Friederike Maria Beer. Gustav Klimt, 1912. Chapter Seven
The car stayed garaged on my boozy nights with Gax, and my sluggish blood needed circulating; anyway, the Lyrique was only a kilometre or so from my office. I consciously took a different route and avoided the Corraterie, now more the stage setting for uninvited archangels than the banal shopping street it was.
Gax was already at our usual table under the newspaper racks, nursing a kyr, smoking his pipe, and looking like that hungover bloke in Degas’ L’Absinthe.
"Ay, Termi,” he called out, “there you are, you old visionary. Seen any archangels lately? By the by, did you know that Mallarmé had visions too? Once when he was down on his luck and hadn’t eaten for days he awoke from a fevered doze to see on his bedside table a fine baked ham with capers, onions, asparagus and roast potatoes, just the way Maman Mallarmé used to make it. In his frenzy he grabbed at it, only to fall out of his bed and sprain his hand, which en route to being sprained clutched at nothing more appetizing than an overflowing ashtray.”
“Better for him than an archangel, roast or raw. At least no one would accuse him of being a religious loony.”
"Just a loony, eh? But that’s all right. He was a poet. Which explains why he smelled it, too. He said the vision kept him going for days, and anyway the pain of the sprained hand eased that of his unfulfilled stomach. So tell me more, Termi. What was he wearing?”
He was in bitter form, the old cynic. After I’d satisfied his curiosity about the Archangel’s wardrobe we went on to empty a pair of bottles of Fendant de Sion over our respective poule des Dombes and lapin rôti à la mode du Valais. Conversation meandered, firing at will. His targets included writer’s block—“Mallarmé and his fucking blank page,” he said, “he started it all, you never heard of writer’s block before that”—as well as the communists; the Muslims; me, en passant, with hypocritical apologies; the Americans; his publishers (especially)who refused to bring out a second edition of The Veil of Bashshar, his most recent story collection and a total flop commercially; his ex-wife Katia; the British; the Swiss-Germans …. Mine? Oh, psychoanalysis, publishers, professors, him, en passant, without apologies…It was good, despite the momentary likelihood of fisticuffs. Moreover, it was what had always happened in our friendship, first falling out and each spending days or weeks brooding on the other’s flaws; then one of us realizing there was nothing for it—there just weren’t better drinking companions anywhere in the twenty-six cantons of the Helvetic Confederation than Guy and Gustave, raved Gax, aggressively—and making the obligatory conciliatory phone call disguised as just one more instalment in the insult sitcom in order to palliate any sign of emotional dependency. He’d called me at the office; I’d responded brusquely. At the restaurant he was the one who was brusque, then, when he thawed, I, going too far, told him about Martine, casually, as if she were a new colleague, or someone I’d met at a cocktail party, implying, indeed, that both were true. He was enthusiastic. I said nothing about her book, however, suspecting that a combination of Nazism and mystics would set him off like a dried-out firecracker.
“A woman, Tavo? A real lady, not a pute? Well done, I say.” He raised his glass. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. But it’s early days yet,” I said, to counteract the unreasoned and unreasonable bubbling of hope I felt racing through my veins.
For two aging bachelors, dining at the Lyrique was the next best thing to dining at home. We knew the waiters; they knew us. Neither they nor we were in any hurry. Shouts and guffaws and occasional intestinal detonations from our table were all taken in good part by the doddering staff (not one under sixty-five) as well as by the other customers, most of whom we knew—most of whom were, in fact, ex-colleagues, or readers, or once-and-future girlfriends. That night, our appetizers lasted a good hour over the first bottle, before old Alphonse, the headwaiter, an asthmatic from Alsace, wheeled over the second bottle and our poule des Dombes and lapin roti. It was a convivial place, the old Lyrique, with its gleaming oak tables, its tall gilt-framed mirrors that were like windows into a deep, pure world consisting entirely of one vast café, its long rows of newspapers on rods hanging side by side in a permanent garde-à-vous, its Gargantuan portions of frites and moules. (Now it’s part of Internet Inns International, known for whizbang Web hookups and complimentary laptops at every table and Gargantuan slices of gooey flavorless cheese-and-tomato pie, laughingly called ‘pizza.’ Oh, where are the cafés of yesteryear?)
Gax was undergoing yet more difficulties with his ex, who was threatening to sue him over something or other, and his latest “novel” was proceeding with crab-like slowness; hence the mockery of the great Mallarmé and his no doubt off-the-cuff remark about “the blank page” and the occasional acerbic remarks about my “humble versifying--very humble.” He reminisced, over our second bottle and a tray of blue cheese—Gex, Bresse, Roquefort—while thanking providence that at our age we still had the stamina for it.
"For all of it, Termi. The reading, the writing, the teaching. The wine, the smoking, the dinners, the long walks by the river in the autumn, the music, the loving, the very waking up in the morning. Life, in a word. It isn’t until you’ve seen the X-rays in the doctor’s office that you begin to realize how real the end is and how near it is and how painful it can be and how fucking awful it’ll be to lose all this.”
He’d had a cancer scare: I remembered. Prostate, or kidney. Anyway, he’d been ordered to stop smoking and drinking, an utter waste of breath on the doctor’s part. One might as well order a politician to stick strictly to the truth, or the bise to stop blowing.
Still, I preferred not to dwell on the old Final End just yet.
“Speaking of doctors, your LeCluyse is a right horror. Pederast, he called me. Pederast.”
