“I was young and he seemed a very great man to me, inviting me into his great world I knew nothing about.” He stops and looks around, as if fearful, then begins again, sounding newly tentative. “I wrote poems and reviews. I was in school. I was younger than you are now when I went to work for him. People did things younger then. I was writing little notes and reviews in magazines that no longer exist. It’s like talking about being a chimney sweep, I know. I was doing the same thing as him, only he was doing it in the New York Review of Books or in his Massey Lectures. People wanted to hear his thoughts. And I wanted to be in that world. Though he’d been in other worlds: he’d been a soldier. He’d studied in the seminary and his drinking nearly killed him twice. He’d seen things and he knew people, more than me, and they came into his work. His first poems he put up in the streets, he told me, he made posters. He wanted to be read. Nobody was ready for the t-shirts, for the movie, but I like to think he wouldn’t have been completely surprised. Still in the end he needed help. We all do, eventually.
“What am I saying? Even you, who are so mighty…” he muses. “It’s how we began. It’s how it was – not your story. I’m telling you how it was. I went to see him, that’s how we met. He was giving a reading at the university – this university! And then afterwards he was talking about Proust and technology in the qna, how would Chaucer have written if he’d had a typewriter, that sort of thing. Which I’d been thinking about. These questions were so real to me then; as real as they are to you now, I suppose. You and your thats. How much it matters. Like sports, for some people, or sex. I went alone, because I was alone. And then I walked down at the end of the talk and there were no security guards or police or border guards, just a small crowd of admirers, in the massive empty lens of Convocation Hall, and then I was standing right in front of him, behind an old couple whom he seemed to know, he kept meeting their eyes warmly as he signed one of his books for a lady who wouldn’t go away, and my heart was pounding like a schoolgirl’s. The wide face, the first time we met. His old actor’s eyes settled on me, waiting. I was very aware of the people behind me, waiting. I could sense them. His hand went to his pocket but I had nothing for him to sign. He liked that. I asked my question, I stuttered it out. He clapped me on the shoulder. He didn’t talk, he – what’s the word – emoted. His big hand on my shoulder, connecting me to the earth, somehow. He told me to come and see him. And he smiled, and with a small turn of the head he let me know that my time was done.
“I slept giddily, I barely slept. I was talking to myself all night about my future. First time I ever went to bed without eating my dinner.
“In the morning it struck me: I didn’t know how to find him. I had copies of Cosmogonies, his very 80s fantasy book, and Rizzolino, and To Tashkent, the book he wrote when he stopped being able to write – did you know he got the title from a box of clementines? I looked through these books, thinking I could find an address for him, as if his address might be in one of his books, the way things are now. We get tweets from people in Malaysia asking about the structure of Rizzolino, asking how much the Genius really knew about the Korean war, asking me if I think they should stay in law school or finish their novel. They get quite angry if they don’t get a full and instant response. But back then there were barriers. That’s one of the good things about the past. I went to the library and I found out nothing. I looked up his name in the phone book, but there was nothing, of course. I didn’t know any literary people. I wasn’t close to any of my professors; I sat at the back of the room quietly and got excellent grades. Very bravely for me I called the publishing house on the spine of The Iceberg and spoke to two different assistants on two different days and each of them said they’d help me but they got tired of me, quick. One of them said it was pronounced RizzoLEEno, not RizzOLLino as I’d been saying, and I couldn’t call again after that. The fool I was. It took me half a week to make these calls. But I met him! I said. Right, she replied. Good. Great. I started to think: had he really wanted me to see him, or had he just said it to get rid of me? This could change my life, I thought: how this happens. My life goes this way or it goes that way. This is writing, I thought. This is the world. I have an entry. I can’t just stop.
