I'd been becalmed in my eyrie overlooking Coniston Water for almost two weeks, the Pacific (hardly an appropriate name) El Niña still directing the local weather. The rain so heavy even the leaves were falling six months early, enjoying no luxuriant summer before turning quite gold, and certainly not as lovely as the crimson Cedar leaves depicted in the Japanese prints in a book I'd picked up from the local Oxfam. 90p. A rip off! I'd torn out all the images and stuck them with white tack all over the bland walls of the cottage, hoping to awake a better intuition of the ambience of Michael Schlieman's exile at the far end of the world surrounded by penguin editions of Basho Haiku and long out-of -print Hank Jansen novels in his wooden hut in the snow-clad northern wastelands, under the shadow of the concrete domes of the Japanese nuclear power stations. Easier to think of him there, in my present celibate state, than in his preferred Cairo brothel.
I had drifted reluctantly into the town sensing I needed company, but suspecting I would find no-one suitable to my prevailing mood of truancy from the present; it was hardly likely I would bump into Thomas de Quincey or John Ruskin sitting on a rustic seat overlooking Coniston Water, ardently discussing the impossibility of finding words in the English language, seductive as it is in paraphrasing the beauty of the natural world especially in Cumbria, to describe the invisible world of the spirit. 'It is not invisible Thomas, that is my point! The artist has the eye with which to see it ... "
I took breakfast in The Green Man, learning from a second or third-hand newspaper on Table 14 that snowfalls in New York were the worst since records began; and that snow falls in Japan were the worst since records began; and that floods in England last year, Carlisle still showing signs of the deluge that transformed the place into a poor man's Venice (much to Ruskin's delight), were the worst since records began. Mere coincidence, of course, scientists poo-hooing the New Age doom mongers; "there's always been bad years good years, just like the stock market. You can't predict the cusp catastrophes." Goodness me, was this suggesting our monotheistic Christian God (as created for us by that brilliant political strategist Thomas Aquinas), this God with his divine faith in the powers of reason (with which to win the heart and souls of the people and delude their minds with bombastic rhetoric and occasional poetry) was a closet stockbroker?
Cusp Catastrophe? Chaos Considered as One of the Fine Arts. Had my virtual correspondent Michael Schlieman not forecast this present tragic ideological symbiosis in his prophetic but schizoid clairvoyant fictions? Every year in the last five the worst ever! Well, since the Ice Age. Time surely to examine the dna of the 5000-year-old Ice Man entombed in the Alpine snow country, evidence of the first signs of global warming? Analyse the Norwegian Cedar leaves still perfectly preserved on his body?
I was feeling more and more uninhabited. Whether I liked it or not, surrender to MS's virtual domains had annulled me. I could not take much more. Reading a book in my hands, paper made from wood, was something easy to do in the platform café waiting room of Carnforth station. You close the book and you are free. What was it about this conjuring up of texts from the virtual mind of the world wide brainscape, apparently written by a dying man, that was so different? I was about to write the mood was 'suggesting the vibrant interface between film and dream' ... but I knew that wasn't strictly true. I was beguiled by the texts and they haunted me because I had discovered myself to be more like MS than I had suspected, or would now dare to admit. Damn him! Was I to see it to the end, or escape now? My own mind still barely intact?
Putting the newspaper back on table 14, I realized why I was becoming so depressed. Michael Schlieman was confirming my worst fears. I was becoming like everyone else ... more comfortable with virtual conversation, than anything remotely smacking of the sweaty real ... I had been happy to escape the city, never having felt so alone ... surrounding my millions of people talking, tet not talking ... apparently communicating but not ... just exchanging verbal logos and jungles ... and here I was! Fooled again; this time by my doctor! Only gone to see him about an irritating rash! Here I was, the epitome of the cyberslave ... filling my day with words words words (to quote Hamlet) that really had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Except I had said: yes! Webster's invitation the perfect pretext. I suddenly realized why MS had filled his Memoirs with dialogues - between himself and his girls, mostly. And his ghosts. To make the point? That talking face to face ... had its charm. Maybe it was because, as he was sucked towards the ultimate virtual trip - death - his memory returned, nostalgically, poignantly, to the spoken word ... even as he leant against his beech tree, dying, hearing Maria's voice in the wind in the nearby pines, towering above him into the canopy of spreading fingers, sprouting leaves.
I drifted again into the second-hand bookshop. The crone didn't seem to recognise me. Had I changed so much, now merely a ghost of my former self? 'Your husband still away, madam?' She nodded, her mouth curling up at the sides like a leaf thrown on a bonfire. Ah! Silly me. He had left her! He'd read one of MS's novels and was now living in Cairo with an Ethiopian whore. Why had I been so naive, so insensitive? In the beginning was the imagination! All that is needed is a provocative image and we can all become murderers as Thomas de Quincey well knew. Some do it with a sword, some with a word ... some just push a guy out of a train going at 100km per hour. Or was it a girl?
The bitch looked at me suddenly, as if she was seeing Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights ... (I flatter myself) ... she'd watched it the week before. Picked a book from a drawer under the table. 'I put this on one side for you!' The glint in her eye was clearly not because of my charismatic presence, but because she knew I would not be able to resist it, despite, as I soon discovered, the deliberately exorbitant price. She knew a sucker when she saw one. 'First edition signed!'she warbled. A nightjar in flight from a coach of horses. The Night Mail.
£30. Should I offer £25? Hell no! Why did I need to buy a first edition of "Beloved Friend", "The Story of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Madame Nadjeda von Meck": a "Memoir" compiled from their correspondence by her daughter. (Not the one who had a fling with Debussy!)
Not wishing to show I was too broke (and therefore unsuccessful in my chosen career as a journalist) to buy such a book, I handled it professionally, looked at the cover, fingered the spine, (the way Pasha El Glaoui might have fingered the base of the spine of a half-caste Senegalese slave-girl in the Marrakesh market), glanced tentatively at the end-papers, spotted, and ... oops ... I spotted the Ex Libris label. Barbara Sutherland. Flicked through ... no red underlining. As I always do, I then went for an index, surprised to find one, quite extensive. But I noticed on the inside of the last page, inside half of the final end-papers, in red ink, a list of page numbers. I flicked to the first. Page 30. "Tell me all your thoughts ... perhaps I know you better than you imagine ... ' Pencil marked. Very soft. Probably 4B. While flicking to the next page, a fragment of yellowed page from a newspaper fell out. A review. "This distinguished book documents one of the most remarkable love affairs in history, that between the heiress Madame von Meck and the homosexual composer Piotr Tchaikovsky which lasted for almost thirty years. These sensual passionate love letters between these two gifted people are all the more remarkable for being the full extent of their love affair: they never met. Nadjeda Von Meck insisted she would love Piotr Ilyich through the medium-ship of his music, which must remain pure and unsullied, and therefore they must never meet. In the flesh. A fascinating book giving many insights into the perverse mysteries of human love and the divine mysteries of the creative spirit."
"£25?" I murmured seductively. If looks could kill! "Er ... sorry ... No ... true ... £30 is very reasonable!"
"There may be others!" Sly seductive smile.
I was starting to wonder if her errant husband might be a Sutherland, if not a Heathcliff ... well, at one remove.
I bought a 'Best of Tchaikovsky' CD in the MIND charity shop. £1. Bargain! Ideal background music ... while I surfed the wretched net for more fragments of the dismembered Schlieman body, floating like flotsam on the surface of the oceanic wastes of the new collective consciousness ...
Later, back in the cottage, I shouted Abracadabra at my laptop but nothing happened, so hit the icon on the desktop and commenced drifting (in the beginning was not the word but the image) in search of a new missive from my virtual assailant. What message would I receive today from his so-called R Field or 5th dimension, or from the more down-to-earth matt black server in the internet café section of Macdonald's in downtown Yuzawa.
It took me a while but finally I achieved a hit with the obvious website name which I'd tried several times recently with no success:
He had been asleep, dreaming he was in a train, a train passing along a long dark tunnel, dreaming of a domain of perpetual shadow in which nothing was tangible, where nothing truly concerned him. He could see nothing now through the window at his side except that night had fallen while he slept. Beyond the glass a moonless darkness stretched to an invisible horizon, which he could only imagine.
The train's whistle, hollow, echoing, reverberated painfully through his skull as the train emerged abruptly from a tunnel. He was startled to see billowing waves of snow lashing against the window as if a huge pillow of white feathers had suddenly burst around his head, swathes of snowflakes adhering to the glass and creating a half-silvered screen, as if the billowing quilt of the Aurora Borealis had unravelled and fallen out of the desolation of the night-sky, shredded by the warped thrust of the shuttle train's movement.
The train pulled up at a signal stop.
A girl was standing talking next to an open window through which the wind whipped snow around her. It was so light it reminded him of the down from the breast of a young seabird. She was a black silhouette, and he could barely discern her immaculate long hair shining in defiance of an impervious blackness, a silver mobile half-tucked under her mane, peeping out like a large oriental parasitic insect he had never seen before. The girl was tall and slim, her mantle of hair cut straight as if by a single lash of a flawlessly honed samurai sword, her manicured mane hanging to her waist over a black trench coat.
