review


Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one matter, only one finally worth telling.

But if this is your only story, then it’s the one that you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure . One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse.

This is the start of Julian Barnes’ latest book, ‘The Only Story’, which Joan gave me on Valentine’s Day. I was touched: romance is clearly not dead, but then I read further ……

Paul was only nineteen when he met Susan. She was forty five and had two teenage daughters. They were drawn to partner each other in the mixed doubles tournament at the tennis club in the Surrey village where they both lived. Although they were not the most successful tennis partnership, they made each other laugh. Paul had a car and would take her home after tennis. Their unlikely relationship developed. The found time to meet other than at tennis, they spent weekends away together and Paul would even make love to her in her bedroom at home while her husband, whom she derided as ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, snored in another room. They were both smitten, though it was such a high risk affair.

They put money into an escape fund and ran away together, renting a flat in south east London. At first things went well. They were happy. Paul got into law school and studied to be a solicitor. He felt very responsible and grown up. But then, he began to notice that Susan was drinking rather a lot. She said that she needed it to relax, promised to give up, but after a while made no attempt to hide it from him; she was more obviously drunk when he came home and more irritable. Then Paul found that she was deceiving him by going back to see her husband when he was away at Uni. The drinking became worse and along with it, her mental state, but they were both too dependant on each other to end the relationship.

Eventually after several episodes when the police were called and Susan was admitted to a psychiatric institution for a time, Paul realised that his mental health was also deteriorating. He had to get away. He took a sequence of posts abroad, but not before he wrote to her daughter to ask if she would look after her mother. But he always kept in touch with Susan, coming back to see her whenever he was in London. Susan never stopped drinking, never got better and died prematurely of liver failure. Paul never married. Their’s was his only story.

Julian Barnes never seems to tell a happy story. His plot lines are full of convoluted and tortured relationships that explore the nature of the human condition. ‘The Only Story’ tackles several monumental themes: intergenerational sexual relationships, addictive attachment, and self annihilation.

Separation from one’s parents is a vital rite of passage for a young person. Although Susan is not his real mother and her husband is ignored and emasculated, not murdered, Paul’s relationship with Susan, conducted while he is still living in the parental home, is what Freud would have described as oedipal and does not allow him to develop his own identity. Instead, he forms an intense attachment with Susan, which lasts all his life. Susan, despite bearing two children and established in the community, is also naive, but too anxious to manage alone without the help of alcohol. They are both like children who have never grown up.

Inevitably, their relationship fails. Perhaps it was too intense, too needy; it didn’t allow any personal space But as Susan’s love deteriorates into a tiresome habit and then into a kind of hatred, the alcohol addiction that comes to replace it disintegrates from a prop to become a means of self destruction. To survive, it seems, relationships must be a balance of independence and togetherness. The secret of life, as the child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott once said, is ‘to be alone in the company of others’, but that requires a degree of self reliance and responsibility. We can end up hating a partner either because they are too needy or because we need them too much. The sad thing is that, having risked all for their love, Susan and Paul had to make it work. They had made a trap for themselves.

Why do human beings tend to have this inclination to do the very thing that is likely to damage them the most? Is it that they fear not being able to do the thing they want to do so they pretend they never wanted to do it anyway? Or is it more than that? Do they just want to destroy the whole idea of self control and responsibility? Would they rather live for whatever gives them excitement or pleasure, even if that turns out to be the route to meaninglessness and self hatred?

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Goat

It was a day like many others, Martin a successful architect, is due to be interviewed on camera by his long term friend, Ross, who works in the media, but he is somewhat distracted. He cannot seem to remember things and is not at all bothered by his recent recognition in the form of a national award. And there is a funny smell about him.

Stevie, his wife of some 20 years, is mildly amused. ‘No’, she commented, ‘I do not think you are losing your mind. It’s probably some mid life crisis. You’re probably having an affair.’

A look of alarm crosses Martin’s face as he flippantly replies, ‘Yeah, I’ve met this wonderful goat.’ Stevie nearly chokes with laughter and says she will call in at the feed store when she’s  in town.

