Thursday, June 30, 2011

Traveling in the Past

Alice B. Toklas once said something like: "I don't travel anymore ... except in the past."  That's what I'll do today, inspired by someone's sending me a picture of Rudolf Nureyev's grave.

It was 1999. Mark and I went to St. Maartens. I got crushes on four different Jamaican girls who worked at various jobs on the island. There was Dorothy, and there was Ruth, and then there was Albertha. Not Alberta -- Albertha.  Later in the week there was Princess Ferron. First name, middle name. I forget what Princess Ferron's last name was. Or maybe I didn't ask. I just said, "Princess .. what a beautiful name!"

Princess Ferron seemed to like my name quite as much as I liked hers.  It is her father's name too. "George is a very strong name," she said.

She liked Mark's name as well. "From the gospels! Are you gentle?" she asked Mark, and then, turning to me, asked, "Is he gentle?"

"Yes," I said, and then, recalling a few incidents of a swiftly risen temper within Mark, said, "Well .. not always!"  Princess Ferron rewarded me with a beautiful dark-skinned white-toothed musical laughter.

I was always swooning listening to the lovely lilting English of these Jamaican girls.  It was music.  I thought that I should perhaps go to Jamaica and hear it all the time all around me, but when I asked Princess why she was on St. Maartens instead of at home in Jamaica she said, "Because it is so quiet here and you don't hear shots ring out in the night."
We sailed across the blue sea for an hour and three-quarters on a catamaran to the island of Saint Barthélemy. Eighty degrees. Hot sun.

We buy a van tour of the island. Ten bucks.

On a high cliff on the western tip of the island is a wonderfully cozy house snuggled close to the edge of a cliff that descends sheerly to the sea.  The house is close to the road and the view from it is magnificent. Its situation between the road and the sea intensifies its cozy esthetic. I long to move into it. The driver slows down a bit. "This house," he announces, "belonged to Rudolph Nureyev, you know, the dancer." My insides start jumping around. I stare at the house for as long as possible. Carved into the wooden gate, in a lovely script, and in idiosyncratic spelling, I read: Roody Nooreyev.

Looking back I see there is a quote carved into a wall of the house. It's in French. I call out to the driver, "Can you translate what that says on the house?" He is busy chatting with the attractive woman he's placed next to him up front. "No, I can't," he lies.

I want to yell, "Why the fuck not?" because the woman next to him is French; she and the driver have been chatting away in French since the tour began.

It's just the way I am but I felt it was imperative that I know what the great dancer had had inscribed on his house. I felt cheated. I didn't want to be, as I was, just a tourist driving past, but rather to have time reversed and to be with Nureyev in that house, to gaze with him at the stupendous view. I recall those news items from those sixties jet-set days and who Rudy's pals were. I wondered if Princess Margaret had come to party in this house. Margot Fonteyn? Me?

No. And today Rudy is six years dead and I am in a rickety van on a bumpy road on a tiny Caribbean island, and I am without the chutzpah to demand that the van be stopped and I be let out so that I can copy the quote for myself and have my brother translate it for me later.

We are, after all, a van load of international tourists. For a novelist, we probably could be the framework of a mini-version of Porter's Ship of Fools. None of us can be in that big of a rush. It occurs to me anyhow that I haven't even brought a pen or pencil. The van picks up speed. The house disappears when we round a curve.

[By now of course, twelve years later, Google has been devised. It takes me seconds to pull up a picture of that house and read: Je ne suis pas fait pour vivre en societe: c'est artificiel. It takes me another few seconds for Babelfish to translate: "I am not made to live in society: it is artificial."]
After the tour ends we walk into the little town. We eat at a restaurant Jimmy Buffet opened here, the legend being that because when he'd initially docked at the island he was irritated because there was no place to buy a cheeseburger. Another patron informed us that Buffet "wrote a song about it."

Could be a good song but the cheeseburgers we were served were lousy. Dumb tourists we are. We walk around the town afterwards and run across three or four other places that all look perfectly inviting and non-tourist-trappy. We go in an adorable little place that serves coffee and ice cream. While we're waiting for our treats a couple who had sailed over on the catamaran with us comes in. We see there are no free tables so gesture that they may sit with us.