He was overwhelmed by the lilting beauty of her voice, a melancholy solo hovering above a collage of atonal harmonies, a mournful chorale, a requiem for someone lost, or dead.
With his index finger he smudged a small circle in the mist on the window, the glass veneered by the inrush of damp air as subtle as dew. He looked for signs of a world beyond the glass, but he saw nothing in the circle of empty space he had buffed on the glass except the mantle of white snow, and he felt a sudden deep sadness as the girl's voice fell away to silence in a slow aching cadence.
So he had arrived.
He closed his eyes. He was trying to remember if he had been here before. He opened his eyes again and was amazed to see, hovering in the circle erased in the opacity of the window's surface of mist, the face of the girl, now sitting next to an old man, the two of them on the other side of the aisle. Michael watched her in secret as if through a two-way mirror. The reflection bleached of colour because of an optical illusion on the layer of opaque white snow sticking to the glass behind, a trick played by the light in the double glazing of the window; no longer two parallel layers of glass, one was slightly warped. His conference paper discussing the effect of opium on nineteenth century writers alluded to similar shifts in the perception of space induced by the drug altering the mind's chemical balance, a paper discussing the drug's relevance to the repetitive recurrent images of haunting, romance, possession, desire, dreams, sexual fantasies, cyclic time. The Orient.
The fine straight nose, the high cheekbones insinuating the half-caste, the interface between East and West, many heroines of the romantic literature he'd talk about in his paper were half-castes, plangent with exotic implications of illicit sexual relations between West and East, the half-caste an uncanny turbulence, neither one nor the other, yet both .... both presence and absence.
A distant pinpoint of light outside the train window, a long way away (disclosed by the slowness of its passing), loitered across the girl's eyes as if trying to distract her from a deep sadness in her thinking, but her expression remained unaltered, an imperturbable mask like the ones he'd seen in the chapter on Noh Dramas in a book he'd read earlier on the train, bought before leaving Tokyo.
The ethereal image of the girl's beautiful face in the circle left by the erased mist, no longer trapped in two spacial dimensions, suddenly blossomed into three dimensions as it split into a procession of portraits receding into the deep black space of the night beyond, each one darker and smaller until they lost their ability to steal light from the window's reflections and faded into nothing.
The startling image was indisputable proof that the two layers of glass were slightly out of parallel; on the outside glass the layer of unmelted snow, on the inside a thin layer of melted mist, the two images had superimposed, one slightly refracted from the other, and created a holographic image.
The elegant beauty and mystery of holography had always fascinated him. The cryptic key to the mystery of holography was that the whole of such an image was present everywhere over its 'surface', in every divisible fragment of it. As time and space are joined like the two halves of a DNA molecule, the physics of holography implies that time must be similarly structured enabling us one day (as in dreams) to traverse time as easily as we cross space, all time present and accessible in every other fragment of time. If holographic space exists, as it clearly does, then so must holographic time exist. In this dimension of instantaneity, the so-called 5th dimensions, it would thus take mere seconds to travel the entire length of our galaxy, that huge disc of The Milky Way arching over us in the night sky, or as it is called in Japan The River of Heaven; a name he much preferred.
Surfaces within surfaces, the half-silvered mirror interface between the left and right sides of the brain, the mind programmed and structured holographically ... the snow-clad window had momentarily created such a convolute circumstance, the image of the girl's head appearing to lift free off the window-mirror as a perfect hologram. And as the light shifted behind it in temporary alignment with the lights inside the carriage it had created a thousand images one upon the other, the favourite Buddhist image of the multiple parallel dimensions modern scientists now suggest that we and our universe are composed of, a perfect image to invoke the manifold reincarnations of which each of us is a re-embodiment, a multiple plagiarism of the texts we compose into our identities. Drawing the nodes, the points of contact of the multiple moiré patterns, an endless flux of interlocking wave-planes in which reincarnation is the ruling paradigm, the essence of creation; the zeitgeist that annuls that of entropic determinism. Maybe this kind of ruminating would be going too far in a paper about the dreams of Thomas de Quincey ... what the hell. He was past caring ...
He turned to look directly at the girl. She wasn't looking at him at all but at the empty seat opposite her. There wasn't the smallest glimmer of emotion detectable on her face but nevertheless she seemed to be showing concern for the old man at her side. When she moved her exquisitely long-fingered hands she seemed to be asking him, in sign language, if he needed anything of her, but the man didn't look at her face even when she fell against him, thrown by the rough male thrusting movement of the train, as if he was deliberately ignoring her presence at his side. She was staring into space blankly as if blind, no flicker of emotion on her hushed features as she slowly turned to the window at her side, as if programmed by a computer. Alpha 60 maybe.
A girl in a train arriving at a station in winter, a plateau of thick snow, the steam from the puffing engine rising like fog from a marsh, harsh black and white. Who was she and when? He was seeing the mouth as bright crimson, her face as white as death. The far north, maybe Russia, a film made at least fifty years before, the awkward camera movement suggesting Eisenstein, the script based on a novel by Dostoievski. Or a film by Ingmar Bergman. Images rushing through his mind at the speed of light, the present train like his body lagging behind as it strained against the forces of nature determined to arrest its forward motion, threatening to trap it with an impenetrable wall of snow. The ceaseless conflict between imagination and memory. In the film the steam became a shimmering silver screen as luminous as a swarm of mating fireflies as it rose against the rows of lights it was intermittently obliterating, a river of small stars blotting out the wider river of heaven ...
Blizzards had not been predicted. Visiting Japan in late autumn he had been told to watch out for the low, penetrating autumn light, the host of visceral autumn colours, the emergent ripe winter berries. He must especially look out for the colour of ripe persimmon.
In the circular mirror on the window, his fingers refreshing the reflectivity with a quick flick of his fingers, the girl was still gazing directly at him. A stranger, a foreigner, an Englishman! Her pale skin hinted at the translucent certainty of porcelain, that miraculous ceramic body created by mixing white estuary clay and milled ox bones. She was so lovely he had to dig his fingers into the palms of his hands to stop himself from weeping. Why, as he approached death on this his final trip, was beauty becoming too painful to bare? Should it not have been less and less rather than more and more, this anguish he had lived with all his life? As a kid he'd brought a bunch of wild flowers back to the holiday cottage near Coniston. He wanted to watch them a while in the hope of discovering why he had felt compelled to pick them, rather than any others, as if they had chosen him. His father laughed and told him he was a sissy. His mother put them in a vase in his bedroom and told him they were wild pansies, squeeze them and the juice put on the eyes made you fall in love with the first person you saw ... it sounded so easy.
The intrepid way the girl man-handled her mobile phone hinted at city worldliness.
Michael eventually caught her looking at him directly, but her eyes instantly glazed over re-accessing the domain of the infinite, or infinitesimal, on which she was meditating, reinforcing the deeply disquieting impression that he wasn't present in the flesh. Absorbed in her own past or future, if he was an obstacle to her reverie it had been for less time than it took the eye to blink. Did she ever blink? Her eyes as narrow as if cut with a sgraffito knife on the mask's smooth gesso surface, it seemed unlikely.
The old man, lurching with the train's movement, ended up with his leg touching the girl's. Michael felt a sharp pang of unease, even revulsion. Old and ugly the man looked distinctly ill, stooping forward and coughing, spluttering into a handkerchief. But the small point of contact of their knees, not recoiled from, said it all. Michael could imagine such a small patch of warmth on the side of his own knee, spreading like the poison from a serpent's bite, and the mere thought of it maimed any hope of tranquillity. His own legs were so cold, deathly cold as if no blood was reaching them but he could nonetheless imagine the touch of her leg against his own ... as where the feathered skin of an albatross's body touches its egg on such a small area of its surface yet the warmth spreads to the whole space within, incarnating the engendered life, an egg developing a mind dreaming of flight and featherhood.
The couple's intimacy was undermining him. It was not what he needed in his present fragile state. Soon he would regret accepting the invitation to the Kawabata conference and he'd not yet arrived. Only by chance was it timed so propitiously, helping him escape the recent problems, literary and otherwise, in the Lake District: the murder of the French industrialist Daumal ending in such disaster ... she would write a book about it, she said. Even now he could recall her touch, his fingers especially the middle one twitching with the memory of her. Here in the spectacular mountains of northern Japan would he still cling to the erotic images? From which he yearned to be free?
The girl stood up (presumably to go the toilet) and the sick man nearly fell off his seat, but she pushed him back, brusquely, his head knocking against the corner of the backrest in the cusp of the window. Once he was secure, propped like an abandoned puppet, she left him, his hands clutched to his breast, fingers bent and contorted in pain ... the strings tightly entangled. An announcement in English apologised for the train's slow progress due to 'unforecast blizzards - the worst since records began - and three months premature!'
When the girl came back Michael was shocked by the change in her appearance. Her stylish black trench coat was now loose around her shoulders showing, under it, a tight black leather outfit zipped down the front with a high collar. A long vertical row of stainless steel buttons on both sides of the zip held in place the skin-tight body-hugging corset.
