Readings — From the November 2016 issue

The Main Attraction

Download Pdf
Read Online

By Claire-Louise Bennett, from a manuscript in progress. Her first book, Pond, was published by Riverhead Books in July.

The idea of going out to dinner came about very suddenly — I wanted schnitzel — after having had absolutely no feelings at all toward it going out to eat schnitzel suddenly seemed vital, inescapable in fact, as if preordained. Lord knows what the urgency and its fancy consisted of, I’d had schnitzel before, of course, on several notable occasions in fact. The first time was many many years ago in a place called Eigg or Bugge, just outside Bamberg, which itself is to be found along the river Regnitz in Upper Franconia. The reason for my being in this area was straightforward enough; I was visiting a friend I’d met and gotten to know in London. She was in the city in order to further her studies in cultural anthropology and had a great many books by Habermas and Benjamin and Adorno and so on. I can still bring to mind the covers and the heft of those intractable books, the invariably blunt designs of which were thoughtfully discouraging yet still managed to catch my eye. She was much taller than me, and very slender; her limbs were long and very slender also. We must have looked perfectly ridiculous together though perhaps not: after all, despite the obvious disparity in our heights, we shared many salient attributes — we both had sallow skin, dark eyes, dark hair, and I didn’t have a great deal of weight on me either. We kissed once in Wimbledon, on the pavement outside a bar just where the road forks — maybe we were going off to different places, I don’t remember. Female friends often kissed each other then, perhaps they still do, it wasn’t a silly thing, or done in order to amuse onlooking males. It wasn’t particularly sexual either, it didn’t stir up many feelings of desire and I never lost control that way, but it was tender and uplifting and I remember so very clearly how radiant it would quite often make us feel. My friend, who was an exceptional student and a remarkably stimulating companion, came from Nuremberg. After a year of studying in London she returned to the university in Bamberg and resumed her studies in cultural anthropology there. I’d visited Nuremberg and Bamberg several times in different seasons and we’d always have a nice time, come rain or come shine, wherever we were. The visit that I am presently reminded of however was very different regrettably and the only thing I can put it down to, this regrettable change, was that by now she had a man living with her, Gerolf, and of course that changed things, she was changed, and I suppose I may have been quite regrettably altered also because by this time I too had a man living with me. One evening during my stay I broke a Henryk Górecki CD, or was it just the clear plastic case, can a CD slip from a refrigerator and crack, I wouldn’t have thought so. But something broke and it was as if right there and then the worst most irrevocable thing in the world had happened. Gerolf went very black and refused to speak. Later that night he came into my bedroom, leaned across the bed, and opened the window wide, I’ve no idea why. It was very cold. I pretended to be asleep but he must have known that outright rest pretty much eluded me for the reason that the whole time I was there he did his level best to unsettle me, plus even if I had been asleep that cold air would surely have awoken me with a fearful start, which might very well have been his nefarious intention. There was a superb stereo system in the room I was staying in, though I can’t quite remember what I did with it. Played whatever tapes were on hand I should think, though what those were exactly I don’t know so maybe I didn’t — I can recall some of the tapes in circulation at that time, bootleg recordings of LPs and compilations of favorite songs — she and I often put together mixtapes for each other — but I think probably the tapes in that room belonged to Gerolf. I seem to remember them having a somewhat alluring yet prohibitive aura as a matter of fact, not unlike that fantastical pavlova I discovered with astonishment in the fridge one Saturday morning in the summer as a child. No doubt the slick stereo was his, at least I hadn’t seen it when my friend lived in other smaller places on her own. She’d put something on the table next to my