“Something like that. I think she quarrels with Christopher about it. Her discontent is dumped on him. I wonder if she wouldn't have been happier in some more modest way of life, back in the provinces, living in a calmer atmosphere.”

“There's not much likelihood of that. She's like a junkie. She can't shake off the addiction to work, her restlessness and febrile energy. She has a terror of standing still and contemplating her own thoughts.”

“I'm glad you're not like that, Jimmy. The world needs more people like you. Oases of calm.”

The long wait for the main course was over. Unobtrusively, Jimmy's duck and Alice's wafer-thin lamb were spooned from silver salvers, their glasses topped up. It is strange, he found himself thinking, how forgetful we can be of sexual passion. How calmly we can sit and talk to the person we have known through intimate physical encounter. His affair with Alice had lasted, intermittent as it was, for nearly four years. Yet it was now quite over and unthinkable that they should ever breathe on its embers. He admired her nonetheless. He thought she had made light of the need that drove her to her self-inventions, of the difficulty of her beginnings. But then her beauty had been a natural gift that others envied and which opened doors. All she needed to do was to be its good steward. Her ease with herself was rooted in the knowledge that she had lived in the only way possible. She had discovered the law of her own nature and had allowed it scope. She had put no obstacles in its way. She had allowed none of its fruits to wither on the vine. Carmen had not been so lucky. With equal gifts she had not been able to match her talent to her sense of herself. Goaded by a profound unease, she had bumped and grated against the conditions life had offered her. She was condemned, it seemed, to a life of perpetual discontent.

Opportunistically, it seemed to Jimmy, her various lovers had taken advantage of this – and in what way was he different? They had been there when she had sought to fling herself against them, to whirl away from the situation that was vexing her. A new relationship, with its incipient excitements and diversions, harnessed her prodigal energies and sent her forward. They had known – he had known – the extraordinary experience of being loved by Carmen, the way she could give with such generosity of spirit in spite of her love of contention and conflict. No one who had shared Carmen's life would ever speak of her without acknowledging this. With Christopher, it seemed, she had found a more permanent relationship, an equipoise. Jimmy found himself hoping (hypocrite that he must seem) that they would find themselves again.

After lunch he bade farewell to Alice, took her hands in his and kissed them in a form of ritual obeisance which she had come to take for granted as the world's gift to her. He left her walking in the direction of the Metro while he set off in the opposite direction, towards the river. Summer tourists had thickened the usual crowds on the
. The traffic seemed louder, his need for some reflective silence greater as he crossed the Seine. He walked on, towards the gardens of the Grand Palais where he sat on a bench for what seemed a very long time. Then he recalled an occasion with Alice, when they had found a little shop in a nearby arcade. He sprang to his feet and soon found that it was still there, selling musical boxes with a variety of tunes, traditional and contemporary. Thinking to play a joke on Carmen he bought a small wooden box which, opening, played the
. He had always been surprised that Carmen – though occasionally making those vaguely left-wing noises that well-off upwardly mobile people make at English dinner parties – seemed never to connect her social rage to any coherent politics. He had recently challenged her on this and her excuse was that “politics have been abolished” by the contemporary practitioners – dull and visionless as he was compelled to agree they were – and that nothing could be expected from that quarter. He was still unsatisfied at her readiness to acquiesce in this collapse of the responsible public sphere. With her experience and energy and disposition she should have been at the forefront of the battle to radicalise her crumbling, ancestor-worshipping, insular polity. But she had abandoned it – like so many of the best and brightest of her generation – to its somnolent decay. Jimmy knew that he was in a weak position for berating her. His rootless cosmopolitanism (he was on no voters' register) and his total commitment to his music made him an effete force in this important argument.

Jimmy stepped out onto the gravel walk of the Grand Palais and opened the lid of the box. Its tiny tune strained to make an impact in this large and open space. An elderly woman (he thought of the tutelary spirit of this place, Colette) pulled along by her white poodle, caught the outline of the tune as he passed. She smiled at him a knowing smile. An old Communist perhaps. Or merely a metropolitan cynic – tolerant and sardonic – amused at the silly foible of another passer-by. He snapped the lid shut and slipped it back into its presentation box. Time was passing and he was due to catch the late train back to London. He set off to his hotel at a brisk pace to collect his baggage, threading his way through the tourists who once again dominated every inch of pavement. Jimmy wondered how long it would be after he returned to London before he began to confront the question of whether he should contact Carmen again.

Carmen went back to Jimmy. She knew that she should not have gone back. It was the third time that she had done this to Christopher – for that is how she saw things now. Later, freed from the reasons that she was able to advance to herself at that time, she could see what the real nature of her actions was. It was clear to her that she had betrayed him. That is not a term she would once have used but now she had a decided preference for these old-fashioned but vigorous terms. Betrayal of trust, deceit, lies. Who knows, she laughed to herself, I may one day come to see myself as a wicked strumpet. Three times the cock crowed. Three times the choice was presented and the same option taken. Three times she allowed herself to do the wrong thing. In her earlier, libertarian, period such a construction would have seemed laughable. Bourgeois guilt, bourgeois morality, bourgeois possessiveness. Capitalism's acquisitive, male-dominated, hierarchical ethic reaching into the bedroom itself. How cleverly they deconstructed all that, exposed its shyly covered limbs, mocking those who had not attained to the same degree of insight. It astonished her to think how confident they were that they knew all the answers. For now she knew one thing only, one big thing. She had lost the only man in her life who loved her without reserve or calculation. She could not even say that she lost him. She threw him away. Wilfully.

