THE GARDEN OF WORDLESNESS, 4
A CAMBRIDGE JOURNAL
The Garden of Wordlessness, 4
(For Maria, Mahar and Ronald)
How apt: an apple orchard between the fens,
discreetly tucked away from view
by shrub and field and turbid water. This place,
pertinent literature apprises us,
was beloved of England's Woolf and Brooke,
Forster and that playful exile from words,
the pale and spinsterish Wittgenstein,
amongst a sprightly band of some such fans
of wrought and luminescent language.
We can barely imagine what they came here for,
other than the obvious: to fork the butter cake,
sip cold cider or Early Grey tea,
and lounge upon these prop-up chairs beneath
the lush and shady boughs. They must have smiled,a
as we do now, at some pussyfooting thought
of fruiting trees so far away, of friends calling
beyond the pale of journeyed space and time.
A brilliant day this is: the sun free-falls
at whispering cants from its cranny
in the balmy English sky, and just now
our tongues slip free from their appointed brogue,
turn brown as our mind and skin, rice-loving
and slant-eyed, too. Suddenly,
and for just one chirping instant,
we feel ever so unwelcome here,
this lovely orchard of their dreams and songs,
now a garden of our dark and wordless sigh:
our sadness and sweet longing for home.
The Orchard, Grantchester, 27 July 1999
A CAMBRIDGE JOURNAL
I don't really like to travel, which is not to say I don't like seeing and/or being in different places. It's the "getting there" that wears me out. And my trip to Cambridge was no exception.
First of all, my preparations for the British Council Seminar on the Contemporary British writer, held yearly for ten days in July in Cambridge, England, already told me this was not going to be a very restful trip: the travel orders from my university had not yet been processed, my funding was nowhere in sight, and I couldn't find a bank that would sell me dollars, two days before my scheduled departure. It certainly didn't make things any easier that I'd been suffering from insomnia for at least a week at that time.
But the kinks fixed themselves up in the end. I was one of two Filipino delegates to this international gathering of writers, journalists and scholars, whose sole purpose for going to Cambridge was to listen to Britain's top literary celebrities talk their heads off and be impressive. Luisa Cariño and I certainly didn't mind doing just that: writers are generally their own best and most avid fans, and I for one simply had to meet Antonia Susan Byatt, whose Possession had possessed me a couple of years back. Of course, I wouldn't mind taking in some of the fabled English countryside, fond and mist-covered backdrop of so many scenes from books read and dreams dreamt, and there was supposedly nothing wrong with wanting to see the world.
My flight to Heathrow was via Hong Kong. It arrived at dawn, which turned out to be the start of the British Airways strike, ex-pected to paralyze all the domestic flights of UK's official carrier. No wonder the airport seemed vaguely desolate the way I found it. The instructions from the British Council office in Manila regarding what to do upon my arrival had not been very clear, and I felt quite lost and cold on that balmy English morning, absently pulling my wheelie out of the terminal to what appeared like a bus stop just outside.
I sat on a bench beside a nice old Englishman, who turned out to be an eighty-year-old widower, and he told me what I needed to know. I remember we had an interesting conversation going about the second world war, which he had fought in, and about Australia, from which he had just come, visiting with his daughter's family in Brisbane. Since his retirement from civil service, he would take these trips out of England to the outback every summer. We also talked about the difference between a bus and a coach, which was what I was supposed to take to get to Cambridge. He hadn't himself thought about it until I asked him, and he supposed that coaches were generally bigger than buses, and that they generally traveled out of London.
This small matter of words didn't end with this pleasant disquisition on vehicles of public transport. Throughout the seminar and with the enlightenment of various "natives," I discovered that my claim to English was, and would never be, complete: an ATM machine was a "cashpoint," a rotunda was a "roundabout," "first floor" wasn't the same as "ground floor," and McDonald's didn't have take-out, but "take-away." And certainly, pedestrian crossings had the imperative "Look to the right" painted in bold, white letters for the sake of the stupid, about-to-be-run-over tourist.
On the coach to Cambridge, I could already sense what would later become crystal-clear to me as a kind of British "horticultural" sensibility, manifested best in their inordinate fondness for gardens. It was a splendidly sunny day, the first after weeks of dreadfully wet weather, according to the woman who sounded like Selena Scott on the classical station I had been listening to since Heathrow. And since then, the verdant landscape outside the window had just been too beautiful for words: indeed, much as I wanted to perfectly remember the scene, I had very few words with which to capture the flora of this part of the world. The barley and rye fields rolled graciously along both sides of the highway, interrupted casually by groves of ancient-looking firs, larches and pines, or sinuous patches of shrub-bery teeming with tiny yellow blooms (mustard? rape?) and what looked like nettles and corn flowers. Everything looked almost manicured from where I sat, and the few quaint brick cottages from which wispy trails of smoke lazily rose were like little terracotta figures deco-rating what might be a fantastic fairytale garden.
