Hector and Bernard

Dear Bernard,
Forgive me for not writing for some time. If you were afraid that the next letter would come with some sort of African stamp on it, you were wrong. True, in the meantime I had been intending to travel there but for the present I have finally recovered from my madness, buried my travel plans, and generally I'm more or less back as I was.
I probably told you about my hope that Mbebe would give me back the power to write. It was reckless self-deception. What was I expecting from her? Contact with the primeval and unrestrained rhythm of the universe? Or that she would be to me what Jeanne Duval was to Baudelaire - a black torment, a harrying muse? All that is nonsense and in expecting that from Mbebe I was actually behaving toward her like the last imperialist, who tries only superficially to play along with an alien world, really to satisfy his own unrealisable and - why hide it - filthy obsessions.
It’s now been a week since I saw Mbebe; I brought my own things furtively and secretly away from her place on the day I knew for sure that she wouldn't be found away from home. Luckily, in the great rapture of love I hadn't given away my old room, and I got back just before the landlord started to get interested in where his rent had got to. I now have to avoid the cafes where I used to go with Mbebe, too - and in that sense I feel like the last great bastard. She was right about one thing - I never learned to pronounce her name right.
To think that on the morning after I had slept with her for the first time and then, almost as the continuation of a dream, sunk between her loins, I was already proposing marriage. A little later, when we were sipping little cups of coffee that was almost as black as herself, I had already opened my mouth when she broke off the sentence I had not yet begun, asking me about something else entirely - probably whether I wanted to accompany her to the political event that she intended to go to that day, and of course I agreed, so that only afterwards did I find out just what sort of meeting it was. But anyway it broke our mood, and since I didn't have a bunch of blood-red roses to hand in any case that I could have handed her, I decided to leave that conversation for later, some other wonderful moment like the one we had just had.
But you can't go against yourself. I must have written at some point that I intend to track down a few of my countrymen from the turn of the last century here, and one beautiful day, when Mbebe definitely had to go to some seminar for fear of being expelled from the university, I took a trip to the southern end of the 15th arrondissement, which to this day is an artists' colony with the name La Ruche, The Beehive. It's a charming spot, but a bit far for a special visit, unless you absolutely have to experience the mood of it - between the little houses and workshops there are winding garden paths, and here and there among the foliage you can see some sculpture which this or that famous local resident has left behind as a mark of thanks.
But for me that beehive had another, very special significance. I was just at the door investigating how to get in - it is private property, and technically you have to have some internal resident's permission to get in - when I heard a cautious voice behind me, asking: Excuse me, may I come inside and look around with you?
I turned around and saw her. She is brunette, of medium or slightly shorter height and somewhat rotund - but her body is tense, not slack - with large open brown eyes, whose sensitive gaze immediately betrays an artistic person. Her voice is quite melodious and her foreign origin might be guessed from the slowness of her diction rather than from a hardly perceptible accent. But what makes her especially endearing is the slight pink flush to her cheeks - she looks as if she is all the time slightly excited by the surroundings she finds herself in, drawing to herself everything new and unprecedented from the world around her.
"But of course," I said, pressing the doorbell - with my limited luck, it worked, and we stepped inside. I had already understood that she took me for a local resident, but I wasn't yet ready to correct her impression, especially as it wasn't actually obvious. We walked through a shady garden, we looked at the sculptures, whose creators she recognised, and we breathed in the atmosphere. Suddenly a crow cawed on the branch of a tree right beside us, and, frightened, she took hold of my arm instinctively - and I did not release it; she flashed a look at me, but didn't withdraw her hand, and so we walked round and round that same path, both our hands trembling just a little, and the flush on her face seemed to be just a tiny nuance redder than it had been back at the gate.
"Shall we go and have a glass of wine somewhere?" I asked, when we had got back again to the garden gate and I had realised that this couldn't go on forever. Eyeing us from their stony confines were two Art Deco ladies, standing sentinels on each side of the main door and holding up with great effort their stony skirts, which looked about to fall at any moment to reveal the sculptures' slender legs. At the time our famous countrymen lived here, these ladies must have been very young, not to mention new-born, but even today they looked extremely well-preserved.
"If it doesn't take too much of your time," she replied.
