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In Fairground Magician, Lengold is a lucid observer of minute details and subtle emotional shifts. In stories like It Could Have Been Me, Shadow, or Ophelia, Get Thee to a Nunnery, she manages to leap over the wall between the bodily surface and the human interior in a very distinctive way. No matter how common are the situations she depicts - whether it be broken marriages, unfulfilled expectations or the motives of forlorn lovers - Lengold is constantly searching for the authentic, finding it within the sophisticated irony which is a trademark of her fiction.
"Fairground Magician is a wonderful collection of short stories. Sensuous, charming, witty and urbane, Jelena Lengold's stories of complex relationships and passions are both highly literary and highly readable. This collection has already won a number of European prizes: it deserves to be discovered and treasured by the British readers."
Vesna Goldsworthy, author of 'Chernobyl Strawberries' and 'Inventing Ruritania'
That could have been me
Had I been born just a few minutes earlier, I could have been Victor. Every time a plane takes off and gravity presses me into my seat, I regret that I am not.
Victor owns a little chemist's shop, on the edge of town. On one side of his shop, there is a watchmaker. On the other, a newsagent where he buys his paper every morning. Even while he was still studying pharmacology, Victor dreamed of arranging various little bottles of medicines on clean white shelves and knowing the exact function and dosage of each individual remedy.
There was something about medicines that had fascinated him since his childhood. He remembered that his grandparents always had lots of medicines in their house. In the kitchen there were two large drawers full of them and, as a child, Victor used to open up that world of danger and prohibition the way some other children open books of fairy-tales.
There were ordinary tablets, then capsules of various colours, different kinds of ointment, red rolls of sticking plaster, a small transparent bottle of iodine with a little cork stopper, nose drops, eye drops, a thermometer in a dilapidated cardboard box, plasters for his grandmother's blisters, liquid smelling of peppermint sweets that was rubbed into the forehead of anyone with a headache. There were remedies which were long past their sell-by date, but his grandparents did not discard them because you never knew when you might need something.
Victor was convinced that it was precisely there, standing in front of that drawer, that he had learned to read, opening each individual box and reading the usage of each medicine.
His favourite game was collecting various different capsules in one little bottle. And there were all kinds of combinations: there were transparent capsules through which granules could be seen, then there were those that hid their contents behind opaque plastic, there were some small and some larger capsules, and the more different specimens he could find, the richer he felt he was. He would take a capsule in his hand, shake it slowly by his ear and listen to the tiny granules rattling. Not all the capsules rattled in the same way. While he was still a child, Victor set himself the task of knowing, simply by its sound, with his eyes shut, which remedy he was holding in his hand.
His grandmother was appalled by his collection and kept reminding him that on no account must he ever swallow any of the medicines, which Victor thought then was an entirely senseless remark, because trying the remedies was not remotely the point; what mattered was possessing them and feeling them under his fingers, telling one from another and, in his childish way, controlling them.
He controlled the medicines, and the medicines controlled life. And death. About which no one ever spoke in those days, but it was present in a very obvious way in those big, extremely heavy drawers.
Later, when Victor realised his childhood dream and opened his chemist's shop, everything seemed to have fallen into place. Quite simply, he would get up in the morning and the only thing he wanted to do was to go to the shop. And he would spend hour after hour there, perfectly contented, and when the time came to close the shop, he would not feel that he was being released from an unpleasant daily burden. On the contrary, his departure for home was an inevitable evil that separated him, only temporarily, from what he really loved.
That's what I'm talking about.
That man – Victor – could easily have been me. As I consider his life, tidily arranged on shelves, I understand, without a shred of horror, that I would cope with that system quite comfortably. I recognise that smell. I recognise that endless repetition of the identical, the benign expectation of the next person who might come into the chemist's shop and hand me a piece of paper with a prescription. I recognise that frantic hope that for everything in the world that hurts you there must be an appropriate remedy.
Sometimes I come home and it seems to me that life is eluding me, that I will never manage it all. It is all deadlines, complex relationships, unfinished business, unclear outlines, travel to organise meetings where you have to be self-possessed. Sometimes it all really does seem too much for just one life. Then I take a diazepam. And have a shower. The minutes slip by, the warm water cascades over me – I can feel it – dissolving that precious chemical in me. Slowly, it all slips away down the plughole. All those scowling faces, all those ambiguous words, all those tense conversations. The sharp edges soften. Nothing is quite as urgent or uncertain any more. Gradually colours return. After some ten minutes life looks fundamentally different. And fundamentally more bearable.
But alas, no. I was not born a few minutes earlier and I did not become Victor. I was born at precisely the moment when those who are forever hurrying somewhere and often use aeroplanes are born.
It might seem irrational to some, that a person who has constantly to fly should be constantly afraid of flying. But that is just a superficial way of looking at it. Because, what would be the point of the journey if not fear?
