Love and Death on Long Island (2 page)

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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Concurrently with this (all very relative) rise to celebrity, I started writing again. Not fiction – that period seemed to have reached an end – but works that were not easily definable offhand, libraries tending to catalogue them either under Philosophy or Art Criticism. The most esteemed of these had been a history of angels – which is to say, a history of the representation of angels in all the arts but particularly in painting. Into the prose of this long essay – whose premise, crudely put, was that only by aspiration to and concourse with some form of the super-natural (a word I invariably hyphenate) was the artist able to create out of the humility that is, or should be, his natural state and essence – there had come a sweetness of descriptive colouring and a near-morbid refinement of expression for which nothing else I had written would have prepared the reader: more than one
critic approvingly cited Pater's
The Renaissance
. It was, to be sure, no less ‘dated' in conception and style than my earlier volumes. But the period in which it was published was infected by that febrile eclecticism of taste that is peculiar to every
fin de siècle
and had no difficulty accommodating what it interpreted as a wilful and even ‘postmodern' archaism on my part. Its reception was such, in consequence, that my latest book could lay claim to rather more than the tepid aura of anticipation that had always been my lot.

To this work I had given the title
The Gentrification of the Void
. It was a title that procured me a certain secret euphoria – the more so as I had arrived at it almost by chance since the one I had previously intended to use and which now struck me as pompous and overdeter-mined,
The Death of the Future
, had initially been rejected only because of what would have been the infelicitous proximity on the book's jacket of the word ‘death' with my own absurd surname. Coincidentally, the work itself, due to be published imminently, was a reflection on precisely the phenomenon of postmodernism and was already attracting a degree of pre-publication curiosity by virtue of its modish subject matter. And even if anyone at all conversant with the hauteur and austerity of my thought would know that such a book must bear scant resemblance to the racy, jargon-strewn productions that the postmodern movement had already inspired, the fashionableness of my theme in conjunction with the revived prestige of my name was so potent that, a few weeks before taking that walk down Fitzjohn's Avenue, I had been rung up by my agent with the news that a certain expensive, trend-setting magazine for men
(of which I had never heard) was interested in buying the serialisation rights.

For my agent the call had been made out of duty. But, to his astonishment, I consented to the request. Why, I could scarcely have said. Money was not a primary consideration – though, as I told myself, I knew of no strong reason for refusing it. But such a sale would, above all, afford me almost mischievous gratification at the thought of how dismayed the magazine's editor would be when he received a proof copy and discovered that what he had purchased could not be further removed from all those horribly trumped-up articles, riddled with clichés as with cancerous cells, on the supposed postmodern properties of television advertisements and record sleeves and neo-classical insurance offices in the City, articles that I had felt obliged to read before starting my own essay. I had never sought easy acclaim and did not resent in the least having never attained it. But I would have been less than human were I not capable of taking a mildly gleeful pleasure in being offered the chance of wrongfooting that world which I so despised -and also of making a not inconsiderable sum of money.

I did not have very long to wait for my worst suspicions to be confirmed. A week or so after a proof of my book had been sent to the magazine in question, its features editor telephoned me to ask in a languorously incurious voice whether I would be so good as to suggest a passage suitable for extraction. I was polite and quite unforthcoming. Perhaps, I answered drily, if he were actually to read the book instead of, as had plainly been the case, just leafing through it with a solicitously professional eye, he might be capable of arriving at a
decision without the author's assistance. Apparently unashamed by this rebuke to his competence – a traditional one for such an exchange, after all, and which he had no doubt heard before – the editor languidly mumbled something about having not wanted to misrepresent my thesis then all but hung up on me.

I placed the receiver down with a smile. The first round had gone to me. What did it matter which passage they chose for publication? No one would read it – or anyway finish it. And I had been able to prove that the world still boasted a small cluster of souls, poet-spokesmen, mandarins – yes, unrepentantly so! – who had not capitulated to the debased values of a society for which art was a mere commodity, as marketable and reproducible as another, a society in which, as I liked to say to my Cambridge friends, in one of the very rare witticisms that had ever been attributed to me, writers did not write, they processed words.