Of course it didn't, and so a new life began: first of all we went to really the only brasserie in the neighbourhood, to drink a cheap but magnificent cuvée du patron, and then on to eat, and finally we strolled out of the city centre, until we got to Marais to sit down in a café, as long as our money lasted. We talked and talked. Her name is Cornelia, she is a painter and comes from a little town in Romania, and somehow got here to improve herself and doesn't ever intend to return home, because this is her home, in these cafés, museums and great boulevards, which she simply has to experience all the time, so as not to forget that this is what life is. I told her about myself too, and how I definitely do want to return home, which amazed her, partly because, owing to some old misconception, she thought my country was even poorer and more underdeveloped than her own, and she seemed not to understand my claim that the problem was somewhere else entirely - but I don't want to bore you with the details of our conversation. The café was crammed full of people when we came out shortly after midnight, in fact so much wedged together that when we had fetched our coats out of a dim corner at the back, she fell by accident into my arms, and when I squeezed her a little more against myself, she turned her thirsty lips to mine, very much as a matter of course, and let herself be kissed, with such passion as if she were desperate for a man - no, desperate just for me, now way beyond the point of endurance. Our trains had already gone, so we had quite a long walk through the Parisian night, before we reached her place, where I remain up to now - the next day I went back to my own little room to fetch some necessities, but I didn't get to take my things away from Mbebe's straight away, because Cornelia and I simply have to stick together; some great welter of common experience and common liberation has created bonds between us which the outside world will not be able to comprehend, although we both love it very much. So I hope you understand me - as to when I'll write again, it will only be a matter of days.
Yours sincerely
Hector

***
Each person creates without knowing it, as long as he breathes - but an artist, he knows that he is creating, his creation takes up all his being and his beloved effort makes him stronger, read Bernard in conclusion. That was pretty near the mark. Paul Valéry, if I'm not mistaken. So whoever is an artist must go through two tests - first to be able to love his own torment, and then to be made even stronger by it.
Well, it’s not really very hard to learn to love your own pain, said Hector. Everyone should know that who has kept a diary, or something like it, when broken down by a passion.
And yet Bernard could not agree that that love is the right one, because it wears out its beloved - that is, the pain - the pain leaks out into the pages of the diary and exists no more, one is once again ready to dip into one's own everyday life, where nothing reminds one any longer of real existence. Hasn't it been like that with you?
Possibly - but when writing, a person is outside time and enjoys his pain to the full, retorted Hector.
That may be so, said Bernard, but if you read such a stranger's diary, you wouldn't find much that wasn't standard. Though Tolstoy claimed at the beginning of Anna Karenina - admittedly about families - that joys all come singly but sorrows are repeated, that isn't quite the case. Even sorrows and depressions have their own comfortable routine worked out for them, their own clichés, which can be used without too much problem - if that is your inclination, of course.
"And the therapy industry," added Hector.
"That too, undoubtedly," nodded Bernard. "What I had in mind was more those structures that are repeated from soap opera to soap opera but with fleeting variations, and allow anyone who has become awkward in dealing with the truth, flickering blissfully in the depths of their souls as they treat themselves so as to be at least to some extent like their favourite heroine in an evening soap-opera."
"That last thing is what destroys happiness," ventured Hector, "because for example it appears that, when declaring his love, a man who is afraid of his own inexperience often borrows words and moods ready-made from bits of films, and he turns them into something quite false even before they find expression."
"You think so?" Bernard shrugged. "Well, you would know better about that. But I'm afraid that most people tend to be happy - though in another sense of the word - that such a background exists for them and so they don't have to live through the great moments of their own lives by falling back on their own resources - which, besides, wouldn't be so genuine for them in this case anyway."
"Because nothing would be repeated," Hector finished his thought, and was silent for a moment.
"But enough of that," said Bernard. "Anyway, I'm very glad that you brought me your letters to see. Knowing you as well as I do, it seems incredible to me that for these three months, when you haven't been writing to me any more, you've been living so quietly."
"I did want to," Hector assured him, "though I didn't manage it so perfectly. But I did get a whole lot of quite acceptable translations done, before life broke in on me again."
"Surely not so literally," enquired Bernard, " - didn't you have time for anything else?"
"No - it was more that I was going against myself and trying to keep out of immersing myself in relationships as far as possible. And actually not one of those affairs would have got anywhere on any other basis."
"Well!" exclaimed Bernard.
"Of the girls I knew at that time, there was one who really got to me," said Hector, "but with her the relationship was completely platonic."
Bernard merely smiled.
