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The Prodigy, although just now being published for the first time, in fact dates from an earlier era, before its author had embarked upon that long journey into night that was to result in Poetry and Fear. A chance encounter with a then young violinist (who shall remain nameless), an unhealthy immersion in the perilous world of Thomas Bernhard, and far too many hours spent in darkened rooms alone with her favourite Handel arias induced the particular state of mind that gave rise to this little book. I have since had the pleasure of speaking with the author on several occasions and wish to assure the reading public that she no longer entertains a cruel and deliberate passion for this, or any other, beautiful boy, if indeed she has ever done so.
- Elisabeth Serafimovski
La parole humaine est comme un chaudron felé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles. - Gustave Flaubert
He was beautiful, she said, so beautiful that one looked in vain for the flaw, the tiny pimple, stray hair, patch of coarse or blemished skin that would render him human, heir to the thousand frailties of the flesh, one looked, I say, in vain, one was at last silent in the face of such perfection for what was there to say? He compelled one's love, she said. Even as a child he had this great beauty, even without genius he would have been recognized, he was destined to be a favourite from the cradle - a favourite, a courtisane, mistress to emperors and kings. He never had an awkward stage, just as his beautiful voice never changed but only grew in eloquence, virtuosity, power, so too he himself grew every day more beautiful. No, he never had an awkward stage, he made his début at the Opéra at the age of fourteen. He sang the rôle of Dido - it was but a joke, the Intendant's plaisanterie, for he knew nothing yet of music, of singing, although the voice was already sweet beyond compare and soft as the young linnet's in the bush. He was so beautiful, she said, it did not occur to me until long afterwards that he might also be stupid.
He knew nothing of his own gifts. His innocence was as radical as his beauty and that, I trust I have given you to understand, was a lusus naturae, not to be argued. He was born in that same howling American wilderness as I had been some eighteen years before him. As far as I have been able to determine no extraordinary circumstances attended his birth - no angels sang around his cradle, no prophecies were uttered, no fairies came tripping to smooth his pillow, not even so much as a dove was disturbed from its nest on his account. As he grew in years and loveliness his innocence grew with him, it surrounded him like a bright halo and shielded him from the reality of other people. He did not notice their love, their hate. He was not really aware of them at all.
One day I realised that there was something after all. When a thing is too beautiful, when it thrusts itself too much upon our attention, drawing to itself more love than reason would warrant or piety admit, then it is no longer beautiful but horrible, an abomination, a shame to be blotted out, she said. He had eyelashes like that - she held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart - thick and glossy as an insect's wings, absurd, and ultimately defacing rather than enhancing that lovely face, and they were entirely natural, please bear that in mind, she said. I know for a fact that he used no make-up whatsoever, he scorned it, he never needed it, that face was made for the stage. Even those eyelashes from the boxes had the requisite effect, the eyes stood out like gems set in white marble, but up close it was a different story, up close they were in the worst possible taste, vulgar, sentimental, even slightly ridiculous, far too much of a good thing.
When they found him he had already been dead for several days. The flies were clustered around his body, especially the head and face where they appeared a thickly glittering incrustation of gems. He was dressed in the coat of platinum lace, the same he had worn for the last performance of Artaserse, and the flies played like living threads upon the lace, making it to shine with sudden bursts of dark and silver light. His hands were speckled black with fly dung, the nails were purple and curled away from the flesh. Then someone opened the window and the flies rose all together in a dark cloud. I saw the face - many more flies were clinging like a thick black fringe to the lashes so that he was unable to open his eyes. It is from dreams such as this that I awake sometimes to intervals of peace.
It was in the Ludwig Pavilion situated on the Wilhelminenberg to the west of Vienna that I first made the acquaintance of the well-known American actress and also playwright and poet, the famous court beauty, Elisabeth Serafimovski. I was there in the Ludwig Pavilion on account of certain suicidal tendencies, which suicidal tendencies had on this occasion gained the upper hand and become actually life-threatening so that it was necessary for me to spend some time, however much against my inclination, in the Ludwig Pavilion. In order to combat these suicidal tendencies the doctors of the Ludwig Pavilion make use of the so-called chemo-therapy, whereby the patients are simply dosed with powerful drugs until they can no longer remember why they wanted to kill themselves in the first place. The electric shock therapy is also made frequent use of to wipe out any residual memory in particularly hard cases. Nonetheless, every week two or three of these hard cases manage to get over the wall and throw themselves off the Wilhelminenberg. Their bodies are brought back to the Ludwig Pavilion by sleigh and kept in the front hall until the doctors have had time to perform the necessary autopsies. The extreme cold in the hall is sufficient to keep the bodies fresh for the autopsies, and in fact this hall is an ideal place for the cold storage of newly dead suicidal types. However, the hall being put to this use, it was impossible to go in or out of the Ludwig Pavilion without passing on a daily basis these frozen suicidal types whose blue faces peeking out from the coarse white blankets in which the bodies were wrapped gave a certain macabre air to the open front hall of the Ludwig Pavilion where the lunatics were coming and going all day, and the staff also, who were not at all perturbed by these frozen types but carried on with their sweeping, their cigarettes and so forth just as if there were not three of four frozen bodies in the hall with them. Of course I did not make the acquaintance of my friend Elisabeth in the hall of the Ludwig Pavilion, that would have been impossible, the hall of the Ludwig Pavilion is not a place where one would choose to linger in conversation, surrounded, as is inevitably the case, by the frozen bodies of those unfortunate men and women who have recently succeeded in throwing themselves off the Wilhelminenberg. No, it was on the outside the so-called solarium which of course never gets any sun whatever because there never is any sun on that side of the Wilhelminenberg, on that terrace leaning against the railing in a black fur coat and a small velvet hat, just the kind of fur coat and the kind of hat I have always liked, a tasteful, well-cut fur coat, an elegant hat, but everything about this woman was obviously tasteful and intelligent. What an intelligent woman, I thought, observing her closely from the other side of the terrace. She must have known that I was observing her but even so she did not turn round immediately to confront me. Women always know instantly when you are observing them and she was no exception yet she did not turn round as every other woman in my experience would have turned round. She continued leaning against the railing and permitted me to examine her in this way from the other side of the terrace. Only when I had taken several steps in her direction did she permit herself to look round and address a few words to me. I did not realise as she spoke to me that she was the well-known actress Elisabeth Serafimovski or undoubtedly I would not have spoken to her at all for I have a horror of all so-called theatrical types, all those entertainers with their shallow, cringing charm and made-up faces are simply unbearable to me. I have always avoided the so-called theatrical types, they are worse even than the so-called literary types whose artificialities are at least untainted by that cloying theatrical charm that makes the theatrical types so unbearable to me. She too was in the Ludwig Pavilion on account of suicidal tendencies, this was apparent to me at a glance, for I have become expert in spotting the various types of lunatics that populate the Wilhelminenberg and she was an obvious and characteristic suicidal type. No tawdry love affair here, I thought, but a genuine suicidal type. She spoke to me briefly, introducing herself simply as Elisabeth, an American woman. Easily, without any unnecessary preliminaries, we began to speak about Schumann. She was working on a translation of the Dichterliebe into English, which translation she agreed to show me. I had been gathering material for a biography of Schumann, for ten years now I have been gathering together everything relating to Schumann and his work. I have a very high regard for the Dichterliebe and I was anxious to see what these translations would be like. Schumann too was a suicidal type, she said to me. Although I had been gathering together all possible material on Schumann for more than ten years now still I had failed to appreciate this basic point, that he, too, was an obvious suicidal type. For ten years I concentrate all my attention on the question of Schumann and I miss the most basic point about him, but that is only typical. Now I can write my book, I thought. Thanks to this intelligent woman who has pointed out to me the one fact about Schumann which I had most failed to appreciate and most needed to know, I can at last begin my great oeuvre. The notes were all in place in twenty-two hardback notebooks locked away in the attic room of my house. Now I can begin, I thought. I only need to finish the course of treatment, to taper off little by little, not too fast, then to get into my car and drive back to my house, unlock the attic room, take out the notebooks, which are probably covered with dust by now, I have only to open the notebooks, first one, then another, and to write the first sentence of my book. That Schumann was fundamentally a suicidal type. In my mind's eye I already saw myself sitting down at my work-table in the attic room, dusting off the notebooks, then writing the first sentence of my book. It won't do to go rushing off half-cocked, I thought. Little by little, that's the way things are done. We go rushing off half-cocked and spoil everything. The undoubtedly surly garage attendant with whom I will be obliged to speak if I wish to have enough gasoline in my car to reach my house, let's face it, I'm still incapable of dealing with that garage attendant, just the thought of such a garage attendant is enough to bring about a relapse. We think we are cured and then we go rushing off half-cocked and wind up killing ourselves only because of the bad manners of an Upper Austrian garage attendant.
I don't complain
Broken-backed, heart-broken, still
Oh my lost forever love! I don't complain.
You walk by, diamond bright,
Whose dark heart swallowed my love -
There was that in your eyes from the first
As well as light.
What then? I dreamed I saw the Night
Enter your heart
I saw the serpent feeding, there, at your heart
I saw, my love, your pain
And I don't complain.
At the age of thirty-eight I found myself in love with a boy. A circumstance not at all in keeping with my character up to that time. I have ever been of a sombre, even melancholy disposition, intellectual, passionate, subject to fits of pessimism and the contemplation of suicide on moral grounds. An actress and court beauty, I am recognized everywhere. My poetry is read and admired, my dress is widely imitated, my wit famous. What need had I for boys? At the age of thirty-eight I had already nurtured two sons to the brink of manhood. I had even been heard to express a certain disdain for boys - I found them loud, uncouth, unworldly, vain, as indeed they are (he is). If my own sons were dear to me it was in spite of these limitations. I enjoyed the company of men of the world, of well-dressed women, most of all I enjoyed solitude. A solitude I had earned after years of forced intimacies - mother and child. Now that they lay behind me these intimacies, so sweet at the time, filled me with a kind of horror, so that I was unable to behold a babe without an involuntary inward shrinking, drawing myself to myself, away from those leech-like little hands and jaws - the skin of my breasts would pucker in remembered pain. At thirty-eight if I did not appear quite so lovely without my clothes as I had done twenty years before, yet I was ever so much lovelier within them. I can, and do, wear everything now - heavy gold and silver lace, wine-dark velvets, extravagant hats pinned with artificial roses, absurd little shoes, paint and powder and eau du parfum. There is that in my face that renders the whole intelligible - a murmured polyphony of tragedy, comedy, romance. With the passage of time I have become an interesting woman.
On first hearing him sing one had to suppress the impulse to laugh. We are no longer accustomed to not only the sound but even the idea of the male soprano voice. Handicapped as we are by the aesthetics of a bourgeois age, we look to the 'natural' voice, the heavy, unwieldy tones of ordinary men, to personify our heroes. Jeffrey did not sound like a woman, but like an ideal hero, a nobler, more perfect realisation of the masculine principle. Once one had done with laughter, there was time for gratitude, and for delight. Laughter aside, his voice was certainly the most beautiful thing I have ever heard, she said. That he himself should also be beautiful was testimony to the power of an ideal. He was like a leaf whose veins are platinum, flesh is gold, whose fresh edges have not yet begun to curl.
Jeffrey sang, not the timely continuum of musico-intellectual notions that constitute a score, although that too was present as a kind of container into which he poured the song, he sang the music that was inside him, and as that music was of necessity always the same (for we have each of us only the one tune that is written on our hearts before we are born) he sang an infinite number of variations on a single theme. There are, in the valley of the Loire, certain gardens belonging to the great chateaux where you may see this same principle at work. Where colours, shapes, the disposition of light and shade, the alternation of smooth, dark canals with fluttering jets d'eaux combine in hypnotic patterns of repetition and variation; the meaning of each repetition is determined by its context; the meaning of variation? It is always the same. Alter it as you will, twist it, turn it, diminish or augment it, write it into a canon for four voices or sixty-four - always that same, eternal tune. The meaning of the variation is eternity. The meaning of the tune...but you would have to be God to know that.
