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The southbound train from paris was the one we had always taken from time immemorial – the same long slowcoach of a train, stringing out its bluish lights across the twilight landscapes like some super-glow-worm. It reached Provence at dawn, often by a brindled moonlight which striped the countryside like a tiger's hide. How well I remembered, how well he remembered! The Bruce that I was, and the Bruce I become as I jot down these words, a few every day. A train subject to unexpected halts, unexplained delays; it could fall asleep anywhere, even in open country, and remain there, lost in thought, for hours. Like the swirls and eddies of memory itself – thoughts eddying about the word "suicide", for example, like frightened tadpoles. It has never been, will never be, on time, our train.
These were the reflections of the lone traveller in the lighted third-class compartment at the rear of the train. In the tarnished mirror this man is watching himself. It had ever been thus in early spring he told himself – even in the early student days of the old PLM. By the time the train had cleared echoing Dijon it became all but empty in this season. (He was trying to remember how long it was since he had last visited the city; but sitting there in his corner, half asleep and half awake, it seemed to him that in reality he had never been away. Or at least some part of him had always been present in its shady streets and quiet shabby squares.)
But this was a strangely different return to it; crawling out of a northern winter into a nascent spring at the summons of a blue telegram. And an awful season for such a journey! In the north a flurry of snowstorms had all but paralysed rail traffic; but down here the spring had almost decided to unfreeze the land. Once across the green mulberry-belt and into the olive-zone one becomes reassured, for even in the grey winterset of early dawn the gold tangerines hang in thriving loads as if in some Greek garden of Epicurus. His eyes rested unseeingly on the flying landscapes through which they passed.
* * *
The late traveller was myself, Bruce, and the journey was none of my choosing. The telegram which had summoned me southward from Prague was suitably laconic. It told me of the suicide of my oldest and best friend, Piers de Nogaret; more than friend indeed, for his sister Sylvie was my wife, though the telegram was signed not by her but by the family notary. It had reached me at the British Embassy to which I had been attached for the last few years as a medical adviser. "Bruce Drexel M.D. at your service" – but now how insubstantial it sounded, like an echo of far-off certainties which had taken no account of the revenges of time! The man in the mirror stared himself out of countenance. The train rushed and rumbled onwards.
He must be trying to objectify his thoughts and emotions by treating them as one would in a novel, but it didn't really work. As a matter of fact, in Rob Sutcliffe's famous novel about us all, things began in exactly this way. I was strangely echoing his protagonist, summoned to the bedside of a dying friend (this was the difference) who had important things to reveal to him. Sylvie was there, too, in the centre of the picture as she always has been. Her madness was touchingly described. Of course in a way the characters were travesties of us; but the incidents were true enough and so was Verfeuille, the old chateau in which we had lived out this adventure between our voyages. Bruce was now identifying a little with the hero very much as Sutcliffe himself was, and about whom the writer once said: "Reality is too old-fashioned nowadays for the writer's uses. We must count upon art to revive it and bring it up to date."
Yes, but what about real people as opposed to paper figments? Dying, one becomes out of date; but it brings one's friends to their senses, or should. I so often wondered about this – how to splice the real and the imagined – when I read his book. Now he too was dead and Pia, my sister, had lodged all his papers in the muniments room of Verfeuille, where the whole searing unhappiness of their married life can be studied by the literary historian. It was not that she was a rotten wife, either, for they loved each other to distraction; it was simply the sad story of inversion – it had left him high and dry, without inner resources. People like Rob become too attached, too vulnerable, and in consequence are easily broken on the block. My sister if she read these lines would put her hands over her ears and cry out "No!" But they are true.
In a few more months the three of us were to have met once again in the city of Piers' birth, to resume the thread of this bizarre friendship which had lasted half a lifetime and which had only been slightly disturbed by his last posting to Delhi. We were both due to retire this year and return to Verfeuille together, to live out the rest of our story with Sylvie behind the massive ramparts of the crumbling chateau. To wall ourselves up, in a way: to retire from the world completely: to develop and enrich this enduring friendship between the three of us which had withstood so many trials and still remained (at least for me) the central experience of my whole existence. Indeed there was nothing else in my life to which I could compare it in fruitfulness and intensity–a three-cornered love, ill-starred only because one day Sylvie lost her reason and almost dragged her brother with her. Piers hesitated and faltered on the very brink. Had I not been there I think he would have slid down the long slopes of unreason, choosing it as a refuge from his thoughts of her insanity. Now everything had changed, abruptly, brutally. Piers was apparently dead, and the man I had become could see no way forward into the future. The disappearance of my friend had overturned reality; yet the feeling of being bereft created a singular kind of tearless detachment in me, a dazed and fearless irony. The mirror recorded a grimly smiling man. Meanwhile, far away, in the green rose-gardens of Montfavet, Sylvie walked in her Chinese shawl, her lips moving in silent conversations with her dead brother. Here Bruce stands up and paces the empty carriage in a fury of resentment and pain like an animal caught in a trap.
