Shadow-Boxby Antonia Logue
“That three such wildly contrasting characters can coexist in the same novel is indicative of the era’s (and the author’s) bracing audacity. . . . Logue does an admirable job.” –The Washington Post Book World
“That three such wildly contrasting characters can coexist in the same novel is indicative of the era’s (and the author’s) bracing audacity. . . . Logue does an admirable job.” –The Washington Post Book World
A sweeping story of love, art, and boxing, this novel centers around the mysterious Arthur Cravan — semiprofessional boxer, art critic, con man, nephew of Oscar Wilde. Cravan befriended Jack Johnson, the exiled black American boxer, in Paris; in 1916 they staged a fight to pay for Cravan’s passage out of war-torn Europe. In New York, Cravan fell in love with the poet Mina Loy; they fled to Mexico and were married. Soon after, Cravan was lost at sea in a hurricane and presumed dead. In letters between Jack and Mina thirty years after Cravan’s disappearance, Shadow-Box sketches this expansive tale in the era of tremendous social, artistic, and political upheaval before and during World War I.
“A fascinating – and largely forgotten – intersection of three notable early-century lives.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“That three such wildly contrasting characters can coexist in the same novel is indicative of the era’s (and the author’s) bracing audacity. . . . Logue does an admirable job.” –The Washington Post Book World
“Logue animates searing boxing scenes, avant-garde literary salons, and two brilliant egoists shadow boxing with their past with believable, intimate exuberance.” –Megan Harlan, Entertainment Weekly (A-)
“Immediately engrossing. . . . Shadow-Box is a novel with such momentum, it can be read in only a few sittings. Its impact, like the best poetry or a powerful left hook, is visceral, intense and enduring.” –Eve Claxton, Time Out New York
“Logue is without question a talented, imaginative writer, with a nicely skewed sense of metaphor and an enviable ability to evoke bodily experiences, especially boxing and sex, without triteness or melodrama.” –A.O. Scott, Newsday
“Astonishing . . . Gutsy and well-imagined prose . . . This is a boffo book . . . Logue makes her threesome equally flawed and enchanting. None is admirable for long, but they share an adventurism and hunger for life that is as intoxicating on the page as it is in life. . . . Shadow-Box is a rare novel today, the kind that finds its footing in history and its heart in the imagination.”–Karen Sandstrom, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[Shadow-Box] demands attention. . . . The author’s exuberant, elegant style sweeps away all reservations.” –Dallas Morning News
“A wild fiction . . . abundantly passionate . . . How ambition feels in your body, the life-or-death urgency of it; Logue conveys these with ease.” –The Village Voice Literary Supplement
“A tale of unresolved yearnings and hilarious scams . . . filled with charming insight.” –Raygun
“An impressive debut. . . . Logue is adept at giving unique voices to Mina and Jack and effectively conveying the story through their correspondences, offering the reader a unique perspective on the social, artistic, and political climate in the United States and abroad in the early part of the century.” –Dianna Moeller, Library Journal
“A notable debut . . . Logue’s depiction of their world, where even the shadows are shadowboxing, is imaginatively conceived and elegantly executed.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An exuberant, audacious debut inspired by the extraordinary life of Mina Loy . . . swift-paced, vivid . . . Logue does a deft job of catching the intellectual excitement and controversy surrounding the arts in the pre-WWI period . . . frank, vibrant . . . A wonderful portrait of the modern avant-garde in its youth, and a complex, intensely romantic narrative of a great passion and its lingering effects.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Remarkable . . . absolutely authentic . . . There is just that touch of the uncanny that makes it all seem like life.” –Booklist (starred review)
“Logue’s great achievement is to join historical fact seamlessly to the could-have-been. . . . [A] remarkable first novel about loyalty and betrayal, love and friendship, destiny and identity.””Literary Review (London)
“Logue . . . take[s] bold, imaginative risks. . . . An achievement to salute.” –The Sunday Independent
“Truth, it is said, is stranger than fiction and Antonia Logue has grafted one onto another to create a novel which is quite brilliant. . . . Antonia Logue is a writer with both an out- standing intellect and a quality of emotional literacy which is even more exceptional given her age.” –Irish Post
“From the first punch-drunk ringside set piece from boxer Jack Johnson . . . Logue’s sentences fulminate with vigor and assurance. . . . Logue has a fluid, wide-ranging pen and creates hard-assed fight scenes as easily as languid recall of lovers’ first meetings.” –The Observer (London)
“A panoramic story of love and a century of movements that led nowhere but back to the very beginning, [Shadow-Box] is a first novel and with all the hallmarks of a great one. . . . A magical book.” –Irish Tatler
“A remarkable love story that spans the United States, Europe, Australia and Mexico, Shadow-Box is a stunning debut.” –Ireland on Sunday
Chapter One: FABIENNE
It is the heat that makes her laugh, as if she had forgotten it, stepping happily out on to the street with her delicate ivory train draped across her forearm, her other hand seeking out the budding arum lilies that crown her marrying head. He is not here. She has insisted that he meet her at the church, and like a game he throws himself into the novelty of it, and is there, high on the hill, waiting, without a wince of nervousness to furrow his brow. With him the burly figure in the almost immaculate three-piece suit stands perspiring in the Mexican swelter, his mouth tasting like pigswill from all the cigars smoked the night before, and the night before that, and every night this week since Cravan and Mina decided they would marry and asked him to be their witness. His head throbs with envy and drink, only envy because he does not wish away their happiness, merely yearns for it.
