Sleeping in Flameby Jonathan Carroll
Walker Easterling is a retired actor turned successful screenwriter living in the Vienna of strong coffee, fascinating friends, and mysterious cafes. When he falls in love with Maris York, a beautiful artist who creates cities, his life becomes alive in fantastic and unsettling ways. As Walker's love for Maris grows, his life gets more and more bizarre-he discovers
Walker Easterling is a retired actor turned successful screenwriter living in the Vienna of strong coffee, fascinating friends, and mysterious cafes. When he falls in love with Maris York, a beautiful artist who creates cities, his life becomes alive in fantastic and unsettling ways. As Walker's love for Maris grows, his life gets more and more bizarre-he discovers he can see things happening just before they happen, and at the same time feels an incredibly strong tug from his past-so a friend steers him to Venasque, an odd little man reputed to be a powerful shaman. Venasque helps Walker discover and unravel his many interconnected past lives, and it is soon clear that an unresolved conflict from these past lives has resurfaced, and now threatens to undo Walker and Maris's love.
At once lyrical, frightening, funny, and sexy, Sleeping in Flame is a spellbinding tale where reality and fantasy merge in astonishing convolutions of magic and suspense. It confirms that Jonathan Carroll is one of the very few novelists who-by constantly surprising us-give us an entirely new perspective on our world. It is no wonder that he is generally considered to be the most original and provocative novelist of his generation.
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“Jonathan Carroll has the magic. He'll lend you his eyes; and you will never see the world in quite the same way ever again.” Neil Gaiman
“Jonathan Carroll is a master of sunlit surrealism.” Jonathan Lethem
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It took me less than half a lifetime to realize that regret is one of the few guaranteed certainties. Sooner or later everything is touched by it, despite our naive and senseless hope that just this time we will be spared its cold hand on our heart.
The day after we met, Maris York told me I had saved her life. We were in a café, and she said this through the folds of a black sweater she was pulling over her head. I was glad she was lost in the middle of that pullover because the statement, although true, made me feel much too brave and adult and embarrassed. I didn't know what to answer.
"It's quite true, Walker. The next time I saw him he would have killed me."
"Maybe he just wanted to go on scaring you."
"No, he would have tried to kill me."
The voice carried no emotion. Her big hands lay open and still on the pink and blue marble table. I wondered if the stone was cold under her palms. If I had been really brave I would have covered her hand with mine. I didn't.
Every once in a while my friend Nicholas Sylvian calls, in a huff, and says he wants us to make another movie together. He's got some new moneybags lined up to finance one of the many projects we've discussed. When that happens, I usually stop what I'm doing and give him my full attention. Life with Nicholas is fun and exciting, and sometimes very peculiar. I think in our past lives we were probably related in some close and aggravating way--revolutionaries who couldn't agree on tactics, or brothers in love with the same woman. We always fight a lot when we're together, but that's only because we love the same things, despite seeing them fromdifferent angles.
This time there was a Herr Nashorn in Munich who was very interested in producing Secret Feet, our adaptation of an obscure short story by Henry de Montherlant to which I owned the rights. The scoop was, Herr Nashorn wanted us to fly to Munich that weekend and talk the whole idea over, courtesy of Nashorn Industries.
So at 6 a.m. on Saturday, forty-five minutes before our flight was due to leave, Nicholas picked me up in his little white delivery truck. The first time I saw that odd vehicle, I asked my friend what had possessed him to buy it.
"Because it looks like the kind of truck the Pope tours in."
When I got into the Popemobile that dark morning, Nicholas looked at me and said, "We've got four problems. One, I don't have any gas. Two, I think I forgot my passport. Three, the radio says the traffic out to the airport is impossible. Four . . . I can't remember, but I'll think of it. Do you have any money for gas?"
There was no fourth problem, he had his passport, and we made it to the airport on time. When we were settled on the plane and had ordered coffee, he lit a cigarette and smiled to himself.
"Listen to me, Walker. No matter what happens with this Nashorn meeting today, there's a woman in Munich I've got to call. She's an American sculptress you have to meet. You'll love her." He said no more about it for the rest of the trip, but kept the same smile on his face.
