I took a trip to see the beautiful things. Change of scenery. Change of heart. And do you know?
They’re still there.
Ah, but they won’t be there for long.
I know. That’s why I went. To say goodbye. Whenever I travel, it’s always to say goodbye.
Tile roofs, timbered balconies, fish in the bay, the copper clock, shawls drying on the rocks, the delicate odour of olives, sunsets behind the bridge, ochre stone. ‘Gardens, parks, forests, woods, canals, private lakes, with huts, villas, gates, garden seats, gazebos, alcoves, grottoes, hermitages, triumphal arches, chapels, temples, mosques, banqueting houses, rotundas, observatories, aviaries, greenhouses, icehouses, fountains, bridges, boats, cascades, baths.’ The Roman amphitheatre, the Etruscan sarcophagus. The monument to the 1914–18 war dead in every village square. You don’t see the military base. It’s out of town, and not on the main road.
Omens. The cloister wall has sprung a long diagonal crack. The water level is rising. The marble saint’s nose is no longer aquiline.
This spot. Some piety always brings me back to this spot. I think of all the people who were here. Their names scratched into the bottom of the fresco.
Yes. Their way of being here.
The proudest of human-made things dragged down to the condition of natural things. Last Judgement.
You can’t lock up all the things in museums.
Aren’t there any beautiful things in your own country?
No. Yes. Fewer.
Did you have guidebooks, maps, timetables, stout shoes?
I read the guidebooks when I got home. I wanted to stay with my –
You could call them that.
But you did see the famous places. You didn’t perversely neglect them.
I did see them. As conscientiously as I could while protecting my ignorance. I don’t want to know more than I know, don’t want to get more attached to them than I already am.
How did you know where to go?
By playing my memory like a roulette wheel.
Do you remember what you saw?
It’s too sad. I can’t love the past that’s trapped within my memory like a souvenir.
Object lessons. Grecian urns. A pepper-mill Eiffel Tower. Bismarck beer mug. Bay-of-Naples-with-Vesuvius scarf. David-by-Michelangelo cork tray.
No souvenirs, thanks. Let’s stay with the real thing.
The past. Well, there’s always something ineffable about the past, don’t you think?
In all it’s original glory. The indispensable heritage of a woman of culture.
I agree, like you, I don’t consider devotion to the past a form of snobbery. Just one of the more disastrous forms of unrequited love.
I was being wry. I’m a fickle lover. It’s not love that the past needs in order to survive, it’s an absence of choices.
And armies of the well-off, immobilized by vanity, greed, fear of scandal and the inefficiency and discomfort of travel. Women carrying parasols and pearl handbags, with mincing steps, long skirts, shy eyes. Moustached men in top hats, lustrous hair parted on the left side, garters holding up their silk socks. Seconded by footmen, cobblers, ragpickers, blacksmiths, buskers, printer’s devils, chimney sweeps, lacemakers. midwives, carters, milkmaids, stonemasons, coachmen, turnkeys, and sacristans. As recently as that. All gone. The people. And their pomp and circumstance.
Is that what you think I went to see?
Not the people. But their places, their beautiful things. You said they were still there. The hut, the hermitage, the grotto, the park, the castle. An aviary in the Chinese style. His Lordship’s estate. A delightful seclusion in the midst of his impenetrable woods.
I wasn’t happy there.
What did you feel?
Regret that the trees were being cut down.
So you have a hazy vision of natural things. From too much indulgence in the nervous, metallic pleasures of cities.
Unequal to my passions, I fled the lakes, I fled the woods, I fled the fields pulsing with glowworms, I fled the aromatic mountains.
Provincial blahs. Something less solitary is what you need.
I used to say: Landscapes interest me only in relation to human beings. Ah, loving someone would give life to all this . . . But the emotions that human beings inspire in us also sadly resemble each other. The more that places, customs, the circumstances of adventures are changed, the more we see that we amidst them are unchanging. I know all the reactions I shall have. Know all the words that I am going to utter again.
You should have taken me along instead.
You mean him. Yes, of course I wasn’t alone. But we quarrelled most of the time. He plodding, I odious.
They say. They say a trip is a good time for repairing a damaged love.
Or else it’s the worst. Feelings like shrapnel half worked out of the wound. Opinions. And competition of opinions. Desperate amatory exercises back at the hotel on golden summer afternoons. Room service.
How did you let it get that dreary? You were so hopeful.
Rubbish! Prisons and hospitals are swollen with hope. But not charter flights and luxury hotels.
But you were moved. Sometimes.
