http://www.albany.edu/offcourse
 http://offcourse.org
 ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


 

"My Thirteenth Year", part II of a memoir by Ricardo Nirenberg

(Continued from the previous issue, March 2017)

7.

There is no way to recover my first musical experience: from the earliest time I must have listened to my mother singing.  All I can say with certainty is that she sang Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market” as a lullaby.  A song without words.  Perhaps she had heard it at the movies, in some silent film starring Rodolfo Valentino.  She and I called the song “Pun-pun” because it started with isolated eighth notes describing the camel-drivers’ approach, which Mother rendered something like “pun-pun,” one “pun” for each eighth-note, and which served as a suspense-raising device before the lyrical theme, the appearance of the beautiful princess with her retinue.  At home the same repeated phoneme, “pun-pun,” used to refer to the fart, but I can’t tell whether the homonymy of lullaby and lower wind has had any further significance on my brain, or is just one of those accidental convergences so frequent in language.  Maybe one should consult Lacan.  In any case, the lyrical part with the princess and all was the cuddliest music I had met with before I listened to Dvorak’s “Songs that My Mother Taught Me.”

Other than “Pun-pun,” my mother (born in 1912) would sing a hundred songs which had appeared roughly between 1920 and 1940; she sang in tune and had a good memory for the words.  My sister and I, though, often interpreted them in twisted ways.  The tango “Madreselva” was particularly rich in wild connotations.  It was a huge success back in 1931, eight years before I was born, and Libertad Lamarque sang it in a blockbuster movie of 1938.  She was a popular movie actress who, so I’ve heard it said, dissed Eva Duarte, then a minor starlet, and so was forced into exile when Perón came to power.  The word “madreselva” (meaning honeysuckle, safe better botanical advice), is of a clearly composite form: madre and selva suggesting a sylvatic mother, a savage mother, a mother of the jungle, or, God have pity on us, a whole forest of mothers; and the first words, “Vieja pared del arrabal” (old wall in the city outskirts), my sister and I unthinkingly deformed, with some help from the melody, into “vieja parroquia” (old parish), and even invented a game under that name, where an old woman (vieja) named Parroquia, tried to catch and devour kids, like the witch in Hänsel and Gretel.

Father sang tangos too, but different ones, and only when he was playing solitaire on the green baize of the dining room table.  His tango lyrics dealt mostly with flashing knives, gaucho duels and folkloric epics.  Besides that, there was a completely different repertoire which belonged only to Father, that of belcanto —O sole mio, Una furtiva lacrima, Tosti’s Mattinata, etc.  In those he aimed at a tone of voice somewhere between Beniamino Gigli and Carlo Buti, and he did it with great feeling and gusto.  Back when I was five or six, and Father was at the all-too-brief zenith of his entrepreneurial career, he had a secretary named María Luisa, like Napoléon’s Austrian second wife, but much more beautiful.  At least she seemed outstandingly so to me.  One day, Father must have taken me to his lingerie shop on Carlos Calvo Street, and it happened to be my mother’s birthday, or else my parents’ wedding anniversary.  Father sent María Luisa out to buy some flowers for a gift for Mother, and I was taken along.  At that time, I was about to start taking piano lessons, and so all the way to the flower shop and back, Father’s secretary instructed me on music fundamentals.  I have retained only two elements of that excursion, one of which is a feeling of malaise, of guilt almost, having to do with holding María Luisa’s hand instead of my father’s.  It was Father—such was my vague and totally unjustified ethical idea—who should have gone out with me to buy flowers for Mother.  Equally vague in my mind was the notion that María Luisa was in some unspecified way my mother’s rival.  Her nails wore a perfect sheen, her clustering locks seemed fashioned by a goldsmith, and her skirt fluttered as she walked.  Unlike Mother, she had no tuft of hair anywhere on her cheeks.  The second thing I have retained is the pair of Spanish words, “fusa” and “semifusa”—demisemiquaver and hemi-demisemiquaver respectively.  Actually, not so much the words, as María Luisa’s way of pronouncing them: her glistening lips pursing into a susurrus orifice for the “fu” then just a bit of teeth showing for the “sa.”  From that time, too, dates Father’s collection of vinyl 78rpm recordings, all of which I remember in great detail; all of them are gone with the garbage, but I have tried to replace them with reissues on CDs later in life.

