“Which powers do you feel you are losing, Mother?” asks her son cautiously.
“I am losing,” she says gaily, “the power of desire.” In for a penny, in for a pound.
“I would not have said desire had power,” responds John gamely, picking up the baton. “Intensity perhaps. Voltage. But not power, horsepower. Desire may make you want to climb a mountain but it won’t get you to the top.”
“What will get you to the top?”
“Energy. Fuel. What you have stored up in preparation.”
“Energy. Do you want to know my theory of energy, the energetics of an old person? Don’t get anxious, nothing personal in it to embarrass you, and no metaphysics either, not a drop. As material a theory as can be. Here it is. As we age, every part of the body deteriorates or suffers entropy, down to the very cells. That what aging means, from a material point of view. Even in cases when they are still healthy, old cells are touched with the colors of autumn (a metaphor, I concede, but a dash of metaphor here and there does not add up to metaphysics). This goes for the many, many cells of the brain too.
“Just as spring is the season that looks forward to summer, so autumn is the season that looks back. The desires conceived by autumnal brain cells are autumnal desires, nostalgic, layered in memory. They no longer have the heat of summer; what intensity they have is multivalent, complex, turned more toward the past than toward the future.
“There, that is the core of it, my contribution to brain science. What do you think?”
“A contribution, I would say,” says her diplomatic son, “less to brain science than to philosophy of mind, to the speculative branch of that philosophy. Why not just say that you feel in an autumnal mood and leave it at that?”
“Because if it were just a mood it would change, as moods do. The sun would come out, my mood would grow sunnier. But there are states of the soul deeper than moods. Nostalgie de la boue, for instance, is not a mood but a state of being. The question I ask is, Does the nostalgie in nostalgie de la boue belong to the mind or to the brain? My answer is, The brain. The brain whose origin lies not in the realm of forms but in dirt, in mud, in the primal slime to which, as it runs down, it longs to return. A material longing emanating from the very cells themselves. A death drive deeper than thought.”
It sounds fine, it sounds like exactly what it is, chatter, it does not sound mad at all. But that is not what she is thinking. What she is thinking is: Who speaks like this to her children, children she may not see again? What she is also thinking is: Just the kind of thought that would come to a woman in her autumn. Everything I see, everything I say, is touched with the backward look. What is left for me? I am the one who cries.
“Is that what you occupying yourself with nowadays—brain science?” says Helen. “Is that what you are writing about?”
Strange question; intrusive. Helen never talks to her about her work. Not exactly a taboo subject between them, but off bounds certainly.
“No,” she says. “I still confine myself to fiction, you will be relieved to hear. I have not yet descended to hawking my opinions around. The Opinions of Elizabeth Costello, revised edition.”
“A new novel?”
“Not a novel. Stories. Do you want to hear one of them?”
“Yes, I do. It is a long while since you last told us a story.”
“Very well, a bedtime story. Once upon a time, but our times, not olden times, there is a man, and he travels to a strange city for a job interview. From his hotel room, feeling restless, feeling in the mood for adventure, feeling who knows what, he telephones for a call girl. A girl arrives and spends time with him. He is free with her as he is not free with his wife; he makes certain demands on her.
“The interview next day goes well. He is offered the job and accepts and in due course, in the story, moves to this city. Among the people in his new office, working as a secretary or a clerk or a telephonist, he recognizes the same girl, the call girl, and she recognizes him.”
“And I cannot tell you more.”
“But that is not a story, that it is just the groundwork for a story. You have not told a story until you say what happens next.”
“She does not have to be a secretary. The man is offered the job and accepts and moves to this new city and in due course pays a visit to relatives, to a cousin he has not seen since they were children, or a cousin of his wife’s. The cousin’s daughter walks into the room, and behold, it is the girl from the hotel.”
“Go on. What happens next?”
“It depends. Perhaps nothing more happens. Perhaps it is the kind of story that just stops.”
“Nonsense. It depends on what?”
Now John speaks. “It depends on what passed between them in the hotel room. Depends on the demands you say he made. Do you spell out, Mother, what demands he made?”
“Yes, I do.”
Now they are silent, all of them. What the man with the new job will do, or what the girl with the sideline in prostitution will do, recedes into insignificance. The real story is out on the balcony, where two middle-aged children face a mother whose capacity to disturb and dismay them is not yet exhausted. I am the one who cries.
“Are you going to tell us what those demands were?” asks Helen grimly, since there is nothing else to ask.
It is late but not too late. They are not children, none of them. For good or ill they are all together now in the same leaky boat called life, adrift without saving illusions in a sea of indifferent darkness (what metaphors she comes up with tonight!). Can they learn to live together without eating one another?
“Demands a man can make upon a woman that I would find shocking. But perhaps you would not find them shocking, coming from a different generation. Perhaps the world has sailed on in that respect and left me behind on the shore, deploring. Perhaps that is what turns out to be the nub of the story: that while the man, the senior man, blushes when he faces the girl, to the girl what happened in the hotel room is just part of her trade, part of the way things are, part of life. ‘Mr. Jones… Uncle Harry… How do you do?’”
The two children who are not children any more exchange glances. Is that all? they seem to be saying. Not much of a story.
“The girl in the story is very beautiful,” she says. “A veritable flower. I can reveal that to you. Mr. Jones, Uncle Harry, has never involved himself in something like this before, the humiliating of beauty, the bringing down of it. That was not his plan when he made the telephone call. He would not have guessed he had it in him. It became his plan only when the girl herself appeared and he saw she was, as I say, a flower. It seemed an affront to him that all his life he should have missed it, beauty, and would probably miss it from here onward too. A universe without justice! he would have cried inwardly, and proceeded from there in his bitter way. Not a nice man, on the whole.”
