Burn what you have worshipped, worship what you have burned.
– St. Remy
[from the Poet's Diary]
The Ten Golden Sovereigns
I came here first of all to work. By which I mean not only, nor even in the first place, to make black marks on paper, but also to look about me, to observe the passing scene, to tread in the iron-clad footsteps of dead Crusaders along the black shores of a wine dark sea, to pose for my official portrait with the ancient temple of Segeste serving as the highly appropriate backdrop or stage set if you will. I have with me (and yet not with me, for he has a room of his own) a young painter who calls himself Danzig although I am convinced that is not his real name. More than once I have heard the waiter address him in an undertone as "Lorenzaccio". This so-called Danzig claims to have been an officer in the Austrian Navy and to have learned his excellent Italian in Trieste, where he served on board a submarine. He has already painted the Archduke, and now he is to paint me.
These are only some of the reasons I have come. There are others, of course, less superficial, less ready of explication - they will be revealed in the course of time. They have a bearing on angels and archangels as well as on other, less benevolent spirits who have long been expecting me. Tomorrow, for example, I have a rendez-vous with the Royal Gardener to the Prince of Palermo in the gardens of the Villa Nebbiosa overlooking the sea. I have sent word that I will come an hour before sunset, but I cannot stay long. I must be at the Governor's in time for dinner; the Governor insists on punctuality and apparently has been known to order on-the-spot executions of those who are late to his table. I shall be careful not to make that mistake.
We took the corvette from Naples and were nearly drowned. We sailed directly into the heart of a storm, sea and sky were one black and sickening whirlpool. I lay in the bunk shivering with nausea and fear, watching the rats run back and forth across the tilting walls. The water came in and I tasted the dark salt wine of the mythopoëic sea. I shut my eyes tight and was once again an Unborn, rocked in swirling waters, dreaming the pure nameless passions of infancy. When the sky cleared and the dripping sails were unfurled like the white wings of waterbirds shaking off sleep and I staggered on deck to see the sky blue once again in all its cloudless innocence I was almost sorry to be alive, my head stuffed with thousands and millions of names, names for all things as well as their Latin equivalents. I would have liked to linger in that salty twilight a little longer, perhaps passing imperceptibly over into death. I leaned upon the railing and wept, I was angry as a thwarted child, when Danzig appeared, smiling, his shirt open at the throat, his dark hair ruffled by the stiff sea wind - he was altogether poetical in his dishevellment and good humour, and I forgot my sorrow and embraced him heartily.
It is not true, what they say, that I have never had a woman. It is merely that, under the eyes of the Archduke, my opportunities have been extremely limited. The Archduke is a strict Catholic, he has fallen into the hands of the Jesuits, and it is enough for him to hear only so much as a whisper of scandal to send for the Inquisition. Besides, he is very jealous of those he loves, and I am conscious of my position as a favorite. It has its (numerous) advantages. I am no Diogenes, as you can tell by the fine cut of my knee breeches, the violet silk of my coat. But there is no denying I am sometimes a little what the French call étouffé. The love of the Archduke is not like that of ordinary mortals, being at once more exigent and more refined. Have I come, then, to wallow in the gutter away from the prying eyes of those that love me too well? Wait and see...
Although Danzig was beaming with good spirits on our safe arrival in the harbour at Palermo, he had been disconsolate the night before our departure on account of a half-grown Siamese girl with dirty feet in whose embraces I more than once had surprised him. She had skin the color of the local marzipan and wore a sprig of crushed jasmine in her hair, another in the sash of her dress. She smiled at me, she offered me an assignation, all with an air of the most winning and angelic innocence strangely at variance with her words, which were uttered in a childish lisp. There was nothing sensual or the least bit voluptuous in her invitation, which was given as the most natural thing in the world - she might have been a well brought-up young girl asking me to tea. I gave her an appointment to come to my room. It was late in the afternoon but the sun was still strong. I had closed the shutters to keep out the heat, and the room was striped as by a brush with streaks of gold. She lay down on the brocade bedcover in her torn pink dress. I sat beside her and began to fondle her. Like a cat, she stretched and trembled, the long, thin lashes swept down over the marzipan cheeks so full and smooth I longed to bite them - so sure was I they would taste of sugared almonds. Closed, her eyelids displayed two humps of pale violet skin where the eyes had been - wide set, upslanting eyes of a ganoid blue so startling I assumed the color to be artificially enhanced with one of those beauty drugs known to the women of the east. She allowed me to remove her thin rag of a dress. Underneath it she was still a smooth-limbed undeveloped child; there was no tell-tale down on the little mount of the goddess, the hipbones were mere ridges under the sheath of downy skin. I caressed her and she moved her lips as if in prayer, then smiled and wriggled closer to me. She placed a knowing little hand upon me, but alas! It was too late for me to enjoy her. I lay on the bed gasping in the heat, dazzled by the sudden light, for someone had pushed open the shutter. A little Siamese cat came bounding onto the bed and miaowed noisily at the girl. She laughed and sat up, she called the cat Coco and bid her make my acquaintance. I gave her a false name and she gave me her own of Faustina. I gave her a sovereign to hide my shame and vexation, but in truth I was just as glad not to have possessed the child. Perhaps she was too young for me? I am not sure of the cause of my unease in her presence. She was constantly moving her lips as if in prayer. When I kissed her lips and sweetly odorous cheeks I heard the silken swish of her blood, the flute-whistle of the breath rising and falling in her narrow lungs. On the whole I was relieved when she left with her cat on her shoulder, but then the room was terribly quiet, the crumpled bedcover spoke eloquently of her visitation no matter how I tried to smooth it, the light remained in the same golden stripes upon the walls and floor, as though the sun had halted in its journey, and at last I was obliged to go out to escape the resonant void. That evening I asked Danzig to exchange rooms with me, which he did willingly enough, as his was by far the smaller and less desirable of the two. I asked him where he had happened to discover her and he answered that she was one of the little girls who do the laundry for the guests at the hotel. There are many of these Siamese in the Empire now, for during the last war they were imported in large numbers, both male and female, for purposes of prostitution. Strange that I never noticed her before. She must have been in and out of the room many times to collect or deliver my things. Why, the very shirt I was wearing now might have been crimped and pressed by those same agile fingers that had touched me so intimately in the afternoon. I fingered the stuff of the shirt and it seemed to have acquired a new significance, to be whispering something barely audible in the folds of the white cloth, over and over again, like a prayer.
The next morning I was accosted outside the door of the inn by two rough-looking characters, the father and brother of the little laundress. Their demand was simple enough - I must marry the girl to make restitution to her family for her outraged virtue. When I expressed myself unwilling to do anything of the kind they immediately suggested the substitution of gold and named a high figure. I had ruined the girl, she would no longer be marriageable among her own people, they explained, and so high a sum would be necessary to keep her for the rest of her days and to soothe the anger and grief of her family. I was unwilling to disabuse them either as to the child's character (which in truth they knew well enough, having played this scene many times before - the two had the slightly bored expressions and tired mannerisms of actors who have been too long in the same roles), or as to my own prowess. Nor was there any question but that the girl had in fact been most crudely violated and that not once but innumerable times, for her character had been thoroughly spoiled. The distress of her relatives might, for all I knew, be genuine enough. Nonetheless, the figure they named was far beyond my means. I named one considerably lower, to which they readily agreed, thus making it clear to me that I had paid too much. I gave them ten golden sovereigns and obtained in exchange the answer to the age old question, "What is the price of virtue?"
Beethoven's Other Nephew
The ships in the harbour at Palermo swim as in the dark dregs at the bottom of a gigantic goblet. Black volcanic headlands rear up on every side, black shadows swarm and dive in the ever-changing sea. The line between sea and sky is obscured by a heavy golden mist like that which appears around the Christ Child in certain baroque paintings. Always one hears the melancholy orchestral roar, the rush and retreat of the reaping tide.
The sun was low when we arrived, and by the time we had unloaded our boxes and hired a carriage it was nearly dark. It was a steep drive up the mountain to Monreale where, we had been assured by the vetturino, a pleasant inn awaited us. The road was well-paved and the distance not far, we should have been there easily in half an hour. But the vetturino kept stopping every few minutes, only to climb down from the carriage and disappear into the darkness at the side of the road.
"Driver, why are you stopping? Why don't you go on? Is there something amiss with the carriage?" I called out.
"No, no, Signore," he replied, approaching to the window from which I had spoken. "There is no problem. Don't distress yourself, Signore. We shall be there very soon."
"But why on earth do you keep stopping the carriage?" I demanded, and began to climb out myself, curious to see what was going on. I caught a glimpse of a brightly lit shrine set into some rocks in the hillside, and a black-faced Madonna draped in gold, from whose breast there protruded the hilt of a golden dagger. The vetturino pushed me roughly back into my seat, apologizing all the while in a soft, wheedling voice. "Sorry, Signore, very sorry, forgive me, Signore, you must not get down now. We are nearly there. Only have a little patience, Signore." At that point the carriage started up once more and in fact we did not interrupt our journey again until we came to a halt in the courtyard of a little hillside inn.
I was given a large pleasant room on the first floor, opening onto a terrace that overlooks Palermo and the sea. They assured me it was the best in the place, and I do not really find any fault with it, although it suffers from an elusive atmosphere of decay. The entire hotel is like this - any individual object on which you fasten your eyes presents itself in excellent condition, ordinary and unobjectionable, but somehow the whole wears an air of sombre, brooding regret. Invisible ants make their way across the spotless pink and blue tiles and swarm upon the gilded chandeliers in the dining room. Beneath the smoothly whitewashed walls the cracked and blistered skin of old age appears like the cheeks of an ancient belledame beneath a coat of paint. The terrace is planted with lemon trees and the tiny globular fruits mingle their perfume with the dead odours in the drains. Below the terrace the hill falls away sharply. Far at the bottom the city of Palermo is laid out like a glittering blanket every night. By day it disappears into a pink and blue haze, crowned by the golden aureole that hovers above the wine dark sea.
When I had settled my few belongings I called upon Danzig, whose room is next to mine, and asked him to accompany me on a walk before dinner. I always like to obtain some preliminary impressions of my surroundings, and besides my head was heavy from the prolonged ride in the airless carriage. He readily consented and we made our way the half mile or so down the hill to the village of Monreale. It was easy enough to find the main square, for the streets were full of people all hurrying in the same direction, and we had merely to let ourselves be carried forward by the tide. The piazza was brightly lit with electric lights - I could make out the arcade along the north face of the cathedral, and the one remaining tower thrusting its head above the level of the palm trees up into the starry sky. The press of the crowd was too intense to permit of a promenade, so we took seats before a gushing fountain wherein a marble boy was engaged in some lascivious sport with a sea serpent. Before us passed an endless parade of sloe-eyed velvet-skinned children dressed in the most elaborate costumes. The boys were attired as Crusaders, Moors, mousquetaires, as Sicilian princes in scarlet cloaks and golden doublets; the little girls like animated flowers in pink and blue, crimson, gold, violet, their broad-brimmed hats drooping with flowers, their skirts billowing over lace petticoats, draped with satin ribbons and sparkling with glass gems. One little beauty in particular caught my eye - she was dressed all in pink, in that distinctly garish hue, merging almost into blue, that is seen in blown roses, or in the thin membranes that surround the eye. Her smooth black hair cascaded from under a lace-encrusted picture hat that tied under her chin in an enormous pink bow. Upon her shoulder she carried a dainty pink parasol edged in lace, which she twirled continually in her lace-mittened hand. She paused before us several times, each time using the parasol as a screen from behind which she trained her curious young animal's eyes upon us. I saw her again much later, back at the hotel, where we returned after dining in the town on pasta drenched in saffron cream and the tender flesh of freshly killed fish. She was sitting on the wall under a lemon tree eating an ice, but the moment she saw us she jumped down and ran away into the dark, her parasol bobbing behind her.