The idea excited me. I had always liked blind dates. If nothing else, it was an interesting way of discovering what people thought of you. How often do we have the chance to see what we are in a friend's eyes? On a blind date you're told "You'll love her. I think she's very much your kind of woman." And whether she is or not, you end the evening knowing something new: As far as this friend is concerned, you're the "sexy blond" type. Or a "smoky brunette who has to be convinced" kind of guy.
My wife and I met on a blind date and that date led to seven good years together. In the end we separated after both of us spent time in other people's beds for greedy, bad reasons, and even worse results. The divorce consisted of two raw, mean people saying sordid half-truths about each other.
Why did things go wrong? Perhaps because wonderful as it can sometimes be, you can be sure marriage is at all times a quirky, difficult thing to maintain. In certain ways, it is very much like the solid gold family heirloom watch your father gives you for graduation. You love looking at it and owning it, but it isn't like the twenty-dollar liquid-crystal thing made of plastic and rubber that needs no maintenance to keep perfect time.
Every day you have to wind the gold beauty to make it run right, and you have to keep setting it, and you have to take it to the jeweler to be cleaned. . . . It is lovely and rare and valuable, but the rubber watch keeps better time with no work at all. The problem with twenty-dollar watches is that they all suddenly stop dead at some point. All you can do then is throw them away and buy another.
I realized this after my marriage wound down and stopped. It made me feel stupid and bitterly sad, but by then things were way beyond fixing, and neither of us wanted to see the other again.
My wife Victoria (a name I still say slowly and carefully) remained in the United States after our divorce and entered graduate school. I am sure she is a serious, diligent student.
The worst part of being alone was memories often cornered me and wouldn't let me get away. A pumpkin-colored coat in a women's boutique froze me in front of the store window, remembering a meal with Victoria in Cyprus where most of the things on the table were that same Halloween orange. Or waking with a fierce cold, and the first thing you think of is, the last time I had one this bad, someone right here was genuinely worried about how high my temperature was.
In the year after the divorce, I returned to Europe and wrote two good screenplays for films that had only an outside chance of ever being made. But that wasn't bad because the work kept me busy and eager to see what the final drafts would look like.
There are long quiet periods in life that are very much like waiting for a bus on a nice day. You don't mind being there so much because the weather is sunny and nice, and you're in no hurry. But after a while you start looking at your watch because there are more interesting things you could be doing, and it really is time the bus came.
Maris just read these pages, and indignantly said I hadn't once mentioned where all of this happened. I told her I was going to get around to that; I had been saving Vienna for a place in our story where I would be able to describe it in the roundabout, leisurely way it deserves. But since there is less and less time now, perhaps she is right.
Victoria and I had come to Vienna eight years before, newly married, full of zip, curiosity, and enthusiastic love for each other. I was acting in a low-budget spy movie being filmed there. I'd gotten the role because I have the looks of a vaguely sinister pretty boy. In my short acting career, I'd played a cowardly Nazi soldier, a show-off baseball player, an arrogant college student, and a mad killer in a Hawaiian shirt. The Vienna role, which turned out to be one of my last, was that of a golden boy--Ivy League diplomat in the American Embassy who just happened to be a Russian spy.
One of the first things that struck me about Vienna was the funny-sounding street names: Schulz-Strassnitzkigasse, Ottakringer Strasse, Adalbert Stifter Strasse, Blutgasse. Usually you took a big breath before saying one of these names so you wouldn't run out of air halfway through the pronunciation.
Everything was clean and gray and too heavy with history. Round a corner, and there would be a white plaque on the side of some building describing Schubert's birth here, Freud's office there.
American cities shrug at their brief histories. There are few signs of pride in past tenants or events, notwithstanding the kitschy Disneyland atmosphere of places like "Colonial Williamsburg." It is as if the places are saying no, we're not so old, but who cares? Look how far we have come. Look what we've got now.
Like so many European cities, Vienna has an old heart and is arrogantly proud of its long, confused life. Its art school rejected the candidacy of young Adolf Hitler. Yet some years later, the Viennese greeted him with delighted fervor in one of their most revered places, Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), a few days after he had invaded their country. In the first years of his life, Mozart blossomed fully in Vienna into the exquisite short-lived orchid he was. Then, only a couple of decades later, he died there and was dumped into a paupers' grave somewhere outside the city walls. They're still not sure where.
