Bridge 13

September 25th, 2010

Bridge 13–SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

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Love still exists in one another’s arms

For you, so young the springtime in your blood

Flows hand to hand, as eyes flash soft alarms,

Presaging consummation’s bursting bud.

But for the old both bud and bloom are blown . . .

No bright bouquets to ancient scarecrows come.

If they seek love they put to sea alone,

As they go sailing to Byzantium.

Yet not alone!  For there’s no way to go

But through some other’s long imaginings

Become your own, through flights of soul that so

Sweep up your own that it too soars and sings.

Old sailors, too, find love is still supreme,

When they’re at sea . . . transported by a dream.

[Fall, 1962]

“I felt I had to get out of that haunted house for a while.  I was surprised to discover that losing Laura, in that ridiculous way, bothered me as much as losing Betty had . . . when she’d run off with my ‘best friend of the moment.’  Perhaps because it was more surprising.  I’d been aware of Betty’s restless appetites, appetites I could hardly understand, let alone satisfy, so it was as if I were trying to hold her against some law in her own nature.  But Laura had chosen me.  I had simply allowed her to move into, then take possession of, my life.  Then I’d come to depend upon her more than I knew, in a profoundly domestic way.  Did I love her?  I guess I did.  I missed her.  If love means wine and roses, and exotic passions, we may have had too little of that.  But, as soon as she was gone, I knew how much I needed her.  How does that song go in My Fair Lady?  I’d become accustomed to her face, to her walk . . . to her scrambled eggs.  She might not have dominated my


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dreams, as Betty had, on occasion, provoking memorable moments of passion, but had the perhaps more remarkable capacity of satisfying those passions she had provoked.”

“Oh, Jack . . . that’s terrible!” Shoko interjected.

“And I don’t mean that.  I’m just trying to explain how I felt at the time.  A lot has happened since–but when she left me that first time I was conscious of how comfortable I’d been with her,  and how hard it’d be to replace what I had so carelessly let slip away.  She’d given herself to me back there in Wellington without reservation.  I had accepted that gift–then come to take her too much for granted.  Now she was gone.”

“Well, don’t expect sympathy from me, Jack,” Shoko said.  “She should’ve been furious.  Being ‘taken for granted.’  Routinely satisfying routine passion!  While the man dreams of another woman?  Really!  You’re lucky she left you alive.”

“Laura may’ve been angered by my feelings about Betty–then and later–but that was not my intention.  I trusted Laura!  More than I ever have anyone else.  I depended on her!”

“But  did you tell her that?”

“Probably not.  Took that for granted, too.  Ridiculous!”

“Yes . . . ridiculous.  To drive a good woman away, and then complain about being lonely.”

“Well, I was lonely.  I still had Christine–but that just made it worse.  Her young energy running through that empty house, and her interminable questions about Laura, kept me brooding.  Part of the problem was that I had no real project in hand, and, while I did try to escape the loneliness in part by giving the child more attention, playing games with her, taking her places, reading to her, that didn’t help much, either.

“It was Grace’s suggestion that she take Christine for a week or two, until I got my life straightened out.  She said she’d enjoy having her.  I knew it’d be an imposition on both her and her husband, Arthur, but, as I talked it out with them

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at their home one evening, about a week after Laura had left me, I decided to accept the offer, promising myself to make it up to them some day . . . though I guess I  never have.

“I didn’t do anything but close up the house, and collect a few personal things to leave at Grace’s, with Christine and the cat, thinking I’d try to lose myself in my work for a while,  then might sell the house, make other arrangements for Christine, and dispose of everything I had shared with Laura–making sure she got her half–but I wasn’t ready to do that yet.

“Grace agreed to this plan.  I’m sure she was hoping we’d get back together, and still need the house.  She might be my sister, but she had become closer to Laura than she was to me.  I knew they’d been talking on the telephone.  She asked what she should do if Laura wanted to see Christine.  I thought about it a moment, then said that I had no objection.  ‘Laura’s right.  Christine’s as much her daughter as anyone’s.  But tell her to remember that she’s mine, too.’  Grace said she felt better about that, ‘I want to avoid hard feelings, Jack, but Laura does love the child so.  And I  . . . I love both of them.’

“So I was prepared to go off on safari–and I already knew what I was going to do.  There was this crazy old lady that Randall Best had been asking me to interview, on the possibility of doing a screenplay on her life, or on some of its more available and romantic aspects.”

“Jack, you’re impossible . . . saying these things about people you know I have an affection for.  After what you’ve said about Laura, am I now supposed to listen quietly while you describe the countess as a ‘crazy old lady’?” asked Shoko.

“That’s about how she was first described to me, Shoko–and why I took the assignment.  I thought it should provide the distraction I needed.  I told myself I’d see to it that it did.  I called Randall the next morning after making arrangements with Grace and Arthur, and asked him if he could set it up for

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me to meet with his ‘countess’ the following day.  I knew that he knew what had happened between Laura and me, but he didn’t mention it, just responded with his usual enthusiasm.

“‘I’d be delighted to, Jack.  The very thing . . . after that Hostages on Horseback fiasco.  Whatever happened to Marv? You think his old girlfriend stole his body?  My God!

“‘But, hey, the possibilities with this idea!  You’re exactly the one to do it.  Natasha said she wanted me to send a “bright young man.”  You’re still young, aren’t you, Jack?  And bright?  You’ll be good for each other!  You’ll get to talking to her and forget about everything else.  It works that way with everyone.  People consider her crazy, but mostly because she’s always had the courage to tell it the way she sees it, and live her own life–damn the rest of them!  She’s absolutely the most impressive woman I’ve ever known.  You’ll like her, Jack.  Unless I call back, Natasha’ll be expecting you tomorrow afternoon.’  That was it.  I had my assignment.

“I took Christine to the park that afternoon, then to dinner, like a formal date.  She was already well-behaved in public, particularly when we went to ‘fancy places’ alone.  Then we spent the evening packing personal things from the house, including some things Laura had left.  I let myself wonder if those could be the same underthings that I’d seen scattered behind our wrecked station wagon, though I knew that, given the normal life expectancy of such things, they couldn’t be, would be say three generations later, but they still looked the same, and provoked related fantasies.”

“But more routine, less ecstatic, fantasies than Betty’s things would have,” said Shoko.   Henry put his hand on her shoulder, and laughed at that.  So did I, if a little ruefully.

“You’ve got me,” I admitted.  “I hardly knew what I felt, but packed her things more carefully than Christine’s or my own, and would have liked to have done as Anthony did to

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Enobarbus and sent them after her.  But Grace would give them to her.  I had arranged to have the lawn mowed, and told neighbors to get in touch with my sister if there were any problems with the house.  The next morning I took Christine over to Grace’s, and then, after lunch, drove the twenty miles or so out to that big old house near Encino where Natasha Rostovna, our ‘crazy old lady,’ had lived for over thirty years.

“She was now in her seventies, but had known John Barrymore intimately, even scandalously, it was said, and had dominated certain exotic fringes of the early film-making world when she was nearly forty.  She was best remembered, not so much as a star–though she’d been one–but as a charismatic woman who had mesmerized some of the most fascinating and talented men in one of the most glamorous environments that had ever been.  No one had seemed conscious of her age when in the circle of her influence, though there had been plenty of gossip around town about her affairs with younger film makers–like Orson Welles.

“‘But that was long ago,’ Randall had told me, ‘and she evidently decided to live out her life alone.  She’s been living in a weird old house, with foreigners as servants, long enough for legends to accumulate.  Nor are the Hollywood stories all, Jack.  She’s Russian by birth, but spent much of her youth in places frequented by Russian nobility in France and Switzerland prior to the Revolution–then had had to leave Russia for good, and, since her family had lost everything, to live by her wits.  She spent the next few years in Germany, finally working with Max Reinhardt.  Some say she came to America with him, but, if so, long before he did his operatic film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream–back when Mickey Rooney played Puck, and James Cagney played Bottom.'”

“I’ve seen that film three or four times, Jack,” said Henry.  “It’s a classic.  But I don’t remember a Russian countess.”

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“Well, Randall didn’t know if she’d had any part in that film, as she was back and forth to Europe through those years.  ‘They say she knew Lenin in the early days of the Revolution,  Hitler in the Munich beer-hall days, Churchill as a young journalist, then, after she settled in America, became a close  friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, and an intimate of Joe Kennedy in his Hollywood days.  The legends are legion, Jack.  Even that she’d had an affair with Babe Ruth, I think.’  I didn’t believe a tenth of what he told me, of course, and don’t believe he did either, but he indicated I’d have a great deal of latitude between legend and fact in preparing a film version of her life, in the tradition of Hollywood biographies.  But Randall said that, even so, her story was likely to be more interesting than anyone knew–if I could get her to tell it.  And she seemed ready to tell someone, after years of holding off the curious.