And Cambridge was one such garden. Or rather, it was a city full of gardens. As the coach made its way through its centuries-old, narrow streets, I noticed that even the most modest-looking house sported a flower-box in front of every window. Larkspurs, pansies, mums, irises, geraniums, peonies, zinnias, cabbage roses. All in full and exquisite bloom. For the moment these were the only ones I could identify, for there were just so many of them! And certainly, other than the flowers, Cambridge impressed me for its buildings, which were mostly Victorian Gothic and Neoclassical in design. Seen for the first time, they immediately lent the place the kind of somber, "scholarly" atmosphere one would expect of an old university town such as this.
The seminar venue was Downing College, one of Cambridge's thirty colleges, founded early in the nineteenth century, from the will of Sir George Downing, a scion of the man after whom the London street on which Britain's Prime Minister has lived for the past 250 years was named. The delegates, all sixty-four of them, were billeted in the many dormitories surrounding the lime tree-lined quadrangle.
Immediately after entering my room, I plopped myself on the bed and promptly fell asleep. I was that tired. When I awoke, I found myself curled up under the sheets, for despite the bright afternoon sunshine, the air was damp and cold. I unpacked, slipped into a fresh change of clothes, and proceeded to look for a restaurant where I could have my late afternoon lunch. I found a nice Frenchy café, Dóme, just down Regent street in front of Downing. The waitress who served me my "prix fixed" meal of lentil soup, lemon chicken and capuccino, looked like one of the Spice Girls. While playing with two plump, blonde and blue-eyed toddlers whose parents were having tea, alfresco, at the back of the restaurant, she looked rather girlishly cute her-self.
This was Wednesday, and the first day of the Seminar. The first activity was an "alcoholic" one, as most other activities would be: drinks in the rose garden of the Master's lodge. I nearly missed it, barely having the time to grab my glass of red wine before everyone made his or her way crunchily on the gravelled path to the dining hall. On the way I started conversing with Jeet, a poet from Calcutta, and it turned out we were each other's first Cambridge friends. His book, Apocalypso, had just been published in England, and we agreed to swap just before the seminar ended.
The dining hall must be the most spacious room in all of the college. It had huge windows, a high Neoclassical ceiling, and larger-than-life portraits of the college's founder, benefactors and famous alumni looming over the place. Dinner was served at 7:30, and for to-night we were dumb witnesses to a peculiar Cambridge ritual: a gong is sounded; everyone stands up; the college fellows, garbed in black togas, file solemnly into the hall; one of them recites a prayer in Latin; everyone sits down. Niccola, the hirsute and petite Italian director who was sitting beside me, later said the man who had said grace did so with the most atrocious accent he'd ever heard. This early in the seminar, it was clear Nick wasn't going to be very generous with his opinions about the English.
After dinner, Luisa and I finally saw each other. She had arrived in England earlier than I did, and had spent half-a-day walking around Central London with the balbas-sarado Father Albert Alejo. Luisa and I would be inseparable from then on, sitting beside each other and getting bored in the sessions together, or playing hookey with Fern and Shalini, two other southeast Asians, from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur respectively, with whom we immediately, if not sometimes desperately, bonded (not to mention, shopped). Like Luisa and me, the other Asians must have found that first English evening rather disorienting: the sky was still light toward 10, and only after half-an-hour did the horizon shade into, not the familiar ashy vermilion, but an almost neon, sparkling bottle-blue.
Christopher Bigsby, seminar chairman, had warned us about the lethal characteristic of the typical English breakfast during introductions the previous night, and we found out what he meant the following morning: you could die from it soon enough. Everything had cheese, butter, cream or milk in it. The portions were huge, despite being served to--more like dumped on--one caffeteria-style. Scrambled, poached or fried egg, English sausage, French toast, ham, salami, shepherd pie, omellete, hash-brown, sweetmeat and every imaginable kind of pudding (black being the mainstay). Lunch wasn't much different: slabs of duck, turkey, lamb, pork, all laved with if not swimming in cream sauce. And certainly, there was the omnipresent potato, costumed variously and coming by fancy franglais names, like chateau. (In gassy dread, I fail to recall the rest). Luckily, they had salads. I remember a picture-taking followed breakfast that first day. No wonder we all look bloated in it.
John Fowles was the first guest. A ruddy-cheeked, salt-and-pepper haired, slow and warm old man, he gave me and Luisa some of our best Cambridge memories. He was, quite simply, a nice and wonderful person, who generously supported the anglophone writers, and wasn't shy about showing this support. I had read only one of his novels, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and even then quite a while back, and right after arriving from England I looked for and bought two other Vintage titles of his available locally, A Maggot and The Ebony Tower. Even now, a full month after the seminar, I still feel it only proper that I read more of his work, especially since he took an interest in my poems after I had read some of them and given him a copy of my book (which he had insisted on buying), greeting me every morning afterward and telling me about the ones he particularly liked.
Actually, his remarks during the interview with Chris Bigsby were the stuff of poetry. He said a lot of amazing things, all of which prefaced by if not couched in astonishingly vivid imagery,. But I can only recall some of them now, and even then, only in paraphrase. John prefers the fugitiveness of gardens. Where he lives in Dorset, he lets his own garden run wild. He thinks the same way about writing: one must not suppress what comes naturally. He doesn't think he consciously strove to become a writer. It somewhat sprang at him from behind, after having thrived and fructified almost imperceptibly under his very nose, like dandelions insinuating themselves into a patch of sweet william and columbines. (In view of memory's fallibility, sadly these similes most probably are all mine).
