Disgrace - His spell with Lucy

Sunday, 01 January, Year 9 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

His spell with Lucy has not turned him into a country person. Nonetheless, there are things he misses - the duck family, for instance: Mother Duck tacking about on the surface of the dam, her chest puffed out with pride, while Eenie, Meenie, Minie and Mo paddle busily behind, confident that as long as she is there they are safe from all harm. As for the dogs, he does not want to think about them. From Monday onward the dogs released from life within the walls of the clinic will be tossed into the fire unmarked, unmourned. For that betrayal, will he ever be forgiven? For the few saved, will he be praised ? Was anyone ever saved ?

He visits the bank, takes a load of washing to the laundry. In the little shop where for years he has bought his coffee the assistant pretends not to recognize him. His neighbour, watering her garden, studiously keeps her back turned. He thinks of William Wordsworth on his first stay in London, visiting the pantomime, seeing Jack the Giant Killer blithely striding the stage, flourishing his sword, protected by the word Invisible written on his chest.

In the evening he calls Lucy from a public telephone. 'I thought I'd phone in case you were worried about me,' he says. 'I'm fine. I'll take a while to settle down, I suspect. I rattle about in the house like a pea in a bottle. I miss the ducks.'
He does not mention the raid on the house, because he believes he doesn't have to. She knows. She doesn't mention things he knows either.

Shopping at the supermarket, he finds himself in a queue behind Elaine Winter, chair of his onetime department. Wrapped up in her nonsensical pretense of a life as always, she pushes around a whole trolleyful of purchases. Bread and butter items, all kinds, but also all those little treats that a woman living alone awards herself, to maybe, sometimes, dull the blade. Full cream ice cream (real almonds, real raisins), imported Italian cookies, chocolate bars, and loads and loads of sanitary napkins. Have to be sanitary, sanitary above all else, God forbid! In a certain sense her ample praeda puts his mere handbasket to shame. She is getting so very much out of this life, isn't she ? Yet unexplicably, she's the nervous one, barely able to return his greeting.
'And how is the department getting on without me?' he asks cheerily.
'Oh, struggling along as usual,' she replies vaguely.
He does not say: It wasn't much of a department anyway, even at the best of times. He doesn't mention things she can not know. Instead he says: 'Have you been able to do any hiring?'
'We have taken on one new person, on a contract basis. A young man.'
'I have met him,' he might respond. 'A worthless little shit,' he might add. But he does not see the point. 'What is his specialisation?' he inquires instead.
'Applied language studies. He is in language learning.'

He is in blowing air in his fist and wondering at the sounds he makes, she should say. She doesn't know the world enough to say that. She actually doesn't know anything enough to say anything worth the listen. So much for the poets, so much for the dead masters. Who have not, he must say, guided him well. Aliter, to whom he has not listened well.

The woman ahead of them in the queue is taking her time to pay. There is still room for Elaine to ask the next question, which should be, And how are you getting on, David?, and for him to respond, Very well, Elaine, very well.
'Wouldn't you like to go ahead of me?' she suggests instead, gesturing toward his basket. 'You have so little.'
'Thank you, I think I will.' he responds. He doesn't say: Perhaps there is some hope for you, you stupid old hag. Perhaps there is somehow, somewhere, some hope for you. For all of you, all the Bevs in this world might, maybe, who knows, wake up one day. Go join Lucy one day. It's not made out of soap, after all, is it ? Is it made of soap ?

As first conceived, the opera had had at its centre Lord Byron and his mistress the Contessa Guiccioli. Trapped in the Villa Guiccioli in the stifling summer heat of Ravenna, spied on by Teresa's jealous husband, the two would roam through the gloomy drawing-rooms singing of their baulked passion. Teresa feels herself to be a prisoner; she smoulders with resentment and nags Byron to bear her away to another life. As for Byron, he is full of doubts, though too prudent to voice them. Their early ecstasies will, he suspects, never be repeated. His life is becalmed; obscurely he has begun to long for a quiet retirement; failing that, for apotheosis, for death. Teresa's soaring arias ignite no spark in him; his own vocal line, dark, convoluted, goes past, through, over her.

