Many of his buds failed to bloom.
— André Gide
Twenty years after his younger brother Kevin’s suicide, and one year after meeting Kevin’s friend Wayne Koestenbaum, with whom he’s now involved, Steve, a retired architect living in Berkeley, sits down to write about why Kevin, an English professor at The University of Iowa, killed himself in Miami, why Kevin was unable to finish his book on Proust (also called Finishing Proust), and what the book would have been like. (Ironically enough, it would have concerned Proust’s inability to complete In Search of Lost Time, as well as related disabilities.) Steve also wants to write about what, if anything, he himself had to do with either the death or the failure. But having never really written before Steve is unsure how to proceed, and so thinks about models to emulate, fiction by Nabokov and Salinger and nonfiction by Walter Benjamin in particular. (Ironically enough, literary influence would have been one of Kevin’s themes.) Such reflection leads him to consider what it may mean to be a serious reader — one thing he and Kevin had in common. They’re also both gay, both pianists, and both opera fans.
Steve recalls visiting Kevin’s Iowa City home shortly after the death and “reading various runes” there: an important Proust passage left open on the desk in his study, a Ronald Firbank novel left there as well, photographs of their parents, and messages on Kevin’s answering machine (one of them from David Sorel, a man who’d broken Kevin’s heart). Thinking about that room leads Steve to imagine Kevin’s “other empty room” — his hotel room in Miami — and to analyze clues that might have been there. It also leads him to describe his own room in Berkeley, a second-floor solarium in which he’s sitting at that very desk and looking at a photograph of the two of them as children. Kevin’s piano, Steve recalls, is downstairs, leading him to remember another Iowa clue: the score to a Schubert duet he’d left on the instrument.
After mulling over various Proustian themes that concern his writing project — where one’s reading duties begin, where they end, different ways of reading (self-discovery, escape, etc.) — Steve, using annotation form, describes the shock of reading Kevin’s journal shortly after that Iowa City visit. In it, not only does Kevin indicate both the demise of his relationship with David and his realization that his Proust book is radically flawed, he implicates Steve as well. The final journal entry, which Steve thinks of as a suicide note, reads: “Will Steve ever know he was the key, if only the wrong key?” “Imagine how furious I was,” Steve remarks. “Kevin had just killed himself. I’d had to deal with his property. I had to deal with his intellectual property. I now had to deal with our having been more romantically involved than I’d ever suspected. I have my own life to live, I said to myself. I have my own problems.” As a result, he decided to go ahead and live that life leaving Kevin aside.
Steve, still using annotation, summarizes the next twenty years of that life (“such as they were”) and indicates why he finally cared to understand the “suicide note.” In that period of time, he lost both parents (the father Steve was close to, the mother he wasn’t — unlike Kevin), his only other sibling (Maureen, a considerably older sister), his only real friend (Tina Jensen, a considerably older neighbor), and his one true love: Paul Feuerman, a younger man who, like David Sorel, had broken his heart by leaving him for another man. (Steve also met an architect named Steve Marchetti, not knowing he was Wayne Koestenbaum’s partner. He also read a lot of Henry James.) Left feeling equally bereft, lovelorn, and suicidal, Steve finally empathizes with Kevin and so undertakes to research and write his own Finishing Proust — and to find further fraternal connections.
Steve describes his first step in that process: meditative sleuthing through Kevin’s publications and drafts thereof. Not finding many references to himself there, he performed “symptomatic” readings of references to other brothers, of references to mothers, of references to various kinds of failure, of various omissions (both deliberate and inadvertent), and of Kevin’s (non-Proustian) writing styles (both public and private). He also wondered whether the publications predict the suicide. In the course of this work, Steve came to recognize other things he and Kevin had in common, including that they’re both competitive men with the “mother-engendered performance anxiety” Kevin seems to have recognized on an unconscious level, that they read the same way, and that they both hate simile. Steve’s own unconscious, in a dream, told him something important his “symptomatic” readings couldn’t: that Kevin saw him as sexy. And so he “finally knew where the romantic involvement began — or where it ended.”
After mulling over various “deconstructive” themes that concern both brothers’ projects — speech versus writing, metaphor versus simile — Steve describes his next step: meditative sleuthing through Kevin’s Finishing Proust materials, which consist of books, articles, notebooks, note cards, and marginal notations. The description is a more or less deliberate attempt on Steve’s part to write the study Kevin couldn’t finish: a critical analysis of why Proust couldn’t finish In Search of Lost Time, why various writers (Walter Benjamin and Richard Howard) couldn’t finish translating the entire novel, and why various writers (André Gide and Virginia Woolf) couldn’t finish reading it. There are, however, numerous interpolated remembrances of Steve’s own things past — in particular, increasingly kind remembrances of his mother. And there are various interpolated remarks on other fraternal connections. But in the end, Steve still doesn’t really understand why he was “the wrong key” to his brother’s suicide. So he decides to contact Wayne Koestenbaum, the friend on whom Kevin clearly had the same kind of “critical crush” Benjamin, Howard, Gide, and Woolf had on Proust, and who both the publications and Proust materials indicate may know the answer to the question.
Steve meets Wayne for coffee in his Manhattan apartment, where he learns that Steve Marchetti (now dead) had been his lover; perceives that Wayne is equally interested in him; discovers a thing or two about Wayne’s perception of Kevin; hears a bit about David Sorel; discusses Nabokov; is told that the question of “the wrong key” is unanswerable, as are all such questions; and — needless to say — falls in love. And so Steve so finally connects to another living person, as opposed to dead ones like Kevin and Proust. This, of course, is what most serious readers may need to do — stop reading, although Steve doesn’t fully realize this at the time. Incidentally, the chapter marks the first real dialogue in the novel, a more or less inadvertent indication on Steve’s part of the connection’s significance.
After mulling over Wayne’s style of speech, nearly identical to his writing style, Steve describes (in the present tense) his recent trip to Miami, where Kevin killed himself, and where Steve hopes to finally “forgive” his brother — which is not, of course, what he really needs to do. The Salinger “intertext” here is intense, partly because Steve’s situation is nearly identical to that of Buddy Glass, and partly because he doesn’t realize he should stop reading. He’s alone. He’s depressed. Involuntary memories of his final phone conversation with Kevin, of their final meeting, and of Kevin as a child on this very beach — the last one an involuntary memory that occasions the kind of “intermittency of the heart” made famous by Proust — make him even more depressed. But then, partly because he encounters a ghost from Paul Feuerman’s past (the other man Paul left him for), he has an epiphany:
Maybe I shouldn’t figure out why Kevin killed himself, just as he shouldn’t have realized he was in love with me, or that I’d been a false key. Maybe I can’t figure it out. Some knowledge is unbearable — truth too painful to incorporate. Some is simply irretrievable — truth no one knows. (Not even Kevin, perhaps.) And some is incapacitating, counter-productive — like reading too much Proust. Which is to say that certain kinds of ignorance, certain kinds of conscious ignorance, are productive.
He flies home in a much better frame of mind, thinking of Wayne and realizing that his life, for the first time in a long time, is unmediated by anything he’s ever read.
Steve describes a trip he and Wayne just took to Paris, where they see the bed in which Proust (never) finished In Search of Lost Time; where they encounter a ghost from both their pasts (a cruiser who resembles Kevin); and where Wayne delivers an important lecture on mourning. It’s also where Steve alone finally visits Proust’s grave, astonished yet happy to discover that he and his own younger brother, Robert, are buried together.
I’ve never recovered from my older brother’s suicide twenty years ago. Nor have I stopped writing literary criticism that may revolve around him, structures of which he is an absent center. This story — or if not story, novel — is an attempt both to recover and to stop. It’s also a reading of a fraternal friendship, done with that friend’s consent.
These, of course, are personal matters, and other aspects of Finishing Proust, or the composition thereof, are even more personal. By making the narrator the brother and having him write twenty years from now about my suicide, I’ve articulated several intensely private fantasies: that Steve isn’t dead, that I’ve been punished for killing him, that he’s paying the amorous attention I’d always wanted, and that he’s paying the mournful attention I’ve had to — all of which raise the related questions, why publish such a book and why read it.
One answer is that readers recovering from similar traumas may find my fantasies instructive. Another is that the book has public — or literary, or literary critical — concerns as well: concerns which, depending upon your personal experience, may or may not present themselves as inspired by mine and which, to cite Wayne Koestenbaum, “sublimate abjection.” I investigate what it means to be bookish: to be a reader whose life is mediated by literature (including, in particular, the literature of Marcel Proust), by literature about literature (including, in particular, Roland Barthes), and even by nonliterary culture. I investigate not so much the anxiety of influence, whether literary or literary critical, as the imagination of influence that writers experience. I investigate the erotic character of both literature and the literature about literature we call criticism: why writers have crushes on one another (including a certain critic’s crush on my friend Wayne), and why these influential crushes represent readerly mediations. I investigate the subjective character of criticism, including criticism that claims to be objective. I investigate its unconscious character, primarily by doing symptomatic readings of, if not myself, then of the “best” self (to cite myself), maybe even the “true” self (to cite Proust), articulated in my previous work. I also investigate critical truth per se.
As fiction, however, Finishing Proust attempts something other than investigation, especially the sophisticated investigation most critics prefer. For example, by making the narrator an architect, which Steve would have been, rather than such a critic, I’ve enabled myself to write about what it’s like to write criticism (having never done it before, “Steve” is very self-conscious); to validate the emotional intelligence these critics consider naive; and to be both common-sensible and theoretically astute — to explore, say, why ordinary people (to whom even the words “mediation,” “influence,” “readerly,” and “symptomatic” sound like jargon) read and write in addition to deconstructing how we do. And instead of investigation, I’ve attempted demonstration. I didn’t just write about what it’s like to write criticism, or about what it means to be bookish, I tried to show it — to invoke the novelistic motto, “show, don’t tell.” In other words, I’ve moved beyond my last three “performative” and increasingly novelistic books: from performative to performance, from novelistic to novel. Or if not novel, story. Of course, having written autobiographical fiction — a prospective fantasy, not a retrospective one — I was mainly interested in showing what it’s like to be me, which, although egocentric, is all I really know, to the extent I do know it, or that my symptomatic readings are sufficiently accurate and extensive. It also happens to have been what mainly interested Proust, who knew and demonstrated so much more.
But I’m not sure you’re about to read Proustian fiction. True, I’ve chosen to describe loss. True, I’ve emulated Proust’s indeterminate form. (“Novel?, essay?,” writes Barthes: “Neither one, or both at once.”) True, I’ve written about a book “Steve” didn’t write. And true, I’ve attempted “teleogenesis,” a word he’ll explain. Yet Finishing Proust is non-Proustian in that it’s in search of a lost future, not a remembrance of things past. It’s non-Proustian in that the form, which involves lengthy citation, emulates Walter Benjamin as well. It’s non-Proustian in that the style is minimalist, not loquacious. It’s non-Proustian in that neither of the books I didn’t write — conventional criticism; fictional criticism narrated by “Kevin” — is the one “Steve” won’t. And it’s non-Proustian in that I haven’t died writing it.
That’s all I really know about the book, maybe all I can know at this point. There is, of course, more to say. One might, for example, address its reading of a love affair, done with that partner’s consent. One might address its reading of a filial relationship, done without that parent’s. One might decide if it attempts too much, or too little. But I’m afraid you’ll have to be the one to do so, because, for me at least, some things — this thing needs to end.
– 1 –
My younger brother’s next book would have been on Marcel Proust.
Wayne says this was expected. My brother’s book on romantic love ends by suggesting that Roland Barthes wanted to be Proust: “The homosexuality of a writer who, to cite one gay signifier among many, sees himself as Proust, goes without saying.” His book on the “piano queen” begins with an epigraph from Sodom and Gomorrah: “Who would ever have detected that the rapid, nervous, charming style with which M. de Charlus played the Schumannesque passage of Fauré’s sonata had its equivalent — one dare not say its cause — in elements entirely physical, in the Baron’s nervous weaknesses?” (The translation is by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.) His book on Vaslav Nijinsky cites Time Regained: “The true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.” (Same translation.) It cites “Shéhérazade” as well, a poem by Wayne:
An Egyptian fag / dangles from the rouged lips / of Reynaldo Hahn — in Proust’s bed — / humming “Si mes vers avaient des ailes.” / Nothing I can write will have / such wings.
Wayne, of course, is Wayne Koestenbaum, whose book on the opera queen, which I read upon publication, anticipated Kevin’s related venture. But I didn’t know Wayne at the time. I never even met him — or arranged to meet him — until a year ago, which was just about twenty years after Kevin killed himself. It took me that long to care to understand the suicide note. It also took me that long to read the piano queen book, which is what, along with the “Shéhérazade” cite, made me think Wayne could help. In it, Kevin writes: “We all spend a lot of time trying — and failing — to distinguish identification from desire. Like Wayne Koestenbaum, we all ask ourselves questions like, ‘Am I in love with Julie Andrews, or do I think I am Julie Andrews?'” I knew Kevin knew Wayne. I wondered whether he was in love with Wayne as well, or whether he wanted to be him. If so, I wondered whether Kevin had told him so. I also wondered whether he’d told him everything he couldn’t tell me.
“Rouged lips.” I suppose they’d have been rougeâtres, not roussâtres.
Although I know what I want to do here — say things about literature, fraternity, and loss; commemorate the Proust project — I’ve been unsure how to do it. Having never written a book, I’m intimidated by ones I’ve read, which is why I listened to my recording of Khovanshchina last night. (Not that I’m either intimidated or inspired by books I haven’t read, or haven’t read completely.) I thought it would inspire me to begin this because I remember Kevin, along with other Yale Russian Chorus alumni, singing in the New York Opera Orchestra’s 1981 Carnegie Hall performance of the work (conducted by Eve Queller) and because, like that performance, the recording (by Claudio Abbado) features the Shostakovich orchestration. (Mussorgsky died before writing the finale — the Old Believers’ mass suicide — and scoring the opera, tasks unsuccessfully undertaken by Rimsky-Korsakov and successfully undertaken by Shostakovich.) But I was struck — and forestalled — by a discrepancy I’d never noticed before: a discrepancy between Queller’s conclusion, which was bombastic, and Abbado’s. Having mulled it over earlier this morning and reviewed the liner notes, I now know that Mussorgsky had wanted both Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina to end by dying away into silence — an intention neither Rimsky-Korsakov nor Shostakovich realized but that Stravinsky had. (Stravinsky redid the finale in 1913 for Serge Diaghilev, a version Abbado was the first to record.) And I’m now struck — but not forestalled — by the fact that Swann’s Way also appeared in 1913, by the fact that I may be playing Rimsky-Korsakov to someone else’s Shostakovich, or Shostakovich to someone else’s Stravinsky — although I don’t know who that would be, apart from Wayne, and by the fact that Kevin’s books, too, die away into silence — although I don’t know whether Finishing Proust would have, or that this one should.
The final lines are: “I’ve always heard the ‘jinx’ and ‘djinn’ in ‘Nijinsky,’ always loved the ‘iji,’ the three dotted letters ‘i’ and ‘j’ and ‘i’ all in a row, the ‘sky’ in Nijinsky, too, and I believe the name is magical” (The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky, citing Wayne again); “I’d like to think of this trouble-free, cross-sex cathexis as the key to Liberace’s queer success — and as the not-so-secret secret of his self-satisfaction” (Beethoven’s Kiss); and, “This is neither the time nor the place to address these propositions” (Love’s Litany). You’ll have to contextualize the lines to feel them die away into silence. And as this is the time to mention it, Kevin seems to have loved all Wayne’s “skies.” Or so I infer from the final lines of a book review he titled “Tawdrily, I Adore Him.” Kevin writes:
Koestenbaum begins The Queen’s Throat with a primal scene:
“The first opera I ever saw: Aida. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, 1969. I was eleven. By the last act I was exhausted, bored. All I remember now is the color of the sky above the Nile — beyond midnight blue, a shade redolent of witchcraft and spice.”
“In childhood, I stored all my programs in a crate. Recently I found that first opera program: the Radames was Jon Vickers. Only now do I appreciate the name’s weight and valor. A house’s foundation, even if invisible, exists — has once, long ago, without witnesses, been poured. And so as I try to compose this fragmented history, I must begin with my first Aida, unremembered except for the high blue sky.”
I’m haunted by the expression “high blue sky.” For some ineffable reason, I see it as a transcendental signifier of the book it sets in motion. Perhaps Koestenbaum knows why. Perhaps not — he’d have to know himself better than he (says he) does. He’d also have to know me better than I do. Needless to say, I can’t really help him with the first requirement. (This review is the best I can do, I’m afraid.) But I can help him with the second (do you read me, Wayne?) by describing a primal scene I’ve never understood — and hope he can.
The first opera I ever saw: The Marriage of Figaro. The New York State Theater, 1967. I was seven, and wore a tuxedo — rented, of course, not for the occasion, but for my sister’s wedding, which had taken place the day before. All I remember now is a single line of recitative, sung (in English) by the Countess. Or to be precise, all I remember is that I used to remember the line — and that I’ve never found it in the libretto. Koestenbaum writes: “Listen to the Countess, and learn to sublimate your own abjection.” Yes, of course. But why do I feel I learned something else — something I can’t quite put my finger on — as well?
Well, I was there too. It was the first opera we ever saw — along with Mom. And I remember more than Kevin says he did. I remember the subway ride there. I remember taking our seats in the balcony. And I remember the overture. I suppose the experience turned both of us into opera queens, although it was the last time we attended one together — apart from Khovanshchina, which doesn’t really count.
We weren’t very close — except in age, less than two years apart. I didn’t even like him. Take what happened — what really happened — after an earlier Carnegie Hall performance, the one he used to begin Beethoven’s Kiss. Kevin writes:
My high school graduation took place in Carnegie Hall. [As did mine; we both attended Bronx Science.] I was the piano soloist, and was to play Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso. I’d spent months rehearsing the piece, usually at tempos too slow to do me any good. As it turned out, the performance seemed to go well — or at least as well as could be expected — and I received a standing ovation. But I’ll never believe I deserved that ovation. I had told a number of friends to give me one, and suspect that everyone else simply followed their lead. Just after the ceremony, when I met up with my family, my mother told me I’d made her very happy. Several hours after the ceremony, when I turned in for the night, I burst into hysterical, uncontrollable laughter — laughter my brother Steve took somewhat violent measures to suppress. And years after the ceremony, whenever I wanted to impress someone, I’d tell him I’d gotten a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall when I was sixteen, but would neglect to mention that it had been at my graduation.
The laughter wasn’t uncontrollable. It was meant to annoy me. The measures I took weren’t violent. I simply folded Kevin into his sofa bed, where he kept laughing. So I didn’t like him. Not then, at any rate. And I don’t appreciate having been included in the opening, even though both Proust and Barthes — not to mention the author of The Queen’s Throat — would have excluded me.
By the way, I’d been the soloist too. I played the Schumann Toccata — rather well as I recall, although I could barely hear myself. The hall sucks sound right off the stage. But I didn’t receive a standing ovation, except from the family. Kevin was there, of course, seated in the orchestra just about where I’d be for Khovanshchina seven years later. And I didn’t become “hysterical.” I became sad.
I call it a suicide note, but it isn’t one. Kevin left no note, which is surprising for someone who’d also considered writing a book called Suicide Notes. (He did tell me titles he came up with. Suicide Notes, eventually given to a graduate student, was serious. Some, like Tit for Tat: Lesbian Lace Makers of the Middle Ages, were frivolous.) The “note,” then, is Kevin’s last journal entry. If I were a novelist I’d probably set a few scenes here: the phone call from Florida; the funeral in New York; the trip to Iowa; the return to California; the “teleogenic” reading of the journal. But I’m not a novelist. And the scenes don’t seem crucial yet. Not as crucial as the non-Barthesian entry, which read: “Will Steve ever know he was the key, if only the wrong key?” Orchestrate that.
I used to be very angry at Kevin: angry at him for having killed himself, angry about that entry. He must have known I’d see it as a suicide note, and so he must have known the “semiotic masochism” he’d inspire, to quote the Suicide Notes proposal. Why not say how I’d been the wrong key? Why write anything at all? Why not end with the penultimate entry: “And suddenly, as if recalling something, as if through some impulse, she placed one hand on her hip, swiveled the upper part of her body in a beautiful contrapposto to the stance of her feet, and looked over her shoulder to the shore” (Thomas Mann, more or less). Why not emulate Virginia Woolf, who, being kinder to Leonard, wrote: “I owe all the happiness of my life to you.” Then again, she went on to write: “If anyone could have saved me it would have been you.” Imagine the man’s guilt. Hence my twenty-year delay. The anger, along with the masochism, had to abate.
Finishing Proust, to be specific, would have been on why Proust couldn’t finish In Search of Lost Time, why certain writers can’t finish translating the novel, and why certain ones don’t finish reading it. How ironic, then, and how sad, that Kevin couldn’t finish his own book. In fact, he’d barely begun it. I’ve found three false starts, the first two of which are single sentences: “I began thinking of myself as Monsieur de Clèves several months before I first read the novel he appears in;” and then, “I began thinking of myself as Charles Swann several years after I first read the novel he appears in.” Kevin must have found it disorienting to open with Madame de La Fayette instead of Proust himself. The third false start shows him abandoning — or deferring — the conjunction of literary mediation and hopeless love that both sentences inscribe. He called it “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure…,” a reference to Barthes as well as Proust.
I’ve always gone to bed early, partly because when I did so as a child strange things happened even before I fell asleep. Time stood still. Men embraced me. Simple images succumbed to elaboration. I’d picture a map, for example, but find it filling with too many features to be readable, I’d picture a book but find it filling with more words than it could contain, at which point these endless images exploded — blissful bursts of line, curve, and character. This no longer happens. Perhaps I’ve become insufficiently visual. Perhaps I’ve read — or written — too many books. Having finished them may now prevent me from envisioning them incomplete. Not that I finish everything. Nor do I finish every book. Books I’ve only begun to read: Corydon; Buddenbrooks. Books I’ve only begun to write: The Orgasmics of Truth (on Oscar Wilde and Roland Barthes); Critical Failure (on André Gide and Roland Barthes); Suicide Notes.
Patterns emerge. I tend to read, and to write books about, gay literature. I also tend to write books about Barthes. This no doubt is one such book I’ll have finished, if not one that will have been translated.
Criticism, like literature, has an unconscious. It knows, but can’t say what it knows. My first book (Love’s Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics) knows but can’t say why gay men prefer sexual reality to fantasy. My second one (Beethoven’s Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire) knows but can’t say why mothers engender performance anxiety. My third (The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky) knows but can’t say why I’m at a methodological impasse. It knows why I shouldn’t write novelistic — or Barthesian — criticism anymore. Yet no book I’d now write could know just that, because, with the help of Proust and Barthes, I’ve moved back beyond the impasse. When I reread Remembrance of Things Past after finishing the Nijinsky book, I sensed that Proust is better at what I do. I then realized that Barthes, before beginning his own “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure…,” had sensed this as well. “We do not know [why Proust] flung himself so deeply into his Search…; but we do know the form he chose: … novel? essay? Neither one, or both at once: what I should call a third form.” [The translation is by Richard Howard.] And because I can’t write a novel — like the Barthes of Camera Lucida, I can’t make anything up; plus, I’m insufficiently visual; plus, I dislike simile — I’ll settle for having written a novelistic book that knows but can’t say why he’s better.
So the “violence” with which I stifled Kevin wasn’t routine: I’d usually let him sleep, even though we always shared a room. And so neither of us is a novelist. I did begin one once. It was to have been about an architect who helped restore the Berkeley Hills, but I abandoned Whispering Gallery when I found myself writing lines like, “He glared at Paul through clenched teeth.” I am, in fact, an architect — which may or may not make me sufficiently visual. (I do, however, have a kind of photographic memory.) Plus, like Kevin, I dislike simile.
I can’t recall what used to happen when I’d go to bed. Maybe other images succumbed to elaboration, or other men embraced me. I do recall sleeping with two stuffed animals: a teddy bear my sister had me name Meyerbeer and an elephant my father gave me — a Steiff elephant. And so it may have been animals that embraced me.
Kevin drowned. Why, then, say he killed himself? Because he didn’t drown in the Atlantic Ocean. He drowned in the swimming pool at The Raleigh. I almost wish he’d shot himself instead, like Seymour Glass in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” That way, I’d know my role. My identification with his brother Buddy, a writer, would be complete. (Am I in love with Buddy Glass, or do I think I am Buddy Glass? Am I, like Buddy, in love with Seymour, or are we both arrogant enough to think we are Seymour?) And my book — a Buddy-esque recreation of a Seymour-esque masterpiece — might be a lot better than this one. Or so J.D. Salinger has Seymour tell Buddy in “Seymour — An Introduction.”
Do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished — I think only poor Søren K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before you ever sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.
Then again, it might be worse. It might not even get done. To quote Buddy himself: “If our positions were switched around and Seymour were in my seat, he would be so affected — so stricken, in fact — by his gross seniority as narrator and official shot-caller that he’d abandon this project.”
Oddly enough, Salinger never had a brother, and so the creation and eventual self-destruction of Seymour represent neither an idealization of a disappointing sibling, an eradication of an intimidating one, nor a loving remembrance of an inspirational one. Not that I know what they do represent. Salinger, by the way, shared my father’s birthday: New Year’s Day. His daughter shares mine.
Would this book be better if Kevin died of natural causes — of, say, the heart disease that eventually killed Dad? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, I might not care to begin it. On the other hand, I might identify with “V.,” the self-effacing yet self-assured narrator of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, who both loves and sees himself as Sebastian. To quote Gérard Genette’s response to a pair of questions posed by an adversary (“What is the primary narrative of [Vladimir] Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight? Is it Sebastian’s reconstructed life or the narrator’s quest for his half brother’s biography?”): “Sebastian seems to [be] the character who is most highly valued, the one whom Nabokov invests with most of his arrogance. But a good enough share of that is left over for his biographer.” It’s also hard to say what “natural” means. To quote Ned Rorem, as Kevin did just before giving Wayne the final word on Nijinsky:
Can there be a shape to a memoir other than through the straight line toward death by natural causes (which includes accident, suicide, and murder)? We always die alone, yes, but we live alone too. Since Man has no soul (though certain animals have), shape is moot, does not exist in nature, and the memoir will sink and rise in jerky slow motion, arbitrarily, like some negligible detail out of the Big Bang or, more likely, the Big Whimper.
Søren / Kierkegaard. Sebastian / Knight. Stephen / Kevin. S/K, S/K, S/K. Now I am thinking like Nabokov.
I sometimes wonder whether Kevin ever saw himself as Zooey Glass — the handsome younger brother Buddy calls “the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo.” Not that we’re Irish, although our Jewish mother liked Celtic names. (Our sister was named Maureen.) I wonder it because he used the line in the first draft of the Nijinsky book to exemplify “the novelist who creates realistic characters by giving them more and more irreconcilable attributes,” and because I remember him, at twenty-five, claiming to have been cast with Zsa Zsa Gabor in a movie version of The Brothers Karamazov. The joke probably derived from a letter Salinger had Buddy send Zooey, an actor:
Will you be content with that standard box-office schmalz? Or will you dream of something a little more cosmic — zum Beispiel, playing Pierre or Andrey in a Technicolor production of War and Peace, with stunning battlefield scenes, and all the nuances of characterization left out (on the ground that they’re novelistic and unphotogenic), and Anna Magnani daringly cast as Natasha (just to keep the production classy and Honest), and gorgeous incidental music by Dmitri Popkin, and all the male leads intermittently rippling their jaw muscles to show they’re under great emotional stress, and a World Première at the Winter Garden, under floodlights, with Molotov and Milton Berle and Governor Dewey introducing the celebrities as they come into the theatre. (By celebrities I mean, of course, old Tolstoy-lovers — Senator Dirksen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gayelord Hauser, Georgie Jessel, Charles of the Ritz.)
Maybe you remember the scene: Zooey is re-reading the letter while taking a bath. Genette, by the way, wouldn’t have called Kevin’s Zooey — let alone my characterization of Kevin — realistic.
Proust [doesn’t present] substantial and well-defined characters in the realistic sense of the term. We know that Proustian “characters” remain, or rather become, down through the pages more and more indefinable, ungraspable, “creatures in flight,” and the incoherence of their behavior is obviously the main reason for this.
Neither would Julia Kristeva, another Proust critic Kevin considered closely: “Is Swann a character? Does he have one? And how about Odette? We think not; they think not. They are transformed; they decompose.” I can appreciate both perspectives, Kevin’s as well as Genette’s.
I should explain the word “teleogenic,” which I used to describe my initial reading of Kevin’s journal. It’s a word he used to describe In Search of Lost Time, citing Lennard Davis. (All of these references are to Kevin’s research notes.) Davis describes as teleogenic works in which the disclosure of information directs the reader to an ending that reshapes the information already received. He uses Tom Jones as an example, because Tom “is a man who will be noble throughout the novel, although the fact is not revealed until the end.” Walter Benjamin, one of the translators — and suicides — with whom Kevin concerned himself, made a related point in “The Storyteller.”
“A man who dies at the age of thirty-five,” said Moritz Heimann once, “is at every point of his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.” Nothing is more dubious than this sentence — but for the sole reason that the tense is wrong. A man — so says the truth that was meant here — who died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life. The nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the “meaning” of his life is revealed only in his death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death — the end of the novel — but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them — a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.
The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.
“The meaning of life” — in other words the ineffable truth content that concludes any novel, according to Benjamin, as opposed to the open-ended morals stories provide. I also wonder whether Proust, like me, was a storyteller who doesn’t really know the meaning of life. (Benjamin: “The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.”) And if so, I wonder whether In Search of Lost Time was unfinishable — in other words, whether it’s open-ended enough to have resisted novelistic closure.
In Search of Lost Time is teleogenic, according to Kevin, insofar as we don’t know whether the novel — or story — we’ve just read is the one the narrator has realized he needs to write. The journal, for me, was teleogenic because although I knew Kevin dies at thirty-seven, I didn’t know I’d be mentioned in the finale. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight isn’t teleogenic. Sebastian dies at thirty-six of heart disease, but we’re told so at the outset.
All these quotations have been lengthy. I’m afraid that’s the kind of book I think I’d want to read if I had my heart’s choice, one with lots of long quotations. It’s also the kind of book Benjamin wanted to write, but never really did: one that consists of “fragments torn from the body of other work … a patchwork quilt of meaning already accomplished.” I realize that such excessive citation is at odds with having most of one’s own stars out. I also realize that it can indicate a desire to be another author — that it may indicate my desire to be Proust, Salinger, Nabokov, Mann, Barthes, Gide, Woolf, Benjamin, Howard, Wayne, and Kevin, or at least the “writerly” parts of them. Well, who wouldn’t want to have written Franny and Zooey? Who wouldn’t want to have written The Queen’s Throat? Who wouldn’t want to have written, or to have translated, In Search of Lost Time? To quote Eve Sedgwick, another one of Kevin’s alter egos and the most pronounced of his own his cross-sex cathexes: “Who hasn’t dreamt that A la recherche remained untranslated, simply so that one could (at least if one knew French) by undertaking the job justify spending one’s own productive life afloat within that blissful and hilarious atmosphere of truth-telling” — or story-telling.
I don’t think Kevin knew French very well. He studied it in college but once wrote, in the essay “Metropolitan Opera / Suburban Identity”:
Unlike Koestenbaum, who was born in San Jose and now lives in New Haven, [Charles] Rosen is a Manhattanite, is a Parisian, and speaks several foreign languages (the languages of opera), which makes him both metropolitan and cosmopolitan. Koestenbaum has no such facility. Neither have I. Although opera queens are supposed to be — and usually suppose themselves — men of the world, few are. Most of us are parochial and monolingual. We don’t live in Paris, Vienna, Milan, or any other city with an opera house. We don’t speak French, German, Italian, or any other language that would enable us to know the libretto as well as we know the score, to fully appreciate opera as drama.
On the other hand, many of the negative things Kevin wrote about himself weren’t true. Or so I infer from the Nijinsky book, where he mentions his (“V.”-like) “strategic self-deprecation.”
Strategic self-deprecation — another name for Socratic irony, according to Wayne.
I myself don’t know French. I have, however, read French literature in translation: Proust, of course; also Gide, Flaubert, and Stendhal. That was in my thirties. When I was a teenager I read both Salinger and Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead in particular. In my twenties, I read Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Ronald Firbank. In my forties, I read Woolf and Nabokov. In my fifties, Henry James. I now read Mann, Barthes, and Benjamin, and re-read Proust and Salinger, seeking myself, Kevin, and our entire Glass-like family. It’s not a Benjaminian strategy. “Only the copied text,” Benjamin writes, “commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.” But it is a Proustian strategy.
In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.
It was Kevin’s as well. To cite Love’s Litany: “If, like Barthes, I’m a gay writer who protects his sexuality, I am also, like Barthes, a gay reader who ‘reads resistantly for inscriptions of his condition [and searches] for signs of himself.'” Kevin is quoting Wayne here, not Barthes.
A “gay” reader and writer of books about “gay” literature — the word sounds quaint today, much as “homosexual” used to. But Kevin was gay. As am I. As is Wayne.
– 2 –
“We do not know why Proust flung himself so deeply into his search.” Nor did I know why Kevin flung himself into his. I do know, as I sit here this morning, why I flung myself into mine. I wanted to discover whether the suicide note indicated answers to three related questions: why Kevin killed himself; why he couldn’t complete Finishing Proust; and what the book would have been like had he finished it.
What I needed to learn, of course, is that such questions are unanswerable. And, yes, it’s still this morning, as it ever will be so long as I keep writing and you keep reading. That’s how storytellers transcend time, Proust included. To quote Genette: “One of the fictions of literary narrating — perhaps the most powerful one, because it passes unnoticed, so to speak — is that the narrating involves an instantaneous action, without a temporal dimension. [We know, for example,] that Proust spent more than ten years writing his novel, but Marcel’s act of narrating bears no mark of duration, or of division: it is instantaneous.” Instantaneous, and posthumous: “Analysis can look at the narrating instant only as it is given in the final state of the text, as a single moment without duration, necessarily placed several years after the last ‘scene,’ therefore after the war, and even … after the death of Marcel Proust.”
Kristeva disagrees. She thinks of narration as an action that takes place in time.
Now what? Which “straight line toward death” should this memoir take? Kevin’s line or mine? His literal death, or my figurative one? Mine, primarily, to use The Real Life of Sebastian Knight as a template. “V.” begins by visiting Sebastian’s London apartment. I’ll begin in Kevin’s Iowa City home, a bungalow surrounded by pines. After the phone call from Florida, made by a hotel manager whose name I forget, and after the funeral in New York, I flew there to meet Kevin’s lawyer, banker, broker, realtor, and employer, the University of Iowa. This was in April. Maureen and I were his beneficiaries; I was his executor. She’d already seen Kevin’s house and told me what she wanted from it: the Frank Lloyd Wright barrel chair, the Thomas Moser desk (which Kevin called “the desk of tenure”), and the copper trumpet lamp. The chair and desk were valuable, but she could have them. I’d choose other items and sell the rest. I chose the piano (a Forster parlor grand — also made in 1913), the copper coffee table made by — well, I’ll get to him later, the recordings, the scores, and the books. None of his clothes fit me very well. Nor did his shoes.
