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Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 1)

A translation of the first half of the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

... They are comparable to the spider who builds a house.  

                                                                                    — The Koran, XXIX,  40

“This,” said Dunraven with a great gesture that did not refuse the cloudy stars but covered the black upland, the sea, and a majestic and decrepit structure that seemed to be a rundown stable, “is the land of my elders.”  Unwin his companion removed a pipe from his mouth and emitted some modest and approving sounds. It was the first evening of the summer of 1914; tired of a world without the dignity of danger, the friends appreciated the solitude of this corner of Cornwall. Cultivating a dark beard, Dunraven was the author of a considerable epic which his contemporaries almost could not scan and whose motif had not yet been revealed. Unwin had published a study of the theory that Fermat had not written in the margin of one of Diophantus’s pages. Both of them — could what I say be true? — were young, absentminded and impassioned.

“It will be a quarter of a century,” said Dunraven, “since Abenjacán el Bojarí, the leader or king of some or other Nilotic tribe, died in the central chamber of that house at the hands of his cousin Zaid. Now years later, the circumstances of his death continue to be murky."

Unwin tamely asked why.

“For many reasons,” was the answer. “In the first place, that house is a labyrinth. In the second place, the house was under the watchful eyes of a slave and a lion. In the third place, a secret treasure vanished. In the fourth place, the assassin was already dead when the murder took place. In the fifth place …”

Tired, Unwin stopped him.

“Don’t multiply the mysteries,” he said to him. “They ought to be simple. Recall Poe’s purloined letter and the locked room of Zangwill.”

“Or the universe remembers complicated things,” replied Dunraven.

Sloping over sandy hills, they had arrived at the labyrinth. As they approached, there appeared a straight and almost interminable wall, bricks without end, almost as high as a man. Dunraven said that it had the form of a circle, but its area was so dissipated that you could not perceive its curves. Unwin mentioned Nicholas of Cusa, for whom all straight lines were the arc of an infinite circle … Towards midnight they discovered a door in ruins which gave onto a blind and perilous hallway. Dunraven said that inside the house there were numerous crossroads, but that if they kept left, they would arrive in a little more than an hour in the center of the web. Unwin agreed. Their cautious steps resonated in the stone floor; the corridor forked into other, narrower corridors. The house seemed as if it wanted to drown them, the ceiling was very low. They had to advance one after the other through the complications of darkness. Unwin went along slowly. Dulled by the roughness and angles, his hand flowed endlessly along the invisible wall. Slowed in the somberness, Unwin heard the story of the murder of Abenjacán from the mouth of his friend.

“Perhaps the oldest of my memories,” related Dunraven, “is that of Abenjacán el Bojarí in the cove of Pentreath. He was followed by a black man with a lion; they were doubtless the first black man and the first lion my eyes had ever seen, apart from the engravings in the Scriptures. So I was a boy, but the beast the color of the sun and the man the color of night impressed me less than Abenjacán. To me he seemed very tall; he was olive-skinned with black, half-closed eyes, an insolent nose, fleshy lips, a saffron beard, and proud chest, sure and silent in his gait. At home I said: ‘A king and a vessel have arrived.’ Later, when the bricklayers were working, I enhanced this title and made him the King of Babel.

“The news that the stranger had installed himself in Pentreath was received with pleasure; the extension and form of his house with astonishment, if not with scandal. Few seemed to accept that a residence of one person might have leagues and leagues of corridors. ‘Moors might have such houses, but not Christians,’ said the people. Our rector, Mr. Allaby, a man of strange learning, exhumed the history of a king whom the Divinity castigated for having erected a labyrinth and spouted such information from the pulpit. That Monday, Abenjacán visited the rectory; the circumstances of the brief interview were not known at that time, but no more sermons ever alluded to its grandeur, and the moor was able to hire the bricklayers. Years later, when Abenjacán was killed, Allaby made known to the authorities the substance of their dialogue.

“Abenjacán told him, standing, these words or words like these: ‘No longer can anyone censure what I do. The sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to repeat for centuries the Ultimate Name of God, it would not be sufficient to mitigate even one of my torments; the sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to kill you with these hands, it would not worsen the torments of Infinite Justice to which I am destined. My name is unknown in all lands; I am Abenjacán el Bojarí and I have ruled the tribes of the desert with an iron scepter. For many years and with the assistance of my cousin Zaid, I despoiled them; but God heard their clamor and allowed them to rebel. My peoples were worn out and riddled with stab wounds; I managed to flee with the treasure collected in my years of exploitation. Zaid guided me to the tomb of a saint at the foot of a mountain of stone. I ordered my slave to watch over the face of the desert; then Zaid and I were overcome by sleep. That night I dreamt I was imprisoned by a web of serpents. Waking in horror, I found Zaid sleeping at my side as dawn appeared. The friction of a spider’s web on my flesh had made me dream such a dream. It pained me to see that Zaid, who was a coward, was sleeping so restfully. I came to think that the treasure was not infinite and that he might claim a share. In my belt was a dagger with a silver hilt; I unsheathed it and cut his throat. In his agony he gurgled forth some words I could not hear. I looked at him; he was dead, but I feared he would rise so I ordered the slave to smash his face with a rock. Then we wandered underneath the sky and one day we came across a sea. On it sailed very tall ships; I thought that a dead man would not be able to walk through water and decided to look for other lands. The first night we sailed I dreamt that I killed Zaid. Everything repeated itself, but this time I heard his words. He said: I will blot out your dregs, wherever you may be. I swore I would thwart this threat; I would hide in the center of a labyrinth until his ghost was gone.'

"That said he went on his way. Allaby tried to convince himself that the moor was crazy and that this absurd labyrinth was a symbol of and clear testimony to his madness. Then he thought that this explanation coincided with the extravagant construction and extravagant story, but not with the energetic impression with which Abenjacán left the man. Perhaps such stories were common in the sandy regions of Egypt, perhaps such rarities corresponded (like Pliny’s dragons) less to a person than to a culture … In London Allaby reexamined back issues of the Times; he checked the truthfulness of the rebellion and the subsequent defeat of el Bojarí and his vizier, who was rumored to be a coward.

"Hardly had the bricklayers concluded their work when he installed himself at the center of the labyrinth. He was no longer seen in the village; sometimes Allaby feared that Zaid had managed to reach him and annihilate him. At night the wind brought us the lion’s roar, and the sheep of the fold squeezed together with old fear.

"Then ships from oriental ports were said to have dropped anchor at the small bay, direction either Cardiff or Bristol. The slave came down from the labyrinth (which then, I recall, was not pink but crimson in color), exchanged some African words with the crews, and appeared to be looking among the faces of the men for the ghost of the vizier. It was rumored that these ships carried contraband, and if alcohol and ivory, why not then shadows of the dead?

