W. M. Spackman - He has the power to make you believe you are engaged in an important act merely by reading him. Everything happens: romance, wit, intelligence, geniality, culture without the politics that spoiled it after 1959, sex without tears, a genuinely lovable character
W. M. Spackman, The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman, Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.
"Described by Stanley Elkin as "this country's best-kept literary secret" and "a lost American classic," W. M. Spackman is one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.
This omnibus edition includes all five of the author's previously published novels: Heyday (and here presented with revisions the author made shortly before his death); and the critically acclaimed novels published between 1978 and 1985: An Armful of Warm Girl (1978), A Presence with Secrets (1980), A Difference of Design (1983), and A Little Decorum, for Once (1985). The novel As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning is published here for the first time, as well as the author's only two short stories."
"[Spackman's] mature fiction offers a series of blithely moneyed, cavalierly attractive (and single) heroes whom one might conjecture to be Spackman unbound—a shining collegian never chastened by reality... As a writer, Spackman sought what Henry James, in The Golden Bowl, nicely termed 'the convenience of a society so placed that it had only its own sensibility to consider'... [The] fifth [novel of the collection], As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning, was in the editorial works when death overtook Spackman, who was a notable example of geriatric blooming or of neglected genius, depending on how you look at it... Spackman settled to his subject: men and women doing courtship dances, captured with a [Henry] Greenian precision of fluttering utterance and insistent sensual detail. No more sweating to be a Darwinian Fitzgerald or a patrician Steinbeck: everything is to be oblique, indolent, Watteauesque. In Green's subtly mandarin style... Spackman found a way to flow, picking up every vary and hesitation of the human voice and bending syntax to imbue descriptive prose with the feathery breath of speech... [H]is fiction comes as a revelation. No American writer was more thoroughly captivated than Spackman." - New Yorker
"[Spackman is] such a joy to read that once you close this book, you'll wonder why his fiction has been unavailable for so long . . . Image and allusions stir the senses, reveal the speaker's awareness of his place in a tarnishing tradition, his pride of ownership . . . [O]nce a taste for Spackman's strangeness, his subtle humor, is acquired, [the reader] will be richly rewarded." - The Washington Times
"The six novels and two short pieces that make up The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman constitute what may be the most graceful and sophisticated erotic comedy ever produced by an American writer. Certainly Spackman belongs on that short list of the country's greatest prose stylists." - Newsday
"On finishing A Presence With Secrets, I turned right back to page one and read it again." - Newsweek
"Everything happens: romance, wit, intelligence, geniality, culture without the politics that spoiled it after 1959, sex without tears, a genuinely lovable character... [Spackman] reminds us that once upon a time there was a civilization." - New York Times
"These novels and stories are to be read for the entertainment value of their story lines, but more than that, for the breathtaking experiencing of exquisite language." - Booklist
"The marvelous Spackman dialogue, with its ironic asides, stream-of-consciousness nonsense, and brackets of affection should be patented." - Washington Post
"Studded with disarming observations and gorgeous, one-of-a-kind sentences, Spackman's writing is a sensuous delight." - Publishers Weekly
"Reading [Spackman] is like taking a warm bath in a luxurious prose style . . . This confectionary fiction bound to delight anyone with a taste for sophisticated whimsy." - Boston Globe
"He has the power to make you believe you are engaged in an important act merely by reading him... It isn't too much to say that Dalkey Archive Press's decision to reissue these books in one volume is as distinguished and significant a publishing achievement as the publication in 1946 of The Portable Faulkner." - Stanley Elkin
"In 1978, Spackman, a Princetonian and a Rhodes scholar and incidentally an entirely senior citizen, produced the novel that I believe to be the most elegant American figment of the genre of frivolity. “Worldly Innocence” is the rubric under which this tiny masterpiece is to be filed, its temper elegiac, its aroma erotic, its observations (“sleek arms tenderly flailing”) primigenial." - Richard Howard
"I had been an admirer of Dalkey Archive for a good while—not suspecting that I would work for them a few years down the line—and it was their logo that attracted me to The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman, along with the natural question, “Who the hell is W. M. Spackman, and why does he deserve a Complete anything?” I had never so much as seen a Spackman book before, but Stanley Elkin’s blurb—and this was in St. Louis: the city of Elkin, the city of Gass—was seduction enough. I brought it home, and as with many another omnibus edition, began the serious work of putting off doing anything more than admiring its heft.