Ross arrives, but soon becomes exasperated with Martin’s vagueness. ‘What’s the matter with you?’, he enquires. ‘You can tell me. I am your best friend. I am always here for you’.

At length, Martin admits that he is having an affair. Ross is concerned and sympathetic. He acknowledges that was the sort of thing that happened to men of their age, talks of the adventures they had had before they were married. He then asked what her name is.
‘Sylvia’, Martin replied.
‘So who is Sylvia? What does she do?’
‘Oh nothing very much, just walks about the field and eats.’
‘So she’s the open air type. But doesn’t she have a job?’
‘No, of course not; she’s a goat!’ He shows him a photograph.
Incredulous and deeply shocked, Ross exclaimed. ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re fucking a goat?’
‘But you don’t understand; it’s not like that. The fact is, I’m in love with her.
‘Jeez, you’re in deep trouble. You need to get some help’. You have to tell Stevie. If you don’t, I will.

The next day, Martin returns home from meeting Sylvia. Stevie is pacing the room looking deeply upset. She is holding a letter. It is from Ross. She reads from it. ‘This is very difficult to write, but I think you should know that Martin is in a lot of trouble. He told me yesterday that he is having an affair. That would be bad enough, but the fact is that his partner is a goat.

Stevie is angry, upset, she can’t understand it. Their son, Billy, who is gay, is also deeply shocked. Suddenly, their whole world has been turned upside down. Everything their marriage stood for has been destroyed. Martin pleads with her to let him explain. He describes how he stopped by the farm at the top of the hill and Sylvia trotted over and sort of nuzzled him.
‘It was her eyes, she had such beautiful eyes. I just fell in love with her. I couldn’t help it.
‘No I have never stopped loving you, but the affection I had for Sylvia was so powerful, I could not resist her.’

Stevie wants all the details and with every new revelation, she destroys another piece of their home, first the ornaments, then the paintings, the furniture until their living room was littered with the wreckage of their marriage. Then she leaves.

Shortly after, Billy appears. He is deeply confused and upset. In between outbursts of anger, he tells his father how much he loves him, they embrace and, overwrought by the emotion of it all, the kiss they exchange on the lips was more than father son affection. At that moment, Ross comes in, takes in the scene and tells  them both they are sick. There is an argument. Martin tells him that he is no sort of friend to write to Stevie like he did.

Then Stevie comes back, her dress is covered in blood and she is dragging the dead body of a goat.

‘How could you?’ Martin cried, ‘she never did anything to you’
‘Yes she did. She loved you.’

Edward Albee’s play is at one level a parody of infidelity; the devastation inflicted on a home, a marriage, a family by an extramarital affair. It takes us through the trajectory, the concealment, the shock of the discovery, the role of the well meaning friend and the attempts to explain, which only seem to make things worse. While documenting the destruction of the family, it questions the identity of each of the participants, the strong, secure husband, the wife who created their home, the son who is coming to terms with his homosexuality and the ‘loyal’ friend. All are blown apart by the revelation. But this is not the sort of affair that can be slowly pieced together by explanation and understanding, what Martin has done is so transgressive, an act so unacceptable it defies repair.

 

the secretIris had known there was something different and rather strange about her since she was very small, but she could never quite put her finger on what it was.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was everything to her; she not only clothed her, fed her and cared for her as most mothers would, there was something deeper, stranger. Her mother knew her so well she seemed to be able to regulate the way she felt. This feeling of difference intensified when she went to school. Her mother had wanted to educate her at home, but was persuaded by the social worker that this would not be in Iris’ best interest. At school, the children seemed to know she was different, a bit weird but not in any obvious way. After all, she looked like a normal little girl, and she was bright and interested in things. Maybe it was the way she didn’t seem to want to join in with the other girls; it was like her mother was enough for her. As she grew older, her isolation intensified; she never hung out with the other girls. Her somewhat detached air of self containment irritated them and she was picked on and bullied, but her mother knew her so well and was always there to calm her and make her feel secure.

