Old Europeby Bruce Benderson
For some time I’ve been in love with Old Europe, though she treats me like a stupid, underage concubine. My American friends wonder what I can see in such a worn-out tart, her silly Cupid’s bow drawn with lipstick over a slack mouth, her hackneyed prejudices and skin cast in the pallor of a bad liver.
I adore sliding my tongue between her set of rotting teeth, caressing the permanent scars on her skin from decades of constraining corsets, inhaling the complex, fermented odor of her sighing breath. I also love her supple evasions when it comes to discussing her past, the way her eyes go blank when she thinks of all that trauma.
How invigorating and enduring she is, filling me, contradictorily, with new life. Her body is an abandoned palace full of cobwebs where all discoveries are tied to some sad, sumptuous sacrifice. Plunging into her is like sinking into tar, because my intricate, often mute Sphinx is lost even to herself.
In some strange way, she’s a window into the secret of my own existence. If I gaze into her glassy gray eyes long enough and swim in their shadowy depths, a delicious terror of must invades me; a shrieking form of wisdom is communicated: the fact that I came out of blood and slaughter.
What could my experienced, melancholy mistress possibly want from me—she who has seen everything and already been disappointed by it? What story or attitude could I possibly append to her accumulated tragedies and volleys of black humor? I know she loves me for my hope and banal optimism, even if the creases at the corners of her mouth show that she’s waiting patiently for them to be crushed. My pealing laughter always startles her, and my fascination with the old, outmoded beliefs of her land, which she has taken the habit of discarding, fills her, I think, with a secret pride.
She also loves my brazen athleticism and pretends to be constantly amazed when I bring it to our love-making. My bouts of energy, ambition, endurance amuse her to no end, and perhaps only to flatter me, she claims to envy them. But behind her remarks, I sense the knowledge that all energy comes to naught as surely as our flesh locked in mad embraces is doing nothing more than struggling to a future of dust.
I suspect she’s using me as a scapegoat for her own passivity, flaunting me in the face of her secret enemies, gloating at my infatuation, which she sees as a rejection of them. She’s happy that I’ve come to quench my desire on her slack thighs spread sullenly in abandonment; yet I had to, having grown tired of the futile strivings of those on my level. Still, for her, I’m new energy to exploit, booty brought into the lap of someone too exhausted to continue hunting, who assumes the prerogative for devouring it of any respected elder. She takes hidden pleasure, I think, in dreaming of my inevitable doom, which will make us soul mates.
Supposedly weary of living, she’s the most avaricious mistress I’ve ever encountered, and she’s drowning in her own sensuality, which she constantly vaunts as exquisite taste, despite the fact of its vulgarity.
I have mostly known my love upon her couch of pleasure, draped in the finest silks of her legacy, brought from the East as spoils by her marauding ancestors, but now spotted by our reckless entwinings. She doesn’t seem to mind. She pretends contempt or boredom for all those ornate trappings, and utters a desperate, almost malicious laugh when I spill my seed on them.
Our love exists, it seems, only in the horizontal, as if she were frozen in the perpetual lolling of an odalisque. Those few times when I convince her to stand, her flesh spilling in great waves, I become suddenly aware of her colossal girth and great height, which make me feel diminished. With a sigh, she adorns herself in her precious jewelry that has been tarnished by time, and which she refuses to polish, maintaining that the encrustations give it character. Draped in her odorous, understated robes, she leads me to her favorite café, whose walls are stained a sick mustard by tobacco, and whose vaunted charm is a mystery to me. Spending little and staying for hours, she seems to have become a fixture of these surroundings, a perpetual condition. Even the reproachful eyes of the insolent garçon are a part of her pleasure. Here in the café she accomplishes what she calls “soaking up the multitude,” as if the humdrum chatter, exhausted eyes ringed by the care of work, stench of poverty, shoddy clothing and general misery were a purifying bath for her.
Is my love a sacrificial lamb, or merely nostalgic for the lost rhythms of life, now festering only in the slums? Why does she insist upon the detours we take through the most despicable neighborhoods as we make our way back from the café and the effects of too much drink force her to lean on my arm? Does she enjoy the roiling misery around her, the tense desperation of passersby and the thought of her indirect responsibility for the encroaching chaos? Does she hope that her sauntering, indifferent, half-drunken walk will provoke an eruption that might take her life but will install a new reality? Sometimes I think so, but at other times I don’t. This is probably only the vacuous stroll of a lady surveying her territory, counting the heads of her chattel as temporary distraction from her own emptiness, and mourning, in some perverse way, her distance from them. And so, soon she wearies of her promenade. In a tone dulled by too much of the same kind of disappointment, she begs me to take her home.
A similar cycle occurs on those rare occasions when we go to the opera. For these, she laces herself into her corset, slips into her finery, powders her décolleté, places drops of perfume in the hollows of her collarbone and, without removing her furs, takes her place in her box, from which she surveys the crowd with an affected air of tedium, reserving special glares of resentment for the generals and politicians beneath us, whom she paradoxically detests for carrying out her aspirations. But by the second act, her resentment has changed into an empty-headed coquetry, to the point at which she even casts flirtatious glances at the old windbags decorated in medals.
