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A masterful, completely compelling new novel by the best-selling author of Europa.
A masterful, completely compelling new novel by the best-selling author of Europa.
Some three months after returning to England, and having at last completed — with the galling exception of the Andreotti interview — that collection of material that, once assembled in a book, must serve to transform a respectable career into a monument — something so comprehensive and final, this was my plan, as to be utterly irrefutable - I received, while standing as chance would have it at the reception desk of the Rembrandt Hotel, Knightsbridge, a place emblematic, if you will, both of my success in one field and my failure in another, the phone-call that informed me of my son's suicide. `I am sorry,' the Italian voice said. `I am very sorry.' Then replacing the receiver and before anything like grief or remorse could cloud the rapid working of my mind, I realised, with the most disturbing clarity, that this was the end for my wife and myself. The end of our life together, I mean. There is no reason, I told myself, shocked by the rapidity and clarity with which I had arrived at this realisation, entirely bypassing those emotions one might expect on first impact with bereavement, no reason at all for you and your wife to go on living together now that your son is dead. And particularly not now that your son has committed suicide. So that gazing blankly across the deep carpet and polished wood of that unnecessarily sumptuous lobby, as again now, tickets in hand, I am blankly gazing across a strike-bound Heathrow departures lounge, it was, it is, as if this were the only real news that phone-call had brought me: not my son's death at all, for he died long ago, but the peremptory announcement of myimminent separation from my wife. Suddenly I could think of nothing else.
Not only was air-traffic-control working to rule — over France, over Italy — but the underground was out too. My wife was completely numbed. I hurried her to South Ken tube, knowing it was quicker than the taxi. I felt deeply sorry for my wife, yet was already aware of a growing fear of her eventual reaction. Which would surely be punitive. People were milling around the barriers and every two or three minutes the p.a. system repeated that a handicapped woman had chained herself to a train at St James's Park. We must get a cab, I said. Unusually, my wife allowed herself to be led like a child. Needless to say all the cabs were taken.
Yes, it was a stroke of luck, I reflect now, gazing across the departures lounge, one of those queer strokes of luck in the midst of catastrophe, though hardly a silver lining, that I should have been down in the lobby and actually speaking to the receptionist when that call came through. Otherwise it would have been directed to our room and my wife would have heard the news with the same brutality I did. Your son stabbed himself to death with a screwdriver, Mr Burton. How? she asked. It had taken me some fifteen minutes to get up to our room. An accident. The line was bad. He didn't explain. You could call again, she said. There was hardly much point. We should get moving. For a moment I was ready to hear her answer back: You always say there's not much point when I suggest something. But she was quite numbed. This news has broken the compulsive back-and-forth of our recriminations, I thought. And as she allowed herself to be led by the hand up the steps out of the tube station, the way once one led one's tiny children by the hand, savouring their trust and innocence, I again thought: It is quite over between us now, between my wife and myself. This news has blown the whistle on a stalemate that should have ended years ago. I felt excited. And remembered there was an airport bus that ran along the Brompton Road.
I had gone down to the lobby, I recall, still staring at the departures board where the word `delayed' figures prominently, in order to renew our booking at the Rembrandt Hotel for the forthcoming week. There is a copy of the artist's self-portrait by the lifts. I paid a compliment to the receptionist, who must be a German girl I think, and decided to take the opportunity of enjoying the hotel's extravagant breakfast without reproach. Your wife objects, I thought, to the expense of the house you wish to buy, as likewise to the expense of these extravagant breakfasts, but she says nothing of the expense of living for months in a well-appointed hotel, nothing of the cost of maintaining a well-appointed house we do not live in. Scooping up fried eggs fried bread fried tomatoes sausages and bacon, I thought: Your wife objects to these extravagant breakfasts because they push up your weight and thus are bad for your health. This is true. But other things that are equally bad for your health — as for example the uncertainty generated by your wife's constant changes of mind, her inexplicable rancour, her obsessive attachment to your unhappy son Marco, things that undeniably lie at the root of your various nervous disorders — do not concern her in the least. Your health, your heart, do not concern your wife in the least, I told myself, deciding it would be too much to add a kipper, except insofar as they offer an alibi for her objecting to what she anyway wishes to object to for her own private and perverse reasons. Though I love kippers. Which one never finds in Italy. The chief of these being her growing and entirely unreasonable concern with money. Why is my wife so concerned with money? I wondered. Why won't she sell the house? Except that then this thought, deciding yet again that I must not have a kipper, this perception, that is, though hardly new, of the way my wife's objections to whatever I did were always falsely attributed to the best of motivations, and above all my health, my heart, or even more crucially Marco's health, if one could tightly speak of such a thing, reminded me of a note I had scribbled down the previous day on the flyleaf of my potted version of Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois: To the extent, I had scribbled, to which government is not for the public good, it is legitimate for me to disobey it, though it is rarely for that reason that I disobey it. One's tax evasion, for example. And perceiving a connection between these two lines of thought, this search, I mean, which seems at once innate and obsessive, for the comfortable camouflage of legitimate motivation, I had immediately felt happy, in form. I had laughed. Your mind is extremely agile this merry morning, I told myself, smiling at the generous spread of the Rembrandt Hotel breakfast buffet. I suddenly felt immensely well-disposed to the whole world, my wife included. One small kipper can do no harm, I decided.