He has never been jealous of anyone, and at this moment as he sees Mina and Rose, her witness, and their friends come laughing up the hill, Mina translucent in the sun, her hair falling about her face as she turns her head to talk to those behind her, he is jolted back to his own weddings, and he has never felt such love. Not for her, not entirely, and not for anything that has gone before, but for everything he is at the heart of today, this tumbling surging joy that propels him bounding down the hill after Cravan to sweep up the party in his arms and kiss Mina’s face. And then at the top of the hill outside the sunswept church they fall into a shambolic order, Cravan and Mina snuggled together laughing as if in a conspiracy all their own, and Jack sent by Rose to unhand the groom and get him to the nave of the church so the wedding can begin.
The dark coolness of the stone disarms Cravan as he and Jack topple into its vastness. He has been inside it before, he has used it often as his sanctuary when he has needed time alone, not away from Mina, simply alone, to decipher the collection of darting notions he keeps in his head and especially the ones that don’t dart, the ones that embed themselves and need thinking through, like Mina. He has never loved before this, never been raw with need, never felt his soul halved by a person’s absence before now. He never believed she would truly come to him here in Mexico, nor that she would ever want to marry him, that this day would be his for the taking. On the nights he cannot sleep he goes out into the city, into the lulling bustle that seems never to calm. He drinks and wanders, goes to the places his friends do not frequent and gambles insignificant sums, wearies himself of his energies, buys food, talks to himself, imagines he is the new King of France, a sailor on leave, an American spy preparing to oust the Mexican Government, a Mexican general planning his naval attack on the world, a lunatic escaped, a criminal being covert, a carnival owner trying to entice the insomniac city to his paradise.
And then he meanders home and slips into bed beside the most exquisite person he has ever known, leaves breakfast on the table beside her pillow, and looks at her in her slumber, at her silken lashes, her smooth creamy skin soft as he tenderly strokes her sleeping face with his fingertips. With her he can be anything he wants to be, she has no fetters, no ideas of how anything ought to be. They have no oughts, only now, that is what she tells him, and as the shards of stained-glass sunlight cut across his reverie, Jack is turned to him, the padre expectant, the ten or twelve guests scuttling into their seats at Rose’s command, and suddenly three voices crack open the air with a single note and `Ave Maria’ ushers the back door to open and from out of a flood of blinding sunlight at the other end of the church Mina walks towards him in her simple ivory silk gown, the bouquet of lilies in her hand, his eyes caught in hers drawing her to his side with every step, her satin train scattering flower petals with every shimmy further down the aisle … and they are together now, Jack to one side, Rose to the other, and as they say their vows even the padre is swept along in the force of emotion that fills the small church with this tiny coven of wedding guests clustered at its altar. And then they are all bursting out into the sunlight led by the freshly married couple laughing and giddy all the way down the hill towards the three-day celebrations.
This is my parents’ wedding in 1918. This is their start. Within a year I was born, within a year nothing was as it ought to have been, and for my father there was no now. That was how I was told it all along. I am fifty-three now. I live in Aspen, Colorado, an uncomplicated life until a few weeks ago when a parcel came for me, a `Thank You For Your Sympathy’ card slipped in on top of a sheaf of letters from the estate of an Irene Johnson, a woman of whom I had never heard. They are my mother Mina’s letters to this woman’s husband, Jack, not love letters, not a hint of impropriety in any of them, just her life as she told him. A different life to the one I thought I knew, but she is dead these past six years now, since 1966; it is too late to ask her. I have had his letters to her in my house ever since she moved here before she died, and I left them unread until now. She gave them telling me he had been a great man, had been the only man my father trusted. I don’t think I cared enough by then, all the mystery that enveloped everything about this shadow who fathered me, who loved my mother so profoundly that she lived with him in her heart every moment of her life and yet was a fiction to me, a face that stopped ageing at thirty – other people lost their fathers to war, while I lost mine to mythology.