In the beginning I took music to be not a separate activity, but a special form of speech: a way of speaking in which one paid more attention than usual to features such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, rhymes and pathetic accents.  In this, I guess, my development was parallel to that of music in general.  When it came to instrumental, word-free music, the first sort of thing I actively liked—to the point of sitting on the terrace steps, facing Emilita’s terrace and composing similar pieces in my mind—were Johann Strauss’ and Waldteufel’s waltzes.  I listened to those on the radio between my sister’s bed and mine, at 9 PM, in a program entirely devoted to Viennese waltzes, sponsored by Cirulaxia, a gentle laxative consisting mostly in prune juice.

Piano lessons, however, were more associated in my mind with exercises for the fingers than with music.  I had to repeat Hanon, Heller, Bertini et al., without any regard for the delights of song.  I didn’t have a remarkable piano teacher until I was fifteen: he was a German-educated Jew, Ernesto Epstein, and he revealed to me a metaphorical approach to interpretation simply by observing, for example, how the main theme in one of Mozart’s piano Fantasies resembles human breath and sighing, and by his public analyses of Schubert’s Winterreise.  In my thirteenth year, as soon as I entered high school in March 1952 I met a boy who played the violin, and we became friends.  Rodolfo Mattarollo was the first boy with whom I ever did: till then, there had been only Emilita, our neighbor, and of course my sister.  The bounds of our friendship were neatly set: the occasion, the mornings in the classroom, where I sat right behind him, close to the windows; the theme was mostly music.  Back and forth the length of the halls of the august, then only-boys Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, walled in golden-brown majolica, we walked during the recesses, talking exaltedly, while one of Leonora several overtures sounded from the loudspeakers, or The Consecration of the House, or perhaps the overture to Così fan tutte.  I don’t recall them playing anything but Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, which was fine with us.  I remember trying to explain to my friend, half talking, half humming, the marvel one feels listening to Beethoven’s violin sonata in C minor, played by Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp, in one of my father’s albums.  Rodolfo quoted his mother, who said that the piano and the violin were both wonderful in their own way, but when they play together, ah! then it’s like opening a coffer full of pearls.

We never visited each other’s house, and I never met Rodolfo’s mother.  He was clearly very attached to her, and there was no father in the picture.  One day—it was a Monday in October 1952—he brought momentous news.  His mother had taken him to the Teatro Colón, where Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck had opened, conducted by Karl Böhm, and Rodolfo was entranced, right at the beginning, by the soldier shaving the captain, and the captain admonishing the soldier Wozzeck, who kept replying, “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!”.  My friend tried to explain to me about Sprechgesang, Sprechstimme, and atonality; I was impressed that there was a world of music and song which and of which I had never heard; Mattarollo and his mother were evidently more sophisticated not only than I and my own, which isn’t saying much since the latter didn’t care for classical music, but than my dad, who often expressed the opinion that classical music was uninteresting before Mozart and reached a peak with Chopin, after which it went mostly downhill.  A lot of Chopin, therefore, was kept in our record cabinet, of which Arthur Rubinstein’s recording of the complete Mazurkas and of the twenty-four Preludes were my delight.  But then, before Sunday lunch, Father would put J.S. Bach’s Magnificat on the record changer and comment, “What do they find in this sovereign piece of junk?  It shouldn’t be called Magnificat but Garbageficat.”  Regarding music as well as other things, I was never able to imagine the interior of my father’s mind.  There wasn’t a single record of Brahms or Wagner in the house; indeed, Wagner was a word of opprobrium.  By a fortunate chance, however, there were albums Father had purchased but never listened to, which allowed me to discover them by myself.  That fortunate chance had a face: the owner of Música Vega on Calle Membrillar, where Father bought records at a discount because they were both founding members of the Asociación Comerciantes Zona Flores, which sponsored regularity rallies: in one of those they had participated together as driver and navigator in my father’s Cadillac ’47.  Señor Vega had pressed such works as César Frank’s Symphony in D minor on Dad, who must have played the first plate and given it up altogether.  After I played the symphony a few times, alone in the house, this music that at first sounded merely dark and foreboding opened a field of moods such as I had never come close to, and which I could start describing only many years later, having already listened to Wagner and Bruckner, having read Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, and Huysmans, and having been to the rooms of the museum Gustave Moreau in Paris.  The Europeans had succeeded in climbing to heaven, it seemed, and found there nothing but malodorous mists; now their thinkers and artists replaced the Te Deum laudamus by tedium and laudanum; spleen and ennui took on the proportions and the role of immortality, and hope gave place to anguish.  Boredom became the fashionable affliction, so much so that when the catastrophe arrived in 1914, it was enthusiastically received.

