What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light?
I’m finding out and sharing the results as I rekey the only typewritten copy of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon as I get them onto a computer. The sixteenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the sixth chapter in Part Two.
Sunlight steadily collected in pools of light around the soft mattress as the whirring of appliances and voices from other apartments grew louder and as the hours slipped by. But Anne slept late on the morning of the sixteenth after running errands on her first full day in Geneva. Her father’s diplomatic corps duties had led him to this city for the second time in six years and Anne was not at all unfamiliar with her present surroundings; she had spent a year of high school here. A feeling of contentment greeted her as she found the apartment empty upon awakening at noon. She fixed herself a sandwich and a cup of black coffee.
A light cloud of disappointment partially eclipsed her contentment as she dropped her newspaper and answered the phone at three.
Initially she had no clue as to the identity of the caller. She certainly hadn’t been expecting any calls.
“This is Robin. I’m in Geneva.”
She remembered an invitation which had been extended in the spring. “Where are you?” she asked, “at the train station?”
“Yeah. How do I get to your apartment?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll come pick you up. Just stand in front of the taxi stands.”
“I should be there in a few minutes.”
As she hung up the phone and searched for the bulky wallet which contained her international driver’s license, the cloud of disappointment thickened around the room. She had been looking forward to the trip as a rest from the continuous social obligations of school and work. She didn’t see herself as anti-social, but she did need to be alone with her own thoughts. She saw many problems in her life which needed contemplation. They were problems which had to be solved from within. Constant conversation, especially that advice which others seemed so eager to dispense, only obscured self-knowledge.
Robin’s visit seemed inopportune simply because he figured prominently in some of the problems Anne sought to contemplate without pressure. There was an obvious tension whenever they were together largely because of their conflicting interpretations of love, friendship, and sex.
Self-confidence and even heartlessness were feeling which Robin sometimes applied to his image of Anne merely because she had a little more sexual and social experience.
However, confusion was the emotion which was most often present in Anne’s mind. In some of her experiences she saw sex as analogous to a fresh thin coat of paint which covers the errors in a hasty repair job. The rough edges of a relationship show more clearly when that relationship is platonic and problems which are encountered must be faced directly or consciously ignored. In a sexual relationship, sex can be used to overwhelm these problems…problems which are inevitable – problems which can then ruin such a relationship without ever being acknowledged.
Ironically, it was precisely because of the lack of sex in their friendship that Anne sometimes felt closer to Robin than to anyone else. At other times they were separated by a palpable, cold tension. She was undoubtedly confused about their relationship to each other.
His visit would not help.
While walking down the sunlit spiral staircase in the center of her apartment building, she ran into a cute little girl with short blond bangs.
“Bonjour,” said Anne.
“Bonjour Madame. Pourquoi…something?” asked the little girl.
It sounded like she asked about the patches on Anne’s jeans, but Anne wasn’t sure. She did manage to get to her family’s BMW without any other little girls hopping out of cracks to test her knowledge of their native language. Anne had been feeling comfortable – settling back into this French-speaking city after six years. She had been reading the newspaper without even resorting to the use of her French-English dictionary when robin had called. In a moment, she felt like kicking that little blond-banged kid for destroying her self-confidence so simply and deviously.
She drove up in front of the train station after fighting some heavier than usual city traffic. It was the time of the Fêtes de Genève and a few of the major thoroughfares along the lake were blocked off for parades and fireworks. She recognized Robin right away in the crowd by the Gare. The suntanned guy with Robin also stood out (the Europeans all looked slightly pale). No attraction was present between Anne and John although Anne was generally recognized as beautiful and John was the sort of guy who Robin saw as “attractive to women” in general. In his view of men and women as groups instead of individuals, Robin saw himself as “unattractive to women” and Anne as “attractive to men.” His thoughts on the arbitrary nature of love consisted of the fact that he was fated to live with this “unattractive to women” characteristic. He didn’t think much more deeply than that about his own problems. He tried to make Anne feel guilty because she did not make a superhuman effort to surpass this obstacle he had been cursed with.
Instead of leaving the station in a tense silence, Anne decided to start a conversation.
“Who was that?” she asked. It was obvious that she was referring to John. He continued to wave at their departing car.
“Oh, he was just a guy I met at a hostel in Paris. He’s a little strange, but I spent most of the day yesterday with him.”
“How long have you been in Europe now?” Their conversation seemed about as awkward as a long silence would have been.
