The unexpected sometimes looks like a prompting of fate.
I said that I thought most of us didn’t know how truly good or truly bad we were, and most of us would never be sufficiently tested to find out.
It seems success takes you away from what you know, he said, while failure condemns you to it.
I felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean: a desire for freedom, an impulse to move, tugged at me as though it were a thread fastened to my chest. It was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. It was simply a desire to escape from what I had. The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity. I could swim out into the sea as far as I liked, if what I wanted was to drown. Yet this impulse, this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.
I said that I found appearances more bewildering and tormenting now than at any previous point in my life. It was as if I had lost some special capacity to filter my own perceptions, one that I had only become aware of once it was no longer there, like a missing pane of glass in a window that allows the wind and rain to come rushing through unchecked. In much the same way I felt exposed to what I saw, discomfited by it. I thought often of the chapter in Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff and Cathy stare from the dark garden through the windows of the Lintons’ drawing room and watch the brightly lit family scene inside. What is fatal in that vision is its subjectivity: looking through the window the two of them see different things, Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she desires and feels deprived of. But neither of them can see things as they really are. And likewise I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own. When I looked at the family on the boat, I saw a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn’t there. Those people were living in their moment, and though I could see it I could no more return to that moment than I could walk across the water that separated us. And of those two ways of living – living in the moment and living outside it – which was the more real?
He was no longer interested in socialising; in fact, increasingly he found other people positively bewildering. The interesting ones are like islands, he said: you don’t bump into them on the street or at a party, you have to know where they are and go to them by arrangement.
One of the things that happened to me on that holiday, and that I believe has not changed since, was that I began to feel for the first time that I was seeing what was really there, without asking myself whether or not I was expecting to see it. When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years of my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion. We never, I think, discovered the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them; we peered at them, at people and places, like people on a ship peer at the passing mainland, and should we have seen them in any kind of trouble, or they us, there would have been nothing whatever either one of us could have done about it.
It was only when you got beyond people’s fantasies, Elena continued, about themselves and one another, that you accessed a level of reality where things assumed their true value and were what they seemed to be. Some of those truths, admittedly enough, were ugly, but others were not. The worst thing, it seemed to her, was to be dealing with one version of a person when quite another version existed out of sight. If a man had a nasty side to his character, she wanted to get to it immediately and confront it. She didn’t want it roaming unseen in the hinterland of the relationship: she wanted to provoke it, to draw it forth, lest it strike her when her back was turned.
She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately, impassable.