quinta-feira, 28 de janeiro de 2010

J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91By CHARLES McGRATH

J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91


The New York Times, January 29, 2010

J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.

Mr. Salinger’s literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, announced the death, saying it was of natural causes. “Despite having broken his hip in May,” the agency said, “his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death.”

Mr. Salinger’s literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” the collection “Nine Stories” and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”

“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain struck a brash new note in American literature: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, “Catcher” became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.

With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are “phony” and “goddam”), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading “Catcher” used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit.

The novel’s allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden’s preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell tens of thousands of copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon in 1980, even said that the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.” In 1974 Philip Roth wrote, “The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture.”

Many critics were even more admiring of “Nine Stories,” which came out in 1953 and helped shape later writers like Mr. Roth, John Updike and Harold Brodkey. The stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it), and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — in favor of an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony. Mr. Updike said he admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.”

Mr. Salinger also perfected the great trick of literary irony — of validating what you mean by saying less than, or even the opposite of, what you intend. Orville Prescott wrote in The Times in 1963, “Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation.”

As a young man, Mr. Salinger yearned ardently for just this kind of attention. He bragged in college about his literary talent and ambitions, and wrote swaggering letters to Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye” and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail.

In 1953, Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish, N.H. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

He seldom left, except occasionally to vacation in Florida or to visit William Shawn, the almost equally reclusive former editor of The New Yorker. Avoiding Mr. Shawn’s usual (and very public) table at the Algonquin, they would meet instead under the clock at the old Biltmore Hotel, the rendezvous for generations of prep-school and college students.

After Mr. Salinger moved to New Hampshire, his publications slowed to a trickle and soon stopped completely. “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam,” both collections of material previously published in The New Yorker, came out in 1961 and 1963, and the last work of Mr. Salinger’s to appear in print was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a 25,000-word story that took up most of the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker.

In 1997, Mr. Salinger agreed to let Orchises Press, a small publisher in Alexandria, Va., bring out “Hapworth” in book form, but he backed out of the deal at the last minute. He never collected the rest of his stories or allowed any of them to be reprinted in textbooks or anthologies. One story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” was turned into “My Foolish Heart,” a movie so bad that Mr. Salinger was never tempted to sell film rights again.

In the fall of 1953, Mr. Salinger befriended some local teenagers and allowed one of them to interview him for what he assumed would be an article on the high school page of a local paper, The Claremont (N.H.) Daily Eagle. The article appeared instead as a feature on the editorial page, and Mr. Salinger felt so betrayed that he broke off with the teenagers and built a six-and-a-half-foot fence around his property.

He seldom spoke to the press again, except in 1974 when, trying to fend off the unauthorized publication of his uncollected stories, he told a reporter from The Times: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

And yet the more he sought privacy, the more famous he became, especially after his appearance on the cover of Time in 1961. For years, it was a sort of journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters to New Hampshire in hopes of a sighting. As a young man, Mr. Salinger had a long, melancholy face and deep soulful eyes, but now, in the few photographs that surfaced, he looked gaunt and gray, like someone in an El Greco painting. He spent more time and energy avoiding the world, it was sometimes said, than most people do in embracing it, and his elusiveness only added to the mythology growing up around him.

Depending on your point of view, he was either a crackpot or the American Tolstoy, who had turned silence itself into his most eloquent work of art. Some believed he was publishing under an assumed name, and for a while in the late 1970s, William Wharton, author of “Birdy,” was rumored to be Mr. Salinger, writing under another name, until it turned out that William Wharton was instead a pen name for a writer named Albert du Aime.

In 1984, the British literary critic Ian Hamilton approached Mr. Salinger with the notion of writing his biography. Not surprisingly, Mr. Salinger turned him down, saying he had “borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime.” Mr. Hamilton went ahead anyway, and in 1986, Mr. Salinger took him to court to prevent the use of quotations and paraphrases from unpublished letters. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and to the surprise of many observers, Mr. Salinger eventually won, though not without some cost to his cherished privacy. (In June 2009, Mr. Salinger also sued Fredrik Colting, the Swedish author and publisher of a novel said to be a sequel to “The Catcher in the Rye.” In July, a federal judge indefinitely enjoined publication of the book.)

Mr. Salinger’s privacy was further punctured in 1998 and again in 2000 with the publication of memoirs by, first, Joyce Maynard - with whom he had a 10-month affair in 1973, when Ms. Maynard was a college freshman - and then his daughter, Margaret. Some critics complained that both women were trying to exploit and profit from their history with Mr. Salinger, and Mr. Salinger’s son, Matthew, wrote in a letter to The New York Observer that his sister had “a troubled mind” and that he didn’t recognize the man portrayed in her account. But both books nevertheless added a creepy, Howard Hughesish element to the Salinger legend.

Mr. Salinger was controlling and sexually manipulative, Ms. Maynard wrote, and a health nut obsessed with homeopathic medicine and with his diet (frozen peas for breakfast, undercooked lamb burger for dinner). Ms. Salinger said that her father was pathologically self-centered and abusive toward her mother, and to the homeopathy and food fads she added a long list of other enthusiasms: Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, Christian Science, Scientology and acupuncture. Mr. Salinger drank his own urine, she wrote, and sat for hours in an orgone box.

But was he writing? The question obsessed Salingerologists, and in the absence of any real evidence, theories multiplied. He hadn’t written a word for years. Or like the character in Stanley Kubrick's film “The Shining,” he wrote the same sentence over and over again. Or like Gogol at the end of his life, he wrote prolifically but then burned it all up. Ms. Maynard said she believed there were at least two novels locked away in a safe, although she had never seen them.

Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan on New Year’s Day, 1919, the second of two children. His sister, Doris, who died in 2001, was for many years a buyer in the dress department at Bloomingdale’s. Like the Glasses, the Salinger children were the product of a mixed marriage. Their father, Sol, was a Jew, the son of a rabbi, but sufficiently assimilated that he made his living importing both cheese and ham. Their mother, Marie Jillisch, was of Irish descent, born in Scotland. The family was living in Harlem when Mr. Salinger was born, but then, as Sol Salinger’s business prospered, moved to West 82nd Street and then to Park Avenue.

Never much of a student, Mr. Salinger, then known as Sonny, attended the progressive McBurney School on the Upper West Side (he told the admissions office his interests were dramatics and tropical fish). But he flunked out after two years and in 1934 was packed off to Valley Forge Military Academy, near Wayne, Pa., which became the model for Holden’s Pencey Prep. Like Holden, he was the manager of the school fencing team, and he also became the literary editor of the school yearbook, Crossed Swords, and wrote a school song that was either a heartfelt pastiche of 19th-century sentiment or else a masterpiece of irony:

Hide not thy tears on this last day

Your sorrow has no shame;

To march no more midst lines of gray;

No longer play the game.

Four years have passed in joyful ways — Wouldst stay those old times dear?

Then cherish now these fleeting days,

The few while you are here.

In 1937, after a couple of unenthusiastic weeks at New York University, Mr. Salinger traveled with his father to Austria and Poland, where the father’s plan was for him to learn the ham business. Deciding that wasn’t for him, he returned to America and drifted through a term or so at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. Fellow students remember him striding around campus in a black chesterfield with velvet collar and announcing that he was going to write the Great American Novel.

Mr. Salinger’s most sustained exposure to higher education was an evening class he took at Columbia in 1939, taught by Whit Burnett, and under Mr. Burnett’s tutelage he managed to sell a story, “The Young Folks,” to Story magazine. He subsequently sold stories to Esquire, Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post — formulaic work that gave little hint of real originality.

In 1941, after several rejections, Mr. Salinger finally cracked The New Yorker, the ultimate goal of any aspiring writer back then, with a story, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” that was an early sketch of what became a scene in “The Catcher in the Rye.” But the magazine then had second thoughts, apparently worried about seeming to encourage young people to run away from school, and held the story for five years — an eternity even for The New Yorker — before finally publishing it in 1946, buried way in the back of an issue.

