Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Five of Hampton from the Halfway Line

It took me 25 chapters to use an image of Lytton Strachey? He's not really in the book; and the chapter isn't about him either. But his spirit does admittedly pervade the work. There is so much going on in this chapter -- one of those in which one must tie a few loose ends, allowing the reader to catch his or her breath. Don't be surprised if more helpful images appear as we go.


Geneva, Switzerland

As winter turned to spring, Ben Hampton turned a sports biography (with a Hampton twist) into yet another thought-provoking novel of ideas. Or if not exactly a novel, it read like one. The characters really existed, and the events really happened. The motivations and psyches of the characters and the interpretations of the events’ significances, however, dwelt either side of the fictive. What Lytton Strachey had once famously done for the masterpiece legacies of Queen Elizabeth I and her Earl of Essex, Ben Hampton had now rendered in equally baroque fashion onto the previously blank canvases that were Julius Novak the Obscure and Marianne Papineau the Oblique. Granted, there were differences between the two tales of ‘love denied amidst spectacular circumstance,’ not least of which being that although there were times Marianne might like to have had Julius beheaded, she never actually decreed it.
Moreover, the Shakespearian-era couple had been dead more than 300 years by the time Strachey put controversial pen to paper, while Julius and Marianne still walked the earth at the same time they were being pinned up. And the earth they walked now thrived alongside (or suffered under) an insatiable and often frenzied, 24-hour news cycle.
Could anyone predict what might happen to Julius and Marianne after their lives were laid publicly bare by Ben Hampton – an admittedly kind and emotionally generous man to everyone (whereas Strachey was considered by some to be a pitiful and vindictive ass); still an acerbically funny and penetrating observer of modern pop culture. If Ben Hampton sees something and recognizes it, he then portrays it from his own unique point of view. And ever since ‘Out in the Cold’ and his first novel, ‘Revolutions per Minute,’ those who occupy the book world have gotten it, felt it, talked about it and delivered their verdicts in a variety of forms.
When Strachey and the Bloomsburys were writing and painting and publishing and critiquing and protesting and conscientiously objecting and lounging at Garsington, Freudian concepts of psychoanalysis were in the avant garde. ‘Elizabeth and Essex’ was essentially one of the original Freudian analyses of historical figures in brilliant prose form. Today, the works and ideas and proofs of Freud and his followers are so ingrained in our culture and collective conscience, that when we conduct what is a ‘Freudian analysis’ of someone, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And those who hear or read our words no longer bother to recognize or acknowledge ‘Him’ to whom we pay homage. Freud is just another cliché. Ben Hampton strove not to be.
Ben stayed in contact with Marianne and Novak through e-mail and the occasional phone chat. He flew to Cologne to walk around the couples’ neighborhood and old haunts. He spoke to former trustees of Wüppertal FC and to ex-teammates. He sought out old Wüppertal supporters on the club’s current Website and through other sources. He talked to Novak’s former neighbors in the Essex countryside and to the fellows of Selwyn College. He even had tea with the retired kit man at Highbury who saw everything.
In his obsession to capture … something, Ben threw every other of his professional commitments overboard. His assistant in London went about putting everyone off – the film production company; the private-school board of trustees upon which he was the media chair; various charities; musicians and writers with whom he had been collaborating; book and literary festivals to which he’d agreed to appear (even the one in Sicily); TV and radio appearances; initial meetings for a series of government PSAs on libraries.
Everything was to be pushed back with as much grace and diplomacy as possible without setting off alarms that Ben Hampton was at work on a book of biblical significance – rumored to be some kind of ‘Out in the Cold II.’ Ben cringed every time he heard that apocryphal title. He set his mind to the task. He wanted, needed to get it right.