From that point onwards I should have forgotten all about the incident had not the same languid young man telephoned again a few days later, this time with the suggestion that only if accompanied by a personal interview with its author could the extract be (here, the features editor momentarily racked his brains before hitting on the
mot juste)
contextualised.

With a hint of tartness in my voice I replied that I never gave interviews. The editor persisted. Ignorant, however, of his interlocutor both as an artist and as a private individual, he at first botched his chance. His pitifully vulgar endeavours to flatter me fell so far wide of the mark they only strengthened me in my resolve. The conversation sputtered on thus for several minutes
with my being barely able to fit a word in edgeways but none the less determined to draw the line at granting an interview; until the editor, as though in acknowledgement of the inevitable outcome and ceasing to feel too concerned with the poor impression he was about to leave on the man whose vanity he had been so actively caressing, delivered himself of a curt comment on writers who take the concentration camps for their theme (a coarse perversion of the generally understated way in which the memory of the Holocaust had been interpolated into my novels) and then decline to emerge from their secure and soundproofed ivory towers in NW3.

The reproach was no less clumsily phrased and philistine than the preceding flattery had been, but to an extent that the editor could not realise I was stung by the words ‘ivory tower'. I had, as I have already intimated, neither regret nor nostalgia for the great humming world of business and letters and the wheels and deals by which it turns. Yet, equally so, I had travelled more in that world, further afield, too, than my detractors suspected, and the notion that I lived in an ivory tower struck me as most offensive and unjust. A few months back, when that American academic had brought out his paper on the first person singular that was so famously missing in my work, it distressed me more than I cared to admit (for I myself had remained unaware of such a compulsion). It incited me to wonder whether, on an incomparably more exalted plane, the artist in me did not resemble the sort of poor devil obliged to consult his doctor on the matter of a sordid physical affliction and to pretend shamefacedly to speak on behalf of some imaginary third party; to wonder, indeed, whether I might not accurately
ascribe to pride, and to pride alone, the fact that I had sought so airless and inaccessible a path to self-fruition.

Immediately cutting through the editor's incoherent prattle with a weary ‘Oh very well, yes', I stated that I would agree to be interviewed, but for no longer than an hour and at the hour of my choice – in my own house -on the following Sunday afternoon. This last proviso represented my sole remaining concession to a quite undiminished hostility towards the magazine and all its works. By fixing on a Sunday, for me a day that dawned no differently from any other, it had been my puerile intention simply to blight the weekend of some as yet unsuspecting journalist.

During the next three days – the conversation had taken place on a Thursday – I found my attention obstinately, distractingly, straying to the interview (the first I had ever submitted to in my career) and what my expectations of it ought reasonably to be. Would my interviewer, whose name had meant nothing to me, be just as unsavoury an individual as his superior? Would he even have read the book? Or, on the contrary, would he turn out to be surprisingly intelligent and well informed, as somewhere in my mind, with an obscure stirring of premature and rather paradoxical resentment, I started to think might be the case? In fact I prepared myself for wellnigh every eventuality save the one which did come to pass. The journalist stood me up.

At the exact hour of the appointment, three o'clock, I was in my study, sitting at a spacious writing desk by the half-open window and irritably scanning the
Telegraph
, over the top of whose pages I would glance up at the square marble-framed dial of the clock on the
mantelpiece. A half-hour later, now positively quaking with fury (more especially as, it being a Sunday, I could not even ring up the editor to announce that such professional irresponsibility had forced me to call the interview off), I found I was unable to remain calm for more than ten or twenty seconds at a time. Then, when yet another three-quarters of an hour had elapsed (for I was still rational enough to allow for an initial misunderstanding in the hour arranged for the interview), and my wrath was fuelled by the now completely irrational conviction that the abortive rendezvous had been a trick deliberately perpetrated on me by the magazine's features editor, that I in short had been the wrongfooted one, I brusquely cast aside the newspaper I held in my hand, left the study, gathered up an overcoat and woollen scarf and, stepping into the cheerless damp air of a Sunday afternoon in early autumn, began that agitated and directionless stroll that would ultimately lead me, almost as though my very willpower had been paralysed, to no. 43A Fitzjohn's Avenue.