All through my childhood new people turning up to tell my mother he had been seen in some prison or entanglement on the other side of our world, and off she went to search him out, telling me she’d be bringing my father home to me … And I, at two, at three, at five, at ten, at twelve, at twenty-seven … believing her at first, then inuring myself to all of it, all her fantastic futile treks for someone who always seemed to belong elsewhere, who was never there with us, where my mother so clearly believed he should be. And in between these lost voyages people quietly taking me aside to explain that my father was dead, had died before I was born in a storm at sea, while others excitedly told me that I was the daughter of genius, of a brilliant mother and a spectacular father, a father so exuberant that he had had to disappear off the face of the earth to preserve his legend. I am his legend. I am the only true thing he left behind, the only thing he couldn’t counterfeit. It is me. Perhaps that is why I now must find him, my mother’s obsession passed on to me by proxy, through ragged letters twenty-six years old. One specific ragged letter that starts me on his path again, like a family affliction. But like her, I must know. I must.
I go to Mexico this evening. I will see the place where they married, where they lived, where I was conceived, flora where he disappeared, where he is now if there is anything to find. But I will trace his routes, and find him, whatever has become of him, it is my legacy, for there is no one else alive any more who can.
Chicago, January 1946
I did not know you were alive, and there you are this morning in my newspaper, `ENGLISH POET NATURALIZED’ – living in New York all this time. Nearly thirty years older than the last time I saw you, but beautiful as ever. You always were the most exquisite woman I ever saw, Mina Loy. I was jealous as hell of Cravan when he showed me your pictures, but it was nothing to what I felt when you came to Mexico and I saw you properly. A little late then, me being best man at your wedding at the time.
This letter is a long time coming, Mina, I’m sorry for that. I wrote to you when Cravan disappeared to see if there was anything I could do, if you wanted to come and stay with us in Chicago, but when I never heard back I reckoned you’d gone back to Europe or else you just wanted left alone. But I should have tried harder to keep in touch, I guess I just lost track. Seeing your face in the paper this morning, hell, it was strange, it brought me back through so much. I had to write to you, chase you up. How are you? Guess you’re an American now. Write to me, tell me everything. What you’re at, what you’ve done these past twenty-eight years, tell me all about your life, Mina, everything. It’s like we’ve got a second chance now, time to fill in the gaps, reacquaint each other with the lives we’ve lived. Without seeing you in the paper I would never have done it, would have pinned you in the scrapbook as part of something past, such great memories. Now we can make up for lost time.
Write, Mina, I’d love to hear from you.
New York, January 1946
Thank you so much for the newspaper cutting – there were a few others, but I am rather forgotten these days. Even in my own days I was hardly besieged – that tall eccentric English-woman obsessed by sex and poetry and home-made hats, that was me. It’s odd how others see you, don’t you think? All the subtleties disappear. I wasn’t obsessed by any of those things, of course. Now after playing at being American for so long, I finally am. It is strange. Fabian would laugh at me. I don’t think he applied for nationality anywhere in the world – he merely chose the most appropriate when he needed to and forged the necessary papers. My identity was never so easily sloughed as his.
It is astonishing to hear from you. If being naturalised has only this renewed contact to offer as its reward, it has been worth it. How are you? Back in Chicago – so you did go home after Mexico. What have you done all this time? I feel such fondness at having you back in my life after all these years, but when I tried to explain to my daughter what you had meant to Fabian, I didn’t have the words. Facts, details, stories of the wedding, of the bullfight, the boxing Academy … but to her they were merely nostalgic reveries I indulged in. It is magical to have you back in contact, Jack, you are right, we have so much to catch up on, to discover.
It is odd to see you write his name as `Cravan’. I haven’t thought of him that way for years. But he was Arthur Cravan to the whole world who knew him, everyone but me. He was introduced to me as Arthur Cravan, but on that first night he told me his real name, told me he could steal mine. He was right, and he did – Mina Loy, Fabian Lloyd. I have signed myself Mina Lloyd for twenty-eight years, Jack, since he disappeared – I have never stopped being his wife. I named our daughter Fabienne after him, but he never got to see her. She is his longevity, wherever he is. But he was always Cravan to you, don’t change that.
I’ll never forget you at our wedding, as nervous as if it were your own. It was a happy wedding, wasn’t it, so gay and full of love. That was what Mexico was to us, just an absolute immersion in the purest form of happiness.
We had such silly days too. Do you remember that bullfight? I had arrived just a few days and there you both were, like children with a sandcastle at your Academy, all proud and eager to show off. That summer was chaos. It was everything that I wanted from Mexico. I wish we had photographs of the wedding, of the church, the view beneath it, the three of us and the padre, us all excited because we’d done it, after all our plots and his escapes, all my concern and uncertainty about coming to Mexico. I was there, we were together again, married, just as we said we would be, and it was the best adventure either of us had ever known. Oh Jack, I was so in love that day, so happy, and so glad you were there, that finally we met and you bore witness to what we’d done. It was a wonderful week the three of us spent together, filled with a strange elation that floated us up over everything, brought us joy in the oddest ways, for the oddest reasons. And then you were gone, we awoke one morning and you had skipped away down the coast to go back to Europe. A few days later people came looking for you, but oh how we hoped you’d got passage by then. And now you are back in my life again, to remember all your stories as if we were sitting on a wall in the sun planning the bullfight together the three of us, looking down on the city and all this had never happened.