She began to ask questions. Why didn’t she have a father? Why were there no aunts or uncles; no grandparents? Why did her mother have no close friends? It was like she and her mother were everything each of them needed. As Iris developed into a young woman, they even looked identical: same height and shape, same colour hair, same way of walking, same choice in clothes. People did a double take when they saw them both together. It was weird. This feeling of strangeness grew in Iris; she wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Elizabeth was evasive, telling her that she was not old enough to know yet; she couldn’t handle it, but that only intensified Iris’ curiosity. Once, Janey, Elizabeth’s sister, came to Chicago. She kept looking at Iris and seemed almost frightened of her. It was all very odd.

Iris had to find out what was going on. When her mother went out, she began to search through her papers. In the cellar, she found an old filing cabinet. It was like a treasure chest. There were all sorts of things in there from way back: Elizabeth’s old school reports and certificates, letters from boy friends, a whole stash of letters from her mother, sad, poignant letters that indicated a big rift in the family, but there was no mention of Iris’ father. Then she found it; tucked away at the back of the bottom drawer  was her birth certificate. She hardly dare read it.  Next to the heading: father, the registrar had written ‘none’, and under that by way of explanation: ‘clone’.

So there it was. Iris was a clone of her mother. She was not a separate person, she was just a copy.  Suddenly, everything was explained: the unnatural closeness to Elizabeth, the sense of strangeness, the estrangement from family, the absence of a father – everything!  But it was devastating!  Was she some kind a monster; a freak of nature? Did she even exist outside her mother? What was the point of carrying on if she was just a copy of her mother?  What future did she have if it was already determined?  Could she ever have her own identity? She had to get away.

They had a violent argument. Iris got her fingers round her mother’s neck and almost throttled her. They could both no longer exist in the same space. Then, some days later, in the middle of the night when Elizabeth was asleep, she left. She flew to New York.  It was where her mother’s family had lived.  She needed to fill in the gaps.  Perhaps if she knew more about her mother, she could begin to know herself.  She stayed in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, was picked up by a man in the bar, had sex with him more out of sense of curiosity than desire. She even went to the clinic where she was made and met the scientist who had produced her, but this just intensified her sense of alienation. With the help of Piotr, a strange geeky young man, she lived with for a time, she hacked into her aunt’s computer and found where her grandparents lived. She flew to Palm Beach and surprised them. Whether it was the shock of seeing Iris, meeting a facsimile of Elizabeth as she was when they had last seen her or just ‘natural causes’, her grandmother, who had not been well, collapsed while they were walking back from the beach.  Within a few days, she was dead, but not before Iris, as Elizabeth, was able to forgive her ‘mother’ for putting pressure on her to have a baby.  Her grandfather died a few weeks later.

Returning to Manhattan, Iris lived with Janey, enrolled in university to study molecular science, and went into therapy, though the psychoanalytical interpretations seemed too rigid and not entirely relevant to her situation. Then she met Robert first on an on-line chat room that allowed her to reveal who or what she was.  Robert recognised her own unique self, and they fell in love.  It was the final act of separation. She was no longer her mother. In a strange, dream like sequence, Iris and her mother see each other again while walking in France. They both stop, turn and walk the other way.

 

Eva Hoffman’s intriguing novel uses ‘the clone’ as an extended metaphor to explore the notion of separation. It is something that we all face. In the beginning we are part of our mother and then gradually we grow apart and establish a sense of our own identity. Childhood is a protracted process of separation until we leave home and live our own lives. Sometimes our mothers are reluctant to let us go and fail to give us the freedom to explore our own personality. Then we may struggle to separate or, needing ‘the other’ to survive, we may dive straight into a merger with somebody else, who then becomes our new soul mate.  Or we may never really separate; there are still mother and daughter dyads who claim to be ‘best friends’.

Elizabeth did not only try to prevent Iris from developing an independent life, in perhaps the ultimate narcissism, she  created her as a copy of herself.  Iris was Elizabeth, except that she wasn’t, in the same way that identical twins are not the same person. They may share an identical genetic template, but this becomes overlain with differences in experience so that with time they become different people. It raises the whole nature/nurture discussion. Genes can only provide a blueprint, a tendency to behave in a certain way; the rest is the epigenetic and psychological influence of environment and experience. The notion of self is a creation, not a given.