Another musical piece I discovered among the records my father never played was Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, but this one proved fatal to my friendship with Rodolfo.  I spite of their many differences, there was, in my opinion, a kinship of spirit between Chopin and Rachmaninoff: so I told my friend, while we walked around a patio warmed by the November sun.  His reaction was swift.  “No relation!  Chopin was an artist.  Rachmaninoff is kitsch.”  End of argument.  I didn’t pursue the subject, but a thorn had been stuck in my brain, and it festered: a week or so later, over something having nothing to do with music, in fact, over a clownish performance of mine, we put an end to our friendship and we never talked again until fifty-five years later, old men.

 

8.

Yes, petulance is not the least of my vices.  There’s nothing that humiliates me more than having conceived some idea that strikes me as brilliant and having it dismissed by someone else out of hand.  I’ll never forget the time it happened to me with Dad.  It was shortly before I entered the Colegio and shortly after I finished seventh grade with Señor Martínez.  If you have read the first part of this memoir, you will remember that my seventh grade class was a masturbatory snake pit.  Perhaps it was to be expected that after leaving that disgusting jungle I would be curious enough to try the thing myself, and so I did.  For that purpose, I barricaded myself in my lab & workshop (see §5 in the first installment), meaning that I lay there on my back, with my shoulders against the rickety door so no one would surprise me during my experiment.  Like an ape, I imitated my ex classmates and tried to jerk off, but it wasn’t easy; that first time it took a lot of work, but when it finally came I was amazed.  I would have exclaimed, like Dante when he first saw Beatrice Portinari in Florence: “Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi”, but hadn’t started Latin yet, and hadn’t touched Dante.  In compensation, there was among my father’s books a Spanished and illustrated Boccaccio’s Decameron, which, as I found out a little later, was of great help in that sort of sport.

Dazzled, I came out of the lumber room, where there was, luckily, an abundance of old rags, and went into the house.  All was silent, and the last thing I expected was to find my father sitting at my half of the desk (the other half was my sister’s) in the jolcito.  Was he reading?  I don’t remember.  Perhaps he was looking at my map of Paris.  In any case, it was unusual for him to be sitting there.  Who knows what demon put right then into my mind the notion of talking man-to-man to my dad — for hadn’t I become a man after all, down in the lumber room?  “I’ve been thinking,” I said, “I’ve been thinking that if man’s orgasm lasted for hours instead of only a minute or so, there would be no philosophy, no sciences, no arts, no chess, nothing.”

In hindsight, it was perfectly natural for me to say what I said, since most of my interactions with my father were of the intellectual kind: he loved to teach me, and I wasn’t yet six when he would sit me at the solitaire-playing end of the dining-room table, and explain.  Explain everything, the world, microcosm and macrocosm, how to contemplate the whole from its center.  That is, from the human mind.  When had my father read, when did he find the time, where had he got all that he knew?  He never finished high school, and, to judge from his skills at chess, checkers, and dominoes, at three-cushion caroms and all games of cards, he must have spent an awful amount of time in the street, at the café-billards, at the bocce court, perhaps at the brothels, not to speak of his job as a barber.  The first lessons I remember, other than when he taught me chess, were about the British empiricists—Locke, Berkeley, Hume—and the German idealists Kant, Fichte, and a bit of Schopenhauer (but not Hegel, whom he detested).  The lessons on physics came, I think, a little later, and began with Galileo, went on with the fabled ether, the speed of light, and the experiment of Michelson and Morley, and culminated in Einstein’s special relativity.  Father’s mathematical ideas were naïve, yet not altogether wrong or silly.  For instance, he objected to the imaginary numbers.  “Why do you need them? (he asked) To solve an equation like x-square plus one equals zero.  You need a number such that when you multiply it by itself you get as a result minus one.  But there is no such number, because the rule of signs says that plus times plus is plus, and minus times minus is also plus.  That’s why someone invented the imaginary number i, with the property that i times i is minus one.”  He paused for effect, harrumphed, drew a long draught from his cigarette, exhaled it dragon-like, and continued, “But I say: we don’t need imaginary numbers; what we need is another sign, a third sign, a real sign, besides plus and minus.”  Father wrote something like this: #, on a piece of paper (there always was a piece of paper between us), and said, “Suppose this is the symbol of a third sign, and suppose # times # is minus.  That means that #1 times #1 is -1.  And that means that after the introduction of this third sign we don’t need imaginary numbers.”

