Authors: A.S. Byatt
Gerda Himmelblau folds the photocopy again and puts it back into her handbag. She then reads the personal letter which came with it.
Dear Dr Himmelblau,
I am sending you a complaint about a horible experience I have had. Please take it seriously and please help me. I am so unhapy, I have so little confidence in myself, I spend days and days just lying in bed wondering what is the point of geting up. I try to live for my work but I am very easily discouraged and sometimes everything seems so black and pointless it is almost hystericaly funny to think of twisting up bits of wire or modeling plasticine. Why bother I say to myself and realy there isn’t any answer. I realy think I might be better off dead and after such an experience as I have just had I do slip back towards that way of thinking of thinking
puting an end to it all. The doctor at the Health Centre said just try to snap out of it what does
know? He ought to listen to people he can’t realy know what individual people might do if they did
as he puts it out of it, anyway out of what does he mean, snap
out of what? The dead are snaped
black plastic sacks I have seen it on television body bags they are called. I realy think a lot about being a body in a black bag that is what I am good for. Please help me Dr Himmelblau. I frighten myself and the contempt of others is the last straw snap snap snap snap.
Yours sort of hopefully,
Dr Himmelblau sees Peregrine Diss walk past the window with the cheese-plants. He is very tall and very erect—columnar, thinks Gerda Himmelblau—and has a great deal of well-brushed white hair remaining. He is wearing an olive-green cashmere coat with a black velvet collar. He carries a black lacquered walking-stick, with a silver knob, which he does not lean on, but swings. Once inside the door, observed by but not observing Dr Himmelblau, he studies the little god in his green shade, and then stands and looks gravely down on the lobster, the crabs, and the scallops. When he has taken them in he nods to them, in a kind of respectful acknowledgement, and proceeds into the body of the restaurant, where the younger Chinese woman takes his coat and stick and bears them away. He looks round and
sees his host. They are the only people in the restaurant; it is early.
‘Professor Diss. Please sit down. I should have asked whether you like Chinese food—I just thought this place might be convenient for both of us—’
‘Chinese food—well-cooked, of course—is one of the great triumphs
the human species. Such delicacy, such intricacy, such simplicity, and
so peaceful in
the ageing stomach.’
‘I like the food here. It has certain subtleties one discovers as one goes on. I have noticed that the restaurant is frequented by large numbers of real Chinese people—families—which is always a good sign. And the fish and vegetables are always fresh, which is another.’
‘I shall ask you to be my guide through the plethora of the menu. I do not think I can face Fried Crispy Bowels, however much, in principle, I believe in venturing into the unknown. Are you partial to steamed oysters with ginger and spring onions? So intense, so
‘I have never had them—’
‘Please try. They bear no relation to cold oysters,
whatever you think of those. Which of the duck dishes do you think is the most succulent… ?’
They chat agreeably, composing a meal with elegant variations, a little hot flame of chilli here, a ghostly fragrant sweetness of lychee there, the slaty tang of black beans, the elemental earthy crispness of beansprouts. Gerda Himmelblau looks at her companion, imagining him willy-nilly engaging in the assault described by Peggi Nollett. His skin is tanned, and does not hang in pouches or folds, although it is engraved with crisscrossing lines of very fine wrinkles absolutely all over—brows, cheeks, neck, the armature of the mouth, the eye-corners, the nostrils, the lips themselves. His eyes are a bright cornflower blue, and must, Dr Himmelblau thinks, have been quite extraordinarily beautiful when he was a young man in the 1930s. They are still surprising, though veiled now with jelly and liquid, though bloodshot in the corners. He wears a bright cornflower-blue tie, in rough silk, to go with them, as they must have been, but also as they still are. He wears a corduroy suit, the colour of dark slate. He wears a large signet ring, lapis lazuli, and his hands, like his face, are mapped with wrinkles but still handsome. He looks both fastidious,
and marked by ancient indulgence and dissipation, Gerda Himmelblau thinks, fancifully, knowing something of his history, the bare gossip, what everyone knows.
