Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
I can’t go on any more. I’m so sorry if this hurts you. Please believe that I’m sorry, please don’t be angry with me for knowing you will be hurt. I can hear you saying, I’m not hurt.
I got so terribly lonely and depressed. I haven’t told you how much, I can’t tell you how much. Those first days I kept up such a brave front at work, and then at home I collapsed.
I’m sleeping with Pete again when he’s in London. It started two weeks ago. Please
believe me that I wouldn’t be if I thought … you know. I know you know. I don’t feel about him as I used to do, and I don’t begin to feel about him as I felt about you, you
It’s just he’s so uncomplicated, he stops me thinking, he stops me being lonely, I’ve sunk back into all the old Australians-in-London thing again. We may marry. I don’t know.
It’s terrible. I still want to write to you, and you to me. I keep on remembering.
You will be different for me. Always. That very first letter I wrote the day you left. If you could only understand.
I wrote a letter in reply to say that I had been expecting her letter, that she was perfectly free. But I tore it up. If anything might hurt her, silence would; and I wanted to hurt her.
I was hopelessly unhappy in those last few days before the Christmas holidays. I began to loathe the school irrationally: the way it worked and the way it was planted, blind and prisonlike, in the heart of the divine landscape. When Alison’s letters stopped, I was also increasingly isolated in a more conventional way. The outer world, England, London, became absurdly and sometimes terrifyingly unreal. The two or three Oxford friends I had kept up a spasmodic correspondence with sank beneath the horizon. I used to hear the B.B.C. Overseas Service from time to time, but the news broadcasts seemed to come from the moon, and concerned situations and a society I no longer belonged to, while the rare newspapers from England that I saw became more and more like their own ‘One hundred years ago today’ features. The whole island seemed to feel this exile from contemporary reality. The harbour quays were always crowded for hours before the daily boat from Athens appeared on the northeastern horizon; even though people knew that it would stop for only five minutes, that probably not five passengers would get off, or five get on, they had to watch. It was as if we were all convicts still hoping faintly for a reprieve.
Yet the island “was so beautiful. Near Christmas the weather became wild and cold. Enormous seas of pounding Antwerp blue roared on the shingle of the school beaches. The mountains on the mainland took snow, and magnificent white shoulders out of Hokusai stood west and north across the angry water. The hills became even barer, even more silent. I often started off on a walk out of sheer boredom, but there were always new solitudes, new places. Yet in the end this unflawed natural world became intimidating. I seemed to have no place in it, I could not use it and I was not made for it. I was a townsman; and I was rootless. I rejected my own age, yet could not sink back into an older. So I ended like Sciron, a mid-air man.
The Christmas holidays came. I went off to travel round the Peloponnesus. I had to be alone, to give myself a snatch of life away from the school. If Alison had been free, I would have flown back to England to meet her. I had thoughts of resigning; but then that seemed a retreat, another failure, and I told myself that things would be better once spring began. So I had Christmas alone in Sparta and I saw the New Year in alone in Pyrgos. I had a day in Athens before I caught the boat back to Phraxos, and visited the brothel again.
I thought very little about Alison, but I felt about her; that is, I tried to erase her, and failed. I had days when I thought I could stay celibate for the rest of my life – monastic days; and days when I ached for a conversable girl. The island women were of Albanian stock, dour and sallow-faced, and about as seducible as a Free Church congregation. Much more tempting were some of the boys, possessors of an olive grace and a sharp individuality that made them very different from their stereotyped English private-school equivalents – those uniformed pink ants out of the Arnold mould. I had Gide-like moments, but they were not reciprocated, because nowhere is pederasty more abominated than in bourgeois Greece; there at least Arnold would have felt thoroughly at home. Besides, I wasn’t queer; I simply understood (nailing a lie in my own education) how being queer might have its consolations. It was not only the solitude – it was Greece. It made conventional English notions of what was moral and immoral ridiculous; whether or not I did the socially unforgivable seemed in itself merely a matter of appetite, like smoking or not smoking a new brand of cigarette – as trivial as that, from a moral point of view. Goodness and beauty may be separable in the north, but not in Greece. Between skin and skin there is only light.
