The End of Landscape

(Pages 109-120)

…it is Thursday February the fourth, Julia has been back for a week, somewhat calmer for not having church music pursuing her into her innermost thoughts, except, this time, as a real memory of an improbable event: Abel is waiting for her near the only select restaurant on Mount Pleasant, he has parked the station wagon thirty meters higher up, on the other side of the street, his side-lights indicating the car’s presence in the rainy night, and drunker perhaps than usual he has laid his head on the steering wheel, while out of the half-open car window drifts the music into which he is plunging not to say burying himself more deeply each day… now, in the silence of the street empty at this hour, as she comes out of Fazeley’s alone, she distinctly hears an organ playing and a choir singing, but this time she thinks she can discern its physical source, so to speak, and as, trembling, she approaches the car to discover for certain the cause of this airborne balm directed at her yet the product neither of auditory hallucination nor of who knows what religious obsession (she is someone who would never go into a church except to admire the architecture or the frescoes when Abel used to insist on playing the guide), a cause that is all the more frightening for being the obsession of someone else, someone who takes Julia as the object more of his madness than of his love, at any rate this mad love surely chokes her with terror when through the misted-up glass streaming with water she makes out a man slumped over his steering wheel who, awoken perhaps by the tapping of her heels, finds himself looking at her, and, with the two of them face to face on either side of the glass, Julia he murmurs, Julia, as she cries out in fear and anguish in equal measure having recognized the vague and aging features of the man she left five years ago, so much did his personality already disturb her, as she takes a few steps backwards then starts running down Oxford Street and disappears round the corner of Hope Street heading for her house…. Absurdly, Abel slides back the sunshine roof instead of opening his door, climbs onto the seat and stands up—the Lacrimosa Dies Illa resounds more loudly in the night—with his torso, head and arms protruding from the car he is like a preacher in the pulpit under the driving rain, but he is trying to overwhelm the organ and choir with his cracked voice, shouting to her to come back, telling her in rasping, wretched tones never to leave him again…. but she has evaporated at the corner of Hope Street, so he lets his legs slip down beneath the wheel, starts the engine, and drives off madly through the wind-whipped downpour, spotting her once more through the windscreen, mounting the pavement accidentally at the junction of the two streets, toppling a letter box with his offside wing, overtaking her eventually, pulling up athwart the sidewalk, confronting her, once extracted from the Vauxhall, confronting her outside the entrance to Saint Andrew’s, arms outspread to block her path, to hug her to him and beg her at least to go into the church with him and listen to him play right now, the place would be all hers, he would light all the candles to be found on the altar table, he would offer before God his most respectful interpretation, yes, right there in the Church of Saint Andrew (so near to her house), where he himself is the resident organist, but she struggles, his numbed and clumsy fingers slip from her wet oilskin and she resumes her wild flight, racing barefoot to her house four hundred meters away down Hope Street, her scarf undone, her red hair tangled and dripping rainwater… Abel recovers only with difficulty from their tussle and strives to pursue her in a daze of pavements, walls, frontages, repeating inaudible phrases in a hoarse murmur, swearing in particular never to leave her, for, as he believes, he has composed for her the finest Magnificat, the finest Requiem, as though it were possible to write such pieces for the woman one loves, least of all a Last Repose, which he must have written quite simply for himself, to accompany his own death, so close now though he does not know it, and by the time he comes to her door, at the end of Hope Street, the lights are already on behind the front windows of the elegant white townhouse and she has already been safe inside for a good three minutes, it takes almost as long again for him to get his wind and start shouting up to her, railing against her, calling her a trollop and a kept woman, she is still his wife in God’s eyes, she cannot flout the holy bonds of matrimony forever, no Mrs. Manson! hey, Julia Manson!, when a man comes out of her house… Abel recognizes him, places his silhouette: Julia was on his arm, they were walking away from the Kismet, Abel recalls the curve of his back, the arrogant carriage, the chest thrust forward and shoulders thrown back, he notes the pajama collar under the overcoat… without a word the man punches him in the face, which silences Abel whose legs no longer hold him up, he collapses onto the