She produces the document during the first course, which is glistening viridian seaweed, and prawn and sesame toasts. She says,
‘I have had this rather unpleasant letter which I must talk to you about. It seemed to me important to discuss it informally and in an unofficial context, so to speak. I don’t know if it will come as surprise to you.’
Perry Diss reads quickly, and empties his glass of Tiger beer, which is quickly replaced with another by the middle-aged Chinese man.
‘Poor little bitch,’ says Perry Diss. ‘What a horrible state of mind to be in. Whoever gave her the idea that she had any artistic talent ought to be shot.’
Don’t say bitch, Gerda Himmelblau tells him in her head, wincing.
‘Do you remember the occasion she complains of?’ she asks carefully.
‘Well, in a way I do, in a way. Her account isn’t very recognisable. We did meet last week to discuss her complete
lack of progress on her dissertation—she appears indeed to have
since she put in her proposal, which I am glad to say I was
responsible for accepting. She has forgotten several of the meagre facts she once knew, or appeared to know, about Matisse. I do not see how she can
be given a degree—she is ignorant and lazy and pigheadedly misdirected—and I felt it my duty to tell her so. In my experience, Dr Himmelblau, a lot of harm has been done by misguided kindness to lazy and ignorant students who have been cosseted and
and never told they are not up to scratch.’
‘That may well be the case. But she makes specific allegations—you went to her studio—’
‘Oh yes. I went. I am not as brutal as I appear. I did try to give her the benefit of the doubt. That part of her account bears some resemblance to the truth—that is, to what I remember of those very disagreeable events. I did say something about the inarticulacy of painters and so on—you can’t have worked in art schools as long as I have without knowing that some can use words and some can only use materials—it’s interesting how you can’t always predict
‘Anyway, I went and looked at her so-called Work.
The phraseology is catching. “So-called”. A pantechnicon contemporary term of abuse.’
‘The work is
, Dr Himmelblau. It disgusts. It desecrates. Her studio—in which the poor creature also eats and sleeps—is papered with posters of Matisse’s work.
La Rive. Le Nu rose. Le Nu bleu. Grande Robe bleue. La Musique. L’Artiste et son modèle. Zorba sur la terrasse.
And they have all been smeared and defaced. With what looks like
—blood, Dr Himmelblau, beef stew or faeces—I incline towards the latter since I cannot imagine good daube finding its way into that miserable tenement. Some of the daubings are deliberate reworkings of bodies or faces—changes of outlines—some are like thrown tomatoes—probably
thrown tomatoes—and eggs, yes—and some are
great swastikas of shit.
It is appalling. It is pathetic.’
‘It is no doubt meant to disgust and desecrate,’ states Dr Himmelblau, neutrally.
‘And what does that matter?
How can that excuse it?
roars Perry Diss, startling the younger Chinese woman, who is lighting the wax lamps under the plate warmer, so that she jumps back.
‘In recent times,’ says Dr Himmelblau, ‘art has traditionally had an element of protest.’
‘Traditional protest, hmph,’
shouts Perry Diss, his neck reddening. ‘Nobody minds protest, I’ve protested in my time, we all have, you aren’t the real thing if you don’t have a go at being shocking, protest is
de rigeur, I know.
But what I object to here, is the shoddiness, the laziness. It
seems to me
—forgive me, Dr Himmelblau—but this—this
offends something I do hold sacred, a word that would make that little bitch
, no doubt, but sacred, yes—it seems to me, that if she could have produced
of those—those masterpieces—those shining—never mind—if she could have
done some work
—understood the blues, and the pinks, and the whites, and the oranges, yes, and the blacks too—and if she could still have brought herself to feel she must—must
them—then I would have had to feel some respect.’
‘You have to be careful about the word masterpieces,’ murmurs Dr Himmelblau.
