Issue 51, Spring 1971
In the garden, standing alone, he found the young woman who was a friend of the writer William Hedges, then unknown but even Kafka had lived in obscurity, she said, and so moreover had Mendel, perhaps she meant Mendeleyev. They were staying in a little hotel across the Rhine. No one could seem to find it, she said.
The river there flowed swiftly, the surface was alive. It carried things away, broken wood and branches. They turned, went under, emerged. Sometimes pieces of furniture passed, ladders, windows. Once, in the rain, a chair.
They were living in the same room, but it was completely platonic. Her hand bore no ring, no jewelry of any kind. Her wrists were bare.
“He doesn’t like to be alone,” she said. “He’s struggling with his work.” It was a novel, still far from finished though parts were extraordinary. A fragment had been published in Rome. “It’s called The Goetheanum,” she said. “Do you know what that is?”
He tried to remember the curious word already dissolving in his mind. The lights inside the house had begun to appear in the blue evening.
“It’s the one great act of his life.”
The hotel she had spoken of was small with small rooms and letters in yellow across the facade. There were many buildings like it. From the cool flank of the cathedral it was visible among them, below and a little downstream. Also through the windows of antique shops and alleys.
Two days later he saw her from a distance. She was unmistakable. She moved with a kind of spent grace, like a dancer whose career is ended. The crowd ignored her.
“Oh,” she said, “yes, hello.”
Her voice seemed vague. He was sure she did not recognize him. He didn’t know exactly what to say,
“I was thinking about some of the things you told me … ” he began.
She stood with people pushing past her, her arms filled with packages. The street was hot. She did not understand who he was, he was certain of it. She was performing simple errands, those of a remote and saintly couple.
“Forgive me,” she said, “I’m really not myself.”
“We met at Sarren’s,” he explained.
“Yes, I know.” A silence followed. He wanted to say something quite simple to her but she was preventing it.
She had been to the museum. When Hedges worked he had to be alone, sometimes she would find him asleep on the floor.
“He’s crazy,” she said. “Now he’s sure there’ll be a war. Everything’s going to be destroyed.”
Her own words seemed to disinterest her. The crowd was putting her away.
“Can I walk with you for a minute?” he asked. “Are you going towards the bridge?”
She looked both ways.
“Yes,” she decided.
They went down the narrow streets. She said nothing. She glanced in shop windows. She had a mouth which curved downwards, a serving girl’s mouth, a girl from small towns. “Are you interested in painting?” he heard her ask.
In the museum there were Holbein’s and Holder’s, El Greco’s, Max Ernst. The silence of long salons. In them one understood what it meant to be great.
“Do you want to go tomorrow?” she said. “No, tomorrow we’re going somewhere. What about the day after?”
Thursday. He woke early, he was already nervous. The room seemed empty. The sky was yellow with light. The surface of the river, between stone banks, was incandescent. The water rushed in fragments white as fire, at their center one could not even look.
By nine the sky had faded, the river was broken into silver. At ten it was brown, the color of soup. Barges and old-fashioned steamers were working slowly upstream or going swiftly down. The piers of the bridges trailed small wakes.
A river is the soul of a city, only water and air can purify. At Basel, the Rhine lies between well-established, stone banks. The trees are carefully trimmed, the old houses hidden behind them.
He looked for her everywhere. He crossed the Rheinbrucke and, watching faces, went to the open market through the crowds. He searched among the stalls. Women were buying flowers, they boarded streetcars and sat with the bunches in their laps. In the Borse restaurant fat men were eating, their ears were close to their heads.
She was nowhere to be found. He even entered the cathedral, expecting for a moment to find her waiting in the great, holy coolness. There was no one. The city was turning to stone. The pure hour of sunlight had passed, there was nothing left now but a raging afternoon that burned his feet. The clocks struck three. He gave up and returned to the hotel. There was an edge of white paper in his box. It was a note, she would meet him at four.
In excitement he lay down to think. She had not forgotten.
He read it again. Were they really meeting in secret? He was not certain what that meant. Hedges was forty, he had almost no friends, his wife was somewhere back in Connecticut, he had left her, he had renounced the past. If he was not great, he was following the path of greatness which is the same as disaster, and he had the power to make one devote oneself to his life. She was with him constantly. I’m never out of his sight, she complained. Nadine: it was a name she had chosen herself.
She was late. They ended up going to tea at five o’clock; Hedges was busy reading English newspapers. They sat at a table over the river, the menus in their hands long and slim as airline tickets. She seemed very calm. He wanted to keep looking at her, he couldn’t. Hummersalat, he was reading somehow, rumpsteak. She was very hungry, she announced. She had been at the museum, the paintings made her ravenous.
“Where were you?” she said.
Suddenly he realized she had expected him. There were young couples strolling the galleries, their legs washed in sunlight. She had wandered among them. She knew quite well what they were doing: they were preparing for love. His eyes slipped.
“I’m starving,” she said.
