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Original Essays | June 20, 2014

Lauren Owen: IMG The Other Vampire



It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches... Continue »
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    Lauren Owen 9780812993271

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Rameau's Niece

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Rameau's Niece Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter One

There is a kind of egotism that shrinks the universe; and

there was Edwards kind. It dominated the world not by limiting

it, but by generous, almost profligate recognition of everything,

like sunlight, illuminating whatever it touched, and touching

whatever it could.

 Margarets husband was a wonder to her, a loud, handsome

Englishman, a Jew from Oxford with gray hair that stuck up in

tufts, like an East European poets, an egotist whose egotism was

of such astonishing proportions that he thought the rest of the

world quite marvelous simply because it was there with him.

 Margaret Nathan was herself a person of no mean ego, although

she knew her own egotism shone less like the sun than

like a battery-operated flashlight, swinging this way and that way,

lighting short narrow paths through the oppressive darkness of

other people. Margaret was a demanding person, hard on herself,

certainly; harder by far on everyone else.

 But turning her restless beam toward Edward, she could find

nothing there to be hard about. As to Margarets demanding nature,

she felt immediately that here was a safe haven for it. Ed-

ward seemed to demand demands, so that he might have the joy

of satisfying them.

 Margaret marveled at her husband, awed that he had come

to be hers at all. They met in New York when he was visiting an

old friend of his and her boyfriend at the time, Al Birnbaum, a

Marxist graduate student who spoke, in so far as he was able, like

William F. Buckley. It occurred to Margaret that at some secret,

buried level Al aspired not to change the world, not really, but

to present the opposing view on “Firing Line”—to costar. She

could envision him quite clearly: slumped, languorous and slack,

in one of those low-backed chairs, right beside Bill, his own head

rolling back on its own pale neck, the evil twin of the evil twin.

 She took one look at his friend Edward, who was looking

rather closely at her, and she saw that he was looking at her in

that way that suggested that his old friend was not, after all, such

an old friend. And she looked back at him in a way that she hoped

said, Nor of mine.

 “Why, you must come with me, of course,” he said when he

heard she was writing her thesis about an eighteenth-century female

philosophe. He took her hand in both of his. “What a wonderful

idea. Well visit her château. Did she have a château?

Surely the woman had a château! I was planning to go in the autumn,

through France to the Alps, into Italy. A long and leisurely

trip across Europe by car. Well stop at Venice. Then well turn

around and come back. Will you come with me? Of course you

will. Oh God, what luck.”

 They were joking, playing around in front of the Boyfriend.

But the Boyfriend wasnt paying much attention (he was sick of

Margaret, who had become increasingly unpleasant, subscribing

to Dissent and reading long, liberal anticommunist articles aloud

to him); and Margaret and Edward, fooling and flirting in that

self-conscious and ostentatious way one employs when one is indeed

joking or when one is wholly in earnest, made a mock promise

to meet the next night (ha ha ha, went the chorus), which they

both breathlessly kept.

 Madame de Montignys château had long ago turned to dust,

but Edward Ehrenwerth did take Margaret on a trip across Europe

that fall just the same. They drove in a gentle, gray mist from

London to the ferry, where Edward then had a long and apparently

satisfying chat with one of the crewmen about model trains,

then on to their first stop, a renovated farmhouse in a village

just north of Paris, belonging to some friends of Edwards. Jean-

Claude and Juliette, two exquisitely thin persons in identical,

droopy black cashmere sweaters, were French academics who

studied and taught American literature: he specialized in neo-

Gothic romances written by former housewives, she in slim, laconic

novels of a style she referred to as minimalisme. They pored

over paperbacks and called them texts.

 “You dont mind that these books are, you know, shitty?” Margaret

asked after several glasses of the wine that had been brought

ceremoniously from a cool cellar.

 “But on the contrary, American culture, this is its vitality, lifes

blood, this”—thees is what he actually said—“aah, how shall I say

it, this, this—”

 Sheet, Margaret thought. Thees sheet.

 “And you know, such judgment,” Juliette interrupted, “such

criticism is so patriarchal, so very, very logocentric.”

 “Margaret, Margaret, literature is, is what?” cried Jean-

Claude. “The acquisition and distribution of cultural capital!”

Jean-Claude, having warmed noticeably to both the wine and to

his subject, slapped Margaret heartily on the back. “Good? Bad?

Pooh! The project of the Enlightenment is dead! Invert the hier-

archy of judgment!” He raised his glass and laughed. “Long live

the liberation of the signifier!”

 “Well,” said Edward, after joining the toast, “the wine is awfully

good. Thank God, my dears, you havent inverted that particular

hierarchy.”

 “Ah, well, the wine,” said both the host and hostess, grinning

with pride, shrugging in their lovely, loose sweaters. “The wine—

of course.”

In honor of the visiting American, Juliette had adapted her cuisine,

making hamburgers. Then Edward and Margaret retired

to the guest room, which was the entire top floor of the house,

a beautiful room, and when she saw it, Margaret thought, with

some envy, Ah, the French, so much taste, so little brain, for the

room was decorated in the most luxurious velvets and brocades

and tasseled cabbage-rose drapes and a Herman Miller sofa and

butterfly chairs and original Eames and Knoll pieces, a marvelous,

elegant, witty combination, a happy marriage of minimalisme

and Gothic romance.