Because so many old people live there, the city's personality is a reflection of theirs: careful, suspicious, orderly, conservative. It is a town where you needn't be afraid, where taking a walk is still a great visual pleasure, where real cream is used in the cafés.
Victoria and I had never been to Europe together, so being in Vienna in those first days of our marriage was one long adrenaline rush to wonder.
Nicholas Sylvian was the director of the film, and our friendship began quickly when we discovered how similar our tastes were.
When shooting for the day was over, we often went together to the Café Zartl where we talked about rock and roll, how both of us had at one time wanted to be painters, and only as an end-of-the-evening subject, how to make our movie better than it was.
The producers had taken a chance on Nicholas because he was still relatively young and, until then, had never made a "big" film. But his lovely documentary about old Russians living in Vienna, Opa Suppe (Grandfather Soup), had won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and caused a lot of talk.
Women loved Nicholas because he was completely attentive to them and seemed to promise every good trait they ever wanted in a man. But he was volatile and moody, and quick to wipe you off his list if he ever felt you weren't with him all the way.
I learned all of this in the three months it took to shoot the film. And working with Nicholas Sylvian, director, I learned I was a mediocre actor. I knew I would be able to play golden bad boys for a few more years, but that didn't matter: I didn't want to spend my life working hard to be just okay at what I did, no matter what it happened to be. After a time, when I felt I could trust my new friend with a few big secrets, I told Nicholas my doubts.
"No, Walker, you're not a bad actor. You've just got that perverse face up against a sunny temperature."
"You mean temperament?"
"Exactly. It takes a really great actor to overcome that. A man can have a baby's face and be a villain in the movies, but it's hard to be the reverse. People in the audience don't believe it. In real life it's okay, but not in the movies.
"You don't want to be an actor anyway. I keep waiting to see that script you wrote."
"How did you know about that?"
"Victoria told me. She said you're dying to show it to me, but won't because you're too afraid."
"I'm not a writer, Nicholas. As soon as I show it to you, I start pretending I am."
He shook his head and rubbed his nose at the same time. "You don't have to be Tolstoy to write a movie. You were a painter once. Writing for the movies is like giving the eyes direction. Dialog comes second in this kind of writing. Only guys like Lubitsch and Woody Allen get away with great language. If you want great words, read a book. Let me see the script tomorrow."
After I had finished my part in the film, we decided to stay in
Vienna to enjoy some of a spring that had arrived in the quick, unexpected way it often does in Central Europe: two days ago sleet, today summery-slow pink clouds, and all tops down on the horse-drawn carriages.
Nicholas didn't like my screenplay, but surprisingly, did like the way I wrote. He said I should start another. That gave me heart to leap into another story idea I had hiding in my shadows.
Every morning I kissed my sleeping wife good-bye and, full of inspiration, marched out the door of our apartment, notebook and fountain pen ready to go.
Two blocks away was my beloved Café Stein where, after coffee strong as a stone and a fresh croissant, I would get down to work on my newest magnus opum. The waiters glided by in a professional hush. If I looked up and caught their eye, they'd nod approvingly at the fact I was writing in their café. They carried silver trays that caught the early sun's rays, which threw silver back against the smoke-stained walls.
Anyone who doesn't want to be an "artist" in Europe, raise your hand.
If you are very lucky, you're allowed to be in certain places during just the right season of your life: by the sea for the summer when you're seven or eight and full of the absolute need to swim until dark and exhaustion close their hands together, cupping you in between. Or in another country when there is both an exciting now and enough dust and scent of the past everywhere to give fall light a different, violent color, the air a mixed aroma of open flower markets, people named Zwitkovitz, a passing tram's dry electricity.
Victoria and I were very lucky. While I wrote my movie, she discovered the Wiener Werkstätte group, which resulted in her eagerly enrolling in a Viennese architecture and design course at the university.
A month, then two, came and went. Whenever we discussed leaving Europe and returning to the United States, a blank look crossed both our faces, and we either smiled or shrugged: Neither of us was ready to go, so why even talk about it?
One day a friend of Nicholas's called and sheepishly asked if I would be interested in acting in a television commercial. They would dub a German voice over mine after filming, so all I would have to do would be to smile convincingly and mouth how much I loved feeding Frolic to my bulldog.