He also spoke about every writer's singular task, and did so just as beautifully: recently, a particular northern European bird, called the collared dove, has been seen migrating to the rest of Europe and even the American West coast. It coos only at dawn, and if one listened closer, one might almost hear it ask, "Who are you?" This, according to him, is the single most important question in the world, which every writer should ponder. Of course, like with so many things, the Greeks knew this ahead of everybody else: Nosce teipsum, Socrates admonished the known world then. And only the birds seem to have cared to remember.
John's romantic side was not something he felt like hiding. His chivalric view of women made itself known not a few times during his interview. It was rather charming, actually. But its clearest expression came with his controversial declaration that women are the true realists. They are not like men, who traffic in the production of artifice. John was likewise reverential in his attitude toward India, and was rather frank about how badly he felt in regard to the way Britain conducted itself in the presence of such a "great civilization."
The lanky and balding Jim Crace came after John. I never got to talk with him privately, but he was also another writer who ended up distinguishing himself with the delegates. First of all, he proved to be of the wacky sort, cracking jokes that were actually funny. (One had to do with an unwitting bookstore salesman pompously correcting his pronunciation of his own surname: Cra-che, Cra-che, not Crays). And then, he spoke a lot of sense, and, like John, offered some off-hand though pretty wonderful insights about the writing life, which I particularly found impressive.
Crace's latest book, Quarantine, he himself called "not your conventional contemporary English novel." Like his earlier work (the fantastic and critically acclaimed The Continent, for instance), Quarantine uses rhythm rather than idiom, is not set anywhere familiar, is not quite as ironic as the times might insist, and talks more about communities than individuals. In telling us how the idea for the novel came about, Crace illustrated the point he'd been trying to make regarding the "mystery" that attends the process of literary creation, which many senior writers, in giving advice to the younger generation, generally fail to stress.
After his last book, he knew he needed to write about Birmingham, his home city. Over the last half-century, Birmingham has come to serve as England's "cuckoo central," where a number of mental asylums just happened to spring up. And since the latest trend in the management of people afflicted with mental disorders is not to keep them cooped up anymore, and to merely dope them up with prozac or suchlike and set them loose in the world, a visitor to the city cannot fail to notice them walking about the streets in a daze. (Certainly, not all the blokes walking somnambulistically in Birmingham are nutcases: some of them are just university professors if not creative writers on their way to work or play--another well-received joke).
Crace had tried to write a straight, realistic narrative about the loneliness such people must feel, but this wasn't working: he couldn't crank out anything he liked beyond a few pages. And then, one summer, he received a postcard from friends who were touring Israel and other places in the middle east. It showed a side of the mountain to which Jesus, in the Bible, was said to have repaired, and on which he fasted for forty days, and got tempted by the devil. The mountain had been used for such a purpose for centuries before Jesus was even born. Thus, one could see countless little caves carved out of the barren rock-face, where the ancients who wished to talk to their gods spent a definite period of their lives, alone and starving, in quarantine.
Crace looked again at the postcard and knew he had his novel. Who would have guessed he'd end up writing a book set two thousand years in the past--and about JC to boot?! But there it was: the mountain as an archetypal Birmingham. And in this revisionist gospel according to St. Jim, Jesus performs his first miracle unknowingly, while in the midst of his self-imposed exile--and it is a simple act of kindness.
All this should illustrate just how little control we sometimes have over our writing. Crace said that too often writers talk about writing as being like flying a kite: one must know when to rein in, when to let go. All the nitty-gritty and fancy finger-work, in other words. But then, he childishly asked: What if the wind doesn't blow?
Writers must recognize the fact that they cannot make the wind blow if it simply isn't there. This might seem like an irrelevant detail, but it's really at the core of creativity itself: inspiration. And it's always a gift. I bought a copy of Quarantine, but never got Crace to sign it. What can I say?: the man "inspired" me. He also verbalized what I had long wanted to articulate. I teach creative writing at my university, and I've always thought the whole project a little improbable myself: one can only teach so much craft. But dream and the capacity to dream--how does one teach those? Can one?
Booker Prize winner Graham Swift and Carribean-British novelist Caryl Phillips were the speakers for that afternoon. Both impressive in their own smooth-talking ways (not to mention their quirkily good looks), they nonetheless struck me as unnecessarily adopting a "bored" and "I-don't-care-what-you-think-of-me-I-know-I'm- great" pose, and thus putting off many delegates in the end. (Rumor later had it that they were not very sober either). Their attitude problems notwith-standing, I did enjoy their readings, especially Swift's artless, dead-pan delivery of a chapter from his latest book, the award-winning Last Orders.