bed, I can’t remember what it was — a picture, a candle, a plant? — I can’t at the moment recall what, but whatever it was wasn’t normally there, it had been put there purposefully; she’d put it there to make things nice for me. I have a feeling it was a sunflower though whether it was a postcard of a sunflower or an actual sunflower I can’t quite deduce. But there was definitely a sunflower, and I was most definitely taken aback. That’s right, an actual sunflower. I was very surprised and hoped it was haphazard, bought in haste — I preferred to think it was a well-meaning afterthought than to entertain the idea that she had become the sort of woman who is drawn to a single sunflower. We didn’t get much time to ourselves and when we did I remember her being quite damp about what I was doing with my life, which wasn’t a great deal I’ll admit, but we were very young, even by that time, and it didn’t matter so much, I didn’t think, what we did or didn’t do, as long as we had ideas, and I had plenty, and all she could do with those by now was point out how inconsistent they were, and naturally I didn’t see that being consistent mattered so very much either. She was still studying however and of course if you’re studying being consistent is the concern above all others — I believe one gets quite fanatical about it — in any case she went on studying with such consistency that eventually there was nothing else left for her but to shift to the other side of the desk and take things up from there. She must be an incredibly accomplished cultural anthropologist by now. After the fractured CD the situation in Bamberg became unconscionably strained and it was clear nothing could dispel it so I got my things together then she asked me to leave, can you believe it — just at the very moment I was about to announce my quitting the place she asked me to leave, it was immensely annoying. I suppose I could have shown her my rucksack, since it was already completely packed and fastened up everywhere, but that would have been childish, there was nothing else for it but to let her believe she was throwing me out when in fact I was already leaving. She stood invisibly in the hallway and asked me for money, which was mind-boggling and uncharacteristic — that really finished things off for me — I took the letter which had her address on it out of my inside pocket and pointedly left it next to the unbecoming sunflower; I did not have her address anywhere except along the top of that letter. After handing her fifty deutsche marks without making eye contact I wasn’t left with very much money and resorted to inveigling some from a man who lived above a small bric-a-brac shop I’d visited several times during my numerous solitary and defiant trips into town. The man’s heavily garnished mother ran the shop and he did compositions on the piano upstairs. I needed to get the train which was expensive and the man who was hardly more than a stranger supplied me with sufficient funds for the fare, as well as for something to eat along the way, it was quite a lot of money and I reassured him I’d send it back to him just as soon as I returned to England, which I did, along with a note thanking him profusely for his miraculous generosity and trust in me; I think his name was Christian. Christian’s unqualified kindness immediately lifted me out of the doldrums and made me feel I was once again having an adventure according to my own wits rather than a crummy misfortune at the hands of others. God knows why I went to Bugge, but there surely was a reason because I waited for the bus for a long time, in the rain, I remember that very well; my trousers, which were far too long for me, sank into the spreading puddles and positively drank them up. Bugge was very green though I’m not sure it was rural exactly, I think all those grassy spaces were abundantly green for purely recreational purposes. I went to a sort of hostel/guesthouse for something to eat, it was quite innocuous. Not surprisingly everything inside was carved from timber and there were arrangements of tendrilous meadow flowers everywhere you looked, so it all smelled very pastoral and wise, and although my situation wasn’t terrific it was a damn sight more dignified and wholesome than the stifling climate of nonsensical yet obdurate contempt I’d just left behind. And it was here, in these very circumstances, that I tasted schnitzel for the first time.

