A ladder to the sky, p.6
A Ladder to the Sky,
‘True,’ he said, reaching for his bag. ‘Actually, there was something I wanted to show you. Do you mind?’
‘Of course not,’ I said.
‘I’ve been painting a lot lately,’ he told me. ‘Into the nights and the early mornings, and I feel that I’ve finally hit on something. Take a look at this.’ He handed me a rolled-up canvas and I untied the string, unravelling it slowly while being careful not to allow any part of the painting to touch the damp tabletop. The picture revealed itself to me in stages. First a toe, then a foot. A bare leg. A torso. A pair of full breasts with dark nipples. And then a girl’s face, the same face I had seen in all of his sketches to date but for once not hidden in profile but staring out at me, a challenge in her eyes. Her left hand was stretched across her naked body, her fingers resting between her legs, which were parted just enough to offer a glimpse of her sex. There was nothing pornographic to the painting but there was an erotic charge to both the brushwork and the girl’s smile that left me disoriented. I looked across at my friend, whose expression was one of hope mixed with excitement.
‘Well?’ he asked. ‘What do you think?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘It’s quite shocking, don’t you think?’
‘Shocking?’ he said, sitting back in his chair, and I realized that what I, in my prudishness, might consider scandalous, he might define as art. ‘Do you mean the use of shade across her shoulders? Yes, I wasn’t certain about that myself, whether or not I’d overdone it. I think it works but I’m not sure. I’m happy with her hands, though, because I always struggle with hands, but they came out well, don’t you think? And the way she holds her fingers above her cunt? I really feel that I’ve captured her spirit as well as her physicality.’
I took a breath in surprise. We might have been discussing anything mundane – the weather, the time, the price of bread – for all the concern he had for his choice of words.
‘Of course, as you know, this is the most recent in a long series,’ he added. ‘But by abandoning my commitment to her profile, I really feel I’ve hit on something important.’
‘Simply by getting her to turn around?’ I asked. ‘That’s your big breakthrough?’
‘No, it’s more than that,’ he said, a wounded tone creeping into his voice. ‘It’s the defiance in her eyes. The manner in which she both conceals herself while, at the same time, inviting us to observe her most private moment.’
‘But it’s just a naked girl lying on a couch,’ I said, aware of how critical I sounded and trying to keep my discontent under control. ‘It’s hardly an original conceit. Haven’t artists been doing that sort of thing for centuries?’
‘Yes, of course,’ he replied, his confidence fading a little now. ‘But I’m trying to bring something new to it. Painters search for beauty, and where else should we find it other than in the female form, the most beautiful of God’s creations?’
‘Really?’ I asked. ‘More beautiful than a sunrise? Or an ocean? Or a sky full of stars?’
‘Yes, so much more beautiful!’ he cried, growing enthusiastic again as he raised his hands in the air. ‘Whenever I’m alone with a girl, whenever I make love to one, I find myself consumed by her in a way that I have never been by nature. You must have felt that too, surely?’
I stared at him, uncertain how to reply. Did he assume that I, like him, was experienced in matters of sex?
‘Of course,’ I said hesitantly. ‘But there’s more to art than—’
‘And every painter brings something new to the nude,’ he continued. ‘Just as if you were to write about, I don’t know, let’s say the Great War, then you would try to find a fresh perspective on it, a different point of view. That’s what I’m attempting with this portrait. Do you remember I said to you once that I wanted to paint the familiar in an unfamiliar way? I’m not there yet, of course. I still have a long way to go and much to learn. But I’m getting closer, don’t you think?’
I said nothing but rolled the painting up again and re-tied the string before handing it back to him.
‘Have you shown this to anyone else?’ I asked, and he shook his head. I took a long draught of my beer before speaking again. ‘Oskar,’ I said. ‘I’m your friend, I hope you know that. And I care about you a great deal. So, what I say to you now, I say out of comradeship and loyalty.’
He sat back and frowned. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Go on.’
‘I believe that this painting is both unsophisticated and obscene,’ I said. ‘I know that you think there is beauty here, and style and elegance and originality, but I’m afraid that it’s a failure. You’re too close to it to recognize its essential vulgarity. The hands that you mentioned are well drawn, yes, but their action borders on the pornographic. Can you not see that? It’s as if you have painted this to titillate the viewer, or – worse – to titillate yourself.’
‘No!’ he cried, looking hurt. ‘How can you think that?’
‘Your subject does not seem lost in her own desires but anxious that we should desire her instead, which makes the painting manipulative. It’s the type of thing that a fifteen-year-old boy might hide under lock and key but that could never hang in a gallery. I say this not to hurt you, my friend, but to help. I believe that if you were to show this to anyone else then you would find yourself a figure of mockery. Perhaps even worse. And you know that the Reich has little time for pornography.’
He said nothing for a long time, bowing his head over the table as he considered my words. When he spoke again, all the pleasure had gone from his tone, and there was a look of humiliation on his face.
‘I thought I had captured something new,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ve worked so hard on it.’
‘Of course, I know nothing about painting,’ I said, attempting to sound casual now. ‘And I could be wrong. But I would not be a true friend if I did not share my honest feelings with you. Do you remember the weekend that we went to Potsdam?’
‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘What of it?’
‘There was so much to capture there. The landscapes. The lake where we swam. The cows. Couldn’t you focus on something like that for a change?’
‘Cows?’ he asked, looking at me as if I were crazy. ‘You think I want to paint cows? Cows have no soul. Alysse, at least, has a soul.’
‘Alysse?’ I asked. ‘And who is Alysse?’
He nodded towards the canvas. ‘My model,’ he said.
‘So, she is a real person then, not a fantasy?’
‘Of course she’s real! I could never paint something like this from my imagination. I’m not that creative.’
I could bear it no longer; I had to ask. ‘And are you in love with her?’ I asked.
‘Very much so,’ he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. ‘We are in love with each other.’
I sat back in the seat, staring at him in dismay. ‘If that’s the case,’ I asked, ‘then why have you never mentioned her until now?’
‘Well, I didn’t think—’
‘We’re friends, I thought? Although if it’s just a silly summer romance—’
‘But it’s not,’ he insisted. ‘It’s a lot more than that.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘I just am.’
I shook my head. ‘If you loved her that much,’ I said, ‘then you would have talked about her to me.’
‘If these were normal times, perhaps yes,’ he replied. ‘But they’re not normal times, are they? I have to be careful. We all do.’
‘Of everything. And everyone.’
I looked around. Suddenly it seemed to me that the entire tavern was listening in on us, watching us, aware of Oskar’s feelings for this girl and my feelings for him. In my heart, I had always known that Oskar did not share my romantic longings but it wounded me deeply to think of his being intimate with another.
‘I’m not certain that you’re right,’ he said. ‘Shouldn’t the artist remain true to his own instinc
‘I can’t tell you what you should think, Oskar,’ I said. ‘I can only tell you what I feel.’
‘And you believe that I should destroy it?’ he asked.
‘I do. Not only that, but I don’t think that you should paint Alysse any more. Perhaps you’re too close to her. You should reserve your talent for something more appropriate.’
He blanched but I felt no remorse. I wanted him to burn the painting, to feel that it was so worthless he would abandon the concept entirely and, with it, the girl. Paint cows, I thought. Paint all the cows you like. Diversify into sheep if it satisfies your artistic needs.
‘And did he?’ asked Maurice, who had remained silent as I told him this story. ‘Did he destroy it?’
‘Yes, he did,’ I replied, unable to meet his eye. ‘We stayed in the Böttcher late into the night, becoming very drunk, and, as was his way at such moments, he turned maudlin, hanging his head and weeping for what he considered his lack of talent. And then, finally, he reached for the painting and ripped it in half, and then in half once again, and again and again.’
Maurice said nothing, but finished his drink while looking out towards the street.
‘I hope you don’t think less of me now,’ I said finally, and he shook his head, reaching over and placing his hand on mine, just as Oskar had done some fifty years earlier in Berlin.
‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘What you did, you did out of jealousy but also out of love. And you were just a boy at the time. None of us is in control of our emotions at that age.’
I glanced at my watch and sighed. ‘Anyway, we should get back to the hotel,’ I said. ‘I need to change.’
He didn’t show up in the bar that night after I returned from the publishers’ dinner. And, despite his instructions, I did stay up, hoping he might arrive later. But as the clock reached midnight I finally gave up on him and decided to return to my room, a little the worse for wear, pressing my ear against his door for any sounds from within, but it was silent. When I climbed into bed I was tired and ready for sleep but, before I turned the light off, I noticed the magazine that he had given me earlier sitting on the night stand and picked it up to turn to his story. It was not good. Not good at all. So bad, in fact, that I began to question whether he had sufficient talent to be a writer and if I was doing him a disservice by encouraging him. I flicked through the rest of the magazine and my heart sank as I noticed the credits on the final page, for the Editor-at-Large was none other than Dash Hardy, the American writer we had met in Madrid. It was he who had commissioned the piece, he who had seen merit in it and he who had published it.
Of course, looking back, I can see that I had used the wrong words to describe Oskar’s painting of Alysse. Despite my youth and ignorance of art, I knew it was the furthest thing in the world from unsophisticated or obscene. In fact, it was magnificent. The irony was that, in 1939, I had seen something beautiful and told its creator that it was a travesty. And now, almost fifty years later, I had read something terrible and, when asked, would surely praise it.
Really, it was unconscionable behaviour.
6. New York
The flight to New York was the first occasion that we actually travelled together and, while on the plane, we planned our itinerary. I was to give a reading at the 92nd Street Y, another as part of a panel of novelists at New York University and a third in a Brooklyn library, along with the usual interviews, signing sessions and radio broadcasts, and Maurice agreed to accompany me to all of these as long as he could keep one evening free to catch up with some friends who lived in the city.