That night when I was getting into bed I noticed for the first time the picture of the Madonna del Popolo over the headboard. I was repulsed by this blurry photograph of an artifact from a period antipathetic to my taste and would have liked to remove it from its place over the bed but was afraid of giving offence to the hotel staff. I pondered long over it and finally left it untouched, but I had reason to regret of my magnanimity before morning, for I was held captive all night by the most terrible dreams. The Madonna was weeping inside the picture frame - her tears ran down the glass that covered the tawdry print, soaking the bed. "It is nothing," I said to myself in my dream. "It is only condensation from the excessively damp atmosphere here in the hotel." But my heart was troubled - I wanted to comfort the weeping Madonna but had no idea how to go about it. "Don't cry, Mother," I said, climbing up on the bed and looking into the face of the picture. But her tears continued to flow faster than ever. I felt that I was the sole cause of her grief and that nothing could be done, no restitution was possible. I awoke early all in a sweat. The pillow was soaked with my tears, and the light dancing over the sea was painfully bright.
At breakfast I had a chance to observe the other guests at the hotel - they are not numerous. One of these is an old acquaintance of mine, a retired Canadian pianist whose extravagant interpretations I have more than once had occasion to praise in the pages of the Alldeutsche Musikalische Zeitung. He had retired first from the concert stage at the age of thirty-two, then from a lucrative recording career at the age of fifty, and had given himself out to be dead. These successive stages of retreat from reality had in fact rendered him dead in the public eye (although the matchless recordings continued to sell steadily) and perhaps something close to dead in himself, for as he sat there in a sunny corner of the dining room, hunched inside his ubiquitous greatcoat, he had the appearance of something shrunken, mummified, partially dissolved in the intensity of the light that poured in through the plateglass and reflected upwards from the glittering sea, and he did not move, he did not look as if he could ever move, but sat as still as a dead person over his gleaming white coffee cup. I was torn on seeing him thus at breakfast, for on the one hand I wished to preserve my anonymity, I did not wish to have my experience mediated by interaction with any superfluous persons belonging to the past; on the other hand I was moved to pity at the sight of his aloof and deathlike isolation. I compromised and offered him a simple nod by way of greeting, but he gave no indication of having seen me at all. Slowly, slowly, I saw his hand steal out towards the cup. He raised it with infinite slowness to his desiccated lips and drank. I deliberately turned my back to him, not wishing to prolong this painfully lugubrious spectacle throughout the whole of my breakfast, for I am a nervous and uneven breakfaster, the least thing puts me off my food in the morning, and then I won't feel right the rest of the day. The waiter brought me a biscuit ornamented with icing sugar, and a cup of gleaming white enamel identical to that I had seen in the slow-moving hand of my former friend. The waiter had the same sloe eyes and black hair as the children of the night before; his hands were deft and delicate like those of a violinist or a lacemaker. Looking up from my coffee, dazzled by the light, I shielded my eyes for a moment and realised that I was now looking into a large, gilt-framed mirror that covered the greater part of the wall opposite the plateglass. In the blue-green depths of this mirror the tables in stiff-winged cloths swam like so many white swans gliding upon glassy water, the enamelled Moorish candelabra and painted jugs, the battered piano, the gilded chandeliers were all repeated as a phrase from the first movement of a sonata may reappear at the very end, transposed into a different key and bearing an altogether different significance because its surroundings have changed utterly, because time has intervened, things have happened and failed to happen that have caused us to modify our opinion of this initial phrase, so too the dining room was repeated but not the same, and my friend, modified by time into what significance I had no idea and could hardly be expected to guess, was also there in the very corner of the mirror, his eyes over the now immobilized coffee cup meeting mine in the glass.
BARTON BEALE - b. 1932, Little Dip, Saskatchewan, Canada. d. 1982? First prize, piano, Toronto Conservatory, 1950. One of the great pianists of the twentieth century, Beale was particularly noted for his startling interpretations of the classics, and of Sebastian Bach in particular, whereby he influenced irrevocably an entire generation of musicians. His spectacular concert career was cut short by his voluntary retirement from the stage in 1964, after which he devoted himself exclusively to electronic recordings. These include, notably, the Goldberg Variations, J.S. Bach, 1952, The Well-Tempered Clavier, 1960, the entire keyboard oeuvres of Beethoven, Mozart, and most of J.S. Bach, little-known works of the Elizabethan period, works by other members of the Bach family, and again the Goldberg Variations, 1982. He was also an enthusiastic champion of the works of such recent composers as Schönberg, Krenek, and Leverkühn. Beale disappeared under mysterious circumstances shortly after the completion of the second Goldberg recording and is believed to be dead. Beale also achieved a certain notoriety in his lifetime as the author of such articles as "The Inverted Möbius Concerto - A Look at Bach's Brandenburgs" and "People in Glass Houses or Why I Gave Up Live Performances". See biographies by Sir Adrian Gower, Barton Beale, A Life Apart, (1984), and Dominique Lafontaine, Barton Beale, Sa Musique, Sa Vie, (1987).
[from The International Musical Encyclopedia]
Danzig came in and, after his customary little bow with hand pressed against the heart, slid into the place that had been laid for him at my side. He was even more sparkling than usual this morning - a mysterious sly smile played about his lips and alerted me that he was up to something. He had brought the portfolio with him and laid it down on the table, then placed his left hand over it. With the right he fingered his shirt ruffle in a coy, absent-minded gesture that drew my attention to the dark column of his throat.
"Good morning," I said, unable to repress a smile at the sight of his cheerfulness.
"Yes indeed, Meister," he replied. "Coffee, please," he said to the waiter, in English, for he likes to display his contempt for that whole class of people who serve, being himself in something of a servant's capacity to myself, and (I suspect by his manners and appearance, which are very pleasing but a trifle vulgar at times) having his origins in that class that lies just above the servant's and feels compelled to assert its superiority over the same whenever the two come into contact. So, despite his fluent and unaccented Italian, which is really much better than mine, he uses, whenever possible, that universal English that is the hallmark of the educated classes.
"I hope you were able to sleep, Meister," he added in a solicitous tone. I waved a hand in deprecation of all that his question implied, for he is well acquainted with my interminable sleep difficulties, and the topic is an old one between us.
"Not at all," I said. "But it's not important. Perhaps tonight will be better. I have the most terrible head... But what have you there? You haven't been at work already?" He took a large bite from his breakfast biscuit and licked the sugary crumbs from the sides of his mouth with a dextrous pink tongue, then took a swallow of coffee. I was fascinated by the visible passage of the food inside that smooth erect brown column.
"Have a look," he invited me, handing over the portfolio. Inside were several sketches of the children we had seen the night before, including the little girl in pink. "Recognize her?" he said, laying a finger on the picture.
"Yes, of course - Faustina. But why...?" I looked up at him in confusion.
"It was the same girl, Meister," he said, shrugging, opening the palms of his hands in bewilderment. "The very same. I recognized her right away. Did you not, then?" I shook my head, then bent over the sketch once more and examined the child in pink. There was certainly a strong resemblance to the little laundress of Naples.
"But I don't understand," I said. "What is she doing here? How could she have arrived so soon? She wasn't on the boat with us, I'm certain of it." Danzig shrugged again, and his eyes slid away from mine.
"Oh , well, certain - that's difficult to say, isn't it? She may have been... It was a rough crossing. She may have kept below."
"But why would she come here? And how would she have time to obtain the costume? It was quite the prettiest one there..." Then, it dawning on me, "You haven't brought her here yourself, have you?" His hands closed over the drawing and he stuffed it, along with the others, back into the portfolio.
"Certainly not," he said, looking into my eyes with the perfect frankness that belongs only to clear blue eyes in a very young face. I knew then that he was lying. "Would you like to see her again?" he asked. His majestic smile was that of a procuress who knows her goods to be of the first order.
"No!" I said sharply. "I would like to have nothing further to do with her. I only wish you hadn't brought her along, certainly not without consulting me beforehand. Her presence here will constitute a distinct nuisance to me."
"It wasn't me put the idea in her head," he said, again meeting me with that gaze of spurious and unshakeable naïveté. "The fact is, Meister, you shouldn't have given the father so much. Now she thinks she belongs to you."
I no longer had any appetite for my breakfast. I crumbled the remains of the biscuit and looked unhappily into the plate, hoping to read some augury there. The sea light reflected on the white ground of the porcelain, imparting to the biscuit deeper hues of golden brown like the striated chalky cliffs that crumble into the sea along the coasts of France.
"Tell her to go away," I said, but softly, to myself.
"What's that, Meister?"
"Yes, give her some money and tell her to go away." But in my heart the image of her almond cream skin, united now to the swaying silk skirts and lace parasol, opened like a rose and spread its perfume upwards into my brain. "Give her some money," I said again, and this time Danzig bowed his head in acknowledgement.
At this point another guest came into the dining room and sat down at the table next to ours. He was slight and spectrally pale, a young man fashionably dressed in a bottle green frock coat and riding boots, carrying a small riding whip. His dark hair was tied in a green ribbon, and the exposed right temple, which presented itself to my gaze, was ornamented by a small, neat hole of the type usually associated with a low calibre duelling pistol. The hole was black, scorched, and crusted around the edges with a fine crimped border of dark red coagulated blood. The young gentleman asked for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and began to read it immediately with minute attention while the waiter poured out his coffee.
"That is Beethoven's nephew," Danzig whispered, leaning towards me across the table.
"Do you mean Carl?" I said.
"No, this is the other nephew, Paul. He suffers terribly from nerves, they say. He is travelling with a private physician. I had a word with the doctor last night." And indeed a few moments later a gentleman who was conspicuously of the medical profession came in and took a seat beside young Beethoven. More than once I felt the young man's searching gaze upon me, and I saw him put his head together with the doctor's in consultation. Meanwhile Beale got up from his corner and shuffled across the room onto the adjoining terrace, where I saw him take a seat under the lemon trees and bury his head in his hands.
The Stones of Monreale
After breakfast we made our way down the hill to the cathedral, I with Heinrich Adams's excellent guide book ready to hand, Danzig with his sketchbook and pencils. Both money and faith being in short supply since the last war, the depredations committed by the firebombs have never been made good, and one can no longer hope to find the glowing outsized reliquary, paved from floor to ceiling with gemmed mosaics, that so fired the American scholar's imagination. Adams spent the last years of his life here, working out his stupendously detailed and ravishingly poetic guide to the Cathedral of our Lady of Monreale. The church as it stands today is but a shell. Still, it is possible to trace, with the help of Adams, the significance of certain isolated fragments of colored glory that adhere to the crumbling walls like scales to the sides of a too hastily cleaned fish. The roof is entirely gone, but this does not pose a serious problem, as the climate of Sicily is in general warm and dry. A cloth awning of blue and white stripes, similar to those in common use at fairgrounds and country markets, has been set in place and is unfurled on those rare days of bad weather when there is need of it.
