Friday, August 01, 2008

The Tenant: untelling a story (I)

1. A few nights ago I began reading a slender volume by Alberto Manguel entitled With Borges. In it, Manguel relates how, as a teenager working in a bookstore in Buenos Aires in the 1960s, he became one of the many people who at one time or another were recruited to read to Jorge Luis Borges, who was by then almost entirely blind. From that starting point he sketches, in a mere seventy-odd pages, a genial portrait of Borges and his circle, touching on the great man's friendships, his character, his political opinions, and his reading habits, the latter being, to Borges, most important of all, much more so even than his own writing.

2. Before I woke up the following morning I experienced a sort of gothic dream, the details of which I have largely forgotten. The dream had nothing at all to do with Borges or with Argentina, but as I woke up, with Manguel's memoir on the bedside table and still fresh in my mind, the dream and the recollected traces of the previous night's reading began to converge, and by the time I was fully awake I had imagined the outlines of a short story in which Borges, his friend and collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares, Bioy's wife Silvina Ocampo (herself a noted writer), and Alberto Manguel would be the participants in the events that had taken place in the dream. The story was to begin in the apartment long inhabited by Bioy and Ocampo, where Borges was a frequent visitor.

3. As soon as I could I began writing the story. But almost immediately the first of several obstacles arose. I have never been to Buenos Aires, and know next to nothing of its geography and neighborhoods. Borges, I knew, lived, when Manguel first met him, on the Calle Maipú. Was this within walking distance of the Calle Posadas, in the upscale Recoleta district, where his hosts lived? A bit of cursory research suggested it was not, but I wasn't sure. Would Borges have come on foot? I didn't know.

4. I began my story with the old man's arrival, the young Manguel at his side. Here was another problem. I referred to the character as “the old man,” and not by name, because I was in fact inventing the details of his appearance and bearing out of whole cloth. It was meant to be evident that the man was Borges, but any attempt to pass off my description of him as an accurate likeness would never pass scrutiny by anyone who knew better. And so I began:
The old man arrived, as was his custom, around nine, dressed in a faded grey suit and yellow necktie, a neatly folded handkerchief (surreptitiously spritzed with cologne by his maid) poking out of his suit pocket. He was accompanied by a young man they didn't know, no more than sixteen, with a wisp of beard and incipient mustache, who hung back slightly but didn't seem overawed to be in the company he was in.
Except for the fact that Borges habitually wore a suit only one detail of this was reliable, and it was lifted straight from Manguel: Borges's maid did sprinkle his handkerchiefs with eau de cologne, though apparently not on the sly.

5. Next I introduced the character who was meant to be Silvina Ocampo but at the same time also Victoria Ocampo, her sister and perhaps an even more important literary figure, at least in her role as publisher of the influential journal Sur. I knew very little about either sister, so I simply made it up:
The woman, in her sixties, tall, slender, and sporting a floral print dress and pearls, ushered them in and bestowed a quick, affectionate quick on the old man's cheek before returning, but only momentarily, to the kitchen, her shoe heels rapping loudly on the wood floors where there were no rugs.
As for Bioy Casares, he barely received a description at all:
Her husband, who was reclining in a worn upholstered armchair reading the evening paper, saluted the visitors warmly but did not get up.
6. It quickly became clear that it was going to be very tiresome not to be able to refer to any of my characters by name. There were only so many times I could refer to “the old man,” “the woman,” and “the husband” without it becoming monotonous. Manguel's character, at least, I could refer to, alternatingly and inconsistently, as “the boy” or “the young man.”

7. In my description of the scene in the apartment, I soon began drifting away from the sophisticated literary circles of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires into the world of Jiggs and Maggie. My Ocampo bustles from room to room while heating up a soup left by her maid, who has been given the night off. Bioy Casares, whom I depicted, without evidence, as an avuncular semi-alcoholic, pretends to grumble when his wife asked him to fix drinks for their guest, then plies the teenage Manguel with nearly undiluted scotch, which quickly takes its toll.
By the time the woman announced dinner the boy was quietly reeling but, he thought, managing not to show it. Fortunately the host stepped up to escort the old man, sparing the boy the embarrassment of leaning on his ostensible charge for stability. The woman had set out a garish china tureen and was ladling out a thin, dark liquid that was giving off whiffs of an unpromising aroma. There was a basket of thin bread, which went untouched. The boy saw the old man raise one spoonful, and then a second, to his lips, before carefully setting the implement down and dabbing delicately at the corners of his mouth with a napkin.
My only defense for anything in the above paragraph is Manguel's remark that meals at the Bioy-Ocampo household were uninspiring, consisting for the most part of “boiled vegetables.” Guests went there for scintillating conversation, not for the food.