Rosalie McMahon, of course, as well as Jonathan James and the happy gang (aka the giddy bunch) at JJI Sports Reform Press, basked in the speculation. Jonathan rose each morning feeling as though his firm’s ship had finally come home to Canary Wharf. He had inherited the modest, sports press from a beloved uncle and had immediately gone about charting a course for greater things. Jonathan believed he’d done his bit prior to Hillsborough to convince the big football clubs to stop treating their supporters like cattle in a pen before something truly monstrous occurred. Something truly monstrous did occur one hellish afternoon in Sheffield, and JJI Sports Reform Press was in or near the vanguard of the publishing world in support of Lord Taylor in ensuring nothing similar would ever again visit the stadiums of England.
From those modest successes, JJI had soldiered forward, remaining comfortably in the black, if without great fanfare or glitz. Now, with the prompting of an unknown but determined literary agent, Jonathan and his solicitors had coordinated a surprisingly favorable deal with a serious, mainstream publisher to allow Ben … bloody … Hampton to pen a football book under the hitherto backbench banner of JJI Sports Reform Press. Percentage of revenue for sales over ‘X’ amount, etc. As Rosalie had commented, everyone who deserved it would get his pound of Ben Hampton flesh, including the consumer public in the shape of a “yummy read.”
Rosalie, for her part, stoked the embers of publicity only a little. She entertained fears that it was all too good to be true. The chapters that came her way from Ben, via e-mail attachment, and the periodic phone conversations with the author (her author? God!!) only increased her anxiety – along with her inextinguishable sense of thrill. On one hand, she was unsure how to go about massaging Jonathan James and the editor, Trevor Ball, in regards to the notion that their little football bio was not completely what they’d originally bargained for. That was worrying, kind of like a letter from Inland Revenue that you shove in a drawer.
Face it; Rosalie was not well experienced in matters of this particular dimension of the industry. But, who is? That rhetorical was a critical part of Rosalie’s business philosophy. Nobody really knows how to do anything! No one is born an expert, and no one has seen it all (except the kit man). We’re all just muddling through, volleying even the fiercest of Boris Becker back over the net.
When it comes to human relations; face-to-face or phone debate; scratching and scraping; craning to the finish line; completing a task; marshalling forces; getting people to do things and love it, however, ‘no one is better than me,’ she reminds herself. She felt warm and strong in her self-confidence. And she always kept three, standing prescriptions of Zovirex at her Vantage Pharmacy. Like Peter’s bartender with his Marston’s Pedigree, the neighborhood chemists provided swift and discreet service to Rosalie in her pre-emptive battle with the occasional and painful herpe spot on the lip.
Marianne had completed a major series of sculpture commissioned by a Providence, Rhode Island park, owned by Brown University. She saw Isabel every other weekend at Mount Holyoke and would sometimes spend the night at an inn with her daughter in either Amherst or Northampton. The main topic of conversation on these visits, even more than usual, was Isabel’s dad, Julius Novak.
Ben’s follow-up questions by phone and e-mail kept ‘Marianne’s ex’ foremost in her thoughts. She would lose herself completely in her typed responses to Ben’s queries, and she seemed to reach a newfound acceptance of Julius ‘as he is’ and would no doubt remain forever. During and after writing to Ben or talking about Julius to the author on the phone, she experienced a transformation in her feelings of (something like) intimacy for him -- as though they’d gone through a great series of trials together, as a couple, and had emerged from a menacing tunnel and into the sunshine. These troubling emotions would rear every so often, whereupon Marianne would force them back down to wherever they came from. She had no time nor any interest in becoming weakened in body, mind and soul by thoughts of a new life with Julius Novak. She absolutely refused to torture herself with thoughts of ‘what if …?’ when it came to that man.
In April, Isabel appeared as several different characters in her school’s brave production of Alfred Jarry’s burlesque, ‘Ubu Roi.’ Certainly, Marianne thought, while propping up painfully on the concrete rows of the outdoor amphitheatre, no one who doesn’t have to would sit through this play more than once.
On top of that, she thought, ‘no wonder conservatives mock us; and who could blame them? This is poor. I clearly love my daughter more than any other parent.’