Maybe it was exhaustion. Sure I was. I am. The inside of my feelings is damp with tears.
And the outside?
Very dry. Well – as dry as is necessary. You can’t imagine how tiring it is. That double-membraned organ of nostalgia, pumping the tears in. Pumping them out.
Qualities of depth and stamina.
And discrimination. When one can summon them.
I’m bushed. They aren’t all beautiful, the beautiful things. I’ve never seen so many squabby Cupids and clumsy Graces.
Here’s a cafe. In the cafe. The village priest playing the pinball machine. Nineteen-year-old sailors with red pompoms watching. Old gent with amber worry beads. Proprietor’s granddaughter doing her homework at a deal table. Two hunters buying picture postcards of stags. He says: You can drink the acidic local wine, become a little less odious, unwind.
Monsieur René says it closes at five.
Each picture. ‘Each picture had beneath it a motto of some good intention. Seeing that I was looking carefully at these noble images, he said: “here everything is natural.” The figures were clothed like living men and women, though they were far more beautiful. Much light, much darkness, men and women who are and yet are not.’
Worth a detour? Worth a trip! It’s a remarkable collection. Still possessed its aura. The things positively importuned.
The baron’s zeal in explaining. His courteous manner. He stayed all through the bombardment.
A necessary homogeneity. Or else some stark, specific event.
I want to go back to that antique store.
‘The ogival arch of the doorway is Gothic, but the central nave and the flanking wings –’
You’re hard to please.
Can’t you imagine travelling not to accumulate pleasures but to make them rarer?
Satiety is not my problem. Nor is piety.
There’s nothing left but to wait for our meals, like animals.
Are you catching a cold? Drink this.
I’m perfectly all right. I beg you, don’t buy the catalogue. Or the postcard-size reproductions. Or the sailor sweater.
Don’t be angry, but – did you tip Monsieur René?
Say to yourself fifty times a day: I am not a connoisseur, I am not a romantic wanderer, I am not a pilgrim.
You say it.
‘A permanent part of mankind’s spiritual goods.’
Translate that for me. I forgot my phrase book.
Still, you saw what you came to see.
The old victory of arrangement over accumulation.
But sometimes you were happy. Not just in spite of things.
Barefoot on the mosaic floor of the baptistery. Clambering above the flying buttresses. Irradiated by a Baroque monstrance shimmering indistinctly in the growing dusk of the cathedral. Effulgence of things. Voluminous. Resplendent. Unutterable bliss.
You send postcards on which you write ‘Bliss.’ Remember? You sent one to me.
I remember. Don’t stop me. I’m flying. I’m prowling. Epiphany. Hot tears. Delirium. Don’t stop me. I stroke my delirium like the balls of the comely waiter.
You want to make me jealous.
Don’t stop me. His dainty skin, his saucy laughter, his way of whistling, the succulent dampness of his shirt. We went into a shed behind the restaurant. And I said: Enter, sir, this body. This body is your castle, your cabin, your hunting lodge, your villa, your carriage, your luxury liner, your drawing room, your kitchen, your speedboat, your tool shed . . .
Do you often do that sort of thing when he’s around?
Him? He was napping at the hotel. A mild attack of heliophobia.
In the hotel. Back at the hotel, I woke him up. He had an erection. I seated myself on his loins. The nub, the hub, the fulcrum. Gravitational lines of force. In a world of perfect daylight. Indeed, a high-noon world, in which objects cast no shadows.
Only the half wise will despise these sensations.
I’m turning. I’m a huge steering wheel, unguided by any human hand. I’m turning . . .
And the other pleasures? The ones you came for.
‘In the entire visible world there is hardly a more powerful mood-impression than that experienced within one of the Gothic cathedrals just as the sun is setting.’
Pleasures of the eye. It had to be emphasized.
‘The eye can see nothing beyond those glimmering figures that hover overhead to the west in stern, solemn rows as the burning evening sun falls across them.’
Messengers of temporal and spiritual infinity.
‘The sensation of fire permeates all, and the colours sing out, rejoicing and sobbing.’
There, in truth, is a different world.
I found a wonderful old Baedeker, with lots of things that aren’t in the Michelin. Let’s. Let’s visit the caves. Unless they’re closed.
Let’s visit the World War I cemetery.
Let’s watch the regatta.
This spot. He committed suicide right here, by the lake. With his fiancée. In 1811.
I seduced a waiter in the restaurant by the port two days ago. He said. He said his name was Arrigo.
I love you. And my heart is pounding.
So is mine.
What’s important is that we’re strolling in this arcade together.