Father didn’t realize that introducing a third sign is the exact equivalent of introducing imaginary numbers, and that his #1 was mathematically the same as the imaginary i.  Anyway, I hope you see now why it was entirely natural for me to address my father the way I did, with a question, however silly, about the length of human orgasms and its possible influence on math, science, philosophy, and all kinds of intellectual stuff.  I was too young to understand that between pure symbols and less symbolic things like orgasms and other physiological phenomena there is, at least for some people, a tabooed, unbridgeable gap.  Whether because of that or from some other reason, Father looked at me, and wrinkling his face he replied in a disgusted and dismissive tone, “Why don’t you just stop uttering stupidities.”

I have often thought of that episode as my bar-mitzvah.  Never had a religious one, never learned to read Hebrew, and while I lived in Argentina never went into a synagogue.  Yet, to my mind, there is a Biblical element in my experience with my father.  He had betrayed me, my feelings were strong and unequivocal about that: he could have helped me navigate the gulf between the two opposing natures of man—angel and beast—but he didn’t.  A few years later, he would speak elegiacally of past times: “I was godlike for you.  Then came the commercial disasters, the bankruptcies, the seizures.  And you cast me down from my pedestal.”  I would agree on the casting down bit, or perhaps on bringing Dad down a few pegs, but deny that financial failures had played any role in it.  In vain; Father would stick to his version of the story.  Of course I never brought up his refusal to talk after my first jerk-off.  Perhaps he remembered it, but it must have been lighter for him to carry on his shoulders commercial wrecks than the regrets of a coward or a traitor.  Hypocrite farceur, mon semblable, mon père !  And yet, in spite of his betrayals (there were more of them, particularly of my mom and my sister), in spite of his being a squanderer, a hypocrite, and a skirt chaser, I have never stopped being supremely grateful to my father.  To him I owe whatever reflection of eternity there is in me.

 

9.

“Unforgiving Time,” Auden said in his farewell to Yeats, nonetheless “Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.”  Auden meant the great poets, but Time also includes in its waiver the great teachers of language.  My first English teacher I don’t recall, and none of the subsequent ones were worthier of notice.  Well, perhaps a sort of exception should be made: at some point my mother hired a young woman named Myra, and we retained her for five or six years.  She was from Yugoslavia and spoke English with a Slavic accent, but no one at home was in a position to tell.  At those weekly English lessons neither my sister nor I learned much; we mostly played games like “hanged man,” and babbled most of the time a sort of pidgin Spanglish.  I found English lessons uninteresting, and I have no recollection of anything we read except for Mother Goose and Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”—no Walter Scott, no Kipling, no Stevenson.  But Myra was blonde and zaftig, and vaguely reminded me of María Luisa, my father’s secretary.  After the lesson, when I was alone, I would put my face to her chair and try to absorb her warmth and her scent.  “Souls,” says Heraclitus, “sniff when they descend into Hades.”

With French it was entirely different.  I had only one teacher, from beginning to end, a very old lady (as she seemed to me) who was already teaching my cousin Alberto Brodesky.  Back in the 1940s French was still universally considered an important language; Alberto’s mother, Aunt Rosa, was a strong influence on my parents, an arbiter elegantorum; she had hired the old lady as a French teacher for Alberto, and then she referred us to her.  That is how I became a disciple of Mme. Marguerite de la Barre de Luna, a widow who lived a frugal life in a small apartment downtown, on Calle Sarmiento.  She took the bus to come to my house once a week, and her fees were very reasonable, no higher than the washerwoman’s.  My sister participated at the beginning, but she wasn’t interested in French and soon dropped out, so that Madame and I were alone on our weekly tête-à-tête.