In most of the scenes, Isabel and the other young women, wore multi-colored, knee-length, flopping, cloth phalluses connected to a belt around the waist. Every time the actresses moved across the stage the fake cocks would bob and sway irresistibly. It was truly daring, absurdist theatre. Isabel had also auditioned for ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ but was cast instead for ‘Ubu Roi,’ because the directors thought her French upbringing would be an asset to the company’s interpretation of the turn-of-the-century herald to Dada and Surrealism. But Isabel was proud of the time and effort she put into the production; and Marianne was proud of everything there was about Isabel.
Novak spent the rest of the winter and early spring teaching his regular, graduate students at Wolfson College; traveling to an array of the Europaeum member-universities – Helsinki, Prague, Paris, Bonn, Bologna – to meet with his student-project groups; and editing his journals compiled during visits to the various cities.
In Paris, his get-togethers took place not ten minutes’ walk from the Papineaus’ vacant, Montparnasse apartment – open to friends and family. On one of these academic trips, Novak received a midnight phone call while at Hotel Les Armures in the old town center of Geneva, just across the Pont du Mont Blanc from The Graduate Institute where his project group met. The caller was Isabel, who was eating dinner with a group of friends at India Palace in Northampton. She was having her usual – coconut nan and chicken vindaloo, followed by kulfi. Novak was lying in bed watching a rebroadcast of Napoli v. Roma from the previous Sunday.
“Hello, button. Is something wrong?”
“Yes. I miss you. I miss everybody. Everything’s terrible. I want to come home. I hate school. Come and get me. I want a puppy.”
Her friends laughed and shouted all at once into the phone, ‘She’s miserable, papa. She needs more money. Dadddd-yyyyy. She’ll become a lesbian if you don’t send $5,000. We want to come to Switzerland. We hate it here.”
“Tell your friends I understand that college is a time to explore and experiment and to discover who you are,” Novak laughed. “Trial and error. Eyes open at all times.”
“Daddy. Come and get me now. I hate everybody. They’re all dykes.”
“Whooooooh!” screamed her friends, and they began to sing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl (And I Liked It).”
“Do you girls call all the fathers and do this?”
“I’m going outside so I can hear you away from these Skanky Whores!”
“Bye dad!” squealed and shouted the girls. “Bye Julius. Send us money. Send us Oxford boys. Studs from Oxford. Whooooooh!”
Isabel walked around the corner and into a coffee shop where she could talk to her father in peace. She was wearing her usual someone else’s hoody and someone else’s sweatpants tucked into her tall, flowered Uggs.
“What are you doing?” she plopped into a chair and watched nighttime Northampton flow by the window.
“Lying on my bed in a hotel room eating a chocolate-covered rhubarb cake and watching football. How about you?”
“I’m with girls from the cast. You know, not boys? Why am I at a school with no boys?”
Novak knew of perhaps a hundred valid reasons having to do with academics; female empowerment; thriving and becoming leaders in a man’s world; a nurturing environment; comfortable and clean surroundings; a break just before real adulthood when men start draining your energy with their infantile needs and undeveloped hearts, minds and souls; and the fact that tribes of men roam just five minutes in every direction (particularly north at Hampshire, Amherst and U. Mass, whereupon, don’t worry, they’ll find you). But he and Marianne had said them all to Isabel and to one another countless times before. And she had insisted on going there. And he was tired. And Napoli had just equalized with ten minutes to go. So he cooked his argument down to one digestible morsel.
“It’s better.”
“Daddy, you know a lot about how Hun became Hungarian. But can I just tell you, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Talking shite am I? I hear that a lot.”
“I wish I were there with you having cake. We could get fat together.”
He heard about his expanding dimensions a lot too. Sometimes people commented by simply looking at him for a fraction longer than was polite, then saying ‘Oh.’
“The cast. Does that mean the show hasn’t been cancelled?”
“No, daddy, it wasn’t cancelled. Tonight’s the finale.”
Les carottes sont cuite?”
