Set this house on fire, p.51
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       Set This House on Fire, p.51

           William Styron

  Again he fell silent, and when he resumed talking, after a long pause, it was with a laugh that had very little humor in it at all. “Now that I recall it, I don’t think Mason had been eavesdropping. Bald as he could be and all, he was careful about most of the more obvious amenities. But when I turned around he was standing there in the doorway, gazing at the outer door of the courtyard where Francesca had gone. But even if I thought he had been listening in—in which case he couldn’t have understood a word, since the Italian language remained as dark to him as Icelandic right up to the very end—it wasn’t this that griped me and tore at me so as what he said then. ‘Now that looks like real tail, Waldo,’ he said, rubbing his finger up against the side of his ear. “There’s nothing like a round little behind to make me bloom like a rose.’ Then he said: ‘Where did you dig her up?’

  “Maybe this was meant as a really virile observation, to offset all the art appreciation and the poetry. But the look on his face was pink and greasy and what he said was like a slap in the face in this hot and disrupted condition I was in. Now that I look back on it I can understand that maybe he didn’t mean anything insulting by it, and actually he was even trying to impress me. Hell, it was a remark I might have made myself, about somebody I didn’t care anything for. For one thing, she was obviously just a poor little peasant and he couldn’t have suspected how she had set me rocking and churning. But the other thing, of course, is that Mason was just like that. The universal man he thought of himself as, the bleeding equilateral triangle of the perfect human male, an aesthete who could quote you half a line from Rilke and Rimbaud and you name it, and dream of himself potting tigers in Burma and getting gored in Seville, and balance himself off as the most glorious stud that ever crept between two sheets. And since he was none of these things to no degree he had to talk a lot, to make you believe he was all of them.” He hesitated for a moment. “Christ, I’m trying to be fair to this guy!” he said with sudden passion and bitterness. “He was bright, too, bright as hell—a marvel even, in his amateur way. What made him such a swine? Such a—” He stopped, lips trembling.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t know.” For the briefest space of time I had the notion that Mason, sprung forth in spirit from the grave, was sitting in judgment on our judgment upon him. We turned away from each other—I with a counterfeit yawn, Cass fidgeting.

  After a moment Cass went on. “Well, I reckon I simmered down pretty quickly. That Scotch he was putting out was on the de-luxe side, and it was too much to forgo just because of a single crude remark. Yet I remember, as we went back into the room there, I remember thinking about him, brooding, trying to size him up. In those days, especially when I was drunk, my judgments on America and Americans tended to get a bit somber and harsh, to say the least. And Mason now—well, I can’t say that I actually out and out disliked him, even with that remark of his—seeing Francesca again had left me feeling very warm—but you might say that there was a whole lot about him that I didn’t exactly cotton to. And all this quite aside from the Waldo business, which had begun to set my teeth on edge. No, there were these other things—all his slickness, and his suavity, and that bland arch pretty-boy face of his, and yes, even those goddam sun glasses he was wearing indoors, too, where there wasn’t no sun. In this haze I was getting into, all these things added up to something, and that something didn’t seem to be much more than the man I had come to Europe to escape, the man in all those car advertisements—you know, the young guy waving there—he looks so beautiful and educated and everything, and he’s got it made, Penn State and a blonde there, and a smile as big as a billboard. And he’s going places. I mean electronics. Politics. What they call communications. Advertising. Saleshood. Outer space. God only knows. And he’s as ignorant as an Albanian peasant.”

  He paused. “Maybe it was partly envy in those days. Mason had a lot more than this, I guess. After all he wasn’t a type, he was his own self. But then, as I told you, I always had it in for these young American dreamboats, who’ve had it handed to them on a silver platter—education, especially, books, the opportunity to learn something—and then never used it, but took a couple of courses in water-skiing, and then dragged-ass out of school barely able to write their name and believing that the supremest good on earth was to be able to con a fellow citizen into buying a television set that would reduce his mind to the level of a toadfish or lower even. Millions of them! Because I never had that chance—though if wasn’t nobody’s fault directly, except maybe the depression and my uncle’s having to pull me out of school to go to work—and I resented it, and having to learn the little I know on my own hook, so to speak. Anyway, put part of this feeling down to envy. Nonetheless, with Mason here, you see, he had begun to look and smell a little like that certain man, in spite of Kennst du das Land crap and the playwrighting, and my enthusiasm for him had pretty much wore off, you might say. As a matter of fact, he had begun to look phony as a boarhog with tits. What the hell are you laughing at?”

