Disgrace - What he throws together
What he throws together for supper is indeed simple: anchovies on tagliatelle with a mushroom sauce. He lets her chop the mushrooms. Otherwise she sits on a stool, watching while he cooks. They eat in the dining-room, opening a second bottle of wine. She eats without inhibition. A healthy appetite, as is common for someone so slight.
'Do you always cook for yourself?' she asks.
'I live alone. If I don't cook, no one will.'
'I hate cooking. I guess I should learn.'
'Why? If you really hate it, marry a man who cooks.'
Together they contemplate the picture: Madame Bovary across the centuries, as the young wife with the daring clothes and gaudy jewellery striding through the front door, impatiently sniffing the air; the husband, colourless Mr Right, apronned, stirring a pot in the steaming kitchen. Reversals: the stuff of philistine comedy.
'That's all,' he says at the end, when the bowl is empty. 'No dessert, unless you want an apple or some yoghurt. Sorry - I didn't know I would be having a guest.'
'It was nice,' she says, draining her glass, rising. 'Thanks.'
'Don't go yet.' He takes her by the hand and leads her to the sofa. 'I have something to show you. Do you like dance? Not dancing: dance.' He slips a cassette into the video machine. 'It's a film by a man named Norman McLaren. It's quite old. I found it in the library. See what you think.'
Sitting side by side they watch. Two dancers on a bare stage move through their steps. Recorded by a stroboscopic camera, their images, ghosts of their movements, fan out behind them like wingbeats. It is a film he first saw a quarter of a century ago but is still captivated by: the instant of the present and the past of that instant, evanescent, caught in the same space. He wills the girl to be captivated too. But he senses she is not.
When the film is over she gets up and wanders around the room. Captivated or not, she no longer aims to leave before making it. The film worked, in the sense of achieving its desired effect, even while it didn't work in the sense of proceeding through the contemplated mechanism, or at least a comprehensible mechanism. A mechanism at all.
She raises the lid of the piano, strikes middle C. 'Do you play?' she says.
'Classics or jazz?'
'No jazz, I'm afraid.'
'Will you play something for me?'
'Not now. I'm out of practice. Another time, when we know each other better.'
She peers into his study. 'Can I look?' she says.
'Switch on the light.'
He puts on more music: Scarlatti sonatas, cat-music. Truth be told he doesn't think all that much of her mind. Not anymore. Not hence the film didn't work.
'You've got a lot of Byron books,' she says when she comes out. 'Is he your favourite?'
'I'm working on Byron. On his time in Italy.'
'Didn't he die young?'
'Thirty-six. They all died young. Or dried up. Or went mad and were locked away. But Italy wasn't where Byron died. He died in Greece. He went to Italy to escape a scandal, and settled there. Settled down. Had the last big love-affair of his life. Italy was a popular destination for the English in those days. They believed the Italians were still in touch with their natures. Less hemmed in by convention, more passionate.'
She makes another circuit of the room. 'Is this your wife?' she asks, stopping before the framed photograph on the coffee-table. 'My mother, when she was young.'
'Are you married?'
'I was. Twice. But now I'm not.' He does not say: Now I make do with what comes my way. He does not say: Now I make do with whores. He does not say: I will even consider someone such as you. Instead he says: 'Can I offer you a liqueur?' It is really the same thing.
She does not want a liqueur, but does accept a shot of whisky in her coffee. As she sips, he leans over and touches her cheek. 'You're very lovely,' he says. 'I'm going to invite you to do something reckless.' He touches her again. 'Stay. Spend the night with me.'
Across the rim of the cup she regards him steadily. 'Why?' The question of the child, the question that may never have a good enough answer. Why ?
'Because you ought to.'
'Why ought I to?'
'Why? Because a woman's beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.'
His hand still rests against her cheek. She does not withdraw, but does not yield either.
'And what if I already share it?' In her voice there is a hint of breathlessness. Exciting, always, to be courted: exciting, pleasurable.
'Then you should share it more widely.'
Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. The making of a whore, the making of the world. More, more. Yet at this moment he believes, all of it. She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself. Why would it want to ?
'From fairest creatures we desire increase,' he says, 'that thereby beauty's rose might never die.'
Not a good move. Her smile loses its playful, mobile quality. The pentameter, whose cadence once served so well to oil the serpent's words, now only estranges. He has become a teacher again, man of the book, skeleton-guardian of the culture-hoard. She puts down her cup. 'I must leave, I'm expected.'
The clouds have cleared, the stars are shining. 'A lovely night,' he says, unlocking the garden gate. She does not look up. 'Shall I walk you home?'
'Very well. Good night.' He reaches out, enfolds her. For a moment he can feel her little breasts against him. Then she slips his embrace and is gone.
That is where he ought to end it. But he does not. On Sunday morning he drives to the empty campus and lets himself into the department office. From the filing cabinet he extracts Melanie Isaacs's enrollment card and copies down her personal details: home address, Cape Town address, telephone number. He dials the number. A woman's voice answers.
'I'll call her. Who is speaking?'
'Tell her, David Lurie.'
Melanie - melody: a meretricious rhyme. Not a good name for her. Shift the accent. Meláni: the dark one.
In the one word he hears all her uncertainty. Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go. But he is in the grip of something. Beauty's rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either.
'I thought you might like to go out to lunch,' he says. 'I'll pick you up at, shall we say, twelve.'
There is still time for her to tell a lie, wriggle out. But she is too confused, and the moment passes. When he arrives, she is waiting on the sidewalk outside her apartment block. She is wearing black tights and a black sweater. Her hips are as slim as a twelve-year-old's.