“In the dedication to his second book of poems there were three names and at the end he thanked someone I thought I recognized, I thought she was a magazine editor. I looked her up in the Literary Marketplace at the Metro Ref and lo, she was an agent in America. I didn’t know exactly what an agent did. I called her office on a Monday morning, the worst time to call anyone. I didn’t know. A week had gone by by now, I was worried he’d have forgotten me by now. I wasn’t writing my essays, I wasn’t going to class. Anyone who knew anything could have helped me but I didn’t know anyone or anything, I had to do it all secretly, by myself. I called this literary agency in New York, 1-212, and a woman answered and I said who I was, I blurted out my story, actually holding out a script, script I’d written out for myself, my name’s Thomas Solloway, I met Angel Rostance at a reading last Thursday evening, walking back and forth in my room on Major, that house burned down a couple of years later, candles. I had a complex plan: I could write a letter, I said, would she pass it onto him, so he could contact me. I said I was a fan, with my own voice in my head saying to me that’s not persuasive and another voice saying to me give me a chance and a third voice saying stop talking to yourself.
“Eventually I must have trailed off. There was a long silence. I heard her inhale. I heard voices in the background. I pictured her smoking a long thin cigarette in an office sixty floors above Manhattan, seeing the cabs but not hearing them, people making deals in the background. I pictured her looking like Susan Sontag, holding my fate between finger and thumb, smoking. She cleared her throat. She said, ‘Usually my assistant answers the phone. She wouldn’t have put you through. But her goddamn baby’s sick. It’s your lucky day. Hold it,’ she said. She had another call waiting. She gave me his home address. She didn’t repeat it. She said if I really wanted to see him I should just go. There wasn’t much point in calling or writing. ‘Good luck, kid,’ she said.
“That afternoon I walked up a long path down a long empty front garden up to a great grey house. The front door was off to the side. I rang the bell. He answered himself, wearing a sagging grey sweater and corduroys, smoking. He looked at me for a moment, sized me up. The carpet behind him was purple. A lithe little grey and black striped cat stalked around behind him, triangle of orange on its face, twining itself through his legs, and then it retreated, it jumped up onto a stack of books in the hall and licked its shoulder.
“‘Ah,’ the Genius said. ‘Good.’
“He didn’t seem surprised to see me. I started telling him who I was and he cut me off. ‘Listen,’ he said. He was writing a piece on parliamentary privilege and he needed a reference, something Trudeau had said about Defoe, he thought, probably around 1970, probably in Hansard. ‘I won’t be here when you get back,’ he said. ‘I’m feasting with the Ethiopians. Leave it in the mailbox for me,’ he said, and grasped my shoulder again. He sent me off to find the reference. I was at work. And when I returned, he was still there. I never left. The next two years, they were the best years I ever had,” says Tom. “The best years in my life. Without a doubt.”
He reaches forward abruptly to the water jug in front of him revealing his old watch, a watch with a black strap and a scratched yellow face and thin hands. Tom pours out a full glass of water, and drinks about a third of it, and then speaks, still holding the glass.
“I sometimes wonder if our key experiences remain hidden. If we could communicate them, they’d lose something. If I really remembered what it was like, why would I tell you? If you could have the smile, if you could really savour the kiss, if you could still feel it the next day, why put pen to paper? He asked me that. Writing comes out of misunderstanding, he said. The jobs we have – the jobs you have, I mean – are a further misunderstanding. Writing about writing. Mistake upon mistake.”
He puts his glass down and presses his lips together.
“The jobs that some of you have,” he says, looking at Hannah more sternly.
A plane passing by, reflected in the windows of the building across the street, suddenly seems to shoot upwards as the angle of the glass changes. The sky was grey; now it’s clear, darkening blue..
“What were those years like?” Janis asks.
“Oh God,” Tom begins. “Well, he set me to work and he took me under his wing. I don’t know why he chose me. Many came to the house, drawn by his reputation, the sense that something was happening there. If you were in that house you might pick up the phone one day and it would be Iris Murdoch calling or Gunther Grass asking where he could get prunes in Armagnac like they’d had in Venice, or it’s a nervous South African voice, This is John… John Coetzee.., is Angel there? Because he was in that world. Those were his friends. We played late night games of Scrabble with Anne Carson. The Genius behind because he took an artistic approach rather than a strategic one. And then from 300 points behind he’d daintily set down ‘zymurgy’ on a triple word score and win and she’d storm out. We’d drink and I’d put on Garcia Marquez’s accent. Do you want to see my Nobel Prize, An-hel? Do you want to borrow it? I brought it, I’m standing here on thee bridge, you can look at it… Garcia Marquez, Gabo, was on the calendar. Dinner, 28th Jan. Gabo Dinner. I was looking for a way out of the university and I found it. He didn’t have much time for professors, for the usual reasons, no offence. It wasn’t for him.
