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"Patrick McGrath is one of the age's most elegantly accomplished divers into the human psyche, and in his new novel he brings us another resonant sounding from that deep well. Constance is an intricate, multi-layered and, in the end, surprisingly tender work from a master writer."--John Banville
My name is Constance Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh, I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling, querulous voice so unshakeable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary. Sidney didn't think I was unnecessary and this was a man who knew the world and recited passages from Shakespeare by heart. He said he loved me and when I asked him why, he said, better ask why the sky is blue. It changed everything. If before I trod the streets of New York City with the diffident step of a stranger, I exulted now in all that had so recently troubled me, the crowds, the speed, the noise, the voices.
Others recognized the change in me. The editor-in-chief guessed my secret at once. She told me I was in love. I tried to deny it for it hadn't occurred to me that that was what was happening but she insisted. She said she should know what it looked like and I asked her what that was. Like you, she said, and walked away with an inscrutable smile on her lips. Another time she asked me if I was finding fulfillment in my work and I told her that I was. You hold on to it then, she said. I assumed she meant I couldn't love Sidney Klein and my job at the same time but I told her I could. Ellen Taussig was able to speak a volume with the small motion of an eyebrow. But it's true, I cried softly. Why shouldn't I? Many are called, she said, and peered over her spectacles at me. It's a telling indication of what I felt then, that my confidence was unshaken even by the wealth of skepticism in that arch plucked eyebrow.
Then came the wedding.
It was only afterwards, after the lunch in a restaurant, with my sister Iris disgracing herself, and Daddy being so angry, that I asked myself just what I thought I was doing. Who did I think I was, a proper person? The new world crumpled like a balled sheet of paper thrown in the fire and I was left with a few charred remnants and some ash. In my diminishment and humiliation I thought of Sidney's mother, a little twisted rheumatic madwoman who'd showed up for our wedding dressed all in black. I was a shriveled thing like her. I was Sidney's mother. I tried to tell him what had happened but he didn't want to hear it. It didn't conform to his idea of me. It was the first time I saw this clearly, and seeing it, I realized how foolish I'd been to think I might for even an instant have believed I'd be loved—
Sidney's apartment was large and dark and full of books. I didn't like it. I found it intimidating. Everything in it seemed to tell me that here lived a clever person, a proper person. I felt that at any moment I'd be unmasked as a trespasser and evicted. It was on a high floor of a prewar building on the Upper West Side and it was always very noisy at night. Everything was changing, Sidney told me, as the old west siders began to move out to the suburbs and the poor moved in, the blacks and the Puerto Ricans, the immigrants, the newcomers. There were rough, raw, foreign voices in the street and I had the unsettling sensation of living in two worlds at once, neither of which I was a part of.
Sidney had acquired the apartment during his first marriage which had ended in divorce. There was a child from that marriage, a boy called Howard who lived with his mother in Atlantic City. Sidney often went to see them and was clearly fond of the boy but I felt no desire to know him. I preferred that Sidney not talk about him. Howard already had a mother. Meanwhile I was becoming increasingly troubled as to why he'd chosen me for a wife. When I asked him he made a joke of it. He said I'd looked so bewildered at that book party in Sutton Place he thought he should rescue me before I screamed.
Then for a time I was happy, or as happy as I was capable of being in the circumstances. Sidney stood at the margins of my day. He was the man with whom I awoke in the morning and to whom I returned after work in the evening, and with whom I went to bed at night. But I was no longer at peace in my mind and I grew uneasy with the terms of the marriage as established by him. I don't understand how it happened and I tried not to be obsessive about it but I began to think I'd made a mistake, and that none of it was meant for me, it was meant for someone else. One of the difficulties I'd foreseen when he first proposed to me was that he knew so much more than me and after a while this grew irksome. Poor Sidney, he loved to teach me. He wanted to give me all the knowledge he possessed and he was annoyed when his generosity wasn't appreciated. I told him I'd been educated already.
—Ha! he shouted. He sat forward. His eyes were hot with disdain. Oh, you have, have you? he said. Well that's what you think!
This was vicious and it hurt me. It was just the sort of thing Daddy would say. Sidney preferred students who after a certain amount of argumentation backed down but this time I didn't back down, I'd had enough of being spoken to like that. Vassar was every bit as good as Barnard, I told him. It was our first real quarrel and I frightened myself with the things I said. I told him he was an old man and he was too fat and he'd been cruel to make me marry him. Later I clung to him in bed, appalled at what I'd said. He comforted me. He told me that my urge to defy him was really an expression of love. I seized on this idea but later I realized I didn't believe it. I didn't say this to him but it confirmed my suspicion that he had no real interest in who I was, only in how I conformed to the image of me he'd constructed in his mind. At times I felt like a ghost in that apartment.
