Set this house on fire, p.47
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       Set This House on Fire, p.47

           William Styron

  He felt strangled in the grip of an almighty fear. “Stupido! Idiota!” he said with a belch. “Disease of the minds!” Then he turned and fled the corporal, lurching away across the square from his entreating outstretched hands, appalled at the fool he bad made of himself and at the furious braying sounds he heard heaving up from his chest… .

  Not too far west of the village, near an old ruin called the Villa Cardassi (its original owner, a Victorian Englishman, was a classicist: the motto DUM SPIRO, SPERO can still be seen engraved above the marble portico) there is a promontory among the rocks where people go to watch the sea. Here the trees are stunted and bent from incessant winds. A stone wall surrounding the point protects the maladroit, or the drunken, or the unwary: the drop, straight down upon the rocks in the valley, is almost a quarter of a mile. On clear days from this point the whole vast Mediterranean seems to open up from horizon to horizon: the sheer cliffs of Capri far off in the west, and the lazy umber coast marching southward to Calabria, and all around, infinite and glistening, the emerald sea. Here Cass found himself a short while after—though how he got there, he later recollected, he scarcely knew, except that he must have been a sight as he zigzagged up through the town with his hair in his face, belching and hiccupping, with a maniacal glint of terror in his eye. At the wall he stopped short, breathing heavily, and peered down over the familiar brink. Someone hardly larger than a gnat toiled far below in a toy-sized lemon grove; a swollen torrent in the valley, white with spume, looked no more forbidding than a rivulet of milk. Dizzied, bereft of all save the merest whisper of self-preservation, he leaned far out over the frightful gorge, tormented by a horror of these gallant heights so ardent and so powerful that it was almost like love. “Prendimi” he whispered. “Take me now.” As he leaned, a powdery crumble of mortar gave way beneath his hand, pitching him forward, and he had one instant’s foretaste of oblivion as groves and vineyards and distant flood all spun lopsided and immense before his vision, all beckoning. With a cry strangled in his throat he tried to regain balance with his other arm and began to strain and tug himself back over the parapet. But all was lost. Lost! More mortar gave way; he slipped again. For a moment he dove forward into thin air, arms thrown out, supplicant, and all space seemed his destiny. Spread-eagled in nothingness, he held himself by his aching thighs, and by his heels, miraculously trapped beneath some rock or stone. At last with floundering arms and straining legs he pulled himself back up over the ledge, inch by inch and in a softly raining shower of dust. Then he was safe; he felt as if he were drawn fast, secured by unseen hands. He sank down shuddering on a stone bench beside the wall. With his eyes closed he sat there for long blind minutes, feeling the sun and the warm wind which soon dried the sweat that had drenched his hair and lulled and pacified his fright and his infirmity and allowed a dim light of sobriety to reach his brain. The yodel of a bus in the valley startled him; he opened his eyes.

  A rustling behind him in the underbrush caused him to look around. The bushes parted, revealing the spade-shaped head of Saverio, who like some depraved and hellish apparition out of Hieronymus Bosch came vaulting on all fours from the foliage, then stood erect before him, grinning and gesticulating. From his tatters an aroma of filth and poverty rose like steam, and his right eye, demoralized by one of God knew how many thousand blown fuses littering the inside of his skull, rolled bloodshot and unruly in its socket and fixed itself with a demonic sidewise leer upon nothing. His lips flew frantically, conveying with groans the tortured outlines of a message and filling the air around him with globules of spit. Then as if someone had given his head a dismayed and impatient kick, his words became sensible, the spray around him diminished, and his apostate eye, like the little white bulletin in those spirit jars wherein one discovers one’s fortune, rolled greasily into place. “I’ve been hunting for you, Signor Keen” he said. “The girl who wishes to work for you! Here she is!”

  The girl who came walking up the path was the girl of the police station. Sweet-faced, slim, full-breasted, she approached him gravely, though with the faintest breath of some forlorn and disconsolate smile. She had put on a pair of shoes, perhaps for this occasion; they must have been borrowed, for they were sizes too large and they flapped about her brown ankles as she came near him.

