It has been much remarked upon. By those who have observed him. He’s sitting crouched, as though expecting a blow. Or so bent in his sitting that this blow must already have fallen. I think: Characteristic of him to look as though expecting or recovering from an attack. I think: Characteristic of him to sit in such a way as to invite an attack. I think: How best attack this Kurtz?
He is sitting with a woman, or not with a woman, isn’t that reasonable? And just where he’s sitting is where he usually sits, crouched or near enough to crouching over his mug or cup or glass (this is dependent, the vessel, on season and time of day). He comes here often, and I am often sitting here when he comes in, indulging in a little anacoluthon (my doctor tells me no, but what’s life, I ask, without these little pleasures?), and when he comes in he is often accompanied by a woman, who perhaps struck up a conversation with him on their first meeting by asking, “Do you come here often?”
He doesn’t walk so much as he scuttles—is that fair of me to say? Kurtz prizes fairness, I imagine, because he perceives that he is not often treated fairly.
Where did you learn to say of men that they scuttle? he would ask.
I’d confess: The verb certainly comes from a book I once read about a man or woman who was meant by the author to seem distasteful.
But didn’t it occur to you, reading this book, Kurtz would ask, that such a verb is hardly in the spirit of plain-dealing? Didn’t it occur to you that to say of a man that he scuttles rather than walks isn’t, wasn’t, fair to him?
I don’t make the rules, Kurtz! The words I have to describe characteristics that are suspect or unattractive are themselves suspect or unattractive. When I speak of the scuttling, furtive Kurtz, it will seem to you that I am saying he is the sort of man who, characteristically, scuttles and furts. Who could blame you if you didn’t want to meet such a man? Who could blame you if you didn’t want to sit in a booth to crouch in concert with such a man over his mug or cup or glass? And yet.
Two booths behind us Kurtz sits with a woman or without. Together they sit, furtively, speaking perchance of innocent things, though how sinister they seem, stooped.
If Kurtz is furtive, if Kurtz has something to hide—why pretend he is other than he appears?—does that make the woman who is or is not sitting with him “conspiratorial”? Does she sit with him, in their booth, stirring her drink, letting it warm her hands, or else touching it to her face, smudgy from the heat, to cool her cheek, in such a manner as to indicate that she is engaged in some obscure scheme with our dark-haired, dark-eyed, subfusc-sporting Kurtz? They are talking, how can we doubt it, of the myriad unfairnesses visited upon Kurtz since his arrival. If not “myriad,” then what? “Many” is more neutral. They are talking, thinking themselves unheard, of however many ways they might employ to punish us, who have been so unfair, even in our word choice, to poor Professor Kurtz, so recently come among us, and so unlikely ever to settle.
He comes, I’m told, from the east, which is itself sinister: night comes sooner there. We offer him a thousand and three belfries and seven railroad stations and still he is nostalgic for the claustral square in the Old Country where no bright electric clocktower lights home the locals to what succor lies in the beds of their crooked-spined wives. Perhaps to be unfurtive in such darkness is to be insolent. Kurtz must spring, you’ll agree, from a cautious father and a mother downright stealthy. We might amuse ourselves by imagining the progenitors of Kurtz. To what depths of antiquity could we trace his crouch and his comportment? (Call it timorous.) Did they warn him, his clan, not to come among us here in the sun?
Is he as guarded in speech as in all other aspects of his demeanor? Or, as I’ve imagined him, rude, critical, could I say persnickety. Hard to be guarded when you don’t know the customs of your new country, city, workplace. He could think himself timid while being brash. Thinking himself droll, he could offend. Imagine my straight-spined wife and I sitting here, in these seats, taking tea with Professor Kurtz! A ridiculous but compelling, what, Gedankenexperiment.
I would try, in such a situation, to put our new friend at ease by telling—there’s no harm in it—a comical anecdote, a funny story about my college days, for example the time I climbed up the illuminated clockface in the quad. I would begin, I was only eighteen at the time—
But I hate, he’d say, stories that begin with a pronoun. Spare me, please, any more of those awful stories.
What about, I’d ask, humoring him, names, proper names, may I begin a story with a name? Would that meet with your approval, Friend K? (Thinking: the nerve!)
