- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
Usually ships in 5 to 7 business days
available for shipping or prepaid pickup only
The Act of Loveby Howard Jacobson
I first sighted Marius, long before I had any inkling Id have use for himor he for me, come to thatat a country churchyard funeral in Shropshire. One of those heaving-Wrekin mornings the poet Housman made famousrain streaming on stone and hillock, the gale plying the saplings double, a sunken, sodden, better to be dead than alive in morning. It didnt matter to me, I was from somewhere else. I could slip on galoshes before I left my hotel, put up an umbrella, endure what had to be endured, and then be gone. But others at the graveside chose to live in this hope-forsaken place. Dont ask me why. To assist in their own premature interment, is my guess. To be done with life before it could be done with them.
Such a lust for pain there is out there. Such apocalyptic impatience. I dont just mean in Shropshire, though Shropshire might have more than its fair share of it, I mean everywhere. Bring on the dirty bomb, we cry, and publish instructions for its manufacture on the Internet. Blow winds and crack your cheeks: we scorch the earth, pitch our tent at the foot of a melting iceberg or disturbed volcano, sunbathe in the path of a tsunami. We cant wait for it to be over. The masochists we are!
And all the while we have the wherewithal to suffer exquisitely and still live, if we only knew where to look. In our own beds, for example. In the beloved person lying next to us.
Love hard enough and you have access to all the pain youll ever want.
Not a thought I articulated at the time, I have to say, not having met, not having married, not having lost my heart and mind to the woman who would be my torturer. Marisa came later. But in the vegetative dark that preceded her, I never doubted that my skin was thinning in preparation for someone. Easy to be wise after the event and see Marisa as the fulfillment of all my longings, the one Id been keeping myself for; but of course I didnt fall in love only provisionally before I met her. Each time I lost my heart and mind, I believed I had lost them for good. Yet no sooner did I regain my balance than I knew that the woman who would finish me off completelymake me hers as I had never so far been anybodys, a man possessed in all senses of the wordwas still out there, waiting for her consummation as I was waiting for mine. Hence, I suppose, my interest in Marius, before I apprehended the part he would play in that consummation. I must have seen in him the pornographic complement to my as yet incompletely formed desires.
It was impossible to tell from his demeanor at the funeral whether he was one of the principal mourners. He looked sulkily aggrieved, scarfed up and inky cloaked like Hamlet, but somehow, though he gave conspicuous support to the widowa woman I didnt know, but to whom there clung a sort of shameful consciousness of ancient scandal, like a fallen woman in a Victorian novelI didnt think he was the dead mans son. His distress, assuming it to have been distress, was of a different order. If I had to nail it in a word, Id say it was begrudgingas though he believed the mourners were weeping for the wrong person. Some men attend a funeral jealously, wishing to appropriate it for themselves, and Marius struck me as such a man.
Id known and done a spot of business with the deceased. He had been a professor of literature with a large library. I had traveled up from London to value it. Nothing came of our negotiations. The library was ill cared for and crumbled into dust before I could come up with a figure. A fortuitous event in its own way, since the professor did not really want to part with his books, whatever their condition. He was a sweet man, out of time and place, who expostulated against lifes cruelties in a squeak, like a mouse. One of lifes, now one of deaths, disappointees. But I hadnt known him so well that I could move among his family and friends and ask them who the Black Prince was. As for striking up an acquaintance with him directly, that was out of the question. He was as obstinately sealed from eye contact or introduction as the corpse itself.
Observing him later, in the little centrally heated village hall to which wed trooped after the service, plied double like the saplings, I wondered whether the bleak weather had been responsible for his appearance at the graveside, so much less saturnine was he, divested of his coat, his scarf and, if I wasnt mistaken, the widow. To say he was merry would be to go too far, but hed turned animatedly unapproachable, as opposed to simply unapproachable. A cold fire seemed to come off him, like stars off a sparkler.
He was handsome, if you find high and hawkish men handsome. As a nonpredatory man myself, I felt intimidated by him. But thats part of what being handsome means, isnt it: instilling fear.