Australian-born Peter Porter, like the seminar's other invited poets, had the misfortune of coming after dinner. By this time, hardly anyone was in the proper mental frame to pay attention to what was going on. But I did manage to listen to some of Porter's remarks, in particular the "digs" he took at a strain of contemporary American poetry, which he thought had become overly lyrical and "full of stardust." Irish poet Ian Duhig, who came three days later, was the exception among the after-dinner readers: his ditties and bawdy limericks and witty rhymes were just too funny to doze off on. Mercifully that night, this husky-voiced and jolly old man was a riot. An interesting speaker was Terence Hawkes, who started out the morning session of the second day by answering questions from an imaginary lecture on "Hamlet" he hadn't delivered at an earlier time. In the process, he used the names of some of the delegates in vain (including--surprise, surprise!--my own), alongside those of celebrities as improbable as Maggie Thatcher and the pope. I understood this had been his traditional role in the seminar for the last few years, providing some food for thought to the delegates just before the British Council took them for a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the current Royal Shakespeare Company production.
Hawkes's basic point, if I remember it right, is that it is of little use to see contemporary stagings of Shakespeare's plays in order to appreciate their original "beauty," since the fundamental historical context has ineluctably, irreparably, changed between then and now. For instance, the original staging concept of Elizabethan theater allowed the actors to be amongst the audience, thereby enabling them to soliloquize about the play. Thus, the dramatic logic of Shakespeare's time collapsed the distinction between the actor and the role he was playing.
We must also understand that "Hamlet" was meant to be not about individuality, but sociality: it proposes that reason can be undermined, that rational society is never secure, that truth lies not in the law but in lore. These are values that rarely get considered in contemporary criticisms of the play. Very often, in fact, such criticisms commit the anachronistic mistake of reading late modern meanings into an early modern text. At the end of his talk, I thought what he really said was this: the best way to "know" Shakespeare's plays is to go to a library and read all about Renaissance history. But--I quickly caught myself thinking--aren't textual interpretations necessarily appropriations, and thus, isn't every staging of "Hamlet" already a specific version of it, informed less by its "classical virtues" than the obtaining ethos of the times?
This personal thought became everyone's by the end of the next day. The version we were made to see was selfconsciously that: by locating "Hamlet" in the 1920's, in the household of a nonspecific albeit tellingly British monarch, it didn't pretend it could ever approximate the original Shakespearean tragedy. On the contrary, it seemed to revel in its palpable difference from all the other stagings of the "same" play. Competently acted and employing the latest in multimedia theater technology, this production nonetheless de-fanged the play's politics--for starters, the foreigner king who otherwise ends it had been eliminated altogether--and imparted a Hollywoodish gloss to the text. The value "Hamlet" now enshrined was brotherly devotion and familial harmony! The teary tableau with which it ended had faithful Horatio cradling the lifeless body of his beloved friend, while a video clip of a boy tussling in the snow with his father played on a white tapestry downstage. So much for the stiff upper lip: the Brits can be as soap operatic as the rest of us when they want to be!
The play we saw might have dispappointed, but Stratford itself didn't. How could it? Everywhere one looked one saw baskets bursting with red, yellow, pink, purple and white flowers hanging from every lamppost, gabled brick houses and curious-looking curio shops (in one of which Luisa and I labored over brass rubbings to serve as pasalubong for loved ones back home), imposing bronze monuments and meticulously preserved shrines to the bard, and on the river, resplendent swans gliding coolly over the calm water. Luisa, I, and Mark (a poet from Barbados), ended up walking around town right after the play, pausing once in a while to remark on the noisy goings-on by the river, the particular purple showiness of a flower patch, or on the strange behavior of a tourist taking pictures of the haughty blooms from different, awkward angles.
Another special memory came about from the trip going there. On the coach to Stratford I sat beside Michael, an American. He has a weekly radio show in LA, called "Bookworm," for which he interviews authors about their latest works. The first time we talked was when I had myself listed down to participate in the readings of the overseas fellows, an activity of which he had taken charge. I liked him right away: tall and chunky, softspoken, and lovably oafish. But that cross-country trip--a two-hour treat of rolling flower-dappled fields, lazily grazing cattle and sheep, and centuries-old manors moving gently past the double-decker coach's generous viewing windows--af-forded us the opportunity to get to know each other better.
Michael and I were, from the point of view of self-disclosure and as far as we could tell, the only gays in the batch. Of course, the tall and handsome Spanish actor, Antonio, had carelessly told me over lunch the other day that he had just finished writing a gay novel--but he had effectively disappeared since that afternoon, and was nowhere to be found. This saddened me, since I had fancied we would become very good friends, and since I feared I might have had something to do with his absconding. The last time we talked it was beginning to rain and we were hurrying to get inside the newly constructed Howard building, where the sessions were being held. He told me that an expression exists in Spain about the Philippines, referring to the most grim and determined guests at a party who are the last the leave, "los ultimos Filipinos!" The allusion is to the last Spanish soldiers (called funnily, in Spain, Filipinos) who didn't give up the fight against the local insurrectos at the turn of the century.