You were to be the daring fearless matadors before all those people in that huge amphitheatre, pitting yourselves against the bulls as though you were toilet-training poodles for French ladies for the afternoon. The two of you half drunk in the sun. I expected carnage, I suppose. I probably should have tried to convince Fabian not to throw himself into things like that, to risk being beaten bloody by something out of his control, himself sometimes, in the bar brawls that were his lunacy or street fights or ring fights or those ludicrous exhibition matches where all anyone ever wants is a bit of uncontrolled savagery. But he’d have talked me calm, and he’d have been right, he’d come out the victor. That was against men. Against an irate animal the size of a tank, what were his hopes? Or yours. And I settled there with my fan and water jug and my cartwheel hat, sitting in the curved seats of the stadium watching the dusty space in front of me while the thousands in the crowd spat away the dryness in their mouths and yelled towards the small gate in the wall for you both to come on. It was such a game to the pair of you behind there – let’s have a bullfight, let us show these Mexicans how the Spanish matadors would sweep the bulls around an arena, because we are invincible.
It was such a time for us, the war losing steam, the Mexican insurrection brewing, and we there painting ourselves into it all. You were nearly killed that day, the pair of you, some of the women screaming in horror if the bull weaved towards you at all, then fainting when it charged. Me reviving strangers, with my eyes on Fabian as he darted in and out of the bull’s path and yours, waving his cloak as though it were armour and not a limp piece of red embroidered sackcloth with sequins. You went down first, then he, you were gored beneath your right arm. A wound as nasty as any I’d seen until we cleaned it, and yet after all it was just a flesh wound, needing nothing more than stitches and some flamboyant bandaging to keep up the myth. But Fabian seemed to get it worse than that, he got it in the thigh, a gash in his leg as he leapt just a fraction too late, the bull with the taste for blood after you, and he limped around the whole of the next three weeks as if a hero, bandaged underneath his suit at his wedding, when all along it was a skin wound too. We dressed it just like yours, as though it were semi-fatal, and he played it up just to glamorise the stupidity of the two of you, such foolish half-wits thinking you were tough and nimble enough to take on bulls that the Mexicans themselves wouldn’t touch.
I spent so long searching for him, you know, years trawling jails and chasing rumours for a truth I couldn’t have borne had I found it. You made more choices than me, you chose who warmed your bed at night and who to expel. I haven’t given myself that choice since he disappeared, all these as-ifs I fumble around with, answerless ones.
We talked of such frivolous things then, all of Mexico a novelty to me, the excitement over the wedding … I wish we had talked then of the things you tell me now. That would have really made something of us, made me come to you for the intimacy I needed when he disappeared, a person who truly knew him who could talk me out of my worst fears. I needed someone so desperately then, someone who was both his and mine, who loved him for all the things I loved him for, who brought those things out. We three spent such a short time together in Mexico, just those few weeks, whole lives and pasts we just forgot to mention, were ashamed to. Whatever the reason.
Fabienne is all I have left of him, and she is a near compensation. She is a woman now, almost twenty-seven years old, beautiful, married but with a whole world of choices yet. She has never needed a father, yet she needs him to befriend her as he did me, shock her as he did me, make her think and explode and earn that dynamism he gave to me. I love her for all there is of him in her – her mouth, her eyes wide and blue, the shape of her face, her joyful wickedness, that lacerating intelligence. She is my fourth child, and the only one to bear his spirit. I am not good on motherhood, Jack, not good on children. I have lost two already. Two kept. I seem to spend my life wedged between grieving paths, the widow, the distraught mother, that lunatic grief I’m afflicted with, and yet this is not how I see my life at all. I look on it as you do, as something done and the world better for its doing. My world at least.
You want to know everything. What is there to tell you? Everything is a lot, and there are things I am unable to tell anyone, even now. It is easier to talk of the years before I met him, they seem more neutral, a separate life. It is a shock, though a pleasant one, to hear from you like this after so long. Twenty-eight years, Jack. You used to tease me in Mexico for being as often married as you, but even then I think we were both embarking on our second outing. For me, it was the last. And you? How many Mrs Johnsons did you carry over the threshold, Jack? More than two, I’d wager. Even in Mexico you were game-hunting. I could never imagine you falling in love. But you were funny then, the way you teased me about my first husband Stephen, about my lack of wifeliness. Everything … I will start with Stephen, with the life I led before I met Fabian, before you knew me, back when wifeliness seemed to be my only attribute.
