Monday, January 18, 2010

Gombrovicz meets Hammerstein

I suppose you need to know at the outset who I am and from whence I have come. I am perhaps best known for my earlier work on Riz which critics have labelled a Saga. My name is Miguel di Venezuela and, since my saga made me an international figure, I have travelled a great deal. Now you might as well refer to me as Michel de Dordonne. My work was described by the better critics as "not necessarily of high literary quality nor even of estimable quantity but..." The major epithet was "repetitive" - not used in the sense that the narrative itself was trapped into repeated tropes but, rather, that it kept returning in other stories I had penned. Well, that's strictly not true since, while I sometimes make notes with a pen when an interesting conversation takes place within my hearing, it is my general habit to type on a kweyboard. (That extra 'w' may give you pause.) I should have said, then, 'other stories I have tapped". And so -here at last - is another story that unfolds without the intervention of Riz.

The year was 1943 and I was stationed on an island in the South Pacific where it was anticipated that I would slow down the Japanese army and navy in their attempt to conquer the South Seas. After a while I made friends among the local population - mainly those of European extraction -although I did get to hold conversations with a local indigenous lady who used the "happy talk" of the natives in lieu of English. But it was out of familiarity with the Europeans that I was invited one evening to attend a large party at the house of the Cosmos. I brought with me a friend, one Gunther Frobe of the German Frobes. I should add here that I knew of the Cosmos well before my posting since they had acquired an international reputation from a novel written around the time of the outbreak of World War 1. This book had been written by one of my chief rivals, W.G.Sebald, and had been recommended by Susan Sontag. In truth, then, (and truth is something I invariably seek) I had deliberately made the acquaintance of the Cosmos in an attempt to court Sontag and to replace Sebald in her affections. The fact that both Sebald and I were both wooing Sontag could lead to a reader's misinterpretation of this as a sexual battle. I can assure you this was not the case since Sontag would have laughed long and loud at either of us as physical specimens!

Frobe and I entered the Cosmos' mansion and were greeted by liveried servants, one of whom announced our names for the benefit of our hosts and the three hundred or so other guests. "The Majors Di Venezuela and Frobe" was how the introduction went. We were actually only Lieutenants but let the aggrandization stand. We made our way to a peripheral pillar and were served liveried drinks. The two of us remained in that position for some twenty minutes, though it may well have been two hours, and simply surveyed the partying throng. In the middle some folk were dancing and their horizontal positions made a viewing of those on the far side of the room a trifle difficult. I suppose there was no particular reason why those on the far side should concern us, since we were having a quiet drink and thinking of nothing of importance.

Out of the corner of my eye I would occasionally glance at Frobe. He was simply staring straight ahead. I wondered if he was thinking the same as I was. That is to say, I wondered if, from time to time, he had been glancing out of the corner of his eye at me and trying to assess my thought processes. In a way, then, we were becoming one and the same person. Frobe was me and I him. Frobe was often silent in my company. He was silent with all his friends. But so was I. Silent with all my friends, though they were few - as were his. Once I caught sight of his right foot making a slight forward movement and was overwhelmed by the feeling that he was attempting synchronization with the dance music. But, since there was no second movement, I supposed that he might well have been shifting weight off the moving limb, perhaps because of an ailment or wound of which I had no prior knowledge. I turned away from him and then contemplated moving one of my own feet. I hesitated - and the moment was lost. I stayed perfectly still. Motionless.

I began to wonder whether we had even been misguided in accepting the invitation to the party. Since Frobe did not like parties and neither of us enjoyed dancing I guessed he might have been sharing my doubts. What was this dance? What all the dances we witnessed? Were they traditional? Had they been performed for centuries? Or were they the very latest in vogue. Or were they perhaps improvisations. And who were all these people in this crowded - nay overcrowded - room?

Did they know these dances well? Had they been taught these steps by their parents or grandparents or did they come out of the womb with an innate understanding of rhythm and limb movement? With these and an amalgam of similar deliberations, I circled the problem. And, as I thus circled, I pondered Frobe's reaction or, rather, his lack of it. Was he mocking the dancers by standing so still or was he simply announcing his outsider role by rejecting movement? These are classic dichotomies and, even though Frobe and I were joined at times as one person, we were also a dichotomy.

