There might be nothing there

Dear Brigid,

Very much like identities are fluid in your The King of a Rainy Country (1956), so the book itself refuses a label. Divided into three parts, the story seems to unfold like an opera in three acts, coming in and out of multiple conventional narratives, like someone discarding different masks and costumes. “Anyway, what is it about the shutters?” “The slats,” I said. “Yes, it’s clever. They give an impression you can see in, though in fact you can’t. And isn’t that the whole of romance?”

When the novel opens, we are in rainy London in the fifties. Nineteen-year-old Susan has just moved in with Neale. They are two over-educated bohemians struggling not to conform to bourgeois mores. Neale works the night shift washing dishes; Susan has just found a part-time job with a shady bookseller across the street.

Initially, you tempt us to see them as a couple. Are they in love, are they getting to know each other? Are they making sex? “Neale asked: “Are you afraid they’ll think we go to bed together?” “No, I’m afraid they’ll guess we don’t.””

You may well be playing with our bourgeois preconceptions and expectations. It’s not long until Neale brings home a French beau. A lover, a friend, a guest, a bait? And, in this case, who is the prey? “Neale, what are you playing at?” “I thought it would be good for your French.” All we know is that François looks like Michelangelo’s David, he met Neale in the restaurant, and knows no English other than the word queer. Susan asks Neale if the French guy is an answer to her question. What question? We don’t know, and we don’t know the answer either. We can only have a guess: ‘Neale grinned. “But you will protect me, won’t you?”’

Susan and Neale’s relationship feels like a blur, and we soon lose our grip on it. They evade our grip. “Our relationship was verbal: allusive and entangled. Deviating further and further into obliquity we often lost track. ‘I don’t think I think you know what I mean.’ ‘We’d better say it openly.’ ‘Much better. But I’m not going to be the first to say it.’ ‘Neither am I.’”

Meanwhile, Susan discovers that the bookseller’s chief trade is pornography. Leafing through one of his books, she sees a nude picture of a woman she used to know. Neale is there, hanging in the bookshop, and they take advantage of the fact that the owner is frequently absent. It’s a sort of striptease book: as they turn the pages one by one, they remove an item of the girl’s dress. The Lady Revealed is the title of the book: in the last remaining page, the girl is naked with a mask on. “O my God, that’s funny.” “What is?” “I used to know her.”

As Susan removes this last layer, the lady revealed is both the one in the page and the one holding the book: the nude in question is Cynthia, Susan’s old crush from boarding school. “More worlds had met than I had intended, and into their collision they had drawn the sickening dimension of time.” Together with our protagonist, we are thrown into an extended flashback to her schooldays. “Cynthia’s voice said: Must you follow me everywhere?

Intertwined with Susan’s fragmented memories, we embark in a quest rich in queer subtext and existentialist undertones. When Neale and Susan start to track Cynthia down, we find ourselves running back and forth: into the past, as Susan looks for the lost tracks of her schooldays crush; and into the present, where she tries to find Cynthia’s whereabouts.

This is a quest for Cynthia. But it is also a quest for something else – something Neale and Susan cannot quite pin down. “O I’m so afraid that it’s true about to travel hopefully being better than to arrive. It might be all in the quest, all in the search, all in the anticipation. When it came, there might be nothing there.” In search of lost time, in search of lost love, in search of lost search, love in search. Who knows? They will go wherever this thing might take them.

But, before the story starts to take itself to seriously, we are met with a comic relief. Susan and Neale eventually discover that Cynthia will probably be in Venice for a film festival. They give up the flat and manage to find jobs as last-minute tour guides accompanying a group of loud, uncultured American tourists across Italy. “The bus was filled with a noise like a parrot house. (…) The impression of travelling with performing animals was all the stronger because we periodically heard a peanut crack.”

The comic timing here is perfect, and it is difficult to pinpoint a favourite scene in this part. But the kamikaze Italian bus driver has definitely won a place in my heart.

By a series of odd coincidences, Neale and Susan finally bump into Cynthia in Venice. She is accompanied by Helena Buchan, a famous opera singer, and Helena’s friend Philip. Once again, the exact nature of the relationships here is difficult to grasp, and loyalties soon start to shift between the members of the group.

Your novel begins with what seems to be a romance and courtship plot; then, it goes on the be a lesbian boarding school story, only to leave everything open and go on a quest; soon after becoming a sort of picaresque travelogue, however, the story starts to show some existential undertones, in what resembles a philosophical novel; and, finally, it seems to turn into an opera, riffing on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro – with all its cross-dressing and its challenging of gender roles.

The reference to opera, with all the gender fluidity and sexual undertones that come in with the genre, was not (I hope) lost on me.