The great west way stands open to the street, for there are no longer any doors. (The old Romanesque bronze doors were melted down during the war.) One looks from the high stone lintel directly into the face of the ancient Christus Pantocrator, His arms extended in universal gesture above the apse. The white glare of the sun lights His face and hands, lends to His sombre eyes a similitude of life. Below Him are grouped the courtiers of His Sacred Kingdom, damaged beyond recognition by the hand of time, showing only a fragment of a celestial blue robe here, of a golden halo there, where oncea saint looked down in glory upon the world of men. The walls are now of bare stone, broken down in part but essentially sound, and as thick as those of any fortress. The relentless light rains down through the empty window embrasures and the empty vault overhead. Underfoot, the pavement of multicoloured marble tiles has cracked open like an overcooked egg - the jewel-green grass leaks from the cracks and spills in vivid patterns across the floor, fertilized by the blood of martyrs, the dung of sheep and goats. The air is bright with the blue wings of Adonis butterflies; they swarm by the hundreds high up in the apse, forming a living mosaic that shivers like wind-blown water upon the dark stones. Doves have made their nests in the niches of the tower, and the sudden rustle of their iridescent wings breaks like a blue wave on a calm sea, pushed towards the shore by who knows what invisible hand. Down the center of the nave are two rows of antique columns, their capitals flourishing with the autumnal foliage of ancient Rome. No longer restrained by the Christianized iconography of the pulvins, which have been flagellated down to the naked stone, no longer serving any structural purpose, as the roof they were meant to support has been replaced by the divinely sustained vault of heaven, these columns, which never could have achieved more than an uneasy alliance with such rigorous spiritual surroundings at the best of times, are now forlorn, and appear like oversized and overdressed little girls who have come to the wrong party by mistake, and only want to be taken home again.
I wandered about with the book in my hand and found I was able, with the help of Adams's careful descriptions, to identify most of the coloured fragments that remain upon the walls. Oddly enough, this identification served only to throw into greater relief the contrast between the Monreale that Adams had known and loved and written about, and the Monreale where I now stood. My pilgrimage had been in vain - Monreale was no more. He had written of a place bloated with the riches of Byzantium, glowing with gold, replete with oriental perfume and splendour. Here the Norman warrior had conquered, and here he had been conquered - ravished by the spirit of the grave, purple-clad east. Now were desolation, tristezza, and the simplicity of the barbarian revealed beneath the borrowed robes. Time had stripped the gilding from this flower of chivalry. Now were sky, wind, stones, light. The old beauties of line and space were fertilized by the felicities of nature, giving birth to a new building compounded of equal parts of memory and desire. Surely these were the bare ruined choirs of poetry, and as poetry they testified to the highest aspirations of man. A poetic place, then.
Why is it that the ruin is so often more interesting, and even more beautiful, than the finished building? It is not always so, to be sure - there is nothing more depressing than a row of damaged apartment blocks - one averts one's eyes from the sordid mess. But any really fine building - a cathedral, a monastery, a Greek temple - pleases me more as a skeleton than as a - what? One can't say as a living body, for these are artifacts from the dead past. More than an embalmed body, perhaps? Having seen the most conspicuous examples of the restorer's art I would say such monstrosities resemble nothing so much as an exhumation clothed in artificial flesh, fitted out with wig and tiara for a bal funebre. No, I prefer a good clean skeleton to the reeking charms of the reanimated. Then, the process of deconstruction is revelatory - Dust thou art, to dust returneth. A ruin is a place full of mysteries revealed. I remember a block of smashed apartments that stood opposite the museum in Frankfurt when I was a child. One could see the way the pipes were fitted inside the walls and connected to toilets and showers, also how the staircases had been arranged, the shaft for the elevator - everything was revealed as in an anatomical drawing. I was fascinated by this spectacle, and never failed to observe it closely whenever I passed by the museum. Mine was the tingling, deep-seated voyeur's delight in seeing that which was never meant to be seen. There was also a house I used to pass every day on my walks in Weimar - it had been bombed by the Inquisition and the inhabitants scattered God knows where. Now their salon lay open to the perusal of every passer-by. There were chairs covered in pink plush upholstery, as I recall, and some china in a corner cupboard. A portrait of a lady hung over the hearth. (I supposed her to be the vanished mistress of the establishment.) Impossible to resist the daily temptation to gaze into the private domain of this unknown family, to gaze with the impunity of a dreamer and the prurient curiosity of a child. I ended by changing the course of my daily constitutional, rather than continue this heedless indulgence. Here at Monreale I am free to clamber over the carcass with a clear conscience, for this is no private grave but only one of the myriad burial mounds wherein lies interred my very own civilization. I pick over these bones with a melancholy respect, much as a man might handle the diaries and letters of a beloved ancestor. And, just as a man's closest secrets may lie sealed within such packets of old paper, tied and taped and labelled "to be opened only in the event of my death", and as, once opened and read, they may bring to sudden life a stranger, flaming with wit and passion, one whom we never knew in life - so too among the ruins of Monreale the long forgotten voice of an ancient glory is heard.
I stuffed the book back in my pocket and bid Danzig make me a sketch of the Pantocrator. He knew better than to attempt any conversation with me, for I cannot bear interruption when I am immersed in an aesthetic experience. (I know of nothing more despicable than those so-called art-lovers who descend upon a thing of beauty, their mouths going in perpetual commentary upon that which they utterly fail to see. Art is made for silence, and we must keep silence if we would have it speak to us at all.)
In a little ruined chapel to the south of the apse I found the original of the Madonna del Popolo that hangs in my room, the same that had tormented my sleep of the night before. She is a stiff faced, doll-like figure in polychromed wood, holding an even stiffer babydoll, the two of them dressed in gold paper crowns and gowns of moth-eaten blue and silver brocade. Her niche is brightened by a corona of electric stars that burn perpetually in a sky of broken blue marble. There is a powerful odour from the baskets of roses and jasmine at her feet and the smoke from the many candles banked in military rows before her like the torches of a midget garde d'honneur. I knelt down and said a quick Ave Maria, then called upon her thus: "Dear Blessed Mother, Please do not torment me any more while I am sleeping! I know you don't mean me any harm, but I'm not feeling at all well, the climate here is very enervating, I'm not used to the food, and then I have so much to worry about - First of all my new book, then there is Danzig, and now also the girl. I beg you Mother, let me be for a little while and I promise on my side to increase my devotions both to yourself and to your Son." I had every intention of carrying out this promise, and knew that it would be to my benefit to do so. However, it was highly probable that, as in the past, too many things would interfere with these intentions and, in the end, I would do nothing substantial to improve my spiritual life. Still, Our Lady has never been a harsh Mother to any of her children. She honors our intentions, however false or sententious, she pretends, at least, to believe our promises, and she always forgives us when we come back asking once again for her help. No, never, never has it been known that she turned away from any of her children. I blew a kiss to her painted cheek and helped myself to one of her flowers for my buttonhole.
I left Danzig to finish his sketch and made my way across the piazza to the adjoining convent, for I was eager to see the cloister. This cloister, where Adams was assumed into a quasi-spiritual aesthetic rapture so high that his usually meticulous prose cracks open and he begins to babble, was (perhaps miraculously) spared the devastations that were visited upon the nearby cathedral. Built in a burst of furious energy by the conquerors from Hauteville, it is the single most valuable example of twelfth century sculpture that remains to us, now that the west porch of Chartres is no more. (It was upon hearing the news of the bombing of Chartres that Adams took his own life, writing in his last testament that he did not wish to inhabit a world where one could no longer regard the smiling queens of the Portail Royal.) I crossed the empty piazza, my shadow moving quickly past those of the disorderly palms, swishing their black heads in disapproval at my resonant footsteps. I entered a sunny courtyard and rang a bell that sounded somewhere deep inside the walls. I waited and waited for someone to come and open the door. A lizard clung to the lintel, his skin the same bright vermilion as the blistered paint. The shadow of the cathedral tower crept slowly across the broken pavement. Water trickled from a fountain in the center of the court. Overcome by the heat, I removed my hat and bathed my brow in the cool stream that gushed from the mouth of a smiling dolphin. It was while I was thus engaged that the door opened at last, and, drying myself with my handkerchief, I hastened to greet the Sister. She wore the full black gown, white wimple, and sweeping white tulle veil of the Re-ordered Carmelites. The face encased in the close-fitted coif was neither young nor old, but smooth and yellow like a piece of old silk, and the ancient eyes smiled at me with the innocent coquetry of the virgin. I explained my purpose in calling, and she welcomed me most hospitably, saying that the Abbess was expecting me. Danzig appearing at that moment in the courtyard, he was rapidly included in the invitation. We followed the Sister down a cool, dark corridor whence I caught a glimpse of a flock of nuns moving far in advance, their veils floating behind them like white wings. There was an overwhelming odour of sweetness, for the Sisters are engaged in the manufacture of marzipan, which they fashion into the likenesses of fruits and other comestibles, such as crustaceans, tiny fish, as well as holy images of the Lamb with bloodstained cross, and tiny blue and white Madonnas.
"It is an honor for us to receive such a distinguished visitor," said our guide, softly at my elbow, for I had used my own name in writing to the Abbess, and was expected.
"The honor is all mine, Sister," I replied. "Do you by any chance remember a Professor Heinrich Adams, the great American scholar? He died here during the great war."
"Yes, Signore, I remember Professor Adams perfectly well, although I was just a girl at the time. He lost his faith, poor man. We are forbidden to pray for the souls in hell," she said, raising a troubled face to mine. "Why is that, Signore? I would have thought they needed it most of all."
I didn't even attempt to answer this poser. Fortunately alike for my reputation and my peace of mind we had arrived at the Abbess's quarters. The little Sister showed us into the reception room and bade us wait while she went to announce us to the Abbess. We found ourselves in a vast chamber hung with dark red watered silk that been much damaged by time; the furnishings consisted of a prie-dieu, a large crucifix, and a few spindly ornamental chairs. The windows looked out upon the brilliant green and gold silence of the cloister. The sunlight fell in rectangular sheets upon the polished dark wooden floor, causing it to shimmer like a pond hidden away in some primeval blood-red forest. I heard, rather than saw, the ghosts and shadows of times past fluttering over the lustrous surface of this pond like the paper-thin leaves of autumn; their faint, rustling voices mingled with the bright fanfares of sunlight upon windowglass and, farther off, the light, twittering voices of the nuns at work. The ceiling and the window embrasures were caked with stucco in the characteristically exuberant Sicilian style - the cherubs over the windows probably the work of Serpotta, but those on the ceiling of more recent date, although in very good taste. Over the central door by which we had entered I noted a group of our Lady presiding over the alliance between Pan-Germania and America. Germania is depicted as a handsome Nordic youth, America as a bold, torch-bearing maiden. The youth and the maiden have joined hands in the act of betrothal, and behind these two graceful figures the Virgin, the globe under her feet and the crown of twelve stars upon her head, extends her arms to bless and protect the peace-giving union. It put me in mind of earlier matrimonial alliances, such as that of the Hapsburg Princess Maria Antoinetta to the King of France, or that of the King of England to the Duchess of Chicago, which also had served to establish or maintain the peace in their day. So too the marriage of these two great earthly powers had put an end at last to bloodshed, and marked the resurgence of Anglo-Germanic culture throughout the Old and New Worlds. United now politically as well as temperamentally, the new Europeans were better able to defend themselves against the hungry hordes of the Third World, who beat incessantly upon the golden doors of civilization, seeking, in their unreasoning greed and envy, to destroy that which they cannot understand. I was in the process of clarifying a few of these observations to Danzig when the door opened and a huge figure, nearly as broad as it was tall, entered and advanced in our direction, its progress as stately and ceremonious as that of a laden ship coming into harbour. This I took to be the Abbess. She came to a halt directly before me, and I knelt and kissed the great hen's-egg ruby that sat upon her enormous finger.