“Daddy. Your French. Don’t.”
“Ah,” Novak was still unused to his little girl not loving every word he spoke. “So, Ubu Roi.”
“I’m sick to death of it. It’s soooo long, like at least thirty minutes too long. We hate the director. She’s an angry dyke bitch with issues. I should have done crew again.”
“Did mom enjoy it?” he asked, knowing that Isabel would know for sure.
“Maybe the first time. But she came to three shows, which kind of qualifies as masochist. I was happy to see her face in the crowd, and so were my friends, but … you know?”
“Yeah, I know, sweetheart. I think she came once for me and once for Uncle Dan. I sent energy. Did you feel it?”
“Yeah, definitely,” Isabel gripped the little pink cell phone, wishing it were actually a stuffed animal from her bed rather than a different kind of indispensable device with psychedelic flowers and different ring tone for every one of her contacts – last count 237. Novak’s ring tone was “Satellite City” by Orange Juice.
“Well, I’m really happy mom is so close by to you, and you can see her a lot. It can get lonely sometimes at college, even when you’re busy. I miss you too. Sometimes I can’t think of the right thing to send. What do you need besides cash?”
Novak needed to show concern without giving away how gutted he was that she was gone. He was personally shattered but immensely proud as a father and resigned to the idea that she was growing up. He had to maneuver without asking her if she were glad she came to the states for college, or if she wished she were back somewhere in Europe. He had been told not to bring it up. Marianne had helped him agree to a steadfast course of emotional support. Unless their daughter seemed on the verge of a legitimate breakdown of some kind, either emotional or physical (she was half-Papineau, after all), mom and dad merely would listen to her moans and be understanding but attempt to keep her cool until the year was up. Then they would evaluate matters in the summer just like the million or so other parents of college freshmen all over the globe.
As distraught as Novak was that his only child and Marianne were across an ocean from him for the first time, he realized what a rare opportunity Isabel had earned by gaining entry to such a prestigious women’s college. For intellectual stimulation, the Amherst-Northampton area was one of the country’s true cradles of knowledge and, to a stranger, a surprisingly high-level of culture. In addition, her school was in striking distance of Vermont, New York, Boston and the Cape. Perhaps once she’s settled, she can spread her wings a bit. She should love it, they all thought. But you can’t make a young man or woman love something if it’s not right for them.
Maybe she should be back in France or maybe Spain. Or England.
‘If I mentioned Oxford or Cambridge, if I let either one of those names slip, Marianne would do me once and for all,’ he thought, not for the first time.
“A plane ticket to civilization would be nice.”
“Honey, my first year, and mom’s first year, away had its moments of loneliness and doubt. You really do have kinsmen as far as that goes.”
“Yeah, you guys met at a big university in a major city that had men and women. What was that like?”
“Kiddo. Kids get lonely at the biggest colleges in the biggest cities in the world. Loneliness is a state of mind having very little to do with environment. Mom talks about having been lonely in Paris, for God’s sake.”
“That’s what I called about.”
“How can you be lonely?” He felt incredulous, then he woke up. “Are you really lonely?”
“No, I mean mom. Mom is what I called about.”
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Well, strike that. Did you talk to her much at New Year’s or spend any time with her?”
“Yeah, we talked. We talked every day I was there. You were there. You slept a lot, but didn’t you see us talking?”
“Not that kind of talking. Not pass the salt and look how big our little baby is. I mean, did you have any … you know, talks about … yourselves?”
“Our selves?”
‘He really is dense at times, honey,’ Marianne would tell her daughter. ‘We love him, but how he’s avoided being laughed out of Cambridge and Oxford is anybody’s guess.’
The two of them pondered whether perhaps a kind of retardation occurs with lecturers, like at some point all the intellect you expel to your student audience is no longer able to return to your system. Sort of an advanced senility sets in, because you’ve talked too much. You’ve, in effect, given your brain away.