When I finally did open it, I read not from the beginning, but from the middle—another symptom of the omnibus syndrome—and, as usual, found that I had been a fool to wait. Open to any page of his Complete Fiction and you will be struck dead by a turn of phrase, a lyric description, some gorgeously stylized dialogue—and all just a wee bit off, made strange by his delectably odd manner of deforming simple statements with deadpan qualifications. (Of an interminable lovers’ spat, the narrator shorthands: “And so on and on. As they went on down into the second cool bottle. The conversation becoming still less worth setting even ceremonially down.”)
His writing has an uncanny elegance: he writes like an aspirant to the ribald comedies of seduction that blossomed during the Restoration, though never with recourse to their crudity. He is our lusty, hetero Firbank: a maker of bibelots, sculpted little gewgaws that, when skimmed or flipped through, seem like forgettable trifles, but when engaged with all of the reader’s attention reveal the full density of their textures.
No one page offers an easy point of entry, a pastoral paragraph in “plain American which cats and dogs can read” (though Spackman’s prose is American through and through: just a vernacular that was never actually spoken, a hodgepodge of Quaker clarity and the cussedness found in the jokier prose of Pound; stolid straightforwardness steeped in modernist quirk), but Spackman is the least intimidating of authors. He approaches us on familiar ground, and then helps us see just how strange that ground really is. Not an “experimental” writer in the familiar sense, he makes even the parry and thrust of predigested “romantic” dialogue—and his novels are as full of this as those of Henry Green—alien, compelling, and hilarious:
“Because dammit,” he hurried on, “this outlandish whatever-it-is, relationship, hardly know what, between you and me—total absence of any term from the language if you want my opinion! And I include Freudian technicalities!” he ended with violence. “Now dammit can I get you a sherry?” he in part shouted, springing up again. . . . “The thing is, to take these things calmly, in the name of heaven!” he made her see. . . . “In a word, my lovely little thing, you and I really do have to get our, huh, our mutual history into some kind of handle-able order my God!”
It’s not hard to see why Stanley Elkin would be attracted to this: yes, it’s affected, twee, precious, but my God it’s weird, having what Elkin called “the queer protuberant salience of the obliquely sighted”—the “strange displacement of the ordinary” that turns merely competent reportage into something that rankles and sticks in the mind—and it has it at the level of each individual sentence, making Spackman’s narrative statements not so much a tool for carrying meaning as a means of carrying a tune. You have to be open to it: let it persuade you and teach you how to hear its melody.
Like his prose, Spackman is an anomaly. William Mode Spackman was born in 1905, lived eighty-five years, and the best of his delicate comedies were all written in the last third of his life. Each of them touches, with variation and nuance, on the same themes: the thrill of seduction, the fleeting pleasure of new love, the slow and never quite complete quiescence of desire as a man grows older, and, particularly in my favorite of his novels, A Presence with Secrets, the basic unfamiliarity between us and even our closest intimates—though he is never portentous, never dour. He’s more likely to attract the opposite criticism, that he’s too frivolous and light. But like Firbank and Green—with whom he shares just enough similarities for one to be tempted to issue an opportunistic “movement” name—he was a supreme stylist who could make the most trivial of narrative soufflés into succulent delights.
Further giving the lie to any accusations of frivolity, Presence is a tightly structured triptych, giving us three scenes from the life of a typical Spackmanian “marauder”—read “rake”—and painter named Hugh Tatnall.
The first section is narrated in a coy postcoital third-person, as Hugh wakes in bed with his new lover-of-the-moment following a riot in Italy (“For they had not taken refuge in this room to make love good god! but in a hairsbreadth run for it out of the path of that headlong mob suddenly on their very heels . . .”). The second is in first person, the recollections of a doting female cousin; and the third, “A Few Final Data During the Funeral,” is made up of the thoughts of a fellow marauder, now old, attending Hugh’s quiet, Quaker memorial.