He was standing by a table of sausages and pork pies, making access to it difficult for other people, flirting icily with two poochy-looking girls who, for no other reason than that he appeared to wish to divide them, I took to be sisters. He gave the impression, fairly or not, of a man who would cross any boundary if there was gloomy mischief in it. It was this same impression that made me wonder whether the girls were quite of an age to be spoken to with such freedom, all things considered. Exactly how old they were I couldnt tellwhenyou dont have children of your own (and I am not a breeding man) you lose the power to distinguish twelve from twenty-sevenbut they wore the nakedly raffish expressions of girls who know they can get you a prison sentence.
For his part, though Marius allowed them to feel they had exclusive use of his attention and were exclusively the beneficiaries of his brilliance, he succeeded at the same time in holding them up as a sort of reproach to the gathering, as though it was their dullness that reduced him to whiling away his time with chits in black lipstick and nose rings. But I might have misread him. Perhaps he was deeply affected by the funeral, consumed by a grief which only indiscreet intercourse with the young and the provocative could assuage.
What did they see in him, I wondered, that dissolved the usual indifference young girls feel toward lugubriously clever men nearly twice their age. They laughed with a responsiveness that would have been flagrant at a coming-out ball let alone a funeral breakfast. They raised their bare, flushed, perilous pixie faces to him, ablaze with the consciousness that there was an audacity in his starry attention that demanded a reciprocal boldness from them.
Quite suddenly, as though he feared a scene, he called it to an end, recalling himself to what he owed the dear departed and his widow, however dull their conversation. But in the moment before he left the girls I caught him mouthing a phrase at themhalf secretly, half not. I, for one, had no difficulty interpreting the communication, but then I miss very little that has a promise of impropriety in it. And yes, I admit it, will find impropriety where impropriety isnt. Not this time though.
Four . . . o . . . clock, he said without making a sound.
So what was he doing? Arranging to meet them after school?
The tremble hour.
If it was an assignation, he didnt keep itthat was my guess. The jailbait, yes; one, or more likely both of them, each egging the other on as they stood at whatever corner Marius had instructed them to meet him, pulling back their frilly sleeves to consult their Mickey Mouse watches every other minute, laughing into their handkerchiefs, while their pulpy hearts pounded inside their blazers. But not Marius. What he wanted from the girls he had already taken.
How you can tell on so brief an appraisal (and most of it from behind) that a man is an absentee libertine, that he lights fires and doesnt stop to see them blaze, that at the last hed sooner withhold a sexual favor than confer one, I cant explain. Perhaps that sort of sadism shows in the curvature of the spine. Perhaps Im just good at seeing what I want to see. However you account for it, I felt, in advance, the sting of his disregardI steal the phrase from Leopold Bloom, Bloomuponwhom, the patron saint of the subjugated and deceivedas acutely as those girls would have felt it at four oclock on whatever day in whatever place Marius did not turn up to meet them.
My territorysexual insult. Im a connoisseur of it. I could write you a treatise, a thousand pages long, and in a dozen languages, some of them dead, on the difference between a sting and a smart. It comes, partly, from an extensive and perhaps overcollaborative reading of that category of classic novel (English, French, Russian, whatever) whose subject is humiliation. Im tempted to ask what other category of classic novel is there. But I acceptif with bewildermentthat there are some readers who open books in order to be mystified by extravagant event, or stirred by acts of prosaic heroism. I must have been born without a taste for mystery or heroics.
Love, that is all Ive ever cared to read about. Love and loves agonies.
Love afflicted me.
I draw no distinction between literature and life. In the stories I precociously devoured I gravitated naturally to the painto the sorrows alike of Young Werther and the older Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, to the easily bruised boyish prickliness of Julien Sorel and the deep womanly contemplative sadness of Anne Elliot. But it had never been any different for me in life. I was born lovesickunrequited, highly strung, quiveringly jealous, with a morbid yearning to give my heart long before there was anyone to give my heart to.
That I too would be spurned, left to pine away like the heroes and heroines of my reading, I never doubted.
The first girl I could ever truly call a girlfriendthe first girl whose fingers I was allowed to interlace with minebetrayed me the second time I took her out. We went into the cinema together and she left two and a half hours later with someone else. How and where she found him when there appeared to be only she and I sitting alone in the darkness and I had never once let go of her hand, what she saw in him with the lights down wherever she found him, why she preferred him to me, what I lacked or had done wrong that could explain that preference or her cruelty in making it so plainnone of this I understood. I was fifteen, she the same. She had a cascade of black hair, eyes like a fortune-tellers and long, slender brown arms which I imagined wrapped around me twice. She had kissed previously, I had not. But she came from a family of teachersher father taught cello at the Royal Academy of Musicand she said she would enjoy teaching me to kiss. Now, inexplicably, she was enjoying teaching another pupil more.