As a matter of interest the second occasion on which I’d eaten schnitzel was in France the summer before last. Strictly speaking it wasn’t my schnitzel I ate; furthermore, while I was eating it I had no idea what it was. I wolfed it down while sitting up in bed. I was very fed up you see, confused to be precise, and sometimes, when I’m confused, it helps to eat meat — eating, the business of eating meat specifically, enables me to zone out completely. Sure enough when I was finished with the swiped schnitzel I put the plate on the floor next to the bed and passed out immediately and dreamed slow oscillating dreams right until the sound that woke me every morning woke me, and then I lay still, listening to the sound, the first sound of the day, the sound I came to love, and I am not referring to the birds singing. There was the plate, an unexpected remnant, face up, next to the bed, smeared salve shining in the settled morning light. Mea culpa. I hung an arm over the side of the bed and shamefully recalled taking the schnitzel my friend had made for her son; I remembered hearing the brittle bread being blitzed into fine crumbs and her bashing the pale meat in the afternoon while I was down by the heaving fruit trees — I don’t know where he was, the son. In any case she’d made a lot of it so there was some left over and I came across it right there on the side right away when I came back up the steps and into the house and into the kitchen where the lamps were still on, in the early hours of the morning. I’d been over the road, or the dirt track more accurately, at the neighbor’s house. Some things had been occurring between me and the man there, but these things were not unfolding instinctively and there was something about the way he went about them that put me on edge. Besides which, I would have preferred to look more closely at the man’s stepfather. A man of few words his mouth seldom moved, nonetheless it was one of the most suggestive mouths I’ve ever seen and I found it quite irksome that the opportunities I had to contemplate its unbroken lusciousness were so brief and few. Sometime in the reptilian afternoon I eventually surfaced and confessed to my friend’s son, who was scouting about in the cool shadowy kitchen, that I’d polished off the remains of dinner. The schnitzel? he said, you were very hungry when you got home, he said, laughing. I laughed too even though it didn’t feel nice to laugh, it felt smutty, and I detested my readiness for going along with casual distortions. Then I looked out the window as a way perhaps of rescinding myself and I saw the stepfather who right at that moment was walking down the dirt track with a wheelbarrow wreathed with brambles and sprawling convolvulus he’d cut away from the river below: tangled, vengeful, not exactly dead. It put me in mind of a slayed Gorgon blinking on its side. He looked up. I couldn’t even bring myself to flutter my fingers in his direction.

