Author: Brian Aldiss.
Genre: Literature, fiction, novella.
Publication Date: 1987.
Summary: Hugh Billing has been drifting for years. After making his fortune in the music business, he followed a series of idle pursuits, leading him down erotic but superficial paths across the USA. His mother's death brings him home to London, to a host of memories and the realisation of how little he has ever accomplished. An old woman, Gladys Lee, becomes the focal point for his self-examination. And from her, Billing draws the strength to travel on a different journey, to the Ruins of his own life. A recurring dream becomes an obsession, and when the story of the dream is finally told, Billing's transformation has begun.
My rating: 6.5/10.
♥ The funeral service, too, had been a disaster. The preacher had been late and either coldly inebriated or just over the safety limit of a nervous breakdown. Clasping the prayer book upside down, he had muttered furtively over grave and coffin, casting his words to the disinterested wind.
♥ They're so isolated, these people, Billing told himself. As I was. The Americans are much more ingenious at coping with their loneliness. Patriotism is another form of psychotherapy over there. He thought of the mountains of Utah, where he had once skied. Those wild mountains, the way American skiers dressed in bright garments to flash down their slopes like Martians, the sudden fogs which embraced Snowcat. Loneliness there had been grand opera, solitude a monetary thing with commercial value.
♥ There he paused. He did not want Alice. She was possessing him beyond the call of duty: Mrs Chivers was no concern of his. He thought of all the women who had poured out their secrets to him over the years while he lay there, fondling them, having no secrets of his own he was prepared to offer in return.
Why was he so negative? Why had he not even a Mrs Chivers with her mean peeping-tom habits with which to respond? He was a blank sheet on which women scribbled their inner graffiti. Billing was not displeased with this striking image of himself.
♥ Forty-four was an uncertain age for Billing. He recognised it as the age when men take to drink, divorce or homeopathy..
♥ Mary Sarkissian was a dark young woman of slight build, with delicate, braceletted wrists and a pensive expression well suited to her trade. He loved her, as he had loved almost every woman he had met since the age of six. Mary loved him and spoke eloquently of his English innocence which rendered him so vulnerable, and which she set about correcting, vigorously.
He doted on Mary, on her pensive lips, on her sad Armenian wit. He had never been more happy. The noises had gone from his head. The music was in his body and hers.
♥ "One must stay personally happy if possible," he told Grimsdale Junior before leaving the lawyers' offices. "My mother was not herself. It's dreadful for me to look back now and realise that both my mother and my father – before he died, of course – were victims of a kind of undiagnosed compulsive madness."
Grimsdale Junior did not understand that sort of talk. He replied in a firm voice, "The passing on of money is a serious matter, Mr Billing."
"I was talking of the passing on of genetic material," said Billing equally firmly, and became frightened by his own answer.
♥ Billing liked the look of the woman who had used the word "resilient". She brought to mind his Jewish wife in the marriage that had lasted such a short while. An English woman would have said "tough". In the word "resilient" was stored all that rather squidgy optimism, not to mention euphemism, on which Middle America lived. He preferred it to the pessimism and the dysphemism of his own country.
♥ He studied the spaces of Los Angeles which, to his eye, were more astonishing than the buildings. The town was not, he decided, built for the automobile: it was built for the asocial. Its roads and freeways formed a cryptogram of isolation. He embraced the perception with pleasurable fear.
♥ He decided that was reasonably content to view his life as an ambiguous artefact, since he saw all life as enigmatic. Bering lost was an adequate substitute for finding yourself. There was to be no attempt to control the flow of circumstance. Just as there was never an attempt to get anything more from the women who loved him than that which they chose to offer.
♥ While comforting the widow, Billing was overwhelmed by a tide of love. It burst over him unexpectedly, like a spring thaw in the Arctic. It was pure, as sparkling as a stream, as fresh as happiness, as toothpaste. Never had he wanted to console anyone so much. Most of the girls he loved needed consoling.
♥ The eighties had arrived in England, despite delays. Billing himself had changed. He admitted as much to himself as he confronted gritty old London: he was thin, strange, inexperienced, in a city now as cosmopolitan as New York and almost as dangerous. Billing wore a T-shirt and spoke what passed here as American. He was neither young nor old. He surveyed the traffic with a mid-ocean eye. In this sluttish town he felt like a virgin.
Old friends had not returned to favourite haunts.
♥ In his hotel, the central heating sighed and made poltergeist noises after dark. Of remedial spaces he found none. Madness would pass unnoticed in such a place.
An older man spoke to Billing on the stairs – a surprising event in itself in an establishment where guests made themselves shadowy, withdrawing into doorways and silences to obscure the stain of their lives.
♥ "What I mean is – well, there's just more hope in the United States. It may be an illusion, but optimism improves – well, it improves the quality of life. You've no idea."
♥ "Come and chat to me, Hugh. I mean to say, not to me, but with me... I'm tired of people who chat to me. It's one way in which people take advantage of the old."
♥ The nurse served them tea and it was then, in the middle of their conversation, that Billing first heard the meretricious trumpets.
He was familiar with most bugle calls. This one he could not recognise. It sounded rather jazzy; perhaps it was of a non-military nature. Confused as to whether it was a bugle or a trumpet, he missed something the old lady said. Her skin, like the mirror above her, was speckled with brown, providing perfect camouflage.
The thin mendacious notes alarmed him, bringing to mind, for some reason, a scene in a forest clearing, where a monstrous something was being buried. He stood up in alarm. Muttering excuses, he went to the window to peer into the lachrymose street. Nothing was to be seen but pavement and brick and a selection of yesterday's cars.
..After a while the music faded, was gone, was forgotten.
♥ In Billing's limited experience, old people complained about the present day and told interminable stories about silly things they had done in their youth, whilst sneering about any silly things one did in one's own youth.
♥ Gladys said, "You've transformed my room, Hugh, dear. I have always preserved a view of life which I cannot express in words, I'm afraid. It concerns a connection between all things in our lives. You understand my meaning?"
"My life has been very disconnected, I'm afraid."
"I believe that the spiritual is a metaphor for the physical and, equally, that the physical is a metaphor for the spiritual. You felt compelled to transform my room and I had to accept it – as I would have done from nobody else. Hugh – because of the way you have transformed my life. ..Yes, you always say your life is very disconnected. I listen to what you tell me, Hugh, dear, though you may not think so. Your life is much more connected than you know and you would be more content if you perceived its connections. Perhaps it is my duty to reveal those connections to you."
♥ "I hope you weren't frightened, Gladys. It was just something you imagined." He regarded her anxiously, picturing her frail figure alone in the moonlit street, trying to place in the sky the rending noises she heard in her head. Possibly the crashing airliner was a herald of one of her "attacks" of which she had once guardedly spoken. When the cells of the brain stem collapsed from lack of oxygen, perhaps they both sounded like, and actually were, an air disaster, exemplifying what she had said about the spiritual and physical being metaphors for one another.
♥ "I never have any luck. With women, for instance – I seem to lose them all. They never stay. Nothing's permanent. That's the hallmark of my existence. Nothing solid to show, just ruins."
♥ "That is to say, I mean..." He tried to live with young people because explanations were always due to the old. "Each time the dream comes, it has a new significance. It enfolds my life."
♥ The engraving showed a grand ruin. Ferns and small trees were growing over it, so that it resembled a man-made cliff. The original structure, long in disrepair, had patently been intended for reverential purposes: its proportions, its grand arched windows, indicated as much. Centuries and wars had caused its original function to be lost, and its fabric to be largely destroyed. From the fallen masonry, a modest house had been constructed. It stood within the embrace of the old building. From its windows washing hung and people in the costume of the period stood outside it, idly enjoying the sunshine.
It was a perfect realisation of his dream. He stood transfixed by it, by its grandeur, which he contrasted with his own crude sketches. With a flash of perception – what was it but a flash that visited him, like lightning in a summer night? – he saw that neither building held much interest alone, the ruin or the house. Only in their juxtaposition was there piquancy, a cause for speculation.
