Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Fairly Honourable Reading

Getting reacquainted with old friends, as I have been happily doing with greater frequency and enthusiasm lately, is taking a chance with the past. So long as one simply sighs, wistfully, and with whatever sincerity seems appropriate, at the depredations of time and distance, the friends one has let slip remain perpetually young, fondly remembered, unchanged. It is to be hoped if not assumed, you likewise for them. However regrettable the loss of acquaintance, the memories thereof, if that is all that remains, may take on the most flattering color, keeping only a hint of their former vitality, but retaining something of their pungency, even after being pressed and forgotten for years, until found by chance, or turned to when alone, to be studied as a specimen of something still interesting, of itself, if no longer quite the preoccupation it once was. One's past can become simply another possession; more like a story than a fact, but owned, wholly, as if by right. Anecdotes hoary with repetition, go unchallenged as to their veracity, as the participants need never hear them again. Flirtations may be remade into romances, adventures rendered from long and sometimes misunderstood incidents of travel, the disturbing made shattering, the sad tragic, the embarrassing made amusing. The past, to a remarkable degree, so long as one's claim to the truth of it can not be verified, only becomes more personal the more it is told to strangers, until inevitably, it is only autobiography, that most unreliable of narratives. As it turns out though, the reality is better, if easily misremembered, or misread.

Having met again, if only online, any number of adults I once knew in youth, has proved exciting, even bracing, but largely painless, so far. The unexpected excitement of having my assumptions refuted, and my memory corrected, my stories told back to me, has come with a richer and more satisfying understanding, as all the best stories do . Everybody loves a good story. Turns out, the best friendships, like the best books, can be picked up, remembered with surprising clarity, or not, but enjoyed again, even in the middle, after long neglect. And even the more marginal characters can provide a bit of unexpected comic relief, even when one turns out to have been just such a character one's self.

Case in point: for years I've treasured the memory of an afternoon orgy, into which I once quite innocently stumbled, and out of which I awkwardly blundered, sadly, uncorrupted. This, as it turns out, was far from the truth. I just recently learned something of the actual event, and of the subsequent fate of the actual protagonists in that afternoon's sport, and it turns out, in this story, as in that day's recreations, I never figured at all. I will explain.

The boyfriend of a friend, himself a man I last saw years ago and only recently found again, asked me along to what I assumed to be the kind of politically charged, if recreational gathering which I had only recently experienced for the first time. It was the eighties, and most things were political, one way and another, then, for gay men. One might end up marching, or... not. Now I was very bad at organized politics, and at parties, unlike my friend's boyfriend, so I was flattered to have been asked along. In the end, what I actually experienced was a very awkward, rather awful, if exciting, afternoon, sans significant others, naked, in a hot-tub, while the only man there that I knew, seduced our host, without so much as a nod my way from either -- insulting on so many levels. There were half a dozen or more, attractive, young men, in and about that hot tub that afternoon. The potential for misbehavior, I remember, seemed to increase as the hot tub filled. I assumed so, anyway. We were naked, after all, something I seldom am but in the shower, as we all were by then, and outside, in the light of day, and, you know, naked. While I witnessed more than a flirtation between the two men already mentioned, I can't honestly say I actually saw anything to equal the pornographic visions I'd anticipated, or assumed, after an hour or so in the tub. A little drunk, soaked, and feeling a little less than sophisticated enough, after all, for this sort of thing, I nervously withdrew, embarrassed, unnoticed, it now seems, and unmolested. I've always imagined I rather missed out, having seen all sorts of potential for misbehavior, yet I've also always had a secret pride in having, I thought, rather narrowly avoided sin. Actually though, when I recently had the opportunity to review the events of that day with the friend whose friend took me, I learned that only the two men already mentioned actually got up to anything much, and that the rest of those present, none of them friends of mine but friends to both playmates, were rather annoyed with them for having been so drunkenly oblivious of everyone else, and of their respective partners. Both had established lovers at the time, one of whom, as I've said, was my absent friend. I confess, all I really did that day was get wet. So much for my loyalty, and my wild youth.