There is no more presumptuous way to begin, he’d say, than with a proper name. I am willing to bet—and here maybe he’d produce twenty pengő and place them on the table between us—I am willing to bet that you couldn’t think of a single name, the syllables of which pronounced in concert at whatever speed would not cause me to expire from boredom on this very spot.
Elmer, I’d say, Erich, James, Wendy, Bronislau, Georges, Ludovico, Bernard, Mikis, Dimitri, Franz, Max? (Thinking: a furtive funeral!)
You’re killing me, he’d confirm.
What about, I’d ask, articles, definite or indefinite, and so forth?
Barely, he’d say, tolerable. Indefinite is almost civilized.
So I should say, I’d say, An eighteen-year-old boy . . .
But already, he’d sneeze, you are trying, shamelessly, to get my sympathy for this person. Is that ethical?
This person, I’d say, was me, but apparently I’m not allowed to admit it.
It’s nothing to be proud of, quoth GedankenKurtz.
So you tell a story, I’d suggest.
So little remains, he’d say, of the text from which these details have been drawn. It was left, where, in the sun, underwater, between layers of wallpaper. We did all we could to restore it. A few of our number—overenthusiastic, or else seduced to this or that peculiar partisanship by our unscrupulous colleagues—went so far as to attempt to reconstruct the missing text, of course abiding by their own prejudices in so doing. It amazes me what lies they are willing to tell to justify their vandalism. To this day I receive invitations to their symposia, invitations I cannot decline for fear of legitimating their interpretation by dismissing it.
What is clear is that the tablet or manuscript concerns a certain individual. In translating the text, this individual often becomes male or female, acquires this or that name, these characteristics, this social class, these items you may still purchase from this or that vendor. But we will let him or her stand naked, for our purposes, of such craven impedimenta.
The bare individual.
He or she having experiences. (2 lines unclear . . . unknown no. of lines missing.)
As a result of these experiences, finding him or herself with different opinions. (3 lines unclear . . . the sheep of the queen (?) . . . sheared (?) the wool . . . 7 lines missing or unclear.)
If he or she could be said to be possessed of such.
But this difference was not so different as he or she had anticipated. (1 line fragmentary, 6 lines missing, 1 line fragmentary. . . great mountains . . . 5 lines fragmentary . . . 1 line missing . . . 2 lines fragmentary.)
Nonetheless, his or her behavior changed as a result.
In time, he or she could little remember that he or she had once been different from the way that he or she had become.
The experience that had brought about the initial change seemed now to typify the unyielding continuity of his or her life to date. (The sequence of segments B, C, D, and E, above, is uncertain.)
To the point that he or she would no longer have called it a change, if he or she were here to tell us his or her story in person. (1 line fragmentary . . . should not find . . .)
More than this would be guesswork. (Unknown no. of lines missing.)
I hope you understand now, Kurtz would conclude.
I understand you’re one cryptic fellow, I’d say. I understand you aren’t going to be much fun at our parties and book launches.
I mean, I hope you understand now why it is that I’ve been sleeping with your straight-spined wife.
Oh, I’d say, trying to sound worldly. These things happen. (Thinking: Well, this certainly explains all the extra time she’s been spending on fixing up her elided correlative comparatives lately . . . And then, those moods!)
Why such persecution from this Kurtz, in my thoughts, in my bedroom? Have I done him some material wrong? Have I trespassed on his property? Have I taken something that belonged to him? What offense of mine has Kurtz nurtured in his luxurious hovel until he felt it necessary to perpetrate this latest masterpiece upon my unblemished life, vacant of animus these sixty years? Is it my wife he’s having coffee with, two booths behind us?
All this, I stress, without our exchanging a single civil word; all this without our trading even the least-sophisticated phoneme—no, not even the guileless /k/. All this without the muscles of the orbits of his two furtive eyeballs—superior and inferior rectus and perhaps an obscure striated supernumerary to be cataloged in time by our great doctors—once collaborating in the simultaneous swivel of his chocolate-brown irises to a level approximating my own two candid blues, situated as always by fortune, habit, and breeding nearly a foot and a half above his matted tonsure. Without our once standing side by side in the liberal-arts pissoir on the third floor of the St. Cross Building, Manor Road, equipped with workbenches and a piano and floorspace for dance routines and a library of traditional Uzbek wind and rhythm instruments—not least the karnay, kayrok, and koshik. Without our once convincing my straight-spined wife to service us both simultaneously, one of us circumcised and one un, though don’t ask me which is which, using left and right hands, one gloved and one un, probably after imbibing in whatever order suits us out of the three times two times one possibilities available one brandy each from my liquor cabinet to work up the courage for so risky a synod in our little cabin (senior faculty housing, situated conveniently on the campus grounds).