The book is, among other things, a delirious performance: Spackman and his characters talk around Hugh, defining him by his absence, and in the process illuminating the fact that every life is—as Steven Moore points out in his excellent afterword—itself a “presence with secrets”: secrets that are inevitably lost with death, but that continue to tease and charm. At the root of all the bed-hopping and urbane flirtation that Spackman renders with such impeccable eccentricity—the shy then yielding women; the flustered, sputtering men-on-the-make—is his frustration with and delight in the basic unknowability of the texts of each others’ lives: how sex can be driven as much by the lust for knowing, for experiencing a closeness to new and ultimately inassimilable information, as it is by the more obvious dividends.
It’s about as charming a defense of infidelity as you’re likely to find. Hence Spackman’s focus on new loves, when his characters feel themselves drifting into a new affair, illicit or otherwise; his concentration not on the “stark act,” but, like some gruff and coy Philadelphian Schnitzler, on the various meetings and afterglowings: those moments of luxuriance when lovers really meet one another, and discover the boundaries of their access.
Pre- or post-, his characters spend most of their time talking—trying to define their relationships, and making rules for one another about as enforceable as Caligula’s victory over the sea. Their romances start to fade the instant they begin, and the unpleasantness that follows, when it’s sketched in, can’t ever compete for our or the author’s attentions. In Spackman’s world we may only speak with any surety about new loves and loves remembered with fondness. If this tendency towards fickleness and nostalgia in his imaginary lovers bears an unsettling resemblance to the true nature of we hopelessly adulterous and sentimental primates, it’s worth repeating, here and as always, that this particular zero-sum game is only really winnable in art." - Jeremy M. Davies
"A very Faberge among novelists ... his cadences, when they don't sound like La Rochefoucauld, are echoes of G. M. Hopkins ... Watteau's Embarcation for Cythera rendered as a fugue by Cole Porter ... imagine Nabokov and Fitzgerald with a soupcon of Anita Loos ... French boudoir farce in the manner of Homer's Iliad ... somewhere between the Scoop of Evelyn Waugh and a very un-McCarthy-like Gropes of Academe ... Jamesian in plot and theme, Colette-like in its sensuality.
FOR once reviewers' hype does not exaggerate, and yet the name of W. M. Spackman whose novels were acclaimed in America in such terms is virtually unknown in this country. But not quite; for in the slim volumes of the undergraduate anthology Oxford Poetry for the years 1928 to 1930, among such names as W. H. Auden, Norman Cameron, Louis MacNeice, E. J. Scovell, Stephen Spender and Bernard Spencer, the diligent researcher will come upon some satirical verses by Spackman, then a Rhodes Scholar reading 'Greats' at Balliol. Born in 1905 in Coatsville, Pennsylvania, into a family of wealthy Quakers, he read classics at Princeton, Class of '27, and was summarily ejected from the editorial board of a students' magazine for writing an article held by the university president to be both sacrilegious and obscene. 'I understand', he observed, 'that he has been reading a good deal of James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot and other modernists in literature'. There is no hint of these qualities in his Oxford poems, which are models of decorum.
On going down from Oxford Spackman was for a time an instructor in classics at New York University before turning to copywriting and public relations. He returned to academic life in 1938 as a Professor of Classics, with additional duties as Director of Public Relations, at the University of Colorado, writing educational radio programmes in his spare time. He served in naval intelligence during World War II when he added Russian to the various languages, ancient and modern, in which he was already well versed.
His first novel, Heyday, was published in 1953 when he was forty-nine. Influenced by Fitzgerald's story 'Babylon Revisited' and intended as 'the spiritual biography of a generation, a statement about American values, an elegy upon the immemorial loneliness of man, [and] a statement about the young American upper class in that era of its disaster, the 1930s', it fell far short of its impossibly ambitious programme. An uneasy blend of social observation, tragedy, and sex, it recalls the more expert productions of John P. Marquand, but failed to catch the public's imagination. His later comment (about Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green, whom he considered the two great masters of our own day) in an essay on Henry James that 'Anybody must be forgiven a first novel' surely had also a personal reference. Anyway, he published no further fiction for twenty-five years.