They are Germans. She looks perhaps 30, he perhaps 40. I had spoken to the man on the boat; our bit of conversation had been about the recent move of the Federal Government from Bonn to Berlin. "Much money," the German had said. "Did they move into old buildings?" I asked. "No! Much new! Much money!" "Probably about as much as my government is spending in trying to impeach our president," I said.

Now in the sweet cafe the man sits next to Mark. His woman sits next to me. They are absolutely warm and lovely and speak pretty good English. Introductions are made. I didn't catch the man's name so I imagine him as Wolfgang. I think all German males should be named Wolfgang. His girlfriend's name is Dagmar. I had noticed on the boat that she was pretty. Now as she turns her face to me I am stunned; I see that she is not simply pretty but totally drop-dead gorgeous, refulgent, luminous, one of the most perfectly-featured women I've ever laid eyes on. One hundred percent Aryan-looking. Blonde hair; blue eyes. He too is good looking, blond, blue-eyed. Hitler would so have admired their looks.

President Clinton is brought up again -- all foreigners, I assume, are appalled that a public man's private life is grist for the mill of character assassination. To ignore another's private peccadillos is part of sophistication

We learn that this couple has been living three months on his sailboat, which he keeps at St. Thomas.

When Wolfgang says what town they are from and mentions upon what sea he learned to sail, I immediately grab the slight opening to introduce literature into the conversation. "Oh," I chime, "that's where Thomas Mann grew up!"

They looked at one another. "Sometimes .. yes," Wolfgang says hesitatingly.

Wolfgang is absolutely correct with his 'sometimes' -- the Mann family spent summers there. Wolf & Dag do not seem comfortable with the mention of Thomas Mann. Is he recalled as a traitor? Not taught in der schulen? He did abandon Germany and was then to pronounce judgments about the German character that were not flattering, and for which he was publicly chastised by even his brother, also a novelist, though nowhere near a novelist of the stature of Thomas Mann.

And, too, Thomas Mann had a streak of perversion; as an old man he had stared at a young boy on the beach off Venice and then wrote a novella about it, a novella which so masterfully portrays a certain type of longing that Death in Venice will be read as long as books are read. The story seems too authentic to be anything but what the author himself experienced. Is it for this presumed perversion that half those sitting at our table seem uncomfortable with his name?

And, too, after all, Mann's wife was Jewish. I am curious now to know if Mann is on any syllabus in all of das Vaterland.
Our companions are, if not enthusiastic to speak about Mann, comfortable in speaking about Hermann Hesse. "I loved Steppenwolf!" I say. They both loved Siddartha but the one Hesse book that they really love and which they urge that I must read is .. what? .. they don't know how to say it in English.

We work at it and work at it, but I cannot understand. Exasperation is approaching when finally Dagmar reaches into her bag for pen and paper and writes Narziss und Goldmund.

"Oh, Narcissus and Goldmund!" I exclaim happily as if we have at last solved the puzzle of the origin of the universe. I try to show that I am clever by explaining in mime that, yes, Narcissus was a Greek god who .. yes .. I wave my hands in circles over the table, saying "this is a lake" and I bend over and peer into this lake, but apparently only I am imagining the lake for Wolfgang and Dagmar are peering at me as if I have gone off some deep end.

But it has been such a pleasant lunch all in all and I am feeling such liebe for our companions; I promise to read Narcissus and Goldmund. Then I remember that I have also read Hesse's great masterpiece called variously Glockenspiel or The Glass Bead Game. It is a beautiful story, complicated but beautifully written, and I can't get the title across to the Germans. I write Glockenspiel on Dagmar's paper but they seem not be be familiar with it. They enthuse again about Siddartha. In trying to praise The Glass Bead Game I demonstrate with my fingers that Siddartha is only this thick" while The Glass Bead Game is a good two inches thick -- as if greatness is measured by breadth!
And so, yes, all this comes back because my cyberspace friend sent me a picture of Rudolf Nureyev's grave -- thanks, Joan -- and it struck me as the most spectacular of spectacular markers, and prompted me to recall passing by his home on St. Bart's:

On the website it says "This mosaic memorial resembles
one of the oriental kilim rugs that Nureyev  loved so much."

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