I’d been half an hour or so in the Café de Rive, at a marble table in the corner, tea and a sugar cube in front of me, à la russe, waiting for the lady, and feeling that spasmodic stirring of stomach butterflies that most men my age have long since consigned to distant youthful memories of courtship.I gazed meditatively through the veil of my cigarette smoke like the ulcer-ridden hero of an expressionist novel. In between jags of worrying about how my date would go, I thought about Stefanie and her Adolf—or rather, mostly about Adolf, and how even a repulsive scrap of human misanthropy like that had a childhood, a boyhood, a youth, and how even he tried to impress the girls, in his cock-eyed wanker’s way, very much as I had done, in my pre-college days, with similar sartorial absurdities, right down to a silver-topped cane, my version of which had been leaning against the corner of one of Mamma’s closets for about thirty years. Too, in the meandering of my thoughts there was Stefanie’s vision of he who called to mind the stables of the Salzkammergut, quite clearly the cloven one, or someone cleverly disguised as him, or a hallucination…what did I mean, or? If it wasn’t a hallucination, it was the real thing, and if it was the real thing all that religious rubbish—everything my rational, Italo-Swiss mind had excluded over the years—was all true. Yes: true. It was as simple as that. This line of thinking disturbed me, and I told her so when she arrived within thirty seconds of absolute punctuality (a good sign).
“Oh I don’t know,” she said. It was a breezy day, and her hair was in slight disarray, and there were wind-blushes on her cheekbones. She sat down and patted her hair into place and adjusted her glasses and coolly looked me over with that slight head-tilt of hers, wondering perhaps if my precipitate launch into deep matters was a sign of endearing seriousness or dangerous eccentricity. “An espresso,” to the waiter, then: “I feel quite certain that von Rothenberg saw what she said she saw. I’m just not sure that anyone else could have seen it.”
“And thus we have the foundation of all religions,” I said. “How convenient for them.” (I decided against bringing up my vision, such as it was, for at that early stage few things, I imagined, could be better calculated to scare off a lady of evident breeding than an aging self-described poet telling her in all seriousness that he’d just seen the Archangel Michael.)“They all think they see what they say they see, don’t they? Muhammad the illiterate camel trader taking dictation from the Angel Gabriel. Peter on his way out of Rome, then HOP, there’s the Lord Himself: ‘Quo vadis, Domine?’ ‘Eo Romam iterum crucifigi,’ wasn’t that it? And the rest of Peter’s story, told from an upside-down cross. And St. Francis and his visions of the Virgin and Child; and Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross…”
“I see you’ve done your research. Are you a theologian as well?”
“Like your heroine Stefanie? Perish the thought. A humble historian and occasional versifier, no more.”
Her espresso came; she eyed the ashtray with a certain wistfulness. I responded to the signal like Pavlov’s dog to the dinner bell.
“Oh, may I? I’m trying to quit. Last week was my fortieth birthday, and I thought it would be a good way to celebrate.”
“If it makes you feel better. If not, it’s really just giving in to social pressure. But that’s just my opinion,” I added, aware that I’d already jeopardized our relationship by in effect accusing her of having no convictions of her own. But she smiled and inhaled gratefully after I passed her my lighter.
“You’re right. And it was ill health, as a matter of fact. I had a touch of bronchitis. The Geneva climate,” she said. “Not social pressure. I try to resist that, not that one always can. Well, take my book for example, as long as you’ve been so kind as to mention it.” She was animated, and ready to talk, once she’d assessed me as being (I hoped) essentially harmless, even interesting, if bizarre—anyway, a woman of a certain age should like a man with his own opinions on things, or she’s learned little from life. And ifa man my age doesn’t have his own opinions on things, he’s learned nothing at all. I sat back.
“It was an uphill battle getting funding for the research, I can tell you,” she told me. “Nothing about the project appealed to the trendies at the station…I work for the TSR1 TV channel, by the way.”
I nodded knowingly.
“Yes, so it says on the jacket of your book.”
“Oh, so it does. Anyway, they wouldn’t hear of any of it. A book on mysticism? Hitler? An Austrian aristocrat? I tried to make a feeble case that von Rothenberg was an inspiration to feminists, living in sin with a man like…”
I held up a restraining hand.