  “She wishes to work for you!” Saverio yelled in his ear.

  “I have no money,” he said in a whisper, still shaken, gazing at her, wondering at her beauty.

  “She wishes to work for you!” Saverio repeated senselessly.

  “Shut up,” he said. And he opened his mouth to speak to the girl, but suddenly he felt so weak and depleted that his sight blurred and the earth made a lurching motion beneath him. He thrust his face into his hands. “I have no money to pay you,” he said again. But he realized that if he could not hire her, neither could he allow her twice to walk out of his life. So he said, “Come see me tomorrow,” in a tone of dismissal. And for some reason he could not trust himself to look at her again as he heard her turn and leave, followed by the shambling half-wit, flip-flapping in her enormous shoes back down the path.

  Self, he thought. Merciful Christ. Self. If I don’t find a way out of it soon I’ll be over the bleeding edge for sure.

  Journal entry Sabato 4 Maggio:

  “What saves me in the last analysis I have no way of telling. Sometimes the sensation I have that I am 2 persons & by that I mean the man of my dreams & the man who walks in daylight is so strong and frightening that at times I am actually scared to look into a mirror for fear of seeing some face there that I have never seen before. Like today for instance & its not just the wine either but some kind of God or daemon that’s got hold of me with his fangs and brittly crackling claws & will not let go til my flesh is parted from my soul. I mean, for instance after going berserk as I did, shouting, raging at Luigi & getting up as I did & rushing head-long to the brink of the cliff it was as if the dream had posessed me & I was dwelling in that self-same dream & a voice was telling me—NOW. Now is the time. Wait no longer. Come to me & all will be peace & quietness & repose. What saved me I don’t know. Some reason within me so far has always prevailed & prevail it will I pray, prevail prevail. Lest old Cass go bug house & bring down his abode & dwelling place in confusion & in dust.

  “Resolution made this date & sworn to by the name of all thats left that still makes sense: to let no drop of C2H50H pass these lips til June 15, which is Poppy’s birthday & perhaps then she will vouchsafe me the celebration. It is the booze which is the grave digger & the spade & the earth & the grave diggers wife & family too. Each man picks his own brand of poison.

  “2 A.M. At least I am not so far gone that I am not able to see & feel those fabulous lights on the surface of the deep. I am not blind yet. Luigi told me with his bland & exasparating sarcasm that the fishing boats are not nearly so pretty—graziose, his word—since the U.S. army left & the fishermen took to using those old surplus gasoline pressure-lamps. When they used plain old kerosene lanterns, they were much more graziose said he, curling his mustachiod lip around a cigar. Ecco Luigi. He is worried & confused. He is not yet really sure how to approach the U.S. with me, maybe because he feels in some instinctive way that deep down my emotions are as ambiguous as his own. Anyway the lights are marvelous, gasoline or not. Not so much like stars either, as first I thought but blurred & swollen if you get to looking at them long enough until at last with all boundaries effaced & all frame-work & all perspective lost in hypnotic limitless dark they look only like pure white blossoms, fat chrysanthemums lost and swarming in the black bosom of some oriental notion of eternity. They have some kind of message I think, but I can only look. I can not divine. Nor plumb. Nor lift a hand if my very life were staked upon it. There are times when I am vulnerable & look at it most honestly when I think Captain Slotkin was right, when he looked at me with those sad dark Jewish eyes and said something on the order of, O.K. son if you want to put it on the ethical level & remove it from the psycho-analytical then
put it this way—self destruction is the last refuge of the cowardly man. And I remember saying somewhat self pityingly—not at all, self destruction is the triumph of a man whos back is to the wall, it is at least one cut above imperishible self loathing. He had no come-back to that though I could tell from his look that he knew I was hedge-ing & knew I knew that what he said was truth. Why he seemed to care for me in some kind of non professional and non-navy way I don’t know unless as Ive often thought theres more kinship deep down between a southern methodist & a jew from Brookline Mass. (even a psycho-analytical one) then there is between two Pennsylvanians, & no doubt two people who have known Isaiah or Job 38 are more like to feel some strange & persuasive bond than a couple of mackeral-snappers who have never known anything but N.Y. Journal American in their life. In the end maybe it was just that I conned him somehow & being a jew I think he was impressed that a buck assed marine private from Columbus County N.C. only one cut above a share cropper actually, & with only 2 H.S. years could have cared & I mean really care for Sophocles and old Michel Eyquem not to speak of all the rest which came as easy to me as water & at 21 or so had a workable theory of painting worked out all my own. I wonder what happened to Slotkin, probably practising in Boston or somewhere & making a mint. But whenever I think of him & maybe thats only because he was about the only person I ever felt I could talk to about what was eating me, I get an extraordinary feeling in my bones, & can recall as clear as the shining air that day when I quoted that line from Oedipus that hit me so between the eyes, from the book he gave me, now should I die I were not wholly wretched etc., & he said something on the order of—yes we fail often but it is our birthright no less than the Greeks to try to free people into the condition of love. Which was a moment he seemed to make so much natural & gentle & decent sense that I almost gave into the bastard.