His only book during that period was a collection of astringent, irreverent essays, On the Decay of Humanism (1967), whose primary aim was to draw attention to the aesthetic deficiencies of the American academic mind in the fields of modern and classical literature. Most notable is the essay on James's novels in which, while acknowledging their many excellencies, he also made fun of their manifest shortcomings. The teaching of classics was also subjected to sardonic scrutiny, this essay being made the occasion for a celebration of his favourite of all writers, the Latin poet Ovid, whom he acclaimed as a genius of the order of Mozart and Sir Christopher Wren. (Architecture was one of Spackman's hobbies.) These essays, enjoyably instructive in themselves, provide a useful, a priori commentary on the work still to come: four short novels written when Spackman was in his youthful seventies.
The key to which is Ovid, especially the poet's ability to present girls, not as mere charming decoration, but as girls; and the ideal of love, not as seduction, but what Spackman called sexual courtesy. He believed that the 268 lines of Helen's letter in the Heroides contained
in embryo everything that has, since, developed into the novel of dissected motivations that is one of our glories, from La Princesse de Cleves, Manon Lescaut, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to Stendhal and Proust.
What he particularly admired in Ovid was his 'mastery of the whole dizzying orchestration of the female heart', a fair enough description of the theme of his own novels.
Their topography, though masquerading as the real world, is as artificial as that of Restoration comedy or the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, an idyllic never-never land whose fauna are the not-so-idle rich inhabiting variously a gem of Georgian brownstone in New York, the groves of American academe, a palazzo in Florence, a rambling chateau on the Brittany coast or a spacious domaine in Normandy. To bring to life his Arcadian scene Spackman devised a mannered style which combines mandarin with the colloquial, a prose rich in aphorism and literary allusion, employing at times a recondite vocabulary, and instantly recognisable as his own.
An Armful of Warm Girl (1978) is written from the viewpoint of Nicholas Romney -- irascible, a connoisseur of good food, his eye still roving at nearly fifty -- who was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family, read classics at Princeton and, after making a grand tour of Europe, entered the family banking firm, of which in 1959 (when the events of the novel take place) he is the chairman. He had married a debutant, raised an affectionate family, and indulged in extra-marital love affairs. Now, without preamble, his wife has declared her independence and asked for a divorce; so, leaving her to pack up her things on his ancestral property in Chester County, he descends grumbling on New York to mull over his predicament. And soon becomes entangled with two women.
He had embarked seventeen years before on an affair, begun in New York and reaching its zenith in Italy, with a young married woman Victoria, now nearing forty: rich, beautiful, and living with her second husband who plays no part in the novel. (Indeed, in all Spackman's fiction husbands are either absent or at any rate complaisant.) Nicholas and Victoria resume the familiar courtship ritual -- reluctance, pursuit, surrender -- as the scene shifts from the restaurants where they gently wrangle over the champagne to his town house in Barrow Street in the Village with its small wailed garden, Adam staircase, and Copley portrait over the mantlepiece, every room of which is haunted by memories of their earlier love-making. Here at a house-warming he is waylaid by a twenty-year-old actress, much addicted to the psychiatrist's couch, who fancies that Nicholas is the destined love of her life. Her first name is Morgan, like many of Spackman's characters borrowing her name from literature. Torn this way and that between Morgan and Victoria, Nicholas is in the position of David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy in Reynolds' well-known painting.
The chorus expressing the younger generation's views on their elders' behaviour is put into the mouths of Nicholas's married daughter Melissa and her best friend, also married but who shares her layouts with a married lover. Meanwhile Nicholas's freshman son -- only introduced at the end of a telephone line from Princeton -- exasperates his father with details of his own amatory entanglements. At his wit's end, Nicholas decides to decamp to Paris where Victoria has promised to join him; but at his farewell party on shipboard it becomes clear that the complications of his love-life are not to be so easily resolved.