Without meaning to offend, I supplemented if not rectified his knowledge of Philippine history: the Spanish governor-general, faced with overwhelming defeat at the hands of the natives, chose to surrender to the Americans whose battleships had docked in Manila Bay. That's how racist the Spanish in my country were, I blithely said: they'd just as soon die than give themselves up to the indios. Antonio looked puzzled at my having said this, his large sea-green eyes slanting as he smiled, and set off to disappear into the tourist-crowded city just outside Downing, lost in the freezing late afternoon drizzle. And that was the last I ever saw of him.
But Michael was simply divine! He and I fell to talking about our--of all things--deceased grandmothers. He called his "Queen Rose," and believed she inhabits her own queendom in heaven, of the same glory as and on an even keel with the Blessed Virgin. He had been meaning to write a novel about her, and the many miracles she'd wrought on the life of her fairy grandson and even his fairy friends. (Such as when a close friend dying of AIDS had said he would relay to Queen Rose, once on the other side, Michael's wish to land a decent job. And within a week of this friend's death, Michael bagged the slot for "Bookworm.") I confessed to being big on ancestor worship myself. When I was very young, my maternal grandmother doted on me: of all her apo, I was her shameless favorite. But when I was around eight, lola Nena had fallen ill and after a short but acute wasting-away period, passed away. I felt orphaned: she had been, for all intents and purposes, my mother, and I deeply mourned her loss. Before her illness, she'd promised to buy me a bicycle, but never got to fulfill it. Not until around a week after her burial, that is. In what fondly strikes me now as an example of "gift-giving-from-beyond-the-grave," I was said to have shouted out, in my sleep one humid evening in my parents' bed, the three winning numbers of the next day's jai-alai. (My father had heard and taken note of the numbers, and bet on them). And the prize money was just enough for the bike I'd been promised.
The friendship Michael and I forged during that wonderful coach-ride across the English countryside, would most likely last a lifetime, I thought, not the least because it was warmed with the fires of such precious, if not spooky, memories.
Cambridge wasn't all flowers and literariness, though. Soon enough, a group of us--well, basically the southeast Asians, with the exception of Dinah, a sprightly and beautiful young Egyptian, whose mother was a delegate and who found our company not at all boring as most literary crowds she'd seen must be--started skipping sessions, and taking long leisurely strolls around town.
We had nearly the same objective everytime we did so: shopping! Like every other tourist city, Cambridge never had shops further apart than a few steps, and so there wasn't a dearth of places to choose from. The bookstores were the first stop: Waterstones, Dillons, and a number of second-hand shops. Heffers has three branches in Cambridge: the one nearest Downing specializes in paperbacks; an office supplies shop is found further down the road; and the biggest, somewhere near Kings College and the Cambridge University Book store, boasts veritable troves of titles, including those in hardcover and difficult to find.
It is to this branch that the British Council took the delegates one arrid afternoon, for a reception of sorts. (The more catty of us suspected the real reason for this side-trip to Heffers was to make sure every last pence the Council had doled out for our book allowance was going to be returned to the British economy!) Luisa and I had decided to tarry in Downing (she to open her e-mail, I to rest my aching feet), and we had a difficult time finding it on our own. Not only did we get lost part of the way, mayflies or some other silver-and-green-winged midges were in opulent evidence in the air: for a while it looked as though we were smack dab in the middle of bug central, as we shielded our eyes with our palms and kept our mouths closed in fear of inadvertently enjoying an exotic insect meal whirring far abroad around us. By the time we got to Heffers, the others had quite demolished their allowance (as well as the cocktails), while we were frantically shaking off the tinsel-colored shucks from our hair and clothes.
Several trips downtown saw us buying everything from tea--at Whittard's, where I got Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Passion flower, and the Sticky Toffee Pudding I've been enjoying every morning for the past week--to bargain shoes, sweat shirts and shawls, Bodyshop toiletries (including the peppermint foot lotion I badly needed), to tapes of Celtic tunes and songs, book plates, coffee mugs, and other such predictable, touristy stuff. A guided walking tour of the city had taken us inside some of the older colleges where we were apprised of and generally impressed by their history, their Nobel prize-winning alumni, their architecture, and their gardens (not necessarily in that order) distinguished by softly lapping brooks that poured into ancient ponds on which black-billed ducks padded in neat rows, and around which Madonna lilies and forget-me-nots thrived in simultaneously careless and polite efflorescence. And after this tour, we decided to explore the city a little more on our own.