And there was my poetry. I had begun to write poems about the island, about Greece, that seemed to me philosophically profound and technically exciting. I dreamt more and more of literary success. I spent hours staring at the wall of my room, imagining reviews, letters written to me by celebrated fellow-poets, fame and praise and still more fame. I did not at that time know Emily Dickinson’s great definition, her ‘Publication is not the business of poets’; being a poet is all, being known as a poet is nothing. The onanistic literary picture of myself I caressed up out of reality began to dominate my life. The school became a convenient scapegoat – how could one compose flawless verse if one was surrounded by futile routine?
But then, one bleak March Sunday, the scales dropped from my eyes. I read the Greek poems and saw them for what they were: undergraduate pieces, without rhythm, without structure, their banalities of perception clumsily concealed under an impasto of lush rhetoric. In horror I turned to other poems I had written-at Oxford, in East Anglia. They were no better; even worse. The truth rushed down on me like a burying avalanche. I was not a poet.
I felt no consolation in this knowledge, but only a red anger that evolution could allow such sensitivity and such inadequacy to coexist in the same mind. In one ego, my ego, screaming like a hare caught in a gin. Taking all the poems I had ever written, page by slow page, I tore each one into tiny fragments, till my fingers ached.
Then I went for a walk in the hills, even though it was very cold and began to pour with rain. The whole world had finally declared itself against me. Here was something I could not shrug off, an absolute condemnation. One aspect of even my worse experiences had always been that they were fuel, ore; finally utilizable, not all waste and suffering. Poetry had always seemed something I could turn to in need – an emergency exit, a lifebuoy, as well as a justification. Now I was in the sea, and the lifebuoy had sunk, like lead. It was an effort not to cry tears of self-pity. My face set into a stiff mask, like that of an acroterion. I walked for hours and I was in hell.
One kind of person is engaged in society without realizing it; another kind engages in society by controlling it. The one is a gear, a cog, and the other an engineer, a driver. But a person who has opted out has only his ability to express his disengagement between his existence and nothingness. Not
scribo, pingo, ergo sum.
For days after I felt myself filled with nothingness; with something more than the old physical and social loneliness – a metaphysical sense of being marooned. It was something almost tangible, like cancer or tuberculosis.
Then one day, not a week later, it was tangible: I woke up one morning and found I had two sores. I had been half expecting them. In late February I had gone to Athens, and paid another visit to the house in Kephissia. I knew I had taken a risk. At the time it hadn’t seemed to matter.
For a day I was too shocked to act. There were two doctors in the village: one active, who had the school in his practice, and one, a taciturn old Rumanian, who though semi-retired still took a few patients. The school doctor was in and out of the common-room continually. I couldn’t go to him. So I went to see Dr Patarescu.
He looked at the sores, and then at me, and shrugged.
‘On va voir ça à Athènes. Je vous donnerai une adresse. C’est bien à
que vous l.avez attrapé, oui?’
‘Les poules là-bas. Infectes. Seulement les fous qui s’y laissent
He had an old yellow face and pince-nez; a malicious smile. My questions amused him. The chances were I could be cured; I was not contagious but I must have no sex, he could have treated me if he had had the right drug, benzathine penicillin, but he could not get it. He had heard one could get it at a certain private clinic in Athens, but I would have to pay through the nose; it would be eight weeks before we could be sure it had worked. He answered all my questions drily; all he could offer was the ancient arsenic and bismuth treatment, and I must in any case have a laboratory test first. He had long ago been drained of all sympathy for humanity, and he watched me with tortoise eyes as I put down the fee.
I stood in his doorway, still foolishly trying for his sympathy.
‘Je suis maudit.’
He shrugged, and showed me out, totally indifferent, a sere notifier of what is.
