Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 6
Within minutes, she resumed her subordinate role. Smiling flirtatiously, she came up to me, put her arms around my neck and pressed cool lips to mine. We were playing a different game and clearly with marked cards, but this was our only possibility of appearing natural. This was why we could ask each other in jest, “How did this happen?” and I could ask, as was expected of me, “When can we get together again?” to which she naturally replied, “Who knows, I really can’t say, this was utter madness.” We made playful gestures with our hands, trying not to appear distracted, and kissed each other deliberately but without too much insistence. In both of us the tide was ebbing like life taking its farewell. She gave me another kiss as we said goodbye on the landing, a kiss which gathered up what little passion remained. She did not cast so much as another glance at S.’s portrait.
I slowly closed the door, returned to the studio, feeling physically tired, mentally distracted, torn between the modest triumph of easy conquest and the irony of having to confess to myself that I had made no conquest whatsoever. Of the two of us, she alone had got what she wanted, she alone had been free. As for me, I had passively played an active role (a contradictory and redundant statement) in a farce, the silent servant who delivers the letter whereby the plot unfolds. I shook my Saint Antony by the hand (the position of the right arm allows for this) and stroked his friar’s tonsure. No one can dissuade me from believing that the pitchers this saint shattered were a subtle disguise for the hymens he penetrated. But Saint Antony was so conciliatory toward the world, so friendly toward women, that the pitchers were miraculously restored, but not those virginities, and just as well. Repeating these witticisms of a somewhat unimaginative heretic, I went off to run a bath. Waiting for the bath to fill, I stood there watching the hot water gushing from the tap and listening to the hissing of the heater in the kitchen next door. Perhaps I was feeling a little lonely. Night was starting to fall. When I finally turned off the tap, all I could hear at first was total silence, but as I began undressing I could hear the (discreet) sound of singing coming from my neighbor’s radio. I could barely make out the words in French, let alone identify the voice, which might have been that of Leo Ferré or Serge Reggiani. Both middle-aged, one step away from what they do not want, one step away from that last remaining phase which they fear might be all too short: the time it takes to get into a warm bath and lie there, as the building settles down for the night, as the body cools down and the water with it, only the dripping tap persisting as one waits to see if someone will notice before the water overflows and floods the flat below. On an impulse which I made no attempt to restrain, I pulled out the plug. The water quickly disappeared right down to the final gurgle coming from that antiquated plumbing. Then, saved from death, I turned on the shower and washed myself. Quickly. And within minutes, half dried and wrapped in a dressing gown, I looked through one of the studio windows at the night sky and the lights on the river. Darkness everywhere. “What’s happening?” I asked myself.
TWENTY-THREE DAYS have passed since I wrote “I shall go on painting the second picture,” and today I ask myself, Should I carry on? In between (separating us) is the distance covered in these pages, and I never imagined I should be able to write so easily. At this stage, many things which seemed important have undoubtedly lost any value or meaning, especially the second portrait. As the painter mentioned in the opening pages, I can now see that this picture is a mistake: no one can be and not be at the same time. I cannot be the painter capable of achieving his objective in the second portrait if I have gone on, submissive and salaried, painting the first one. As a portrait painter, I am and will remain simply the painter of the first portrait; I am not allowed a second portrait. So when I admitted that the attempt had failed, I was also admitting that I could nevertheless carry on with it, as if at heart I felt incapable of giving up the possibility, however remote, of becoming the painter who is real because hidden. I would relish my triumph on my own, finally rid of that vulgar portrait I had sold, engaged in dialogue with the portrait in reserve which no amount of money could ever buy. Now I know it will never happen. Using a spray gun, I covered the second portrait with black paint. I banished the colors of error and the false gestures which put them there into a superficial but eternal night. Covered in black paint, the canvas is still mounted on the easel and consigned to the shadows of the storeroom, like a blind man fumbling in the dark to retrieve the black hat he removed an hour ago. I can visualize the canvas from here, invisible, black over black, fettered to the skeleton of the easel like a condemned man to the gallows. And between the true image I attempted of S. and the world of light (or the passing darkness of these nocturnal hours) there is a membrane formed by millions of tiny drops, hard and resistant as a black mirror. I did all this as if I were carefully dissecting a limb, gently cutting into the fiber of the muscular tissue, tying up veins and arteries with the dry, meticulous gestures of someone tightening a garrote or like the skillful executioner who knows precisely how much force to exert in order to dislocate the vertebrae and sever the spinal cord. There is only one portrait of S., the only one I am capable of painting, which conforms not to what I am but to what is expected of me, although it might be truer to say that I am precisely what is expected of me and nothing else. If these words are true and I am not mistaken, then I exist merely within the dimensions of the picture they buy from me. I am the object bought and fully satisfy the client’s needs. Once the natural buyers (assuming it is natural to buy such things) have departed this world, who else is likely to want such pictures? Who else will commission them? Once there is no longer any public for this art, what am I to do with art or myself? In the storeroom the second portrait gives me one half of the answer: the attempt to sell something else has started to fail and is now simply an attempt which has ended in frustration. I certainly did not erase it from myself but withdrew it from the time of others. It is a sign of prohibition which only I can see, but it closes a path I thought I was opening to the world.
