(after Eve’s Ransom by George Gissing)All life sets itself upon us like a dull, iron-colored grief,
and the discipline is
to realize that we haven’t died
In the story, the protagonist has no basis for hope.
In the story, the protagonist ends with a shout of joy,
and we believe this exclamation.
Yet it is hard, very difficult, to understand from whose
point of view the story is told, to understand that neutrality
functions as sympathy.
The difficulty of understanding is so large that the character must put its hands out to hold up its head, must furrow its brow.
It must be willing to wait indefinitely.
It must be willing to misunderstand itself as a means of surviving.
It must understand that its recklessness is indeed reckless even when it is absurdly modest.
It must be able to turn itself into a different character entirely, and this trait or capability will become known as love.
The romance is full of legacies: slight, often bitter, inheritances.
A beguiling photograph in the landlady’s album. But no more specific than that.
A chance meeting on the train platform where the debtor, flush with wealth, pays off his debt to the impoverished man.
This sudden wealth.
This payment of debt is meant to humiliate the man to whom the money is owed.
The countryside undulating with industrial waste.
And so the character resolves, and so the character says, over and over:
“I am going to live.”
“I am going to live.”
As though he were tutoring himself in an expression from a foreign language phrasebook.
Slight tune, burble,
lost in the strewn
final, bright resolve.
Clatter, moon on
the tracks. London,
lodging, the blight of
misgiving, cracks in
city pavement, her
lovely costume. Furtive,
cost, always the tune accosted,
lover giving, clutter,
window giving out to
giving way to, gratitude’s
cool, its foolish
costume’s tryst, a lady’s
wan face, her glove
and her wrist. From
above, the window
final, furtive, true
to its duty, its
along with the
cost of the meal, slight
appetite, thrummed by its
up, betrayal soon captive. Mistress,
illumine, please, misnomer
spellbound honor. Slight
melody asked to stay, stay on, else
the debt and debtor become confused
and from each other stray.
At the core of the story is a fundamental hollowness.
This is signified by the flatness of a photograph. That it purports to show a face.
This is signified by the pallor of the main character.
At the core of the story is a contradiction that refuses to lead the reader
to a state of resolution. The nature of the story is to generate
a tension that remains suspended over the ending, like a landscape held
over its actors: they can go nowhere.
This is signified by the lodgings of the central character: all the furnishings having been given to this person by a closest “friend.” They are not of his own choosing.
This is signified by the main character’s diligence and mercy. At the very end, the character throws back his head and laughs.
At the core of the story, this irritability: that it is constituted by two main characters; that by no number of concrete signifiers can the narrative unite them into one.
It would be absurd to mistake patience for dispassion.
The very idea of forgiveness is the idea of a bafflement.
The lover warns the beloved to stay at a distance for safety’s sake.
The best certainty is that poverty is a form of duty, an enactment
that destroys health but upholds honor.
The characters walk independently of each other up the same street,
a tenement street, and herein lies their most acute intimacy, that
they can recognize this, and can grant that at least some of the hovels
show signs of order within, of habitation, a light seen from outside.
No gasp, cry, sob, escaped tear, sigh, betrayal of feeling.
Only the loss of color in the heroine’s cheek.
No such word as distress or disappointment permitted.
We negate these, and this is our means of making measurement.
The relative silence of colorlessness, the way the lack
plumbs a certain depth. Deficiency
sounds the dimensions of this vacant space.
How does the human soul curdle?
Perhaps by self-abduction.
The consistency of the soul loses its satin texture
when it learns options.
It may take itself away.
It may demand a ransom.
How much does a self cost?
The lady had, perhaps, kidnapped her “self.”
How much ease there was in adopting the role.
How beguiling the photograph, which is the only lingering image of the tale.
Meanwhile, the gentleman leafs through a book he once thought too expensive.
The color plates. A study of
architecture, that is, how structure can contain, how the structure
might develop its own beauty, even integrity. How simple
to shake her hand later at the fete, seeming
hardly ever to have known this woman at all.