We do not, in fact, ever know what our lives, made up of all those desires and fears, will degenerate into. For instance, mine has been mainly governed by the elements. The elements and chance. The elements, chance and fate.
And so, for those two or three hours, I devote myself to my fear. Planes are not sufficiently comfortable for sleeping, or reading, or watching films. OK, I could always hook one of those MP3 players into my ears and put my laptop on my knee, but – that's not me. No one else needs to know, I would be able to deceive myself. I am far better at planning my own violent death, than typing a half-yearly financial report at a height of eight thousand metres.
And what is the big deal about these players and headsets? Music used to be something that was heard! Something you inevitably shared with everyone around you who had ears. When the radio was on, when someone sang, when there was a record on the gramophone, there was no possibility of it not being heard. That was the essence of music. Neighbours would bang on your walls, they would come to ask you to turn it down, they would summon the police to your door, you would wallpaper your room with egg cartons. That all happened precisely because music was audible.
When you knew what people listened to, you knew what they were like, where they came from, what stage they were at, what was bothering them... But now you don't know a thing. These people with inaudible music in their ears look to me more like people who do not hide the fact that they want to cut themselves off – from me, of course, who else! – anymore than authentic music lovers. I would not be surprised if what they were listening to through those headsets was, in fact, nothing, or just some kind of plop, plop, plop, a recording of a stalactite dripping in a cave in the Himalayas, or some such perversion. That is what people with headsets are like. Very strange.
A friend of mine, a pianist, recently told me the saddest thing: there are now even soundless pianos! The plane is just flying into a black cloud, a metallic voice informs us that we must fasten our seatbelts because we are encountering a little turbulence, and I am imagining well-disciplined strings somewhere in the depths of a piano that play somehow inside themselves. The pianist sits at the piano, making all those usual movements, like Domenico Cimarosa, pulling all those faces, but without the slightest sound. Just headsets and a contented neighbourhood. The pianist plays and plays and plays and nothing happens. Except in his ears. The peace of those around is the priority.
Then there is another crazy thing. I know of several countries already where there are very strange cinemas. I do not know whether they can be called cinemas, because – there is no film. You go in, buy your ticket, sit down; the seats are always very comfortable, the light is discreet and not oppressive, and all that can be heard for the next few hours is just soft, soothing music. You would not believe it, there are countries where cinemas like that are full all day long. There is always someone who wants just to sit for a couple of hours, listening to some tedious Clayderman, or something like that, that you otherwise only hear in a lift.
I have to say that I think these people are even odder than the ones with headsets. These people also shut themselves up in order to listen to music discreetly, politically correctly, but they have added two more elements to the whole thing: relaxation, which is presumably their psychoanalyst's first recommendation, and shutting themselves up in a ghetto of people like themselves.
I dare not even imagine what the next stage might be. How listening to music will look in the future.
But on the other hand, the last thing I want is to sound nostalgic for the past. Like one of those people for whom the way things used to be was always better. Like hell it was better! Of course it was not. I would not swap all this technology for a single ethnographic museum in the world. Shameful, perhaps, but true. Still, I am sometimes afraid that some things are too turned inwards, too far from the rest of quiet humanity, even for my taste.
And that is why I do not listen to music in planes; that is what I wanted to say. If we cannot all listen, if at least two or three rows cannot sway to the same rhythm, then it is no real fun.
So I sit and say nothing. They say nothing, I say nothing. They stare at the advertisement on the seat in front of them. So do I.
I know some people who have been trying to persuade me for years that they simply adore flying! They ask for a window seat, make that contented face when they hear the enormous wheels gather speed, they look happy and smiley as though someone was tickling them where they like it. But I do not see what there is to adore. One can be indifferent to flying, it can be accepted as a necessary evil, it can be overcome, but the idea of adoring it I find truly odd.
How could I possibly adore the fact that I am ten thousand metres up in the air, and I am not a bird, or a cloud, or a cosmonaut? Or should I be enjoying the height I am at just because I am none of those things?
I don't know, I was never much good at that 'just because' kind of reason. Consider that a serious flaw in my character. I do not like anything that is 'despite'. I am scared of 'despite' situations. I do my best to avoid them. The stuff that is logical is not that easy, if you ask me. 'Despite' is more than I can handle. I leave that to those who are bored and for whom what is implicit is too narrow.
Ping! The little red light over our heads has gone out. We may unfasten our belts. The world below, which ought to be real, can be seen again, those black mountain peaks again. That is what life looks like from up here. Black and aggressively pointed.
That makes me think of mountain-climbers. Those extreme maniacs, who clamber onto high mountain peaks, through the wind and bitter cold. They emerge from their warm room, from their warm hotel, move away from the fireplace, leave their cup of tea and put on that spaceman's outfit, take their poles, fling a hundred kilograms of all kinds of nails onto their backs and set off. Well rubbed with creams to prevent their fingers and ears falling off.
