In the 1970s, in Spain, in Denmark, in England, in Greece, in Germany, America, over wine, photographs, the I-Ching, in ecstasy, despair, lust, jealousy, self-infatuation, grandiosity, and most of all, in excess, the lovers in Aidan Higgins’s epistolary novel Bornholm Night-Ferry scrawl, labor over, tease, prolong, attack their correspondence.
Both are writers, both married with families, both are emotional, highly strung, ill financed, epic in their passions, ferocious in their desires, loyal in their obsessions, lavish in their language. Their letters are extreme — slapped onto the page like an open hand across a cheek, splashing out of the envelope like a drink thrown in a face, coiling out of a series of leisured daily installments, postscripts, and revisions, like a trail of kisses breaking off and commencing again, from the top down.
Or at least that’s how the characters read. For as John Le Carré wrote in quite another kind of book, ‘If you can’t let it all hang out in a love-letter, where can you?’ In choosing the uncompromised epistolary form, Higgins has allowed his characters to monopolize their own creation, and can now only watch them grow into monuments, deities, archetypes, tragic heroes, and other variations on bloated misrepresentation. For surely no one sees a person less clearly than the person herself.
Staggering back before the magnifying and distorting power of the inward-focused lens, Higgins gives further rein to the tyranny of his characters by assembling their letters, not in a conventional back-and-forth, but according to each lover — a group of Elin’s letters: ominous, flailing, tender, terrified — then a group of Fitzy’s: tense, despairing, consoling, demanding.
In this way, the organization of the book is malicious, for it subverts the lovers’ reunion, veils their relationship, insists on the individual alone. In one sense, it also gives the readers a second, hidden book, as it’s possible, of course, to read a second time, according to date, Elin’s first letter to Fitzy, then flipping forward to his reply, and back again.
But that method, too, is not without its pitfalls and disturbances. Letters prove to be missing from the correspondence, or one lover’s memory of the other’s words do not match up with what is really on the page. Letters cross in the mail, questions go unanswered. Regardless of how the correspondence is puzzled together, the result is the same: the characters are writing in a vacuum, these are sometimes not letters at all, but diaries.
Indeed, such long periods elapse between their meetings, that each correspondent must seem to the other at times nearly phantasmal. They veer between writing from tenuous speculation, doubt, and imagination; from a monstrous but eternally renewable egoism; and, in particular, from memories, worn thin and raw by constant twisting and unfolding, of a shared bottle of ouzo, of the ‘shaking-time,’ of the ‘Grassy Place.’
Here is how Irish Fitzy solves the problem of a lover whose handwriting he knows better than the color of her eyes. Watch the exorbitance of his prose, the way he busies up and ornaments his language to fill in the spaces where his knowledge and experience of another should be. Observe how he seems to speak of Elin while hardly touching her at all. Listen to his overwrought emotionality, the screwed-up pathos that he conjures. As a writer he can never be unaware of his effect; his letters, then, are the place where he can least be trusted.
Attraction is only possible, seemingly, when one is not entirely oneself. I try to remember you here, the Tube train ride of 25 stations, our arrival here in the rain, you in the front room, starving kisses. Then you and your kisses disappear. And I disappear too.
The Kuss: the horse rearing when the shadow falls.
Ladies with faces that are not your face abound, speaking in various accents of matters that do not interest me. You have a special lingo to reach me, reach into me; you use it, shaking your head, this won’t do at all.
The Umbrian’s moll uses much scent, the cushions I sleep on stink of it, I don’t like it, you never used scent except that prehistoric essence of moose. I miss you marching around, moving very proud for a tall girl, ship in full sail. The lads now and then inquire of Elin. I tell them ‘Copenhagen.’
Sometimes I see the stout mad girl worrying an old man in the cement shelter down the way. She never stops moving, the fidgets of the insane, pulling at him like a child or pup. Father (presumably) ashamed to take her hand, so she puts it into his pocket anyway, going home for lunch, or to the betting-shop. Soon they are back, she pestering the old man who now threatens her with his raised stick.
Here they come again.
And here is Danish Elin, writing in English, existing in this novel in the language of her conqueror. For that reason she is from the outset braver and more vulnerable than Fitzy. Her stumbles in grammar and spelling make charming what might have been brash or dull. She is less trustworthy than he is, writing a foreign tongue that mangles her self-expression; she is more trustworthy, unable to manipulate her words with authority. Nonetheless, she gets her point across: she is desperate, she is bleak, she is beautiful, she is besotted, she is terrible.
If I’m your breath then you are the very mystery behind the breath, you hit me in the middle, fling everything else overboard. I see terrified and delighted the fine trousseau (embrodered with the wrong initials) float on the sea (‘The Rough’) for a moment and then go down. Disappeared …
I know you prefer letters with concrete contents: stories, descriptions (best erotical), you want to fill them out yourself, yes, put colours on….