  “And I suppose its true, some twisted connection or crossed up circuit between love & hate in me is the secret of it all, & to go in on my own from day to day like some scared electrician & try to fix the circuit will be in the end, I mean if there is an end, my only way out. I could not give up my thoughts or my dreams even to a Slotkin. It is awful & desperate enough to give them up to myself. A man must be chary with his daemons & who knows whether it is not better to suffer a dream & see Hell fire & the gulf & sink in the perishing deep & have volcanos exploding around ones head for a lifetime, than to know its final meaning. Who can say that its meaning once made naked & clear, wont make a man anything but triply damned & free him not into love but into a hatred so immense that all before would seem tender & benign. Who could safely say anything about that, I would like to know that man. Maybe it is just that in the end some secrets should be hid forever. Meantime I am my own soul diviner & I do not hope to dredge up out of the depths any thing but that which would momentarily solace me. And the blame is my own to bear. So that when ever I dream as I have done of old Uncle standing there as my own executioner I do not place the horror in his hands. If he was sweet & gentle though a miserable & dirt poor farmer & burdened & if the most he ever did was whallop me once when he caught me pulling my pork in the outhouse, or that time at Lake Waccamaw when he caught me at 14 all beered up and drug me home by the ear—then he was not very progressive in many ways I guess, but I dont blame him for my present letchery nor for the fact that Im a whiskey head either. Slotkin kept wanting to dig at this, at my being an orphan & at old Uncle, but I guess he was barking up the wrong tree. Its not old Uncles fault any more than it was Cape Gloucester, which scared the living shit out of me just like it did everyone else. Nor when I look into my heart of hearts is it the U.S. I can blame at all though many times I would like to & do, a bleeding expatriate that would put a Bowery bum to shame. Because though say even somebody like Poppy dont know it there are times when just the thought of one single pine tree at home, in the sand, & a negro church in a grove I knew as a boy & the sunlight coming down hot on a Sunday long ago & the sound of the negros singing In Bright Mansions Above (?)—then I feel or know rather that all I would need is that one trembling word to be whispered or spoken into my ear. AMERICA. And I could hold myself back no longer and blubber like a baby.

  “Though for the rest of the time I figure you can have the whole smart-Alex, soft-headed, baby-faced, predigested, cellophane wrapped, doomed, beauty-hating, land. And thats a fact. No in the end maybe its good to get to know some of the horrors of the night, & to get old Uncle off the hook I suspect that whosoever it is that rises in a dream with a look on his face of eternal damnation is just ones own self, wearing a mask, and thats the fact of the matter.”