As Kevin’s literary executor, I simply shipped the notes, journals, letters, drafts, and computer disks UPS. I’d study them in Berkeley, along with whatever The Raleigh mailed me. While in Iowa City I read only one literary item: a Proust passage Kevin had annotated in a volume left open on his desk, near the lamp and next to silver-framed photographs of our parents. (Dad looking pensive; Mom ecstatic — the false hilarity of what used to be called a “borderline” personality.) I suppose he’d have returned to the passage, and then ignored it, after mulling it over in Miami. It’s from Sodom and Gomorrah, the reception at the Princesse de Guermantes’s:
We passed two young men whose great and dissimilar beauty derived from the same woman. They were the two sons of Mme de Surgis, the latest mistress of the Duc de Guermantes. Both were resplendent with their mother’s perfections, but each in a different way. To one had passed, rippling through a virile body, the regal bearing of Mme de Surgis, and the same glowing, rufous, pearly paleness flooded the marmorial cheeks of mother and son; but his brother had received the Grecian brow; the perfect nose, the statuesque neck, the eyes of infinite depth; composed thus of separate gifts, which the goddess had shared between them, their twofold beauty offered one the abstract pleasure of thinking that the cause of that beauty was something outside themselves; it was as though the principal attributes of their mother had been incarnated in two different bodies; this one was her stature and her complexion, the other her gaze, as Mars and Venus were simply the strength and the beauty of Jupiter or Minerva. Full of respect though they were for M. de Guermantes, of whom they said: “He is a great friend of our parents,” the elder nevertheless thought that it would be wiser not to come up and greet the Duchess, of whose hostility towards his mother he was aware though without perhaps understanding the reason, and at the sight of us he slightly averted his head. The younger, who imitated his brother in everything, because, being stupid and moreover short-sighted [myope], he did not dare to have his own opinion, inclined his head at the same angle, and the pair slipped past us towards the card-room, one behind the other, like a pair of allegorical figures.
Kevin had written roussâtre — in small, neat script — next to “rufous.” (I’d never seen the word “rufous” before and have only ever seen it once since, in Lolita: “a last rufous mountain with a rich rug of lucerne at its foot.”) He’d also written, “Robert / Marcel, Basin / Palamède, Edmond / Jules” at the end of the passage. I could recall these beautiful brothers: Charlus cruises one — or both — of them. But I didn’t care to read them allegorically, unless my observation that Kevin, too, was nearsighted is allegorical.
Shall I describe our own “beauty” at the time, more similar than dissimilar and derived from both parents, Ken and Ida? Kevin does, parenthetically, in Beethoven’s Kiss:
Like [J.R.] Ackerley, I’m rather attracted to my father. He was, to be trite, tall (taller than me), dark (darker than me), and handsome (you get the drift). Not that I imagine “picking him up.” I do, however, ogle his early photographs, one in particular (my own “Winter Garden Photograph”), taken out of uniform, and now displayed — where else? — on my piano. [So he’d moved the photographs.] But displayed, I might add, next to a “Winter Garden Photograph” of my mother, who was equally beautiful and equally attractive. Believe it or not, she’s a former “Miss Subways.”
The references — to Ackerley’s My Father and Myself and Barthes’s Camera Lucida — are accurate. But the descriptions, both implicit and explicit, are exaggerated, which means that some of the positive things Kevin wrote about himself weren’t true. (Non-Socratic irony?) For while Dad may have been tall, dark, and handsome, Mom hadn’t been “Miss Subways” (she was a runner-up), and neither of us ever looked extraordinary. Our “beauty,” such as it was, consisted of brown hair, brown eyes, and fairly average bodies. Then again, Kevin did wear green contact lenses — a false Celticism derived from Ida alone.
He was a pretty cute kid, though. I can still visualize him lying in bed with Mom, watching television. (Her bed — we only had the one TV, which Dad didn’t want in the living room.) And they both look good there.
But enough of this oedipal intermezzo. There was another book on the desk: the only valuable first edition in Kevin’s collection. (He had an 1860 Leaves of Grass, but it’s pirated.) The book was Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot. I recognized the cover from a description in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library: “a still crisp, slightly torn grey wrapper with a drawing of a nun on the front.” I’d read the book as well: a pseudo-hagiography of lovelorn Laura de Nazianzi. Kevin cites the novel in both “Tawdrily, I Adore Him” and The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky. To quote “Tawdrily, I Adore Him”: “Campy writers use italics in order to be suggestive and in order to indicate citation — to no source in particular. Ronald Firbank, the marginalized modernist who invented ecclesiastic camp, is terrific at this, as when in The Flower Beneath the Foot the Countess of Tolga gives the Queen of Pisuerga ‘a glance that was known in Court circles as her tortured-animal look.'” (I’d have used a line about Laura instead, even though it lacks italics: “With a slight sigh, the lectress took up the posture of a Dying Intellectual.”) To quote The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky:
[Michel] Fokine’s bacchanals, beginning with Schéhérazade, answered the Nietzschean call for Dionysian theater — with Firbankian consequences for queer individuals who contemplated the communal finale in the privacy of their homes and the publicity of their writing. Firbank himself, in The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), put a campy spin on the Sultan’s heteroerotic and therefore homosocial jealousy:
“With whom,” [Yousef] asked, “sweetheart, were you last dancing?”
“Only the brother of one of the Queen’s Maids, dear,” Mademoiselle de Nazianzi replied. “After dinner, though,” she tittered, “when he gets Arabian-Nighty, it’s apt to annoy one a scrap!”
“Oh, never mind!”
“But (pardon me, dear) I do.”
“Don’t be tiresome, Yousef! The night is too fine,” she murmured, glancing absently away towards the hardly moving trees.”
Scheherazade (or “Shéhérazade,” to cite Wayne): the lectress who recounts The Arabian Nights so as not to die. Proust’s precursor, according to Kevin — if not according to Marcel himself. The most pronounced of his cross-sex “cathexes.”
There was an answering machine containing two messages on the desk as well. The first caller was an airy baritone: “Hi, it’s Tom. Listen, if the Xanax give you palpitations, don’t use them. And take it easy.” Was that how Kevin managed to drown, I asked myself. He could certainly swim. The second caller was a pure tenor — very Wunderlich. (Fritz Wunderlich, dead at thirty-six.) “Hi, it’s David. Call me.” I erased the messages and unplugged the machine. Only disconnect, I told myself. (E.M. Forster, more or less.) And that was that, omitting minor matters. I left the room with the desk. I left the house, glancing absently away towards the hardly moving trees.
I never did learn who Tom was, although I imagine he was an English department Timothy Leary. I did learn who David was, but I’ll get to him later too.
Kevin’s room. Kevin’s empty room, which I’m finding hard to visualize. My attitude toward it now is rather confused. On the one hand, it reminds me of Jacob’s Room — the final chapter begins: “He left everything just as it was …. All his letters strewn about for anyone to read.” — and so, like Woolf, I’m somewhat sentimental. (Kevin called Jacob Flanders “the utterly unrepresentable World War I casualty Virginia Woolf based on [her brother] Thoby.” I’m not sure he’s unrepresentable, nor do I know whether this would make him more or less realistic. She could certainly represent Thoby himself, as in “A Sketch of the Past,” where he’s remembered looking “melancholy; original … I suppose he would have been more of a figure than a success.”)
On the other hand, it also reminds me of the room — the Benjaminian room Seymour shared with Buddy and that Zooey views before phoning their sister Franny, noticing in particular the beaverboard covered “with four somewhat gorgeous-looking columns of quotations from a variety of the world’s literature” (typical Buddy, self-deprecating yet self-aggrandizing, Socratic yet non-Socratic), and so, like Salinger (and Zooey, who — quoting R.H. Blyth without attribution — defines sentimentality as giving “to a thing more tenderness than God” does), I’m somewhat nonsentimental. Then again, Kevin left fewer runes to read. Fewer in plain sight, that is: just the Proust. (Two of Seymour’s are by Kafka.  “‘Don’t you want to join us?’ I was recently asked by an acquaintance when he ran across me alone after midnight in a coffee house that was already almost deserted. ‘No, I don’t,’ I said.” Only disconnect.  “The happiness of being with people.” Only connect.)
Kevin’s other empty room: the one at The Raleigh I chose not to see (Dad went down alone), the one I keep choosing not to see, yet the one I now find easy to visualize — proving, perhaps, that the (Barthesian) “fantasy of influence” theory he was developing has nonliterary applications. (The place which I haven’t seen and which is frequently described to me even before I have time to see it: this place exists to the same degree as — if not to a greater degree than — the other.) It’s a deco room with a view of the pool, and the ocean beyond. It has a terrazzo floor with an arabesque border that mimics the shape of the pool. There are oversize pillows on a queen-size bed.
Some of Kevin’s clothes are on a crimson chaise longue: his yellow polo shirt, his khaki shorts, and the black leather belt he’d worn since high school. His sandals are underneath the chair. They’re not the clothes he’d have worn tomorrow. They’re the clothes he’d just worn. And there’s a wall-mounted writing table in one of the corners. On it: his prescription sunglasses (Armani), his rectangular wristwatch (Hamilton), his wallet, keys, and journal. The journal is closed — not open to the last entry. His attaché case is underneath the table. And in it: two versions of Barthes’s autobiography, French and English, with the same fragment bookmarked in both. In Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes:
Et si je n’avais pas lu Hegel, ni la Princesse de Clèves, ni les Chats de Lévi-Strauss, ni l’Anti-Oedipe? — Le livre que je n’ai pas lu et qui souvent m’est dit avant même que j’aie le temps de le lire (ce pour quoi, peut-être, je ne le lis pas), ce livre existe au même titre que l’autre: il a son intelligibilité, sa mémorabilité, son mode d’action. N’avons-nous pas assez de liberté pour recevoir un texte hors de toute lettre?
(Répression: n’avoir pas lu Hegel serait une faute exorbitante pour un agrégé de philosophie, pour un intellectual marxiste, pour un spécialiste de Bataille. Mais moi? Où commencent mes devoirs de lecture?)
Celui qui se met dans une pratique de l’écriture accepte assez allégrement de diminuer ou de dévier l’acuité, la responsabilité de ses idées (il faut risquer ceci du ton que l’on met d’ordinaire à dire: que m’importe? n’ai-je pas l’essential?): il y aurait dans l’écriture la volupté d’une certaine inertie, d’une certaine facilité mentale: comme si j’étais indifférent à ma propre bêtise davantage lorsque j’écris que lorsque je parle (combien de fois les professeurs sont plus intelligents que les écrivains).
In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (translation by Howard):
And if I hadn’t read Hegel, or La Princesse de Clèves, or Lévi-Strauss on Les Chats, or l’Anti-Oedipe? — The book which I haven’t read and which is frequently told to me even before I have time to read it (which is perhaps the reason I don’t read it): this book exists to the same degree as the other: it has its intelligibility, its memorability, its mode of action. Have we not enough freedom to receive a text without the letter?
(Repression: not to have read Hegel would be an exorbitant defect for a philosophy teacher, for a Marxist intellectual, for a Bataille specialist. But for me? Where do my reading duties begin?)
The man who makes a practice of writing agrees cheerfully enough to diminish or to divert the acuity, the responsibility of his ideas (one must risk this in the tone one usually employs in saying: What does it matter to me? don’t I have the essentials?): in writing there would be the pleasure of a certain inertia, a certain mental facility: as if I were more indifferent to my own stupidity when I write than when I speak (how often professors are more intelligent than writers).
That’s most of what they mailed me. I’ve been wearing the watch. I can’t wear the glasses.
My own room is a second-floor solarium. I’m still in Berkeley. I still occupy the Bay Area shingle I renovated thirty years ago. There’s a poplar tree in the front, which I can hear rustling, and a chestnut in the back, which I can see along with the hills beyond. The nuts have fallen already. The cabinets I added twenty years ago to accommodate Kevin’s library are downstairs, along with the piano and coffee table. His desk — the “desk of tenure” I got from Maureen when she died of heart disease four years ago, and which Kevin would have used for Finishing Proust — is up here. In fact, I’m sitting at it. It’s really rather beautiful. And I do appreciate it.
I, too, have photographs on the desk: an 1882 portrait of Robert and Marcel given to me by Wayne, and a 1965 portrait of Kevin and me. (He is cute, as am I.) Kevin’s hands are clasped, as are Robert’s. I’m holding Kevin’s arm, a position I must have been made to assume. I find all four facial expressions remarkably alike: vacant yet quizzical. I have the Firbank here as well, along with the English version of the Barthes autobiography. If I’m the last wrong key to Finishing Proust, I suspect that Barthes had been the first. Kevin did tend to write on Barthes. The chapter “Pianist Envy,” in Beethoven’s Kiss, does begin with Barthes reading the final part of In Search of Lost Time:
Roland Barthes, a writer I can’t but love, never met André Gide, a writer I can. But imagine what might have happened if he had. September 1932. Gide, out for a late afternoon stroll, notices a young lycéen reading Le Temps retrouvé and, emboldened by the concurrence of fine weather and good health, decides to cruise the boy.
And his Guggenheim proposal does begin with the bookmarked fragment:
If the subjects of Finishing Proust were alive today (myself excluded), they probably wouldn’t appreciate it. I say this because most of us don’t wish to be reminded of failure. The specific failures I’m concerned with are: Marcel Proust’s failure to complete Remembrance of Things Past; the failure of Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes to read the entire novel; and the failure of Walter Benjamin and Richard Howard to translate it. The project is derived, in part, from Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973) — although, because the literarily disabled imagine texts they don’t read, I’m more interested in fantasy than anxiety. As is Barthes, who writes: “And if I hadn’t read Hegel …”
Kevin probably imagined that Barthes substituted The Princesse de Clèves for In Search of Lost Time. No self-respecting Proustian would suggest, let alone admit, that he hadn’t finished Proust. Not even Barthes, otherwise honest. (Barthes admits he plays the piano badly, whereas Gide claims to play well.) But Barthes had, in fact, finished it, as Kevin would learn from the Calvet biography. Hence the eventual pairing of Woolf and Gide. How disappointing for Kevin. How hard for him to be unable to relieve the anxiety he did have — to think, if only unconsciously, in relation to this French mentor, this critical crush: “At least I finished Proust.”
As this is the time and place to mention it, the gay writer Samuel Delany, who also attended Bronx Science, developed his own Barthesian “fantasy of influence” theory just about ten years before Kevin did. Delany’s 1988 autobiography The Motion of Light in Water, of which Kevin appears to have been unaware and so which couldn’t have influenced him (even if he’d never finished it), includes the following two passages:
Writers who influence us, at least when we’re young (pace Harold Bloom), are not usually the ones we read thoroughly and confront with our complete attention, but rather the ill- and partially-read writers we start on, often in troubled awe, only to close the book after pages or chapters, when our own imagination works up beyond the point where we can continue to submit our fancies to theirs.
I’ve always felt that the stories we tell ourselves about the books which we only know slightly and fleetingly, by rumor or inflationary report, end up being even more “influential” than the works we encounter full on, absorb, judge, and come to occupy some balanced relation with. From well-read books we absorb the unquestioned laws of genre, the readerly familiarity with rhetorical figures, narrational tropes, conventional attitudes and expectations. From the others, however, we manufacture the dreams of possibility, of variation, of what might be done outside and beyond the genre that the others have already made a part of our readerly language.
It’s the word “readerly” here, as opposed to “writerly,” that indicates the otherwise occluded influence of Barthes.
Kevin also tended to pair subjects. Love’s Litany has chapters on Gide and Firbank, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, and Marguerite Yourcenar and Mary Renault. Beethoven’s Kiss links Gide and Barthes, Chopin and Liszt, and Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein. The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky links Fokine and Nijinsky, Debussy and Ravel, and Reynaldo Hahn and Andrew Lloyd Weber. It’s an easy way to generate arguments and a familiar mental habit. We all compare-and-contrast, think in oppositions, and even deconstruct them (“queer” them) — especially, perhaps, those of us with “borderline” parents. (Kevin joked about titling another book Borderline Mom.) Take Proust, with his voluntary yet involuntary commingling of memory and sensation within consciousness, or with his two “ways” that eventually meet — Swann’s Way, the Guermantes Way. But it’s a limiting habit. It’s limiting to have Gide and Barthes represent all amateur pianists, Horowitz and Rubinstein all virtuosos. And it’s especially limiting, I should think, to reduce all failed Proust readers to Woolf and Gide, all failed translators to Benjamin and Howard — all Proust critics to Genette and Kristeva. For there must be thousands of people who’ve only just begun Swann’s Way, and hundreds of Proustian writers who’ve never finished the novel. (Jean Cocteau once noted in his diary “a certain weariness, reading Proust, in constantly discovering the same mechanisms” and wondered “if the ‘Proustians’ read line by line or skip.” Roger Shattuck, in a book on Proust, lists the parts readers should skip — including The Fugitive in its entirety, presumably because the loss of the grandmother is even more unbearable than the loss of Albertine. Or if not more unbearable, more important.) And no English Proust translator has done it all. Scott Moncrieff died after completing the first six parts. (The seventh part was translated by Stephen Hudson in England and Frederick Blossom in the United States.) Andreas Mayor re-translated the seventh part and then died after undertaking the re-translation of the remainder. Kilmartin revised the Scott Moncrieff translation and then died after undertaking a second revision. (That revision was done by D.J. Enright, a British poet.) James Grieve, an Australian professor, abandoned his complete translation after the Enright appeared. Maybe Kevin was lazy. Or maybe he believed that truly “open” books — open-ended stories, “writerly” texts — require these limitations. (The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky begins: “Although I can’t write for — or to — Nijinsky, I can, to cite Roland Barthes, ‘write’ him. Nijinsky is an open text. Many of his gesture invite multiple readings, the final gestures in particular.”) Or maybe he felt he’d never finish Finishing Proust if he included many other failures.
For someone who probably didn’t do it very often, there’s a lot of cruising in Kevin’s books, much of it cross-generational. Barthes cruises young “Olivier” — a “Tadzio-like trick” — in Love’s Litany. Gide cruises young Roland in Beethoven’s Kiss, which is where Ackerley thinks about cruising his father and Kevin himself thinks about not cruising Dad. Prince Lvov cruises young Vaslav in The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky. (“What was it like to have been one of the noblemen, perhaps Prince Pavel Lvov himself, who, accustomed to cruising conventionally beautiful boys enrolled in the Imperial Ballet School, suddenly saw an unconventionally beautiful seventeen-year-old faun somersault across the stage at the end of an academic demonstration of classical choreography?”) Charlus, at one point, might have cruised the Surgis boys (Arnulphe and Victurnien) in Finishing Proust. I’m suggesting that Kevin didn’t do it very often because Wayne has said so, calling him “more Flying Dutchman than Don Giovanni.” But I’m not suggesting that the cruising in his books is merely vicarious, because the books themselves cruise readers — which would mean, according to Barthes, that they’re non-Proustian, or that they don’t “prattle.” Wayne has written so in his Love’s Litany blurb (“Everywhere tenderly epigrammatic, [Kopelson] demonstrates that critique can be a form of courtship”), but I’ve noticed it myself. I’ve noticed, for example, that the book’s final line (“This is neither the time nor the place to address these propositions”) is especially — and self-consciously — flirtatious. Finishing Proust, no doubt, would have cruised readers as well, although apart from being fairly short, it’s hard to say how. It’s hard to say, that is, whether Kevin would have revealed too much of himself there, by criticism standards, or too little. (Or metaphorically speaking, whether he’d have worn tight jeans or palazzo pants. I’d wear chinos.) And it’s hard to say whether the cross-generational component would have remained pronounced, as it probably should have. Not that Kevin ever became a pederast, which he’d feared he might. To quote Love’s Litany:
It is not especially easy for pederasts — of whom, unlike André Gide, I feel compelled to confess I am not (yet?) one — to live out their love lives. They are seen as child molesters. They have — and perhaps take — [Gustave] Aschenbach as a role model. And they are spurned by squeamish boys who, unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ko-Ko, do not find “beauty in extreme old age.”
Speaking of Ko-Ko, shortly after Mom took the two of us to The Marriage of Figaro, she took me alone to The Mikado at our local public library. It was the 1939 D’Oyly Carte film. All I’ve ever remembered is “Tit-Willow,” wry yet sad. I saw the film again recently — another Technicolor production. The Ko-Ko is Martyn Green, an impure singer of a certain age who, regardless of unbeautiful Katisha (Constance Willis), ensnares himself in this semi-sentimental tale of woe, breaking his own heart as well as ours. Only now do I appreciate the extent to which his rendition first enabled me to comprehend the suicidal tendencies of the bereft. Of course the song is a manipulative lie: Ko-Ko concocts his desperate bird in order to woo Katisha, with whom he isn’t the least bit in love — lovelorn Katisha, whose honest, precedent, and wholly sentimental song was omitted from the film and hence made no impression on me as a child, but that eventually became, after seeing other productions and knowing a Nanki-Poo of my own, the Mikado number I like best. Or the one I used to like. “Alone,” she cries, “and yet alive!”
Something else struck me back in Iowa. The upholstered piano bench is built for two and among the scores on the piano (Chopin’s C sharp minor Prelude [op. 45], the Petrarch Sonnets by Liszt, the Italian Concerto by Bach) was Schubert’s F minor Fantasy, a duet. I knew Kevin lived alone. I wondered with whom he played it. I wondered whether he played it alone. I also wondered whether he played top or bottom, or whether he played top and bottom. Both parts are fingered.
Beethoven’s Kiss almost never analyzes four-hand music, whether duo or duet — a glaring omission for a book on keyboard “perversion.” (There’s only one exception, a mention of the film A Song to Remember: “In a remarkable scene set in the Pleyel headquarters, Liszt starts sight-reading the Polonaise in A-flat major, meets Chopin, and joins him in a duo piano version, Liszt playing the thunderous left-hand part, Chopin playing the non-thunderous right-hand.”) I now wonder whether it never occurred to Kevin to write a four-hand chapter. I also wonder whether he’d intended to write one but neglected — or even forgotten — to do so. Maybe found he had nothing to say on the subject, although I can think of plenty. Kevin could have discussed the use of duets to sexualize pedagogic situations. (We both played them with our first teacher, Mrs. Graa. We also played together, but never the Schubert Fantasy.) He could have discussed the use of them to sexualize friendly situations. He could have done “symptomatic” readings of professional teams: Ferrante and Teicher; Gold and Fizdale; Phillips and Renzulli. He could have imagined amateur ones — Gide cruising Barthes by playing the Fantasy with him, a collaborative and hence successful undertaking, instead of by playing Chopin for him, a competitive and hence unsuccessful one. Perhaps Kevin hadn’t finished Beethoven’s Kiss after all.
I did recognize the Chopin Prelude Kevin left on the piano, having first heard it in 1981 when Ivo Pogorelich used it to begin his Carnegie Hall debut — the same time and place as the Khovanshchina. It was an astonishing choice and a spellbinding performance — improvisatory, sostenuto throughout, almost too slow, and no louder than pianissimo. I remember feeling time stand still. The recording Pogorelich made a few years later pales by comparison — dessicated and disappointing — which means, I suppose, that the combination of the two experiences, unlike my Mikado combination, had been non-Proustian. For whereas young Marcel expected too much of Berma to appreciate her in Racine’s Phèdre and came to value her once again only later in life, I’d known nothing about Pogorelich prior to his debut and found disappointment in a souvenir. Much of Kevin’s writing, moreover, reminds me of that live Prelude and of Chopin in general. It sounds impromptu, but isn’t. It seems associative, like Proust, but isn’t. I suspect that Finishing Proust would have seemed so as well. And I realize that this recording, another dessicated transcription, may also pale by comparison.
The comparison, of course, is with a nonexistent original: literary fantasy as anxiety. If only I could imagine my own writing to be spellbinding. Wayne tells a story about playing the Fantasy with Kevin on top in his New Haven home. (It must have been a special occasion, because they rarely got together.) They’d been discussing Barthes’s curious ability to “hallucinate perfection” at the keyboard and decided to try it themselves — a deliberate folie à deux. Kevin quotes the relevant Barthes passage in both Beethoven’s Kiss and The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky:
If I play badly — aside from the lack of velocity, which is a purely muscular problem — it is because I fail to abide by the written fingering: I improvise, each time I play, the position of my fingers, and therefore I can never play anything without making mistakes. The reason for this is obviously that I want an immediate pleasure and reject the tedium of training, for training hampers pleasure — for the sake of a greater ulterior pleasure, as they say (we tell the pianist what the gods said to Orpheus: Don’t turn back prematurely on the effects of your action). So that the piece, in the perfection attributed to it but never really attained, functions as a bit of a hallucination; I gladly give myself up to the watchword of a fantasy: “Immediately!” even at the cost of a considerable loss of reality.
According to Wayne, Kevin and he succeeded, despite the difficulty of the score and technical incompetence. Themes sang, scales pearled, octaves thundered. They even managed brilliant coloration in the final fugue. The two of them were Phillips and Renzulli! Or so Wayne thought at the time. He now wonders whether Kevin really shared the Barthesian experience. He now recalls — or imagines — there having been chuckling in his right ear.
But Kevin, having graduated college, didn’t live in Connecticut any more, and no one like Wayne — no one apart from Kevin, that is — seems to have lived in Iowa. He must have been very lonely there. I’m recalling — or imagining — the feeling I had while riding back in the airport shuttle, my driver’s only passenger. Iowa City hadn’t been a real city and it was surrounded by farmland that still looked wintry. So much empty space, I said to myself. So many nice families. So many blonds. Where, I wondered, were all the Jews? Where were the gay men?
Where were they?
– 3 –
“Not to have read Hegel would be an exorbitant defect for a philosophy teacher, for a Marxist intellectual, for a Bataille specialist. But for me? Where do my reading duties begin?” Barthes posed these questions as a writer, but they pertain to readers as well, especially ones in search of themselves. Where do our reading duties begin?
Arnulphe and Victurnien de Surgis, those dimwits, read nothing — and are oblivious of the very book from which the latter’s name derives. Proust is snobbish on this point, or has Charlus be, even though the cruiser himself doesn’t read anything in a serious and thorough manner:
“So you’re called Victurnien, after the Cabinet des Antiques,” the Baron was saying, to prolong his conversation with the two young men. “By Balzac, yes,” replied the elder Surgis, who had never read a line of that novelist’s work, but to whom his tutor had remarked, a few days earlier, upon the similarity of his Christian name and d’Esgrignon’s. Mme de Surgis was delighted to see her son shine, and M. de Charlus in ecstasy at such a display of learning.
Then this, shortly thereafter:
“And are you a reader too? What do you do?” he asked Comte Arnulphe, who had never heard even the name of Balzac. “Oh, you know, mainly golf, tennis, football, running, and especially polo.” Thus had Minerva, having subdivided herself, ceased in certain cities to be the goddess of wisdom, and had become partly incarnated in a purely sporting, horse-loving deity, Athene Hippia. “Ah!” replied M. de Charlus with the transcendental smile of the intellectual who does not even take the trouble to conceal his derision, but, on the other hand, feels himself so superior to other people and so far despises the intelligence of those who are least stupid that he barely differentiates between them and the most stupid, as long as the latter are attractive to him in some other way. (Translation by Howard)
Proust, having read everything, found himself everywhere: Corneille, La Rochefoucauld, Molière, Sévigné, La Fayette, Racine, Saint-Simon, Marivaux, Voltaire, Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, Sand, Gautier, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Goncourt (Edmond and Jules), Zola, Mallarmé, France, Verlaine, Bergson. And those are just some of the French. Kevin and I fall somewhere in between Proust and the Surgis: Kevin finally finding himself in Proust and Mann, I doing so in Proust and Salinger. And Nabokov. And even Banana Yoshimoto, whose novel Amrita, which I’ve only just begun, is a cross-sex version of this story, featuring two sisters instead of two brothers. Where, I’ve wondered, do our reading duties end?
They don’t end. We continually consume new stories, and old stories, in search of selves we come to know we’ll never fully understand. Howard Roark first laughed when I read The Fountainhead at fourteen and he’s been laughing ever since — as has Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Roark represents; as have I, who identify with them. And if readers who choose to write, we reproduce old ones as well — especially, to quote Delany, the “well-read” books from which we’ve absorbed “the unquestioned laws of genre, the readerly familiarity with rhetorical figures, narrational tropes, conventional attitudes and expectations.” I, for one, can’t seem to write this without emulating other writers who both intimidate and inspire me. Those hardly moving trees towards which I glanced absently away were lifted from Firbank. That memory of The Mikado was recounted via Wayne’s memory of Aida. (All I’ve remembered is “Tit-Willow.” All he’s remembered is the color of the sky above the Nile.) I can’t even write it without emulating myself. (Not that I find me either intimidating or inspiring.) My description of this room echoed my imaginary memory of Kevin’s room at The Raleigh. A solarium with a view of the chestnut, and the hills beyond. A deco room with a view of the pool, and the ocean beyond.
Of course, not every reader would find himself. Some would lose themselves, seeking escape, transcendence, and vicarious experience. (Even Proust, according to whom “we always like to escape a bit from ourselves, to travel, when reading.”) These are the basic, or extreme, operations of the bookish, with both Benjamin’s text copier, who discovers new aspects of himself opened by it, and his novel reader, who warms his shivering life with a death he reads about, falling somewhere in between finding and losing themselves. Unless, of course, we all fall there: self-consciously finding ourselves while subconsciously losing them; or self-consciously losing ourselves while subconsciously finding them.
Notice the compare-and-contrast pattern here, along with the facile deconstruction. Notice them, too, in my suggestion that Kevin and I, who read a fair amount, “queer” a read-nothing, read-everything opposition embodied in the Surgis and Proust. We all do think this way. We read this way as well.
What, then, opposes teleogenic reading? Prophetic reading, I suppose. “I began thinking of myself as Monsieur de Clèves several months before I first read the novel he appears in” — this would be teleogenic, because Kevin’s personal denouement determined his interpretation of La Fayette. “I began thinking of myself as Charles Swann several years after I first read the novel he appears in” — this is prophetic, because Kevin’s interpretation of Proust determined his denouement. Genette both suggests this opposition and deconstructs it:
Let us not forget, after all, that if Oedipus can do what every man, so they say, goes only so far as wishing to do, it is because an oracle told in advance that one day he would kill his father and marry his mother: without the oracle, no exile, thus no incognito, thus no parricide and no incest. The oracle in Oedipus the King is a metadiegetic narrative in the future tense, the mere uttering of which will throw into gear the “infernal machine” capable of carrying it out. This is not a prophecy that comes true; it is a trap in the form of a narrative, a trap that “takes.” Yes, the power (and cunning) of narrative. Some give life (Scheherazade), some take life. And we do not properly understand Un amour de Swann unless we realize that this love told is an instrument of Destiny.
An instrument of Marcel’s destiny, that is, and of Kevin’s, and of mine. One of which I find tragic (Kevin’s), one I find comic (mine), and one I find tragicomic — another deconstruction suggested not by Sophocles, but by the playwright David Hare, who put a sad yet funny spin on the oedipal scenario in his electral Plenty. In it, after saying she married Raymond because he reminded her of her father, Susan delivers the zinger: “At that point of course I didn’t realize just what a shit my father was.”
(I saw Kate Nelligan as Susan in 1982. It was a spellbinding performance that met every expectation — yet another deconstruction, with Nelligan in between the Berma who disappointed Marcel in Phèdre and the Pogorelich who astonished me with Chopin. But when I saw Cate Blanchett as Susan just about twenty years later, it was like seeing Berma for the first time. There was nothing funny about her overrated performance because she played the character completely insane.)
Who would ever hope to find themselves by reading — or writing — novel after novel? The disconnected, the bereft, and the lovelorn, I suppose. Men and women with otherwise empty lives. Yet there are compensations, as Proust himself suggests in a passage of which Kevin must have been fond. (He used it to conclude the personal statement he wrote for graduate school admission — an even earlier indication that Finishing Proust was to have been expected; a statement, moreover, that begins with lines on losing oneself by James Merrill: “Young chameleon, I used to ask how on earth one got sufficiently imbued with otherness. And now I see.”)
A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate. (Translation by Enright)
Of course, the same thing happens when we envision — when we visualize the dead. To quote Amrita: “[There’s a] spot in a person’s mind that expands what is lost to a size hundreds of times bigger than that which is obtained.”
You know, I’m not sure this Benjaminian use of excessive citation is working very well. (“Metadiegetic narrative,” indeed.) Nor am I sure it’s the kind of book I’d want to read if I had my heart’s choice. And I’m beginning to think I’d rather have more of my own stars out.
At any rate, it’s recently occurred to me, thanks to Wayne, that those of us who use literature to mediate our otherwise empty lives may do so in a rather complicated way. Some mediations, that is, are manifold. For Kevin to write that he began thinking of himself as Charles Swann several years after reading In Search of Lost Time involves a double mediation, because he probably thought of himself as the Marcel who thought of himself as that character. For Kevin to write that he began thinking of himself as Monsieur de Clèves several months before reading The Princesse de Clèves involves a triple mediation, because he probably thought of himself as the Barthes who, by saying he may have only imagined La Fayette, may have meant that he only imagined Proust. For me to write that I’d like to be the writerly part of Kevin involves a triple mediation as well, because I’m thinking of the Kevin who thought of himself as the Barthes who thought of himself as Proust. Our identities, in such situations, are comprised of a series of identifications that don’t exactly coincide. Each identification — or “cathexis” — in the series subsumes the previous one, without eliminating it.
Back in Berkeley, I decided to start with the journal The Raleigh returned: a narrow-ruled diary bound in blue Leatherette. It was Saturday morning. I was up here, in the bedroom, which happens to be where Nabokov has Charlotte read Humbert’s diary. (I suppose I could have been in the bathroom, which is where Zooey reads Buddy’s letter, of course, but which is also where, in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” Buddy reads Seymour’s diary.) Having never kept a journal of my own and so not really knowing, apart from that scene in Lolita, how intensely private they can be, I’d always wanted to read another’s. (On the other hand, how private can they be? Cecily, in The Importance of Being Earnest, says that her diary “is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.”) This was my first opportunity to do so. My second came ten years later. When I suspected that Paul had fallen for a Cuban writer named Nilo, I turned for confirmation to the journal Nilo had him begin. And there it was: “I’m not sure I love Steve. I know I’m in love with Nilo.” When I confessed my crime and described my distress, Paul stopped speaking to me. When he began again, two weeks later, it was to ask me to pick up a present for Nilo. That was the beginning of the end of that.
I’m still tempted to transcribe — to copy the entire journal, adding that, like the roussâtre annotation, it’s in small, neat script. That way, like Benjamin, I might discover new aspects of myself opened by it. And that way, you’d experience a thoroughly prophetic version of my own teleogenic reading. Plus, you’d be filled with a sense of Kevin’s despair. But the sense might be somewhat false. Most diarists, according to conventional wisdom, make entries only when depressed. (Barthes, however, deplores conventional wisdom — doxa — as opposed to truthful paradoxa, of which Cecily’s remark is a good example. Plato deplored it too.) And the citation required (pace Benjamin) would, in fact, be excessive. Kevin’s journal, which covers the last two years of his life, is about fifty pages long. Too long. So I’ll simply sample it.
It begins in Iowa City, with entries on David. Here are several of them, in chronological order.
David may not realize how beautiful he is. I hope he doesn’t.
Last night, after he ignored me at The Sanctuary, I told David that love is a form of attention paid on every occasion, in both public and private. I do believe this. But I don’t want to be his Sentimental Educator. Despite any advantage the position might entail. Any temporary advantage.
Almost everything I say to David is somewhat dishonest. Even “I love you.” I don’t really love the man he is. I love the one I’d like him to be. The one I’m helping him become. (It feels strange to envision lovers as men. I always see them as children, especially when sorry for them. The Imaginary Pederast.) And, of course, every “I love you” is a demand that he say it in return. Which he does. I do feel he loves me for who I am, instead of for what I do. But he doesn’t understand what I do. And he couldn’t know who I am. I’m trying to be the ideal lover, to take good care of him — to be especially nice. I’m not that nice.
What I do is a part of who I am. It’s not very important. Nor is it brilliant. But it’s part of who I am.
David doesn’t know what love is. I tell myself he’s emotionally retarded: a 34 year-old teen-ager. (The Imaginary Pederast.) Or if not retarded, careless. I also tell myself, no one’s that mean. Well maybe he is that mean.
“Because I was in love with him and had brought him out, I believed in a core of redeemable talent and goodness in him.”
David tells me he’s in love with Adam, then bursts into tears. Unbelievably enough, I comfort him! He’ll renounce Adam, he says. He’ll be “loyal.” Isn’t this The Princess of Clèves? My heart is broken, and I don’t know what to do.
David, being unsure about us, wants to open the relationship. I don’t, but agree to, and if he’s still unsure a year from now, we’ll break up. So I’ve put myself on erotic probation. I suppose I’ll have to be even nicer.
David broke up with me last night. On my birthday. Very mean.
“Where shall I find another? Where shall I find another?”
In retrospect, these entries anticipate both Paul and Nilo. And I now know that Kevin had, in fact, become a kind of pederast — the kind who loves, not children, but adults who either act like children or can be fantasized that way. (I also know that “Sentimental Educator” probably refers to Sentimental Education, and that “The Imaginary Pederast” probably refers to The Imaginary Invalid — and hence to Proust as well, given the seemingly psychosomatic illness that both incapacitated him and enabled him to write In Search of Lost Time.) But all I knew at the time was that Kevin had fallen for an immature pretty boy, with predictable consequences. (Immature and mean — and maybe even not that bright. “Beauty goes hand in hand with stupidity,” according to Jacob’s Room. But I must have been mistaken. At least he was considerate, maybe even concerned enough to leave that message on the answering machine.) I knew that Kevin confused love and pity — and that the man he pitied most may have been his own “inner child,” to use another quaint expression. (To quote the conclusion of An Ideal Husband, another play by Wilde: “Is it love you feel for me, or is it pity merely?” To quote Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant, “You think what you feel is love, but it is only pity.”) I knew that his sense of self depended on his sense of achievement. I knew that he identified with Will Beckwith, the narrator of The Swimming-Pool Library, whom I recognized in the line “Because I was in love with him and had brought him out…” And I knew that he identified with Katisha, whom I recognized in “Where shall I find another.” Sometimes italics indicate citation to a particular source. Sometimes they simply emphasize: My heart is broken.
The journal ends in Miami, where he might have met another pretty boy. A Versace model, perhaps. This was just before the murder at the designer’s mansion. But he didn’t meet another pretty boy. He met a pretty girl, the daughter of someone he’d known as a teen-ager at Juilliard — someone I could recall having met at our parents’ house more than twenty years earlier. Both of whom, mother and daughter, I now think of as having indicated why Finishing Proust should have emphasized cross-generational cruising. Here are several of those entries.
Maybe I shouldn’t be spending spring break at The Raleigh. I keep wishing David were here and remembering last year, when he was. Reading The Princess of Clèves. I am Monsieur de Clèves. Rereading Swann in Love. I am Charles Swann — David, Odette de Crécy. Albertine to my Marcel. Morel to my Charlus. Both of us abound in South Beach, courtesans without culture and their addled admirers. “You can lead a horticulture…”
Unbelievably enough, Dina Harel is at the hotel, one floor up — here with her daughter. She’s divorced. She’s not a pianist — she’s a French professor. She seems happy. Still no mention of my love letter. I could joke about it now, of course, but only if she mentioned it. Very strange: Morel / Harel. Morel / Sorel / Harel. We’ll have dinner Friday night. On the terrace. Dinner on the terrace with Dina.
I keep thinking about Dina. How small she was. Her long hair. Her incredible skill. Our first master class, when she played the Rondo. (That’s why I learned it — to do those double trills.) The time she ridiculed my Chopin Polonaise. Then Yale. I knew I was gay, yet I loved her. I wanted to love her. So I wrote the letter. Her failure to reply. Her failure even to mention my letter when we met again. And then to have followed me to Yale. Where I ignored her — so embarrassed. I should have said something, tried to explain.
A beautiful girl by the pool this morning. And then on the beach, this afternoon. Une jeune fille en fleur. Alone though, pensive. Long brown hair — a striking resemblance. She must be the daughter.
By the pool again, reading Colette! Tank suit. A long look — very Jamesian. She must be the daughter. She’s even about the same age: fourteen or so. I should have introduced myself, to avoid embarrassment at dinner. Different eye color, though. Hers are blue-brown. Nebulous eyes. Kaleidoscope eyes.
Long hair. Long look. Longtemps.
Friday night. She is the daughter: Eva. A lovely girl, and very beautiful. Scrupulously polite, with precocious irony. “My mother has told me so much about you.” She actually encouraged us to reminisce. They’re nice together. Dina claims she had a crush on me (an implicit “too”). I admit my own, and not for the first time — yet another “complicated, abiding knowledge.” Dina describes her work — something (contre Kristeva) on Céline. I describe the Proust project. Dina has read him twice, and still manages to fall in love. That’s a good one. She hadn’t known there’d been a brother. Eva had, or so she says. And she’s only just begun. What a farce — a sweet farce. And looming over the scene, those naked naiads with long green hair. An ugly painting.
Dina / Eva. Gilberte / Mlle de Saint-Loup. Why doesn’t he give the girl a first name? Robert de Saint-Loup — Robert [Proust] de Saint-Loup?! That would change everything.
Eva à la plage, encore une fois. Et moi, je veux mourir. I seem to have become Aschenbach, a queer Aschenbach. Eva as Tadzio. Eva as both Tadzio and Gilberte — or Albertine. The Raleigh instead of the Grand Hotel at Balbec — and instead of the Hôtel des Bains on the Lido. Yet this isn’t love. It isn’t even lust. I simply want her back. I miss Dina. And David.
“Jellyfish! Orchid! When I followed my instinct only, the jellyfish used to revolt me at Balbec; but if I had the eyes to regard them, like Michelet, from the standpoint of natural history and aesthetics, I saw an exquisite blue girandole. Are they not, with the transparent velvet of their petals, as it were the mauve orchids of the sea?”
I didn’t identify with Nijinsky. I identified with Diaghilev — the Diaghilev who must have known, if only unconsciously, that Nijinsky would leave him. That’s the other thing, the main thing, the book knows.
A dream. A youth is harassing me on the subway. I tell him I’ll call the cops if he continues. He continues. I chase him, summoning several policemen to join my pursuit. They mistake the youth for someone else and pin him to the ground, between two other offenders. It’s a horizontal crucifixion, which suddenly becomes vertical. As I stare at the central figure — the youth who’d harassed me — the scene becomes a picture. I realize I’m looking at a poster Steve designed as a kid. Meaning: the youth is David, but I don’t know who the police think he is. Nor do I know about that poster.
They must think he’s Steve. It’s suddenly occurred to me: I’m in love with my own brother, have always been, and he’s never loved me back. Never will. A terrible fantasmatic — terrible. What it’s done to me. What it’s done to my work. Half-brother Michel as the “absent center” in Barthes — stupid. Brother Thoby as the absent center in Woolf — stupid. Brother Georg as the absent center in Benjamin — stupid. Brother Robert as the absent center in Proust — demented. His center, if there is one, appears in plain sight: les jeunes filles en fleurs. Gilberte, Albertine. Dina. Robert has nothing to do with Marcel’s failure. And so Robert [Proust] de Saint-Loup would have changed everything. I shouldn’t do the book now. The brother bit isn’t even “true enough.” It’s just my bit.
To think that Mann created Aschenbach at my age — and published Death in Venice the year of Swann’s Way. And to think that it’s a story about solitude. But the writing blocks differ. Aschenbach finds no joy in work meant to maintain fame. I’m not famous. I’ve simply written myself into recognizing something I didn’t want to know. Some things.
I do want to die. No answer from Wayne.
And suddenly, as if recalling something, as if through some impulse, she placed one hand on her hip, swiveled the upper part of her body in a beautiful contrapposto to the stance of her feet, and looked over her shoulder to the shore.
Will Steve ever know he was the key, if only the wrong key?
I couldn’t even begin to assimilate all this. I supplied the missing punch line, “… but you can’t make her think.” (Dorothy Parker, if I remember correctly. Clearly, Kevin was angry enough to consider David rather stupid — another reason why he may have been interested in the Surgis.) I recognized the expression “complicated, abiding knowledge.” I recognized that “Eva à la plage” might refer to the Eric Rohmer film Pauline à la plage. But I failed to recognize the significance of Kevin’s having been hopelessly in love with me and of that supposedly epiphanic dream — any significance for the two of us as well as for Kevin alone. I certainly didn’t know enough at the time to recognize the significance for the book. Imagine how furious I was. Kevin had just killed himself. I’d had to deal with his property. I’d had to deal with his intellectual property. I now had to deal with our having been more romantically involved than I’d ever suspected. I have my own life to live, I said to myself. I have my own problems. I simply wasn’t ready to feel that sorry for him — to pity or to love him. I wasn’t really capable of feeling any emotion.
I closed the journal, put it away, and resolved to read nothing else of his. I went downstairs, made some tea, and took it out back, where I sat in the garden I’d recently begun in the shade of the chestnut — too upset, I suppose, to notice the Proustian implications of my situation: drinking tea within a budding grove, but without the madeleine. À l’ombre d’une jeune fille en fleur.
I know more now, of course, and have assimilated a lot of this. And so I’ll annotate the entries — another Benjaminian technique worth attempting.
— “Morel / Sorel / Harel.” David’s last name turns out to have been Sorel.
— “Our first master class, when she played the Rondo.” This refers to Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, the piece Kevin played at Carnegie Hall.
— “Une jeune fille en fleur. Alone though, pensive.” Kevin is distinguishing Eva from Albertine, whom Marcel had first encountered in a group: the little band at Balbec.
— “By the pool again, reading Colette!” Kevin is probably appreciating the image of a young girl reading, or finding herself in, a book about a young girl. Claudine, Wayne tells me, is a teen-ager in Colette’s first novel.
— “Kaleidoscope eyes.” Kevin, who achieved a similar effect with those green contact lenses, is referring to “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” in the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It’s an unusual reference for someone who knew even less about popular music than I do.
— “I admit my own [crush], and not for the first time — yet another ‘complicated, abiding knowledge.'” Kevin is quoting himself quoting Wayne. (Yet another self-emulation; another manifold mediation.) The Queen’s Throat ends with a description of a gay guy Wayne dreamt about:
This person exists, outside the dream. He is real. He is the opera queen: my shy reflection, my flamboyant ghost. I’ve seen him at the local opera and around town. We pass each other on Grove Street, by the secret societies and the cemetery, and we never say hello. But we know each other, with a complicated, abiding knowledge.
Beethoven’s Kiss includes the expression in the “Intermezzo” that begins the child prodigy chapter.
My strangest crush was on a boy named David Nish. I used to see, and hear, David in piano competitions our teachers had us enter. He was blond and slender and usually took first prize. I, neither blond nor slender, usually took second. We never actually met at these events and so developed what Koestenbaum would call a “complicated, abiding knowledge” of one another.
(David Nish / David Sorel: from David to David.)
— “Contre Kristeva.” Kristeva wrote about Céline in Powers of Horror.
— “Dina / Eva. Gilberte / Mlle de Saint-Loup. Why doesn’t he give the girl a first name?” Kevin is wondering why Proust failed to christen Mlle de Saint-Loup — the last of Marcel’s jeunes filles en fleurs and the daughter of his first, Gilberte Swann. He’s also analogizing — if not allegorizing — the two of them to the filial jeunes filles who’ve bracketed his own love life: from Dina to Eva.
— “Robert de Saint-Loup — Robert [Proust] de Saint-Loup?!” Kevin is wondering whether Proust named the character after his brother Robert instead of after a friend named Robert d’Humières. If he did, Finishing Proust would have to be reconceived. It could no longer situate Robert Proust as the “absent center” of In Search of Lost Time, or as the basis for the brother Marcel would have to have for the novel to be complete.
— “Eva as both Tadzio and Gilberte — or Albertine.” This is where Kevin finally finds himself in both Proust and Mann — and where we find him “cathecting” lost, unattainable youth.
— “Are they not, with the transparent velvet of their petals, as it were the mauve orchids of the sea?” Kevin is citing Proust’s commentary, in Sodom and Gomorrah, on the twice-abandoned, solitary invert who, “before retiring to dream, Griselda-like, in his tower, loiters upon the beach, a strange Andromeda whom no Argonaut will come to free, a sterile jellyfish that must perish upon the sand.” (Translation by Scott Moncreiff and Kilmartin) It’s a rather cryptic quotation, given that he could have used the self-explanatory one about the Andromeda, and makes me wonder whether Kevin intended at least this part of the journal, if not for publication, then for me. It’s also an indication that Kevin had a photographic memory as well. He’d left the book at home, here on the desk.
— “I didn’t identify with Nijinsky. I identified with Diaghilev — the Diaghilev who must have known, if only unconsciously, that Nijinsky would leave him.” Despite having undertaken the book as an exercise in what he called “vicarious embodiment,” Kevin, having already come to the belated realization that he’d seen David as the young dancer, has come to the related realization — anticipated by Beethoven’s Kiss — that he’d seen himself as the older impresario. (In Beethoven’s Kiss, which also emphasizes that every such affirmation represents a denial [omnis determinatio negatio est — but I’m not sure his Latin is correct], or that every denial represents an affirmation, Kevin claims that “I, for one, don’t care to see myself as the [pederastic] impresario” in “The Wunderkind,” a story by Mann. The story is anticipated in the conclusion of Buddenbrooks, which Kevin, of course, never finished reading. And as this is the time to mention it, I can’t understand why Kevin wasn’t interested in Thomas Mann’s relationship with his older brother Heinrich, another novelist. They were quite competitive.) Nijinsky’s own knowledge that he’d leave Diaghilev is reiterated in “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” a poem by Frank Bidart that Kevin (emulating Benjamin?) quotes extensively: “I REGRETTED what I FELT … Not making love, but that since the beginning I wanted to leave him … That I stayed out of ‘GRATITUDE,’– and FEAR OF LIFE,– and AMBITION… That in my soul, I did not love him.”
— “I realize I’m looking at a poster Steve designed as a kid. Meaning: the youth is David, but I don’t know who the police think he is. Nor do I know about that poster. // They must think he’s Steve.” I read the epiphanic dream “symptomatically” to mean that it’s Kevin who wants to “crucify” me (if only unconsciously), not the police — just as he must have wanted to kill David. What Kevin does recognize consciously is that he should interpret my (absent) centrality in the crucifixion poster, indicated by my having designed it, as an allegory for my absent centrality in Finishing Proust. Objectively speaking, he now knows there’s no missing brother (beloved or not) in the life and work of Proust, Barthes, Woolf, and Benjamin. Subjectively speaking, which is all supposedly objective critics may ever really do, there’s one in Kevin’s alone. (I did, in fact, do theater posters in college. Kevin may have had me do this one “as a kid” because he tended to infantilize me along with his — other — lovers, and for similar reasons.)
— “A terrible fantasmatic — terrible.” A fantasmatic, according to Wayne, is a formative scenario, typically erotic and stereotypically oedipal.
— “Half-brother Michel as the ‘absent center’ in Barthes — stupid.” Kevin is referring to Barthes’s exclusion of his younger brother — or half-brother, if you believe the aspersion Calvet cast upon their mother — in both Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and Camera Lucida, exclusions that may have been inspired by Proust. Michel was still alive (if, like the Surgis, a bit dimwitted) at the time.
— “The brother bit isn’t even ‘true enough.'” Kevin claimed “true enough” as his critical motto and used it to explain his productivity — a function, perhaps, of strategic self-deprecation (Socratic irony), but a function of a Wildean, Barthesian, and hence paradoxical concept of truth as well. The phrase rarely occurs in his published work, however — only once, if I’m not mistaken, at the end of the Beethoven’s Kiss chapter “Funérailles“:
Love and death — for Derrida, for Barthes, for me, and for you as well — merge in the “impossible” orgasmic simultaneity whereby we “arrive there together.” Or if not there, here. And if not then, now. Here at my climax, at my limited, and hopelessly Romantic, moment of truth. Yes, my truth. Not Genet’s (Derrida’s Genet). Not Derrida’s — truth as doxa we, together, can’t quite transcend, truth as a border we can’t cross. Not Barthes’s — truth as paradoxa we, together (for in truth, Barthes is less autoerotic than some suppose), can’t quite convey, truth as a moment in time we’ll never live to see. But my truth — which, as I ponder what I’m about to say, I feel compelled to call “true enough” — and which falls somewhere, and sometime, in between. In between doxa and paradoxa. In between time and space, then and there. (I’m at the point when/where these metaphors are of no avail.) And that truth is: I love, desire, identify with, and miss Chopin, Liszt … and everyone else I’d like to be waiting for me when and where I die, even though I know they won’t be. After all, I’ve been waiting for them.
True Enough also happens to have been the working title of The Easy Way Out, a novel by my friend Steve McCauley — one in which the narrator alludes to In Search of Lost Time as follows: “I’d read and enjoyed (even if I hadn’t entirely understood) a certain three-thousand-page French novel about cookies.”
— “But the writing blocks differ. Aschenbach finds no joy in work meant to maintain fame.” If Kevin hadn’t felt it was too late to revise Finishing Proust, or to exchange his “absent center” thesis for a less idiosyncratic one, he might have pursued this line of thought: Aschenbach (if not Mann himself) couldn’t write anymore because he was too public a figure, whereas Proust was sufficiently private — and obscure — to continue writing. Salinger could write despite his fame because he refused to publish anymore — and because, like Proust, he withdrew from society. Wayne, however, has never had to emulate that refusal and withdrawal. He’s sufficiently public to continue writing.
— “No answer from Wayne.” Kevin had left a brief message on Wayne’s answering machine, one with no intimation of mortality.
— “And suddenly, as if recalling something, as if through some impulse, she placed one hand on her hip, swiveled the upper part of her body in a beautiful contrapposto to the stance of her feet, and looked over her shoulder to the shore.” Kevin is transposing the pronouns (“she” for “he” — Eva, presumably, for Tadzio) in the penultimate paragraph of Death in Venice.
— “Will Steve ever know he was the key, if only the wrong key?” What’s “non-Barthesian” — paradoxically so — about this final entry is that Barthes suggests there are no keys to Proust. And if there is such a key, he writes in A Lover’s Discouse, a text Kevin may have read too thoroughly, we shouldn’t turn it. We should remove it instead, and then look through “the keyhole of language” — le trou de serrure du langage. (And if there is a key to Kevin’s death, or to Finishing Proust … )
I was drinking tea within a budding grove — and looking at the garden I’d recently begun. I’d never gardened before. I’d grown marigolds and sunflowers but never gotten into horticulture. Then Tina moved across the street. Tina Yensen was a septuagenarian I’d welcomed to the neighborhood with a batch of biscotti. She returned the favor with a night-blooming cereus: my first houseplant, yet one that has failed to bloom. We liked one another immediately and began E-mailing several times a day, signing messages Harold and Maude. We told people amused by our relationship and, because we lived close enough to talk, confused by our mode of communication that we enjoyed having satellites involved. The truth was, we needed to compose our thoughts — something Barthes would have appreciated. (Unlike intellectuals, he claimed, writers don’t think well extemporaneously.) It was Tina who suggested I make a shade garden, offering to help. We’d create a white garden, we decided, à la Vita Sackville-West. And so we planted honesty (Lunaria alba), sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis alba), foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia), wake robin (Trillium grandiflorum), white queen (Epimedium grandiflorum), and wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa). (As I’ve already indicated, I don’t know Latin any more than I know French, but I do know the names of flowers.)
Most of the plants seemed healthy, although it was too soon to tell. I liked the foam flower in particular. And as I looked at the new Lunaria blossoms I thought of the honesty (or “penny plants”) Mom used to grow and, for the first time in a long time, remembered a winter ritual: Kevin and I, having helped her dry the plants, peeling off the husks to reveal the silvery seedheads. Hundreds of them. That was a nice idea, I said to myself. And it was Mom’s idea. Not Dad’s.
I went back inside, back upstairs, and into the solarium. There was a message on the computer. “Give it time. Months. Years, even. I’m leaving for Mendocino. Care to come?” Tina must have seen me in the backyard, looking pensive. She meant give the garden time — and the anger, I imagined. I considered the trip to Mendocino and decided against it. “I can’t just now,” I responded. “Time to plant tears.” I also imagined she’d know the Elizabeth Bishop sestina: “Time to plant tears, says the almanac.” (Give it time, says Tina.) I then considered what to do next. I could nap. I could work. I could go to a bookstore. I decided to watch Pauline à la plage and rode over to Reel, a new place on Shattuck. They had it under “foreign.” I rented the video, headed home, and went back upstairs, where I closed the blinds, got back into bed, and watched Pauline — fifteen year-old Pauline. Eva’s age, I said to myself. A Nabokovian nymphet. Pauline and her sympathetic cousin Marian, of whom Eva and Dina may have reminded Kevin. (These may have been my thoughts as I fell asleep.) Pauline in her bikini. No tank suit. Pauline in her sailor outfit. Tadzio in his. Visconti… Mahler…
I’m roaming the West Village, wearing a white suit. My arms are full of flowers: cherry blossom, peach blossom, vervain, jasmine, violet. I’m looking for Leontyne Price but can’t find her. I have something terrible to tell her, something terrible to prevent. A man appears as I turn the corner of Christopher and Hudson. He’s sobbing. I give him the flowers and he sings something in Italian — Giunse l’atteso, nulla più chiedo al mare; diedi pianto alla zolla, essa i suoi fior mi dà. It’s a husky voice.
I awoke to find the television still on. I shut it off, rewound the video, and opened the blinds. Now I’m sobbing.
– 4 –
So I had my own life to live.
In order to summarize the next twenty years of it — such as they were — and to indicate why I finally cared to understand the suicide note, I’ll continue to copy — and annotate — some of the entries in a journal I did finally keep. I like the form, which, to some extent, emulates a flower catalog in Benjamin’s One-Way Street:
Geranium.–Two people who are in love are attached above all else to their names.
Carthusian carnation.–To the lover, the loved one appears always as solitary.
Asphodel.–Behind someone who is loved, the abyss of sexuality closes like that of the family.
Cactus bloom.–The truly loving person delights in finding the beloved, arguing, in the wrong.
Forget-me-not.–Memory always sees the loved one smaller.
Foliage plant.–In the event an obstacle prevents union, the fantasy of a contented, shared old age is immediately at hand.
But first, to annotate three of Benjamin’s annotations:
— “Two people who are in love are attached above all else to their names.” Kevin was attached to the Morel / Sorel / Harel coincidence. I’ve become attached to David / David and Steve / Steve duplications.
— “To the lover, the loved one appears always as solitary.” This would also explain why Kevin felt sorry for lovers.
— “Memory always sees the loved one smaller.” Kevin did think about how small Dina used to be — and she was short — but he doesn’t seem to have thought of the Davids that way. Maybe it’s a way men remember women.
Here are my own entries, in chronological order.
A dream. I’m roaming the West Village, wearing a white suit. My arms are full of flowers: cherry blossom, peach blossom, vervain, jasmine, violet. I’m looking for Leontyne Price but can’t find her. I have something terrible to tell her, something terrible to prevent. A man appears as I turn the corner of Christopher and Hudson. He’s sobbing. I give him the flowers and he sings something in Italian — Giunse l’atteso, nulla più chiedo al mare; diedi pianto alla zolla, essa i suoi fior mi dà. It’s a husky voice.
— I saw the connection between my white garden and the white suit. I knew that Asian mourners wear white, that Leontyne Price lived in the Village, having seen her there once, and that she’d been Madame Butterfly, the Asian indicated by the “cherry blossom” catalog. (Another Japanese victim, along with Katisha.) I knew I had to tell her that Captain Pinkerton remarried. I knew I had to prevent her suicide. I knew I’d lifted both the catalog and the lyric from the “Flower Duet” Butterfly and Suzuki sing after seeing Pinkerton’s ship: “I’ll ask nothing of the sea now that he’s returned; the earth I watered with tears has given me flowers.” I knew I’d lifted the lyric from Bishop as well. (“Time to plant tears, says the almanac.”) I remembered having cruised a man named Chris Hudson at Christopher and Hudson, yet neither he nor Kevin was the man to whom I gave my flowers.
— I’ll say who he was later on. When I do, though, bear in mind something I’ve realized only recently: that this dream may have been inspired, in part, by one Swann has of consoling a strange young man who’d burst into tears — a man, Proust tell us, who must have been Swann himself.
Bloodroot (Sanguisorba canadensis), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus), astilbe.
— I make this type of entry to learn the names of flowers added to the garden.
I’ve begun Jacob’s Room and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
— I knew they’d concern dead brothers, which may be why I chose them. If so, the choice was somewhat masochistic — although not as masochistic as Woolf herself, who wanted to kill herself after Thoby died. (An Antigone epigone.) Nor was it as masochistic as I’d become after Paul met Nilo.
I do have problems. I live alone. I am alone. And I hate my job.
— I was doing specifications for a firm that created corporate headquarters, and I found the work boring. So boring, in fact, that I took a leave of absence to design and build an Israeli house (Frank Israel) in the Berkeley Hills — one I planned to sell.
Mom and Dad have been here to see my houses — their first visit in over ten years. Dad likes the renovation. Mom likes everything. They both love the house in the Hills and wish I’d live there. Tina wishes I wouldn’t. I’ve been watching Dad — a lonely man who lost his own father at twenty, his only brother at forty, and Kevin at seventy. A man who married the wrong woman. I’ve also been watching Mom. She prattles. She talks at people, Tina in particular. E-mail from “Maude” this morning: “You’re hard on her.”
— I did consider moving “up” to the Hills, but eventually sold the house there to a Berkeley professor named Andie Joyeuse. (I’ve always been attached to the proximity of her name to that of Anne de Joyeuse.) It was a lucrative transaction that enabled me to resign from the firm. I now worked at home, doing renovations, additions, and weekend cabins for people Andie knew.
— Needless to say, Mom married the wrong man as well.
Tina’s pleased to have me here more often. As am I. The only thing I really miss about the office is the camaraderie.
— I continued to miss it. Tina became the only person I saw on a regular basis. We’d have coffee together any afternoon we were both home. And we gardened together once a week — except during winter, when we rented videos. Our “series” consisted of strange retrospectives: films that feature Vivian Pickles (Harold and Maude, of course; Sunday Bloody Sunday); comedies that feature Nazis (The Producers; To Be or Not to Be). We preferred comedy.
Dad died yesterday. Independence Day.
— Maureen arranged the funeral. I delivered a eulogy that mentioned his frustration in life, including his desire to have been an architect instead of a lawyer. And we buried him in front of Kevin — even though he’d said he wanted to be next to him, with Mom on the other side, as a reminder of my brother having crawled into bed between them as a child. (He’d said this at Kevin’s unveiling, which was also where I’d told him, somewhat nastily, that it would never happen.) Yet another (posthumous) frustration. It was very hot in the cemetery and Mom was wearing a heavy tweed suit. “She looks like a lesbian,” whispered Maureen.
— In fact, she looked helpless. And solitary. (A lonely old lesbian.) And short, I suppose — which is why I took her to Paris the following summer.
Ten days in Paris. Long enough to be here. Too long to be here with Mom, who doesn’t speak French either. Who, at the opera last night, asks me whether Dad loved her. And who mentions Boris again. I’ve spent my only time alone in the Carnavalet, where I thought about Kevin. Where I thought about Madame Proust, who wasn’t helpless. Where I thought about Mrs. Dalloway, who did connect. And where I thought about Mrs. Ramsay, who nurtured. I am hard on her, in ways Kevin wouldn’t have been. She’d have preferred his company.
— The opera was Pelléas and Mélisande, by Debussy. I’ll get to Boris later.
— The Carnavalet Museum is a 16th-century mansion that now contains Proust’s bed, which is why Kevin came to mind. (According to Benjamin, in One-Way Street, you shouldn’t write the conclusion of a work in your study because you won’t find the necessary courage there. Proust, of course, wrote his conclusion in his bedroom. I’ll be writing mine in this solarium.)
— I imagined I’d have preferred Proust’s mother because she could take care of herself. On the other hand, both mothers coddled favorite sons: Kevin and Marcel. I imagined I’d have preferred Mrs. Dalloway (in Mrs. Dalloway) because she connected to strangers — to Septimus Smith, for example, another strange young man, and another one of Woolf’s war casualties. Unlike Dad, Mom couldn’t even connect to me. (Nor did the dual disability in French bring us closer together, as it would with my next Parisian companion.) I also imagined I’d have preferred Mrs. Ramsay (the wife of the frustrated patriarch in To the Lighthouse) because she actually mothered her children, as opposed to having merely coddled them.
A dream. The Opéra is on fire. Mom rushes in and when I try to stop her, whispers “Don’t touch me.”
— I saw this as a wish fulfillment: my wish for Mom’s death, not for the destruction of the Paris opera house. My dreams about killing relatives are so much easier to interpret than Kevin’s.
Mom died yesterday. Bastille Day.
— Maureen arranged the funeral and delivered a eulogy that mentioned Mom’s frustration, including her desire to have been a doctor. We buried her in front of Kevin and next to Dad, placing pebbles on their separate footstones. I now saw that my dream fulfilled Mom’s wish as well. She’d wanted to kill herself after both Kevin and Dad died just as Mélisande had after Pelléas died, slain by a jealous half-brother with whom I identified and to whom the heroine had said “Don’t touch me” — Ne me touchez pas, ou je me jette à l’eau. (“Don’t touch me, or I’ll drown myself.”) I now felt remorse, if not guilt, as I’d imagined I would. I could have, should have been nicer to her. I also felt that Mom may have been shattered by Dad, who didn’t love — and shouldn’t have married — her. A man with whom, in reality, she’d shared a discontented old age. They had nothing in common.
I’ve begun Ada, despite the length.
— I knew the Nabokov novel concerns unusually close siblings, which may be why I chose it. But I didn’t recognize the proximity of “Ada” and “Ida” — another name to which I’m now attached. Nor did I recognize their proximity to “Aida.”
The Hills have burned. The house is gone.
— I now see that my Opéra dream predicted this. In fact, most of the buildings up there were completely destroyed. And as had happened when the Oakland Hills burned, architects benefited. I’d eventually do twenty replacement homes, including another Israeli one for Andie.
I’ve met some other architects: Paul Feuerman, Steve Marchetti…
— Steve Marchetti replaced a home on the lot below Andie’s; Paul Feuerman did one on the lot above. Both men were handsome, amusing, and intelligent. (Steve had truly green eyes — unlike Kevin. Paul had blue.) But Steve lived in New York, with a lover he neglected to name. Paul lived alone in San Francisco. He and I hit it off sexually. We joked about daily life. We talked about architecture — something in common. We seemed to connect — even though he didn’t read very much and I didn’t drink. And so I fell in love. I was forty-eight at the time, Steve Marchetti’s age. Paul was thirty-two.
I’ve suggested working together. Paul says I’m too competitive. I’ve suggested living together. He prefers his place. I’ve suggested getting a weekend home. He’d prefer travel.
— Benjamin would have understood Paul’s wanderlust. To quote him at thirty-two, in One-Way Street: “In a love affair, most people seek an eternal homeland. Others, but very few, eternal voyaging. The latter are melancholics, who believe that contact with Mother Earth is to be shunned. They seek the person who will keep the homeland’s sadness far away from them. To that person they remain faithful.”
We’ve gotten a dog!
— This was Paul’s doing, although I picked the name: Rufus. (Was I remembering roussâtre?) Rufus was a nasty border terrier. He lived at my place for a while because it has an enclosed backyard, but we didn’t hit it off. I’m not sure the animal had a soul.
Tina considers Paul uncouth. He doesn’t know Virginia Woolf, she says, let alone Sackville-West.
— I believed her at the time, but I’m beginning to think she was wrong. He wasn’t that uncouth.
— She’d been thinking of Sackville-West because she’d been rethinking the garden. She now preferred color. “Maude” began sending messages like “Time to plant bee-balm,” “Time to plant anemone,” “Time to plant forget-me-not.” Then there were no messages.
Tina died yesterday.
— There was no funeral. I held a memorial service in the garden. Neighbors consoled me. Paul consoled me. Even Rufus consoled me. (I guess he did have a soul.) None of it sufficed, and so I did what I knew I had to do.
Bee-balm, anemone, forget-me-not.
— These were red and blue.
Persian violet, Jacob’s ladder, bugleweed.
— More blue.
Scarlet sage, lungwort, clivia.
— More red.
When Paul mentioned meeting someone named Nilo at the gym, I thought nothing of it. When he mentioned Nilo’s having lived in Casa Casuarina, I became wary. When he mentioned reading the guy’s work in progress, I became alarmed. Now he’s keeping a journal — at his suggestion.
— You know the rest. We had three years together from beginning to end, but it didn’t end for me. I was still in love. Like Madame Butterfly, I wanted to kill myself — the ultimate masochism. Like Mom — like Kevin, in fact, whose feelings I hadn’t reciprocated — I was shattered by loving someone who couldn’t love me. The ultimate self-effacement. And unlike Mom — but like Kevin, although I didn’t recognized the precedent (with its predictable consequences) at the time — I was shattered by loving someone who preferred someone else. So part of this story is simply the world’s oldest story. To quote Heinrich Heine: “A young man loves a girl, and she has chosen another. The young man is in a sad state. It’s an old story but is always new; if you find it happening to you, your heart breaks.” Or to quote Kevin: “My heart is broken, and I don’t know what to do.”
— According to Kristeva, with reference to Marcel: jealousy is an endless interpretation of, and ego-shattering identification with, things that dominate your loved one’s life. True enough. But I never bothered to interpret the person who began to dominate Paul. Nor did I identify with him. I never even tried to meet Nilo, although I did run into them once. (A younger man. Younger than me, at any rate.) Nor did I ever read his work. And so I couldn’t say whether, as a novelist, he knows the meaning of life.
— “Casa Casuarina” is the Versace mansion in Miami.
I’ve begun The Princess Casamassima.
— I did so to prepare for James’s last three novels: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. I’ve yet to read The Golden Bowl.
— I saw myself as suicidal Hyacinth Robinson, especially when he watches Paul Muniment and the Princess enter her home together — betrayed by a man he doesn’t even know he loves. Not that I seriously considered killing myself at the time. Paul Feuerman, after all, was more Nanki-Poo than Pinkerton; and I, more Katisha than Butterfly — more comedic than tragic. (To quote Adolphe: “Not one of the passionate women of whom the world is full has not protested that she would die if abandoned, but every single one of them is alive and has found consolation.”)
A dream. I’m looking at a painting of the Nile. The picture frame disappears as a boat glides by. The painting has become real. I recognize two lovers on the boat: Leontyne Price as Aida and Jon Vickers as Radames — only now they’re at the Met. I leave the building, take the subway home, and find Rita Gorr waiting there (here): Amneris.
— I saw the connection between Nilo and the Nile. (Nilo means Nile.) I saw Aida as Nilo, Radames as Paul, and Amneris, whom he’d spurned, as myself. I knew that I’d reworked the betrayal scene in The Princess Casamassima. I knew I’d reworked the opening of The Queen’s Throat, which features Vickers in Aida. (My recording of the opera features Vickers, Price, and Gorr.) And I knew I’d inverted Kevin’s dream, in which the crucified youth became a poster I designed. In his dream, art imitates life; in mine, life imitates art — another Wildean paradox, according to Wayne.
I’ve begun The Ambassadors.
— I saw myself as Lambert Strether, that flâneur, especially when he watches Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet glide by in a boat — betrayed by a woman he must know he loves. I now knew that my dream predicted the betrayal scene in The Ambassadors, including the dissipation of Strether’s imaginary picture frame. (“What he saw was exactly the right thing — a boat advancing round the bend and containing a man who held the paddles and a lady, at the stern, with a pink parasol. It was suddenly as if these figures, or something like them, had been wanted in the picture, more or less, all day, and had now drifted into sight, with the slow current, on purpose to fill up the measure.”) I must have been told about the scene in advance: “The book which I haven’t read and which is frequently told to me even before I have time to read it (which is perhaps the reason I don’t read it)…” I, however, did read the book.
— The garden had become quite colorful and rather sophisticated.
Andie has offered to sell me the second house. I still prefer my place, my home and garden — even without Tina.
— I could afford to retire now. I could even afford to move up there, but didn’t. After all, there’s a difference between sophistication and snobbery — as both Marcel and his grandmother came to realize.
Assets: looks, intelligence, melancholy. Liabilities: looks, intelligence, melancholy.
— This was part of a (deconstructive) balance sheet I prepared to help me create “Paul,” the character in Whispering Gallery at whom “Stephen” glares through clenched teeth. I abandoned the project, frustrated by literary incompetence and wondering whether I, too, confused love and pity.
— I feel I should say something here about Marcel’s juvenile essay on the steeples of Martinville, comparing — and possibly deconstructing — our attitudes toward our early writing. But I’d rather not think about my incomplete novel, which would never have known the meaning of life. And I don’t recall his attitude.
I’ve begun The Wings of the Dove.
— The novel opened an old wound. The love triangle among Merton Densher, Kate Croy, and Milly Theale recalled the triangle among Newsome, Vionnet, and Strether, which recalled the triangle among Muniment, Casamassima, and Robinson, which recalled the one among Paul, Nilo, and me — a manifold mediation. Then something new happened; Merton, who betrayed Milly, falls in love with her after she dies. It’s a posthumous connection I’d never known before. Not in art. Nor in life.
A dream. I’m attending a Carnegie Hall performance of Boris Godunov. The opera ends as expected, but there’s an additional last act: The Pretender falls in love with Boris, now that he’s dead.
— I saw this as another posthumous connection. I also saw it as the gay finale (gay?) Mussorgsky never got to write. I now see that the situation concerns the Carnegie Hall Khovanshchina I’d attended.
— I don’t know why I dreamt about art more than I dreamt about life, or why I found such dreams more significant. Perhaps I found novels and operas more penetrating. (Proust did: “Indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea [a ‘real’ person] has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either.”) Perhaps I found their plots easier to articulate and hence to disarticulate. Perhaps I was bored by life, or by my empty life alone — even unconsciously.
Maureen died yesterday.
— My brother-in-law arranged the funeral and delivered a eulogy that didn’t mention frustration at all. We buried her next to Kevin. Now there were two couples in the family plot Dad bought when Kevin died: Mom and Dad up front; Maureen and Kevin behind them. Now there were three — soon to be four — very separate footstones.
— I don’t seem to have many significant memories of my sister. (Nor did Kevin seem to.) She was fourteen years older than I was, and so we’d never spent a lot of time together. But I’d always liked her. She was kind.
Paul was killed in a car accident.
— I’d caught the obituary in the Chronicle, which named Nilo as his lover. I felt empty, desperate. I felt that everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. I felt as I finally imagined Kevin must have felt. (“Eva à la plage, encore une fois. Et moi, je veux mourir.”) I also felt that there’d be no one left to grieve me.
— When Albertine dies — or kills herself, according to a girlfriend — Marcel doesn’t seem to care. I did care about Paul. And unlike Marcel, I did consider killing myself.
A dream. I tell Paul I love him. He tells me he loves me too. I tell him I don’t know what to do. He tells me to “dissipate.”
— A dream, a dream of life — and a demand. (“Every ‘I love you’ is a demand.”)
— By “dissipate,” I thought at first that he meant for me to get drunk. I then realized that he meant for me, that I meant for me to spread myself among other people — other living people — and connect with them. But I couldn’t, or didn’t think I could. So I simply recorded the dream in my journal and remembered Kevin’s: his dream, his suicide note. I did connect with him, if only posthumously — or so I told myself. (Et nous, nous voulons mourir.) Why did he think he loved me, I wondered. Why say he’s in love with me? Did it really matter? And did it matter anymore? It was time to keep reading.
– 5 –
I decided to begin by reading Kevin’s publications and searching for specific signs of myself. There were only two such signs, both in Beethoven’s Kiss — the bit about my having taken “violent” measures to suppress his laughter and an admission that whereas I was a “chip off the old block,” he was a mama’s boy. Neither sign indicated a connection with Kevin of which I’d been unaware. Neither one indicated anything he might have construed as romantic involvement. There were, however, several passages about women’s brothers — women with whom a mama’s boy might identify. (Sedgwick, as I’ve already mentioned, was merely the most pronounced of Kevin’s cross-sex “cathexes.”) He says that Virginia Woolf found Thoby utterly unrepresentable, which I’ve already mentioned as well. He wonders whether Fanny Mendelssohn judged other pianists by technical standards Felix set. And he reveals that Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava both helped create Afternoon of a Faun and performed the title role herself when Nijinsky became completely incapacitated — an anticipation, needless to say, of my own performance here. There were also passages about fraternity in general. He suggests that gay relationships reenact sibling rivalries and that the “abjection” Kristeva connects to absent fathers can also involve brothers.
I took all this to mean that he found our relationship competitive, which we both knew it was, that his love affairs were competitive as well, as were mine, that the affairs were “fantasmatically” fraternal, for which I’d take his word, and that he’d have preferred them to be collaborative, which would put the inadvertent omission — or repression — of a Schubert Fantasy section in Beethoven’s Kiss, or of an entire chapter on four-hand music, in another perspective I can appreciate. Kevin, it’s occurred to me, may have been even more competitive than he’d admitted to himself. I took it all to mean that he found me unrepresentable, even though unlike Thoby I wasn’t dead, and that he may have associated any “absent center” involving a brother with both unrepresentability and abjection. I also took it to mean that he thought I played the piano better than he did, which wasn’t true. I certainly couldn’t have improved upon the Chopin Polonaise Dina ridiculed. Nor could I have improved upon his Mendelssohn Rondo.
I then read drafts of the publications to see if there were any deliberate omissions worth pondering. Once again, there were only two: the description of Zooey’s irreconcilable attributes, and one that floored me — a description of what Nijinsky’s Legend of Joseph would have been like had Diaghilev let him do it:
If Nijinsky hadn’t upset Diaghilev by marrying Romola, he’d have realized yet another “Favorite Slave.” How so? As a “method” dancer who drew upon personal experience, would he have recalled how his own (distant) father treated him? Would he have imagined how his father would have treated him if he’d preferred Vaslav to his older son Stanislav? Would he have recalled how Stanislav treated him? Would he have imagined how Stanislav would have treated him if he’d been jealous? Would he have imagined Bronislava as a brother? And if so would that have been a stretch? (Probably not, having thought of her as the Faun.) Would he have imagined Diaghilev as a father? And if so would that have been a stretch? (Probably not, having thought of him as a sugar daddy.) Or would he have imagined Diaghilev as the Pharaoh?
I don’t know whether Nijinsky would have enjoyed the role. I do know that I’d have preferred not to play Favorites, or not to have had my own parents do so — although in my case it was a demanding mother who did. I’d have preferred not to have been preferred at all.
It had never occurred to me that Kevin resented being the mama’s boy or that he may have resented it because he could tell that I did, and because — like one of Joseph’s older brothers — I treated him accordingly. Nor had it occurred to me that he resented having had a Borderline Mom who expected too much of him — too many accomplishments, to use a word that recurs in Beethoven’s Kiss. This was something I resented as well, if to a lesser extent, and so I finally sensed a nonsuicidal (if nonromantic) connection with Kevin: a connection between boys — or their pitiful “inner” children — who’d both been made to feel like failures; a sense eventually confirmed when I read the third false start of Finishing Proust: “My second [book] knows but can’t say why mothers engender performance anxiety.”
I’ll say why they do — and why Kevin’s critical self-deprecation may have been intended, unconsciously, to alleviate that anxiety. Like the wife in An Ideal Husband, Mom partially incapacitated the two young men in her life by imagining us — and having us imagine ourselves — as paragons. Yet another joint hallucination. Yet another shattering experience. (Did Kevin, I wondered, ever realize he was acting like Mom by loving the man he’d have liked David to be, the one he thought he was helping him become, instead of the man David was?) It was a borderline personality trait she may have found uncontrollable, because Mom saw everything in black and white. It was also a Jewish mother trait. Every such mother, including Proust’s, sees her son as the Messiah.
I found myself thinking about Kevin’s writing style. His public style, that is — one less fragmentary, more literary, and more interrogative than the private style of the journal. His public style — well, I’ve already called it cruisy and said that it seems impromptu and associative, but isn’t. It also seemed like his speaking voice, the timbre of which — the grain of which, to cite Barthes — I’d forgotten. But it wasn’t his speaking voice. I couldn’t recall his actual speech involving repetitions, parenthetical asides, and rhetorical questions. (Not that his private style approximated his voice, which didn’t involve sentence fragments either.) I couldn’t recall him answering his own nonrhetorical questions. I couldn’t recall him avoiding simile. And apart from his Salingeresque line about Zsa Zsa Gabor, I couldn’t even recall him being clever, as in the bit about playing Favorites.
Nor could I have anticipated that my own style — here, at least — would come to resemble, or to deconstruct the difference between, Kevin’s two styles: both public and private. It certainly doesn’t resemble my speaking voice, to judge from an interview in the Chronicle about my work in the Hills. To cite a typical exchange there, one Paul didn’t appreciate at the time: “When asked if he dislikes any new homes, the Berkeley-based designer replied: ‘Many are unimaginative, but some wonderful architects are being represented. Steve Marchetti, for instance.'”
I can remember forgetting the grain of Kevin’s voice. Tina, over coffee one afternoon, had been asking about him. (I do recall the grain of her voice. I also recall the grain of Mom’s.) She’d wanted to know if we looked alike. I said yes. Drifting from sense to sense, she also wanted to know if we sounded alike, which was a funny question to ask anyone. Who, apart from people who hear themselves recorded, can tell his own timbre? But even if I’d listened to such a recording, I couldn’t say whether we matched. I tried to hear Kevin deliver a number of lines I could quote, including the one about Zsa Zsa, but nothing came to mind. And so all I really have now is a writing style — both his and mine — that creates a false because rhetorically adept impression of a lost vocal presence. Lost to me, that is. Wayne remembers it.
Howard, to anticipate myself, felt that Proust compensates for the incompletion of In Search of Lost Time by using a writing style that creates an impression of another such presence — whether true or false I couldn’t say, having never heard the author speak. He felt that Proust deliberately subverts structural unity in favor of a different sense of wholeness, one found on the level of verbal immediacy — “hence the hypertrophic dilation in the manuscripts.” As with Delany’s “fantasy of influence” theory, this is an insight Howard must have derived from Barthes, whose essay “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers” he himself translated — unless, of course, it’s an insight they both derived from Proust. “It is ephemeral speech which is indelible, not monumental writing,” Barthes writes there. “There is nothing to be done with speech but add on more.” But to continue quoting Howard:
Such a notion makes any focussed view of his work particularly dependent, when we read a translation, on the right connections or the useful differentiations of even the tiniest details, on displacements of word order or alterations of morphological signposts of the most recondite kind. Finished but incomplete, Proust’s work requires of us — readers and translators alike — an attention to details of linguistic creation we never granted to narrative prose, to “the novel,” before (an attention we find similarly required of us in works of Joyce and Beckett, however): a sign of literary transformation to which the translator must dutifully, must drastically attend.
An example of this attention might be Howard’s belated rendition of Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure as “Time and again I have gone to bed early” instead of the Scott Moncrieff / Kilmartin “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” in order that the English translation of the entire novel, like the French original, both begin and end with the word “Time.” It’s a circularity I’ll attempt as well, along with a Proustian “teleogeny.” (Will this have been the book “Steve” would eventually try to write? Will it, in fact, have been the one “Kevin” would?)
I also found myself thinking, as you may be, that the number of unfinished — or purportedly imperfect — texts with which Kevin’s project should be associated has begun to multiply. Beethoven’s Kiss, as I’ve already mentioned, is incomplete because of the exclusion of four-hand music. Vaslav Nijinsky is incomplete because of the exclusion of ballets he never got to do, including The Legend of Joseph. Nijinsky’s career itself was cut short by the mental incapacity he came to share with Stanislav: schizophrenia. Yet another fraternal connection, I said to myself, although not one between the two of us. If anything, like Schumann, we’re manic-depressive.
In fact, all Kevin’s books concern imperfection, erotic imperfection — or failure — in particular. It’s a coincidence of which he must have been aware long before he first wrote that Beethoven’s Kiss has an unconscious knowledge of mother-engendered performance anxiety. Every man in Love’s Litany (Wilde, Gide, Firbank, Barthes) has an unhappy love life, although none of the women do. (Maybe that’s what comes from their having preferred sexual reality to fantasy.) Beethoven’s Kiss, despite the conclusion that Liberace owed his queer success and self-satisfaction to having cathected the swanky cocktail pianist Hildegarde, never eradicates the sense established in both “Pianist Envy,” the opening chapter on Gide and Barthes, and “Music Lessons,” the penultimate chapter on “maiden” piano teachers, that no one — male or female — ever masters desire. Vaslav Nijinsky, after indicating the fraternal basis of competitive gay relationships, affirms that “no one should be made to feel like a failure.” Then there’s the aborted book Critical Failure, to anticipate once again. And then there’s Kevin’s Guggenheim proposal, which affirms that “most of us don’t wish to be reminded of failure.” He didn’t get the award, by the way.
All his books concern suicide too, although I’m not sure they predict his death — that teleogenic ending which compels their reconsideration. (“A man … who died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.”) The same can be said of Benjamin — and of Woolf, because both of them wrote about suicide as well. Love’s Litany has a chapter on Wilde’s “Love-Deaths” — several of which, including Dorian Gray’s Liebestod, are suicides and therefore require a discussion of how Victorians saw such acts as either heroic, pathetic, or sick. It also has a chapter on Firbank’s Cardinal Pirelli, the eponymous — and pederastic — hero of which accidentally kills himself while chasing an acolyte named Chicklet. (Kevin claims the novel “bears a striking resemblance to Death in Venice.”) Beethoven’s Kiss imagines — or has Hollywood imagine, in the film A Song to Remember — Chopin working himself to death. It also imagines Stefan Brand, the pianist in the film Letter from an Unknown Woman, having himself killed in order to prove to Lisa Berndle, the unknown dead woman he’d seduced and abandoned, that he’s a “gentleman.” (Yet another posthumous connection.) Vaslav Nijinsky describes the suicide of his Narcissus as an accidental death one needn’t mourn: “We heard the ululations of the chorus, we saw Echo weep as she too disappeared into the scenery, yet we were unmoved.” And then there’s Suicide Notes, another aborted book. Kevin’s own suicide may have been any or all of these: accidental, work related, sex related, heroic, pathetic, or sick. But none of these figures — Dorian Gray, Cardinal Pirelli, Chopin, Brand, Narcissus — can be said to have died of a broken heart, as Kevin can.
On the other hand, the first article Kevin published — “The Orgasmics of Truth” — concerns suicide in a way that does seem to predict his own. He writes there that truth — for Wilde, for Barthes, and for Kevin himself — is deeply personal. It’s too private to divulge to the public, or to communicate in a comprehensible manner, because if anyone other than the truth teller comes to believe him, it becomes common knowledge (doxa) and hence both boring and false. Yet the truth must be articulated, if only to oneself alone. Kevin’s metaphor — not simile — for this self-involved articulation is autoerotic asphyxiation. To tell the truth effectively is to die disseminating it, to strangle oneself while ejaculating. “The secret of telling a truth is, then, quite figuratively, the secret of autoerotic asphyxiation,” Kevin writes.
Barthes’s implicit equations seem clear — the more truthful a paradox, the more orgasmic, the more pleasurable, the more suicidal — and they seem to make sense. To pronounce a perfect paradox is never to hear it deteriorate into a doxa. It is to be strangled while uttering it, to engage in a “verbal pleasure [that] chokes and reels into bliss.”
The quote is from The Pleasure of the Text. Kevin did die in the middle of — or at the beginning of — writing his idiosyncratic, self-involved truth about Proust and so may have died happy not to know whether anyone else believed it. Or he would have if he’d killed himself just before having the epiphanic dream which revealed that his brother bit isn’t even “true enough.”
Of course, a more truthful way of articulating that truth, or of articulating whatever new truth that idiosyncratic old truth would have become, would have been to have killed himself when he finished the book. And an even more truthful way would have been to have destroyed the book, instead of the author, upon completion.
Another aspect of Kevin’s public style reflects this Barthesian concept of truth. The books are elliptical — or “tenderly epigrammatic,” to quote Wayne. The line “I’d have preferred not to have been preferred at all” is a good example of the reflection because it doesn’t explain his preference, which I know enough to attribute to Mom’s unrealistic expectations. Kevin is keeping that truth, that attribution, to himself here — assuming he’s aware of it. The third false start does state that Beethoven’s Kiss “can’t say” why mothers engender performance anxiety because it knows the answer unconsciously, but I suspect Kevin himself knew it consciously. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. (He may have found the truth irretrievable. He may have found conscious knowledge unbearable — or ignorance productive.) And maybe he doesn’t explain the preference in order to keep himself from knowing that he couldn’t — still couldn’t, even after having written a book about it, or rather a book with our Borderline Mom at its absent center. Maybe his elliptical style is meant to disguise the fact that he has no truth — or, at least, no conscious knowledge — to keep to himself; or to disguise the fact that he has nothing truly new to say. And so maybe Kevin’s death represents an elliptical style at an end, a style that knows enough not to be elliptical anymore because he’s just interpreted that dream — because he’s finally retrieved an unbearable truth about his “violent” brother, the ignorance of which had been productive. (This, too, has been anticipatory.) He does write in his journal: “I’ve simply written myself into recognizing something I didn’t want to know. Some things.”
Proust’s style, of course, is anything but elliptical. Nor is the sentence fragment his forte. Each sentence goes on and on, never ending — much like the novel itself. (Nabokov notices a tendency “to cram into the stocking of the sentence a miraculous number of clauses.” Kristeva notices that the clauses delay the closure of logical and syntactic totality “either by returning to preceding themes and linguistic items or by developing the themes and items contained in the sentence itself.” Benjamin notices that Proust navigates “the Nile of language, which here overflows and fructifies the regions of truth.” Howard notices the “hypertrophic dilation.”) Each explanation is exhaustive — and exhausting. It’s hard to imagine Proust ever has anything to add, although we know that he always does. And yet there are inexplicable gaps, sudden emotional shifts that never make sense, no matter how many times you read the novel — if, that is, you’re naive (or perverse) enough to read it for the plot. Why, for example, does Swann decide to marry Odette when he no longer loves her? I think she may be pregnant, but it’s a suspicion the narrator refuses to confirm. Why, for that matter, does Marcel decide to marry Albertine? I wouldn’t have tried to maintain my relationship with Paul if I hadn’t loved him.
I did try to maintain our relationship, even after I read his journal. I guess I should have said that before. I guess there are gaps — ellipses — in my own work. Why did I try to maintain it? Why, that is, apart from my having been a bit masochistic? I may have thought that my own love was strong enough for the two of us, or that I could make him love me. It’s hard to say at this point.
There’s another gap that’s just occurred to me. I’ve indicated Paul’s alcoholism as well as his, well, illiteracy. What I neglected to mention is that I found these failings attractive. They made me feel I could heal him, cultivate him, save him. They made me feel especially superior. That was part of my fantasy. I couldn’t do any such thing, of course, and so I imagined he was drunk — driving while intoxicated — when he died. An accidental, if not narcissistic, suicide. A final confirmation of the fantasy: If only he hadn’t left me …
Maybe Kevin had the same fantasy. Maybe he wasn’t acting like Mom when he loved the man he thought he was helping David — his own attractive “failure” — become. Maybe he was acting like me, and so maybe both of us were even more competitive than we’d admitted to ourselves. If so, it was a private truth (irretrievable? unbearable? unproductive?) neither one of us could have articulated. And if so, I now realize, it’s a profound connection.
I’ve already said that both Kevin and I are Proustian readers who find ourselves in fiction — including the fiction of Proust, needless to say. This was a profound connection I recognized while reading the publications. I’ve also said that both Kevin and I dislike simile: another connection I recognized at the time, and one that’s less superficial — more substantive — than you might think, even though the aversion does seem stylistic alone. Similes are usually spurious and often smack of cheap sentiment. Consider, for example, Elton John’s having recycled his likening of Marilyn Monroe to a “candle in the wind” when the Princess of Wales died in a car accident caused by another drunk driver. (This is just about the only other reference to popular music of which I’m capable.) I doubt God felt quite so tender toward Diana. But cheap sentiment aside, one thing has nothing to do with the other. The tenor has nothing to do with its vehicle, because there’s no essential connection between a glamorous courtesan and a guttering candle which, if extinguished, can be relit — and so hasn’t really “died.” (To cite Kant on “symbolic hypotyposis”: any such simile is “transfer of our reflection on an object of intuition to an entirely different concept, to which perhaps no intuition can ever directly correspond.” Or to cite Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, a book I mistakenly thought might be of some use to me as a designer: any such simile has “no phenomenological value.”) Then again, there’s no essential connection between David Sorel and Fritz Wunderlich, who I associated in a purely metaphorical manner (omitting the “like” or “as” of simile) under the sign of their supposedly pure timbres — both of which, oddly enough, I do still hear in my mind’s ear. “Hi, it’s David,” they say. “Call me.” They both say. All three of them say. I guess I’ve simply (or not so simply) confused David and Paul, and so the metaphorical association is really under the sign of the untimely demise of Fritz Wunderlich and Paul Feuerman. (True, Paul was fifty-two at the time of the crash. But he was thirty-five the last time I saw him.) Plus, the last names Wunderlich and Feuerman are both teutonic. The recording “call me” — translated, through a transposition of Kevin’s heartbreaker into mine justified by the purely accidental and hence inessential connection between these surnames, into an operatic voice from beyond the grave. A voice from beyond the grave: the locus classicus of posthumous sentimentality, cheap or otherwise, according to Sedgwick. The locus classicus, I suppose, of any posthumous connection, sentimental or otherwise. (The connection between Milly Theale and Merton Densher, or Lisa Berndle and Stefan Brand, or Kevin and I.) But whose voice is it? Is it Wunderlich’s? Is it David’s? Is it Paul’s? Is it Kevin’s? Was that his timbre? Only metaphor can accomplish all this — all this confusion. Simile can’t.
And yet I do like Proustian simile, as I imagine Kevin did. (This is the final anticipation.) Benjamin did. He admires how Proust “mobilizes a whole complex of trite, universally known relationships in the service of more profound expression.” Nabokov did too, and in particular the way Proust drifts from sense to sense — from the sight of pale moonlight to the sound of distant music — in the passage:
Noiselessly I opened the window and sat down on the foot of my bed. I hardly dared to move in case they should hear me from below. Outside, things too seemed frozen, rapt in a mute intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating each of them and throwing it back by the extension in front of it of a shadow denser and more concrete than its substance, had made the whole landscape at once thinner and larger, like a map which, after being folded up, is spread out upon the ground. What had to move — a leaf of the chestnut-tree, for instance — moved. But its minute quivering, total, self-contained, finished down to its minutest gradation and its last delicate tremor, did not impinge upon the rest of the scene, did not merge with it, remained circumscribed. Exposed upon this surface of silence which absorbed nothing of them, the most distant sounds, those which must have come from gardens at the far end of the town, could be distinguished with such exact “finish” that the impression they gave of coming from a distance seemed due only to their “pianissimo” execution, like those movements on muted strings so well performed by the orchestra of the Conservatoire that, even though one does not miss a single note, one thinks nonetheless that they are being played somewhere outside, a long way from the concert hall, so that all the old subscribers — my grandmother’s sisters too, when Swann had given them his seats — used to strain their ears as if they had caught the distant approach of an army on the march, which had not yet rounded the corner of the Rue de Trévise.
“The boy opens his window and sits on the foot of his bed, hardly daring to move lest he be heard by those below,” Nabokov writes:
(1) “Things outside seemed also fixed in mute expression.” (2) They seemed not to wish “to disturb the moonlight.” (3) Now what was the moonlight doing? The moonlight duplicated every object and seemed to push it back owing to the forward extension of a shadow. What kind of shadow? A shadow that seemed “denser and more concrete than the object” itself. (4) By doing all this the moonlight “made the whole landscape at once leaner and larger like [additional simile] a map which is unfolded and spread out” flat. (5) There was some movement: “What had to move — the leafage of some chestnut-tree, for instance — moved. But its punctilious shiver [what kind of shiver?] complete, finished to the least shade, to the least delicate detail [this fastidious shiver] did not encroach upon the rest of the scene, did not grade into it, remaining clearly limited” — since it happened to be illumined by the moon and all the rest was in shadow. (6) The silence and the distant sounds. Distant sounds behaved in relation to the surface of silence in the same way as the patch of moonlit moving leafage in relation to the velvet of the shade. The most distant sound, coming from “gardens at the far end of the town, could be distinguished with such exact ‘finish,’ that the impression they gave of remoteness [an additional simile follows] seemed due only to their ‘pianissimo’ execution [again a simile follows] like those movements on muted strings” at the Conservatory. Now those muted strings are described: “although one does not lose one single note,” they come from “outside, a long way from the concert hall so that [and now we are in that concert hall] all the old subscribers, and my grandmother’s sisters too, when Swann gave them his seats, used to strain their ears as if [final simile] they had caught the distant approach of an army on the march, which had not yet rounded the corner of the street.” (Translation by Nabokov)
Nabokov, that is, liked the many manifold similes in the many endless sentences. He liked the series of similes which don’t smack of cheap sentiment and aren’t spurious — yet which, through the very multiplicity that makes them seem so right, constantly gesture toward their inherent inadequacy: self-extension as self-correction, self-extinction.
I suppose my attitude toward “cheap,” “spurious” similes is snobbish — the attitude of a Charlus, if not of a grandmother. I like what Proust does with them, but not Elton John. I like literature, but not lyrics. I also suppose that this attitude, as with so much else here, is indicative of my own performance anxiety insofar as I might like John’s simile if I thought I could write a good one. Let’s try: I began thinking of myself as Madame Butterfly many years after I first heard the opera she appears in. Not bad, but not a real simile either. How about: Paul was as melancholy as a man without a country. You see the problem.
I didn’t know what else to look for in the publications, nor did I recognize any other rhetorical features worth pondering. This concerned me, as I was about to plunge into the Finishing Proust materials, as well as into the aborted project materials, themselves — which consist of books, journal articles, newspaper articles, notebooks, note cards, and marginal notations like roussâtre. Style and substance — form and content — aren’t exactly self-explanatory. (Neither are form and function.) In other words, they’re inherently elliptical, especially when one relies upon them to reveal what they can’t say, when one reads them, to continue using Kevin’s psychoanalytic terminology, “symptomatically.” They’re like dreams that way. Finally, an acceptable simile.
At this point, shortly after pondering the publications, I had my own epiphanic dream: one in which I’m Kevin, and one that inverts — or corrects — my behavior the night of his graduation.
A dream. I’m staying at “Steve’s” Greenwich Village apartment the night before “my” first day of high school — not Bronx Science. He packs the lunch I’ll be taking with me: yogurt and apples. He lets me stay up late watching television, an important sitcom finale — Seinfeld, in fact — that consists of characters floating in space and repeating a German name (not “Seinfeld”). Afterward, episode commentators remark on the “wonderful” writing. Steve is already up when I get out of bed. He’s still in a good mood, giving me directions to school and making sure I take the lunch. And he’s completely naked. It’s a beautiful, beautiful body — much more so than mine ever really was. The thighs, for example, are somewhat massive. I find him very attractive.
I finally knew where the romantic involvement began — or where it ended. Kevin saw me as sexy. And I finally knew what he’d always wanted. Not sex. Kindness. He wanted me — he wanted men — to care for him.
– 6 –
The Boris Mom mentioned in Paris was her father’s younger brother — younger by less than two years, in fact. Boris was killed by Cossacks while the two of them were crossing the Urals on the way to America — the only murder victim in my family, apart from relatives killed at Babi Yar. My grandfather hadn’t seen it happen, but he did find the body in a stream indicated by a fortune teller. The boy was thirteen at the time. The year was 1913.
At least the one of them managed to flee that unbearably sad, murderously anti-Semitic homeland. Benjamin, who killed himself while crossing the Pyrenees on the way to America because he mistakenly assumed he’d be captured by Nazis, hadn’t managed to escape his. Nor had he managed erotic escape, faithless Asja Lacis having disdained the “eternal voyaging” he’d invited her to share.
Benjamin’s opposition — “eternal homeland” versus “eternal voyaging” — anticipates my own opposition of finding versus losing oneself in literature, and like it, can be deconstructed: The erotic homebody is an unconscious traveler; the erotic traveler an unconscious homebody. (According to Proust, “We always like to escape a bit from ourselves, to travel, when reading.”) Consider the Flying Dutchman Kevin emulated, according to Wayne — Barthes’s Dutchman. “The accursed Flying Dutchman is doomed to wander the seas until he has found a woman who will be eternally faithful,” he wrote in A Lover’s Discourse.
I am that Flying Dutchman; I cannot stop wandering (loving) because of an ancient sign which dedicated me, in the remote days of my earliest childhood, to the god of my Image-repertoire, afflicting me with a compulsion to speak which leads me to say “I love you” in one port of call after another, until some other receives this phrase and gives it back to me; but no one can assume the impossible reply (of an insupportable fulfillment), and my wandering, my errantry continues.
Benjamin was that Dutchman as well, saying — demanding — “I love you” in one port of call after another, including Port-Bou, his final destination, and never hearing “I love you, too” said in return.
Benjamin killed himself; Boris was killed. It can be immoral to deconstruct that opposition, yet suicide survivors do see themselves as murderers. I imagine Leonard Woolf did. I know I have — as a masochistic survivor of both Paul’s “suicide” and Kevin’s. (If only he hadn’t left me …)
Speech versus writing: the first opposition tackled by the first “deconstructor.” But Gide was there ahead of Derrida, thanks to Proust. “I should read out loud to you these never-ending sentences,” he wrote to a friend. “Everything falls into place! The different levels build upon one another! The terrain of the mind becomes clearer and clearer!” Like me, Wayne was there a bit later. “Do you know, I actually heard your speaking voice, on the page, for the first time?” he wrote to Kevin after reading the first draft of Vaslav Nijinsky. The letter is dated January 23 — Kevin’s birthday, which may be why he saved it.
Metaphor versus simile: an opposition Nabokov tackled (thanks to Proust). Proustian metaphor, he found, is a hybrid form combining both metaphor and simile, because for Proust “the simile constantly grades into the metaphor, and vice versa, with the metaphorical moment predominating.” A good example of that gradation is an associative description of the flower Marcel came to associate with Gilberte, his first jeune fille en fleur:
And it was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose flowers were pink, and lovelier even than the white. It, too, was in holiday attire … but it was attired even more richly than the rest, for the flowers which clung to its branches, one above another, so thickly as to leave no part of the tree undecorated, [first comparison:] like the tassels on the crook of a rococo shepherdess, were every one of them “in colour,” and consequently of a superior quality, by the aesthetic standards of Combray, to the “plain,” [second comparison:] if one was to judge by the scale of prices at the main “store” in the Square, or at Camus’s, where the most expensive biscuits were those whose sugar was pink. And for my own part [third comparison:] I set a higher value on cream cheese when it was pink, when I had been allowed to tinge it with crushed strawberries. And these flowers [now the combination of all the senses:] had chosen precisely the colour of some edible and delicious thing, or of some exquisite addition to one’s costume for a great festival, which colours, inasmuch as they make plain the reason for their superiority, are those whose beauty is most evident to the eyes of children …. High up on the branches, like so many of those tiny rose-trees, their pots concealed in jackets of paper lace, whose slender stems rise in a forest from the altar on the greater festivals, a thousand buds were swelling and opening, paler in colour, but each disclosing as it burst, as at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, its blood-red stain, and suggesting even more strongly than the full-blown flowers the special, irresistible quality of the hawthorn-tree, which, wherever it was about to blossom, could bud and blossom in pink flowers alone. (Translation by Nabokov)
Colorful blossoms versus white ones: an opposition not worth tackling. My two flower gardens do mean very different things to me: life and death. Nor is the opposition manic versus depressive worth tackling. When you’re up, you’re up; when you’re down, you’re down — even if you have a borderline personality. Borderlines like Mom (and Charlus, come to think of it) never mingle mania and depression, good and evil, black and white — which may be why both Kevin and I, in separating ourselves from her, tend toward deconstruction — in other words, why we both like gray. Yet another fraternal connection, I now realize, for which she can be either credited or blamed.
But she can’t be blamed, in fact she deserves full credit for having interested the two of us in music. It was Mom who exposed us to opera: to Mozart and then to Gilbert and Sullivan. It was Mom who had us take piano lessons. And it was Mom who convinced Dad to buy us a stereo, and then to let me choose the components: a Marantz receiver, a Girard turntable, and Jensen speakers. If anyone’s to blame, I am, who ridiculed both her own piano playing and her singing. I remember in particular her somewhat atonal version of Sullivan’s “Lost Chord.” Then again, I also ridiculed Dad, who was totally tone deaf.
Kevin’s notes on Gide and Woolf demonstrate that deconstructive tendency as well as anything he’d published. Gide was annoyed — and impeded — by grammatical and syntactical errors in Proust; Woolf wasn’t. He was impeded by a conceptual disagreement concerning homosexuality, thinking Proust should have written about pederasty instead of inversion; Woolf wasn’t. He found Proust insincere, camouflaging his own homosexuality with the narrator’s heterosexuality; Woolf didn’t. Yet Gide loved the novel — as did Woolf, hesitating and eventually failing to finish it in order to sustain the enjoyment it affords. The subordination of component parts to the whole, he wrote, is so deeply hidden that each page seems to find its perfect end in itself: “hence this extreme slowness, this reluctance to quicken the pace, this continuous satisfaction.” “For VW [Virginia Woolf],” Kevin writes next to this passage, “this ‘perpetual union.'” “Nonchalance,” he writes there as well, “textual pleasure vs. textual bliss (RB).” “RB” is Roland Barthes, who in The Pleasure of the Text situated Proust as the basis of all literary mediation:
I recognize that Proust’s work, for myself at least, is the reference work, the general mathesis, the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony — as Mme de Sévigné’s letters were for the narrator’s grandmother, tales of chivalry for Don Quixote, etc.; this does not mean that I am in any way a Proust “specialist”: Proust is what comes to me, not what I summon up; not an “authority,” simply a circular memory. Which is what the inter-text is: the impossibility of living outside the infinite text — whether this text be Proust or the daily newspaper or the television screen: the book creates the meaning, the meaning creates life.
