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Apr 10, 2020
14 Min read time
On being awestruck by literature, and the necessary pleasures of intimacy—near and remote—during quarantine.
This essay is featured in our new special project:
Like many of those whose working lives involve explaining things to young people, I traffic perhaps more than I should in superlatives. Often, these are inflected with a kind of vehement implacability. Since I teach literature, they take a familiar form. The most devastating breakup scene (Henry James, The Bostonians). The most damning and vengeful American fiction (Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno”). The most brutal drive-by aside (George Eliot, “the mother too often standing behind the daughter like a malign prophecy”), the most pulverizing interpellation (James Baldwin, “Look, baby, I know you”), the most compressed sweetness (Elizabeth Bishop, “Why, oh why, the doily?”), the most sorrowful single word (Philip Larkin, “undiminished”). And on and on. I imagine you have some of your own. It’s a teacher’s trick—a mnemonic device meant to induce recognition via hyperbole and insistence, as well as through the attack and counterattack that typically follow. There are worse pedagogies, even if, as substantive declarations go, they are each more or less ridiculous.
I did what I often do with my excesses of emotion, which is to convert them into jokey, semi-needy texts to my friend, whom I have loved basically all my life, and who fields them with an expert fluency.
And yet. Live with these habits of untethered vehemence long enough and you may find that, whatever the quasi-charlatanism entailed in them, certain of those claims will not surrender themselves—to the contrary, they will appear somehow to have ripened over time into fact, or at least the fact-like. Some of them just come wheeling back upon you.
So it was I found myself insisting to a friend the other day that the greatest, the finest and most tender and demolishing literary scene of straight-male friendship transpires in the middle of Edward St. Aubyn’s otherwise impressively bleak Patrick Melrose Novels (published 1992–2012).
For real, I texted him. I fucking mean it.
The five Patrick Melrose Novels trace the life of a modern Englishman born into Old Money luxury, as well as into a family of spectacular, elaborate, life-envenoming cruelty. Patrick’s father is David, a figure of towering malice who spends years of Patrick’s childhood periodically raping him, while his mother (herself another of David’s victims) drinks her way into an only slightly perforated unknowingness. These facts direct much of the action of the novels, though the tone is another thing entirely. Committed throughout to the undislodgeable adjacency of horror and sparkling comedy, and spiked with cauterizing wit, the novels read something like Evelyn Waugh for nihilists—though it is a nihilism humane enough for expansive laughter and, more saliently, for an aching, all-pervading sorrow.
The most perfectly achieved of the five novels is also the funniest, and is called, with characteristic duplicity, Some Hope (1992). It finds Patrick at thirty, no longer trapped in the slow-motion suicide of heroin addiction but cleaned up, wondering what a life devoid of the terrorizing intensities of narcotics might look like (“He had been weaned from his drug addiction in several clinics, leaving promiscuity and party-going to soldier on uncertainly, like troops which have lost their commander”). At the outset of the novel, he is wondering whether to attend a party being thrown at an estate in the country, which promises to feature some of Europe’s ghastliest, most venal aristocracy, including, as it happens, Princess Margaret. It’s all as vicious as you could wish, a manor-house satire tricked out for early-nineties’ malefactors.
But another, less farcical plot threads through. For before he can bring himself to enter this scene, Patrick feels he must speak to “his greatest friend,” Johnny Hall, a former ally in drug use with whom he is now collaborating in the project of making the desolate ordinary world somehow endurable. He wishes to tell Johnny about the fact, undivulged for so long, that stands at the disfiguring center of his life. In the approach to this, the novel takes care to show us the buoying, easy wit that travels between the two men, but also the strains of disquiet. Early on, we follow Johnny to a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting, whose mawkish vernacular Patrick is forever mocking:
Talking to Patrick had exacerbated his rebellion against the foolish vocabulary of NA, while increasing his need for the peace of mind that others seemed to glean from using it. He regretted agreeing to have dinner alone with Patrick, whose corrosive criticism and drug nostalgia and stylized despair often left Johnny feeling agitated and confused.
Patrick, for his part, has more elemental misgivings, chiefly about trying to formulate, in speech, the devouring force of his father’s abuse.
But which words could he use? All his life he’d used words to distract attention from this deep inarticulacy, this unspeakable emotion which he would now have to use words to describe. How could they avoid being noisy and tactless, like a gaggle of children laughing under the bedroom window of a dying man?
How did you know? Patrick asks, as if he has only just realized the ruinous grief that has so damaged him might in fact be communicated to another person.
These unshared apprehensions aside, they meet. Sober now, they drink mineral water, order their dinners, and begin to speak.