Tall for a Japanese girl there was definitely a look of the Occident about the fullness of her figure and Michael was even more certain now that she was half‑caste. Yes, again, here he was ... an aura hovered around the half-caste, the suspicion she was engendered in secret, an inadvertent and unforeseen child chosen to live by the gods for their own dubious pleasures, the product of a forbidden coupling, once born forever haunted by the fate of the Double. Nature's child was always a double, born in a sacred domain immeasurable and un-nameable to man. There was also the worrying connotation of Empire, a child born of a white master and a girl not allowed to say No! ‑ Wait! The dancing girl, the slave. An unwanted child of a primal panic, a taboo passion treacherously deep, dark as a black narcissus, black snow, wordless, anonymous, cruel. The only child she could ever bear would be the daughter of death ...
Michael wondered if the girl was going to the conference. And the man was a professor who had known the orphaned Japanese Nobel prize winner Kawabata Yasunari, a lecturer taking his mistress along for the trip, her outfit under the trench-coat suggesting nothing less, such affairs of the flesh accepted without shame or fuss in Japan, no social pressures to keep such a relationship hidden, no accountability attached to illicit sexuality. So simple in the past to enjoy the company of the dancing girls, as they were euphemistically labelled. Maybe they danced too. Yes, it was what the girl exuded, the allure of the showgirl, her talents barely concealed under the loosely belted school-girl coat, the luminous red transparent gloss of her lips hardly less pungent than a neon light advertising Galaxy, or Milky Way.
Or was she a diligent student travelling with her sick tutor to a week of lectures about the Shishosetsu, the so-called I novel? The Japanese obsession with autobiography evolved from their long tradition of so-called Pillow Books, secret diaries written by women. An obsession with confessions, a confused quest for proof of the evanescent existence of an elusive 'I', a peculiarly Oriental 'I', the faltering self in the dark heart of so many haunting inter-laced inter-textual narratives ... such an urgent desire in those wounded creatures banished by society to admit to and reveal the truth of a shimmering 'I', to trap it, embody it in words on the deathly snow-white leaves of a book, to be ingested through the eyes into the fertile minds of others who could re-use them, recycle them, bits of cultural dna to be morphed by the collective imagination into something unexpectedly extraordinarily new ... Shishosetsu ... more like a name for a form of lethal wrestling than a genre of autobiographical fiction. Some might argue agonisingly, the same thing on the inner plane ... wrestling with the elusive self.
He was already dreading the conference. Would he inadvertently reveal too much of himself? He knew nothing much about Japanese fiction, he'd recently dipped into Mishima's Confessions of a Mask ... so many books unread ... he'd soon have no energy to pick them up, turn the pages, snow melting in his fingers instead.
The train had stopped again because of snow drifts.
The girl took the man's hand and held it in her own. He didn't seem conscious of the gesture. As Michael was. His heart felt it and in bitter resonance started to miss every third beat. If the ectopics deteriorated to every second beat and were sustained for mor than a few minutes, he'd develop a massive cardiac blood clot and be dead before he could blink further ... such is life.
Michael jerked his head back. He'd turned without thinking and suddenly seen a face, but not hers, a face in the window disappearing as quickly as a ghost. Suddenly he realised he had cracked the code without apparently working on the problem, through absence of attention rather than aggressive focus. Yes, it was Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina, the scene at the start of the film (or was it the end? or both?) arriving at the station at dead of night and the steam hissing around her like a cloak of stars fallen from the Milky Way. Or snow. Yes ... the images were flooding back now ... there had been the same scene at the start of the film and the end, he was sure, almost sure, the image doubled, cyclic, the final scene where she kills herself by throwing herself in front of the moving train ... he'd read earlier, pursuing respectful research on Japanese novelists, that they were avid readers of Dostoievski, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Ibsen, openly plagiarizing their plots. The Japanese were always expert copyists.
The girl didn't look like Vivien Leigh at all, of course. Maybe she resembled the girl in Rashomon. It was odd the way images often triggered memories but the wrong ones, hyper-text linking to the wrong context, as in dreams, when the dream director in charge of the REM sleep dramas seems to have accessed the memory banks with corrupted software, and the cyberslave stumbles on random domains, dimensions, dominions, montages of images that must be hastily fervently denied ... incest, false memories, return of the repressed. Which, later, watching movies, reading books, caressing a girl's body, putting lipstick on her nipples, having dinner on a coffin in which, unknown to you, is the body of someone loved ... are, after all, personal images we know to be only too too true ... in one context or another, as yet to be discovered.
The train started to move again, the girl's face still hovering in a new smudged circle as Michael recalled, again, the pagan fear of the mirror's occult power to steal the soul. There was a haiku he'd read in the airline journal, about a pail of rainwater next to a hut in which a girl reflects upon the meaning of the moon reflected, a perfect circle within the perfect circle of the wooden perimeter of the pail ... her soul.
The girl was arranging a small pillow behind the old man's head, between repeatedly picking up his white silk scarf; unsettled by the movement of the train it kept falling on his feet as if needing to hide them, or bind them, her actions monotonous, ambiguous. Was she treating him with utmost respect or callous disdain? Was she thinking of events occurring a hundred million miles away where the free-wheeling systems darkened in the outer tributaries of the River of Heaven? Into a mask (or the reflection of the moon in a pail of water) you can read anything. Anything you desire. Evening life's meaning ...
Yes, it was her detachment, her cool lack of emotion that he was finding so sexually alluring and it annoyed him. He'd come to Japan to attend a most literary of literary conferences, to meet a bunch of boring fellow academics as out-of-touch with the real world as himself, not - not expecting to be deconstructed by an imperturbable young woman, university student, school-girl, mistress, dancing girl, going home to an unspoilt Arcadian Snow Country from the polluted city, her sick father at her side. Antigone coming to mind ... if only he could switch it off, this mind, become happily mindless, a village idiot, a Dostoevskian fool, give up this latest pilgrimage apparently necessary and unavoidable, give up trawling files of texts and images, searching for links to what was lost ... at the dead centre of the universe that was now unravelling; that had been his self.
He hoped there was a cinema in Yuzawa, he'd need to escape there from time to time, from the words words words, apparently Kawabata's Snow Country, a mere tale about a geisha who falls in love unwisely with a client, had been made into a film seven times ... and his novel The Dancing Girl of Izu, about a young girl described as a Gypsy (and thus in Japan expected to be easily 'available'), yes, but in this case something of a vestal virgin, attached to a wandering troupe of actors, whom the protagonist (the author) is delighted to discover is a virgin; this tale had also been made into a film several times ... he hoped the actresses weren't so pretty he'd miss the interweaving sub-plots or the needlessly cryptic sub-titles ... or in the quaint hot spring spa in the backward wild woods the projector in the makeshift cinema (a converted silk-worm breeding factory) was so old the nitrate film would get caught in the warped projector gate and burst into inflammatory ecstasy and he and the audience would suddenly be floating in the multiple silver-screens of the ethereal Bardo, seeking a woman's womb through which to be reborn.
The girl's vacant stare was reminding him of the serene mask-like gaze of the unfinished head of Nefertiti in the Berlin museum, one eye of crystal, open, the other painted on wood, closed, as if she was awake and asleep at the same time, alive and dead at the same time. And to be unkind ... the old man was making him feel unkind ... a virgin and a whore at the same time. (But so beautiful one must imagine both to be sacred!) Il faut imaginer les deux sacrés.
The girl crossed her legs, revealing more of the black leather costume that had transformed her from the innocent young schoolgirl. Pealing off another fragment of her gleaming carapace she was now drawing an infernal creature from an inside pocket, as if giving birth to it ... a fiendishly new digital hard-Discman of sorts; was it perhaps his, his child, his as yet still-born Memoirs recorded on a 20 Gig hard-drive sandwiched between a host of MP3 music files? Mozart Mahler Mendelssohn MacDowell Monteverdi Morton Feldman Mussorgsky Maurice Martenot Martinu Messiaen ... hardly.
The girl's movement aroused the old man and his hand moved to her right knee, perhaps to steady himself, but she made no effort to move it. Her left foot started tapping to music, practising the dance she would dance for him later, in the bedroom, the man's hand quivering but not to any reverberations of the music passing from her body to his, but wincing at the syncopated spasms of pain. It was odd, but Michael hadn't yet seen the man's face hidden behind the girl's hair, not even in the train window which had become a mirror of self-replicating, self-perpetuating holograms.
Michael was startled when the girl and the man stood up to leave the train at the same station as himself. He was shocked by the acid coldness of the air, the blank rhetoric of the heavy vellum-white snow enveloping every material thing he could see or not see ... Under the EXIT sign, a pungent green neon light reflecting on the newly fallen snow beneath his feet, Michael noticed a man standing stiffly, ominously formal, his heavy winter clothes having more an air of the military than a chauffeur, or a fireman; Michael conjectured. Maybe it was the bitter cold biting suddenly into the skin of his face creating an unconscious hypertext link to such a profession, his skin's yearning tropism for fire. An involute, a cold fusion of opposites.