Madame was born in Blois, on the Loire, where the purest French is spoken, according to the indisputable authority of Dumas père.  A member of her family had been Governor of Canada, and another, the nineteen-year-old Chevalier de la Barre, had been beheaded for refusing to take off his hat before a Catholic procession.  “So, not off with your hat?  Well, then it’s off with your head”—Monseigneur l’Archevêque might have said.  The case became iconic because Voltaire took it up as a major part of his campaign to smash the infamous.  There used to be a statue of this irreligious relative of Madame in Paris, right in front of the church of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, of all places.  This sacrilege was the initiative of the Freemasons of the Grand Orient de France at the time of the Dreyfus affair, and the statue itself was the work of sculptor Armand Bloch.  Bloch! what better or more flagrant proof of the secret collusions and world-wide conspiracies of Masons, atheists, and Jews could you ask for?  Naturally, the statue was toppled and melted down under the Nazi regime in 1941, but I like to imagine that my teacher was there, among the 25,000 spectators, when it was unveiled back in 1906.

All I know for a fact is that she was already in Buenos Aires in 1910, because she would talk about the celebrations of the centenary (Argentine independence, like everything Argentine, is highly ambiguous and tends to disintegrate upon examination, but one of its traditional dates is May 25th 1810).  Why she ended up so far from France I never asked, but could not refrain from building a theory.  Here it is.  A dashing and wealthy Señor Luna—perhaps from the same family as Álvaro de Luna, the notorious favorite of King John II of Castile—was spending his leisure in France, like rich land-owning Argentines used to do in those carefree times.  He and Mademoiselle de la Barre met, they fell in love, they married, and he took her back with him to Argentina.  But alas, soon came the bitter disappointment.  Profligate and inveterate philanderer, Señor Luna would spend fortunes every Sunday at the horse races; then, one day, he disappeared—perhaps he died after a short, brutal life of debauchery, or else he lived to a decrepit age in some corner of Catamarca: it didn’t make much difference to his wife, who was left alone and penniless.  And so here she was, Madame, like an old and impoverished castle on the Loire, or like the princess of Touraine whose was the abolished tower.  She never spoke of her marriage or of her husband, but she signed “de Luna”.  She called me Ricardito or le p’tit Ricardo, and she called my cousin le p’tit Alberto.

Turn of the century.  She had come from Europe to Argentina roughly at the same time as my grandparents, but being more educated than they, she could transmit to me, as they could not, something of the flavor of Buenos Aires in the belle époque.  She informed me on the social chronicle of the 1910s and 20s, including gossip about Regina Pacini, the light operatic soprano who was President Alvear’s wife, and about the celebrations which took place around Einstein’s visit in 1925, and around the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1924.  She could be sharply critical, too.  The checkerboard city plan, imposed by the Spanish metropolis on all new towns of the New World, was horribly boring in her view, and imprudent too: an invading foreign enemy would find it too easy to find their way around.  The concentration of government buildings downtown, and especially around the Plaza de Mayo, was particularly vulnerable to bombardment.  I couldn’t find it in my heart to object that, only a few years before, the Germans had conquered Paris pretty easily despite its labyrinthine complexity, but I did object that the British had invaded Buenos Aires (first decade of the 19th century) and been defeated in spite of the checkerboard pattern and the concentration of government buildings.  Madame shrugged, pouted, and simply observed that the British armies could not be compared to the French.

