Divisions Upon a Ground

By Dai Vaughan

There is a room whose shutters are always closed. In one corner there is a book no one has ever read. And there on the wall is a picture one cannot see without weeping.

This is surely the most perfect, most tantalising and at the same time most expansive of stories. It is by the painter Giorgio de Chirico, and occurs in what is called the Jean Paulhan manuscript. There it occupies a position within a sequence of short, gnomic paragraphs, and may therefore be held not strictly to constitute a work in its own right. But then everything we read takes its place in some context, if only in the continuum of what we have already read and what we are just about to read; and I therefore feel no qualms about discussing this piece in isolation.

More seriously it may be objected that I am conferring the status of story upon what is in reality no more than a descriptive fragment. It seems to me, however, that a great deal of action – or at least progress, or, if not progress, development – is implicit over the course of these three sentences. Consider, to begin with, the evolution of very first word: ‘there’. There is a room... Here we have a plain declaration that a certain room exists. Next: In one corner there is... Already the word ‘there’ has become subordinate to a delimitation of topographical space - one corner as opposed to any other corner, ‘there’ as opposed to somewhere else. Finally, And there on the wall is... The on the wall is no mere insertion into the phrase there is. What has now happened is that the word ‘there’ has been transformed from verbal auxiliary to a fully functioning demonstrative – a transformation only hinted at in the second sentence: it is assuming, and thereby summoning, the presence of a viewer.

Now let us turn to what these three sentences are telling us. There is a room whose shutters are always closed. Unambiguous as this may appear, we do not in fact know whether we are being invited to imagine a house seen from the outside, whose shutters prevent passers-by from glancing in, or a room whose occupants, if any, are denied any knowledge of the wider world. In the second sentence our viewpoint is clearly the interior, since we are asked to visualise the book in a corner. On first acquaintance with this, I clearly saw the book as lying on a small table, and was quite surprised, later, to discover that no table had been specified. A further level of information is introduced by the statement that the book has never been read. Is it just that this particular volume has not yet been opened; or are we to understand that the contents of the book have never been perused by anybody? We are inclined to suppose the latter, if only because in the former case it might hardly seem worth mentioning; but in either case we could never ascertain this merely by looking at the book: so that a wholly extraneous body of knowledge is now implied. Thirdly we have a picture one cannot see without weeping. This may simply mean that to look at the picture will move anyone to tears; but a more haunting alternative, concealed within the same grammar, is that only those who are already weeping can see the picture at all. This last sentence marks its arrival with a curious inflexion of the word ‘one’: the ‘no one’ who has read the book is a generalised negative; but the ‘one’ who cannot see the picture without weeping is the individual addressed, which is to say oneself. We are now firmly placed within the room, subject to its constraints, challenged by its mysteries, denied the cavalcade of everyday appearance whilst offered access to a book of unique knowledge. As for the picture...

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to begin: to begin an exercise in coming to consciousness: a sort of reverse birth, a birth backwards into life already lived?

A moraine at sunset. The slope is gentle; but whether because we are near the top of the mountain or at its lower reaches is hard to say. It depends on whether we interpret the grey wash which occupies most of the lower background as the implacably rising shoulder of a companion mountain or as banked clouds. Somehow, perhaps because of the solitude, we are inclined to settle for the higher option - for a feeling that, in the valley, dusk will already have fallen leaving this peak as a beacon against a darkening sky. Indeed, there is a dusky quality about the light itself which, though strong, casts little shadow: a ruddy suffusion marking the close of a long summer day attenuated beyond sufferance.

Seated on a boulder, angled slightly towards us, is a damsel in a white silk dress - it is presumably something in the cut of the dress which prompts us to employ such an archaic word. Her auburn hair, tightly braided at the crown, falls in increasing and tempting disarray. Notwithstanding the mediaeval garb, there is more than a hint of the Gibson Girl. Her skirts are spread amply across the boulder; and a moment’s thought reveals that she could scarcely walk without an echelon of pages to support her train. But there is no-one else to be seen. Only the peacock.

The peacock, one pernickety leg raised, regards her from an opposing stone. She sits bolt upright as if in a Victorian dining chair designed to encourage correct posture, her arms straight to her sides, her hands clutching the material of her dress and pulling it taut across her lap. Her expression as she returns the peacock’s gaze is ambivalent. There is perhaps, in the elevation of the chin, an element of hauteur, as if the girl were vying with the bird for beauty in a contest where not only the decision but its manner and provenance were secret and awaited with anxiety. But there is also, in the girl’s tenseness, in the slightly sidelong angle of her glance, more than a suggestion that she is steeling herself for escape as one might seek to break the fascination of a serpent but not dare. Is the peacock poised for attack? Does the girl half dread, half welcome, the role of Leda to his spiny, quill-rattling passion? Is that claw raised in incipient movement or in admonition? The heavy tail hugs his rock as the damsel’s weight of excess silk lies ponderous upon hers, both seemingly rendered immobile. An enigmatic duel in the declining light in a place bare of vegetation…

Well, that is possible. As for the book: why has it never been read? Perhaps because it has not yet been written.