"Her name was Celeste and she came from somewhere in the south of France," Hector explained, "and she had come to Paris to study the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. That is a subject about which I now know considerably more than before I knew her. We would talk about it for days, sometimes from the morning till late at night, until I had to escort her to the Metro station. We walked in the park at Versailles, along the Seine embankment, on the great boulevards, even along the Swan's Way between the Bir Hakeim and Mirabeau bridges, talking about Sartre. I would listen and Celeste would talk, that is. She let me hold her hand, or rather she squeezed my fingers with such force as if I were pulling her up out of icy water, and when I looked into her eyes it was quite clear to me that she would allow me anything, that she was longing for it, and actually that she was just waiting for me to release her from the clutches of Sartre, but when I threw in her direction some little off-hand remark which didn't require anything more than a gentle smile, that I could take her in my arms and press my lips to hers, she would always respond with a quote from Being and Nothing and ask if I understood it."
"Of course you did," interjected Bernard.
"I did," sighed Hector. "And how! Especially at night, back in my own room. Nowadays if anyone tries to talk to me about existentialism, he gets a stare for a reply."
"I'm trying to keep my caution," said Bernard. "But it has seemed strange to me that all the women who have been able to enchant you - through whom you hope to touch reality - live an idle life, or at least don't do anything that would require mental concentration. Of the ones you've described, Chantal was a depraved aristocrat, Mbebe wrapped up in her own sensuality, and Cornelia was looking for what she called the truth, unlike you, but not one of them did what you might in the broader picture have expected of them - something greater than themselves - of course not counting that fact that, at least according to you, Chantal carried on the traditional cosmopolitan Parisian woman's standards, which most women in that city seem to have given up long ago; Mbebe corresponded relatively well to the image of a primeval African woman, and Cornelia embodied the stereotype of the empowered Eastern European woman. But none of that is enough for a full life - at one stage I was even starting to think that you'd be scared off by a real woman, one who exists and isn't just a symbol."
"I think it's more likely to be just chance," Hector rebuffed him.
"Are you sure?" asked Bernard. "Perhaps the reason why you wander from port to port is just because, in meeting another person, you are creating a picture for yourself of what agrees with the world you had built up beforehand, and you're merely relating to that? And if a crack appears in the picture, it opens up on both sides and your own world tends to fall apart too, whereupon you simply flee."
Hector was lost in thought.
"Maybe a little bit," he said at length. "But I don't think that's quite the same as what you said before - because you can create a picture like that for yourself - and more successfully too - even of a woman who lives a busy life, what you might call a many-sided and full one. What you don't believe about me is that in my relationships I tend to go for women in whose life there's nothing more than the essence that is immediately apparent. But that is just what I do."
Bernard sipped his tea.
"You have cleverly turned my statement around," he said. "I said 'who exists, and isn't just a symbol'; you said 'in whose life there's nothing more than the essence that is immediately apparent'. Who decides what their essence is? You? Or they themselves? Or the whole world? Besides, if they simply exist, they don't have a character that could be apparent, because that would be division into two, symbolisation, so to speak."
"What am I supposed to say to that now?" sighed Hector, after a bit of thought.
"That I'm starting to lecture you again," smiled Bernard. "I got a bit carried away, I'm sorry."
"Not at all," said Hector. "It's just that I didn't think that way myself. It's always seemed to me that in engaging with the world - and this applies to me too - a person seems to distance himself from his own nature; the more he lets it entangle with him, the less he is himself. You yourself have spoken about how the system sucks a person dry."
"Yes, but the system and the world are two different things," replied Bernard. "Naturally one ought to keep oneself as free of the system as possible. But what you just said, is more of a concept in the spirit of Descartes, that you have your own subject, a character outside the world, a conceptual armchair, as you lie in which you can follow what goes on without poking your nose into it."
"In other words, you're saying that we don't have within us the character that appears to the world?" Hector mused.
"I'm afraid so," nodded Bernard. "That we exist within our own lives, but don't manifest it outwardly. At your age of course I didn't think so, which cost me dearly in the end, as you know."
"But in that case there ought to be a lot fewer problems in our lives!" Hector still demurred. "We could be living without worrying about it, without embarrassing ourselves, so to speak."
"We could," Bernard agreed, "but we're unable to. That's what places us above the animals."