* * *
Fatigue surely played a good part in this novel feeling of unreality which had beset me. People take time to die and the dead Piers had only just begun to make his claims on the memory of his friends. It was his body, not his memory, which was cold. Each time I was jolted awake I had to re-experience the fact of his death, an angry sting. For a moment there would be nothing, just an empty space – and then memory slid open like a flick-knife and I realised that he had gone, entered into the weird convention of the state of death, about which we know nothing which might help us domesticate the idea, tame it.
I wondered if in dying he had remembered the initiation which we had shared in Egypt long ago–at the hands of Akkad, distilled patiently from the doctrines of the desert gnostics? I know he had been deeply marked by them. In the matter of death, I mean, they were crucial and unequivocal. For after that initiation it was impossible to attach any profound importance to the notion of dying. All individual deaths had been resumed by the death of God! I remember how the idea terrified me at the time! When we said goodbye to tender smiling Akkad he told us: "Now don't give a thought to what you have learned. Simply become it as fast as you can – for what one becomes one forgets."
Obviously this belonged to the other kind of death, the gnostic one which would henceforward always overshadow the death of mere time in man; the death which for Akkad and his sect was simply one form of the body's self-indulgence, a lack of fastidiousness. "Dying can be a mere caprice if one allows it to happen before discovering the big trick which enables one to die with profit," he said.
I repeated his words slowly to myself now as I stared into the flying night. I wondered where Akkad would be tonight. Perhaps he was dead? I felt separated from Piers by less than half a pulse-beat.
* * *
And yet we had been lucky, given the circumstances of our occupations and voyages, to have enjoyed an almost continuous association with each other; our initial friendship which later turned into love, had never withered on the stalk. As a youth I had come into contact with the brother and sister who lived so strange an abstract life of beauty and introspection in their lonely chateau: and from then on we had hardly quitted one another. Piers became a diplomat, I a Service M.D., yet despite all the vagaries of fate we were, at the very worst, posted simultaneously to adjacent countries. On several lucky occasions we even achieved the same posting, he to the Embassy of France, I to the British. Thus we knew Cairo together and Rome, we shared Pekin and Berne, we divided Madrid. Sylvie was our lieutenant, and when we were apart she shared us, moving from one to the other. But always we spent our summer leaves in Verfeuille together. So that despite all the changes of place and person the whole pattern of our lives (and in consequence our love) had continuity and design.
Later I had deliberately married Sylvie because she wished it. It further cemented our fierce attachment to each other. Nor was I sleepwalking, for I knew full well the psychological implications of the act. I also knew that one day the centre might fall out of Sylvie's mind; that she might have to be sent away, sequestered in the green quietness of Montfavet, the great straggling asylum which hovers among the lush streamlets and sunny bowers of the Vaucluse, exhaling something like the kinetic calm of an Epidaurus. On this score I have never had anything to regret. This three-cornered passion has held me spellbound for a lifetime and will see me beyond the grave. I knew I had found my onlie begetters. I was reliving the plot and counterplot of Shakespeare's Sonnets in my own life. I had found the master-mistress of my passion. Who could ask for more?
* * *
I had been walking all winter long in a country of snowbound lakes, locked in the steel grip of ice, where the wild geese hooted all night long as they straggled south. Thus walking in the grey winterscapes one comes, at every turn, upon little bundles of dispersed feathers – the snow like a rumpled dining table in the woods. The diner had left already. Sometimes the fox may have spared a bird's head, but mostly only a clutch of unswallowable feathers. A walk in the ancient world, I thought, must have been somewhat similar, with the remains of animal sacrifices at every crossroads, in green groves, on the seashore. They offered up a sacrificial death to the Gods as later on men were to offer up the first fruits of their garden plots. I felt that perhaps the suicide of Piers (if such an improbable thing were true) somehow partook of this sort of offering. But I still didn't quite believe in it. But then, if not by his own hand, then by whose? Nothing that had happened to us in the past offered an explanation for this astonishing development. And all the more so because of the gnostic ideas of Akkad which Piers claimed to have understood and to have believed in. But wait a minute!