Such is the nature of my love, who seems both ruler and slave at the same time, contemptuous of her masters and her victims, yet perhaps secretly hoping to be extinguished by either, as if it were her inheritance. Used to servants, she has no qualms about employing her wiles to get others to accomplish the harsh necessities of life. In a shrill tone of protestation, she can provoke her supposed opponents to carry out her own hidden goals. Flattering her enemies, while goading those rasher than herself into punishing them, she remains guiltless in her own eyes, absurdly supposing that such subterfuges go unremarked. Or perhaps she keeps her shame for them hidden beneath her haughty bearing and cloaked in sudden excesses of moral scolding.
What a coward Old Europe is. When it comes to confrontation, danger, she’d rather slither out of her moral positions or bargain like a usurer in the spirit of her Mediterranean legacy. These are qualities she likes to project upon others, and she’d be the first to accuse some outsider, rather than herself, of having them. But question her as I might, I cannot hold her to account. All she finally does is smile at me in her rotten-toothed, lazy way, which resembles a death rictus, and blame all of it cavalierly on her mixed blood, the Oriental infiltration of her genes. Language and rhetoric seem identical to her, and she slides between truth and falsehood with the nonchalance of the entitled.
It is due to her poor housekeeping, I am convinced, that our home is now crawling with all sorts of vermin, especially rats come on ships from the East. Yesterday, on one of her rare outings, she left me alone in the house, and during her absence, one of the creatures skulked from its lair behind a bookcase and confronted me head on. I’ll admit that I was mesmerized by its glistening, beady red eyes, its yellow pointed incisors and quivering, salivating mouth; but did I imagine the perplexity in its slightly cocked head, like a pet that has unwittingly chosen the wrong mistress? And there we stood, frozen, staring at one another for a moment: I, the overfed, pampered visitor, with little understanding of the beast’s miserable past, and it, wily but defeated, torn between retreat and attack. Day’s later, when I found it lying dead at the threshold of our door, poisoned by some neighbor, I pointed it out to my love, who lifted her skirts and skittered gracefully past it. “Did you kill it yourself?” was all she wanted to know.
As I have already pointed out, my mistress is tall and large beyond imagining. She towers above normal figures. On those few times that we go out, such height is probably responsible for her remote stare, as if the bent-backed beings toiling or engaged in felonious acts beneath her gaze were ants whose features are hard to distinguish, and human misery were strangely exiled from her participation. But there are times when she unleashes a sudden gesture that plunges her into the fray, exhibiting pent-up power and drama that has until that moment been concealed.
Such was what happened on our most recent outing together. Weary of her café and the opera, bored by the predictability of her strolls through the usual neighborhoods, she pulled me farther and farther toward the city outskirts. Such a long excursion was highly uncharacteristic behavior for she who is so attached to her couch. Perhaps it was a desire to return some of the vigor she constantly claimed that I supplied her, or to compete with it. Or perhaps she missed her youthful jaunts into the Red Belt and Chapelle, decades ago, when she rubbed shoulders with bohemians and other disruptive types.
The nearer we approached, the harsher the red ring that lit up the horizon became, until it resembled a circle of blood; and smoke that I imagined smelled like singed flesh stung my nostrils. I kept suggesting that we turn back, first casually, in the low-key way she considered good taste to express such complaints, and then more vehemently, as fear for my safety overcame me. She laughed off my misgivings and unflinchingly pulled me onward. We swept pass the homes of the idle, venal rich, who had reclaimed the city center so recently; then past the humbler dwellings of the middle class, with their respect for work and talent; and finally past the homes of the workers who had given up their efforts to change our system of production in favor of arriving late, leaving early and slowing down output. It was then that we began to glimpse the first Black Maria’s lumbering in the same direction we were, with death in the hearts of their drivers.
We came upon an endless wall of flames that licked the heavens with tongues of rage. All right and wrong seemed lost in this conflagration; young and old, good and evil were indiscriminately consumed by the pure energy, which seemed determined to incinerate all of History. I thought of the red gleam in the eye of the rat, and I shuddered. The flames roared as they do at a smelting plant, turning even metal into vapor.
But my usually apathetic mistress had transformed into something flamboyant and coarse. And her size had grown even more gigantic, like some mammoth, mechanical gargantua. I had never seen her standing in such a vulgar and competent way, with her skirts hiked up and her legs straddling the blaze, over which she loomed, the reflection of flames mottling her noble features and reddening her lips, her nostrils flared with determination, her mouth contorted in superhuman effort. Then she squatted, and from between her thighs emerged a thick stream, like a Niagara, which promptly quenched the fire.
Bruce Benderson is the first American to receive the Prix de Flore. He is the author of three works of fiction, most recently The Romanian just published by Penguin, User and Pretending to Say No, and several works of nonfiction, including Toward the New Degeneracy. He is a translator of French literature who has worked as a journalist for numerous American and French publications, including The New York Times Magazine and Libération.
Benderson is a novelist, essayist, journalist and translator, widely published in France.