Still Life With Books by Simon Lane

BOMB 45 Fall 1993
045 Fall 1993

vishnu

I dream of Paris a good deal here in Tamarama. My dreams are vivid and full of effects; I can hear them in the form of subconscious chitchat, while writing about Aldous. I must be careful, lest they influence the work in hand.

My mind is a painted room and on its walls are the exquisite renderings of my sleep. We are particularly impressed with the portraits of our ancestors, a long line of Radishes stretching back to the founding of Rome, and the ornithological variations, of which the portrayal of two swallows flirting over a birdbath seems the most prescient.

In one dream, I encounter a Hindu, a member of the Jain sect, called Bolu, who takes infinite pains to ensure that no harm is done to any living creature. It is for this reason that he wears a silk kerchief over his mouth. Yes, even the incidental capture of a fly would discredit him! I do not wish to interfere with Bolu’s religion, but I ask him to remove the kerchief while talking to me, for the simple reason that I cannot make out what he is saying. He complies with my request, but unfortunately, at the very moment that he does so, a wasp appears, as if from nowhere, and flies into his mouth, killing him.

In another dream, I acquire an interesting pet, a crocodile, whom I christen Vishnu. This is a sacrilege, of course, because a crocodile has never been cited as a Vishnu incarnation. Referring to my book, I can only find the fish, the tortoise, the lion, the horse, and the dwarf. Yet I have called the crocodile Vishnu, apparently because I consider him my preserver.

Vishnu is shortsighted, practically blind, in fact. He came up from a lake nearby and I felt sorry for him. I decide to take him for a walk, a little constitutional, so, after giving him a platter of lamb curry, I clip a retractable lead around his neck and head out into the street.

The French are libertarians, which is one of the reasons why they are so unpleasant to each other. But they are very accommodating and are known to be most sympathetic toward writers. They are not necessarily proud of their capital, of its gray and linear beauties, rather do they see it, without the slightest trace of arrogance, as a fitting backdrop for their collective genius. The idea that no man is an island is anathema to them, for their nation can be said to be an archipelago composed of a million rocky inlets, all inviting shipwreck if negotiated without due care and attention.

Their attitude toward me has always been one of tolerance, born of incomprehension and respect, a combination which lends the subject room to breathe and move about with impunity. Had I come from the moon, my treatment at their hands could not have been more welcoming; that I come from Brooklyn makes it all the more apposite.

As I walk up the rue de Tournon, on my way to the Sénat, I am impressed by the fact that no one is offended by my pet. There is no lack of curiosity, however.

“Il est très beau, votre chien, Monsieur,” says an old lady, with an obliging smile. “De quelle race est-il, si je puis me permettre de vous demander?”

“It’s a crocodile, Madame.”

“Really? How interesting! We had one, not dissimilar. But that was before the war, of course.”

 

a thinned character

I must disappoint those of you who are possibly still waiting for the appearance of a “rounded character” in this novel, similar to the one proposed by the English novelist, the unyielding Burdoch, who once lectured us at college, someone “to really get one’s teeth into.”

I remember being greatly impressed by that rather lumpy pedagogue’s analogies to food and substance of matter made while declaiming from the podium. I have always considered this obsession with “roundness” to be peculiarly English, a somewhat Hogarthian concept, rooted, as it is, in the tradition of caricature in eighteenth-century Anglo-Saxon art and literature. The funny thing is that old Burdoch, unlike Azadina, had never even read Laurence Sterne. And he an Englishman!

Aldous Radice was probably the nemesis of my professor’s fictional hero, or anti-hero, for Aldo was an ectomorph, a thin, unrounded person, as discussed by another Englishman, Aldous Huxley, in a lecture given at Santa Barbara in the late 1950s that Aldo’s mother may or may not have attended but certainly knew of, for it is included in the anthology entitled, The Human Situation, a worn copy of which was to be found in the Radice’s Ipanema apartment, which I remember reading, without fully understanding, at the age of 11 and seven months. What I do recall is the notion that the physiological and physical attributes of any given character not only mean that he is “round” or “thin” or whatever, but also that he is, for example, “willowy by nature” or “obese in his thinking.” I hope the Estate of Aldous Huxley will forgive my interpretation; it’s been a while since I read the willowy author and I can’t find The Human Situation here in Oceania.

As far as the analysis of Aldous Radice is concerned (safer territory), I can say that, certainly up to the “accident,” he was a man resolutely stuck in the subjunctive, that state in which action is always subordinate to intention. It was only his belief in fate that led him to the Newtonian principle of action and reaction, ensuring that, at critical moments, he “did,” rather than “planned on doing.” He certainly did not believe in the interpretation of simultaneous events as coincidence. We will discover that he is not in the least surprised at being reunited with Azadina, even though, to us, it seems fortuitous, to put it mildly. I am looking for alternatives in order to find meaning in my life. Aldous did not need to look: a loner, he held all the secrets in the palm of his long, thin hand.

 

People said of Aldous that he was lazy, lacking in ambition, and a “dilettante.” Geniuses have suffered worse compliments.

What one does not know cannot hurt one, and, as these observations were made behind his back, it is impossible for me to record how he might have reacted to them. In direct conversation with people who might have been his friends, had they not been just friends of friends, or acquaintances, these perjorative asides would turn, miraculously, into euphemism, so that, instead of being “lazy,” he would be accused of “having a ponderous disposition”; instead of “lacking in ambition,” he would be censured for “not making full use of his potential”; and instead of being a “dilettante,” it would be suggested that he should perhaps “concentrate his considerable intellect in one particular field.” My father would always say that he needed a job, but he never specified which. His advice, like all advice of a coercive nature, went in one ear and got lost somewhere, with all the other dust.

