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By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1958 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
Landscape-tones: brown to bronze, steep skyline, low cloud, pearl ground with shadowed oyster and violet reflections. The lion-dust of desert: prophets' tombs turned to zinc and copper at sunset on the ancient lake. Its huge sand-faults like watermarks from the air; green and citron giving to gunmetal, to a single plum-dark sail, moist, palpitant: sticky-winged nymph. Taposiris is dead among its tumbling columns and seamarks, vanished the Harpoon Men ... Mareotis under a sky of hot lilac.
summer: buff sand, hot marble sky.
autumn: swollen bruisegreys.
winter: freezing snow, cool sand. clear sky panels, glittering with mica. washed delta greens. magnificent starscapes.
And spring? Ah! there is no spring in the Delta, no sense of refreshment and renewal in things. One is plunged out of winter into: wax effigy of a summer too hot to breathe. But here, at least, in Alexandria, the sea-breaths save us from the tideless weight of summer nothingness, creeping over the bar among the warships, to flutter the striped awnings of the cafés upon the Grande Corniche. I would never have ...
* * *
The city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory. Why must I return to it night after night, writing here by the fire of carob-wood while the Aegean wind clutches at this island house, clutching and releasing it, bending back the cypresses like bows? Have I not said enough about Alexandria? Am I to be reinfected once more by the dream of it and the memory of its inhabitants? Dreams I had thought safely locked up on paper, confided to the strong-rooms of memory! You will think I am indulging myself. It is not so. A single chance factor has altered everything, has turned me back upon my tracks. A memory which catches sight of itself in a mirror.
Justine, Melissa, Clea.... There were so few of us really — you would have thought them easily disposed of in a single book, would you not? So would I, so did I. Dispersed now by time and circumstance, the circuit broken forever....
I had set myself the task of trying to recover them in words, reinstate them in memory, allot to each his and her position in my time. Selfishly. And with that writing complete, I felt that I had turned a key upon the doll's house of our actions. Indeed, I saw my lovers and friends no longer as living people but as coloured transfers of the mind; inhabiting my papers now, no longer the city, like tapestry figures. It was difficult to concede to them any more common reality than to the words I had used about them. What has recalled me to myself?
But in order to go on, it is necessary to go back: not that anything I wrote about them is untrue, far from it. Yet when I wrote, the full facts were not at my disposal. The picture I drew was a provisional one — like the picture of a lost civilization deduced from a few fragmented vases, an inscribed tablet, an amulet, some human bones, a gold smiling death-mask.
* * *
'We live' writes Pursewarden somewhere 'lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time — not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.' Something of this order....
And as for human characters, whether real or invented, there are no such animals. Each psyche is really an ant-hill of opposing pre-dispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion — but a necessary illusion if we are to love!
As for the something that remains constant ... the shy kiss of Melissa is predictable, for example (amateurish as an early form of printing), or the frowns of Justine, which cast a shadow over those blazing dark eyes — orbits of the Sphinx at noon. 'In the end' says Pursewarden 'everything will be found to be true of everybody. Saint and Villain are co-sharers.' He is right.
I am making every attempt to be matter-of-fact....
* * *
In the last letter which reached me from Balthazar he wrote: 'I think of you often and not without a certain grim humour. You have retired to your island, with, as you think, all the data about us and our lives. No doubt you are bringing us to judgement on paper in the manner of writers. I wish I could see the result. It must fall very far short of truth: I mean such truths as I could tell you about us all — even perhaps about yourself. Or the truths Clea could tell you (she is in Paris on a visit and has stopped writing to me recently). I picture you, wise one, poring over Moeurs, the diaries of Justine, Nessim, etc., imagining that the truth is to be found in them. Wrong! Wrong! A diary is the last place to go if you wish to seek the truth about a person. Nobody dares to make the final confession to themselves on paper: or at least, not about love. Do you know whom Justine really loved? You believed it was yourself, did you not? Confess!'
My only answer was to send him the huge bundle of paper which had grown up so stiffly under my slow pen and to which I had loosely given her name as a title — though Cahiers would have done just as well. Months passed after this — a blessed silence indeed, for it suggested that my critic had been satisfied, silenced.