I stood outside her house after school for weeks, imagining that she would relent, that what had happened had been a mistake, a confusion that conversation or just the sight of me would clear up, but she never showed her face, not even at a window. I hoped her father might come out. As a cello teacher he would surely have understood my desolation. But he too never appeared. Eventually a girl emerged from the house, I assumed Faiths sister, to inform me of the situation. Faith says shes going out with Martin now. She says would you please go home and leave her alone.
I put my satchel down as though I meant to stay rooted to that spot forever. What did I want? The earth to open up and take me? A retraction from Faith of her sisters words? A glimpse of Martin that would at least show me what I didnt have?
The sister must have been moved by the spectacle of thwarted love I presented because she found a kinder tone in which to say, These things happen. Youll get over it.
I never did get over it. What I suffered in the loss of Faith, reason told me, was quite disproportionate to what Id felt for her on the mere two occasions wed gone out and the time Id thought about her in between. But reason was no help. Nothing helps against jealousy. I began to idealize her beauty. Her arms grew longer and more slender. Her kisses, which had been no more than tentative and toothy, were now deep probings, as fathomless as the sea and as desperate as drowning, only someone else was swimming in them and I was drowning in their absence. I was unable to eat. My schoolwork suffered. My head ached. I felt murderous, not to Faith or Martin but to myself. Had I possessed more of whatever it was that girls wanted this could not have happened. And it was too late to acquire that mysterious whatever it was now, because there was no future in which to put it into practice.
I rubbed at the pain in my heart. Probed it, polished it, until there was no skin left between my heart and me. Was it Faith I missed or was it myself, the self Id been when shed wound her lovely arms around me twice? Where to locate the hurt exactlyin the kisses that had been stolen from me almost before theyd begun, or in the insult of her preferring Martin? What was it she saw in him? What was it she didnt see in me? What was it, what was it, what was it . . . ?
It made me careful thereafterin the thereafter I never thought thered benever to hurt as Id been hurt, never to leave the cinema with anyone other than the person Id gone into the cinema with, never to show that I preferred kissing someone else. How to survive jealousy became the study of my life. How to accept that someone you love might not love you in return. How to bear her kisses going elsewhere. How to face up to abandonmentthe knowledge that you are and will remain unloved, cast out, not just because you are not worthy in yourself, but because you stand in the way of two other peoples happiness. Made lonely for all eternity so that they can be for all eternity together.
You know my motto, my father said in a cloud of cigar smoke. If you miss one bus theres always a second.
He was disgusted by my weeping. I was disgusted, plain and simply, by him.
Whats the use of a second bus when youve been knocked down by the first? I replied.
He shrugged. Youll have a few broken bones, he said, no more.
My mother was more sympathetic, though of no more help. I did not visit her in her room, which for as long as I could remember had been a chamber of private grief, for she too had been abandoned. But she came to me one morning as I lay disconsolate and motionless on my bed, looking up at the ceiling, nursing a sadness which day by day had been making a permanent home for itself in my bodya molten river of acid and scalding honey that moved with slow deceptive sweetness through my veins.
Is it always like this? I asked her.
She thought about it for some moments, pulling her brocade dressing gown around her. She had always appeared to be from another age, my mother, as though abandoned into an earlier time. I wish I could tell you it isnt, she said. But you will find someone else, and then youll forget what happened this time.
And when it happens again?
She touched my hand. A gesture of unusual warmth in my family where touching was reserved for impropriety or rejection. You might be lucky, she said. It might not happen again.
What might make it not happen again?
You might learn to love the next person a little less. Or at least invest a little less in her.
But would that then be love?
Ah, now that, she said, gathering herself up, is the big question.