"Three years after the house was erected, the Rose of Sharon dropped anchor at the foot of the hills. I was not one of those who saw this ship, and maybe in the image I have of it lurk lithographs of Abu Qir and Trafalgar. But, in any case, I understand it to be one of those elaborate ships that do not appear to be the work of seamen but of carpenters, and more of cabinetmakers than of carpenters. It was (if not actually, then in my dreams) burnished, dark, silent, and stealthy, and manned by Arabs and Malays.

"It dropped anchor at dawn on an October day. Towards dusk, Abenjacán burst into Allaby’s house. He was seized by the passion of terror; hardly could he articulate that Zaid had entered the labyrinth and that his slave and his lion had been killed. He then asked in all seriousness whether the authorities would be able to protect him. He left before Allaby could answer, as if plagued by the same terror which had driven him to this house for the second and last time. Allaby, alone in his library, thought in astonishment that this frightened creature had oppressed tribes in the Sudan and knew that fighting and dying were two different matters. The next day he noticed that the ship had already set sail (direction Suakin in the Red Sea, it was later learned). He thought it over and decided that it was his duty to verify the slave’s murder, so he set off to the labyrinth. El Bojarí’s breathless tale seemed fantastic, but at a bend of the galleries he came upon the lion, and the lion was dead; at another bend he found the slave, who was also dead; and at the central chamber he came upon el Bojarí, whose face had been destroyed. At the man’s feet was a chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl; someone had forced the lock and not a single coin remained."


The Vane Sisters

Many years ago now, I happened to be visiting one of America's most ravishing college campuses, a green Gothic strip where I would end up completing my graduate studies. Fresh air, the charm of the young and untried swimming nearby, one of the most awesome libraries machines and minds could ever erect, and a friendly welcome from the professors all settled my choice. One of those erudite gentlemen, himself a Russian émigré, was kind enough at the end of our chat to autograph one of his books as a parting gift. Since we shared an unabashed admiration for the book's subject, this was as fine a token of goodwill as could possibly be expected between two people who had been verbal strangers only twenty minutes before. I read most of the book in one sitting, filed it away as I almost always do for reevaluation, then swallowed the rest in small chunks during my coursework. The tome and scholar need not be mentioned here; anonymity is one of the blessings of non-conformist genius. But his theory was groundbreaking, original, and meticulous, and is perhaps best buttressed by the motifs in this sensational work of art.

Our narrator is a nameless and perhaps typical Frenchman (one who prefers "the grape to the grain"), with an atypically magnificent command of written English and a literature professorship in 1950s New England. Not ours to worry, in any case, since in more than one way he will only serve as a conduit for the descriptions and jeremiads of others. He begins his eerie tale by observing, with the cautious glee of someone who has lived his life for art's thrills, "a family of icicles" drip down the ultimate gables of a roof and defiantly into the setting sun. After staring at a multicolored windshield's reflection, he is nearly run over by an almost as anonymous acquaintance and fellow academic, D. D. immediately informs him that Cynthia Vane, a painter and the elder of two somewhat flighty sisters known all too well to our professors, has died of a weak heart. The news is as shocking to us as it is to the narrator because no one called Cynthia Vane should ever really be dead. 

In time we learn the links. D. slept with and discarded that other sister, Sybil (a borrowing from this work), to whom our narrator once administered a disastrous French exam that concluded with Sybil's quite finite jest: "Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than life without D." The next morning she is no longer among the quick, her own hand blamed by her own handwriting. Four or five months later, the narrator consoles the sister with the warmth of all his hairy strength and discovers to his mild chagrin and amusement that our survivor believes she is puppeteered by specters. He initially imputes this to a heterodox form of Puritan fatalism, underpinned as it simply must be by charlatan chums and astrological calculations. And yet (igniting a domino-like trend) he turns out to be wrong:

For a few hours, or for several days in a row, and sometimes recurrently, in an irregular series, for months or years, anything that happened to Cynthia, after a given person had died, would be, she said, in the manner and mood of that person. The event might be extraordinary, changing the course of one's life; or it might be a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one's usual day and then shading off into still vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded. The influence might be good or bad; the main thing was that its source could be identified. It was like walking through a person's soul, she said. I tried to argue that she might not always be able to determine the exact source since not everybody has a recognizable soul; that there are anonymous letters and Christmas presents which anybody might send; that, in fact, what Cynthia called 'a usual day' might be itself a weak solution of mixed auras or simply the routine shift of a humdrum guardian angel. 

Amidst these phantoms Sybil's personality "had a rainbow edge as if a little out of focus" – what one might reasonably expect given the age and method of her extinction. Actually, "extinction" is most definitely not the right word. Their affair drags on, as all affairs of physical convenience do, well past any semblance of affection or mutual understanding (one is reminded of that old, women's monthly adage that every failed relationship devotes its latter half to dysfunction). One especially fateful night collects the narrator, Cynthia, and a gaggle of "sociable weekend revelers" into a single bourgeois home for what would pass to most people for amusement, but can only horrify someone who finds society at large, well, repellent. Does this antipathy explain the added antipathy to the shaded powers of the afterlife? Or is our narrator simply an overeducated snob toying with a fragile, frowzy woman who probably enjoys this lack of control when confronted with the tools of adult pleasure? Our narrator mulls these and other oddities, but does not land at the conclusion we think these oddities might deserve.   

You may strum your fingers or race to your shelves, but you will be hard-pressed to find a better short story in this century or any other. Nabokov's genius resides in his ability to take forceful, almost unnecessarily subjective opinions and coax therefrom a choir of paradise. With the possible exception of this incomparable man of letters, no other writer has possessed this talent to such a degree. The ending, so famous and yet so unprecedented in serious prose, brought Nabokov his first accolades as an inventor, a fact that would be painfully obvious to those of us who do not suffer gimmicks fondly. Cynthia does not, however, see matters that way. And since we and the narrator seem to like a few things about Cynthia, we can, should, and must be sympathetic; it is the only way we know how to relate to lesser beings. So when we coddle her with kindness and platitudes ("These rather tasteless trivialities pleased Cynthia hugely as she rose, with gasps, above the heaving surface of her grief," one of the most exquisite sentences ever composed) – the two are so coterminous at times we can almost claim they come naturally – we are doing the right thing. Her sister is dead, after all. We can also aver that icicles and parking meters will never feel quite the same again, nor will the sounds of those things that go bump in the night. You know, those things.


The Elephant Man

It is rare among reviews of this film to find something negative or dissuading about the affective power of the title character's plight. There are such opinions; yet the dissent voiced inevitably comes off as captious. For whatever reason – the biographical discrepancies, the poverty of London, the dim, piebald tenements, the elephants and the nightmares they trample through at the film's beginning – some element rings false, as if we were not watching a tragedy with its necessary melodrama and instead scrutinizing the real life and times of Joseph Merrick. This approach is fundamentally incorrect yet, as we shall see, no impediment to enjoying the film. 