There is no way that anyone will persuade me this is normal behaviour. There is no way that you will explain to me that this is precisely why humanity has progressed, because of people like that. I do not believe it.
Then I do, after all, open my newspaper, while I wait for the refreshments trolley to reach my seat. I turn the pages, turn, turn, and then suddenly that news item. And their photographs. 'They killed their newborn baby.' I look at their faces. I could pass faces like that and have no idea. A young woman and her father.
A strategically body-built steward appears beside me. What would I like?
I would like to cry, but it would not be right to say that. I say:
'With milk or without?' he asks.
And suddenly someone cares how I am going to drink my coffee.
She already had two children, it says, from her first marriage. She lives with her father and children. She does not have a job, her father supports her. She got pregnant out of wedlock with a lad from a neighbouring village. She did not have the money for an abortion. Her father insisted that she leave hospital the day after she gave birth. She held her baby in her arms, a healthy little boy weighing four and a half kilos.
I try to comfort myself. I try to tell myself that a healthy little boy one day old and weighing four and a half kilos does not have that much consciousness.
The father drove her into a forest. He cleared grass and leaves with his hands. He allowed her to feed her baby one last time. And then he took the little boy and buried him. Alive.
She says that she did not dare oppose her father.
He says that he did not have the money to support a third child.
The court experts say that the baby was probably eaten by wild dogs in the forest.
The neighbours say that they knew she was pregnant and saw that she came back without a baby.
The steward is still waiting.
I say: 'With milk.'
I need something sweet. As sweet as possible. Intolerably sweet. Something capable of burying this feeling.
I have this appalling tendency to torment myself by visualising everything that hurts me. I imagine the baby's little lips on his mother's nipple, for the last time. I imagine the smell of the torn up grass and leaves. I imagine the ghostly sound that can be heard under the grass as the two of them walk away. I catch myself in a strange gesture, I rock backwards and forwards, like Hitler at that famous Olympics, I rock like that, trying not to burst into tears up here over some unknown mountain and hoping that my coffee with milk will be sufficiently warm and sufficiently sweet and that I shall somehow shake this news item from myself.
In the whole story, I feel least hate for the wild forest dogs. I imagine that they reached the baby, that they dug the grass and leaves away, that they smelled the fine aroma of milk and newborn tears and that they took that all into themselves in two tender bites and so put an end to the sacred suffering.
In some forest, perhaps precisely the black one lying ten kilometres beneath me, a sated dog is running about. Here, a little higher up, I sit and drink coffee with milk.
There is no drink that would be sweet enough for something like this. I breathe deeply and look at the sky all around me. Blue, translucent, fresh.
There is no way that I shall be giving up smoking this week.
As soon as this damned plane liberates me, I shall light a cigarette. Victor would not do that, I know, but I am not Victor and I will have to.
There are two young women beside me, talking without drawing breath. I realise that now. One of them is holding her cup just the way I like to, with both hands. As though it is warming her. That always moves me.
I only catch fragments of their conversation:
"... Now I get it. He spent a long time juggling all those three balls in the air, until he realised that he would have to drop one of them, otherwise he'd lose them all. It turned out that it was me who was the ball he decided to drop ..."
"... The two of them cut that huge wedding cake together, clumsily and everyone went wild with enthusiasm, cameras flashing, relatives sighing, sobbing! I mean, what's the big deal? They cut an ordinary cake, i.e. custard, beaten eggs, cream, soft, it's not as if they cut through reinforced concrete for them to go so crazy! I mean, really ..."
"... When you whisk up instant coffee, there is a precise number of drops of water that need to be added! One drop too many and it's no longer right. It's just a shapeless mass. However hard you try and keep whisking, that mixture is never going to turn white under your hand. It just won't obey you any more ..."
"... Don't talk him up! Don't make him better and more interesting than he really is! On the contrary, give him fewer chances than others. Brush out of his repertoire even something he does have. Then, if he manages to get through all of that – then he's really quite a guy..."
"... I never thought I'd ever say this: I like the smell of his sweat ..."
"... I'd really like to ask him to give me back all those orgasms I gave him ..."
"... If there was no bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all ..."
"... Of course, I kept turning my phone off until I finally realised that no one was calling me any more ..."
"... I dreamed that I was talking to a woman, a psychotherapist, and I was telling her that I always hug my pillow when I sleep. She asked me how long I had been sleeping like that, I pretended I couldn't remember. To myself, I thought: I know, I've been sleeping like that since I got married ..."
"... Being without all the others made me sad, but being without him makes me tense, that's the fundamental difference ..."
Excerpted from Fairground Mountain by Jelena Lengold, Celia Hawkesworth. Copyright © 2013 Jelena Lengold. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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