She is visiting her daughter in Nice, her first visit there in years. Her son will fly out from the United States to spend a few days with them, on the way to some conference or other. It interests her, this confluence of dates. She wonders whether there has not been some collusion, whether the two of them do not have some plan, some proposal to put to her of the kind that children put to a parent when they feel she can no longer look after herself. So obstinate, they will have said to each other: so obstinate, so stubborn, so self-willed—how will we get past that obstinacy of hers except by working together?
They love her, of course, else they would not be cooking up plans for her. Nevertheless, she does feel like one of those Roman aristocrats waiting to be handed the fatal draft, waiting to be told in the most confiding, the most sympathetic of ways that for the general good one should drink it down without a fuss.
Her children are and always have been good, dutiful, as children go. Whether as a mother she has been equally good and dutiful is another matter. But in this life we do not always get what we deserve. Her children will have to wait for another life, another incarnation, if they want the score to be evened.
Her daughter runs an art gallery in Nice. Her daughter is, by now, for all practical purposes French. Her son, with his American wife and American children, will soon, for all practical purposes, be American. So, having flown the nest, they have flown far. One might even think, did one not know better, that they have flown far to get away from her.
Whatever proposal it is they have to put to her, it is sure to be full of ambivalence: love and solicitude on the one hand, brisk heartlessness on the other, and a wish to see the end of her. Well, ambivalence should not disconcert her. She has made a living out of ambivalence. Where would the art of fiction be if there were no double meanings? What would life itself be if there were only heads or tails and nothing in between?
“What I find eerie, as I grow older,” she tells her son, “is that I hear issuing from my lips words I once upon a time used to hear old people say and swore I would never say myself. What-is-the-world-coming-to things. For example: no one seems any longer to be aware that the verb ‘may’ has a past tense—what is the world coming to? People walk down the street eating pizza and talking into a telephone—what is the world coming to?”
It is his first day in Nice, her third: a clear, warm June day, the kind of day that brought idle, well-to-do people from England to this stretch of coast in the first place. And behold, here they are, the two of them, strolling down the Promenade des Anglais just as the English did a hundred years ago with their parasols and their boaters, deploring Mr. Hardy’s latest effort, deploring the Boers.
“Deplore,” she says: “a word one does not hear much nowadays. No one with any sense deplores, not unless they want to be a figure of fun. An interdicted word, an interdicted activity. So what is one to do? Does one keep them all pent up, one’s deplorations, until one is alone with other old folk and free to spill them?”
“You can deplore to me as much as you like, Mother,” says John, her good and dutiful son. “I will nod sympathetically and not make fun of you. What else would you like to deplore today besides pizza?”
“It is not pizza that I deplore, pizza is well and good in its place, it is walking and eating and talking all at the same time that I find so rude.”
“I agree, it is rude or at least unrefined. What else?”
“That’s enough. What I deplore is in itself of no interest. What is of interest is that I vowed years ago I would never do it, and here I am doing it. Why have I succumbed? I deplore what the world is coming to. I deplore the course of history. From my heart I deplore it. Yet when I listen to myself, what do I hear? I hear my mother deploring the miniskirt, deploring the electric guitar. And I remember my exasperation. ‘Yes, Mother,’ I would say, and grind my teeth and pray for her to shut up. And so…”
“And so you think I am grinding my teeth and praying for you to shut up.”
“I am not. It is perfectly acceptable to deplore what the world is coming to. I deplore it myself, in private.”
“But the detail, John, the detail! It is not just the grand sweep of history that I deplore, it is the detail—bad manners, bad grammar, loudness! It is details like that that exasperate me, and it is the kind of detail that exasperates me that drives me to despair. So unimportant! Do you understand? But of course you do not. You think I am making fun of myself when I am not making fun of myself. It is all serious! Do you understand that it could all be serious?”
“Of course I understand. You express yourself with great clarity.”
“But I do not! I do not! These are just words, and we are all sick of words by now. The only way left to prove you are serious is to do away with yourself. Fall on your sword. Blow your brains out. Yet as soon as I say the words you want to smile. I know. Because I am not serious, not fully serious—I am too old to be serious. Kill yourself at twenty and it is a tragic loss. Kill yourself at forty and it is a sobering comment on the times. But kill yourself at seventy and people say, ‘What a shame, she must have had cancer.'”
“But you have never cared what people say.”
“I have never cared what people say because I have always believed in the word of the future. History will vindicate me—that is what I have told myself. But I am losing faith in history, as history has become today—losing faith in its power to come up with the truth.”