The fictionalized version of the story is better known than the truth: rambling around late Victorian London, a celebrated physician, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), comes across a circus sideshow featuring a being known only as the Elephant Man (John Hurt). What or who this man could be is not immediately apparent; whether he is even fully human can be termed dubious by the superstitious soul. In any case Treves, a man both of science and faith, pays his way to a viewing and discovers a sad, horribly misshapen being that he hopes secretly is an ament. The sentiment behind such a whispered wish is clear: should this poor creature actually be able to recognize his hideous separation from the majority of mankind, his fate would be all the more intolerable. Treves's medical interest in the Elephant Man may be likened rather coldly to a philologist's interest in an undeciphered manuscript: he does indeed pity this being, the origin of whose malady is at once both fantastic and terrifying, but is not so much interested in attempting to cure him as in availing himself of the obscure knowledge that might explain his disease. Treves mentions his credentials and prestigious jobs at the London Hospital and Medical College, is summarily dismissed by the wicked handler Bytes (Freddie Jones), and retreats to his offices with his imagination racing. We understand that the Elephant Man will find Treves and continue the conversation they never had, but we cannot possibly foresee the subjects of their discourse.  

Shortly thereafter Treves's offices are visited, to the great chagrin of the nursing staff, by a man with his head under a makeshift mask that makes him resemble a mummy, although he may be more accurately compared to this fictional character. Treves ultimately finds him crouching alone in the shadows, asks for names, how long he has been in this state, and, as a medical precaution, about his parents. But the masked man does not answer and stares like a ghost waiting for its victim to guess the reason for its spectral visit. We next see some of him in a lecture hall full of, one supposes, London's most renowned physicians and anatomists. Against a light and curtain with his silhouette now resembling that of this famous movie monster, he is subjected to objective comments on his affliction as well as a few pseudo-comforting asides ("entirely intact genitals; perfectly normal left arm"). He eventually identifies himself as John Merrick, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman of humble birth but some learning; this latter detail is not made evident until Merrick recites the twenty-third psalm, again recalling the cultured and sensitive Frankenstein's monster. In many ways the film hitherto has proceeded as such films are supposed to proceed: the misunderstood creature is discovered by chance by a scientist who has both a kindly and self-aggrandizing side; numerous peripheral characters deride him and suggest that making him a patient is pointless; and the scientist is in turn protective and frustrated with his creature as if it were an impudent child. It is also quite typical that the cruelty everyone inflicts upon him is due to the notion that he is somehow not quite human, a bestial hybrid of heavy breathing and mummy wraps, a degradation and insult to the human condition itself.  

Yet the twist comes when Merrick is accepted as an intelligent and righteous Christian who has been dealt one of the hardest of lots. For a while our black-and-white pictures come alive with color: Merrick has been redeemed; Merrick is one of us. After a letter from Victoria carried by Alexandra, the Princess of Denmark, establishes Merrick as a permanent resident of the London Hospital (overriding the barbarous rant of an allegedly beneficent doctor who claims he only wishes to help the poor), we know that this bliss will not last the entirety of the film and not only because we know something of the real Joseph Merrick (mistakenly called John in the film following the error in Treves's memoirs). Merrick is constantly harangued by the mobs wishing him no real harm apart from the mockery to which they believe that he, as the circus sideshow freak, must be relegated. In a strange way, he goes along with it; one can tell when they show him his mirror and he waits a few seconds before uttering a histrionic howl. He is both appalled at such ridicule and playing along in a role he cannot avoid, a fate not dissimilar to that of the bullied child tired of denying his tormentors. And alas, despite the differences between the life of the real Joseph Merrick and the slightly Romanticized screen version, we are well aware of how matters will end.  

About those few who did not admire the film: dissent against The Elephant Man has been uniform, which means there is at stake a philosophical not an aesthetic argument. Critics seem to believe that the extremity of Merrick's condition coupled with the smoothing over of a couple of important facts – most notably, that the real Merrick required several jaw operations before being able to speak – point to a schmaltzy attempt to win hearts and minds. As it were, this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the unnecessary opening nightmare scene (repeated much later with factory workers or stokers, a mob with a mirror, the long trunk of an elephant, the boot of a lyncher, and swirling, ominous clouds as if he were born from God's turmoil), the film does not veer from a straight dramatic plot. It does less to tug on our heartstrings than present a situation whose every facet could easily be deemed tragic. Merrick's favorite words are "my friend," on which he lingers, relishing them like the name of the person he will always adore. When a well-known actress (Anne Bancroft) invites him to the theater, he states as plainly as in a police report: "I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know that I am loved. I have gained myself. I could not say that were it not for you." At that same production Merrick sees the woman in the cage, the fairy, the swans, the whole atmosphere of discovery and wonder, and understands that he must always view this world from the outside. And indeed, each scene of The Elephant Man is ended so abruptly we are allowed but a moment to mull it over; ripostes are not provided, simply the mood is broached and left as that, a shift of mood. The brevity of these vignettes suggests that we are leafing through a photo album, the last remains of a tired existence. So Treves is quite right when he admits to his spouse that, "I'm beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike." For him and most everyone else, the life of Joseph Merrick will always be a spectacle he can watch in a comfortable seat from afar.


The Untouchable

I wanted to tell her about the blade of sunlight cleaving the velvet shadows of the public urinal that post-war spring afternoon in Regensburg, of the incongruous gaiety of the rain shower that fell the day of my father's funeral, of that last night with Boy when I saw the red ship under Blackfriars Bridge and conceived of the tragic significance of my life; in other words, the real things; the true things.

Why do so many betray all that they love?  An expert or three will aver that these traitors are ashamed of what they love, ashamed either of humble roots or past generations, or simply and unavoidably attracted to the garish limelight (which soon will resemble the pale moonlight, but anyway). There are other reasons, of course, reasons that involve one's own identity, so quietly and carefully folded up in a hidden suitcase, a suitcase that one cannot help but look at every time one enters the room. A suitcase one begins to imagine, as one begins to imagine entering the room and finding it again and again to make sure it's still there intact, undiscovered, sealed from oxygen and mankind. It is then, we may suppose, that the dreams commence. The nightmares or day-mares about walking in one dire day and not finding a suitcase anywhere. Because the suitcase was never there; nothing was ever hidden; and one's past comes crashing into one's present like two mirrored doors in close collision. A summary of the life and fate of the narrator of this novel. 