One such memorable exploration took us to the river Cam, whose banks almost every other famous Cambridge college had a piece of, like Kings, Trinity, Clare, St. John's, and Magdalene (pronounced, to our collective chagrin, as maudlin). I had been threatening to leave Shalini, the chirpiest if not loudest among us, who I kidded with and truly came to love, somewhere at the bottom of this river since we first saw it, but now that we were getting punted on it by Matthew, a six-foot-tall and fair-haired New Zealander strangely summering in England, I realized that there was very little one could do with a five-foot deep river. (One couldn't drown anyone in it so easily, for instance). I decided that clinging to a pole that had gotten stuck in the silt presented an altogether cheerier prospect, and proceeded to suggest that Shalini set out to accomplish the task. Needless to say, we all went to town on that brilliant morning, alternately bitching, casting random and provocative looks at our tall, blonde and able-bodied punter, remarking on the beauty of the riverside masonry as well as the willows weeping themselves silkenly into the water, and sucking on the strawberries and cherries Fern had bought at the fruit market in the center of town. We didn't want to miss the next sessions, with Margaret Drabble and David Lodge, and in an hour that funny and far-from-romantic fluvial ride was over all too soon. Drabble read something from her latest work (since we arrived late I didn't catch its title). The passage I remember hearing had to do with a man looking for a particular scent in the perfumes section of a posh department store. The sales person, a rather homely woman, had agreed to wear the fancied scent on her wrist at his request. Drabble limned the scene as a split-screen movie: on one hand, the woman was beginning to fantasize a desirability that she didn't in fact possess; on the other hand, the man had inhaled the subtle fragrance, relished its floral undertones and delicately woodsy over-tones, and inadvertently and to his own surprise been reminded of a corpse (Drabble's rather mordant take on necrophilia, one presumes). I don't know about the other delegates, but I for one liked the utter meanness of it.
Drabble said she had been influenced the most by novels from the nineteenth century, although this influence showed itself in her own work as her characters' invariable contemporary disaffection with the past. Moreover, the brand of fiction for which she is mostly known--social realism--is not an altogether accurate ascription, she now thought, since even her earliest novels always already manifested occasional though largely unobtrusive departures from the realist frame (such as when, on instinct rather than by dint of habit, she would comment on her characters' actions just like that). She said her next book would be about the strange and inexorable dealings of fate constantly going on inside the human DNA.
I thought David Lodge's play, of which he and his wife read excerpts, was uproariously funny. (It satirized the genre of the literary interview, and bristled by turns with irony and sex). The rest of the speakers were all very good, too. Rose Tremain, whom John Fowles had said he admired and trusted to make a filmscript of one of his later novels, Daniel Martin, read parts from her most recent work, The Way I Loved Her. She had decided to write this novel, a coming-of-age story told from the point of view of a 16-year-old boy, with a bizarre and violent twist somewhere at the end, as a response to Paris, in which she had stayed for a year while studying at the Sorbonne. (The novel "happens" in Paris, needless to say). This was also a departure from the "idyllic" environs in which her previous works had been set--such as Sacred Country, which I bought a copy of and asked her to sign in the dining hall. This book interested me because it talks about the life of a six-year-old girl from rural Suffolk who is suddenly revealed to be a boy. I had the opportunity to talk with her after lunch, and thought she was just as beautiful and intelligent up close.
The session with Doris Lessing didn' go well, though. There was an infernal engine droning just outside the building, which necessitated that we close all the windows, or else no one would hear her. After a while, however, we were all falling asleep because of lack of oxygen and the heat, but it was too late, Lessing had finished reading--more like rushing through--her story and an excerpt from the second part of her forthcoming autobiography. Anyhow, I asked her to sign my copy of her last novel, Love, Again, thinking it would become much more precious once she had become a Nobel laureate. (News had it she'd been in the running for some time now, and was bound to get it someday). A week after arriving from Cambridge, though, I decided to bequeath this book to Ophie, a mentor and dear friend. critic and staunch defender of tradition, Sir Frank Kermode, got my goat (as well as many others'), because he irresponsibly took to task contemporary literary criticism (and a smattering of what indeed sounded like incompetent critics) for rejecting "close reading," and thereby reducing literature to the same status as a bus ticket or a menu. As a reaction, some delegates took issue with Kermode's hasty generalization, pointing out the convenience of citing only bad critics and completely overlooking the good ones. (Michael stated that just as there are bad writers, there most certainly are bad critics. And yet, no one's about to condemn writing or writers in general, because of this.)
I raised the point that while one might concede that the race for theory in the academe has sometimes been at the expense of literature--so much so that it is not perfectly uncommon for students nowadays to be trafficking in the jargon of theory and passing their subjects, without actually having to read literary texts or at least to do so responsibly--this in itself does not prove theory is essentially harmful to literature.
For why, indeed, is it that many of the best critics are theorists, who seem to be themselves producing works of art, who are given to rhapsodic moments of linguistic ebullience, to metaphor-building, to something that comes close to literature, in their own texts? It might be--mightn't it?--that the new practitioners of literature, the new craftsmen and craftswomen of the written word, have come to include the critics themselves. In fact, there would seem to be the same if not a comparable pleasure that accrues to one as one writes criticism these days. Or else why are there so many people (some of whom are also writers) into it? To this Kermode merely replied that the "theory" I was proposing--of criticism folding back, by the action of some magical device, into literature--was at the very least an interesting one, but that I didn't really get his whole point, after all. Oh well...
