Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 27

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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It had been over two weeks since I last visited Dorothea who had made up her mind to marry the unlikely Mr. Casaubon, despite her sister's low opinion of him, not quite fifty pages into the book. I could see why Henry James might have thought Middlemarch such a great novel at the time he was writing Portrait of a Lady, a man in his late-thirties who would never marry anyone to experience a good or a bad marriage. But if Verdi's Otello had eclipsed Rossini's once famous setting, had James' Lady supplanted Eliot's in the eyes of posterity?

What impact had Mary Ann Evans' own personal life had on her characters, a woman hiding behind a man's name, now, in her early-fifties, living with a man not her husband? Was it that different a Victorian mind-set from a woman's perspective, a decade before Isabel Archer arrived on the literary scene, standing in that doorway? The novel had hardly started when Dorothea's ill-advised marriage had become fact, and the question wouldn't be nearly as dramatic as the one left hanging at the end of James' tale.

On a miserably dreary morning, it struck me as a miserably dreary prospect to be visiting her again so once more, regrettably, I laid it aside. The morning had not struck me as a good one for concentration, chaining myself beside the piano – the new piece will not come, that is all: put it aside and see how it fares in a certain amount of time (days, weeks) or set it aside, still-borne, with the rest. Instead, I pottered into the den and looked out into the drizzle.

Even aided by feeling a hot mug of coffee in my hands (my favorite ceramic mug which Madeleine had given me when we first started seeing each other so many years ago), its heat coursing its way slowly into my body, losing myself in a book would be the only viable option for my time today. The cats, it seemed, were ready, and didn't care what I'd read.

Should I read aloud to them? It seemed more comforting to me than them, but I liked to think they found their human's voice a sign of attention they appreciated, rampant anthropomorphosizing aside. I had picked up the Eliot, thumbed my way absent-mindedly through to find my bookmark – an old expired coupon: two years (had it been that long since I started reading it?) – read a few lines, not sure who Mrs. Cadwallader was and lost my interest paging back to reread the opening of the chapter. It did not seem an appropriate story for cats, today, as Fleance prepared to curl up on my lap even before I'd settled myself in the chair.

Despite the plan of putting books away on a regular basis to keep the piles at bay, I had amassed quite a stack here – two, actually, not particularly organized. It had been an aimless month, dipping my toe in various pools but never actually going for a swim in any of them. This and that – I needed something to focus on.

As a composer, I was not one to listen to a lot of music while I was working on a new piece aside from some old classics and favorites that wouldn't likely rub off and lead anyone to accuse me of imitating them. Did Henry, while he's working on his novel, immerse himself in a good book when he wasn't working in the evenings? Unless he worked straight through the day, I don't know, since he never talks about it: usually, I could only spend so many hours composing – by mid-afternoon, my brain was pretty well shot.

Perhaps, once his month of writing wildly would be over – Sunday, only four more days – we will sit and compare notes, what it's like for him to be a writer (or at least try his hand at it) as it is for me to be a composer. I dreaded being asked to read his novel, though: what would I say if it's bad; what would he think if I thought it was good?

Most of this past month or so, I have been reading other people's journals – May Sarton's Solitude and a collection from Thoreau – things I can dip into here and there without making a commitment. There was a delightful collection called The Year of the Moon Goose someone had given me, picked up a couple months ago from a self-publishing author named T. W. Burger traveling through Maine (he lives in Gettysburg – was his home close to where my Union Ancestor nearly died?). For a few days, I had walked through Georges Perec's Life, the story of a building's inhabitants, if one wants to reduce it to that, but I quickly lost interest in it.

Otherwise, I'd been reading "music books," as Stephen called them, like distinguishing snow from "lake-effect snow" – somehow they weren't real books. A biography of Clara Schumann had caught my interest (I was about half-way through) but that was about it.

There, underneath a collection of conversations with composer Thomas Adès, was Umberto Eco's Prague Cemetery which I'd only cracked open once or twice before putting it aside for later, then forgetting all about it. I'd also forgotten it was a library book and saw it was now a week overdue. "No sense renewing it at this point." I'm not even sure why I'd taken it out to begin with: it had taken years to gird up my courage to get past the opening of Foucault's Pendulum (eventually, I was either hot or cold about it) and this might prove more of the challenging same.

I could hardly imagine any reason to be going out in this weather – this wouldn't keep till after Thanksgiving? What's another few cents on the late fine? How much gas was I using just to do this one thing today? Honestly, while I'm out, I might as well stop at the store (that was a mistake: mayhem before Thanksgiving and not enough registers to handle the flow).

The young woman at the library desk pleasantly took care of my fine as I looked around. The place was not busy – a dismal Wednesday morning, the day before a holiday, people traveling, a storm coming (no, here) – but there were new arrivals to check out and, afterward, I wandered over to see what could be seen.

Not new, but newly arrived, a book about James' Portrait of a Lady caught my eye, a good and likely way to spend many days like today: winter weather would be good for such a book, a luxury to sink my eyes into.

It was then I saw them, stepping out from her office, a couple – not just two people but people sharing an intimacy – and I tried not to stare after them as they left the building without a backward glance. Perhaps lunch with an old friend or a new beau? The young woman at the desk had asked me something which I hadn't heard, so I asked her to repeat it (an old man going deaf, she thought, no doubt). Did she notice, I wondered, my looking over my shoulder at them like some lion rere regardant on some family crest?