It cannot be denied that the French knew how to do certain things better than the British, and not just cuisine.  Language instruction books was a case in point: there was nothing in English to compare to Claude Augé.  In those textbooks published by Larousse, the grammar sections were interspersed with anecdotes, and what child could resist the valor of Du Guesclin and the popular touch of Henry IV, le Vert-Galant?  The French used to have a genius for that kind of thing, and I know of no other nation who can tell a story or an anecdote, and often many, involving each street, church, house, bridge, café and corner in their country.  Only in French, as far as I know, do you find anecdotes piled up in special dictionaries.  In this sense, Madame was quintessentially French: she knew countless stories about kings, queens, dames, rascals, and chevaliers.  I learned from her more French history and French legends than I did from the novels of Alexandre Dumas.  She would tell me at great lengths about Agnès Sorel, the beautiful mistress of Charles VII, about Blanche de Castille, the mother of Saint Louis, and about Berthe au grand pied, mother of Charlemagne.  She seemed to have known those princesses well, she must have burrowed into their hearts: hers was a Luxembourg Garden of the mind.  Yet she was unable to explain to me why club-footed Berthe of Laon was in fear of going to bed with her new husband, Pépin le Bref, so much so that she arranged for another woman, a faithless servant, to replace her, thus giving occasion to the epics and romances Madame had me read.  Only later, with the silly cynicism of adolescence, was I able to put two and two together by myself.  “Bref” meant “short” in old French, and short guys, as everybody knows, are apt to be exceptionally well hung: that was, I decided, what Berthe was afraid of.  Her quandary was opposite to, and perhaps as bad as, that of another legendary French young lady, who sang, “Mon père m’a donné un mari, Mon Dieu, quel homme, qu’il est petit!” 

Like her unfortunate relative le chevalier de la Barre, Madame never took off her hat, or rather, I never saw her without her hat, except once, at a terrible occasion which I must remember to tell later.  Since she lived too frugally to have more than one hat, she would change the trimmings: flowers in September, the southern spring, and a bunch of grapes in autumn.  She was a small woman, tiny almost, prune-faced, like my grandmother Rebeca Brodesky.  The differences between them, though, were enormous.  My bobeh didn’t read or write (but she played a brilliant game of canasta), while it seemed to me that all Madame did was read and write, and she had no idea that “canasta” could be anything other than “un panier”, a basket.  The bobeh spoke imperfect Spanish with a Yiddish accent, and when she didn’t like someone she would say something like, “End’r erd aran solz er geien”—he should go inside the earth—or else, “He’s a Hitler!”  Madame spoke imperfect Spanish with a French accent, and her most intense expression of dislike was, “Il n’est pas très gentil”.  On a hot and humid summer day she would arrive at the house saying, “Ah, quelle chaleur épouvantable!”, an occasion where the bobeh would simply wave her straw fan and say, “Oi wei!”  My grandmother’s affection for me had not changed since I was a baby, and it was directed to my flesh because it was of her flesh: she would stroke my face with her crooked fingers and utter a sweet “Ricúschkele”, because (a) my name is Ricardo, (b) in her view I was “rico” (cute), and (c) because she used the Yiddish diminutive suffix.  Madame’s affection, instead, was for my mind—at least I like to think so.

Besides telling me about French queens and favorites, she recited the poets, and make me recite them too.  We would range from Malherbe and Corneille, all the way to Victor Hugo.  She detested Baudelaire.  Why would someone choose to write about the ugliest things in life, she would ask, when there is so much that’s beautiful?  Only to appear original, she would reply to herself.  When later I read Les Fleurs du mal, and chanced upon the poem titled “Les petites vieilles”, I remembered Madame, and sympathized with her view.  Forgive my Argentine-boy pedantry of those days, which was, believe me, more obnoxious than what’s now left of it: I asked myself, if one of those women was “fière et sentant la règle” (proud and smelling of menses), as the poet says, how old, how decrepit, could she possibly be?  Hadn’t Baudelaire heard of menopause?  And I was seized by a fierce partisan feeling for Madame, proud, brave, old and decrepit herself, who had refused to climb the bandwagon of twentieth-century modernism, where Baudelaire reigns supreme.

Madame was like one of the old women in Baudelaire, however, in one respect—not, obviously, in that she smelled of periods, but in that she too loved “le chant vif et guerrier”.  In Madame’s case not the brass of a military band as in Baudelaire’s poem, but the martial strains of Victor Hugo when he thundered against Napoléon III from his exile in Guernsey.  Madame, and I after her, would recite Ultima verba.  In the last stanza, a tour de force around the decimal system of numeration so beloved by the French, the poet-hero affirms his intention of not returning to France despite the Emperor’s amnesty.  If there are only a thousand left in exile, he will be among them; if only a hundred, he will still stay in his island and defy the tyrant; if there were just ten left, he, Hugo, will be the tenth one, and if only one remains, he will be that single one.  And at those moving, thundering final words, “je serai celui-là!”, Madame’s dentures would fall off her mouth.