sidewalk bleeding from the nose and lips and suddenly shaken by uncontrollable laughter punctuated by hiccoughs filled with gall over this tasteless comedy of manners… by the time he manages to get up, at first onto all fours, he has been alone for a long time, a dull light still emanates from a top-floor window of the white house, he staggers back towards Saint Andrew’s, sobered up enough to winkle the flask from the pocket of his sodden jacket and empty it greedily, walking with slow and solemn step to his car by the church railings, the rain still pouring in through the open roof, he does not get into the Vauxhall but retrieves another bottle of vodka, still full, from the mat on the car floor, then vanishes into Saint Andrew’s under the cheerless gaze of three derelicts recently settled on the steps with their backs to the double church doors, they seem to have dozed off for a long moment but they recognize Abel with a start for a very few seconds as he opens the great door, then they are dazzled by the dozens of candles that fill the nave with such a blaze of warm light that Sir Abel Manson is strangely dissolved by it… he continues to think that she absolutely must hear him play, he will call upon the swell organ, the choir organ and the great organ, coupling all manuals to achieve a perfect sound synthesis, he will play forte, all shutters open, he will summon the wide-scaled pipes, making use of the bourdons and the cor de nuit, weak on harmonics but soft, sweet and rounded, gradually heightening the color by means of flutes, cymbals and oboes, buttressing the progression with gamba and furniture stops, and finally unleashing the lively, fruity and brilliant tones of the trumpets and clarions… and the 16-foot bombardon, deep, majestic, seeming to come from the depths of the earth, will cause the structure of the church to vibrate at so profound and intense a frequency that there’ll be no saying whether it is the stones shuddering or the sounds rubbing and grating against one another… then Julia, already abandoned, alas, to her creamy yellow silk sheets and sadly surrendered to the arms of someone who has offered her a home whose windows, calamitously, overlook the grounds of the Anglican Cathedral (a monstrous Gothic pile completed only in the mid-twentieth century, its red sandstone like dried blood amidst lush damp greenery with a smattering of old gravestones lined up to hold the earth back like the plain stone boundaries of some public park), then Julia, perhaps, will quit her tepid bed and her pretentious house, for is it conceivable after all that she cannot hear the ample and carnal breath whereby Abel makes each of his chords into a point of purchase for the whole weight of his body, which is thus saved from overbalancing by the movement of his composition itself, as he wagers his faith on a state of extreme inspiration and relaxation –a faith, granted, in a confused love, a faith shot through without a doubt by far too much religiosity, but all the same, surely she can hear him?… he is courting failure now, for he cannot with impunity launch into the Requiem’s crescendo–Tuba mire spargens sonum–if she does not appear, bathed in the golden light spilling down the steps of Saint Andrew’s and onto the pavement… he is starting the Recordare Jesus Pie when in the doorway to the narrow staircase there appears, pepper-and-salt and yellow, the hairy head and beard of one of the derelicts, Ed, the biggest drunkard, the most grateful, the one most able to appreciate the playing and the generous gifts of Abel at their night-time encounters, instantly stinking up the confined space of the organ loft with a combination of body odor, old sweat, sour piss and greasy fish and chips, and already sprawled across Manson’s shoulder striving to separate his syllables and above all to shout down the wheezing of the bellows and the roaring of the prestant pipes aligned in the organ case, screaming right in Abel’s face, with far too heady a hepatic breath, to stop, this minute, making such a ruddy racket in Hope Street, the lights have come on in every window on every floor of every house for a hundred meters around, respectable householders are streaming out onto the sidewalk in dressing gowns and striped pajamas like so many escaped cons on the lam and clustering in front of the church, most of them sheltering under big umbrellas, wondering what all this commotion is about, this nave lit up with thousands of candles, enough to quicken all the dead in the Mount Pleasant catacombs, ladies from the area crossing themselves over and over again at the sight of a holy place being profaned, turned into a Mephistophelian bonfire, the switchboard at the local police station must be about to explode, half the coppers in the district will be on his tail any second, and he, Ed, at your service, Sir!–jabbing at his chest with a stiffened thumb and his bony fingers clenched–and his mates Phil and Matt, after standing loyally at the gate of Saint Andrew’s to help calm and hold back the hysterical crowd, are bound to be nicked automatically with Abel…