Iris may have looked like a young Elizabeth, but the influences on their lives were very different. Elizabeth never had such an incestuous relationship with her own mother; she had an extended family, a sibling, grandparents, friends. Iris had own known the intensity of her relationship with her mother and some difficult times at school and with friends as a consequence of that relationship; she was a different being, but, because of her unusual situation, somewhat flawed and autistic.  Her psychological development was much the same as many others, whose relationship with a parent is too close.  This was why, if she was going to find ‘herself’, she would need to ‘kill off the mother in her’.

Iris escapes and spends the next few years trying to discover who the is, first by archaeology through contact with the doctor who made her and her own extended family, and then by accreting layers of her own experience and finally by realising her own independent self in Robert’s recognition and acceptance. How she was created is no longer relevant. It is who Iris has become that matters. She is her own person.  But this is not a boy-meets-girl, happy-ever-after romantic tale. Robert and Iris didn’t get married. Perhaps, having struggled so hard to find her own identity, Iris was not willing to subsume it into a merger with another person.

 

The Secret by Eva Hoffman was published in 2001. Born in Cracow, Poland, to Jewish parents who had escaped the holocaust by hiding in the forest in Ukraine, Eva was brought up in Vancouver, went to University in Texas and now lives for part of the time in Hampstead. The Secret is undoubtedly informed by considerations of her own identity.

 

blake_1759784c

George Blake was perhaps the most successful double agent at the time of The Cold War. Working at the centre of British intelligence, for years he sent invaluable information to the KGB, in particular details of the tunnel the Americans constructed to tap into the Soviet communications across Berlin and the names of over a hundred British agents working there at the time. Blake was captured, escaped and survived and is still living in relative luxury in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, but he misses the sun.

So what made George Blake a spy? Was it that he never felt he belonged anywhere? Blake wasn’t even his name. It was Behar, but he was named George after the English King, George V.  His father, Albert, had a small company in Holland making heavy duty gloves for dockworkers, but George wasn’t close to his father; they didn’t even speak the same language. George was brought up speaking Dutch; his father spoke English and French. He was also half Jewish; his paternal grandfather had been a carpet dealer in Istanbul, but the family kept that a secret. George was much closer to his mother, who was very religious; he wanted to be a pastor.  George always had a strong social conscience.

While George was still at school, Albert’s company failed and then shortly afterwards Albert died. His mother struggled to keep the family in their house by the canal, but his father’s sister had married a rich French merchant and George, his two sisters and their mothers were invited to live with them in their mansion in Cairo. It was there that he completed his education and met his playboy cousin, Henri Curiel, who was the joint leader of the Communist party in Cairo. Curiel was later assassinated in Paris.

He was back at school and staying with his grandmother in Rotterdam when the Nazi’s invaded. He remembered the bombers coming over. His mother was desperate to contact him, but escaped with his two sisters on the last boat to England, the same boat that took the Dutch Royal Family into exile. He came home to find nobody in their apartment and the breakfast things still on the table. He stayed on in Holland for a while, running messages for the Dutch resistance. He enjoyed the excitement of living on the edge. In 1942, he managed to escape through occupied France to Spain and hop on a boat to join his family in England.

In London he grew a beard and was recruited into the Special Intelligence Service. They were impressed by his resourcefulness and need to make a difference. He claimed that he was dropped by parachute in Holland as part of the liberating force, but there was no evidence that was correct. George could be a bit of a fantasist, a Walter Mitty character. So it seemed that George possessed all the credentials to be a double agent: strong social and political convictions but no strong allegiance to any country or any religion, somewhat guarded and secretive, no strong emotional ties, resourceful and independent. He told people he wanted to make a difference in the world.

