Authors: A.S. Byatt
‘Thank you,’ says Gerda Himmelblau, accepting the vegetables. And, Oh dear yes,’ in response to the declaration of intent. They eat in silence for a moment or two. The Cantonese voice asserts that it is a beautiful miming. Dr Himmelblau says,
‘Peggi Nollett is not well. She is neither physically nor mentally well. She suffers from anorexia. Those clothes are designed to obscure the fact that she has starved herself, apparently, almost to a skeleton.’
‘Not a potato. A fork. A pin. A coathanger. I see.’
‘And is in a very depressed state. There have been at least two suicide bids—to my knowledge.’
‘How do you define serious? Bids that would perhaps have been effective if they had not been well enough signalled—for rescue—’
‘I see. You do know that this does not alter the fact that she has no talent and doesn’t work, and can’t see—’
—if she were well—’
‘Do you think so?’
‘No. On the evidence I have, no.’
Perry Diss helps himself to a final small bowlful of rice. He says,
‘When I was in China, I learned to end a meal with pure rice, quite plain, and to taste every grain. It is one of the most beautiful tastes in the world, freshly-boiled rice. I don’t know if it would be if it was all you had every day, if you were starving. It would be differently delicious, differently haunting, don’t you think? You can’t describe this taste.’
Gerda Himmelblau helps herself, manoeuvres delicately with her chopsticks, contemplates pure rice, says, ‘I see.’
Perry Diss bursts out again, leaning forward. ‘I can see she is ill, poor thing. You can
on her, that she is ill. That alone makes it unthinkable that anyone—that I—should
‘As Dean of Women Students,’ says Gerda Himmelblau thoughtfully, ‘one comes to learn a great deal about anorexia. It appears to stem from self-hatred and inordinate self-absorption. Especially with the body, and with that image of our own body we all carry around with us. One of my colleagues who is a psychiatrist collaborated
with one of your colleagues in Fine Art to produce a series of drawings—clinical drawings in a sense—which I have found most instructive. They show an anorexic person before a mirror, and what
see—staring ribs, hanging skin—and what
sees—grotesque bulges, huge buttocks, puffed cheeks. I have found these most helpful.’
see coathangers and forks, and
sees potatoes and vegetable marrows. There is a painting in that. You could make an interesting painting out of that.’
‘Please—the experience is terrible to her.’
‘Don’t think I don’t know. I am not being flippant, Dr Himmelblau. I am, or was, a serious painter. It is not flippant to see a painting in a predicament. Especially a predicament which is essentially visual, as this is.’
‘I’m sorry. I am trying to think
what to do.
The poor child wishes to annihilate herself.
Not to be’
‘So I understand. But
If she is so obsessed with bodily horrors why does she not obtain employment as an emptier of bedpans or in a maternity ward or a hospice? And if she must take on Art, why does she not rework Giacometti into Maillol, or vice
versa, or take on that old goat, Picasso, who did things to women’s bodies out of genuine
‘Precisely for that reason, as you must know. Because he paints silent bliss.
Luxe, calme et volupté.
How can Peggi Nollett bear luxe, calme et volupté?’
‘When I was a young man,’ says Perry Diss, ‘going through my own Sturm und Drang, I was a bit bored by all that. I remember telling someone—my wife—it all was
easy and flat.
What a fool. And then, one day I saw it. I saw how hard it is to see, and how full of pure power, once seen. Not
, Dr Himmelblau,
life and power!
He leans back, stares into space, and quotes,
‘Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe â la douceur
D’aller la-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer â loisir
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!—
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté
Luxe, calme et volupté.’
Dr Himmelblau, whose own life has contained only a modicum of luxe, calme et volupté, is half-moved, halfexasperated
by the vatic enthusiasm with which Perry Diss intones these words. She says drily,
‘There has always been a resistance to these qualities in Matisse, of course. Feminist critics and artists don’t like him because of the way in which he expands male eroticism into whole placid panoramas of well-being. Marxists don’t like him because he himself said he wanted to paint to please businessmen.’
‘Businessmen and intellectuals,’ says Perry Diss.
‘Intellectuals don’t make it any more acceptable to Marxists.’
‘Look,’ says Perry Diss. ‘Your Miss Nollett wants to shock. She shocks with simple daubings. Matisse was cunning and complex and violent and controlled and
he knew he had to know exactly what he was doing.
He knew the most shocking thing he could tell people about the purpose of his art was that it was designed
to please and to be comfortable.
That sentence of his about the armchair is one of the most wickedly provocative things that has ever been said about painting. You can daub the whole of the Centre Pompidou with manure from top to bottom and you will
shock as many people as Matisse
did by saying art was like an armchair. People remember that with horror who know nothing about the context—’
‘Remind me,’ says Gerda Himmelblau.
‘ “What I dream of, is an art of balance, of purity, of quietness, without any disturbing subjects, without worry, which may be, for everyone who works with the mind, for the businessman as much as for the literary artist, something soothing, something to calm the brain, something analogous to a good armchair which relaxes him from his bodily weariness …”‘
‘It would be perfectly honourable to argue that that was a very
—’ says Gerda Himmelblau.
‘Honourable but impercipient. Who is it that understands
, Dr Himmelblau? Old men like me, who can only just remember their bones not hurting, who remember walking up a hill with a spring in their step like the red of the Red Studio. Blind men who have had their sight restored and get giddy with the colours of trees and plastic mugs and the
of the sky. Pleasure is
, Dr Himmelblau, and most of us don’t have it, or not much, or mess it up, and when we see it in those
blues, those roses, those oranges, that vermilion, we should fall down and worship—for it is
the thing itself.
Who knows a good armchair? A man who has bone-cancer, or a man who has been tortured, he can recognise a good armchair
‘And poor Peggi Nolle,’ says Dr Himmelblau. ‘How can she see that, when she mostly wants to die?’