I think perhaps I was never really meant to bring Stephen’s blood into the world. Of my four children, the two who have survived everything that I have thrown at them have been Fabienne and Joella; Stephen’s could not survive me. No one will carry his name or his lineage or all the other things he values so; no one will carry anything that we were, there will be no record of all that inert confusion and quiet battery.
My infant Oda was the reason we became anything at all. I had known Stephen in Paris as I faltered along amongst all the foppery and tortured Wildean wit of the court, the crowd that gathered in the caf’s close to my art school. We girls of the college lined ourselves up inadvertently every day we woke up and chose to dress and go and learn how to etch and stipple and sculpt; our mannerisms, our speech, our composure, our profile, our appeal all jimmied together over conversations held by the court in the caf’s. Then invitations came, tests, were we up to them? No. It went without saying. But the court’s entertainment derived from watching us try. I was so naive then, Jack. Things got past me that my daughters wouldn’t have swallowed at the age of six. But foolishness makes you wiser and I indulged in a lot of it in those days. Innocent of all the innuendo and expectations, I accepted an invitation to Aleister Crowley’s studio, an end-of-term party, and when I arrived there was the court, circled in armchairs and seats around trays of bottles and drinks. I suppose I was lucky. They simply stared at me, and when I went to introduce myself, a short, sallow, horn-faced man informed me I had been chosen for my beauty, not my brains, and they had already eavesdropped on too much of my dull drivel to be interested in anything I had to say, told to keep my beautiful mouth shut. So I left.
A few months later a girl I knew asked me a favour. A friend of hers was very depressed, very lonely and in need of bringing out of himself. He was looking for a model for a portrait – would I sit for him? He was very gentle and funny, from an old English family, a much-talked about young artist whose company I would love. Perhaps I would have, had it not been foisted on me for over ten years. When I appeared at the stranger’s studio to do my duty, it was the horn-nosed Stephen Haweis, and when I turned to go, he charmed me with his begging and his contrition and his obvious lack of anything threatening when out of a crowd. Perhaps magnanimity is the worst sort of graciousness, that assumption of superior moral kindness. It is my only explanation for the friendship that began. Gradually he commandeered all my time, painting me endlessly in the dark studio he lived in at the end of a small cobbled courtyard filled with equally earnest talentless artists painting equally stupid, uncertain women. I got to know them all – my life was run for me from that courtyard. When I would arrange to meet friends, Stephen would arrive breathless to join us, then break away in a sulk if I didn’t abandon them for him. He borrowed most of my money and yet spent hours explaining the aristocratic links his family enjoyed, showing me his heirlooms, all the antiques and valuable books he owned that filled the small studio. He physically repulsed me with his crouched posture and vast nose, with the array of small teeth that sat like yellowed maggots in the folds of his mouth when he smiled his ingratiating nervous smile. And yet somehow he wore me down with his attempts to woo me until one morning I awoke naked under the canopy of his studio bed, with him sitting like a smug urchin looking down on me. I don’t remember how it happened. I remember his arm draped on my shoulder as we talked on the sofa, I remember an awareness of something beginning to happen, I remember waking up in his bed. I was brought up in a house where my mother’s Victorian values hardened her arteries with every breath she took, and I was still such a fool then that Stephen was my first. Perhaps I do remember. Perhaps I simply don’t want to.
I was his at that, trapped, and he was sincerely proud of his conquest. I was his. As if by a sinister spell he had passed into my life and when I knew I was pregnant there was nothing else to do. Oh to have the chance to show courage, to have those days now, when I am me, not some light-headed ing”nue who could be bundled into marriage like that. But without the mess that was my marriage to Stephen, without those weak-minded years, who else would I have been? To have been that wise at twenty was a tall order for the girl I was then. I think there comes a time when you make up who you want to be. You wake up sure of how you want to live, of what it is you want to do. But from the second you are born the drops are falling slowly, little events, changes, lessons, all falling to make that stalagtite you can grasp and break off when you are ready to redefine everything you are. That moment came for me when I went to New York, Jack, but everything, Stephen, Oda, London, Paris, Italy … my whole life until I went to America and met Fabian, was a series of drops falling from the roof of the cave until I was able to break them off and escape. It is the rationale I have explained to my daughters, that even the bad works for the good in the end. They have dismissed it, called it glib, but it is true of everything I have done: without the bad, the good would never have come about.
Stephen was definitely the bad. He was brought to meet my family in London, who, not knowing the circumstance of our engagement, thought Stephen charming and the ideal man to take their spinster daughter of twenty off their hands. At least in name. All Stephen had to his well-connected name were heirlooms, none of which he would sell as their sentimental value, he maintained, was priceless. And so my father provided us with a stipend to help Stephen establish his career, and an income for our new life. This was all contingent on the marriage’s success. Were it to fail, my father explained, I would be cut off, for it would be my fault as obviously Stephen would never attract any other female in the world besides me.