And how wise the management had been to put down such a deep carpet in the breakfast room! I spread out my newspaper — one of my three newspapers — propping it up carefully on ashtray and cruet, and read about Tony Blair's decision to banish calculators from primary schools. Nothing is more pleasurable, or more tricky to set up, than reading and eating at the same time, satisfying both body and mind at the same time. And nothing could better distinguish the English mentality from the Italian, I had thought, only minutes away -- but how could I know this? — from heating about my son's suicide, than this extraordinary enthusiasm, indeed euphoria, over a new prime minister. Picking up a piece of fried bread to dunk in the tomatoes, I remembered Rousseau and how he would steal wine from his employer's kitchen and search out cakes from remote bakeries so that he could then eat and drink while he read. On his bed. As tricky as 69 sometimes, I reflected, when the pepper pot toppled. Troppa carne sul fuoco. I signalled for more coffee. No, nothing could be more indicative of the health, the ingenuousness, and a certain coarseness too, in the Anglo-Saxon mentality, I reflected, blissfully unaware that my life was only minutes away from the most radical of changes, than this wild excitement over the replacement of a government they had after all voted for themselves on three previous occasions with another government they would no doubt make haste to replace as soon as they had had enough. Number-crunchers, no thanks, was one sub-heading. The carpet made a wonderfully muffled hush of things. I broke a fresh bread-roll to clean my plate. Unthinkable in Italy. This belief not so much in change, but in the right kind of change. In progress, no less. But how could I work this into the book? How does one turn such a vast amount of disparate material into a monument? I was very excited by the prospect of writing a book, something I had never done before, and above all a monumental book, one that would say once and for all and quite irrefutably how things stand. It would require system. On the other hand, how could I even start if my wife refused to settle on any of the houses we looked at? Refused to make up her mind. How can one write a monumental book in the cramped and temporary circumstances of even the best hotel room?
There was a very large photograph of a smiling Tony Blair with his young children. The English, I thought, and I had decided I would treat myself to a cigarette if I could get hold of one, have this extraordinary ability to start from scratch, to believe they are starting from scratch. For years and years, I thought, spooning marmalade onto a second roll, the English vote Conservative, they breathe and believe conservative, they teach the world the meaning of the word conservative, they espouse the doctrinaire notions of monetarism and privatisation and invent marvellous expressions like `rolling back the boundaries of the state', until all at once they realise they've had enough, all at once there they are wriggling on the edge of their seats, fidgeting and frantic for the two or three years they must wait before they get the chance to vote Labour. Then, oh the excitement when the first thing their new prime minister does is to banish calculators from primary schools! Tony does his sums! says the caption beneath smiling faces. Andreotti also had a large family, I reflect, but was rarely photographed with wife and children. It is admirable, I thought in the admirably carpeted hush of the Rembrandt Hotel breakfast room where even the scraping of knives on fine china is reduced to a distant tinkle, this ability of the English to rise from the ashes, to believe one can rise from the ashes. And how can it not go hand in hand with their extraordinarily high divorce rate? For the point of my book was to show the oneness of private and public life, to establish once and for all the dynamic of the relationship between a people and its government, its destiny. I did the right thing, I suddenly thought, returning to England. After all, I am English myself. Ever after all these years away, these decades, I am still English. If you had remained in England you would surely have divorced your wife ages ago, I told myself complacently in the Hotel Rembrandt breakfast room. If you had remained in England you would surely have made major and salutary changes. Salutary for my wife as much as myself. And above all for Marco. On the other hand, when you ask an Italian waiter for a cigarette, he will give you one and this saves you from buying a pack and smoking them all at once and feeling ill. That is service. A single cigarette. A circumscribed transgression. Whereas the stiff, white-jacketed fellow at the Rembrandt seemed not so much offended as bewildered. Clearly he imagined I was American. In Italy they take me for a German, I thought, in England for an American. And you are set to write a book about national character.