She held her head the way a sunflower holds its head, with a bashful confidence. I was just passing the domiciliary wing when she pushed open the shutters with a triumphal clatter and leaned out, her hands on the sill... Her eyes were feline. Her hair, bronze streaked with gold, hung luxuriant and Rapunzel-like - though naturally not so long or climbable - as she bestowed her smile upon the world, upon the whole world... That is my first memory of her, simply breathing in the spring morning and all its promise. Later memories include: two hands, a male and a female, resting side-by-side on a bench without actually touching; a circular postcard from a long way off in another language which she knew and I didn’t, and moreover she knew I didn’t; a black-veiled figure, slightly bowed, travelling immobile up a very long escalator until... Is that all? Well, there was a kiss resisted, brusquely resisted; but I prefer not to dwell upon that.

Boats at sunset. The sort of scene which would feature in an oil painting encountered on the upper landing of an old, provincial hotel, its twilight deepened by the low wattage of the lighting and by the time-darkening of its varnish...

It was not the sort of event one immediately recognises as life-altering. A street of stalwart brick interspersed with ricketty 1960s square grid frontages, hardboard fascia buckled with damp; weeds gushing from cracked cast iron gutters; menu boards of cafés in rain-paled chalk not needing to be up-dated because the menus never changed... A bunch of market traders were trying to bump a parked car up a cobbled alley to make room for another one which was blocking the road to traffic, while a pair of policemen strolled through the crowd, indifferent. The owner of a stall piled with tatty electronic gadgets was bawling, ‘All genuine stolen goods!’ - trying to wind up the coppers, but to no effect, for the amusement of a cluster of racially heterogeneous housewives whose manner and bearing Dickens would not have found out of the ordinary.

The second-hand bookshop did nothing to draw attention to itself. As soon as he entered he became aware that it was sparsely stocked. Towards the rear a man and a woman stood alongside a desk. He avoided looking at them directly, so as not to be asked if they could be of assistance. A woman’s voice was saying something about requiring medical attention but being reluctant to take time off from work; and at first he assumed these words to be spoken by the woman at the desk, but then decided they were more likely those of some radio serial to which the two were listening. Most of the books on the shelves were ones he already owned - the same editions, in fact, bound in the same jackets, even faded to the same degree. Through the corner of his eye he saw the woman leave by a side door, and at the same time the voice seemed to have stopped: so perhaps it had been hers after all, and she was unwell, and the man had given her leave to consult her doctor. He was not unused to finding books in second-hand shops that matched those in his own possession; but in this instance there were few that did not. And it was indeed possible that even those few were ones he had once possessed but had forgotten. The rational explanation was that someone had died whose tastes corresponded closely to his own, and that his or her books had been auctioned as a single lot; but he could not resist the feeling that what confronted him in this unassuming room was a foretaste of the aftermath of his own death: that this was what would become of his belongings when he was gone: that this, in a word, was all his life had amounted to. The feeling was not, it has to be said, entirely unpleasant. But from that point onwards it was as if his grip on life noticeably slackened. He became not so much dreamy as detached, forgetting to wind his wristwatch, reading last week’s newspaper, leaving his umbrella on the train.

That is what life is like. There’s no denying it. Grimy hands turning the leaves of sacred books, lifting a page by squeezing it between two fingers rather than using the thumb; a frown through ill-balanced spectacles; referral back to a previous page; dirt deep-etched into the folds of the skin; murmured debate on points of doctrine; hats with greasy headbands; unrolling of a heavy scroll while another takes up the slack, the vellum sagging and tautening in rhythm with their movements; seeking the one true truth they have sought for centuries.

It was late afternoon when we reached the fishing village where we had planned to stay overnight. We humped our unburdensome luggage up the hotel stairs whose carpet was secured with old-fashioned brass rods, each individually polished. The beds were covered not with synthetic fabrics but with heavy Welsh quilts of colours one is nowadays used to seeing only in faded form but here were pristine. On the wall of our room was a painting – or, I should rather say, a lithographic reproduction of a painting – in the 19th century taste, of a cove at sunset: reddened tussocks, a leaden glint from runnels in the sand, a mackerel sky.

As we took our evening walk along a stretch of built-up path overlooking the foreshore, the clouds assumed the look of bloodstained rags, bloodstained bandages. The air was somehow thicker, more dense, than is usual. Fishermen hauled their smacks towards the beach, there being no jetty, and unloaded wicker baskets full of slithering silver bodies. Their waders were waist-high. Gulls set up a crescendo of mournful shrieking as they rose, dipped and skimmed. The men moved stiffly, awkwardly, as if their waders were filled with wet sand, perhaps incapacitated by exhaustion. Chill air swept the scene, and there was a plaintiveness to it all which was difficult to account for: a sense that everything we could see was slipping irretrievably into the past, into memory – or even being forgotten in the very moment of its happening. Yet this is true of everything. How could it be more true now? Was it, I wondered, to do with that painting? I tried to fix in my mind the precise rise and fall of the dunes; but there was in truth nothing sufficiently specific to serve as a point of comparison.