The readings themselves went well, except for the panel event, where I was teamed with a much-praised novelist from Park Slope some twenty years my junior who looked as if he’d spent the entire day shooting a fashion commercial for a high-class designer label and a young woman whose debut had been published six years earlier but showed no sign of committing to a second book. For some reason, she insisted on calling me Herr Ackermann, despite repeated pleas on my part for her to call me Erich. (‘I couldn’t,’ she said backstage, as she demanded a glass of wine from a volunteer. ‘You’re, like, old enough to be my grandfather.’) The woman (let’s call her Susan) and the middle-aged man (we’ll try Andrew) sat on either side of me on the stage and, as Susan’s novel drew artificial and deeply contrived parallels between the political tensions in Germany during the thirties and American opposition to the Vietnam War some thirty years later, the moderator asked me whether I found that her writing accurately reflected my experience of the city during those days.
‘It’s so long ago that it’s difficult for me to remember,’ I said, looking out at an audience whose attention seemed entirely focussed on the younger man to my left. ‘You must remember that I was just a teenager then and my mind wasn’t particularly concerned with politics. I was thinking about my future and hoping for a career as a writer. However, while I think Susan’s book is very well researched – she certainly captures the geography of the city well – my concern would be for the lack of a moral compass among the German characters.’
This was a considerable understatement on my part for I had read the novel a few weeks earlier upon receiving my schedule and found it to be not only trite in its depiction of racial conflict but deeply naïve in its thinking, while her research seemed to have been conducted exclusively from watching old Second World War movies. At even the merest hint of criticism, however, she turned to me, instantly defensive. ‘A moral compass?’ she said. ‘Could you clarify what you mean by that, Herr Ackermann?’
‘The fact is,’ I replied, impressed by how she could use a form of address to suggest a lack of balance on my part, ‘there were some Germans during those days who were quite vocal in their dissent to the policies of Hitler and many who sought to escape the country entirely. It seems unfortunate to me that their presence is so rarely represented in war fiction.’
‘I don’t write war fiction,’ she said, making inverted comma signs in the air with her fingers. ‘Please don’t compartmentalize my work.’
‘I think you want to be very careful how you tread here, pal,’ said Andrew, who was sitting forward in his chair now, amusement and outrage competing for dominance in his tone. ‘Susan’s something of an expert on that period of history.’
‘And I actually lived it,’ I replied.
‘But like you said, you were just a kid.’
‘Yes, but people often assume that, after the rise of National Socialism, the entire nation turned, overnight, into a horde of anti-Semitic barbarians. Surely as writers of fiction we should look for the stories that are less often told? And some can be found in the lives of those who both took a stand against the Nazis and died for their troubles.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Susan, holding her hands in the air and looking as though she might need a tranquillizer if I were to continue speaking. ‘My best friend’s husband’s entire family was killed in the camps. So this is a very emotive issue for me. For you even to suggest, Herr Ackermann—’
‘I’m simply saying—’ I began, but was immediately cut off by Andrew, who placed a hand on my knee to silence me.
‘Am I right in thinking, Erich,’ he asked, ‘that you were a member of the Hitler Youth?’
‘Well, yes,’ I said, feeling a prickle of perspiration creeping along my back. ‘That’s been well documented. All boys my age had no choice but to sign up. Just as all girls had to be members of the Bund Deutscher Mädel.’
‘Women don’t fight wars,’ insisted Susan. ‘And they never start them.’
‘Tell that to Mrs Thatcher,’ I said. ‘Tell it to Helen of Troy.’
‘And you were a soldier in the German army?’ continued Andrew.
‘In the Wehrmacht, yes,’ I admitted. ‘I’ve never denied it. Although I didn’t see any action, of course. I was part of a clerical team in Berlin during—’
‘Then perhaps, before you tell us your stories about all the good Germans who tried to stop Hitl
‘Hear, hear,’ agreed Susan, at which point the audience burst into tumultuous applause at such cod-patriotism, such crowd-pleasing cliché, offering Andrew a standing ovation that he pretended not to notice as he sipped his water and toyed with his wedding ring. From that point on, both novelists and the moderator ignored me entirely and yet afterwards, backstage, they each asked me to sign a copy of Dread and to pose for photographs, shaking hands as we said goodbye as if we were old friends.
‘Fucking arsehole,’ said Maurice, as we took a cab back to the hotel afterwards, referring to the male model in writer’s garb. ‘He was just playing to the gallery, that’s all. And did you see how people were congratulating him afterwards in the signing queue? As if he’d single-handedly led the charge on the beaches at Dunkirk? I mean, it’s not as if you actually killed anyone, is it? Like you said, you were just clerical staff.’
‘I suppose I can hardly sermonize about a Nazi resistance when I wasn’t part of it, though.’
‘You were following orders. If you hadn’t, you’d have been shot.’
I didn’t respond but stared out of the window at the passing streets and, for the first time in our acquaintance, declined a nightcap at the hotel, retiring to my room instead, where I took a long, hot bath and drank alone long into the night.
The next day passed with little incident and the morning after that I woke early, looking forward to meeting Maurice for breakfast. I had missed him the previous evening when he had been out with his friends but we had arranged to meet at ten o’clock in the foyer of the hotel. He didn’t show up and, hours later when I came downstairs for lunch, I saw him strolling through the doors behind me, wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing the night before, and looking rather dishevelled. The relief must have been evident on my face, however, for he looked a little guilty, claiming that he had over-indulged and decided to spend the night at the apartment of a friend.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes