The White Flaneur at the Main Intersection
[Haffenden:] What is your criterion for judging what is most valuable in a work of art? [Brookner:] That’s very difficult to answer. I think it would be radiance, a power beyond the image: vision. The National Gallery has just bought a portrait by David called M. Blauw, and I think I’ll find it there: it’s only a portrait of a man with a quill pen, but it is so articulate and has such integrity.
Haffenden interview, Novelists in Interview, 1985
It has taken me a long rude time to get back to you here.
I’m writing in cursive but not with the fine tip black pen in the notebooks I carried in my leather satchel years ago when we first met. I last saw you at your wedding? Now I write with a stylus on a tablet. I used to like to write, I wrote letters like happy people breathe, without wondering why. I was full of myself. I must have been a bother and a bore.
It’s been a long time, K.
When I was out in the world in my youth, letter writing was a turtle’s shell into which I could withdraw publicly (berth or booth or counter) as I travelled. I would write to someone with whom I felt at home, privately. I would self portray, not for the wide blue face book sky, but privately, to one person. It is hard for me to do so today. I was raised in Baptist country, a non believer as you were, among a people eyed by their God. He wrote down every little thing done, thought or said, and what one was even tempted to say, so note taking seemed arrogant to believers. I suppose it seemed redundant. I still live here. Now everyone drools into screens but I recall how that self sufficient absorption in public, in writing aroused back then, some resentment, suspicion, but little curiosity. I was arrogant, God knows.
Reading too was suspect, private, and masturbatory. Books are still a slightly suspect status signifier but we’re working on our reading. Why, there’s a national radio contest each year establishing which freshly printed Canadian books are best for our psyche in light of important conversations we need to be having. That’s the worst ‘chill of socialism’ here, and I live with it. I click the off button on the celebrity readers, who bring their common touch to fighting the long contest week during which they defend their number ones. I’ve never gotten used to the mental hygiene contest it is. I turn it off and I refuse to read any of the recommended volumes. This irks Toronto. I indulge a boot fetish instead. I read older books, there’s no shortage. I’ve worked my way through Toynbee’s history this winter, picked up the complete volumes from the free table at a junk sale.
We hear the national kitchen radio, same as it ever was. Click. Sounds of snow and wind and trees, the solar system, the fires, the machines. I need to hear a voice sometimes and I can’t stand having a staring dog around anymore. The kitchen clock and the radio. The adjustable privacy settings for the phone.
K, you live out in the country in the winter too. Bert loved to tell what he knew of the story of your grandparents escaping the war and coming to New York. We come from families with old clocks. I have your godfather Bert’s little marble mantle clock; it ticked through a few generations, and it quit shortly after he died. Perhaps I over-wound it, the winding was his ceremony. I tried, and I remember the clocks in every place I ever lived but not the kitchen wall clock in my parents’ home. I remember the cuckoo clock above the Frigidaire in my grandmother’s little farmhouse kitchen.
Dream: I am sitting at the kitchen table alone, a child at my grandmother’s farmhouse, on a soft grey day. My feet just touch the floor. Out the screen door I can see the old barn across the yard and the forest beyond. No one is about.
As in most of my childhood memories I see myself from outside myself, from about ten feet away as in a snapshot. I have no feelings feelings as I observe myself. I never have feelings in my childhood memories. I only retain the visuals.
That is all, but the dream goes on for a long time, viewed like a painting through the last hour of sleep and half sleep. I am calm while in the dream and believing it, I don’t question the unlikely instance of my being left in solitude on the old place, but in half sleep I fret about it. My eyes open to a bedroom window years if not miles away to the familiar light of my home country. A usual present day anguish at the passing of family.
Then my eyes close to see again in dream light the boy at the long gone kitchen table looking out to a barn which fell down long ago. The whole place is just a gravel pit now, in real time.
I come from a large family but only a few of us remain, a few of the old aunts and uncles, a cousin or two who don’t get in touch, We have not much in common but early memories and a mild dumbfounded disdain for differences now between us. My mother’s side and her side of things. I often feel like I am the last of us in this country, duped by my own loyalty to place and past, the least likely to stay, ironically the last one here.
It is as if I thought there would be a time, a child’s sense of time, when I would be alone, the last one. Looking on childishly in a dream… seeing as a child sees. The interpretations come and go.
We send one another reminding music on facebook sometimes, my cousins and I. Private focus in public doesn’t seem so antisocial now. People jive on devices with one another in real time more than I desire to do, fingering icons and screens. Befriend and follow, horde, network, cull, and block or don’t let go. Grade six. I fear my generation may have been the last able to rely on distance to help forgetting. Now we can’t lose touch it seems. Among my younger friends the idea of letting a relationship recede, forgotten, unfingered, abandoning the important conversation, seems an old fashioned conceit. But I like to keep my distance to this day, and I remember leaving and renunciation, for the possibilities they were.
As letter writing became chat, I pulled back. I turned off my notifications.
The consciousness of profile history and style, the presentation of proof of productivity, the coyness of considerations sicken but I lurk some days. I self advertise, see what a few clicks will do. It is boring. I’m writing with my finger on glass but I am disconnected, off grid, mostly off line, in solitary time.
I paint when there is no one around, no chat feed, just as if I was in my right mind. The overly examined life is perhaps worse than the under examined is the thing – and the broadcast life, examined or not, is worse. I’m usually content talking to myself, staring into space like my mother always said I’d end up doing, alone, useless really. I am much like her, we laugh about it on the phone.
The lad and I have a running Einstein joke. The boy Einstein’s mother, all shrewish cheer, harps “Einie! Einie! You need to be doing something, not just sitting staring into space!” She’s all go, go, go. But the rocking chair has got me on my front porch. I am no Einstein. I won’t get much insight into space or time for all my staring.
“There’s days and then there’s days and then there’s other days,” Grandpa used to say.
Bert, your godfather, used to say that he’d never have survived living in the hell holes in which we lived if I hadn’t romanticized things so. The lad I live with now and love too says he can see that some winter days.
I’ve been thinking of Bert and of you and yours every day since you got in touch. Before that too, but I was surprised when you wrote to me. I had to think what to say. For a long time. Until he died that winter, what, ten years ago it seemed I had no privacy. I craved it but I had to be available a long time while he grew sicker. Long days for days of gently falling winter snow will bring back the moment of final separation to me, my isolation and sense of uselessness. No one much drew near and I was not encouraging, brittle. I craved sleep. I let go of people from then and from before then. My partners are always more social than I am, who isn’t really? Now I have this new home, this ‘No trespassing’ sign between me and the road.
You don’t get over grief but you refine it maybe. That isn’t always fair to the present but the present will have its day. You turn that absent life into some comfort. Every day eats at you a little bit, you can’t always pretend it isn’t so.