“Anyway, yes, I was there to make the tea in the morning, four bags in the brown teapot. Scrambled eggs for him, only sometimes he wants poached, so it’s a gamble, you don’t want his day to start badly. Leave the food on the side table as he snores and coughs, shakes. Maybe there’s someone next to him, a body he’s left bedraggled. The curtains are open and the windows are dirty and the birds are blasting out tunes. Step on papers as you tiptoe to the desk. Take a quick look at what he did last night and flatten it down so he can read it, first thing he does when he wakes up is roll out of bed and go to the desk and pick up where he left off for an hour when his mind is still good and dirty, he calls it. Maybe you lift up a page. His working title on everything is “On Mandatory Insurance in the Construction Industry,” for Kafka. But you’ve slept very little yourself. Make a note in your little black notebook, a smaller version of his. When he sent you to Laywines to buy him his notebooks, you spent ten bucks on one for yourself. Your notebook is all about him, but somehow you doubt the reverse is true. His words are the whole world. But you’re helping create something. You’re in the sanctum. You’re admitted.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself. That took time; that was once I moved in. At first it was downstairs only for me, visiting hours only. Once every few days, empty that ashtray in the shape of a gondola, since you’re here. Only later am I seeing his head on the pillow with the cat a perfect circle next to him on its own pillow. The cat’s name is F, the doctor says with his lungs the first thing to do is get rid of is the cat, but that’s not going to happen. The cat that only drinks from wineglasses, that refuses bowls. But there’s no one there helping the Genius. There was an Australian girl but she left in a fury. There’s no one cleaning up, so I clean up when I visit. There’s no one ordering his drafts. He doesn’t ask me, but when I show up there, I try to make myself useful. And he tells me things, why it’s so wise for the Japanese to breakfast on fish, how fastidious Graham Greene was about recording his dreams, that kind of thing. I don’t know how I could explain this, my feeling of continual surprise that it’s me, he’s telling me these things. Another voice in my head says well it could be anyone but this voice says no, it’s me. I kept expecting a tap on the shoulder telling me to leave.
“I was writing, of course, nervously, like everyone does at that age, self-conscious monologues about not talking to girls. Eventually I showed him. I left a manila envelope on his desk and took off for a week and I was happy to note that when I came back the place was a disaster and he asked me what the hell I was playing at and told me not to do it again. And then when I was done with the dishes that night he stopped me leaving.
“He said I was writing about things, but what I had to do was write things. You mustn’t write a labyrinth, he said. You have to write a bridge. I said it was hard to have time. He smiled caringly. A gradual smile. He said that in a few years I would start to see that there was a line drawn on the floor ahead of me, a painted black line on a wood floor, like in a school gym, and that was as much time as I had, and that would put a stop to any worries I had about which pen to use and which tea to drink. His line was close now, he said. He could see it. And each day you found you’d taken another step towards it, whether you wanted to or not. I shook my head. ‘But you need luck too,’ he said. ‘Get yourself some of that.’
“I stayed that night. I slept on the leather couch. The next day I answered the phone in the study when the columnist for the Globe called to ask about the G-Gs. Why would I go back halfway across the city at two in the morning, when he needs me at six, to make the tea, so that he can carry on working, as soon as he wakes up? I stayed.
“That was when he was still healthy,” Tom reflects. “But soon it started to change. As you know from the biography.”
He stops, and when he starts again, it’s in a firmer, more controlled voice, with nothing wistful in it.
“This woman you’re talking about. Helena. I remember her a little. But what I said in the biography is true. She came and went. Many did. Perhaps I undersold her a little – we could look at that. Maybe she came a little more, someone else went a little less. But it’s not out of malice. It’s hard to capture everything, in a book. You make choices, and sometimes you make mistakes. Your choices are swayed by what you have available to you too. His agent wrote him a lot of letters, so she gets a lot of pages, because the evidence is there. I didn’t want to only go by what I remembered. It’s not a memoir. This woman Helena didn’t write as much to him. She didn’t leave much trace.