“Bitch, are you serious?” Isabel asked. “Are you done, dad? I mean, are you, like, done?”
“I’m almost afraid to ask. Done with … what?”
“With this act. I’ve just done, like, a gazillion hours on stage acting in a fucking ridiculous French farce where it’s, like, obvious that we’re acting and the people in the seats are living real lives and observing. I know what’s a play and what isn’t, you know?”
Novak turned off the TV. Damn. That had really shaped into a cracking match. Even Julius Novak realized that his child, who was no longer a child -- if she ever was, was trying to tell him something.
“I’m listening.”
“Do you ever see yourself when you’re on your stage? Do you ever yearn to see yourself?”
He knew what she was getting at. Oh, he knew. He had been listening to these words, spoken at this tone (although at a diminishing tempo and level of exasperation), for twenty-five years. The existentialist message was familiar, but the messenger was new. His child had changed, matured yet again, he thought.
‘Do I ever see myself? On my stage?? That’s it. No more philosophical, anarchist drama for her. I have to be able to have a normal conversation with her. Was I like that? Insufferably pedantic?’
And Novak always feared this day would come. It had been coming by degrees ever since Isabel was a baby. She had a way of looking at you, Novak liked to say, that implied she knew all your motives and what your next move was going to be. She suffered no intellectual laziness. As a three-year-old, Isabel asked Marianne to please not use a certain babysitter who lived in their building. She explained to her mother that the babysitter had attempted to skip pages in a storybook. The little girl believed the babysitter wanted the book to be over sooner for some reason, and that was not all right.
He tried to catch up to where she was in the conversation he didn’t realize they were having until Isabel had a 200-meter head start.
“Are we talking about really deep and serious things here like how people choose to live their lives and how some choices preclude other choices?”
“We’re talking about what a fucking bizarre family we are, and how it’s not really working for me anymore. And we’re talking about how mom now won’t shut up about you the whole time she’s with me. That’s never happened before. Which, on one hand, I don’t mind because I love you, and you’re a perfectly cool topic. But why talk if there’s no action, daddy? She does sculpture; and she talks about you. Like, I don’t know if she’s living in the past, when all there was in her life was you and her materials, or what. What’s the point in talking about you like you’re her husband who she’s been with forever, and it’s all normal shit? It’s freakin’ me out. It’s fucking bizarre.”
Novak did not know what to do with the emotions he was feeling or what to call them or where exactly his daughter’s emotions dwelt and what they were. He actually needed Marianne to explain this conversation to him. Which part of this should he address right now in this moment with his college-freshman, in-a-far-off-land daughter? He grabbed a notepad and began scribbling notes about what she’d just said – in case he had trouble answering Marianne’s piercing questions. He went the obvious route.
“She talks about me? In a pleasant way?”
“Most of the time, yeah,” Isabel was caught off guard before setting herself. “Is that all you have to say?”
“No, it’s not all I have to say. It’s the first thing I said. The next thing I’m going to say is, what do you mean ‘Why talk if there’s no action?’”
“Don’t play dumb, and please don’t talk to me like I’m still twelve.”
“All right,” he said softly. He was not sure why she thought he was playing dumb. He was choosing, Marianne would say, not to hear what was being stated clearly to him. What exactly did he teach to young people to help them go about saving Europe? “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not too late, daddy. And if you say, ‘Not too late for what?’ I will totally hang up and turn my phone off.”
Novak finally made a correct decision. He didn’t speak.
“If I could make a suggestion,” she said. “I would recommend you get your head out of your ass and go to Vermont with some flowers. What are you guys, like forty-four, something like that? I know two professors here at school who were single until they were about your age, met, got married, and they’ve been together – that’s together – for, like, thirty years. That’s longer, starting at middle age, than you two have known each other. Is this making any sense to you?”
“Do you understand what you’re suggesting?” Novak really could not believe his ears.