That we’re strolling. That we’re looking. That it’s beautiful.
Object lessons. Give me that suitcase, it’s heavy.
One must be careful not to wonder if these pleasures are superior to last year’s pleasures. They never are.
That must be the seduction of the past again. But just wait until now becomes then. You’ll see how happy we were.
I’m not expecting to be happy. Complaints. I’ve already seen it. I’m sure it’ll be full. It’s too far. You’re driving too fast, I can’t see anything. Only two showings of the movie, at seven and at nine. There’s a strike, I can’t telephone. This damned siesta, nothing’s open between one and four. If everything came out of this suitcase, I don’t understand why I can’t cram it all back in.
You’ll soon stop fretting over these mingy impediments. You’ll realize you’re carefree, without obligations. And then the unease will start.
Like those upper-middle-class Protestant folk who experience revelations, become hysterical, suffer breakdowns under the disorienting impact of Mediterranean light and Mediterranean manners. You’re still thinking about the waiter.
I said I love you, I trust you, I didn’t mind.
You shouldn’t. I don’t want that kind of revelation. I don’t want to satisfy my desire, I want to exasperate it. I want to resist the temptation of melancholy, my dear. If you only knew how much.
Then you must stop this flirtation with the past invented by poets and curators. We can forget about their old things. We can buy their postcards, eat their food, admire their sexual nonchalance. We can march in their workers’ festivals and sing the ‘Internationale,’ for even we know the words.
I’m feeling perfectly all right.
I think it’s safe to. Pick up hitchhikers, drink unbottled water, try to score some hash in the piazza, eat the mussels, leave the camera in the car, hang out in waterfront bars, trust the hotel concierge to make the reservation, don’t you?
Something. Don’t you want to do something?
Does every country have a tragic history except ours?
This spot. See? There’s a commemorative plaque. Between the windows.
Ruined. Ruined by too many decades of intrepid appreciation. Nature, the whore, cooperates. The crags of the Dolomites made too pink by the sun, the water of a lagoon made too silver by the moon, the blue skies of Greece (or Sicily) made too deep a blue by the arch in a white wall.
Ruins. These are ruins left from the last war.
Antiquarian effrontery: our pretty dwelling.
It was a convent, built according to a plan drawn up by Michelangelo. Turned into a hotel in 1927. Don’t expect the natives to take care of the beautiful things.
They say. They say they’re going to fill in the canal and make it a highway, sell the duchess’s rococo chapel to a sheik in Kuwait, build a condominium on that bluff with a stand of pine, open a boutique in the fishing village, put a sound-and-light show in the ghetto. It’s going fast. International Committee. Attempting to preserve. Under the patronage of His Excellency and the Honourable. Going fast. You’ll have to run.
Will I have to run?
Then let them go. Life is not a race.
Or else it is.
Any more. Isn’t it a pity they don’t write out the menus in purple ink any more. That you can’t put your shoes outside the hotel room at night. Remember. Those outsize bills, the kind they had until the devaluation. Last time. There weren’t as many cars last time, were there?
How could you stand it?
It was easier than it sounds. With an imagination like a pillar of fire. And a heart like a pillar of salt.
And you want to break the tie.
But his lover.
I told you. I told you, you should have taken me along instead.
Lingering. In the basilica. In the garden behind the inn. In the spice market. In bed, in the middle of the golden afternoon.
Because. It’s because of the fumes from the petrochemical factories nearby. It’s because they don’t have enough guards for the museums.
‘Two groups of statuary, one depicting virtuous toil, the other unbridled licentiousness.’
Do you realize how much prices have gone up? Appalling inflation. I can’t conceive how people here manage. With rents almost as high as back home and salaries half.
‘On the left of the main road, the Tomb of the Reliefs (the so-called Tomba Bella) is entered. On the walls round the niches and on the pillars, the favourite objects of the dead and domestic articles are reproduced in painted stucco relief: dogs, helmets, swords, leggings, shields, knapsacks and haversacks, bowls, a jug, a couch, pincers, a saw, knives, kitchen vessels and utensils, coils or rope, etc.’
I’m sure. I’m sure she was a prostitute. Did you look at her shoes? I’m sure they’re giving a concert in the cathedral tonight. Plus they said. Three stars, I’m sure they said it had three stars.
This spot. This is where they shot the scene in that movie.
Quite unspoiled. I’m amazed. I was expecting the worst.
They rent mules.
Of course. Every wage earner in the country gets five weeks’ paid vacation.
The women age so quickly.