8. As for conversation, I took a stab at it, with “the old man” breaking the dinnertime silence:
“This young man has been reading me Chesterton.”

The boy, hearing himself referred to, looked up with a start, and instantly broke out in a sweat. He had himself by now consumed several spoonfuls of the broth, and was not sure if it was the scotch or the food that was making him feel unwell.

“Father Brown or theology?” his host inquired.

“Father Brown,” came the answer. “Though to me they are equally mysterious.”

The others pondered this mot in silence for a moment, until the host turned to the boy.

“You speak English, I take it?”

“Yes,” he said, in his befuddlement trying to remember whether he actually did, or what the question meant, and whether he would as a consequence of his answer be asked to sing a few bars of Gilbert and Sullivan to prove it.

“He reads English passably well, and French too, in the manner in which they are taught by our schoolmasters,” the old man declared. The boy debated whether or not this was meant as a compliment, and decided that it would have to do.

“He sells me Penguins at Frau Lebach's,” the old man added, finally. For a moment the boy considered this statement, which was after all absolutely true, as well as the utter insouciance with which it was received by his hosts, then barely suppressed an attack of giggling before lowering his head and spoon solemnly in a feigned resumption of battle with the soup.

“I see,” said the woman, in something of the same tone, or so the boy imagined, in which she might have responded to a report of a sheep with two heads or a man who had lived for seven years inside a giant wheel of Stilton. Or perhaps not, for when he looked up she seemed to be regarding him kindly and he felt a pang of regret that he was almost certainly about to pass out into his soup bowl. At the last minute he was saved; the woman stood up abruptly, whisked away the plates, and strode with them out of the room and into the kitchen, where she deposited them into the sink without troubling to rinse them off. She was back in what seemed like a few seconds but was probably ten minutes, bearing cups of rich, strong tea.
"Frau Lebach's" was Pygmalion, the “Anglo-German” bookstore owned by Lili Lebach, where Manguel was employed and where Borges was a customer. Whether Manguel spoke English or French or German at the time (Borges knew them all) I had no idea; I simply assumed that since he was working in a foreign-language bookstore he must have some facility with languages. “Insouciance” was ridiculous; it wasn't the right word but I couldn't think of another.

9. It's common knowledge that Borges read Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and Manguel relates that in spite of his own lack of religious belief he was fascinated by and enjoyed reading theology. But the real point of all this badinage and low comedy is to advance the plot, by means of a shameless segue. (Having finally grown tired of being unable to call my characters by name, I settled on the half-measure of “Sylvie” for Silvina Ocampo.)
“Perhaps Sylvie could make employment of your Father Brown,” her husband said. “She is convinced that there is a mystery afoot in the neighborhood.”

“Ah, is that so?” said the old man, perking up slightly.

“He's making fun of me again,” said the woman. “He never believes anything I tell him.”

“That's not true, my dear. I'm just suggesting that perhaps the good Father, were he here, would be able to clarify the mystery, that's all.”

“What is the nature of the mystery, may I ask?” inquired the old man.

The couple hesitated. “You tell them,” said the woman.

“No, my dear, it's your mystery. By all means you must tell it.”

“Very well, but you must refrain from mocking me while I do so.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“That would be a miracle. It's like this. There's a three-storey house across the street, on the corner, that has been vacant for some time. Three weeks ago, while I was writing by the window in my study, a moving van pulled up outside the building. Two men got out and stood by the truck for about an hour, until a woman in her late twenties or early thirties arrived by cab. She unlocked the front door, and the two men carried a long wooden crate — about six feet long or a little more — into the building. A few minutes later they returned, took a few smaller crates out of the van, brought them inside, and drove away. The woman remained inside the building for about an hour, then left. The following day she arrived at around ten in the morning, carrying a large valise. She stayed until four in the afternoon, then left for the day, valise in hand. Since then she has returned, almost every day, at the same time, and always leaves by nightfall. No one else has entered the building.”

“How can you be sure that no one has entered the building when you weren't looking?” the young man interjected.

There was an uncomfortable silence. The husband finally broke it:

“Sylvie has been watching out the window, almost all day and all night, for more than two weeks. She has hardly slept”

“I am positive no one else has entered the building. And the woman is never there at night.”

“Perhaps it is Bram Stoker that you need, and not Chesterton,” the old man drily observed.
10. And there, perhaps a third of the way through the story, having descended into banalities unworthy of an Agatha Christie novel, I threw in the towel. But there was more of the story still to be told.

(To be continued)

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