“And what has history become today, Mother? And, while we are about it, may I remark that you have once again maneuvered me into the position of the straight man or straight boy, a position I do not particularly enjoy.”
“I am sorry, I am sorry. It is from living alone. Most of the time I have to conduct these conversations in my head; it is such a relief to have persons I can play them out with.”
“Interlocutors. Not persons. Interlocutors.”
“Interlocutors I can play them out with.”
“Play them out on.”
“Interlocutors I can play them out on. I am sorry, I will stop. How is Norma?”
“Norma is well. She sends her love. The children are well. What has history become?”
“History has lost her voice. Clio, the one who once upon a time used to strike her lyre and sing of the doings of great men, has become infirm, infirm and frivolous, like the silliest sort of old woman. At least that is what I think part of the time. The rest of the time I think she has been taken prisoner by a gang of thugs who torture her and make her say things she does not mean to say. I can’t tell you all the dark thoughts I have about history. It has become an obsession.”
“An obsession. Does that mean you are writing about it?”
“No, not writing. If I could write about history I would be on my way to mastering it. No, all I can do is fume about it, fume and deplore. And deplore myself too. I have become trapped in a cliché, and I no longer believe that history will be able to budge that cliché.”
“I do not want to go into it, it is too depressing. The cliché of the stuck record, that has no meaning anymore because there are no gramophone needles or gramophones. The word that echoes back to me from all quarters is ‘bleak.’ Her message to the world is unremittingly bleak. What does it mean, bleak? A word that belongs to a winter landscape yet has somehow become attached to me. It is like a little mongrel that trails behind, yapping, and won’t be shaken off. I am dogged by it. It will follow me to the grave. It will stand at the lip of the grave, peering in and yapping bleak, bleak, bleak!”
“If you are not the bleak one, then who are you, Mother?”
“You know who I am, John.”
“Of course I know. Nevertheless, say it. Say the words.”
“I am the one who used to laugh and no longer does. I am the one who cries.”
Her daughter Helen runs an art gallery in the old city. The gallery is, by all accounts, highly successful. Helen does not own it. She is employed by two Swiss who descend from their lair in Bern twice a year to check the accounts and pocket the takings.
Helen, or Hélène, is younger than John but looks older. Even as a student she had a middle-aged air, with her pencil skirts and owlish glasses and chignon. A type that the French make space for and even respect: the severe, celibate intellectual. Whereas in England Helen would be cast at once as a librarian and a figure of fun.
In fact she has no grounds for thinking Helen celibate. Helen does not speak about her private life, but from John she hears of an affair that has been going on for years with a businessman from Lyon who takes her away for weekends. Who knows, perhaps on her weekends away she blossoms.
It is not particularly seemly to speculate on the sex lives of one’s children. Nevertheless she cannot believe that someone who devotes her life to art, be it only the sale of paintings, can be without fire of her own.
What she had expected was a combined assault: Helen and John sitting her down and putting to her the scheme they had worked out for her salvation. But no, their first evening together passes perfectly pleasantly. The subject is only broached the next day, in Helen’s car, as the two of them drive north into the Basses-Alpes en route to a luncheon spot Helen has chosen, leaving John behind to work on his paper for the conference.
“How would you like to live here, Mother?” says Helen, out of the blue.
“You mean in the mountains?”
“No, in France. In Nice. There is an apartment in my building that falls vacant in October. You could buy it, or we could buy it together. On the ground floor.”
“You want us to live together, you and I? This is very sudden, my dear. Are you sure you mean it?”
“We would not be living together. You would be perfectly independent. But in an emergency you would have someone to call on.”
“Thank you, dear, but we have perfectly good people in Melbourne trained to deal with old folk and their little emergencies.”
“Please, Mother, let us not play games. You are seventy-two. You have had problems with your heart. You are not always going to be able to look after yourself. If you—“
“Say no more, my dear. I am sure you find the euphemisms as distasteful as I do. I could break a hip, I could become gaga; I could linger on, bedridden, for years: that is the sort of thing we are talking about. Granted such possibilities, the question for me is: Why should I impose on my daughter the burden of caring for me? And the question for you, I presume, is: Will you be able to live with yourself if you do not at least once, in all sincerity, offer me care and protection? Do I put it fairly, our problem, our joint problem?”
“Yes. My proposal is sincere. It is also practicable. I have discussed it with John.”