Whereupon Patrick does indeed tell Johnny. Johnny, for his part, responds to his friend’s confession with shock, attentiveness, and a muted willingness to witness and to converse, though without the pretense of any near-to-hand fix for his friend’s anguish—all hallmarks of a kind of tactful, patient, persevering care that, were the players not English, you could go ahead and call “love.” But in the middle of their conversation, as the hyperarticulate Patrick labors to convey to his great friend what has happened to him, there is a piercing turn:
“I’m exhausted by hating him. I can’t go on. The hatred binds me to those events and I don’t want to be a child anymore.” Patrick was back in the vein again, released from silence by the habits of analysis and speculation.
“It must have split the world in half for you,” said Johnny.
Patrick was taken aback by the precision of this comment.
“Yes. Yes, I think that’s exactly what happened. How did you know?”
How did you know? Patrick asks, as if he has only just realized the ruinous grief that has so damaged him might in fact be communicated, in sorrow and compassion, to another person—might be made over into something slightly less, because shared. Patrick was taken aback: infinitely guarded and ironically unflappable Patrick! As if he only then recognizes, in its breadth of meaning, that the person with whom he is speaking loves him, and that this might, somehow, matter. No matter how many times you reread the thing, there it always is: this startling little detonation of tenderness.
But then, some days it’s not so little.
And so it was partly out of surprise, and partly out of a steep and genuinely unsteadying sort of confusion, that I sent those chirpy texts to my friend. I did so from my couch in Chicago, where I sat with my throat catching and my heart turning over, coming inexplicably unglued over a passage I very much knew was coming, in a book I’d read half a dozen times.
It is a sensation that perhaps you know, a cocktail of how gorgeous! and the fuck? I am by nature an overreactive person, it’s true, but this? And so, puzzled, rattled, fizzing with a sense of dislocated weirdness, I did what I often do with my excesses of blurry emotion, which is to convert them into jokey, semi-needy texts to my own great friend, whom I have loved basically all my life, and who fields them with an expert fluency.
That these novels precede Brexit and the permanent Tory majority, he shot back, is strong argument for uselessness of the “novel qua novel.” What, I ask you, is not to love?
So how’s pandemic life going over there? I wrote back, stepping into our calming groove. What are you listening to?
• • •
Since our planned spring trip to visit my family in Naples has been canceled, you could call this our honeymoon: a luna di miele keyed to the Age of Disasters.
It’s hard to imagine a gentler quarantine than the one I’m having. My job is secure. I am not stranded; I am not sick or especially vulnerable to sickness; I have kids who are grown, friends nearby, a lake to visit. Like a lot of middle-aged people, I am out of my mind with worry over my parents, who are nearly eighty and who suffered for a while with a mysterious cognitive blockage, some generational systems error that rendered them curiously blasé in respect to the pandemic. But even that gnawing fretfulness feels mild because, along with all these other unearned securities, I am shut in, here, with Julie.
I wish you could meet Julie. In her person you would find the unlikeliest convergence of graces. If, for example, there is a soul striding the shattered Earth who better holds together her discerning and indeed ferocious clarity of mind with what I can only call an aptitude for joyousness—an attunement to the pleasures of all the days: a bright sky, pie for breakfast, a touch—I swear to you I do not know them. (When I was first falling over myself in love, one of my stepdaughters said, “Julie’s great because she knows what it is to be happy, and she’s not uptight about it.”) And then, too, nothing of that pleasure-alertness distracts her from a life-anchoring sense of justice—its urgency, its scarcity—that exceeds my own by many, many powers, though this she carries with so scrupulous an absence of piety you could easily miss it. These are impossible harmonies, really. But there they are, in fleece running pants and a purple spotted bathrobe, each of these pandemic mornings.
Just this past summer we got married. Since our planned spring trip to visit my family in Naples has been canceled, you could call this our honeymoon: a luna di miele keyed to the Age of Disasters.
Of course, when I say I wish you could meet Julie, you should know that I am lying, at least a bit. It’s nothing to do with her affability. (Unless you’re an asshole, I’m sure you’d like her.) The matter is more defensive. For there is a battered and persisting part of me that thinks, Maybe it’s best that Julie’s singular magic is known, mostly, to you. It’s the same part that is eager to remind me how supremely easy it is to imagine a better companion—more pliant, more beautiful, more selfless, more competent and calm and stylish and wise—than the one I inevitably am.
I like to think everyone is in occasional contact with ghost selves such as these, voices that crackle inside us like fugitive broadcasts from a distant outpost, bristling with malign counterfactuals. Years ago, in another life, I was married and loved that person with a clutching urgency that I thought of as a happy, if anxious, besottedness. That person, who came to experience our togetherness rather differently, left me, with an unforeseen suddenness that I promise did nothing to ease the labor of recovery. Everybody, I think, knows a version of this, most a lot more harrowing.
Staticky voices, dialing in and out of range.