I've only just learned, from my recently found friend, a person much better acquainted, still, with all parties concerned, that this former boyfriend of his, long since replaced in his affections, but still a friend, has just married, in Canada, the man with whom I saw him misbehave some twenty years ago! Now mine, in my memory, if nowhere else, was a very exciting, if not very nice story; sex in the air, sex in a tub, and me the bemused and sophisticated observer, gracefully declining, just then, to join the revels. But look again. And this new story, new at least to me, has a very happy ending. Seems the unfaithful two, never having gone any further than I'd seen them go in the hot tub, years later, by chance or kismet, or what have you, met again, sober, in, shall we say, a better place? As I mentioned, they recently exchanged vows in Canada, happy endings all 'round after all.

(Incidentally, I of course wish both grooms continued happiness, though I can't imagine either would remember me from that afternoon. I do not intend to send a toaster or anything, at this late date. Though I suppose I do now owe them something, in the way of making amends for having told this story again, however more accurately, here. So... a blender, maybe, a really nice blender.)

Obviously, what's most embarrassing for me, in telling this story now, is that it turns out, I'm not really even in this story.

I must admit though, it really is a better story without me in it, isn't it? Heartwarming, really, at least as my friend tells it. He wished the lovers well himself, at their Canadian wedding.

And then there are the friends about whom I cared, but knew so imperfectly, and with whom I fell so completely out of touch, as to never fully appreciate until now. One man in particular, remembered only as a specially bright, but shy friend from high school, has rather unexpectedly, and repeatedly floored me with one intriguing personal revelation after another. I won't embarrass myself further than I have herein already by detailing just how long it has taken me, in our newly established and very enjoyable Internet correspondence, to get anything like an accurate picture of this man's life since high school. Seems he's long since come out as a gay man, subsequently fell in love with and married a woman, and that he and his wife are now expecting their second child. I still feel a little dazed, and dumb, having been so presumptuous as to assume I really knew him, really bothered to know him, very well at all, before now. How I now wish I had gotten to know him better then, or stayed in touch with him subsequently, or sought him out before now. The man is simply full of surprises, each more interesting than the last. I missed everything, again, but still, eventually, heard the happy ending.

I won't presume further on anyone's patience, or my friend's privacy, by exploiting here any of the other details of this man's biography. I've been irresponsibly gossiping away quite enough for one night, but I am so much in the mood for this sort of thing, I should think, because I've been rereading a book I've described repeatedly as a favorite, though I haven't reread it in twenty some odd years. A Fairly Honourable Defeat, by Iris Murdoch, is much as I remembered it, and utterly unlike the book I thought I remembered so well. Typical, that.

What I remembered of course was Murdoch's brilliant comedy, her Shakespearean plotting, her very funny, wonderfully satirical dialogue, and the ultimate seriousness, artistic and philosophical, with which she turned what begins as perhaps her most deftly light novel, into something progressively more powerful, darker, sadder, more complex and ultimately more genuinely moving, than perhaps anything else she ever wrote. It is a great book. I was right to think it a favorite.

It is every bit as difficult to accurately summarize as life, and for much the same reason: one will get things wrong, no matter how the story is told, at least as it can be told by anyone other than the creator. (Perhaps that last should have been capitalized, in Murdoch's case, if not the obvious other.) Let it suffice for my purposes here to say that this is a novel of misunderstandings; comedic, habitual, conventional, self perpetuating, avoidable, very English, if in no way limited for that, inevitable, unintentional and, most wittily and chillingly, otherwise. This is a novel of lovers, couples, and pairings, logical, likely, unlikely and unfortunate. It was, for 1970, astonishingly blithe in not only making one of these couples gay but in affording that couple a special grace, neither more nor less deserved by them perhaps, I would add, than by almost any other couple in the book.