“Then let us not spoil this beautiful day by getting into a wrangle. You have made your proposal, I have heard it and I promise to think about it. Let us leave it at that. It is very unlikely that I will accept, as you must have guessed. My thoughts are running in quite another direction. There is one thing the old are better at than the young, and that is dying. It behooves the old (what a quaint word!) to die well, to show those who follow what a good death can be. That is the direction of my thinking. I would like to concentrate on making a good death.”
“You could make just as good a death in Nice as in Melbourne.”
“But that is not true, Helen. Think it through and you will see it is not true. Ask me what I mean by a good death.”
“What do you mean by a good death, Mother.”
“A good death is one that takes place far away, where the mortal residue is disposed of by strangers, by people in the death business. A good death is one that you learn of by telegram: I regret to inform you, etcetera. What a pity telegrams have gone out of fashion.”
Helen gives an exasperated snort. They drive on in silence. Nice is far behind: down an empty road they swoop into a long valley. Though it is nominally summer the air is cold, as if the sun never touched these depths. She shivers, winds up the window. Like driving into an allegory!
“It is not right to die alone,” says Helen at last, “with no one to hold your hand. It is antisocial. It is inhuman. It is unloving. Excuse the words, but I mean them. I am offering to hold your hand. To be with you.”
Of the children, Helen has always been the more reserved, the one who kept her mother at more of a distance. Never before has Helen spoken like this. Perhaps the car makes it easier, allowing the driver not to look straight at the person she is addressing. She must remember that about cars.
“That’s very kind of you, my dear,” she says. The voice that comes from her throat is unexpectedly low. “I will not forget it. But would it not feel odd, coming back to France after all these years to die? What will I say to the man at the border when he asks the purpose of my visit, business or pleasure? Or, worse, when he asks how long I plan to stay? Forever? To the end? Just a brief while?”
“Say réunir la famille. He will understand that. To reunite the family. It happens every day. He won’t demand more.”
They eat at an auberge called Les Deux Ermites. There must be a story behind the name, but she would prefer not to be told it. If it is a good story it is probably made up anyway. A cold, knifing wind is blowing; they sit behind the protection of glass, looking out on snowcapped peaks. It is early in the season: besides theirs, only two tables are occupied.
“Pretty? Yes, of course it is pretty. A pretty country, a beautiful country, that goes without saying. La belle France. But do not forget, Helen, how lucky I have been, what a privileged vocation I have followed. I have been able to move about as I wished most of my life. I have lived, when I have chosen, in the lap of beauty. The question I find myself asking now is, What good has it done me, all this beauty? Is beauty not just another consumable, like wine? One drinks it in, one drinks it down, it gives one a brief, pleasing, heady feeling, but what does it leave behind? The residue of wine is, excuse the word, piss; what is the residue of beauty? What is the good of it? Does beauty make us better people?”
“Before you tell me your answer to the question, Mother, shall I tell you mine? Because I think I know what you are going to say. You are going to say that beauty has done you no good that you can see, that one of these days you are going to find yourself at heaven’s gate with your hands empty and a big question mark over your head. It would be entirely in character for you, that is to say for Elizabeth Costello, to say so. And to believe so.
“The answer you will not give—because it would be out of character for Elizabeth Costello—is that what you have produced as a writer not only has a beauty of its own—a limited beauty, granted, it is not poetry, but beauty nevertheless, shapeliness, clarity, economy—but has also changed the lives of others, made them better human beings, or slightly better human beings. It is not just I who say so. Other people say so too, strangers. To me, to my face. Not because what you write contains lessons but because it is a lesson.”
“Like the waterskater, you mean.”
“I don’t know who the waterskater is.”
“The waterskater or long-legged fly. An insect. The waterskater thinks it is just hunting for food, whereas in fact its movements trace on the surface of the pond, over and over, the most beautiful of all words, the name of God. The movements of the pen on the page trace the name of God, as you, watching from a remove, can see but I cannot.”
“Yes, if you like. But more than that. You teach people how to feel. By dint of grace. The grace of the pen as it follows the movements of thought.”
It sounds to her rather old-fashioned, this aesthetic theory that her daughter is expounding, rather Aristotelian. Has Helen worked it out by herself or just read it somewhere? And how does it apply to the art of painting? If the rhythm of the pen is the rhythm of thought, what is the rhythm of the brush? And what of paintings made with a spraycan? How do such paintings teach us to be better people?