When war erupted in Korea, he was sent to Seoul and was instructed to go north to Vladivostok and recruit Russian agents who would work for the British. He was in Seoul when communist troops invaded and was imprisoned with other members of western legations. It was while he was a prisoner in Korea that he witnessed the American bombing of Korean villages and decided that he was on the wrong side. Together with the other prisoners, he was escorted on the long march through the mountains to the north. He seized the opportunity to escape but was recaptured. It is probable that he made contact with officers from the KGB at around that time and was recruited as a communist agent.

After 2 years in prison in Korea, Blake was released and sent back to England as a hero, seemingly none the worse for his experience. Impressed by his work in the Far East, he joined MI6. One of his first tasks was to take the minutes for the meeting setting out plans to build a tunnel to tap into the Soviet secret communications channel across Berlin. He printed the document out and handed it to his minder on the top deck of a London bus. The Russians did not react; keeping the identity of such a valuable double agent was too important to them.  So they kept their communications open and allowed Blake, now in Berlin, to continue sending his reports on to Britain in return for information from him. He handed over the names of at least a hundred British agents and much more strategic information over the course of the next few years. It was while George was on his next assignment in Lebanon that MI6 grew suspicious of his role in betraying the existence of their tunnel.

Brought back to England for interrogation, he admitted to spying for the KGB and was sentenced to a very harsh 42 years of imprisonment on various counts of treason.  While serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, he was a model prisoner and was allowed certain privileges, such as access to the library. It was there he met the Irishman, Sean Bourke, who was doing five years for being connected with a bomb incident. Bourke was impressed by Blake’s courage and convictions and decided to help him escape using a hacksaw and a crude rope ladder and the assistance of some local helpers from the CND. Blake injured himself falling from the wall, but was whisked away to a safe house, where he was patched up by a doctor, the girl friend of one of the conspirators. It was touch and go; there was a massive search for him. He was nearly discovered when the wife of the owner of the apartment told her therapist that she had a spy in her flat. The therapist, however, thought she was delusional and ignored it. Hiding under the seat of a camper van, Blake escaped through Europe and was deposited at the Russian border, where he walked to the guard house and asked to speak to a member of the KGB.

Later in Moscow, he invited Bourke to join him for a holiday in his luxurious, KGB apartment in the centre of the city, no doubt wishing to recruit him. Once there, Bourke found he was trapped. He stayed for a year and a half but was eventually allowed to return to Ireland. The British Government applied for extradition, but the Irish government refused. So Bourke stayed in Dublin and, in between drinking sprees, was able to complete and publish his book, ‘Springing George Blake ‘. He died in 1982, his life cut short by alcoholism.

Simon Gray’s play, ‘Cell Mates’, covers the time from when Blake and Bourke met in the library of Wormwood Scrubs to when Bourke was allowed to return to Ireland. It covers the trajectory of their relationship from Bourke’s idealisation of Blake in the beginning to his disillusion, a course accompanied by his increasing alcoholism. ‘Cell Mates’ is a play about trust and duplicity that questions what drove Blake to be a spy.

There is something detached, almost autistic, about George Blake. He never acknowledged that he did anything wrong. He was convinced that Russian communism was the practical means whereby the Kingdom of God would be built on earth. He regarded Russia as his spiritual home. More committed to ‘the cause’ than people and a narcissistic desire to make a difference, Blake advised his wife, who had also worked for MI6 and by whom he had three children, to divorce him.

Blake still lives in the leafy outskirts of Moscow in the green-painted, wooden dacha, donated to him by a grateful state. He is 95 and seemingly in good health. In 2007, he was awarded another medal by Vladamir Putin for his services to Russia. He has married again and has another son. His second wife still looks after him. Blake has no regrets over what he did. He had no particular loyalty to Britain, but he is disappointed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and does not like Putin, though he keeps that a secret from the Russians.

Simon Gray’s play is as enigmatic as the spy, himself. We don’t really get any insights about the relationship between Bourke and Blake. Were they gay? Probably not; Blake was married twice. Did Blake trick Bourke into staying in Moscow with him, only to arrange for him to leave when he realised how unreliable he was? Was Bourke’s life ever in danger? It seems that Blake was too self centred to feel any lasting attachment to another person and any guilt, but has created a myth that he can live with.