Another time he asked me if I would read some galley proofs for him.
—You think I don't have work of my own? I said.
—I'll pay you.
I'll pay you. I was beginning to understand why I'd agreed to marry him. Daddy never gave me what I needed and I felt it was my fault. Children take responsibility for whatever befalls them, good or ill. In my case, ill. From the moment I'd met Sidney I'd wanted him for a daddy so I could start over. But you can't do it! It's an absurd idea on its face! What a fool I'd been to believe it might be different. But by the time I realized this it was too late, I was already Mrs. Klein.
Another problem was his assumption that I shared his impatience to start a family. I don't know why I was so resistant to the idea. Most women want to have children, why not me? Perhaps it was connected to his sexual demands. I wasn't violently opposed to the idea, I mean of having a child, but I think now it was another expression of the power struggle that was becoming a constant dissonant whisper in the background of the marriage. Sidney wrote, and he lectured, and he was often away at conferences, he was a busy man and much in demand. What would happen if there was a child in the apartment? I knew what would happen, I'd have to give up my job, and I wasn't prepared to do that. I remember asking him if his father had been conscientious in the home. He told me that no, his father left the work of the household to the women. So why was he different?
—I thought it through, he said.
He thought everything through. At times he exhausted me with his thinking. He had a precise logical mind which functioned with impressive quickness but he wasn't creative. He could never have written a poem for example. He could subject a poem to critical analysis, so could I, but that's as far as it went. He lacked imagination.
In those days he liked to bring his students home and there were frequent loud frightening arguments in the sitting room. Because it was a big apartment, and because we were careless in this regard, a condition of chronic untidiness prevailed. Only the efforts of Gladys arrested our descent into a state of true squalor, Gladys being Sidney's housekeeper, a good Christian woman from Atlanta, Georgia, as he liked to say. And although I was always too tired to join in these discussions he organized in his home I never objected. I just went to the bedroom but I was unnerved by the sound of muted talk and laughter although I didn't complain about it. But I couldn't join in. Unlike my sister Iris I was no good in crowds.
Every week like the dutiful daughter I pretended to be I called Daddy to make sure all was well at Ravenswood. He didn't much like extended telephone conversations and would soon hand the phone to Mildred Knapp. She'd lived in the tower ever since Harriet died. She cleaned and cooked for him and Iris thought she did more for him than that. I could see her standing with the phone to her ear and Daddy prompting her. She couldn't speak freely but it hardly mattered. She and I had never been friends. What I did get from her was news of Iris. After graduating from her school upstate my sister planned to move to the city. The idea of Iris living in New York alarmed me and it must have alarmed Daddy too, and I wasn't surprised when he suggested that she move in with Sidney and me so I could play the maternal role as I had during her teenage years after Harriet died. Sidney was amenable but I was not. Over my dead body, I said.
Fortunately for me Iris wanted to live downtown and I was spared having to refuse to take her in. Nothing with Iris ever happened simply. There always had to be drama, emotion, confusion. She'd made several visits to New York while she was in college and I was never unhappy to put her on a train back upstate. She was more trouble than she'd ever been in high school. In the brief periods I'd spent with her she exhausted me. She wasn't beautiful, not in any conventional sense. Her face was too fat and her teeth weren't straight although she did have fine dark eyes. She was as tall as me but fleshy. Men certainly found her attractive.
Her hair was a sort of dirty blonde color and there was far too much of it considering how little maintenance it got. An impossible girl. But within a week of her arrival she'd found a railroad apartment over a noodle shop in Chinatown. How she got a Chinese landlord to rent to her I never did discover, everybody said you had to speak Cantonese to live in Chinatown although to be fair it was more the Bowery, where she lived. She'd also found a job in a hotel. Sidney was impressed. Iris amused him and he approved of her ambition to become a doctor. He believed she'd make a fine doctor once she was settled. She possessed what he called a robust personality. He said she had messy vitality. He meant she was loud and had appetites, and this meant she'd acquired a taste for liquor, also for men. She attracted older men and didn't care if they were married or not. This I knew because when installed in some cellar bar in Greenwich Village, where she really felt at home, over copious cocktails she liked nothing better than to tell me about her sex life.
I've never been comfortable with frank sexual talk. But Iris liked to indulge herself. With a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other, her eyes bright and her hair adrift, she mocked my scandalized reactions when she spoke with candor about her affairs. She behaved as though I belonged to a different generation, as in a way I did. She told me I'd married too soon.
—I like Sidney, she said, but New York's full of clever men if that's what you want.
