A repackage of the Cathleen Schine's 1993 Rameau's Niece, a comedy of manners set in New York.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)
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There is a kind of egotism that shrinks the universe; and there was Edward’s kind. It dominated the world not by limiting it, but by generous, almost profligate recognition of everything, like sunlight, illuminating whatever it touched, and touching whatever it could.
Margaret’s husband was a wonder to her, a loud, handsome Englishman, a Jew from Oxford with gray hair that stuck up in tufts, like an East European poet’s, an egotist whose egotism was of such astonishing proportions that he thought the rest of the world quite marvelous simply because it was there with him.
Margaret Nathan was herself a person of no mean ego, although she knew her own egotism shone less like the sun than like a battery-operated flashlight, swinging this way and that way, lighting short narrow paths through the oppressive darkness of other people. Margaret was a demanding person, hard on herself, certainly; harder by far on everyone else.
But turning her restless beam toward Edward, she could find nothing there to be hard about. As to Margaret’s demanding nature, she felt immediately that here was a safe haven for it. Edward seemed to demand demands, so that he might have the joy of satisfying them.
Margaret marveled at her husband, awed that he had come to be hers at all. They met in New York when he was visiting an old friend of his and her boyfriend at the time, Al Birnbaum, a Marxist graduate student who spoke, in so far as he was able, like William F. Buckley. It occurred to Margaret that at some secret, buried level Al aspired not to change the world, not really, but to present the opposing view on “Firing Line”—to costar. She could envision him quite clearly: slumped, languorous and slack, in one of those low-backed chairs, right beside Bill, his own head rolling back on its own pale neck, the evil twin of the evil twin.
She took one look at his friend Edward, who was looking rather closely at her, and she saw that he was looking at her in that way that suggested that his old friend was not, after all, such an old friend. And she looked back at him in a way that she hoped said, Nor of mine.
“Why, you must come with me, of course,” he said when he heard she was writing her thesis about an eighteenth-century female philosophe. He took her hand in both of his. “What a wonderful idea. We’ll visit her château. Did she have a château? Surely the woman had a château! I was planning to go in the autumn, through France to the Alps, into Italy. A long and leisurely trip across Europe by car. We’ll stop at Venice. Then we’ll turn around and come back. Will you come with me? Of course you will. Oh God, what luck.”
They were joking, playing around in front of the Boyfriend. But the Boyfriend wasn’t paying much attention (he was sick of Margaret, who had become increasingly unpleasant, subscribing to Dissent and reading long, liberal anticommunist articles aloud to him); and Margaret and Edward, fooling and flirting in that self-conscious and ostentatious way one employs when one is indeed joking or when one is wholly in earnest, made a mock promise to meet the next night (ha ha ha, went the chorus), which they both breathlessly kept.
Madame de Montigny’s château had long ago turned to dust, but Edward Ehrenwerth did take Margaret on a trip across Europe that fall just the same. They drove in a gentle, gray mist from London to the ferry, where Edward then had a long and apparently satisfying chat with one of the crewmen about model trains, then on to their first stop, a renovated farmhouse in a village just north of Paris, belonging to some friends of Edward’s. Jean-Claude and Juliette, two exquisitely thin persons in identical, droopy black cashmere sweaters, were French academics who studied and taught American literature: he specialized in neo-Gothic romances written by former housewives, she in slim, laconic novels of a style she referred to as minimalisme. They pored over paperbacks and called them texts.
“You don’t mind that these books are, you know, shitty?” Margaret asked after several glasses of the wine that had been brought ceremoniously from a cool cellar.
“But on the contrary, American culture, this is its vitality, life’s blood, this”—thees is what he actually said—“aah, how shall I say it, this, this—”
Sheet, Margaret thought. Thees sheet.
“And you know, such judgment,” Juliette interrupted, “such criticism is so patriarchal, so very, very logocentric.”
“Margaret, Margaret, literature is, is what?” cried Jean-Claude. “The acquisition and distribution of cultural capital!”
Jean-Claude, having warmed noticeably to both the wine and to his subject, slapped Margaret heartily on the back. “Good? Bad? Pooh! The project of the Enlightenment is dead! Invert the hierarchy of judgment!” He raised his glass and laughed. “Long live the liberation of the signifier!”
“Well,” said Edward, after joining the toast, “the wine is awfully good. Thank God, my dears, you haven’t inverted that particular hierarchy.”
“Ah, well, the wine,” said both the host and hostess, grinning with pride, shrugging in their lovely, loose sweaters. “The wine—of course.”