“Since the end of June.” He thought for a few seconds. “Almost two months. I’m heading back before the end of this month so I can move into my dorm on the first or second of September. When are you going back?”
“December or January.”
“You’re not going back till spring semester?”
“I’m not even going back then. I’ll just work during the spring. I’ll probably be going back after I figure out what I’m doing there. Maybe not.”
“That could be a good idea, I guess. You’d better watch out though. That guy John, you know, that guy with the blond hair I was talking to?”
“Well he was going to the University of California for two years and he took some time off and never went back. His life seems pretty messed up now.”
“Well, he’s into drugs – hard drugs, not like you and me – and he’s working in jobs where he doesn’t use his school at all. He really seems to be wasting his brain. It’s a shame.”
“Yeah.” She really didn’t know enough about the guy to pass judgement on him.
They drove for a little while and found themselves hopelessly tied up in traffic. The city looked fine to Anne. The sun was shining brightly off the lake and the jet d’eau, and the banks and bridges were covered with red and yellow city flags because of the festival.
“Is something going on here?” Robin asked.
“Yeah. They’re having a festival. I’m not sure what it celebrates, but it sounds interesting. They’re gonna have parades and fireworks, amusements, refreshments, bands. I hear they sell confetti and soft plastic hammers and everyone attacks each other harmlessly.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Is that going on tonight?”
“I’m not sure. What’s today’s date?”
Robin glanced at his silver calendar watch. “It’s Saturday the sixteenth.”
“Today’s Saturday?” She really thought it was a weekday for some reason. “This must be parade traffic we’re trapped in then, and the fireworks are tonight too.”
“Are you planning on going to them?”
“I guess so. I’ve heard that this is one of the best displays in the world.” Anne really enjoyed the loud fireworks that sound like cannons and reverberate off the apartment houses and mountains before attacking individual abdomens.
“Good, that sounds like fun.” The first mutual smile of their meeting.
The traffic finally unclogged and they drove back to Anne’s empty apartment. Anne enjoyed the lack of conversation and the high-revving engine attached to her body through the quivering clutch and gear shift as they zipped back to her apartment on clear streets.
When they walked into the apartment and sat down, Robin picked up the copy of Le Journal de Genève which Anne had been reading when he called.
“What kind of paper is this?” Robin asked.
“Huh? It’s just a newspaper.”
“No, I mean is it leftist, conservative, middle of the road? What?”
Anne couldn’t answer because she wasn’t sure. She had only been reading the extensive literary supplement. But memories of Robin’s constant concern for politics and political images flooded her mind. Anne saw the “image” as the foremost thing in Robin’s mind. It started with his personal appearance and extended to the fact that he would not be caught holding a Daily News, but would display a New York Times or a Village Voice as if to say, “Here I am. I’m a fashionably not-too-leftist New York intellectual.” Images.
In her own life, Anne tried to think that the realm of images was relegated to a back closet of her mind. Even “serious” politics remained at a lower level in her hierarchy of thoughts. Levels of social interaction progressed toward the high level of her intensive personal loves and friendships. In her present state of mind (this hierarchy had many variables), the personal search for knowledge took precedence over all, and the poetic, esoteric search was taking precedence over her formal academic duties. In each one of these levels, Anne saw infinite complexity. To understand these categories of thought and feeling in her own mind would only mean that she was coming to an understanding about one part of her life. It all seemed so complex and confusing. She wondered if anyone really understood anything. It became more confusing when these levels entered into practical considerations about her own life’s future. So much worse for a woman where a choice of love and marriage can mean an end to many choices made freely about career, travel, friendships, education.
Robin’s presence in her living room did not help the flow of her thoughts. He smiled a sad smile across the room and she felt a flash of guilt for not loving him; in the same instant she felt anger directed at the lack of control he seemed to have over his emotions. She realized that the anger was as wrong as the guilt. Asking him to stop loving her was the same as his plea for her love. She couldn’t manufacture an emotion which didn’t exist and he couldn’t destroy an emotion which seemed so strong. She recognized their problem as a simple dilemma; that recognition did not lead directly to the problem’s resolution, and she realized that her own alternate emotions of anger and guilt were usually stronger than her intellectualizations about them.
It was eventually her guilt which forced her to break the silence of that Swiss living room. “Where have you been this summer?”
“All over. I went to Paris and Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Sweden, Norway…um…the Riviera. I really saw a lot.” He wished the list was longer. They often had to search for things to talk about because they rarely talked about the thing which was most on their minds, that ever present dilemma of two strong opposing emotional premises.