I don’t mean to overstate. On most of the days, for me, there is just the faintest hum; if they are pronouncing something, these voices, I cannot make it out. Nor do I feel a pressing need to try. Why would I? Even now, even in the midst of these stricken weeks, Julie is here, and I am here. We have our work, our ever-involving phones, family to call, friends to text, songs to send on in solidarity and consolation. And then there are all these books, clamoring to be read and reread, which on occasion deliver us—or some of us—to sputtering wrought-up tearfulness. We’re fine.
“Doomstruck incredulity and the enveloping dread aside,” I found myself saying the other night, “we are absolutely fucking fine.”
• • •
‘Doomstruck incredulity and the enveloping dread aside,’ I found myself saying the other night, ‘we are absolutely fucking fine.’
That was how I put it on a digital date with friends. There was, between us, much need of solidarity and consolation. The partner of one friend is severely immunocompromised, effectively rendering the outdoors off-limits to her and a scene of escalating fear for him. The other friend, who suffers from a chronic illness, is likewise susceptible, in different but equally scary ways. Talking together, even in this unnervingly mediated way, was exactly as replenishing as everybody says it is: saying aloud what we fear, but also reminding each other how our ration of small pleasures still delights us, how our jokes still live, how pleasant it is to be so fucking annoyed by the same social media presences.
“I’m not as sick as I’ve been,” my one friend said, “and I’m being super careful. But my body is totally reactive. I can feel all my symptoms creeping back into me.” We condoled over this, which seemed so worrying and stressful. And it was then that my friend said something astonishing.
“All this helplessness and fear, all the uncertainty,” she said. “Everyone’s sinking into their trauma responses. Everyone’s body knows this is a crisis.”
There was a pause, and I swear the light in the room shifted gradients. I felt myself breathe in, and breathe out. The previous days, with their weirdness and agitations, danced before me for a moment, reassembling at last into a sort of dry clarified relief.
I thought about the texts I’d sent, the insistent jokes, the reassuring old routine. I thought about why, of every goddamn book to read in this book-clogged apartment, I’d land upon that one, with its impassioned commitment to the artful transformation of horror into comedy, old grief into consoling form. I thought about the strange low-watt elation that had visited me, when it became clear that the next weeks would for the most part consist of being here, at home, hour after happy hour, with Julie. And I thought too about how awkwardly that elation had sat alongside something else, something nervy and chest-tightening and obscure.
Which, then, was less obscure. Because as my friends spoke to me, as the low murmur of voices I said I couldn’t hear started to come unjumbled, I caught clear sight of myself, as I’d been living out these first pandemic days at home. It was just the usual me: joking, fretful, basically very happy. But also, there on the lower frequencies: huddling into myself, seized in a semi-fetal crouch, as all the while my mind spun out a series of interrogatives: Is Julie unhappy? Is being here with me going to be unbearable for her? What am I doing, right now, without wishing to, that is going to make her stop loving me? How will I ruin everything?
“Yeah,” I said, weakly. “I think that’s really really right.”
• • •
‘Sweetheart, it’s truly OK. If I’m annoyed, I won’t leave, I’ll just tell you. Because I don’t like being annoyed.’
It remains the case that, by every metric that matters, we are fine, we are more than fine. (The next night, as I found some words to say much of this to Julie, she said, “Sweetheart, it’s truly OK. If I’m annoyed, I won’t leave, I’ll just tell you. Because I don’t like being annoyed.”) As I say, we have one another, and our home, and more by way of security than anyone in this despoiled garrison state could be said to deserve.
And we have our books, crouching on the shelves all around us. Each one set to unloose its minor chaos, ready to act as venom and antidote, the bandage and the wound.
Meanwhile, our back windows look south toward the towers of downtown, out over the low buildings and jumbled rooftops of the neighborhood. When you’re home a lot, the view acquires an uncanny familiarity, like a face you see in the mirror. Just after sunset there’s a lovely metallic glow, pinkish and gold, that comes off the houses, as one by one the lights pop on and you see for a minute the illuminated interiors.
There’s something sweet and also queasy about it. Inside every lit-up room, I’ve started to think, there’s a person-sized haunting going on. There is somebody low-key reliving the absolutely, the superlatively worst shit that has ever fucking happened to them. It’s setting itself up in their shoulders, at their temples, in the cells of their pumping blood. You watch the lights blink on, the next and the next and the next, and then night settles in, and the glow turns cathode-blue.
When I watch this, I find there’s a text I really want to send, though I’m wary of trying anybody’s patience. There is no greater second paragraph, I want to say, in any novel, ever. And then this:
The obscure fragments of his dream, which seemed to have taken place beside a lake, were confused with the production of Measure for Measure he had seen the night before with Johnny Hall. Despite the director’s choice of a bus depot as the setting for the play, nothing could diminish the shock of hearing the word ‘mercy’ so many times in one evening.
The shock, I want to say, of mercy.
Have you ever seen anything sharper or sadder? For real: tell me.
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