Things worked out well, and I talked with a number of people on the set. A few days later one of them called and asked if I wanted another job.
For the next two years, my modeling for magazines and television commercials allowed us to continue living in Vienna. By then, both of us had made contacts all over the place. Victoria had been hired as a researcher by a professor at the School for Applied Art. In addition to modeling, I was working at an assortment of free-lance jobs, including a commissioned script for Nicholas.
Since we had first met, he had made a reputation as a smart, able director who put together good-looking highbrow films for very little money. Our spy film had been his only real shot at a big commercial success, but it had done only so-so. He worked all the time, but never on as large a scale as he wished.
Along the way, he had married a woman who designed furniture and had a last name so long and impressive that even she couldn't put all of her money in it. Unfortunately, Eva Sylvian didn't like Victoria Easterling (and vice versa), so most of the time just Nicholas and I went out together.
He knew so many different people--opera singers, neo-Nazi politicians, a black American who owned the only Mexican restaurant in all of Austria. Nicholas wanted you to meet all of his friends. They were the greatest gift he could give: He wanted to give you to them. Some of these people became friends, others simply filled the evenings with funny lines or pompous chatter.
At first, Victoria wanted to hear all about these gatherings, but as time passed, only about who famous was there, or the juiciest morsels.
We had so many things together, Victoria and I. A life fully shared three-quarters of the time. But from the beginning, my wife and I plotted our courses on separate, albeit adjoining, maps. I don't know if that's what led to the death of our marriage, but I don't think so. Those different courses made our time together richer and more precious. When we met in the evening, it was to give each other the gift of our day, how it had opened, what it meant or had done to us.
But in the midst of one of those death-throe arguments you have at the end of a long and successful relationship, Victoria said we were guilty of having given each other too much room, too much rope, too much time away. I said that wasn't true. We were guilty of having grown lazy about things that should have been checked and rechecked all the time; adjusted quickly when we saw the gauges registering in the red zone of the heart. I am not being facile, either. Life itself is fine-tuning. Marriage, that, times two.
Life starts to go bad when irony begins. Or is it the converse? The ironies in our life began with my first lover outside marriage: a classmate of Victoria's from the university who came to our apartment one night to discuss a project they were doing together on Josef Hoffmann.
Victoria's first lover? Naturally, an actor I introduced her to, who owned a lot of Josef Hoffmann-designed furniture.
Having an affair is like trying to hide an alligator under the bed. It is much too dangerous and big to be there, it sure doesn't fit, and no matter how carefully you try to conceal it, some part of the beast inevitably sticks out, is seen, sends everyone running and screaming.
The last time we traveled together was to America to get a divorce. Victoria said divorce was never having to say you're sorry . . . again.
After it was over, my family urged me to stay with them in Atlanta awhile, but I used pain as my excuse to escape to Vienna: My friends were there, my work, everything. So I returned to the town as if it were an old best friend who would put its arms around me and, over drinks, listen sympathetically to my problems.
I was thirty, and that is a turning point for anyone, even those not freshly divorced and out on the track again.
Nicholas and some other nice people were wonderful. They squired me around, fed me lots of delicious meals, often called late at night to make sure I wasn't leaning too far out the window . . .
At one of those dinners, someone asked me if I knew how flamingoes got their color. I didn't. Apparently those funny, long-legged birds are not naturally that psychedelic coral pink. They're born a sort of dirty white. But from the beginning, they exist on a diet of plants rich in carotene, "a red hydrocarbon." If you are a flamingo, you turn from white to pink when you eat enough carotene.
Anyway, the image fascinated me. I kept thinking I had gone through almost a decade with Victoria, largely unaware of either our original colors or the shade our relationship had eventually turned us after all that time together.
And almost more important, what color was I then, back in Vienna, alone? To go from a good marriage to a stranger's bed was a pretty big change from a "carotene diet." It is not only God who is in the details, it is also very much us.
It was time for me to pay attention to those details. Next time around, assuming I would be lucky enough to have another chance at a shared lifetime with someone, I would know the color of my skin (and heart!) before offering it to another.