They spoke of the European cities which were familiar to both of them and then the conversation replayed itself as Anne’s parents arrived.
“Hi,” Anne smiled.
“Mom? Dad? I’d like you to meet Robin. He’s a friend from school.”
“Have you been in Switzerland long?”
“Just got here this afternoon. I’ve been in Europe for two full months though.”
“What’ve you seen so far?”
“I saw a lot. I’ve been to France, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Italy, Sweden, Norway, all over.”
“You should really see the Swiss Alps,” her mother suggested. “They’re really beautiful.”
“I will. I’m planning on going to Zermatt tomorrow to see the Matterhorn.”
That visibly disappointed her parents, especially her mother. You see, they worried about her sometimes because she was not as socially active as her older sister. When one of her friends from school, or anywhere else, dropped by, they’d try to coax him or her into staying for a little while to insure Anne’s happiness (or theirs). They didn’t understand that she could feel content sometimes (often) by just sitting and reading or writing or discovering a new tune on a piano. She tried not to sit and do nothing at all (although she was perfectly capable of it), because they’d invariably ask her what was wrong.
Predictably, her parents tried to talk Robin into staying a little longer.
“You know you’re welcome to stay more than one night.”
“Yes, we have plenty of space. There’s an extra bedroom. It’s no hardship at all for us.”
“Don’t feel like you’re putting us out or anything.”
Robin showed more backbone and independence than Anne gave him credit for. He answered politely that he had two weeks of travelling left and he wanted to see the Alps and parts of Germany before he returned to Paris to catch his plane back to New York. He answered all her parents’ questions and requests clearly and easily. He didn’t stumble over words the way he used to whenever he was alone with Anne.
She was more than a little turned off by his structured attitude toward travelling though. He seemed to see it as a touring business where timetables had to be made and kept.
“Yes,” he explained to her father, “I want to spend two days in Zermatt and then I’m going to Zurich for one overnight. After that I’m heading for Munich, where I’ll stay for three days. After that…” And so on.
She grabbed a couple of sheets from the closet and made up the bed in the extra room for Robin. She hated making beds. That and folding and ironing clothes always seemed to her like two of the biggest time fillers ever devised by civilized man. She went through the ritual of tucking and folding sheets anyway as she listened to some American music on the radio. The news came on and she translated parts of it for Robin. The airwaves talked of political problems in Portugal and on Corsica and then they broadcast an editorial about the constantly explosive situation in the Middle East. A meteorologist came on to explain how hailstones are formed and she turned the selector knob until she found some scratchy Beethoven.
As the piece was finished and she reached for the knob again, her mother called in that dinner was ready.
“Okay, we’ll be right there.”
Dinner was short, simple, and quiet for the most part. Anne’s parents voluntarily undertook the task of keeping Anne’s guest occupied.
“So you go to school with Anne?” her mother began.
“Yes,” Robin answered. “I’ll be starting as a junior in two weeks.”
“Oh, the same as Anne,” her father added as he glanced in his daughter’s direction. They didn’t like the idea that she was taking time off from her studies.
“What’s your major?”
“Anne’s a philosophy major, but I guess you must have shared some classes.”
“Yes, one or two.”
Anne’s contribution to the conversation was delivered in the form of silent glances toward her father and mother, “I was a philosophy major. I lost my interest in formal studies sometime last year and I haven’t found anything to replace them with yet. I let you talk about my school and grades because it keeps you happy. (I know too many kids who are only in school because it keeps their parents happy.) I love you but you should know that I’m not about to structure my life around the framework of your expectations. If I go back to school after working for a little while, it will only be because I’ve become interested in something that only college can teach me.”
“Great dinner,” Rob said with a politician’s smile as everyone started getting up from their chairs.
“Annie, are you going to the fireworks with us tonight?” her mother asked.
“I think so.”
The fireworks were good.