Impeccably hand-printed, a sign in the man's gloved fingers:
Doctor Michael Schlieman: B.A. Cantab
Michael proffered his hand politely (passingly fearful it might break off and the fireman from hell might keep it) but the man seemed taken aback by the intimacy of the gesture, and bowing quickly almost dropped the sign, as Michael heard a voice, a girl's voice, off picture, just behind his left shoulder. 'Doctor Schlieman, Sir ... ?'
He turned, apprehensively. 'Er ... yes, that's me!'
A young woman wearing a dark coat with a black fur collar held out her gloved hand and Michael shook it. She smiled, falsely, efficiently, the tone of Anna Karina in Alphaville. 'Welcome, Doctor Schlieman, I am the translator allocated to you. This is our driver. I am very well, thank you, not at all. I hope you will find everything to your satisfaction.' She turned and waved to a porter sitting just off stage (in front of the door to the green room) who quickly took Michael's two heavy suitcases. Michael's heart missed a beat ... would they know there was a girl's body inside them, wrapped with purple tinted bubble-wrap with all his papers? It's Only A Paper Doll ... the somewhat trashy and unoriginal title of one of his worst pulp books. So bad, it had sold really well.
Everything to your Saaa....aaa...tisfaction? Michael resisted the temptation to hum the song to this pretty young woman, to show he was hip, even at death's door.
'It's way below freezing, isn't it?' Talk of the weather instead. There were sharp icicles on the ornately carved wooden eaves of the antique station roof, their slimy dripping tips hovering menacingly above him, six inches long, pointing with ominous precision at his forehead, the station's artificial lights suffused through the icicles, cyclic rows of shark's teeth, a film-set made of cardboard on a studio stage set, set up in a disused aeroplane factory where they'd made the planes that bombed pearl harbour ... local pearls from the sea near Suma now tainted with black blood and gunpowder, the colour of a half-caste's eyes.
'Yes, we're very worried, the winter is three months early and creating chaos ... no time to build snow barricades ... but the winter light is very special here in the mountains, well known for its luminous quality, you will see tomorrow ... sadly, with winter premature our autumn has been stolen from us, the fiery colours of the maple and cedar trees, the berries on the bushes, the singing wind in the pines, the autumn rains, so much suddenly lost, dead, hidden beneath the snow, a whole season stolen ... what would life be without autumns to remind us of our frailty?'
Everything black and white. Grainy, all colour drained. He would normally (huh normally!) have quoted Titania on the seasons all awry, but thought it not the moment to show off; as she was doing. 'Yes, but I hope you will translate my talk on De Quincey, I'm talking about opium, opium dreams, and the art of murder! Terrorism!' But he said nothing. She was young, perhaps soft beneath the sheen, had pretty eyes, a lovely round face, smiling mischievously she was clearly aware he was impressed by her command of the English language. He wondered if he might get to know her and ask her if she could find some opium for him. To say nothing of ...
'The snow in the winter bad enough, so much discontent, last year over three metres deep. This is the famed Snow Country, but we had hoped to display the beauties of autumn to our guests, not the sombre palette of winter.' Smiling seductively (wishful thinking), so self-assured, with an impeccable accent, they'd chosen her well.
'You come from here, from the snow country?'
'You know ... I was not expecting someone quite so young,' she said, suddenly. He caught his breath, coughed awkwardly, quickly trying to make it look as if it was the cold air in his throat making him mimic the cadences in the cries of dying Cranes, Whooping Cranes. He'd been thirty five when he'd first seen the film Rashomon ... How time flies.
'You are not from around here, then?'
She seemed puzzled, as if not programmed for questions verging on the personal, annoyed by his unpredictability. 'I'm from nowhere and everywhere like most young people nowadays, it's where I'm going that's important!' Take that! Opening her eyes wide as if shocked at her verbal audacity, the look of a child offered sweets by a man in the park (he was only there to feed the birds with crumbs stuffed in the pockets of his threadbare coat), wild eyes showing the anticipated pleasure just before the onset of the shadow of doubt, fear aroused by accepting gifts from strangers, even pilgrims, wanderers talking of detachment, spirituality, as in Noh plays. Such a disturbingly erotic brew.
'These early snows were not predicted, you say?' Talking about the weather again, damn it, as every text-book Englishman would do; to hide his fear of emotion. The English!
But she ignored the question. Not original enough. 'Please forgive me Doctor Schlieman I've not done this work before. I'm a student in Tokyo and answered an advert in the college magazine. But I read your book on the Brontë sisters for my studies and so I have the misguided impression I already know you. Are books really so dangerous? A younger man's book I felt at the time. I feel I know you better than ... than I ... ' She couldn't find what she wanted to say, gazing at him with an anguish Michael found positively disquieting. Had they met before? Had she been one of his students? That time in Grasmere ... the talk on De Quincey which everyone hated so much ... no-one could follow the spiky flow ... the rains ... the time the church hall caught fire when the Hell Fire Club showed The Big Sleep ... if they had met before would she admit it? If not why not? There had been times when he'd not obeyed the rules ... students were taboo, escalating the potential for mutual desire ... the forbidden ... you didn't need to read the whole of Madame Bovary to get a whiff of that sordid truth once in a while), fearful of living out his dreams, and worse, his novels; even if inadvertently. The Girl in the Lake ... Death of the Satin Woman ... The Murder of Nature's Child ...
'Your hotel is thirteen or fourteen minutes away, Doctor Schlieman, and you have a bedroom with a sitting room and its own bathroom. I am very well, thank you.' She turned to the window on her side of the taxi. Beyond her profile, a few floating incandescent signs and blinking lights passing by them in slow mesmeric motion.
Turning to the window on his side of the taxi, squeezing through the busy traffic leaving the station car park, Michael was astonished to find himself peering directly into the window of a second taxi moving alongside, perfectly in parallel. Gazing back at him with as much surprise as he was experiencing himself, was the girl from the train. Before he could stop himself he had smiled, raised his hand to wave, royally, he was so overcome at seeing her again. He wanted to pull down the window and shout out something archaic, archetypal, poetic, profoundly mythic, utterly obscure, allusive, embarrassing, naively romantic, hideously English, alluding tangentially to a subject he knew was close to her heart, The Occult and Erotic Significance of Coincidance in the Work of William Butler Yeats, especially in The Vision, written with Automatic Writing by his wife George, in Trance ... but on second thoughts (not always the best) and in respectful deference to the girl at his side (he might need her help) he allowed no words to leave his lips; sensing the onset, here, in this snowdrift-ridden place, of a bitter solitude. Was this what he had come to Japan to discover? O world invisible we touch thee, inapprehensively we clutch thee ...
The coincidence was hardly remarkable. The girl quickly assumed the poise she had so perfectly embodied on the train, staring through him as if he was mere jelly-fish blubber, or an alien from outer space. Why had he so arrogantly assumed that being English would provoke a sympathetic reception? Why had he presumed the girl would respond warmly to his blatant attraction to her? It was evident she felt only contempt for his attentions. Perhaps the old man was her father, had lived in Hiroshima (August 6th 1945) and been thrown by the blast into a propitiously close river. He had been fishing at the time. His Dad had said there was carp in the river recently escaped from captivity. Then the bomb. Lucky to survive.
The girl's taxi moved forward taking her outside Michael's field of vision and he felt such a falling away, the metal corset around his chest biting again into the skin, that he gripped his hands together as if to crush a scorpion, wanting to hurt himself, draw blood. If there was blood there, still. The mask, straight black hair the texture of tendrils of time (strings of carbon crystals collapsing in on themselves) at the outer perimeter of space ... her lovely hair long enough to come to rest on the upper contours of her slim and perfectly formed bottom ... which he dare not envisage too fervently.
His translator was shuffling her feet, either to warm them or remind him of her presence, having noticed his reaction to the graceful face framed in the double-layers of the taxi windows. It had been the girl's face that had arrested her attention, clouded her own, minutes before.
'What is your name?' Michael blurted out to the girl at his side, trying to hide his anguish; after all, she was flesh and blood, pretty and friendly, her cheeks red and flushed from the cold wind.
'Mariako,' she seemed to say, softly. 'Doctor Schlieman ... Sir!'
He didn't know why but he was sure she was lying. Why hadn't she told him the truth, that her name was Komako? Hadn't he read the name in an article in the flight magazine about Kawabata? Maybe he'd heard wrongly. Time would tell. He tried to see the taxi with the girl in it again but it had removed itself from his point of view. The parallelism of their passages from the station forecourt rent asunder by time. He had to remind himself this was Yuzawa, not Kendal. A quite different confluence and conference ...
By the time he reached the lecture hall, he was two hours late.
'Ah, Doctor Schlieman, I was looking for you. Bogged in the snow? All this snow three months early. No wonder it's called the snow country!'
Michael bowed and took a seat at the back of the hall. Confessions. Why need to write autobiography, if not always a plea to be forgiven? If guilty of unspeakable crimes why not let yourself be quietly forgotten? How not to speak of yourself even though you are always doing so, speak truthfully of those you loved and those you fought for and those you lost.