To have few words demands clearness in mind. To have many words demands clearness in heart. You easy grows wild. It struck me that in a foreign language you cannot hear if you words are ridigiously, you can only hear your own thoughts….
And I … I catch a sweetness so unbearable that I disappear to myself, I dissolve, the top flies off, the bottom out. On Bornholm I found myself on the bed (an afternoon I stealed — stold? — me into my room) laughing against the roof and with my face wet by tears.
It is this I don’t dare on the beatch because even the smallest help-from-hand is excluded and any other signs from body. The feeling of love (or the lechery) comes in waves. From the floating/flowing standstills the resevoir is filled slowly, the first power from the first wave kept, the next added. Addition. Addition untill no more addition is possible.
The correspondence is not all flighted abstractions, dreams, desire, regrets, and self-aggrandizement. Higgins has wisely grounded it in the hideous pettiness of daily life: their familial deceits, their muddy, sticky, mundane struggles. Fitzy writes: ‘DOLOR. DOLOR. DOLOR. Phone is disconnected. Bad time here and difficult to explain. Continuous squabbling with Esposa. Children suffering. Funds sunk to nothing and Agent sells nothing. Publisher sulking.’ Later, Elin:
I don’t remember if I told you that Steffen and I alternate every month to have Marijke. Since Naxos this arrangement has been going on. Very successful, M happy for it. And Steffen. Keeps him alive. Gives me some freedom. We are the very picture of the happy devorced family. I’m serious.
Well, dear Fitzy, I must start working, this time on a small book of the new Data Processing Language. If Cornwall fails we might take a cheap charter flight for Malaga, just one week, together. It is very cheap from Copenhagen in autumn-time. Be glad, dearest. I don’t know if I am your dearest. It doesn’t mater so much any more in a way.
These earthy intrusions serve as the reader’s guarantee that something solid and stolidly lies behind the mythic personalities the lovers have constructed for themselves. But the other, unwritten life, bitter but nourishing, is also what allows Higgins to urge the book forward, for a love affair that is predicated on separation will cling to stasis for its survival. The events and emotions not worthy of transcription are what mold the correspondents, move and alter them, so that the progress of their affair is determined by what does not touch it. As well as (at least in Elin’s case) by the development of a mature calmness that is a worthy consolation for a dearth of passion. And an enriched sense of identity that is the result of five years of writing a self as a labor of love.
So the book does not build, sucking air in a sharp gasp to reach a climax. It slowly relaxes until it disappears, like a long, quiet exhale.
Of that journey what now remains? A meagre enough display of fruit and vegetables in the market at Ystad. The brewery smell and my torn jacket. The persistent rain, a smile lingering on Swedish lips, Sweden’s folkless fields, invoking sadness; a settled land.
Thank you for your letter. You ask me to tell you where we are. I think apart. This said without bitterness, pride or even relief. I noticed, when I opened your letter, that I red the article first. This must mean that the interest has become greater than the love….
Yes, it was a affair of love, then a affair of sorrow, then a affair of literature and now hardly that. Forgive me, dear, I’m certainly not scolding you. Certainly not. I will try to tell you that just like a chair f. ex., or a picture, a dress — not fitting the room or the figure any longer — can still be loved (you find a particular place, a particular ocasion) just like that you become a welcome in May.
Certainly these characters are not entirely likable. That’s not only due to the brutal insistence of their personalities, the embarrassing extravagance of their rhetoric, their blindness to the ways in which they use their fervent nakedness to adorn themselves. Their protestations of poverty will gall, too, particularly to American readers who will find it difficult to reconcile insolvency with bouts of nation-hopping.
But their passion, so private and so unabashed, is also likely to inspire envy. Elin remembering how beautiful Fitzy made her feel as she washed her cunt in the corner of the hotel room; Fitzy unrelenting in his claims and unafraid of them, regurgitating his self-pity to her in great belches without shame. Such openness, such satisfaction given to one’s self but made possible by another, can occasion the most malicious resentment. On the one hand, that makes Higgins’s novel alternately seductive and enraging. On the other, to inspire in readers a jealous rage toward a fictional character is no mean feat.
Fitzy and Elin’s redemption, the indulgence they win, is based on our pity for the Faustian bargain they’ve made. After the initial tryst that left them breathless but still strangers, they agree to create themselves on the page. To each other and to themselves, they become characters: they have lost their full humanity and sold their souls. Only the fact that their lives refuse to yield a plot, will not bend to imprison them in literary form, slowly releases them from bondage.
Higgins’s conclusion is indefinite. Still, the accumulated sense of the ending suggests that, though his characters may give up the epic in which they play the heroes, they could be able to feel again, after a long, burning, ravished odyssey, a simple sense of sympathy, dull and warm. They may be set afloat in the temperate gray sea of shapeless years, and their minds, soft and vague, might finally roam, with huge relief, in something outside their selves.
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