She ate asparagus, then a goulash soup, and after that a cake she did not finish. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps they had no money, she and Hedges, that it was her only meal of the day.
“No,” she said. “William has a sister who’s married to a very rich man. He can get money there.”
It seemed she had the faintest accent. Was it English? “I was born in Genoa,” she told him.
She quoted a few lines of Valery which he later found out were incorrect. Afternoons torn by wind, the stinging sea … She adored Valery. An anti-Semite, she said.
She described a trip to Dornach, it was forty minutes away by streetcar, then a long walk from the station where she had stood arguing with Hedges about which way to go, it always annoyed her that he had no sense of direction. It was uphill, he was soon out of breath.
Dornach had been chosen by the teacher Rudolf Steiner to be the center of his realm. There, not far from Basel, beyond the calm suburbs, he had dreamed of establishing a community with a great, central building to be named after Goethe, whose ideas had inspired it, and in 1913 the cornerstone for it was finally laid. The design was Steiner’s own, as were all the details, techniques, the paintings, the specially engraved glass. He invented its construction just as he had its shape.
It was to be built entirely of wood, two enormous domes which intersected, the plot of that curve itself was a mathematical event. Steiner believed only in curves, there were no right angles anywhere. Small, tributary domes like helmets contained the windows and doors. Everything was wood, everything except the gleaming Norwegian slates that covered the roof. The earliest photographs showed it surrounded by scaffolding like some huge monument, in the foreground were groves of apples trees. The construction was carried on by people from all over the world, many of them abandoned professions and careers. By the spring of 1914 the roof timbers were in position, and while they were still laboring the war broke out. From the nearby provinces of France they could actually hear the rumble of cannon. It was the hottest month of summer.
She showed him a photograph of a vast, brooding structure.
“The Goetheanum,” she said.
He was silent. The darkness of the picture, the resonance of the domes had begun to invade him. He submitted to it as to the mirror of a hypnotist. He could feel himself slipping from reality. He did not struggle. He longed to kiss the fingers which held the postcard, the lean arms, the skin which smelled like lemons. He felt himself trembling, he knew she could see it. They sat like that, her gaze was calm. He was entering the grey, the Wagnerian scene before him which she might close at any moment like a matchbox and replace in her bag. The windows resembled an old hotel somewhere in middle Europe. In Prague. The shapes sang to him. It was a fortification, a terminal, an observatory from which one could look into the soul.
“Who is Rudolf Steiner?” he said.
He hardly heard her explanation. He was beginning to have ecstasies. Steiner was a great teacher, a savant who believed deep insights could be revealed in art. He believed in movements and mystery plays, rhythms, creation, the stars. Of course. And somehow from this she had him a scenario. She had become the illusionist of Hedge’s life.
It was Hedges, the convict Joyce scholar, the rumpled ghost at literary parties, who had found her. He was distant at first, he barely spoke a word to her the night they met. She had not been in New York long then. She was living on Twelfth Street in a room with no furniture. The next day the phone rang. It was Hedges. He asked her to lunch. He had from known from the first exactly who she was, he said. He was calling from a phone booth, the traffic was roaring past.
“Can you meet me at Haroot’s?” he said.
His hair was uncombed, his fingers stained. He was sitting by the wall, too nervous to look at anything except his hands. She became his companion.
They spent long days together wandering in the city. He wore shirts the color of blue ink, he bought her clothes. He was wildly generous, he seemed to care nothing for money, it was crumpled in his pockets like waste paper, when he paid for things it would fall on the floor. He made her come to restaurants where he was dining with this wife and sit at the bar so he could watch her while they ate.
Slowly he began her introduction to another world, a world which scorned exposure, a world more rich than the one she knew, certain occult books, philosophies, even music. She discovered she had a talent for it, an instinct. She achieved a kind of power over herself. There were periods of deep affection, serenity. They sat in a friend’s house and listened to Scriabin. They ate at the Russian Tea Room, the waiters knew his name. Hedges was performing an extraordinary act, he was fusing her life. He, too, had found a new existence: he was a criminal at last. At the end of a year they came to Europe.
“He’s intelligent,” she said. “You feel it immediately. He has a mind that touches everything.”
“How long have you been with him?”
“Forever,” she said.
They walked back towards her hotel in that one, dying hour which ends the day. The trees by the river were black as stone. Wozzeck was playing at the theater to be followed by The Magic Flute. In the print shops were maps of the city and drawings of the famous bridge as it looked in Napoleon’s time. The banks were filled with newly minted coins. She was strangely silent. They stopped once, before a restaurant with a tank of fish, great speckled trout larger than a shoe lazing in green water, their mouths working slowly. Her face was visible in the glass like a woman’s on a train, indifferent, alone. Her beauty was directed towards no one. She seemed not to see him, she was lost in her thoughts. Then, coldly, without a word, her eyes met his. They did not waver. In that moment he realized she was worth everything.