She sighs. “It is sweet of you to say so, Helen, sweet of you to reassure me. Not a life wasted after all. Of course I am not convinced. As you say, if I could be convinced I would not be myself. But that is no consolation. I am not in a happy mood, as you can see. In my pres- ent mood, the life I have followed looks misconceived from beginning to end, and not in a particularly interesting way either. If one truly wants to be a better person, it now seems to me, there must be less roundabout ways of getting there than by darkening thousands of pages with prose.”
“Ways such as?”
“Helen, this is not an interesting conversation. Gloomy states of mind do not yield interesting thoughts, at least not in my experience.”
“Must we not talk then?”
“Yes, let us not talk. Let us do something really old-fashioned instead. Let us sit here quietly and listen to the cuckoo.”
For there is indeed a cuckoo calling, from the copse behind the restaurant. If they open the window just a crack the sound comes quite clearly on the wind: a two-note motif, high-low, repeated time after time. Redolent, she thinks—Keatsian word—redolent of summertime and summer ease. A nasty bird, but what a singer, what a priest! Cucu, the name of God in cuckoo tongue. A world of symbols.
They are doing something they have not done together since the children were children. Sitting on the balcony of Helen’s apartment in the suave warmth of the Mediterranean night, they are playing cards. They play three-handed bridge, they play the game they used to call Sevens, called in France Rami, according to Helen/Hélène.
The idea of an evening of cards is Helen’s. It seemed an odd idea at first, artificial; but once they are into the swing of it she is pleased. How intuitive of Helen: she would not have suspected Helen of intuitiveness.
What strikes her now is how easily they slip into the card-playing personalities of thirty years ago, personalities she would have thought they had shed forever once they escaped from one another: Helen reckless and scatty, John a trifle dour, a trifle predictable, and herself surprisingly competitive, considering that these are her own flesh and blood, considering that the pelican will tear open its breast to feed its young. If they were playing for stakes, she would be sweeping in their money by the veritable armful. What does that say about her? What does it say about all of them? Does it say that character is immutable, intractable; or does it merely say that families, happy families, are held together by a repertoire of games played from behind masks?
“It would seem that my powers have not waned,” she remarks after yet another win. “Forgive me. How embarrassing.” Which is a lie, of course. She is not embarrassed, not at all. She is triumphant. “Curious which powers one retains over the years and which one begins to lose.”
The power she retains, the power she is exercising at this moment, is one of visualization. Without the slightest mental effort she can see the cards in her children’s hands, each single one. She can see into their hands; she can see into their hearts.
“Which powers do you feel you are losing, Mother?” asks her son cautiously.
“I am losing,” she says gaily, “the power of desire.” In for a penny, in for a pound.
“I would not have said desire had power,” responds John gamely, picking up the baton. “Intensity perhaps. Voltage. But not power, horsepower. Desire may make you want to climb a mountain but it won’t get you to the top.”
“What will get you to the top?”
“Energy. Fuel. What you have stored up in preparation.”
“Energy. Do you want to know my theory of energy, the energetics of an old person? Don’t get anxious, nothing personal in it to embarrass you, and no metaphysics either, not a drop. As material a theory as can be. Here it is. As we age, every part of the body deteriorates or suffers entropy, down to the very cells. That what aging means, from a material point of view. Even in cases when they are still healthy, old cells are touched with the colors of autumn (a metaphor, I concede, but a dash of metaphor here and there does not add up to metaphysics). This goes for the many, many cells of the brain too.
“Just as spring is the season that looks forward to summer, so autumn is the season that looks back. The desires conceived by autumnal brain cells are autumnal desires, nostalgic, layered in memory. They no longer have the heat of summer; what intensity they have is multivalent, complex, turned more toward the past than toward the future.
“There, that is the core of it, my contribution to brain science. What do you think?”
“A contribution, I would say,” says her diplomatic son, “less to brain science than to philosophy of mind, to the speculative branch of that philosophy. Why not just say that you feel in an autumnal mood and leave it at that?”
“Because if it were just a mood it would change, as moods do. The sun would come out, my mood would grow sunnier. But there are states of the soul deeper than moods. Nostalgie de la boue, for instance, is not a mood but a state of being. The question I ask is, Does the nostalgie in nostalgie de la boue belong to the mind or to the brain? My answer is, The brain. The brain whose origin lies not in the realm of forms but in dirt, in mud, in the primal slime to which, as it runs down, it longs to return. A material longing emanating from the very cells themselves. A death drive deeper than thought.”
It sounds fine, it sounds like exactly what it is, chatter, it does not sound mad at all. But that is not what she is thinking. What she is thinking is: Who speaks like this to her children, children she may not see again? What she is also thinking is: Just the kind of thought that would come to a woman in her autumn. Everything I see, everything I say, is touched with the backward look. What is left for me? I am the one who cries.