We married on New Year’s Eve, 1903. In May I gave birth to Oda. Stephen was belying my father’s prophecy, wheezing on top of his mistress while I squealed and bellowed Oda into the world. We chose the name together, for no reason other than we liked how it sounded, and while Stephen pontificated over which paintings to submit to the Salon d’Automne, I went about learning motherhood from an infant.
It was a gentle time in its way. I had hours and hours while Oda slept or while we walked in the Luxembourg Gardens to think of the situation I had brought upon myself, the horror of sidling through your own life to avoid the company and touch of a man you despise. I would think these things and bring myself to the verge of insanity with my resentment and helplessness, when Oda would wake or gurgle or smile at me as she pointed to a dog or a spider or a butterfly, and she rescued me over and over. Her demands, the endless cycle of feeding and washing and wheeling, her crying and falling and clapping, all fused into something that occupied me with a happiness that drained Stephen out of my system like a lance. I was tired but by late summer Oda slept well enough for me to resume painting in the afternoons, and in August I submitted some of my work to the Salon, not as Mrs Mina Haweis, nor as Stephen’s pet-name Dusie Haweis, nor even in my maiden name of Lowy. I decided to rename myself, not to be the Victorian daughter or charming Stephen Haweis’s art-dabbling wife. It was simple enough. I just dropped the `w’ and became Loy, Lowy to Loy, Mina Loy. Mina Loy. I have lived with it so long now, it feels odd thinking I ever had another name. As if before was nothing greater than an elongated pretence.
The Salon responded by choosing six of my paintings and four of Stephen’s. His were nearly all of me anyhow, so the victory seemed complete from all angles. He had long professed his desire for my name to be as greatly regarded as his, but when the moment came he didn’t have the grace. He pouted and postulated a great deal about the enormous importance of the newly established portrait section of the Salon where his work was to be shown, and left me to myself mainly, no special supper in the Closerie or dancing. I dressed up fantastically for that opening, a Poiret dress and a hat I designed myself, and everyone spoke of me as the most elegant and exquisite woman there. Of course they were also telling each other that Stephen couldn’t abide the attentions of his wife any longer and that his mistress’s home was where he now received his visitors, poor talented man.
The poor talented man came home infrequently, mainly when he did to reassure himself that motherhood continued to distract me from taking a lover or becoming too prolific at the easel. Oda was learning to walk and we tumbled around in the parks together taking centimetre steps and trying to drown the ducks. For her first birthday I made Stephen join us. By nightfall he had gone and Oda was running a fever. All that night and the following day she screamed incessantly, and was covered all over in a hot rash I had never seen before, as if her little body was imploding helplessly. The physician came three times before he would accept it was more than a mere reaction to the cold. The next morning at 5 a.m. she died in my arms, her small limbs rigid within hours. She had contracted meningitis, the doctor too blas’ to think my daughter could be dying in front of us as he prodded her little one-year, two-day-old body for proof of a cold.
I lost interest in most things after Oda’s death. I despised my husband and had consigned myself to a fate utterly foreign to the one I had dreamt of, but what Oda’s dying taught me was the irrelevance of reasons. It didn’t matter that the princess life had not come about, nor that I had married hastily and excruciatingly. No. None of that bore any significance when real life crushed your spine as it had in killing my child. The background to events didn’t matter. It was the events and their consequences that I had, finally, to deal with through Oda’s death, and I never relied on anyone again after it. Not until Fabian. He unfurled the sails again.
All this is so clearly discernible now, all these years later, but in the days and months after her death I thought of suicide so often. Perhaps there is a something in us that allows us to act on these thoughts. I didn’t have it. I certainly didn’t want my life, but when it came down to it, I certainly didn’t want to be dead either. For four months I folded and refolded her clothes. I tried to paint. Stephen said I haunted the studio by sheer force of will. He got me a doctor, a different one to Oda’s, and had me diagnosed as having neurasthenia. Womanly nerve disease, as Stephen referred to it.
Perhaps to enliven me, probably because they were no good, he sent some of the attempts I’d been making in the studio to the Salon d’Automne that year. We had been married less than two years and already were playing the kind of savaging games that scarify a marriage. He had six works accepted that year, while four delicate little pictures of women I had sketched in ennui were to be shown too.