In spite of the many signs of decrepitude, and in spite of the spittle which sometimes sprinkled my face, once a week she was to me what Scheherazade was to King Shahryar and David to King Saul: sweet raconteuse and musician.  Had I known the Gershwin song back then, I would have sung to her, “The way you wear your hat, the way you drop your teeth: oh, no, they can’t take that away from me.”

I was in love with an old, shrunken, widowed and childless woman: it was that love which inspired my love for France and the French language.  Consequent to those loves I acquired a map of Paris, which I studied carefully and came to know in almost as much detail as the map of Buenos Aires.  I slipped it on my table, under the glass, so I could go on studying it at leisure.  No wonder my teacher thought that the plan of my native city, the Hispanic checkerboard, was boring: indeed, it is, when one compares it to the happy-go-lucky, any-angle-goes prevalent in Paris.  There is powerful poetry in street names, however, both in Buenos Aires and in Paris, and if a word like Balbastro, a Buenos Aires street, could make me dream, even more so could something like the Parisian rue du Cherche-Midi.  I could picture Athos or Grimaud turning a big key at the door of their dwelling on rue Férou, or Porthos showing off his gold-embroidered cape on his rue du Vieux Colombier, and once, as recently as twelve years ago, I bought some trinkets for my wife at a jeweler on rue Tiquetonne not because they were particularly appealing or bon marché, but only because I seemed to remember that it was where D’Artagnan lived in Vingt ans après.

One summer afternoon Madame and I were sitting at my writing table, where we always had our lessons.  It was, you will recall, the place where I had offered to my father my ingenious anthropological aperçu and he had curtly refused it.  I was reciting, under my teacher’s guidance, Corneille’s play Le Cid, whose well-turned alexandrines required plenty of attention to the e muettes, those final French e’s often sounded but often not.  When Don Diégue says to his son Don Rodrigue, the future Cid, “Montre-toi digne fils d’un père tel que moi” (Show yourself the worthy son of a father like me), the word père must clearly have two syllables, not one, nor one-and-a-half.  But as those two syllables were still ringing, I saw something wriggling on the map of Paris, in the fifth arrondissement if I remember right.  I dismissed it from my mind, however, and continued reading.

Pretty soon we arrived at my favorite verses, where Don Rodrigue, to avenge his father, challenges le Comte de Gormas, the father of Ximène, to a duel.  By those verses I always felt nobly aroused.  Imagine the young Cid, never yet proved in battle, challenging the foremost warrior of Castile, the Count.  Who utters, furious and disdainful: “Jeune présomptueux!”  To which Don Rodrigue admirably replies:

Parle sans t’émouvoir.
Je suis jeune, il est vrai ; mais aux âmes bien nées
La valeur n’attend point le nombre des années.

(Speak calmly.  I am young, it is true, but with well-born souls, valor does not wait for age.)

But attention!  When the Count says jeune, the word must have two syllables; in the following line, when Rodrigue says jeune, it is monosyllabic.  Quelle honte !  What a shame, what a scandal at the heart of French prosody, precisely at the time when France was about to become Cartesian, and French the language of clear and distinct ideas.

And then, as my eyes chanced again on the map, I noticed the same phenomenon, something wriggling, something very tiny wriggling, which was now occurring far away, in the seventeenth arrondissement.  Was I seeing things?  Was the wriggling inside my eyes?  I rubbed them and continued reading.  Rodrigue, the young Cid, is desperate: he has killed the Count and washed off the dishonor of his father, Don Diégue, but in doing so he has lost his beloved, the Count’s daughter, Ximène.  A little later father and son run into each other, and the father tries to console the son:

Nous n’avons qu’un honneur, il est tant de maîtresses!
(We have only one honor, there are countless mistresses.)

In their strict, logical unfeelingness, those words sounded to me (and still do, now more so than then) as something my father could have said, but I didn’t have the leisure to dwell on such sad thoughts, for there were wriggles in every arrondissement, and even in the banlieues.  And it was not caused by my eyesight, for I picked up one of those wriggling things that suddenly appeared on my book, and held it on my fingertip.  At that point I interrupted my teacher, and showed her the wriggling thing on my fingertip; she took it between her own fingers and brought it close to her eyes to examine it.  “C’est un ver de chair”, she pronounced, matter-of-factly and with perfect sang-froid.  It is a flesh worm.  The table was by now fairly covered with them.  May God forgive me, the thought occurred to me that my old teacher was decomposing, and that all those wriggling worms were coming from her body.  I was filled with horrified pity for Madame.  But she went imperturbably back to Corneille.