I might only have been fifteen, but I knew the big answer. If you wanted to be in loveand I wanted nothing elsethen you had to welcome into your soul loves symptoms and concomitants: fear of betrayal which was no less potent than the fear of death, jealousy which ate into the very marrow of your bones, a feverish anticipation of loss which no amount of trust would ever assuage. Lossloss waited upon gain as sure as day followed night, thats if day would ever follow night again. You loved not only expecting to lose but in order to losethis my favorite books had told me and now Id put them to the test in life I knew them to be right. You loved to lose and the more you loved the more you lost. Fear and jealousy were not incidental to love, they were love.
The molten river sluiced through my body, as though it had found its natural course there and would never leave me.
Good that something would never leave me.
I didnt take the train back to London after the funeral as Id meant to do. Some impulse or other kept me in Much Wenlock. Not a desire to hit the town even though it was a Saturday night. I ordered sandwiches and ate them in my hotel room. Everything in the hotel was on a slant. The sandwiches slid off the tray. My bottle of beer slid off the bedside table. It was only by holding on to the mattress that I was able to avoid sliding out of bed.
But the crookedness of the place went with my mood. Id been disarranged.
I was woken by the sound of Sunday church bells ringing. A mocking sun was streaming in through the curtains. The old man was buried and now life could begin again. I decided to take advantage of what could be the only sun Shropshire was going to see for a hundred years and dressed quickly. I needed breakfast and wasnt prepared to risk a fried egg sliding onto my lap, so I went looking for a caf. After that I mooched around, taking in the priory, a few half-timbered buildings, at last finding a couple of bookshops of the sort I make a point of investigating when Im out of town. I rarely find anything of value but I never fail to buy a book or two, simply as a way of expressing fellow feeling. Of all the forms of that premature interment Ive talked about, selling books in the provinces is the most pitiable. They sit behind their wooden tables, pretending to readthough theyve read their entire stock a dozen times alreadyentering their few sales into a ledger with a blunt pencil. Could so easily have been me, I always think, but for the worldly far-seeingness of my ancestors, making sure our destiny would be in Marylebone, Londons city within a city. Felix Quinn: Antiquarian Booksellersin the quiet assurance of our name I believe you hear the confidence of a family that couldnt imagine ever living more than a few hundred yards from everything the soul and body of man requires: art galleries, concert halls, good restaurants, suppliers of wine and cheese, infirmaries, bordellos.
Others must travel to satisfy these needs; we had only to stretch out a hand.
Indeed, it was one of my fathers recurrent malodorous jokes that at his age happiness resided solely in being able to reach out his hand and feel under a womans skirt. He didnt mean my mothers.
By the time Id searched the shelves of the bookshops and made consolatory, not to say condescending, conversation with their hapless proprietors I needed lunch. It was gone three when the taxi slid me out at Shrewsbury station. All the trains were late. I pounded the far end of the platform in irritation, looking for somewhere to sit in the sun, wondering whether to pick fights with people who took up seats with their luggage. People with backpacks always the worst offenders. Walkers! Those masochists who think their minds are healthy. At last a seat fell empty and I bagged it. When I looked around me I saw that I was sitting next to Marius.
He was still dressed funereally. I thought I could see traces of cemetery clay on his shoes and even on his jacket. But that was probably fanciful. I glanced at him a couple of times, hoping for one of those half smiles that invite conversation. I was curious to know why hed been at the funeral, what his relations were to poor Jim Hanley and his widow. Maybe, if we were traveling to London on the same train, hed tell me about his penchant for picking up and then letting down underage schoolgirls. Explain the appeal of sadism to me.
Such a beautiful afternoon, I said at last, accepting that if I waited for him Id wait forever. Weather like this makes one wish one were somewhere else, dont you think?
He favored me with the quickest of looks, such as a wild animal might throw a man hes not afraid of but doesnt want to eat. It was evident that if I wished to be somewhere else, he wished Id go there. It was equally evident that he didnt recognize me from the funeral.
I threw my head back and screwed my eyes against the sun to make it easy for him if he didnt want to reply. Let it never be said that Im not a complaisant man.
Deciding not to be rude to me, he looked at his watch. Time of the day, squire, he said.
I wasnt sure I understood him. Was that a question? Was he wondering if his watch was slow? What about the time of the day? I asked.
Its the reason you want to be somewhere else. Nuffink to do with the weather. He consulted his watch again. Youre smelling somewhere faraway. Four oclock has that effect.
