“Hardly does one think of oneself, but only how to escape oneself.”
Although young, he has long sensed that we are all in exile, not only from each other, but most pointedly from ourselves, and thus we embark on a journey of self-discovery; for him his search so far has been on the roads found in fiction, which have offered him refuge and illuminating fingerposts, yet he knows there are unexpected corners, detours, and hidden paths kept from view, and his reading provides only temporary solace, for he must reconcile the contrariety of what lies “beyond” this room of books with his solitary reveries. His biggest fear is that he will never make a proper accounting of himself, that he will pass through this place like a revenant, a flitting shadow on the wall, briefly haunting the halls before vanishing without leaving nary a trace, at best destined to be like that phrase he recalled from Nabokov, “an asterisk leading to an undiscoverable footnote,” with no one to rescue his name from oblivion. It is 4 A.M. and he is entombed in the dormitory single they arranged for him after it became clear that roommates were out of the question. The shadows of the room are crowding in on him in the uncertain, dejected light from his nightstand. He imagines he can hear the snow falling in spite of the bursts of drunken laughter in the hall, and he tries to look out the window, but all that is reflected back between the frosted ice flowers is a blurred outline of his face. That is what he is, a blur.
In philosophy class he had read about Pascal saying that we desire to live an imaginary life and adorn this imaginary existence while neglecting the real. This struck a chord that is still resonating, for he does exist outside of reality, certainly her reality, the one that suddenly, inexplicably, matters to him more than anything. He had heard the whispers growing up, about diagnoses, the attempts to explain some of his strangeness, while sensing his parents’ shame with father a professor, mother a lawyer, the house in Sherwood Estates, the silver-spoon neighbors, the country club.
Everything has confirmed that he has yet again arrived in uncharted territory, one of a long succession of unknown countries, and he finds himself on a boat cast adrift from its moorings, unable to find a place to cast anchor. He needs his very own coign of vantage to be properly situated in order to view and try to understand this unrelentingly unapproachable world that contains fundamental truths he needs to know, yet continually shuts him out. There was hopeful September (imagining days whose narrative would flow like a gentle river), which rapidly turned into deceitful October (with its tragic disappointments, both real and imagined), and now time seems to stand still, motionless yet somehow advancing forward in the midst of despairing late November with winter having announced its early arrival. This college is his last redoubt and there is no turning back, yet he despairs that there is likely to be a price he may be unable to pay. He only has a few more pages to read to finish A Place Quieter than Clun for class tomorrow. Much like the narrator of Clun taking solace in the poetry of Housmann, he is finding comfort in reading Murnane. He is suddenly able to look at the many selves residing within him dispassionately, as if from a remove, with a better understanding of his feelings, of his despairing sense of this precarious, unstable existence and the suppressed emotions roiling beneath the surface. Like the narrator, he is torn between the comfort of his seclusion and the desires of immersing himself in the carnality outside his door, desires that threaten to overwhelm him, beckoning him to shed the carapace he has built around himself and venture into the uncertainty to experience the thrill and terror of its babel of voices, sinister confusion of faces, and alluring girls. He is continually reminded of one of Kafka’s aphorisms: “How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one’s refuge in it?” He has been reading as much Murnane as he can lay his hands on. He does not know what it means to breathe with ecstasy and is afraid that he never will, which makes him inconsolable. He loves the ideas of the world being an island adrift inside the self and of losing yourself in unknown vistas with eyes fixed on a far-off horizon searching for your own private place.
His professor is the kind of woman he likes to imagine himself with, although she must be twenty years older than the girl. She is beautiful and provocative, able to speak of literature with such erudition and emotion, enrapturing and entrancing him. She had suggested early in the term that he carefully read Combray and he might recognize himself in young Marcel, intelligent, bookish, innocent, and then he might discover later in the term, especially after reading Murnane, that his “own humble existence and the Realms of Truth were not so widely separated.” He senses that she is also melancholy like him, hiding some deep sorrow, for at times she seems far away looking at some secret, inner horizon of her own, reminding him of the word chiaroscuro for she is light and shadow, but he suspects there may be more shadow than light. Closing the book, he turns out the light so he can look at the scarves of snow adorning the deliquescent branches outside his window, and in the nocturnal gloom the thought occurs that his teacher might also be awake at 4 A.M. longing to step outside and breathe with ecstasy in the falling snow.