In honor of the visiting American, Juliette had adapted her cuisine, making hamburgers. Then Edward and Margaret retired to the guest room, which was the entire top floor of the house, a beautiful room, and when she saw it, Margaret thought, with some envy, Ah, the French, so much taste, so little brain, for the room was decorated in the most luxurious velvets and brocades and tasseled cabbage-rose drapes and a Herman Miller sofa and butterfly chairs and original Eames and Knoll pieces, a marvelous,
elegant, witty combination, a happy marriage of minimalisme and Gothic romance.
Outside, the wind howled, rattling the shutters. Margaret sank her head into the square feather pillows and listened. Creak creak. Clunk clunk. “Is this the attic?” she said. “Are we in the attic?”
“I suppose it is. The attic. That sounds a bit portentous. What will happen here? What will happen here tonight? This very drear and drafty night? Perhaps the enraged Enlightenment will haunt us, armed with sharpened quill. ‘I have been wronged!’ Ah, Juliette and Jean-Claude—they open cultural doors. They are cultural doors.”
“Did you see the door of their refrigerator?” Margaret said. Juliette and Jean-Claude had proudly shown them the refrigerator, a high-tech, extremely wide, remarkably shallow apparatus behind a door of elaborately carved wood.
“Yes,” Edward said. “Theirs is a very pure and cerebral socialism.”
Creak creak, said the shutters.
Margaret picked up a paperback from the bedside table. The cover showed a dark-haired (raven-haired, she corrected herself) woman, her head thrown back, and beside her a beautiful black woman, head thrown back too, both of whom seemed to be bound, in an indistinct way (perhaps they were just sort of tangled) on a dock. The book was called Desire’s Dominion.
“Well, they’re very considerate, your friends, aren’t they?” She lay back, closed her eyes, and listened to the wind outside. “Do you like France, Edward?”
Edward leaned down and whispered, “ ‘Thanks to the human heart by which we live, thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, to me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’ ”
“To whom is that addressed?” she asked. “Who is the meanest flower that blows? Me or France?”
“Neither. It’s my manifesto. Neither of you is in any way mean. I just like Wordsworth. And you. And France.”
“How very un-British of you.”
But Edward had spent most of his childhood summers in France. It was where he’d met Jean-Claude, on one of those summer holidays. Margaret thought of Jean-Claude and Edward, skinny boys in skimpy but still baggy bathing trunks, digging among the rocks on the Normandy shore. She thought of the “Immortality” ode. Now, whenever she thought of Jean-Claude, she would think of Wordsworth’s lines, she would remember a boy she never met, until he’d become a considerate, fatuous post-modern man, on a beach she’d never seen, and tears would come to her eyes. How annoying; to be so vulnerable to poetry, to Edward.
“Did you ever see Splendor in the Grass?” she said, as some kind of revenge. “That was a post-Gothic romance.”
Before that trip, Margaret never drank, not even wine; and she rarely drank after it. But during those weeks, she was quite thoroughly drunk every day.
The sun came up each morning to find her snoring in the starched white sheets of some plump little pension bed. No, she thought, when Edward tried to wake her. No, you see, I’ve moved in, I’m quite settled here and cannot be shifted, not ever, certainly not by you, Edward, whoever you are. And through half-open eyes she watched him get dressed, marveling at how the British could have conquered the world with such skinny, sunken chests.
“Maybe you should wear tight pants tucked into boots, you know?” she said. “Like Mick Jagger.”
Sometimes she could pull him back to bed, sometimes not. She didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything except scenery and wine and food and pictures in echoing galleries and churches in echoing squares and Edward in the same ill-fitting brown suit.
Driving through the Rhone valley, passing a party-cake castle in the distance, rushing to make a reservation at a four-star restaurant, still hours away, Margaret leaned her forehead against the cool glass of the window and thought, This is the last phase of my long, long childhood. This is the last time I will sit in a car, still drunk from lunch, staring at fairy castles while someone else drives and worries and frets and checks the road map and the odometer. It’s the first time, too, but I know what I mean.
Rows of poplars lined the road. The sun had come out from the clouds, which now glowed and reddened. This is bliss, Margaret thought. No wonder Edward likes Juliette and Jean-Claude. No wonder people drink wine, so red and velvety, rolling on your tongue. Margaret let her head fall back. She closed her eyes.
“Tu baves, ma cherie,” Edward said gently, patting her knee.
“I’m what?” Margaret said.
The restaurant was dark and quiet and seriously comfortable. Yum, yum, Margaret thought, gazing lazily at the menu. Yum, yum. Little lambs and little bunny rabbits and little fluttery quail—all manner of gentle, innocent beasts. I will have pork, the forbidden flesh scorned by centuries of my ancestors, but big and ugly. Yum, yum, yum. Medallions of pork with chestnuts.