As he stood in front of the engraving, he had as godlike view of himself from above, standing before the spectacle of the world. His pains, his losses, were encompassed within the greater panorama of his existence. Even the memories of his parents, his dear lost wife, were less than the love they had shared.
..Yet while thew words were leavings his lips, he perceived that, as he interpreted the engraving, so must he interpret his life. If his interpretation of the engraving was not forged by all he had lived through it would be nothing more than a meaningless pattern. His existence had design, meaning, piquancy, even to himself, because of the relationship between the sorrows which overshadowed the past and the understanding granted in living moments. The glimpse of unity made him whole. He clung to it as he clung to the crutch.
.."Pictures and dreams – how can they make any difference to the facts of life?"
"Facts are open to interpretation, just as the picture is. It's not the picture that's important but it's interpretation... Pictures and dreams. ..Everything with any meaning has many meanings. The picture preserves a meaning for us jointly."
♥ "Hugh, I think you enjoy breakdown. I think your whole life is broken down."
He was humble with her because she had really remade his life..
♥ "Must Do Better. Where are we going to find a spare couple of hundred pounds? We've still got to pay for this carpet."
"Something may turn up."
"I could cheerfully kill you, sometimes."
♥ "But you see it's been good for me, Rose, being good for someone else."
♥ Back by the privet, Billing immured himself to hardship by recalling scenes from his American past. Taking over a new apartment in Riverside, hearing a phone ring as he entered and running from room to room trying to locate it. Being in a woman's house when the mosquito door banged and in came a businesslike dog with a cigar in its mouth. The woman – her name had gone – taught rehabilitative drama at the Alabama State Penitentiary, Children's Division. Waking in Greenwich Village and finding that someone had built a punk tree outside his window, made entirely of copies of the St. Petersburg Times. A sign on a road outside Atlanta, Georgia, erected in sorrow or pride, saying "One driver in every ten on this road is drunk." America was much more surreal than England. It was a pity.
♥ Billing gripped the poker, fear gripped Billing.
♥ The black water which half-filled the receptacle lay still, without a ripple. It reflected the moon, full that evening and shining overhead, sublimely free of the rooftops and chimney pots.
His heart seemed to open as he gazed up at it. Not just a dead world by a symbol trailing its mythic connotations across the sky. Beautiful, inspiring. He recalled some of the strange associations the doomed people in his book had conjured up: the moon, for instance, as a female spirit, as the Anima in men's minds.
The book of dream journeyings made mention of the baboons at the great temple of Borabadur who perform a gesture of adoration when the moon rises. All savages fear the dark, some believing the day to be God's creation and the night the produce of the devil, of Satan. So the moon is a heavenly promise. Its crescent is symbolic allusion to the power of the feminine principle. "Diana, huntress, chaste and fair..." There is a timeless quality about her, suggesting wisdom. When the Anima is encountered in dream wanderings, it is like a visitation from the moon among the thickets of the night; and then the Anima often manifests herself as a young woman, to offer guidance or temptation. Her appearance is frequently a sign that a period of confusion and trouble – the night journeying of the psyche – will give way to the daylight of individuation. Anima dreams can be memorably vivid, lingering on in retrospect as token of hope long after other dreams have faded with break of day. All this and more, for the books on Gladys's shelves were ample in discussion. Billing hardly knew whether or not to believe them, but the fact was that he wished to do so, for obscure reasons, and so he remained entertained if not convinced.
As he walked by the bath with these and similar thoughts in his mind, his gaze on the sky, the moon, at the extreme end of his walk before he turned about, appeared to become entangled in the bare branches of an ash tree.
So greatly did this sight move Billing that he stumbled back inside the house, as if he could bear no more loveliness.
He thought of that loveliness again after he and Rose had made love, after he turned the light off and darkness filled their little room. In his present complacent state, he realised, he had had no dreams he remembered for some while. Nothing, except the nightmare provoked by George Dwyer's flung brick. It was as though the moon had not shone on his sleep.
The pale moonlight was already at their window panes. Humbling himself, Billing carefully formed words like a prayer in his mind: "Oh, Anima, I believe in you. Visit me, speak to me, in my dreams tonight, fair creature."