He was petted, spoiled, beaten and cajoled from an early age. I asked him once - When did you first know that you had a voice? He blinked twice, slowly, languishing those impossible eyelashes - a theatrical trick of which he might or might not have been conscious, I was never able to determine this beyond a doubt - then lapsed into one of his characteristic long silences punctuated solely by the parabolic dance of those heedless lashes. 'I don't remember,' he said at last. 'I was so little. They started in when I was only four years old with violin, piano. I don't remember that.'
'What do you remember?' I said, wanting to pry open as with a spatula that soft, blue-white gaze and peer into whatever lay beneath be it depths or shallows. We crave a knowledge of the beloved, even a knowledge that can only hurt us. Again the interminable silence, the lowered lash.
'There were these white beads...' he offered. 'I had to pick them all up. I was punished for not singing well...if I missed a note, or forgot something.'
'Beads? Why beads?'
'I don't know.' There is a dew of sweat above his upper lip, a tiny crease between the twin arcs of his eyebrows. I will kiss away that dew, that crease. I take his head between my hands, I kiss...
Now that it is finished I write him letters. Each of these letters is at least four or five pages long - they are clever, literary, teasing and cajoling by turn, they are gently mocking, erudite, fractious, poetical, blandishing, unkind - brave emissaries from a desperate heart. They are never answered. The dead do not answer letters, telephone calls, prayers. Nor the brain-dead. Into one of these two categories he must inexorably fall.
The beauty of his voice was matched if not superseded by the beauty of his person. The only difference being that of the first he was acutely aware, while in regard to the second he maintained a protective ignorance amounting in the end to a form of selective stupidity. He was tall, athletic, stooped, ethereal, golden-pale. Slender as an ivory Madonna with something of that same too-fine finish that mars the medieval mind. The hands, small for his size, pliable, unformed, mushroom white. The above description may serve as well to give some idea of the voice, for the two were inseparable manifestations of the same ideal. The voice was absolutely unique - a supple, wide-ranging mezzo-soprano that could soar effortlessly to the F above C in alt, gaining in power and resonance as it rose like a radiant summer mist - delicate, athletic, ethereal, golden-pale. There had been no accident, no childish illness nor butchery in back rooms. Physically, he was as other boys. Save an unconscious feline grace, a coquetterie of face and figure of which, I again emphasize, he was unaware.
Inevitable, from an early age, that he should play the catamite. He had himself, however, neither the over-wrought taste nor the over-ripe sensibility of the true son of Sodom. As a child he submitted wordlessly to the blandishments inflicted upon his delicate nerves and sinews. He soon learned to prefer the rôle of victim to that of hero in his own story. Men did not interest him, except as they might place an occasional check upon his egregious ego. His private satisfactions were basically musical, and achieved on stage. But he had a fascination with women, a kind of pure mental passion for their faces, their bodies, and the entire feminine paraphernalia of clothing, jewels, frippery, perfumes. I have known him go about the streets of Venice in the heavy winter rains expressly to catch a glimpse of those local women who make a habit of walking in such weather in thin muslin garments so that, rain-soaked, they may appear in public as if naked. He was no great lover of painting, which fell flat beside the musical exigencies to which he was accustomed, yet he could stand the whole of a long morning before the furred and bejewelled Venus of Titian. He had no appetite for the ordinary amorous conquest and, in so far as he shared even the nascent desire for such, was constrained by a profound distaste for the physical manifestations of love. He disliked to be touched, yet have I known no other touch quite like that of those small, soft white hands.
'Music should sound pleasing,' he said to me once, when pressed. As you can see, he was not of a philosophical turn of mind, and these conversations of ours left him dazed, incongruous, even in tears. He was like some intricate pale green insect, dragged from its shady habitations into the cruel light, probed and prodded and at last let go without having yielded up its secrets. The secrets of small innocent creatures are not got at as easily as that. Generally speaking, one is obliged to kill them first - then are they dissected at one's leisure, and their entrails smeared upon laboratory slides and back-lit like so much cathedral glass in miniature. Then may we read their stories just as we do those old windows with the help of an excellent golden notebook, saying - This must be Salome dancing on her hands, this John Baptist's head on a platter, this an archangel, this a holy virgin, this a martyr in red. Alive, undissected, he kept his secrets to himself, waved his delicate antennae in the unfamiliar light, then scurried back to those cool shadows under the leaf. Still - music should be pleasing, that much he allowed.
He had been born with a very slight defect of the upper lip. It had been corrected surgically in infancy and only the faintest of scars remained, all but invisible, to bear witness to his original imperfection. But the upper lip had been sewn in such a manner as to leave it puffy, drawn up ever so slightly so that it was a matter of some small difficulty for him to entirely close his mouth. He showed then a perpetual bee-sting and a glimpse of those perfect teeth that mark out Americans the world over. He was taciturn and soft-spoken to a fault, but if his tongue were not active in this respect it could be lithe as a lizard when he chose. It was unnerving, as he worked that tongue into the secret crevices of a strawberry ice, to discover his blue-white gaze fixed upon one's face, the melancholy regard of the enfant sage, steady, luminous, waiting in apparent patience for some information vital to himself.
In the matter of dress he was sober even to excess; he seemed to strive for a denial or, at the very least, a diminution of that spectacular beauty with which he had ben afflicted, dressing himself in dark colours and coarse, common fabrics. His stage-dress was opulent in the extreme, for this too was an inescapable part of his métier. Still, he was relatively restrained even in this respect, given to fewer feathers and less paste than many a lesser divo. Do not imagine from this, however, that his off-stage appearance was without distinction. It was marked, on the one hand, by a sobriety so extreme as to draw attention to itself by its very negation, on the other hand, by an unmistakable and perhaps unavoidable theatricality. He might come to a fancy-ball dressed all in white, and be only the more conspicuous for this unstudied (or was it?) simplicity. Patches of theatrical colour seemed to attach themselves to him; he would appear clad in his usual sombre attire but for a single touch - a blood-red velvet waistcoat, a diamond ear stud, a smear of rouge à levres. In my folly I made him numerous gifts - I can still recall a dressing gown of blue figured satin à la Chinoise lined with gold watered silk, a swansdown muff, an ivory-handled cane carved by French sailors into nodding lilies of the valley and forget-me-nots - but the only gift I ever knew him treasure was a heart-shaped locket engraved with my name.
As a child he sang for kings and councillors, for Columbian drug barons and Hapsburg potentates, he sang in salons for wealthy duchesses and famous pederasts, under tents in dusty prairie towns and in little grease-spattered theatres on the edge of the wilderness, he sang with café orchestras - Mozart and Schubert and the 'Rosenlieder' of Eulenberg sandwiched between the 'Trisch Trasch Polka' and one more round of the inexorable 'Swanee', he sang for the Pope and their assembled Eminences, and for the Imperial Court of Japan, he sang on television and radio and on the west lawn of the White House. He was used, from an early age, to the feel of ladies' silken laps, their pliant fingers in his hair, the glitter of eyes and eardrops, the odour of perfumed breasts. Up to the age of fourteen he was small for his age, his age was often understated by a year or two, he enjoyed liberties that would not otherwise have been granted. He grew up on a diet of ice cream, Coke, and champagne, he was small for his age, no doubt his age was deliberately understated, the date and place of his birth were altered to suit a variety of circumstances. His speech was slow, infrequent, drawling, prairie-flat, characterized by the wide diphthongs and over-emphatic consonants that roam the vast, grassy wilderness of the American middle-west. But was he born in Kentucky or Iowa? In St. Louis or Kansas City or perhaps even Des Moines? He himself did not know, he remembered only a multitude of places all exactly alike, airports and hotels, and foreign cities where the languages in the streets were different but the demands upon him always the same, the same music, same theatrical dress, same flattery, same submission to incomprehensible attentions, same ice cream and champagne.
He stands three and a half feet tall in little high-heeled shoes, little wig and sword, little mouth open wide, little voice sweet as sugar, little arms and legs sweetly dressed in gold lace coat and red silk pantaloons, little eyes, little nose, little hands and feet, little teardrops white as pearls on little tiny face...
Usually docile, he could not bear confinement. For the staging of Hansel and Gretel in New York a golden cage was suspended above the stage and he was obliged to sing from within this cage. He was shut up in the cage, he, who could not bear to be confined, and forced to sing. He rattled the bars and screamed but they would not let him out, in the end he had to accept it along with everything else, he had to sing from within that cage. I remember the sound to have been especially poignant. This child is a great artist, I thought, she said.
A soft radiance, whitened by rain, like grains of phosphorescent sand flung with a free hand over heads and faces, curls of rain-damp hair, hands, fingers, feathers upon hats or glossy birds walking the rain-darkened lawns, flowers' faces wet and shiny as those of clean children, windows smoked white, doors stuck fast, roads awash in rain. The weather in the Adige is never good. The vines grow twisted up the steep hillsides in search of sun to quick their meagre fruit. But that summer it rained continuously, the vines shrivelled and died on the muddy slopes, the geraniums turned black and dropped their rotten heads, the puny mountain cattle drowned in mud-choked valleys, and snow fell in the high villages - in Soranzo and St. Gilgen and Ste. Clothilde. Jeffrey was not then the idol he was to become, nor was he any longer the enfant prodige, exhibited alongside the dancing bear, the hunger artist, and the elephant that plays 'Für Elise' on the piano. At twenty he was a pretty boy, a very pretty boy, even a beautiful boy, but the world is full of beautiful boys and many of these can sing. I was then in the company of a Russian Jew, a little fine-grained, pot-bellied prince who had trained his hair to grow in a mangy cap over his naked skull, who smelled always of patchouli and peppermint drops, who preferred, and could afford, the more obscure and luxurious acts of mortification, who owned vast tracts of Siberian forest studded with deep frozen wells of black petroleum and blue-white gas.
I have never cared for the mountains. In the mountains I feel trapped by the sharp masses of rock and ice poised in dangerous disequilibrium above my head. No, I don't care for the mountains, indeed, I shun them, I have never understood the enthusiasm, the apparent willingness with which some people take to the mountains. There are even those who climb upon the monsters' backs, but these are, as often as not, soon crushed to death by falling rocks. That summer I feigned a taste for mountains, for I had heard that he was to be there, not as part of a circus act this time, but with a crew of motley musical savages who dignified themselves by the name of opéra comique. The colour had gone out of everything with the rain, had seeped away like ink, washed down the hillsides in the streams that bore in their swollen waters every shade of earth and sky and creatures living and dead. The village was silver as under moonlight. I scarcely knew him in such a light, his golden radiance dimmed, silvered over by rain. He started when he first caught sight of me in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, started and blushed, I suppose he was surprised, perhaps even alarmed to see me there. We did not know one another, save by sight, by reputation. He introduced himself, awkwardly! He should have kissed my hand but he did not. No, his manners are not of the best, I thought, she said. They are not as good as my son's, and my son is only sixteen. But of course, he has not a mother who loves him above all things, who has given the milk and honey of her heart to civilize and tame him. Prodigy that he is, he was given over early to ruthless and cunning men to make of him what they would. I will have to teach him, I thought, she said.