That our man is called Victor Maskell should not influence our impression: he has lost and will continue to lose, and the masks he has chosen are facsimiles of his own countenance. As we begin our tale, Maskell has been outed as having been far less patriotic than he might have seemed in the preceding decades establishing himself as one of Britain's finest Baroque experts, in particular of this painter of genius. Now at the threshold of his eighth decade on an ungrateful earth, he has become a widower, a lover of his "own kind," and an occasional parent, his son loathing him for what he was, his daughter pitying him for what he wasn't. He has long pondered the nature of his quandary:

In the spy's world, as in dreams, the terrain is always uncertain. You put your foot on what looks like solid ground and it gives way under you and you go into a kind of free fall, turning slowly tail up and clutching on to things that are themselves falling. This instability, this myriadness that the world takes on, is both the attraction and the terror of being a spy. Attraction, because in the midst of such uncertainty you are never required to be yourself; whatever you do, there is another, alternative you standing invisibly to one side, observing, evaluating, remembering. This is the secret power of the spy, different from the power that orders armies into battle; it is purely personal; it is the power to be and not to be, to detach oneself from oneself, to be oneself and at the same time another. The trouble is, if I were always two versions of myself, so all others must be similarly twinned with themselves in this awful, slippery way.

And where did Maskell split his being, dividing the poor son of an Irish preacher from the soon-to-be Soviet informer ("the fact is, I was both a Marxist and a Royalist")? Cambridge University of the 1920s and 1930s, a hotbed of radical thought and, on occasion, even radical action. The Great War has led to a peace once unimaginable, and the fervent idealism that courses through the veins of able-bodied intellectuals when serenity and prosperity have been secured has now embraced a new approach to humanity: a destruction of greed. The atmosphere in those years, says Maskell, "had something thrillingly suppressed in it, as if at any moment the most amazing events might suddenly begin to happen." And what events might he mean? Oh, the downfall of capitalism, the founding of a worker-based government which would control the means of production – and I believe we don't need to go on. Himself a distant relative of the queen, Maskell was not alone in his endeavors: there is Boy, who splits his day evenly between cottaging and stealing state secrets; Nick, a rich, ambitious, and rather sleek operator, whose sister Maskell would eventually marry, even if it is her brother he more greatly desired; and Leo Rothenstein, who buys Maskell his first Poussin, although maybe not for the reasons supplied at the time of purchase. There were others, of course; but their roles were mostly as supporting actors, which is another way of saying they were granted brief spurts of magniloquence then killed for the cause. One exception to this rule is the man known as Querell.  

Querell is a spy alright, but unlike his confederates he is also a writer of a series of potboilers ("He was genuinely curious about people  the sure mark of the second-rate novelist"). Maskell wonders and wonders some more about Querell, who does not seem to eat or sleep or do anything except lurk, smoking "the same, everlasting cigarette, for I never seemed able to catch him in the act of lighting up." A rather revolting scene early on in the novel, coupled with his professed Catholic faith, make Querell an even more unlikely human being and a much more likely Frankenstein's monster. So when someone informs Maskell, that "that Querell now, he has the measure of us all," our art historian begins to reconsider the popular novelist:    

Querell would come round, tall, thin, sardonic, standing with his back against the wall and smoking a cigarette, somehow crooked, like the villain in a cautionary tale, one eyebrow arched and the corners of his mouth turned down, and a hand in the pocket of his tightly buttoned jacket that I always thought could be holding a gun .... You would glance at the spot where he had been standing and find him gone, and seem to see a shadowy after-image of him, like the paler shadow left on a wall when a picture is removed.

If Querell is meant to represent, as some have surmised, this writer, then this is cruelty indeed. And it should not detract from our enjoyment of The Untouchable that Victor Maskell is modeled, hewn, and traced on this infamous figure (with the name a punning reference to this scholar), nor that many other characters, most notably Boy, have historical archetypes. Blunt was a spy, an art historian, a Communist, and a homosexual, basically in that order, and the proud Briton will always shudder at the mention of his name. Maskell knows very little about the cause he supposedly serves, probably because, for a spy, he is a very poor judge of man. An orphaned chapter segment prattles on about this anarchist, the idol of many a collegiate ignoramus, a quickly-abandoned tactic which, while oddly out of line with the narrative, spares us the stale biscuit aphorisms of the hidebound comrade. The passage is fake just like Marxism is fake, the lazy imposition of an artificial understanding on a world far more natural and complicated than even the most perspicacious Marxist could ever suspect. The only thing we are convinced of is Victor Maskell's utter selfishness, which he admits, his flimsy homosexuality (which, for most of the novel, he experiences vicariously through Boy), his family feelings (which he barely senses), and that the only thing he truly seeks is to imbue his life with some profundity, to be as memorable as the Poussin masterpieces he knows he can merely admire but never replicate.  

As in all of Banville, passages of extreme beauty grace page after page ("The Daimler .... vast, sleek, and intent, like a wild beast that had blundered into captivity and could only be let out, coughing and growling, on occasions of rare significance"; "We sat opposite each other ... in a polite, unexpectedly easy, almost companionable silence, like two voyagers sharing a cocktail before joining the captain's table, knowing we had a whole ocean of time before us in which to get acquainted"; "You will find my people at the top, or if not at the top, then determinedly scaling the rigging, with cutlasses in their teeth"), but to his credit Maskell does not drift into unabashed sentimentality, even when he fully succumbs to his genetic programming. And who is the female interlocutor in the quote beginning this review? One Serena Vandeleur (whose name recalls characters in both this novel and this one), in principle a young journalist yearning for a breakthrough as the biographer of an outcast, although Maskell has his suspicions about her true agenda. As, it should be said, he comes to have about everyone's agenda; such are the wages of duplicity. Perhaps he could just take a group photograph of his backstabbing brethren for his biography and title it The Shepherds of Arkady.



The history of art is generously peppered with odd couples, a conceit that in the cinema of more recent years has engendered the label “buddy movie.” Whether the twosome actually has to get along is unimportant provided they gain a better understanding of one another – and, one hopes, of themselves – by the end of their journey. Without disparaging the happy endings required of many popular films, the odd couple may be considered happy because they are not alone. In fact, the old adage about opposites attracting has much to do with each member of that couple embodying the qualities that the other lacks. The most visceral evidence of such a phenomenon can be found in high school and colleges around the world: the good-looking girl and her ill-favored best friend; the interethnic couple misunderstood in different ways by society at large; the quiet nerdy guy who cannot procure bathroom directions from a female yet somehow gets along with his ebullient, rambunctious stud of a roommate. One cannot help but notice that such strange pairings are fewer over time, perhaps because most people who age and survive in this world become more complete. They develop aspects of both odd couple members, making themselves less of a caricature and more into a genuine human being. And it is a textbook example of the last duo and a certain level of immaturity that drive this acclaimed film.

Our protagonist is the fortyish Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), but you may know him from your high school or college yearbook as someone else. Nature has not blessed him with looks and he has chosen to go along with that assessment. Little is done in the way of exercise, grooming, or presentability, but drinking and reading are habitual and daily. Miles is shown driving while reading, using the toilet while reading, and stealing money from his mother presumably so that he can consume the expensive wines he values almost as much as books as a source of intoxication. He was married to a woman now with a much more successful husband; he teaches English to schoolchildren immune to subtlety; and he has been writing a novel that keeps getting longer and more preposterous – a lot like life itself. He has not recovered from any of these disasters and believes, as good writers invariably do, that the sum of his failures can be transformed into a fantastic work of art, which is why writers often believe in redemption as strongly as other people of faith. The gaping chasm in Miles’s life is clearly structure, which explains his continued friendship with his former college roommate, Jack Cole (Thomas Hayden Church). 