“What do I remember about her? Little things. Bits and pieces. She would have been twentyish? Like me. She came to the house as I had. Glorious red hair. You don’t forget that. I don’t remember how long she stayed. Not long. She was living somewhere else I think, visiting from somewhere else. Studying somewhere else, possibly? I’m unsure. At this stage he was getting sick. He really only felt there were so many words per day. I saw the visits sapping his energy so I tried to limit them. All these people coming and going – he wanted to see them, he said, but each visitor was a page he didn’t write. There were some beautiful young starry eyed women who came to the house, to see him and be read to and get mistreated and told how sensitive they were, but at that point he was sick. Probably that was what it was, and it stayed with her, in her letters. Meeting a great man in his last days. She thought she was one of the last. She thought she was like a muse. I’m hypothesizing.
“Because this idea of her editing the text? Collaborating in some way? Creatively, editorially? No, I’m sorry. No. Finishing The Longings became the great priority in those days. In the end I had to take him up to the island to get him some solitude so that he could work without the constant stream of well-wishers. So he could finish. He knew he was dying. He knew these were his last days. He hated seeing his doctor in the city. He wanted to be in a room surrounded by books. So I took him there. She did nothing of the sort. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t part of this. She simply didn’t matter in the way you claim.
“Where’s the manuscript, for you to check? In one of his boxes, I’m sure. I’m not hiding it. The talk of the original is naïve. What he’d written was splattered with vodka, it leaves circles of white wax. It was a kind of papier mache. It came out in a flood of tears and eructations, bits of it are on bills and take out menus. You come along later, and you want there to be an original, breathed out perfectly from the soul, and the book to be exactly like the original, slipping silently from a silver gleaming press. Life’s not like that. He wasn’t like us. Now you know. Can we have done?”
He raises his hands in mock surrender.
“Do what you want with your footnote,” he concludes. “Just another footnote. Foolish of me to mention it perhaps.” He trails off.
Hannah says, sharp and fast, “Do you think I care about the fucking footnote?”
“You shouldn’t even be here. They loved each other. That’s what this is. That’s what it’s about. All you do is circle and lie. But they were lovers.”
“It’s all we’ve been talking about. It’s the same as the undergrads. You’re not allowed to talk about feelings. God forbid. But there are feelings here, and maybe they’re good and maybe they’re black but there’s a whole other story here. You need to talk about this. The truth; not your story. She came and went, is that all you can say? He wrote that way because he was sick? She helped him. She took him the soup. It’s not about words. They were in love. He was an old man and at the end he found a girl who loved him, so he died happy. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Sword in hand as the monster breathes warm steam take a step closer.
“Galen?” says Tom gruffly. “Perhaps-“
“Because you were cold and she was warm, and she warmed him, like hot coals in an old bed when he needed her. You were grumbling in the kitchen. You were alone, as they worked and loved. You had nothing to do with it. Admit that she was there. That’s how his last days were: not with you, and you couldn’t bear it. Admit. He read it to her as he wrote it and they were loving words, words for her, love of her. She set him alight. One last time. She was there. Her hand guided the pen. Words of longing, love too late, that’s what makes it so strong. She was his friend and his guardian and his protector and you couldn’t bear it. You couldn’t bear it. And so you got rid of her.”
“This is madness,” says Tom quietly.
“Admit,” she says.
Hannah stands up. She speaks as if she’s in a trance. Her hands grip the table.
“Somebody – please –” says Tom.
“Fuck you. I’m not finished. This is not over.”
But she is silent now, out of breath, no longer shouting.
“But Hannah,” says Barney. “How do you know? How can you claim to -?”
“She was my mother,” says Hannah.
Barney’s mouth opens slowly.
“I think we need to end this now,” says Galen to Antonin.