Meanwhile, Mr. Salinger had been drafted. He served with the Counter Intelligence Corps of the Fourth Infantry Division, whose job was to interview Nazi deserters and sympathizers, and was stationed for a while in Tiverton, Devonshire, the setting for “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor,” probably the most deeply felt of the “Nine Stories.” On June 6, 1944, he landed at Utah Beach, and he later saw action during the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1945, he was hospitalized for “battle fatigue” — often a euphemism for a breakdown — and after recovering, he stayed on in Europe past the end of the war, chasing Nazi functionaries. He married a German woman, very briefly — a doctor about whom biographers have been able to discover very little. Her name was Sylvia, Margaret Salinger said, but Mr. Salinger always called her Saliva.

Back in New York, Mr. Salinger moved into his parents’ apartment and, having never stopped writing, even during the war, resumed his career. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” austere, mysterious and Mr. Salinger’s most famous and still most discussed story, appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and suggested, not wrongly, that he had become a very different kind of writer. And like so many writers, he eventually found in The New Yorker not just an outlet but a kind of home, and developed a particularly close relationship with the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, himself famously shy and agoraphobic — a kindred spirit. In 1961, Mr. Salinger dedicated “Franny and Zooey” to Mr. Shawn, writing, “I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

As a young writer, Mr. Salinger was something of a ladies’ man and dated, among others, Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill l and the future wife of Charlie Chaplin. In 1953, he met Claire Douglas, the daughter of the English art critic Robert Langdon Douglas, who was then a 19-year-old Radcliffe sophomore who in many ways resembled Franny Glass (or vice versa); they were married two years later (Ms. Douglas had married and divorced in the meantime). Margaret was born in 1955, and Matthew, now an actor and film producer, was born in 1960. But the marriage soon turned distant and isolating, and in 1966, Ms. Douglas sued for divorce, claiming that “a continuation of the marriage would seriously injure her health and endanger her reason.”

The affair with Ms. Maynard, then a Yale freshman, began in 1972, after Mr. Salinger read an article she had written for The New York Times Magazine called “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” They moved in together but broke up abruptly after 10 months when Mr. Salinger said he had no desire for more children. For a while in the ’80s, Mr. Salinger was involved with the actress Elaine Joyce, and late in that decade he married Colleen O’Neill, a nurse and the director of the Cornish town fair, who is considerably younger than he is. Not much is known about the marriage because Ms. O’Neill embraced her husband’s code of seclusion.

Mr. Salinger is survived by Ms. O’Neill; his son, Matt; his daughter, Margaret; and three grandsons. His literary agents said in their statement that “in keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy, there will be no service, and the family asks that people’s respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended to them, individually and collectively, during this time.”

“Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it,” the statement said. “His body is gone but the family hopes that he is still with those he loves, whether they are religious or historical figures, personal friends or fictional characters.”

As for the fictional family the Glasses, Mr. Salinger had apparently been writing about them nonstop. Ms. Maynard said she saw shelves of notebooks devoted to the family. In Mr. Salinger’s fiction, the Glasses first turn up in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which Seymour, the oldest son and family favorite, kills himself during his honeymoon. Characters who turn out in retrospect to have been Glasses appear glancingly in “Nine Stories,” but the family saga really begins to be elaborated upon in “Franny and Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beam” and “Hapworth,” the long short story, which is ostensibly a letter written by Seymour from camp when he is just 7 years old but already reading several languages and lusting after Mrs. Happy, wife of the camp owner. Readers also began to learn about the parents, Les and Bessie, long-suffering ex-vaudevillians, and Seymour’s siblings Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Walt, Waker and Boo Boo; about the Glasses’ Upper West Side apartment; about the radio quiz show on which all the children appeared. Seldom, in fact, has a fictional family been so lovingly or richly imagined.

Too lovingly, some critics complained. With the publication of “Franny and Zooey,” even staunch Salinger admirers began to break ranks. John Updike wrote in The Times Book Review: “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.” Other readers hated the growing streak of Eastern mysticism in the saga, as Seymour evolved, in successive retellings, from a troubled, suicidal young man into a genius, a sage, even a saint of sorts.

But writing in The New York Review of Books in 2001, Janet Malcolm argued that the critics had all along been wrong about Mr. Salinger, just as short-sighted contemporaries were wrong about Manet and about Tolstoy. The very things people complain about, Ms. Malcolm wrote, were the qualities that made Mr. Salinger great. That the Glasses (and, by implication, their creator) were not at home in the world was the whole point, she said, which said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.

An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Miriam was the name of the wife of Seymour Glass, one of Mr. Salinger's characters. And it erroneously gave June 4, 1944, as the date that Mr. Salinger landed at Utah Beach.

Jerome David Salinger (born January 1, 1919) is an American author, best known for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, as well as his reclusive nature. He has not published an original work since 1965 and has not been interviewed since 1980.

Raised in Manhattan, New York, Salinger began writing short stories while in secondary school, and published several stories in the early 1940s before serving in World War II.

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel by J. D. Salinger. First published in the United States in 1951, the novel has been a frequently challenged book. for its liberal use of and portrayal of sexuality and teenage angst.

Originally published for adults, the novel has become a common part of high school and college curricula throughout the English-speaking world; it has also been translated into almost all of the world's major languages.


terça-feira, 26 de janeiro de 2010

Federico Garcia Lorca, 4 poemas

Federico Garcia Lorca, 4 poemas

Romance Sonambulo

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.
Con la sombra en la cintura
ella sueña en su baranda,
verde carne, pelo verde,
con ojos de fría plata.
Verde que te quiero verde.
Bajo la luna gitana,
las cosas la están mirando
y ella no puede mirarlas.

Verde que te quiero verde.
Grandes estrellas de escarcha,
vienen con el pez de sombra
que abre el camino del alba.
La higuera frota su viento
con la lija de sus ramas,
y el monte, gato garduño,
eriza sus pitas agrias.
¿Pero quién vendrá? ¿Y por dónde?
Ella sigue en su baranda,
verde carne, pelo verde,
soñando en la mar amarga.

-Compadre, quiero cambiar
mi caballo por su casa,
mi montura por su espejo,
mi cuchillo por su manta.
Compadre, vengo sangrando,
desde los puertos de Cabra.
-Si yo pudiera, mocito,
este trato se cerraba.
Pero yo ya no soy yo,
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.
-Compadre, quiero morir,
decentemente en mi cama.
De acero, si.puede ser,
con las sábanas de holanda.
¿No ves la herida que tengo
desde el pecho a la garganta?
-Trescientas rosas morenas
lleva tu pechera blanca.

Tu sangre rezuma y huele
alrededor de tu faja.
Pero yo ya no soy yo,
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.
-Dejadme subir al menos
hasta las altas barandas,
¡dejadme subir!, dejadme
hasta las verdes barandas.
Barandales de la luna
por donde retumba el agua.

Ya suben los dos compadres
hacia las altas barandas.
Dejando un rastro de sangre.
Dejando un rastro de lágrimas.
Temblaban en los tejados
farolillos de hojalata.
Mil panderos de cristal
herían la madrugada.

Verde que te quiero verde,
verde viento, verdes ramas.
Los dos compadres subieron.
El largo viento dejaba
en la boca un raro gusto
de hiel, de menta y de albahaca.
-¡Compadre! ¿Dónde está, dime?
¿Dónde está tu niña amarga?
¡Cuántas veces te esperó!
¡Cuántas veces te esperara,
cara fresca, negro pelo,
en esta verde baranda!

Sobre el rostro del aljibe
se mecía la gitana.
Verde carne, pelo verde,
con ojos de fría plata.
Un carámbano de luna
la sostiene sobre el agua.
La noche se puso íntima
como una pequeña plaza.
Guardias civiles borrachos
en la puerta golpeaban.
Verde que te quiero verde,
verde viento, verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar.
Y el caballo en la montaña.

La Casada Infiel

Y que yo me la llevé al río
creyendo que era mozuela,
pero tenía marido.
Fue la noche de Santiago
y casi por compromiso.
Se apagaron los faroles
y se encendieron los grillos.
En las últimas esquinas
toqué sus pechos dormidos,
y se me abrieron de pronto
como ramos de jacintos.