I cannot say that I forgot the city, but I let the memory of it sleep. Yet of course, it was always there, as it always will be, hanging in the mind like the mirage which travellers so often see. Pursewarden has described the phenomenon in the following words:
'We were still almost a couple of hours' steaming distance before land could possibly come into sight when suddenly my companion shouted and pointed at the horizon. We saw, inverted in the sky, a full-scale mirage of the city, luminous and trembling, as if painted on dusty silk: yet in the nicest detail. From memory I could clearly make out its features, Ras El Tin Palace, the Nebi Daniel Mosque and so forth. The whole representation was as breath-taking as a masterpiece painted in fresh dew. It hung there in the sky for a considerable time, perhaps twenty-five minutes, before melting slowly into the horizon mist. An hour later, the real city appeared, swelling from a smudge to the size of its mirage.'
* * *
The two or three winters we have spent in this island have been lonely ones — dour and windswept winters and hot summers. Luckily, the child is too young to feel as I do the need for books, for conversation. She is happy and active.
Now in the spring come the long calms, the tideless, scentless days of premonition. The sea tames itself and becomes attentive. Soon the cicadas will bring in their crackling music, background to the shepherd's dry flute among the rocks. The scrambling tortoise and the lizard are our only companions.
I should explain that our only regular visitant from the outside world is the Smyrna packet which once a week crosses the headland to the south, always at the same hour, at the same speed, just after dusk. In winter, the high seas and winds make it invisible, but now — I sit and wait for it. You hear at first only the faint drumming of engines. Then the creature slides round the cape, cutting its line of silk froth in the sea, brightly lit up in the moth-soft darkness of the Aegean night — condensed, but without outlines, like a cloud of fireflies moving. It travels fast, and disappears all too soon round the next headland, leaving behind it perhaps only the half-uttered fragment of a popular song, or the skin of a tangerine which I will find next day, washed up on the long pebbled beach where I bathe with the child.
The little arbour of oleanders under the planes — this is my writing-room. After the child has gone to bed, I sit here at the old sea-stained table, waiting for the visitant, unwilling to light the paraffin lamp before it has passed. It is the only day of the week I know by name here — Thursday. It sounds silly, but in an island so empty of variety, I look forward to the weekly visit like a child to a school treat. I know the boat brings letters for which I shall have to wait perhaps twenty-four hours. But I never see the little ship vanish without regret. And when it has passed, I light the lamp with a sigh and return to my papers. I write so slowly, with such pain. Pursewarden once, speaking about writing, told me that the pain that accompanied composition was entirely due, in artists, to the fear of madness; 'force it a bit and tell yourself that you don't give a damn if you do go mad, and you'll find it comes quicker, you'll break the barrier.' (I don't know how true this all is. But the money he left me in his will has served me well, and I still have a few pounds between me and the devils of debt and work.)
I describe this weekly diversion in some detail because it was into this picture that Balthazar intruded one June evening with a suddenness that surprised me — I was going to write 'deafened' — there is no one to talk to here — but 'surprised me'. This evening something like a miracle happened. The little steamer, instead of disappearing as usual, turned abruptly through an arc of 150 degrees and entered the lagoon, there to lie in a furry cocoon of its own light: and to drop into the centre of the golden puddle it had created the long slow anchor-chain whose symbol itself is like a search for truth. It was a moving sight to one who, like myself, had been landlocked in spirit as all writers are — indeed, become like a ship in a bottle, sailing nowhere — and I watched as an Indian must perhaps have watched the first white man's craft touch the shores of the New World.
The darkness, the silence, were broken now by the uneven lap-lap of oars; and then, after an age, by the chink of city-shod feet upon shingle. A hoarse voice gave a direction. Then silence. As I lit the lamp to set the wick in trim and so deliver myself from the spell of this departure from the norm, the grave dark face of my friend, like some goat-like apparition from the Underworld, materialized among the thick branches of myrtle. We drew a breath and stood smiling at each other in the yellow light: the dark Assyrian ringlets, the beard of Pan. 'No — I am real!' said Balthazar with a laugh and we embraced furiously. Balthazar!
The Mediterranean is an absurdly small sea; the length and greatness of its history makes us dream it larger than it is. Alexandria indeed — the true no less than the imagined — lay only some hundreds of sea-miles to the south.