I laughed. My wife is weeping into her handkerchief as she sits beside me on one of a row of ten plastic seats bolted together for convenience sake in the departures lounge of Terminal One. It is important that people sit in rows in a large public concourse, otherwise can you imagine the confusion? She is crying quietly into her hands and handkerchief, but in a way, I'm aware, that rejects rather than invites consolation. While only two hours ago, I reflect, or perhaps less, you were laughing heartily in the breakfast hush of the Rembrandt Hotel. To yourself of course. One laughs mostly to oneself. And what you were laughing about was not so much the destiny that has had you everywhere mistaken for something you are not, German here, American there, and then the irony of such a person's embarking on a monumental book, a book whose ambition is to pin down, once and for all, precisely what people are, or rather what peoples are, no, but the exhilaration at your perception of that irony. Quick as lightning this morning, I had thought, there in the breakfast room. Why does my mind cling to thoughts now entirely inappropriate, I wonder, here in the departures lounge? Why won't my wife accept my consolation? A breakfast hush seems to encourage thought, I thought in the breakfast room, imagining the day when Tony Blair would be photographed on resigning office and some other prime minister would startle and enchant the British public perhaps by reintroducing school milk or banning the use of roller-blades in public parks. I would gladly console her if she would let me. Tony leads from the front, another caption said. Yes, you're in form, I had thought. And this pleasure, I can't help, however inappropriately, remembering now, as my wife rocks slowly back and forth in her grief, her exclusive grief, this wonder — the kipper, as I knew it would, beginning to repeat on me — at your own mental processes, was, is, part of a general feeling that has been developing for some time, from my fiftieth birthday on perhaps, yes, or my long convalescence after the bypass operation, the feeling that I am approaching the height of my powers, that I am, in some sense, coming into myself, my true and most profound inheritance, fruit of decades of experience and self-nurturing. Why else would I have resigned my various posts and embarked on such an ambitious project? Personality is the greatest happiness, said Goethe. The liveliness of the mind. The active mind. I cannot think of Marco. I must strike while the iron is hot, I told myself in the breakfast room of the Rembrandt Hotel. I drained my coffee. I must start now. I must force my wife to see reason, settle on a house, sell the house in Rome. And shifting back my chair on the deep carpet of the breakfast room, I could see a spacious study perched over suburban gardens and all the books I had been collecting ranged in sober colours around the walls, and all the laboriously-written notes I had compiled organised in numbered box-files, and on the desktop a white sheet of paper and a simple fountain pen already blocking out the first simple sentence: National character does exist.
One week as of tomorrow night? the receptionist enquired. She picked up the phone to take a call, tucking the receiver between neck and chin. And although this division of attention is something I loathe, I was smiling at the German receptionist, doing my best to show her that while I had no intention of playing the fool I found her extremely attractive. It is not the rudeness I loathe, I thought, watching the receptionist tuck the phone into creamy skin, but the distraction, the lack of focus that plagues so much of our lives. My wife, for example, I was thinking, has always been willing to break off the most crucial conversations, or even love-making, to answer a phone-call, or speak to a neighbour at the door, or a priest or a doctor or a tradesman. Nobody, I suddenly thought, watching how the tucking gesture was forming the most endearing of double chins, could be more willing to break off love-making or wrangling than my wife. To turn away from me at crucial moments. Even for a Jehovah's Witness on one occasion. But that was in Rome. A testimonio di Geova. And immediately her voice is full of a politeness or a warmth or an unction that is absolutely false. Absolutely false, I thought, observing how the tone of the German girl's voice had altered on picking up the phone. We put on voices like hats, I thought, enjoying the chance to smile vaguely at that double chin. The call is for you, Mr Burton, she said. Would you like to take it here at the desk? Then, still smiling across at the German girl, enjoying her generous Teutonic fleshiness, in much the same innocent way as I had enjoyed the generously fleshy kipper which is now so predictably repeating on me, I heard a voice speaking Italian say: Your son has killed himself. I put the phone down in the sumptuous lobby of the Rembrandt Hotel where a copy of the artist's self-portrait hangs between the lifts. And with the awful clarity that always accompanies our perception of the worst, I realised that this was the end for my wife and myself. Our impossible alliance is over.