Gide’s remark about each page finding its perfect end in itself, Kevin notes, is a public affirmation. He, Gide, was censorious in private, writing in one journal that the component parts are insubordinate, the attention to detail overwhelming:
Finished also Les Jeunes Filles en fleurs (which I notice that I had never read completely) with an uncertain mixture of admiration and irritation. [“Cocteau!” Kevin remarks, probably referring to his having wondered if “Proustians” — if not Proust “specialists” — “read line by line or skip.”] Though a few sentences (and, in spots, very numerous ones) are insufferably badly written, Proust always says precisely what he wants to say. And it is because he succeeds so well in doing so that he delights in it. So much subtlety is, at times, utterly useless; he merely yields to a finicky need of analysis. But often that analysis leads him to extraordinary discoveries. Then I read him with rapture. I even like the fact that the point of his scalpel attacks everything that offers itself to his mind, to his memory; to everything and to anything whatever. If there is waste here, it’s just too bad! What matters is not so much the result of the analysis as the method. Often one follows attentively, not so much the matter on which he is operating, as the minute work of the instrument and the slow patience of his operation. But it constantly appears to me that if the true work of art cannot do without that preliminary operation, it really begins only with that accomplished. The work of art presupposes it, to be sure, but rises up only after that original operation has ended. The architecture in Proust is very beautiful; but it often happens, since he removes none of the scaffolding, that the latter assumes more importance than the monument itself, in which one’s glance, constantly distracted by the detail, does not succeed in grasping the whole. Proust knew this, and this is what made him, in his letters and in his conversation, insist so much on the general composition of his work: he was well aware that it would not be obvious.
Woolf, on the other hand, was censorious in public, affirmative in private. One essay, as Kevin notes, complained about the attention to detail. Much of the difficulty of reading Proust, she wrote, comes from this “content obliquity.” In Proust, that is, the accumulation of objects which surround any central point is so vast and they are often so remote, so difficult of approach and of apprehension that this drawing-together process is “gradual, tortuous, and the final relation difficult in the extreme.” There is so much more to think about than one had supposed, because “one’s relations are not only with another person but with the weather, food, clothes, smells, with art and religion and science and history and a thousand other influences.” An early draft of the essay, however, justified the attention: the long digressions, the disregard of time, and the enormous elaboration of analysis, Woolf wrote, represent “the natural and right way of telling this particular story.” Kevin doesn’t bother to interrogate the public-versus-private opposition here. (In other words, he doesn’t cite Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, who means to publish her diary.) Perhaps he wanted to maintain a distinction between Gide the closet classicist, or formalist, and Woolf the closet Romantic.
At any rate, all such distinctions between the French author and the British, for Kevin, collapse “under the sign of incapacity.” Both Gide and Woolf, he remarks in one notebook, resisted reading — and finishing — Proust because he made it hard for them to write. (Needless to say, he may have made it hard for Kevin to write.) Woolf’s letters and journals reiterated this:
May 6, 1922; to Roger Fry:
Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures — there’s something sexual in it — that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that.
November 18, 1924:
No doubt Proust could say what I mean — that great writer whom I cannot read when I’m correcting, so persuasive is he.
April 8, 1925:
I wonder if this time [with Mrs. Dalloway] I have achieved something? Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me & make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.
Gide said so both publicly and privately. “Each time I plunge anew into this lake of delights,” he wrote in “Apropos of Marcel Proust,” “I sit for days without daring to take up my own pen again, unable to admit — as is customary during the time that we remain under the spell of a masterpiece — that there are other ways of writing well, and seeing in what is called the ‘purity’ of my style nothing but poverty.” The journals, however, were “less self-aggrandizing,” according to Kevin in that same notebook, and even managed to hit the nail on the head — or to hit the right note. Having heard a Mlle X. “dash off with extraordinary assurance and charm, to perfection,” a number of pieces by Chabrier, Debussy, and Chopin, Gide confessed that he didn’t dare “to open my piano for twelve days.”
Small wonder after that that I don’t like pianists! All the pleasure they give me is nothing compared to the pleasure I give myself when I play; but when I hear them I become ashamed of my playing — and certainly quite wrongly. But it is just the same when I read Proust; I hate virtuosity, but it always impresses me, and in order to scorn it I should first like to be capable of it; I should like to be sure of not being the fox of the fable. I know and feel for instance that Chopin’s Barcarolle is to be played much more slowly than Mlle X. does, than they all do — but in order to dare to play it in the presence of others as leisurely as I like it, I should have to know that I could just as well play it much more rapidly and especially feel that whoever hears me is convinced of this. Played at that speed, Chopin’s music becomes brilliant, loses its own value, its virtue.
Sour grapes. Or to quote Kevin’s marginal notation: “Pianist envy! How could I not have noticed?!”
I know what he’s referring to. He quotes the journal entry in Beethoven’s Kiss without including the bit about Proust: an inadvertent omission — or repression. I suppose the blind spot can be attributed to the fact that although Kevin felt comfortable associating “pianist envy” with a sexual performance anxiety he probably didn’t have (I’m referring to the “strategic self-deprecation” of assertions such as “we don’t always perform our selves very well” and “our sexual failures, for want of a better word, can be quite as remarkable as our sexual successes”), he felt uncomfortable associating it with a literary performance anxiety he probably did. Like any critic, he’d have written fiction — or poetry — if he could. (Benjamin was one such critic who could say why mothers engender strategic self-deprecation, if not performance anxiety: “I remember, too, how nothing was more intolerable to my mother than the pedantic care with which, on these walks, I always kept half a step behind her,” he once wrote. “My habit of seeming slower, more maladroit, more stupid than I am, had its origin in such walks, and has the great attendant danger of making me think myself quicker, more dexterous, and shrewder than I am.”)
On the other hand, Kevin probably associated an erotic anxiety he did have with a literary one. He had to have envied Wayne’s relatively successful love life as much as he envied his intimidating literary career (one including both poetry and criticism), and he had to have connected the two — a connection, however, which doesn’t concern Gide and Woolf. Neither writer envied Proust’s love life, not because it was unsuccessful, but because they weren’t privy to it.
Woolf alone, Kevin indicates on a note card, may have resisted finishing Proust because she felt engulfed by him — an eerie anticipation, as elsewhere in her oeuvre, of her own death by drowning. (Sink or swim. Gide, plunging into “this lake of delights,” swam.) There’d come a point in time when she felt time was running out. “So I came back and read Proust,” she wrote to Ethel Smyth, “which is of course so magnificent that I can’t write myself within its arc; that’s true; for years I’ve put off finishing it; but now, thinking I may, and indeed so they say must die one of these years, I’ve returned, and let my own scribble do what it likes. Lord what a hopeless bad book [The Years] will be!” Yet the water imagery, and the tenor thereof (whatever it may be), kept holding her back: eros versus thanatos (“there’s something sexual in it”), or maybe the other way around.
January 21, 1922; to E.M. Forster:
Everyone is reading Proust. I sit silent and hear their reports. It seems to be a tremendous experience, but I’m shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid sort of notion that I shall go down and down and down and perhaps never come up again.
June 20, 1928:
Take up Proust after dinner & put him down. This is the worst time of all. It makes me suicidal.
March 7, 1937; to Smyth:
And everyone seems chirping at me to read their damned works for them. And I want to sink into Proust.
I wondered whether Kevin identified, whether he, too, felt engulfed by reading Proust, or by preparing to write about him. Or by life “itself,” whatever that may be. (The book creates the meaning, according to Barthes, the meaning creates life.) If so, no wonder he preferred Woolf to Gide, a Proustian with no brother of his own, dead or otherwise, imaginary or otherwise, to either represent or fail to represent — and the only one Kevin writes about whom he actually loathed. “Roland Barthes, a writer I can’t but love, never met André Gide, a writer I can,” begins “Pianist Envy.”
It never occurred to Kevin that Woolf and Gide may have been too bored to finish. Nor did it occur to them, whatever boredom — or ennui — is. It certainly isn’t an emotion in and of itself. Freud saw it as a form of anxiety. Barthes, in his autobiography, wondered whether boredom is a form of hysteria. Patricia Spacks, in a literary history of boredom Kevin owned but doesn’t seem to have read, described ways in which it masks rage, despair, irritation, alienation, frustration, emotional inadequacy, and either intellectual inferiority or intellectual superiority. She also distinguished it from ennui: Whereas ennui implies a judgment of the universe, boredom implies a response to the immediate. Gide was too in touch with his irritation to be bored by Proust; Woolf too in touch with her sense of inferiority. The one who may have been bored is Barthes, who in The Pleasure of the Text included yet another passage with “Proust” written all over it that probably gave Kevin the impression the author never finished reading him — and that may have made him think Finishing Proust, like the previous three books, should be succinct:
If I read this sentence, this story, or this word with pleasure, it is because they were written in pleasure (such pleasure does not contradict the writer’s complaints). [Recall Gide’s claim that Proust “delights” in saying what he wants to say.] But the opposite? Does writing in pleasure guarantee — guarantee me, the writer — my reader’s pleasure? Not at all. I must seek out this reader (must “cruise” him) without knowing where he is. A site of bliss is then created. It is not the reader’s “person” that is necessary to me, it is this site: the possibility of a dialectics of desire, of an unpredictability of bliss: the bets are not placed, there can still be a game.
I am offered a text. This text bores me. It might be said to prattle. The prattle of the text is merely that foam of language which forms by the effect of a simple need of writing. Here we are not dealing with perversion but with demand. The writer of this text employs an unweaned language: imperative, automatic, unaffectionate, a minor disaster of static (those milky phonemes which the remarkable Jesuit, van Ginnekin, posited between writing and language): these are the motions of ungratified sucking, of an undifferentiated orality, intersecting the orality which produces the pleasures of gastrosophy and of language. You address yourself to me so that I may read you, but I am nothing to you except this address; in your eyes, I am the substitute for nothing, for no figure (hardly that of the mother); for you I am neither a body nor even an object (and I couldn’t care less: I am not the one whose soul demands recognition), but merely a field, a vessel for expansion. It can be said that after all you have written this text quite apart from bliss; and this prattling text is then a frigid text, as any demand is frigid until desire, until neurosis forms in it.
I deduce this — Kevin’s impression that Barthes hadn’t finished Proust — from his having written both “cf. PT” (The Pleasure of the Text) and “cf. RBRB” (the autobiography containing the seemingly Proustian passage “And if I hadn’t read Hegel…”) on two pages in his copy of Calvet’s Barthes biography, next to the lines: “The young Barthes could not understand why some people found Proust boring and were put off by his prolix sentences;” and “He had read a great deal — all of Michelet, Proust and the early texts of Sartre and Camus.” I also deduce it from his having written “What about the prattle?” after the notation “Says he finished,” which he made during an interview with the Richard (Howard) who didn’t translate The Pleasure of the Text into English. (That translation was by Richard Miller.) Of course, there’s no guarantee that Barthes wasn’t the kind of Proustian Cocteau had in mind.
I myself don’t find Proust boring. One novel I do, and have yet to finish, is The Princesse de Clèves, which Kevin first read during the last year of his life. (To cite the journal entry that recalls David’s having told Kevin about Adam: “Reading The Princess of Clèves. I am Monsieur de Clèves. Rereading Swann in Love. I am Charles Swann — David, Odette de Crécy.” To cite the entries in a second notebook that indicate the false starts: “I began thinking of myself as Monsieur de Clèves several months before I first read the novel he appears in;” “I began thinking of myself as Charles Swann several years after I first read the novel he appears in.”) The only compelling character in it is one of the only real ones: Anne Boleyn. It’s interesting to meet her before she marries Henry VIII. All the others irritate me. They don’t seem very sophisticated. Or maybe they’re too sophisticated. Or maybe the author is. (Proust, of course, is transcendentally sophisticated.) It’s hard to say. And so I’m “bored” by La Fayette. She compels me to begin other, possibly “better” books. In other words, both the bored and the bereft read novel after novel — bored by books, bored by life. (And yet the book creates the meaning, the meaning creates life.) On the other hand, and unlike Charlus, who doesn’t read anything in a serious and thorough manner but does at least read, the sufficiently bored yet insufficiently — or immanently — sophisticated Duchess of Guermantes reads next to nothing.
The other characters in The Princesse de Clèves don’t seem to have irritated Kevin, which may mean that he was more intelligent than I am. Or that he was less. Once again, it’s hard to say. I do know that he was more ambitious, if not more successful, a disconnection for which Proust, and not Mom, can be either credited or blamed. Sedgwick, in Epistemology of the Closet, wrote that she read Proust for the first time during the short stretch of years during which it also first occurred to her to have “ambitions that were not exclusively under the aspect of eternity: to want to publish visibly, know people, make a go of it, get a run for my money.” Oddly enough (“of course”) it was reading Proust that made her want these adventures and think she could find them. “The interminable meditation on the vanity of human wishes was a galvanizing failure for at least one reader: it was, if anything, the very sense of the transparency and predictability of worldly ambitions that gave me the nerve and skill to have worldly ambitions of my own.” (Like Wayne’s, Sedgwick’s successful career included both poetry and criticism.) Kevin writes “my own failure” next to the passage in his copy of the book. I’d have written “my own misreading,” one Proust probably intended.
To finish the Cocteau quotation I keep invoking: “I wonder if the ‘Proustians’ read line by line or skip. One is alarmed, physically speaking, for his apparently remarkable translators. The very idea of their task overwhelms us with fatigue.” Benjamin, however, abandoned his translation for reasons unrelated to fatigue. And he’d only had to do half the novel, having undertaken the project in collaboration with a friend.
First of all, he became bored — bored insofar as he felt intellectually superior. After years of what he considered obscure prevarications by publishers, according to one biographer, Benjamin was no longer inclined to return to the drudgery of the translation, particularly because his interests had shifted to other fields of literary production. (Proust himself, having spent years translating Ruskin in collaboration with Marie Nordlinger, might have sympathized. Although the achevé d’imprimer of La Bible d’Amiens was February 15, 1904, according to the biographer George Painter, it wasn’t too late for Proust to add last-minute corrections. “In the small hours of that very day he sent two questionnaires to Mlle Nordlinger on passages which still perplexed him, ending with the ominous words: ‘This old man’ — meaning Ruskin — ‘is beginning to bore me.’” Proust, it appears, didn’t know English very well.) Before the shift of interests, however, Benjamin had found the coincidence of various interests disabling. When he read Asja Lacis the lesbian scene from Proust, he noted in his Moscow Diary, she grasped its savage nihilism. She grasped, that is, how Proust ventures into the private chamber marked “sadism” and then smashes everything to pieces, “so that nothing remains of the untarnished, clear-cut conception of wickedness, but instead within every fracture evil explicitly shows its true substance — ‘humanity,’ or even ‘kindness.’” And when he explained this to her, it became clear to Benjamin how closely this coincided with the thrust of his book on the baroque: “Proust was here developing a conception that corresponds at every point to what I myself have tried to subsume under the concept of allegory.”
Tried to subsume — and probably failed. He’d also found the entire undertaking somewhat ridiculous. The critics may like his translation of Within a Budding Grove, he wrote Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but so what? Any such translation “has something absurd about it.”
Second of all, Benjamin may have felt aesthetically inferior. Not only would he have written fiction or poetry if he could, he suspected that translators should be poets as well — something Howard was. Don’t we usually regard that which lies beyond communication in a literary work as the unfathomable, the mysterious, or the poetic, Benjamin asked in “The Task of the Translator.” “And is this not something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also — a poet?” Nonetheless, Kevin notes, Benjamin “finalized” his Baudelaire translation. Or maybe he didn’t. Benjamin’s estate contains numerous subsequent versions of poems from Les Fleurs du mal, only four of which were published in his lifetime.
Benjamin never finished his own masterpiece either — a book inspired by the skylit shopping arcades of Paris – in part because the project kept him from killing himself. It was, he felt, the actual, if not the only reason not to lose courage in the struggle for existence. The arcades inspired “The Task of the Translator” as well. A real translation is transparent, Benjamin wrote. It doesn’t cover the original, nor block its light. This can be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator: “For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.” “An unpoetic point of view,” Kevin comments — meaning, I suppose, that poetic translations aren’t literal.
A third reason for Benjamin’s failure may stem from Proust’s attention to detail, even more overwhelming for a translator than for a reader. One reviewer described the collaborators’ division of labor as follows. Each contributes elements from his individual personality and scholarly background: Whereas Benjamin represents the subtle, exact, unremittingly probing, critically transcending side which is never satisfied with a single solution, and that corresponds Proust’s compulsion not to leave anything untouched and to retain in the depths of memory and knowledge all that has been experienced, Benjamin’s friend (Franz Hessel) represents Proust’s engaging, affectionate, and intuitively acquisitive side. The reviewer deconstructed himself, however. Just as Proust can’t be dissected into parts (“almost every sentence of this gigantic work is a miracle of modulation and nuance”), nor are the two translators rigid and inflexible: “Hessel is sufficiently thoughtful, and Benjamin has shown not only here, but also in his Baudelaire translations, just what strong emotions and powers of expression he can summon to convey poetic virtues and resonances.” “So WB could have written poetry,” Kevin comments.
A more likely reason for the failure stems, not from Proustian detail, but from the linguistic dislocation most translators experience, even ones who also write poetry. Benjamin, in “The Task of the Translator,” invokes nature to describe this alienation: “Unlike a work of literature, translation finds itself not in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.” (I presume this “language forest” to have been a different metaphorical space, for Benjamin, than the road cut by the copyist “through the interior jungle forever closing behind it.”) Banana Yoshimoto invoked it as well. “What would be an appropriate metaphor to explain my feelings when I was doing a translation?” asks the narrator of N.P., her novel about suicidal translators.
An endless meadow of golden pampas grass swaying in the wind, or a coral reef beneath a deep brilliant blue ocean. That utter stillness you feel when you’re seeing a whole bunch of tropical fish swimming by, all in bright colors, and they don’t even look like living creatures.
“You’re not going to live long with that kind of world in your head,” she adds. But it is the unpoetic translator — the Benjamin, according to Benjamin — who is more likely to experience the dislocation. To quote another one of his metaphors: The enormous danger inherent in all translation is that “the gates of a language thus expanded and modified may slam shut and enclose the author in silence.”
The final reason for the failure, according to Kevin, is that Benjamin identified with Proust, notwithstanding any intellectual superiority or aesthetic inferiority. And as with both Gide and Woolf, it was an identification that made it hard for him to write. The mother of Yoshimoto’s narrator describes the problem — as well as the intense literary mediation of translation — in general terms. She feels that you become so involved with the writer’s style it starts to feel like your own; that when you spend hours every day with that style, you end up thinking you alone created it in the first place; and that you get so far into the author’s thought processes you sense no resistance at all. “Sometimes I find myself thinking the way she would,” the mother admits, “not just about the book, but about my own life, even when I’m not translating.” Benjamin himself described the problem in specific terms, admitting that his Proust translation necessitated “the renunciation of any dalliance with related possibilities.” Related possibilities, he wonders, do they really exist? They certainly permit no dalliance, because having begun to open the fan of memory Proust never comes to the end of its segments. No one image ever satisfies him, for it too can be unfolded, and only in its folds does truth reside: that image, that taste, that touch for whose sake everything has been unfurled and dissected. “Such is the deadly game that Proust began so dilettantishly, in which he will hardly find more successors than he needed companions.” Benjamin also described it in terms that anticipate — or that predict — his own death, which he achieved by having overdosed on morphine, just as Woolf described it in terms that anticipated hers. The actual work, he wrote to his friend Gershom Scholem, “makes me sick.” Unproductive involvement with a writer who so splendidly pursues goal that are similar to his own, at least former, goals “occasionally induces something like symptoms of internal poisoning in me.”
These Yoshimoto citations are mine, not Kevin’s. I don’t think he ever read her books. I know he didn’t own any. And because the books are fiction, you may find the citations unconvincing. After all, I don’t know if Yoshimoto had ever been a translator. But neither had Kevin. And neither have I.
Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, in its entirety, is a letter to Leonard:
I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we cant go through another of these terrible times. And I shant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and cant concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I dont think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I cant fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I cant even write this properly. I cant read. What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me & incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I cant go on spoiling your life any longer. I dont think two people could have been happier than we have been.
The document does exist.
Benjamin’s suicide note is a postcard to one of his two fellow travelers who did make it into Spain:
In a situation with no way out, I have no choice but to end it. My life will finish in a little village in the Pyrenees where no one knows me. Please pass on my thoughts to my friend [Theodor] Adorno and explain to him the situation in which I find myself. There is not enough time to write all the letters I had wanted to write.
This document doesn’t exist. The original postcard didn’t survive, that traveler having destroyed it during her flight and only later, in America, reconstructed it from memory, probably at Adorno’s request. Inconsistencies in her account of Benjamin’s death, moreover, suggest that her memory was fallible. I’ve wondered whether she reconstructed the suicide itself, and whether Benjamin’s death was purely accidental — pathetic instead of tragic. I’ve even wondered whether Kevin’s was. Those of us who’ve believed in Benjamin’s suicide, have believed because we needed to. We’ve needed — we’ve demanded — that narrative, that denouement, that teleogenic ending. Just as I’ve demanded Kevin’s, I suppose.
Benjamin’s younger brother Georg, as Kevin must have been delighted — or saddened — to discover, was another fellow traveler with whom he did get along. (He also had a sister named Dora.) And like Walter, Georg killed himself — or was killed, as that Benjamin biographer explained in a long passage next to which Kevin has written “3 years younger,” “unpoetic work,” and “abject finale.” (So he did associate “absent centers” involving brothers with Kristeva’s state.) To paraphrase the passage: While Georg was in many respects Walter’s political alter ego, the younger brother was the more ardent Communist. Georg had encouraged Walter to join the German Communist Party during the latter part of the 1920s, but without being insistent. Later, during the early part of the 1930s, even after having been imprisoned in Sonnenburg concentration camp for his illegal work for the Communist regional committee in Berlin, Georg never considered fleeing fascist Germany. Instead he resumed the work, translating English, French and Russian articles about the political situation in Germany and the Popular Front in France and Spain. He edited an illegal newsletter as well.
It was the translation of a lengthy article in Pravda that proved to be his undoing. The manuscript was found in the possession of a Communist student from whom the Gestapo traced the text back to Georg. After serving a six year sentence in jail, he was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, where he died in 1942. According to official records, he committed suicide by touching the power line connected to the fence surrounding the camp. In reality, according to the now omniscient narrator, he was driven to his death by fascist torturers. And “his thoughts were with his brother right up to the end.” “Not exactly ‘the youngest brother’ in ‘The Storyteller,'” Kevin notes there as well — an allusion to Benjamin’s obscure observation that the youngest brother in a fairy tale shows “how one’s chances increase as the mythical primitive times are left behind.” “How had he saved him — an imaginary scene?” Kevin asks himself at the equally obscure opening of “A Berlin Chronicle.” Recalling the nursemaids (and not the mother) who introduced him to the city, Benjamin suggested that the first street they helped him discover “that no longer had anything habitable or hospitable about it, emanating forlornness between the shopfronts and even danger at the crossings, was Schillstrasse; I like to imagine that it has altered less than others in the West End and could even now accommodate a scene rising irresistibly from the mist: the saving of the life of ‘little brother.’” “Georg?” he notes next to two of Benjamin’s variations on a critical theme: first in “The Theory of Criticism”:
Suppose you make the acquaintance of a young person who is handsome and attractive, but who seems to be harboring a secret. It would be tactless and reprehensible to try to penetrate this secret and wrest it from him. But it is doubtless permissible to inquire whether he has any siblings, to see whether their nature could not perhaps explain somewhat the enigmatic character of the stranger. This is exactly how the true critic inquires into the siblings of the work of art. And every great work has its sibling (brother or sister?) in the realm of philosophy.
Then in “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” a later essay:
Let us suppose that one makes the acquaintance of a person who is handsome and attractive but impenetrable, because he carries a secret with him. It would be reprehensible to want to pry. Still, it would surely be permissible to inquire whether he has any siblings and whether their nature could not perhaps explain somewhat the enigmatic character of the stranger. In just this way critique seeks to discover siblings of the work of art. And all genuine works have their siblings in the realm of philosophy.
I’m sure Kevin saw Georg — the impenetrable, if not unrepresentable, stranger — as the work of art, not as philosophy. I’m also sure he saw him as me: another attractive brother, from Kevin’s “terrible” perspective. And notice the removal of Benjamin’s sister — the removal of the parenthetical query “brother or sister?” Notice, for that matter, the removal here (omission or repression?) of our own sister.
Richard Howard was older than Benjamin when he undertook his own translation. Benjamin had been thirty-four at the time; Howard was fifty-eight and therefore mature enough to come to believe that he might not live to complete it. At the beginning, he thought the work would take about a decade. He soon realized that it would take twenty years and that he’d do nothing else, according to Kevin’s interview notes. He also appears to have been overwhelmed by the physical fatigue Cocteau mentions. “If I continued it would kill me,” Howard told a newspaper reporter in 1996. And so he limited himself to the novel within the novel he titled Charlus. The interview notes indicate an autobiographical motivation to which the Charlus preface alludes: “like pulling Gwendolen Harleth out of Daniel Deronda (Leavis suggestion).” The critic F.R. Leavis, Wayne later told me, had taught Howard that the George Eliot novel contains a shorter, better novel about its heroine, not to mention a more British (and thus more “realistic”), less Jewish (or Romantic) one. (He also told me that Edith Wharton already extracted such a novel by writing The House of Mirth.) One could believe Howard, I suppose. One could even attribute his decision to the same preference for comedy Tina and I shared. Charlus is, in fact, Proust’s funniest character, although Mme Verdurin gives him a run for his money. I myself, however, tend to credit — and will be indicating — an autobiographical motivation of which Howard appears to have been unaware. As does Kevin, oddly enough.
But before I indicate it, I should touch upon the other reasons Kevin considered. First of all, Howard wasn’t bored. The translation, he told another reporter in 1988, involved “pleasure very close to terror” — a feeling that never abated, he told Kevin, because he was always within “the clutches of something beyond my ability.” That “something,” of course, is the poetic attention to linguistic detail no novelist prior to Proust had paid, attention which conveys an impression of verbal immediacy, compensates for the formal incoherence of In Search of Lost Time, and accounts for the ten year delay Howard anticipated. Yet another Proustian “incapacity.” Yet another sense of aesthetic inferiority — even though Howard, unlike Benjamin, was a poet, which makes the sense somewhat false. I’ve already indicated that Howard’s translation of Proust’s first sentence (“Time and again, I have gone to bed early”) shows him having risen to the challenge. He continued doing so. For example, whereas Proust’s second sentence, in which the narrator remembers lying in the dark and drifting in between wakefulness and sleep, uses the phrase “ma bougie éteinte” (literally, “my candle extinguished”), both Kilmartin and Grieve drop the passive tone, the former saying “when I had put out my candle” and the latter “as soon as I snuffed out my candle.” Howard translated the phrase “my candle just out,” which captures the vagueness of the original — the narrator’s sense of not knowing whether he put out the candle himself or whether it flickered out of its own accord.
Howard experienced linguistic dislocation as well, that feeling of finding himself outside Benjamin’s language forest. “Every word has to be weighed in relation to what might be called the strangeness, the obliquity, the ‘off’ quality of Proust,” he told another 1988 reporter. (“Cf. VW,” Kevin notes next to the word “obliquity” — an inappropriate reference, if it is a reference, to Woolf’s remark about “content obliquity.” She was concerned with detail, not dislocation.) Howard’s own example, a passage in which Proust uses the peculiar expression “cabinet de verdure” to describe a room in a house, echoed the sylvan image. “I couldn’t find an easy reference for it,” he told the reporter.
“I thought it might mean a conservatory or a winter garden, but it doesn’t. The existing translation translates it ‘arbor,’ and I wasn’t sure about arbor. I called up friends in France and gradually it became clear that it was a place in the garden, what we might call a green nook, a secluded spot where the hedges were clipped in such a way as to make a kind of outdoor room. I don’t think I was able to do much with this, but I wanted to know what it meant because I thought it would influence the tone. I think I translated it as a bower.”
Kevin and I had our own such bower, by the way: an A-frame tree house Dad designed. It was a project that made me first think about becoming an architect. It was also what made me realize Dad wanted to be one as well.
Whereas Benjamin may have abandoned his translation because he identified with Proust, Howard may have done so because he disidentified. This is I infer from Kevin’s having written “Time Reclaimed” on his copy of Howard’s poem “For James Boatwright, 1937-88.” The poem contains the lines:
You went with a sigh of relief — to me a sign / that any past we might hope to reclaim / spreads like an oil slick, wide behind us, / and the oncoming // years of retrieval diminish even now / until our name becomes, to memory, / a synonym for weaknesses endured, / or worse still, adored.
“Weaknesses adored” — failings Kevin and I found attractive. Howard had planned to call Time Regained, Proust’s final volume, Time Reclaimed. Yet the poem implies that time can’t be reclaimed, that our true past is, well, irretrievable — even through involuntary memory, even through art. And so the poet himself may have disavowed the novelist’s profound truth. He may have felt that Proust’s final point wasn’t one he need reach.
And yet Howard began his aborted translation at that point. (Remembering Scott Moncreiff, who died before completing his translation, Howard, in a fit of superstition, initially began with the last book, before deciding to work from beginning to end.) And yet the autobiographical motivation of which I alone am aware — or rather, which I alone imagine to be true, possibly because I thought about Howard in relation to Proust, Salinger, and Kevin, instead of in relation to Proust, Mann, and me — rests upon Howard’s having identified with the “Marcel” who’d known Charlus, the Proust who hadn’t yet discovered that truth. For I do believe — I need to believe — that Howard, by pulling Charlus out of In Search of Lost Time, chose, if only unconsciously, to translate the sections that concern, if not, now that I’ve boxed myself in with my analysis of “pleasure very close to terror,” the one character (the Anne Boleyn) who didn’t bore him, the one character with whom he associated Robert Phelps (yet another Robert), a would be older brother who also happened to have been queer, and to have been from Ohio.
The Times reports six years in Elyria, / browbeaten suburb of your childhood / before my own had begun in Shaker Heights, / the brighter side of Cleveland’s tracks …
begins “For Robert Phelps, Dead at 66,” a poem included along with “For James Boatwright” in the volume Like Most Revelations. But unlike Salinger, an only son who imagined Seymour as the superior sibling he never had, Howard was an only child who imagined Phelps as the inferior one. For Phelps was Charlus, for Howard. He was someone who should have been Proust, or Howard himself. (Kristeva hit this particular nail on the head. If Charlus had been less of a dilettante, she wrote, he would have been Proust.) To continue the poem:
Granted: you would not write. Then your hand / began to shake so, you could not write. It was / Parkinson’s, as we would discover, // but was it not at first a failure of your will? / Those years you passed off as “successes,” / triumphant manipulations of decor; / I recall seasons when you devised // “literaries” — a noun, voyons — for our latest / Mme. Verdurin. Besides the fun, / she paid far better than mere authorship, since / the rich, my dear, are always with us.
Phelps was, moreover, “the man I should be / if I had not been the child I was; / not son, not father either, but — I know it now — / The lost brother found. Vale frater.”
Vale frater. Vale scriptor, if you’ll forgive the less than florid Latin. I’ve been wondering, although Kevin never did, whether either Benjamin or Howard would have had a different experience were Proust alive when they were working on him. To translate a living author is to fall in love with him; it’s an insinuation of self into otherness, according to George Steiner. And so to abandon that translation is to break things off too soon. But Proust was dead, and according to Nabokov posthumous translation is disrespectful — a “profanation of the dead.” I disagree. I’d call any such translation mournful. The “hermeneutic motion” Steiner recommended to translators — (1) trust (an assumption that the original can be translated), (2) penetration (an interpretative attack), (3) embodiment (a dialectic in which the translation can be crippled) and (4) restitution (an equilibrium between translation and original) — recalls the mourning process both Freud and Proust anatomize. And so to abandon that translation — or even, perhaps, to abandon work about abandoned translation — is to fail to fully mourn. It is, in a sense, to remain melancholy.
Then again, according to Barthes, who only meant it metaphorically, every author is always already “dead.”
Kevin notes that A la recherche du temps perdu is itself a translation. It’s a translation, or mistranslation, of Proust’s precursors: Corneille, Molière, Racine, Scheherazade. This is an idea Kevin derived from and attributed to Harold Bloom. It’s a translation of the prelinguistic thoughts these writers enabled Proust to have, an idea Kevin derived from Benjamin. And it’s a translation of various writers Proust imitates — Kevin’s own idea, as far as I can tell. Proust was brilliant at pastiche, a technique I’ll attempt as well. (Benjamin noted the bitterness, savagery, grimness, and malice of Proustian pastiche, qualities I can’t imagine you’ll find in mine.) Here, for example, is how he begins imitating the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules:
“The day before yesterday Verdurin drops in here to carry me off to dine with him — Verdurin, former critic of the Revue, author of that book on Whistler in which the workmanship, the painterly colouration of the American eccentric is interpreted sometimes with great delicacy by the lover of all the refinements, all the prettinesses of the painted canvas that Verdurin is. And while I am getting dressed to accompany him, he treats me to a long narrative, almost at moments a timidly stammered confession, about his renunciation of writing immediately after his marriage to Fromentin’s ‘Madeleine,’ a renunciation brought about, he says, by his addiction to morphine and which had the result, according to Verdurin, that most of the frequenters of his wife’s drawing-room did not even know that her husband had ever been a writer and spoke to him of Charles Blanc, of Saint-Victor, of Sainte-Beuve, of Burty, as individuals to whom they considered him, Verdurin, altogether inferior. ‘Now, you Goncourts, you know — and Gautier knew too — that my Salons were on a different plane to those pitiful Maîtres d’Autrefois which are deemed a masterpiece in my wife’s family.’ Then, through a dusk in which, as we pass the towers of the Trocadéro, the last glimmer of a gleam of daylight makes them positively resemble those towers of red-currant jelly that pastry-cooks used to make, the conversation continues in the carriage on its way to the Quai Conti, where is their mansion, which its owner claims was once the mansion of the Venetian Ambassadors, and in which there is a room used as a smoking-room which Verdurin tells me was transported lock, stock and barrel, as in a tale of the Thousand and One Nights, from a celebrated palazzo whose name I forget, a palazzo boasting a well-head decorated with a Coronation of the Virgin which Verdurin maintains is positively one of Sansovino’s finest things and which now, he says, their guests find useful as a receptacle for cigar-ash. And upon my word, when we arrive, in the watery shimmer of a moonlight really just like that in which the paintings of the great age enwraps Venice, against which the silhouetted dome of the Institute makes one think of the Salute in Guardi’s pictures, I have almost the illusion of looking out over the Grand Canal. And the illusion is preserved by the way in which the house is built so that from the first floor one cannot see the quay, and by the evocative remark of its owner, who affirms that the name of the Rue du Bac — the devil if ever I’d thought of it — comes from the ferry which once upon a time used to take an order of nuns, the Miramiones, across to attend services in Notre-Dame. A whole quarter which my childhood used idly to explore when my aunt de Courmont lived there, and which I am inspired to re-love by rediscovering, almost next door to the Verdurin mansion, the sign of ‘Little Dunkirk,’ one of the rare shops surviving elsewhere than in the crayon and wash vignettes of Gabriel de Saint-Subin, to which the eighteenth-century connoisseur would come to pass a few leisure moments in cheapening trinkets French and foreign and ‘all the newest products of the arts,’ as an invoice of this Little Dunkirk puts it, an invoice of which we two, Verdurin and myself, are, I believe, alone in possessing copies, one of those flimsy masterpieces of engraved paper upon which the reign of Louis XV made out its accounts, with a headpiece representing a billowy sea laden with vessels, a sea of billows which might be an illustration, in the Fermiers Généraux La Fontaine, to ‘The Oyster and the Litigants.’ The mistress of the house, who has placed me next to her at dinner, graciously tells me before we go in that she has flowered her table with nothing but Japanese chrysanthemums — but chrysanthemums displayed in vases which are the rarest masterpieces, one in particular of bronze on which petals of red-gold copper seem to have been shed by the living flower.”