Think good Jesus, my salvation
Caused thy wondrous Incarnation
Leave me not to reprobation

… shit! Abel stops playing abruptly, silence fills the church, thick, vertical, an abyss beneath their feet, the derelict jumps almost out of his skin, muttering, whispering suddenly that yes, sir, he is quite right to give up creating such bloody bedlam, he could at least shut the church door when he is there, and play more piano, or at least play as usual, sir, the way that soothes and lifts them up, Phil and Matt, and him, Ed, so gently in the night, filling his dreams with stars, and even, three times, visions of the Virgin!… Abel is not listening, finishes off the vodka, kneels down, sticks his head, arms and upper body into the organ’s wind chest and feels around between the connectors of the draw stops, praying to heaven for a forgotten bottle with a drop left in it and coming up with a flask of brandy, grimacing, for he does not relish cognac’s oily fruitiness, slipping it into his pocket and setting off down towards the flagged floor of the nave, bracing himself by pressing his forearms to the walls of the narrow staircase, he hears Ed behind him rooting in his turn through empty bottles and half-bottles… not too hard negotiating the triangular steps, but each time a foot explores the void in search of contact with the next one, still so far away, his leg, heavy as marble, seems about to drag his whole body off balance and into free fall… as the stairway becomes straighter and narrower, the sense that his footing is evaporating fills his chest, he toboggans down the few remaining steps and ends up prostrate on the flags, trailing with him a candelabra collected during his fall in a sudden desperate grab for a handhold… Matt is the one who runs over to help Abel up, Abel with palms ripped and bleeding, the back of his left hand spattered with white wax, the toppled candelabra marking the spot of his tumble into the nave, his gaze absent, distant, the locals starving cold in their dressing gowns and macs making way for him to pass, some identifying him as Sir Abel Manson, wild-haired, swollen-faced, dried blood on his upper lip, dressed in a soaked and torn-up suit and shod in the old slippers that make an organist more adept at the pedalboard… Ed and Phil help Matt get Abel into the driver’s seat of the Vauxhall, which is gurgling like a sponge being wrung out, the rain has just stopped, giving way to a Scotch mist that bathes the night in a glacial dew, a night suffocated and silent in the faces of the dumbstruck onlookers…. Abel turns the estate car’s headlights on, starts it up, his heels in the water pooled over the floor mat, maneuvers the car brutally and clumsily off the pavement, and draws away slowly down Hope Street towards the Anglican Cathedral, or, more to the point, towards Julia’s house… a few blocks along, the deserted streets are suddenly slashed by the blue and orange of emergency revolving lights… no flicker comes from Julia’s, she must be asleep, badly cuddled in the arms of her industrialist from Prescot… circling the cathedral grounds, he turns right into Great George Street, the silence is so deep he shudders, so the music will be for him alone, he alone will hear it, the town is deaf, THE TOWN IS DEAF!… he turns the player on, perhaps mainly to exorcise from his mind the desolation of the world, a distillate of suffering and loneliness that has almost plunged him into a stupor, he searches on the audio tape for the exact place in the Recordare Jesu Pie where he left off playing what he feels was his finest interpretation… he stops the tape a little too early:

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth

… now he is driving down Duke Street, the Anglican cathedral amid the dark shadows of its trees loses its distinctness in the rearview mirror, he speeds up, no longer slowing for crossings, as the voices of the soloists, heard only in his head when playing for Julia in his church, combine in unison on the audio tape, a humble and warm supplication rising from the open sunshine roof into the Liverpool sky:

Worthless are my prayers and sighing;
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying

… through the windscreeen, darker than the night, he sees the looming familiar outline of Albert Dock, and further on, from the bottom of Brownlow Hill, its motion invisible, the inky, thick mattness of the Mersey… oddly, his body registers no pain when the car scrapes the dock walls and bounces off into bollards as though on some abstract calvary, when his music finally melds with the currents of the estuary, when, sailing over the quayside, airborne, suspended, he is able for a brief moment to focus his weary gaze on the immense prospect, to his right, of the salty waters of the Irish Sea…

Bios

Luc Lang

Luc Lang is the prize-winning French author of, among others: Voyage sur la ligne d’horizon (Paris: Gallimard, 1988; Prix Freustié); Furies (Paris: Gallimard, 1995); Mille six cents ventres (Paris: Stock, 1998; Prix Goncourt des Lycéens; published in English translation as Strange Ways (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000; Phoenix, 2002)); Les Indiens (Paris: Stock, 2001); Cruels, 13 (Paris: Stock, 2008; Prix Ozoir’elles; two stories from this collection, “Face?” and “Lord’s Day” appear in translation in Fiction #54 (Brooklyn, 2008)).

Lang has also published the startling autobiographical work, 11 septembre mon amour (Stock, 2003). He writes widely on contemporary art and on the art of the novel and teaches aesthetics at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts de Paris et Cergy.

Donald Nicholson-Smith

Donald Nicholson-Smith's translations include works by Guy Debord, Jean Piaget, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, J.-B. Pontalis & Jean Laplanche, Thierry Jonquet, Henri Lefebvre, and Raoul Vaneigem. At present he is at work on Apollinaire's Letters to Madeleine, as sent from the trenches of Champagne in 1915. Born in Manchester, England, Nicholson-Smith is a longtime denizen of Brooklyn. He may be reached at mnr.dns@verizon.net.

La fin des paysages (The End of Landscape). Copyright (c) Paris: Stock, 2006. English translation copyright (c) Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2009.