“I pulled into a service station in Encino to fill up the gas tank and check directions.  The old man pulling a squeegee across my windshield brightened up immediately when I mentioned I was looking for the old Powers place.

“‘Ho, yeah, everybody around here knows where that is.  Where that crazy old lady lives.  But she’s a good ol’ gal to my mind.  She comes in here sometimes, with that man of hers still drivin’ that old Bentley that ought to be in a museum.  About a 1932 model, I guess.  She really looks grand with him piloting that thing, like a queen, chauffeured by an admiral.  Sometimes there’s a Chinese girl with her, but usually she’s alone.  I don’t know if her man does repairs on the car, but it always seems to be in first class running order.  And she seems harmless . . . but may be crazy all right.  You go about a mile further west, to the next light, turn left, across the railroad, for maybe half a mile, and then you’ll see it up on the hill–like a castle, or maybe a haunted house.  You can’t miss it.  It was built a long time ago . . . for one of them movie stars.’

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“For once it was true–you couldn’t miss it.  Off on the hill, it looked like the set for Tara, from Gone with the Wind, or maybe Orson Welles’ Xanadu.  Then, from the time I turned off the highway, it was as if I’d progressively entered another world, or fallen into a dream.  I was alone on the road, and the mood of the bleak November day took possession of my spirit.  At first the pepper trees that bordered the long drive allowed intermittent glimpses of the big house, but, as I got nearer, the  vegetation began closing in, as if all of the smaller trees and shrubs were gathering in around the house–not to protect it, or receive its protection, but to prey upon it.  Someone must have planted them, but then evidently neglected them until their fertile overabundance had become oppressive.

“As I drove the last hundred yards, I fancied I was entering a dark wood by the only path in, and, if I got lost, might never find my way out again.  From where I parked, on a canopied circular drive, I walked between bushes and vines up a long flight of stairs, where the flagstones could just barely be distinguished, to a half-hidden, trellised wrought-iron gate.  I thought to myself, ‘I feel like I’m entering the lair of a spider.  Maybe I should run, before I get caught in her web.’

“The house itself was across a patio that provided a little clearing.  It was Spanish stucco, a style popular in California in the ’30s–heavy wooden beams exposed, tile roof, courtyard in the middle.  The stucco might be in need of repair, but the basic structure of the house was sound.  I wondered about this Russian girl, who had moved in Hollywood glitter, then retired to a movie-set version of the Spanish Middle Ages–just off of the Ventura Freeway.  I approached the huge oak door and lifted the heavy iron knocker.  When I knocked the sound echoed as if it were reverberating in a huge empty box.  I knocked again, and was so startled by a voice coming from behind me that I must literally have jumped.  That amused her.

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“‘Who comes knocking at an old woman’s door?’  Her laughter added to my confusion.  ‘It must be John Curtis, Randall’s young friend.  Did I frighten you?’

“‘You surprised me.  I didn’t see anyone.  And you were very quiet.’  I gave her a wry smile.  The smile she returned would have made the Mona Lisa envious.  She was not tall, and, no doubt looked her seventy-some years, but stood with a regal bearing that made her seem taller and younger.  Her hair was absolutely white, braided in an old-world style, the braids arranged as a crown, that made me think immediately, ‘She’s got somebody who takes pretty good care of her.'”

I smiled at Shoko, who smiled back.

“She wore a dark-green dress, of an elegant fabric, but unadorned and straight in its lines.  Her eyes were bright and penetrating, and I’d just decided this ‘crazy old lady’ might still have more of her faculties working than I did when I heard the door open behind me, and jumped again.  I turned to find a solidly built man, probably in his middle fifties, standing there, and heard her laughter again, like that of a delighted little girl.

“‘Well, Thomas, we’re beginning, as good hosts should, by putting Mr. Curtis at ease.  You are a nervous young man.  This is Thomas.  He takes care of this place–and me.  We’ve been expecting you.  I was just out getting my exercise, but Thomas will have things ready in the library.  Please come in.”

“I couldn’t resist adding, ‘Said the spider to the fly,’ which set her to laughing again.