A phrase of Akkad's comes to mind. It went something like this: "People of our persuasion gradually learn to refuse all rights to so-called God. They renounce the empty world, not like ascetics or martyrs, but like convalescents after suicide. But one must be ripe for this sort of thing." Suddenly an absurd idea has entered the sleeper's mind. Piers' self-inflicted death as being a part of a ritual murder ... What nonsense! I had a sudden picture of my friend, quixotic to the point of innocence, repeating the words after Akkad. He had always been prepared to push things to extremes.
And Sylvie? What might she not have to tell me? The thought of her, up there in Montfavet, ached on and on in my mind, as it had done for the last two years.
* * *
And so at long last to reach home, to clatter softly and wearily into the empty station – that historic point of return and departure: but this time alone. It has always afflicted me with a profound love-dread, this shabby little station, because so often when I returned Sylvie was waiting for me on the platform, hand in hand with her nurse, distractedly gazing about her. I was always looking out for her, I suppose. The train sighs to a halt and the rasping announcements begin in the accents of the Midi. I stand paralysed among the lighted windows gazing about me.
It never changes; it looks so homely, so provisional, so grubby-provincial. You could never deduce from it the existence of the cruel and famous town to which it belongs.
Outside the mistral purred. In the slowly thawing gardens were the memorable flaccid palms set in their circles of moulting grass. There was still snow-rime in the flowerbeds. And of course a queue of rubber-tyred fiacres, waiting for whatever custom the dawn train might bring in. They looked half dead with boredom and disgust, the horses and the drivers. Soon they would be sauntered away into the sleeping town, for the next train arrived after eleven. I managed to wake a driver and strike a price. I was heading for the old Royal Hotel. But as we yawed about and made some disjointed lurches towards the battlements I was siezed by a sudden counter-influence which made me direct the driver towards the river. I felt a sudden desire to see it again, its existence seemed to confirm so many things, the old river-God of our youth. So we slobbered and slid along the ancient walls, outside the bastions. It was dark as pitch, one saw nothing. Trees arched overhead. Then suddenly one heard its voice coupled with the snarl of the wind. Like cats making love. I got out and walked beside the slow cab, feeling the wind clutch my shoulders.
In the greyness the water was inky, swollen and curdled with blocks of ice which thumped and tinkled along the banks.
A faint light touched the east but dawn was not yet breaking. You might have thought yourself in central Asia – the cloudy sky in close link like chain-mail and the fading stabs of moonlight. The driver grumbled but I paid no attention. I even walked out gingerly upon the famous broken bridge, clutching the handrail as well as my hat, for here the wind whirled. A frail ghost-light lit the chapel, but there were no worshippers at that hour. A broken and renowned relic of man's belief, pointing its amputated fingers of masonry westward. I thought of Piers. In expounding Akkad once he had said something like: "What really dies is the collective image of the past – all the temporal selves which have been present in a serial form focused together now in an instant of perfect attention, of crystal-clear apprehension which could last forever if one wished." How hollow all these grave lucubrations seemed in this wind-tugged night. Nevertheless they were perhaps appropriate to the place. For a hundred years this shabby village had been Rome, had been all Christendom.
This was, after all, Avignon.
* * *
Confused messages waited for me at the hotel, but there was nothing to be done about them at this hour. I dozed on my bed until sunrise and then set out resolutely to find a coffee, traversing the old city with affection and distress, hearing my own sharp footsteps on the pavements, disembodied as a ghost. Avignon! Its shabby lights and sneaking cats were the same as ever; overturned dustbins, the glitter of fish scales, olive oil, broken glass, a dead scorpion. All the time we had been away on our travels round the world it had stayed pegged here at the confluence of its two green rivers. The past embalmed it, the present could not alter it. So many years of going away and coming back, of remembering and forgetting it. It had always waited for us, floating among its tenebrous monuments, the corpulence of its ragged bells, the putrescence of its squares.
And in a sense we had waited for it to reclaim us after every absence. It had seen the most decisive part of our lives – the fall of Rob Sutcliffe, Sylvie's collapse, and now the suicide of Piers. Here it lay summer after summer, baking away in the sun, until its closely knitted roofs of weathered tile gave it the appearance of a piecrust fresh from the oven. It haunted one although it was rotten, fly-blown with expired dignities, almost deliquescent among its autumn river damps. There was not a corner of it that we did not love.
Excerpted from The Avignon Quintet by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1985 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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