“Please. I’ve only read the first two chapters. Don’t give anything away.”
“Oh, sorry. Well, anyway, that line of argument led nowhere, so in the end I had to refinance my apartment just in order to take time off the job and spend a few weeks poking around in Austria and Germany.”
This led down an agreeable byway of chitchat about Geneva’s surfeited and corrupt real estate market, one in which we agreed we were both lucky to own our apartments—a deft way, by the way, of learning where she lived, and how. Alone, it turned out, except for a poodle, in an apartment in the Parc de Budé, that elegant enclave of sixties-modern comfort, a stone’s throw from the United Nations, in the quiet, leafy heart of that other Geneva we natives regarded with disdain and envy in equal measure, and which is the only Geneva the world knows. I knew it from my affianced days; Françoise, my ex, had taught the autistic son of a South American diplomat there, and, young and filled with sap and vigor as I’d been, I’d made numerous clandestine late-night visits for amorous purposes, taking the service lift up to the South Americans’ (Argentinians, I think) so as not to run into the concierge…. Anyway, Martine, as the elder of two sisters, had acquired the flat from her mountain-climbing father after his death in a blizzard on the Aiguilles du Midi in 1995. Her mother, remarried a couple of years previously, lived in Pakistan with her Pakistani husband, whom she’d met at the Curry Pot on the Rue du Mont-Blanc. She had severed nearly all connections with home, allegedly on the insistence of her new Muslim in-laws.
“My sister, who lives in Paris, refuses to say a word to her, but she still talks to me, reluctantly. ‘Have you married again?’ she asks. ‘Are you still drinking wine?’ ‘Are you still an unbeliever?’ Very boring. Very sad.”
A lost cause, I agreed. But as for Jeanrenaud père, well now he must have been quite the dynamo, I said.
“Mountains and precipices and sheer rock faces? Dramatic stuff, I mean.”
“It always terrified me. I once watched him rappel down the face of El Capitan, in California. Sheer rock face, hundreds of meters high..I had nightmares for months after. I still do, in fact. That experience alone did me in. I don’t even like to take the téléférique up the Saleve.”
“Awkward, being Swiss and not liking mountains.”
“Oh, but I’m Genevese, not Swiss. Anyway, I love mountains, but from a distance. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”
Ah, indeed. Now we were getting somewhere. We had laid the essential groundwork, and the systole and diastole of a burgeoning human relationship could begin: the sudden swells and slow diminutions, the anxiety of a moment of silence and its inevitable termination in simultaneous outbursts of speech; the lingering gaze not lingering too long lest it degenerate into ogling and the whole thing turn into a boy’s (or girl’s) one-night stand; the avoidance, in the early stages, of too much reminiscence. But we were on firm ground with Rousseau, I felt, and thought, accurately as it turned out, that to Martine he was more than just the name on a few plaques around town. Indeed, she had read all his work, and had in the end rejected his humid ramblings in favor of the crisper, drier climate of Voltaire.
“All our modern ills stem from Rousseau,” she said. “He invented modern totalitarianism. You can’t have an effective dictatorship without some high-minded ideology to justify it, and there was never a higher-minded ideologue than our precious Jean-Jacques. And what he did with his children doesn’t bear thinking of! I’m having another espresso. More tea?”
I assented. We’d been talking for an hour and a half, and the awkward intermissions were fewer and fewer. It was half five when we left, she to meet a colleague at the TV building, I to do some late afternoon exam-marking in my office before meeting Gax for a no-doubt fractious dinner at eight.
After a desultory hour’s work in restraining the worst excesses of my students’ ignorance, I sat at my desk and smoked and gazed out at the rooftops and the sky from which the gray dusk was leeching the blue, and thought with a pleasant little upjump of the heart of Martine Jeanrenaud, and said thinking led me on the narrow track of my thoughts to Stefanie von Rothenberg; so, with an hour or more to go before my dinner engagement, I settled back, poured a Fendant from the half-empty bottle under my desk,and went on with the life of a Nazi mystic and her fearful gift (and her even more fearful beau).
The Garden of Earthly Delight. Hieronymus Bosch, 1504.