El almidón de su enagua
me sonaba en el oído
como una pieza de seda
rasgada por díez cuchillos.
Sin luz de plata en sus copas
los árboles han crecido,
y un horizonte de perros
ladra muy lejos del río.

Pasadas las zarzamoras,
los juncos y los espinos,
bajo su mata de pelo
hice un hoyo sobre el limo.
Yo me quité la corbata.
Ella se quitó el vestido.
Yo, el cinturón con revólver,
ella, sus cuatro corpiños.

Ni nardos ni caracolas
tienen el cutis tan fino,
ni los cristales con luna
relumbran con ese brillo.
Sus muslos se me escapaban
como peces sorprendidos,
la mitad llenos de lumbre,
la mitad llenos de frío.
Aquella noche corrí
el mejor de los caminos,
montado en potra de nácar
sin bridas y sin estribos.
No quiero decir, por hombre,
las cosas que ella me dijo.
La luz del entendimiento
me hace ser muy comedido.
Sucia de besos y arena
yo me la llevé del río.

Con el aire se batían
las espadas de los lirios.

Me porté como quien soy,
como un gitano legítimo.
La regalé un costurero
grande, de raso pajizo,
y no quise enamorarme
porque teniendo marido
me dijo que era mozuela
cuando la llevaba al río.

Prendimiento de Antoñito El Camborio

Antonio Torres Heredia,
hijo y nieto de Camborios,
con una vara de mimbre
va a Sevilla a ver los toros.
Moreno de verde luna
anda despacio y garboso.
Sus empavonados bucles
le brillan entre los ojos.
A la mitad del camino
cortó limones redondos,
y los fue tirando al agua
hasta que la puso de oro.
Y a la mitad del camino,
bajo las ramas de un olmo,
guardia civil caminera
lo llevó codo con codo.

El día se va despacio,
la tarde colgada a un hombro,
dando una larga torera
sobre el mar y los arroyos.
Las aceitunas aguardan
la noche de capricornio
y una corta brisa, ecuestre,
salta los montes de plomo.
Antonio Torres Heredia,
hijo y nieto de Camborios,
vienes sin vara de mimbre
entre los cinco tricornios.

Antonio, ¿quién eres tú?
Si te llamaras Camborio,
hubieras hecho una fuente
de sangre con cinco chorros.
Ni tú eres hijo de nadie,
ni legítimo Camborio.
¡ Se acabaron los gitanos
que iban por el monte solos!
Están los viejos cuchillos
tiritando bajo el polvo.
A las nueve de la noche
lo llevan al calabozo,
mientras los guardias civiles
beben limonada todos.
Y a las nueve de la noche
le cierran el calabozo,
mientras el cielo reluce
como la grupa de un potro.

Muerte de Antoñito El Camborio

Voces de muerte sonaron
cerca del Guadalquivir.
Voces antiguas que cercan
voz de clavel varonil.
Les clavó sobre las botas
mordiscos de jabalí.
En la lucha daba saltos
jabonados de delfín.
Bañó con sangre enemiga
su corbata carmesí,
pero eran cuatro puñales
y tuvo que sucumbir.
Cuando las estrellas clavan
rejones al agua gris,
cuando los erales sueñan
verónicas de alhelí,
voces de muerte sonaron
cerca del Guadalquivir.

"Antonio Torres Heredia,
Camborio de dura crin,
moreno de verde luna,
voz de clavel varonil:
¿ Quién te ha quitado la vida
cerca del Guadalquivir?"
"Mis cuatro primos Heredias
hijos de Benamejí.
Lo que en otros no envidiaban
ya lo envidiaban en mí.
Zapatos color Corinto,
medallones de marfil,
y este cutis amasado
con aceituna y jazmín."
«¡Ay, Antoñito el Camborio,
digno de una emperatriz!
Acuérdate de la Virgen
porque te vas a morir.»
«¡Ay Federico García,
llama a la Guardia Civil!
Ya mi talle se ha quebrado
como caña de maíz.»
Tres golpes de sangre tuvo
y se murió de perfil.
Viva moneda que nunca
se volverá a repetir.
Un ángel marchoso pone
su cabeza en un cojín.
Otros de rumor cansado,
encendieron un candil.
Y cuando los cuatro primos
llegan a Benamejí,
voces de muerte cesaron
cerca del Guadalquivir.

Double Thought by Michael Wood

Double Thought by Michael Wood

  • Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg and Benno Wagner, translated by Eric Patton and Ruth Hein ‘It’s certainly an excellent arrangement,’ the official says, ‘always unimaginably excellent, even if in other respects hopeless.’ We can easily picture, or even recall, arrangements that are excellent for some and hopeless for others, and that is what the phrase ‘in other respects’ invites us to do. But the larger rhythm and grammar of the sentence ask us to go beyond this option, to think both contrary thoughts at once, taking excellence and hopelessness as partners in an intricate dance, each calling for and implying the other; as if the arrangement is excellent because it’s hopeless, hopeless because it’s excellent. Can we manage this logical feat? And where are we?

We are in a room at the Herrenhof Inn, in Kafka’s novel The Castle. The time is around 5 a.m.; K, the land surveyor hired by the castle authorities, but not as yet entrusted with any land-surveying, has an appointment with an official. His great goal, we have learned by now, is not necessarily to get on with his work but rather to be directly acknowledged by the higher officials of the castle, to experience something other than the many evasions and obstructions he has met with so far. He stumbles into the wrong room. An official lies in bed, unable to sleep; sits up and wants to talk. His name is Bürgel, and although he seems to be rambling we gradually realise he is talking about K’s case. K realises this too, but it is part of the arrangement we are considering that he feels very tired at this moment, indeed has ‘a great aversion’ for everything to do with his own case. Bürgel keeps going. He explains that in the world of the castle strange opportunities arise when the person he calls ‘the party’ – as in Groucho Marx’s ‘party of the first part’ – manages to surprise in the middle of the night an official who is not the one assigned to his case but nevertheless has some competence in the matter. K is already half-asleep, but able to hear most of this. ‘You think this can never happen,’ Bürgel says. ‘You’re right, it can never happen. But one night – who can vouch for everything? – it does happen.’ It does happen, it has happened, it is happening at this very minute, although it’s not clear that K fully understands this. Bürgel becomes lyrical at the thought of this unimaginable rupture of the castle’s system of distance and disappointment, officialdom’s surrender. ‘Like a robber in the woods, the party forces from us sacrifices that we would never have been capable of otherwise . . . And yet we are happy. How suicidal happiness can be!’ All the party has to do is to make his request, the official can only give in. ‘For the official, it’s the most difficult hour.’ By the time this abject invitation reaches him, K really is asleep, hearing nothing. ‘He slept’, ‘er schlief’ – in context two of the saddest words in literature.

A knock on the wall announces the presence in the next room of the official whom K was supposed to see, and the present interview is over. It is at this point that Bürgel offers the philosophical reflection we have already looked at in part.

No, you needn’t excuse yourself on account of your sleepiness, why should you? One’s physical strength has a certain limit, who can help it that this limit is significant in other ways, too. No, nobody can help it. That is how the world corrects its course and keeps its equilibrium. It’s certainly an excellent arrangement, always unimaginably excellent, even if in other respects hopeless.

Then he adds: ‘Here everything is full of opportunities. Except that some opportunities are, as it were, too great to be acted upon; there are things that fail through nothing other than themselves.’ This is a restatement of a dizzying earlier remark on the same subject:

sometimes opportunities do arise that aren’t altogether in keeping with the situation in general, opportunities through which more can be achieved with a word, with a glance, with a sign of trust, than with a lifetime of gruelling effort. That is undoubtedly so. But then again these opportunities are actually in keeping with the situation in general inasmuch as nobody ever takes advantage of them.