These sheets of paper remain. This new method of drawing remains, coming to life without my having memorized it. At each moment, even when I break off, it offers me the emerging scroll, and demonstrates with every pause the probability of never ending. When I place the nib of my pen on the interrupted curve of a letter, word or phrase, when I carry on two millimeters beyond a period or comma, I limit myself to carrying on a movement already under way: this design is both the code and its deciphering. But the code and deciphering of what? Of S.’s personal details or of mine? When I undertook this task I thought I was doing it (at this distance it is no longer easy to be sure, even if one checks the proposal in the text; besides, any checking will only give me the immediate outer layer of a proposal formulated in words, not the words I am writing today but those I wrote at the time) in order to discover the truth about S. Now, what do I know about this, about the so-called truth about S.? Who is this S.? What is truth? asked Pilate. What is, I repeat, the truth about S.? And what kind of truth or thing which can be defined, described or classified as such? Biological truth? Mental? Affective? Economic? Cultural? Social? Administrative? That of the temporary lover and protector of little Olga, his fifth secretary? Or conjugal truth? That of the unfaithful husband or of the husband betrayed in turn? That of the man who plays bridge or golf? That of the man who votes for fascist governments? That of the aftershave he uses? That of the brand names of his three cars? That of the water in his swimming pool? That of his sexual obsessions? That of a gesture I would describe as self-conscious when he slowly scratches his chin? That of the vertical wrinkles between his eyebrows? The truth of the shadow he casts? Of the urine he passes? Of the voice which once dismissed thirty-four workers from his first factory because he was building a second one? The truth of the new machines which have already dispensed with thirty-four workers and tomorrow will dispense with another thirty-four? What truth, secretary Olga?
I did not ask her any one of these questions, but all of them and countle
Olga the secretary came to my house straight from the SPQR and lay down at once. Without even going to take a look at S.’s portrait, she lay down at once, not on the uncomfortable divan but on top of the bed, stripped to her bra and panties, which I would later remove. This is how these things must be done. We felt very much at ease because Adelina (her photograph is on the bookshelf in the bedroom among other bric-a-brac) carefully avoids coming here on days when she is menstruating. I suspect she is responding to some obscure, unconscious conviction that she is in a state of impurity. On days such as these she is the most punctual daughter in the world. After closing the boutique, she drives straight home in her little car and there the two women remain, mother and daughter, the one dried up, the other moist, confiding nothing yet sharing the same destiny. These are days of rest for me, even as I lie here having been run over by Olga the secretary, who gets out of bed and goes to the telephone to warn them at home that she is working late at the office, an urgent job her boss needs first thing in the morning, she will not be back for dinner and expects to be very late. Out of curiosity I eventually ask her who she was talking to. She had been speaking to her mother—mothers are always mixed up in these situations, whether they know it or not, and it is left to them to explain their daughters’ delay and absence in a convincing manner so that minds are put at rest and bourgeois honor is preserved. At least Olga the secretary is not married. Nor does she appear to have a steady boyfriend. She awaits good fortune in some form or other and knows she has not found it here. She came because she wanted to and because she had a score to settle with the portrait in the studio. Sitting on the bed, now completely undressed, her skin glistening with perspiration (I probably forgot to mention it is summer, and I have always noticed how scrupulously novelists describe the cycle of the seasons), she asks me if we can dine at home. There is no need for her to rush home, as I have just heard, so we might as well take advantage. She enjoys going to bed with me, I know how to make love to a woman and give her satisfaction, and although she realizes this is only a casual affair, it still feels good. She tells me all this in a manner which sounds uncouth but is simply natural. I reply in keeping with the precepts of male modesty to the closing words of her little speech and lead her into the kitchen; dinner consists of eggs and bacon, bread and wine. And there are some tinned peaches for dessert and reasonable coffee. Life is extremely simple.