I explained. This occasioned much mirth and led, of course, into the past. We revived memories of pederasts of our acquaintance, notably a grimy specimen who stalked his prey in one of the public loos at Cornavin station and a rather absurd teacher at the World Academy named M. Constantin, whose reputation as a man-about-town, complete with leather jacket, red MG, and silver cigarette case, had suffered a fatal blow when he was caught hanging around the boys’ showers once with a Polaroid, from which emerged —it later emerged—snapshots he later tried to sell to potential customers on the seedy streets of the Paquis and Grottes districts. Other memories, seeing these ones enjoying such a successful revival in the mind-theatre, elbowed their way back onstage, as they will in the minds of former soulmates who really have so little else to talk about, bar their own troubles and the multitudinous ways in which the world’s going to hell. Of our trip to London in ’69, for instance, a bibulous night-long train ride across France then the ferry from Calais on a blustery March day and the stirring sight of the White Cliffs and Beachy Head rising through the wind-whipped spume of the Channel; the orderly Kentish farms and oasthouses and the damply green fields outside the rain-streaked train window, and in the aisles of the train an entirely different smell, that of Britain, composed in equal parts of beer, grease, detergent, and puke.
“Remember that landlady?”
“Ah God. Mrs. Wicker?”
“Ah God indeed.”
We’d shared that lubricious solitary, a widow with that particularly English blend of obsequiousness and stand-offishness. At one in the morning on our third night in Earl’s Court she’d scratched at the door of our attic bedchamber and flounced in, superb in a blue chiffon mightdress that strained to conceal the proud shelves of her bum and bosom; “oh, so French, you boys are,” she simpered, brandishing three plastic champagne glasses and a bottle of some Sainsbury’s plonk that passed as Vin de Table. “Swiss, actually,” cut no ice, we Swiss having zero identities beyond our borders, certainly not by comparison to our neighbors and cousins the French (amorous, tetchy, given to aphorism), Italians (amorous, petulant, stylish), or Germans (pedantic, toilet-oriented, easily roused, less easily aroused), from whom we are derived. Even the Dutch have a clearer image abroad (windmills, gin, rosy cheeks). So: “French, of course, mais oui.” And randy as a pair of Cape baboons. Yet unscrupulous about sneaking out two nights later without paying in full: a fiver under an empty glass on the lino’d kitchen table and a note bearing the scrawled word “Adieu,” a quite cinematic and, we’d always hoped, in Mrs. Wicker’s opinion an exquisitely “French” touch.
Later that night, once Gax had hopped on the No. 3 for his ride home, after firing off a parting barrage of insults (“dreamer”; “drunkard”; “fasntasist”; “giant wanker”; etc.), and I’d skimmed off the crest of my drunkenness with a good brisk walk across Place Neuve and down the Rue de Candolle past the sleeping university (well, not quite: two lights on in Anthropology) and so homeward via the Boulevard des Philosophes and puffing and panting up two flights of stairs (the lift was kaput), I fell into bed and before diving into sleep I lay there and listened to my heart stumbling about and thought about Gax’s memento mori: The flesh is weak, and is soon dust. Our memories were visits to a time and place when the heart was steady, the bowels regular, the vision crystal-clear, the libido up and running. Now we were both demi-centenarians, and every day we paid for it. Of course, I could have taken the American route and joined a gym, stopped smoking and drinking, and purchased purple or silver exercise pants; but such buffoonery was not for me. I’d rather pace myself, take the odd walk, think positive thoughts—and get married.
I got around to thinking about Martine again, of course, bed being an obvious place to do that, but I was reeled in from my sleepward slide by such impudence on the part of my free-associating brain: Marriage!? Are you mad? Was there a happier bachelor in Switzerland?
Perhaps. Solitude had become a carapace; its removal would be painful. But it had become, also, a prison; and its removal would spell freedom.
Then my drowsy thoughts wandered to Stefanie von Rothenberg and her second visitation from down below, and I couldn’t help wondering how much of what Martine was passing off as a fictionalized biography was in fact nothing more than a) autobiographical (unlikely, but not impossible) or b) an elaborate tissue of fanciful inventions of her own—the dialogue, of course, had all the flair and fancy of fiction, and she couldn’t have possibly known half the things she wrote about. I even wondered if Stefanie von Rothenberg had ever existed, or if it had been Martine’s little idea of hitting the bestseller lists. If so, she’d failed spectacularly. Yet who would have the nerve to come up with a fresh Hitler squeeze, a new angle on the Fuhrer? And who among us who has lived even a little dares find reality too hard to believe? The mere reality of Hitler himself, engineer of the twelve-year Master Race of sadists, boors, halfwits and bullies, all men of assistant-manager stamp promoted beyond their abilities? Adolf was a marginal, a social castaway, a man marked from birth for failure as absolute as the success a perverse destiny initially awarded him. A man who, I had always believed—and Martine’s little book supported this belief, so far—was nothing more, really, than an Austrian petit-bourgeois of inferior intellect thrust into the midst of extraordinary events and times that he had the native instincts to exploit for his own purposes. The combed and pomaded hair, the stiff mannerisms, the fussy little tash, the fulsome and tacky ceremonialism, the idiotic racial and dietary theories taken from half-digested books by crackpots, the long afternoon teas and their lavish helpings of torte mit schlag and other toothsome bürgerlich delicacies: all of it pure undiluted mitteleuropäischer kitsch. And Herr Hitler is with us still, behind the desk at many a frontier post; at the wheel of many a city bus in Maubeuge, Bologna, and Aachen; in the assistant-manager’s office in the offset printing plants and auto-parts shops of Seville and Rennes and Glasgow; in the gymnasiums and schoolrooms of Yekaterinburg and Lisbon and Oslo; in the dreary cubicles of educational publishers and chambers of commerce in Hamburg and Livorno and Birmingham. And I speak only of Europe. His like are legion, and they are worldwide, and God grant that another such never walks through a gap in space and time and picks up where nasty little Adi left off.