Hannah falls back into her seat. She is crying now, her tears come. But when she speaks her voice is slow. She talks without looking up, now, without looking at anyone. “She was my mother and she died alone. Her life was ruined by this. By The Longings. By him. She went from place to place. She could never be. She could never work. And she could have been rich! She could have been okay. We could have been happy. She could have been happy with Angel, a little longer. It’s all she deserved. She had the world kicking her in the face every day. She could have said goodbye. But you had to destroy her. You took her from the man she loved. You took her work away from her, her self-belief. And you said that you were the one there. You should be ashamed. You shouldn’t be here!”
She looks at them. Her voice catches.
“Don’t you see? He shouldn’t be here. She was the one that Angel loved. He doesn’t deserve to be here, he doesn’t deserve to talk about it. She brought him back to life. She should be here. Not him. He’s a criminal.”
“Oh my, oh Hannah,” says Barney quietly.
There is another long pause. Janis is watching Hannah with a sad, tender look. Eunice’s face betrays interest. It’s like a deer has come into a church. A young deer is running down the nave, hooves clattering and sliding, terrified and angry, not knowing what to do. Grey and brown with oval white spots on its flanks it crashes into the pews, and stops, hurt and startled, as the parishioners turn in shock. And what can anyone do? Nothing has prepared them for this, and they are old.
Barney says, “Hannah we need to take a moment, step outside, and I need to talk to you, we can get this all straight. We can get this fixed up. Galen, can we take a moment?”
“Break!” says Hannah in a guttural voice. “Admit it! Don’t you even blink?”
Tom says nothing.
“You’re Helena’s daughter?” asks Janis.
“How did we get here?” says Alfred mournfully.
Janis continues: “You should never have written this. You should never have been allowed to… Barney, really how could you – this should never have happened.”
“No feelings, I know,” says Hannah, through snot.
“That’s not why,” says Janis.
“We will finish,” says Galen. “We have to get back on dry land. Really, Tom, I apologize, I’m not sure how we, it’s time to-”
“She is your mother,” says Janis slowly. “So you think the Genius was your father?”
“That’s what this is about?”
“The Estate,” says Eunice.
Hannah says No.
“It’s not about that,” she says.
“Listen to yourself,” Galen snorts. “How can it not be?”
“I don’t care about the money,” she says. “I care about her.”
“This has to end!” Janis tells Galen, then she looks at Antonin.
“This happens, sometimes,” says Tom, gravely, affected.
They turn to look at him and he raises a fattish hand from the table as if to tell them that it’s all right, it’s fine.
He clears his throat. He speaks to Hannah.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t just come and see me,” he says, quietly. “You could have spared us all this… this unavailing rigmarole. Two people talking. In a room. That’s all it takes.” But then he looks around the table. He inhales. “The Rostance estate became extremely prosperous in the years after the publication of The Longings,” Tom begins. “In the years after its success. It’s an unusual situation in which a very literary work becomes a very public one. Becomes, like you said, a question of t-shirts, Japanese documentary crews, etcetera. Sometimes a novel becomes a movie. But one like this? Lolita, perhaps, where the book is as high-brow as it is a commodity. That professors read because it changes their view of literature and executives read on the subway because it makes them weep. Firemen and secretaries and students. People send the Estate things: chapters they’ve written to add to the ending, certainly. Illustrations. Pictures of lines from the book tattooed onto their shoulders. We have a room for things that people send us because I don’t know what to do with them and sometimes it would be cruel just to send them back. And people do go through our garbage. They send us collages. Poems. Pictures of their cats. Strands of their hair; skin. They want to be friends with the author but the author is dead. When the book takes on such a life things change. For good and bad. But can I tell you? I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. I can see it’s a lot. I can see it’s too much. Why didn’t you just come to see me? We could have talked,” Tom says. “Just us.”
He pauses. He looks very thoughtful now, a man closing his eyes to get his thoughts straight, as he did at times during his talk last night, thinking and remembering.
“Fame attracts madness,” he says. “People come out of the woodwork, with their claims. Someone he met at a train station once. Someone you met at an exhibition. This has happened before; it will happen again. I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I am trying to remember her, looking at you. I’m trying to remember her face. It’s coming back to me, I think. Slowly. I’m trying.” He says more distantly, “Perhaps because she knew him she thought this was a way to help you. Especially if you didn’t have any other help. There might be a way for the Estate to help you. You have a certain connection through her. And the work you’ve done. You’d have to admit to the limits of the connection, of course.”
