“the shop’s closed”
For today’s Guardian books podcast I read a little bit of The Course of the Heart, mined out of this section from Chapter One–
For twenty years he had lived in the same single room above the Atlantis Bookshop. He was reluctant to take me there, I could see, though it was only next door and I had been there before. At first he tried to pretend it would be difficult to get in.
“The shop’s closed,” he said. “We’d have to use the other door.”
Then he admitted:
“I can’t go back there for an hour or two. I did something last night that means it may not be safe.”
“You know the sort of thing I mean,” he said.
I couldn’t get him to explain further. The cuts on his wrists made me remember how panicky Pam and Lucas had been when I last spoke to them. All at once I was determined to see inside the room.
“We could always talk in the Museum,” I suggested.
Researching in the manuscript collection one afternoon a year before, he had turned a page of Jean de Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre–that oblique history no complete version of which is known–and come upon a miniature depicting in strange, unreal greens and blues the coronation procession of Richard Coeur de Lion.
Part of it had moved; which part, he would never say.
“Why, if it’s a coronation,” he had written almost plaintively to me at the time, “are these four men carrying a coffin ? And who is walking there under the awning–with the bishops yet not a bishop ?”
After that he had avoided the building as much as possible, though he could always see its tall iron railings at the end of the street. He had begun, he told me, to doubt the authenticity of some of the items in the medieval collection. In fact he was frightened of them.
“It would be quieter there,” I insisted.
He sat hunched over the Church Times, staring into the street with his hands clamped violently together in front of him. I could see him thinking.
“That fucking pile of shit!” he said eventually.
He got to his feet.
“Come on then. It’s probably cleared out by now anyway.”
Rain dripped from the blue-and-gold front of the Atlantis. There was a faded notice, CLOSED FOR COMPLETE REFURBISHMENT. The window display had been taken down, but for the look of things they had left a few books on a shelf. I could make out, through the plate glass, W B Yeats’ The Trembling of the Veil–with its lyrical plea for intuited ritual “Hodos Chameliontos” –leaning up against Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. When I drew Yaxley’s attention to this accidental nexus, he only stared at me contemptuously.
Inside, the shop smelled of cut timber, new plaster, paint, but this gave way on the stairs to an odour of cooking. Yaxley fumbled with his key. His bedsitter, which was quite large and on the top floor, had uncurtained sash windows on opposing walls. Nevertheless it didn’t seem well lit. From one window you could see the sodden facades of Museum Street, bright green deposits on the ledges, stucco scrolls and garlands grey with pigeon dung; out of the other, part of the blackened clock tower of St George’s Bloomsbury, a reproduction of the tomb of Mausoleus lowering up against the racing clouds.
“I once heard that clock strike twenty one,” said Yaxley.
“I can believe that,” I said, though I didn’t. “Do you think I could have some tea ?”
He was silent for a minute. Then he laughed.
“I’m not going to help them,” he said. “You know that. I wouldn’t be allowed to. What you do in the Pleroma is irretrievable.”
He fished two cups out of a plastic washing-up bowl and put tea bags in them.
“Don’t tell me you’re frightened too!” he said. “I expected more from you.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t sure whether I was afraid or not. I’m not sure today. The tea, when it came, had a distinctly greasy aftertaste, as if somehow he had fried it. I made myself drink it while Yaxley watched me cynically.
“You ought to sit down,” he said. “You’re worn out.”
When I refused, he shrugged and went on as if we were still at the Tivoli:
“Nobody tricked them, or tried to pretend it would be easy. If you get anything out of an experiment like that, it’s by keeping your head and taking your chance. If you try to move cautiously, you may never be allowed to move at all.”
He looked thoughtful.
“I’ve seen what happens to people who lose their nerve.”
“I’m sure,” I said.
“They were hardly recognisable, some of them.”
I put the teacup down.
“I don’t want to know,” I said.
“I bet you don’t.”
He smiled to himself.
“Oh, they were still alive,” he said softly, “if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You talked us into this,” I reminded him.
“You talked yourselves into it.”