Despite the prattle, more naive than Proust’s, one gets a good impression of the “literaries” Howard’s friend Phelps reproduced. (Note the morphine addiction to which Verdurin attributes his renunciation of writing — an anticipation of Benjamin’s death Kevin failed to find. Note, too, that “petals of red-gold copper” translates “des pétales en cuivre rougeâtre.” Rougeâtre, not roussâtre.)
And because the original is a translation as well, Kevin wondered whether Proust, like Howard, was too fatigued to finish. “No,” he tells himself, “indefatigable.” It’s an echo of Kristeva, who stated that Proust — even though terminally ill (if only, like Aunt Léonie, psychosomatically) — “never tires of his continuous expansions.” It’s also an echo of Benjamin, who wrote that finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which great writers work throughout their lives. Whereas the more feeble and distracted take an inimitable pleasure in closure, feeling that their lives have thereby been given back to them, “For the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like gentle sleep itself into his workshop labor.”
I myself, notwithstanding my sustained interest in the novel, have wondered whether Proust was too bored to finish. It’s an obvious question, although one that didn’t occur to Kevin. Yet I now know that Proust couldn’t have been. One writes to avoid boredom. One writes, in part, to amuse oneself. (Proust claims that the joy of both involuntary memory and art guarantees the truthfulness of the past they do reclaim. Barthes suggested that In Search of Lost Time was “written in pleasure.” Joseph Litvak, in a study of sophistication Kevin owned but doesn’t seem to have read, called the novel an “immense and intricate technology for the avoidance of boredom.”) But if writing is a pleasure, it’s a painful one that justifies — or compensates for — the asocial extremes to which it can lead, and to which it certainly lead Proust. To quote Benjamin: Proust’s radical attempt at self-absorption has “as its center” a loneliness which pulls the world down into its vortex with the force of a maelstrom. “And the overloud and inconceivably hollow chatter which comes roaring out of Proust’s novels is the sound of society plunging down into the abyss of this loneliness.” This, Benjamin believed, is the site of Proust’s invectives against friendship.
It was a matter of perceiving the silence at the bottom of this crater, whose eyes are the quietest and most absorbing. Something that is manifested irritatingly and capriciously in so many anecdotes is the combination of an unparalleled intensity of conversation with an unsurpassable aloofness from his partner. There has never been anyone else with Proust’s ability to show us things; Proust’s pointing finger is unequaled. But there is another gesture in amicable togetherness, in conversation: physical contact. To no one is this gesture more alien than to Proust.
Benjamin himself couldn’t avoid that abyss, which is the idiosyncratic reason why he positioned Proust’s loneliness as central. And while I may have managed to avoid it, I certainly won’t have written In Search of Lost Time. Then again, neither did Kevin.
“The inconceivably hollow chatter which comes roaring out of Proust.” Wayne, in “Logorrhea,” has written about people (like Mom) who “chatter” and writers who prattle — “graphomaniacs” like the Goncourts, and like Proust himself. Unlike the Goncourts, however, “Proust staves off the malodorous aura of logorrhea through his elegant symphonic paragraphing: each paragraph, a sculpted boundaried organism, develops a theme, a scene, a figure, and thus, though it is fueled by logorrhea, and is buoyed by an informing logorrheaic tide, avoids the appearance of lost control, lost will.” Wayne speaks this way as well, an oral style I’ll try to transcribe. But Proust couldn’t stave off Benjamin’s sense, our sense of his loneliness. Although Barthes correctly described logorrhea as the piling up of words for mere verbal pleasure, the condition, according to Wayne, is always “a matter of solitary binge, of isolation.” Nor could he stave off other negative aspects: logorrhea as a failure to be masculine; as an anti-Semitic slur; as an upper-class affliction. Then again, Proust couldn’t have been epigrammatic, which is what Wayne calls Kevin. Logorrhea — “writing against the aphorism” — is an essential trait of memory writing. We need logorrhea, he writes, to retrieve the past. In a novel like Proust’s, nostalgia takes the form of linguistic excess and spill, imitating the loop of memory, “and the distance of voice from the beloved objects it strives to recapture.”
Do prattlers address anyone? Does Proust — lonely Proust — converse? That depends upon the reader. Wayne thinks not: “The malaise is never interpersonal, never dialogic.” Barthes thought not, or pretended not to (assuming he was talking about Proust): “You address yourself to me so that I may read you, but I am nothing to you except this address; in your eyes, I am the substitute for nothing, for no figure (hardly that of the mother); for you I am neither a body nor even an object (and I couldn’t care less: I am not the one whose soul demands recognition), but merely a field, a vessel for expansion.” Even Proust thought not. The essential difference between a book and a friend is not their degree of wisdom, he wrote in a preface to one of the Ruskin translations, “but the manner in which we communicate with them — reading, contrary to conversation, consisting for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought, while we remain alone, that is to say, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power we have in solitude, which conversation dissipates immediately.” Genette, however, thought he does: Every reader “knows himself to be the implied — and anxiously awaited — narratee of this swirling narrative that, in order to exist in its own truth, undoubtedly needs, more than any other narrative does, to escape the closure of ‘final message’ and narrative completion.” I think so too, which keeps me interested. But unlike Barthes (or a certain fantasy of Barthes) I also think that every reader — including Gide and Woolf, despite their analogous failures to finish — knows himself to be positioned as Proust’s mother in her entirety, as opposed to her body or body parts alone. Just as translators want paternal authors to love them back, demanding what Barthes called “the impossible reply” (“I love you, too” said simultaneously), novelists want maternal readers to do so. If gay, if men who’ve failed to be masculine, they also want these readers to accept them. Isn’t it the mother, Sedgwick once asked, to whom both the coming-out testament and its continued refusal to come out are addressed? And isn’t some scene like that behind the force of Proust’s profanation of the mother? “That that woman who lovingly and fearfully scrutinizes narrator and narrative can’t know is both an analytic inference (she never acts as if she knows, and anyway how could she know?) and a blank imperative: she mustn’t know.” Yet what any interesting novelist, like any child, must really want, on an unconscious level, is for the maternal reader not to love him back, not to accept him, not to read him. He must want her to help him realize that she can’t meet all his libidinal demands. He wants to desire someone else.
“I am the substitute for nothing, for no figure (hardly that of the mother).” For some reason, Barthes never felt that way when he played the piano, an activity he analogized to reading. What does the body do, he once asked, when it enunciates musically? It speaks, it declaims, “it doubles its voice.” But the Barthesian body doesn’t really double its voice in an attempt to express itself, Kevin explains in “Pianist Envy.” It doubles the voice of the mother. “The Barthesian body signifies its senseless, sensuous, and dismembered self by [impersonating] the one woman who ever sees it whole, the one woman who ever lets it see itself whole.” Maybe reading — or reading prattlers like Proust — remained, for Barthes, far more passive, far more disengaged than he’d have had it be. (Barthes does indicate a secret fondness for readerly texts. Then again, according to Proust in that Ruskin preface, every writer shares that fondness: “Even those writers who to their contemporaries appeared to be the most ‘romantic’ read scarcely anything but the classics.” So much for any distinction between Gide the closet classicist and Woolf the closet Romantic.) And maybe, just maybe, it would have been less passive — less consumptive, more productive — if, like Gide and Woolf, he’d never bothered to finish.
Kevin was struck by the fact that he couldn’t quite describe the incompletion of In Search of Lost Time. He wondered whether the novel is too short, Proust having failed to say everything he had to say. He also wondered whether it’s too long, Proust having failed to prune it properly. Once again, that depends upon the reader. Readers who need logorrhea — bookish readers bored by life, lonely readers with time on their hands — may find it too short. Readers running out of time may find it too long. Or not. “For years I’ve put off finishing it,” wrote Woolf, “but now, thinking I may, and indeed so they say must die one of these years, I’ve returned.” In Getting Into Death, however, a story by Thomas Disch, terminally ill Cassandra Millar resolves to finish Proust before she dies, but never does — partly because she finds herself both “bored and ravished by this dullest and best of all books,” partly because she doesn’t want to die, and partly because reading it enables her to approximate an understanding of death she knows she’ll never really attain. Midway through she thinks that death will be like Proust, that death is what people talk about when you leave the room: “not oneself, not the vanished, pitiable Albertine, but their business and appetites.” More than midway through she thinks what might have to be her last word on the subject: that “death is a social experience; an exchange; not a relationship in itself, but the medium in which relationships may exist; not a friend nor a lover, but the room in which all friends and lovers meet.”
Proust himself, a sickly Scheherazade who according to Benjamin was constantly aware of death, most of all when he was writing, and who according to Painter resolved to die when it was done, failed to finish In Search of Lost Time because he didn’t want to die. And yet he did want to die. Eros versus thanatos. (Or the other way around.) To quote Painter, Proust’s desire to complete the novel counterbalanced longing for the moment when “his sins would be instantaneously atoned and his mother’s love eternally regained.” He longed not to suffer as well, both emotionally and physically. Cocteau alone, according to Benjamin, recognized what really should have been the major concern of all Proust readers: “He recognized Proust’s blind, senseless, frenzied quest for happiness.” (“Hahn alone had made him happy,” Kevin notes Howard reiterating the pivotal point but forgetting the truthful joy of Proustian composition.) And Benjamin alone recognized that his terrible — if imaginary — asthma was part of his art. Proust’s syntax, he felt, rhythmically reproduces his fear of suffocating. His ironic, philosophical, and didactic reflections are the deep breath with which he shakes off the weight of memories. “On a larger scale, however, the threatening, suffocating crisis was death.” Kevin, however, was healthy. Plus, he predeceased Mom. But I suppose David alone had made him happy. And then unhappy. Or maybe Dina had.
Another reason for the incompletion is that Proust was obsessive. Obsessive neurotics fail to finish anything because they’re frustrated by incompatible desires. Kevin related Proust’s incompatible desires to his mother: “He loves her; he hates her — a murderous hatred.” It’s an insight derived from Kristeva, who saw Albertine as both Proust and his mother, and who situated her sapphic profanation of the mother within the context of an earlier profanation of the father. The narrator, taking responsibility for the sins of Mlle Vinteuil and of the friend who profaned her father, links these women to both Albertine and Vinteuil, whose death is transformed into a “murder” of the mother. And so “when Albertine, the narrator’s alter ego, loves other women, is she taking revenge on her mother?” Kristeva’s rhetorical question is, of course, homophobic, but I’d rather not read her symptomatically, except to say that she also indicates a questionable interest in Proust’s sadomasochism. Maybe Proust couldn’t stop writing because he couldn’t stop torturing himself — and us. Maybe Kristeva couldn’t. Writing, after all, is a painful pleasure.
If Albertine is the narrator’s alter ego, she’s not the only one. But she’s the only one who isn’t a failed writer. The Goncourts who prattle without taking paragraph breaks are two such failures. The drug-addicted Verdurin who renounced writing is another. The sickly Bergotte, who did nothing for almost twenty years and then died thinking that his novels pale in comparison with a painting by Vermeer, is another. (“I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.”). So is Charlus, who according to Kristeva would have been Proust if he’d been less of a dilettante. So is Swann, who never finishes his essay on Vermeer. To continue quoting Kristeva: Whereas Proust surrounds Swann with irony as well as with a despondent, admiring affection, which we see in his visits to Combray, in his gardens, his Giotto prints, his Jewish mother, his licentious wife, and his pitiful death, Swann “reminds Proust of what might happen if he should ever stop writing.” But Kevin wondered, as do I, if Proust was aware of these identifications, including the one with Swann. Kevin didn’t know he identified with the Diaghilev who was about to be abandoned by Nijinsky when he, Kevin, wrote about the dancer, nor could he have written about Nijinsky the way he did, assuming he’d have written anything at all, if he knew. Or so I’m led to believe both by Wayne and by a notation Kevin made in his copy of The End of the Story, a novel by Lydia Davis — yet another novel about why an incapacitated narrator couldn’t write the book he’d thought he had to. (I’m referring to Will Beckwith in The Swimming-Pool Library, an idler who fails to complete his biography of an alter ego named Nantwich. But I’m referring to Proust as well. I’m also referring to myself.) Davis — yet another Proust translator (she did Swann’s Way) — had her narrator, a translator writing about a failed love affair, admit:
Then again, maybe there is nothing that does not belong in, and this novel is like a puzzle with a difficult solution. If I were clever and patient enough, I could find it. When I do a difficult crossword, I never quite finish it, but I usually don’t remember to look at the solution when it appears. I have been working on this puzzle so long by now that I catch myself thinking it is time to look at the solution, as though I will only have to dig through a pile of papers to find it. I have the same sort of frustration, at times, with a problem in a translation. I ask, Now, what is the answer? — as though it existed somewhere. Maybe the answer is what will occur to me later, when I look back.
Because of the kind of puzzle this is, though, no one else will ever know that a few more things belonged in the novel and were left out because I did not know where to put them.
This is not the only thing I’m afraid of. I’m afraid I may realize after the novel is finished that what actually made me want to write it was something different, and that it should have taken a different direction. But by then I will not be able to go back and change it, so the novel will remain what it is and the other novel, the one that should have been written, will never be written.
Kevin wrote “Diaghilev” next to “Maybe the answer is what will occur to me later, when I look back.” In fact, the only failed writer with whom Proust did realize he identified is a character in another novel by George Eliot: not Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda, but Casaubon in Middlemarch. But that was in 1899, according to Painter, long before he began In Search of Lost Time.
With whom do I identify? With Kevin, of course. That I do know by now. With Buddy. With “V” (for Vladimir, presumably). With Proust, I suppose. With Wayne. (“Who wouldn’t want to have written The Queen’s Throat?” — to cite myself. “I’m in love with Koestenbaum, and to a certain extent think I am Koestenbaum, not because he’s sexy (he’s not my type) or because we look alike, but because I can see myself (re)writing The Queen’s Throat,” to cite Kevin in Beethoven’s Kiss.) But what don’t I know? What identification, or identifications, can’t I afford to recognize so long as I’m writing this?
Kevin, of course, also wondered whether Proust was aware of having omitted his brother Robert, if in fact he did omit him. The idea, which Kevin rejected after meeting Dina in Miami, is that this omission (or repression) must have been inadvertent (or unconscious), and that Proust could have finished the novel had he corrected it. “Brother Robert as the absent center in Proust — demented. His center, if there is one, appears in plain sight: les jeunes filles en fleurs. Gilberte, Albertine. Dina. Robert has nothing to do with Marcel’s failure. And so Robert [Proust] de Saint-Loup would have changed everything.” Genette called this kind of omission paralipsis (the absence of one of the constituent elements of a situation in a period the narrative generally covers) and cited an example that must have confirmed Kevin’s notion, because he wrote “missing Robert” in the margin after misreading it. Genette’s example: “the fact of recounting his childhood while systematically concealing the existence of one of the members of his family (which Proust would be doing vis-à-vis his brother Robert if we took the Recherche for a genuine autobiography).” If only Kevin had heeded the conditional phrase in that parenthetical aside a bit earlier in life. Kristeva, moreover, had Kevin been receptive to her point of view, or had he had a sufficiently caring older brother, might have enabled him to avoid both the “dementia” and the false derivation of Saint-Loup’s Christian name before they became incorrigible. Although she did note the “meticulous care” with which Proust chose the names of his characters, including the name Robert de Saint-Loup, a remark Kevin underscores but doesn’t annotate, and although she did supply him with a false key, the indication “In January 1908 Proust wrote a text (which can no longer be found) called ‘Robert and the Kid: Mamma Goes Off on a Journey,'” next to which Kevin writes “lost ‘Robert'”, Kristeva also offered a true one: the assertion that the center of In Search of Lost Time is, in fact, both Albertine and Proust himself. Albertine can be only one man, she wrote, the man who cannot escape himself, who knows other people only in himself, and who can reveal himself only if he merges with others — with men as well as women. “This man is a flower in a bunch of amaranths, a gull in a flock of birds, a Gomorrhean, a budding girl. When he says so, he is telling the truth. Who is this man? The narrator.” Kevin neither underscores nor annotates this passage. Nor does he annotate something egocentric that Kristeva quotes Proust having said shortly before recognizing his identification with Casaubon: “I am the center of everything.” And so Proust himself might have enabled Kevin to avoid the dementia and misreading — and in more ways than one. The narrator of Jean Santeuil, Proust’s first novel, hasn’t got a brother either, even though, according to Genette, the abandoned book is closer to autobiography than the Recherche is. But the narrator of Against Sainte-Beuve, his second novel, does: a brother named Robert, and an inclusion, moreover, that didn’t prevent the author from abandoning that book as well. If Kevin had ever read it, he’d have always known that the omission, the out-casting of the character in In Search of Lost Time, which synthesizes — or subsumes — the two previous books, was quite deliberate.
I used to ask myself how on earth Kevin had arrived at the belated — and false — conclusion that Robert de Saint-Loup represents Robert Proust. And now, having had that epiphanic dream, I see. Saint-Loup is the narrator’s one true friend, the kind of friend Kevin must have wished I’d been and that he must have imagined Proust wanted his own brother to be. He’s also the only male friend who ever seems to touch Marcel. (Benjamin: To no one is the gesture of physical contact more alien than to Proust.) “It was promptly settled between us,” writes the narrator of their introduction at Balbec, “that he and I were to be great friends for ever, and he would say ‘our friendship’ as though he were speaking of some important and delightful thing which had an existence independent of ourselves, and which he soon called — apart from his love for his mistress — the great joy of his life.” Oddly enough, I’ve also been seeing Saint-Loup as Kevin lately: like Albertine, they both died young. (And like Jacob Flanders, Saint-Loup is a war casualty.) I’ve also realized something else Kevin couldn’t have lived to see: that if I used to be the absent center of his life, he, having drowned, is now the absent center of mine.
And what of the brothers Proust does include? How might my own brother have construed Basin de Guermantes and Palamède de Charlus, both uncles of Saint-Loup; Edmond and Jules Goncourt; the Surgis, one “rufous” and the other not? (Howard, by the way, translated “roussâtre” as “coppery.”) We’ve nothing to say about the idiotic, affectless Surgis, with whom, through Charlus, both Proust and Kevin must have disidentified. Nor have we anything to say about the Goncourts, whom Proust presents as both naive and indistinguishable. Basin and Palamède (“Mémé”), however, feel an intermittent affection for one another they find hard to express, a nostalgic affection compromised by maternal knowledge the senior, straighter sibling, to cite Sedgwick, mustn’t possess. To quote, at length, the scene that occurs shortly after Charlus meets the Surgis:
To return to this first evening at the Princesse de Guermantes’s, I went to bid her good-night, for her cousins, who had promised to take me home, were in a hurry to be gone. M. de Guermantes wished, however, to say good-bye to his brother, Mme de Surgis having found time to mention to the Duke as she left that M. de Charlus had been charming to her and to her sons. This great kindness on his brother’s part, the first moreover that he had ever shown in that line, touched Basin deeply and aroused in him old family feelings which were never entirely dormant. As we were saying good-bye to the Princess he insisted, without actually thanking M. de Charlus, on expressing his fondness for him, either because he genuinely had difficulty in containing it or in order that the Baron might remember that actions of the sort he had performed that evening did not escape the eyes of a brother, just as, with the object of creating salutary associations of memory for the future, we give a lump of sugar to a dog that has done its trick. “Well, little brother!” said the Duke, stopping M. de Charlus and taking him tenderly by the arm, “so we walk past our elders without so much as a word. I never see you now, Mémé, and you can’t think how I miss you. I was turning over some old letters the other day and came upon some from poor Mamma, which are all so full of tenderness for you.”
“Thank you, Basin,” M. de Charlus replied in a broken voice, for he could never speak of their mother without emotion.
“You must let me fix up a cottage for you at Guermantes,” the Duke went on.
“It’s nice to see the two brothers being so affectionate towards each other,” the Princess said to Oriane.
“Yes, indeed! I don’t suppose you could find many brothers like them. I shall invite you with him,” the Duchess promise me. “You’ve not quarreled with him? … But what can they be talking about?” she added in an anxious tone, for she could catch only an occasional word of what they were saying. She had always felt a certain jealousy of the pleasure that M. de Guermantes found in talking to his brother of a past from which he was inclined to keep his wife shut out. She felt that, when they were happily together like this and she, unable to restrain her impatient curiosity, came and joined them, her arrival was not well received. But this evening, this habitual jealousy was reinforced by another. For if Mme de Surgis had told M. de Guermantes how kind his brother had been to her so that the Duke might thank his brother, at the same time certain devoted female friends had felt it their duty to warn the Duchess that her husband’s mistress had been seen in close conversation with his brother. And Mme de Guermantes was tormented by this.
“Think of the fun we used to have at Guermantes long ago,” the Duke went on. “If you came down sometimes in summer we could take up our old life again. Do you remember old Father Courveau; ‘Why is Pascal disturbing? Because he is dis … dis…'” “Turbed,” put in M. de Charlus as though he were still answering his tutor’s question. “‘And why is Pascal disturbed?; because he is dis… because he is dis…'” “Turbing.” “‘Very good, you’ll pass, you’re certain to get a distinction, and Madame la Duchesse will give you a Chinese dictionary.’ How it all comes back to me, Mémé, and the old Chinese vase Hervey de Saint-Denys brought back for you, I can see it now. You used to threaten us that you would go and spend your life in China, you were so enamoured of the country; even then you used to love going for long rambles. Ah, you were always an odd one, for I can honestly say that you never had the same tastes as other people in anything…” But no sooner had he uttered these words than the Duke blushed scarlet, for he was aware of his brother’s reputation, if not of his actual habits. As he never spoke to him about it, he was all the more embarrassed at having said something which might be taken to refer to it, and still more at having shown his embarrassment. After a moment’s silence: “Who knows,” he said, to cancel the effect of his previous words, “you were perhaps in love with a Chinese girl before loving so many white ones, and finding favour with them, if I am to judge by a certain lady to whom you have given great pleasure this evening by talking to her. She was delighted with you.” The Duke had vowed to himself that he would not mention Mme de Surgis, but, in the confusion that the gaffe he had just made had wrought in his ideas, he had pounced on the one that was uppermost in his mind, which happened to be precisely the one that ought not to have appeared in the conversation, although it had started it. But M. de Charlus had observed his brother’s blush. And, like guilty persons who do not wish to appear embarrassed that you should talk in their presence of the crime which they are supposed not to have committed, and feel obliged to prolong a dangerous conversation: “I am charmed to hear it,” he replied, “but I should like to go back to what you were saying before, which struck me as being profoundly true. You were saying that I never had the same ideas as other people — how right you are! — and you said that I had unorthodox tastes.” “No, I didn’t,” protested M. de Guermantes, who, as a matter of fact, had not used those words, and may not have believed that their meaning was applicable to his brother. Besides, what right had he to bully him about idiosyncrasies which in any case were vague enough or secret enough to have in no way impaired the Baron’s tremendous position in society? What was more, feeling that the resources of his brother’s position were about to be placed at the service of his mistresses, the Duke told himself that this was well worth a little tolerance in exchange; had he at that moment known of some “unorthodox” relationship of his brother’s M. de Guermantes would, in the hope of the support that the other might give him, have passed it over, shutting his eyes to it, and if need be lending a hand. “Come along, Basin; good-night, Palamède,” said the Duchess, who, devoured by rage and curiosity, could endure no more, “if you have made up your minds to spend the night here, we might just as well stay to supper. You’ve been keeping Marie and me standing for the last half-hour.” The Duke parted from his brother after a meaningful embrace, and the three of us began to descend the immense staircase of the Princess’s house. (Translation by Howard)
Of course, Kevin and I, unlike Basin and Palamède, did share a supposedly self-identical gay sexuality, identical, that is, in ways other that ones relating to fantasmatically fraternal competition — which may be the gist of the marginal comment he makes here: “other differences remain.” To reiterate but one, Kevin, like Marcel and Mémé, had been a mama’s boy. Like Robert, I’m a chip off the old block.
Writers, according to Kristeva, aren’t supposed to kill themselves, even though many do: Woolf, Benjamin, Hemingway. (Kafka could explain all such deaths. Despair, he wrote, is an enemy of both life and writing, because writing is merely a moratorium, as it is for someone who writes his will just before hanging himself.) When Albertine commits suicide, she wrote in another homophobic spasm, we see “the tyranny of remorse” in lesbians and the “criminal lunacy” of the character’s obsession — a lunacy that enables the narrator to distance himself from the temptation of suicide and that clears a path toward art, that wonderful “substitute” for grief and remorse. “Succumbing neither to melancholy nor to flagellation but playing every possible role at the same time,” he buries both Albertine and his illusions about love — maintaining thereby that the creator is inherently solitary. On the other hand, Kristeva acknowledged, writers do succumb to melancholy, especially ones who never stop. Death, she felt, is not a final destination but an indispensable part of life, its “constitutive intermittence.” In this sense, sadomasochism is the inevitable counterpart to the imaginary, hidden, and necessary face of delicacy. In this sense, Sade was one of Proust’s precursors. Think of Charlus, who is elegant because he is mad. Or think of the narrator, whose subtlety stems from having allowed — or caused — both Albertine and his grandmother to die. “Interminable remorse is a formula for putting off indifference, a way of delaying it in the name of style.”
What kind of book might Kevin’s Finishing Proust have been? It might have been an elegy — possibly pastoral — for David, or for Dina, one the completion of which would have enabled him not to kill himself: terminable remorse. Or it might have been a pseudo-elegy at the end of which he’d have killed himself anyway: a poor substitute for true remorse. Terminal remorse. But who’s to say Kevin didn’t finish Finishing Proust? And who’s to say Proust didn’t finish In Search of Lost Time? According to Maurice Blanchot — notwithstanding his competing notion of désoeuvrement, or “unworkable” idleness, which Wayne attributes to the man’s having been a Cocteau Proustian — a work of art is neither complete nor incomplete, but simply is. (Unlike a building, in which form does follow function — to cite Louis Sullivan, if I remember correctly. Homes without hearths, for example, are incomplete. They do — objectively speaking — have absent centers.) According to Kevin himself, at the conclusion of the secretly (or not-so-secretly) coherent chapter “Pianist Envy,” no one’s to say they didn’t:
I simply don’t hear Chopin the way Gide and Barthes do. They perceive structural coherence and subjective integration. I perceive incoherence and disintegration. I realize it’s an ignorant, amateurish perception but can’t seem to transcend it. And for what it’s worth, neither can Adorno, who’d envision any Chopin player, including Gide, as both uncentered and self-centered. Nor do I hear Schumann the way they do. Gide and Barthes perceive structural incoherence and subjective disintegration. I perceive coherence and integration. So if I’d heard Barthes’s (once again, perfectly self-expressive) Fantasie, I wouldn’t write it — or him — off as decentered. It’s not that I’m astute enough to recognize latent integrity. Schumann’s music makes sense to me — more sense than music I happen to prefer (Chopin’s, for example) — because I heard an awful lot of it as a child. Which means, I suppose, that I’ve an amateurish and therefore faulty sense of Schumannian structure — that Schumann coheres for me not because he’s coherent, but because he’s familiar. But isn’t all sense of structure amateurish? Barthes would say so. He’d say that nothing really coheres, but some things seem (unbearably) familiar. He’d say, in other words, that discursive structures and piano virtuosos have a lot in common. They’re both too damn perfect.
That’s another difference — another disconnection — that remains between us. I prefer Schumann to Chopin, and was the one who played an awful lot of him; Kevin preferred Chopin — which reminds me of the difference between the Marquise and the Dowager Marquise de Cambremer, the daughter-in-law Wagnerian, the mother-in-law Chopinesque. But Kevin — like me — loved Bach above all, which helps explain his final notebook entry (yet another suicide note, perhaps): “Über dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme B.A.C.H. im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.” “On this spot, where the BACH subject was introduced, the composer died,” words written by the composer’s son Carl Phillip Emanuel on the (pen)ultimate page of the purportedly incomplete — and presumably nonfunctional — The Art of Fugue.
It happens to be a lie, one of which Kevin seems to have been unaware. You can’t compose a quadruple fugue without writing the ending first, and so the “missing” final page of Bach’s final fugue, a self-inscribed musical epitaph no one else would ever color brilliantly (except for Busoni, who recreates it in Fantasia Contrappuntistica), if not a self-involved truth no one else would ever believe, must have been misplaced, and probably by C.P.E., that chip off the old block, himself. Not that it really matters. After all, The Art of Fugue is what it is.
– 7 –
I met Wayne in Manhattan, where he now lives. Having not gotten tenure at Yale, he’s been at CUNY for the last twenty years — and so he did become metropolitan, if not cosmopolitan. The voice on the phone had been husky. I recognized it right away from The Queen’s Throat description: “I speak from my throat, not my diaphragm. Faulty speaking means I’m perennially hoarse. Too much talking on the phone puts pressure on my throat, and it starts to ache.” And although I’d like to say I also recognized it as the voice of the man in my first dream about Leontyne Price, I didn’t. But the man must have been Wayne.
“Doctor Koestenbaum? This is Steve Kopelson. I’m Kevin’s brother.”
“Oh, hello!” he said. “Hello, Kevin’s brother.”
There hadn’t been much more to the conversation. I simply said I’d like to get together to talk about Kevin when I’d be in New York the following weekend for Moses and Aron, having always regretted missing the original Graham Vick production. (“Unvorstellbare,” Aaron sings — expressing his brother’s word for God. “Unrepresentable.”) He suggested coffee on Friday at his place, a condominium in London Towers. I knew the building, I told him. It’s a Chelsea landmark. I also knew someone — Steve McCauley — who used to live there, and who let me use the pool. “We can do that too, if you like,” he replied.
Wayne puts pressure on “hellos” as well. The ones above, for example, sounded as though we’d already established a complicated, abiding knowledge of one another. Other pressurized “hellos” appear in his poem “Piano Life,” which, to quote a passage Kevin quoted in Beethoven’s Kiss, begins:
Today I sightread the last / Schubert sonata: he wanders between keys: evasive / and elementary, his melodies / meander. Tipsy Schubert, // if I were to return to 1974 for a piano lesson / would my teacher say, “You’ve ruined your life,” // or would she just say “hello,” / and with her faraway “hello” // would possibilities cluster around my feet like clouds above the Andes?
Kevin replied that he, too, would “lyricize the maiden piano teacher,” and that he, too, would “provide oblique answers to nostalgic questions.”
I hadn’t been to New York since Maureen’s unveiling, and was staying at the Plaza. What do you wear, I’d wondered, to meet your dead brother’s alter ego? Chinos, I decided. And a polo shirt. I also decided to walk downtown. I had the time, didn’t have much to carry, and the weather was nice.
Wayne is handsome. He looks like the brown-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo when you glared at him through clenched teeth. Which isn’t what I thought at first sight. I thought, “Those are Kevin’s glasses.” Wayne wears Morganthals similar to ones Kevin replaced with the contact lenses. The next thing I remember noticing that afternoon was the Dino poster in the living room — a movie starring Sal Mineo. The next thing was the coffee table.
“We have the same coffee table,” I told him. “And mine was Kevin’s.”
“Well,” he said, “Steve loved the one he made for Kevin, so he made another.”
Steve Marchetti — which you may have anticipated. So Wayne was the lover who lived in New York, I realized. I told him about having met Steve years ago and asked if he’s in town. “I’d love to see him again,” I said.
“So would I,” Wayne replied.
Steve had died six years ago, and they’d been together since college. But Wayne didn’t care to discuss their relationship, which you can get a good impression of from his poetry — from “Piano Life,” for example:
At my grandfather’s funeral / I recited Milton’s “day-labor” sonnet. / My day-labor is late and huge, I’m playing / Schumann’s arduous Carnaval. / A degree of mignon masculinity animates my fingers this morning, // Bastille Day. When Schumann wrote PAUSE / I paused, I stepped into the backyard / and watched the impatiens as if my gaze were Panavision; / I took all the bastards in, their / plenty, their bit-part fastidiousness, their sullenness — // the garden promenaded for me while Schumann paused! / I spun around and kissed the dogwood, / the mute dogwood heard me play scénes mignonnes, the dogwood / did not bloom, Parsifal, on my holy account, / the dogwood stayed fast in its unprocreative // season while I played the “Chopin” section of Carnaval / (Schumann imitating Chopin!) with unwonted flurry. / Now Steve hums its plaintive melody, and says, / “Play that haunting bit again.” I’ve haunted / my boyfriend; my métier is thunder.
Note the giddy deconstruction: “Schumann imitating Chopin!” — one Kevin, loving Chopin, resisted. Chopin never forgave Schumann for naming a nocturne-like and improvisatory section of Carnaval after him, he wrote in Beethoven’s Kiss, not because he saw it as parodic, but “because he saw it, and in particular Schumann’s Chopinesque fingering of the Chopinesque filigree, as emasculating.” Like me, Wayne loves Schumann.
“You look like him,” Wayne said. We were in the kitchen, to make the coffee.
“I know,” I replied. “So do you.”
“Not really,” he said. “Not anymore. Are you gay?”
Wayne was grinding beans at the time, and so I actually thought he said “Do you play?” — the piano, presumably.
“A little,” I replied
“You’re a little gay?”
I’d assumed he knew I’m gay. I’d assumed Kevin told him.
“What do you know about me?” I asked. “What did Kevin say?”
“He said you’re hard to get to know.”
I didn’t play for Wayne that day. (He has a beautiful Mason & Hamlin.) Nor did we both play the Schubert Fantasy. In fact, we’ve never done it. But we did play a Mozart sonata — easy enough that neither one of us had to hallucinate perfection, unfamiliar enough that I wasn’t haunted.
We’re in the living room now, having the coffee. Wayne is wearing a yellow vest with Mona Lisa buttons. Young Werther, I tell him, would never have killed himself with buttons like that.
“They’re button covers,” he explained. “I had them on the day we met — which was at Yale, at a gay studies conference. I remember loaning Kevin one. He wanted to wear it during his talk. I don’t know if he did, because I missed the talk. He mailed it back to me.” I construed the anecdote, along with the sartorial display, as an invitation to begin my interview.
“One of Kevin’s journal entries reads: ‘I do want to die. No answer from Wayne.’ Do you still have the letter he sent,” I asked, “or was it an E-mail message?”