He asked me to dine with him. 'Are you alone?' he said. 'Do you want to have dinner or something?' What something might he have had in mind? Ladies' fingers, langues du chat, candied kisses sticky under moonlight sonatas, smell of rain-soaked hair and touch of dead men's fingers? Of course all that was nonsense - he had nothing in mind at all. An empty restaurant in an empty hotel, the marble floors chattering, flowers standing up at empty tables, waiters like sentinels at the doors, napkins stiff with endless anticipation, candles guttering in the damp, windows streaming with rain. People stayed away, they had heard about the weather. There was the very real possibility that the opera would play to an empty house. Unbelievable perhaps but true that he sat down before me. I stood for a moment stupefied, observing his graceful sprawl in the chair. I had forgotten America is like that. A healthy reminder for me, perhaps. A portent of things to come, certainly. He evinced an unfortunate tendency to sit with his mouth open. We were seated at the best table, beside the glass doors to the garden, we would have had a fine view of the sunset had there been one. Instead we had thunder palpable through trembling glass, and flashes of lightning to punctuate our silences with embarrassing melodrama. He was obviously frightened - of the storm, the long menu, the waiter, of me. I longed to take his hand, to comfort him. 'Why don't you order?' he said, 'since you speak French..' I ordered ladies' fingers, langues du chat, candied breasts and dead men's fingers, old brandy and new wine. This last he was obliged to taste by an over-scrupulous wine steward. 'Tastes like toothpaste,' he said, wrinkling his pretty nose. Ahimè! He ate steadily, swiftly, silently. Occasionally glanced up from beneath the candlelit shadows of those doll-like lashes, only to skitter away again. I spoke softly, as one does to an unfamiliar animal. I spoke of music and literature, of art and cities and people we both knew. He met all approaches with the same large-eyed silence. Interminable. I longed to take his hand, to offer comfort, sanctuary, remorse. 'What do you remember?' I said, pushing at the gates, stirring with my witch's spatula the grey soup of the brain. 'Nothing,' he said. 'I was so little, it was a long time ago. Really nothing at all.'
'Stupid child!' he said, twisting the collar of white beads about his fat throat. He glanced, first at his fingernails which were painted pink, then past the white satin swell of his own misshapen bulk to where the child lay on the carpet, kicking, sobbing. 'You had better get up now, Jeffrey,' he said. 'If you know what's good for you.' The collar burst and the beads ran helter-skelter across the floor and hid themselves in the secret crevices of the room.
He did not come to my room that night. Let that much be perfectly clear. Later I would come to know the silken tickle of his head in my lap, the odour of his sweat like the distilled vinegar of honeysuckle and bramble rose, the rise and fall of his velvet cheek in sleep. But not tonight. Tonight I lay alone with all the lights ablaze and the curtains drawn against the noisy theatrical terrors being enacted outside. I am not in general afraid of thunderstorms, at least, not very much. On my own personal scale of terrors they rank well below the faceless killers of women, the flesh-eating ghouls, the goblins that steal children in the night. No, I am not so very much afraid of thunderstorms and yet - I could not sleep. I was kept awake by a newborn passion for this terrible young man.
...the body of a young man was found early this morning...
...the body of an unknown young woman...
...the body of a young man...
Someone is knocking, I thought, she said. I must have slept after all, I awoke to blazing lights and a heavy, persistent knock. He stood in the doorway, trembling. He wore only jeans, his golden chest was bare, a heart-shaped locket gleaming there. 'I'm sorry... I hope I didn't get you up. I had this awful dream...and I thought...you might be awake...'
'Come in,' she said.
I asked him to come in, she said. He sat down on the bed in the brightly lit room and thought for a moment, then lay down with his head of childish curls in my lap. Strange and vivid it was for at once I was engulfed in that bright aura of which I have spoken. I have been to bed with kings, and a king is as other men without his crown, without his coat, his wig, his crowd of courtiers, he is but frail flesh. Jeffrey was different. He was soft as a girl but pungent as an animal and meditative as - something that isn't alive at all - a stone, a pool of water, a fallow field. Very slowly, with infinite care, I raised my hand and began to stroke his hair. Tell me your dream, I said.
These four black guys are playing basketball with my head. The head is all messed up, with lots of blood on the hair, but the eyes are still open, rolling around, like I'm trying to watch the game.
6 prs. light blue silk drawers
12 handkerchiefs, trimmed in valenciennes lace
4 waistcoats, various, fancy
1 Chinese dressing gown, fancy
24 compact discs, various artists
1 half-size violin, from the workshop of Antonio Stradivari
1 heart-shaped locket, gold, inscribed 'Elisabeth'
28 paperback books, mostly science fiction
1 copy Elysian Sonnets, signed by the author
All this will bring in very little, I'm afraid, he said, and crumpled the paper, and crumpled his white, lipless mouth into the same shape and time as the paper.
An old-fashioned travelling case of stamped leather, the gold leaf for the most part worn away but the small jewelled lock surprisingly firm - we looked everywhere for the key, it was not to be found. At last a locksmith had to be called. In the event there proved to be nothing of real value, not even a will. It was stuffed with old newspaper clippings, photographs, worn-out fripperies, dog-eared books, brown-edged letters dropping to pieces, several of these letters never having been opened let alone read. Also, in a separate case, a child's violin. In his last months, unwilling or perhaps unable to work, he had plunged into debt for he had always spent the whole of his enormous income. Unwilling, perhaps unable to restrain at the end the free flow from a purse that was no longer being filled, he died indebted. He owed me, for example, eight thousand francs, she said.
La Société des Amateurs de l'Art Lyrique
dans un concert particulier. Encore tout jeune (il n'a que douze ans)
il s'est déjàfait remarquer autant par la beauté de
sa voix que par la tendresse et le simplicité de son art.
À découvrir. Samedi, 11 decembre, Palais des Sports.
...In the rôle of Tancredi Jeffrey Sunshine was altogether extraordinary. This writer does not recall ever having witnessed a performance so musically right and, at the same time, theatrically satisfying. Mr. Sunshine does not exactly act, except with his voice. But what an exception that is! It has grown into an instrument of unique expressive beauty. Surely his days as a prodigy lie behind him now...
...Jeff has his lessons at home with a private tutor. Three to four hours every day are devoted to vocal exercises, and an equal number to the study of musical theory, counterpoint, composition, piano and violin. In his spare time, the eleven-year-old enjoys sports and games, with basketball an avowed favourite...
A postcard of Santa Maria della Salute in the fog. On the back:
Mi rivedrai, ti rivedrò
ne tu bei rai mi pascerò!
Your friend -
To Her Love, That He Sings Exceeding Well
From rusted, rotten, muddied, lost forgotten
All things old, useless, broken, endless sad
Whose lonesome cry doth fill earth, air, and heaven
With grey smoke before the eyes of God;
All twisted, once made wrong and never righted,
All stupid, dumb in ugliness and fear
Between bright-watered earth and darker heaven,
An idiot child, its face begrimed with tears -
From this would I keep you safe, my beautiful
Singing bird to sing within my heart
Your songs of sweet delight. From all this
Would I keep your sober innocence apart.
Oh, turn your eyes from all such sordid things,
My love, in whom immortal beauty sings.
MYSTERIOUS DEATH IN FLORIDA
Palm Beach. The body of a young man, believed to be that of the singer, Jeffrey Sunshine, was discovered here early this morning in a luxury beachfront villa. Police say the man had been dead for several days before being found by a maid. The villa is the property of the actress, Elisabeth Serafimovski, who was a close friend of the deceased's. Mrs. Serafimovski was not available for comment. A rare male soprano, Mr. Sunshine, twenty-six, had recently retired from the stage and his whereabouts were unknown to friends and family. He is said to have been in a disturbed state of mind for some time. There were no immediate indications as to the cause of death. Police will be conducting an investigation.
In Paris five hours waiting for a flight to Miami, the airport wrapped in fog, rattling with rain, the roof of the old terminal eaten up with rust, the broad plates of the window glass smashed and patched with spiderwork of tape, the seats burned, ripped from the floor, overturned, the café closed for repairs the toilets blocked and overflowing the hallways crowded with the ill, the ruthless, the dying, the stranded, the criminally insane, the whole stinking of jet fuel alcohol vomit coffee soot and rain - Ah, Paris! Remembered smells that tear at the heart like the tender crumb of a madeleine dipped in tea. The newspaper I held in my lap carried an incomplete account of his death. I spent those five hours drowning in black, bitter tears. No one cared in that madhouse, you might cry your eyes out undisturbed.
Dear Jeff - The moon is out, the nightingales are singing outside my window, I really should be writing poetry but instead I will write to you...
I had but one letter from him and that I received several days after he was already dead.
Dear Elisabeth -
Dear Jeff -
I have kissed two statues today and three pictures, one of which was yours. 'Pallido Il Sole' is now number one on the charts...
Mon très beau garçon!
Be wise as thou art cruel, do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain...
Dear Elisabeth -
This is to say good-bye and thank you for all you have done for me...
SINGER'S DEATH A SUICIDE
Miami. The mystery surrounding the sudden death of the popular singer, Jeffrey Sunshine, was solved today when Mrs. Elisabeth Serafimovski, a close friend of the deceased's , informed police that she had received a letter in which he stated his intention to take his own life. Mrs. Serafimovski refused to comment to reporters on the possible motives that lay behind the tragedy. The letter is now in the hands of the police. According to the autopsy report, toxic quantities of several drugs were found in the body, including heroine, cocaine, and strychnine. Police say they are now satisfied the death was in fact a suicide.
The Jew's name was Goldberg, she said. He had purchased a small castle in the Tyrol, one of those late medieval follies built by an industrial backwoods baron, and filled it with art treasures, myself of course among them. (Do not distress yourself on my account - I knew my worth and did not come cheap. The Jew amused me.) Also Flemish and Italian paintings, Chinese silks, English silver, Venetian glass, French ivories, Cremonese violins... He had taste, my little Jew. From the moment he first set eyes on Jeffrey at the opera on the Ringstrasse he wanted him for the collection. I do not collect things myself, she said. Jewellery, perhaps. It is handsome, portable, and can be useful in a crisis. I have always lived - not simply, but heedlessly, flinging things away when I tire of them. Dresses, furs, houses and cars, dogs and cats, I give them away one after another or all together and at once. Someone will come and cart it all away, all the detritus of one's life, the stacks of photographs, silk shawls, cups and spoons, upholstered chairs, marble bathtubs, goldfish, chandeliers... these are just a few of the things I have given away over the years. But once begin to collect things and in no time at all they will turn the tables and possess you entirely. I have even heard tell of people who are possessed by bottle-caps, by used railway tickets, by the names of birds or stars, by the little white papers in which oranges are wrapped. We have the souls of squirrels, it would seem. Goldberg was happily possessed by his collection, although he believed himself happy in the possession of it. Like every true collector, he was discriminating. He did not covet all things equally, but only those that fit the overall pattern. He coveted Jeffrey directly. 'He's like an Andrea Amati,' he said to me, actually rubbing his hands. 'Charles IX! He is exactly like the Charles IX!' I knew he was referring not to that inconsequential monarch, but to a famous inlaid violin made by the Amati family of Cremona. Goldberg had been trying for years to acquire this legendary instrument, but in vain. It had fallen into the hands of a collector as avid as himself. A true collector, the real authentic animal, will never part with any object in his collection unless that be the sole condition for the acquisition of something new and even more desirable. 'So fresh!' he said, speaking of Jeffrey. 'Such youth, such a testimony to the power and beauty of youth! We must have him to the castle.' But Jeffrey repulsed his attempts at friendship. 'I'll work on him,' I promised. 'Give me time. These things take time.' The Jew was willing to wait, - he is a very patient gentleman. All true collectors are patient gentlemen. (Ladies are rarely, if ever, true collectors, for they lack the necessary acquisitive instinct, preferring in general the momentary poetry of life to its incidental excrement.) Thus I went, with his blessing, to Ste. Clothilde in search of Jeffrey Sunshine. I did not return to the castle in Tyrol, a possibility the Jew had apparently overlooked.