He reminds me of Julian Assange, who continues to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy, protesting his right to do what he did, while the world has largely forgotten about him. A recent report said that the Ecuadorian officials were complaining about his personal hygeine. Wikileaks, it seems, has become Whiffyleaks!

Stephen Fry was originally cast to play Blake and Rik Myall was cast as Bourke when ‘Cell Mates’ first opened in the West End in 1995, but the production had mixed reviews and was panned after Fry dramatically left because of depression. This is the first revival since that disastrous opening. Should they have bothered? Probably not. It seems to me that the back story of George Blake is much more interesting than the play.

Cell Mates played at The Hampstead Theatre until January 20th. It was directed by Edward Hall with Geoffrey Streathfield as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke.The

They were best mates, soldiers, adventurers; they had shared danger, drink, women, the best of times together.  Iago was married, he had children, but domestic bliss was not the mainspring of his life.  He lusted after excitement, adventure, the comradeship of like-minded men and loose women.   Life was good.  He and Othello had pitched up in Venice, where they intended to have a good time.  But then Othello appointed Cassio as his lieutenant and fell in love with Desdemona.  These were the contingent events that instigated the disaster.  Iago,  who had long enjoyed the stable though unrequited love for Othello that male comrades in arms enjoy, felt excluded and plotted his revenge.  First Cassio and then Desdemona had got in the way.  Iago was furious; the dark powers of his personality were released and he plotted his revenge.  

Othello was naive and vulnerable.  He had not married and had little experience of women.  He came from a ’Taliban’ culture that kept their women covered up, out of sight and temptation. Throughout history, men have feared the power of women and sought to control them;  their sexual appetites, once released, could destroy a family, a tribe a Kingdom.  We might wonder whether Othello’s mother was sexually incontinent, but for whatever reason, Othello had never previously had a woman he could not control until he met Desdemona, the Venetian beauty, who came from a culture where flirtation and intrigue was a way of life. 

Othello was out of his depth and feeling very vulnerable.  He was overwhelmed by the romance, the experience of being in love.  Those we fear, we put on a pedestal; to Othello, Desdemona appeared  chaste and virtuous but he did not trust her sexuality, even when it was focussed purely on him. Her youthful lustfulness was a contaminant. 

Iago was more the politician, the schemer, the spin doctor who could manipulate other people.  To him everything that was good was just a weakness; something to be exploited.  Iago was so envious of his friend’s infatuation.  How he wished he could experience that kind of all consuming love.  But he was trapped in a loveless marriage and now he was in danger of losing the only real friend he had in the world.  How much he hated Desdemona, how furious he was at being passed over for Cassio.  In the cynical, loveless world he inhabited, he did not care what others thought of him, he had to destroy the one he loved and in so doing destroy the only thing in himself that was good and vulnerable.  He hatched a plot to ensnare both Cassio and Desdemona; he invented an intrigue between them and slowly dripped petrol onto the embers of Othello’s suspicions.

Othello, so courageous in battle, so wise in council, was vulnerable in love and thus susceptible to Iago’s insinuations.  He was the heroic fool; it did not take much to infect him with suspicion.  

But Iago  was not a sophisticated man.  He really didn’t know his own mind;  he just projected his feelings out into others and encouraged their baser motives.  Iago sensed his friends weakness, his corruptibility, his terrible addiction to the pain and pleasure of sexual jealousy.  He was playing with fire, but he did not appreciate the explosive nature of Othello’s fear and rage and thus did not anticipate the disaster that would ensue.  Nevertheless he was responsible; he infected his friend and made him do it.   As the play winds to its dreadful conclusion, he feels nothing but contempt for himself.    

Iago on the Couch is the topic of an after dinner discussion at The Freud Museum between the actor,Simon Russell Beale, director Terry Hands, and psychoanalysts David Bell and Ingres Sodre and produced in DVD by The Institute of Psychoanalysis. Freud and Shakepeare are natural partners, such amazing observers of human nature. They provide moral luminescence without moral judgement. Shakespeare acts out the pain and the doubt; Freud lives with it.    