  Curious to relate, there was at this time living and working on the Adriatic coast a young American painter and sculptor named Waldo Kasz. A native of Buffalo, with a great mop of reddish hair and an expression which, at least in his rare photographs, mirrored a very special and personal detestation of the human race, Waldo Kasz had for a whole year enjoyed a vogue unparalleled by any young artist of his generation. He was of Polish descent; presumably his surname was a simplification of more unpronounceable consonants. His haunting, twisted, abstract forms in oil and gouache, his compressed and tormented statuettes in terra cotta, his larger figures in bronze—skeletal, attenuated, crypto-humans whose knobby outlines and strange, sudden concavities seemed to express the very essence of exacerbated and outraged flesh—all of these had won him, while still in his early thirties, the kind of acclaim for which most artists wait in vain a lifetime. An expatriate, a self-confessed hater of all things American, he lived in sulky exile in a little village on the seacoast not far from Rimini with only (according to a New York fashion magazine) his mother and three Siamese cats for company, and one solitary diversion—this being to prowl the lonely Adriatic shore in search of wild driftwood shapes from which he often took inspiration for his macabre, vaguely anthropomorphic masterpieces. Rumor had it that he was aloof to the vanishing point, a locker of doors and a slammer down of windows, and had even threatened violence upon those persistent souls—chiefly reporters and photographers from popular American journals—who had managed to penetrate his lair. The rare interviews with Waldo Kasz are records mainly of monosyllables and grunts. An article in the Herald Tribune called him “the grim young prophet of the ‘beat’ generation.” One of the few photographs taken of him—a huge mug shot in a widely circulated magazine which also ran a three-page spread in color of his works—shows the tousled reddish hair, the glittering eyes two blue pinpoints of near-blind fury, the rather simian brow knitted in furious ripples and, in the foreground, a splashy blur of crimson—wine, so the caption explains, flung without ceremony at the prying photographer. The picture is titled “Angry Young Genius.” It was because of the awful though not very precise coincidence of their names—Cass and Kasz—that Cass had his first encounter with Mason Flagg.

  Unless you have been to Sambuco in May, you have never known the spring. This is what many Italians say, and it is no doubt hyperbole, but there is truth in the matter. Spring in Sambuco is something to know. It is odor and sweet warmth, bud and blossom, and, in the sky, ecstatic aerial tracings—sunbeam and bumblebee and hummingbird, and silvery, innocent showers of rain. Then the rain is gone, and it comes no more. Perhaps it is the height, the looking downward, that makes spring here the marvel that it is. Flowers clamber up along the hillsides, donkeys bray in the valleys and over all is that sense of the strut and glamour of newborn life. And you are so high, miles above the common earth. Girls, slender in cotton dresses, walk the street arm in arm in gay parade, while old women in doorways seek the sunlight with upturned faces and drowsing eyes. People shout to each other from open windows. There is an odor of pepper and pimiento and cheese in the air. From the depths of the dank cafe and into pure sunlight moves the eternal card game, kibitzed by two pink-cheeked priests and by Umberto, the Bella Vista’s major-domo, decked out in gold-sprayed summer whites like a Spanish admiral. Radios everywhere give voice, unrestrained, to Pagliacci and
sad songs of Naples, bittersweet stornelli that tell of rapture and betrayal, to loud pitches for spaghetti and toothpaste and suppositories, and to Perry Como. Athwart the piazza, portly and grave, moves the begabardined form of Piero Caltroni, M.D., fanning himself with his mail. Rumors buzz like bees in this gentle weather: a cow across the valley in Minuto has given birth to a three-headed calf; turismo will be booming this summer—the West German mark is as solid as the dollar; Sergeant Parrinello, the town despot, is due for a transfer—bravo!; the caretaker at the Villa Caruso has heard ghastly moans in the small hours, and has seen flickering green lights. Specters! Ghosts! Rumors! At two in the afternoon all falls silent. There can be heard only cowbells clanging in the valley or the sound of a bus horn, or, far off, the whistle of some coastwise ship plowing southward toward Reggio Calabria or Sicily.

  It has been said that most suicides occur when the air is balmy, the sky blue, the sunlight unclouded, jovial and golden; the writhing amputee, skewered upon life like a wingless June bug, finds the climate of spring a heartless last insult, and so gives up the ghost. No doubt it was just this weather that caused Cass, on the morning of the day he met Mason, to dream this fearful nightmare, so poisoned and festering with the casts of self-destruction.

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