And then something happened. Frobe made a sudden, if slight, turn of his head causing me some consternation and I could not desist from turning myself to observe this radical change more closely. His eyes appeared to be now centred on an object of some kind on the far side of the room - or perhaps in the middle of the room. I tried to follow their direction by constructing an imaginary line which would eventually create an isosceles triangle that, at its apex, would identify the object of his attention. Once this rather thin triangle had been drawn in my mind I caught sight of a blond head and a waving hand which obscured the features beneath the curled hair. There was little doubt that someone was attempting to make contact with Frobe. Or, of course, with me!!! Given the distance involved, which I would assess as something approximating one hundred and eighty six feet, it could well be that this wave was intended for either of us, or both. There also arose the possibility that the wave was intended for someone else among the many dancers who moved across the imaginary isosceles triangle that lurked still in my mind.

What was Frobe thinking? Did he actually think that the wave was intended for him or did he concede, as I did, that there were other possibilities? This question was not unanswerable. If I watched him carefully I might well catch a movement of his right hand to return the wave and this would indubitably show that he thought himself singled out for greetings. But, if he turned instead towards me, I would then know that he thought me the rightful recipient or was, at the very least, interested to see what my reaction would be. And, if his eyes made small lateral movements over the crowd of dancers, I would then know that he had settled on the third of my theories. (Or was it the fourth?) He, or I, or both of us, or someone else in the same sightline ; a conundrum. As it was he did nothing, forcing me to face the entire problem alone. And face it I did.

What could I lose? If I raised my hand to wave back I would force him to act. Either he would join me by raising his hand after mine or he would be obliged to turn towards me to wonder who it was that I knew on the other side of the room. But this, too, would create a problem. If I really did know someone beyond the still dancing group then it would be patently clear that I was less of an outsider than he was, and this was not an eventuality I welcomed. Being an outsider is, in our newfound existential weltanschauung, a matter of considerable pride and sharing this privilege with others immediately weakens its societal impact. I can say that I really do not give a shit that four hundred people died today in Mesopotamia but, if everyone else in the room nods approvingly of my stance, I am forced to add some qualifier. I could try "as long as they are all felled by disease or old age" but, if this also receives applause from the assembly, then I must assume no one is listening to me or that they are all acting at being outsiders and simply imitating what they take to be my genuine performance and want it known that I am a natural leader. But I don't want to be a leader. How can one be a leader of a bunch of outsiders without instantly becoming an insider?

It was at the end of this furious debate with myself that another form of enquiry entered my head. What if this person who was waving was really greeting me and turned out to be the kind of person that I would not only like to meet but, thereafter, would remain as the kind of person I would enjoy meeting repeatedly? Would I instinctively know that, in some fashion or other, I would see this person again and again. Is it conceivable that there is someone else in the world, insider or outsider, who can give me logical answers to these questions? Oh yes, I do accept that there is an infinite number of idiots who can parrot time-worn responses but is there, somewhere, one single intelligent person, whose opinion I respect, who will grant me an answer?

My thoughts turned again to Frobe, to silent immobile Frobe. I began tentatively. "What should we do next?" I asked him. He looked at me, puzled. And then he paused. I lived a long while in that hiatus.He finally cleared his throat and let out a kind of croaking and truly unnerving response. "I think it is time we learned to fly".


  1. I doubt the veracity of this story.

  2. neologisms ought to be coined with care. for instance, the word 'blog' is particularly unfortunate, don't you think? the careless conflation of 'bog' and 'log', along with the sphincter-like pinch of its final glottal conjures a clear and depressing diorama of dark brooding coils floating gloomily in nameless filth. still, i enjoyed this reminiscence immensely, and was particularly pleased by the presence of sontag and sebald, as it was the former's glowing encomium in the TLS that led me happily to the latter. allow me, in return, to relate something interesting that happened to me the other day. i was emerging from my neighbourhood grocery store when i was confronted by a personable young woman who was handing out flyers advertising some sort of specious contest, in the course of which gesture she was clearly meant to announce to me "you are eligible". however, as she had recently immigrated from somewhere in eastern europe, and was still grappling with the devilry of english pronunciation and syllabic stress, what she in fact said to me was "you are illegible". to which observation i could only nod sadly.