“Liar,” Hannah spits. It’s a sharp stroke with a short knife.
With one hand he turns his watch around so that the face is turned inside and speaks to the room.
“People see themselves in this book,” says Tom. “As you did. I have too. We all have. If there’s any instability inside, it can make you latch on. Other people shoot politicians. They used to say that the CIA was playing a radio inside their heads. Your symptoms look for a home in your life. I don’t mean you. I barely knew her. But this is a book that speaks to people. And inserting yourself into it, it’s a way of finding a place in the world. Stories beget stories. It’s hard when your life goes wrong and you see others going right. She wanted to be adored. She wanted to be part of the conversation. I don’t know what she told you, but I know that you have a facility – you can read, and you can think, and you can talk, and you need to use that gift.”
He speaks more severely, directly to her.
“But I’m sorry. Facts are facts. Your mother was one of many. She came and went. Your Jupiter analogy. Your analogy is right. There’s Jupiter,” he says, raising a fist slightly, “And Jupiter’s moons. And she was one of them, and I am one of them too, and every year astronomers discover more of them, that were previously obscured or ignored, and now we can’t imagine Jupiter without them. You’ve written about them – very well! But that’s all she was.”
“Liar,” she says again, with less confidence.
“Do you want to hear about death?” he says sharply. “Do you really want to hear about death? You talk about it like it’s just something else, something else on your list, with an asterisk next to it. Let me tell you how it was then. Let me tell you about the island. Your mother, in so far as she was ever there, was a distraction to him. There was too much of her generally and when she left, when I got rid of everyone, he was able to work. He worked well those last months. She was not there. She was no one. I was with him when he died. You cannot understand – none of you can understand! – because to you he’s just a name on a page, you can’t know how it was. We were there on the island, it was only the two of us. I took him the soup, I helped him drink it. Sometimes he dictated, mostly he coughed. I was in tears about what was coming because I knew, I knew. I didn’t know at all what I’d do after he died but I knew it was coming.
“I was sleeping on the floor of his room, those days. In my holey green sweater, we had moths. My torn jeans. I woke up suddenly and I knew. There was no smell, nothing like that. He was on his side facing me, not breathing, his face still at last. His arms were tight around his body, the way a child sleeps in Victorian books, a child who’s an angel, arms crossed on its little chest. That’s how he’d been sleeping, clasping his pages tight, crushing them. The things they do in films, touching someone’s neck, putting a mirror to their mouth, you don’t need to do anything like that, when it happens. Because you know. I was there, I had to loosen his arms. I held my face in my hands for a long while. Then I unfolded his arms, I took The Longings, I moved it out of the way. I loosened his bracelet. The four small black pearls touched, the silver ball was still. I loosened his watch by the clasp, those things he loved, his trinkets, his lucky charms for writing, and I pulled them off his wrists, I laid them on top of the manuscript on the floor. Then I pulled the covers up to his neck, trying to catch my breath, though I couldn’t, I was breathing in snaps, really, snapping open, snapping shut, each breath a fight against tears. The light was bright grey, as if the world knew nothing and was laughing at us. I felt the stars stop, join hands, look down at us, then go on their way. As if the world knew perfectly well and there was never going to be any colour any more, after this, because he made the colours, he imagined them for me. She was not there. I was there. That’s how it happened. Are you happy now? There were phone calls to make. You know nothing about this. Nothing. I had to make the phone calls. She is your mother, and I’m sorry for your loss, but this is not your book. This is not your place. You’ve come up with a new story, to explain the gaps in your own. But it’s not true. He was not your father.”
She looks up again. She looks at him with head tilted to one side, as if she’s trying to think.
“If there’s no evidence,” he says, “It’s really just a fairy story. Helena is the good queen. The Genius is the good king. I am the evil monster, I suppose. And you are the princess, bundled away into safety with your mother in the burning night when the king is deposed and the empire falls. And then, years later, all grown, you come back in triumph to reclaim the throne?
“They’re all fairy tales, all our stories. They’re all we have. It doesn’t make them true.”