Perhaps it was Jimmy's naturally nomadic way of living. Perhaps it was his fondness for a stylish backdrop, but their affairs always seemed to be played out on a foreign stage. It helped Carmen to create a sense of distance. In his case it was perhaps a matter of avoiding embarrassments. It gave them the illusion of a newly stretched canvas on which they could begin to execute the work in progress.

What was that work?

It was – take for granted the mutual pleasure, the symbiotic motions of desire – a way of escape. More so for her than for him, she later became convinced. She was ostensibly in flight from a pack of unassuageable demons but in reality from herself only. He was someone who was easily bored because so many of his pleasures and satisfactions were so lightly won (a fact he contested hotly; it was the ground of many of their quarrels). A change of scene was tonic in itself for him. Carmen was the additional ingredient.

And so she joined him on a flight to the USA. He was taking part in another of his convocations of new music at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. It was to be a mixture of performance and seminar, master-class and theory-session. Jimmy loved these events, the higher sort of adulation, the opportunities – which he genuinely seized, for he loved the work under examination – to explore the music, but also to display himself. Jimmy's vanity was real but engaging. He was not lordly or arrogant in person but as a performer he relished the public display, the small stratagems of the honoured virtuoso, the wooing and the foreplay with a rapt audience, the excited consummation. Carmen loved it too for she could see that this was his business, this was the core of his creative life, the thing that he did best and enjoyed doing best. It made her restless also for she knew that she did not fulfil her own desires with an equal passion. She had only success – which is a poor thing in comparison. Was this, for her, the secret of his attraction? Was she drawn, irresistibly, to this marvel of an individual who had found the Holy Grail, who was doing what he wanted to do and had, at the moment of intense performance, no wish to do any other thing? She was to become convinced that it was this aspect of Jimmy that beguiled her, troubled her, reproached her, held her fast in its fatal glamour.

This time, Christopher knew where she was going and with whom. The night before she left he was working late. They ate separately. They said little when he returned, dog-tired. There was no argument, no hostility, only a kind of sullen silence that could have been either resentful or resigned. When Carmen left at four to make her way to the airport he was asleep. She did not wake him, creeping away like the guilty thing she so palpably was. If she had thought more clearly about what she was doing, later reflection told her, she should have known what the likely outcome of all this would be. But at moments like these one does not think. That is rather the point of them.

Carmen had always loved the American South, having wandered in the past through Mississipi, Alabama, Louisiana and neighbouring states. She loved the slowness of the life, the lushness laced with the terrible memories of what human beings there have done to each other. Virginia seemed a part of this, to a lesser degree, but Charlottesville, with its lovely neo-classical Jeffersonian nonsense and Ivy League trappings, had its mind on other things. They spent a week there. Carmen listened to the concerts and attended a couple of lectures but was repelled by the jargon-ridden thinness of the latter. She was treating the week in part as a rest cure and, instead of exploring her leafy surroundings, she would spend hours lying on the vast field of the motel's king-size bed, sleeping or reading, or reviewing her life. This last occupation was always unsatisfactory, for her excursions refused to travel on new tracks. They began from the same old starting-points and ended with the same conclusions. She could not seem to break out of the framework she had constructed around herself. It was meant to be a triumph, a happy vindication of the new century's values: the worship of success, enterprise, the culture of money. But it did not satisfy her. Politics were moribund – but had never been of any interest to her. They spoke a dead language of morality and responsibility and commitment which she believed had been rejected by the young people she wrote for. (It was a cardinal belief of her profession that its members knew what their readers wanted, that they could second-guess with certainty their inmost thoughts. They were of course wrong, but that is another story.) Consumerism was both political ideology and religion and seemed desired by the whole globe. Carmen was a votary. She worshipped money and goods with a passion second to none. But she was not happy.

One night Jimmy took her to a restaurant with a little garden behind it. They were grateful for the chance to eat outside, for the summer night was humid. At the end of the meal he brought out a small present for her. It was tightly-wrapped up in a box and turned out to be a musical box. She could see that it was not expensive and had been intended playfully. She lifted the lid and it began to play a tune she did not recognise. It reminded her of a pious object she had been given in her childhood by a sanctimonious aunt who had made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. As she recalled, it was a grey metal statuette of the Virgin, under whose pink naked feet on a rock, the workings of a musical box were concealed which played the hymn:
Ave Maria
. It played one of those laborious, plodding hymn tunes that she associated in her mind with summer Sundays and devout processions in which she would form part of the pretty phalanx of girls in white satin who strewed petals on the ground before the statue of the Madonna, borne high on the shoulders of doddering men as if it were a funeral bier.

“What do you think?” Jimmy asked her.

“It's nice but I'm afraid I don't recognise the tune.”


“It doesn't sound like anything I'm going to hear in the course of this week.”

“Quite. I don't think Varèse has reached the musical box industry yet. But I'm surprised you haven't heard it.
The Internationale

“Oh, I've come across the name but I don't think I've ever heard the tune.”

“We used to chant it on student demonstrations.”

“I didn't think you were the marching type.”

“Oh, that was in the Seventies. After which I reverted to type as the odious bourgeois. But with your passion for the folk memory of the working classes I'd have thought you would know it by heart: ‘Arise ye starvelings from your slumber'.”

BOOK: Remembering Carmen
6.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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