A year later and I was in Austria looking after a translator’s precious orchids and not-so-important cacti while she attended a language convention in Porto and after two weeks of Campari spritzers and slurping melon in the garden alone I wanted schnitzel — after having had absolutely no feelings at all toward it going out to eat schnitzel suddenly seemed vital, inescapable in fact, as if preordained. There was something tremulous in me, something distinct yet indecipherable, and I needed to devise a way of coaxing it clean out of me. It’s all a kind of trickery, this arranging and rearranging, this to-ing and fro-ing, taking and leaving, trying to devise the optimum environment so that one’s deeper instincts come forth. I think all my life I will be searching for a certain sort of atmosphere, one that allows me to live quite naturally with something that is apparently shameful in the dour light of every day. One has to do a little prior research, and of course look the part — even if the essential nature of the part is still mostly enshrouded. Without hesitation, though not automatically, I stepped into a Prussian-blue dress and beginning at the bottom deftly fastened its small rather stiff silver shank buttons all the way up to the clavicles, I slipped a flat Corsican coral earring into my left ear and an eroded art-deco clasp over the lobe of my right, its long sinuous strands jolting toward my shoulder. Green cowboy boots followed, then a collarless green silk jacket embroidered with a khaki-and-rose-gold dragon; my nails, long once again, were brilliant red and so immaculate I wondered if they were really mine. Not bad all in all, quite striking in fact, but just the same as I looked a last time in the mirror near the door I thought whatever man is attracted to a woman who looks like this is a man to be very wary of indeed. Yet it was quite obvious that on this day I suddenly so very much wanted to be glanced at. For that reason I did not take the bike this time, I walked with a feigned air of leisure along the main streets, past the many effigies of Christ, the house of Swarovski, down as far as the Golden Roof, so that people, men, might pass by me more slowly and thereby have ample opportunity to glance, and as a matter of fact I received that look, that furtive more or less accusing look, several times over on my way into town. Oh, what have I done, whatever have I done! It began to make me feel truly awful. It didn’t help that none of the men passing by were attractive or perhaps they were I just didn’t think so. By the time I’d got into town the establishments my research had gleaned were quite evaporated from my mind though if I saw the name of any one of those places perhaps I’d recognize it. Anyhow I knew what to avoid, for one thing I didn’t want to eat outside, many people were of course because the outburst of rain had cleared off and the atmosphere was conspicuously pleasant, but incessant pleasantness was just about the last thing I needed. I’d known from the start I’d be ensconced in a splendid well-upholstered room while eating my beautifully thin Wiener schnitzel and I didn’t mind how much it cost since for days I’d been eating Alpine mushrooms, green beans, and tedious strawberries from South Tyrol that hardly cost a thing. I wanted a stable square table with a silent tablecloth down to the floor and more cutlery than I know what to do with. I wanted a blown-glass decanter and delicate tumblers with rims so thin they cut you as you drink and a supple napkin languorously coiled inside an impassive pewter ring. I wanted tapestries and heirlooms and pelmets and paneling and lace and paintings of mountains and hunters and saints. I craved it; I craved discretion, ceremony, the slightly perverse. It was no good to me, the way the men in the street looked at me did nothing at all. And then it hit me: several winters ago while I stood swaying a cup of cold black tea in the long-gone garden weighing up the day a man passed by and set his somewhat supernatural sights on me; it was nothing less than the startling atmosphere of this man’s blue sequestered gaze I very suddenly needed to feel I was moving around in and therefore sought to somehow simulate. His eyes that I hadn’t seen for so long were where the lightest of things and the darkest of things converged — they never altered because everything possible was every moment already there. I’d seldom enjoyed or even understood his conversation, it was his field of vision, majestic and obscene, that had captivated me for the reason that within that exclusive realm I would become vague, reluctant, insubstantial; like hopeless vapor lingering on a stark sierra lake at the break of day. I had no characteristics, no features, no opinions, no instinct, no style, no certainty, no ritual — no tools in self-creation whatsoever. Those eyes made me forget completely how it was I usually went about defining myself. Those eyes made me forget the ways by which I made meaning for myself and made myself mean something to someone else. They made me forget my life. I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to begin. Even my noted sartorial flair diminished — I’d always known with seldom any fuss exactly what to wear and now I didn’t have the slightest clue and frequently got it all wrong. Within moments of sitting down at a table with him already there in a hotel or a restaurant whatever alluring effect I’d been hoping to create would be cringingly apparent in all its outlandish erroneousness and it would irk me so much, this imbecilic transparent attempt to assert something independent and extraordinary. I’d have no option of course but to go on sitting there, with the inapt outcome of the attempt mocking me throughout, and the more successful I’d been in cultivating a particular persona the more it humiliated me for the acute reason that there was just no way for me to seamlessly inhabit it. And I’d always been so adroit, so inventive, in so many ways — in fact from time to time I wondered if there wasn’t an element of imperiousness in my character, but what can you do if more often than not you come up with tip-top schemes most folk are only too happy to go along with? Not with him — with him nothing came to fruition in the effortless off-the-cuff manner it did the rest of the time with the rest of the world. However, since he lived in seclusion and was out of touch with almost everything it more or less always fell to me to select and arrange things for us and it would hardly ever turn out right. Cuts of meat, the opening hours of a museum, distances, films, somewhere to reconvene after God knows how long, new restaurants, gifts. Always a disaster. Indeed, I faltered in so many ways that on reflection I must concede I’d finally got what I’d asked for. Almost daily for months on end you see I’d paced from the desk to the sink to the door appealing to each and beyond for a profound rupture, something seismic that would undo me from the bedrock up. All along, right from day one, it’s been as if there is another being inside me — it makes me very melancholy to think of it, I believe at one time we were extremely close, probably inseparable, but now not for some time; life tamed me and we drifted apart. Naturally I acquired some fine but really rather ridiculous romantic notions during my youth, most probably from books and so on, ideals that seemed boundless and quite glamorous, but were in fact the opposite and gradually, in this way, passion is distorted, appetite regulated, and instinct, my instinct, became nothing more than an indication of fear. But of course there isn’t another being inside of me, what a truly craven thing to say — shame encourages recourse to such inane dualities. Perhaps what I meant to say all along is that I contain more than a soupcon of wickedness and had been waiting for quite some time for the appropriate encounter to bring it out in me. Those precious patterns of feeling that had set in throughout my youth were still hallmarking and thus circumscribing every new experience, it was frightful, grotesque, painstaking. Light in the wrong places can be a poison, I couldn’t stand it any longer, the time to be divested of all those purloined and cobbled fantasies was long overdue, then one afternoon I found myself caught in the corner of his nacreous blue eye and there was nowhere to go then, nowhere at all.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
Share

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.