After dinner we made love for a second time. Were I given to such things, I should have set up a tape recorder in the room to register such different reactions, the words spoken before, during and after sex, the sighs and moans when there are any, words of a tenderness in search of someone to whom it might offer itself and which reveals itself there and then, obscenities which fire the blood and brain, verbal assent regarding gestures and positions. In this way I could have recorded the whole story of life in the Senatus Populusque Romanus, the details about S., an explanation of the relationship (sentimental, sensual, amorous, erotic or social?) between boss and female employee, the confirmation of the circumstances in which the portrait of S.’s father was painted, something about the unbearable and provocative tyranny of S.’s mother, also some of the comments made about the behavior of S.’s wife, and the way in which the plot was hatched and carried out to liquidate a rival company, with only Olga the secretary as witness, as a trustworthy employee and private secretary to the managing director. I listened to all this without paying much attention (I had not yet started writing this), treating her long speech as if it were a confession, a declaration of faith in that universal goodness which sometimes comes to us (I mean faith, not goodness) after having generously made love, especially if the orgasms are simultaneous and our bodies then abandon themselves to a vague feeling akin to gratitude. I found myself comparing all of this to those leisurely conversations in bed in some brothel when the prostitute is not in a hurry and the madam is in a good mood (either because the client is new or because he is never away from the place), although there in my own bed, my brain muddled, I was unable to work the roles out properly, that is to say, I could not tell which of us, she or I, was playing the part of the prostitute. It was almost midnight when Adelina telephoned me. She was already in bed and prepared for yet another painful night, and I kept up a relaxed and normal conversation while trying not to feel those insistent fingers investigating my body. Adelina rang off saying “See you tomorrow,” to which I replied “See you tomorrow,” while Olga the secretary, suddenly losing interest, got up and began looking for her clothes.
I felt much too weary to try to understand. I just lay there, stretched out on top of the sheets because I like being naked and know that mine is not one of those bodies that inevitably clutters space. Age has not ravaged everything. Olga the secretary (why do I refuse to separate her name from her profession? the name of her profession?) finished dressing, and at that moment the picture we presented became incongruous, just like the Fête Champêtre (Giorgione) or its nineteenth-century counterpart Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Manet) or the lunar pictures of Delvaux, with the one difference that here it was the gentleman (or monsieur) who was naked. The incongruity of the picture (my picture) and the pictures (Giorgione, Manet, Delvaux) was, in my perception, the same incongruity which assembled the umbrella and sewing machine on top of the dissecting table (Lautréamont). I asked Olga the secretary if she had heard of Lautréamont and she simply said no, without even bothering to inquire why I had raised the question. In return, she asked me the time because her watch had stopped, and I replied that there inside that room it was ten to one but as for outside, I really could not say, no doubt it was much later, since my clock was (often) slow. She wanted to know the difference and I replied, smiling, “Had you been outside, you would probably have left by now, but inside this room you are still here.” Tempering my impudence at the last moment, I hastened to add, and just as well, “so that I might enjoy your company a little longer.” She made a vague gesture like a conditioned reflex, not (entirely) conscious, the gesture of someone about to start removing her clothes again with weary resignation. Then she appeared to change her mind (perhaps even unconsciously), lifted the supper tray from the floor and carried it into the kitchen. She called through and asked if she should wash up, but I told her not to bother; there was no need for her to wash either the dishes or the soiled sheets. I kept these last words to myself and began to feel sleepy, longing to escape this world. I could hear Olga the secretary in the bathroom, probably applying her makeup, and I wished she would go, descend the steep spiral of my staircase, drawn by the weight of the sewing machine, which was working rapidly and sewing the steps while the umbrella, rolled up and sinister, pierced the eyes of the people in the pictures hanging on the wall of the staircase and forming another spiral, while I, still lying there stark naked on the dissecting table, awaited the inevitable. I awoke from my dream and saw Olga the secretary in the doorway of the bedroom, ready to leave. She told me, “I’m going now; you can adjust your clock.” I made as if to get up and detain her but she waved goodbye without coming near me, disappeared into the narrow corridor, opened the door and closed it quietly behind her as she must have
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