That is how he had conceived it: as a chamber-play about love and death, to take place between a passionate young woman and a once passionate but now less than passionate older man; as an action with a complex, restless music behind it, sung in an English that tugs continually toward an imagined Italian. Formally speaking, the conception is not a bad one. The characters balance one another well: the trapped couple, the discarded mistress hammering at the windows, the jealous husband. The villa too, with Byron's pet monkeys hanging languidly from the chandeliers and peacocks fussing back and forth among the ornate Neapolitan furniture, has the right mix of timelessness and decay.

Yet, first on Lucy's farm and now again here, the project has failed to engage the core of him. There is something misconceived about it, something that does not come from the heart. A woman complaining to the stars that the spying of the servants forces her and her lover to relieve their desires in a broom-closet... who cares? He can find words for Byron, but the Teresa that history has bequeathed him -- young, greedy, wilful, petulant -- does not match up to the music he has dreamed of, music whose harmonies, lushly autumnal yet edged with irony, he hears shadowed in his inner ear.

He tries another track. Abandoning the pages of notes he has written, abandoning the pert, precocious newlywed with her captive English Milord, he tries to pick Teresa up in middle age. The new Teresa is a dumpy little widow installed in the Villa Gamba with her aged father, running the household, holding the purse-strings tight, keeping an eye out that the servants do not steal the sugar, indulging in the occasional real almond. Byron, in this new view, is long dead; Teresa's sole remaining claim to immortality, and the solace of her lonely nights, is the chestful of letters and memorabilia she keeps under her bed, what she calls her reliquary, which her grandnieces are meant to open after her death and peruse with awe. Is this the heroine he has been seeking all the time? Will an older Teresa engage his heart as his heart is now?

The passage of time has not treated Teresa kindly. With her heavy bust, her stocky trunk, her abbreviated legs, she looks more like a peasant, a contadina, than an aristocrat. The complexion that Byron once so admired has turned hectic; in summer she is overtaken with attacks of asthma that leave her heaving for breath.

In the letters he wrote to her Byron calls her My friend, then My love, then My love for ever. But there are rival letters in existence, letters she cannot reach and set fire to. In these letters, addressed to his English friends, Byron lists her flippantly among his Italian conquests, makes jokes about her husband, alludes to women from her circle with whom he has slept. In the years since Byron's death, his friends have written one memoir after another, drawing upon his letters. After conquering the young Teresa from her husband, runs the story they tell, Byron soon grew bored with her; he found her empty-headed; he stayed with her only out of laziness; it was in order to escape her, and all she stood for, that he sailed off to Greece and to his death.

Their libels hurt her to the quick. Her years with Byron constitute the apex of her life, even if by no means of his. Byron's love is all that sets her apart, even if her love -- complete, devoted, and undying -- is nevertheless not remarkable enough to mention. Without him she is nothing: a woman past her prime, without prospects, living out her days in a dull provincial town, exchanging visits with women-friends, massaging her father's legs when they give him pain, sleeping alone.

Can he find it in his heart to speak of this plain, ordinary woman? Can he summon the interest to write a music for her? If he cannot, what is left for him? Rosalind, too little, Lucy, too much. What, then ?

He comes back to what must now be the opening scene. The tail end of yet another sultry day. Teresa stands at a second-floor window in her father's house, looking out over the marshes and pine-scrub of the Romagna toward the sun glinting on the Adriatic. The end of the prelude; a hush; she takes a breath. Mio Byron, she sings, her voice throbbing with sadness. A lone clarinet answers, tails off, falls silent. Mio Byron, she calls again, more strongly.

Where is he, her Byron? Byron is lost, that is the answer. Byron wanders along the abode of the shades. And she is lost too, the Teresa he loved, the girl of nineteen with the blonde ringlets who gave herself up with such joy to the imperious Englishman, and afterwards stroked his brow as he lay on her naked breast, breathing deeply, slumbering after his great passion. She loved him so! So easily, so readily, when she was young the flow of life came to her so naturally, so directly, like life itself, altogether, all, resided in her chest. Or perhaps not exactly her chest.

Mio Byron, she sings a third time; and from somewhere, from the caverns of the underworld, a voice sings back, wavering and disembodied, the voice of a ghost, the voice of Byron. Where are you? he sings; and then a word she does not want to hear: secca, dry. It has dried up, the source of everything. So faint, so faltering is the voice of Byron that Teresa has to sing his words back to him, helping him along breath by breath, drawing him back to life: her child, her boy. I am here, she sings, supporting him, saving him from going down. I am your source. Do you remember how together we visited the spring of Arqua? Together, you and I. I was your Laura. Do you remember?