They were ignored. Stephen was lauded all over Paris, spoken about – as if his dull mind had produced anything original in its twenty-five years of trying. Someone else made an impact too, a scandalous one, an unknown boy called Henri Matisse. Imagine, Jack, wandering into a gallery to confirm your own brown art hangs straight and being besieged by all those colours, that imagination. I was so overwhelmed I went each day until the exhibition ended. Stephen would not hear of us buying a painting. He had tried his hand as Rodin’s official photographer after the sculptor saw some of his photographs and proclaimed him a talent, but the business had lasted just months. We were being forced to move out of the studio into Montparnasse, and the luxury of new art was not one Stephen would countenance. Besides, he said, aren’t our friends amongst the most talented in Paris? But they weren’t. Like Stephen, they were painting their way into a life, into a world where their college-taught skill and ability to emulate gave them a gilded credence, enough, when matched with their arrogance, to be accepted as artists, as a fresh sheaf of talent. And so our new apartment was adorned with the same genius as the old – impeccable Whistler replicas, perfect Beardsley-style water-colours, Pre-Raphaelite `interpretations’ – while on the other side of the city hung the chaotic originality of Matisse.
But then I was the great success of the next Salon d’Automne. Stephen was still its golden aesthete, but almost all of my cynical paintings were singled out by critics, and I was celebrated as a great new talent, which delighted Stephen, for now his wife was Somebody. I had, he told me, a `reputation’, I was a part of Paris properly now. His glee was short-lived – when the Salon closed that winter, the Committee invited me to become a permanent member, a Soci”taire. I was, they said, its youngest member, but my work was so arresting and I so enchanting that they would be honoured if I would accept my place. I was to be part of the glorious accepted elite and Stephen was not. But having seen Matisse and the Fauves, I had also seen my worth. I was never going to storm anyone’s imagination with my painting, and that it bothered me so little to relinquish my ambitions made me understand how close I had come to Stephen’s reasoning, to painting to be talked about at tea-parties.
Stephen’s reaction to my becoming a Soci”taire was typically one of pettiness and jealousy. We had barely managed civility of late, and he decided one day in a temper that we would separate. I was joyous. He moved all his clothes and books into his mistress’s home, and informed me it was not to be regarded as the basis for divorce. We would not divorce. We each needed an income, and my father’s stipend was our only consistent means of supporting ourselves. My father must not know of our separation. Stephen meanwhile would continue to receive the money into his bank and would visit me monthly with an allowance. I was to be paid alimony from my own parents’ bank, fed pocket-money like an aristocratic suckling, and not even afforded the freedom of divorce. But it took Stephen out of my life, took his sweating upper lip out of my sight when I awoke in the morning, his infantile demands and paranoias and neuroses switched into the care of some woman who thought him wonderful, spending my money on buying her dinner each night. It was as close to freedom as I had had. The respectability of the married woman yet freedom to do as I wished in my own days.
Stephen told me many years later that he had loved me for my beauty. For my beauty and my elegance and my vulnerability, as if the attention they attracted might lure me into worlds I was not fit for, and he could protect me. What he had not accounted for, he said, was the way in which that vulnerability would change, dipping down into neediness, dependency, depression, and then eventually cresting upwards into the antithesis of each, into haughtiness, independence, uncontrollable vivacity. What he did not see was that that same beauty lured me into a world I was not fit for, his. Escaping it took such time, Jack.
With him finally out of my life in all but name, with Oda no longer connecting us, you would imagine I lived gaily, visiting friends, galleries, going to concerts and parties and laughing until my eyes dried out, but no. I discovered, when he had gone and I had no child at the centre of my world, something circumstance had hidden from me up to now. I had no real friends. I had not gone to a party in someone else’s home since before I married, all I had were unimpressive connections and a shabby apartment filled with useless things. So I slipped yet again into that wearing depression that is a mixture of real sadnesses and abject self-pity, the worst kind.
My new freedom was like being hoisted up on one stilt, leaning on a wall while you searched out the second. The second was closer than I thought. The more people I met, the more I yearned for that great glorious romance that pervaded Paris then, people putting love before propriety everywhere except in my small life. I wanted to be wooed and thought wonderful, to have secrets and assignations and be worshipped like all those around me seemed to be, to make up for the past. That was the stilt I needed to give me the happiness I sought.
I’ve been lucky with all the lovers I have chosen. I’ve been very coveted, loved even, in some cases; something has always come of them. I was a fumbling seductress at first, anxious and malleable and excessive all at once, wanting to seem bright and witty without putting him off. I could be such a fool back then. I’ve met a few girls since who remind me enormously of the scattered eager demoiselle I was then – I have taken them under my wing, brought out the madnesses in them, not the responsibilities. There was no one there to awaken me, however, and I tripped along like a debutante in the months after Stephen left me, Oda always somewhere in my mind as I threw back my head and tinkled with wit and charm. I genuinely thought these were the things I exhibited, when probably I seemed more like a slightly crazed semi-divorcee whose child had just died.