  “At Mason,” I said. “I want to cry, but I’m laughing at Mason. Go on.”

  “Well, we got to chatting there by the balcony, and we got on various subjects, abstract expressionism—he had all the proper things to say about that—and I remember somewhere along the line there he started in on jazz. I think he must have seen my phonograph, or maybe my Leadbelly album, and figured that naturally I was pretty well gone on jazz. Though of course what they call modern jazz and Leadbelly are two different things. Well now—jazz. You know, some of it’s pretty good, and I’d probably like it a lot more than I do if it weren’t for some goddamed avant-garde creep always jamming it down my throat. And Mason was basically about as much avant-garde as J. P. Morgan. Anyway, I guess you’ve got to be something of a heretic—a bleeding infidel—to say that you don’t like jazz. In New York, say you don’t like jazz and it’s like saying you’re an F.B.I. man. It’s a shame, you know. Because good jazz should be taken for what it is. Music. It isn’t great art but it’s music, and a lot of it’s fine, only about half the people who listen to it think that it’s some sort of propaganda. They’re worse than the bleeding Russians. Like that time in New York, I was in a bar near the Art Students’ League and I told this young girl that I thought Negro spirituals were very beautiful, and she said: ‘Oh, they went out in the thirties. You southerners just want to see Negroes remain in a state of primitive religiosity.’ She was one of these jazz nuts, of course. But it’s true, really. Most of the people who say they like jazz couldn’t whistle “Yankee Doodle.” They’re tone deaf. They like it because they think it stands for something. Or because it’s chic. Well, believe me, it’s not that I have anything against jazz, but until my ears improve there will be very little in it that will ever turn me to fire and ice inside—like the day in Paris when I was listening to the radio, and heard that aria from Gluck for the first time in my life, where Orfeo calls out to Euridice in his grief, and I sat there shivering and burning, with my hair straight on end, and near about keeled over like a log.

  “Anyway, Mason moved in on me pretty quickly there, and he began talking about Mezz and Bird and Bix and Bunk and Bunny and God knows who else, and I just pretty much gave him the helm, sitting there brooding and listening and sipping away at his ten-dollar luxury bottle. I guess almost a half-hour must have passed, and I was getting woozier and dreamier and—I don’t know—sad, I guess, half-listening to him yack away about this horn player named Bird, who had a terrible death-wish and finally croaked, and gazing down into the sea and the valley, which were all blazing gold at that time of the day, and so beautiful, and forever out of my reach. And I kept thinking about Francesca, too—. things that excited me but scared me, too, if you want to know the truth—and his voice came back into focus all of a sudden, and I realized he was talking about parachuting and Yugoslavia, and this jump he’d made into the black, black night. Well, I listened more intently now, and I believed it—there wasn’t any reason not to, especially since his mann
er of telling it was really so modest, and even funny in a way. As you know, it was quite a tale.