It was too horrible. There was still a week to the end of term, and I thought of leaving at once and going back to England. Yet I couldn’t bear the idea of London, and there was a sort of anonymity in Greece, if not on the island. I didn’t really trust Dr Patarescu; one or two of the older masters were his cronies and I knew they often saw him for whist. I searched every smile, every word spoken to me, for a reference to what had happened; and I thought that the very next day I saw in various eyes a certain dry amusement. One morning during break the headmaster said, ‘Cheer up,
Urfe, or we shall say the beauties of Greece have made you sad.’ I thought this was a direct reference; and the smiles that greeted the remark seemed to me to be more than it merited. Within three days of seeing the doctor I decided that everyone knew about my disease, even the boys. Every time they whispered I heard the word ‘syphilis’.
Suddenly, in that same terrible week, the Greek spring was with us. In only two days, it seemed, the earth was covered with anemones, orchids, asphodels, wild gladioli; for once there were birds everywhere, on migration. Undulating lines of storks croaked overhead, the sky was blue, pure, the boys sang, and even the sternest masters smiled. The world around me took wing, and I was stuck to the ground; a Catullus without talent forced to inhabit a land that was Lesbia without mercy. I had hideous nights, in one of which I wrote a long letter to Alison, trying to explain what had happened to me, how I remembered what she had said in her letter in the canteen, how now I could believe her; how I loathed myself. Even then I managed to sound resentful, for my leaving her began to seem like the last and the worst of my bad gambles. I might have married her; at least I should have had a companion in the desert.
I did not post the letter, but again and again, night after night, I thought of suicide. It seemed to me that death had marked my family down, right back to those two uncles I had never known, one killed at Ypres and the other at Passchendaele; then my parents. All violent, pointless deaths, lost gambles. I was worse off than even Alison was; she hated life, I hated myself. I had created nothing, I belonged to nothingness, to the
and it seemed to me that my own death was the only thing left that I could create; and still, even then, I thought it might accuse everyone who had ever known me. It would validate all my cynicism, it would prove all my solitary selfishness; it would stand, and be remembered, as a final dark victory.
The day before term ended I felt the balance tip. I knew what to do. The gatekeeper at the school had an old twelve-bore, which he had once offered to lend me if I wanted to go shooting in the hills. I went and asked to borrow it. He was delighted and loaded my pocket with cartridges; the pine-forests were full of passage quail.
I walked up a gulley behind the school, climbed to a small saddle, and went into the trees. I was soon in shadow. To the north, across the water, the golden mainland still lay in the sun. The air was very light, warm, the sky of an intense luminous blue. A long way away, above me, I could hear the bells of a flock of goats being brought back to the village for the night. I walked for some time. It was like looking for a place to relieve oneself in; I had to be sure I couldn’t be observed. At last I found a rocky hollow.
I put a cartridge in the gun, and sat on the ground, against the stem of a pine tree. All around me grape hyacinths pushed through the pine-needles. I reversed the gun and looked down the barrel, into the black O of my non-existence. I calculated the angle at which I should have to hold my head. I held the barrel against my right eye, turned my head so that the shot would mash like black lightning through the brain and blast the back wall of my scull off. I reached for the trigger – this was all testing, rehearsing – and found it difficult. In straining forward, I thought I might have to twist my head at the last moment and botch the job, so I searched and found a dead branch that would fit between the guard and the trigger. I took the cartridge out and slipped the stick in, and then sat with the gun between my knees, the soles of my shoes on the stick, the right barrel an inch from my eye. There was a click as the hammer fell. It was simple. I reloaded the cartridge.
From the hills behind came the solitary voice of a girl. She must have been bringing down the goats, and she was singing wildly, at the limit of her uninhibited voice; without any recognizable melody, in Turkish-Muslim intervals. It sounded disembodied, of place, not person. I remembered having heard a similar voice, perhaps this same girl’s, singing one day on the hill behind the school. It had drifted down into the classroom, and the boys had begun to giggle. But now it seemed intensely mysterious, welling out of a solitude and suffering that made mine trivial and absurd. I sat with the gun across my knees, unable to move while the sound floated down through the evening air. I don’t know how long she sang, but the sky darkened, the sea paled to a nacreous grey. Over the moubtains there were pinkish bars of high cloud in the still strong light from the set sun. All the land and the sea held light, as if light was warmth, and did not fade as soon as the source was removed. But the voice dwindled towards the village; then died into silence.