Miyako was flitting about looking delicious in a white and red suit with a long pink scarf, ebony jet hair high on her head, silky and shiny, clutched in place by a bold, spidery, bejewelled crimson comb. He noticed she had beautiful legs sheathed in Roxy black-patterned stockings, too sexy for such a sombre occasion.
' ... the shishosetsu, the famed Japanese confessional fiction, first appeared in Germany with Mori Ægai's blatantly confessional novel The Dancing Girl, the author describing it as an Ich Roman; an I novel, his account of his seduction of an impoverished dancing girl who falls hopelessly in love with him and becomes pregnant, only to be callously abandoned when he is called back by the authorities in Japan for promotion. The girl kills herself. The call to duty by the state paying for his education, was more important than personal ties to a mere dancing girl unwise enough to fall in love with him. Rightly so, but compare to Kawabata's first novel, also distinctly autobiographical, The Dancing Girl of Izu, a thinly veiled account of his meeting with a young girl who was part of a troupe of wandering dancers and players. But in this novel the girl is very definitely not seduced. Virtuously rejecting her, giving the reason that she was too young, the author emphasised the protagonist's (and his own?) relief at discovering, in her nakedness at the public bath, that the girl was prepubescent.'
Michael found it odd that a people for whom the notion of the 'self' was of some(non)thing impermanent, diaphanous, translucent, a non-existent self evolving through endless reincarnations, should be a race which could evolve such a long-lasting movement of modern literature based on the firm assertion of a fixed, solid, brutally honest 'I'. Ich romans ... It must have been a lonely struggle asserting the validity of such a confessional narrative against the prevailing paradigms of etheriality (no such word; Ed). No wonder most of the shishosetsu novelists ended their lives (finding an ending for their novels always an unresolvable problem) by committing suicide. Kawabata himself, the avowed master of them all and Nobel prize winner finally gassing himself, his body found by a fifteen year-old girl who was 'looking after him'. Sinister gossip prevailed. She had lived with him under the same roof for a long time, hidden from the eyes of the world.
' ... in Kawabata's next novel the protagonist is an expert on Western ballet who has never ever seen such a real ballet on the stage. His apparent expertise is based on his reading ... dilettante and arrogant he is cruelly casual in his relationship with the young novice geisha he exploits, Komako ... '
Could it be, Michael wondered, that the Japanese, for all their clinging to the stark tenets and ascetic demands of Buddhism, were as fucked up and guilt-ridden about sex as the English? The gods forbid! Lunch.
'You know if the snow keeps falling and the forecasts on the subject are ominous, we might be stuck here for the entire winter, doomed to listen to endless lectures about 'I' novels?'
Michael laughed. 'Good. Time to write one ... ' As long as he could find the girl from the train, she must be somewhere around lurking in the wings, rehearsing for her dance ... he never liked that word, with hearse in its heart ... preparing to unfold, emerge, dance, just for him, he'd stay here forever, forever and a day ... a thousand and one nights.
More words words words. Dinner. Arriving to eat alone in the hotel restaurant Michael saw the girl from the train sitting in a dimly lit corner under a row of gold-framed prints on the wall behind her, at an intimate table for two, sitting opposite the man she'd been nursing on the train. Michael's fingers were trembling as a painful fusion of relief and fear swept through him. Clearly the man and girl were a couple.
Michael hesitated, but finally sat down at a table from which he could watch them. His body had abandoned him, he wasn't sure if he was watching or being watched and he recalled a recurring nightmare as a child in which he would wake abruptly with the tangible certainty that someone had entered the room where he was sleeping, alone, a dark stranger staring down at his prisoner of sleep awaiting a suitable moment to strike. Only by awaking would the visitor be forced to leave. Michael's skin, afterwards, still bore palpable evidence of the visitation, bleached white by the icy alien gaze, the uninvited guest having succeeded in his mission, confiscated whatever nuggets of pain or pleasure he or she deemed desirable, stolen without permission; years later he might stumble on the horde sparkling in someone else's eyes.
There she was, as if he'd known her for years. No doubt a Japanese would smile, solemnly, pointing out the obvious, and bow, that he'd been here in a former life. If so, why be so sure she had once before, already, rejected him? Brutally? He could still feel the anguish, it surfaced whenever the wind blew across the surface of a pool of water and the ripples mocked him. Was he now being called upon to forgive her, free her from the clinging? How, this time, would it be different, with no way to avoid acting out the script written by the gods, cleverly seducing us, as usual, with the promise of star-billing in their movies, subtly eclipsing our egos in their elegant manoeuvres to take control for their own ends; procreation of the race. Witnesses enjoying amusing nights in our theatres, watching us trapped in the drama searching for a truth that by definition, must always elude us. Chapter 28 ... as he would discover. The novel's "theme", the one thing that must not be revealed in the writing thereof ... perhaps, perhaps in the reading thereof .. but not gleaned from words on the page. Plucked later in a dream from the R Field ...
He took his morphine with the coffee.
No, it was vain speculating, they had never met. Circumscribed in the present, caged in a permanent present-tense, his so-called self balanced precariously on the sharp see-saw pivot of the now, he was here, and now, and she was - with another man. Her lover. The image hovering before him on the holographic screen inside his brain was of the two of them having sex, even making love ... her face like the moon reflected on the black surface of a pail of water, an impassive mask echoing in the small transient mirror his finger had made in the condensation on the train window, oval portrait of a woman unknown, as she had appeared in his endlessly recycled recurring dreams; scripted by the gods for whom cruelty was the essence of good drama, the truth of thwarted love, betrayed love. Are they a betrayal of us, or we of them?
The girl and the old man were sitting in their cosy secluded corner like a couple on their honeymoon, or lovers on an embezzled week's holiday, a movie star with her director who is also the author of the film's scenario, seeking peace and quiet in the bosom of nature, in which to embellish it, add more sensual flourishes to an already explosively erotic scandal-laden script exposing the corrupt world of Tokyo high society, the political mafia, dancing girls (between them sporting more silicon than Brighton beach or a valley in California) and international networks of fascist business tycoons.
Were they part of the conference? He'd definitely not seen them earlier when he'd been fussing around the gossiping crowd trying to find a copy of the text of an intriguing talk he'd just heard; The Tattooist: Foot-fetishism and Coprophilia in the work of Tanizaki Jun'ichiro.
How was it they seemed so utterly together? There were still no signs of communication between this beautiful, cold, unfathomable girl and her unconcerned master. They seemed never to look at each other, separated by an abject lonely silence, two actors making a silent movie (some kind of post-modern remake), waiting for the camera to start, their lack of affect a perverse affectation derived from sitting through the interminably long exposures (as it was in those days) necessary to take the publicity stills. Drained of vitality and emotion they now reluctantly (an occupational hazard) existed outside the frail dimension of human present-tense time, banished to an enduring half-life in a permanently frozen past-tense, the inevitable consequence of the psychic imperialism decreed in the cinema's abusive domains.
Yet, paradox, cruel paradox, they seemed utterly together, blissfully unaware of any other thing or person in the real world beyond their small table, its top reverberating invisibly under the sensual pressure of their fingertips ... though Michael told himself the old man was not evidently or tenaciously attached to the domains of the living.
'Ah. Doctor Schlieman, I hope you've had a nice day?'
The Americanism have a nice day jarred on his nerves but as soon as he realized it was Miyako taking the trouble to be sociable (or having been ordered to do so) and noticing she was smiling at him quite lusciously and in front of everyone, he quickly forgave her intrusion into his morbid meditations. He replied as gallantly as possible; 'All the more enjoyable by seeing your charming, decorative presence among us all, Miss Miyako!'
She blushed at his compliment and he felt immediate regret at his brashness, reminding himself he must be considerate, more formal, more inexpressive, more robotic, more English. 'It's my job and I'm proud to do it, meeting so many acclaimed authors, distinguished delegates.' Her smile seemed forced and false. She seemed to sway, and much to his surprise he realised she'd been drinking, clutching the back of his chair so tightly the whites of her knuckles were showing. Unsure of the habitual certainty of her feet she was using the chair to support herself. Drunk?
Michael was stunned, it was not something he would have expected. But he was also provoked. Who can resist warming to a drunken pretty girl even in such a stuffy circumstance? He doubted such a thing could happen at an official English literary event. But he remembered that Japanese business men, and therefore academics (no less business men, trading like god's stockbrokers in words and ideas, fortuitous shareholders in the works of long-dead artists), all successful Japanese men were expected to lead two lives, an acceptable tradition that had under‑pinned Japanese life for centuries. On the one hand family life, on the other, loose women, the transient amusements and couplings which were cultivated at all times when 'elsewhere' on business, found easily with the 'dancing girls' in the 'quarters licensed for pleasure'.
Michael drummed his fingers on the table-cloth, the syncopated rhythm doing nothing to hide his nervousness. So, here was Miyako, quite drunk already. 'Tell me, Miyako, help me, helpless Englishman that I am. What distractions from the boredom of the tired spirit exist here in this snow-bound outpost of civilisation?' His tone, trying to conceal the hopelessly pedantic text, as matter-of-fact as he could muster. Once, in the good old days, could he not have boldly asked her to find him a geisha?
