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About the Author
an heroi-cyclic novel
Ce qui m'étonnait c'était qu'it was my French that disintegrated first.
Thus I expounded my affliction, an instant after I noticed its onset. My words went, of course, unvoiced. A comic-strippist would balloon them under the heading THINKS — a pretty convention, but a convention just the same. For instance, is the `THINKS' part of the thought, implying the thinker is aware of thinking?
Moreover — and this is a much more important omission — comic strips don't shew whom the thoughts are thought to.
Obviously, it wasn't myself I was informing I had contracted linguistic leprosy. I'd already known for a good split second.
I was addressing the imaginary interlocutor who is entertained, I surmise, by all self-conscious beings — short of, possibly, the dumb and, probably, infants (in the radical sense of the word).
Consciousness: a nigger minstrel show in which you are for ever grabbing a disembodied buttonhole and gabbling, `Pardon me, Mister Interlocutor.'
From the moment infant begins to trail round that rag doll, mop-head or battered bunny and can't get off to sleep except in its company, you know he's no longer infant but fant. Bunny is the first of the shadow siblings, a proto-life-partner. Mister and Missus Interlocutor: an incestuous and frequently homosexual marriage has been prearranged. Pity Bunny, thatdoomed childbride.
I have known myself label the interlocutor with the name and, if I can conjure it, the face of someone I am badly in love with or awe of. But these are forced loans. Cut short the love or awe, and the dialogue continues.
Only death, perhaps, breaks the connection. Perhaps it is Mister Interlocutor who dies first, turning away his head and heed.
The phantom faces of the interlocutor are less troubling than the question of where he is. I am beset by an insidious compulsion to locate him. When my languages gave their first dowser's-twig twitch and I conceived they might be going to fall off, I still treated that matter less gravely than the problem of where I was addressing my account of it.
The problem was the more acute because I was alone in a concourse of people. After a moment I noticed that my situation had driven me to think my thoughts to the public-address system, which had, for the last hour, been addressing me — inter aliens — with commands (couched as requests), admonitions (a tumble of negative subjunctives) and simple brief loud-hails, not one of which had I elected to act on.
Whichever language it might be I should be left with a few words of when all the rest had dropped off, at least public-address would be equipped to understand my halting thoughts. Comforted, I set myself again to enjoying the refuge I was deliberately taking.
Yet it's imprecise of me to call the public-address system the location of my interlocutor. As a matter of fact, I had not managed to spot where the voice came out — only the three points where it could go whispered in (to a microphone like a hose), murmurings of a uniformed snake-charmer to her phallic love.
The voice did not seem to emerge, anywhence. It was loosed upon and irradiated the vast lounge, the top nine tenths of which contained only air and light, the people being mere shifting silt at the base. From time to time public-address commanded, 'Pass the silt, please.'
The voice was mechanical. Mechanical equals international.
`Bay uh ah annoncent le départ de leur vol six six six, à destination de Rome.'
Italian place-name, Frenched, spoken with an angliccent: its mutations made me diagnose my linguistic leprosy as a fallout disease. The unlocatable loudspeakers were bombarding me with linguistic Beta Eta Alpha rays.
At the recognition, my German dropped off, PLONK, its wing swiftly severed by an invisible-ray buzz-saw in mid flight.
I addressed back to the public-address system my macaronic plaint, with that brilliant apostrophe in qu'it through which I sobbed on an indrawn breath — a plaint which, because it both stated and illustrated my leprosy, constituted a rebus in language.
I had decided to refuse to follow the hint of `destination de Rome' — and equally of `destination: home'.
My internal eternal city, my capital Home, was founded by Romulus and Rebus.
The interlocutor whom child-I used to trail to bed was a punny.
I sprang out of the tweed-suited chair which, sloped backwards, was designed to let you rise from it only as a very slow Venus from the foamrubber, and began to stroll. I would have liked to brisk-march but, alone among strangers, you simply cannot, unless you are sure in the possession of a purpose which, if stopped and asked, you could declare as to the Customs. It makes no difference that you know no one ever would stop you and ask.
I strolled, as if not noticing where, towards the wall of glass through which you could look out on la piste/die Startbahn/the apron, whereon it was forbidden to smoke/rauchen/fumer.
I had not succeeded in leaving the interlocution behind, trapped like drained nectar in the valley of the chair slope. Caught without an answer at the ready, I merely repeated: Ce qui m'étonnait ...
Hearing this for the second time round, the interlocutor demanded why it was already in the past tense.
I explained. I cruise, my jaws wide to snow-plough in the present tense, the plankton of experience. This I then excrete rehashed into a continuous narrative in the past tense.
Naturally the process is imaged according to bodily functions. That is an old habit of fant's (fant, the feu infant), so much of whose childtime is preoccupied with them. Even adult fant, book-learned enough to know about metabolism, doesn't feel it happening. You eat; you excrete; but you never catch your cells in the act of creating themselves out of your food and never hear the pop of sugar-energy released into your service from your laden corpuscles.
No more can you detect your personality and its decisions in the course of being created by your experience. You know only that you ingest the present tense and excrete it as a narrative in the past.
History is in the shit tense. You have left it behind you. Fiction is piss: a stream of past events but not behind you, because they never really happened.
