Sunday, 21 March 2010

99. Overture

Ninety-nine different beginnings, crudely sewn together.

Hwaet! Who’s there? You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveller. You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. As the manager of the performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him. Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. This is the saddest story I have ever heard, of man's disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe. It is the saddest night for I am leaving and I am not coming back.

I began this disorderly and almost endless collection of scattered thoughts and observations in order to gratify a good mother who knows how to think. How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. Why should I not publish my diary? To pity people in distress is a human quality every man and woman should posses. I hope you will be ready to own publicly, whenever you shall be called to it, that by your great and frequent urgency you prevailed on me to publish a very loose and uncorrect account of my travels.

It started as a mistake. A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds. “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” You better not never tell nobody but God.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. As a proof of my readiness to accept autobiographical convention, let me at once record my two earliest memories:

1. I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.

2. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

Call me Ishmael. I am an invisible man. I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other. You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.

I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho' not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” – he was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.

Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But all children, except one, grow up.

To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black. It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen, when that April with his sweet showers has the dryness of March pierced to the root. April is the cruellest month. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Midway along the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. That is no country for old men.

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. Bridge. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. It was a dark and stormy night. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. It was 7 minutes to midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears' house. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. A squat, grey building of only thirty-four storeys.

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.

"What's it going to be then, eh?"

“Nothing to be done.”

We are in a camp five miles behind the line. Yesterday, our relief arrived; now our bellies are full of bully beef and beans. A screaming comes across the sky. I can feel the heat closing in. After the siege and assault was ceased at Troy, the burgh destroyed and burnt to beams and ashes, the man who hatched treacherous plots of treason was there tried for his treachery, the truest on earth. It was a pleasure to burn.

Mother died today. They shot the white woman first. It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. It was the day my grandmother exploded. We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon.

I am a sick man. My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

For a long time, I went to bed early. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed into an enormous bug.

Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. The story had held us, around the fire. The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet. Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. It was love at first sight. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

Sing to me of the man. riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

All this happened, more or less.

Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents.

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