"So, you wish to see our cloister?" she said. She spoke without any apparent movement of the facial muscles, so immobilized were the fleshy folds of her cheeks and chin within the hard casement of the wimple. Her face was very like a frog's, although not so green. The voice, too, was deep and frog-like, of a volume in keeping with her tremendous size, and rolled its funerary echo in the dusky great spaces overhead. "It is a pleasure to open the cloister to such a distinguished visitor. And your young friend?"
"Is here to make a few sketches for my private collection, Your Grace, that is, with Your Grace's permission of course. I am confident that I can answer for him."
"Answer for him?" she said, her tiny crescent-moon eyebrows shooting towards the upper lip of the white casement. "You are a true Christian in that case. Am I not my brother's keeper? And shall you answer for him also before the heavenly throne? Or do you draw the line here below? One must draw it somewhere, or fall into the sin of pride. Come closer, young man," she said to Danzig. "Closer!" He stood within a foot of her, and lightly she touched his fresh cheek with her great white paw.
"I wouldn't presume so far, Your Grace," I replied. "It is quite enough that I am prepared to answer for him for the duration of the visit which Your Grace is good enough to permit me. I haven't the gift of second sight..."
"A pity - it would have been an excellent thing in a poet. I have enjoyed your Iphigeneia so much.
'Who walks upon the smoky waves of dawn
But Pallas in her girdle of new gold...'
Be seated, gentlemen, please." We sat upon the spindly chairs - as she sank down there came an ominous groan from the overburdened wood. "If you think to write a poem on Sicily you could do worse. Here you will find a perfect equilibrium of the natural and the supernatural beauties. Etna itself was believed by the ancients to be the navel of the world - your Hindu mystics would appreciate that claim! Have you been to visit the Saint?"
"Not yet, Your Grace," I replied.
"Ah well, you must go immediately. She takes a particular interest in visitors from foreign parts. It's a long way to the top of Monte Pellegrino, but the visit must not be neglected on any account. I can lend you my barouche if you like."
"I thank Your Grace, but that will not be necessary, as I already have a carriage at my disposal. But Your Grace is too kind."
The little Sister entered again at this juncture, and served Danzig and myself each with a fluted glass of dark golden marsala wine and a plate of marzipan cherries. We sipped the wine and nibbled the sweetmeats with all the solemnity of a Eucharist.
"Forgive me for not joining you, but this is one day on which we are obliged to observe the strict fast," said our hostess.
"You must have been acquainted with my fellow scholar, Heinrich Adams," I remarked, hoping to hear more of the man whose works had so marked my youth and who, more than any single human agency, was responsible for my presence in this faraway place.
Her eyes became mere slits in her face as she answered. "Professor Adams was a great friend of mine. He often sat where you are sitting now. He had an appreciation of twelfth century stonework superior to that of anyone I have ever known, and I knew Huysmans, Mâle, John Ruskin... I knew them all before the war. He cried like a child the day we got the news about Chartres. I'm afraid he committed a very grievous sin within these very walls..."
"Do you refer to his suicide? Because I must take exception to that narrow belief that would condemn a soul in torment to everlasting hell..."
"I refer to his happiness," she said, opening her eyes wide to pierce me with her stony gaze. At which point she broke into a great, orotund laugh. "Don't presume to enlarge my horizons at my age," she said.
"Happiness?" I echoed. "I don't understand. To be happy is surely no sin. What of the seven joys of Mary?"
"What of them? Do you know them? One of them is the crucifixion - a savage joy for a mother, I should think, and very little allied to happiness. What are these seven joys of Mary but seven daggers that pierce her Immaculate Heart? Bah! Don't talk to me about happiness - it's a childish state, or rather not childish, for children have more sense - they generally bear their sufferings with sufficient gravity - say, rather, an idiotic state, for only an idiot expects to be happy in this life. And Professor Adams was certainly no idiot, but an extraordinarily intelligent and sensitive man - a man like yourself, perhaps. Consequently, a most unhappy man. Yes, I knew him - the last Puritan! The aged young man from Boston. He sat there in his tweeds smoking Turkish cigarettes and speaking in his low clever voice about beauty, always beauty. But what is this beauty he cherished above everything else? Rubble. God is terrible. He doesn't save us from ourselves. We may break our own hearts - and monuments - if we so desire."
"Then you grant the wanton destruction of beauty to be a sin?"
"I grant nothing of the sort! You've seen what remains of our cathedral - does it displease you? I see in your face it does not. The destruction of beauty - of man-made beauty - in other words of art, a sin? A crime? Or a good idea, perhaps? Even an occasional necessity, to free us from those glittering chains that bind us - oh so pleasantly! to the past, to the earth, to ourselves and our own best creations. Idols are made to be broken. How worship a stone Madonna when every dog that crawls on its lice-ridden belly in the dust, every insect on the leaf has more life than this? The Lord God made us, shall His work decay? Don't mistake me - I too have wept for the loss of Chartres - and of Monreale. So too does the Mother weep to see her Child upon the cross. But she would not have it otherwise. That is the secret of Mary's joy, and my friend Adams's despair. Those who pit themselves against the will and the wisdom of God are crushed...I tell you...they are crushed."
I saw with amazement that the loose flaps of her cheeks were shaking, more frog-like than ever, and the tears coursed in two bright rivulets within the valleys formed by those fleshy appendages. She pulled a lace handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped her face.
"Forgive an old woman's folly, Professor," she said. "I have been Abbess here for sixty years. I was but a young woman, and a foolish one, when I knew Professor Adams. Now you will think to yourself - Aha! the usual. But it was not like that. I have told you he was the last Puritan. But I will tell you something else as well - he was a knight. A real knight, in blood-stained armour, like the other ones, his brothers, who came before him and built the spiritual castles of Monreale and Cefalù, of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. He called me 'Principessa', for that title had been mine before I took the veil, and I loved and admired him, as a young and chaste woman may love an older man. You are not so very young yourself, and yet I think you have not yet learned that there is a loss more terrible than that of the most beautiful work of art that ever sprang into being under the hand of man, and that is the loss of a loved human being. I would knock all the cathedrals of Europe into a heap, and burn all the paintings in the Louvre, too, if it would bring back my friend."
"How dare you..." I whispered, aghast. "How dare you?"
"Love is a savage thing, Professor." The great ruby flashed on her enormous hand as she fingered the crucifix at her breast. "The love of God and, the closest we shall get to it in this life, the love of his creatures for one another. There's nothing in the Gospel about your sticks and stones."
"You've no right - no right whatsoever - to destroy culture to gratify the desires of your own heart."
"And you've no right - none at all - to what you call culture. War may be a necessity, if only to rid the world of this excrescence - culture. The men who built the cathedrals loved - not their own work - but the God for whose sake it was done. Very little twelfth century work remains to us, even less from the eleventh, and this was true even before the war. And do you know why? By and large it was deliberately torn down by the next generation to make way for new building. The stones of their fathers were not sufficient to bring heaven closer to earth - they needed their own work, their own sacrifice. No question, then, of your culture. When art has become thoroughly debased, when it no longer has any meaning for anyone, when it no longer seeks to mediate across that great gulf betwixt God and man - then, and only then do we begin to speak of culture. If there is anything sadder than the spectacle of Chartres in ruins, it is that of Chartres, the museum."
"The Center for Medieval Studies?" I ventured.
"Exactly - the so-called Center for Medieval Studies. You would not remember - you are too young - but when I was a girl people came by the hundreds to Monreale, not to pray, but to gawk stupidly at culture. You see, in this I do not agree with my old friend, Professor Adams. I prefer to let Chartres burn. When we have burned to the ground all the museums and culture palaces in the world, we shall be free to begin again, to create a new art - savage, perhaps, but none the less beautiful for that, and our own. Until that time I prefer to watch and pray, and I leave the culture to the professional aesthetes. And now, if you have sufficiently refreshed yourselves, Sister Portia will show you the way, if not to your heart's desire, at least to that which may serve you as a temporary substitute. But then, you know about the consolations of beauty, don't you Professor? C'est votre metier. And you, my dear boy?" she said, turning to Danzig. "You fancy yourself an artist, but you are already something far more rare - a work of art. Don't allow him to wrinkle his brow and rub charcoal in that lovely hair," she said to me peremptorily, and, holding out her hand to be kissed once more, bid us adieu.
Again we walked with the little Sister through the dark corridors till we reached the entrance to the cloister.
"Here you are, Signori. Please take as much time as you like," she said and, folding her hands together, made us a graceful bow. She hurried away down the corridor the way we had come, her black and white habit fluttering about her like a pair of diatonic wings.
The cloister is made in the shape of a square, enclosed on all sides by a low arcade. In one corner a much littler square has been set within the big - the chiostrino for the King's fountain. The central space is given over to verdure, and a wild, strange garden it is. Overgrown paths of small, brightly colored bits of glass run from the four sides of the cloister into the garden, but these paths mingle hopelessly with clumps of grass and weeds, and finally lose themselves forever in the general confusion towards the center. Among the errant paths there blooms a profusion of sweet and pungent grayish herbs, and a single giant aloes, like a green image of Kali the many-armed, the World Destroyer. Two or three ancient palms, growing now at random intervals, for their companions have died or been cut down, cast long, irregular shadows, oddly at variance with the orderly procession of light and shadow thrown out by the arcades.