“Too many pets on the menu,” she said. “If I ran this joint, I would offer boeuf sous rature. Get it, Edward?” She heard herself laughing.
“Yes, Margaret, I get it,” Edward said.
He was not laughing, but looking at her rather dryly. Still, she could not stop herself. What was the point of having read so much incomprehensible Derrida if one could not make philistine deconstruction puns? “Sous rature” she continued. “ ‘Under erasure.’ And then they’d serve you—nothing! They’d take the beef off the plate!”
“Is this what they teach you poor children in graduate school these days?”
“And then on the menu you could draw that line through the word boeuf, as the deconstructionists do in order to denote when a word is, well, when a word is whatever it is that makes them draw that line through it . . .”
As she rambled on, drunk and delighted with her erudition, Edward ignored her and ordered the wine, which was even better than what they’d drunk at lunch. She held the glass to her lips and drank slowly. If she was not mistaken, Edward was talking to the waiter about medieval husbandry. She could see the lights in the dim restaurant reflected in her wine glass, in the wine-dark wine. Wine-dark wine. She giggled. She could see the lights twinkling there, like stars, like stars on a dark night. Oh, how banal. Oh, how sublime.
She staggered to bed that night and lay staring at the ceiling as Edward untied her shoes and recited in Latin a Catullus poem about a stolen napkin, and she thought she would marry him, would have to marry him, that it was a necessity, a rule of nature, like gravity. If, of course, he would have her.
“ ‘Give back my napkin!’ ” he shouted, straddling her, pinning
her arms to the bed. “ ‘Or await three hundred hendecasyllables!’ ”
The next day they drove to Les Baux, the cliff-top ruins of a castle where some medieval nobleman had grilled the heart of a poet and served it to his wife for dinner. When that lady had finished her meal and was told the ingredients, she said the dish had been so sweet that she never wanted anything else to pass her lips, and jumped off the cliff.
“Ah, the goyim,” Edward said.
They drove to Vaucluse, where Petrarch had written his love poems to Laura, and to Avignon, where Margaret came down with a fever and stayed sweating and shivering in the little low-ceilinged
hotel room within the city’s high walls; and from her damp, febrile pillow she wondered if she would die right now, right here, dissipated with drink and lovemaking and museumvisiting.
When she recovered, they drove to the Italian Alps and spent the night in an almost empty ski resort where she read while Edward held a long, quiet, serious discussion that Margaret could not understand with the Austrian chef’s eight-year-old son. Edward knew seven languages, and accepted only with the poorest grace that he could speak just one of them at a time. The others were always waiting, eager and impatient, shifting from foot to foot like children, until, at last, one of them would be allowed to
thunder out, full speed ahead. Edward spoke with resonant, distinct enjoyment, loud and clear, savoring each word, as if the different languages tasted good. He was a show-off, talking, laughing, sometimes singing loudly, without fear, sharing his own wonder of himself. Margaret was so fully in love with him now that she never knew if the flushed confusion she was experiencing was from the wine or her boisterous companion.
“For our honeymoon,” he said the next morning as Margaret drove the left-handed English car on the right-handed Italian road, “I propose—”
“But you never have proposed, you know.”
“I propose Sri Lanka—Ceylon, as we old stick-in-the-mud imperialists prefer to call it. We shall discover the meaning of life on the scented isle. When bored with copulation, we can go up to Kandy and regard the Buddha’s tooth.”
When Margaret woke up in the Alps, the air was so clear she blinked. Driving on the winding road, toward Italy, toward a whole new land of new wines and new paintings and new beds to share with her new fiancé, she stared ahead at the narrow, climbing vine of a road, and her heart pounded with disbelieving pleasure. Edward, in the mountains, was required by nature to recite Romantic poetry. He recited poetry as habitually as other people cleared their throats. Verse was preverbal: a preparation for speech, an ordering of one’s thoughts and feelings, an exquisite sketch, a graceful, generous, gratefully borrowed vision. Margaret understood this and listened to his voice, as clear as the air, as self-consciously grand as the surrounding peaks, as happy as a child’s, and then she drove off the mountain. Not all the way off the mountain, she noticed. Just aiming off the mountain, really.
Margaret never forgot driving off the mountain, and she never forgot how Edward pretended she wasn’t shaking, how he made quiet jokes that guided her back to the road and back to the world where cars were aimed at Turin rather than at a heavily wooded abyss.
She drove slowly, with determination, ecstatic that she had not rolled hideously to a foreign death, and for a moment she felt about the world the way she thought Edward always felt about it, for thirty honking cars trailed irritably behind her, and, glancing in the rearview mirror, all she noticed about them was how brightly they sparkled in the mountain sunlight.
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