'I am on my way to Smyrna' said Balthazar, 'from where I was going to post you this.' He laid upon the scarred old table the immense bundle of manuscript I had sent him — papers now seared and starred by a massive interlinear of sentences, paragraphs and question-marks. Seating himself opposite with his Mephistophelean air, he said in a lower, more hesitant tone:
'I have debated in myself very long about telling you some of the things I have put down here. At times it seemed a folly and an impertinence. After all, your concern — was it with us as real people or as "characters"? I didn't know. I still don't. These pages may lose me your friendship without adding anything to the sum of your knowledge. You have been painting the city, touch by touch, upon a curved surface — was your object poetry or fact? If the latter, then there are things which you have a right to know.'
He still had not explained his amazing appearance before me, so anxious was he about the central meaning of the visitation. He did so now, noticing my bewilderment at the cloud of fire-flies in the normally deserted bay. He smiled.
'The ship is delayed for a few hours with engine trouble. It is one of Nessim's. The captain is Hasim Kohly, an old friend: perhaps you remember him? No. Well, I guessed from your description roughly where you must be living; but to be landed on your doorstep like this, I confess!' His laughter was wonderful to hear once more.
But I hardly listened, for his words had plunged me into a ferment, a desire to study his interlinear, to revise — not my book (that has never been of the slightest importance to me for it will never even be published), but my view of the city and its inhabitants. For my own personal Alexandria had become, in all this loneliness, as dear as a philosophy of introspection, almost a monomania. I was so filled with emotion I did not know what to say to him. 'Stay with us, Balthazar —' I said, 'stay awhile....'
'We leave in two hours' he said, and patting the papers before him: 'This may give you visions and fevers' he added doubtfully.
'Good' I said — 'I ask for nothing better.'
'We are all still real people' he said, 'whatever you try and do to us — those of us who are still alive. Melissa, Pursewarden — they can't answer back because they are dead. At least, so one thinks.'
'So one thinks. The best retorts always come from beyond the grave.'
We sat and began to talk about the past, rather stiffly to be sure. He had already dined on board and there was nothing I could offer him beyond a glass of the good island wine which he sipped slowly. Later he asked to see Melissa's child, and I led him back through the clustering oleanders to a place from which we could both look into the great firelit room where she lay looking beautiful and grave, asleep there with her thumb in her mouth. Balthazar's dark cruel eye softened as he watched her, lightly breathing. 'One day' he said in a low voice 'Nessim will want to see her. Quite soon, mark. He has begun to talk about her, be curious. With old age coming on, he will feel he needs her support, mark my words.' And he quoted in Greek: 'First the young, like vines, climb up the dull supports of their elders who feel their fingers on them, soft and tender; then the old climb down the lovely supporting bodies of the young into their proper deaths.' I said nothing. It was the room itself which was breathing now — not our bodies.
'You have been lonely here' said Balthazar.
'But splendidly, desirably lonely.'
'Yes, I envy you. But truthfully.'
And then his eye caught the unfinished portrait of Justine which Clea in another life had given me.
'That portrait' he said 'which was interrupted by a kiss. How good to see that again — how good!' He smiled. 'It is like hearing a loved and familiar statement in music which leads one towards an emotion always recapturable, never-failing.' I did not say anything. I did not dare.
He turned to me. 'And Clea?' he said at last, in the voice of someone interrogating an echo. I said: 'I have heard nothing from her for ages. Time doesn't count here. I expect she has married, has gone away to another country, has children, a reputation as a painter ... everything one would wish her.'
He looked at me curiously and shook his head. 'No' he said; but that was all.
It was long after midnight when the seamen called him from the dark olive groves. I walked to the beach with him, sad to see him leave so soon. A rowboat waited at the water's edge with a sailor standing to his oars in it. He said something in Arabic.
The spring sea was enticingly warm after a day's sunshine and as Balthazar entered the boat the whim seized me to swim out with him to the vessel which lay not two hundred yards away from the shore. This I did and hovered to watch him climb the rail, and to watch the boat drawn up. 'Don't get caught in the screw' he called, and 'Go back before the engines start' — 'I will' — 'But wait — before you go —' He ducked back into a stateroom to reappear and drop something into the water beside me. It fell with a soft splash. 'A rose from Alexandria' he said, 'from the city which has everything but happiness to offer its lovers.' He chuckled. 'Give it to the child.'
'Write to me — if you dare!'
Caught like a spider between the cross mesh of lights, and turning towards those yellow pools which still lay between the dark shore and myself, I waved and he waved back.
I put the precious rose between my teeth and dog-paddled back to my clothes on the pebble beach, talking to myself.
Excerpted from Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1958 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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