  “Well, I reckon what started me off was this. This—After he finished his story he asked me where I’d been, and I told him the Solomons and New Britain, and then he asked me—all in the smoothest way, you understand, without seeming to pry at all—if I’d gotten hurt any, and I said no, I’d been lucky—physically, that is—but that I’d gotten pretty beat up mentally for a while, enough to put me in a hospital for a spell, at any rate. Then he wanted to know if this experience hadn’t deepened me, hadn’t added to my work; then tacked on something heavy about how this Yugoslavian business, and fear, and suffering there, was the key to his own talent. And it’s a funny thing, he wouldn’t let it go at that, you see; in the nicest way he kept wanting to know what happened to me. So I poured myself out another Regal and I told him: about landing at Gloucester in the mists, in that tremendous hovering jungle, and how it wasn’t anything that exactly happened to me that eventually cracked me up, but how the Japs were way back in the bosky dells, waiting, and when we advanced—lucky old Cass being point, lead man in the lead squad of the leading platoon in the leading company, et cetera—it was like being pioneer in an experience so nightmarish and scary that all reality just drained away from your consciousness on the spot, and that being waist-deep in this incalculable muck anyway, the fact of sudden death from some invisible machine gun or sniper stuck up in a tree somewhere seemed at once so inviting and so foregone and so inevitable that from then on, once you miraculously pulled through it all, fear was never the same again. It was a land and an empire whose citizen you would be for the rest of your life. And no doubt for the rest of your life you would be paying it homage. That was my experience, I said, and as I droned away there—getting a little mawkish, I guess, what with the memory and the booze and all—my eyes misted up and I told him this. I told him we done a good job in that war. I told him that it was a war we had to fight, that if there’s such a thing as a just war it was no doubt juster than most. But as for experience, I said, you could keep your goddam experience and give me back those days when I could have been swimming on the green coast of Carolina, washed over by clean green waves and left upright and ready for living, instead of half buckled-over remembering some misbegotten quagmire of a jungle, and with the dirty taste of fear in my mouth. Experience, I said, was for the birds, when it diminished a man. Bugger that kind of experience. Bugger it. Bugger it forever.

  “Then came the snapper, you see. Mason’s eyes were all glittery by now. Looking back on it, it must have been just the sorehead renegade talk he was led to expect from this Polish what’s-hisname. Anyway, as I ended up my little outburst, feeling all mean and bitter and drunk and sorry for myself, as I finished up there Mason’s beautiful lips parted and this, so help me God, is what he said. He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands gracefully behind his head and said: ‘Well, I don’t consider myself a member of the beat generation, Waldo, though I certainly sympathize. But I think I can understand why you’re considered one of the leading spokesmen.’ Which is a pretty sweet piece of ass-kissing, you must admit. He had everything all sewed up. With a couple million bucks he couldn’t exactly be beat, and he knew it, but to be beat was fashionable, and he sure could sympathize. Old Mason. He would of sympathized with cancer if he thought it was a la mode. Well, anyway, that did it. What it was I don’t know—an accumulation of things, I suppose. Him pretending to care for my art, which was so poor. Francesca, and the booze, and this sudden memory of the war again, and my general misery and inadequacy, and on top of that this glib young fellow with his fast chitterchatter about abstract expressionism and jazz and this guy Bird with his death-wish and now, drug in by its heels, the beat generation, knowing that was pretty chic, too. I mean, whether justly or not, for a moment there he seemed to be the bleeding shallow and insincere epitome of a bleeding neo-yahoo snakepit of a fifth-rate juvenile culture that only a moron could live in, or a lunatic. He burnt my ass.