“Daddy, everyone who knows you and mom thinks you’re both fucking re-tarded. What shocks me, when it isn’t pissin’ me off, is how easily you both gave up on each other and yourselves. Both of you have so much determination in everything else you do. How could you have not been determined enough to stay together, especially once you had a baby.”
“Now wait a minute.”
“No, I’m not gonna wait a minute. You don’t have to be right wing to think families are important. I’m not complaining about my life. My life is great. I’ll never know what my life could have been, though, what our lives could have been, because the two of you wussed out.”
“I hear what you’re saying, sweetie, but that’s no way to think. We could all say that our lives could be different or better if such and such had or hadn’t occurred, but that’s not really going to move the ball down the field, is it? Or the shell down the river or the scene to the next act.”
“Do you want to be with mom? Do you want to have a wife and a real partner?” Isabel paused, but not long enough for a considered response. “I’ve accepted how things are, and I’ve never cried about it; it’s the only way of life I know – my parents, never married and separated even before I was born. Like I’m some kinda ghetto bitch.”
“Ghetto bitch?”
“What are you going to do, dad?”
“You want me to go to Vermont.” Novak said it like a declaration, not like a question. “And do what exactly?”
Isabel waited a beat or two before answering.
“Mom was wrong about one thing,” her voice sounded cold. “She said you stopped being passive aggressive a long time ago.”
Novak knew he deserved that. Isabel was right, and it hurt him. He had made a conscious effort to swear off ‘P.A.-ism’ for good.
“Would it kill you if I took a little time to think about it?”
“Sure, daddy. Take your time. Take twenty more years.”
“I didn’t say I was going to wait twenty years. I meant after a little time, I’d be able to understand what I needed to do.”
“The blind have no notion of time,” Isabel spoke as if on a stage. “The things of time are hidden from them.”
“Oh, I forgot,” Novak said, monotonously. “You’re a college student. That sounded vaguely familiar. What was it?”
“Waiting for Godot.”
“You don’t mess around, do you?” Novak smiled, realizing he had helped make this young woman, this adult person who had just coolly smacked him back and forth with a little Beckett. “Really pulling out the big guns.”
There was a long pause.
“Sorry. I was trying to think of a killer Milan Kundera quote.”
“Like, ‘Love is a desire for that lost half of ourselves’?” Isabel said.
“Um … no, not that one. You really came prepared, didn’t you? That’s a good girl.”
“I love you, daddy. I have to go. The Mount Holy-Dykes are ready to get ice cream.”
“OK, I love you, too. Thank you for everything … everything you’ve … uh … given me. I mean it, thank you. And you’re very brave for going to school so far from home. I admire you. I’m in genuine awe. I know it’s not easy. I don’t make things easy.”
“It’s your life. You’ve been a great dad. You deserve to be happy too. LoveyouseeyouGotoVermontBye.”
And she hung up.
Novak stared out the window for several minutes toward the eclectic St. Pierre Cathedral, the adopted home church of John Calvin. He didn’t talk to himself; he just stared. Then he went to his laptop to see if his assistant had updated his schedule through the end of the spring, looking for a gap of some kind. The ex-footballer reached into his briefcase and pulled out a 5x7 photograph of Marianne, looking as gorgeous and intelligent and seductive and penetrating and impenetrable as ever, the most beautiful creature he had ever known. She was posing in front of one of her sculptures at the 1999 Biennale in Venice. It was signed, ‘Love Forever, Kiki.’
After hanging up with her father, Isabel immediately called her grandmother in Derry to report, “He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no. I think he’ll come.”
Joanna was preparing her studio for the next day’s work.
“Did you get any literary quotes in? You know how that gets his attention.”
“I zinged him with a Samuel Beckett,” Isabel said nonchalantly. “Then I buried him with a Milan Kundera. I just pulled it out of my ass.”

“Milan Kundera,” Joanna was impressed and proud. “Oh, if only you’re mother had been that ruthless. Your great grandad was like that. Have you ever thought of Wall Street, bunny rabbit? We would like to keep the Paris apartments, you know.”

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