On this flimsy structure Spackman fashioned his first comedy in the high style, one in which dialogue, narrative and thought-stream seamlessly merge into one another. Derivative in the best sense, his prose is marinated in classical and modern literature. Allusions range from Sophocles and Ovid to Petrarch, Milton, T. S. Eliot ('that Pindar of the prie-dieu') and Hemingway. Like Henry Green he has a precise ear for the cadences and hesitancies of modern speech which define the speaker's social and educational context, and like Graham Greene he can conjure a mood, a time, and a place with a few pastiche lines of jazz lyric:
Settin' around in mah underclo'es Gettin' a piece o' yo' mind.
He can paint a scene in a few words, as in Nicholas's nostalgic reminiscence of love-drenched Italy -- 'by what towers, what ancient streets, down what marble geometries, ah by what fountains ...'; and his portraits of the two women are by the hand of a master. Though Victoria had a point when she regretted that in his irresponsibility (a word that chimes throughout the novel like a clock striking) Nicholas had never learned to distinguish a woman from an entree.
Spackman's next piece of fiction, A Presence with Secrets (1981; its working title had been Portraits of the Painter), consists of three loosely linked stories of unequal length -- 47, 29 and 84 pages respectively -- each written from the standpoint of a different character and describing an episode in the amatory career of an American painter Hugh Tatnall. The title story, set in Florence, is concerned with two, overlapping love affairs: the seduction during a political riot, in a bedroom in a casa d'appuntamenti, of a nineteen-year-old American art student; and a longer relationship with an English married woman. Seen through the consciousness of Tatnall, the narrative weaves backwards and forwards between the two, and once more the style is everything, the most perceptible influences being the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist, Henry James, Proust and, in some of the descriptive writing, Henry Green.
'Pays de Connaissance' is written from the standpoint of another of Tatnall's mistresses, a twice-married cousin whose name is never disclosed. In this story the mood is sombre and, proving that Death stalks even in Arcadia, the climax tragic. The third person in the triangle is a French aristocrat of ancient lineage at whose chateau in Brittany the couple stop to ask the way. The country is in a state of emergency following an assassination attempt on de Gaulle, then President of France, creating a dangerous situation into which the Americans are unwittingly drawn.
The shape of the third story is summed up in its title. 'A Few Final Data During the Funeral', for having escaped a terrorist's bullet at the chateau, Tatnall is eventually shot dead in Florence in circumstances not dissimilar to the semi-comic demise of Graham Greene's burnt-out case. At the memorial service held at a Friends' meeting-house in Boston his best friend (and executor), a professor of humanities at Smith, reminisces about Tatnall's philandering from Princeton days onwards interspersed with his own sexual experiences. As a classicist the narrator has plausible scope for recourse to a wider range of classical authors, and as a teacher of the humanities to an even wider range of modern writers, from Ariosto to Jane Austen and from Dryden to Auden and Sylvia Plath. But the parade of Tatnall's girls--Persis, Camilla, Maura, Nadezhda and the rest -- tends to become wearisome, and in Tatnall, without intending to, Spackman created a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist.
The significance of the title of his next novel, A Difference of Design (1983), becomes apparent as the story unfolds and the names of the characters are revealed. A Wall Street investment adviser Lewis Lambert Sather, a widower of just under fifty and attractive to women -- what Spackman calls catnip -- has been sent to Paris by a rich client Mrs. Newman, widow of an Ohio industrialist and who now runs the business (the manufacture of couplings) with a rod of iron. His confidential mission is to rescue her son Chad from some amatory entanglement and send him home to assume his rightful responsibilities. The entanglement proves to be the beautiful Fabrienne, Comtesse de Borde-Cessac, before meeting whom Sather has begun an affair with Maria Godfrey, senior partner of the guide-and-escort service Mrs. Newman has employed to look after him. If that were not hint enough, Maria lunching with Sather in an expense-account restaurant and discussing his mission exclaims: 'Oh dear, it sounds practically like a novel we had to wade through in American Lit. Henry James or somebody'.
