Labyrinth

Un même sens change selon les paroles qui l'expriment.
Les sens reçoivent des paroles leur dignité, au lieu de la leur donner.

My bed, the strange beast in whose embrace I spend a considerable part of my life, is strange indeed, for, while it expresses my every sigh in terms of loud rasping and fitful cracking when I actually lie prone in it with my head deep in the pillow, it brusquely ceases producing any sounds whatever and pricks up its ears, expectant, alert, once the contact between its body and mine is lost. After a day of English reading the Russian sounds that still linger in my head seem to me to be a distant rumble, or a cow's distressed moos heard from afar, or a hollow burst of bellowing like bulls'. But the bovine howls are quickly dispelled, put to rout, scared away. The bed utters a short inquisitive 'ughk' and tries to look inviting, poor thing, in the dimmed light of the table lamp. There is nothingness behind the window, livid night.

Now, the tangible reality of my room appears very cooperative, and the facility with which the dimmed light of the table lamp has turned into a manageable lump of docile clay is quite astonishing. I am aware, however, that this imagined reality is a fake, a prop, a smiling head suspended in mid-air. There seems to be no centre in this night-grey universe, no single-minded spirit that would take care of the mess. It is, in fact, a space full of dissimulating nothings, tottering on the verge of a dream.

*

A writer's conscience is constantly on the lookout for something genuine. In this respect he remains for ever a victim of the childish passion for 'the real thing'. And as soon as he realises that the most banal of objects can be given two different names in two different parts of the globe, he understands that there are two objects really, and no dictionary can convince him they are equal. A foreign language only helps him feel that distant object, that 'pen' or that 'moon' from a foreign country, in magical proximity to his active mind.

The hunger for new experience induces him, on the other hand, to fly to those half-articulated, semi-spectral objects and to seize the air around him fondly.

Let me now proceed to import as many things as possible from that kingdom by the sea and to furnish the as yet empty stage.

*

There are times when I find myself happily ensconced in the dense actuality of an international lingua franca. (Lingua franca? Yes, English sounds as strange as Frankish.) And then, my world, eager to travel, never passes up an opportunity to translate itself into an alien sphere. This operation requires a complete metamorphosis on my part: I must be something of an alien myself to be able to smuggle this sober orb into a foreign domain, however illusory and pregnable my newly acquired identity may be.

(We have turned the tables on the immense mass of vapour that is said to exist apart from our consciousness: we have invited a strange macrocosm to our party.)

We are soon in the presence of a person whose organs of articulation are used to softer sounds. He looks around in perplexity and expectation, his ear distracted by the dental 't' and 's' which are immediately audible. Hoping for a change of perspective, a singular change - to have that monstrous 'I' struck out and replaced by a dapper fellow with a foreign accent, - I intend to populate the suburban wastelands with creatures jumping out of the stranger's pockets. I strike the pose of an Englishman in order to see the reluctant, recalcitrant, baulking ambience change its habitual solemn scowl to an artificially light smirk. Perhaps it's just a pathetic stab at impersonating an improbable character in an obscure story. It is possible that the change takes place in me and that my old self has simply repaired to an unobtrusive coign of vantage without actually leaving the stage. Or it may as well have divided into audience, troupe, author of the play performed, and a bored God observing the performance from a cosy cloud. I don't know.

What's more, at this moment I have to forget about style. I know I have it handicapped by writing in English, and the anaemic reality longs to get away from my muse, the inept candy-striper, shaving the patient's groin before surgery. The language shift is in vogue now and as commonplace as trying one's hand at another genre. And yet, despite the illusion of freedom a foreign language gives us in serving our metalingual ego, we shouldn't forget that our meanings get mildly retouched in the new atmosphere, and at times the poetical exuberance fizzles out in a kind of embarras de richesses.

The night becomes gravid with kaleidoscopic lights and noises. The moist mist of the pristine windswept space passes from a neuter livid black to an unearthly sapphire. The lights refuse to take any conceivable shape as if wanting in strength, and keep spinning around. The sounds are no better: the music I try to remember is continually eclipsed by fearful silences. And then I experience that routine already-been-here feeling which thrills the superstitious so much. I seem to have known that blind alley for years, for so long, in fact, that I must have had ample time to be born, live a full imaginative life, and pass away on a painfully, heart-rendingly familiar summer afternoon.

*

If it is words that give dignity to the sense they express, then the words at my disposal are just a bunch of frightened ghosts with an almost forgotten notion of dignity. The last furtive sounds of English - the poor remainder of that invented Englishman's native tongue - are a deplorable compromise. Grammatically speaking, I may all very well stop reading books in all languages except English several weeks before I tackle an English story - it will not save me from making a foolish and embarrassing mistake every now and then. After some time I feel as if I want to reach the Moon while all I've got is a bicycle; and my totally impracticable decision to continue writing stories in English has discouraging affinities with a savage's cannibalistic intent inspired in him by the missionary's benevolent and unsuspicious smiles. The best I can do is a cutesy stylization of Nabokov.

So far I failed to notice, or pretended not to notice, the tender-hued lacunae showing here and there in the skinny silhouette. The fellow makes a half-hearted attempt to conceal these shameful parts of his, but presently he stands in dignified immobility as it becomes clear that the author is the one to blame. The evasive 'I', the hateful moi, the ever-present ego (a lapsed thaumaturgist) of the story is to blame. The author alone is responsible for a farcical semblance of an English cityscape and a largely unconvincing puppet of a character.

The feeling of superficial guilt towards the unrealized personality of the character (or rather towards a deceived reader) takes me back to the very beginning. The truth, however, remains intact: I have trodden the airy floor of my personal copy of that noble labyrinth of thought (the aching beauty and indomitable precision of a phrase) which may be found in any good English, American, or Irish writer.

My labyrinth emerged from the warm opaqueness of the night. Now it is being dismantled.

Discuss this in the Forum      Обсудить это на Форуме

Copyright ╘ 2003 by Emma Radlova
Back to English/Russian Prose Index