The room in the hotel at Ste. Clothilde was too large. There were shadows that moved at the turn of a head, there were holes in the carpets, cracks in the windowpanes, spiders in the bath. In the night it grew cold, then colder, the music of rain gave way to the white silence of snow. At dawn we went out and walked about in the snow. Uncertain on the slippery ground, I took his arm, and at once he pressed up against me from shoulder to knee. My sons had used to cling to me like that when they were very young, making it difficult sometimes for me to walk they would press so against my body and tangle themselves behind my knees. The birds too were walking about, leaving tiny footprints that interlaced with our own like the letters of two different alphabets, the one writ large and crude, the other fine, flighty, an oriental mystery. We hadn't any boots or coats, it was June, it wasn't supposed to snow, soon we were wet and cold. We asked for a fire and breakfast in the enormous room. It looked different in the morning light with all the whiteness of new-fallen snow just outside. We sat by the fire wrapped in white blankets and drank coffee with hot milk, ate white chocolate, melons, langues du chat. The fire brought out a dew of sweat upon that marble brow like the briny dew that clings to the angels of San Marco. 'You should come with me to Venice,' I said. I wanted to see him there, to place him in what seemed to me then his natural context. Unfortunately, he did not come to my room that night, otherwise I would have taken him with me to Venice immediately. But in the morning the snow had all melted, the rain was falling steadily outside the windows of the Grand Hotel, the fire in the grate was dust and ashes. Unable to sleep, he had spent the night watching a basketball game on satellite television. Arizona beat Chicago, or else it was the other way around.
I have always been partial to theatre people, she said. Actors, dancers, musicians - they possess a certain enviable lightness of being that is very attractive to me, whose head must weigh at least five hundred pounds. Jeffrey was one of those theatre people of whom it may be said that the shell is everything. He had a specific gravity roughly equal to that of a handful of dried rose leaves but I didn't count that against him - bien au contraire. Despite extensive travel from an early age, he spoke no language but his own and he sang everything with the same horrible American accent. On stage he moved very little, and not at all when he sang, but there were a simplicity and a grandeur in his stillness - he was like some beautiful, glittering object held up to the light. When the curtain went up for Serse he sang the famous larghetto with his arms held out like the branches of one of those intricate glass chandeliers that decorate the ballrooms of the Grand Canal.
Once you had heard him sing you never wanted to hear anyone else. The voice went through you like a douche of cold water - a sensation not altogether agreeable at first, but nonetheless remarkable in the extreme. In spite of transposition to the dizziest heights of the soprano range there was something very manly about his singing - it was direct, forceful, even a little crude the way men cannot help but be crude. However he might coquette in his dark blue satin and white feathers, he was not subtle.
He excited grave passions in his hearers, which he himself was powerless to satisfy. It was a kind of longing, indescribably sweet and yet painful, that went on and on like a tune that closes with an imperfect cadence so that one is condemned to its endless reiteration in one's head. No act of love, physical or spiritual, could possibly have assuaged this longing, for it existed on a different plane altogether. After a while I grew accustomed to it, I even came to enjoy it as one may sometimes enjoy things that bite, prickle, stab, or wound if only it be in the right place. From the beginning I felt that, were it ever to cease, that silence would be unbearable to me.
There was no music so bad he would not sing it. 'I won't sing anything I don't believe in,' he said to me, more than once, but his area of belief was as wide as a Unitarian preacher's. Never in his mouth could music be merely bad - trite, unbalanced, banal. His genius consisted entirely in this ability to raise everything he touched to his own peculiar level of consciousness, to engulf any music in that radiant cloud of which I have spoken. That music should be pleasing - this was his avowed object, and indeed from his lips it was ever so, one was pleased if you like, one was charmed like a circus animal, seduced beyond reason or remorse. The people screamed for more, begged, wept, rioted for more. He had to be led, exhausted, from the stage, knees trembling, sweat blinding his eyes, and still their hungry roars filled the heavy velvet curtain so it billowed like a sail. That night in Ste. Clothilde all this lay before him still. He was no longer the enfant prodige, he was not yet the idol he was to become. 'I'm not famous at all,' he remarked ruefully, which was only the truth, for every year there are so many prodigies, so many children who sing, or dance, or play upon the violin, children who play lawn tennis or write symphonies, children who spin plates upon their heads or leap through hoops of fire - one little boy is quickly forgotten.
I watched him that snowy morning sitting flushed before the fire, the colour returning to blue veins and marble cheeks, the eyes glittering under natural artificial lashes. 'You should come with me to Venice,' I said.
'Venice? I've never been to Venice. Which is really weird because I've been in every city in Italy but never in Venice. They never asked me to sing there.'
'Never to Venice? But you must go... Venice is the most beautiful place in the entire world. It's so beautiful it will make you sick with beauty.'
'I don't understand... You feel sick because it's so beautiful?' he said. Always this remarkable stupidity - or was it? I could not tell. I have always been subject to that idealist's fallacy that would confound the container with the thing contained, and take it that he who makes the music also calls the tune. Whereas in fact the musician has need of no more than a kind of galvanic sensitivity. An active intelligence under such circumstances cannot be an asset, and might well prove itself a liability. For the perfect singer has no need of a head at all but only a perfectly smooth empty cavity and a whole entirely perfect body through which the sound may resonate as freely as the sea in a hollow shell. The voice is the only instrument that is played with the whole body and nothing but the body. It is really nothing other than the innermost music of the person himself, forced out through the living membranes of speech and breath. 'You must sing at la Fenice,' I said. 'I shall speak to Goldberg about it. I'm certain that something can be arranged. It ought to have been done long ago. Leave it to me. Oh, you will adore Venice, my pet.' And Venice - oh yes - Venice will adore you, I thought, looking into those eyes the colour of the lagoon under winter twilight when all the gilded and rosy dreams of day linger for hours like flowers strewn on the breast of the sea, she said.
There are certain palaces which, on a winter afternoon when the oblique sun shines from behind a gauzy veil of cloud, cast their images into the canal in soft tones of ochre, orange, rose, and these tones, recast in the vital element of water, are made bright and slippery as silk. In just such a rose Venetian silk was Jeffrey dressed for his début at la Fenice. He was to appear for the first time in Albinoni's Didone Abbandonata in a costume of salmon-coloured silk re-embroidered with silver thread. There are certain oranges known as arancie di sangue whose smooth skin if torn away reveals the flesh of the fruit to be as red as blood. Jeffrey in this costume was like a blood orange in reverse, I thought, if you were to rip away his skin of tangerine silk the flesh beneath would be as white as milk.
We should not have come by night, that was the first mistake, she said. He was afraid, crossing the lagoon black as satin quivering with light, his hands were clenched in those tight infant's fists and, as we glided along the canals past dank, leprous palaces, I saw by the light of the streetlamps that his knuckles were white. I do not believe he ever relaxed those poor hands during his entire stay in that city, even in his sleep they remained thus tightly curled like two small, unintelligent animals that have been endowed with no better defence than this. He was afraid of Venice, of her boudoir smells, her rose-white body, Anodymene, rising out of the sea, her watery, glassy, glittering ground, her mysterious gardens blooming in the sky, her crumbling walls, her turpitude, her rats. And Jeffrey was habitually afraid, fear was the strong drug on which he had been reared, fear of failure, and of the loveless cold empty room where unsuccessful children are locked away and forgotten. This fear had made him stupid, for it had deprived him of every thought save one - how best to please. It was this that lay behind that dreadful sobriety that would sometimes annoy me so I wanted to shake him, he was so like a backwards child. Utterly without a sense of humour, she said. Before a performance no one was to speak to him for the entire day, he would lock himself in his room, no one was permitted to approach him, not even I, especially I was not permitted to approach him. He was alone for the entire day with his fear. I need to feel nervous before a performance, he said. But in truth he was not merely nervous, he was terrified. I never understood how he could sing like that, she said. But fear is a drug, one may come to require it, to feel oneself somehow incomplete without it. There are other drugs of course, an entire pharmacopeia with which to modify, stimulate, or deaden one's appetite for fear. I believe Jeffrey tried them all, but I never knew any of them have much of an effect. If his speech was slurred, if he fell asleep over his dinner, these things might as well have been the result of simple fatigue. He was always so very tired. Subject to that state of inner exhaustion brought about by constant anxiety, frequent travel, and there were the dreams, she said. Nearly every night the same dream, although towards the end of our stay they began to change and grow worse. After a performance he could relax for a few minutes or hours, it was then that I sometimes caught a glimpse of his rare smile - like so many rare things it was very lovely, with a fleet, vanishing loveliness. I remember in Ste. Clothilde after that soi-disant opera offered up to a cold, nearly empty house, for Jeffrey's sweet singing had been nearly but not quite enough to float the whole foolish enterprise on a golden cloud of his own peculiar device, I went back stage to the little dressing room cramped and shadowy, smelling of summer rain, sawdust, stale sweat, and saw him first sitting slumped against the wall. Then he saw me and leapt to his feet, at the same time that smile passed like a ray of sunshine over his face. He took hold of my hand and kissed my cheeks, first one and then the other. 'You must have been disappointed,' he said. I assured him that I was not. We had some conversation, I do not remember what, I suppose it was inane. Again he took my hand, he did not seem to want to relinquish it, again kissed me, awkwardly, he was too long about it, lingering there with his rose petal lips against my ear. I was surprised, perhaps I drew back if only a little, for I had not been expecting him to kiss me like that. 'Thank you for coming to see me,' he said. He disliked to be touched, yet he would often take my hand, clasp it so tightly it hurt; fortunately his hands were small, there was not much strength in them, no great harm was done. He would sometimes bring his face up close to mine as if to kiss me, then veer away, but at other times he would kiss me, always on the cheeks, first one and then the other as for example if we had not met for some time, or saying good-bye in various airports, or at night when he sought comfort from those dreams. In Venice he dreamt every night, sometimes more than once, towards the end of our stay he had barely to close his eyes for it to begin.
Someone is knocking, I thought, she said. I awoke to light the colour of sea shells, the slippery whisper of water. Jeffrey stood in the doorway, trembling, he wore the Chinese dressing gown I had bought for him at the mercerìa. He lay down on the bed, the dressing gown spread like a fan around his thin, white legs. Slowly, and with the greatest possible care, I raised my hand and began to stroke his hair. The hair was dark gold, softly curling, silky as a child's. 'Tell me your dream,' I said.
'I'm on stage in a kind of golden thing, a cage, and it's really small, I can hardly move in there. Then the lights go up in the house and people start throwing things into the cage, little pebbles and coins and stuff - this stuff is hitting me, it really hurts. Then they start coming closer, climbing up onto the stage. I'm supposed to sing but I don't know the music, I can't remember how it begins...'
In the event, the début was of course a triumph for Jeffrey, after all, could really sing and the Venetians have always extended their unconditional love to those who can sing. From the velvet mouth of the little ornamental box I watched him take possession of the stage with his more than usual charm, his odd feline grace, his aura, his virtuous light. I could see at once that I had been right to bring him to Venice, to present him before that most operatic of all public audiences, for the début was of course a triumph. The graciously encumbered men and women nestled like sweetmeats in their pink plush boxes sighed and smiled and threw flowers at his feet. Afterwards there was great feasting on rose and silver fish, on purple anemones, Venetian rice, champagne. When Jeffrey entered the room they rose to their feet and applauded him once more. He bowed briefly, then came to the place that had been reserved for him at my side. I took his hand and kissed it and saw the blood mount to his face in a crimson tide. The hand was ice cold, slippery, trembling like a fish just out of the water. He slid the hand away from me, took me by the shoulders and kissed first one cheek, then the other, while the Venetians continued to applaud, the buzz of their voices and the rhythmic batterie of their hands gave an external voice to the turmoil of that mounting blood in his hot cheeks as if the music of him had somehow infected them, transforming them into an inadvertent accompagnato to his recitative. Jeffrey took a seat. Unable to converse in Italian, he confined himself to the food, of which he consumed enormous quantities. The room was resplendent, moored like a great lighted ship upon the broad canal, smoky, reeking with the inconstant flames of a hundred wax candles set in the open buds of blooming chandeliers; they gave light enough to unshadow but the dim glory of that dawn chariot drawn in perpetual triumph upon the golden air above our heads. Jeffrey ate, more than was good for him, I was sure of it - pale green larvae, flies in aspic, piles of saffron-gilded rice, pink crevettes, bloody fegato, langoustines. An orchestra played Haydn and Boccherini, and a fillette in red silk pantaloons danced and tumbled and walked backwards on her little be-ringed hands for our amusement. Jeffrey ate - sweetmeats, rum cake, ices, coffee cream. I dared to lay a cautionary hand upon his arm. 'Leave me alone,' he said, frowning. 'I'm hungry.' The child finished her tricks and went among the guests with a red velvet cap in her hands. She was a pretty little thing, with her dark curls cropped short about her pale face, and her dark eyes bright and careless as an animal's. I called her to my side, I asked her name, giving her a coin, touching her pretty hair. Her smile was charming, her teeth blue-white and sharp. Up close I discerned that someone had rouged her lips and put kohl round her eyes to make them shine the brighter. I gave her a sweetmeat and asked her age, to which she replied that she was six. She was now pulling at Jeffrey's sleeve, beseeching him with her kohl-rimmed eyes for a coin. He gazed at her coldly, then pushed her away with his foot. The child took a step backwards, uncertain whether to persevere, for she had been trained in perseverance, but there was that in Jeffrey's face that she was in the process of learning to heed as well. 'Go away,' he said, in a muffled voice. I thrust another sweet into her hand. 'Andiamo,' I whispered and gave her a little push. She turned her glittering eyes upon the Cardinal Archbishop to Jeffrey's left.