For Spackman's notion was to make good the deficiencies of James's The Ambassadors, in which Mrs. Newsome of Massachusetts sends the elderly Lewis Lambert Strether on a similar mission to extricate her son Chad from the clutches of the Comtesse de Vionnet. Spackman had declared in his essay on James that he could find in The Ambassadors nothing to admire at all, partly because the male characters took up so much of the wordage. More importantly, the love affair at the centre of the action seemed to him a blank, because Mme. de Vionnet was not given enough physical presence to suggest she had ever been in anybody's bedroom. The two women in Spackman's version suffer from no such deficiency.
The action, which takes place in 1983, falls into three parts of unequal length (32, 68 and 15 pages respectively), the first and last consisting of Fabrienne's 'stream of consciousness' which, though occurring in the daytime, has affinities with the night thoughts of Molly Bloom. To her dismay, in the midst of her affair with the amiable Chad, she finds she has fallen headlong in love with Sather. The members of the triangle are all old hands at the adultery game, and with two besotted females making a play for a very cool customer indeed their case is similar to that of Macheath, Polly and Lucy in The Beggar's Opera; the analogy with light opera being entirely appropriate to a production whose only aim is to entertain. As with An Armful of Warm Girl, the characters' predicament remains unresolved at the end of the book, leaving the reader at liberty to speculate on the further complications that lie ahead.
For his fourth novel of the series, A Little Decorum, for Once (1985). Spackman returned to the American scene to pay final tribute to the dizzying orchestration of the female heart. Its twin lynchpins are a novelist Scrope Townshend, still a marauder at sixty-plus who spends most of the book in and out of intensive care after a heart-attack; and Laura Tench-Fenton, editor of a glossy fashion magazine. For twenty years in between marriages they have engaged in a tender love affair, which is now renewed. Representing the next generation are Scrope's daughter Sibylla who is married to Laura's stepson Alec, a university lecturer and poet; and their friends who are living together, Amy another novelist and Charles a classics professor in his mid-thirties who is helping Sibylla write a comic libretto about Agamemnon. The third generation is represented by two Princeton sophomores, Amy's younger sister Mimi who is reading sociology (her term-paper is about generational affective vocabularies) and Scrope's grandson Richard; the three chapters in which they appear they spend in bed alternately copulating and gossiping.
Since the characters inhabit the American literary and academic worlds, there is a great deal of cultural name-dropping, Ovid among classical authors being the most frequently cited; for his spirit may be said to preside over the novel and even to provide its moral (if that is the right word?), namely that it is best to have two loves at a time, for in that way you get tired of neither. References to modern writers are also frequent and here include Larkin, Beckett, Coward, Queneau, Apollinaire -- and Spackman himself. Not only does Scrope share many of his creator's tastes and prejudices, especially his vendetta with Saint Paul and his devotion to women, but also appears to have written his novels. For when Amy questions Scrope about his attitude to young girls, in order to acquire information for use in her own fiction, she quotes as his the passage from An Armful of Warm Girl in which the infatuated Morgan accosts Nicholas in the pantry at his house-warming.
Another exercise in the high style, the device Spackman uses here to keep his marionettes dancing is the duologue, as often as not pillow-talk or a telephone conversation, which -- such is the garrulity of women -- usually develops into a monologue punctuated by occasional grunts, 'But's' or 'Well's' on the part of their male listeners. Endlessly they gossip about the other couples' liaisons, each generation finding it hard to accept that within and between all age-groups sex remains very much the same thing. Except in the matter of style; for the older generation accustomed to the courtesies of courtship are shocked by the Boeotian basics of the youngest generation. Mimi, who has already bugged her sister's bed in the cause of sociology, is clearly heading for a career of sexual experimentation, while Richard will have to look elsewhere for his work-outs. Amy is left dithering on the brink of an affair with Alec, whose wife Sibylla after due hesitation -- 'Ah, dammit, Sibylla', he pleads, 'which side of this dizzy debate with yourself are you planning to end up losing?' -- is already rolling in the hay with Charles. The comedy ends on a Shakesperean note of reconciliation with Scrope, by no means a sad ruin of past gallantry, recuperating at an inn in Brittany with Laura, both revelling in nostalgia for the past -- 'the real time of memory' -- even contemplating with indulgence the escapades of their children and grandchildren, which they have come to recognise as a mirror-image of their own.