I was surprised to detect a faint accent. I mean under the faux cockney or whatever it was he was affecting. Not West Midlands quite, but nearly. I hadnt imagined him accented. It disappointed me. I wanted him pristine. I viewed him, as I have said, pornographically and pornography is a picky medium. It permits no extraneous material or tomfoolery. Just the clean, chill sepulchral lines of sexual violation and the silence that comes after.
And which faraway place does four oclock smell of to you? I asked.
Ah! he said, as though that were a question that reached deep inside his soul. He drummed his fingers on the briefcase he carried on his lap and appeared to let his imagination roam worlds real and fanciful. I waited, expecting Petra or Heraclea, the Galpagos Islands or the fields of Troy. I knew a pedant when I saw one. They always are, these queasy, tyrannical men. They ease their disgust by reading the classics.
Thanatos, was what he finally came up with. Proving me right. He was a tyrant.
I pulled a face. Thanatos?
Youre wondering where that is? Greek for death, matey.
It took all my restraint not to tell him Id rather he didnt treat me as one of his schoolgirls. I know what Thanatos is Greek for, I said. Im only surprised to hear you call death a place.
What would you call it?
The end of place.
He rubbed his hand across his mouth as though to stop himself from laughing at me, or from ripping me apart with his teeth. I understood how those girls had felt. It was exciting to be near him. Dangerous, somehow, as though the death he spoke of was an entity he had power over. I felt I was sitting in Shrewsbury station with a vampire.
I wouldnt be surprised to learn Id covered my throat.
Youd probably argue no less prosaically, then, he said with undisguised scorn, that deff aint a person neither. But the Greeks wouldnt have agreed with you. They made him a beautiful young man and shoved a butterfly in his hands. Wherever you are at four oclock, you hear the buerfly beating its wings for the final time. Thats whysince you brought the subject upyour heart aches, as every heart on the planet aches, in sympathy with the dying day as it faints in the embrace of desire. Comprendez?
I didnt say I knew all about the fucking buerfly, thank you. I was too affected by his prose style. Yours would appear to be the cosmology of an incurable romantic, I countered, showing I was not without a bit of style of my own. But by that time he was on his feet. There was no train coming, but he wanted to be certain that when one did, he would not be on it in my company.
This might be hard to credit, but Marius was traveling to London to clear a few matters up with people and one of the people he was traveling to clear a few matters up with was me. Not me personally, but me as in the business.
Not as coincidental as it sounds, given that his errand was connected to the death in which we were already bonded. I dont mean his Thanatos twaddle, I mean the actual death that had taken me up to Shropshire in the first place. It appeared that the professor had been ill for some time and that in the course of his illness his mind had begun to wander. Someone, he believed, had stolen the most precious volumes of his library. He kept a diary which contained all the information necessary to track the thieves who had come up from London in the night and emptied whatever books they could lay their hands on into a truck. They hadnt tied him up or harmed him, but they did warn him with threatening gesture against doing anything to hamper their getaway. Fortunately hed had the presence of mind to take down the name of the driver. Felix Quinn: Antiquarian Bookseller. A reference in his diary to an appointment which he himself had made with Felix Quinn in person, and a subsequent entry describing the meeting as highly satisfactory from one perspective, suggested a different version of the story. But those who cared about himretrospectively, that isand who might just have been worried for their inheritance, thought it would be for the best to clear this up. A bit soon after the funeral, but it was not for me to pass judgment. Country people are more suspicious than we who live trustingly in cities.
As for those who cared about him, they comprised his wife, who had run off with a much younger mana favorite student of the professorsand the much younger man in question, who was Marius.
Nothing, as I say, coincidental about any of this, except the fact of one of my assistants, Andrewwho dealt with Marius when he turned up on Monday morningknowing him from university. I wasnt in the shop when Marius and Andrew renewed their acquaintance, but I was told it went off as amicably as any encounter involving Marius could. Marius left, grumpily satisfied the old man had not been swindled out of his George MacDonalds and Christina Rossettis, after which Andrewa breathless, book-mad fellow in a ponytail which I insisted he cut whenever it reached low enough to threaten his safety on the library stepsagreed to tell me all he knew about Marius over lunch in a New Zealand restaurant that had just opened on the High Street.