I am certain that he drank more than was good for him. Champagne is not to be taken lightly by those unaccustomed to its charms. We left by the street door, Jeffrey having expressed a desire to walk. At once we were embraced by the cold, fetid night air. He walked along the fondamenta, steadily but with an exaggerated lightness of step as if he were not quite in contact with the ground. The tide was low, the dim water lay dormant now, reeking faintly in its mossy bed. A light rain was falling, felt but not heard. We walked over bridges flimsy as toys, down alleys dark and close as coffins, through deserted campi where the dowager palaces slept on undisturbed by the noise of our footsteps. The receding tide had left a viscous slime upon the paving stones and, shod as I was in evening slippers, I went uneasily over such ground but Jeffrey did not offer me his arm. He went a few paces ahead, he did not wish to be touched. At the foot of a little iron-clad bridge he motioned me to stay, then over the railing was deeply and ingloriously sick.
My second mistake was letting him into my bed that night. That he was angry with me, I knew full well. Despite the success of my venture or rather perhaps on account of it he did not like Venice, indeed he hated it, he was more than ever frightened there. When he came to me then, dishevelled, half drunken, adorable in his deshabillé, his upper lip swollen as if stung with certain heartfelt resentments secret even to himself, I should have turned him away. But indeed I had not the heart to do it. For one thing, he would have wept, and I was unequal to the thought of his unattended tears. He was, after all, quite ill, when I enfolded him he was clammy cold and salt, phosphorous green like some sad white creature stranded by the tide. He lay in the bed and I tucked the silky eiderdown around him. 'Hold me, Elisabeth,' he said. 'I'm cold.' I was not afraid of him. For one thing, I knew him to be, despite his louche and irregular upbringing, aussi vierge que possible. And, for another, it was not that sort of contact I sought with him. In regard to Jeffrey I may raise my right hand and swear in the court of the angels that my heart was pure. No, decidedly, it was not that which I sought with him. Allow a man but once to possess you in that way and immediately he begins to covet all the rest - the mind, the heart, the very will of a woman. At least you and I have never made that mistake, she said. But Jeffrey was different, as I think I have said before, he was a man unlike other men. One felt he did not covet but only longed quite simply for some feminine hand to rest lightly upon him. Still, who can say what seeds were planted, what vile weeds may have begun to germinate in the mind of this young man when once I lay down beside him and held him to my breast? Between those damp sheets in that dim, gilded chamber I was liable to forget he was merely human, to endow him with not only the voice but all the supernal attributes of an angel. As I held him to my heart he grew warm, he ceased his shivering, then, escaping from my embrace, covered me with his whole white length - head, chest, poignard, small hands, sharp knees. It was not true, the cruel jibe he had borne so long in silence, that he was not as other men. He attempted to kiss me on the mouth but I did not desire it nor think it wise and as I raised my hand to prevent him he bit quite hard upon my lip. Still, he was not very strong, or did not care to exercise his strength at my expense, in a moment it was over and we were once again as we had been. But in the blood-coloured light of the tragedy that was to come, I say again that this was my second mistake. My first was to bring him to Venice in the first place.
Standing at noon of a dark December day upon the bridge at Accademia one may see that the dome of the Salute has exactly the colour, the shape, and the fragile integrity of a seashell. This dome belongs to Our Lady, and is, like so many of the man-made wonders of this world, a tribute to the beauty and power of the Virgin Mother. A shell that catches the light, and holds it. Inside is a hushed white silence, jewel-lit with pulses of red. It was this that Jeffrey sought most of all. As I held him to my breast that night in the odorous dark and hearkened to the wet, insinuating voice of the incoming tide, to the gentle subsidence of his incoming and outgoing breath until dawn flooded the room with unexpected waves of golden light that danced and flickered and withdrew upon the tattered silks, upon the gilded, dusty arms of broke-backed chairs and crooked sconces, upon the blowsy gardens of be-clouded glass, and most of all upon his velvet cheek rising and falling in sweet enviable sleep, I believed he had found it at last. But an agony of doubt assailed me when, standing barefoot upon the icy floor in that roseate dawn, I gazed into the mirror's depths at the tumbled bed, the top of his gilded head, and my mouth, swollen and bloody with his thwarted kiss.
That he was angry with me after Venice, this I knew full well. After Venice he did not answer my letters, my telephone calls, my entreaties through third persons, my prayers. For Venice had changed him, as every image once recast in her fickle, fretted blue is forever changed, its very substance altered, dissolved and reformed on a model more harmonious to the odour of dead palaces. Already in the boat en route to the airport I had remarked such a sea-change in him. He was wearing a blue velvet jacket with a fur hood that of course I had given him (for I was anxious to achieve the effect of gold and silver fur about that feline face) and, as he stood in the open air at the back of the boat, the hood up and the fur waving softly in the breeze, there was in his eyes an awareness of things that had not been before. In his arms he held a box containing a tortoise, a gift from the Cardinal Archbishop. The poor creature's shell had been set with Jeffrey's initials in precious stones. Jeffrey had given it the name of Sparky, and, after amusing himself with it for half an hour, had left it to starve. It was of course I who fed it and cleaned its little box. I don't know what happened to it after Venice. Jeffrey took it with him to New York where it probably died.
I was in London appearing in my own version of Cassandra when his name was announced for the opening of the season at Covent Garden. I will certainly go to see him, I thought, she said, leaning against the railing of the terrace outside the Ludwig Pavilion. There had been a heavy fall of snow the previous night and we were obliged to stand in snow up to our ankles if we wished to use the terrace at all. Yes, certainly, I will go, she said. I had this same thought at least a thousand times a day. And then, immediately afterwards, No, I won't go after all, it would be madness for me to go, sheer folly, nothing less than an invitation to my own total destruction. I won't do it, I simply won't go. And then again of course I really ought to go after all. He may be waiting for me, he may in fact be longing for me more than anything else in the world. Or, on the other hand, he may not. He may embrace me wordlessly as he had done before, pressing his cool, rose petal lips against my face - or he may not. He may not even recall ever having done such a thing at all. Although in Ste. Clothilde he in fact did it not once but twice, the second time more thoroughly than the first, certainly, much more thoroughly, lingering over it, making of it a brief but significant event, breathing on my neck, grazing there against my right cheek with those rosy lips. I was surprised, I probably drew back, although I did not mind it - on the contrary, but in the event he startled me for I was not expecting it and probably I drew back if only a little. Thank you for coming to see me, he said. Would he say it this time again? I couldn't help but wonder, she said. In the event, I did not go after all. We imagine that everything is up to us, while in fact it's just the opposite, nothing is up to us at all. I received a telephone call on the very afternoon of the opening - I had already begun my toilette for I never appear in the evening without the prelude of an elaborate toilette, it is the only way I know in which to soothe myself into the necessary state of receptivity, for I am by nature solitary and farouche, I have a dread of society although you would not think it to see me in the thick of things. A peculiar character for an actress you might say, and I wouldn't disagree, but for me the theatre has always served as an antidote to this particular disease of mine. In the theatre I went masked to a semblance of life while my own self remained inviolate. Later I discovered my propensity for the written word, and so have been able for many years now to don the double and the triple mask, to split and multiply my voice into as bewildering a polyphony as did the old Dutch masters. When the telephone rang that afternoon I nearly didn't answer it, for I very often do not answer the telephone when it rings. I have a horror of bells ringing in the private places where I live my life, of voices arriving unbidden over wires be they friendly or unfriendly voices it hardly matters; I dislike the sound of them, even the thought of them - inquiring, scolding, cajoling, demanding, telling the truth or lying. Nevertheless I did on that occasion answer the telephone that was ringing so presumptuously in my London flat and I spoke not to Jeffrey but to Jeffrey's agent, who asked me, quite simply, not to go to the opera that night. In the event, I stayed at home. By the next morning I was very ill with one of my usual stomach ailments. I was too ill to get out of bed even had I wished to do so. That he did not want me there in the theatre when he sang, that much was clear, she said. My friend Elisabeth came of very good family, she was a great-niece of the composer Cilèa, who wrote Adrianna Lecouvreur. Little by little her condition improved to the point where she was permitted by the doctors to take walks outside the grounds of the Ludwig Pavilion. I had been permitted to take such walks for some time already but I did not in fact avail myself of these walks for the simple reason that I had no one to walk with me. The thought of walking alone outside the grounds of the Ludwig Pavilion was simply inconceivable. I'll wait until my friend Elisabeth is permitted to walk also, I thought. Only then will I go walking outside the grounds of the Ludwig Pavilion, first in the village, then later, when we have grown accustomed to the village, in the larch wood. First the village, then the larch wood, I said out loud. That's the way to do it. It was not long, however, before we were thoroughly disgusted by the village and forced, were we not to return directly to the Ludwig Pavilion, then at least to seek refuge in the larch wood. The village was a typically filthy pigsty of an Austrian village - nothing but smells, wooden hovels falling into the muck, and cretinous inhabitants shaking their fists at us. The innkeeper's small son even threw handfuls of mud, which clung to Elisabeth's black fur coat. She pretended not to notice either the mud on her coat or the innkeeper's son, who was laughing raucously, dancing back and forth in the dirty snow before the inn.
It was after hearing Jeffrey sing that I was finally able to decide once and for all that, if I had to choose between the two misfortunes, I would rather be stricken blind than deaf, she said. We listened to hundreds of recordings together, opera was forbidden but we were permitted to listen to string quartets, we were permitted to read, eventually we were permitted to go for walks outside the grounds of the Ludwig Pavilion. A great-niece of the composer Cilèa, she had virtually grown up at the Metropolitan in New York. My father had an opera head, she said. And I take after him. At twelve I was expected to stand through the whole of the Götterdämmerung. It was easy to see that she had an opera head. For an intelligent woman she had an unfortunate tendency to go on endlessly about the so-called art of opera singing in general, and about her favourite, Jeffrey Sunshine, in particular. She was absolutely incorrigible on this subject and, once she got started, could hardly ever be deflected to anything else.
He came of a good family, she said. His mother's people were German Jews, he had a grandfather who was a wonder-working rabbi in Dresden, another who wrote libretti for the Saxon court. The original name was, I believe, Sonnenschein. The father's family were less distinguished, schoolteachers, ministers, there was an uncle who played the Scotch fiddle. His father had begun life as a Presbyterian minister but he soon resigned his post and left the church altogether, devoting all his time to the exploitation of his son's unusual talents. Jeffrey was then only four years old - he never knew any more about his father's sudden change of heart, although there were dark rumours surrounding this part of the family history. They moved to a different part of the country and the family name was changed at that time to Sunshine, the English equivalent of his mother's family name. What his name may have been before that he was unable to say, she said.
