A sense of reality and o.., p.7
A Sense of Reality: And Other Stories, p.7Graham Greene
‘Tunnel again. What’s got you thinking of tunnels? The only tunnel I know is the railway tunnel at Bugham and that’s five miles off.’
‘Well, I’ll be walking on, Ernest, or it will be breakfast time before I’ve seen the garden.’
‘And I suppose now you’ll be off again to foreign parts. What’s it to be this time? Australia?’
‘It’s too late for Australia now.’
Ernest shook his brindled head at Wilditch with an air of sober disapproval. ‘When I was born,’ he said, ‘time had a different pace to what it seems to have now,’ and, lifting the handle of the wheelbarrow, he was on his way towards the new iron gate before Wilditch had time to realize he had used almost the very words of Javitt. The world was the world he knew.
The Dark Walk was small and not very dark—perhaps the laurels had thinned with the passing of time, but the cobwebs were there as in his childhood to brush his face as he went by. At the end of the walk there was the wooden gate on to the green which had always in his day been locked—he had never known why that route out of the garden was forbidden him, but he had discovered a way of opening the gate with the rim of a halfpenny. Now he could find no halfpennies in his pocket.
When he saw the lake he realized how right George had been. It was only a small pond, and a few feet from the margin there was an island the size of the room in which last night they had dined. There were a few bushes growing there, and even a few trees, one taller and larger than the others, but certainly it was neither the sentinel-pine of W.W.’s story nor the great oak of his memory. He took a few steps back from the margin of the pond and jumped.
He hadn’t quite made the island, but the water in which he landed was only a few inches deep. Was any of the water deep enough to float a raft? He doubted it. He sloshed ashore, the water not even penetrating his shoes. So this little spot of earth had contained Camp Hope and Friday’s Cave. He wished that he had the cynicism to laugh at the half-expectation which had brought him to the island.
The bushes came only to his waist and he easily pushed through them towards the largest tree. It was difficult to believe that even a small child could have been lost here. He was in the world that George saw every day, making his round of a not very remarkable garden. For perhaps a minute, as he pushed his way through the bushes, it seemed to him that his whole life had been wasted, much as a man who has been betrayed by a woman wipes out of his mind even the happy years with her. If it had not been for his dream of the tunnel and the bearded man and the hidden treasure, couldn’t he have made a less restless life for himself, as George in fact had done, with marriage, children, a home? He tried to persuade himself that he was exaggerating the importance of a dream. His lot had probably been decided months before that when George was reading him The Romance of Australian Exploration. If a child’s experience does really form his future life, surely he had been formed, not by Javitt, but by Grey and Burke. It was his pride that at least he had never taken his various professions seriously: he had been loyal to no one—not even to the girl in Africa (Javitt would have approved his disloyalty). Now he stood beside the ignoble tree that had no roots above the ground which could possibly have formed the entrance to a cave and he looked back at the house: it was so close that he could see George at the window of the bathroom lathering his face. Soon the bell would be going for breakfast and they would be sitting opposite each other exchanging the morning small talk. There was a good train back to London at 10.25. He supposed that it was the effect of his disease that he was so tired—not sleepy but achingly tired as though at the end of a long journey.
After he had pushed his way a few feet through the bushes he came on the blackened remains of an oak; it had been split by lightning probably and then sawed close to the ground for logs. It could easily have been the source of his dream. He tripped on the old roots hidden in the grass, and squatting down on the ground he laid his ear close to the earth. He had an absurd desire to hear from somewhere far below the kwahk, kwahk from a roofless mouth and the deep rumbling of Javitt’s voice saying, ‘We are hairless, you and I,’ shaking his beard at him, ‘so’s the hippopotamus and the elephant and the dugong—you wouldn’t know, I suppose, what a dugong is. We survive the longest, the hairless ones.’
But, of course, he could hear nothing except the emptiness you hear when a telephone rings in an empty house. Something tickled his ear, and he almost hoped to find a sequin which had survived the years under the grass, but it was only an ant staggering with a load towards its tunnel.
Wilditch got to his feet. As he levered himself upright, his hand was scraped by the sharp rim of some metal object in the earth. He kicked the object free and found it was an old tin chamber-pot. It had lost all colour in the ground except that inside the handle there adhered a few flakes of yellow paint.