He had eloped with her, the profs wife, that was the juiciest bit. We say run off when all we mean is set up house elsewhere. But this was truly an elopement. He twenty, she fifty. The story of it, to which further researches of my own has added a degree of color that Andrews rapid narrative of necessity lacked, was this:
She was the wife of an emeritus professor, working part-time and with only half his wits active, who befriended Marius in his second year at university, seeing in the young man a precocious and perhaps ill-fated genius that reminded him of his own. Before settling for a life of academic ignominy, addressing what was left of his thoughts to empty lecture hallsempty of everyone except Mariusthe professor had held out hopes of being an essayist, mythopoeist, and epigrammatist of wit. Now, lame and hard of hearing, he imagined that same future for Marius, who became a frequent guest at his house, where he metas it was always written that he shouldEElspeth, old enough to be his mother, not quite old enough to be his grandmother. She was beautiful, silvery in that seemingly ageless style of middle-class Englishwomen who get the business of looking old over with while theyre young. At fifteen she looked about a hundred. For the following thirty years she looked about fifteen. Now she was poised, equinoctially, between assurance and desperation, her day not yet spent, the wheels of her evening just beginning to turnand Marius, whatever the arguments in favor of circumspection, to say nothing of decency, was not, as I was to learn, proof against the equinox.
He talked to her, openlyby his standards of uncommunicativenessand in the hearing of the professor, of his love for her. His language, as I now imagine it, somewhere between Gatsbys and Schopenhauers, grasping at dreams, beating on, boats against the current, toward the most certain dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
What would you know of love or its unhappiness? she challenged him, her voice all bells, like a Christian village on the morning of a coronation.
They were in the garden, drinking Pimms. It was one of those soft English summer days that make one think of eternity.
At your age love is just a word, said the professor. You cannot yet have fathomed its miseries.
When the professor spoke it was as though dry paper rustled in the trees.
On the contrary, Marius objected, I have fathomed only its miseries. I agree that what Wittgenstein calls pathos attaches to a man in love regardless of whether that love makes him happy or unhappy. Aber es ist schwerer gut unglcklich verliebt sein, als gut glcklich verliebt: But it is harder to bear yourself well when you are unhappily in love than when you are happily in love.
Now the trees sang a song of forever.
The professor exchanged glances with his wife. See, the old mans eyes said, is he not as brilliant as I told you he was?
Elspeth nodded. Yes, yes she saw.
They eloped. They may have been the last people in this country to elope, elopement being an act of desperation for lovers in a strict society. Now you just say youre going and whoever doesnt like it can lump it. In fact they would have met no resistance either from the professor, whose life was already such a disappointment that the loss of his wife (which could, anyway, be seen as the gain of a son) barely impinged upon his melancholy, or from Mariuss father, who looked down on his son and needed no further evidence that he was a fool. Mariuss mother, it embarrasses me on behalf of human psychology to report, had eloped herself just a year after Marius was born. A proper elopement, pursued by a husband with a gun. Marius and Elspeth, pursued by no one, eloped because they wanted to elope.
Marius, in a borrowed car, waited outside her cottage in the Shropshire village of Quatford. He was twenty, she was . . . but it didnt matter how old she was in actuality; in expectation she was twenty too. It was four oclock in the afternoon, an hour when her husband the professor was either lecturing or taking a nap, or, as Elspeth joked, her voice as merry as a young girls, doing both things simultaneously. She would have preferred to be driven away at night, with only the moon as their witness, but Marius couldnt borrow the car for that long.
Marius tried to kiss her the moment she appeared carrying an overnight bag and with a scarf around her shoulders, but Elspeth insisted they make haste.
Drive, she said. Just drive.
He inquired after the rest of her luggage.
Just drive, she ordered him.
No one was following but Marius did as she said and just drove.
Occasionally she would lean across and look into the rearview mirror to be sure they werent being tailed. She grew nervous at traffic lights and appeared startled whenever someone overtook them. But they were safe. No alarm had been raised and no one was in pursuit. Having ascertained that his library was intact and that they hadnt run off with a single one of his lectures, the professor sighed and left them to their fate. For this, Elspeth never forgave him.
They hadnt discussed where they were going. Elspeth wanted it to be a secret. Marius assumed he would be taking her back to his digs in Sutton Coldfield, no matter that he shared a bathroom with four other students. But Elspeth expected a transitional passage in a place that belonged to neither of them. When Marius explained he had to get the car back before night fell she warned him that in that case hed have to get her back before night fell too.
