She is visiting her daughter in Nice, her first visit there in years. Her son will fly out from the United States to spend a few days with them, on the way to some conference or other. It interests her, this confluence of dates. She wonders whether there has not been some collusion, whether the two of them do not have some plan, some proposal to put to her of the kind that children put to a parent when they feel she can no longer look after herself. So obstinate, they will have said to each other: so obstinate, so stubborn, so self-willed—how will we get past that obstinacy of hers except by working together?
They love her, of course, else they would not be cooking up plans for her. Nevertheless, she does feel like one of those Roman aristocrats waiting to be handed the fatal draft, waiting to be told in the most confiding, the most sympathetic of ways that for the general good one should drink it down without a fuss.
Her children are and always have been good, dutiful, as children go. Whether as a mother she has been equally good and dutiful is another matter. But in this life we do not always get what we deserve. Her children will have to wait for another life, another incarnation, if they want the score to be evened.
Her daughter runs an art gallery in Nice. Her daughter is, by now, for all practical purposes French. Her son, with his American wife and American children, will soon, for all practical purposes, be American. So, having flown the nest, they have flown far. One might even think, did one not know better, that they have flown far to get away from her.
Whatever proposal it is they have to put to her, it is sure to be full of ambivalence: love and solicitude on the one hand, brisk heartlessness on the other, and a wish to see the end of her. Well, ambivalence should not disconcert her. She has made a living out of ambivalence. Where would the art of fiction be if there were no double meanings? What would life itself be if there were only heads or tails and nothing in between?
“What I find eerie, as I grow older,” she tells her son, “is that I hear issuing from my lips words I once upon a time used to hear old people say and swore I would never say myself. What-is-the-world-coming-to things. For example: no one seems any longer to be aware that the verb ‘may’ has a past tense—what is the world coming to? People walk down the street eating pizza and talking into a telephone—what is the world coming to?”
It is his first day in Nice, her third: a clear, warm June day, the kind of day that brought idle, well-to-do people from England to this stretch of coast in the first place. And behold, here they are, the two of them, strolling down the Promenade des Anglais just as the English did a hundred years ago with their parasols and their boaters, deploring Mr. Hardy’s latest effort, deploring the Boers.
“Deplore,” she says: “a word one does not hear much nowadays. No one with any sense deplores, not unless they want to be a figure of fun. An interdicted word, an interdicted activity. So what is one to do? Does one keep them all pent up, one’s deplorations, until one is alone with other old folk and free to spill them?”
“You can deplore to me as much as you like, Mother,” says John, her good and dutiful son. “I will nod sympathetically and not make fun of you. What else would you like to deplore today besides pizza?”
“It is not pizza that I deplore, pizza is well and good in its place, it is walking and eating and talking all at the same time that I find so rude.”
“I agree, it is rude or at least unrefined. What else?”
“That’s enough. What I deplore is in itself of no interest. What is of interest is that I vowed years ago I would never do it, and here I am doing it. Why have I succumbed? I deplore what the world is coming to. I deplore the course of history. From my heart I deplore it. Yet when I listen to myself, what do I hear? I hear my mother deploring the miniskirt, deploring the electric guitar. And I remember my exasperation. ‘Yes, Mother,’ I would say, and grind my teeth and pray for her to shut up. And so…”
“And so you think I am grinding my teeth and praying for you to shut up.”
“I am not. It is perfectly acceptable to deplore what the world is coming to. I deplore it myself, in private.”
“But the detail, John, the detail! It is not just the grand sweep of history that I deplore, it is the detail—bad manners, bad grammar, loudness! It is details like that that exasperate me, and it is the kind of detail that exasperates me that drives me to despair. So unimportant! Do you understand? But of course you do not. You think I am making fun of myself when I am not making fun of myself. It is all serious! Do you understand that it could all be serious?”
“Of course I understand. You express yourself with great clarity.”
“But I do not! I do not! These are just words, and we are all sick of words by now. The only way left to prove you are serious is to do away with yourself. Fall on your sword. Blow your brains out. Yet as soon as I say the words you want to smile. I know. Because I am not serious, not fully serious—I am too old to be serious. Kill yourself at twenty and it is a tragic loss. Kill yourself at forty and it is a sobering comment on the times. But kill yourself at seventy and people say, ‘What a shame, she must have had cancer.’”
“But you have never cared what people say.”
“I have never cared what people say because I have always believed in the word of the future. History will vindicate me—that is what I have told myself. But I am losing faith in history, as history has become today—losing faith in its power to come up with the truth.”
“And what has history become today, Mother? And, while we are about it, may I remark that you have once again maneuvered me into the position of the straight man or straight boy, a position I do not particularly enjoy.”
“I am sorry, I am sorry. It is from living alone. Most of the time I have to conduct these conversations in my head; it is such a relief to have persons I can play them out with.”
“Interlocutors. Not persons. Interlocutors.”
“Interlocutors I can play them out with.”
“Play them out on.”
“Interlocutors I can play them out on. I am sorry, I will stop. How is Norma?”
“Norma is well. She sends her love. The children are well. What has history become?”
“History has lost her voice. Clio, the one who once upon a time used to strike her lyre and sing of the doings of great men, has become infirm, infirm and frivolous, like the silliest sort of old woman. At least that is what I think part of the time. The rest of the time I think she has been taken prisoner by a gang of thugs who torture her and make her say things she does not mean to say. I can’t tell you all the dark thoughts I have about history. It has become an obsession.”
“An obsession. Does that mean you are writing about it?”
“No, not writing. If I could write about history I would be on my way to mastering it. No, all I can do is fume about it, fume and deplore. And deplore myself too. I have become trapped in a cliché, and I no longer believe that history will be able to budge that cliché.”
“I do not want to go into it, it is too depressing. The cliché of the stuck record, that has no meaning anymore because there are no gramophone needles or gramophones. The word that echoes back to me from all quarters is ‘bleak.’ Her message to the world is unremittingly bleak. What does it mean, bleak? A word that belongs to a winter landscape yet has somehow become attached to me. It is like a little mongrel that trails behind, yapping, and won’t be shaken off. I am dogged by it. It will follow me to the grave. It will stand at the lip of the grave, peering in and yapping bleak, bleak, bleak!”
“If you are not the bleak one, then who are you, Mother?”
“You know who I am, John.”
“Of course I know. Nevertheless, say it. Say the words.”
“I am the one who used to laugh and no longer does. I am the one who cries.”
Her daughter Helen runs an art gallery in the old city. The gallery is, by all accounts, highly successful. Helen does not own it. She is employed by two Swiss who descend from their lair in Bern twice a year to check the accounts and pocket the takings.
Helen, or Hélène, is younger than John but looks older. Even as a student she had a middle-aged air, with her pencil skirts and owlish glasses and chignon. A type that the French make space for and even respect: the severe, celibate intellectual. Whereas in England Helen would be cast at once as a librarian and a figure of fun.
In fact she has no grounds for thinking Helen celibate. Helen does not speak about her private life, but from John she hears of an affair that has been going on for years with a businessman from Lyon who takes her away for weekends. Who knows, perhaps on her weekends away she blossoms.
It is not particularly seemly to speculate on the sex lives of one’s children. Nevertheless she cannot believe that someone who devotes her life to art, be it only the sale of paintings, can be without fire of her own.
What she had expected was a combined assault: Helen and John sitting her down and putting to her the scheme they had worked out for her salvation. But no, their first evening together passes perfectly pleasantly. The subject is only broached the next day, in Helen’s car, as the two of them drive north into the Basses-Alpes en route to a luncheon spot Helen has chosen, leaving John behind to work on his paper for the conference.