It is easy to see why everyone took to giving Aldous advice, for in many ways he was a sitting target. People always seem to get what they do not ask for in this life, and the simple reason that Aldous never solicited advice in the first place was ample enough reason for his being given it. The proof of that little equation is that, had he actually asked for it, no one would have been able to say that they were in a position to help. Who were they to think they knew him well enough? No. The real reason people gave Aldous advice was that he was a complete mystery to them. His very simplicity confused them, upsetting their world projections, so that Greenland appeared even bigger than it should have.

“Simplicity” might have been too hastily selected. Let us say that Aldous was entirely lacking in caprice. He was incapable, after the age of eight, of lying. Furthermore, he had never felt jealousy. A conundrum, indeed!

Everyone knows that one of the tricks of memory is size, so that things become smaller in retrospect; the giant of childhood becomes a dwarf, The Tower of Babel, a modest skyscraper, and Heaven turns out to be nothing of the sort, just a big mass of darkness comprised of so many million “light years,” the ultimate conundrum, of course, as anyone knows who has tried to find the bathroom switch in the dead of night, while drunk. Light or dark, time assumes its own perspective, as clearly as an architect’s drawing, its vanishing point never truly vanishing, despite the size of the building, the enormity of the landscape.

Holding his head up to the light, in the apartment lent to him by Hilton’s friend, Aldo mused on the nature of time, distance, and the surfeit of dust, a particle of which may or may not have lodged itself within his cranium. He was not frightened of death, for death was where his parents lived. It was the unknown that put the fear of God into him.

The image on the radiograph was shadowlike, it resembled some ancient mappa mundi, a splendidly naive vision of our celestial home, in which the Old World eclipsed future discoveries so completely that one wondered where they might have disappeared to. The head of Aldous could be turned like a globe, the better to inspect its mysteries, to orient the subject correctly. Fixed in a certain orbit, extended above the living head from which it had been taken, this X-ray, proof of the roundness of matter, seemed somehow to follow Aldous around the room, as an extension of his right arm, and as it did so, it taunted him with the same question: Is the dust a figment of the imagination or does it actually exist, a true object in a true sphere?

 

the shadow of dust

There Aldous sat, in the armchair that he had positioned very carefully so he could see people passing along the quai, on both sides of the street, and, with his binoculars, across the Seine to the street that ran alongside the Louvre. He had put the X-ray aside and had, for the moment at least, cast away those dark and morbid thoughts, the workings of fate, the fate of the workings.

The binoculars he had inherited from his father; they were extremely powerful and efficacious, an indispensable guide in his quest for Azadina. In fact, they were all he had. He had telephoned her old apartment, he had telephoned information, he had telephoned me and he had telephoned the Egyptain Embassy. He had even tried all the primary and secondary schools in Paris. How was he to know that Azadina commuted to Levallois to work?

Had he known where Azadina’s apartment was located, just two blocks away, toward the boulevard Saint-Germain, he might have trained his binoculars in a different direction. But although they were powerful, they could not, like X-rays, see through walls, so such an expedient would have rendered him as frustrated as he was now, seeking out Egyptian qualities from the mass of faces that appeared in the twin circles in front of him. He put his binoculars down and closed his eyes, applying the lens caps to his eye sockets, like monocles.

It was at this point that the dot appeared. The dot was a particle of dust, or its shadow, which, since the accident, always appeared, sooner or later, when he closed his eyes tightly. If it were a sunny day, the dot would move on an orange background, and if Aldous was lying in darkness, perhaps in that crucial state that is man’s prologue to sleep, when sudden escape from morbid thoughts always seems hardest, the background would be gray or black. At the moment, the background was blue-black, the color of Azadina’s hair when it was caught in twilight.

Having appeared from outside the picture frame that was Aldous’s inner view of matter, the dot would stick to a certain trajectory, moving in a straight line as surely as if it had been drawn with a ruler. It was up to Aldous to arrest its progress, which he could only succeed in doing if he concentrated hard enough. Even then, after employing all the powers at his disposal, it was still impossible for him to hold it in place indefinitely; sooner or later it would continue on its way, ultimately disappearing through the opposite side of the picture frame.

When he relaxed his attention for a moment, the dot would then pick up where it left off, as if it had never been interrupted; then it would be only with an almost superhuman effort that he would manage to stop it again. In this way, the dot seemed to be telling him that he had just one chance and that, once he had seized it, he had no real choice but to immobilize it forever. The dot, the shadow of dust, had a mind of its own in this respect Although it was only an object, a minuscule example of matter on the move, it represented to Aldous an idea, which was the struggle between two elements: will and time. Time could be stopped, through volition, but it could not be forgotten, put to one side, ignored.

He opened his eyes. Why else have I come back to Paris, he thought, but to prove, through love, that I can arrest time and, by so doing, realize my destiny: to be reunited, however miraculously, with Azadina?

Simon Lane’s first novel, Le Veilleur (Christian Bourgois Editeur), was published in Paris in 1992. Still Life With Books (Bridge Works Publishing) was published in September, 1993.

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045 Fall 1993