“‘I like you already, Mr. Curtis.  Didn’t I know your father?  Wasn’t he in California politics?’

“‘No.’

“‘Your grandfather, perhaps?’

“‘We’re not related to that Curtis.  My grandfather was an Ohio farmer.  Went to the Civil War from that Ohio farm.  No, I guess that was my great-grandfather.’

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“Again the laugh.  ‘I don’t believe I go back that far.’

“I kept denying connections with any Curtises she’d ever known as Thomas led the way down a long dark hall, under the sweeping spiral staircase, to a room in the rear, obviously the library, which looked out on the courtyard on one side, but out over the whole valley from a panoramic window at the rear, which provided the opposite view from the one I’d seen from below half an hour before.  I could see a cattle truck threading its way along the ribbon of highway I’d been on, the purple foothills in the background.  The scene was breath-taking–no doubt why the house had been built there.

“‘That’s quite a drop.  You must have to be careful about walking in your sleep.’  There was no response, just her laugh again.  ‘An impressive old fountain in the courtyard, too,’ I said.  ‘It’s as if the house had been built around it.’

“‘Actually, it’s one of the few things I added when I moved in.  There was a swimming pool there, which seemed incongruous to me, and posed plumbing problems.  Since I don’t swim, or care to attract people who do, I had it taken out and the fountain put in.  And yes, it did come from Spain–but not from the Alhambra.  It was new then, but that was thirty years ago, so it does begin to be old.  I have a nice tile bath, too, almost large enough for swimming.  I especially enjoy that.  In winter I keep the water hot all the time, like the Japanese do, then use the south end of the room, that is all windows, as a hot house for some of my plants.  I’ll introduce you to that later.  But do sit down.  Thomas, we’ll take tea.’

“It was a large room, a true library, the other walls lined with books around a corner fireplace.  They say you can tell a lot about a person from his books, and I like to try–though I also tried not to be too obvious.  But she saw where I was looking, and asked, ‘Are you familiar with the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Mr. Curtis?’

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“I said I knew a few of his poems from college anthologies, ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ ‘Among School Children,’ ‘Lapis Lazuli.’  I recited what I could remember of the opening and closing lines of ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ then said I knew him better as a dramatist, had worked with two of his one-acts in a drama workshop, and remembered At the Hawk’s Well as powerful–then knew him by reputation as one of the great poets of our century, a symbolist with a private mythology, like William Blake, and had been sufficiently impressed that I’d always intended to read more some day . . . and that was true.

“She said, ‘Yes?  Well that will be your first assignment.  Thomas, give Mr. Curtis that collected edition of Yeats.’  Thomas had come back in with tea and biscuits, which he set before us, then turned to the bookshelf.  ‘That dark blue book on the second shelf, Thomas.’  He handed the book to me.

“‘I once met Mr. Yeats.  In London.  When he was old and I was . . . younger.  I think back to how little it meant to me at the time, and how much it means to me now.  He has taught me much of what I know about being old, among other things.  Oh, not in that brief meeting!  But he did talk to me.  He was talking to someone else when we were introduced–then he was talking to us–then he was talking to me.  I took pride in having that kind of social presence in those days.  He commented on his age and my youth–though I was no innocent girl, was perhaps about your age now–then about French poetry, when he discovered I had an interest there.  I hadn’t read any of his poetry at that time, but his comments on things I had read provoked me to go out and buy one of his books the next day–and I’ve been reading him ever since.  I see it as my duty to pass his wisdom on to you–there, in his book.  He was a wise man.  You’ve demonstrated that you know parts of “Sailing to Byzantium,” so something of his advice on dealing with mortality . . . on growing old.’

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“I said I understood that poem to advise turning from lust to art as one got too old for lust.  It crossed my mind that putting it that way might be offensive to an old woman, but she laughed very warmly, and was about to reply when again I heard a door open behind me and turned to see, if I may put it this way, a beautiful young Oriental woman.”  I looked at Shoko, but she smiled noncommittally.  “I thought, ‘Ah ha, the man at the service station’s Chinese woman?  No, Japanese, I think.  Or Korean.  How can you tell?  But a rare beauty . . . hidden away in this old house.’

“Instead of continuing her questioning, my hostess spoke to the newcomer, and I heard your name for the first time.  ‘Come in, Shoko, and meet our guest.’  Do you remember?”