My own deepest conviction is that form is one and indivisible, and constant for all the arts. (…) I suspect that our appreciation of form is originally kinetic – that, at the bottom of all the layers into which our sensitivity has been educated and transported by experience, we mentally travel the shape of a work or art, in a way we probably learned from being carried round in the womb, before we had much acquaintance with the sensations of touch, sight or hearing. If that is correct, it would make sense to say that the sensuous content in every art is a metaphor (though never only a metaphor) for the underlying form; and it would not be surprising if the metaphors were rather fluid and interchangeable, so that one art could slip into – and quickly out again from – the role of deputizing, illuminatingly, for another”, you once wrote in ‘A Literary Person’s Guide to Opera’, an essay collected at Reads (1989)

You are blurring genre (and gender) confines here. Both Neale and Susan are searching for this thing they can only have a glimpse at. Identity is too big a word – they are experimenting with different roles. This thing that is the very search for the thing, like an ouroboros biting itself.

Ouroboros. 1478 drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos of an alchemical tract attributed to Synesius

Gender, sexuality and identity are your playthings here, and in your swift hands they are as malleable as a mask, or like a hit-and-run opera costume change. Your refusal to define things is a bold move against simplification. Instead, you embrace contradiction and complexity – and you do it with a delightful sense of humour. Susan and Neale are no couple in the ‘traditional’ sense, and they never fit the narrative. But there is love here, there is betrayal. And there is illumination.

The play on gender as role-playing is also present in your reference to Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As you like it, in the scene where Cynthia and Susan kiss, during a performance of the play. This is not only the Bard’s most musical comedies, but also one that points heavily to the idea of role-playing: “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, /And one man in his time plays many parts”, we read in Act II, Scene VII, one of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues.

As a tale of love manifested in its varied forms, As You Like It also plays with the mutability of desire. The romantic undertones of Celia’s affection for cross-dressing Rosalind remain consistent throughout the play. As Valerie Traub argues in Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (1992), “the entire logic of As You Like It works against such categorization, against fixing upon and reifying any one mode of desire.”

In Act I, Scene 3, we can have a glimpse at  the extent to which Celia considers herself and her cousin Rosalind to be one: “We still have slept together, / Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together, / And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans/ Still we went coupled and inseparable.”

Rosalind and Celia. As You Like It, Act II, Scene IV. William Henry Simmons (printmaker), Henry Graves & Co. (publisher), 1870.

As in a masquerade, Neale relinquishes the search for – identity? freedom from labels? sexual freedom? the search for the search’s sake? – this thing he is after, and slips into the conventional plot. But not without a twist: like a cross-dresser, he decides to appropriate Susan’s past and desire. “At the back of my mind I have the faintest feeling – as if I had, once, been in love with her.”

Taken from “Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux” in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), the title of your novel is another sharp arrow pointed out at gender and sexuality: Baudelaire was prosecuted for the lesbian poems in Les Fleurs du Mal – a book which was originally entitled Les Lesbiennes.

“Car Lesbos entre tous m’a choisi sur la terre
Pour chanter le secret de ses vierges en fleurs,
Et je fus dès l’enfance admis au noir mystère
Des rires effrénés mêlés aux sombres pleurs;
Car Lesbos entre tous m’a choisi sur la terre. (…)”, goes his poem “Lesbos”.

 

The Greek Poet Sappho and the Girl from Mytilene’, by Nicolai Abildgaard (1809)

 

Neale’s and Susan’s search is at the heart of your book, but we never know exactly what they are looking for.  “Could there ever be one moment so supreme that everything would be justified for evermore,” Neale says, “Will the moment just rise and overwhelm me?”

Every love story is also, in a way or another, a story of betrayal. As Neale gives up his search, Susan loses her utmost ally in her decision to live constantly in quest. His act of betrayal lies less in seducing Susan’s former crush, than in relinquishing their search together. “Could there ever be one moment so supreme that everything would be justified for evermore?” “I believe so.” “All romantics believe so.” 

Susan, however, goes her own way. “Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux, / Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux, (…)”, wrote Baudelaire in his poem Spleen. Perhaps she is a romantic. Perhaps she will have to give up searching, too, someday.

All we know is that she will be given the bridal dress of a deceased woman, and it will be stained “where the bride had run across the rainy pavement.” Perhaps this woman has taught her something about love. Perhaps she was a kind of bride herself, a cross-dressed king in a rain-soaked dress, “wealthy but powerless, both young and very old.” Something right in the heart of two opposing forces, but defined by none. Something absurd, fresh, and full of pathos. Some- thing, No- thing. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

Yours truly,

J.


Aaron Abraham Shikler

“O I’m so afraid that it’s true about to travel hopefully being better than to arrive. It might be all in the quest, all in the search, all in the anticipation. When it came, there might be nothing there.”  ― Brigid Brophy, The King of a Rainy Country


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