This is a theory not of repressive tolerance but of social inertia, the dream of a conservative order magically preserved from the attacks it cannot in principle prevent. There are chances of change, tiny cracks in the system’s armour; but change never happens, the cracks are only unused opportunities. And the opportunities are unused because . . . Bürgel pretends at first not to know, but his double thought about excellence and hopelessness pulls things together. He is suggesting that there is no rule or necessity which saves the system, but that something always will. This something will be contingent and accidental, like K’s sleepiness; not destined or designed. But it will arrive. At least it has always arrived so far. This is how the world corrects its course, and this is why Bürgel’s voice takes on its musing tone, and offers its logical challenge to us, as if to say how elegant it is that those opportunities are always there but never used – how elegant and how appalling. We might think of Kafka’s response to his friend Max Brod’s question about hope and whether there was any outside the world as we know it. ‘Plenty of hope,’ Kafka said. ‘But not for us.’

Where did Kafka learn to think like this? A case could be made that he found his training not in his intricate psyche or in his horrified commitment to writing – ‘the service of the Devil’, he called it – but in his day job at the Prague Institute for Workmen’s Accident Insurance. Born in 1883, he trained as a lawyer, worked briefly for an Italian insurance company in Prague, the Assicurazioni Generali, and then in 1908 took a position with the institute, where he remained until he resigned on grounds of ill-health in 1922. He died in 1924. We may not believe, as we are told in the preface to The Office Writings, a selection from his legal and clerical work, that ‘much of Kafka’s greatness . . . is owed to his office job,’ but we can certainly agree that anything we learn about his job will strengthen ‘our sense of the conditions under which Kafka accomplished his nocturnal writing’ – the writing he did, that is, when he got home from the office. The editors of this volume are understandably eager to make literal, referential connections between Kafka’s office work and his fiction, and their texts of choice are ‘In the Penal Colony’, ‘The Great Wall of China’, Amerika and The Castle. But their real point, and the real interest of this book, is rather different, and hinges on the idea of the Kafkaesque.

We follow Kafka through reports and claims and arguments and petitions concerning building trades, wooden toys, quarries, farms, automobiles, trade inspections, risk assessments, accident prevention, the effects of the war on insurance premiums and practices, what to do about the apparitions the war has thrown onto the city streets: ‘men who could move ahead only by taking jerky steps; poor, pale and gaunt, they leaped as though a merciless hand held them by the neck, tossing them back and forth in their tortured movements.’ This is a pretty gripping image, but I can’t pretend the texts as a whole make for lively reading, or that they are full of secret literary treasures. They are dense, detailed, local, and they hold your (or my) attention because they really do give you a sense of consuming office work, a set of tasks where the spectre of boredom and a necessarily intense concentration go hand in hand. This is very much how Kafka, in his letters, talks about his job; but he was also, as the editors insist, often proud of it. He complained about it incessantly, but he took it seriously and he did it well. If he was just coasting, as one of his officials might say, he wouldn’t have complained so much.

And reading these office writings I began to wonder whether the Kafkaesque is not, as the OED tautologically says, the name of a ‘state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka’, but rather a form of strangeness that is more ordinary than we think. We call it strange because we want it to be strange. Kafka didn’t simply describe it, and he didn’t invent it. He blew its cover, and more important still, revealed its alarming frequency. It’s not for nothing that one of his weirdest, most wonderful stories is called ‘A Common Confusion’, literally ‘an everyday confusion’. In an afterword to The Office Writings, Jack Greenberg, a lawyer on the case, recalls the 1954 US Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which instructed school administrators to desegregate with ‘all deliberate speed’, that is, either as quickly as possible or as slowly as possible, take your pick. He also mentions a more recent district court opinion regarding the phrase ‘no longer enemy combatants’, used of people who may never have been enemy combatants at all. The opinion itself in this case uses the word ‘Kafkaesque’. Elsewhere in the volume the editors employ the word to characterise ‘terminological inaccuracy’ and the practice of ‘calculating with dubious figures’. These usages are mildly opposed to each other, or mark out a range from deliberate ambiguity to helpless incoherence, but that is precisely the scope of the word, and we cannot pretend that any place on the spectrum is really unknown to us.

Many of the cases Kafka encounters in his work tell just this story: the large posters listing safety regulations but used only to replace broken windows; the lift that a rooming-house owner (who doesn’t want to pay the premium for the insurance of its operators) first claims is powered by a generator nowhere near the house, then by a generator in the house but so thoroughly isolated that it might as well be elsewhere; an insurance assessment system that scarcely ever has access to ‘actual working conditions’; the proposition that at a certain quarry no undercutting goes on, not just because it doesn’t, but because it couldn’t; and a law that is not only inadequate but ‘inadequately interpreted as well’. These last items sound like one of Kafka’s escalating jokes. ‘To imagine even part of the road makes one tired,’ he writes in a story about distances in China, ‘and more than part one just cannot imagine.’

And to make this connection, a connection on the level of logic or wit, is to see how Kafka’s office work most interestingly informs his fiction. I don’t know whether he found this logic in his insurance world or whether he brought a large part of it with him, but certainly he and this world speak the same language. He doesn’t, in German, quite use the phrase ‘clearly express some ambiguity’, nor does he evoke ‘practical reasons of practicality’; but he does speak of a wavering or hesitation becoming clearly perceptible and of theoretical and practical reasons of a functional kind, literally goal-oriented grounds. And in what the editors call ‘a core document among Kafka’s office writings’, he really does enter a logical realm very much resembling that of his fiction. This is a note of protest to the minister of the interior, written in June 1911, concerning the practices of trade inspectors, who make recommendations regarding premiums – recommendations favourable to the employers rather than the institute – when they are legally supposed only to be describing conditions. Every time the institute raised objections to these practices, Kafka says, ‘it was considered an exceptional case’ – ‘just Kafkaesque’, we might say. The plea for a ruling against the inspectors’ activities was ‘completely successful in principle’, Kafka then says. Such a ruling was obtained from the Royal and Imperial Trade Inspectorate. Completely successful in principle and ‘futile’ in practice, since the inspectors and everyone else forgot about the ruling as soon as it was issued. On the next page Kafka mounts the masterly argument that ‘these unfortunate conditions also have some welcome consequences,’ because they make the problems ‘glaringly clear’ – a hopeless arrangement, we might say, that is in other respects excellent.

We rightly think of Kafka as a sufferer and a victim, the tormented subject of nightmares, the man whose initial identifies, in one novel, a figure caught up in an absurd trial and in another, the land surveyor we have seen sleeping through his possible salvation. But we can also think of him as a master of nightmares, a connoisseur of them, and we can remember that he smiled, as Brod tells us, when he made his remark about the plentitude of hope. Stanley Corngold, in an introductory essay to The Office Writings, says that Kafka’s goal or need – ‘the mandate . . . laid on him’ – was ‘to write well at some unheard of degree of proficiency or be lost’. This is beautifully put, and while we can only guess at what Kafka’s idea of proficiency was, what level of writerly achievement would have made him want to save more than a few pieces from the bonfire he asked Brod to make of his manuscripts, there is a kind of evidence in the consummately managed irony of his logical conundrums. And here he may place himself not in K’s shoes, or not only in K’s shoes, but also those of the speculating but uninvolved Bürgel, who sees the desolation in all the failed approaches to the intractable castle, but also the almost musical grace with which chance steps in and rescues the institution from its own vulnerability.

This structure is everywhere in Kafka, and especially in his most perfectly pitched sentences. ‘The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy heaven. This is beyond doubt, but doesn’t prove anything against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.’ ‘To believe in progress is not to believe that progress has already happened. That would not be a belief.’ ‘There can be a knowledge of the devilish, but no belief in it, because there is nothing more devilish than what already exists.’ ‘If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been allowed.’ ‘In the battle between yourself and the world, support the world.’ ‘Goodness is in a certain sense comfortless.’ The writer here is not the victim but the merciless and stylish analyst; not the land surveyor but the surveyor of the arrangement. In this sense it is surely a mistake, as Corngold suggests it is, to pit Kafka’s bureaucracy against its ‘hapless supplicant’. He is bureaucrat and supplicant, perhaps more bureaucrat than supplicant. What saves him from the Devil’s service, redeems him at the last minute, as if he were Goethe’s Faust swept up by the angels, is neither the system nor a fight against the system but his sheer lucidity about the system’s fragile supremacy.