Most of the light from Museum Street was absorbed as soon as it entered the room, by the dull green wallpaper and sticky-looking yellow veneer of the furniture. The rest leaked eventually into the litter on the floor, pages of crumpled and partly burned typescript, hair clippings, broken chalks which had been used the night before to draw something on the flaking lino: among this stuff, it died. Though I knew Yaxley was playing some sort of game with me, I couldn’t see what it was. I couldn’t make the effort, so in the end he had to make it for me. He waited until I got ready to leave.
“You’ll get sick of all this mess one day,” I said from the door of the bedsit.
He grinned and nodded and advised me:
“Have you ever seen Joan of Arc get down to pray in the ticket office at St Pancras ? And then a small boy comes in leading something that looks like a goat, and it gets on her there and then and fucks her in a ray of sunlight ?
“Come back when you know what you want. Get rid of Lucas Medlar, he’s an amateur. Bring the girl if you must.”
–It isn’t the best reading I ever did. But the interview that follows has its points.
I thought it worked rather well as a short story just by re-framing (“yourself”, “those other people”) slightly. It is interesting to hear the emphases an author places on particular words and how they differ from how one might read them oneself.
I’m very keen on just that sort of process: mining one fiction out of another: or using two previously-established fictions to build up a third. Keen on reading, too. Back then, I wrote to be heard rather than read off the page. Nowadays less so.
You might be interested in this:
“Back then, I wrote to be heard…”
Interesting; unless I’m skim reading (something I try to avoid at all costs), I always ‘hear’ the words I’m reading in my head.
I love the rhythms and the ‘sounds’ of prose, as words work up against each other.
Of course it’s always possible my lips are moving as I read also. And that a little dribble is coming out…
I just finished this novel. I’m beguiled by the way it seems to extend from “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,’ which so effectively closes the door on the urge to enter a fantasy world, and the way the Coeur resonates with Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum,” another work I read recently. I didn’t set out to read multiple novels about people crafting imaginary histories, but it happened.
Anyway, as a statement on the perils and power of fantasy, Course of the Heart is probably without peer.
I knew a few would-be Yaxley types in college. Fellow students who gathered in dorm rooms, lit candles, played Enya, and had visions of their spirit animals (I had a friend in the group who broke the vow of silence and kept me posted on each night’s developments; everyone else in the game would appear the next morning at the cafeteria tables and intone “Last night was intense. So crazy. But… we can’t talk about it.”). Wandering alone in the wilderness and fasting was unnecessary for these comfortable vision quests; wonderful what they can do nowadays. They crafted narratives of invisible wolf-demons (a poster of wolves on the dorm-room wall) haunting the campus. They summoned dragons, I’m told, to chase away the wolves. One night the pipes burst on an upper floor of a different dorm. Dragons did that.
All this fun turned a bit dark when an epileptic member was told that her fits were demon possession, and needed to be battled spiritually rather than with Western Medicine. Also, she needed to ditch her fiancé, who was a scoffer. Eventually everyone repeated the vision of spirit animals thing, which had been such fun the first time, and got secondary spirit animals, indicating that decadence and exhaustion had set in. It all petered out with spoiled friendships all around. My epileptic friend married her fiancé; today they are divorced. I had a wonderful time laughing at all this, but since then I’ve come to see how comical my own fundamentalist Christianity was. I’m more sympathetic now to those who seek the Pleroma and/or Couer, since I was doing the same thing in a more off-the-rack fashion.
I walked past it yesterday, and a bit of the Coeur seemed to have surfaced nearby, in the locked park at Bedford Square Gardens. Thirty chairs and two long tables had been laid out on the grass behind the shrubbery, with starched cloths and polished glasses. A slight man sporting a trilby and a vivid woman in coiled carmine hair and a crimson pashmina were greeting guests with backstage hugs and exclamations, while the caterers carved them all portions of ham in the cloudy noon light. The rowdy city on the other side of the railings meant nothing to them. Everyone seemed so self-absorbed, and so untroubled, that the party resembled a lunch-time hallucination.