“There was no letter,” he replied. “There was a message on my answering machine which said: ‘I’m at The Raleigh. Wish I were here.’ But he didn’t leave a number. I’d have called back if he had.”
Let’s hope so, I said to myself.
“‘Wish I were here?'” I asked.
“I didn’t know what it meant at the time,” he replied. “He didn’t sound especially forlorn.”
Wayne, as I’ve mentioned before, can remember Kevin’s voice. He says it had a wounded quality that obscured his sense of humor. It had the “tear” certain singers do — singers like Carlo Bergonzi and Guiseppe di Stefano.
“He also wished that David were there,” I prompted.
“David Sorel?” he asked. “I thought he was.”
Wayne had met David Sorel in Iowa City the one time he gave a reading there. He remembered the last name because it reminded him of Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black. He also remembered that David was from a small town; that he was blond; that he’d come out late, although not to his parents; that he worked for the state; and that he didn’t know who Callas was. “He seemed nice,” Wayne concluded. “And smart.”
“Kevin disparaged ‘niceness,'” I replied. I was thinking of the Beethoven’s Kiss passage about his being “too cynical to be seduced by niceness.” I was also thinking of how mean David had been, but without recalling Benjamin’s notion that kindness is the true substance of Proustian evil.
“I know he did,” Wayne said. “Like Nabokov, he preferred kindness.”
“‘The kindness of strangers.'” It was simply an association.
“I suppose,” he said, having misconstrued my remark as a clarification. “But it’s an unreliable line. I don’t even think Tennessee Williams wrote it.”
“Why unreliable?” I asked.
“Well,” he replied, “if not unreliable, untrue. Blanche DuBois should find herself beyond flirtation.”
“Maybe she’s not flirting,” I suggested. “Maybe she’s hoping for a friend.” I was on a certain track.
“True,” he said.
“True enough,” I corrected. This was a test.
“Did Kevin ever tell you about the inscriptions?” Wayne asked. He’s failed the test, I told myself; he hasn’t recognized the motto. “The Beethoven’s Kiss inscription is: ‘For David, who has shown me that our best selves belong with one another, not in books.’” I told myself he must have a photographic memory too. “The Nijinsky inscription is: ‘For David, who should know that I thought he was Nijinsky — purely flame, celestial.’ Did he ever tell you that David never really read the books?”
“They’re hard to read if you’re not an academic,” I replied.
“They’re not that hard. And not when the academic who wrote them happens to be your boyfriend.”
Wayne was elsewhere. He was staring at the table.
“You’re angry at him,” I said, meaning David.
“I’m angry at both of them.”
I thought he meant both David and Kevin.
“A little angry,” came the clarification.
“Why would he have told you about the inscriptions?” I asked.
“I helped Kevin write them,” he explained. “I even gave him the phrase ‘purely flame, celestial.'” (It’s from his poem “Fugitive Blue”: “In seventh grade I bought a kerchief, with a clasp / To anchor the silk’s billowings …. I wore this apache / Scarf the first day of junior high: I thought I was Nijinsky, / Purely flame, celestial against the dowdy backdrop of the multi-purpose room.”) “But I don’t know that he ever realized the extent to which he identified with Diaghilev, because he couldn’t have finished the book if he had. And after he finished it his mind must have been elsewhere.”
“He did realize it,” I said. I’d brought Kevin’s journal with me. Wayne said nothing as I removed it from my attaché case — Kevin’s case — and showed him the relevant entry: “I didn’t identify with Nijinsky. I identified with Diaghilev — the Diaghilev who must have known, if only unconsciously, that Nijinsky would leave him. That’s the other thing, the main thing, the book knows.'” He read a few other entries and then handed the journal back to me.
“Wayne,” I asked, “why did he kill himself?” Now I’m elsewhere.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I can tell you what I think. I think that his best self belonged in his books, not with David — or anyone else, for that matter. And that when he moved it there, it languished. Then again, he was writing a book when he died.”
I told Wayne he’d had a Proustian thought. (“The artist’s true self,” he writes against Sainte-Beuve, “is manifested in his books alone” — which I now realize is what Salinger must have meant by writers having most of their stars out.) I also told him what I knew about what went wrong with Finishing Proust — about Dina and Eva, about “Robert [Proust] de Saint-Loup,” about the “absent center” who wasn’t one, about Kevin’s having been “in love” with me, and about my having been the “wrong key.”
“I’d suspected that,” he said. “After all, you’re the absent center of his books.”
So he did find me unrepresentable, I said to myself.
“By the way,” Wayne asked, “did you have a Dina of your own?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Me neither.” And here he smiled.
Wayne got up, went into his bedroom, and retrieved his copy of Nijinsky. He then read to me a passage in the Daphnis and Chloe section: “Gay men, in other words, are basically men. We’re trained to see life as a zero-sum game (you win, I lose) and likely to agonize our love lives by having them rehearse primordial conflicts — filial, fraternal, mythic. Far too many of us wonder who’s smarter, sexier, stronger, healthier, saner, better educated, better looking, better developed, better immunized, better analyzed — a situation that we may never outgrow and that still requires both aesthetic and erotic expression.” “That’s about David, of course,” he commented, “but it’s also about you. So there you are. And there you aren’t. But I’m not sure it’s a gay phenomenon. Have you ever seen that Marlene Dietrich documentary in which she denies having had a sister? It makes you think ‘Falling in Love Again’ is really all about her.” He was standing about seven feet away from me at the time, the length of the Mason & Hamlin.
“Are we rehearsing one of those conflicts?” I asked.
He stayed standing. “Probably. But who’s to say which one?”
It was a rhetorical question, and a noncommittal response.
“May I see your inscription?” I asked.
He hesitated, walked over to me, sat down, and then handed me the book. The inscription reads: “For Wayne, both pearl and diamond, and not-so-secretly fabulous.”
I recognized the reference, Kevin’s sentence “If Wilde entered Paris flaming, more hard than gemlike and full of false gay pride, Nijinsky entered glowing softly, more pearl than diamond, and secretly fabulous,” itself a reference to that Walter Pater line about always burning with a hard, gem-like flame.
“What did he write in yours?” Wayne asked.
“He didn’t write anything,” I replied. So Wayne, for Kevin, was both Oscar Wilde and Vaslav Nijinsky, I said to myself — an unlikely combination of dissimilar celebrities: the one a brilliant writer, the other a beautiful body in motion. “Did Kevin ever tell you that he was in love with you?” I asked.
“He wasn’t in love with me,” Wayne replied. “He wanted to be me, or thought he did. Or pretended to think so because he found the fiction useful. And there’s a difference between desire and identification of which Kevin was well aware. I wasn’t even his type.”
“I know,” I replied. “He says so in Beethoven’s Kiss. But it’s easier to fall for people who aren’t our type than it is to fall for ones who are — according to Proust, at any rate. Swann falls in love with Odette because she’s not his type — it’s what makes her irresistible.”
“And Kevin fell in love with David because he was his type,” he countered; “Chicklet to his Cardinal Pirelli. Not everything Proust says is true.” And here he smiled again. “Some things are simply true enough.”
So he passed the test.
And so I wasn’t Kevin’s type either.
“Was that the only reason he fell in love with him?” I asked.
“Well, he did say it was the best sex he’d ever had.”
I thought of Paul Feuerman and of how it must have been an even deadlier combination for Kevin: great sex — as opposed to merely good sex — with a fantasy figure who finally realizes that he doesn’t love you. I also thought: yet another connection.
“Not that he’d had very much, or with very many people,” Wayne added. This was where the “more Flying Dutchman than Don Giovanni” analogy arose.
I wanted to know whether sex with Steve Marchetti was the best Wayne had ever had. I also wanted to know whether he cruised a lot — before meeting Steve, after meeting him, and after his death — but the questions were too indiscreet.
“Which Proust characters have the best sex, do you suppose?” I asked instead, thinking I’d be able to read his answer symptomatically.
“Now that’s what I’d call critical inquiry!” he exclaimed. “Let’s see. Swann has great sex with Odette, but we don’t know if she has it with him. The same is true of Saint-Loup and Rachel. I’d have to say that the best bilateral sex occurs between Charlus and Jupien. Plus, it’s the healthiest gay relationship in the book — even after it becomes asexual.”
I couldn’t imagine Wayne as either Charlus or Jupien. “Would you say it’s the only one that doesn’t rehearse a primordial conflict?” I asked.
“I don’t think Proust saw gay relationships the way Kevin did,” he replied.
“Well, he certainly didn’t see them the way Gide did.”
“Right. But beyond that, I never thought that Kevin had much of an affinity — elective or not — for Proust. And I don’t know why he didn’t realize this himself. After all, he did realize that he had no affinity for Benjamin.”
I knew many reasons why Kevin may have thought he did have an affinity for Proust — they both have demanding mothers; they’re mama’s boys; they’re deconstructors; they’re ill at ease in one another’s languages — but kept them to myself. (“Cactus bloom.–The truly loving person delights in finding the beloved, arguing, in the wrong.”)
Kevin, Wayne continued, had hoped that Benjamin would replace Barthes as a critical mentor — or “crush.” Unfortunately, whereas Kevin liked things to make sense, which I considered yet another connection, Benjamin preferred them not to — he had what Keats calls negative capability. And whereas Benjamin was essentially optimistic but strategically pessimistic, Kevin was essentially pessimistic but strategically optimistic — as well as self-deprecatory.
I later learned that Wayne thinks I have an affinity for the Gide of Corydon. But like Kevin, I have yet to read the book.
“Why would he need Benjamin when he still had you?” I asked.
“Listen, Steve,” he replied, “Kevin never really ‘had’ me. His critical crush on me, like his wish to be me, was just a useful fiction. They enabled him not to be me. You’ve seen All About Eve.”
I was getting the impression that Wayne considered Kevin’s devotion aggressive — the idolatry of an obsessive and somewhat malicious fan.
“You think of yourself as Margo Channing?” I asked.
“I used to,” he replied.
“Maybe Kevin wanted to be you because he had had you, and then lost you,” I suggested, without really understanding the significance of this remark.
“Ah,” he said, “a Proustian insight. But don’t you see: even if he’d had me, he certainly never lost me. I’ve always loved him. And I haven’t died.”
I didn’t understand why the remark is Proustian either, but failed to ask for clarification.
“Well,” I said, not quite changing the subject, “now you know two reasons why Kevin thought he had an affinity for Proust. Neither one of them was promiscuous. And he saw Robert and me as interchangeable.”
“Poor Kevin,” he said. “Poor you.”
This was when we played Mozart — the C major Sonata with a finale that dies away into silence. I’d been the one to suggest a duet; Wayne was the one who picked the piece and dictated the division of parts, so I assumed he knew his pretty well. A piano duet is, in fact, an intimate experience, especially when the music is neither bombastic nor demanding. As with sex, or even some forms of friendship, the partners are having a nonverbal dialogue. And they touch one another. No wonder Proust’s pianists never play them — not even Charlus. (“But there is another gesture in amicable togetherness, in conversation: physical contact,” wrote Benjamin. “To no one is this gesture more alien than to Proust.”)
“What makes you think Proust wasn’t promiscuous?” Wayne asked, reverting to our verbal dialogue.
“The fact that Reynaldo Hahn had been his last lover,” I replied.
“It’s something Richard Howard told Kevin,” I explained. “I read it in the interview notes.”
It was Wayne who’d introduced the two of them. And it was Wayne who’d corrected that misimpression, telling Kevin after the interview that the composer wasn’t the last man to smoke an Egyptian fag in Proust’s bed, although he may have been the only one to hum “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” there (a song by Hahn himself, with lyrics by Victor Hugo).
Wayne wanted to look at the journal again, and so I let him peruse it.
You can see a bit of the Hudson from Wayne’s living room: most of his river view is blocked by basketball courts. Other than that, you see a gas station, a storage facility, and an old warehouse. The sign on the building, “Towers Warehouses,” is nearly illegible. The room itself is dominated by the green velvet sofa he was sitting in. There are two George Platt Lynes nudes over it: one figure facing forward, the other backward. I wondered if they’re allegorical, reminding myself that Kevin saw sexualities shaped by Nijinsky as either retrospective or prospective. “Do you dwell upon the past as it probably was? (For gays, this can be traumatic.) Do you dwell upon the future that might, in fact, be? (For gays, this can be traumatic.) Or do you do neither? Like Pater, you may focus on the here and now, living moment by moment.”
Or do you do both — like me. Deconstructive me.
Wayne got up again, went back into the bedroom, and retrieved his copy of Lolita. “Maybe it matters that Eva is a nympet,” he said, “and that Dina occupies the Annabel Leigh position.” He then read to me the passage where Humbert Humbert makes the connection between the two jeunes filles who were bracketing his love life:
It was the same child — the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day. And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnapped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side. With awe and delight (the king crying for joy, the trumpets blaring, the nurse drunk) I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused; and those puerile hips on which I had kissed the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts — that last mad immortal day behind the “Roches Roses.” The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.
He also pointed out that Humbert is painfully aware of the same literary precedent Kevin sensed: joking about “Dolorès Disparue” when Lolita leaves; saying he’s been forestalled by Proust, an earlier “internal combustion martyr.”
“But Dina was alive,” I replied, “just as Gilberte is when Marcel mistakes Mademoiselle de Saint-Loup for her. Plus, Kevin was gay.”
“So was Proust,” he countered. “It doesn’t matter.” According to Wayne, all three girls — Mademoiselle de Saint-Loup, Lolita, Eva — represent not so much an irretrievable — or in Proust’s case, retrievable — past as an unavailable present. They represent other roads — better roads — not taken: the Guermantes Way instead of Swann’s Way, only the roads never meet. The road to “marital bliss” instead of the road to lonely pedophilia for Humbert; marital bliss instead of solitary homosexuality for Kevin.
“Marital bliss?” I asked.
“Don’t you see? Kevin came to realize that Eva might have been his own daughter,” he explained. “Only he didn’t come to realize that she’d have left him too. As all children do.”
“Nor did he realize that a wife might have left him,” I replied, “even though Dina herself was divorced.”
Wayne flinched. I could see that he was thinking of the wife — or husband — who’d left him, and that he’d been a little angry at Steve, not Kevin. Then he did something I’d only ever seen Steve do: adjust his glasses by running his fingers along the temple pieces. If he’d had long hair, it would be the gesture with which he’d tuck it behind his ears. I could also see that he, like Kevin, was nearsighted.
Maybe there is something allegorical — or if not allegorical, symbolic — about myopia. The nearsightedness of Arnulphe de Surgis, the younger of that other pair of allegorical figures, probably represents his stupidity. Kevin’s nearsightedness, however, may have represented the extent to which he was “insufficiently visual.” Or maybe it represented his retrospection, his tendency to dwell upon a traumatic past. (Nearsightedness as short-sightedness, to use another quaint expression.) Maybe it represented his tendency to dwell upon a past he fantasized as blissful — one in which I’m supposed to have cared for him, one in which I loved him back. (According to Kevin’s Proust, “the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”) As for Wayne’s nearsightedness, well he says it represents both his “rapturous” — if not Proustian — attention to detail and his having read too many books. But I think it represents a Paterian, if not deconstructive, tendency to focus on the here and now before his very eyes, instead of on the distant past — or future.
The mention of marital bliss reminded me of the “primal scene” with which Kevin ends “Tawdrily, I Adore Him.” I found the review in my attaché case and read Wayne the paragraph:
The first opera I ever saw: The Marriage of Figaro. The New York State Theater, 1967. I was seven, and wore a tuxedo — rented, of course, not for the occasion, but for my sister’s wedding, which had taken place the day before. All I remember now is a single line of recitative, sung (in English) by the Countess. Or to be precise, all I remember is that I used to remember the line — and that I’ve never found it in the libretto. Koestenbaum writes: “Listen to the Countess, and learn to sublimate your own abjection.” Yes, of course. But why do I feel I learned something else — something I can’t quite put my finger on — as well?
“Do you understand the scene?” I asked. “Do you know Kevin better than he did, or says he did?”
“No I don’t,” he replied. “We read each other the way we read books, searching for signs of ourselves. He seems to have known himself better for having known me; I know myself better for having known him. And so all I can tell you is what else I learned about myself from this scene. I learned — or relearned — that we shouldn’t put our fingers on some of the things we can’t put our fingers on. If I’d realized the exact nature of my “complicated, abiding knowledge” of the gay guy I saw by the Grove Street cemetery I’d never have written The Queen’s Throat. If Kevin had realized his identification with Diaghilev he’d never have written the book on Nijinsky. And if he’d remembered the line of recitative, or known what his memory of it meant, he’d never have written that passage.”
I remembered Kevin’s journal entry: “I’ve simply written myself into recognizing something I didn’t want to know.” I also remembered that awful entry in Paul’s: “I’m not sure I love Steve. I know I’m in love with Nilo.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t figure out why Kevin killed himself,” he added.
I said nothing — except to myself. I told myself that Wayne may be my own wrong key.
Nor did Wayne say anything. We could hear a bratty child — probably a boy — walking down the hall by the apartment. “You’re so stupid,” he said to the woman — probably his mother — who accompanied him. “Intelligence is hereditary, kiddo,” she replied.
“I guess they do make ’em like they used to,” Wayne remarked. “Have you ever noticed that there aren’t many mothers in opera? There’s Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, but she doesn’t know he’s her son.”
That’s an interesting association, I said to myself.
“There’s Madame Larina in Eugene Onegin,” I replied. “And there’s the Queen of the Night.”
“Yes, but they have daughters. Are there any with sons?”
“How about Azucena?” I asked.
“Manrico’s not her son.”
“What about Sieglinde?”
“We don’t hear from her after Siegfried’s born.”
“There’s Madame Gaussin in Sapho.”
“Now you’re getting obscure.”
“Madame Butterfly!” I crowed.
“Ah,” he said. “Ah so.”
“So there’s a book to be written on mothers in opera,” I suggested. “Only it would have to be a short book.”
“Operatic Mom,” he mused.
“Or maybe, Cio-Cio-San Under My Skin,” I teased. (The book Wayne wrote after The Queen’s Throat is called Jackie Under My Skin — Jackie O., of course.)
It feels strange to transcribe this opera queen conversation. And although we’ve had others that seemed more interesting at the time, I can’t imagine they’d be any more interesting to read. They’d be as boring as bad pornography, only you couldn’t get off on them. (Not a bad simile, by the way.) But you could read them symptomatically, which is what I did. Had Wayne had a mother like the one in the hall, I wondered — clever, but insidiously condescending? Had he wished he’d never known her? (Marcellina, Sieglinde.) Had he wished her dead? (Madame Butterfly.)
I asked Wayne if he and Kevin attended operas together.
“Just one,” he replied. “We saw Patience and Sarah shortly before he died.”
“Why only one?” I asked
“Well, we never lived in the same city at the same time,” he explained. “And we’re shut-ins. We prefer to hear opera at home.”
I noticed the slip into the present tense.
“Why that one?” I asked.
“Kevin was in New York to do the Richard Howard interview. And Patience — or maybe it was Sarah — was being sung by a mutual friend: Elaine Valby.”
“Oh,” I remembered, “she went to Yale with Kevin.”
“And I’d met her through him,” he said. “Or it may have been through an editor.”
I began to realize I’d been on the wrong track, a track established by my own misreading of Kevin’s public use of Wayne — an idiosyncratic misreading he probably intended. These two hadn’t had an especially — or at least typically — close friendship. They didn’t see each other very often. Nor did they even talk very often. If anything, it seemed to have been a (fantasmatically) fraternal relationship in which they’d tried to transcend the negative aspects of brotherhood: rivalry, hierarchy, antagonism. Tried to transcend — and probably failed.
“Do you have siblings?” I asked.
“I have a sister and a brother,” he replied. “Or had. They’re dead. I know what you’re thinking. Yes, Josh was older. Yes, he was gay. And no, we weren’t especially close.”
So there it was. The same family configuration. The same family romance: Wayne was the big brother Kevin wished I’d been; Kevin was the one Wayne wished Josh had been. And both of them bonded over performance anxiety for which their Jewish mothers could be blamed. (Or maybe Kevin, younger by less than two years, was the imaginary — and inferior — kid brother Wayne never had: a combination of Zooey Glass and Robert Phelps.)
“You were Kevin’s brother,” I said.
“In a sense,” he replied.
“You never slept together, did you?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said. “Never.”
What can I say? I’m glad the two of them found other, better older brothers in one other, just as I’m glad to have found Tina, who of course had been a surrogate — or supplemental — mother to me, as well as a friend. (If this makes me a belated mama’s boy, then I’ve yet another posthumous connection with Kevin. In addition, that is, to my own — belated — interest in Wayne.) I wonder why I myself never needed a supplemental younger brother — or why I never needed one when Kevin was alive. But I doubt I see Wayne as one — we’re both sixty, after all. Or maybe I do see him that way. Maybe I do.
“Did you ever work together?” I asked. Wayne’s first book is on the erotics of literary collaboration (Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound), and so I imagined both he and Kevin would have engaged in that form of sublimation, if only to transcend their rivalry. I imagined they’d have wanted to play another, better duet — better because, in Barthesian terms, they’d produce it, not reproduce it.
“No, never,” he replied. “Kevin wanted to, early on. He wanted us to write on musical and sexual performance anxiety. But I couldn’t do it. And so he wrote Beethoven’s Kiss, which contains so much of me as to be pseudo-collaborative. The same is true of the Nijinsky book.”
This sounded somewhat resentful.
“Why couldn’t you do it?” I asked.
“Mainly because my writing is mine alone,” he replied. “Also because we didn’t work the same way. I can write a chapter in a day. Kevin could take a day to write a sentence. And I didn’t see him as a star to which — or to whom — I should hitch my wagon.”
This sounded resentful as well.
“Nor did I see anyone as that kind of star,” he added. He was being kind — to me, I suppose.
I was discreet enough not to mention Michael Daugherty, the opera composer for whom he wrote the Jackie O libretto. Then again, Daugherty — no Margo Channing — wasn’t exactly a star, and those words still belong to Wayne alone.
If I were to write an opera, it wouldn’t be about The Pretender in Boris Godunov. It would be about Madame Butterfly’s son. “Sorrow,” his eyes still blue but his blonde hair now brown, must come to terms with B.F., Jr., the younger half-brother both parents prefer — in part by helping him understand the resentment he inspires. Sorrow must also come to terms with his stepmother, first of all by reclaiming Cio-Cio-San, whom he’d forgotten — this would involve an involuntary memory of Nagasaki. Second of all by seeing Kate as a woman with problems of her own — this would occur after she dies. The story has no resolution, much as Madame Butterfly itself avoids the tonic. Puccini ends the opera on the submediant.
“What is it Proust couldn’t afford to put his finger on?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not that his younger brother wasn’t the center of his life,” Wayne replied. “Maybe it’s that he’s secretly elitist, even after being disillusioned by aristocracy. Cocteau thinks so, at any rate; I happen to disagree with him. Or it may be that Marcel couldn’t possibly be straight. Or that the notion of involuntary memory is rather spurious, that the past is never retrievable. On the other hand, he may have only pretended to believe the notion. It might have been a useful fiction.”
“Like the notion that the narrator is straight,” I suggested.
The Cocteau comment Wayne referred to, like the comment about Proustians who don’t read line by line, is a diary entry: “Rereading Proust. His snobbery irritates, even when he is making fun of society people. He only makes fun of them as unworthy of the names they bear.” Only such a Proustian, I happen to agree with Wayne, would come to such a conclusion.
“Right,” he said. “I wish Visconti had finished that film. It would be interesting to see what he’d do with Marcel’s sexuality. As it is, the Proust figure who appeared in Swann in Love was almost unreadable.”
I wasn’t sure what Wayne was talking about. I had seen the Volker Schlöndorff picture, with its inappropriate score — Henze instead of Fauré — and false impression of Paris as overrun by prostitutes. But I hadn’t known that Visconti abandoned a cinematic version of the novel (with Laurence Olivier as Charlus and Alain Delon — Schlöndorff’s Charlus — as Marcel).
“Well,” I said, “it would have been an interesting film to hear. Visconti’s use of Mahler may be the best thing about his Death in Venice.”
“That, and the final image of Tadzio.”
I sensed that Wayne and I were thinking of the same thing. We were both thinking of the last thing we can be certain Kevin saw: Eva — presumably — turning toward him, beckoning. We were thinking of that penultimate entry in the journal Wayne was holding in his lap, one we both knew to be a modification of Mann: “And suddenly, as if recalling something, as if through some impulse, she placed one hand on her hip, swiveled the upper part of her body in a beautiful contrapposto to the stance of her feet, and looked over her shoulder to the shore.”
“I have something to show you,” he said, “something I want to give you.” Wayne handed me the journal and got up. “It’s in the bedroom.”
I put the journal back in the attaché case and followed him there, where the first thing I noticed were the bookshelves — floor to ceiling bookshelves on all the interior walls. The next thing I noticed was the desk — another Steve creation, to judge by its similarity to the table. I scanned the shelves as Wayne rummaged through one of the desk drawers: poetry, including multiple copies of his own volumes; drama; fiction; nonfiction; then some bibelots — a plaster caryatid, a Venetian mask, a Steiff giraffe; several piles of manuscripts, all neatly arranged; criticism, with other multiple copies. The desktop is relatively unruly: a gilded bowl (not “golden”); a still from A Night at the Opera (Kitty Carlyle as Leonora); page proofs; another Leaves of Grass; a photograph of Steve — just as I’d remembered him.
“Here it is,” he said, handing me the 1882 portrait of Robert and Marcel.
“Why do you have this?” I asked.
“Kevin asked me to get it for him,” he replied. “I couldn’t find it in New York, but I did find it in Paris: at Roger-Viollet.”
“Did you forget to give it to him?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t forget.”
It was time to swim — Wayne’s decision. Not believing we’d really do this, I hadn’t brought a suit. He loaned me one of Steve’s: somewhat baggy celadon trunks. He’d wear trunks as well — Della Robbia blue and somewhat snug.
We’re still in the bedroom, undressing in front of one another. The yellow vest is draped over the desk chair; the Mona Lisas are smiling. Wayne has a nice body. Not exactly “beautiful, beautiful,” but nice: slender and smooth. A swimmer’s body. I see him glance at mine, skinny legs and all, and recall that epiphanic dream about Kevin seeing me naked. I also recall — it’s an involuntary memory — a somewhat similar scene in the men’s locker room at Jamaica Jewish Center: my first sight of pubic hair on someone I’d considered a boy. The now obviously adolescent boy was the kid — a truly beautiful kid, I think his name was Michael — who’d starred in the Center’s production of Peter Pan. I remember, even then (I must have been about five), seeing him as incredibly sexy, but I didn’t know what to make of the hair.
Anyway, we grab some towels, put robes on, and take the elevator — barefoot — to the lobby.
You enter the pool from above and take stairs down to the locker room. I remembered it from having been there with Steve McCauley: a small room with two rows of lockers and several private showers. Michael Gold, I recall: that was Peter’s name. Wayne removed his glasses. His eyes aren’t as big as I thought they’d be: he’s not that nearsighted. I removed mine. The pool itself overlooks the London Towers garden, which you see through lancet windows. And it’s surrounded by a tile floor: deco tiles. There was no one else there.
I began my laps along the side of the pool, with Wayne beside me. We paced each other, stroke for stroke. Four laps of breast stroke; four of crawl; breast stroke; crawl; breast stroke; crawl. I swam back in time: through the cruisy pool at Berkeley (so many blonds, so many Asians); through the one at The Raleigh, although I hadn’t seen it yet; through the one at Hollinghurst’s Corinthian Club, although I’d only read about it; through the subterranean pool at Columbia; through the one at the Center, where Mom had been our swim instructor. This was what she was good at, I said to myself. This was what she liked best: swimming with her kids and watching us improve. Watching us enjoy ourselves. Watching us inhabit our bodies. She was very good at that.
And there was Wayne: my dead brother’s other brother. A kind man. Caring. Attractive. Lonely. Has he been swimming into the past as well, I wondered. Or into the future. If so, what year is it now? Where are we now?
I stopped, stood, and grabbed Wayne’s ankle as he turned into another lap.
“Aaaaaah!” he cried. “Anaconda!”
“I think I’m done,” I said.
He smiled, submerged, and swam away.
And then he swam back.
And then he kissed me.
Or did he? I may, in fact, prefer the fantasy.
– 8 –
Wayne, of course, doesn’t converse that way. As I’ve already indicated, he talks the way he writes. He prattles, like Proust. He actually says things like, “Proust staves off the malodorous aura of logorrhea through his elegant symphonic paragraphing.” It’s a style I find I can’t transcribe, a pastiche I can’t create. For example, whereas I had Wayne say he can write a chapter in a day, he really said that his writing “is buoyed by an informing logorrheaic tide” — or something very close to it. Buddy Glass has an analogous incapacity. The young man who did the walking and talking in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” not to mention the shooting, Salinger writes in “Seymour: An Introduction,” wasn’t Seymour at all, but “someone with a striking resemblance to — alley oop, I’m afraid — myself.” And of course — no symphonic paragraphing here — we both said things to one another that I haven’t even tried to transcribe. To name one, I failed to indicate that I said Kevin doesn’t seem to have read Wayne’s essay on logorrhea, and that he said Kevin had heard him deliver it at another conference — a talk, I told myself, Kevin didn’t miss.
“Buoyed by an informing logorrheaic tide.” Wayne might have said that his style is buoyed by a poetic tide. His speech, his writing — his thinking is radically, inimitably metaphoric. Kevin himself said so in “Tawdrily, I Adore Him.” The typical move, he wrote, is to indicate metaphoric connections between otherwise unrelated phenomena, to hint that profound relation is always only metaphoric, and “to let us make what we will of his intriguing juxtapositions.” “Training a voice” and “voicing a sexuality,” for example, are seen as parallel processes, because sexuality as we know it “is always vocal, is ineluctably vocal, is structurally vocal.” Like the two of us, but unlike Proust, Wayne avoids simile. He, too, distrusts the words “like” and “as.”
Let’s take that metaphorical tide to Miami, where both Kevin and Seymour killed themselves. (Nabokov also takes such tides literally, in transition. He takes trains of thought as well.)
I decided to spend a weekend at The Raleigh about a month after I met Wayne. I finally wanted to see Kevin’s room there, and to see the pool he drowned in. I didn’t think the trip was especially masochistic, something Wayne worried about, but I couldn’t say what I thought it would accomplish. I suppose I imagined it would enable me to forgive Kevin — that it would enable me, in a sense, to become Zooey. “There are times when I think you’ve forgiven S. more completely than any of us have,” Buddy wrote him, adding that Waker, another brother, once said something very interesting on that subject: “He said you were the only one who was bitter about S.’s suicide and the only one who really forgave him for it.” Not that I’ve ever considered suicide sinful, or criminal.
So there I am, on a flight from California, rereading Franny and Zooey. Buddy is telling Zooey about his own flight to Florida, to retrieve Seymour — the kind of trip Dad took. “Did I ever tell you what happened when I went down to Florida to bring back the body?” he writes.
I wept like a slob on the plane for five solid hours. Carefully adjusting my veil from time to time so that no one across the aisle could see me — I had a seat to myself, thank God. About five minutes before the plane landed, I became aware of people talking in the seat behind me. A woman was saying, with all of Back Bay Boston and most of Harvard Square in her voice, “… and the next morning, mind you, they took a pint of pus out of that lovely young body of hers.”
Nothing like that happens to me. I don’t weep. I don’t overhear comic dialogue. What does happen is that the woman sitting next to me asks whether any of the posthumous Salinger publications are worth reading. All of them are.
“And the next morning, mind you, they took a pint of pus out of that lovely young body of hers.” Maybe I should have used even more italics — or campier ones — for Wayne. “Dear Zooey,” Buddy writes, “I’ve just finished decoding a long letter that came from Mother this morning, all about you and General Eisenhower’s smile and small boys in the Daily News who fall down elevator shafts and when am I going to have my phone in New York taken out and get one installed up here in the country, where I really need it. Surely the only woman in the world who can write a letter in invisible italics.”
The plane lands, but since Buddy fails to describe his own arrival very well I think of a few others. One compares with Kevin’s: “Ratso” in Midnight Cowboy, hoping to recover from consumption in Miami but dying on the bus before getting there. (I’m Joe, the friend who accompanies him, in that mediation.) Two others compare with mine: solitary Aschenbach traveling to the Lido in a gondola and then registering at the Hôtel des Bains, where, having been expected, he’s received by the staff with attentive care; lonely Marcel traveling by train to Balbec for the second time and being met at the station by an inarticulate hotel manager who seems to hate his staff. “I am obliged to keep running after them all the time because they are lacking in inertia,” he tells the narrator.
“If I was not there they would never stir. I shall post the lift-boy on sentry outside your door.” I asked him if the boy had yet become “head page.” “He is not old enough yet in the house,” was the answer. “He has comrades more aged than he is. It would cause an outcry. We must act with granulation in everything. I quite admit that he strikes a good aptitude at the door of his lift. But he is still a trifle young for such positions. With others in the place of longer standing, it would make a contrast. He is a little wanting in seriousness, which is the primitive quality” (doubtless, the primordial, the most important quality). “He needs his leg screwed on a bit tighter” (my interlocutor meant to say his head). “Anyhow, he can leave it all to me. I know what I’m about. Before I won my stripes as manager of the Grand Hotel, I smelt powder under M. Paillard.” I was impressed by this simile [sic], and thanked the manager for having come in person as far as Pont-à-Couleuvre. “Oh, that’s nothing! The loss of time has been quite infinite” (for infinitesimal). Meanwhile, we had arrived.
I arrive at night, but since the hotel facade is illuminated, I see that it’s an asymmetrical deco building dominated by a capital R. R, I say to myself, the letter Mr. Ramsay stops at in his letter-by-letter march through the alphabet of logic. R as in Robert. I enter the lobby, where three young men are sitting by themselves. Kevin was one of them, I tell myself. Kevin was here. No one provides attentive care. No manager meets me. In fact, when I ask the desk clerk for Kevin’s room number, and if possible for Kevin’s room, he tells me I’ll have to speak to the manager tomorrow. I take a relatively inexpensive room on the fifth floor — one with a city view. I also take a brochure, which indicates that “The Raleigh Hotel, designed in 1940 by L. Murray Dixon, is a true restoration offering the luxury and service of a deluxe hotel.” Who the hell is L. Murray Dixon, I wonder. And who uses “luxury” to modify “deluxe?” I wish Wayne were here.
The room itself is beautiful, just as Dad described the one Kevin had facing the ocean. It has a terrazzo floor with an arabesque border. There are oversize pillows on a queen-size bed. There’s a crimson chaise longue and a wall-mounted writing table in one of the corners. And there’s a television. So I think I’ll be fine.
I also think, I’ll eat downstairs.
The restaurant in The Raleigh is beautiful as well. The paneling is golden oak, the drapes green velvet. The windows overlook the terrace where Kevin dined with Dina — that too, I tell myself, had been on a Friday. I take a table next to one. There’s the painting: the naiads with long green hair. It’s not that ugly. There’s part of the pool. I’ll see it later — tomorrow. I’ll see it in daylight. The other men are in dinner jackets. I’m underdressed. I’m also the oldest one here. Feeling conspicuous, I retreat to Franny and Zooey, to Buddy’s letter: “Seymour once said to me — in a crosstown bus, of all places — that all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.” Maybe that was the final line — the borderline — Kevin crossed. Maybe that was the deconstructive break he accomplished after years of rehearsal (at tempos too slow to do him any good): the line between masculine and feminine — between “Bobby and Dorothy” for Buddy, Tadzio and Eva for Kevin. Eva, who according to Wayne might have been Kevin’s daughter — or son. And maybe the break was unbearable. But why would it have been so unbearable that he’d have to kill himself?