There was a languid stillness over the place, odours of invisible rose and insidious marzipan, and the low, tremulous voice of the fountain singing to itself in the chiostrino. The mystical book of the past lay open for my inspection, turned to the chapter on twelfth century stonework, graven upon the capitals of two hundred and twenty-eight columns. The book lay open, and yet I did not read. The truth is, I was afraid. There was such a stillness in that place - I felt I had come to disturb the dead. Perhaps the Abbess's strange speech had rendered me thus uneasy. Certainly I disliked to hear my motives so impugned. Then, I was loathe to trouble Adams's ghost. If he had really been happy here, perhaps my intrusion was unwelcome. And, moreover, two hundred and twenty-eight capitals was such a lot of stonework to be got through - just the thought of it wearied me. The columns were arranged in pairs, each couple entwined like fond lovers by any of a number of foliated and draped devices. Each slender, white column gleamed with a different pattern of inlaid mosaic - little checkerboards of blue and green, red, black , and golden stars. Above them the still idols (But they are only stones! I told myself) returned my inquisitive gaze. Perhaps they did not wish to be looked at. But I had not come all this way to gawk stupidly! I absolved myself in my heart of the charge. Mine was not the indiscriminate greed of the tourist, for had I not come on purpose, over many thousands of miles and despite many obstacles, to see this very place? You may gawk nonetheless, I thought, and was none the easier for thinking it. I was afraid, too, of being disappointed after such a long journey and so many years of anticipation. I was afraid - of not being disappointed, afraid of the very revelation I sought, whatever revelation awaited me should I dare to read in that Bible of stone the lessons writ by men of iron. I was afraid, as I walked among them - deformis formositas ac formosa deformitas - looking and yet not looking at the little stone manikins, the huntsmen and lions, angels and devils, knights in armour, mermaids, evangelists, acrobats, monsters, Adam and Eve, Salome and John, the massacre of Innocents, and the agony of sinners. These carven figures had a terrible tenacity beside the evanescent realities of the flesh. They put me in mind of those puppets, whose strutting, high-pitched antics cause us to grip the hand of our companion at the Guignol. And yet they were so still...It was hot in the sun. I had taken nothing since breakfast save the marsala and sweets, nor would I have the temerity to break the fast before nightfall, for all that I might claim the traditional traveller's dispensation. I looked about for Danzig and had once again to marvel at that young man's unexpected capacities. He was standing perfectly still at the center of the overgrown garden, bareheaded in the sun, his young cheeks flushed, his mouth slightly open showing the pearly teeth. A flutter of breath in his slender chest was the only sign of life, for he was handsome and ruddy as a waxwork. His stillness was like that of a cat - an ecstasy of alertness. I smiled to myself, partly in amusement at his childish susceptibility, partly in expectation of some fine drawings from him later in the day, for whenever he is carried away like this I can be sure of an especially rich hoard. I smiled, but nonetheless I felt it uncanny that he was struck so still, as if with the stillness of the stones. Tired and hot, and beginning to be angry both at myself and at my surroundings, I sat down in the shade of the chiostrino and laved my brow with water from the King's fountain. It smelt sweet and mossy, not at all brackish, and I just touched it to my parched lips. I leaned back against the columns and fell into a stupid doze. While I sat there, my eyes but half open, a pretty little cat came and sat opposite to me, on the sunny side of the wall. She was a Siamese cat, with eyes like blue glass beads, and when she began to clean her sleek fur her tongue was as pink as a rose. I allowed my eyes to droop shut. Through my torpor I heard the fountain singing in its own secret language.
When I sat up again it was already late in the afternoon, for the air had grown quite cool and the shadows had stretched themselves to enormous lengths across the garden. Danzig came and sat beside me, and wordlessly handed me his day's work. He had caught the mermaid perfectly, that solemn bewitching gaze known to me already from the Lorelei. He had caught the mother clinging desperately to the child being torn from her arms. Here were the vigorous angels, the comical, battling knights. But there were several studies of a head I did not recognize - a drawn, delicate face, I should have said inclined to neurasthenia, prematurely aged around the eyes; a thin mouth, a trifle harsh; the whole overshadowed by a huge, white brow like a skull's, a veritable thought machine in which one sensed the combination and re-combination of innumerable ideas, fired in that brain as in a crucible to produce God alone knew what poisonous, exquisite compounds.
"Who on earth is this fellow?" I said to Danzig, holding up one of the sketches of the terrible head.
"Why, that's you, Meister," he replied. "Just a few preliminary studies. Soon I'll begin the real work. I'd like to go to Segeste soon to begin work on the background as well."
"Yes, of course..." I murmured. But it can't be, I thought. I, this ugly white head? I, the handsome court poet of Weimar? But you are nearly forty, a little voice whispered.
"I hope you like it," said Danzig timidly, and I became aware at once that I was frowning furiously; at the same time I realized what an aspect this frown must present affixed as it undoubtedly was to the terrible head of the drawing. Hastily, I replaced the frown with a feigned expression of benevolent indifference - at least this would not frighten anybody!
"Yes, indeed," I said. "I like it very much indeed, my boy. Very, very much indeed..." I handed him the sheaf of drawings with a smile I meant to be reassuring, thus grimacing as if I had the toothache. Danzig had just begun some inquiry after my health when the great bells sounded from the cathedral tower. The pigeons scattered from out the belfry in smoky circles upon the evening sky, turning within that radius of deep, oceanic sound. We took a hurried leave of the Sisters and headed for the church, for we did not wish to be late for the deposition of the ashes.
The press of people was tremendous, from the mumbling bundles of old womanhood in black to the numerous children, many of whom were still dressed in the gaudy costumes of the night before. They tumbled underfoot like so many roses blown on the wind. Their suppressed giggles, sudden explosions of laughter, soft glances and flushed cheeks were in odd contrast to the sombre mood of the crowd. I looked about for Faustina, but didn't see her anywhere. The crowd huddled together before the church, the bells thundered on - we were raised to the utmost pitch of expectation awaiting I knew not what. Gradually the bells left off their noise until only one was tolling alone, a single insistent note repeated again and again with untiring regularity. Then I heard it - a low, unearthly, melancholy roar that rose and fell in rhythm like the sea. At once the crowd drew back to make way. Even the children were quiet now, their eyes round with fear. The terrible sound drew closer and closer. The bell tolled on and on, and the very air around us seemed to vibrate like one great resounding bell. Closer, ever closer, like the advancing tide, until at last it rounded the corner of the piazza and rushed upon my sight with the half-expected terror of a dream. A group of men, stripped to the waist, their heads swathed in black hoods from which the eyes looked out through circles in the cloth. They carried heavy whips with which they were striking themselves in rhythmical ferocity, and their backs and shoulders were covered with gore. As they marched they shouted in unison a hymn to the Virgin - it was this terrible chanting that we had heard from afar. The blood flew about like rain - it sprinkled my face and shirtfront. The people pressed forward, tripping over one another in their eagerness to touch the streaming wounds. They dipped little pieces of cloth in the blood and held them to their lips. And still the bell tolled, and still the birds circled in the sky. A few of the children were crying. Now the flagellants processed around the church in the lurid glow of the winter sunset. There must have been two hundred of them all together - all of them young men and beautifully made. The air quivered with the crack of the whips, the monotonous chant, the screams of women and children. The crowd pressed close upon them, groping, beseeching, some on their knees, many sobbing and calling upon the Madonna. Some of the women came forward with garlands which they placed over the heads of the flagellants. Soon the flowers were spattered with red, and the odours of jasmine and almond blossom mingled with the pungent, maddening scent of blood.
Into the midst of this bedlam, his advent announced by the ringing of a little silver-voiced bell, came the Bishop in a gown of exequious purple, surrounded by a flock of priests and boys. First came the thurifer, swinging a gemmed censer that wafted sweet clouds of incense over the crowd. Six boys were needed to carry the Bishop's train; another three bore the instruments of the Passion aloft like tutelary deities. Behind them came the trumpeters, dressed in white Battenburg lace and wings fashioned from swans' feathers. Then the priests, six in number, all in purple satin. Last, behind the priests, the boys of the choir, dressed in white, with chaplets of almond and jasmine wreathing their dark locks, drooping against the silk-petal cheeks of their blossoming faces. The Bishop waded through the crowd, casting the Waters of Redemption upon us with a silver aspergillum. His face beneath the lace-encrusted mitre was painted like a doll's. At the entrance to the church, he turned and addressed the crowd.
"Et cum spiritu tuo."
With a single, animated sigh, people and flagellants alike sank to their knees. The Bishop gave his blessing; we rose and passed on into the ruined church for the ancient and beautiful liturgy that ushers in the season of remorse. The flagellants again took up their whips and resumed their grim procession. All through the service I could hear them just outside the walls, the endless chant rising and sinking, rising and sinking like the sea.
Danzig and I found seats halfway down the nave, for the best places were already taken. The terrible Christus glared down into the apse from above the broken remnants of the gaily clad Court of Heaven. The choir launched into Palestrina's dangerously contrapuntal setting of the Dies Irae. They sang with an icy sweetness that pierced to the heart like a gush of pure water. High in the apse their voices mingled with the blue wings of a thousand Adonis butterflies. The Bishop took his seat beneath the great Pantocrator. A boy knelt at his side, bearing a silver salver on which reposed the ashes of all those heretics burnt in the diocese during the previous year. It was dark now - the stars showed like pinpricks of light in the black dome of night and moths were singeing their white wings among the candles. The choir had left off singing, and in the sudden silence the eerie chant of the flagellants sounded louder than before. I even fancied I could hear the whistle and crack of the whips. In silence we fell into line, in silence crawled on our knees towards the gilded episcopal throne. The alate boys had put aside their trumpets in favor of little silver-handled flagelli with which they struck our shoulders as we passed. The floor was jagged as well as hard, and I feared for the knees of my velveteen breeches. Once through the gauntlet one knelt before the Bishop to receive the black thumbprint of Death upon the forehead, and hear the murmured reminder from the episcopal lips, Dust thou art, to dust returneth. One then kissed the bishop's bared foot, which was wiped clean after each kiss by an acolyte with a linen napkin. When it came my turn I kissed the foot hurriedly, not wishing to linger upon the sight and smell of aged flesh. I looked up into the smoothly powdered face, the eyes like two blue-white eggs below the penciled brows, the thin mouth painted carmine, moving in continuous repetition of that Dust thou art...dust 'turneth...dust th'art...'turneth... At the same time I became aware of the enormous dome of night opening above my head, and looking up I saw stars falling like fiery rain into the dome, and the black wings of demons and the white wings of angels swooping in great arcs that momentarily obliterated this or that vector of the sky. The greasy thumb pressed upon my brow. I turned and scuttled on my knees back to my place in the relative safety of the nave. Babies and children received the mark as well as adults and it was strange to see, in the streets that evening, the grim admonition on the brow of some oblivious infant nodding contentedly in its mother's arms. Those who had stayed away and did not bear the telltale mark had thus acquired a temporary air of immortality, and went about with their eyes averted, as if ashamed to be reminded of our impending doom.
After the service the Bishop again blessed the flagellants, and they departed up the steep road into the mountains. Their numbers were increased by two brothers from the town who joined them at the last moment, to the fervent admiration of the crowd. But I imagine they must have frequent need of new blood, for many must succumb to the rigours of such self-punishment. I could hear them chanting for a long time afterwards, more softly as they passed on into the distance. Just when I thought they had finally passed out of hearing, when I had begun to forget them and to think of other things, a sudden gust of wind from the hills would bring to my ears another crescendo of wailing sound. Soon the piazza was empty and nothing remained to mark their passage but the splashes of blood which shone darkly in the moonlight upon the dust and stones.
Ein Schwarzer Pudel
The observation of fast days is less than rigorous among the Sicilians - this I had opportunity to observe at dinner where we were served with ample portions of seasoned white-fleshed fish, and a creamy risotto in which nuggets of pink seafood were hidden like gems buried in yellow earth. We drank the frosty greenish wine from Alcamo. Not having broken our fast since morning (with the exception of the minor lapse at the Abbess's behest) we ate heartily and without much conversation until the plates had been cleared and the fruit brought in. The nutty, sweet aroma of the food had permeated my hands and lips, the wine I had drunk had perhaps rendered me less vigilant than is my custom. I placed one of the firm black grapes in my mouth and allowed my eyes to close for a moment - the burst of pungent juice caused me to open them again. The candles had been lit at all the tables, and the little wire-bright flames gilded the plates and silverware, the wine goblets, the beautiful hands of the waiter, and the faces of the guests, which were rendered more secretive by the chiaroscuro play of flickering lights. The draped white cloths and burning candles were reminiscent of so many biers, and I asked the waiter why the room was kept so dark.
"There is no electricity after six o'clock, Signore. We are too high in the mountains...the generator is not adequate. I hope the Signore will not be inconvenienced?"