“Very well.  The countess said, ‘Meet Mr. Curtis, a delightful young man who’s come to live with us for a while.’

“I tried to return your bow, but with none of your grace.  I must have seemed a comic figure.’

“No . . . quite the gentleman.  A good first impression.”

“The countess was enjoying herself immensely, saying, ‘As I look at you two attractive young people bowing to each other, I could imagine a match, Shoko–“the young in one another’s arms.”  While you’re still young enough for lust.’  She was making fun of me . . . already.

“But that set me to trying to guess your age, as, showing less embarrassment than I felt I was, you moved over to sit on a cushioned bench in front of the bookcase, near the countess.  Thomas went out then, as if he were turning her over to you, but, looking out the window not long after that, I saw him out puttering around the plants near the fountain–which, by contrast to those along the drive, looked well groomed–where he would be readily on call.  I wondered if they were apprehensive about me after all, but she obviously found pleasure in teasing a new victim, and continued with it.

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“‘But you couldn’t imagine an affair with me, could you, Mr. Curtis?  Yet I find you an attractive young man, much as Socrates did Alcibiades, if I may speak so on such short acquaintance.’  She paused and smiled.  ‘Yes, I know the signs.  So I feel the beginnings of an affair, though you need not lock your bedroom door tonight . . . at least not against me.’  She was teasing you, too, I knew, and her eyes fairly twinkled, while you smiled benignly, as you’re doing now, the inscrutable Oriental, looking from one of us to the other.”

Shoko said, “And I remember your response . . . looking at me, not her, I believe.  ‘I don’t need another affair right now.  I’ve had trouble enough that way to last me for a while.'”

“And the countess laughed again.  ‘So you, too, have your memories . . . already.  That’s nice.  You must tell us about your love affairs.  Shoko and I both like good love stories, don’t we?  And you’ll not be cured of love that easily.  You’ll be surprised how soon the appetite returns.  Still, I’m most interested in love for old people these days–in sailing to Byzantium.  We’ll talk about that after you’ve read some more Yeats.  And I’ll have some other assignments for you.’

“As I had been examining the library, I had noticed the strange characters on the backs of two shelves of books on the west wall, and had at first thought, ‘Ah ha, Chinese.  They probably belong to . . . Shoko?’  Pointing to those books, I asked the countess, ‘Do you read Chinese, too?’

“‘I do, a little,’ she replied.  ‘I have The Book of Songs and The Analects there on the shelf.’  She stood and walked over close enough to check the titles and touch the books, with real affection, I thought.  ‘And I’ve labored through both . . . but years ago.  You know Confucius died just ten years before Socrates was born, and is so very much like him, as a social-moral philosopher, that there may be more to the mystery of reincarnation than we in the West generally allow.’

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“She smiled again.  ‘But my fluency is in Japanese.  Most educated Japanese can read as much Chinese as I can, I think . . . most of the characters are the same.  The books on these shelves are almost all in Japanese.’

“She took a slender paperback from a lower shelf.  ‘I’m especially fond of modern Japanese novelists–have known a number of them.  The fact that few Occidentals know their work is woeful ignorance, like not knowing 19th-century French or Russian novelists.  The achievement is there.’  She waved her arm at the books on the shelf, ‘and right at the center of the spiritual struggle to synthesize Eastern and Western values that has only just begun.  You’re a well-read young American.  Have you read any of Yukio Mishima?’

“‘Yukio Mishima?’

“‘Why yes.  He may be the most interesting young writer now at work in the world.  Very prolific.  Very perceptive.  Very provocative.  And he writes about love, too, though he’s a strange lover.  He has strange ideas about a lot of things.  I have one of his books here.  Shoko and I met him in Japan two years ago.  Have you ever been to Japan, Mr. Curtis?’

“‘Once, briefly.  During the Korean War.  I spent a week at a hotel near Mount Fuji, and about three days in Tokyo.’

“‘Did you?  And what did you think of it?’

“‘It was very different . . . and interesting . . . but I . . .”

“‘You must go again.  But go knowing what you’re looking for, what you want to see.  You must read some things first.  There are a lot of things to read, I know.  But to read young Mishima should be exciting for you.  I say “young”–he must be about your age . . . might even be a little older.  Japanese always look younger than they are, don’t you agree?  How old do you think Shoko is?’