Jack and Miles have plain, Anglo-Saxon names and in general act their parts well. They communicate through shared memories, not real-time emotions, and the bulk of their conversations involve agreement on the past. Jack is particularly parsimonious when it comes to sympathy or despair, as both of those sentiments could derail his perpetual mirth so handy in his profession as an actor. Now enough has been said about the perils of spending too much time with people paid to be something they are not. But Jack is a real person insofar as his emotions and thoughts suggest a teenage boy who has yet to fulfil his potential – this despite the fact that apart from some soap opera work, Jack’s “acting” consists mainly of voiceovers for commercials. Jack is the back-slapping polyanna that everyone needs from time to time, but who cannot be thought of as a sustained source of comfort. For that reason, when Jack decides to marry an Armenian-American heiress and go beforehand on a week-long bachelor junket through the California wine valley, the project appeals to Miles’s sense of both taste and camaraderie. 

Trips like these have three ostensible aims: debauchery in whatever form fate allows it to assume, reputation among one’s peers, and the rather nebulous activity known as “male bonding.” Jack gladly hands the car keys to Miles who, as a hard-core alcoholic with the vague semblance of a budget, knows the finest places to visit. It is then of small coincidence that the duo ends up in an establishment staffed by Maya (Virginia Madsen), a lovely single woman in her late thirties who, as a server with the vague semblance of a flirt, is the prototypical crush for any barfly. Jack and Miles discuss how nothing has ever happened between them and Jack sets himself the ambitious goal of getting Miles bedded before the week is up. This seems like a nice, best-buddy thing to do, especially considering the penury Miles has experienced since his divorce. But astute observers know that such gambits on the part of vapid lustmuffins such as Jack are usually doubled when applied to themselves. And Jack selects a vulnerable target in Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a single mother working as a pourer who happens to know Maya and is amenable to a harmless little double date. 

What happens on that date and the rest of the week may be inferred with little difficulty. Jack and Miles will imbibe until no iota of reality has been spared; Maya and Stephanie will become increasingly besotted in their own fashion; Miles will have his novel rejected and drown his constantly revived sorrows in the finest grapes that California can offer; and platitudes will be exchanged that gain in relevance as our heroes slip from sobriety. That said, the acting is superb and pleasantly meek (only one member of the quartet explodes, and for very good reason) and what could easily have devolved into hysteria given some poor choices is always restrained. Hayden Church breathes life into a very old mannequin, imbuing Jack with the sort of fragility usually reserved for, well, people like Miles. There will be numerous revelations along the way, a good indication that the film was originally a novel, but we already sense what these "secrets" will involve. The best secrets, you see, are the ones whose general outline you might have guessed but whose details are unexpected. Not unlike those fine wines stored on their sides to keep their corks moist.


Vallejo, "París, Octubre 1936"

A work ("Paris, October 1936") by this Peruvian poet.  You can read the original here.

From all this only I shall be departing.  
From this lone bench, and from my two socks' tracks, 
From my great state, my actions, and my acts,
From my own number clove apart by parting, 
From all this only I shall be departing.

From the Champs-Élysées, or turning down  
The curious little alley of the Moon,  
My death will go and leave my cradle's swoon,  
My human likeness lost amidst a crowd,  
Will also turn, dispatching as allowed,   
One shadow at a time, as if in tune.   

From everything my distance I defend, 
All things remain to forge my alibi:  
My shoe, its eyelet, and its muddy lie,  
Till the duplicitous soft elbow bend 
Of my own shirt, all buttoned to the end.  


Novalis, "Wer einsam sitzt in seiner Kammer"

A work ("Who sits forlorn within his room") by this German poet.  You can read the original here.

Who sits forlorn within his room,
And cries such grave and bitter tears,
So will this region then appear
Besmirched by misery and gloom. 

Who, thinking of times long ago,
Too deep inspects the bleak abyss,
In which from every side persists
Sweet pain that draws him down below,  

It is as if wild treasures lay 
Beneath in heaps for him alone;
And he with breathless breast forayed  
Against their castle ramparts' stone.  

Repulsed and fearful he espies   
His future trapped in dryest dunes; 
Alone, unwell, he roves and swoons, 
And seeks himself in tumult's eye.

I cry and fall into his arms:
I, too, was once like you, it seems.
But I learned much from wicked harm, 
E'en how to find eternal peace.  

You need for comfort, as I too,
A heart that's loved, endured and died; 
Who joyfully put pain aside, 
To perish variedly for you.  

He died, and yet still every day, 
You sense his love, you sense his face; 
Consoled but by thoughts gone astray 
Of him once more in your embrace.   

With him arrives new blood, new life,
In your decaying pile of bone;
And if your heart was his alone, 
So is yours his, bereft of strife.  

What you have loved he will provide;  
What you have lost he since has found: 
Forever will remain so bound, 
What his firm hands choose not to hide.


Du fährst zu oft nach Heidelberg

I have often been to Heidelberg. I studied, as it were, not one hundred fifty miles away, in another small German town renowned for its university, and would travel north, west and south through Heidelberg to other, fabulous German cities. Those cities are fabulous because, in the most complimentary way possible, they are indistinguishable from one another. Surely many were razed in those dozen demonic years that converted Europe's most civilized nation into its most barbaric; but since Germans are sticklers for documents, details, and archives, many of the buildings were reconstructed according to the original blueprints. One can compare pre- and postwar photos and detect an uncanny continuity. That they were so akin in genteel beauty, in cleanliness, and in comfort to begin with is not lost on the circumspect historian, who smiles that they will now remain so forever.   

One thing I did not do that most people do in Baden-Württemberg is make use of that most basic of human vehicles, the proverbial two wheels on a stick, the smokeless, dirtless bipedal Draisine, invented two hundred years ago in a town immediately outside Heidelberg. Embarrassingly enough, I, an urban stripling par excellence, never quite mastered what was the only activity some of my toddling contemporaries (a few of whom could barely speak, much less read or write) could do well; heaven knows they practiced long enough. Perhaps had I bothered to rectify this problem I would have slipped more seamlessly into the green-hilled splendor of Freiburg, or the evening harbor lights of Hamburg, or even the artisan throb of Berlin. In all these places bicycles were replacing cars, the wicked metal boxes which a century ago had tried – in devastating portention – to annihilate them. The motorized death traps were ultimately unsuccessful in Germany, although they still reign supreme in countries more abstentious from democratic habits. Yet among Germany's moneyed stratum – a slim but robust layer, a bit like a champion arm wrestler – you will find some of the most exquisite cars the world has ever known, crafted for and in Drais's homeland. You see, despite its intellectual and economic clout, Germany prides itself on equality. It believes, and rightly so, that you may snarl and snicker all you want in the Kneipe, but in the public eye and print, you must champion the ideals trumpeted by their famous compatriot. A Moonlight Sonata may evoke the lonely, Romantic poet and his eternal dreams, however grandiose or wishy-washy they may be; but there is little doubt as to the meaning of the brotherhood of men. 