“Is that what you occupying yourself with nowadays—brain science?” says Helen. “Is that what you are writing about?”
Strange question; intrusive. Helen never talks to her about her work. Not exactly a taboo subject between them, but off bounds certainly.
“No,” she says. “I still confine myself to fiction, you will be relieved to hear. I have not yet descended to hawking my opinions around. The Opinions of Elizabeth Costello, revised edition.”
“A new novel?”
“Not a novel. Stories. Do you want to hear one of them?”
“Yes, I do. It is a long while since you last told us a story.”
“Very well, a bedtime story. Once upon a time, but our times, not olden times, there is a man, and he travels to a strange city for a job interview. From his hotel room, feeling restless, feeling in the mood for adventure, feeling who knows what, he telephones for a call girl. A girl arrives and spends time with him. He is free with her as he is not free with his wife; he makes certain demands on her.
“The interview next day goes well. He is offered the job and accepts and in due course, in the story, moves to this city. Among the people in his new office, working as a secretary or a clerk or a telephonist, he recognizes the same girl, the call girl, and she recognizes him.”
“And I cannot tell you more.”
“But that is not a story, that it is just the groundwork for a story. You have not told a story until you say what happens next.”
“She does not have to be a secretary. The man is offered the job and accepts and moves to this new city and in due course pays a visit to relatives, to a cousin he has not seen since they were children, or a cousin of his wife’s. The cousin’s daughter walks into the room, and behold, it is the girl from the hotel.”
“Go on. What happens next?”
“It depends. Perhaps nothing more happens. Perhaps it is the kind of story that just stops.”
“Nonsense. It depends on what?”
Now John speaks. “It depends on what passed between them in the hotel room. Depends on the demands you say he made. Do you spell out, Mother, what demands he made?”
“Yes, I do.”
Now they are silent, all of them. What the man with the new job will do, or what the girl with the sideline in prostitution will do, recedes into insignificance. The real story is out on the balcony, where two middle-aged children face a mother whose capacity to disturb and dismay them is not yet exhausted. I am the one who cries.
“Are you going to tell us what those demands were?” asks Helen grimly, since there is nothing else to ask.
It is late but not too late. They are not children, none of them. For good or ill they are all together now in the same leaky boat called life, adrift without saving illusions in a sea of indifferent darkness (what metaphors she comes up with tonight!). Can they learn to live together without eating one another?
“Demands a man can make upon a woman that I would find shocking. But perhaps you would not find them shocking, coming from a different generation. Perhaps the world has sailed on in that respect and left me behind on the shore, deploring. Perhaps that is what turns out to be the nub of the story: that while the man, the senior man, blushes when he faces the girl, to the girl what happened in the hotel room is just part of her trade, part of the way things are, part of life. ‘Mr. Jones… Uncle Harry… How do you do?'”
The two children who are not children any more exchange glances. Is that all? they seem to be saying. Not much of a story.
“The girl in the story is very beautiful,” she says. “A veritable flower. I can reveal that to you. Mr. Jones, Uncle Harry, has never involved himself in something like this before, the humiliating of beauty, the bringing down of it. That was not his plan when he made the telephone call. He would not have guessed he had it in him. It became his plan only when the girl herself appeared and he saw she was, as I say, a flower. It seemed an affront to him that all his life he should have missed it, beauty, and would probably miss it from here onward too. A universe without justice! he would have cried inwardly, and proceeded from there in his bitter way. Not a nice man, on the whole.”
“I thought, Mother,” says Helen, “that you had doubts about beauty, about its importance. A sideshow, you called it.”
“More or less.”
John reaches out and lays a hand on his sister’s arm. “The man in the story,” he says, “Uncle Harry, Mr. Jones—he still believes in beauty. He is under its spell. That is why he hates it and fights against it.”
“Is that what you mean, Mother?” says Helen.
“I don’t know what I mean. The story is not written yet. Usually I resist the temptation to talk about stories before they are fully out of the bottle. Now I know why.” Though the night is warm, she shivers lightly. “I get too much interference.”
“The bottle,” says Helen.
“This is not interference,” says Helen. “From other people it might be interference. But we are with you. Surely you know that.”
With you? What nonsense. Children are against their parents, not with them. But this a special evening in a special week. Very likely they will not come together again, all three of them, not in this life. Perhaps, this once, they should rise above themselves. Perhaps her daughter’s words come from the heart, the true heart, not the false one. We are with you. And her own impulse to embrace those words—perhaps it comes from the true heart too.