How long he had been sitting there with the pot between his knees he could not tell; the house was out of sight: he was as small now as he had been then—he couldn’t see over the tops of the bushes, and he was back in Javitt’s time. He turned the pot over and over; it was certainly not a golden po, but that proved nothing either way; a child might have mistaken it for one when it was newly painted. Had he then really dropped this in his flight—which meant that somewhere underneath him now Javitt sat on his lavatory-seat and Maria quacked beside the calor-gas …? There was no certainty; perhaps years ago, when the paint was fresh, he had discovered the pot, just as he had done this day, and founded a whole afternoon-legend around it. Then why had W.W. omitted it from his story?
Wilditch shook the loose earth out of the po, and it rang on a pebble just as it had rung against the tag of his shoelace fifty years ago. He had a sense that there was a decision he had to make all over again. Curiosity was growing inside him like the cancer. Across the pond the bell rang for breakfast and he thought, ‘Poor mother—she had reason to fear,’ turning the tin chamber-pot on his lap.
A VISIT TO MORIN
Le Diable au Ciel—there it was on a shelf in the Colmar bookshop causing a memory to reach out to me from the past of twenty years ago. One didn’t often, in the 1950s, see Pierre Morin’s novels on display, and yet here were two copies of his once famous book, and looking along the rows of paper-bindings I discovered others, as though there existed in Alsace a secret cave, like those hidden cellars where wines were once preserved from the enemy for the days when peace would return.
I had admired Pierre Morin when I was a boy, but I had almost forgotten him. He was even then an older writer on the point of abandonment by his public, but the language-class in an English public school is always a long way behind the Paris fashions. We happened at Collingworth to have a Roman Catholic master who belonged to the generation which Morin had pleased or offended. He had offended the orthodox Catholics in his own country and pleased the liberal Catholics abroad; he had pleased, too, the French Protestants who believed in God with the same intensity he seemed to show, and he found enthusiastic readers among non-Christians who, when once they had accepted imaginatively his premises, perhaps detected in his work the freedom of speculation which put his fellow Catholics on their guard. How fresh and exciting his work had appeared to my school-master’s generation; and to me, brought up in a lower form on Les Misérables and the poems of Lamartine, he was a revolutionary writer. But it is the fate of revolutionaries that the world accepts them. The excitement has gone from Morin’s pages. Only the orthodox read him now, when the whole world seems prepared to believe in a god, except strangely enough—but I will not anticipate the point of my small anecdote which may yet provide a footnote to the literary history of Morin’s day. When I publish it no harm can be done. Morin will be dead in the flesh as well as being dead as a writer, and he has left, so far as I am aware, no descendants and no disciples.
I yet recall with pleasure those French classes presided over by a Mr Strangeways from Chile; his swarthy complexion was said by his enemies to
‘Can he really believe that?’ I remember exclaiming to Mr Strangeways when a character in Le Diable au Ciel made some dark and horrifying statement on the Atonement or the Redemption, and I remember Mr Strangeways’ blunt reply, flapping the sleeves of his short black gown, ‘But I believe it too, Dunlop.’ He did not leave it at that or allow himself to get involved in a theological debate, which might have imperilled his post in my Protestant school. He went on to indicate that we were unconcerned with what the author believed. The author had chosen as his viewpoint the character of an orthodox Catholic—all his thoughts therefore must be affected, as they would be in life, by his orthodoxy. Morin’s technique forbade him to play a part in the story himself; even to show irony would be to cheat, though perhaps we might detect something of Morin’s view from the fact that the orthodoxy of Durobier was extended to the furthest possible limits, so that at the close of the book we had the impression of a man stranded on a long strip of sand from which there was no possibility of advance, and to retreat towards the shore would be to surrender. ‘Is this true or is it not true?’ His whole creed was concerned in the answer.
‘You mean,’ I asked Mr Strangeways, ‘that perhaps Morin does not believe?’
‘I mean nothing of the kind. No one has seriously questioned his Catholicism, only his prudence. Anyway that’s not true criticism. A novel is made up of words and characters. Are the words well chosen and do the characters live? All the rest belongs to literary gossip. You are not in this class to learn how to be gossip-writers.’