 Outside, the wind howled, rattling the shutters. Margaret

sank her head into the square feather pillows and listened. Creak

creak. Clunk clunk. “Is this the attic?” she said. “Are we in the attic?”

 “I suppose it is. The attic. That sounds a bit portentous. What

will happen here? What will happen here tonight? This very drear

and drafty night? Perhaps the enraged Enlightenment will haunt

us, armed with sharpened quill. ‘I have been wronged! Ah, Juliette

and Jean-Claude—they open cultural doors. They are cultural

doors.”

 “Did you see the door of their refrigerator?” Margaret said. Juliette

and Jean-Claude had proudly shown them the refrigerator,

a high-tech, extremely wide, remarkably shallow apparatus behind

a door of elaborately carved wood.

 “Yes,” Edward said. “Theirs is a very pure and cerebral socialism.”

 Creak creak, said the shutters.

 Margaret picked up a paperback from the bedside table. The

cover showed a dark-haired (raven-haired, she corrected herself)

woman, her head thrown back, and beside her a beautiful

black woman, head thrown back too, both of whom seemed to

be bound, in an indistinct way (perhaps they were just sort of tangled)

on a dock. The book was called Desires Dominion.

 “Well, theyre very considerate, your friends, arent they?” She

lay back, closed her eyes, and listened to the wind outside. “Do

you like France, Edward?”

 Edward leaned down and whispered, “ ‘Thanks to the human

heart by which we live, thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

to me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often

lie too deep for tears. ”

 “To whom is that addressed?” she asked. “Who is the meanest

flower that blows? Me or France?”

 “Neither. Its my manifesto. Neither of you is in any way mean.

I just like Wordsworth. And you. And France.”

 “How very un-British of you.”

 But Edward had spent most of his childhood summers in

France. It was where hed met Jean-Claude, on one of those summer

holidays. Margaret thought of Jean-Claude and Edward,

skinny boys in skimpy but still baggy bathing trunks, digging

among the rocks on the Normandy shore. She thought of the

“Immortality” ode. Now, whenever she thought of Jean-Claude,

she would think of Wordsworths lines, she would remember a

boy she never met, until hed become a considerate, fatuous post-

modern man, on a beach shed never seen, and tears would come

to her eyes. How annoying; to be so vulnerable to poetry, to Edward.

 “Did you ever see Splendor in the Grass?” she said, as some

kind of revenge. “That was a post-Gothic romance.”

Before that trip, Margaret never drank, not even wine; and she

rarely drank after it. But during those weeks, she was quite thoroughly

drunk every day.

 The sun came up each morning to find her snoring in the

starched white sheets of some plump little pension bed. No, she

thought, when Edward tried to wake her. No, you see, Ive moved

in, Im quite settled here and cannot be shifted, not ever, certainly

not by you, Edward, whoever you are. And through halfopen

eyes she watched him get dressed, marveling at how the

British could have conquered the world with such skinny, sunken

chests.

 “Maybe you should wear tight pants tucked into boots, you

know?” she said. “Like Mick Jagger.”

 “Undoubtedly.”

 Sometimes she could pull him back to bed, sometimes not.

She didnt care. She didnt care about anything except scenery

and wine and food and pictures in echoing galleries and churches

in echoing squares and Edward in the same ill-fitting brown suit.

 Driving through the Rhone valley, passing a party-cake castle

in the distance, rushing to make a reservation at a four-star restaurant,

still hours away, Margaret leaned her forehead against

the cool glass of the window and thought, This is the last phase

of my long, long childhood. This is the last time I will sit in a

car, still drunk from lunch, staring at fairy castles while someone

else drives and worries and frets and checks the road map and the

odometer. Its the first time, too, but I know what I mean.

 Rows of poplars lined the road. The sun had come out from

the clouds, which now glowed and reddened. This is bliss, Margaret

thought. No wonder Edward likes Juliette and Jean-Claude.

No wonder people drink wine, so red and velvety, rolling on your

tongue. Margaret let her head fall back. She closed her eyes.

 “Tu baves, ma cherie,” Edward said gently, patting her knee.

 “Im what?” Margaret said.

 “Drooling, darling.”

The restaurant was dark and quiet and seriously comfortable.

Yum, yum, Margaret thought, gazing lazily at the menu. Yum,

yum. Little lambs and little bunny rabbits and little fluttery

quail—all manner of gentle, innocent beasts. I will have pork, the

forbidden flesh scorned by centuries of my ancestors, but big and

ugly. Yum, yum, yum. Medallions of pork with chestnuts.

 “Too many pets on the menu,” she said. “If I ran this joint, I

would offer boeuf sous rature. Get it, Edward?” She heard herself

laughing.

 “Yes, Margaret, I get it,” Edward said.