One such brother is a young German by the name of – well, we are never actually given his name. It may not be an important omission. I mean, when do we hear stories about people that don't have names? Doesn't everyone have a name, even if, as we get older and accumulate lists of names and faces attached to those names, we as readers automatically scrutinize a protagonist's identity? In any case, our nameless German seems to be a fine young man in his mid-twenties, the springtime of intellectual and spiritual development. He lives somewhere in the vicinity of Heidelberg – one of the most magnificent regions on our divisive planet – and makes the most of it: he keeps in shape with long, early-morning bike rides; sees his parents and his older brother Karl regularly, even if the three treat him as one might relate to a bright schoolchild who mistakes his reinventions of the wheel for epiphanies; studies for his exams, including an unusual minor – Spanish language; and is engaged to an equally fine young woman called Carola. We know he is serious about Carola because he picks tulips with which to surprise her mother, who, with that intuition unique to mothers, suspects he would be the type of young man who might do just that. And one day, as he is about to leave to see Carola and her parents, his father steps out towards our man's car, checks the tires, and poses what seems to be a "random, harmless" question: "Do you still often drive to Heidelberg?" Whether the question may safely be deemed harmless will depend on its recipient; but when our man's mother tells him, in that tone of voice unique to mothers, that he shouldn't "drive to Heidelberg that often," the notion of randomness loses a great deal of plausibility. That his mother then punctuates her warning with the afterthought "in that car" sounds just as dimly coincidental.

What car, you say? An old car, obliged to make "an eighty-kilometer round trip two or three times a week," which may be a lot to ask of such a banged-up lemon. Our hero explains to his father that one reason why he still drives such an unseemly metal box is because "it will be a while before [he] can afford a Mercedes" – not that it appears as if he would burden himself with such luxuries even if his finances permitted them. Indeed, although our narrative is in the third person, we have more than a hunch that the omniscient voice that refuses to reveal the narrator's name – perhaps now, we consider, to protect him – shares his character's world view:

The terrace was larger; the blinds, if somewhat faded, were more generous; the entire scene was more elegant; and even in the hardly noticeable decrepitude of the lawn furniture, in the grass which grew between the gaps of the red tiles, was something that irritated him as much as loose talk had at many a student demonstration. Such things and clothes in general were subjects of annoyance between him and Carola, who always accused him of dressing in too bourgeois a fashion. He talked to Carola's mother about different types of vegetables and her father about cycling, found the coffee worse than at home, and tried not to let his nervousness devolve into irritation. They were, however, nice progressive people who had accepted him without any prejudices whatsoever, even officially, when the engagement was announced. Since that time he had come to like them genuinely, even Carola's mother, whose oft-uttered epithet 'charming' had initially annoyed him.

On second thought, perhaps the narrator – he is supposed to be omniscient, after all – does know a few things our man does not. As the title work in this collection should we take the query, that is so much more of a warning than a query, at face value? Does our man really travel to Heidelberg too often? And what on earth might he be doing in that serene and scholarly town known for its cosmopolitan learning and library? If you recall, our man, apart from being a conscientious, hard-working, thoughtful, and caring fellow – just what the world needs more of, if you ask me – has for a while now studied Spanish. In fact, his parents frequently ask him whether he knows the Spanish word for this or that, even though one never gets the sense that they care about the response. Perhaps they are simply loving parents indulging their child's creative whims? This is unclear, although we come to suspect the narrator knows a lot more than he is letting on. And we haven't even mentioned a man known only as Kronsorgeler.


Pasternak, "Во всем мне хочется дойти"

A work ("In everything I want to grasp") by the Russian poet more immediately associated with this famous novel.  The original of the poem is here.

In everything I want to grasp
The essence underneath the nerve;
In work and on my chosen path
The languor that my heartstrings serve.

The essence of the days long past,
What are their purpose and design?
Which principles, which roots will last,
What core within the ball of twine?

And all the while to hold this string
Of life’s events and sundry fates:
To live, to love, to feel, to think,
To enter new and uncrossed gates.

If I could but elucidate
My passion whole or just in part;
Then I’d describe in lines of eight,
What sparks reside within my heart.

Outlaws and sins would be my stars,
Pursuits and flights their lone resort;
And happenstance beguiled by scars
Would hasten palms and elbows forth.

Its law I would uncover bare
And show its source, its wellspring pure;
Its name I would repeat and wear
Upon my sleeve and soul demure.

And verse would grow in gardens mine,
A quiv’ring vein in every patch;
And there would bloom a linden line
Of single file and common back.

This verse would bear a rosy scent
And breaths of mint, and meadowed gaps;
And hay and sedge would too be lent
To scenes beneath my thunder claps.

So did Chopin infuse his staves
With wondrous life in greenest green;
Etudes of parks, of groves, of graves,
Estates which lived behind his sheen.

Both pain and joyous play arise
In all victories achieved;
A bowstring taut before our eyes,
Released in triumph unretrieved. 


A Perfect Murder

Someday I may come to appreciate this director more (with this glorious exception); but, for the time being, the original, family-rated genre of noir – even noir with a moral foundation as almost all of Hitchcock's works possess – seems to miss the point. Noir is based on the presumption not only that we are fallen, but also that our plight is irreparable. Life with a moral end is for fools; charity is feckless because everyone is trying to exploit everyone else; the only thing worth doing is surviving, however enormous the price for that survival. Noir has led to subsets of modern genres of cinema, most notably those glorifying professional cozenage that only seem to please people who like seeing others squirm (I cannot count myself among those sadists). Yet for many years ostensible prudishness and family values – two things that can be both admirable and nauseating – ultimately prevented noir from doing what it was made to do: namely, be as sleazy as possible. Sexless, bloodless noir, as it were, is worse than alcohol-free beer; it's more like alcohol-free vodka. Modern cinema, however, allows for practically everything and often to great gory excess, and noir has rightly claimed its portion of the fun. Now tough-talking gumshoes actually see the marrow of murder with their (and our) very eyes, and the guileful gals who routinely attract these gumshoes – along with a lot of other unsavory types – do more than kiss and smoke cigarettes. This evolution would explain the rather smashing improvement on one of Hitchcock's classics in the form of this film