Nice. It’s the second summer for the Ministry of Tourism’s ‘Be Nice’ campaign. This country where ruined marvels litter the ground.
It says. It says it’s closed for restoration. It says you can’t swim there any more.
I don’t care. Come on in. The water’s almost as warm as the Caribbean.
I want you, I feel you. Lick my neck. Slip off your trunks. Let me . . .
Let’s. Let’s go back to the hotel.
‘The treatment of space in Mannerist architecture and painting shows this change from the “closed” Renaissance world order to the “open”, “loose”, and deviating motions in the Mannerist universe.’
What are you trying to tell me?
‘The harmony, intelligibility and coherence of the Renaissance world view were inherent in the symmetrical courtyards of Italian palaces.’
I don’t want to flatter my intelligence with evidence.
If you don’t want to look at the painting, look at me.
See the sign? You can’t take the boat that way. We’re getting near the nuclear-submarine base.
Reports. Five cases of cholera have been reported.
This piazza has been called a stage for heroes.
It gets much cooler at night. You have to wear a sweater.
Thanks to the music festival every summer. You should see this place in the winter. It’s dead.
The trial is next week, so now they’re having demonstrations. Can’t you see the banner? And listen to that song.
Let’s not. I’m sure it’s a clip joint.
They said. Sharks, I think they said.
Not the hydrofoil. I know it’s faster, but they make me sick.
‘The sun having mounted and the heat elsewhere too extreme for us, we have retired to the tree-shaded courtyard.’ It’s not that I loved him. But in a certain hour of physical fatigue . . .
At the mercy of your moods.
Contented sometimes. Even blissful.
Doesn’t sound like it. Sounds like struggling to savour.
Maybe. Loss of judgment in the necropolis.
Reports. There’s a civil war raging in the north. The Liberation Front’s leader is still in exile. Rumours that the dictator has had a stroke. But everything seems so –
I guess . . . calm.
This spot. On this spot they massacred three hundred students.
I’d better go with you. You’ll have to bargain.
I’m starting to like the food. You get used to it after a while. Don’t you?
In the oldest paintings there is a complete absence of chiaroscuro.
I feel well here. There’s not so much to see.
‘Below the moulding, small leafy trees, from which hang wreaths, ribbons, and various objects, alternate with figures of men dancing. One is lying on the ground, playing the double flute.’
Cameras. The women don’t like to be photographed.
We may need a guide.
It’s a book on the treasures they unearthed. Pictures, bronzes and lamps.
That’s the prison where they torture political suspects. Terror incognita.
Covered with flies. That poor child. Did you see?
Omens. The power failure yesterday. New graffiti on the monument this morning. Tanks grinding along the boulevard at noon. They say. They say the radar at the airport has been out for the last seventy-two hours.
They say the dictator has recovered from his heart attack.
No, bottled water. Hardier folk. Quite different vegetation.
And the way they treat women here! Beasts of burden. Hauling those sacks up azure hills on which –
They’re building a ski station.
They’re phasing out the leprosarium.
Look at his face. He’s trying to talk to you.
Of course we could live here, privileged as we are. It isn’t our country. I don’t even mind being robbed.
‘The sun having mounted and heat elsewhere too extreme for us, we have retired to the shade of an oasis.’
Sometimes I did love him. Still, in a certain hour of mental fatigue . . .
At the mercy of your moods.
My undaunted caresses. My churlish silences.
You were trying to mend an error.
I was trying to change my plight.
I told you, you should have taken me along instead.
It wouldn’t have been different. I went on from there alone. I would have left you, too.
Mornings of departure. With everything prepared. Sun rising over the most majestic of bays (Naples, Rio or Hong Kong).
But you could decide to stay. Make new arrangements. Would that make you feel free? Or would you feel you’d spurned something irreplaceable?
The whole world.
That’s because it’s later rather than earlier. ‘In the beginning, all the world was America.’
How far from the beginning are we? When did we first start to feel the wound?
This staunchless wound, the great longing for another place. To make this place another.
In a mosque in Damietta stands a column that, if you lick it until you tongue bleeds, will cure you of restlessness. It must bleed.
A curious word, wanderlust, I’m ready to go.
I’ve already gone. Regretfully, exultantly. A prouder lyricism. It’s not Paradise that’s lost.
Advice. Move along, let’s get cracking, don’t hold me down, he travels fastest who travels alone. Let’s get the show on the road. Get up, slugabed. I’m clearing out of here. Get your ass in gear. Sleep faster, we need the pillow.
She’s racing, he’s stalling.
If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down –
Everything. – then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears.
Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.
Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue.
The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.