I remember how thrilling all this was when I first read it. I remember absorbing the suggestive complexities and feeling rather smug about not having anticipated a happier end, at accepting some of the author's harshest judgements without shock, at appreciating not only her skill, but her poise. I was sometimes mystified, I remember, by the ease with which these frightfully bright people acted, or were made to act, so poignantly wrong, despite knowing who Wittgenstein might have been. That frightened me a bit. At the time, I'd only just heard of a tautology, for instance, and had very high hopes of understanding such things better some day, and of having my own fresh cut flowers, and dinner parties, and a manuscript to work on at ease in my library. Knowing Murdoch to be a philosopher, if never at the time quite being able to read her actual books of philosophy, I was sure there were things even in the novels well beyond me. I remember finding that very exciting indeed.

What I don't think I noticed at the time, was how relentless she was, how wanting she angrily found the world, her own world at least, to be, and yet how ruthlessly she refused any compromise with it, other than that suggested by her title, even as she insisted on excluding even the possibility of escape, or acknowledgement of any life outside. The incredibly narrow confines of class, education and experience are surprisingly exclusive, the society and characters mocked and ultimately indicted for being so, but at no point does the novelist introduce anyone but a villain, himself so only in reaction to the box in which she drops him with the others, and in which he likewise moves as if through an otherwise limitless space. I never noticed before how under-populated, over-privileged, and even unexplored are Murdoch's little London, little England, little rooms. Her rather condescending affection for the only character not wholly immobilized by what would seem to have been for Murdoch the fundamental questions, namely those best answered conversationally or in classrooms, the kind of questions she's made sure to make unanswerable for her favorite little ginger socialist saint, her holy fool, is genuine, if now rather more annoying than not. This good man is never seen in the whole course of the novel actually doing, good or much of anything else, but only in inevitable return to his filthy, smelly little corner of the otherwise rather enviably tidy and comfortable, if stifling, box. He teaches you see, -- quite hopeless, really, adult education, -- and takes buses, and has rather noble, largely unseen, and otherwise unnoticed, were it not for the sound of their transistor radios and the smells of their cooking, foreigners in rented rooms. He even cares for his irascible, hideously uncouth old father, as his more gently born, presumably good mother, or the twin sister, long ago martyred to polio, or worse, and seen only briefly in literally a saintly visitation, may or may not have wished him to. Dead, you know, most of the good ones. Had these presumably decent females not so conveniently died long ago, one might question the pointless dirt, the muddle and the suffering required to show, what, exactly? Defeat? Honour? Still, the presumably good woman we never meet seems not to have died before she'd seen to her saintly son's education, accent and the rest. Quite sensible and decent of her really, both in the making of him and in the dying off. Saints must be socially awkward even for their mothers, presumably.

No one is ever seen in this novel to clean the handsomely appointed houses, or the sparkling pool. The noble Sikh cab driver never generates a single set of quotation marks. No secretary is heard to answer a phone, no messenger or mailman brings a letter, no greengrocer or butcher or florist or liquor store clerk contributes to the fabulous meals, cooked and served by these characters at one disastrous dinner party after another. But then we never meet anyone in government but the bureaucrats in whose houses we move, never see a single student of the only teacher, or meet any scientists but those that seem to have worked, in a very dilatory way on weapons, elsewhere -- America, actually. Never meet an American either, of course.

Austen had an occasional groom or chambermaid, at least, surely? Didn't she? At least a Lord now and then, I think.

I ought not to go on this way, as I genuinely enjoyed almost every page of Murdoch's novel, more probably even than I had the first time. I'm just surprised to find that I have no memory of ever having been impatient with her before, or of the bourgeois, academic provincialism not only of the characters, but surprisingly, of the author of this book. The trouble, I seem to have had this time, isn't with a philosophical novel, but with a less novelistic philosopher than I'd remembered. As I said, relentless.

Dear Iris clearly needed to get out more.

As did I.

No comments:

Post a Comment