Another champion of tradition, George Steiner, failed to connect with most of the delegates. He founded the BC Cambridge Seminars, and was our penultimate speaker. I must admit he spoke with such authority and elegance in his voice that I for one had to sit back and seriously consider every word he was saying. But in the end, I largely disagreed with his brash apotheosizing of natural science and scientists, whom writers can scarcely approximate, in his opinion, because many of them would rather write about domestic and sadly parochial concerns, like love and the family. In the meantime, "what really matters" --oh no! dare he say, the Truth?--is being constantly discovered if not invented in all of the world's laboratories. (How convenient of him, I thought, to forget just how science had itself spurred the Holocaust--Nazi eugenics was arguably a crude but almost fully effectual deployment of genetic engineering--and produced the A-bomb).
The two junior writers who talked in the Seminar also deserve mention in this "journal." Jonathan Coe, who came with his wife, read from his latest book, The House of Sleep, a novel exploring the tension between the dreaming and waking life. All its major characters are afflicted with sleeping disorders, and the book itself aims to mimick the weird structure of fantasies and dreams. Irish Glenn Paterson took the cake for being the bawdiest and funniest among all the guests. He read from a couple of his works, including one of his earlier novels, an excerpt sordidly detailing the first sexual experience of a teenage boy with a "millie" (a big, horny and brash Irish girl who bullies guys just for kicks) at the back of a moving bus. It/he was hilarious. By the time he finished, everyone in the room was in stitches.
Of course, AS Byatt blew us all away. She gave her talk on my birthday. (Yes, this was the first time I spent my birthday away from home, and with my closest Cambridge friends got myself pleasantly tipsy on the college green, under a linden tree, visited by a rodent the size of a hefty tomcat, after a sumptuous Thai dinner of rice and spicy noodles that we'd all missed like crazy, singing Broadway tunes to the high arctic winds and the gibbous pastel moon). But it was Luisa who received the best gift that day: Byatt had heard her read her poems the previous night, and when Luisa asked for an autograph after her talk, Byatt paid her the ultimate compliment one writer could give to another. On a bookplate she wrote, "To Luisa, with admiration, AS Byatt." I had to hold Luisa down, for she nearly floated to the ceiling after reading this inscription. I felt happy for and proud of my friend.
Byatt read from two of her latest books. The first one was a humorous and naughty scene from the title piece in her book of fairy stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. But since I'd read that story before, I wasn't much moved by this particular reading, although I must admit she did it impeccably. (Most writers don't read out loud very well, but clearly Byatt was an exception). It was the excerpt from her latest novel, Babel Tower, that transfixed me, simply because it demonstrated just how masterful a writer she really was: it would seem, apart from the philosophical depth and narrative complexity of her works, it was her supreme command of words that made her stand out from among her contemporaries (certainly including Drabble, the half-sister with whom she is well known to have suffered a bitter falling-out). Indeed, all things being equal between two writers, it is the one who knows more proper nouns who stands a greater chance of achieving something genuine.
That morning, Byatt showed beyond doubt she possessed in full measure that rare Adamic gift to call--which is to say, name--the world. In Babel Tower, Byatt weds ancient myths, a fastidious knowledge of the life-cycle and habits of snails, and her love of telling stories about the intensity of familial devotion, with the sensousness of contemporary sensibility. In the segment she read from "Babbletower" (the novel within Babel Tower, literally about the affairs of a band of "Beautiful People" who set out to found a utopia in the middle of a forest, but really an allegory about issues of public education, sex, individual freedom, etc., during the novel's narrative present, the 1960s), a boy has disappeared from the camp without a trace, and his mother, the Lady Mavis, has decided to bake a cake in the shape of a man for everyone to feast on.
Byatt renders this cake in ludic terms, investing her description with the power of summoning tastes and colors and textures only she possibly can concoct: "a great form composed of smaller forms, custards and tartlets, marzipan sweetmeats and blackmanges, jellies and syllabubs, mincemeats and flummeries, fools and darioles, mirlitons and millefeuilles. Its head was crowned with a circlet of tarts, of cockscombs, and the flesh of its body was all veined and contoured and dimpling, made of peaches and cream here, and slices of quince there, blueberry veinings and blackberry flushes. The face was whipped cream and meringue with rosepetal pies for cheeks and huge lips plump and red with apple- cheeks and cranberry froth opening on an oval tart of baked larks' tongues, surrounded by sugared almond teeth. The eyes had sloeberry tartlets for pupils, and greengage jelly for the iris, flecked with vanilla, and white syllabub slicked round that, fringed with lashes of burned spun sugar..."
You can imagine just how deliciously she let these words roll off her tongue while reading this, as well as the rest of the passage which goes on to explain why the Lady Mavis cooked up such a feast (in accordance with an ancient Babylonian myth, and to prepare for her self-immolation that she hoped would restore the innocence the disappearance of her son told her had been lost by the community). Perversely enough, this sequence ends with the image of the Lady Mavis hurtling from the tower to her death, "her skirts tumbling around her face, her stately legs scissoring the air in their lace-edged drawers. And her head hit a sharp rock, like a snail dropped by a thrush, and burst apart..." I asked her about how in her fairy stories she was really telling stories about stories, foregrounding, as most contemporary story tellers characteristically do, the artifactual nature of texts. (In the "Eldest Princess," for example, her character is conscious of the script she is following, while in "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye," the character actually studies stories for a living!) And yet, the magic and enchantment of her stories don't seem to be diminished at all by this textual self-reflexivity, this "made-upness," an aware-ness of the frame of the window rather than just the view. From what alternative alchemy, what new "poetic faith," did she suppose she derived the magic of her works?