‘Oh, I know all that stuff, I know it well. But you have got to listen to me. It can have taken at the maximum
half an hour
—and there’s no evidence anywhere in the silly
girl’s work that she’s ever spent more than that actually
a Matisse—she has no accurate memory of one when we talk,
, she amalgamates them all in her mind into one monstrous female corpse bursting with male aggression—she can’t
, can’t you see? And for half an hour’s shit-spreading we must give her a degree?’
‘Matisse,’ says Gerda Himmelblau, ‘would sometimes make a mark, and consider, and put the canvas away for weeks or months until he
where to put the next mark.’
‘Well—the—the shit-spreading may have required the same consideration. As to location of daubs.’
‘Don’t be silly. I
paintings, you know. I did look to see if there was any wit in where all this detritus was applied. Any visual
, you know, I know it’s meant to be funny. There wasn’t. It was just slapped on. It was horrible.’
‘It was meant to disturb you. It disturbed you.’
‘Look—Dr Himmelblau—whose side are you on? I’ve read your Mantegna monograph.
it is a
this stuff? Have you for that matter
‘I am not on anyone’s
, Professor Diss. I am the Dean of Women Students, and I have received a formal complaint against you, about which I have to take formal action. And that could be, in the present climate, very disturbing for me, for the Department, for the University, and for yourself. I may be exceeding my strict duty in letting you know of this in this informal way. I am very anxious to know what you have to say in answer to her specific charge.
‘And yes, I have seen Peggi Nollett. Frequently. And her work, on one occasion.’
‘Well then. If you have seen her you will know that I can have made no such—no such
as she describes. Her skin is like
and her body is like a
, in all that great bundle of smocks and vests and knitwear and penitential hangings. Have you seen her legs and arms, Dr Himmelblau? They are bandaged like mummies, they are all swollen with strapping and strings and then they are contained in nasty black greaves and gauntlets of plastic with buckles. You expect
some awful yellow ooze to seep out between the layers, ready to be smeared on
La Joie de vivre.
And her hair, I do not think her hair can have been washed for some years. It is like a carefully preserved old frying-pan, grease undisturbed by water. You
I could have brought myself to touch her, Dr Himmelblau?’
‘It is difficult, certainly.’
‘It is impossible. I may have told her that she would be better if she wore fewer layers—I may even, imprudently—thinking, you understand, of potatoes—have said something about letting the air get to her. But I assure you that was as far as it went. I was trying against my instincts to converse with her as a human being. The rest is her horrible fantasy. I hope you will believe me, Dr Himmelblau. You yourself are about the only almost-witness I can call in my defence.’
‘I do believe you,’ says Gerda Himmelblau, with a little sigh.
‘Then let that be the end of the matter,’ says Perry Diss. ‘Let us enjoy these delicious morsels and talk about something more agreeable than Peggi Nollett. These prawns are as good as I have ever had.’
‘It isn’t so simple, unfortunately. If she does not withdraw her complaint you will both be required to put your cases to the Senate of the University. And the University will be required—by a rule made in the days when university senates had authority and power and
—to retain QCs to represent both of you, should you so wish. And in the present climate I am very much afraid that whatever the truth of the matter, you will lose your job, and whether you do or don’t lose it there will be disagreeable protests and demonstrations against you, your work, your continued presence in the University. And the Vice-Chancellor will fear the effect of the publicity on the funding of the College—and the course, which is the only Joint Honours Course of its kind in London—may have to close. It is
seen by our profit-oriented masters as an essential part of our new—“Thrust”, I think they call it. Our students do not contribute to the export drive—’
‘I don’t see why not. They can’t
be Peggi Nolletts. I was about to say—have another spoonful of bamboo-shoots and beansprouts—I was about to say, very well, I’ll resign on the spot and save you any further bother. But I don’t think I can do that. Because I won’t give in to
lies and blackmail. And because that woman
isn’t an artist
, and should not have a degree. And because of Matisse.’