“Then tell me what to say next,” she says.
“Embrace her,” says Helen. “In front of the whole family let him take the girl in his arms and embrace her. No matter how odd it looks. ‘Forgive me for what I put you through,’ let him say. Have him go down on his knees before her. ‘In you let me worship again the beauty of the world.’ Or words to that effect.”
“Very Irish Twilight,” she murmurs. “Very Dostoevskian. I am not sure I have it in my repertoire.”
It is John’s last day in Nice. Early next morning he will set off for Dubrovnik for his conference, where they will be discussing, it seems, time before the beginning of time, time after the end of time.
“Once upon a time I was just a child who liked peering through a telescope,” he says to her. “Now I have to refashion myself as a philosopher. As a theologian even. Quite a life-change.”
“And what do you hope to see,” she says, “when you look through your telescope into time before time?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “God perhaps, who has no dimensions. Hiding.”
“Well, I wish I could see him too. But I do not seem to be able to. Say hello to him from me. Say I will be along one of these days.”
“I’m sorry. I am sure you know Helen has suggested that I buy an apartment here in Nice. An interesting idea, but I do not think I will take it up. She says you have a proposal of your own to make. Quite heady, all these proposals. Like being courted again. What is it you are proposing?”
“That you come and stay with us in Baltimore. It is a big house, there is plenty of space, we are having another bathroom fitted. The children will love it. It will be good for them to have their grandmother around.”
“They may love it while they are nine and six. They will not love it so much when they are fifteen and twelve and bring friends home and Grandma is shuffling around the kitchen in her slippers, mumbling to herself and clacking her dentures and perhaps not smelling too good. Thank you, John, but no.”
“You do not have to make a decision now. The offer stands. It will always stand.”
“John, I am in no position to preach, coming from an Australia that positively slavers to do its American master’s bidding. Nevertheless, bear it in mind that you are inviting me to leave the country where I was born to take up residence in the belly of the Great Satan, and that I might have reservations about doing so.”
He stops, this son of hers, and she stops beside him on the promenade. He seems to be pondering her words, applying to them the amalgam of pudding and jelly in his cranium that was passed on to him as a birthgift forty years ago, whose cells are not tired, not yet, are still vigorous enough to grapple with ideas both big and small, time before time, time after time, and what to do with an aging parent.
“Come anyway,” he says, “despite your reservations. Agreed, these are not the best of times, but come anyway. In the spirit of paradox. And, if you will accept the smallest, the gentlest word of admonishment, be wary of grand pronouncements. America is not the Great Satan. Those crazy men in the White House are just a blip in history. They will be thrown out and all will return to normal.”
“So I may deplore but I must not denounce?”
“Righteousness, Mother, that is what I am referring to, the tone and spirit of righteousness. I know it must be tempting, after a lifetime of weighing every word before you write it down, to just let go, be swept up by the spirit; but it leaves a bad taste behind. You must be aware of that.”
“The spirit of righteousness. I will bear in mind what you call it. I will give the matter some thought. You call those men crazy. To me they do not seem crazy at all. On the contrary, they seem all too canny, all too clear-headed. And with world-historical ambitions too. They want to turn the ship of history around, or failing that to sink her. Is that too grand a figure for you? Does it leave a bad taste? As for paradox, the first lesson of paradox, in my experience, is not to rely on paradox. If you rely on paradox, paradox will let you down.”
She takes his arm; in silence they resume their promenade. But all is not well between them. She can feel his stiffness, his irritation. A sulky child, she remembers. It all comes flooding back, the hours it would take to coax him out of one of his sulks. A gloomy boy, son of gloomy parents. How could she dream of taking shelter with him and that tight-lipped, disapproving wife of his?
At least, she thinks, they do not treat me like a fool. At least my children do me that honor.
“Enough of quarreling,” she says (is she coaxing now? is she pleading?). “Let us not make ourselves miserable talking about politics. Here we are on the shores of the Mediterranean, the cradle of Old Europe, on a balmy summer evening. Let me simply say, if you and Norma and the children can stand America no more, cannot stand the shame of it, the house in Melbourne is yours, as it has always been. You can come on a visit, you can come as refugees, you can come to réunir la famille, as Helen puts it. And now, what do you say we fetch Helen and stroll down to that little restaurant of hers on avenue Gambetta and have a pleasant last meal together?”
January 15, 2004