A day or two later the source of the flesh worms was discovered.  A cat lay dead between the ceiling and the roof; the worms fell through the hole where the lamp over the desk was wired.  This lamp, a forged iron affair, with a bonnet or yarmulke above the single bulb, hangs now in my sister’s house, and it doesn’t bring to her any memories of disintegration: she wasn’t there, after all, at that memorable French lesson.  Cats were a problem in our house; they came and went freely through the street grille, and on spring and summer nights their caterwauling caused an unpleasant, disharmonious, anxious feeling in us kids.  The tomcats fought among themselves and often killed the young kitties.  When they got sick they hid in the recesses, and died under the roof.  When we told my grandmother about the incident, she said in Yiddish: “Do izt di Katz begrobn!”—That’s where the cat is buried!  As for the housemaid, she shook her head and said apothegmatically, “Había gato encerrado”.

Returning to Madame, I have on my desk a postcard she sent me during one of her trips to Europe, postmarked Le Havre, March 19, 1952 (that was the month and the year I entered high school and started a new life, and not long after the day of the flesh worms), showing a photo of the bay of Rio de Janeiro: “Señor Ricardito Nirenberg: Je vous envoie un très affectueux souvenir à travers l’Océan.  J’espère que vous préparez une entrée brillante au Collège Buenos Aires ...”  That was her: a perfect blend of affectionate and demanding.

And now I remember that I had promised to tell about the terrible occasion when I saw Madame without her hat.  It happened maybe two years after the time limits I have imposed on this memoir (roughly from August 1951 till August 1952), so to keep my promise we’ll have to make an exception.  Though, on second thought, perhaps we will not need an exception.  For the dear and good image of my dad now moves my heart, when he, still in the world, taught me how a man becomes eternal, and I’m reminded of some of the weird stuff he told me.  It was about the philosophers, how most of them held one principle supreme: that everything that happens is the effect of some cause, and that it will not happen if that cause doesn’t happen before in time.  But that cause couldn’t happen if its cause hadn’t happened before, and so on and on, you see; and so everything that happens, for example every word and every comma in this story I’m writing, has been established for ever since the beginning of time: it is my illusion if I think I’m making some real decisions here.  And as if all that were not crazy enough, to the question, What, then, about human freedom? — they answer (as reported by my dad): human freedom consists in understanding that every event is preordained.  The wise are free because they know they aren’t.  Sounds like a joke?

“Ah, but then” – you have to imagine my father puffing long and hard on a Lucky Strike – “but then comes Kant.”  Dad was a great admirer of Kant; he really liked the Kantian placing of space and time inside the human mind rather than out there among the other things, and I am quite sure that this was related to his constant troubles with protested promissory notes and dishonored checks.  “Kant solved the antinomy of freedom and causality by simply removing human free will from the course of time,” my father said.  “When we make a truly free decision we do it outside time, hence independently of causality: we make it in eternity.”

May my father forgive me in eternity: in my opinion, Kant couldn’t have been more wrong.  

The Stairs

          The Stairs

 

It is not when we are free that we are timeless; on the contrary: a free will is immersed in time, saturated by its perpetual novelty.  It is the other way around.

I can tell because one day, when I was following Madame downstairs after our lesson, she tripped and fell headlong four steps down to the living-room floor and her hat rolled off.  Time froze and I was paralyzed.  Here stood the young hero, unable to assist his fallen teacher, here was the invincible Cid, lifeless and unfree as a doorknob or as the encaustic gold-and-blue peacock on the wall.  I have no memory of how Madame got up, whether it was with my help or without it; I have no memory of having accompanied her to the street, or of having walked with her the two blocks to the bus stop.  Frozen time means no memory.  Was she sore?  Did she suffer any wounds?  I don’t know: I was the patient etherized upon a table.  I have thought about another possibility: that those memories are preserved, somehow, deep in my mind, but that a sense of shame and dishonor erects an impassable obstacle to their surfacing. 

Shame, too, is timeless.

 

 

(To be continued)


Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse



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