"No, no," I said, wishing him away. I didn't like the way he was smiling at Danzig, who was pretending not to notice anything. The many little flames burning on the tabletops and in the hands of the ceramic slaveboys were redoubled in the mirror, where they appeared to float as on a dark sea, and again in the plateglass, where ghostly flames were superimposed upon the jewelled blanket of the city that seemed to lie just the other side of the glass. The lights of Palermo have a curious manner of twinkling in and out of the visible field, due, no doubt to some atmospheric condition with which I am not acquainted. They appear and disappear at different points on the plane, at apparently random intervals of time. The lights from the candles, on the other hand, burn continuously both in their reflections and in themselves, and give the effect of, on the one hand, a double screen onto which the fluent images of candleflames are continuously being projected, and, on the other hand, in three dimensions all around one, of a graveyard or shrine on the occasion of some great religious festival when the peasants come flocking, candles in hand, to beseech the saints or quieten the dead.
"Disappointing on the whole, was it not, my friend?" I said, speaking, of course, of the cathedral but interested to see whether he would follow my train of thought or mistake this for a critique of the meal. He answered me at first with a startled flicker of the eyes under the long lashes which was, however, instantly replaced by his habitual expression of alert amiability.
"You have read too much in Adams, Meister," he said. "You expected too much - probably you had built up an image in your mind, between reading and imagining, that no reality could have justified."
"It didn't affect you that way, then?" I said sharply, affecting a certain irritation. He shrugged, and displayed the smile of spurious disingenuity to which I was becoming accustomed.
"No, Meister, I can't say that it did. But then, I am not well-read like yourself. What is the cathedral of Monreale, or any cathedral, or any other building if you like? To me it's a pile of stones, that's all, more or less beautiful depending on my mood, on the time of day, on the weather, and also, although not necessarily most of all, on the skill of the men who made it. Yes - it's a pile of stones like any other. That's what I was expecting to see, that's what I did see, and consequently I wasn't disappointed. Whereas you were expecting a demonstration of highest principles, even a spiritual revelation of some sort - all this you ask from a pile of stones? I'm not surprised you were disappointed, though I'm very sorry of course. You see, for me, art is not a spiritual but a sensual thing - it belongs to the eyes, and then to the nose, the fingertips...The most beautiful building I have ever seen was an ordinary country railway station on the Adriatic coast, just north of Trieste, from which you could neither smell nor hear the sea and in which nonetheless the sea itself was somehow contained as in a beached ship. To disembark at this station was to feel instantly the whole of the seaside - the rocks falling into the sea, the low, purple hills, the open sky. I felt it much more keenly there in that station than later on the beach itself. But that was a day in summer, impossibly hot. The place stank of diesel fumes and geraniums...I wouldn't want to see it again in another season. It would be an altogether different place and no doubt perfectly ordinary, perhaps even ugly or depressing in a winter rain."
"You're right about Adams," I said, musingly. "It's like finally coming face to face with another man's mistress about whom you've heard so much. The poor woman can't possibly fulfil the expectations which her devoted lover has taken care to impress upon you. And, acquainted as we are with our friend's rapturous hyperbole, be she ever so beautiful, we must exclaim to ourselves, 'Is this all! What does he see in her?' I can't agree with you about the sensual nature of art, however."
"I didn't expect you to," he said. He seemed pleased at the soundness of his own estimation of my character. "You see, you're a Puritan, Meister - you don't really approve of art."
"My dear boy, it is not as simple as all that. In the first place, I am not a Puritan. On the contrary..."
"Kiss me, then," he said. There was a pause in which I became aware that the waiter had left off his tasks behind the bar and was watching closely for the outcome of this challenge. The candle flames swayed and sighed in the sweetened, slightly putrid atmosphere that lingered over the fruit and wine. Then I burst into a loud guffaw - his childlike audacity amused me so - and laughed until the tears ran down. My laughter had the unintentional, although not unwelcome effect of loosening the inhibitions of the gentleman at the adjoining table (whom I have previously identified as the lesser-known nephew of the great Beethoven). His curious eyes had scarcely left my face during the whole course of the meal, but had fastened themselves with persistent appetite now upon my cheek, now my nose, now my chewing mouth, until he might be said to be dining off my visage more than off his victuals. He was wearing a white tailcoat this evening, and had powdered his hair, which costume served to elevate his already remarkable pallor to the level of the grotesque. This young man now rose and presented himself, with much Teutonic bowing and heel-clicking, at my elbow.
"Paul van Beethoven at your service," he said. "My friend and I were wondering if we might share in your little joke? Forgive me if I am intruding, but do I not have the honor of addressing the greatest of living poets, His Excellency Professor Doctor...?"
"Not so loud!" I hissed. "Not so loud, young man, if you please. For reasons which it is entirely superfluous for you to know I prefer to enjoy a relative incognito when I travel abroad. Pray, take a seat, sir, and your friend also. We are two gentlemen sorely in need of additional company. That noise you mistook for merriment was merely the eruption brought about by an excess of sustained contact between two friends of unequal temperament." Beethoven's nephew sat down on my right and motioned to his physician to join us, which the latter did with alacrity.
"Doctor Praetorius," said young Beethoven, presenting the Doctor. "Our fellow traveller is indeed the illustrious poet," he said to the doctor, "but he prefers to remain anonymous for the moment." The doctor bowed low and took the remaining seat on my left.
"I couldn't help overhearing what you were saying," said young Beethoven, "about the sensual versus the spiritual in art." His voice was high and soft, as if it came from a long way off; it put me in mind of a choirmaster with a sore throat. I had known such a choirmaster in my youth - a gentle young priest who brought upon himself successive fits of laryngitis by the exasperated shrieks with which he would importune us, sixty-five in number, between the ages of seven and fourteen, to reproduce with greater accuracy and attention the sublime music of Mozart and Palestrina. He eventually had to be sent to a sanitarium in Davos, where he soon died of consumption. Now, most unexpectedly, I heard his voice again in this pale, attenuated nephew of Beethoven, who no doubt also suffers from laryngitis, and who was clearly desirous to lecture me on his infantine theories of aesthetics. (I am not in general fond of the conversation of people younger than myself.) Hearing this voice of my former choirmaster reproduced so exactly by Beethoven's nephew, speaking from out the dark, murmuring ocean of the past, I felt myself waver and lose my footing in time as on an icy path. I felt myself again a jaundiced and cynical ten year old, yawning over the endless coloratura of Exulstate Jubilate and pondering with disgust the dirty neck of the boy in front of me. The candles before me on the table, taking upon themselves the identity of those candles that burned so long ago in the choir, refracted, as in a prism, the room where I sat - the walls spread outwards to the curved delimitations of the apse, the roof flew up to a bossy vault lost in shadows, the jasmine on the table wafted a smell of incense to my stupefied brain and I was thoroughly startled to hear the words, My Uncle Ludwig.
"Your Uncle Ludwig?" said I, once again finding my footing in the world of the hotel dining room, in the company of Beethoven's nephew Paul, his physician Praetorius, and my young friend Danzig. "What has your Uncle Ludwig to say on the question?" I asked this with keen interest, for the opinions of the great composer could not fail to enlighten me somehow.
"I was just saying that I am not really very well acquainted with my Uncle Ludwig," said young Beethoven apologetically. "It is Carl who has lived with him all these years. Despite repeated attempts on my part to recommend myself to him, he has never taken much notice of me. It is Carl he prefers. And Carl is a most worthless fellow! See here - I have even gone so far as to shoot myself in the head in my efforts to attract my Uncle's sympathy. But while this was a most successful coup de theâtre for Carl, in my case the results were very disappointing. He has sent me to Italy to recover my nerves, he has placed me under the care of a private physician, but he takes no personal interest in me whatever." Passing his white hands over his face, he began to sob piteously, and the black crusted hole in his temple throbbed convulsively and vomited a few drops of blood, which fell conspicuously upon the white tablecloth. "Grotesque, grotesque..." he cried, sobbing into his hands, and in this grotesque, grotesque I could hear the echos of other cries belonging to other nephews of other Uncle Ludwigs, nephews on the Wartburg and in the Salzkammergut, at Linderhof and Neuschwanstein, nephews as far afield as the shores of Lake Erie and Baffin Island. I felt that by this grotesque, grotesque he saw and passed judgement on myself, on my violet silk frock coat, on my teeth, on my poetry manicured into mythic grandeur, on that ill-hidden voluptuosity which draws me towards people like Danzig and Faustina despite all my reservations to the contrary. And yet there was nothing personal in this grotesque, grotesque - one felt intuitively that it was a pronouncement on life itself, and would affect each hearer differently according to his own taste for and sense of the grotesque. In a sense this nephew showed himself worthy of his great uncle in his ability to load with meaning a single phrase, for much as his Uncle Ludwig will load a phrase - say, a modulation to the sub-mediant - with a meaning at once exhaustive and untranslatable, his nephew had loaded his exclamation of grotesque, grotesque with a meaning that transcended all immediate associations and thereby succeeded in describing a reality instinctively felt but resistant to any further , non-musical as it were, elucidation.
"You must not excite yourself, Paul," said the Doctor, but the sobbing continued unabated. Slowly, with an expression of some annoyance, the Doctor got to his feet. "You must forgive my young charge, gentlemen - his nerves are in a deplorable state. Come along now, Paul," he said, and laid a hand upon the boy's convulsive shoulder. "Perhaps now that the ice is broken, you gentlemen will do me the honor to visit me in my room one of these evenings. I have several items that might interest you very much, Professor, pertaining to my researches in natural philosophy." He jerked young Beethoven expertly from the chair and, holding him by the loose cloth between the shoulder blades, propelled him towards the door. The youth proceeded to drop his hands and his lamentations, and to move, puppet-like, in the direction required. Still keeping a firm grip on his now well-nigh catatonic charge, the Doctor turned to us at the door and made a little bow, bidding us good evening.
As the Doctor and Beethoven's nephew were leaving us, a small shadowy something took advantage of the open door to enter the room. It ran swiftly, stealthily, without hesitation to our table and leapt into my lap. It was a little Siamese cat. Her small body was covered with fur the color of almond cream. Her tiny oval paws and conical ears had the color of dark chocolate and the nap of silk velvet, and on her pretty face she wore a Venetian mask of the same dark hue. She lashed me with her chocolate tail and settled on my thighs, purring like a small, overheated electrical motor. I reached down to stroke her - she arched her back in pleasure and plied her nacreous claws in the cloth of my trousers. Startled by this attack upon the tender flesh of my thighs, I pushed her to the floor. She then commenced to rub herself most lasciviously against my leg and to mew in a piteous, strident tone, all the while fastening on me her enormous blue glass eyes. When she opened her mouth to cry she displayed the pink plush interior of her tiny mouth, lined with snow-white, needle-sharp teeth. I didn't like the way she was looking at me; I didn't like the feel of her silky fur stretched taut over the brittle bones rippling under my palm; I didn't like the impossibly narrow circuit of her pulsing throat, and it occurred to me that it would be an easy thing to wring her neck - I could do it in a moment with one hand - and at that moment I felt within me how the tiny vertebrae would crack, how the silk-clad body would writhe under my grasp, the pink, needle-edged mouth twisting helplessly in the air; I didn't like the voluptuous thrill that accompanied this train of thought and brusquely I said to Danzig, who was leaning back in his chair with the air of someone enjoying a spectacle, "Get that animal out of here, can't you?" By using the expression that animal I tried to dispel the idea of lubricious femininity which the cat had aroused in me.