If you can steal a wife from your professor and protector, she told him, you can steal a car from your friend.
It was at that moment that Marius realized what a crooked course he had embarked on. Henceforth he was to understand himself as an immoralist.
He drove without purpose or direction until Elspeth saw a sign to Stratford-upon-Avon. Take me there, she said.
Marius checked his gas gauge. He believed he had just enough juice to make it.
Elspeth, who loved Shakespeare, loved Stratford-upon-Avon on his account. Instead of going straight to their room in the bed and breakfast Marius found them, she took him to the Royal Shakespeare Theater to see, as luck would have it, Antony and Cleopatra.
Do you know, she whispered to him before the lights went down, I watched Peggy Ashcroft play Cleopatra to Michael Redgraves Antony in this very house twenty-five years ago.
Before my time, Marius whispered back, concealing his alarm at Elspeths use of the word house.
She held on to his arm. Nobody thought Peggy Ashcroft had a Cleopatra in her, but she was magnificent.
Before his time it might have been, but Marius remembered that Kenneth Tynan had been waspish about this famously aberrant coupling. It was Mariuss essay comparing Tynan and George Bernard Shaw as critics of the English stage that had first brought him to Elspeths husbands attention. The professor was not a lover of the theater, as was not Marius, and they shared a taste for those moments in theater criticism when the great critics werent that keen on theater either. What Marius remembered was Tynans joke that the only role in Antony and Cleopatra that any English actress was equipped to play was Octavia, Caesars pallid sister. Somewhat sadistically, in the circumstances, he repeated this to Elspeth, along with Tynans deliberately bad-form follow-up joke that the great sluts of world drama have always puzzled our girls.
We will assume the worst of Mariuss motives. Not only must he have wanted to reassert himself after the poor job hed made of the mechanics of elopement, but it must have excited something in his naturethe spitefulness and the sadism, let us guessto use the word slut in the company of his professors wife, a woman of an age to scold him for his language, and who had this very day left the decorous safety of her old life for him.
For her part, Elspeth believed that Peggy Ashcroft had found as much slut in herself as was necessary to play the part of Cleopatra. In her heart she winced from the brutality of the word and didnt consider it apposite to Shakespeare. But she argued the case dreamily and without conviction, as though it excited her, in turn, to wonder, in this hallowed place, whether she would be able find as much slut in herself as would be necessary to play with conviction the part of Mariuss mistress.
A story whichwhatever else there was to say about itexplained why Marius had agitated me from the moment Id set eyes on him. It isnt every boy of twenty who will entice a woman two and a half times his age away from her husband and get her to set up house with him. He was a crosser of lines, a disrespecter of the decencies, and I have a nose for such people. Never mind that (or do I mean precisely because) he was a disrespecter of me as well.
To say I have a nose for such people makes light of an instinct about which I should be more courageously forthcoming. Some menand Marius was such a manhave always filled me with dread on account of their appearing to possess a quality I dont: the wherewithal to persuade a woman to abandon herself, against all reason and against all conscience, to unbridled lust. This is what I mean when I say I viewed Marius pornographically. Whatever the reality of him, he played an archetypal role in that book-fed theater of riot and melodrama that was my sexual imagination. He lurked in darkened cinemas, invisible to everyone but the woman he would steal from you, kissing her unnoticed in the blackness even as you sat and held her hand. He was the eternal rake or rou who must make any man not a rake or rou worry about his potency. It doesnt matter whether or not you yourself wish to persuade a woman to abandon herself against all reason to unbridled lust, the knowledge that you cant and he can lies curled like a poisonous snake in the long grass of your self-esteem. And thats before you address the heated question of what will happen if you find yourselves going head to head for the same woman.
Freudian? Did I see my father in him, competing with me for my mother? I wouldnt bet against it. I see my father in most men and no doubt my mother in most women. She was permanently in distress, he was a swineas archetypes go, you wont go far wrong in life with those to guide you.