Hence the hold fictional narrative exerts on modern literate man. And hence the slightly shameful quality of its hold.
I knew as I statelily rose from the tweed and rubber launching pad that my stroll, ostensibly towards the glass wall, would soon conduct me to the bookstall.
Go daily to stall. Or do you want, inquires nanny interlocutor, to spend a punny?
And hence the disesteem in which authors of fictional narrative are held — and hold themselves. Don't, says nanny, hold; don't touch. That's where fantasy and fiction begin. How authors squirm, how they sidle from foot to foot, to avoid that compulsion to narrative. They poise their shears over the wire, threatening to cut the connection. They say they are seeking to alienate you. They take aim to fling you an open-ended fiction: the-book lands legs akimbo, pages open at the splits, less a book than a box of trick tools, its title DO IT YOURSELF KID.
Kidding myself, I run my fingers through the fringes of para-printed-matter. Tartan holdalls (for smartie knowalls), purses impursonating sporrans (is that sporran forran? no, tartan has become the livery of internationalism), sets of dice endicing your fingers to set them a-chatter in memory in advance of the knucklebones your fingers may become on a wired skeleton; penrings, keyknives, paper-screw-openers; snow cosies, egg weights, thermo-timers, paper storms, crystal towers and eiffel palaces; fabergé in lurex: I riffle an eiffel and edge, shamefully, nearer to print.
With a push I revolve and at the same time rock an octagon-tower whose every storey racks storied postcards, every layer a rack and ruins; pastcards single, pastcards in concertinas or twinsets (history — herstory), a trivial fond ricordo di the bay/the hay/the majorduomo outside the sun-bronzed swing baptistery doors. Long stood Sir Bedivere revolving many mementoes.
But if I am to stay here some hours I must disencumber myself of that compulsive interlocution. Let me still it, let me blot, pad, plug or drug it out with other peoples'. I sidle, furtively, towards books.
Though I believe everyone subject to it, I am prepared to consider that the interlocutory injunction rides me more rigorously than it does most people. Perhaps I have to explain myself twice as hard to stay where I am. Perhaps I am double-pedalling in order to counter that rush to be misunderstood which is a fatality that has impelled me since my early childhood.
At summer weekends my parents would take me on expeditions: sometimes in the Howth direction, sometimes towards Dalkey. The purpose was either to stand on the coast and look out to sea or to stand on a promontory of coast and look back along the coastline towards another bit of coast.
For its size, Ireland has a remarkable quantity of coast.
And, perhaps for want of an alternative, a remarkable quantity of Irish time is spent in pointing out bits of coast from which another bit of coast can, on a not too drizzly day, be seen. On days of good visibility something like ninety per cent of the population must be standing about the island, arms extended like signposts, pointing out coast to the rest of the population.
That afternoon we went, if I remember, du côté de chez Mrs Donovan, who kept a sweetshop on the road to Dalkey. (Proust was not the only child who had a choice of two directions for his expeditions, any more than he was the only child to have a grandmother. To be impaled on a which-of-two-walks dilemma must be a very highly-incident metaphor of children's bisexuality, for there must be very few children living in a house so placed that it doesn't, when you go out of the door, offer you a choice of which way to turn — just as most children have two parents.)
I was three. It was windy on the cliff top. I remember agitating up and down in the outgrown-its-strength, reedy grass: `I want me da to lift me up, I want me da to lift me up.' ('Don't call him that, dear; only slum kids say that; call him my daddy.')
It must have been thought I had already acquired the local taste for looking at and/or from the coastline of my native land. In fact I wanted my father to lift me up because at three I had just become comfortably tall enough, if he perched me on his hip in the manner of an Augustus John gipsy woman, to look down on the bald spot which the top of his head wore like a tonsure, an egg-cosy or the acorn-size skullcap of a Jewish elf.
He handed my mother the camera and the bar of plain chocolate to hold (motorists in those days fed continuously on chocolate like cross-Channel swimmers), and hoisted me. With his free arm he played the signpost game. We all three stood — or, at least, I stood in the stirrups of his hip — looking. We made a wind-wrapped group. My mother's hair wept out to sea like the thoughts of an Irish myth miss yearning to rejoin her seal lover.
We all followed with our gazes where my father's arm urged: a hard dark blob wallowing in the sea.
`Ireland's Eye,' he informed me.
I bounced on his hip. `Ireland's Eye,' they thought I repeated. And who should blame me if I did? For in this Irish conversational habit of pointing places out no provision is made for a witty riposte. No doubt that is why most of the population is so set on getting its pointing out in first.
My father faintly patted me with the hand I was in fact sitting on — a stunted pat. My mother, hampered by the camera case's straps, was scarcely less faint in the pat she gave my bare leg, whose gold hairs were, in the cool of the wind, standing a little more upright than was natural; my legs were in a pre-gooseflesh condition.
My parents were glad enough that I parrotted the information but perhaps at heart disappointed that, at three, I could do no better. Perhaps they secretly expected me to invent the riposte Irish conversational mores have not yet hit on.
Excerpted from IN TRANSIT by Brigid Brophy. Copyright © 1969 by Brigid Brophy. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.