"Hm," muttered Hector, pouring himself a little brandy. "After my existential loneliness in Celeste's company had gone so far that even the sight of Sartre's name by chance in a bookshop window made me want to do someone harm - I wasn't ringing her up any more - I spent about a week with an American woman, a sort of latter-day hippie, who thought that a person ought to experience a backpacking trip around the world at least once in their life before they change their clothes and take up a responsible and well-paid position in some company. Jessie picked me up in some café, when she had just arrived in Paris and was looking for someone to dally with, though why she was just there remained unclear to me. I went everywhere with her where the tourists habitually go - she'd drawn up in advance a list of the places she planned to see - and everywhere her reaction was much the same. We climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower ("cool!"); we looked at the pictures in the Musée d'Orsay ("cute!") and we walked in Montmartre ("nice!"). When I think back to it now, we should have left it at that."
"But you didn't?" ventured Bernard.
"Well - in the evening we went on back to her place to drink some cheap wine. Jessie had the keys to a flat of a girlfriend of hers who worked in Paris but had gone home at the time - and I couldn't get out of there. Sleeping with me ("great!") was for her simply one part of her travel programme - what did it matter that I wasn't a real Frenchman, at least I was a European. She was a passionate woman and very skilful, ready for much more than most of those I've known, and she squeezed the last drop out of me - it’s downright amazing how the body responds to skilful treatment, especially if the spirit wants something else - so that when she finally moved on to Amsterdam, I was pretty much wasted - but she did everything as if practised in it - I'd even say professionally, if that word didn't have an unpleasant aftertaste in the present context, so that when she fell asleep from satisfaction in the morning, I would look at her as I lay beside her, unable to get to sleep myself, and thinking how there was nothing about her, even at the climax, that gave off a living human being, and in my mind I decided I wouldn't come back the next evening."
"But you still went?" asked Bernard, when Hector had been silent for a spell.
Hector nodded.
"I still went," he said. "And was wondering within myself how I was like a moth without a will, which flies into a cold fire, forgetting itself. But it must have been something else - strangely enough, I actually enjoyed it."
"Yes?" Bernard was amazed.
"I see you don't understand," said Hector. "Ultimately I don't understand it myself. But at those moments when I failed to say that I had something to do that evening, that I had work to do or a relative was visiting, or whatever else you’re supposed to say on those occasions, I was overcome by an overpowering longing for something which I can't call anything other than a simple life."
"Ah, that's something I know about," said Bernard "It's like when you see people walking on the street who are smiling idiotically, fat and ugly young people, and yet who are overflowing with happiness that they have each other - and even though the very thought of spending any length of time in their company makes you shudder with loathing, their manner brings you an inexplicable envy, a desire to be one of them, to live a simple life."
"The way you describe it, it seems even more repulsive than I would have put it myself," said Hector. "However, yes, that's more or less what I was thinking, even though my girl wasn't fat and ugly by any means, but rather very close to the ideal of beauty you find in popular magazines - she'd earned the money for her trip by doing advertisements for potato chips somewhere in Minnesota. Not that the standard beauty could turn me on myself, of course."
"But it suits a simple life," opined Bernard.
"Ideally," agreed Hector. "Imagine that you've got a nice townhouse in the suburbs, exactly like your neighbour's, a beautiful wife, also much the same as your neighbour's, a job, a couple of nice and polite children - all the same as your neighbour's, that on weekdays you go to work, but on the weekends you do sport or have fun, you go to the movies, say, or you invite your identical friends around to play board games, and nothing else happens. Nothing in the world upsets the rhythm of your life."
"Depending on your point of view, that is either a paradise or a hell," said Bernard. "In any case it must be the only ideal that guarantees stability which modern civilisation is capable of offering a person. Although I don't know for how much longer."
"In my situation then, a yearning for the simple life was completely dominant," said Hector. "Especially after Sartre had ruined my life for a few weeks. I started to think that gnawing at oneself and the world - philosophy, in other words - must not, if it's to be any success at all, bring with it anything else than suffering, an inability to simply live, to take things as they are."
"Or as they aren't," interjected Bernard.
"Doesn't matter," shrugged Hector. "And at the same time there's a girl who was just living, and enjoying keeping abreast of life - and quite a breast too, I might add. Of course she pulled me along with her and I realised that my inability t take her as she was stemmed from a flaw in myself, not a shortcoming in her."
"How did you split up?" asked Bernard.
"As friends," said Hector. "When Jessie had run through her prepared list of things to see, she informed me one morning that now she was travelling to Amsterdam, left me her telephone number and asked me to ring her if I ever happened to be in Minnesota."
They were silent for a little while.
"Don't worry, Hector," said Bernard at length. "You're never going to start living a simple life. You might even get to Minnesota one day, but you're not going to live a simple life."

Translated by Christopher Moseley


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