By Charles Matthews

Saturday, January 15, 2011

4. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, pp. 116-157

The Emperor's Children (Vintage)May. Chapter Fifteen: Do You, Napoleon? Chapter Sixteen: The Fat Man Cometh; Chapter Seventeen: No Place Like Home; Chapter Eighteen: The Pope's End; Chapter Nineteen: Bootie Takes New York.
Danielle meets Ludovic ("Ludo, please") for lunch at an expensively trendy restaurant:
their hors d'oeuvres, a diverse pair of glistening, wispy constructions adrift on oceans of white porcelain, hers a supposed chèvre-and-bell pepper mille-feuille (or Napoleon) and his recognizable as a salad only by the three emerging spears of well-oiled endive that stood guard over their huddled, intestinal beetroot and marinated onion core.
Their conversation proceeds with the charged archness and hyper-self-consciousness of a couple in Henry James. "She didn't want him ever to suspect that his movements had an almost physical hold over her, as if she were unwillingly his marionette." So they fence a while about what his plans are for The Monitor and whether she will write about them, until Ludo comes out with it: "Forgive me the circumlocutions, please. What I'm saying, all I'm saying, is that we might speak more clearly and understand each other better if you were to tell me what it is you're hoping I can do for you."  Which is her cue to ask, "What makes you think I would want you to do something?" She is "truly taken aback, unsure of whether to take offense. And yet: to be direct had been her goal. Directness above all."

Julie Chen
And so it goes, as they dance around a word he had used in Sydney: "revolution." But he is not particularly forthcoming on that matter, so instead of talking about the publication, or the film she might make about it, or about ideas, they talk about people. The woman he was with at the Metropolitan, she learns, was Julie Chen, who declined an offer of employment with him. So Danielle brings up the possibility that he might have a job for Marina. On learning that Marina is Murray's daughter, he denounces him as "That lazy wombat of a man. He's been riding on reputation for as long as we've been alive. Hasn't got an original thought in his head.... There's nothing clear-eyed about his analyses; they're rants, just empty rants. And people buy them because they subscribe to some antiquated notion that a passionate reporter is more valuable than a dispassionate one. Bollocks."

Ludo invokes the name of Napoleon: "An important chap, my dear, particularly here, particularly now.... It was said that 'if Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are are little Napoleons.'" Danielle is, somewhat understandably, puzzled by the quotation, and Ludo continues:
"Show people that Murray Thwaite is the Wizard of Oz, a tiny, pointless man roaring behind a curtain. They learn what they are, and show them themselves. What could be more compelling than that?" 
And Danielle, "both alarmed and attracted by Seeley's outburst," observes that perhaps Ludo isn't the best potential employer for Marina. And back in her apartment that night she remembers "the electricity of him, the charisma, the focus. As if he were alight. And the hand, delicate but firm, not directing but engaging, somehow, a sensation that carried within it, surely not just for her, the promise of something -- was it sex" Y' think?

Marina is sitting on the floor outside her father's office, "collating and labeling the articles she had downloaded and printed out for her father," when Annabel walks down the hall, chides her for sitting on the floor and straining her eyes, and "swept into her husband's room with a peremptory rap on the door." Murray asks if it can wait and she says it can't: "That was your nephew on the phone." Bootie has called (sorry about that) to say that he's coming to New York and "needs a place to stay while he figures things out." Marina says, "He's like one of your clients." After observing that they'll be "off to Stockbridge in a few weeks," so they won't have to put up with him for very long, Murray agrees to his visit. Both Marina and Annabel are skeptical about the prospect of a nineteen- or twenty-year-old houseguest, but Annabel observes,
"It may work out. Maybe he'll become your father's indispensable right hand."

"Careful, Mom. That's my job."

"Oh, really? I thought it had been mine, all these years. You're welcome to it, though."
Murray goes back to work after dinner, but his mind is on other things: his daughter, his nephew, and Danielle. Aside from the fact that Danielle has "dark curls, soulful eyes, and fine breasts," he thinks he should enlist her in working on Marina's future, so he writes Danielle another e-mail, carefully drafting and rewriting for "the right inferences, connotations, shades of possible meaning. Because he wanted her to read the message several times, to worry -- as he expected she would -- about its propriety, only to be reassured, in  every phrase, that there was nothing untoward to be found, that it was a message Annabel might as easily have written." But he also wanted her to sense the subtext: "that he needed her presence more than her advice."

Then he decides, even though it's almost eleven p.m., to call his sister in Watertown to inquire about her son. Judy is surprised to hear that he's coming to New York, since she believed he was staying in Amherst to enter summer school at U Mass. The conversation goes somewhat at cross-purposes for both at them, and after he hangs up, Murray thinks about his mother, who "dreamed for herself and her son: of wider vistas, of glittering cocktail parties on Park Avenue, of fancy hotel rooms and travel to Europe. Most important, of Harvard." She had "succeeded in ... turning her boy into someone, something, she couldn't understand."

He compares his own childhood -- "in which you could barely open the front door on account of the stairwell ahead" -- to that of Marina, who was "raised as he'd wished to have been raised, and stymied, now, by the very lack of smallness, by the absence of any limitations against which to rebel." But he rejects the idea of her giving up her "life of privilege, moving to some Watertown of the heart." He also remembers how his father had discouraged his ambitions: "You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books, or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly, son...." He reflects that he "had slain his father, no question about it, so that the memory of him was slightly pathetic." So he feels compelled to find out what his nephew might be like.

And then he checks his e-mail and finds Danielle suggesting they meet for a drink. This excites him until he hears a scream from Marina across the hall.