After the telephone call from Jeffrey's agent I went immediately to my house in the country in order to be completely alone. No telephone, not even a mailbox, which means I am not disturbed by the cretinous attentions of the country mailman, for without a proper regulation mailbox it is inconceivable to him that he might deliver the mail. Whereas, after all, he would only have to knock on the door and hand it to me. But that would not be in keeping with the regulations and is therefore outside the realm of the possible. What happens, I wonder, to those letters that are addressed to me at my house in the country? Or rather what would happen to them if ever there were any, because beyond the shadow of a doubt there never are any such letters, and although I am myself an incorrigible, even a voluminous letter-writer, I have never received a proper letter in my entire life. Therefore I need not trouble myself unduly over the fate of undelivered mail - now that you understand the situation you can see why, after the telephone call I received not from Jeffrey but from Jeffrey's agent in London, it was imperative that I should go immediately to my house in the country. Walking, then, in a field, a brown field of newly turned fallow earth, of course not directly into the field - that would have shown a reckless disregard for the labour of that human being who had just succeeded in turning the field and bringing it to its present state of perfection. The newly turned field was the colour and consistency of cocoa, raked into long, even furrows that caught the reddish light of the declining day. I walked, then, along the edge of the field. At the bottom of the field was a wood shrouded in mist and the sun glinting through the mist gave to the trees the weightless presence of ghosts. It was in that field that I saw him, lying on his side in the cocoa-coloured dirt. He was about ten feet away from me, I saw him quite clearly, he was wearing the platinum lace coat he habitually wore for Artaserse and the rays of the setting sun were playing among the gold and silver threads of the coat, and upon the black wings of glittering flies that swarmed in clouds about his head. I did not walk that way again for a long time, she said.
When once again I begin to see things that cannot possibly be there; to hear voices out of the ether, be they friendly or unfriendly voices it hardly matters; when again my hands begin to shake uncontrollably so that objects seem to leap of their own accord to the ground - pens and pencils, tea cups, lipstick, comb; when I begin to take account of the attitude of trees and the physiognomy of passing clouds, then it is time once again for a visit to the Ludwig Pavilion. I left immediately the next morning after a completely sleepless night, a white night which I passed in dressing and re-dressing myself for my coffin and fixing on the most suitable music for my funeral.
It's true she was a well known actress, a famous tragédienne, as well as the author of Iphigeneia and The Rape of Ariadne, a woman who thought spontaneously in alexandrines, she probably even dreamed in alexandrines, but of this I was ignorant at the time of our first meeting on the terrace of the Ludwig Pavilion. She introduced herself quite simply as Elisabeth. I had even been to see her several years before in the role of Antigone in Sophocles' play of that name, which entirely poetic and truly unforgettable performance I retain the memory of to this day. Still, I did not recognize her, there was nothing to connect this slender, elegantly dressed woman with the pathetic figure of Sophocles' Antigone. I have always had an abhorrence of so-called theatrical types, for they are invariably false in the extreme, worthless charlatans who will go to any lengths to please their audience and, to tell the truth, no matter what they may say regarding their so-called artistic integrity they have in fact no integrity whatsoever or rather their whole integrity consists of this absolute determination to please. To the noble dignity of art they bring the insinuating manners of courtesans and clowns. In the Josef-Länner Gasse in Vienna a variety of brothels, catering to all tastes, have set up shop, and the large plate-glass windows are nightly filled with the grimacing, smiling faces and half-dressed bodies of the men, women, and children for sale inside. These windows have always seemed to me exactly like the stages of our great theatres - those brightly lit stages of the Staatsoper and the Palais Garnier, the Metropolitan and Unter den Linden, the Comédie Française and so on. The same smiles and grimaces, the same state of undress, the same high prices. Elisabeth was an exception to the usual so-called theatrical type, but her favourite, Jeffrey Sunshine, with whom she was singularly obsessed for over three years despite her remarkable intelligence and very unusual and poetic sensibility that had enabled her to rise above the general low level of theatrical scum, was nothing of the kind. Over drinks at the Café Imperial where I had gone at her insistence and against my better judgement to meet the two of them together for the first time he struck me as a thoroughly stupid and prosaic person, ill-mannered as well, and loaded with counterfeit theatrical charm. In other words, not at all the right sort of person for my friend Elisabeth. No wonder you are obliged to spend your holidays on the Wilhelminenberg, my friend! I thought, having once made the acquaintance of this so-called prodigy, this favoured darling and apple of my friend's eye. That we never do fall in with the right sort of person for us, but always with the wrong sort, the sort that is guaranteed to do us as much harm as possible - this I have observed again and again. For three entirely crazy years she followed him everywhere, she was present at every one of his performances, she even wasted her money on a broken down palazzo in Venice because she thought Jeffrey ought to have a chance to see Venice properly. When, after this Venetian experiment, he would no longer speak to her, she arrived once more at the Wilhelminenberg. The Jew, too, had abandoned her, he was tired of both of them, it seems. Of course Jeffrey hated the palazzo, I don't believe he spent more than four or five nights there all together. He hated Venice at first sight, as he was bound to hate it, everything about Venice would have been inimical to him, this thoroughly American child of the prairies with whom she was in love. I myself have always loved Venice, whereas he was certain to hate it. I felt that right away over drinks at the Imperial when Elisabeth first outlined to me her master plan to go with him to Venice and introduce him into opera-loving Venetian society. I've been in every city in Italy, he said, but never Venice. For the simple reason that he had not yet been asked to sing at the Venetian opera. He was unable to imagine any other reason for travelling to Venice, or to any other city for that matter, than to further his pursuit of the so-called art of opera singing. I did not think the master plan would be a success. To take out a lease on a broken down palazzo for an entire year and so commit oneself to a long term of residence in that remarkably dangerous city, this seemed to me the height of folly. Venice should be taken little by little, a few days at a time, never more than four or five at one go. But a whole year in Venice, that's nothing short of madness. Sure enough, the so-called master plan ended in another holiday on the Wilhelminenberg for my friend Elisabeth. I was in Madrid at the time, completing my research into certain aspects of the life of Robert Schumann. It was only by letter that I learned of the definitive failure of the so-called master plan. Which failure I could have predicted from the start. I had tried to warn her over coffee at Sacher's of the dangers of going ahead with the plan. I have always preferred the café at Sacher's, whereas my friend Elisabeth has always preferred the Imperial. For years she was unaware of my preference for Sacher's and would always meet me at the Imperial if not at the Ludwig Pavilion outside town on the Wilhelminenberg. I didn't like to mention my preference for Sacher's, as I realised that she was only truly comfortable at the Imperial. It takes us such a long time to become truly comfortable and at ease in a restaurant, one doesn't just change over night - Sacher's to Imperial, Imperial to Sacher's. No, it takes time and a great deal of effort to accustom oneself to the thoroughly different environment of one or the other. At Sacher's, where she was not yet completely comfortable, Elisabeth used not her original soft-spoken voice but her much louder, more conspicuous theatrical voice. Sacher's was simply a stage to her, whereas the Imperial was a kind of home. It was wrong of me to ask her to Sacher's, I thought. I had failed to anticipate the effect of transposing her from the Imperial to Sacher's although I should have known that a woman of her susceptibility would not go unaffected by the change. She was completely different. Your plan is no good, I said. She twisted her hands before her in the manner of Phèdre, meanwhile the tears streamed from her eyes. She was playing a scene for my benefit, but I did not wish to be entertained in this manner. Later I had several letters from her in Venice. Of course you were right about the plan, she said. It was a horrible failure, although it was beautiful as well, both horrible and beautiful and altogether a failure. But isn't every brave and beautiful thing in this life a failure after all? Isn't Chartres a failure? Isn't Die Zauberflöte? Isn't Tintoret's 'Paradiso' a failure? Isn't Venice itself a complete and utter failure? The letters from Venice were each four or five pages long, written on thick, perfumed paper the colour of strawberry cream. Several times I attempted to answer these letters but in the end I did not answer them. They sat unanswered, gathering dust on my work table in Madrid. I wasn't able to answer them, nor was I able to bring myself to throw them away.
How few people we are able to love! she said, walking at top speed in her usual heedless way through the larch wood. She looked neither to the left nor to the right but down at the snow-covered ground; the branches of the larch trees, sharpened to a razor's edge, would certainly have struck her had I not intervened to prevent it. At first I was not able to love Schumann, she said, but later, after the birthday concert, I learned to love him, if only for the Dichterliebe. For the Dichterliebe alone, she said. I had always found him difficult to love, his egoistic melancholy irritated me, his music, so neurotic, so disorganized, had a morbid effect upon my nerves. That basically suicidal type, she said. It isn't good to listen to music that comes too close to us, we need music that is different, that takes us away from ourselves. Handel, for instance, she said. I can listen endlessly to Handel, that essentially frivolous head, that maestro of the open air, the sunlight, the gilded ornamental voice. But Schumann! Moreover completely incapable of writing a coherent development section and with no more idea of counterpoint than a cat. Whereas Jeffrey loved Schumann, he placed him in the very highest rank among his personal favourites. The people we love have always something in common, she said. And it's true, Schumann has always been a favourite with me, despite his suicidal character, or perhaps even on account of this character, I have always been drawn to the music of Schumann. That I did not see the sense in her obsession with her idol - of this she was perfectly well aware. Jeffrey didn't like you either, she said. Right from the beginning, from that first meeting at the Imperial, you frightened him. He doesn't read books, she said. He would no doubt have described you to me, had he felt the inclination to lend an epithet to his impressions, as 'weird'. This was his frequent word for those things and people that he did not understand. Poor little insect! You might have ben more gentle with him, she said.
It was after his trip to Venice that Schumann experienced the first symptoms of that injury to his hand that was eventually, and within a short time, to put an end to his career as a piano virtuoso. Only by means of the Well-Tempered Clavier was he able to surmount this crisis, she said. Only through the great Bach, who had a strengthening moral effect upon his whole system, was he able to go on. Why not put that in your book about Schumann - that he was morally dependent on the great Bach. As so many before and since! she added.
He knew that I was here, for I wrote to him frequently, although without of course mentioning the reason for my sudden change of address. Still, if one receives letters written on the stationery of a well-known madhouse one is liable to draw the conclusion that all is perhaps not completely well with one's correspondent. I knew that Jeffrey was slow, that he was not used to draw conclusions of any kind and those he did draw were likely to be bizarre and incomprehensible to anyone not intimately acquainted with the mossy byways of his primeval mind. He did not answer my letters, but shortly after my return to London I received in the mail an invitation to a recital, which recital Jeffrey was to give on the very day of my thirty-ninth birthday. I don't know how he knew it was my birthday - I certainly never mentioned it to him. I am not at all fond of such celebrations of mortality with their notorious associations of wasted beauty, blighted hopes, decrepitude and death. On the whole I would prefer to put aside all such reminders of the passage of time and I certainly never would have mentioned anything so silly and vulgar as the date of my own birth, to Jeffrey least of all. Still, there was the invitation, there was to be a concert on my birthday, the programme to include along side the usual Handel and Mozart arias that formed the backbone of his repertoire, nothing less than Schumann's Dichterliebe. We had of course often spoken of Schumann, whom up to that time I had been unable to love. At first I thought - I will certainly go to this concert, then again I thought - No, I won't go after all, it would be simply unbearable for me to go. In the end I compromised, as you know, she said. After all, what are friends for?