She said that even when she was a child, she never once forgot that stories were just stories, which didn't of course mean she didn't find them magical. The metafictional comment to be found in her works is just a contemporary sophistication, she surmised, and does not really alter the dynamic relationship between art and life, between stories and reality. Perhaps the need for story-telling is as elemen-tal as our need for food, I thought... I knew I was getting hungry for another kind of nutriment, and the tragedy was I found someone who might have given it to me only on the seminar's second-to-the-last day.
M. is a poet beside whom I ended up sitting on the bus going to Sheen Mill, a restaurant just outside Cambridge where we were to have dinner that night. He had always intrigued me during the sessions, for he never spoke. He was painfully shy, I guessed, barely even smiling at anyone and always sitting in the back. But on the bus, he and I fell to talking. I found out that he too writes poems, that he speaks little English (so that's why!), that his two poetry books are about the lives of the people around him, particularly of friends who work in his city's red-light district near where he lives. He complimented me about the poems I'd read a few days before, and thought it strange yet true that poems could sometimes have punchlines, like jokes. (He had in mind my poem "The Conversion," which I told them was inspired by a joke I'd seen getting cracked by an uproariously funny faggot on primetime TV back home).
Although M. and I got together some more the next day, I regretted that we hadn't met earlier on. I'd have loved to share many more meaningful moments with him. (I felt like we were doing our own "Before Sunrise" in the wrong country). On the last day, just after breakfast, as I was lugging my book-laden bag out of the dormitory, he came up to me, we held hands for a while in the freezing drizzle, and said goodbye. It felt like we'd never see each other again. We wished each other well and all the best, just in case.
While most of the delegates took the plane home that awfully cold and wet morning, Luisa and I stayed for two more days in town, blowing like a storm into the life of Mahar Lagmay, a Filipino taking up graduate studies in Geology, with whom we'd linked up a couple of days before, and who proved to be a really nice and wonderful guy still and all. He graciously let us stay with him in his room in one of the student housing units at the ourskirts of the city.
Luisa and I had meant to go to London. In particular, I would have wished to see my friend, Paul Bailey. But by the end of the seminar, we were just too tired and balked at the very idea of doing anything that vaguely resembled traveling across great distances. Besides, there were still other places in town worth seeing. Mahar took us the next day, which had thankfully turned sunny, to the University Botanic Gardens, just a stone's throw away from his house. Funny, but Luisa and I immediately thought of doing the same thing: take down names of the park's various specimens of flora, in the hope that they might end up in a poem someday.
Unlike her, I haven't any poems to show for our day of looking and scribbling in that place, nor for my trip to Cambridge in general. But I remember marvelling at the variety of plants and trees--and birds--inside the sprawling and verdant complex of limestone, scented, winter, tropical, summer, medieval, whatever, gardens. Some of the more remarkable species were the purple and bug-infested campanula, the pointy digitalis, gentians of varying colors (I hadn't known there were red and white gentians!), sylvester tulip, the immaculate narcissus sweetness, pink "spiked star of Bethlehem," the five-petalled iris, purple powder-puff-looking hesperis, and the ubiquitous and aromatic lavenders that Luisa fancied and of which she snapped off wisps to press between the pages of her diary.
We were also amazed by the massive bole and spreading canopy of the "cedar of Lebanon," the crazy-looking "Monkey Puzzle" tree, its branches resembling the twisting arms of a brittle starfish, and the "Cyclops tree," Betula coerulea, an eye ogling us from its pale, brindled trunk. A "camomile seat" promised to sweeten the vilest rump (English manors used to have them for just such a purpose!), and a "turf bench" recalled images of knights and damsels gambolling all over the flowery mead. Scattered everywhere inside the park were benches with the names of garden-loving people, their last wish being to leave something of themselves behind amongst the green, blooming things that they cherished. A circle of such memorial benches surrounded a splendid fountain, where we paused and listened to the birds--rook? finch? thrush?--gossiping implacably among the trees.
It's strange how despite everything I can remember about my stay in Cambridge--and I must say, with not a little surprise, that I can recall much more than I already have, with self-indulgence, put here--the experience itself seems to have turned ineffable by now, dreamy almost. Did it happen at all? Like a book once entered and left, my trip to this city, that nice little clearing in the fens, has turned into a blurry indistinct feeling, something of a dull and chirping pain, perched upon the shoulders of my remembering.
J. Neil C. Garcia teaches at the Department of English and Comparative Literature in UP Diliman. He recently came out with a book of essays, Closet Queeries (Anvil Publishing). He has two poetry collections, Closet Quivers (Kalikasan, 1992) and Our Lady of the Carnival (UP Press, 1996). His critical study, Philippine Gay Culture: The Last Thirty Years (UP Press, 1996) received a National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle. He is the editor of the forthcoming The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism, 1991-1996 (UP Press, 1997).