“‘So she is Japanese,’ I thought.  ‘Early . . . no, I’d say middle . . . twenties,’ I said.

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“‘That’s right!  Isn’t it, Shoko?’  A brief nod.  I had begun to wonder just how well you could speak, or even understand, English.  ‘She must have understood that much,’ I thought.

“‘I think most would guess her to be in her late teens.  That’s what brought Mishima to mind, this question of age, as I thought of one of his plays we saw when we were in Tokyo last–when we met him.  He was very affable, very open, with a strange, broad laugh–yet very remote.  He knows Western classics–is fond of Plato.  You should read his Forbidden Colors, but, unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated yet.’

“She smiled.  ‘He knows Yeats, too, though not as well as he thinks.  Yeats had studied classical Japanese drama, modeled At the Hawk’s Well on Noh plays.  The play we saw was one of Mishima’s modern Noh plays, Sotoba Komachi.  The old Noh play was based on a legend about a 9th-century Japanese poetess, and great beauty.  She was famous for her cruel treatment of her lovers, and was finally punished by living to be old and ugly and poverty-stricken . . . and haunted by the spirit of a lover she had driven to his death.  I identify with Komachi, don’t I Shoko?’  You smiled.  ‘So I’ll recite one of her poems for you . . . to repay you for your Yeats.’

“The countess struck something of a pose, looking off into space.  She was a performer.

“‘”Hana no iro wa/ Utsurinikeri na/ Itazura ni/ Wa ga mi yo ni furu/ Nagame seshi ma ni.”‘ She looked at me for a long moment, and then broke into that special laugh she had, laced with amusement and tolerance, that was beginning to make me feel at home with this old lady.  ‘You’ll have to forgive me for showing off.  I don’t get many chances.  It goes like this in English, “The color of the flowers fades away, and they wither, while I spend my days in this world meaninglessly, and the long rains are falling.”  Isn’t that about right, Shoko?’   She looked over at you as if to a teacher in this respect.

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“‘Yes, Okusan.  You know Komachi well.’  I detected no accent.  ‘She must understand very well,’ I thought, ‘but is not overly eager to show it.’  I began to watch you more closely.

“‘So, you see, Komachi was already interested in the effects of age, too.  But it’s what Mishima has done with this legend that interests me.   We’ll look at that, later.  I’ll want to re-read it first’  She put the book on the coffee table beside her chair, on top of three or four others  already lying there.

“‘It’s about some of your experiences when you were younger that I have particularly come to hear,’ I said.  ‘With the idea of a possible film script in mind.’

“‘When I was young?  Yes.  Who’s interested in an old woman?  Poor Komachi.  Well, it was the idea for a film script that took me to Japan the first time . . . back in 1923.  I remember the year very well, because I was there at the time of the great Tokyo earthquake.  Because of that nothing came of it . . . the idea for the film script.  If you’ve never heard of Yukio Mishima, you’ve probably never heard of Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki, or Natsume Soseki, either.’

“I told her that I never had, and, as I looked over at you, you nodded to indicate that I should indulge the countess in this, so I settled back in my chair with my tea.”

“Yes, she liked to lecture people on Japanese literature,”  Shoko said.  “But she didn’t get many chances.”

“And she looked at me as she began as if it might be some kind of test, so I listened .

“‘Well,’ she went on, ‘Mishima is the fourth generation of great 20th-century Japanese novelists.  Shakespeare didn’t occur in a vacuum, you know.  It takes a tradition.  In a sense, the tradition in Japanese fiction goes clear back to Lady Murasaki and The Tale of Genji, but, in another sense, the modern Japanese novel comes from Soseki’s work early in this century, as he adapted what he learned from European fiction.

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He wrote half a dozen great novels, published in the newspaper, a chapter a week.  Everyone knew he was a great writer, but he died in his forties, before I went to Japan–so I never knew him.  I would have had he lived another ten years.  From what I know of his work, I might have liked him best of all, for he was a very proud man.  I’ve always liked that.