—I've had enough of clever men, I said.
—Enough of them, she cried, oh Constance there's never enough of them. There's always more.
—Iris, where did you learn to talk like that?
Meanwhile Sidney decided that we should give a dinner party so we could introduce this messy beatnik floozie to some of our friends. Sidney said she needed friends in the city. I told him Iris was more than capable of finding her own friends. But she was my sister so I agreed. I went to see her after work and told her about the dinner we were planning. She was absurdly pleased.
—No one's ever given a dinner in my honor, she said.
I told her she'd better behave herself. I reminded her what happened at our wedding.
—I was just a kid then.
The evening of the party the weather was warm and all the windows in the apartment were open. I was dreading it. As our guests began to arrive Sidney mixed a pitcher of martinis. He was smoking a cigar. Ed Kaplan wanted to know where this famous sister of mine was.
—She'll be here very very soon, I said.
It was a large paneled room with a good Persian carpet and a pair of oxblood chesterfields either side of a low table and a fireplace, all very masculine. There was a wall of books with a library ladder on rollers and a drinks table. The martinis were disappearing swiftly. The guests were talking loudly. Everyone was smoking. Ed Kaplan was putting it around that Iris didn't exist. He thought it was a cool idea. Better we dine with the idea of Iris, he said, less risk of disappointment. It was all very droll but the guests were getting drunk and still there was no Iris. I drew Sidney aside.
—I'm serving, I said. Get them to the table.
We'd already filed into the dining room, and sat down, when we heard her at the door. I asked Ed to please let her in. Then we heard her stilettos tapping smartly across the hall floor. She stared with surprise at the assembled company.
—Christ, am I late? she cried hoarsely. Then her eyes grew wide. There was a fire, she said.
She was in a low-cut red cocktail dress that clung to her ample figure and with her thatch of blonde hair piled up on top in a sort of leaky beehive, and in those heels, she stood about six feet tall. She worked her way around the table, bending to shake the hand of each of the guests in turn, and being not withholding with the cleavage. Ellen Taussig, so demure, cast a glance in my direction but Iris was charming when she reached her. She said she'd heard so much about her.
—My dear, said Ellen, was it yourself that caught fire?
Iris stared at her uncertainly and for a second or two an odd silence filled the dining room. She really was very young. Somewhere in the street a man shouted an obscenity. Then Iris realized that this elegant and dignified woman was making a joke. She lifted her head and loosed off a scream of raucous laughter that sounded to me like nothing so much as a lot of empty bottles being smashed in a fireplace. They all joined in, even Ellen was infected with Iris's laughter. What a success she was.
I don't know why I started thinking about Harriet's death that night. It was always painful to remember her last months. I was twelve when she got sick and she wasn't so old after all, she was only thirty-seven. I remember being angry with her and at the same time I knew enough not to show it. I think she understood. Daddy was less able to cope with her illness than I was. He was a doctor. He'd seen cancer before and he knew the end of the story. Cancer is cancer, he once said, and he said it with such cold finality it made me shiver. There was no remission. It was a lump on her lung and she must have been in pain for some time before she told anyone about it. Poor Harriet. She was a stoic, Daddy said. In the eyes of the child I then was she became ethereal; there was little I couldn't romanticize in those days. I tried not to be sad in her presence, that was the hardest thing. But when I was sad I gave her at least the gratification of consoling me. I think she needed that. So I provided her with an opportunity to be useful.
She hated being looked after. When she was in the hospital she seemed smaller and sicker than she ever did at home because at home she had some influence over the household. Mildred Knapp was coming in every day and the pair of them would consult on domestic matters.
The funeral was dreadful. I had charge of Iris or I'd have fallen apart. Daddy fell apart. Back at the house people were milling about in the sitting room and the hall. Mildred had made sandwiches. There were drinks. Although I didn't show it I was very distraught. But the adults seemed to think it was some kind of a cocktail party. At one point I heard one of our neighbors say to another that the poor doctor "didn't know what hit him." I had an extreme reaction to those words. I had to leave the room. There was a bathroom under the front stairs, a dank little lavatory with noisy pipes where I often went to read or just think, with the door locked. I threw up in the toilet. I heard it again: he didn't know what hit him. I sat there for a long time with my head in my hands.
It passed off soon enough. I recovered, more or less, and life went on. The next time it happened I thought somebody was talking to me but there was nobody in the room. It came as a shock to realize it was in my head. I didn't tell anybody else about it. But I never thought I was going mad. It was just a bad memory.
Excerpted from Constance by Patrick McGrath. Copyright © 2013 by Patrick McGrath. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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Posted August 5, 2013
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