Mystery of my absorption in Marius solved, anyway. He was one of those. He had what Sacher-Masoch saw in that dark-furred, shuddermaking Greekthe power to subjugate. It wasnt because Id desired either of the underage girls myself that it had made me uncomfortable to watch him toy with them in the bone-freeze cemetery damp of Wooton-under-Whateveritwas, nor was it because I envied him the professors widow that I felt her pain as he tormented her with his detachment. No doubt the latter was just part of their age-discrepancy ritual of cruelty and cringing anyway. No, what had got under my skin was that hed done what hed done because he could get away with doing it. They enjoy an exemption, these nondelivering libertines with sad faces. Or they do in my fears. Which might mean only that Im the one who exempts them.
First I attribute almost impossible powers to them. Then I set them free. Free to do what?
Free to do whatever a perverts delirious fancy wishes them to do. Free to do damage. Free to take whats yours. Free to whistle your wife away from you. Free to make a slut of her. Free to make a nothing of you.
Whatever else there is to be said about the subject, that was where my interest in Marius ended. He was a character in a salacious fiction I wrote in imitation of all the salacious fiction Id ever read (and what fiction isnt salacious?) only when his image was before me. Once he was out of view, the fiction went unwritten. And it would have stayed unwritten had he not turned up entirely unexpectedly but opportunely some five or six years laterthe years in which Id fallen hard for Marisaon an errand of the heart. Not normally where a normal persons heart takes him, Felix Quinn: Antiquarian Booksellers, but Marius was no more normal a man than I was.
He wanted us to retrieve a number of volumes of personal significance that had passed into our hands some years before. That was the gist of it. Not the volumes the professor had accused us of purloining on his deathbed, but others that had been the property of the professors wife and which she had not had time to take away with her when she eloped. It wasnt with me that he made his appointment, indeed he had no reason to connect me with the shop, but Andrew, remembering my interesthe remembered everything: every book that anyone had ever wanted, every book that we have ever sold, every book that anyone had ever writteninformed me Marius was coming in. I was in my office when he called and recognized him immediately, though heavy glass separated us and he was much changed. He carried his height differently, less imperiously, more as an excuse for abstraction. He had grown mustaches, great sea-lion excrescences which he wore, like a Swedish adventurers, as though to give himself the look of someone with something to hide, but which to me gave him even more the look of a bodice-ripper sadist. From the number of times Andrew had to incline toward him, sometimes going so far as to pull his ponytail clear of his face and tug the tip of his ear, I gathered that Marius had become a mumbler too.
He didnt see me and if he had he would not have remembered me. I was beneath his notice, in all senses.
Though hed already written to us with his request, there were still procedures to go through before we could find him what he wanted. We dont, at Felix Quinn: Antiquarian Booksellers, hurry clients, nor do we like them to hurry us. You come in, you talk, you go away, and then we send you a parcel or we dont. Even if the books you seek are visible on the shelves we still write out an order form and institute a search. In the age of Amazon these virtues are appreciated by our customers. Marius left us his address. Out of idle curiosityanother interpretation would say out of suicidal curiosityI checked to see where he was living now. Surely not in sodden Shropshire still. And in this I was right again. The countryside was no place for a flower of evil such as Marius. What I hadnt expected, though, was to find that hed moved to all intents and purposes next door, into the purlieus of my marriage.
For a moment or two everything went very still about my heart. Peace, was it? The peace the gods send you on the eve of certain destruction? Just to be sure I was not destroyed already I went up into the street and looked into the faces of people going about their business. Blank, most of them. Ignorant of the sort of secret I was carrying. But they might have thought the same about me. You never know whats lying still about the heart of anyone.
According to the Elizabethans, Fortune is a whore. You have to take that with a pinch of salt. The Elizabethans saw whores everywhere. They were besotted with the words hoarse and poxy music and grew drunk on that disenchantment with womenindeed that disenchantment with the sexual life in generalwhich it denotes. Horn mad and whore obsessed, they fornicated, contracted syphilis, feared that every smile concealed a lie, and thought no woman chaste. I, who am no less intemperate but view the falseness of women differentlylet us say as an opportunity rather than a bane, and certainly with greater understandingsee Fortune more as pimp than whore. Explain otherwise why Marius, with all the world to choose from, and at a time when I was in urgent need of his particular genius, was impelled to come and live so close to me that, even leaving aside our shared interest in antiquarian books, our paths were bound eventually to cross, and I was bound eventually to reel him in.
Copyright 2008 by Howard Jacobson
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like