 

At the beginning of a love affair, one might ask oneself either ‘what am I getting into’ or ’what am I getting out of?’  Every entrance is an exit.    The only real question is,  ‘Are we going to go through (with it)?’ 

The pivotal moment in Emma and Jerry’s seven year long affair occurred just two years into it.   Emma was sitting on the bed in the Kilburn flat they had bought together, excited to see him again, when wistfully, nonchalantly but not so, she said.  ‘Are we going to change our lives?’  There was a pause.  Then Jerry replied, ‘we can’t’.  That was it; the start of the illness from which the relationship succumbed.    

They were both in their thirties, married, their children were still young; they had their obligations.   The time was crucial.  For Emma and Jerry, thirty plus represented a loss of freedom, the acquisition of responsibility.  No longer, it seemed, would life hold that frisson of possibility; it now stretched ahead, that slow decline of disillusion.   

In the affairs of men and women, time is of the essence. It both offers the opportunity and then snatches it away. That chance meeting, the inventive creation of space, free afternoons, rendezvous snatched between appointments; at the time, it seems their love could last forever; feeling expands time.  But in real time,  such intensity of passion is ephemeral. 

Falling in love is predicated on hope, and hope cannot be sustained forever.  If the affair goes on too long without a resolution, then hope dies.  The fulcrum of reality is followed by the inevitable winding down of the clock to when time together, like the flat Emma and Jerry rented, becomes empty and meaningless.  If an affair doesn’t go anywhere, if it doesn’t change the lives of the participants, it will die and something in them will die too.

The happily married never need consider these issues.  As the philosopher and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, comments, for them the future is the same as the past.  ‘Outwitting time and change, they construct a monument to continuity among the promiscuous ruins.  Valuing a relationship because it lasts, they live as if time proves something.’  

It was a poignant and clever device for Pinter to write the play backwards; time running in reverse.  The end of an affair is always there right at the start.  They both knew it was impossible that first time they kissed at the party; that’s what made it so risky and exciting.   They couldn’t!   But why not?  They were in love.  And love skews perception, makes the impossible seem plausible.   

Except it’s not.  Life is not make-believe, however much we may try to make it so.  There are incompatibilities; the taken-for-granted and the precarious, the tedious routine and the impossible risk – the thing that couldn’t be done.  There is safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  Of course we want to have our cake and eat it.  Why not, we protest, we are integrated beings. Isn’t our body but a representation of our meaningful soul and isn’t our mind the way we think about it?  Why can’t we be more honest?  

But in the affairs of men and women, honesty and kindness are at odds with each other, Phillips asserts.  ‘We lie because we can’t admit our desire and we don’t wish to hurt or be hurt. We lie in order to keep our options open, but also to find out what our options are.  The successful lie creates a fragile freedom.  It shows us that it is possible for no one to know what we are doing, even ourselves.  The poor lie – the wish to be found out – reveals our fear about what we can do with words.  Fear of infidelity is fear of language.’  

Monogamy is reassurance. It’s like believing in God.  Not everyone believes, but most live as though they do.  Erotic life, Phillips writes, is political, disruptive; ‘it rearranges the world, it makes a difference to the ways we and other people organise their lives.  Every infidelity creates the need for an election; every separation divides the party.  Friends may share, cooperate and be honest.  Lovers have to do something else. Lovers cannot be virtuous.’  

Rules by which we govern our lives are ways of imagining what to do.  ‘Our personal infidelity rituals – the choreography of our affairs – are parallel texts of our marriages’.   Successful affairs reproduce the loneliness of marriage.   Unsuccessful ones intensify it.  Serial monogamy, it could be argued, keeps us moving on, maintaining the hope, restoring meaning and renewing life.     

Adam Phillips would claim that ‘guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want.  It shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life, there is no morality.  Because we are always being sexually faithful to somebody, every preference is a betrayal.’  

He continues, ‘what is coupledom, but a sustained resistance to the intrusion of third parties.  The couple needs to sustain the third parties in order to go on resisting them.  The faithful keep an eye on the enemy, eye them up.  After all, what would they do together if no one else was there.  How would they know what to do?  Two’s company; three’s a couple.  Everyone feels jealous or guilty and suffers the anguish of their choices.  No one has ever been excluded from feeling left out.’ 

