Books: May Week was in June — The Ostrich Alternative |
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May Week was in June — The Ostrich Alternative


Obsessions are what we have instead of normality. They aren’t a version of it, they are surrogate. My obsession with the moving image was what I was having instead of working on the set books. Out of the three terms of my second and last year as an undergraduate, one and a half had gone by before I could bring myself even to sit down and assess the magnitude of what I had not yet done in the way of preparing to satisfy the examiners. When I finally faced the issue, I quickly realised that I would have a better chance of satisfying them if I offered them my body. To present them with the contents of my mind would be an insult. My first move was to write one of my classic letters to my mother telling her that I was studying hard and not to worry about a thing. More than usually specious, this work of fiction helped get me in the mood for works of fiction composed by other people, such as Dickens and Thackeray. But merely not feeling negative wasn’t the same as feeling positive. Enthusiasm was lacking. Why did it have to be Dickens and Thackeray? And why were Dickens’s novels so very long, not just in thickness but from page to page? He piled it on as if I had all the time in the world to take it off. Jane Austen had had a far better idea of how much time a busy poet and performer had to spare. There was also the advantage that in previous incarnations, while being an aesthete at the University of Sydney or a down-and-out post-Beatnik Bohemian in Earl’s Court and Tufnell Park, I had actually read some of her books. Acquiring a working knowledge of her oeuvre was thus on the cards. I resolved to concentrate on Jane Austen and thereby reap the benefits of the informed insight that cuts deep, the sharp focus. Whether a sharp focus on Jane Austen would come in handy when discussing the novels of, say, Dostoevsky, was a point that remained moot, A moot point I could always deal with by crossing the river, climbing the hill and hiding from the reality of afternoon in the sweet, artificial night of the Rex.

Most of the films I saw there were like me: rootless, unsung, wandering the universe like a spaceship with a dead crew. When The Manchurian Candidate was withdrawn from the screen after the assassination of President Kennedy, it showed up nowhere in the world except at the Rex, where I saw it at least ten times. I could, and at the drop of a hat would, analyse its camerawork exhaustively, but in a more reliable part of my addled brain I must have realised that it was the words which really counted. I learned George Axeltod’s perfectly turned screenplay line by line. At that time and for years to come, the muttered question ‘Why does your head always look as if it’s coming to a point?’ was a secret password among those who shared the Manchurian connection. I, however, was the only person I ever met who could correctly recite the key line in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: ‘I’ve never had champagne before breakfast before. With breakfast, often. But never before before.’ The line was Axelrod’s, not Capote’s. I also knew that the best line in The Big Sleep — ‘She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up’ — was not Raymond Chandler’s. Years before it was rediscovered as a cult classic, the all-time off-beat Hollywood sleeper The Night of the Hunter would also show up only at the Rex. The print was full of splices yet the photography retained its lustre and, more importantly, the narrative still flowed. Bowled over by Charles Laughton’s talent as a director, I still had enough sense to realise that James Agee’s screenplay was the vital contribution.

The second time I saw Night of the Hunter at the Rex — once again I was in light from Dickens — I was one of only three people in the audience. The others were two of the most beautiful people I had ever seen in my life. Both of them were Indians, and before I introduced myself I had mentally transferred to them the title of a piece by Duke Ellington: the Beautiful Indians. The beautiful girl was called Karula Shankar and the young man, if possible even more beautiful, was called Buddy Rajgupta. They looked like a tourist advertisement for Nirvana. It turned out, however, that they were students like me. In some respects they were even my kind of student. They, too, were in flight from the size of Dickens’s novels. In other ways they were not students like me at all. Apart from their physical allure, they seemed materially comfortable to a degree unparalleled among the undergraduate population. This I deduced before we had even reached what Karula called Buddy’s pad, whither I had been invited back for coffee. Buddy’s casual Western clothes he might have worn at a Hyannis Port lawn party and Karula’s sari was so subtle in its colours that you had to check your eyes for teardrops. Surely it was a film of water which was supplying the prismatic interplay as she rustled silkily along? No, it wasn’t. In the middle of her superb forehead a tiny upright ellipse of scarlet spoke of the mysterious East. Her voice, however, spoke of Sarah Lawrence or Vassar, with the occasional word strongly emphasised, as if she had suddenly moved closer. ‘You don’t play bridge, by any chance?’ Already lost, but not so far gone as to have forgotten that a competence at bridge might be hard to fake, I said I didn’t. ‘Man, have you ever met the wrong people. We play it all the time. We’ll have to teach him, won’t we?’ Buddy said nothing for a long while as we walked. I could tell he was thinking. Finally he said: ‘Yeah. OK.’