"Right away, Meister, " he said, and stooping down he took hold of the cat and sat her on his shoulder. "Will you be requiring anything else, Meister?" he said, again with that disingenuous smile. Or is it? On my answering in the negative he went out, not through the inner door of the hotel, but through the glass door to the terrace.
It was then I became aware of another person in the room besides myself. (The waiter had long since retired to the kitchen.) In the darkest corner of the room, at the only table without a lighted candle, sat the huddled figure of my former friend, Barton Beale, in his habitual greatcoat and muffler. Whether he had materialized at that moment, or had been sitting there unnoticed in the dark throughout the evening, I had no idea. He sat as motionless as the dead. The moment I saw him sitting there in the corner in the dark I felt rather than saw his eyes meet mine and I was sure that he, too, had recognized me. We sat for a long time thus regarding one another in the dark. The night wind blew in from the sea and extinguished the candles, and what had been gilded was now argent in the moonlight. The plates glimmered like huge silver coins, the glasses held a bright, mercuric liquid. All the darkness in the room seemed to concentrate itself in that one corner. Once I heard him shift ever so slightly in his chair and I was certain he was about to speak. My throat suddenly went dry - I was frightened and terribly curious, but he quickly subsided once more into that moveless silence at which he now seemed to excel. I felt that his eyes were no longer upon me, and, being weary in body and soul, I took the opportunity to go up to bed. Only later, as I lay there tossing in my usual fruitless quest for sleep, did it occur to me that perhaps he had been waiting for me to speak first.
All my life I have been unable to sleep. As an infant I was the despair of my parents and the unwitting nemesis of a continuous stream of well-intentioned nurses by virtue of my incorrigible sleeplessness. As a young child I learned subterfuge, and became expert at the simulation of sleep - the moveless eyelid so difficult to maintain, the slow, quiet breath, a respiration painfully contrary to the restless anxieties of my heart. In my youth this persistent insomnia revealed itself as an unsuspected asset, for I was able to devote to my studies those hours which others squandered in sleep. Rarely did I sleep more than two or three hours a night, nor was my condition amenable to intervention, for my peculiar and personal form of insomnia is coupled with a hyper-susceptibility to nightmares which every known soporific serves only to heighten to truly unbearable levels of terror and verisimilitude. I have had dreams under the influence of opiates which even now, twenty years later and in broad daylight, cause me to break out in a cold sweat should some inadvertent association call one of them to mind. To the sleep-inducing properties of these drugs I proved all too sensitive and, typically, under a very mild dose, would drop off to sleep for twenty hours of uninterrupted mental torment. It was after one such session of pharmacopic terror that I emerged from the strangling embrace of Morpheus under the delusion that I was being followed by the amphisbaena, an enormous serpent with a head at either end of its hideous body. On the verge of a total breakdown, I was sent by my frantic parents to a sanitarium in Davos, where I came under the care of the notorious Hofrat Behrens. The doctor forbid me all drugs and rebuilt my constitution from the ground up by means of long walks at top speed through the snow, and a bottle of champagne three times a day. It is to this regimen that I still adhere whenever I feel my health to be in danger. Throughout my student years and early manhood I stuck to the regime and was no longer troubled by excessive nightmares. I took top honors in my class. Meanwhile I became more and more aware of an entire nocturnal universe of which the ordinary man in need of eight or ten hours of slothful oblivion is forever ignorant. It is at night that insects creep across the floor, mice scamper, cats prowl, owls shriek, angels speak, ghosts walk, devils talk...At night the cities open their sewers and vomit up the floating faeces, blood, and sperm...In the streets the lights are lit, the windows dark, and I met young girls, powder-white in moonlight under bobbing aigrettes - I met small boys who tugged at my hand and offered themselves for a handful of coins. I didn't dare give myself up to these pleasures. I knew I was being followed by the Censor, by the agents of the Archduke, by rivals who longed to discredit me, by the long long file of insects that creeps across the floor, by the amphisbaena...I stayed at home and indulged in surreptitious solitary pleasures behind closed doors with the blinds shut tight. Gliding the wet, sticky palm in an ecstasy peopled by a hyperactive imagination, I indulged in lonely orgies that went on till dawn.
Unfortunately, as I grew older, my need for sleep increased but my capacity for it remained unchanged. The result is a condition of perpetual exhaustion. I am always tired. Every night I toss for weary hours on my bed of invisible nails. I have become acquainted with all the Proustian intervals between sleep and wakefulness, but sleep itself, for the most part, again and again eludes me. My eyes burn - I must wear dark glasses now during the brightest hours of the day. When at last I do sleep, often it is only to enter a dream world that mimics with additional vigour all the torments of my waking hours - for I dream that I am awake and unable to sleep! Occasionally I achieve a real slumber, I escape momentarily from my obsession, only to enter some dark primeval forest of my own making where new terrors of infinite absurdity and inventiveness await me.
This, then, was a night like any other. A night on which I was unable to sleep. I had blown out the candle and lay under a light blanket, for the night was mild and pleasant. I lay with the window open, listening to the distant thunder of the sea, the silver tinkle of moonlight on the blinds, the deep-voiced thrum of clouds over the mountain, the attenuated whisper of my own febrile respirations, the passionate irregular tattoo of my anxious heart, when I heard, like an intimation of immortality blown hither on a wind from heaven, that immaculate annunciatory gesture that serves to introduce the spiritual-pianistic exercises of J.S. Bach, the aria to the Goldberg Variations.
Someone is playing the piano in the hotel dining room, I said to myself, and at the very moment I said it I added, It's Beale, of course, of course, for the style was unmistakable, partaking as it did of a vigour, a seriousness, a moral beauty, a contrapuntal clarity all long familiar to me from the recordings. Yes, the little sarabande from the Goldbergs - it sounds of starlight, snowy skies, and night air, of echoing rooms filled with empty coffee cups and stubbed out cigarettes, and the lights that glow on sleeping machines. Quickly I rose and, putting on my dressing gown, went downstairs. Taking care not to startle or alarm him, I did not venture into the dining room but took a seat on the terrace just outside. I couldn't see into the darkened room, but I could hear him quite well, for the door was open and the night clear. I sat on the terrace under the lemon trees; the odour of citron lent to this arctic music a faint, borrowed note of tropical ardor. The moon was bright overhead and the sharp black shapes of leaves and branches rippled upon the paving stones like the images of trees that rustle deep within a lake or fountain. He played the aria in a tempo so remote from time, in any other hands it would have dissolved completely, one would have heard only single, isolated fragments drifting like leaves, one by one, upon the languid air. But Beale somehow managed to imply in each note both its progenitors and its progeny. There were unheard reverberations that reached like silver filaments into the ear, connecting moment to moment and note to note. Under this process of intensive deconstruction, one was drawn irresistibly by those silver filaments into closer and closer contact with something felt to be at once invisible, inaudible, unknowable.
The Two Goldbergs
[from the Alldeutsche Musikalische Zeitung, February 1982]
Barton Beale made two famous (or infamous) recordings of the Goldberg Variations - they stand like twin headstones at either end of his career, for the first was also his first-ever recording, the vehicle that catapulted him to fame and an international career, and the second was his last. The earlier sounds like a ghost behind the later, and vice-versa. Whichever one samples one is intermittently aware of the other's pale spectre hovering in the background. Goldberg I is bursting with the sexual exuberance, the joie de vivre and malicious humour of a boy of twenty, and bursting at the seams with a prodigal talent. Despite the breathtaking technical facility, the playing is a little uncertain, a little amateurish - it relies heavily on convention in the conventional bits - ouverture, fugue, quodlibet. In the adagio something happens, something surprising given what has gone before. A revelation of such tenderness is, on the whole, painful to witness. It is like watching a girl undress - a girl who is very pretty and very young, and not quite sure if she is more proud or more ashamed of her nakedness. It is a romantic adagio, as Liszt or even Wagner might have written it; it is moonlight beside the rest, which lies all in sunshine.
The later recording is of a profound and arctic sadness. It sounds in turns puritanical, mawkish, hymnal, almost sexless, and then again twisted and degenerate. What was formerly prodigal musicality is now absolute mastery - there is no shaping of the phrase, but the phrase itself, the very thing. There is no piano-playing, there is, almost, no piano. The tempi are more extreme - of a glacial slowness, or rushing like Gadarene swine towards the precipice of chaos. The lowering bass lines gather like storm clouds. The adagio is now of a beauty altogether different from the shy sensuality of Goldberg I. A militant masculine beauty, emphatic, relentless, even harrowing. After this adagio the remaining variations explode one after another in a crescendo of erotic desperation. Then the quodlibet - no longer a piece of Deutsche Freundlichkeit (pace Beale) but a grim little joke from a man to whom everything, including his own despair, is funny. The aria da capo seems to disown and disembody itself, to transcend time and space. The whole unfolds in the hard white light of an empty studio in the farthest hours of the night, the windows dark and a few colored lights shining like cats' eyes from the consoles. Then the dawn comes up - a winter dawn, flat, stale, and unprofitable - while the greatest pianistic mind of our century sleeps it off in a shabby motel room on the outskirts of Toronto. He lies in the flickering blue light of a television screen wherein whirl the tiny gray and white couples of the Central Canadian Ballroom Dancing Competition. The music? The Beautiful Blue Danube.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The aria was over - the last G with its chromatic appoggiatura drifted by on the wings of the night wind and was caught by the moon-streaked leaves of the lemon trees, who tossed it back and forth among themselves like a plaything, until at last it died a natural death among the shadowy, odorous fruits. I heard the creak of the door and looked up. Beale came out onto the terrace, swaddled in his usual array of heavy outer garments, a hat pulled low over his forehead. He hesitated for a moment, turning his head from side to side as if in search of something (the errant G?), then seated himself on the bench beside me. Again, I felt his eyes fixed on my face.
"Hello, Barton," I said, cautiously, not wanting to frighten him. Although he sat in shadow, I thought I saw him smile.
"Hello," he said. His voice was softer than I remembered it. Again he subsided into silence, but I took his presence as sufficient invitation this time, and plunged with abandon into an opening conversational gambit.
"I'm surprised to see you here," I said.
"So am I," he said. "To tell you the truth, so am I. I'm not here willingly - I was sent. I hate this kind of place. I hate anything at all tropical. The light actually makes me feel sick - there's a profusion of color that's really nauseating. I can't function in this whole overheated, operatic environment. But - I have to just now...I...It's very important for me to be here just now."
"I thought you'd given up the piano for good?"
"I have, really. It's just that, to a certain extent I still rely upon it. It's a spiritual weakness of mine, I'm quite ashamed of it really. But I find I'm unable to sleep - just completely impossible - unless I have contact with it, just very minimal contact, say, once a month. But this place is getting to me - it's the second time this week..."
"Is it always just the aria?"
"No, no...some nights I break down and play the whole thing. Some nights...I play something else altogether. I'm not actually all that crazy about the Goldbergs, to tell you the truth. I'm sick of them. Now the Metamorphosen of Richard Strauss - that's my idea of music. Would you like me to play you the Metamorphosen?"
(? ? ? ! ! ! ! ? ? ?)