We are trapped in the eternal triangle that has spawned so many stories of every quality level: a husband (Michael Douglas), a wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), and a paramour (Viggo Mortensen). Our husband, Steven Taylor, is in love with money, himself, and his wife's money, in that particular order. His wife Emily, about twenty-five or half Steven's age, has a gaudy family inheritance coming her way and so spends her time learning languages for work as a United Nations interpreter; that Emily's knowledge of languages appears to straddle the supernatural should tell you the film's exact proximity to reality. The third component in this fine set to accompany the wealthy materialist and the hyperlearned ingénue is, of course, the womanizing, penniless artist, who has the rather unfabulous name of David Shaw. David is a character who obviously has done some bad things in life, mostly, we suspect, to unsuspecting women. His artistic ability lies predominantly in his image: he is relaxed and cool in a studied way, always ready to emphasize art's superiority to life, always indifferent to the vicissitudes of the daily grind, which, as any genuine artist will tell you, is a sure sign of a fraud. Real artists constantly vacillate between plunging headlong into the creative world they love and embracing the realm in which everyone else seems to exist. The dichotomy has led many fine minds down to path to a total disconnect with common activities, words, and thoughts, and ultimately to dreary isolation in the darkest corners of their ever-lacerated psyche. Our David, who paints rather shabby, omnifarious blurs, as well as a few bathetic portraits, is not who Emily thinks he is. She is madly in love with him while he keeps a certain distance abetted by an occasional semi-confession that suggests he might be changing his ways. Apart from the explicit lack of evidence of change in womanizing charlatans throughout history, there is also the tiny matter of sweet Emily's moneybags ancestry – a fact that does not elude the watchful, leering eyes of Steven.

Douglas has long held the title of most loveable sleazeball, and for good reason. There is something in his speech and mannerisms that expresses selfish desire in such an aesthetically pleasing way that we cannot help thinking how one goes about maintaining such an aura. Near the beginning of our tale he confronts David with extensive knowledge about his adultery, a revelation that would have brought someone truly enamored to plead for the well-being of his soulmate. But this is precisely what does not occur. Once his game is exposed – that is to say, once Steven phrases his suspicions in such an unambiguous way as to show exactly what he thinks of David – the artist retreats to the impecunious and helpless persona that has served him in the past in the pluming of many a silly goose. A satanic pact is then struck that should tell you all you need to know about the two men at work. Of course, as satanic pacts go, this one dooms both sides when it goes awry owing to one party's hesitation, a quite justified hesitation at that, to trust the other party. Steven insists on attending his weekly card game, Emily is instructed to take a long, hot, reflex-deadening bath, and I will leave matters right there.

The original Hitchcock production was based on a play that functioned by having oblivious characters being offscreen at crucial moments, one of the easier conceits of drama since the Greeks began plotting a bevy of bad things during their soliloquies. The annoying stage details notwithstanding, what Dial M for Murder suffers from is the old adage of all talk and no walk. The characters scheme and dream with such malice but then behave so civilly to one another that it would take superhuman acting to overcome, which while good is not on hand. A Perfect Murder, in its reluctance to pull punches, transforms an intriguing story that could easily have originated as a barroom test of oneupmanship into a greasy, messy parable for getting what you wish for. And for Steven and David, what they really want lies far beyond the young blonde heiress who ricochets between them.


Der Verdacht

Novels are cumbersome beasts, for one very good reason: they are expected to coalesce into a solid shape. Modern novels have recognized this awkwardness and decided, rather stupidly, to eschew the tightness of structure altogether in favor of a hippie motto such as "life is a mess, so why shouldn't art be as well?" Surely, there are certain patterns in life, both salubrious and detrimental, and people can be wholly aware of the damage they are inflicting upon themselves and still persist in their bad habits (dating the wrong type of partners; smoking; picking arguments and criticizing others instead of ameliorating their own conditions; lamenting their lazy bourgeois fate). Yet few are those who assume the Archimedean point and absorb the wavelengths of their existence in their totality. When we reach the twilight of our days we may reflect on what has and has not passed, the opportunities forsaken or abused, the lives we touched and those we could not reach, but it takes a certain attitude to weave these threads into a tapestry. Much easier to leave it all in an untangled knot – and here I'm afraid I must dissent. I may walk the beach of my past, step gently into the spindrift, and recollect all at once every other moment in which I inhaled the sea air, but leaving the shreds of life in a corner unattended is beyond my capacity. Closure is not as important as knowing what lies at the heart of our machinations, a basic but paramount premise and one that fuels this fine novel.

Little can be expected of a dying protagonist, which might work to his advantage. We are therefore necessarily underwhelmed by the appearance of Bern police commissioner Hans Bärlach, a crusty, deathly ill old snoop whose faith in his own abilities wends its way through treacherous paths. For a large portion of the novel, Bärlach is bedridden and visited by a motley crew of colleagues: Hungertobel, his physician and friend, Gulliver, a ragamuffin behemoth and alcoholic, and Fortschig, a penniless, slightly mad writer of a feuilleton called the Apfelschuss (in the tradition of this Swiss hero). And it is precisely leafing through a magazine during bedrest that our Commissioner finds a picture of a certain Doctor Nehle who worked for some unwholesome forces at their worse outposts in the recently concluded Second World War. What is interesting about this Nehle, otherwise a common barbarian made famous by his cruelty, is his resemblance to a Doctor Emmenberger, who happens to run one of the choicest private clinics Switzerland has to offer. Sick and somewhat delirious, Bärlach pursues the likeness to the point of suggesting that this haphazard photo is anything but the residue of design and that Emmenberger and Nehle have much more in common.

Facts are then gathered: Emmenberger went off during the war to Chile, where he continued publishing esoteric articles and developing his fantastic career; Nehle, on the other hand, opted to serve the devil and would die by his own hand in a Hamburg hotel. His specialization were procedures without anesthesia, whose survival was rewarded with freedom – but he made sure that no one survived. No one, that is, except the giant Gulliver, a learned man of tremendous spirituality who one night tells Bärlach of his horrifying experiences in a torture camp:

This figure with countless victims on his conscience became something legendary, an outlaw, as if even the Nazis had been ashamed of their own. And yet Nehle lived on and no one doubted that he existed, not even the most diehard of atheists, because one most readily believes in a God who concocts devilish torments.

Putatively, Gulliver is talking about Nehle; but Emmenberger keeps surfacing as someone who could have attempted to force Nehle, a less cultured man with no classical education and an overly Berliner flavor to his German, to do his bidding. It just so happens that Hungertobel and Emmenberger were at medical school together, which leads Hungertobel to narrate a climbing accident from those years involving both doctors and three other young colleagues:

We knew full well that there was an emergency operation that could help, but no one dared think about it. Only Emmenberger understood and did not hesitate to act. He immediately examined the man from Lucerne, disinfected his knife in boiling water on the stove range and then performed an incision called a cricothyrotomy that occasionally has to be used in emergency situations in which the larynx is pierced between the Adam's apple and the cricoid to open up an air passage. This procedure was not the horrible part .... it was what was reflected in both their faces. The victim was almost numb owing to a lack of oxygen but his eyes were still open, wide open, and so he must have seen everything that happened, even if it all appeared to be a dream. And as Emmenberger made his incision, my God, Hans, his eyes also opened wide and his face became distorted; it was as if suddenly something devilish gleamed in his eyes, a kind of excessive pleasure in inflicting torture, or whatever you want to call it, a gleam so great that fear seized my every joint, if only for a second.