Betrayal by Harold Pinter is currently playing at the Comedy Theatre,  London. Kristin Scott Thomas is  wonderful as Emma; she was sexy, playful and very attractive; how could Jerry ever resist her.    The programme included  notes from Adam Phillips Book, Monogamy (Faber and Faber, 1996).

(please don’t read this as a moral statement, more an attempt at analysis)

The idealistic Konstantin, humiliated by his famous mother, the actress Irina Arkidina, his play publicly dismissed as ridiculous, tries to shoot himself but instead shoots a seagull and presents the corpse to Nina, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, whom he adores.  Nina is disturbed and disgusted, but shows it to the sinister Trigorin, a famous writer and house guest, who notes down the metaphor for future use.   Nina is in thrall to Trigorin.  She sees in him an opportunity to escape the cage of the family estate and take flight as an actress.  She follows Trigorin to Moscow, becomes pregnant and is rejected by the writer who is being kept by Irina. The baby dies, her family lock their gates against her, and she is transformed into the kind of tragic heroine that the painter, George Frederick Watts depicted in his allegorical studies of hope and poverty. She becomes the seagull.    

Watts had taken as his child bride the teenage actress, Ellen Terry, in order to protect her from the same fate, or so the story goes.  The marriage failed.   It was supposedly never consummated. According to the amusing fiction by Lynne Truss, Watts just wasn’t interested in her that way.  Released from Watts’ protection, Ellen soared upwards to become the most famous actress of her generation. 

The Seagull possesses the usual Chekhovian themes; the country house, a self indulgent Russian bourgeoisie, decadent, bored and in decline,  the threatening clouds of the oncoming revolution  And the actors have the same familiar roles, the ageing actress and matriarch playing to the balcony while the theatre crumbles around her,  the elderly and ailing uncle, the owner of the estate, representing old Russia about to vanish forever, the frustrated and bullish farm manager, fed up with the old ways and wanting progress,  the desperate young author, the naive and fragile girl, and the doctor, perhaps Chekhov himself, a reflective observer, not entirely engaging with it all.  Soon all will be scattered.  Seen from this perspective, the seagull presents a broader perspective on the oncoming crisis,  a fragile but beautiful way of life soon to be chopped down like The Cherry Orchard.  Of course, the characters seem hysterical and self centred, they are all in love with love as a form of escape, the end of their world is coming; what else can they do?  It wouldn’t be theatre if they all behaved sensibly and worked together. 

The Seagull is currently playing at the Arcola Theatre in Stoke Newington; not an area I know well but accessible via the London Overground.  The theatre is a converted warehouse.  The set and seating are rough and ready but the cast and direction is as accomplished as many productions you might see in the West End.  Geraldine James plays the actress and matriarch.  The doctor is played by Roger Lloyd Peck, recently seconded from the Dibley parish council.  Chekhov billed the play as a comedy but nobody in Stoke Newington was laughing.

The Watts Gallery opened at Compton on the North Downs outside Guildford on June 18th.  It is said to be the only major gallery in the country devoted to a single artist.  Watts was immensely popular in his heyday; two rooms were devoted to his paintings in the newly opened Tate Gallery at Millbank but the fashion for Victorian art changed and by the nineteen fifties you could pick up his paintings for less than a hundred pounds.  His museum at Compton fell into disrepair but was rescued by coming second in the BBC’s Restoration programme and then getting a 4 million pound lottery grant.  Watts’ paintings are not exactly cheerful.  The most famous are allegories of themes like hope, poverty and despair.  They are sombre and intense; Watts saw his mission to produce work that encourage young people to think about moral issues.   

Lynne Truss didn’t treat Watts kindly.  In her novel, Tennyson’s Gift, which described with humour the characters that circled the bard of Farringford, she portrayed him as self obsessed and sexually repressed.  Who knows, if he had been more responsive to Ellen’s allures, she may never have felt the need to escape to the stage.    

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