Buddy’s pad was behind a heavy door in a neo-Georgian brick façade somewhere near Newnham. I can remember a gravel drive and an overhanging elm which must be gone by now, because the Dutch elm beetle went through Cambridge like silent wildfire later on and missed hardly a single candidate for extermination. I imagine the spacious layout of Buddy’s pad has gone too. There can’t have been many subsequent undergraduates who would have been able to keep up that level of classy carelessness. By student standards the place was enormous, colossal, outlandish: it was Grand Central Station, the Grand Salon of the Louvre, the Great Hall of the People in Peking. Actually I suppose the main room was only about thirty feet by twenty, but even among all the divans and cushions there definitely would have been room to swing the tiger whose skin was on the floor. The general arrangements were for a Rajah who had been brought up in the Ritz, which was apparently pretty well what had happened. Family photographs indicated that Buddy’s forebears had driven at Le Mans, flown in the King’s Cup, hunted from howdahs, played host to the Mountbattens. Pretending not to be impressed by all this was made easier by the books, which were loosely shelved by the thousand, and all interesting. Such American avant-garde publishing houses as New Directions and Evergreen were fully represented. These imprints I at least recognised. Others were new to me. Proud of my one-volume collected Nathaniel West, I was rather put out to see his separate novels all lined up in the original American editions, their paper wrappers intact. Undergraduates like to believe that they read adventurously but few of them do. Mostly they follow two curricula: the official one, and the unofficial one which prescribes books supposed, by general consent among their generation, to be of epoch-making interest. Buddy was a genuine extracurricular reader. He had his own taste and followed it where it led. Nor was he one of those paid-up exquisites who read minor writers because the major ones are insufficiently obscure. He was in search of originality in all its forms. The quest was made only the more impressive by his off-hand manner. Nowadays he would be called laid-back. At that time the word for him was cool. Even in conversation, he never ran to catch the bus. ‘Have you read Agee’s film criticism?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I lied. Buddy crossed slowly to his shelves, took down the relevant book, leafed through it, found some paragraph that he had been looking for, silently read it, closed the book and handed it to me. ‘You should,’ he said.

And I did. That year I read almost everything on Buddy’s shelves. Constant attendance at the cinema never cut into my reading: only into my official reading. Unofficially I would rather read than sleep. The Cambridge second-hand bookshops always beckoned. By the second week in any term I was usually too broke to buy anything. The University Library, needless to say, was out of the question: it was full of students who were actually studying, a sight which would throw me into a panic. So every few days I took an armful of books back to Buddy’s pad, there to exchange them for more. Occasionally I was a fourth in bridge games but I never learned: the Beautiful Indians were too good at it to remember what it was like not to be able to play, so they couldn’t teach me. Several times I was paired off with an Italian graduate economist called Mario who could memorise the whole pack at a glance no matter how it was shuffled. I came to dread the moment, usually no more than half-way through a hand, when Mario, Buddy or Karula said something like ‘That’s it, then,’ and they all laid out their cards, having foretold how the hand — or round or rubber or whatever it was called - must play itself out. I had no sense for cards and got no better. Even today, playing gin rummy with my small daughter, I am notoriously easy meat, and have been since she was seven years old. If I make a fool of myself at gin, it can be imagined what a figure I cut at bridge. I just couldn’t do it.

Reading I knew how to do: except, of course, when it was prescribed. Buddy was the same way. As far as I remember he never sat for the examinations, and might well already have been sent down without his noticing. Already, on that first afternoon, I envied him his insouciance, although I was too obtuse to realise as yet that it was only part of an aristocratic principle whose other main component was a deep sense of social obligation. Downing the proffered martinis as if they were water, I conveyed to Buddy and Karula my radical convictions, explaining to them the economic problems facing their country and how easily these could be solved. ‘Man, that’s crap,’Karula murmured from her sleepily curled position in a heap of paisley cushions, as if Liberty’s had been bombed and geraniums were growing among the ruins. Buddy, smoking a black Russian cigarette so delicately that it seemed never to, grow shorter, either listened to my monologue or thought of something else. Perhaps he was thinking of his country, in which, he slyly neglected to tell me, his father was a liberal publisher who had many times laid his life on the line for democracy and would expect his children to do the same. It was a typical Cambridge undergraduate evening: ignorance spoke out confidently while experience waited for it to catch up. Night fell and deepened. Karala rose from her cushions and made for the kitchen. She constructed large, American-style hamburgers. Eating a hamburger without putting down my martini glass made it difficult to talk, but I coped.

It never occurred to me that I should at least have offered to leave the Beautiful Indians together. Anyway, towards midnight I was given the job of escorting Karula home. She lived right in the centre of town, in a suite of rooms in a gingerbread house in a little lane, no wider than a thin man, leading off Market Square. It took a long time to get there because I found her a bit of a handful to escort. In fact I found her at all only with difficulty. The martinis must have had something in them. Alcohol, perhaps. Probably it was the way they made them in India. I tripped over gutters, detoured into bushes, fell down holes in the road. I peed behind a parked Mini and missed it. Karula, perfectly sober, was in hysterics. When we finally got to her place it turned out that she had forgotten her front door key. Luckily her room was on the ground floor. We jemmied her window without much trouble - Karula’s peals of oddly accented laughter covered the noise of splitting timber — and I boosted her through. There was so much sari that I didn’t really touch her. It was like pushing an unfolded parachute into a dumb waiter. But I felt her. The sweet heat of life. She was lovely and she wasn’t mine. I wanted all the lovely women to be mine. If not all, then a few. If that was too much, then just one. Here, now. This instant. I sat down and had a little cry. ‘Shit, man,’ came that bewitching voice from inside the window, ‘go home.’ But where was home? Far, far away. Using the cool wall as a guide, I edged toward the streetlight at the end of the alley. So cold in England, even when it was warm.