Marina has been trying to work on her book, but finding that it's been so long since she did anything on it that her notes mean nothing to her. They "were several years old, and didn't readily serve their madeleine-like purpose of conjuring intellectual arguments entire." It was like "the archaeological excavation of a lost culture -- the lost culture being, of course, her own earlier thoughts." She thinks of how others would regard her failure: Danielle and her mother would try to "buck her up," and Julius would take her out for "a round of afternoon martinis, an enjoyable enough remedy but one she knew, from now considerable experience, to be ineffective." And her father would look at her notes and tell her, "See? It's all here, right in front of you. You've done all the hard work, now just get on with it!"

So she wanders around the house, thinking that she should be careful about stepping in cat vomit, and then enters the guest room that Frederick will be staying in and finds the cat dead in the middle of the bed. "And although a part of Marina was not particularly shocked, and registered simply: 'Oh, so this is death,' another part of her -- the child, she would chide herself -- recoiled, and emitted the choked cry that brought her father running."

They decide that they will leave the cat there for Annabel or Aurora, the maid, to deal with, though Marina worries, "Don't dead things, you know, leak?" Murray reassures her that it's not a problem in the short term. She also worries if it's a bad omen for Frederick, who'll be staying in the room, and he tells her, "I don't believe in omens. And you shouldn't either. No self-respecting atheist should believe in omens." Still, in her room that night, though she recognizes that "the cat was an invalid and an eyesore, scrawny, patchy, yowling, and of course vomiting," she sheds tears, partly for the cat but also for "the burdens she still had inexorably to confront, while the cat, still and free and cushioned by the finest goose down, by the ironed Irish linen, had found repose."

Bootie has arrived and now sits on a bench in Central Park trying to read War and Peace. (This might be a good point to observe how references to War and Peace keep cropping up in the novel: Not only Bootie's efforts to read it, but also Julius's ongoing question whether he's Pierre or Natasha. And then there's Ludo's fascination with Napoleon. Someone who has read the novel more recently than I could probably come up with others.) But the distractions of New York keep catching his attention. He had gotten up early to get away from the Thwaites: "He couldn't quite bear their bonhomie, the warmth and near indifference of their welcome, the way they assumed ( and the very rightness of the assumption rankled) that he was there because he wanted to be assimilated into their lives, to be a part of them." 

He had gone with them the previous evening to a barbecue in "a penthouse apartment with a wraparound terrace" with a "fabulous view." But he was "predictably, unbearably -- baffled and flushed at the gathering, his shirt stained first by sweat and then by the red wine he fumblingly spilled on it." (Like Pierre in War and Peace, Bootie is fat and socially awkward.) "The Thwaites' New York society, after all, was not what he wanted. (Or was it? He couldn't be sure.) He wanted, instead, his uncle's pure life of the mind."

As he's sitting there in Central Park, Marina runs by on her way to a yoga class and stops to talk. She invites him to go downtown with her, where she's meeting Danielle and plans to go shopping, and they agree to meet in the lobby of the apartment house at ten-thirty. The subway ride scares him, and he vows not to take it back uptown. "Perhaps there was a bus; perhaps he'd walk; but this subterranean inferno, in all its constrictions, he could not tolerate." They meet Danielle "hunched over a bagel at Dean & DeLuca," and he is smitten: "she was small, bosomy, beaky, redeemed from plainness by the light of her eyes and her pillowy lips. When she grinned, lopsidedly, her face crinkled into something dearer, more accessible than beauty. He liked her then, and too, for the poorly blotted daub of cream cheese on her pale blue shirt."

She consoles him for his discomfort at the penthouse party and in New York in general. "I'm from Columbus, you know, not like Miss New York here, who couldn't imagine life anywhere else --" Marina protests, but Danielle explains that for someone who isn't a native New Yorker, the city is "disconcerting. It's like you know it and you don't know it, at the same time. You've seen it so often, the images, in movies, on TV -- you feel as though it's yours. But of course it's different. The way something you've dreamed is different from the real thing."

Danielle asks Frederick why he's here, and he says he wants to study, but not "in a school.... I mean, I don't really trust institutions at this point." He wants to study on his own, he says. Danielle responds, "Wow," and "Marina just stared, with a fixed, bright smile, as though he had spoken gibberish." He explains that he has "a program" and his "own reading lists. And I take notes, and I write stuff up." Marina suggests, "Maybe my dad could read your essays.... I mean, you're his nephew. And he loves -- What's it called? Mentoring." Danielle asks what he's studying, and after saying, "Mostly whatever," he feels bad and says, "Right now, it's Emerson and Tolstoy." When Marina says that Anna Karenina is "one of my all-time favorites," he tells her he's reading War and Peace. "From the vigor of her nodding, Bootie wondered if she had perhaps not read War and Peace. He didn't want to catch her out, so he drank his coffee instead."

And then Danielle says that they might know someplace for him to live. They tell him about Julius, and the apartment he needs to sublet. They go off into worrying about whether Julius is getting too caught up in the drugs that David takes. He "has always liked to imply that his life's a little, um, risqué" as a touch of glamour -- "And glamour counts, for Julius -- he's insecure that way" -- but "this time there's something ... unnervingly authentic about his references to drugs," Danielle says, and Marina adds, "We'll be worried when he doesn't mention them at all anymore."

But Danielle and Marina's chatter, "the river of gossip about Julius's love life" has turned Bootie off. "This was no better than Amherst, than Oswego -- and this in a world he had imagined, somehow, to be higher." They take their leave to go shopping, and suggest that he take the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center for the view.

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