The sun had already set, but a redness glanced from the sky to touch her hair with copper as she stood at the window and sipped whisky from a silver flask engraved with the bearings of a vanished dukedom. Her gaze seemed far away, as if fixed upon some object of distant thought; and then, without turning, she said, ‘It was on such an evening as this that I was sitting on a rocky beach when, seemingly from nowhere, a peacock approached me...’ A beach? There seemed to be something wrong with this recollection; but who was I to judge?

Their three shadows leapt up and down the walls with the swaying of their flashlights in a strange mimicry of frivolity and threat.

‘A good thing no goyim should see us now. They’d start to think things – old forgotten things.’

‘Don’t mention it. There are things best left unmentioned.’

‘Does anyone know why this is called Bad Cake Alley? There’s no street sign that I can see.’

‘Probably vandalised. The youth around here, nothing to do...’

‘No, it never had any name. Perhaps no-one ever wanted to give it a name in the first place. But it was kiddies at school. I remember the rumour that went the rounds: that one of the boys had bought a pie – a blackberry pie, I think it was – and found inside it a little nest of new-born mice all baked to a crisp.’

‘So Bad Pie Alley it should be called.’

‘Chaimie, do you always have to be so literal?’

‘Wait, I think this is it – this door. No number on it, but I’ve been counting.’

‘But this is... I mean, I thought the genizah was annexed to the schul – that little door at the back...’

‘That’s the new genizah. It was added as an extension when this one got too full to take any more books. Well, “new” – it was some time in the middle of the 19th century, they say. No more books could be stuffed into it, they say. But it’s still here. Most people have forgotten long ago – think it’s a sub-station for electricity, or something.’

‘That’s a substantial lock. Do we have a key?’

‘Do you suppose I would have brought a crowbar if we’d had a key?’

‘Simon, you shouldn’t...’

‘It’s too late for shouldn’t.’

‘The door’ll hardly move – jammed by something.’

‘Take a shoulder to it.’

‘It’s the books – they’ve toppled down.’

‘We can squeeze in now, I think...’

‘They weren’t joking when they said too full. It’s bursting at the seams. And a century of damp, too. Shine your torch up there – look, up there. It’s turned into papier-mâché. Some of it is actually solid.’

‘We’ll need the crowbar to quarry our way into this. Where can we even begin?’

‘But look: even these loose ones at the front – these are not holy texts – look, this is a treatise on mathematics...’

‘You’re right. Here – I don’t know what alphabet this is, but these diagrams are alchemistical for sure – someone wanting to make fool’s gold...’

‘And – Conjugations of Estonian Irregular Verbs...?’

‘All right. But who is to say what is a holy text and what is not?’

‘Be serious!’

‘You don’t look like you’re all that surprised, Simon. Why are we here? What are you really looking for?’

‘It was a reference I found in my studies. Years and years ago. I’ve been trying to track it down ever since; and I thought maybe perhaps here... It was the only place I hadn’t tried, and for that reason alone I became convinced that this is where I would find it.’

‘In here – you’re asking us to help you find one quotation?’

‘You’re right, it’s hopeless. I’m sorry I dragged you both into it. Forgive me.’

‘It was what, this quotation?’

‘The reference I found? It was to somebody having composed a Midrash on a story made up of just three sentences. But never mind. Never mind. Tomorrow I’ll say I noticed there’d been a break-in here, the door has been damaged; get a joiner to repair it, make it safe again for another hundred years of decrepitude.’

Mutely, for it is so long since anyone spoke to her that she has lost the habit of words, she gazes at the painting barred with light from the shutters she dare not open, perhaps even could not if she were to dare try: a painting of a shuttered villa on a hill above a grove of olives where goats shelter under old trees from the scorch of the sun. She takes up the book from the table and opens it to her favourite page where the little schoolboy with his satchel is trudging along the stony path to Pontcarreg which passes an old house, isolated, rumoured to be haunted, with shutters of the sort one sees in engravings of landscapes in Italy or Provence, and often he thinks he can hear the sound of a young woman sobbing but has never mentioned it to his schoolfriends for fear they will laugh at him, and as she thinks of this sad little boy her eyes fill with tears.

Grey. A misty grey formed of microscopic globules. A hand wipes aside the grey smear to reveal, stroke by stroke, a face in a mirror returning an unseen stare. In the brief gap between recognition and assimilation – which is to say between the recognition of a face as one’s own and its assimilation into the quotidian, into the world of normalcy, or perhaps between the subject’s recognition of the reflection and the reflection’s recognition of the subject – the reflection ponders the day when image and counter-image shall come together in a mutual annihilation so cataclysmic as to set the entire galaxy trembling. But it is a moment instantly forgotten.

The words on the page become visible only after they have been read. Where there is here there must also be elsewhere. A woman weeps while in her portrait her reflection – or in the mirror her likeness – looks on unmoved.

The fragment from De Chirico is to be found in a translation by Louise Bourgeois and Robert Goldwater in Hebdomeros, published by Exact Change, Cambridge, 1992.

Dai Vaughan is a poet, novelist, essayist and critic. His books are published by Seren and Quartet. He contributes regularly to Vertigo and Artesian.