  “So I let him have it, number-two shot in both barrels. I got up and I looked down at him and I said, very gently: ‘You want to know something, my friend? I think you’re as full of shit as a Christmas goose.’ Then I said, very softly, very even-tempered, see: ‘Let me tell you something. I don’t know what you’re driving at, but those bums don’t know what beat is. They’re just a bunch of little boys playing with theirselves. Get me some men, friend, and I might set myself up in the spokesman business. In the meantime, don’t call me Waldo.’ Well, you’d have thought Mason had been cold-cocked with a wrench. He gave a little jump and his eyes got as gray and washed-out as a couple of oysters. And then that shoulder of his started to jerking and twitching and heaving and he looked like he was trying to say something, but what could he say? Either I wasn’t Waldo at all, or I was sort of a super-Waldo who had transcended even himself, and was so way-out that here I was repudiating the generation I was supposed to be the mouthpiece for. He looked absolutely clobbered. And before he had a chance to collect himself I was charging on, half out of my head, I guess, with drunken spite and bitterness and general all-around anti-everything. And I said: ‘Who the hell are you, anyway, some bleeding smart-aleck Joe College with half a semester of art appreciation and several fancy chapters from Bernard Berenson who’s come over here to yawn over whatever Renaissance genius is passe this year?’ (He wasn’t that, of course, but I didn’t know it. Mason might have heard of B.B., but anybody who painted before 1900 was on his shit list anyway.) ‘People like you give me a king-sized pain in the butt. The whole suave smooth Ivy League lot of you should be made to run high hurdles from here to the Strait of Messina, barefooted like one of these contadini and nothing to eat but some week-old bread full of weevils, then by God maybe you’ll know a painting when you see one!’ His shoulder was heaving like mad and—I don’t know—he looked so displaced, all of a sudden, that I sat down and altered my tone a bit. ‘The trouble is, you see, it’s not that you’re not nice, you young Americans, it’s just that you don’t know anything. Take the Greeks, par exemple. Do you know anything about the Greeks?’ He just sat there for a moment, looking walleyed, then he said somewhat stiffly: ‘Of course I know something about the Greeks.’ Then I said: ‘Quote me something! Quote me from Iphigenia, quote me from Orestes’ And he said: ‘You don’t have to be able to quote to show your knowledge, for Jesus sake.’ Which the Lord knows is true enough, but I said: ‘Ha! See! A man who can’t quote one line from Euripides hasn’t got no education whatsoever. And you a play writer? What is your line, my friend? Communications? Some sort of drummer? I thought so. Well, let me tell you something, friend. You’d better prepare for doom. Because when the great trump blows and the roll is called up yonder and the nations are arranged for judgment you and all your breed are going to be shit out of luck. They don’t allow communicators into heaven, or traveling men either.’

  “Well, I was getting quite a kick out of needling this guy, and I sloped off on a general tirade against America, its degradation of its teachers and its men of mind and character, and its childish glorification of scoundrels and nitwits and movie trash, and its devotion to political cretins—military scum and Presbyterians and such like whose combined wisdom would shame some country sheriff’s harelip daughter—and its eternal belief that it’s God’s own will that illiterates and fools shall lay down the law to the wise. Ad infinitum. Right on down the line. And Mason was taking it all in, nodding and looking sad and hurt, and with his shoulder going up and down. Except that, talking about America as I had been doing, a swarm of memories had begun to rollick in the back of my mind, and then they calmed down and began to flow through me in one clear continuous stream, clear as water, so that even as I halted, then tried to speak again, there came upon me this spell which I had had in Europe so many times—where touched a bit by this wine, you know, I would glimpse such simple homely things as the fold of a curtain or the knob of a door or a frosted windowpane, and these I would som
ehow connect with the same things at home, and then I’d remember a house or an old tobacco barn and the way it looked on a wintry evening in the full light of sunset, or the gulls white and motionless in a mad wild gale over Hatteras, or a girl’s voice would come back to me, clear as a bell on some street in New York many years ago, and her eyes and her hair, or the scent of perfume as she passed, or then the sound of a freight train lumbering up through the pinewoods near home, and its long whistle in my ears both a monotone and an ecstasy. So as I say, this reverie came upon me as I sat there, and as I thought of all these things and the memories flowed through me I began to feel like a total stranger, and the anguish and mystery of myself, you see—of who and what I was and had been and was to be—all of these were somehow tied up with these visions and sounds and smells of America, which were slowly breaking my heart as I sat there, and I knew I had to get up and get out of there and be alone. It was as simple as that. I remember I cleared my throat and looked at Mason, who was sort of suspended there in a yellowish winy fog, and then I got up. The only true experience, by God,’ I said, ‘is the one where a man learns to love himself. And his country!’ And as I said these words, and turned around, why so help me God that nightmare I’d had came crashing back like a wave, and then those Negroes and that ruined cabin so long ago and all of that, which seemed to be the symbol of the no-count bastard I’d been all my life, and I became absolutely twisted and wrenched with a feeling I’d never felt before—guilt and homesickness and remorse and pity all combined—and I felt the tears streaming idiotically down my cheeks.


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