He takes her to Hout Bay, to the harbourside. During the drive he tries to put her at ease. He asks about her other courses. She is acting in a play, she says. It is one of her diploma requirements. Rehearsals are taking up a lot of her time. At the restaurant she has no appetite, stares out glumly over the sea.
'Is something the matter? Do you want to tell me?'
She shakes her head.
'Are you worried about the two of us?'
'Maybe,' she says.
'No need. I'll take care. I won't let it go too far.'
Just the tip, the story goes, now and forever. Let me be the guardian, so the mayor of the palace may become king of France. He was short ? What of it. He was there at just the right time and that's all that matters. There's been short kings before.
Too far. What is far, what is too far, in a matter like this? Is her too far the same as his too far? It has begun to rain: sheets of water waver across the empty bay. 'Shall we leave?' he says. He takes her back to his house. On the living-room floor, to the sound of rain pattering against the windows, he takes her and uses her in the intended manner. Her body is clear, simple, in its way perfect. She is passive throughout, but also silent, entirely silent throughout. He finds the act pleasurable, so pleasurable that from its climax he tumbles into blank oblivion.
When he comes back the rain has stopped. The girl is lying beneath him, her eyes closed, her hands slack above her head, her legs to the sides limp under his weight, a slight frown on her face. His own hands are under her coarse-knit sweater, on her barely discernible breast. Her tights and panties lie in a tangle on the floor; his trousers are around his ankles. After the storm, he thinks: straight out of George Grosz.
Averting her face, avoiding his eyes, she frees herself, gathers her things, leaves the room. In a few minutes she is back, dressed. 'I must go,' she whispers. He makes no effort to further detain her.
He wakes the next morning in a state of profound wellbeing, which does not go away. Melanie is not in class. From his office he telephones a florist. Roses? Perhaps not roses. Love's too much to ask and they haven't the time these days anyway. Besides - Shakespeare, last year. He orders carnations, exactly adequate for a small burial of a little childhood. 'Red or white?' asks the woman. Red? White? 'Send twelve pink,' he says. 'I haven't got twelve pink. Shall I send a mix?'
'Send a mix,' he says. A mix is almost the same thing.
Rain falls all of Tuesday, from heavy clouds blown in over the city from the west. Crossing the lobby of the Communications Building at the end of the day, he spies her at the doorway of the auditorium. Under a murder of crows perched atop the awning, she awaits him amid a knot of students waiting for a break in the downpour. He comes at her from the side, puts a hand on her shoulder. 'Wait for me here,' he says. 'I'll give you a ride home.' Was she really waiting for him ?
He returns with an umbrella. Crossing the square to the parking lot he draws her closer to shelter her. A sudden gust blows the umbrella inside out; awkwardly they run together to the car.
She is wearing a slick yellow raincoat; in the car she lowers the hood. Her face is flushed; he is aware of the rise and fall of her chest. She licks away a drop of rain from her upper lip. A child! he thinks: No more than a child! What am I doing? Yet his heart lurches with desire.
They drive through dense late-afternoon traffic. 'I missed you yesterday,' he says. 'Are you all right?'
She does not reply, staring at the wiper blades. At a red light he takes her cold hand in his. 'Melanie!' he says, trying to keep his tone light. But he has forgotten how to woo. The voice he hears belongs to a cajoling parent, not a lover. He draws up before her apartment block. 'Thanks,' she says, opening the car door.
'Aren't you going to invite me in?'
'I think my flatmate is home.'
'What about this evening?'
'I've got a rehearsal this evening.'
'Then when do I see you again?'
She does not answer. 'Thanks,' she repeats, and slides out.
On Wednesday she is in class, in her usual seat. They are still on Wordsworth, on Book 6 of The Prelude, the poet in the Alps. 'From a bare ridge,' he reads aloud, 'we also first beheld unveiled the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved. To have a soulless image on the eye that had usurped upon a living thought that never more could be.'
'So. The majestic white mountain, Mont Blanc, turns out to be a disappointment. Why? Let us start with the unusual verb form usurp upon. Did anyone look it up in a dictionary?'
'If you had, you would have found that usurp upon means to intrude or encroach upon. Usurp, to take over entirely, is the perfective of usurp upon; usurping completes the act of usurping upon. 'The clouds cleared, says Wordsworth, the peak was unveiled, and we grieved to see it. A strange response, for a traveller to the Alps. Why grieve? Because, he says, a soulless image, a mere image on the retina, has encroached upon what has hitherto been a living thought. What was that living thought?'
Silence again. The very air into which he speaks hangs listless as a sheet. A man looking at a mountain: why does it have to be so complicated, they want to complain? What answer can he give them? What did he say to Melanie that first evening? That without a flash of revelation there is nothing. Where is the flash of revelation in this room?
He casts a quick glance at her. Her head is bowed, she is absorbed in the text, or seems to be. 'The same word usurp recurs a few lines later. Usurpation is one of the deeper themes of the Alps sequence. The great archetypes of the mind, pure ideas, find themselves usurped by mere sense-images. Yet we cannot live our daily lives in a realm of pure ideas, cocooned from sense-experience. The question is not, How can we keep the imagination pure, protected from the onslaughts of reality? The question has to be, Can we find a way for the two to coexist?'
'Look at line 599. Wordsworth is writing about the limits of sense-perception. It is a theme we have touched on before. As the sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out. Yet at the moment of expiry that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible. The passage is difficult; perhaps it even contradicts the Mont Blanc moment. Nevertheless, Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way toward a balance: not the pure idea, wreathed in clouds, nor the visual image burned on the retina, overwhelming and disappointing us with its matter-of-fact clarity, but the senseimage, kept as fleeting as possible, as a means toward stirring or activating the idea that lies buried more deeply in the soil of memory.'
On to the next chapter, "He pauses. Blank incomprehension..."