I had gone together with my friend Elisabeth and against my better judgement and inclinations to this so-called birthday concert. I had no particular desire to hear this young Orpheus warbling away in his usual absurd manner in a voice more suitable to a young woman than to anything immediately recognizable as male. I am particularly attached to the Dichterliebe, which have always seemed to me the most perfect expression of Schumann's individual genius, and I had no desire to hear them rendered ridiculous in this way. Nonetheless, it was a foregone conclusion that I would go with her to the recital, as she knew perfectly well. Women have only to ask and we drop everything and run to fulfil their least commands. Nor are they ever satisfied with us, but always have at their fingertips new orders, fresh plans for us, additional complaints. Still! We are unable to say no to them even once. If even once a man could bring himself to say no to a woman the whole course of human history would turn over. And this despite the fact that they are so much less intelligent! But my friend Elisabeth was an exception of course, she was in fact that rarest of things, a highly intelligent woman. It had perhaps even crossed my mind at some point that she might be right about the peculiar abilities of her idol. Leaving aside all questions of personality, he might be prepared to shed a peculiar light upon the Dichterliebe, given the right circumstances. Only under the right circumstances can serious work of any kind be accomplished after all.
On this occasion the hall was quite full, but we had two excellent seats in the middle of the third row. The young man took the stage and was greeted with the usual burst of enthusiastic applause that the public reserves for its favoured darlings. He was dressed in a highly ridiculous manner in a white tailcoat and waistcoat of pink brocade, but somehow this costume suited him so that one was struck less by the the temerity than by the grace of it. Before he began to sing he appeared to be nervous, his face was pale, he smiled once, briefly, at my friend Elisabeth, perhaps a slightly ironical smile. While singing the Dichterliebe he did not, however, appear nervous, but before - yes, and afterwards - yes. That my friend Elisabeth might in fact be right about him had certainly crossed my mind more than once, she was, in such matters, more often right than not. For example, it was she who taught me to love the painter Murillo. At first I hated Murillo, but she had opened my eyes to the real value of the great Sevillian. For nowadays we must overcome our impulse to turn away from whatever is pleasing just because it is pleasing; we must learn to love those pretty, mysterious children that gaze at us from the shadowy canvases of Murillo. In the same way, it was entirely possible that she would turn out to be right about Jeffrey Sunshine, that he was a thoroughly stupid person need not enter into it at all - I was not going to allow that to interfere with my enjoyment of the Dichterliebe. He didn't write the Dichterliebe, after all, I said to myself, as I took my seat in the concert hall beside my friend, he is only going to sing them - certainly no extraordinary mental effort is required there!
That he certainly could sing, that much was apparent from the first few notes. For a long time I have been more or less indifferent to the so-called art of singing. Having been entranced by it in my youth, I later turned against this art and turned from a more or less fanatical lover of singing to someone who is indifferent to it. But now I was forced to admit that Jeffrey was undoubtedly the best singer I had ever heard. Right again! I thought, looking sideways at my friend Elisabeth who, of course, was not looking at me at all but only had eyes for her idol. Why I should gradually have grown cold to this art, which once meant so much to me, I cannot say, but still I am capable of acknowledging excellence even in a singer, and Jeffrey certainly could sing. Not perhaps in the manner to which one was accustomed - this manly-womanly voice was like certain flavours of food to which one must be exposed over a period of time before they can please. He made one realise that it is not the timbre of the voice that separates the sexes, but a rift deep and wide - a tension, a material divide, an abyss. His voice had a perfect plaintive quality that was more like the memory of singing than like singing itself, for in our minds the singing we hear is always of just such a voice - sweetly pathetic, pleading for the irretrievable past, for our youth gone by, for our lost innocence, and even the unhappiest childhood is momentarily regretted with tears when we hear once again a song that we knew when we were young. Such reflections are rendered doubly ambiguous in the case of the Dichterliebe, for with the Dichterliebe one is already aware of a double irony. Already Schumann's music casts a romantic glow over the acidic Heine. Jeffrey of course was to sing the Dichterliebe in a perfectly straightforward manner, without the slightest intimation of such irony, which was certainly beyond him. I have said before that he was no thinker, and he did not think about this music but simply allowed himself to be possessed by it. His willingness to display for us his own naked and helpless state was at once a sign of his innocence and of his typical theatrical depravity. In coaching the great alto, Guadagni, for the rôle of Orpheus Gluck is said to have demanded that he sing out the name of Euridice as if his leg were being cut off. Jeffrey sang as if not his leg, but his heart were actually being cut out. In this guileless emotionalism I detected a one-ness with Schumann, that incorrigible self-promoting innocent in the style of Jean-Paul and the Davidsbündlerblätter. I have always wondered how that arch-innocent, Schumann, found himself drawn to that most antithetical of all possible poets, Heine. Having taken up with Heine, however, he was bound to be affected by him, and in fact there are in these songs certain ironical and morbid chord progressions that seem to flow more from the brain of Heine than of Schuman. Jeffrey was interesting in spite of himself, for he brought to the Dichterliebe yet another level of unconscious irony. The performance was reminiscent of those renditions of erotic songs for which he had been known as a child - the Rosenlieder of zu Eulenberg for example, with which he had enjoyed a great vogue in private clubs of a certain persuasion, the effective frisson being that of the unconscious confrontation of innocence with its opposite. This effect was heightened by the white, sexless timbre of the voice that left one so much in doubt as to its origins. Before he began to sing he appeared nervous, he smiled once, briefly, at my friend Elisabeth, perhaps a slightly ironical smile. Throughout the entire concert my friend refused to glance even once in my direction. She was of course gazing upon her idol with that distinctive look that I too have sometimes experienced from her although never reciprocated for to exchange such looks with a woman is simply to invite the devil into his own playground. This look of hers always makes me wonder whether my friend Elisabeth ought to be allowed out to wander the streets of the so-called real world or whether she might not be better off within the confines, however unsatisfactory, of the Ludwig Pavilion. That he could not before this have sung the Dichterliebe - that was the observation she made to me after the concert. Her face was streaked with tears, her lipstick was smeared. Not before Venice, she said, he would not have sung the Dichterliebe. Venice has changed him. In this concert the results are audible for the first time. And it was true up to this point - that one heard that he was unhappy. He was able to vary the amount of vibrato in the voice exactly to suit the level of emotion required as in, for example, 'Ich grolle nicht', where he used the full, vibrato-rich tone without reservation, the voice threatening every moment to waver out of control, the huge blue eyes tear-filled, the face no less sad for being so pretty, so like that of the tall, graceful angel who stands behind the Virgin as she hands over the miraculous cloak to St. Ildefonso in Murillo's picture in the Prado. One heard that he had felt too much for one so young, and it was this that made him dangerous, for while he felt all this, he did not understand it. But I, personally, did not believe in the effect of Venice upon our young friend, Jeffrey Sunshine. On the contrary, I believed that it was Elisabeth herself who was responsible for the change.
After the concert I watched carefully the manner in which he kissed my friend Elisabeth. I felt then that he bore certain ill intentions towards her of which she was, as usual, completely unaware. Beware, my friend! I wanted to say those words, but I did not. I was afraid for my friend, afraid of this beautiful young Orpheus. But I should not have bothered - in the end my fears proved to be groundless, for it was he who was destroyed, while Elisabeth was only to serve another lengthy stint in the Ludwig Pavilion. Women are unbelievably strong, and the degree of pain that would kill even the strongest man only causes them to retreat for a while to such white asylums of grief as the Ludwig Pavilion from which they will eventually emerge more or less unscathed, stronger than ever, and ready to do battle again.
We went afterwards to a truly terrible Italian restaurant behind Piccadilly where Elisabeth would consent to eat only the avocado slices in her miserable salad, while Jeffrey, on the other hand, ate heartily of everything with that indiscriminate American appetite of his. Elisabeth was constantly breaking out into fresh tears during the entire interminable meal while he, once again the wanton, effeminate child, insisted on ordering fully four courses. Several times he asked her to 'cut it out' but she did not appear to notice this inelegant injunction. Only afterwards, when we had left him at his hotel and I was walking with her in the usual London rain did she refer to her own plight.
One should not be ashamed to shed real tears over such a voice, she said, for such tears are, indeed, the loveliest pearls in that golden crown that he wears so lightly on his lovely head. No matter how hard we think, how beautifully we imagine ourselves to speak, to describe in mere language the exquisite torment of the soul, our noblest efforts are but the banging of a tin drum for the dances of the circus bear. When Jeffrey sings he gives such voice to the human heart that the stars themselves must hear it and weep, and I have seen, on such a night as this, the shallow city streets wet with their tears.
It's not always the suicidal types who actually succeed in killing themselves, she said. Frequently it's the others, the prodigies, the prize-winners, the so-called achievers who pass us in the race and arrive before us at the shuddering gates of the underworld. We suicidal types are, after all, protected by those very tendencies that mark us out in the first place and from an early age, certainly no later than twelve or thirteen years of age and sometimes earlier. If we were not thus protected we would not be types but simply corpses. But as it is we grow accustomed from an early age to thoughts of death, to the simple, everyday desire for our own death, and so it becomes possible for us to go on living. If we do not succeed in killing ourselves when we are very young, only twelve or thirteen or even fourteen years of age, then we may go on living indefinitely. Why, certain genuine suicidal types have even lived to be as much as eighty years old, although this is unusual, fifty or so being more often the case. Nor do suicidal types always die by their own hands, but just as frequently if not more frequently they die an entirely natural death. Protected by their close acquaintance with death, they live to a ripe old age and die a natural death. Whereas Jeffrey was without such protection, for he was meant by nature to be happy, after all, had a naturally sunny disposition, un cœur simple, he was engaged all his life in the pure, unmotivated pursuit of happiness. He was baffled by his own unhappiness, it seemed to him an unnatural state of affairs. I rarely saw him smile, she said, in all the time I knew him, and laugh, almost never. I have a photograph in which he is smiling, and I have never understood what could have induced him to smile like that for the camera. Would you like to see it? she said. It was a photograph of a young man, a typically good-looking, athletic American type, endowed with the typical, large white American teeth. He was certainly smiling. Whatever induced him to smile like that? she said. As you can see from this photograph, he was meant to be happy. She kept no photographs of her children, but had destroyed them all when the younger child reached the age of twelve years. Nothing prepares us for the death of our children, she said, walking slightly ahead of me into the larch wood. The path was narrow, I had to struggle to keep up with her. The snow lay deep on the ground and the frozen branches, crusted with ice, were as hard as iron. I held back the branches so they would not strike her as she walked in her usual heedless way through the larch wood. For our own death we have no regard, we have grown used to the thought from an early age, but the death of our children - Ah! that's something else entirely. We are not prepared, the thought never enters our heads that one day they will simply vanish from the face of the earth. She had two sons, both were now cadets at the École Militaire outside Paris. No, I never gave it a thought, she said. Then one day I realised my beautiful little children had vanished - just like that! My sons... but what is there to say? My sons are now young men like all the other young men in the world. I have become for them a comic figure, who was once the fountain of life and the ground of their very existence. And it has to be like that! But I did not think of it at the time. No woman would ever have a child if she thought at the time that all her love in the end would come to this - that she will be a comic figure to a pair of fine young men who can scarcely remember her face. That face that bent over them in the cradle when they were tiny and helpless, now that they are big and strong has been replaced by the countless images of young girls, each exactly like the other, each preparing to make the same sacrifice in her heart to some new tiny god of the cradle. In this way the world keeps going, she said, we ransom our hearts for these children of ours and they, in turn, simply vanish. I was thirty-eight when I first met Jeffrey Sunshine. He was a skittish boy of twenty-three, a former prodigy and not yet a star, a beau idéal with a beautiful face and an even more beautiful voice. A woman needs something beautiful to love, she said. I would be to him mother or sister, amie du cœur, whatever rôle he wished to assign me in his personal comedy I was willing to play. Only this - I would not be his wife. I would not have his children. With that particular rôle I had done once and for all. He might at some time require such a person, but I was not to be she. When the time came for her entrance I was to slip quietly into the wings - Oh, so quietly! He would not hear me go, nor be aware until later, in the final act, of what had gone. There were certain circumstances, certain ambiguities of person and character, that led me to believe that such a day was not likely to arrive for yet some time. For example, I always found it difficult to imagine his future. He was so very young, you see... Be that as it may, I was certainly foolish, I was blind to what fate had in store for him. I did not foresee the possibility of his death, she said.