Kurtz would say: You cannot, a priori, perceive me in a way that is not an offense. You, sir, offend the world by recognizing it.
How about I wear tinted glasses, I’d josh.
You do not have the words to find me other than suspect, he’d say.
Nonsense, I’d protest. You’re, what, a good guy. A fine chap. How smart you look this morning. This morning your eyebrows are especially bushy and if extended would intersect at the point designated A, creating four architecturally harmonious though I fear incongruent angles. Altogether I would feel quite safe loaning you a sum of money if such was necessary for you to feed yourself or your many furtive children this coming week, for I have sometimes thought that one of the objects of the Supreme Being in placing what the world calls a weak and unfortunate race in the midst of a seemingly strong and fortunate one is to give the one the opportunity to continually grow in breadth of thought, in the spirit of tolerance and generosity of purse, by assisting the other. You need only ask, and need only ask once, if you’d like me to come over this very afternoon in my railroad cap and overalls to help you repaper the walls of your home following the unceremonious airing of the original, unbearable flocked pattern of red and green heraldic figures copied from the Hyghalmen Roll by the firm of Ferdinand Barbedienne, visible even from the electric clocktower in the quad, due to the recent excavation of that manuscript or tablet you guard so invidiously from your colleagues, hidden therein perhaps by the builder, or the original inhabitant, when our campus was young.
If we have a dean, Kurtz would say, I shall write a letter to him or her about you. You will find yourself traded for one of the hostages still being held by the Department of Hypostatic Abstraction. You’ll be lucky if they let you teach ESL to rich Saudi modes of inference next semester.
In fact, I’d persist, I think so highly of our Kurtz that I could at this moment dictate with the utmost sincerity any number of extempore treatises upon his many fine qualities, to wit:
i. On the moderation of Kurtz
ii. On the gentleness of Kurtz
iii. On the shyness of Kurtz
iv. On the dignity of Kurtz
v. On the patience of Kurtz
vi. On the temperance of Kurtz
vii. On the clemency of Kurtz
viii. On the munificence of Kurtz
ix. On the magnificence of Kurtz
x. On the justness of Kurtz
xi. On the prudence of Kurtz
xii. On the foresight of Kurtz
xiii. On the modesty of Kurtz
xiv. On the bravery of Kurtz
xv. On the nobility of Kurtz
xvi. On the religiosity of Kurtz
xvii. On the good conduct and fitting end of Kurtz.
But Kurtz would turn his eyes to the ceiling and complain to his surly god: Do you see how he can’t help himself? I walk softly, he would say, I avoid working in our shared office, I always eat alone (or with my straight-spined wife) in my booth in the cafeteria, and I have removed, uncomplaining, my name from our collaborations, even when the work is mine, even when I am the subject of the inquiry, even in his seminal “Abnormalities of Sleep Architecture in Siberian Hamsters and Kurtz” (Am. J. Sleep Med., 2007), wherein my night terrors continue to toil incognito through endless offprints under this same revolting alias, all for the benefit of our great doctors. Really, I am hardly here at all, and still, still he must diminish me.
And Kurtz’s straight-spined wife would have no sympathy for me—she who still hasn’t returned my book of Piranesi reproductions, nor my grandmother’s recipe for chremslach, and will not answer the phone when Kurtz is away, will not turn on the lights in their cabin, which I can see clear as fingernails from my perch upon the illuminated clockface in the quad: the minute hand is just wide enough for a lunchbox and thermos of what I will today pretend is Courvoisier.
Me: If anything I’ve been too considerate of you, Kurtz. What haven’t I offered you? Doesn’t my wife love you more and better and with more substantiating detail than she ever loved me? Are my mattresses not hard enough to support your lower back, which you’ve ruined with all your slouching? Does my liquor still taste too much of the drugstore where I bought it before pouring it into the cognac bottle I found on the pétanque court after your book launch? Haven’t I kept an eye on your coffee plantations in Brazil, your apiaries in Aix-en-Provence? Haven’t I sprung for a really nice and civil imaginary brunch today, mimosas all around? Aren’t you sitting comfortably?