He saw her earlier tonight in the library, the girl not the professor, with her blond hair, tight jeans, black nails, her delicate porcelain skin and the lustrous blue eyes that reminded him of the marbles he had played with as a child, all alone already then, socially awkward being the phrase on the report from the school psychologist. That evening the girl finally spoke to him in the library, a moment he had so been waiting for, preparing for, although he would never be prepared, and as he watched her approach he felt an exquisite torment. She asked him about Honors English and what he thought of Under the Volcano and suddenly all the carefully prepared, articulate pronouncements about the connection between the “secret knowledge” discussed at the end of the book and Murnane’s “precious knowledge” became strangled in his throat, dissolving into inchoate, ill-considered phrases, and he could feel his heart pounding and an inner despair inundating him, for he sat there helpless before her, knowing with an aching certainty that she was destined to remain impossibly out of reach. He is not one of the carefree, bold young men who curry her affection, the ones who will succeed not because of their eloquence, but by virtue of something much more elemental, visceral, and venal, something that would never be part of him. He sits here now rooted in sadness and humiliation, knowing too much, and yet never enough about the terrifying ambiguity of dealing with people, the rules, if there are any, too obscure and beyond sober reason. He is afraid he will never possess the knowledge to allow him entry into the never-to-be-explored places he longs for. He is always trying, failing again, not failing better. He is too young to have such a tired soul.
How often has he sat here in this solitary room mapping out her sinuous geography, the choreography of her slow movements, a poetic ballet others could not learn with a lifetime of lessons, imagining the slight upturn of the mouth, the sudden throaty laughter suggesting a complicity that will never be shared. He imagines himself approaching her from behind, seeing the pale freckled nape of her neck, for she is one of Murnane’s “bare-shouldered” women, sitting there patiently waiting for him to come and describe the thoughts that overwhelm and define him, telling her how fiction often is more real to him than the life around him, describing his inner landscape in the hope that beneath the surface of her beautiful appearance this girl has furtively enclosed an inner courtyard of her own that she has kept from the view of others, a courtyard she is unwilling to reveal to the fair-haired blackguards who hover around her in the halls, yet one containing a small interstice on the overlapping boundary with his, which might allow her to come to understand and appreciate his differences, while slowly beginning to erase his blurred edges, allowing his true self to emerge into view.
And so there remains a glimmer of hope in him, however delusional, for he must maintain hope, however faint, for he must be able to find his way, however labyrinthine the path. He will try to find this path that is not on any map yet known to him, and, if he does, he may then find that the sadness and despair enveloping him like a brumous fog will begin to dissipate. So, for now, he will continue to read and think of the girl, allowing the satiety of his dreaming to achieve a poetic purity that will linger on the countenance of the night, and perhaps one day he will not have to wake up with orisons on his lips for gods he does not know or believe in, for he will have discovered a place meant for him, his very own quieter place, a place with the consolation of possibility.
Kimmo Rosenthal has been teaching mathematics at Union College for over three decades. During that time he served as Dean of Studies for nearly a decade, which included overseeing the First-Year Seminar and Writing Across the Curriculum. Since returning to the faculty he has turned his attention from mathematical research to writing fiction.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I love the work of Gerald Murnane. It is philosophical, focusing on the inner life of the narrators who are journeying towards an inner, but distant, personal plain where they hope to discover themselves. In addition to seeing some of myself in these narrators, I recognized many students I have interacted with over the years. It made sense to put the writings of Murnane together with such a student.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: I have commandeered the dining table in our dining room, which is now stacked with books, notes and manuscripts.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: Because I am still teaching it is more haphazard than I would like. I am a voracious reader and I study style and structure in the books, being less attuned to narrative. I take copious notes as I read, writing down thoughts that occur to me, and then I am ready when an idea hits me. Once I start on a story it usually goes quickly, except for the countless revisions later.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?
A: At the moment it is Laszlo Kraznahorkai. He has developed a style I admire very much, with labyrinthine, exquisite sentences that may go on for more than a page. His work is deep, challenging and rewarding. I plan on rereading Seiobo There Below. I receive recurring inspiration from looking at Murnane’s The Plains.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I recently finished A Campus Tour with Kafka, which looks at college life using some of Kafka’s aphorisms. I have been working on a novella about the mathematician Georg Cantor and his study of infinity for several years.