That is how it must be from here on: Teresa giving voice to her lover, and he, the man in the ransacked house, giving voice to Teresa. The halt helping the lame, for want of better. Working as swiftly as he can, holding tight to Teresa, he tries to sketch out the opening pages of a libretto. Get the words down on paper, he tells himself. Once that is done it will all be easier. Then there will be time to search through the masters -- through Gluck, for instance -- lifting melodies, perhaps -- who knows? -- lifting ideas too.

But by steps, as he begins to live his days more fully with his imagined Teresa and the dead Byron, it becomes clear that purloined songs will not be good enough, that the two will demand a music of their own. And, astonishingly, in dribs and drabs, the music comes. Sometimes the contour of a phrase occurs to him before he has a hint of what the words themselves will be; sometimes the words call forth the cadence; sometimes the shade of a melody, having hovered for days on the edge of hearing, unfolds and blessedly reveals itself. As the action begins to unwind, furthermore, it calls up of its own accord modulations and transitions that he feels in his blood even when he has not the musical resources to realize them.

At the piano he sets to work piecing together and writing down the beginnings of a score. But there is something about the sound of the piano that hinders him: too rounded, too physical, too rich. From the attic, from a crate full of old books and toys of Lucy's, he recovers the ancient saxophone that he bought on an impulse when she was a small child. With the aid of the ancient, beat up instrument he begins to notate the music that Teresa, now mournful, now angry, will sing to her dead lover, and that pale-voiced Byron will sing back to her from the land of the shades. The deeper he follows the Contessa into her underworld, singing her words for her or humming her vocal line, the more inseparable from her, to his surprise, becomes the reverberation of the brass. The overlush arias he had dreamed of giving her he quietly abandons; from there it is but a short step to putting the instrument into her hands.

Instead of stalking the stage, Teresa now sits staring out over the marshes toward the gates of hell, cradling the mandolin on which she accompanies herself in her lyric flights; while to one side a discreet trio in knee-breeches (cello, flute, bassoon) fill in the entr'actes or comment sparingly between stanzas.

Seated at his own desk looking out on the overgrown garden, he marvels at what unfolds before him. Six months ago he had thought his own ghostly place in Byron in Italy would be somewhere between Teresa's and Byron's: between a yearning to prolong the summer of the passionate body and a reluctant recall from the long sleep of oblivion. But he was wrong. It is not the erotic that is calling to him after all, nor the elegiac, but the comic. He is in the opera neither as Teresa nor as Byron nor even as some blending of the two: he is held in the music itself, in the flat, tinny whine, the voice that strains to soar away from the ludicrous instrument but is continually reined back, like a fish on a line.

So this is art, he thinks, and this is how it does its work! How strange! How fascinating! He spends whole days in the grip of Byron and Teresa, living on black coffee and breakfast cereal. The refrigerator is empty, his bed is unmade; leaves chase across the floor from the broken window. No matter, he thinks: let the dead bury their dead.

Out of the poets I learned to love, chants Byron in his cracked monotone, nine syllables on C natural; but life, I found (descending chromatically to F), is another story. Why, O why do you speak like that? sings Teresa in a long reproachful arc. She wants to be loved, Teresa, to be loved immortally; she wants to be raised to the company of the Lauras and Floras of yore. She wants, in truth, to be locked in a room and pushed down on a bed, again and again. She wants to be, by the fire, on the reedmat, tasted by all the party. But not with hatred, and not with any other artifice. She wants a spring of men to naturally flow, from which a will for her, a want of her to spring as naturally and as strong and as enduring as the one welling inside of her. And Byron? Byron will be faithful unto death, but that is all he promises. Let both be tied till one shall have expired.

My love, sings Teresa, swelling out the fat English monosyllable she learned in the poet's bed. A woman in love, wallowing in love; a cat on a roof, howling; complex proteins swirling in the blood, distending the sexual organs, making the palms sweat and voice thicken as the soul hurls its longings to the skies. That is what Soraya and the others were for: to suck the complex proteins out of his blood like snake-venom, leaving him clear-headed and dry. Dry, so very dry. Teresa in her father's house in Ravenna, to her misfortune, has no one to suck the venom from. Come to me, mio Byron, she cries: come to me, love me! And Byron, exiled from life, pale as a ghost, echoes her derisively: Leave me, leave me, leave me be! There is nothing here for thee.

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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