My sciatica is acting up, he’d say. And I’d prefer it if you didn’t consider me at all. Look, I’ll crouch even lower so as to provide less surface area for the ambient light; I’ll scuttle under your chair and back up the wall and into my nest in volume four of your complete Pepys, which your wife was kind enough to bring along when she divorced you.
I know a good chiropractor, I’d say. And then: I’m sorry if that offends you.
Him: I’ll feel better as soon as you’re thinking about someone else.
And then: Start soon. Or steps will be taken.
Word has reached me that the promotion committee has voted—following Kurtz’s testimony and that of my ex-wife, as well as a review of the anonymous statements submitted by my few remaining premises, and finally a damning affidavit signed by an old caprice, accusing me of sexual misconduct in the language lab after graduation (while she was still wearing her gown, no less)—to turn down my application to employ the following rhetorical techniques over the coming quarter: peristasis (description of background or circumstances), topographia (description of place or landscape), effictio (complete physical description), chronographia (description of a time or season), pragmatographia (description of a particular narrative or sequence of events), and even anemographia (description of the wind; e.g., what is tousling my wife’s hair in that photograph of she and I honeymooning at the temple of Po Klaung Garai, pretending to be Swinhoe’s Storm-petrels engaged in a mating dance). I will be fined for every use of parataxis, though this is not in itself grounds for further censure. One victory: over Kurtz’s protests, I have retained free use of catachresis. I hope then that you will take my meaning when I say: Kurtz is the unburned ash in my urn. How I’d like to braise the venison of his pulchritude.
Excuse me, but you are on what they call thin ice, said someone who might or might not have been Kurtz.
I’m trying, I’m really trying, I might conceivably have considered responding. I get angry sometimes—who wouldn’t? But isn’t this better? Aren’t I improving?
Gird thy loins already.
I’m vile, I get it, I abhor myself, I’ll stick rags in my mouth—or so I might say in or under such circumstances to someone who was absolutely not Kurtz. You can do anything you want in any way you want and I can’t describe it, I’d go on. Not even on the sly. Nothing gets past you; I’m not so clever. Who else but Kurtz can be furtive?
Calm down and listen in silence to the breeze you can’t describe, unKurtz would council. And don’t you dare attribute any more goddamn dialogue to me.
I ask you, is it true that I have profaned the world in my desire to describe for you the furtiveness of Kurtz? It was done in all innocence. Now deliberations are underway to have an injunction filed on all of my contingencies by the end of the term. I won’t be asked to leave the campus, of course—not openly. But I know I will come in to the office one day to find my last adjectival phrase sitting in the hallway and the locks changed on my noumenon.
What profession am I fit to practice now that the best of me has been eaten by one uncharismatic syllable? What fatal weakness of character tempted me into my first, I thought harmless, speculations?
I am, apparently, a monster. How many years had I preyed upon those who could not defend themselves? How many of you have I impoverished with my supposed eloquence? It’s a relief to be caught.
So many conversations with Kurtz have been imagined that we need never really speak, yet I still believe that if he would talk to me, give me even a Gesundheit, I would be disappointed enough with his actual demeanor to find another word for him, another name, and then he could straighten up at last, he could walk like a man, he could take my wife out dancing. That would give me a charge. That would give me hope. But furtive he’ll stay, “Kurtz” he’ll stay, and I will stay fascinated by this conjunction so long as he tries to hide from the manuscript or tablet upon which I am applying my stylus and will hide by and by in the walls of my bachelor flat—and so long as he rhymes.
It’s nice, however, to sit here with you, eyes down, where first I tried—experimentally—to sketch out a few lines about our new colleague Kurtz, a few booths from Kurtz’s accustomed place, where he sits always crouched a few days a week with or without a companion who is probably my wife, and who is—I am allowed to say so—forlorn, drooping, eroded by my dishonor. They hold napkins, the two of them, in front of their heads, so as to keep their unremarkable faces out of my conversation. The world and my wife.
If they are watching us, furtively, through eyeholes in their paper screens, let us act at least with self-respect, unless I mean poise. Shall we raise one last toast together, my friend, before unknown no. of lines missing?