He asked me to meet him in Venice. For a long time I asked myself - why? Why Venice of all places? After all, Jeffrey hated Venice, he had been so unhappy there. And no one goes to Venice in August, the conditions are simply unbearable at that time of year. It was precisely because he hated Venice, because it was of all places in the world the worst possible place for him, of course, now I see it - then I did not. When the telephone rang in my Paris flat I nearly did not answer it, but in the event I did at last answer it after it had gone on ringing for a long time, I answered and heard his voice saying, Hello, Elisabeth? This is Jeff. I had not spoken to him in over a year. He had refused to speak to me any longer, refused to see me, he did not even want me there in the theatre when he sang. He did not answer my letters, telephone calls, prayers. I assumed that he had his reasons. Mais le cœur a aussi ses raisons. Not a day went by but that I prayed to the Blessed Virgin to keep him under her protection; not a night but I kissed his portrait before going to bed. Now he was on the telephone, asking me to meet him in, of all places, Venice.
In August Venice is a little claustrophobic shabby hell. The scirocco blows from the south, the air is humid, hot, the walls run with damp but the canals are dry and choked with stinking mud. When at last I saw him he did not look well. At twenty-six one is no longer a boy, I thought, she said. At twenty-six one has, already, intimations of mortality, one's thoughts turn as of their own accord to matrimony, children, death. There was some dimming of that bright halo, as if the light inside him were tired, and burning low. There were little lines at the corners of his eyes that had not been there before, there was a dissipated drag to the mouth. His hands shook, which never had before. His hair was not quite clean and his shirt was not quite fresh. In the airport he took my hand. 'Hello, Elisabeth,' he said. 'Thank you for coming to see me.' He kissed my left cheek, then my right, lingering there for a long moment, his breath warm and damp on my neck like rain. I was not expecting him to kiss me like that.
We met in Venice but it was not as it had been, although that grande horizontale once again opened her arms to us - No, it was not, not at all as it had been. He was not pale but grey, and where he had been sombre he was now sullen. But, as I grew accustomed to this new face of his, I came to see that only now was his beauty complete. Only now that he was cracked, deflowered, imperfect through and through, now that it was no longer a matter of mere eyelashes, but of a general and consumptive decay. That he had lost his voice I knew, together with the rest of the world. There had been a spiral of erratic performances, missed notes, cancelled dates, drug-induced tantrums. The golden thing in his throat had broken at last, belatedly, and left him mute and gasping on the shore. I do not know how he lived at this time, how he occupied himself. An ignorant, shabby, useless flirt, he was now more than ever beautiful, for is it not those very imperfections that move us most of all? A perfect work of art would simply leave us cold, she said.
He slept long hours, he who had always been afraid of sleep. In the morning his lips were caked with blood, there was blood on his cheek, in his hair. I cried out when he entered the salone in his tattered Chinese dressing gown, his face smeared with blood, and he laughed at my cry - I had not heard him laugh like that before.
My very dear Jeff -
Guess who sang Tancredi last night for the Queen's pleasure? No less a creature than Marchesi. He has grown so fat he quite eclipsed the poor horse on which he made his grand entrance. Really, it would have made you laugh...
'At least let me wash your hair for you,' I said. He stooped obediently over the marble tub while I washed his hair in a rich concoction of almond oil and fleur de pêcher. The water sang like thunderous summer rain, the pipes groaned, and shuddered, and sighing breathed out a faint stink of sewers that mingled with the sweet perfumes, the charnel smell of blood, and his own dense, vegetable odour. Under my fingers the lather turned from white to ice cream colours of pink and brown. His ribs spread from the backbone like an open fan, like the ridged landscape of an unknown desert country, like the fossil of some mythical creature printed on golden sand. Then on his knees before me as I rubbed his wet head with a towel. Slowly he got to his feet, with one hand smoothed the damp hair back across his skull. He glanced casually in the mirror, tucked the long strands behind his ears. 'Thanks,' he said, and looked at me once, sweetly, as he had used to do, and quickly left the room.
We sat up late that night on the faded red banquettes at Florian's, talking in tight circles of nonsense, waiting for Jeffrey to say whatever it was that had brought us both to that place, to sit endlessly among the blowsy mirrors and garlanded girls, the thumbed guidebooks, spilled drinks, overflowing ashtrays. His hands grasped the little white coffee cups, one after another, as if they were the only reliable objects left in his world. Those soft white hands, still childish and unformed, now trembled like those of an old crone at the lip of the grave. A lock of hair had fallen across his forehead - he had always that air of the cocotte. I remember him flicking nervously at that lock of hair until I could bear it no longer but caught his hand midway to his forehead and felt its damp flutter, then twist and flight. He looked at me then, it could even be said that he looked at me for the first time, and certainly for the last. He sat quite still and fixed his eyes upon me earnestly, as if he thought to take my portrait. 'You're beautiful,' he said after a while, to me rather than to himself. It sounded like an accusation.
'Yes,' I agreed. 'I am notoriously beautiful, my sweet. After all, my livelihood depends upon it.'
'Don't, Elisabeth,' he said. He continued to stare. 'I never noticed that before,' he said.
'You never noticed much, my darling.'
'Have you been sleeping with a lot of creeps?' he said.
'Not so very many,' I answered, but this is something new, I thought. This is rude, even for him. I did not like it. 'You didn't used to speak that way,' I added.
'No? Well, I didn't used to do a lot of things I do now,' he said.
I awoke to stark, shimmering moonlight, the slosh of tidewater under the walls. Someone is knocking, I thought, she said. He was dressed only in a pair of blue silk drawers. Come in, I said. He lay down on the bed. Slowly, and with great care, I raised my hand and began to stroke his hair. The hair was dark gold, stiff where chemicals had streaked it to a lighter blond. Tell me your dream, I said.
I'm lying on the floor in this big dark room, I mean, I can see myself lying there like I was somebody else only I know it's me. I'm wearing the lace coat, the one I wore for Artaserse, and there's all these flies buzzing around my head and around my eyes, I can't open my eyes there's so many flies stuck to them. I keep on trying but I can't open my eyes...
He reached up and caught the hand that was stroking his hair. Then he took hold of the other hand as well and pressed me down upon the bed. I did not fight him, she said, of course not, what would have been the use? He was much stronger than I, there was surprising strength in those small hands. I wanted to make you cry, he said. And indeed he did. Now nothing whatever remained of that golden innocence I had so much loved. He fell asleep on his side, his chryselephantine body still more beautiful even as it had begun to decay, his marble chest rising and falling gently, the gold locket gleaming there against the milky skin, and his legs, so thin and white, drawn up as if he were in pain.
Dear Elisabeth -
This is to say good-bye and thank you for all you have done for me. I guess you are pretty disgusted with me by now. I'm pretty much disgusted with myself to tell you the truth. I'm sorry about everything, the stuff in Venice, everything. I realise now that I am not much. I tried to be a man but I am not much. So I guess this is good-bye.
P.S. I know you tried your best to help me so please don't feel bad.
I had left the comforts of the Ludwig Pavilion behind me and returned to Vienna, this time to a new ground floor apartment, for only in this way could I be certain not to throw myself out of the window when in the grip of one of my inevitable attacks. My friend Elisabeth was still at the Ludwig Pavilion but I did not wish to visit her there. The Ludwig Pavilion is all very well when one is a patient there, but to arrive at that same place as a mere visitor would have been simply unthinkable. I had not received a letter from my friend for some time, and, as I knew her to be as a rule an absolutely incorrigible writer of letters, this uncharacteristic lapse in our correspondence began to eat away at my peace. I found myself examining the mail every morning with particular care, then I took to waiting for it anxiously, even waking up half an hour earlier to witness the arrival of the mailman. In the end I had to surrender my principles and arrive at the gates of the Ludwig Pavilion in the guise of an ordinary visitor. The attendants, who knew me well by this time on account of my frequent sojourns at the Ludwig Pavilion, did not recognize me in my mufti - they treated me with extraordinary deference, as a representative of the so-called real world rather than as a once and future lunatic. I was shown with the utmost politeness to the visitor's room by an orderly who only a few weeks before had screamed at me the vilest of epithets simply because I had been late for the evening meal of boiled potatoes and cabbages. I had never been inside the so-called visitor's room before, despite my many visits to the Wilhelminenberg, for no one ever visited me there and it is strictly against my principles to visit anyone else in such a place. We had better leave our friends alone to get on with such affairs as best they can. The room was completely unheated and freezing cold, I did not remove my coat. I sat down on one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs, the same kind that are provided on our side of the Ludwig Pavilion, I thought, the visitors were not provided with any better chairs than the lunatics. There was the usual disgusting odour of disinfectant, boiled potatoes and cabbages, the usual cracked vase of dead flowers and pile of ancient, mouldering magazines. I have often wondered what can be the source of this seemingly endless supply of ancient magazines - the same magazines make their appearance in hospital waiting rooms and medical clinics all over the world, never a new magazine but always only old, boring magazines full of stale news and the faces of famous people whom we have already forgotten. On the top of the pile was an old copy of Das Opernglas with a full-colour photograph of Jeffrey Sunshine on the cover. I was just able to shift this magazine to the bottom of the pile before my friend Elisabeth walked into the room. To my surprise, she no longer wished to talk of her former idol. Without Jeffrey, we were unable to find another topic of conversation, and wasted our time in banal remarks and even more banal embarrassing silences. Undoubtedly, it had been a mistake on my part to visit my friend under such circumstances. I will write to you as soon as my hands are better, she said. It's simply a question of getting control over my hands. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably so that she was unable to hold a pen. It was several weeks before I received a letter from her.
In the end he was no longer able to distinguish between his own life and the various operatic tragedies in which he had played a part, she wrote to me, not from the Ludwig Pavilion but from her house in the country where she had gone to recover from the after-effects of the cure inflicted upon her. He longed for an operatic end to his own personal tragedy, and his death was stage-managed in the most adroit manner. It was to be his absolutely last farewell performance, complete with full costume, flowers, music. He did not foresee the possibility of insects, of blood. There was not much blood but in that climate it does not require much. He did not anticipate that several days might elapse before his elaborate stage-set would be discovered, and so the effect was spoiled, the music had long since ceased to play, the flowers with which he had filled the room were dead and rotten, and he himself had begun to rot. He died listening to his own recording of Artaserse, dressed in the platinum lace coat he had worn so many times for that rôle. His face had been half eaten away by flies, especially around the eyes, but the rose petal mouth was still blooming with unblemished beauty among the glittering swarms.
There was a ridiculous contretemps at the cemetery that I know you would have appreciated. The ground being very damp, the graves are all of the elevated type, the bodies are stacked in cement towers and an elevator is necessary to reach the upper levels. On the day of Jeffrey's funeral the elevator was broken and they wanted to put him in a cold storage vault until it could be repaired, which would have been a matter of several days. I refused to agree to this, as I wanted to return home to Paris - the Florida heat was unbearable to me and the whole situation was threatening to deteriorate to the point of no return. In the event they managed to erect a haphazard scaffolding out of a variety of trestles and tables and so hoisted the coffin into place, not without the imminent danger of the whole thing crashing to the ground at any moment. I had wanted to have music at his graveside, I had hired a violinist for the occasion and a tenor to sing Handel's aria, 'Oh, Sleep', but they did not turn up. I found out later that they had the wrong day.
It was several months before I saw my friend again. She was in the Imperial Café, having just come from a performance at the opera on the Ringstraße, and she had with her a young Spanish soprano who had sung the rôle of Oktavian in Der Rosenkavalier.
LONG FICTION >