Did that mean carrying a hand mirror with me at all times so I could see myself from every angle? No, nothing so drastic or inane. Self-examination is usually a half-hearted, spontaneous thing we do when we're either scared or bored. As a result, whatever conclusions we reach are distorted either by a clumsy urgency or a listless sigh. But in my own case, I simply wanted to be less surprised by what I did after I did it.
About six months after I returned to Austria, luck, like a boomerang, came flying back to me on a wide slow arc. The movie I had been commissioned to write was shot. For some unknown, delightful reason, it did great business in Italy and Spain. Its success led to another Nicholas Sylvian--Walker Easterling collaboration that happened at just the right time. I also liked the idea of this new one more, so the actual writing came much more easily. It was a romantic comedy and I was able to plug many of my own good memories into the story. Another time, those memories would have left me feeling blue and failed. But integrating them into a film world that ended happily, with a long kiss and a fortune in the pocket of the lovers was the best way to relive that part of the recent past.
The film was never made, but it led to another producer, another script, and a basic assurance that, for the time being, I would be able to rely on the writing profession to keep me going.
I bought a small, sunny apartment on Bennogasse, two black leather chairs that looked like matching pistols, and a blind cat from the Tierheim that somewhere had picked up the mysterious name Orlando. He came when I called and spent the first week in my new home walking carefully through the rooms like an astronaut just landed on a new planet. He was the salt-and-pepper gray of week-old snow, and spent most of his day asleep on top of an old baseball glove I kept on the edge of my desk. Orlando's greatest, his only, trick was knowing when the telephone was going to ring before it did. If he was asleep on the desk, a few seconds before the call came he would lift his head suddenly and move it left and right, as if a fly were somewhere in his neighborhood. Then, ring! I liked to think that being both a cat and blind made him privy to certain small cosmic secrets. But the longer we lived together, his early-warning telephone look appeared to be his only talent in that direction.
I also tried to make the days more orderly and worthwhile. Wake up, exercise, eat, write, go for a long walk. . . . In certain ways I felt like a lucky survivor; someone just out of the hospital after a dangerous operation or terrible illness.
A direct result of all this reshuffling and reappraisal was that, despite meeting a number of attractive and interesting women, I did not want to get involved in any kind of relationship then, not even just to "fool around." Sex with new faces held little appeal in those days, although that had been one of the prime causes of my dead marriage. There were so many other things that needed to be sorted out and understood before I visited the Land of Ladies again.
Four months later I was married again.
Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Carroll
Meet the Author
JONATHAN CARROLL is the globally-praised author of The Land of Laughs and The Wooden Sea.
Jonathan Carroll's novel The Wooden Sea was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2001. He is the author of such acclaimed novels as White Apples, The Land of Laughs, The Marriage of Sticks, and Bones of the Moon. He lives in Vienna, Austria.
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In Vienna, model Maris York insists that screenwriter Walker Easterling saved her life as her former boyfriend of a year was apt to violently harm her. As Maris and Walker become acquainted they fall in love. For both this is a shocking miracle as he thought he knew love when he was married to Victoria and she felt Luc was the real thing.......................... As Walker¿s love flourishes, he develops paranormal abilities that frighten him. He begins seeing Venasque the mage and others for help. As love grows, paranoia grows exponentially because Walker soon believes that Maris is his eternal soulmate, but that their past lives together have ended tragically with his father being part of the triangle; however, in this present life Walker has no idea who sired him. Still will history repeat itself?......................... SLEEPING IN FLAME is a reprint of an exhilarating reincarnation romantic suspense that is at its best when the plot focuses on the psychological impact of knowing the results of the interconnection between the champion and the woman he loves in past lives. This Kafka through the Looking Glass tale hooks the audience to follow Walker as he learns more about what happened before, but has no idea how to prevent it occurring again. Maris is a fine counterpart, but the book belongs to Walker, whose struggles with being a bit more than human will grip readers even when he journeys down side roads that seem outside the main plot yet keep the audience reading more of this terrific offbeat tale................... Harriet Klausner
In Carroll's masterpiece, Sleeping in Flame, what begins as a brooding,witty and bittersweet novel--think Paul Auster or Haruki Murakami--about a film actor and his desire for the beautiful and androgynous Maris York, has,by its end, traversed a world of shamans and sea monsters in an astonishing reworking of the Grimm tale 'Rumpelstiltskin.'