 He was not laughing, but looking at her rather dryly. Still,

she could not stop herself. What was the point of having read so

much incomprehensible Derrida if one could not make philistine

deconstruction puns? “Sous rature” she continued. “ ‘Under

erasure. And then theyd serve you—nothing! Theyd take the

beef off the plate!”

 “Is this what they teach you poor children in graduate school

these days?”

 “And then on the menu you could draw that line through the

word boeuf, as the deconstructionists do in order to denote when

a word is, well, when a word is whatever it is that makes them

draw that line through it . . .”

 As she rambled on, drunk and delighted with her erudition,

Edward ignored her and ordered the wine, which was even better

than what theyd drunk at lunch. She held the glass to her lips

and drank slowly. If she was not mistaken, Edward was talking to

the waiter about medieval husbandry. She could see the lights in

the dim restaurant reflected in her wine glass, in the wine-dark

wine. Wine-dark wine. She giggled. She could see the lights twinkling

there, like stars, like stars on a dark night. Oh, how banal.

Oh, how sublime.

 She staggered to bed that night and lay staring at the ceiling

as Edward untied her shoes and recited in Latin a Catullus poem

about a stolen napkin, and she thought she would marry him,

would have to marry him, that it was a necessity, a rule of nature,

like gravity. If, of course, he would have her.

 “ ‘Give back my napkin! ” he shouted, straddling her, pinning

her arms to the bed. “ ‘Or await three hundred hendecasyllables! ”

The next day they drove to Les Baux, the cliff-top ruins of a castle

where some medieval nobleman had grilled the heart of a poet

and served it to his wife for dinner. When that lady had finished

her meal and was told the ingredients, she said the dish had been

so sweet that she never wanted anything else to pass her lips, and

jumped off the cliff.

 “Ah, the goyim,” Edward said.

 They drove to Vaucluse, where Petrarch had written his love

poems to Laura, and to Avignon, where Margaret came down

with a fever and stayed sweating and shivering in the little lowceilinged

hotel room within the citys high walls; and from her

damp, febrile pillow she wondered if she would die right now,

right here, dissipated with drink and lovemaking and museumvisiting.

 When she recovered, they drove to the Italian Alps and spent

the night in an almost empty ski resort where she read while Ed-

ward held a long, quiet, serious discussion that Margaret could

not understand with the Austrian chefs eight-year-old son. Edward

knew seven languages, and accepted only with the poorest

grace that he could speak just one of them at a time. The others

were always waiting, eager and impatient, shifting from foot to

foot like children, until, at last, one of them would be allowed to

thunder out, full speed ahead. Edward spoke with resonant, distinct

enjoyment, loud and clear, savoring each word, as if the different

languages tasted good. He was a show-off, talking, laughing,

sometimes singing loudly, without fear, sharing his own

wonder of himself. Margaret was so fully in love with him now

that she never knew if the flushed confusion she was experiencing

was from the wine or her boisterous companion.

 “For our honeymoon,” he said the next morning as Margaret

drove the left-handed English car on the right-handed Italian

road, “I propose—”

 “But you never have proposed, you know.”

 “I propose Sri Lanka—Ceylon, as we old stick-in-the-mud imperialists

prefer to call it. We shall discover the meaning of life on

the scented isle. When bored with copulation, we can go up to

Kandy and regard the Buddhas tooth.”

When Margaret woke up in the Alps, the air was so clear she

blinked. Driving on the winding road, toward Italy, toward a

whole new land of new wines and new paintings and new beds

to share with her new fiancé, she stared ahead at the narrow,

climbing vine of a road, and her heart pounded with disbelieving

pleasure. Edward, in the mountains, was required by nature

to recite Romantic poetry. He recited poetry as habitually as other

people cleared their throats. Verse was preverbal: a preparation

for speech, an ordering of ones thoughts and feelings, an exquisite

sketch, a graceful, generous, gratefully borrowed vision. Mar-

garet understood this and listened to his voice, as clear as the air,

as self-consciously grand as the surrounding peaks, as happy as a

childs, and then she drove off the mountain. Not all the way off

the mountain, she noticed. Just aiming off the mountain, really.

 “Shortcut, darling?”

 Margaret never forgot driving off the mountain, and she never

forgot how Edward pretended she wasnt shaking, how he made

quiet jokes that guided her back to the road and back to the world

where cars were aimed at Turin rather than at a heavily wooded

abyss.

 She drove slowly, with determination, ecstatic that she had not

rolled hideously to a foreign death, and for a moment she felt

about the world the way she thought Edward always felt about

it, for thirty honking cars trailed irritably behind her, and, glancing

in the rearview mirror, all she noticed about them was how

brightly they sparkled in the mountain sunlight.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780547548364
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Subject:
General Fiction
Author:
Schine, Cathleen
Subject:
Fiction : General
Publication Date:
April 2011
Binding:
eBooks
Language:
English
Pages:
288

Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Humor » General
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Rameau's Niece
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Product details 288 pages Ticknor & Fields - English 9780547548364 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by ,
A repackage of the Cathleen Schine's 1993 Rameau's Niece, a comedy of manners set in New York 
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