The word I have just translated rather literally as ‘comfortless’ is trostlos, the same term Bürgel uses about the otherwise excellent arrangement he is discussing. We could also say ‘devoid of consolation’, and we have already seen that Mark Harman, from whose fine version of The Castle I have taken most of the translations in this piece, renders the word as ‘hopeless’. Willa and Edwin Muir have ‘dismal and cheerless’, J.A. Underwood has ‘bleak’. I also rather like ‘desolate’ myself, but all of these words point in the right direction. Trostlos can also be used of a dreary landscape, and in this sense calls up another curious logical riddle in The Castle, one of the most mystifying and satisfying of Kafka’s exercises in double thought. Frieda, the barmaid with whom K has set up house, suggests that they leave the village where they are living and escape the whole world that depends on the castle K is so anxious to enter. They could go to Spain or the South of France, she says. This already sounds a little strange, since it’s hard to imagine how one could reach such real-world locations from the eerily stylised world of the novel, but K’s response is even stranger, representing ‘a contradiction he didn’t bother to explain’. It is also not strange at all, because it is an argument about home. The heart, we might say, is where the home is. He can’t leave, K insists, because he came to stay. Does he just mean he prefers to stay? No, because that doesn’t encompass either the unexplained contradiction or his actual desire. He wants to have arrived somewhere and to have remained in that place, wherever it was. He says: ‘What could have attracted me to this desolate land other than the desire to stay?’ There is something darkly comic about the formulation, as if Groucho Marx were to say he had always wanted to be a member of any club that wouldn’t let him in. Of course, the attraction is not the land but the staying, yet the desolation of the place – öde is the word used here but the sense of trostlos is not far away – is no doubt part of the arrangement too. The desolation purifies the idea of staying; it would be easier to leave a land where one was happier. Are we perhaps beginning to grasp something of the logic Kafka is trying to teach us?

Michael Wood teaches at Princeton. His most recent book is Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.


Someone to Disturb by Hilary Mantel

Someone to Disturb
by Hilary Mantel

In those days, the doorbell didn’t ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house. Only at a persistent ring would I creep over the carpets, as if there were someone to disturb, and make my way to the front door with its spyhole. We were big on bolts and shutters, deadlocks and mortises, safety chains and windows that were high and barred. Through the spyhole I saw a distraught man in a crumpled, silver-grey suit: thirties, Asian. He had dropped back from the door, and was looking about him, at the closed and locked door opposite, and up the dusty marble stairs. He patted his pockets, took out a balled-up handkerchief, and rubbed it across his face. He looked so fraught that his sweat could have been tears. I opened the door.

At once he raised his hands as if to show he was unarmed, his handkerchief dropping like a white flag. ‘Madam!’ Ghastly pale I must have looked, under the light that dappled the tiled walls with swinging shadows. But then he took a breath, tugged at his creased jacket, ran a hand through his hair and conjured up his business card. ‘Muhammad Ijaz. Import-Export. I am so sorry to disturb your afternoon. I am totally lost. Would you permit use of your telephone?’

I stood aside to let him in. No doubt I smiled. Given what would ensue, I must suppose I did. ‘Of course. If it’s working today.’

I walked ahead and he followed, talking; an important deal, he had almost closed it, visit to client in person necessary, time – he worked up his sleeve and consulted a fake Rolex – time running out; he had the address – again he patted his pockets – but the office is not where it should be. He spoke into the telephone in rapid Arabic, fluent, aggressive, his eyebrows shooting up, finally shaking his head; he put down the receiver, looked at it in regret; then up at me, with a sour smile. Weak mouth, I thought. Almost a handsome man, but not: slim, sallow, easily thrown. ‘I am in your debt, madam,’ he said. ‘Now I must dash.’

I wanted to offer him a what – bathroom break? Comfort stop? I had no idea how to phrase it. The absurd words ‘wash and brush up’ came into my mind. But he was already heading for the door – though from the way the call had concluded I thought they might not be so keen to see him as he was to see them. ‘This crazy city,’ he said. ‘They are always digging up the streets and moving them. I am so sorry to break in on your privacy.’ In the hall, he darted another glance around and up the stairs. ‘Only the British will ever help you.’ He skidded across the hall and prised open the outer door with its heavy ironwork screen; admitting, for a moment, the dull roar of traffic from Medina Road. The door swung back; he was gone. I closed the hall door discreetly, and melted into the oppressive hush. The air-conditioner rattled away, like an old relative with a loose cough. The air was heavy with insecticide; sometimes I sprayed it as I walked, and it fell about me like bright mists, veils. I resumed my phrasebook and tape. Fifth Lesson: I’m living in Jeddah. I’m busy today. God give you strength!

When my husband came home in the afternoon I told him: ‘A lost man was here. Pakistani. Businessman. I let him in to phone.’ My husband was silent. The air-conditioner hacked away. He walked into the shower, having evicted the cockroaches. Walked out again, dripping, naked, lay on the bed, stared at the ceiling. Next day I swept the business card into a bin.

In the afternoon the doorbell rang again. Ijaz had come back, to apologise, to explain, to thank me for rescuing him. I made him some instant coffee and he sat down and told me about himself.

It was then June 1983. I had been in Saudi Arabia for six months. My husband worked for a Toronto-based company of consulting geologists, and had been seconded by them to the Ministry of Mineral Resources. Most of his colleagues were housed in family ‘compounds’ of various sizes, but single men and childless couples like ourselves had to take what they could get. This was our second flat. The American bachelor who had occupied it before had been moved out in haste. Upstairs, in this block of four flats, lived a Saudi civil servant with his wife and baby; the other flat upstairs was empty; on the ground floor across the hall from us lived a Pakistani accountant who worked for a government minister, handling his personal finances. Meeting the womenfolk in the hall or on the stairs – one blacked-out head to toe, one partly veiled – the bachelor had livened up their lives by calling ‘Hello!’ Or possibly ‘Hi there!’

There was no suggestion of further impertinence. But a complaint had been made, he vanished, and we were sent to live there instead. The flat was small by Saudi standards. It had beige carpets and off-white wallpaper on which there was a faint crinkled pattern, almost indiscernible. The windows were guarded by heavy wooden shutters which you cranked down by turning a handle on the inside. Even with the shutters up it was dim and I needed the strip lights on all day. The rooms were closed off from each other by double doors of dark wood, heavy like coffin lids. It was like living in a funeral home, with samples stacked around you, and insect opportunists frying themselves on the lights.

He was a graduate of a Miami business school, Ijaz said, and his business, his main business just now, was bottled water. Had the deal gone through, yesterday? He was evasive – obviously, there was nothing simple about it. He waved a hand – give it time, give it time.

I had no friends in this city as yet. Social life, such as it was, centred on private houses; there were no cinemas, theatres or lecture halls. There were sports grounds, but women could not attend them. No ‘mixed gatherings’ were allowed. The Saudis did not mix with foreign workers. They looked down on them as necessary evils, though white-skinned, English-speaking expatriates were at the top of the pecking order. Others – Ijaz, for example – were ‘Third Country Nationals’, a label that exposed them to every kind of truculence, insult and daily complication. Indians and Pakistanis staffed the shops and small businesses. Filipinos worked on building sites. Men from Thailand cleaned the streets. Bearded Yemenis sat on the pavement outside lock-up shops, their skirts rucked up, their hairy legs thrust out, their flip-flops inches from the whizzing cars.

I am married, Ijaz said, and to an American; you must meet her. Maybe, he said, maybe you could do something for her, you know? What I foresaw at best was the usual Jeddah arrangement, of couples shackled together. Women had no motive power in this city; they had no driving licences, and only the rich had drivers. So couples who wanted to visit must do it together. I didn’t think Ijaz and my husband would be friends. Ijaz was too restless and nervy. He laughed at nothing. He was always twitching his collar and twisting his feet in their scuffed Oxfords, always tapping the fake Rolex; always apologising. Our apartment is down by the port, he said, with my sister-in-law and my brother, but he’s back in Miami just now, and my mother’s here just now for a visit, and my wife from America, and my son and my daughter, aged six, aged eight. He reached for his wallet and showed me a strange-looking, steeple-headed little boy. ‘Saleem.’