She reacted awkwardly. 'I think serious literary people will go on talking and drinking 'til all hours of the night and then crash out, hoping not to see the dawn break before they close their bloodshot eyes.' The cool eloquence and odd neutrality of her voice took him by surprise. If she was quoting lines from a book it was not the hotel's official guide‑book for conference visitors.
'Then let me invite you for a drink after dinner, so I can be not-bored by the petty tittle-tattle on the subject of lifeless literature!' He pronounced the word bored so quietly he had to move his face close, inches from hers, speaking directly into her ear, almost brushing his lips against her hair. He wondered if she slept in the hotel or in accommodation in town. If she slept naked. If she was allowed to drink so much on the first night, it seemed unlikely she was under strict supervision. His mind wandering ... foreseeing, imagining ... images cruelly provoking ...
'I'm afraid that wouldn't be acceptable, Doctor Schlieman,' she replied quickly, coolly. He winced with disappointment. She noticed, and added, generous of spirit. 'At least, so soon.'
'Later then, if not sooner than later!'
But as she was loosening her grip on the chair, trying to stand up straight in a dignified way, Michael was surprised to see the girl from the train standing a few yards behind her, regarding them both icily, suspiciously. At least, so he assumed from her stance, her narrowed eyes, as ever uncomfortably beautiful in their minimalist simplicity ... the deft brushwork of a master calligrapher. But as soon as she saw him returning her look she turned away. Before he could stop himself ‑ he had drunk too much wine over dinner and the compulsory saké to follow - he took Miyako's hand, firmly, as if to stop her falling, but also to show she was in his possession, turned her round and asked her almost aggressively, 'Is that gentleman at that corner table with the tall girl in black, is he part of the conference? I'm sure I recognize him from another meeting.'
'No, I'm sure not, I don't recognize either of them. The girl certainly wasn't around during the day or I would have noticed her, especially wearing that terrible fake designer-label leather gear - very vulgar looking, especially here in the country where she should dress conservatively. To me she looks like a common whore from Tokyo. I know women too well to be wrong. Half‑caste too!'
Michael said nothing. Miyako was watching him unblinkingly, eager to see his reaction, no longer so anxious to leave, letting him know she knew what his little game was. She turned nonchalantly to regard the girl again, but the girl was now back at the side of the man. 'Until later Doctor Schlieman, if I'm not too distracted by my obligations, literary or otherwise! Caio!'
And she was gone.
Michael looked back at the whore from Tokyo standing immobile by the table, the man now sitting behind her. She seemed to be staring through the windows now become opaque screens, their eerie texture of reflected light created by the falling snow beyond, as the man continued to fill his face, greedily. Michael wasn't sure what to feel or think. Just because she was wearing a leather suit, a fake (the kind of perfect copy the Japanese excelled at making under their brand-name Universace) or a Versace original for all he knew, it surely didn't mean she was definitely a whore? Or did it?
Maybe he'd remember the film in which he'd seen her, the critical clue that might unravel the web, unwind the mummy cloth covering the wound, erase whatever image or word was denying him access to the truth. He hoped it wasn't one of the pornographic movies he'd watched a couple of years back, brought from Tokyo by a fellow academic from Cambridge, John Faulkner, nuclear physicist (spent his time advising cryptically named committees in the Ministry of Defence) attending a somewhat esoteric conference: Alternative Gravitational Energy: Tapping the Holographic Dimension.
'Ah, Schlieman, the Brontë man, tore those poor girls apart, you did old man. Ripped the myth to pieces. Damn right though. Why not deconstruct the Victorian conspiracies behind their soppy masks? Pagan nymphomaniacs, Emily especially, sex mad I'd say, all of them, so fake their genteel guise of propriety, the pernicious Protestant veneers.'
'Ah, Docteur Schlieman, may I introduce myself? Karl Roënter from Munich. I doubt if you've read my books on Goethe and Peter Eckerman, the poor sad Bird Man ‑ lived his life after his master's death in a house full of birds, my book not yet translated into English, alas - but must we not ask the essential question: Is Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf a shishosetsu, or the even more autobiographical Narzis und Goldmund ... No?'
Michael was feeling aggressive, edgy, dispirited. The girl from the train was nowhere to be seen now, not in the hotel's lobby, lounges or bars. The raw image of her gliding from the restaurant with her patron and protector affectionately holding her arm was clinging defiantly. Surely it was the holding on of a very sick man, needing the support of a trained nurse? Miyako's claims that the hapless girl was nothing but a common whore, despite her beauty, might be correct, but how was he to discover the truth in such an alien land ... the blatant dialectic of fetishism, a second skin of corset festooned with thongs and stainless steel chains, if not a whore at least a mistress well-versed in the necessary arts ... a modern-day geisha ... the outfit he'd seen her in, in the train. Young, modern, silly, superficial, naive about fashion, a victim of the traditional Japanese passion for mimicry, modern designers as eager to plagiarise the fashions of the West as their writers at the turn of the century had been eager to plagiarise the texts of European writers. Had she ordered the outfit after seeing it in the recent controversial advert for Diet Pepsi? Hopefully she would soon go back to Tokyo with the movie before it got jammed in the projector and burst into flames ... yes, the girl was trapped in the time-domain of a film he couldn't recall and wished he'd never seen, in a place he wished he'd never visited, the domain of the cold casual encounter, the stranger, the bearer of strangeness, virtual sex between two nameless mask-bearing strangers ... in the house that is never stilled, always moves, has no roots, no feet, the movie house, the crucial precursor of the theatre of sado-masochism, scenarios much favoured by the new Japanese cinema ... the photograph always engendering the doll, as it steals the soul, a theft so disturbingly alluring.
Prints on the wall, scenes in old cities, vast suburbs devoted to the tainted enchantment and 'illusion of intimacy' between strangers, for two hundred years or more, countless novelists writing euphorically and joyously about nothing else, reading between the lines, beware, heed the singular grievous warning in those novels: never get to know your dancing girl, especially her real name, in case you create the illusion of a soul and thus fall in love with her, become another foolishly doomed protagonist whom the authors described so fervently in their best-selling novels, profusely illustrated with erotic wood-cuts celebrating the arcane power of the courtesans to destroy mere mortals. Through desire. But if you were doubly unlucky; love.
Beware. He must steer clear of the girl from the train or he'd end up writing about her forever. To free himself he must invent a false name for her, a word that could be consumed, forgotten. How else become detached? That was the depraved secret power behind so much writing, its true purpose ... a-void-dance ... Salomé's dance, the severed head ...
'Ah! Schlieman. Jun'ichiro Kuniaki from Osaka University, the department of Foreign Literature. My special field is surrealist fiction and symbolist poetry. I know your recent book and hope you will come to my talk tomorrow on André Breton's novel Nadja. Purely auto-biographical? Could it be that this young girl influenced him so much that it was she who was the inspiration for his creation of the entire movement of surrealism? Did he steal all his ideas from her, that poor waif of a girl? Was she real or mere symbol? In my bones I feel she was quite real ... yes, the subject of the novel is the mysticism of meaning, the erotic working of invisible webs, networks of coincidence, how such synchronicities reveal the true workings and structure of the dreams which make us, the purposeful power of the unconscious. But does the writer have the right to use real people as characters, strip them of their souls, their humanity? Les voleurs ... like predatory birds flying high above the world, taking what is wanted and throwing out what remains, the mere husk ... the husk of the body ... 'I am the soul in limbo!' Nadja says. You know my ultimate quest in life, Michael - may I call you that? - having read your book I feel you are already a close friend - my true quest in life is to find out exactly who the girl Nadja really was? I feel as if I am in a Noh play arriving at a sacred place, an unknowing pilgrim, she is there but I have not yet recognised her! Is she the tree, the well, the bird, the old hag with a walking stick, the pining voice of the wind? I have not been able to find this out, who Nadja really was ... and the failure haunts me. Who was she, where did she live, what was her real name? The riddle tortures me. Is she not too contradictory, too messy, too screwed up to be pure invention? Too dirty and rough at the edges, too protean, irrational, unpredictable, to be anything but a real girl? I am going to a conference in Paris next month where I'm hoping to find the answers. I ache in my bones needing to know who this woman really was. Breton, poor devil, he was afraid of her, of course, not being able to possess her because she was so fleeting, immaterial, elusive, cruel, inevitably failing to pin her down with his rational mind ... his ideal woman had to be simple, submissive, a momentary object to be desired and have sex with, because he knew - don't we all! - that love is far too dangerous. Like Kawabata, I might add, whose birth and death we are here to celebrate. Such a sad and wounded man, such a pitiful suicide ... it's all there in his work, of course, such a doomed male narcissist ... his love of young girls, they had to be virgins, in which he saw, naively I'd say, a sublime image of perfection and purity, beauty and spirituality, though I hate that word in his context, but the true feminine always beyond his reach ... not unlike your Ruskin ... odd how these things recur, like dreams; No?'