But Anne could never figure out why some people compare orgasms to fireworks. Fireworks don’t directly affect any of those pleasure synapses in the brain that sex and drugs cause to spark and pop. Once in a while there was a loud bang which bounced off the apartments surrounding the lake and it punched her in the abdomen. She enjoyed those, but an hour of uninterrupted light and sound started to get a little tedious. When she saw that Robin shared in her developing boredom, she suggested that they walk back to her apartment rather than waiting for her parents and their car. She led him over the Pont du Mont Blanc; beneath them Lake Geneva was officially changing its name to the Rhone as it progressed in its voyage from mountains to sea and in the sky above the colorful explosions continues without hint of cessation. They were halfway up the hill leading to her apartment on Route de Malagnou when she began to talk. At first, only comments on how the fireworks were even more impressive when they could only be sensed through echoes and red reflections between stone walls – war images. Then she asked him how he had been feeling. Hoping, of course, for the response that his feelings had changed – that he would stop harassing her with his love. She hadn’t sensed anything like that in his letters. “I’m feeling the same,” he answered. “I have my ups and downs. I do think I understand myself better though now that I’ve had a little bit of time away from school or work. I mean especially in my overwhelming concerns about you and women, you know.” He added quickly, “You don’t mind if I talk about this, do you?”
“Well I think a lot of my problems come from the fact that I’m overly concerned about sexism and the whole idea of women being sexually exploited by men. I mean, how could I make a pass at you or any other woman, when I’m so aware of these issues?”
They both paused as they stopped to cross a street and think. “No,” Anne said. “I really can’t see how the Women’s Movement plays as big a role in your motivations as you’d like me to believe – and as you’d like to believe yourself.”
Robin’s voice showed, “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t want to say anything that might hurt you.”
“How can I change if you don’t tell me what you’re thinking.” (Vague hopes for sexual success and happy love and life lurking in the back of his head in the anticipation of the clues and keys she may now drop.)
“Did you ever stop to think that your lack of action isn’t tied to any modern political concern at all? Maybe it’s just good, old-fashioned timidity – just a self-serving defense mechanism which saves you the embarrassment of being rejected and hurt.”
He shrugged his shoulders without making any commitment to her words. The sting of her attack hurt him more deeply than she could guess. “Sensitivity” – that’s the word he preferred to “timidity” in describing himself. The word sounded more unselfish. Anne and Robin defined “sensitivity,” like many other words they both used freely, from two different points of view. For Anne, the word shared its meaning with “compassion.” It was the faculty which she called upon in a situation like this, where she sought to put herself in Robin’s place in order to figure out why he held himself back – to find out what frightened him. In its simplest terms, Robin saw “sensitivity” as a description of his ability to be hurt easily. He also held normative considerations about the word; he considered it a virtue.
Their pensive silences were broken by the whistles and bangs of the fireworks’ finale, which left the sky glowing and ears ringing all over the city. “That would’ve been real nice if we were high,” Robin commented, trying to lend a lighter air to their conversation. It worked; they heard nothing but small talk on the short remainder of their promenade.
Robin and Anne said good night and went to their bedrooms without having said too much which seemed truly important to them. That wasn’t unusual.
As Anne fell asleep she jotted down random thoughts in the notebook next to her bed. She didn’t bother to turn on the light; she had started writing in the halflight of moon and streetlights out of courtesy for college roommates. Now she found these night hues to be the best soil for the germination of her ideas. She had reached a point in her writing where the movement of the pen did very little to obstruct the flow of thoughts and words.
The reasons for her writing were varied. Basically, she wrote short thoughts which she thought might stimulate personal revelations. “Sparks” was the term and image which she consciously applied to these ideas. Sparks of self-enlightenment.
Back in 2017
The next chapter, the last in Part Two, will consist entirely of Anne’s nighttime writing and will be the only chapter in the manuscript written in the first person. I wish she had appeared earlier in the book. I like her.
The line about Anne trying “not to sit and do nothing at all” reminds me of one of my favorite albums of the last few years, and definitely my favorite album title, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
That unsolicited musical plug out of the way, I have some serious things to say about this chapter. When literature professors and critics talk about the “meanings” that authors put into novels and stories and poems, I’m always skeptical. I never know how much is done intentionally by the authors and how much is the overlay of the critic. In this case, I don’t know if my dialectical composition of the three main characters was conscious or not in the 1970s, but it’s crystal clear to me now that Robin is the thesis, John the antithesis, and Anne the synthesis. As Flaubert said about Emma Bovary, “Anne Jenkins, c’est moi!” While I shared parts of my past with Robin and John, I was the one living with my parents in Geneva and taking a year off from college when I started writing this book. In the flashback in chapter 1.6 I even have Anne talking about dialectics with Robin, so it seems clear to me, as the 2017 reader and critic, that I, as the 1975 author, must have planned this consciously and schematically. Maybe I did, but I don’t remember doing so.