W. M. Spackman died in 1990 at his home in Princeton at the age of eighty-five. Of a posthumous novel As I Sauntered Out on Mid-Century Morning mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times nothing more has been heard." - John Whitehead
All beyond was in deep darkness, under he saw thick mist above, night-glow from the luminous city around them thrown up saffron against filmy overcast, to be drawn in there, under great lifting curtains and pale coils of cloud, so that light was shed back down too faint anywhere, he hardly made out what this window gave on, below, muffled in black geometries of shadow; a small private square it seemed. And even elegant, a seicento façade over across, arcaded and ornate, the galleria a run of rounded arches all along it, also what must be the shape of a fountain, some spouting nymph he supposed, or riding marble waves a boy and dolphin, anyhow he heard the cold splash of water on stone. Silence again too everywhere, only damp breaths of night-sound rising like exhalations from dark streets and squares, where at last it smelt of spring.
So ecco, he said over his shoulder, in reassurance, and let the long folds of the curtain swing down straight again—there was nothing; had been nothing; late-night passanti scuffling. In any case not that rabble they’d run into, or anything like. But this without looking round at her, for he thought fright, yes, but also the delicate point now was, more likely, how with kindness to get her over what she was so stricken had happened, this helpless shock at herself he supposed: trouble with innocence was historical perspective, it had still to learn what was praxis. So, first, then, deal also with this woebegone nudity. Engaging or not.
There should be the usual toweling vestaglie warming on pipes in the bathroom. Where when he went to look there of course were. So he draped himself in one and brought her the other, saying amiably, here, put this round her pretty shoulders, she couldn’t spend her life under these comic European eiderdowns could she? while he saw to the fire.
On whose incandescent hummocks of ember he took his time shaking from the scuttle dribblings of fresh coal. Culm, it appeared: soft dusts kindled instantly, showering sparks, then soon the whole hearth glowed again, strewing its roses deep into the room’s vaults of shadow, so that when he turned round at last and found great innocent eyes dolefully upon him, those crimsons fluttering in her cheek anyone would have taken for hopeless blushing, so deep among the bed’s canopies of night had the hearth distributed its insubstantial emblems.
And blushing she may have been—helplessly not even he supposed being sure merely what next, or expected to know, for in the fire-fringed shadows she dropped her eyes from his to her cold hands. It seemed she could not speak for misery. Or gêne, for he saw it might be she had no idea what in this situation a girl found—desperately, or even at all—to say. A topic, even. Or, generally, what was, well, expected!
This unforeseen . . . could he label it “threshold-ritual”? anthropologically speaking it had been gone through like an angel, but on from there is not so near second nature. Including light drawing-room conversation if called for.
So, humanely, and still from across the room, imagine, he said to her (as if in complaint), getting caught in another of these pointless Mediterranean revolutions, what a damn’ nuisance. Assuming revolution was actually what it was, for he said genially he hardly thought Italy, Firenze anyhow, was a place any practical-minded Marxist would pick to start one. With their millennial history of total political cynicism? And all the black-marketable antiquities!
But she said in a shamed voice, “I thought we were going to die.”
Yes, well, after a moment he conceded, he supposed it was mostly that ominous lowering sound of a mob coming, like a typhoon. It was daunting; daunted anybody. So in pure primitive reflex people turned and ran. Whereas she’d seen for herself all they’d really needed to do, she and he, was step into the nearest doorway, or a courtyard, or anywhere out of the way. He was appalled he’d frightened her by not doing that on the spot. Instead of haring off first like a fool—luxurious as this pensione (or whatever it was) had in the event turned out to be.
But still it seemed she could not look at him, it was such a hopelessness, only murmuring something downcast about “. . . una condotta di collegio . . .” as if she did not see how, in English, she could possibly ever bring herself to face such a thing.