I followed him into the almost total darkness of the deserted dining room. To my surprise he sat down, not at the piano, but in the same dark corner where I had seen him earlier in the evening. The moonlight gleamed on the open keyboard. Baffled, I too took a seat. Suddenly the piano, by itself, began to play the Metamorphosen of Richard Strauss. Beale had not moved from his seat in the corner. Impossibly, the piano reproduced the entire piece of music as written for twenty-three strings. I heard voices that simply could not have been coming from a single piano. The music was characterized by Beale's typical purity of voice-leading and nervous clarity of tone; there was the usual Bealean out-on-a-limb recklessness in the hectic action of the keys. And yes, it was astoundingly beautiful. Grateful for the cover of darkness, I wept as if I were in pain.
"How do you do it?" I said, when it was over. "Is there a piano roll, a tape, or what?"
"Telekinetic piano," he said, and I could feel him smiling in the dark. "It only works over short distances - at least so far. I've had success at up to fifty feet, under ideal conditions. But ten to twenty is more the norm. You see, there's a superfluity of physical contact in most piano-playing. I've felt that ever since I was a kid, but I was never able to work out the practicalities of it until the accident."
"Then there was an accident?"
"Oh yes - there was an accident."
"And you were killed instantly?" He only smiled again by way of an answer.
"This still is not the final step," he said.
"Unheard music. That's the ultimate goal."
"Augenmusik is only the substitution of one area of sensual perception for another. I'm talking about a perception completely independent of the whole tactile-sensual experience. The ear and the eye are both visible appendages to the brain. Located as they are on the outside of the body they're continually bombarded with all kinds of stuff, and corrupted, coarsened by this continuous contact with the world. Because you're a poet immediately you want to substitute eye for ear - you know yourself how much of what you do is dependent on the functioning of the eye. All those poetic images you're so fond of - they couldn't exist without the eye. But music, in its purest form, would enter the brain directly, without the mediation of any sensory apparatus. We're used to thinking of music as sensual, as basically a very sensual experience that insinuates itself through the ear. If you look at the ear you'll see just what sort of thing it really is! It's pink, fleshy, curvaceous, it looks like a seashell from some tropical island, like a rococo staircase, like an orchid. It's loaded with nerve endings! But the brain is safely imprisoned inside a real fortress of bone - nothing can touch it. And it's gray - my favorite color."
"Suppose you could apprehend music somehow with the naked mind - the mind alone - whatever it is you're trying to suggest I'm not sure - what then? What would remain for the mind to apprehend without the sensual knowledge of tonal values? A series of mathematical relationships?"
"Maybe...I don't know," he said sadly. There was silence for several minutes, then he began again in a more animated tone.
"Listen, do you really believe that music - that art - does us good? I tell you, it's exactly the opposite! Just to begin with, take performing. A deliberately demeaning...I mean, you take a situation that's intrinsically private and...How would like to have thirty-five hundred strangers watch while you made love? And then to read a critique of your performance the next day in the newspapers? It's so embarrassing - I felt like a performing seal. I always thought somebody ought to throw me a cracker, you know, or some mackerel, whatever, like they do to the seals. In the opera, if they like the prima donna they throw flowers at her, but I always thought it would be more appropriate to have these little titbits...Bread and circuses, that's what it is, bread and circuses...So you move on to recording - you try to eliminate that whole Roman amphitheatre aspect from your performance. But recordings also falsify and distort. They create an audio-sensual matrix. The good society will have no art, absolutely not."
"And no love?" I said, just to play devil's advocate. He was clearly insane - there was no sense in what he was saying, but his madman's logic interested me.
"Love - the emotion or the theological concept? One can love things but not people. Machines, for example. I love machines because they are intrinsically good and kind. They approach the Godhead- they protect us from one another. Music - there are certain pieces of music, yes. And the arctic, that's something you can love. It lets you breathe - you're alone up there. But people? People are essentially unknowable. You can't love what you don't know"
"And God? Also unknowable?"
"To be sure."
"Then we cannot love Him," I concluded. "And the Virgin?"
"Oh that's different, that's another thing entirely," he said, and again lapsed into a meditative silence that lasted several minutes. Outside on the terrace the lemon trees bent their dark heads together as if in conclave. I heard them whispering to one another, and the moonlight tinkling on the plateglass, and a dog barking somewhere not far off.
"You know, my mother taught me to play the whole of The Well-Tempered Clavier by the time I was ten," he said. "It's good music, very upright - but does it make the world better - or worse? More bearable, or less? When I was ten the answer was definitely yes - better, more bearable. Later on it was no longer so clear. Music is arousing, it excites...rapture, something over-extended in the soul. People imagine all sorts of things under its influence. There was the Kreutzer murder of course. Can you imagine a poetry murder? One where the murderer was motivated by fear and jealousy of the poetic power? I can, easily. I've even read about such a case - it's in a book by a Russian, a man by the name of Turgenev, but you know the case I'm referring to, I can see. The one where the mother comes back from the dead and kills her own daughter rather than allow her to fall under the spell of a certain poem. Unless I'm mistaken, it's one of your poems this Turgenev has in mind, too."
"I chalk it up to professional jealousy," I said. "I don't believe a word of it."
"Neither do I, really, but you have to admit it's possible. That you simply cannot deny."
"So art is dangerous - that's hardly a startling or an original observation. You put the blame on us, but it's life itself that's dangerous, my friend, life itself." He shuddered and hid his face in his heavily gloved hands.
"All right, all right," he moaned.
"What about your Metamorphosen? How many people died in the bombing of Munich? A thousand, ten thousand? Some obscene number. But if it hadn't been for that supreme dramatic stage-set, the bombed-out ruin of his home town, Strauss would never have written your Metamorphosen. Was it worth it then? Come here a moment," I said. "I want to show you something." He followed me out onto the terrace. The night had grown cold, the wind keen. "Look down there," I said, gesturing towards the glimmering lights of Palermo far below. "Suppose for an instant that each of those lights represents a human being - a stranger you have never seen and will never know. If I told you that for each of those lights that was extinguished you could have another Metamorphosen, would you really tell me to keep my masterpieces? Think of it, Barton - hours and hours of beauty, serenity, wonder..." He was breathing hard; he turned away from the brink of the hill and faced me.
"Shut up," he said. "Don't talk like that. It's devilish to talk like that. You only confirm my entire fallacy. Let's get down to fascistic practicalities - it's evil, what we do." We stood side by side in the wind, and the lights of the city twinkled below us like the stars of the Milky Way. "My God, it's cold," he said, and I noticed he was shivering despite his heavy apparel. "I've achieved zero sum circulation," he said, in an explanatory tone. "It's a sub-clinical arctic condition, a lot of Eskimos have it. Listen, I'll tell you what I object to. It's not art per se. It's the pleasure principle - because art is pleasant, to a lot of people, it's a pleasant way to pass the time."
"So is sexual intercourse, so is caressing little girls, so is eating and drinking..."
"Exactly! That's what I object to - the hedonism of art. It may be there are things totally untainted by sensuality. You mentioned the Virgin before. A lot of religious art might qualify. A lot wouldn't of course. I mean, that whole grand opera school of Italian painting has got to go. But there are things...the voices of women, for example. They don't even have to be singing, but just speaking in their pretty voices. Or the lights of a recording console - they have these arctic blue and white tones in the middle of the night...And frozen lakes have certain reverberative properties..."
"Stones," I said. "The stones of Venice, the stones of Chartres, the stones of Monreale. And there are statues of the Buddha that have such purity, such goodness. Stone is incorruptible - if you smash it, it merely rearranges itself into a thousand million little fragments of inviolate loveliness. Do you know that the Japanese have temple gardens devoted only to stones? Some of these stones are very ancient - they've been revered for centuries. Some are covered with moss, others immersed part of the way in water. For the most part they appear to be perfectly ordinary stones - I mean they're not startling formations or anything like that. They're just - stones. The monks use them as aids in meditation, I believe."
"I went to Garmisch once," he said. "I wanted to see Strauss's grave, but it wasn't there. They seem to have moved it - no one knew anything about it. It was beautiful there. All this snow and ice, and these huge rocks... I wound up staying a week. It was like Der Zauberberg - I never wanted to leave. I love any place where there's snow."
"Then what in God's name are you doing here?" I couldn't help but ask again. His eyes shifted evasively.
"It really wasn't my own idea at all. Listen... do you ever have strange dreams? About angels for example? Most of my dreams are polyphonic - there's very little visual element at all. Then one night this Angel suddenly appears. I knew it for an Angel right away - there were several indications. First of all its size - it was enormous, bigger than a man. And it was black, always a somewhat intimidating color, at least to me, and not one I'd associate with ordinary dream-persons. When it opened its mouth it didn't speak but sang, in a gorgeous, full-out, Wagnerian soprano. The music was like something out of the Götterdämmerung but more intense, if you can believe it. It told me to go immediately to this place in Sicily. I'd never heard of it before - had to look it up in the Baedeker. There's an old cathedral, isn't there? And a convent of Carmelites. Neither of which interests me very much. Something is supposed to happen to me here, something important. I wish it would happen already - I can't take much more of this. The light makes me ill, you know, actually nauseous."
"You should try to sleep a little," I said, for he really did look wretched.
"I've become an insomniac, like Count Kayserling," he said, laughing. "I suppose I'll have to try his remedy as well." Shaking with amusement at his own joke, he went inside and lay down on the sofa under the mirror, and in another moment I heard the buoyant notes of the first of the thirty variations, rippling like laughter in the dark.
Back in my room again, I lay down in the dark, my astringent wakefulness soothed nearly to somnolence by the sounds of Beale's telekinetic piano. The moonlight, entering through the slatted blinds, threw narrow strips of light across the floor that flickered in visible counterpoint. By this same flickering moonlight I saw the door swing slowly open. At first I saw no one. Then I heard a snuffling sound and cast my eyes lower down, where I beheld a little dog - a little black poodle with fiery eyes that glowed in the dark. He sat down at the foot of the bed and growled at me. "Sei ruhig, Pudel!" I cried. With that he ceased his growling and lolled a pink plush tongue from the side of his mouth in a comical grin. I sat up and called him to me. There was a small envelope affixed to his collar, embossed with the coat of arms of the House of Wittelsbach and inscribed with my name.
Villa Nebbiosa, Palermo
Most Highly Honored Professor!
On behalf of His Majesty, Ludwig II, Prince of Palermo and titular King of Bavaria, I write to inform you that your request has found favor in His Majesty's eyes. Be at the west gate tomorrow night, one hour before sunset. Come alone. The poodle will carry your answer.
The Royal Gardener
This was surprising! I had not been unduly disappointed when a request to view the gardens of the Villa Nebbiosa, submitted on my behalf by the Archduke, had met with no reply. The Prince of Palermo was a notorious recluse and no one was ever admitted to the fabulous gardens. I looked, in some perplexity of mind, at the poodle, who lay on the ground licking his paws. "Come here, Pudel," I said. He rose and approached me, wagging his tail and whining hopefully. I scribbled an answer in the affirmative and re-attached the envelope to the collar. "Go home now, Pudel!" I said. He leaped up, placing his paws against my knees, and licked my face, then ran three times around the room, barking furiously, and out into the night whence he had come.
Thoroughly unsettled by this doggy apparition, as well as by the prospect of an entrée to the mysterious gardens, I found sleep had gone to the devil. I therefore composed myself to set down this record of the day's events. Whence it is now dawn. I hope to snatch an hour or two of rest before the sun is up in earnest, for it promises to be a busy day.
LONG FICTION >