When he left, he thanked me again for trusting him to come into my house. Why, he said, he might have been anybody. But it is not the British way to think badly of needy strangers. At the door he shook my hand. That’s that, I thought. Part of me thought: it had better be.

For one was always observed: overlooked, without precisely being seen, recognised. My Pakistani neighbour Yasmin, to get between my flat and hers, would fling a scarf over her rippling hair, then peep round the door; with nervous, pecking movements she hopped across the marble, head swivelling from side to side, in case someone should choose that very moment to shoulder through the heavy street door. Sometimes, irritated by the dust that blew under the door and banked up on the marble, I would go out into the hall with a long broom. My male Saudi neighbour would come down from the first floor on his way out to his car and step over my brushstrokes without looking at me, his head averted. He was according me invisibility, as a mark of respect to another man’s wife.

I was not sure that Ijaz accorded me this respect. Our situation was anomalous and ripe for misunderstanding: I had an afternoon caller. He probably thought that only the kind of woman who took a lot of risks with herself would let a stranger into her house. Yet I could not guess what he probably thought. Surely a Miami business school, surely his time in the West, had made my attitude seem more normal than not? His talk was relaxed now he knew me, full of feeble jokes that he laughed at himself; but then there was the jiggling of his foot, the pulling of his collar, the tapping of his fingers. I had noticed, listening to my tape, that his situation was anticipated in the 19th Lesson: I gave the address to my driver, but when we arrived, there wasn’t any house at this address. I hoped to show by my brisk friendliness what was only the truth, that our situation could be simple, because I felt no attraction to him at all; so little that I felt apologetic about it. That is where it began to go wrong: my feeling that I must bear out the national character he had given me, and that I must not slight him or refuse a friendship, in case he thought it was because he was a Third Country National.

For his second visit, and his third, were an interruption, almost an irritation. Having no choice in that city, I had decided to cherish my isolation, coddle it. I was ill in those days, and subject to a fierce drug regime which gave me blinding headaches, made me slightly deaf and, though I was hungry, unable to eat. The drugs were expensive and had to be imported from England; my husband’s company brought them in by courier. Word of this leaked out, and the company wives decided I was taking fertility drugs; but I did not know this, and my ignorance made our conversations peculiar and, to me, slightly menacing. Why were they always talking, on the occasions of forced company sociability, about women who’d had miscarriages but now had a bouncing babe in the buggy? An older woman confided that her two were adopted; I looked at them and thought: Jesus, where from, the zoo? My Pakistani neighbour also joined in the cooing over the offspring that I would have shortly. She was in on the rumours, but I put her hints down to the fact that she was carrying her first child and wanted company. I saw her most mornings for an interval of coffee and chat, and I would rather steer her to talking about Islam, which was easy enough; she was an educated woman and keen to instruct. Monday, 6 June: ‘Spent two hours with my neighbour,’ my diary says, ‘widening the cultural gap.’

Next day, my husband brought home air tickets and my exit visa for our first home leave, which was seven weeks away. Thursday, 9 June: ‘Found a white hair in my head.’ At home there was a general election, and we sat up through the night to listen to the results on the BBC World Service. When we turned out the light, the grocer’s daughter jigged through my dreams to the strains of ‘Lillibulero’. Friday was a holiday, and we slept undisturbed till the noon prayer call. Ramadan began. Wednesday, 15 June: ‘Read The Twyborn Affair and vomited sporadically.’

On the 16th our neighbours across the hall left for pilgrimage, robed in white. They rang our doorbell before they left: ‘Is there anything we can bring you from Mecca?’ 19 June saw me desperate for change, moving the furniture around the sitting-room and recording ‘not much improvement’. I write that I am prey to ‘unpleasant and intrusive thoughts’, but I do not say what they are. I describe myself as ‘hot, sick and morose’. By 4 July I must have been happier, because I listened to the Eroica while doing the ironing. But on the morning of 10 July, I got up first, put the coffee on, and went into the sitting-room to find that the furniture had been trying to move itself back. An armchair was leaning to the left, as if executing some tipsy dance; at one side its base rested on the carpet, but the other side was a foot in the air, and balanced finely on the rim of a flimsy wastepaper basket. Open-mouthed, I shot back into the bedroom; it was the Eid holiday, and my husband was half-awake. I gibbered at him. Silent, he rose, put on his glasses, and followed me. He stood in the doorway of the sitting-room. He looked around and told me without hesitation it had nothing to do with him. He walked into the bathroom. I heard him close the door, curse the cockroaches, switch on the shower. I said later: I must be walking in my sleep. Do you think that’s it? Do you think I did it? 12 July: ‘Execution dream again.’

The trouble was, Ijaz knew I was at home; how could I be going anywhere? One afternoon I left him standing in the hall, while he pressed and pressed the doorbell, and next time, when I let him in, he asked me where I had been; when I said, ‘Ah, sorry, I must have been with my neighbour,’ I could see he did not believe me, and he looked at me so sorrowfully that my heart went out to him. Jeddah fretted him, it galled him, and he missed, he said, America, he missed his visits to London, he must go soon, take a break; when was our leave, perhaps we might meet up? I explained I did not live in London, which surprised him; he seemed to suspect this was an evasion, like my failure to answer the door. ‘Because I could get an exit visa,’ he said again. ‘Meet up there. Without all this . . . ’ He gestured at the coffin-lid doors, the heavy, wilful furniture.

He made me laugh that day, telling me about his first girlfriend, his American girlfriend whose nickname was Patches. It was easy to picture her, sassy and suntanned, astonishing him one day by pulling off her top, bouncing her bare breasts at him and putting an end to his wan virginity. The fear he felt, the terror of touching her . . . his shameful performance . . . recalling it, he knuckled his forehead. I was charmed, I suppose. How often does a man tell you these things? I told my husband, hoping to make him laugh, but he didn’t. Often, to be helpful, I hoovered up the cockroaches before his return from the ministry. He shed his clothes and headed off. I heard the splash of the shower. Nineteenth Lesson: Are you married? Yes, my wife is with me, she’s standing there in the corner of the room. I imagined the cockroaches, dark and flailing in the dust bag.

I went back to the dining table, on which I was writing a comic novel. It was a secret activity, which I never mentioned to the company wives, and barely mentioned to myself. I scribbled under the strip light, until it was time to drive out for food shopping. You had to shop between sunset prayers and night prayers; if you mistimed it, then at the first prayer call the shops slammed down their shutters, trapping you inside, or outside in the wet heat of the car park. The malls were patrolled by volunteers from the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice.

At the end of July, Ijaz brought his family for tea. Mary-Beth was a small woman but seemed swollen beneath the skin; spiritless, freckled, limp, she was a faded redhead who seemed huddled into herself, unused to conversation. A silent daughter with eyes like dark stars had been trussed up for the visit in a frilly white dress. At six, steeple-headed Saleem had lost his baby fat, and his movements were tentative as if his limbs were snappable. His eyes were watchful; Mary-Beth hardly met my gaze at all. What had Ijaz told her? That he was taking her to see a woman who was something like he’d like her to be? It was an unhappy afternoon. I can only have got through it because I was buoyed by an uprush of anticipation; my bags were packed for our flight home. A day earlier, when I had gone into the spare room where I kept my clothes, I had met another dismaying sight. The doors of the fitted wardrobe, which were large and solid like the other coffin lids, had been removed from their hinges; they had been replaced, but hung by the lower hinges only, so that their upper halves flapped like the wings of some ramshackle flying machine.

On 1 August we left King Abdul Aziz International Airport in an electrical storm, and had a bumpy flight. I was curious about Mary-Beth’s situation and hoped to see her again, though another part of me hoped that she and Ijaz would simply vanish.