Michael apologised and said he must make an urgent telephone call to England. He limped towards the evolving doors, not sure if he dared go out, the blizzard still raging ... so much for the Japanese autumn. Maybe he'd get really drunk instead. Find Miyako.
'Ah, there you are Schlieman! Don't go out! Far too cold for wanderings in the night ... what we were saying earlier, that ghost Emily wrote about, tap taping on the window, Let me in, Let me in! ... so odd ... it just dawned on me it's just like one of the Noh plays. Did you hear they're putting one on for us? In a local cinema, some time in the next few days ... here, come and have saké, helps you forget. Do you think biographical facts are always destructive? If so, we critics and teachers will be out of work ... the memory lies and dies like the body. What is desire but the desire to defeat death? Why else write books? Sex, desire, death, books. Why do dreams recur if they are afraid to be forgotten? By whom and for whom? In Japan we know that dreams are visitations as Emily Brontë knew from her reading of her hero Swedenborg ... it's all related to the idea of shukumei, which means of many incarnations ... are we not haunted by our past lives as we are haunted by our past lovers, the novels we have read, movies and plays we have seen. No?'
Michael agreed ... he was a nice chap really ... so he rattled on reluctantly about Emily and her opium addiction ... after all the girl from the train still hadn't reappeared ... until he apologised and said he had to prepare his notes ... a crowd was forming so he edged away, closer to the panorama of Ukiyo-e prints on the lounge walls. Could the girl be in another bar elsewhere in the hotel, or was she already back in her room, brewing hot water in a bronze kettle, preparing for the long drawn out ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony, her role as geisha in the man's painful recreation of his lost youth and health ... or already making love, true re-creation, the equally drawn out ritual, pain-stakingly prolonged, delayed pleasure ... yes, he could see her, her eyes closed. How long before he would be hearing voices?
'Hello Doctor Schlieman. Where have you been hiding? Did you invite me for a drink? Maybe later, you said. Is it late enough?'
Miyako seemed to be steadier on her feet. She had changed into a red blouse, a grey waistcoat buttoned like a man's, and a three-quarter length pleated skirt. Her make‑up was heavier now, opaque, and he felt it didn't suit her as much as the daytime mask, lighter, translucent, younger. But she was cute, there was no doubt about it, and her invitation (nothing less)was more than tantalising.
But just as he was about to suggest going to the saloon bar, she was yanked away by an officious looking Japanese gentleman with the largest lapel badge he'd seen so far. Giving Michael the plaintive, lingering, reproachful scowl of Eurydice, he watched forlornly as Miyako was dragged back into the shadows, sinking back into the hell of gossiping academics. Maybe there was some truth in the warning Michael had heard from Sutherland, that Japanese men don't like to see their pretty sexy Japanese girls flirting with European men unless taken straight out of a club and paid in cash. Overt willing couplings could be a serious affront to their pride.
'I say, Schlieman old boy, are you in hiding? Er ... about this shishosetsu 'I' novel business ... whiskey on the rocks, please! Does it matter? Who cares what is true, false, fact or fiction, whispers or lies, if it's a good read? Who cares if someone kills himself after writing a good book, who hates women but writes about them exquisitely? Like Nabokov ... greatest writer we ever had ... spent all his time in the forest chasing butterflies with a fish net on the end of a bamboo stick and he writes Lolita? Ah yes, but did he ever do it? Fuck such a girl? We know he dreamt it, so I hope he did. But does it matter? Some shit feminist biographer will come along and say, yes, he was always a pervert, he groped a 15 year-old student when he was twenty-one in St Peterburg already teaching Dostoevski and writing devastating critiques of War and Peace, The Fool, The Brothers Karamazov ... poor bastard dreaming of when he could afford to fulfil his real mission in life, chasing butterflies and not merely dreaming of young girls ... Old men are old men are old men ... surely it was all too true what he wrote ... all that remains, the lone and level sands, the writing on the stone, a book is a book is a book, a bird is a bird is a bird, a female is good at it or not, eh? Can't wait to move on to Tokyo, can you? Do you know it?'
'No, I came here to stay in the mountains ... to chase fireflies!'
'Really? But listen, I have a bunch of telephone numbers for Tokyo night-life, you can have them. Fireflies you want or Fly by nights? Talking of young girls, they all seem so young here, No? Miyako, a little peach, no? Flirts with everyone! And what's this about a Noh play? Sounds ruddy awful doesn't it? I only came here to promote my books, you too, I'm sure. And the snow? End of the world they say, let's hope their ruddy nuclear power stations don't freeze up. Implode. They aren't far away, Miyako was telling me, just over the hills, not far as the crow flies.'
'Or dies ... '
'Yes, or dies ... but you are in a sombre mood, old man! Homesick? Who is it you are missing with so much sorrow?'
The following morning the girl from the train came to the hotel for breakfast with her companion and sat at their preferred small table in a secluded corner of the restaurant. On the wall above them, a neat row of woodcuts, frames embellished with fake blemishes of gold leaf, creating the illusory patina of wuthering autumn leaves, already tarnished, seduced by the desire to fall.
Also bearing the tincture of one willing to fall, looking more like a movie actress visiting a film festival, the girl was wearing an inky silk suit with leather lapels and leather trousers, the covenant with decadence dramatized by a brazenly crimson silk blouse bedecked with a motif of serpents, sinuously entwined in love or rage, spitting what appeared, at a distance, to be either blood or fire.
Despite a determined resolve to do otherwise, Michael couldn't take his eyes off the girl. She was so sanguine, impassive, in control, he was sure by now she must be a professional performer, the most celebrated dancer in the best club in Tokyo: The Sheherazade, Chez Herr Nachtingaal and the Satin Woman, The Mata Hari ... or Club 151 ... The Yellow Butterflies ... covert opium dens, sex and death hovering in the wings.
No words passed between the girl and the old man for the entire meal. It was this absence of any apparently normal discourse between them that convinced Michael the man was close to dying. He had returned to the golden era of silence, he was beyond words, nothing that could be said would disavow or postpone the mute truth of the imminent death tracking him down, nothing could be spoken of except the past, soon to be erased. And the present was a war he was losing against pain. Michael was annoyed at the man's indifference to the obvious beauty of the girl at his side. What a waste! Michael could see that other men in the restaurant were also gazing at her, dolefully, so her beauty was not merely a figment of his own Western imagination, enhanced by the ambience of the erotic woodcuts poised so close behind the iridescent foliage of her hair, a modern incarnation of the euphemistically named dancing girl, and despite her inscrutable finesse, available after the stage show in the bedroom ... if paid for.
Michael couldn't help wishing the old man dead.
Surely he was too old! Only able to possess the girl as he had possessed his collection of priceless screens, especially those of the ubiquitous Korin, his exotic birds of paradise, humming birds and dragon flies hovering like spirits above voluptuous lotus flowers. Perhaps the girl felt privileged to be part of the art collection of such a distinguished connoisseur, ennobled by being acquitted of the sexual embrace, the fickle poisoned chalice, the corrupting power of man's desire, although her Roxy outfits surely belied such a fanciful interpretation ... there was nothing she would not do ...
Once or twice the girl seemed to be returning Michael's petulant gaze, although he soon realized she was looking through him as unwaveringly as before, in the train. What was on her mind? The latest images from the Hubble Space telescope of the nebulae in the dagger of Orion, or the Black Dwarf star, invisible twin of Sirius? Maybe she was a physicist as well as a painter, her 'painted' images being the offspring of her love affair with her computer, celebrating the ethereal beauty of astronomical technology. Indifference was her subject. Blasé about her bewitching appearance, her Modigliani profile was eerily suggesting the cool perfection of polished Carrara marble in a sculpted head by Jean Hans Arp, the abyss within the heart of her eyes as immeasurable as space itself. None of this, alas, explained to Michael why the abject solitude implied in her cold stare was arousing him.
The couple left. Not knowing which way to turn Michael distracted himself with a close examination of the prints on the wall above the couple's preferred table: Digging bamboo shoots in the snow by Suzuki Harunobu. A pretty young girl wearing a broad rimmed hat standing under bamboo branches laden with snow, her feet disappearing in the thick snow beneath, the air ponderous with heavy falling snowflakes. Sagi Musume in the Snow by Isoda Koryusai. A beautiful young girl in a white kimono holds a huge decorated umbrella under a willow tree.
'Her name suggests she is the Heron Maiden, famous when the print was drawn in 1770. She was a character in a very successful play of the time. Beautiful, isn't she? Even I could fall in love with such a girl!' Miyako suddenly behind him. Before he had time to reply she added; 'Snow snow everywhere. The snow is with us here forever, the world coming to an end, not that we are allowed to believe in endings of any kind here in Japan - literary or otherwise. Why we are so careless, unconcerned, allowing the earth to die before our eyes. Beware of people who refuse to believe in endings! I must go!' And as quickly as she had penetrated his space and consciousness, subtly punishing him for his naive conspicuous obsession with the girl from the train, she was gone.