And yet in those days I would have liked to know. Sometimes Mr Strangeways, recognizing my interest in Morin, would lend me Roman Catholic literary periodicals which contained notices of the novelist’s work that often offended his principle of leaving the author’s views out of account. I found Morin was sometimes accused of Jansenism—whatever that might be: others called him an Augustinian—a name which meant as little to me—and in the better printed and bulkier reviews I thought I detected a note of grievance. He believed all the right things, they could find no specific fault, and yet … it was as though some of his characters accepted a dogma so wholeheartedly that they drew out its implications to the verge of absurdity, while others examined a dogma as though they were constitutional lawyers determined on confining it to a kind of legal minimum. Durobier, I am sure, would have staked his life on a literal Assumption: at some point in history, somewhere in the latter years of the first century A.D., the body of the Virgin had floated skywards, leaving an empty tomb. On the other hand there was a character called Sagrin, in one of the minor novels, perhaps Le Bien Pensant, who believed that the holy body had rotted in the grave like other bodies. The strange thing was that both views seemed to possess irritating qualities to Catholic reviewers, and yet both proved to be equally in accordance with the dogmatic pronouncement when it came. One could assert therefore that they were orthodox; yet the orthodox critics seemed to scent heresy like a rat dead somewhere under the boards, at a spot they could not locate.
These, of course, were ancient criticisms, fished out of Mr Strangeways’ cupboard, full of old French magazines dating back to his long-lost sojourn in Paris some time during the late ’twenties, when he had attended lectures at the Sorbonne and drunk beer at the Dôme. The word ‘paradox’ was frequently used with an air of disapproval. Perhaps after all the orthodox were proved right, for I certainly was to discover just how far Morin carried in his own life the sense of paradox.
I am not one of those who revisit their old school, or what a disappointment I would have proved to Mr Strangeways, who must by now be on the point of retirement. I think he had pictured me in the future as a distinguished writer for the weeklies on the subject of French literature—perhaps even as the author of a scholarly biography of Corneille. In fact, after an undistinguished war-record, I obtained a post, with the help of influential connections, in a firm of wine-merchants. My French syntax, so neglected by Mr Strangeways, had been improved by the war and proved useful to the firm, and I suppose I had a certain literary flair which enabled me to improve on the rather old-fashioned style of the catalogues. The directors had been content for too long with the jargon of the Wine and Food Society—‘An unimportant but highly sympathetic wine for light occasions among friends’. I introduced a more realistic note and substituted knowledge for knowingness. ‘This wine comes from a small vineyard on the western slopes of the Mont Soleil range. The soil in this region has Jurassic elements, as the vineyard is on the edge of the great Jurassic fissure which extends across Europe from the Urals, and this encourages the cultivation of a small, strong, dark grape with a high sugar-content, less vulnerable than more famous wines to the chances of weather.’ Of course it was the same ‘unimportant’ wine, but my description gave the host material for his vanity.
Business had brought me to Colmar—we had found it necessary to change our agent there, and as I am a single man and find the lonely Christmases of London sad and regretful, I had chosen to combine my visit with the Christmas holiday. One does not feel alone abroad; I imagined drinking my way through the festival itself in some bierhaus decorated with holly, myself invisible behind the fume of cigars. A German Christmas is Christmas par excellence: singing, sentiment, gluttony.
I said to the shop assistant, ‘You seem to have a good supply of M. Morin’s books.’
‘He is very popular,’ she said.
‘I got the impression that in Paris he is no longer much read.’
‘We are Catholics here,’ she said with a note of reproof. ‘Besides, he lives near Colmar, and we are very proud he chose to settle in our neighbourhood.’
‘How long has he been here?’
‘He came immediately after the war. We consider him almost one of us. We have all his books in German also—you will see them over there. Some of us feel he is even finer in German than in French. German,’ she said, scrutinizing me with contempt as I picked up a French edition of Le Diable au Ciel, ‘has a better vocabulary for the profundities.’
I told her I had admired M. Morin’s novels since my schooldays. She softened towards me then, and I left the shop with M. Morin’s address—a village fifteen miles from Colmar. I was uncertain all the same whether I would call on him. What really had I to say to him to excuse the vulgarity of my curiosity? Writing is the most private of all the arts, and yet few of us hesitate to invade the writer’s home. We have all heard of that one caller from Porlock, but hundreds of callers every day are ringing door-bells, lifting receivers, thrusting themselves into the secret room where a writer works and lives.
I doubt whether I should have ventured to ring M. Morin’s bell, but I caught sight of him two days later at the Midnight Mass in a village outside Colmar; it was not the village where I had been told he lived, and I wondered why he had come such a distance alone. Midnight Mass is a service which even a non-believer like myself finds inexplicably moving. Perhaps there is some memory of childhood which makes the journey through the darkness, the lighted window
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