“‘But I’ve known the other three, and I’ll tell you about my ‘affair’ with Junichiro Tanizaki, the great novelist of that second generation, in return for a story of yours.  You might say the affair was never consummated . . . but he’s still very much alive . . . as old as I am, I suppose . . . and, since he’s a writer, it still goes on.  He published perhaps his greatest novel, Thin Snow, just a few years ago.  I have copies of most of his books over there on the shelf this book came from.’  She patted the Mishima book on the table by her side.  ‘See the set of books at the end of that shelf? That’s his version of The Tale of Genji, in modern Japanese . . . and autographed.  But I’ve only read the first volume of that, the rest in Arthur Waley’s translation.  I couldn’t read the medieval original at all.

“‘Yes, we went to Japan to make a film, adapting the story of how the jealousy of the Lady Rokujo killed Genji’s wife, Aoi.  I was to play Rokujo, and Tanizaki to work on the script.  So you may find something of your own experience in this little story.  But we were also to do two of Shakespeare’s plays in Tokyo, a late summer run of Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth in the fall.  I was introduced to Junichiro at a dinner party given for our company shortly after Antony and Cleopatra opened.  We were already in rehearsal for Macbeth–which was an unlucky play for us, too, though I’ve done Lady Macbeth three or four times with no concern about the curse on the play.  Do you believe in such things?’

“I shook my head, rather noncommittally.  The countess took time to register my response, then smiled, and went on.

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“‘The Japanese are very strong on Shakespeare.  There’s more Shakespeare done in Tokyo than in Los Angeles or Chicago–perhaps even New York or London.  That was true then, and is true now.  But doing the plays was a by-product, to give those of us who would be involved in the film a little exposure in Japan.  In his early years, Junichiro had strong interests in Western culture, was well received in the British society centered on the Yokohama Bluffs, where he lived at that time, and in the literary and theatre world of Tokyo.  He knew Macbeth very well, he said, but had neither seen nor read Antony and Cleopatra before.  The evening I met him he was effusive in his praise of my Cleopatra, but also of the little Japanese I had acquired, as Japanese always are, and, since my Japanese couldn’t really have impressed anyone, I wondered how seriously to take what he said about my acting.  But since I was, after all, the star of the play, he was attracted to me, and since he was a well-known young writer–and would be our writer–I was attracted to him.  He asked me places, and, since I was never one to resist this kind of temptation, we began to spend more and more of our afternoons together.

“‘He was just about my age . . . about your age now . . . still young enough.  Moreover, when I first met him he was evidently within a few days of having separated from his first wife, so probably as emotionally in limbo as you have indicated you may be.  He never told me this, but I heard that he had just given his wife to a friend who had become interested in her, at dinner one night–“If you want her, take her.”  Like Shakespeare with the Dark Lady in the sonnets.  I’ve always liked that . . . sign of generosity.  We hope that your story, when we get to it, is as good, don’t we Shoko?’

“‘It was not quite that voluntary, but we may have something in common.’  I found myself smiling at the concept of my ‘generosity’ in sharing my women with my friends.

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“‘If you come to know his work, you’ll find that Tanizaki is obsessed with strong, even sadistic, women, idealizes their perversity.  He’s notorious for a foot fetish, as well, and, since, in those days, I was noted for a well-turned ankle, it would seem to have been a perfect match.  My Cleopatra had already won good reviews, he, and others, told me, though I couldn’t read them myself then, and, as always, I was inclined to keep in character off stage.  I was imperious with Junichiro, if you can imagine . . . playing to his masochistic streak without really knowing it.  And he responded as my good Antony.

“‘But the fact I was studying Japanese as assiduously as he was English amused him.  We  had about equal skill, spoke to each other like children in the language we were learning.  English was not my native language either, after all, and, as I could get almost nowhere with Russian, or even French, I used my Japanese as much as I could, but he would turn to English when the Japanese was not working, and we had frequent occasion to laugh at the misunderstandings resulting.

“‘Most importantly, though, he had the status and connections to introduce me to the “real Japan,” and, responding to my interest, undertook my education in things Japanese.  Thanks in part to Junichiro Tanizaki, besides the language, I fell in love with Japanese art, aesthetic attitudes toward life . . . and literature.  Japan had a very tight social structure in those days, but he had entree everywhere.  It was a pleasure to go to Noh plays, or tour the Meiji gardens, or watch a master of flower arranging or the tea ceremony, in his company.  I was something of a scandal to him, an actress with an international “reputation,” but he prided himself on his European manners and attitudes, and never indicated that there was a problem.   Still, there came to be one.