I didn’t return to Jeddah till the very end of November, having left my book with an agent. Just before our leave I had met my Saudi neighbour, a young mother taking a part-time literature course at the women’s university. Education for women was regarded as a luxury, an ornament, a way for a husband to boast of his broadmindedness; Munira couldn’t even begin to do her assignments, and I took to going up to her flat in the late mornings and doing them for her, while she sat on the floor in her negligée, watching Egyptian soaps on TV and eating sunflower seeds. We three women had become mid-morning friends; all the better for them to watch me, I thought, and discuss me when I’m gone. It was easier for Yasmin and me to go upstairs, because to come down Munira had to get kitted out in full veil and abaya; again, that treacherous, hovering moment on the public territory of the staircase, where a man might burst through from the street and shout ‘Hi!’ Yasmin was a delicate woman, like a princess in a Persian miniature; younger than myself, she was impeccably soignée, finished with a flawless glaze of good manners and restraint. Munira was 19, with coarse, eager good looks, a pale skin, and a mane of hair that crackled with static and seemed to lead a vital, separate life; her laugh was a raucous cackle. She and Yasmin sat on cushions but gave me a chair; they insisted. They served Nescafé in my honour, though I would have preferred a sludgy local brew. I had learned the crude effectiveness of caffeine against migraine; some nights, sleepless, pacing, I careened off the walls, and only the dawn prayer call sent me to bed, still thinking furiously of books I might write.

Ijaz rang the doorbell on 6 December. He was so very pleased to see me after my long leave; beaming, he said: ‘Now you are more like Patches than ever.’ I felt a flare of alarm; nothing, nothing had been said about this before. I was slimmer, he said, and looked well: my prescription drugs had been cut down, and I had been exposed to some daylight, I supposed that was what was doing it. But: ‘No, there is something different about you,’ he said. One of the company wives had said the same. She thought, no doubt, that I had conceived my baby at last.

I led Ijaz into the sitting-room, while he trailed me with compliments, and made the coffee. ‘Maybe it’s my book,’ I said, sitting down. ‘You see, I’ve written a book . . . ’ My voice tailed off. This was not his world. No one read books in Jeddah. You could buy anything in the shops except alcohol or a bookcase. Yasmin, though she was an English graduate, said she had never read a book since her marriage; she was too busy organising supper parties every night. I have had a little success, I explained, or I hope for a little success, I have written a novel you see, and an agent has taken it on.

‘It is a storybook? For children?’

‘For adults.’

‘You did this during your vacation?’

‘No, I was always writing it.’ I felt deceitful. I was writing it when I didn’t answer the doorbell.

‘Your husband will pay to have it published for you.’

‘No, with luck someone will pay me. A publisher. The agent hopes he can sell it.’

‘This agent, where did you meet him?’

I could hardly say: in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. ‘In London. At his office.’

‘But you do not live in London,’ Ijaz said, as if laying down an ace. He was out to find something wrong with my story. ‘Probably he is no good. He may steal your money.’

I saw of course that, in his world, the term ‘agent’ would cover some broad, unsavoury categories. But what about ‘Import-Export’, as written on his business card? That didn’t sound to me like the essence of probity. I wanted to argue; I was still upset about Patches; without warning, Ijaz seemed to have changed the terms of engagement between us. ‘I don’t think so. I haven’t given him money. His firm, it’s well known.’

‘Their office is where?’ Ijaz sniffed, and I pressed on, trying to make my case; though why did I think that being on William IV Street was a guarantee of moral worth? Ijaz knew London well. ‘Charing Cross Tube?’ He still looked affronted. ‘Near Trafalgar Square?’

Ijaz grunted. ‘You went to this premises alone?’

I couldn’t placate him. I gave him a biscuit. I didn’t expect him to understand what I was up to, but he seemed aggrieved that another man had entered my life.

‘How is Mary-Beth?’ I asked.

‘She has some kidney disease.’

I was shocked. ‘Is it serious?’

He raised his shoulders; not a shrug, more a rotation of the joints, as if easing some old ache. ‘She must go back to America for treatment. It’s OK. I’m getting rid of her anyway.’

I looked away. I hadn’t imagined this. ‘I’m sorry you’re unhappy.’

‘You see, really I don’t know what’s the matter with her,’ he said testily. ‘She is always miserable and moping.’

‘You know, this is not the easiest place for a woman to live.’

But did he know? Irritated, he said: ‘She wanted a big car. So I got a big car. What more does she want me to do?’

6 December: ‘Ijaz stayed too long,’ the diary says. The next day he was back. After the way he had spoken of his wife – and the way he had compared me to dear old Patches from his Miami days – I didn’t think I should see him again. But he had hatched a scheme and he wasn’t going to let it go. I should come to a dinner party with my husband and meet his family and some of his business contacts. He had been talking about this project before my leave and I knew he set great store by it. I wanted, if I could, to do him some good; he would appear to his customers to be more a man of the world if he could arrange an international gathering, if – let’s be blunt – he could produce some white friends. Now the time had come. His sister-in-law was already cooking, he said. I wanted to meet her; I admired these diaspora Asians, their polyglot enterprise, the way they withstood rebuffs, and I wanted to see if she was more Western or Eastern or what. ‘We have to arrange the transportation,’ Ijaz said. ‘I shall come Thursday, when your husband is here. Four o’clock. To give him directions.’ I nodded. No use drawing a map. They might move the streets again.

The meeting of 8 December was not a success. Ijaz was late, but didn’t seem to know it. My husband dispensed the briefest host’s courtesies, then sat down firmly in his armchair, which was the one that had tried to levitate. He seemed, by his watchful silence, ready to put an end to any nonsense, from furniture or guests or any other quarter. Sitting on the edge of the sofa, Ijaz flaked his baklava over his lap, he juggled with his fork and jiggled his coffee cup. After our dinner party, he said, almost the next day, he was flying to America on business. ‘I shall route via London. Just for some recreation. Just to relax, three-four days.’

My husband must have stirred himself to ask if he had friends there. ‘Very old friend,’ Ijaz said, brushing crumbs to the carpet. ‘Living at Trafalgar Square. You know it?’

My heart sank; it was a physical feeling, of the months falling away from me, months in which I’d had little natural light. When Ijaz left – and he kept hovering on the threshold, giving further and better street directions – I didn’t know what to say, so I went into the bathroom, kicked out the cockroaches and cowered under the stream of tepid water. Wrapped in a towel, I lay on the bed in the dark. I could hear my husband – I hoped it was he, and not the armchair – moving around in the sitting-room. Sometimes in those days when I closed my eyes I felt that I was looking back into my own skull. I could see the hemispheres of my brain. They were convoluted and the colour of putty.

The family apartment down by the port was filled with cooking smells and crammed with furniture. There were photographs on every surface, carpets laid on carpets. It was a hot night, and the air-conditioners choked and gurgled, spitting out water, coughing up lungfuls of mould spores, blights. The table linen was limp and heavily fringed, and I kept fingering these fringes, which felt like nylon fur, like the ears of a teddy bear; they comforted me, though I felt electric with tension. At the table a vast lumpen elder presided, a woman with a long chomping jaw; she was like Quentin Massys’s Ugly Duchess, except in a spangled sari. The sister-in-law was a bright, brittle woman, who gave a sarcastic lilt to all her phrases. I could see why; it was evident, from her knowing looks, that Ijaz had talked about me, and set me up in some way; if he was proposing me as his next wife, I offered little improvement on the original. Her scorn became complete when she saw I barely touched the food at my elbow; I kept smiling and nodding, demurring and deferring, nibbling a parsley leaf and sipping my Fanta. I wanted to eat, but she might as well have offered me stones on a doily. Did Ijaz think, as the Saudis did, that Western marriages meant nothing? That they were entered impulsively, and on impulse broken? Did he assume my husband as keen to offload me as he was to lose Mary-Beth? From his point of view the evening was not going well. He had expected two supermarket managers, he told us, important men with spending power: now night prayers were over, the traffic was on the move again, all down Palestine Road and along the Corniche the traffic lights were turning green, from Thumb Street to the Pepsi flyover the city was humming, but where were they? Sweat dripped from his face. Fingers jabbed the buttons of the telephone. ‘OK, he is delayed? He has left? He is coming now?’ He rapped down the receiver, then gazed at the phone as if willing it to chirp back at him, like some pet fowl. ‘Time means nothing here,’ he joked, pulling at his collar. The sister-in-law shrugged and turned down her mouth. She never rested, but passed airily through the room in peach chiffon, each time returning from the kitchen with another laden tray; out of sight, presumably, some oily skivvy was weeping into the dishes. The silent elder put away a large part of the food, pulling the plates towards her and working through systematically till the pattern showed beneath her questing fingers; you looked away, and when you looked back the plate was clean. Sometimes, the phone rang: ‘OK, they’re nearly here,’ Ijaz called. Ten minutes, and his brow furrowed again. ‘Maybe they’re lost.’