“I thought, Mother,” says Helen, “that you had doubts about beauty, about its importance. A sideshow, you called it.”
“More or less.”
John reaches out and lays a hand on his sister’s arm. “The man in the story,” he says, “Uncle Harry, Mr. Jones—he still believes in beauty. He is under its spell. That is why he hates it and fights against it.”
“Is that what you mean, Mother?” says Helen.
“I don’t know what I mean. The story is not written yet. Usually I resist the temptation to talk about stories before they are fully out of the bottle. Now I know why.” Though the night is warm, she shivers lightly. “I get too much interference.”
“The bottle,” says Helen.
“This is not interference,” says Helen. “From other people it might be interference. But we are with you. Surely you know that.”
With you? What nonsense. Children are against their parents, not with them. But this a special evening in a special week. Very likely they will not come together again, all three of them, not in this life. Perhaps, this once, they should rise above themselves. Perhaps her daughter’s words come from the heart, the true heart, not the false one. We are with you. And her own impulse to embrace those words—perhaps it comes from the true heart too.
“Then tell me what to say next,” she says.
“Embrace her,” says Helen. “In front of the whole family let him take the girl in his arms and embrace her. No matter how odd it looks. ‘Forgive me for what I put you through,’ let him say. Have him go down on his knees before her. ‘In you let me worship again the beauty of the world.’ Or words to that effect.”
“Very Irish Twilight,” she murmurs. “Very Dostoevskian. I am not sure I have it in my repertoire.”
It is John’s last day in Nice. Early next morning he will set off for Dubrovnik for his conference, where they will be discussing, it seems, time before the beginning of time, time after the end of time.
“Once upon a time I was just a child who liked peering through a telescope,” he says to her. “Now I have to refashion myself as a philosopher. As a theologian even. Quite a life-change.”
“And what do you hope to see,” she says, “when you look through your telescope into time before time?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “God perhaps, who has no dimensions. Hiding.”
“Well, I wish I could see him too. But I do not seem to be able to. Say hello to him from me. Say I will be along one of these days.”
“I’m sorry. I am sure you know Helen has suggested that I buy an apartment here in Nice. An interesting idea, but I do not think I will take it up. She says you have a proposal of your own to make. Quite heady, all these proposals. Like being courted again. What is it you are proposing?”
“That you come and stay with us in Baltimore. It is a big house, there is plenty of space, we are having another bathroom fitted. The children will love it. It will be good for them to have their grandmother around.”
“They may love it while they are nine and six. They will not love it so much when they are fifteen and twelve and bring friends home and Grandma is shuffling around the kitchen in her slippers, mumbling to herself and clacking her dentures and perhaps not smelling too good. Thank you, John, but no.”
“You do not have to make a decision now. The offer stands. It will always stand.”
“John, I am in no position to preach, coming from an Australia that positively slavers to do its American master’s bidding. Nevertheless, bear it in mind that you are inviting me to leave the country where I was born to take up residence in the belly of the Great Satan, and that I might have reservations about doing so.”
He stops, this son of hers, and she stops beside him on the promenade. He seems to be pondering her words, applying to them the amalgam of pudding and jelly in his cranium that was passed on to him as a birthgift forty years ago, whose cells are not tired, not yet, are still vigorous enough to grapple with ideas both big and small, time before time, time after time, and what to do with an aging parent.
“Come anyway,” he says, “despite your reservations. Agreed, these are not the best of times, but come anyway. In the spirit of paradox. And, if you will accept the smallest, the gentlest word of admonishment, be wary of grand pronouncements. America is not the Great Satan. Those crazy men in the White House are just a blip in history. They will be thrown out and all will return to normal.”
“So I may deplore but I must not denounce?”
“Righteousness, Mother, that is what I am referring to, the tone and spirit of righteousness. I know it must be tempting, after a lifetime of weighing every word before you write it down, to just let go, be swept up by the spirit; but it leaves a bad taste behind. You must be aware of that.”
“The spirit of righteousness. I will bear in mind what you call it. I will give the matter some thought. You call those men crazy. To me they do not seem crazy at all. On the contrary, they seem all too canny, all too clear-headed. And with world-historical ambitions too. They want to turn the ship of history around, or failing that to sink her. Is that too grand a figure for you? Does it leave a bad taste? As for paradox, the first lesson of paradox, in my experience, is not to rely on paradox. If you rely on paradox, paradox will let you down.”
She takes his arm; in silence they resume their promenade. But all is not well between them. She can feel his stiffness, his irritation. A sulky child, she remembers. It all comes flooding back, the hours it would take to coax him out of one of his sulks. A gloomy boy, son of gloomy parents. How could she dream of taking shelter with him and that tight-lipped, disapproving wife of his?
At least, she thinks, they do not treat me like a fool. At least my children do me that honor.
“Enough of quarreling,” she says (is she coaxing now? is she pleading?). “Let us not make ourselves miserable talking about politics. Here we are on the shores of the Mediterranean, the cradle of Old Europe, on a balmy summer evening. Let me simply say, if you and Norma and the children can stand America no more, cannot stand the shame of it, the house in Melbourne is yours, as it has always been. You can come on a visit, you can come as refugees, you can come to réunir la famille, as Helen puts it. And now, what do you say we fetch Helen and stroll down to that little restaurant of hers on avenue Gambetta and have a pleasant last meal together?”