This description may be labeled a "filthy wealth of coincidence," and we can hope it is only that, even in the mid-twentieth century where such butchers were suddenly abundant. On the basis of the data from his two friends, Bärlach attempts to infiltrate Emmenberger's clinic as a terminally ill patient in need of special attention. Yet the attention he ultimately receives goes above and beyond any oath, Hippocratic or otherwise.

Some of us may think of Switzerland as a fecund and neutral land with persons of all ages and languages cycling around town on their red-and-white pillions (a quaint and lovely picture, and not wholly untrue). Dürrenmatt wisely refrains from destroying our paradise with hard-boiled noir based on cynicism, selfishness and skulduggery. What he presents, albeit shortly after a war in which his compatriots did not participate, is a soft haven, a reef amidst the endless storms of man's ambitions, a pocket of nature still susceptible to plots and craven silence. It is perhaps most telling that the novel does not harbor any pretense of ambiguity as to the guilty parties, nor really how matters will be settled. Suspense is replaced by the slow stream of the commissioner's suspicion, hence the title, and the elaborate details that compose its development. On several occasions the very sick Bärlach's doubts are gently dismissed as the whims of someone well on his way to his final destination, but the text's narrator never allows us for a minute to share in that doubt. One hundred twenty pages on a criminal about whose guilt we haven't the slightest reservation? Perhaps that's why the only person in the novel who claims the devil doesn't exist can neither speak nor hear.


The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

Nothing is more vague than impressions of individual identity. Each man recognizes his neighbor, yet there are few instances in which any one is prepared to give a reason for his recognition.

                                                                                                                Auguste Dupin

You may have heard of a recent film with the name of a masterpiece; you will surely know the inspiration for what critics have almost uniformly understood as an excuse – albeit a clever and original one – to allow yet another serial killer to wreak havoc on the national census. Perhaps this is what remains of minds like Poe's (many self-proclaimed admirers of Lovecraft, for example, praise his 'gory science fiction plots,' or other such nonsense) to those who cannot appreciate the sonic rapture of his prose – I know and care not. A true lover of literature preserves deep in his memory the enchantments of the best works of a given author and finds, in time, that certain authors can be trusted and certainly simply cannot. Those who love topicality, who are inspired by the latest hue and cry, can and should be returned to the shelf whence they came and left to rot. Only the authors who consider their own works and own genius eternal, bereft of the shackles of the news hour, are worth our time. Which brings us to a famous literary experiment.

The crime involves a sumptuous young Parisian who helped her mother run a pension until the age of twenty-two, "when her great beauty attracted the notice of a perfumer." The latter obviously has a saleswoman in mind, at least for the business side of things, but we do not. As readers of literary fiction discerning enough to enjoy Poe, we expect that something romantic if not diabolical will absorb poor Marie Rogêt. Now if a pretty young woman is discovered by one man, she will be discovered by dozens of others, because nothing is more beguiling to a man than a woman on whom other men have their eye. It can be concluded therefore that Marie Rogêt, at the time of the onset of this 'mystery,' had become a favorite among those Parisian men lucky enough to frequent the 6th arrondissement. She had gotten herself engaged to one of those men, a certain St. Eustache, who had actually taken up residence in the Rogêts' pension (which commitment came first is left to the reader to surmise), and one fine morning in June she had informed that same St. Eustache that she would be visiting an aunt about two miles away. Thus our story unravels:

St. Eustache ... was to have gone for his betrothed at dusk, and to have escorted her home. In the afternoon, however, it came on to rain heavily; and, supposing that she would remain all night at her aunt's, (as she had done under similar circumstances before,) he did not think it necessary to keep his promise. As night drew on, Madame Rogêt (who was an infirm old lady, seventy years of age,) was heard to express a fear ‘that she should never see Marie again’; but this observation attracted little attention at the time. On Monday, it was ascertained that the girl had not been to the Rue des Drômes; and when the day elapsed without tidings of her, a tardy search was instituted at several points in the city, and its environs. It was not, however, until the fourth day from the period of disappearance that anything satisfactory was ascertained respecting her. On this day (Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of June), a Monsieur Beauvais, who, with a friend, had been making inquiries for Marie near the Barrière du Roule, on the shore of the Seine which is opposite the Rue Pavée St. Andrée, was informed that a corpse had just been towed ashore by some fishermen, who had found it floating in the river. Upon seeing the body, Beauvais, after some hesitation, identified it as that of the perfumery-girl. His friend recognized it more promptly.

St. Eustache will leave one of literature's most magnificently described farewell notes ("Upon his person was found a letter, briefly stating his love for Marie, with his design of self-destruction"), which does not, of course, preclude him from possible involvement. What follows this and similar paragraphs lifted from all the newspapers of the day is a quilt of speculation and hysteria that the renowned Auguste Dupin will spend the second half of the story tearing asunder from the friendly confines of his sitting room. Without revealing his methods, which are as usual pedantic in a most enlightening manner, one aside remains particularly trenchant:

The town blackguard seeks the precincts of the town, not through love of the rural, which in his heart he despises, but by way of escape from the restraints and conventionalities of society. He desires less the fresh air and the green trees, than the utter license of the country. Here, at the road-side inn, or beneath the foliage of the woods, he indulges, unchecked by any eye except those of his boon companions, in all the mad excess of a counterfeit hilarity the joint offspring of liberty and of rum.

The town blackguard? What town blackguard? Our year was 1844 and we still tended in that era to blame small, roving bands of criminals for all the ills of society while robber barons were becoming billionaires and slaves still roaming plantations. The curious reader may discover the rest for himself.

It has been often lamented that The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is the weakest of the Auguste Dupin adventures, and, on the whole, one of Poe's least flavorful works. Yet Poe is one of the few writers whose style is invariably impeccable; his subject matter, however, may be of dubious value. His fascination with the macabre cannot be conveniently explained away by his use of laudanum, nor by some psychological perversions (his marriage to a thirteen-year-old cousin is commonly cited) concocted by some very modern and very ignorant minds. No, Poe had all the attributes of literary genius – style, precision, strong opinions, touchiness regarding any criticism in his direction, and something we can loosely term a sadistic streak. Literary genius thrives in tragedy, not comedy or the doldrums of historical codswallop (as one writer famously quipped, every author should make horrible things befall his fictional underlings to see what they are made of). We are mortal beings and the implications of this limit should and do scare the writer of genius into a labyrinth of unending nightmares. What he finds therein depends principally on what lies in his own soul. Even if it be entrapped in blackest night.   

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