Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Favourite Passage no 1

I have favourite books. I also have favourite passages and usually one is from the other. Lindsay mentioned something the other day which made me think about these favourite words and start looking them up. I can't say why they move me, but they all do. This one brings me to tears.

From "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen

"Lovely in person and spirit, a gifted writer and wonderful teacher with a passionate, inquiring mind, exceptionally intelligent and kind - such was the view of all who knew her well. One friend remarked, "She has no mud on her soul". Yet at times, there was an above-life quality as if she were practising for the day when the higher state that she aspired to must come. To live with a saint is not difficult, for a saint makes no comparisons, but saintlike aspiration presents problems. I found her goodness maddening, and behaved badly. My days with D were tainted with remorse; I could not abide myself when near her, and therefore took advantage of my work to absent myself on expeditions all around the world - once I went away for seven months. Yet love was there, half-understood, never quite finished; the end of respect that puts relationships to death did not occur.

The sword light on the peaks brings back the snows of Courchevel, in the French Alps, where we went skiing just a year before D died. It was a happy trip, and gave us new hope for the future. From Courchevel we drove to Geneva, from where she would fly to America the next day. I was on my way to Italy, to sell a small farmhouse in the mountains of Umbria where she refused to go.

In the dark winter afternoon, in the old quarter of Geneva, we discovered a most beautiful bowl in a shop window, seven elegant thin black fishes in calligraphic design on old white and pale blue; the bowl, fired at Istafahan in the thirteenth century, seemed to float in the hands like an old leaf. But it was too expensive, and I found her something else. Next morning, her plane left an hour before mine, and in this interim, carried away by the drama of our parting, I telephoned the antique shop and arranged to buy the Istafahan bowl, which was eventually sent on to Italy to be carried home. The delicate thing was a symbol of a new beginning, and I meant to surprise D with it on her birthday, but when that day came we quarrelled, and the bowl, put away for a better occasion, was forgotten altogether as the reconciliation was followed by new crisis; an exhausted decision to divorce was made on a late summer's morning just five months before her death. That decision was firm, we made it calmly and were both relieved. The very next day, acting on an imperious inner command, I made a commitment to D, this for good. She understood; sipping coffee in the sun, she merely nodded.

It seems to me now that this mystifying command was related to an earlier intuition. For several years the certainty had deepened that my life was rushing toward a drastic change, and the strength of the premonition made me wonder if I was going to die. I had spoken to a few friends of the foreshadowing, and was working intensely on a book on Africa, knowing that very soon the work must stop: I wanted to finish while all research and impressions were fresh in my head. The book went to the typist on the day before D's first entry into the hospital, in late November, and I did not write again for nearly a year.

In the autumn, D had begun to suffer from obscure pains that the doctors could not identify; she grew thin, wide-eyed, very beautiful. She came home from hospital in early December, when no clues to her pain were found, but two weeks later metastatic cancer was discovered, and she entered another hospital just before Christmas. She was frightened and depressed, and wished desperately to know that the love I felt for her was not just pity, that it had been there in some measure all along. I remembered the Istafahan bowl.

On Christmas Eve, I had gone home to patch together some sort of Christmas for the children, but I forgot to bring the bowl back to New York. Had I given it to her earlier, she would have understood just what it meant; but by January, D was in such pain and heavily sedated that any sort of present seemed forlorn. She scarcely knew friends who came to visit; what could she make of a bowl she had seen just once, on another continent, a year before? I had missed a precious chance, and I remember that as I propped her up in bed, coaxing her to concentrate, then opened up the box and placed the bowl in her hands, my heart was pounding. I could scarcely bear to watch how D stared at the bowl, grimacing in the effort to fight off the pain, the drugs, the consuming cancer in her brain. But when I prepared to take it back, she pressed it to her heart, lay back like a child smiling, eyes shining, and in a whisper got one world out "Swit-zerland!"


Lindsay said...

Gosh that is so moving and so beautiful. Thank you so much for posting this passage.

This book was part of a marketing campaign that I worked on when I lived in Sydney. Vintage had just bought the Harvill Press and were re-issuing their titles with the most stunning jackets. This title was included in a batch I selected for publicity posters and gift calendars for retailers as the illustrations were so beautiful. To my shame I didn't read it. You've inspired me to set that straight.

Pina said...

I see that I missed a lot of nice posts while I was sick and with no internet connection. I will read them all later in a day (while you will be already sleeping, I suppose); can't wait! I am really happy to be back.