Did I even know if she were married? Henry's implication was she was not, but did he know, with any certainty (reasonably doubtful)? Or that she had someone else in her life?

"Is there anything else," the young woman politely repeated, "I can do for you today, sir?"

"No – no, thank you." "Sir," I thought, as if I didn't already feel like the old man of the sea. (But what does it matter to you, my girl, and what does it matter to me?)

After all, I'd seen Joyce only those few times, stopping by the library: not like I had any hopes, did I? I followed them out the door.

Its inevitability was likely, given the plane of the possible, as it had happened introvertibly before and now, proven, extrovertibly visible. If I didn't see it, it wasn't real by reason of reasonable doubt – isn't that what Mr. Lipsitt said? like the tree falling in the woods – but seen, now, there were corporeal commiserations to be dealt with, this new modality. The hypothesis had become hypostasis: who would understand that better than the imaginary invalid, no? You have to admit, love is sweet – love, they say, has a sweetness about it – but short-lived, this one. Off they trudged, the red Egyptians, toward the black pit, deep as the wine-dark sea.

He wore a scarf, dull red, wrapped around him loosely, not yet ready for the cold (and such a mild day, too, it was), cultivating the slight scruff of beard now fashionable, just growing in (always growing in, it looked, always in need of a shave). It must take work to look that casual. And she? E chi mi può dar vita, ahi, che m'ancide., more or less. She wore a brown-wool shawl, her hair trailing on behind.

They had disappeared into a car, dashing through the rain, laughing. Off to lunch somewhere, no doubt (probably not a diner). More than just an admirer, I suspect, maybe met recently; or an old friend – not an ex. They weren't holding hands but seemed closer than "just friends" (of course, I'm reading too much into this). There are, I keep telling myself, plenty of fish in that wine-dark sea.

Instead of sitting at home, thinking about saying something to her – how difficult can it be, walking up to someone and saying "Hello"? – I should have gone into the library and... well, sitting there waiting for her to walk across my path, like a trap-door spider? I felt like a stalker. No, it would have to be nonchalant and while I was signing out a book, something one would normally do in a library. (Chalant just didn't work, for me, a bad delivery on a pick-up line: "come here often?")

Ideally, I would run into her somewhere – at the grocery store, if I knew where she shopped, at a restaurant somewhere, if I went out with any frequency – and just say "Hi, I've seen you at the library" and take it from there. An easy conversation, welcoming her to the community, one slightly less recent transplant to another. But it never happened, mostly because I never let it happen: it didn't seem like me.

"Me" was a shy procrastinator who hoped, if she was – no, were – interested in me, she'd come up to me. Small wonder I had so few friends since I moved here. The story of my life, really: remember me (click here) but ah, forget my fate. Good night, my ragtime gal. Easycome, easygo. (Jesus wept!)

When I got home – for some reason, it took longer than usual – there was a message on the machine from Stephen: he was on his way and would arrive sometime this evening, renting a car in Boston. He'll call when he gets in because he'll need directions, of course – remembering how to get here, out on the mountain, would be unexpected, given the one time he'd been here before, a few years ago, and his never being very good with directions.

Considering it will be dark around 4:00, I'll offer to meet him at some obvious spot in the village, maybe where we could grab a bite to eat. He'll never find his way out here at night on his own: miss one turn and suddenly he'll be driving off the top of Mt. Agamemnon.

Picking up some books from that pile in the den, I noticed Middlemarch had been knocked off the table, lying nearly inaccessible against the wall. Which one of the cats could I thank for this one? With some difficulty, I managed to pick it up, its binding nearly broken, and then saw something fall out of it – my bookmark, no doubt. "Damn," I thought, "now I'll have to start over again."

Not my bookmark, no – a photograph (an unlikely bookmark) – and requiring more contortions to retrieve it. If I hadn't seen it, it might have stayed hidden there for years. An old photograph, at that, glossy, black-and-white with a fairly wide yellowish-white border and serrated edges.

I examined it under the light. It was clearly Madeleine as a girl but I don't remember having seen it before. She must be ten or so, sitting there on a grassy bank, probably in a park judging from that pond in the background, otherwise anonymous. She's holding hands with a boy, I'm guessing the same age – her first boyfriend? I laughed. It's summer but they're well-dressed, probably on Sunday – back from church, perhaps.

Are they neighbors, school chums – cousins who haven't seen each other since last summer? I have no idea who he is, barely any idea who she is but her smile is unmistakeable. She looked very happy, then, a nice way to remember her. How many years has it been since I last saw that smile?

I will leave this out so Stephen can see it. There's an unused frame in a desk drawer that's just the right size. Sitting down to resume reading the book, it occurred to me this book had been Madeleine's copy, her name written on the title page with the severe seriousness of a college student – "Brookwood Dorm 124-B" underneath.

We had been carrying this book around with us ever since we married and I never knew this photo was in here: when would I have found it, I wondered, reading through Eliot's heavily detailed story? Did she know she'd left it in here? Did it reflect some aspect of the story, reminding her of a past, perhaps unrequited love? And why, then, as a college student...?

I wish I could ask her about it – who the boy was, what the occasion was, what had ever happened to him (to them), why she stuffed it away in here, probably her junior year, I'm guessing? But I asked her anyway, not expecting an answer.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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