“‘Do you see that jade lion on the table over there?  Looks more like a cat than a lion, perhaps.  I suppose I’ve collected

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these other cats in the room on that principle.  But that was my first one, my first “cat,” and it rules the rest.  Please . . . go look at it.’  I got up, walked over to the table, and picked up the little green statue, seven,  perhaps eight, inches tall.

“‘See those eyes?  Don’t they have a hypnotic quality?  Look into those eyes and imagine you’re a Japanese novelist, and that I’m much younger, and beautiful, that we’re alone in the sitting room of my hotel suite at the Imperial Hotel, and I’ve just told you that, instead of going to Kyoto with you after Antony and Cleopatra closes–as you’d invited me to–I was going to climb Mount Fuji with the lion . . . with the young naval officer who’d just given me that lion earlier that day, and who’d been competing for my attention for a week or so.  It was in my room in that hotel that Frank Lloyd Wright had built so well that it withstood the Tokyo earthquake that I told Junichiro I was going with the other man.  If I’d stayed there I could have looked out of my window to see Tokyo in ruins.  But I wasn’t there.  Nor was I in Kyoto with Junichiro.  I was with the lion.  It really was his fault, for he’d introduced us.  And then this conflict had developed–thanks in good part to appetites he himself had cultivated.’  She looked at me and smiled again, knowing she had my attention.

“‘Now what would you have said?  “Tell him that, if he wants you . . . .”  How does that go?’

“‘Well, what did he say?  And then what did you do?’

“She came over to take the little statue from me, and to look into its eyes for a long moment.  ‘It does remind me of him . . . so ambiguous.’  Then she looked at me.  ‘He said, of course . . . my decision . . . that he was sorry.  Then it was as if he wanted to tell me something else, but didn’t know how, given our children’s language limitations.  So, before long,  he politely excused himself and left.  It was years before I saw him again.  By then both of us were older and wiser.  Now, all

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I have are the memories–and the books–and this jade lion–all of which I treasure very highly.  And what did I do?  I went with the lion, of course.  But, I’ll tell you that story another time.  After I’ve re-read Mishima’s Sotoba Komachi.’

“Suddenly she put the statue down, turned back to me, and brightened.  ‘But you want to know about my life in Hollywood–when I first came into this house, as a guest–not  my experiences in Japan, don’t you?  I won’t disappoint you, Mr. Curtis.  But we should save some things for tomorrow, and tomorrow . . . and tomorrow.  You must plan to stay for a while.  We’ve prepared rooms for you, a room to sleep in and a room to work in, though you’re free to use this room, and its books, to work here if you wish.  Its cats might inspire you.  We’ll get whatever you need tomorrow, if you’ll tell us.’

“I told the countess about Christine, and the burden she might be to my sister, and she said, ‘So you must bring her, too.  You can see there’s plenty of room, and if we need more help we can get it.  Shoko and Thomas and I live alone by choice, but would enjoy having a little girl in the house . . . wouldn’t we?  Or, if not, we won’t hesitate to tell you, will throw both of you out if you become a nuisance.  Now, I have some things to do, and will see you again at dinner.’

“I was still protesting as she left, which gave you an opportunity to show, not only how good your English was, but how well you could use that gentle voice to make things flow smoothly for the countess, saying, ‘Come, she has made up her mind.  It will be fine.’  I remember thinking, as you led the way down the long hall to my room, explaining where the bathroom was, what time dinner would be, and other house rituals, that you were probably right, that I was going to like it there.  Perhaps I was even beginning to fall in love with a seventy-year-old woman, as I watched a twenty-four-year-old woman move down a dark hallway in front of me.”

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Assignment for Bridge 14:

This you may have to look for, but there are various translations of Kwanami Kiyotsugu’s medieval Noh play, Sotoba Komachi, one in Arthur Waley’s The Nô Plays of Japan (Grove Press: New York, pp. 148-160), and Mishima’s modern version is available in Donald Keene’s Five Modern Nô Plays (Vintage Books: New York, 1972, pp.1-34).  Five of Komachi’s waka are available in Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature (Grove Press: New York, 1955, pp. 78-81), the eighteen extant waka, legendary stories, and five Noh plays, including Sotoba Komachi, in Roy E., Nicholas J., and H. Rebecca Teele, Ono no Komachi: Poems, Stories, Noh Plays (Garland Publishing: New York & London, 1993).

  1. December 19th, 2014 at 18:28 | #1

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