‘Sure they’re lost,’ sister-in-law sang. She sniggered; she was enjoying herself. Nineteenth Lesson, translate these sentences: So long as he holds the map the wrong way up, he will never find the house. They started travelling this morning, but have still not arrived. It seemed a hopeless business, trying to get anywhere, and the textbook confessed it. I was not really learning Arabic, of course, I was too impatient; I was leafing through the lessons, looking for phrases that might be useful if I could say them. We stayed long, long into the evening, waiting for the bottled-water impresarios; in the end, wounded and surly, Ijaz escorted us to the door. I heard my husband take in a breath of wet air. ‘We’ll never have to do it again,’ I consoled him. In the car, ‘You have to feel for him,’ I said. No answer.

13 December: my diary records that I am oppressed by ‘the darkness, the ironing and the smell of drains’. I could no longer play my Eroica tape because it had twisted itself up in the innards of the machine. In my idle moments I had summarised 40 chapters of Oliver Twist for the use of my upstairs neighbour. Three days later I was ‘horribly unstable and restless’, and reading the Lyttelton/ Hart-Davis Letters. Later that week I was cooking with Yasmin. I recorded ‘an afternoon of greying pain’. All the same, Ijaz was out of the country and I realised I breathed easier when I was not anticipating the ring of the doorbell.

16 December: I was reading The Philosopher’s Pupil and visiting my own student upstairs. Munira took my 40 chapter summaries, flicked through them, yawned, and switched on the TV. ‘What is a workhouse?’ I tried to explain about the English Poor Law, but her expression glazed; she had never heard of poverty. She yelled out for her servant, an ear-splitting yell, and the girl – a beaten-down Indonesian – brought in Munira’s daughter for my diversion. A heavy, solemn child, she was beginning to walk, or stamp, under her own power, her hands flailing for a hold on the furniture. She would fall on her bottom with a grunt, haul herself up again by clutching the sofa; the cushions slid away from her, she tumbled backwards, banged her large head with its corkscrew curls on the floor, and lay there wailing. Munira laughed at her: ‘White nigger, isn’t it?’ She didn’t get her flat nose from my side, she explained. Or those fat lips either. It’s my husband’s people, but of course they’re blaming me.

2 January 1984: we went to a dark little restaurant off Khalid bin Walid Street, where we were seated behind a lattice screen in the ‘family area’. In the main part of the room men were dining with each other. The business of eating out was more a gesture than a pleasure; you would gallop through the meal, because without wine and its rituals there was nothing to slow it, and the waiters, who had no concept that a man and woman might eat together for more than sustenance, prided themselves on picking up your plate as soon as you had finished and slapping down another, and getting you back as soon as possible onto the dusty street. That dusty orange glare, perpetual, like the lighting of a bad sci-fi film; the constant snarl and rumble of traffic; I had become afraid of traffic accidents, which were frequent, and every time we drove out at night I saw the gaping spaces beneath bridges and flyovers; they seemed to me like amphitheatres in which the traffic’s casualties enacted, flickering, their final moments. Sometimes, when I set foot outside the apartment, I started to shake. I blamed it on the drugs I was taking; the dose had been increased again. When I saw the other wives they didn’t seem to be having these difficulties. They talked about paddling pools and former lives they had led in Hong Kong. They got up little souk trips to buy jewellery, so that sliding on their scrawny tanned arms their bracelets clinked and chimed, like ice cubes knocking together.

On Valentine’s Day we went to a cheese party; you had to imagine the wine. I was bubbling with happiness: a letter had come from William IV Street, to tell me my novel had been sold. Spearing his Edam with a cocktail stick, my husband’s boss loomed over me: ‘Hubby tells me you’re having a book published. That must be costing him a pretty penny.’

Ijaz, I assumed, was still in America. After all, he had his marital affairs to sort out, as well as business. He doesn’t reappear in the diary till 17 March, St Patrick’s Day, when I recorded: ‘Phone call, highly unwelcome.’ For politeness, I asked how business was; as ever, he was evasive. He had something else to tell me: ‘I’ve got rid of Mary-Beth. She’s gone.’

‘What about the children?’

‘Saleem is staying with me. The girl, it doesn’t matter. She can have her if she wants.’

‘Ijaz, look, I must say goodbye. I hear the doorbell.’ What a lie.

‘Who is it?’

What, did he think I could see through the wall? For a second I was so angry I forgot there was only a phantom at the door. ‘Perhaps my neighbour,’ I said meekly.

‘See you soon,’ Ijaz said.

I decided that night I could no longer bear it. I did not feel I could bear even one more cup of coffee together. But I had no means of putting an end to it, and for this I excused myself, saying I had been made helpless by the society around me. I was not able to bring myself to speak to Ijaz directly. I still had no power in me to snub him. But the mere thought of him made me squirm inside with shame, at my own general cluelessness, and at the sad little lies he had told to misrepresent his life, and the situation into which we had blundered; I thought of the sister-in-law, her peach chiffon and her curled lip.

Next day when my husband came home I sat him down and instigated a conversation. I asked him to write to Ijaz and tell him not to call on me any more, as I was afraid that the neighbours had noticed his visits and might draw the wrong conclusion: which, as he knew, could be dangerous to us all. My husband heard me out. You need not write much, I pleaded, he will get the point. I should be able to sort this out for myself, but I am not allowed to, it is beyond my power, or it seems to be. I heard my own voice, jangled, grating; I was doing what I had wriggled so hard to avoid, I was sheltering behind the mores of this society, offloading the problem I had created for myself in a way that was feminine, weak and spiteful.

My husband saw all this. Not that he spoke. He got up, took his shower. He lay in the rattling darkness, in the bedroom where the wooden shutters blocked out the merest chink of afternoon glare. I lay beside him. The evening prayer call woke me from my doze. My husband had risen to write the letter. I remember the snap of the lock as he closed it in his briefcase.

I have never asked him what he put in the letter. Whatever it was, it worked. There was nothing – not a chastened note pushed under the door, nor a regretful phone call. Just silence. The diary continues but Ijaz exits from it. I read Zuckerman Unbound, The Present and The Past, and The Bottle Factory Outing. The company’s post-office box went missing, with all the incoming mail in it. You would think a post-office box was a fixed thing and wouldn’t go wandering of its own volition, but it was many days before it was found, at a distant post office, and I suppose a post box can move if furniture can. We drifted towards our next leave. 10 May: we attended a farewell party for an escapee whose contract was up. ‘Fell over while dancing and sprained my ankle.’ 11 May: with my ankle strapped up, ‘watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’.

I had much more time to serve in Jeddah. I didn’t leave finally till the spring of 1986. By that time we had been rehoused twice more, shuttled around the city and finally outside it to a compound off the freeway. I never heard of my visitor again. The woman trapped in the flat on the corner of Al-Suror Street seems a relative stranger, and I ask myself what she should have done, how she could have managed it better. She should have thrown those drugs away, for one thing; they are nowadays a medication of last resort, because everybody knows they make you frightened, deaf and sick. But about Ijaz? She should never have opened the door in the first place. Discretion is the better part of valour; she’s always said that. Even after all this time it’s hard to grasp exactly what happened. I try to write it as it occurred, but I find myself changing the names to protect the guilty. I wonder if Jeddah left me for ever off-kilter in some way, tilted from the vertical and condemned to see life skewed. I can never be certain that doors will stay closed and on their hinges, and I do not know, when I turn out the lights at night, whether the house is quiet as I left it or the furniture is frolicking in the dark.

Hilary Mantel’s novel set in Jeddah, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, is published by HarperPerennial. Her latest, Wolf Hall.