‘Someone intent on bringing an action for rape, or whatever she calls it, can’t be all that keen on death. She will want to savour her triumph over her doddering male victim.’
, Professor Diss. She puts out messages of all kinds, cries for help, threats …’
‘It is truly not beyond her capacities to—to take an overdose and leave a letter accusing you—or me—of horrors, of insensitivity, of persecution—
‘Vengefulness can be seen for what it is. Spite and malice can be seen for what they are.’
‘You have a robust confidence in human nature. And you simplify. The despair is as real as the spite. They are part of each other.’
‘They are failures of imagination.’
‘Of course,’ says Gerda Himmelblau. Of course they are. Anyone who could imagine the terror—the pain—of those who survive a suicide—against whom a suicide is
—could not carry it through.’
Her voice has changed. She knows it has. Perry Diss does not speak but looks at her, frowning slightly. Gerda Himmelblau, driven by some pact she made long ago with accuracy, with truthfulness, says,
‘Of course, when one is at that point, imagining others becomes unimaginable. Everything seems clear, and simple, and
there is only one possible thing to be done—’
Perry Diss says,
‘That is true. You look around you and everything is bleached, and clear, as you say. You are in a white box, a white room, with no doors or windows. You are looking through clear water with no movement—perhaps it is more like being inside ice, inside the white room. There is only one thing possible. It is all perfectly clear and simple and plain. As you say.’
They look at each other. The flood
red has subsided
under Perry Diss’s skin. He is thinking. He is quiet.
Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or quiver.
Gerda Himmelblau is back in the knot of quiet terror which has grown in her private self like a cancer over the last few years. She remembers, which she would rather not do, but cannot now control, her friend Kay, sitting in a heavy hospital armchair covered with mock-hide, wearing a long white hospital gown, fastened at the back, and a striped towelling dressing-gown. Kay is not
looking at Gerda. Her mouth is set, her eyes are sleepy with drugs. On the white gown are scarlet spots of fresh blood, where needles have injected calm into Kay. Gerda says, ‘Do you remember, we are going to the concert on Thursday?’ and Kay says, in a voice full of stumbling ill-will, ‘No, I don’t, what concert?’ Her eyes flicker, she looks at Gerda and away, there is something malign and furtive in her look. Gerda has loved only one person in her life, her schoolfriend, Kay. Gerda has not married, but Kay has—Gerda was bridesmaid—and Kay has brought up three children. Kay was peaceful and kindly and interested in plants, books, cakes, her husband, her children, Gerda. She was Gerda’s anchor of sanity in a harsh world. As a young woman Gerda was usually described as ‘nervous’ and also as ‘lucky to have Kay Leverett to keep her steady’. Then one day Kay’s eldest daughter was found hanging in her father’s shed. A note had been left, accusing her schoolfellows of bullying. This death was not immediately the death of Kay—these things are crueller and slower. But over the years, Kay’s daughter’s pain became Kay’s, and killed Kay. She said to Gerda once, who did not hear, who remembered only later, ‘I turned on the gas and lay in front of the fire
all afternoon, but nothing happened,’ She ‘fell’ from a window, watering a window-box. She was struck a glancing blow by a bus in the street. ‘I just step out now and close my eyes,’ she told Gerda, who said don’t be silly, don’t be unfair to busdrivers. Then there was the codeine overdose. Then the sleeping-pills, hoarded with careful secrecy. And a week after Gerda saw her in the hospital chair, the success, that is to say, the real death.
The old Chinese woman clears the meal, the plates veiled with syrupy black-bean sauce, the unwanted cold rice-grains, the uneaten mange-touts.
Gerda remembers Kay saying, earlier, when her pain seemed worse and more natural, and must have been so much less, must have been bearable in a way:
never understood how anyone
And now it seems so clear, almost the only possible thing to do, do you know?’
‘No, I don’t,’ Gerda had said, robust. ‘You
cant do that
to other people. You have no right.’ ‘I suppose not,’ Kay had said, ‘but it doesn’t feel like that.’ ‘I shan’t listen to you,’ Gerda had said. ‘Suicide can’t be handed on.’
But it can. She knows now. She is next in line. She has flirted with lumbering lorries, a neat dark figure launching
herself blindly into the road. Once, she took a handful of pills, and waited to see if she would wake up, which she did, so on that day she continued, drowsily nauseated, to work as usual. She believes the impulse is wrong, to be resisted. But at the time it is white, and clear, and simple. The colour goes from the world, so that the only stain on it is her own watching mind. Which it would be easy to wipe away. And then there would be no more pain.
She looks at Perry Diss who is looking at her. His eyes are half-closed, his expression is canny and watchful. He has used her secret image, the white room, accurately; they have shared it.
He knows that she knows
, and what is more, she knows that he knows. How he knows, or when he discovered, does not matter. He has had a long life. His young wife was killed in an air-raid. He caused scandals, in his painting days, with his relations with models, with young respectable girls who had not previously been models. He was the co-respondent in a divorce case full of dirt and hatred and anguish. He was almost an important painter, but probably not quite. At the moment his work is out of fashion. He is hardly treated seriously. Like Gerda Himmelblau he carries inside
himself some chamber of ice inside which sits his figure of pain, his version of kind Kay thick-spoken and malevolent in a hospital hospitality-chair.
The middle-aged Chinese man brings a plate of orange segments. They are bright, they are glistening with juice, they are packed with little teardrop sacs full of sweetness. When Perry Diss offers her the oranges she sees the old scars, well-made
scars, on his wrists. He says,
Oranges are the real fruit of Paradise, I always think. Matisse was the first to understand orange, don’t you agree? Orange in light, orange in shade, orange on blue, orange on green, orange in black—