Nearby, a church bell had just chimed five times, and in the distance there was a wheezing, faint and ethereal, of what sounded like bagpipes. Having had my fill of the lonely palm tree, I was only now made aware that my own solitude was less absolute than I had supposed. There was no more traffic than before along the roadway itself. But a little further down the street, on the pavement opposite, a man in a drab fawn raincoat stood talking into a cellular telephone, quite alone and unabashed, as though he were enclosed by the traditional
glass-walled booth. On my own side of the street, a young couple, most likely out on a routine, time-honoured Sunday afternoon walk, idly advanced towards me. They were preceded by a child, a three- or four-year-old of, from where I was standing, indeterminate gender, secured to its mother by a miniature lead and harness that fitted across its body. Just as I happened to look up in their direction the scampering child took a tumble and fell down hard on the pavement. For a moment or two, in anguish, it examined the two little scraped palms of its upturned hands; and at that stage of the crisis there still seemed a chance of warding off the cloudburst. Even so far away, however, I could already see the little one's innocent brow darken (as though the message that it had been hurt was at last reaching its brain) and its features suddenly crumple up. The tap had been opened, the squall could not now be long delayed and it wanted only that strange, childlike stay of execution, that instant of poised and expectant suspension, tempting one to conjecture that a child's tears must first travel along a tiny pipeline, for a loud howl to burst forth from the depths of its being.

Now the palm tree, now this infant's fall, the course of which I had tracked with a dry, detached sort of interest: I decided it was time to resume my walk and, if possible, to start getting some enjoyment out of it. I passed the young couple as the child was being comforted, her two palms (I could now observe that it was a little girl) being kissed in turn by her father, and I permitted myself a sympathetic smile and attempted a slightly self-conscious tut-tutting noise with my tongue. I also passed, without manifesting any especial curiosity,
the man in the fawn raincoat who was still speaking into his queerly shaped telephone on the other side of the street. I passed others out strolling, more and more of them, for Fitzjohn's Avenue had meanwhile changed its name and become less residential, less conspicuously the reserve of a solid middle class. I noticed newsagents and launderettes and Chinese restaurants, and stopped to peer with lazy inquisitiveness into the window of a lone bookshop, which had been given over exclusively to devotional tracts by some rather dubious Indian and Tibetan mystics. And all the while, gnawing away at my peace of mind, there was the interview and the journalist who had failed to appear and the realisation that if I had always refused interviews in the past – over the years there had come odd, irregular requests – it was with the intention, one day, of granting The Interview, the ‘unique, exclusive interview', as I fancied the journal in question would announce it, in which, lofty yet unpres-umptuous, remote yet with a sly, sideways candour, eloquent yet never less than approachably human, I would finally, at a period when my reputation had nothing more either to gain or lose, unburden myself of the secrets of my productive energy. Instead of which, here I was, tramping the streets like a jilted lover!

Walking on thus – not at a heightened pace, as it may deceptively have seemed to me, but at the same speed as before, it being those now more numerous pedestrians crossing my path who left me with the impression of moving appreciably more briskly, the way a motionless train will be endowed with illusory movement by an adjacent one slowly edging out of the station – I found myself at a forked intersection and began to wonder
whether I should think of retracing my steps or go on until I had outgrown my childish ill humour. But the decision was almost immediately made for me. As I stood irresolutely rooted to the spot it started to rain. A minute or so later the gutters were running freely, raindrops were skittering off the pavement at my feet and my fellow strollers had drawn mackintoshes up over their heads and were scrambling for cover.

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
12.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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