Michael edged down a few seats in front of another print of a snow scene, by Torii Kiyonaga: The Green house in Yoshiwara on a snowy morning. As Yoshiwara was the district of the most famous pleasure houses the tall slim girls depicted were clearly courtesans, reminding Michael yet again that he was born at the wrong time in the wrong place, a hundred years late; at least.
Further along the wall three matching images by Utamaro: The Awabi Fishers, portraying ama or girl divers; young girls half naked, wearing loose red skirts, one of the girls openly suckling a young boy. The only image he would have liked to own, showed one of the girls with her foot in the water disturbing a shoal of fish, a second girl behind her pointing into the water. The ama, in the good old days, were expected to be easy picking to the Don Juans and erstwhile-poets from the big cities enjoying holidays or suffering imposed exile, cruising the beaches where the girls lived in modest wooden huts ... lustful heroes of many morbid tracts, profligate nomads seeking distraction from worldly 'miseries', such as family, money, society, responsibility.
The naked breasts on the images were not shocking to the Japanese who were a race who had never fetishized the breast, Michael had read in a magazine on the plane. He wondered why. Charged with hidden meaning, that one. It was the ankle and back of the neck that provoked delirium and ecstasy in the free-floating males fortunate to catch a glimpse of such sly minimalist contours. No wonder the Japanese had cherished the sensual sloping foothills of their sacred mountains.
Geisha at their toilet: more luscious girls combing their gorgeous long hair, gazing blankly at themselves in mirrors. Fierce male faces, predatory Peeping Toms peering around exotic rice-paper screens. Two images from The Tale of Genji, scenes from a chapter called Matsukaze, or Wind in the Pines. Michael was losing the ability to focus on the images. What had Miyako said about the girl? 'Of course she's sexy and she knows it, the kind of girl I would find irresistible if I was a man.'
Had she said it or had he dreamed it?
Yes, he had dreamt of them both the night before. The girl, roped with silk to a fake Louis Quatorze chair, her corset untied. Half-silvered mirrors around her, a glass box the size of a room, semi-translucent screens. She liked restraint. It would take force to breach her defences. Michael wondered what Japanese girls shouted when they had an orgasm. The Japanese for the verb 'coming' or 'becoming', or a Chinese ideogram for falling, leaving, ending, not-ending, never-ending, endless ... elegant ideograms stolen, lent, shared, plagiarized by the Japanese from the Chinese written language (they had none of their own at the time). Or: "Closure!"
Maybe there were apposite pivot words with two opposing readings, beforewords and afterwards. In the height of the licit violence of shared passion, beings pivoted on rival myths, could you make a mistake, shout out the wrong word and destroy everything, blow it (as the saying goes) with the utterly inappropriate word, not merely going rather than coming but forgetting rather than remembering, presence rather than absence, absence rather than presence, love rather than desire, worship rather than sex, watching rather than being, escaping rather than arriving, suspending rather than ending, suspenders rather than big spenders, spending rather than receiving, asserting the truth of the spirit rather than the body ... life rather than death? Yeah ... Who would talk of life when death was much the preferred subject, as you fucked the daylights out of someone? The morphine was reaching him again ... leeching him out of himself ... useful practice though, for death, as in the secret rites of the mystery religions ... remembering Freud again, poor sod, after talking about bog corpses, recovering from his 'faint', Jung carrying him to a bed and smacking him across the face ... 'How sweet it must be to die!' Morphine, a first degree opium derivative arousing an insatiable addiction for recurring images, small signposts in the random chaos, a passion for repetition, endless repetition ... as is so much of life. 'How are you today'. 'Why do you ask?' Only silence is golden, but soon, he would bathe forever in its coprophilial blush. So much for reason.
The girl ... the old man had died ... the girl and himself ... strolling hand in hand in the hotel's Zen garden laid out in 'squared' circles like a miniature Giordano Bruno memory map ... walking guardedly in the snow, promising to sing to him with her samizen, of love that could never be requited ... she had a gift for him, a woodcut print of morning glory flowers ... needing to shelter from an unforeseen tempest of gusting snow and the wind howling in the pines behind them as if from jealousy, he would lightly kiss her on the cheek, her eyes closing to deny the brightness of the light reflected from the snow, snow he would have melted on his body so that she could drink, kiss her so lightly she would not be afraid, afraid of the fire in the water ... and she might smile, even laugh, the sound of a squirrel scraping a nut on the rough bark of a pine tree, or a sculptor carving a small piece of ivory to make a netsuke of a Kawazu frog, the frog much celebrated for its beautiful voice, hiding (dreaming of hookah pipes and Alice) under a lotus leaf; meditating. Should it jump into the old pond and break the silence of the water? Would the sound of the breaking water's surface be more beautiful than that of its own voice? Nearby, crouching, bent with gout and arthritis, the old wandering poet, a faded leaf of a plantain tree in his lapel ... his badge ... tears in his eyes ... alone but for the shadow of death walking the wasteland in the north, at his side ... he went south in the winter ... the sound of a Noh theatre flute on the sound track ... his skin as tough and weather-worn as an old boot or satchel, resembling the skin of a toad once beloved of a princess ... known for the haiku devoted to her, and her name; 'Sleeping Beauty'.
Her favourite poem celebrating the death of her father.
Better he sleep than dream of her in his morphine-drenched stupor.
Tomorrow, the full influx of the untimely winter thrust even more savagely upon them, she would be bustled back to the city on the last train out of the weather warzone, back to work. Her work! Yes, tomorrow he might leave without reading his academic paper, mostly unfinished anyway. Escape to a hide-away in the hills. Not that he cared, no-one would notice. He hated finishing papers, preferring to improvise an ending. He could then deny the words later.
He could like it here, it was ideal for him in his present mood, the place where there were no endings ...
She and her story, who was she, what did she dream, it had never started, nothing shared except being strangers in a train, a hotel, alive at the same time in the same place, not even a word, a smile, therefore nothing that could end. A silent movie. Yet he would never forget the power she had exploited, perhaps without knowing, over his ebbing feelings. It happens from time to time ... ripples on the lake's surface from a polished stone thrown by a beautiful girl ...in a dream ...
... images trying to surface into his consciousness kept fading to black as if a metal iris tightened its stranglehold around his head ... perhaps the pain meant he was still alive, but he couldn't be sure. If it was death, he must call out, now! 'No, wait! Yes, not now, but I'm coming soon!' He was angry it was happening so quickly, no piercing blue light at the end of the tunnel, soft singing voices of the peaceful deities. He must learn new images here in Japan. His eyes wouldn't open, he could hear the wind and rain a long long way away, as if it didn't concern him.
Someone was trying to open his eyes. Fingers were touching his eyelids ... starting to be aware of a vague brightness emerging, back-lit with real light ... something deathly cold and wet in his fingers. It was the intense coldness that was worrying him, as if in his sleep he had been encased in a huge drift of snow, rather than drenched by the rain. Had he had a stroke? A rehearsal before the four horses came with the hearse? Distant voices. Maria had read from her copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. 'You must learn it by heart ... '
The rain there now become snow, here, it was happening everywhere, the death of Maria's world and dreams.
There was an arc of light diffused with colours hovering over him ... bent and distorted like a snake. Perhaps the lens in his eye had cracked with the cold and become a multi-faceted prism, the tears had frozen and salt crystals were refracting the light into his retina, creating a luminous screen on which slivers of the silvering had been etched away, a trick of light dying through shimmering leaves. But, yes, now it was undeniable ... a rainbow, the low sun behind, the heavy dark rain clouds in front. The afternoon in the park. The young girl ... on her way home from ballet school.
He heard a movement close to him, an animal behind him. He jerked round, howled with the sudden pain, as if hot steel needles had been pushed into his flesh.
'I thought you were dead.'
He managed to push his body inch by inch up against the rough bark of the tree. He pressed harder with his fingers but didn't seem to have the energy to lift himself up from the ground. He was starting to shudder. He felt his leg. Marble. He felt the back of his neck. Stone covered with lichen. This was it. Between the trees, before him, the lake glistening in the dawn light.
In the distance, someone in a black coat, perhaps a girl he had seen earlier in his life, red shoes peeping out of her satchel, and now, like Daphne, disappearing into and becoming a tree ... his soul ... once lost, always lost. Yoko! He heard himself call.
Of that time which we call the present, hardly a hundredth part but belongs either to the past which has fled, or to a future which is still on the wing. It has perished, or it is not born. It was, or it is not. Yet even this approximation to the truth is infinitely false.
For again, subdivide that solitary drop, which only was found to represent the present, into a lower series of similar fractions, and the actual present which you arrest measures now but the thirty-sixth-millionth of an hour; and so by infinite declensions the true and very present, in which only we live and enjoy, will vanish into a mote of a mote, distinguishable only by a heavenly vision. Therefore the present, which only man possesses, offers less capacity for his footing than the slenderest film that ever spider twisted from her womb.
Therefore, also, even this incalculable shadow from the narrowest pencil of moonlight is more transitory than geometry can measure, or thought of angel can overtake.
All is finite in the present; and even that finite is infinite in its velocity of flight towards death.
Thomas de Quincey
Suspiria de Profundis