Back upstairs, I unpack, undress, shower, and get into bed. I’m tired of reading, but can’t think when I’m not reading. My thoughts go nowhere. I have no “stream” of consciousness. To quote O Beautiful, a novel by Jesse Green: “Consciousness is not a stream. It’s more like a canal. You’re not carried along randomly by currents, you sit in a thought until it drops down steeply into a different thought, discrete from the first. The path is arranged and the water is still. It’s not a stream, it’s a system of locks.” (Nor, as already mentioned, can I think when I’m not writing — something true for Tina, for Barthes, and maybe even for Proust, which may be another reason he failed to finish In Search of Lost Time, one Kevin failed to grasp.) So I turn on the television, changing channels until I come upon Jules and Jim, which is just about to end (Jules alone at last in Pére Lachaise, strolling down the Avenue de l’Ouest), and then upon Children of Paradise. The film has just begun. Baptiste, a lovelorn Pierrot, is taking Garance to Madame Hermine’s boarding house. They stop to view the lights of Ménilmontant, her birthplace. “C’est tellement simple, l’amour,” says Garance. I remember the line, only I don’t remember her having said it there. I misremember her having said it at the boarding house — an offer Baptiste fails to accept. It’s a long film, so I stop at the end of Part One.
A dream. I’m Baptiste, and when Garance tells me love is simple, I reply: “Oui, c’est tellement simple.” Yes, it’s so simple. I accept her offer. (The impossible reply, an insupportable fulfillment.) But I’m not in my street clothes at the time. I wearing my Pierrot costume. And we don’t make love.
The meaning of the dream seems clear, in part: Garance is Kevin. And the offer I accept is the one I refused when he was alive. The part I can’t understand concerns the costume.
My room is even more beautiful in daylight. I begin to wonder if I really want Kevin’s. I call the front desk, ask for the manager, and am transferred to a man named Juan León. (I recognize neither the name nor the voice, but still think he may be the manager who phoned me twenty years ago. And the name reminds me of Ponce de León, another comparable arrival: one in search of lost youth — a fountain of youth.) Yes, the man tells me, he could find the room number, but it would take time. And the room is probably occupied. Would I like him to do it anyway, he asks.
Would I? Maybe changing rooms won’t do anything for me. I won’t learn anything in Kevin’s I don’t already know. And maybe changing would do something terrible to me.
“No, thank you,” I reply. “Please don’t bother.”
“Most of our rooms look alike, sir,” he says.
“Did they then?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir,” he replied. “I suspect they did.”
I realize he’s not the one who phoned. He hasn’t been here long enough.
I decide to see the pool. I put on my trunks — celadon, of course, but these ones fit. I put on a T-shirt, sandals, and sunglasses. I grab a towel. No, I tell myself, they’ll have them there. I take the elevator, leave my key at the desk, walk by the restaurant, walk across the terrace — and there it is. The arabesque border. The palm trees. The fountain at the deep end. This — this is where he died. There’s a man in the pool, playing with a boy — father and son, I suppose. It’s early. They have it all to themselves. I sit and watch. They bore me — which is to say, I’m enraged. I want them out of the pool, out of the picture. I want it to be a blank screen onto which I can project — well, whatever it is I need to project.
And then they do get out, but nothing comes to mind. The screen remains blank. I guess I should have taken Salinger down here. I guess I should swim. I remove my glasses, tuck them in my sandals, put the sandals under the chair, leave my shirt on the seat, and enter the pool. The water is cool. I begin doing laps: four of breast stroke; four of crawl; breast stroke; crawl; breast stroke; crawl. I know when I’m about to reach the deep end because I hear, then feel the fountain. I wonder who that man was, and why he’d take his son to a gay resort. Why, for that matter, would Dina take her daughter. Benjamin, I recall, had a son; Woolf, of course, was childless. I know why they killed themselves. Benjamin believed he’d be seized by Nazis. Woolf believed she’d be seized by madness. But I still don’t know what Kevin believed — other than that no one loved him, or that he’d said everything he’d had to say, or that he’d made an unbearable break. I still don’t know why he chose to drown. And I still don’t know why he didn’t leave a note — a real note. I do know that I’m losing interest in his questions: why Proust failed to finish; why Woolf and Gide failed to finish; why Benjamin and Howard failed to finish. They’re beginning to bore me as well, even though, for some reason, I feel I can’t afford to have that happen.
Well, I tell myself, that did get me somewhere. That was a stream of consciousness, or train of thought, even without the book. My thoughts have managed to flow, even though my body — my moving body — has been locked in this literal lock, this pool. So I wonder what would happen in the ocean — the limitless ocean.
I leave the pool, find a towel, dry off, put on my sunglasses, and walk to the beach. I suddenly realize — it’s an involuntary memory — that I’ve been here before, when Mom and Dad took the two of us. I must have been five. I can’t remember which hotel we stayed in, but I can remember that Kevin and I shared a bed. And there’d been a hurricane named — Dora? Flora? And the beach was covered with what looked like balloons, which Kevin and I ran around bursting with sticks. “There must have been a party here,” I can almost hear him saying.
We were lucky not to have been stung, because the “balloons” were Portuguese men-of-war.
And so I also suddenly realize that Kevin must have had the same involuntary memory. Hence his journal entry on Proust’s solitary invert, who loiters on the beach like a strange Andromeda no Argonaut will save, or like “a sterile jellyfish that mush perish upon the sand.”
I try to recall other glad moments — a Proustian project, teasing voluntary memories out of an involuntary one. I remember the penny plant ritual. I remember playing duets. I remember swimming together. But moments I now see as sad are easier to recall. I remember belittling him. I remember wounding him — saying I loathed him, saying why I loathed him, saying I wished he were dead.
I remember our final telephone conversation: Kevin calling me from a San Francisco hotel where he’d been attending a conference and wanting me to join him for dinner nearby. This would have been the New Year’s Day before he died — Salinger’s birthday, and Dad’s. I don’t remember him at the restaurant as depressed, nor do I remember him mentioning anyone named David. I do remember talking about our parents, about his conference paper on “strolling” the subway, and about a Rimsky-Korsakov opera — probably The Snow Maiden.
And I remember my final glimpse of him: Kevin hugging — embracing me outside the restaurant, walking toward the hotel, and waving good-bye as he turned the corner.
I lie down on the towel, on my back, and weep. I adjust my veil, to cite Buddy, because the brother with whom I’d played on the beach — this very beach; my true brother, the one I’ve failed to find in his writing, even though his “best self” is there — has finally reappeared. It’s an “intermittency of the heart,” I remind myself. To quote the first symphonic paragraph after Proust’s sentence, “Meanwhile, we had arrived”:
Upheaval of my entire being. On the first night, as I was suffering from cardiac fatigue, I bent down slowly and cautiously to take off my boots, trying to master my pain. But scarcely had I touched the topmost button than my chest swelled, filled with an unknown, a divine presence, I was shaken with sobs, tears streamed from my eyes. The being who had come to my rescue, saving me from barrenness of spirit, was the same who, years before, in a moment of identical distress and loneliness, in a moment when I had nothing left of myself, had come in and had restored me to myself, for that being was myself and something more than me (the container that is greater than the contained and was bringing it to me). I had just perceived, in my memory, stooping over my fatigue, the tender, preoccupied, disappointed face of my grandmother, as she had been on that first evening of our arrival, the face not of that grandmother whom I had been astonished and remorseful at having so little missed, and who had nothing in common with her save her name, but of my real grandmother, of whom, for the first time since the afternoon of her stroke in the Champs-Elysées, I now recaptured the living reality in a complete and involuntary recollection. This reality does not exist for us so long as it has not been re-created by our thought (otherwise men who have been engaged in a titanic struggle would all of them be great epic poets); and thus, in my wild desire to fling myself into her arms, it was only at that moment — more than a year after her burial, because of the anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from corresponding to the calendar of feelings — that I became conscious that she was dead. I had often spoken about her since then, and thought of her also, but behind my words and thoughts, those of an ungrateful, selfish, cruel young man, there had never been anything that resembled my grandmother, because, in my frivolity, my love of pleasure, my familiarity with the spectacle of her ill health, I retained within me only in a potential state the memory of what she had been. No matter at what moment we consider it, our total soul has only a more or less fictitious value, in spite of the rich inventory of its assets, for now some, now others are unrealisable, whether they are real riches or those of the imagination — in my own case, for example, not only of the ancient name of Guermantes but those, immeasurably graver, of the true memory of my grandmother. For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittencies of the heart. It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. Perhaps it is equally inexact to suppose that they escape or return. In any case if they remain within us, for most of the time it is in an unknown region where they are of no use to us, and where even the most ordinary are crowded out by memories of a different kind, which preclude any simultaneous occurrence of them in our consciousness. But if the context of sensations in which they are preserved is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of expelling everything that is incompatible with them, of installing alone in us the self that originally lived them. Now, inasmuch as the self that I had just suddenly become once again had not existed since that evening long ago when my grandmother had undressed me after my arrival at Balbec, it was quite naturally, not at the end of the day that had just passed, of which that self knew nothing, but — as though Time were to consist of a series of different and parallel lines — without any solution of continuity, immediately after the first evening at Balbec long ago, that I clung to the minute in which my grandmother had stooped over me. The self that I then was, that had disappeared for so long, was once again so close to me that I seemed still to hear the words that had just been spoken, although they were now no more than a phantasm, as a man who is half awake thinks he can still make out, close by, the sound of his receding dream. I was now solely the person who had sought a refuge in his grandmother’s arms, had sought to obliterate the traces of his sorrow by smothering her with kisses, that person whom I should have had as much difficulty in imagining when I was one or other of those that for some time past I had successively been as now I should have had in making the sterile effort to experience the desires and joys of one of those that for a time at least I no longer was. I remembered how, an hour before the moment when my grandmother had stooped in her dressing-gown to unfasten my boots, as I wandered along the stiflingly hot street, past the pastry-cook’s, I had felt that I could never, in my need to feel her arms round me, live through the hour that I had still to spend without her. And now that this same need had reawakened, I know that I might wait hour after hour, that she would never again be by my side. I had only just discovered this because I had only just, on feeling her for the first time alive, real, making my heart swell to breaking-point, on finding her at last, learned that I had lost her for ever. Lost for ever; I could not understand, and I struggled to endure the anguish of this contradiction: on the one hand an existence, a tenderness, surviving in me as I had known them, that is to say created for me, a love which found in me so totally its complement, its goal, its constant lodestar, that the genius of great men, all the genius that might have existed from the beginning of the world, would have been less precious to my grandmother than a single one of my defects; and on the other hand, as soon as I had relived that bliss, as though it were present, feeling it shot through by the certainty, throbbing like a recurrent pain, of an annihilation that had effaced my image of the tenderness, had destroyed that existence, retrospectively abolished our mutual predestination, made of my grandmother, at the moment when I found her again as in a mirror, a mere stranger whom chance had allowed to spend a few years with me, as she might have done with anyone else, but to whom, before and after those years, I was and would be nothing.
I also weep because I’m pained by my having wounded Kevin, just as Marcel is pained by having been cruel to his grandmother, and as Proust was by having been sinfully cruel to his mother. To quote the following paragraph:
Instead of the pleasures that I had been experiencing of late, the only pleasure that it would have been possible for me to enjoy at that moment would have been, by touching up the past, to diminish the sorrows and sufferings of my grandmother’s life. But I did not remember her only in that dressing-gown, a garment so appropriate as to have become almost symbolic of the pains, unhealthy no doubt but comforting too, which she took for me; gradually I began to remember all the opportunities that I had seized, by letting her see my sufferings and exaggerating them if necessary, to cause her a grief which I imagined as being obliterated immediately by my kisses, as though my tenderness had been as capable as my happiness of making her happy; and, worse than that, I who could conceive of no other happiness now but that of finding happiness shed in my memory over the contours of that face, molded and bowed by tenderness, had striven with such insensate frenzy to expunge from it even the smallest pleasures, as on the day when Saint-Loup had taken my grandmother’s photograph and I, unable to conceal from her what I thought of the childish, almost ridiculous vanity with which she posed for him, with her wide-brimmed hat, in a flattering half light, had allowed myself to mutter a few impatient, wounding words, which, I had sensed from a contraction of her features, had struck home; it was I whose heart they were rending, now that the consolation of countless kisses was for ever impossible.
I don’t know whether people nearby have noticed me weeping. I’ve tried to keep it quiet. And when I manage to stop, I don’t sense anyone looking — or trying not to look — at me. I notice that there are tears in my ears. Time to plant tears, I tell myself. Time to swim in that ocean.
I leave my glasses on the towel and head for the shore. (According to Humbert, somebody’s sunglasses were to have been the only witness when he and Annabel made love on the beach.) The water is very cool. I let a few waves hit me, dive under the next few, and begin swimming south, toward Fisher Island. Ponce de León, I say to myself. Ponce the ponce. Maybe part of the problem is that, being younger, Kevin had no sense of self without me. I can remember life before him, if only unconsciously, but he couldn’t remember it before me. And we were always kept together: in the same bedroom, the same Hebrew school, the same secondary school. The same conservatory. And so Kevin must have identified with me. He must have seen me as an alter ego — his first, if not his last. Wayne had been the last. No wonder Kevin found my refusal devastating. It meant that he couldn’t love himself. And if he’d retained a sense of my having wished him dead, maybe it also meant that he shouldn’t let himself live. But Wayne loved him, which must have alleviated the devastation. Maybe Kevin didn’t believe he did. Maybe he couldn’t believe it, my having poisoned that particular well. And maybe Wayne didn’t really love him …
Let me remove myself from that oceanic stream of consciousness in order to suggest that even if I’d discovered Kevin’s reasons for killing himself, I probably couldn’t articulate them. Consider Buddy’s descriptions — or nondescriptions. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” he has Seymour say that when the fish, like him, eat too many bananas, they get too big to leave their holes, develop banana fever, and die. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” he says that heavenly fools like Seymour are “dazzled to death” by their own scruples — by the blinding shapes and colors of their own sacred human conscience. He also says that he’s not going to finish the introduction, “Not because I’m not a proper iron man but because to finish it right I’d have to touch upon — my God, touch upon — the details of his suicide, and I don’t expect to be ready to do that, at the rate I’m going, for several more years.” If you’ve read the posthumous publications, you know he never was. Kevin, of course, was no bananafish, and neither, I suspect, was Seymour. Nor were they dazzled to death.
To reenter that stream — maybe Wayne doesn’t love him, despite the affirmation I transcribed as “I’ve always loved him.” After all, every affirmation represents a denial. After all, love isn’t simple — which is something both Kevin and Proust were well aware of, another affinity Wayne failed to recognize. It’s also something Children of Paradise is aware of. As is Jules and Jim, for that matter. Kevin, in fact, wrote a dissertation, and then a book, to prove how complicated love is — one that begins by calling love an “incoherent epistemological anomaly,” if memory serves. But does it serve? What if my memories of Kevin — even the involuntary ones — are inaccurate? I misremembered where Garance tells Baptiste how simple love is. And if I remember correctly, which I probably don’t, Baptiste himself, years later, makes the same mistake in Part Two, telling Madame Hermine that Garance said it at the boarding house — a scene that, if it exists, probably prompted my false recollection.
I swim for a long time and emerge on the beach in front of Ocean Drive. The sun is very bright, and I’ve left my sunglasses behind. Should I swim back, I wonder. Should I walk? Then a blurry building in the distance catches my eye: a white facade with a gothic arch on the first floor, and roman ones on the second. It seems familiar. I cross the beach to get a better view. I recognize it from an old issue of Metropolitan Home: it’s Casa Casuarina, the Versace mansion. The one where the designer was shot, just after Kevin’s suicide. The one where Nilo lived when it was an apartment building. Nilo was here, I say to myself.
I think I’ll walk back.
Let me remove myself once again in order to say two things about the article in that issue of Metropolitan Home, which I’ve managed to retrieve. First, it’s written by Richard Martin, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute who according to Wayne also happens to have been the older brother of a critic named Robert Martin. Yet another Richard, along with Howard and Miller. Yet another brother Robert. Second, it ends with the following paragraph:
A year ago, Gianni Versace invited me to Casa Casuarina. I demurred, fearful the house was too grand and Miami too trendy. The designer chided me, saying, “You cannot always live the life of Proust. My house is fun.” He was right. A bit like Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu in Citizen Kane, a bit like a Pompeiian villa and as frenetic and optimistic as anything else in Florida, including Walt Disney World, this is nonetheless a house for reading — and perhaps even understanding — Proust, the reclusive connoisseur.
It takes a very long time to return to The Raleigh. I’m distracted for a while by the young men on the beach, many of them beautiful and all of them, like Casa Casuarina, a bit blurry. But then the crowd thins out.
So Nilo was there. Thank God I’ve never read his work. Now if only I’d never read — never “put my finger on,” to quote Kevin — that awful entry: “I know I’m in love with Nilo.” Maybe I shouldn’t figure out why Kevin killed himself, just as he shouldn’t have realized he was in love with me, or that I’d been a false key. Maybe I can’t figure it out. Some knowledge is unbearable — truth too painful to incorporate. Some is simply irretrievable — truth no one knows. (Not even Kevin, perhaps.) Truth God alone, with all due tenderness, knows. And some is incapacitating, counter-productive — like reading too much Proust. Which is to say that certain kinds of ignorance, certain kinds of conscious ignorance, are productive (this is what Wayne must have meant when he said that he’d never have written The Queen’s Throat if he’d realized the exact nature of his “complicated, abiding knowledge” of the guy he saw by the cemetery, and that if Kevin had realized his identification with Diaghilev he’d never have written the book on Nijinsky); which is to say that Wayne, with his negative capability, is in fact my own true key (or that Salinger is, with Buddy’s Zen-like quest for “no knowledge”); and which is to say that if I accept my ignorance of Kevin’s reasons, assuming he had any, or any I could articulate (which would mean he’s a more coherent — and hence less realistic — character than he believed Zooey to be, or than any of the “indefinable, ungraspable” characters in Proust are), I’ll gain, or regain, an interest in Proust, Gide, Woolf, Benjamin, Howard, Genette, and Kristeva that will enable me to write a book, maybe even Kevin’s book. That must be why I felt I couldn’t afford to have Kevin’s questions bore me. That, and that such acceptance may also sustain my interest — my own productive, connective interest — in Wayne.
But to remove myself one last time, how could Kevin have written that inscription (“For David, who should know that I thought he was Nijinsky ”), let alone have written that Diaghilev fantasized having been desired by such a person “without having [had] to seduce him,” if he hadn’t realized that identification? And why couldn’t he apply to “faithless,” “disloyal” David the insight his best self — or true self — had in relation to Diaghilev, who “may never have known what Nijinsky needed?”
It takes me a while to find my towel because my sunglasses are gone. They’ve been stolen. Who would take them, I wonder. They’re prescription glasses, which is why things have been a bit blurry here. Yes, I too am nearsighted — although not as nearsighted as Kevin. I’m as nearsighted as Wayne. Maybe he took them, I fantasize. Maybe he is here. Maybe he’s worried enough — maybe he cares enough — to have come to Miami and to be watching me from afar, while wearing my glasses. Maybe that’s him over there, my Ideal Husband. And so is it love he feels for me — however complicated or abiding?
I fly home the following day. That flight is equally uneventful. I don’t weep. I don’t overhear comic dialogue. I don’t talk about Salinger. And nothing like what may, or may not, have happened to Seymour happens to me. To quote Buddy in “Seymour: An Introduction”:
On the afternoon of his suicide Seymour wrote a straight, classical-style haiku on the desk blotter in his hotel room. I don’t much like my literal translation of it — he wrote it in Japanese — but in it he briefly tells of a little girl on an airplane who has a doll in the seat with her and turns its head around to look at the poet. A week or so before the poem was actually written, Seymour had actually been a passenger on a commercial airplane, and my sister Boo Boo has somewhat treacherously suggested that there may have been a little girl with a doll aboard his plane. I myself doubt it. Not necessarily flatly, but I doubt it. And if such was the case — which I don’t believe for a minute — I’d make a bet the child never thought to draw her friend’s attention to Seymour.
He wrote the poem in pencil, according to Buddy in Franny and Zooey. And he may have written it in English, not Japanese, because Buddy gives it there as: “The little girl on the plane / Who turned her doll’s head around / To look at me,” and without mentioning, let alone belittling, the translation. Some suicide note. At any rate, no little girl on my plane has her doll look at me. Nor does any little boy. My life, for the first time in a long time, is unmediated by anything I’ve ever read.
– 9 –
My anger at Kevin abated completely sometime in between that trip to Miami and one to Paris I did just take with Wayne. I can’t say when, precisely, nor can I specify a cause. The anger, or at least my awareness of it, simply disappeared — with “granulation,” I suppose. I would say that time managed to heal that wound, or I’d say it if I were so naive as to think that time alone accomplishes anything (I’d had to meet Wayne, after all, and then to visit The Raleigh) — or that that particular wound ever really heals.
The Paris trip was our first together. After I’d been to New York a second time and he’d been here, we decided to spend a week at the Ritz. I’d have preferred a less expensive hotel, but Wayne wanted to swim in the pool where Pamela Harriman died and to absorb any Princess Diana atmosphere. (Atmosphère — something Arletty, who played Garance, disparaged in an earlier film.) She and Dodi, you may recall, left from there the night of the crash.
You may also recall that neither one of us knows French very well. This, of course, is a disability in Paris, where the inhabitants who do speak English pretend not to. And so we both experienced, if not a translator-like exclusion from a Proustian language forest, the same linguistic alienation Mom and I had years before. Only this time, the mutual alienation drew me closer to my companion. We also used a private French, derived from film and opera, that excluded everyone else. “Pourquoi me réveiller?” Wayne would ask me almost every morning, citing Massenet. He’s not an early riser.
April in Paris would have been nice, if a bit obvious, but we were there in late September, which is another good month for strolling. And both of us did desire the Benjaminian experience, even though neither of us wanted to be alone, or to cruise, and I didn’t want to go out at night. (Benjamin’s solitary flâneur is a noctambuliste.) Once again, this wasn’t an experience I’d shared with Mom. I hadn’t read Benjamin at the time — nor had she, of course — and so didn’t know that nearly aimless wandering might be as good a way to get to know the city as goal-oriented sight-seeing. Not that Wayne and I avoided sights. He, for example, had us head for the crash site as soon as we unpacked. I think it was a sunny day — or that there may have been a high blue sky, to use the haunting expression — because I remember wearing my new sunglasses. Surprised to find that no one leaves flowers there anymore — let alone candles — we returned the following morning with one white rose. (If they’d been in season, I’d have bought hawthorns.) I know that was a gray day, and that Wayne meant the white to signify mourning. Gray — the color, then, of the sky above the Seine.
Afterward, I had us head along the Rue de Rivoli toward the Carnavalet, where I wanted him to see Proust’s bed. We were lucky to have gotten there before noon, when the wing with the bed is closed. We crossed the courtyard, paid the admission, climbed the stairs, passed the Picassos, and there it was — crammed into a cubicle with which Proust would been unfamiliar — the bed in which he traced his trembling hand through the final sentence:
But at least, if strength were granted me for long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the results were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted one which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure — for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days — in the dimension of Time.
“It looks like Steve’s table,” Wayne commented.
It does indeed, although I hadn’t noticed this before.
“‘Lit de cuivre,'” he read off the placard. “Could it really be copper?”
“Cuivre means brass as well,” I replied. This was something I discovered while pondering Howard’s “coppery” translation of roussâtre.
It doesn’t bother me that Wayne still speaks — still writes, still thinks — about Steve, an acceptance that probably derives from my having known him. Steve was real to me, just as Kevin was to Wayne, and so I’m not imagining someone with whom I could never hope to compete. I’ve already read that influential book. Not that Wayne is especially nostalgic, or retrospective. He really does focus on the here and now. He really does focus on me. I’ve become “central” to him, he says — metaphysically speaking. A fully present center. Just as he’s become central to me.
Presence versus absence: the second opposition Derrida tackled, in a belated maneuver I’d now find boring were it not for the lesson I was about to learn.
We hadn’t done the Latin Quarter yet, so Wayne led us from the museum through the Place des Vosges, where I thought about Anne de Joyeuse and the “mignon masculinity” that animated Wayne’s fingers the day he haunted Steve (Bastille Day, the day of Mom’s death), through the Île St.-Louis and Île de la Cité, across the Pont Neuf, and down the Rue Dauphine, Rue de Buci, and Rue de Seine. It was there, on the Rue de Seine — and I can barely find words other than Benjamin’s to describe what happened: not so much “the excitement of a man in whom an image has taken possession of every fiber of his being” as the shock with which “an imperious desire suddenly overcomes a lonely man;” not so much love at first sight as “love at last sight” — it was there that a brown-haired, green-eyed revenant, about forty years old, stared at one, or possibly at both, of us (a long, Jamesian look), crossed our path, swiveled the upper part of his body in a beautiful contrapposto to the stance of his feet, looked at us again, and then disappeared up the road. Another shy reflection. Another “flamboyant ghost.”
Now the sky seemed white.
“He looks like him,” Wayne said, grabbing my arm.
I’d been thinking the same thing.
“He had something to tell you,” he added.
I was used to this mindset. To quote Wayne’s elegy for a friend named Metro, one Kevin quoted in “Funérailles“: “I want to read Metro’s lips / For he is facing the invisible, and speaking / Eloquently of efforts taken too late.”
“But he was looking at you,” I replied.
“He was looking at you. In fact, he was cruising you.” And here he squeezed my arm, as if to underscore the word “cruising” — or maybe to contradict it, a gestural indication of irony.
Then he said something astonishing, yet — in retrospect — predictable:
“Say good-bye to him. You have to say good-bye.”
I took this to mean that Wayne had said so to Steve.
He turned around and walked ahead, toward the river and out of earshot. He must think I need to be alone, I said to myself. And so I said it, aloud, to a stranger who wasn’t even there anymore:
The sky was gray again. I turned around and joined Wayne where he was waiting.
“Look left,” he said.
I saw a blue facade. And then I saw the sign: Roger-Viollet: Documentation Photographique.
“This is where I bought the photograph,” Wayne explained.
I was elsewhere. I was in Venice, because I now understood, having finally experienced one of my own, the posthumous connection between Merton Densher and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. I’d finally fallen in love with someone after he died. A belated reply, I told myself. Yet another intermittency of the heart. I felt possessed by Kevin’s image, and overcome by my last sight of a man who resembled him. And it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Saying goodbye hadn’t accomplished what Wayne may have thought it would. Instead, it had me arrive at the hopelessly Romantic and Proustian moment of “true enough” truth with which Kevin concludes “Funérailles.” It had me fall “somewhere, and sometime, in between doxa and paradoxa, time and space, then and there.” It had me realize that I loved, identified with, and missed Kevin, who I wanted to be waiting for me when and where I died, even though I knew he wouldn’t be.
“Why did you bring us here?” I asked. “Do you want to go in?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he replied. “I knew the agency was near here, but didn’t remember it on this street. You can take the lead, if you like.”
And so I did. I had us stop for lunch while I studied a map and chose a destination. (The restaurant looked cheap to me. To Wayne, I later learned, it both looked and sounded horrifying: plastic upholstery and popular music.) I decided we’d head for Père Lachaise, where Wayne could see Colette and I could see Proust. We paid the bill, crossed the Pont des Arts and Cour Carrée, walked down the Rue de Rivoli once again, and up the Rue du Temple.
“Isn’t this the ‘Boulevard du Crime,’ where Children of Paradise begins?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “That was part of the Boulevard du Temple that doesn’t exist anymore.”
We walked up the Rue Pastourelle, Rue de Poitou, and Rue du Pont aux Choux. We crossed the Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire and walked up the Rue St.-Sébastien. Then, looking at the map, I realized that we were headed for Ménilmontant — the neighborhood of Pére Lachaise as well as the birthplace of Garance. And although I knew we probably weren’t standing where she actually tells Baptiste love is simple, since that street may not exist anymore either, I was reminded of — and told Wayne about — my dream in which, dressed as Pierrot, I accept her offer: “Oui, c’est tellement simple.” I also told him that I’d never understood the part about the costume.
“Well,” he said, “maybe it has to do with the Pierrot material in Kevin’s Petrouchka section. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that Kevin himself was a kind of Pierrot.”
I suddenly understood: if Garance is Kevin, I’m Kevin as well, which is to say I’m both Kevin and myself. But I didn’t understand why I failed to recognize this in Miami, because the Nijinsky book makes Kevin’s identification with Pierrot rather clear. Pierrot, he wrote, is “flighty, frenetic, and superficial” yet “anguished, melancholy, and narcissistic.”
“Of course you’re Kevin,” Wayne said. “I could have told you that. Proust could have told you that, which is why he’s more insightful than Freud.”
I didn’t get it.
“And which is why Cocteau is wrong to consider him a snob,” continued my own Sentimental Educator. “We mourn each other not only by finding new people to ‘cathect,’ or with whom to connect, but by becoming each other as well — an endless process, by the way. Marcel mourns his grandmother by becoming the part of her that’s indifferent to aristocracy — not that he’s aware, or can afford to be aware, of having done so. At any rate, Proust is aware of it for him. I mourn Steve both by becoming involved with you and by becoming — or ‘introjecting’ — him, or at least part of him. Which part — well, that’s for you to say, although I’d rather you didn’t. I don’t even want to think about it, because if I came up with the right — or maybe even with the wrong — answer I’d probably undo the mourning I’ve accomplished unconsciously. You mourn Tina by cultivating her garden. You mourn Paul by — well, I’m not sure you’ve even begun to. But you mourn Kevin, if you don’t mind my saying so, both by becoming involved with me and by becoming the part of him …”
“… that was romantically involved with you,” I teased.
“No,” he continued. “You know that’s not true. You mourn him by becoming the part of him that wanted to write about Proust.”
Oh God, I said to myself. I don’t want that to be an endless process. And if all mourning is interminable, I now wonder, how does it differ from melancholy?
“In that case,” I complained, “I’ve also become part of my mother.”
“It certainly wouldn’t kill you if you have. It certainly wouldn’t kill you,” he teased, “to prattle.”
“If I did prattle,” I replied, “you’d never know whether I were being her or whether I were being you.”
“And when you write your book on Proust, you’ll never know whether you’re being Kevin or whether you’re being Proust, Gide, Woolf, and all the rest, including Barthes, which is why I took the liberty of telling you the part of Kevin you’ve probably become. Given the many alternatives — the manifold mediation — I didn’t think telling you would ruin the introjection.”
“Which part of Steve do you think you haven’t become?” I asked.
“The visual part,” he replied.
“And which part of Kevin do you think I haven’t?”
“The verbal one. You know,” he said, “you’re not very writerly.”
I took this as a challenge.
We continued strolling toward the cemetery in silence: up the Boulevard Voltaire, up the Rue du Chemin Vert. Everything Wayne had said struck me as true. Not true enough. True. So did everything it implied, including the presence-versus-absence deconstructions: absent centers becoming present ones through cathexis; absent centers becoming present through introjection.
It now strikes me that every interested engagement with Proust, or at least every incomplete one, even his own, may be an act of mourning — or melancholy (Kristeva’s “interminable remorse”). It may be an attempt to keep oneself as well as one’s alter egos alive — even, or especially, when one of them happens to be Proust. Benjamin and Howard, failing to finish In Search of Lost Time, try to preserve themselves as well as to preserve Proust, something Steiner, with his hermeneutic motion, already indicated. Gide and Woolf, failing to finish it, try to preserve themselves as well as to preserve Proust, the intimidating writer they can’t — yet must — put down. Proust, failing to finish it, tries to preserve himself as well as to preserve the Marcel-loving, aristocracy-hating part of his mother — and, to quote Kristeva, to preserve whoever it is aristocracy-hating, heartbroken Swann represents. “For me,” she writes, “Swann is not dead.”
The jealous man resuscitated himself in the Combray boy who admired him and who loved his daughter Gilberte. Sick of Odette and of society, Swann, like the dead souls described by the Celts, had to find a new existence for himself: the narrator’s. Disguised as narrator, he lives in The Budding Grove, follows the Guermantes Way, watches over Sodom and Gomorrah, and, at the high point of his exhaustion and sublimation following the Guermantes reception, traces his trembling hand through the word Fin, which he writes on a page covered with crossed out sentences and passages.
We crossed the Boulevard de Ménilmontant, bought maps of Pére Lachaise, entered the cemetery, arranged to meet back at the entrance, and consulted the maps as we both walked up the Avenue de l’Ouest. Wayne noticed that Colette should be close to Visconti. (It turned out to be Louis, not Luchino.) I noticed that Proust is close to Hahn. Wayne turned right on the Avenue Circulaire in order to start with Colette. The Guermantes Way, I said to myself. I turned left for Proust — Swann’s Way.
This was our only time alone, aside from when I said good-bye to Kevin, and our first opportunity — despite our maps, our goals, and the daylight — to be true flâneurs. Or true enough ones.
The sky is still gray. The leaves are still green. But chestnuts are falling. I hear them everywhere. And then I see it, or rather I see a black slab with the mother’s name on the side: “Mme Adrien Proust, née Jeanne Weil, 1849-1905.” Then I see the father’s, inscribed next to her: “Adrien Proust, Professeur à la Faculté de Medecine, 1839-1903.” And only then do I see Marcel, in front: “Marcel PROUST, 1871-1922.” Having expected a single grave, I’m surprised by the common burial. I’m also surprised to find a cross on top of the slab, next to which other visitors have placed both pebbles and chestnuts. Unless, of course, the chestnuts happen to have fallen there. Well, I tell myself, he wasn’t really Jewish. And I place one there as well. A pebble, not a nut. And then I place another — for Kevin.
When I sit on an adjacent grave, I see that his brother and sister-in-law are buried here as well, because both names are inscribed on the other side: “Robert Proust, Professeur à la Faculté de Medecine, 1873-1935;” “Mme Robert Proust, née Dubois-Amiot, 1878-1953.”
So they’re together now, I tell myself.
A woman who also looks about forty walks by, sees me, stops, sees the three inscriptions, and asks in terrible — American — French whether Robert is Marcel’s son. Clearly, she hasn’t done the math (1871, 1873). “No,” I reply, in English, “he’s the brother. The younger brother.”
And with that, this book should end, because I’d achieve an almost perfect circularity: a Proustian movement from “my younger brother” to “the younger brother.” But I have to say what happened next, even though it ruins the closure. I have to tell the whole story, even though, like my imaginary opera about “Sorrow,” it has no resolution.
I got up, tried to find Reynaldo Hahn, couldn’t find him, and, just as I began going back to the entrance, saw a pair of beautiful — of handsome young men. They seemed about twenty — deux jeunes hommes en fleur, both of them blond, one with long hair, the other with short. They were walking toward me — and toward Proust. Arnulphe and Victurnien, I thought. David and Paul.
They did, in fact, look like brothers — or lovers. I couldn’t tell which. Neither one of them looked at me as they crossed my path, at which point I could tell they were speaking perfect French. I stopped, turned, and watched. Nor did either of them notice Proust. And then, almost like the man on the Rue de Seine, they disappeared.