People were kind. Most of all my doctor, Henri Joel Le Savoureux, coming at first to my apartment to lift my depression with all the tricks of his trade, bleeding me with leeches once because I begged him to. He believed in a new medicine, thought all that mere witch-doctory, and he was right, for here I am now kept alive by the very things he aspired to, so magnificently preserved they say I have another decade in me at least. He was young, Stephen’s age, just a few years older than I and very dashing. It was as if when I opened the door to him he was shirtless or wore just one shoe. His hair was very dark, very soft when it brushed your face or breast, and it fell into his eyes each time he bent his head.
I think we both understood the vacuity of a diagnosis such as neurasthenia. It simply covered the pantheon of unsettled mentalities, feminine ones – everything from grief to inexplicable elation was put down to neurasthenia. So when Henri came to treat me each week we talked and I sketched him, and we gave each other a kind of attention that was new to us both. At first he came in his capacity as my personal physician, paid for by my father via Stephen, but almost immediately he refused to be paid for his attentions, and instead we would go walking in the parks where I once took Oda. He listened to me talk of her, things I had never said to Stephen while she was alive for he was never there, and all the feelings of loss I had harboured gradually drained away until my mourning ceased to orchestrate my mind like a bullying conductor, and I felt able again.
It was Henri who encouraged me in my submissions to the Salon, who took me out when I was made a Soci”taire, who took me to the Bal Bullier club where, a few years later after I had gone, Fabian would make his name. Perhaps I fell in love, perhaps at twenty-three I found my first love, but I think I just found in Henri a man who made me feel certain of myself again, took me dancing and to the country and into new worlds, new circles, at a time when my own strangled me and took all the air from my brain. He rejuvenated my spirit, I suppose. And he gave me Joella.
When we first discovered I was pregnant, there was a curious but complete lack of anxiety. I felt he knew Oda from all our early conversations about her, and that he would give me a new child, albeit so unexpectedly, seemed as natural as the revelatory pleasure I now found in the very act that had planted the seed. Sex with Stephen would have been the most harrowing experience of my life had I not had to live with him at the time too, but with Henri it was a new world, gentle, erotic, ferocious. It established a taste that I never abandoned.
Stephen’s reaction was less gallant. Everyone, he said, was talking about my new lover and what a scarlet shame I was to my husband and the memory of my dead child. This in the city where wives and mistresses shared their men happily, where women lived openly with their female lovers, where boudoirs received more visitors than dining-rooms. But to Stephen the slight was very real, and no doubt too the myth that he was the victim of a flagrantly unfaithful wife who slept with her lover while he sat at home, cuckolded, yearning for his lost love.
When Henri asked me to come away with him, for a few dizzy moments I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I would have my child on my own, I would abandon them both and trust my own instincts for a change. This conviction lasted a week at best. I had a husband, a lover, and my belly swelling all the time. I had no income, no independent source I could depend on, and my father had been quite clear on my options were I to leave Stephen. I could not risk being cast off, not with a child. Paris depended on fathers and mothers and patrons to fund its budding geniuses, all an amalgam of stipended talents delaying the moment they would enter a working life. There were exceptions. I was not one.
Stephen appeared gleefully at my door one afternoon. He could forgive me, he said, eventually; despite my appalling infidelity, he would have me back. He had forgiven me. Forgiven. My hatred for him in that moment was complete.
It is easy now to see that there was no need for me to return to Stephen, that my life was fortified enough by then for me to have left him and have had Joella with Henri, to have made a new life out of what had been a restitutional affair, transient. But I didn’t take the risk. I responded to an argument made up of responsibility, finance, propriety … I was a wife; I had become pregnant through an affair; my husband was now willing to recognise the child; there was only one conclusion in 1907, Jack, and that was what became of me. Stephen left his mistress and I left Henri, and we put Paris behind us. Within weeks we had left the city I had finally begun to make my own, and were living on the side of a Tuscan hill in a villa with gardens and a cook, and a ready-made community of foreigners fleeing their pasts, just like us.
I missed Henri so much. I missed the attention, the joy of someone else being responsible for my happiness. Sometimes in Italy I wondered what it would have been like to have stayed in Paris, being a doctor’s wife, being part of a respectable elite, though tinged with enough scandal all the same to be feared ever so slightly. I would have been a real wife, depended on, listened to, needed. And yet it would have wizened me, Jack, dried me out in a year. I see that now, of course. Then it seemed blessed compared to life with Stephen. But I hadn’t got the courage to forfeit my wifely bond with Stephen. And I did not love Henri enough in the end.
I don’t know how you are with regret, Jack. There is a gift in our rediscovering each other after such a time; I want to know you, want to compensate for the years in between when we should have been friends. I would like to have had you to rely on, Jack, or rather, to be unreliable with, just every so often, to retread the past a little. We have all the time we need now for that.
Write to me soon, I will look forward so much to hearing from you again, and thank you, Jack, for this fresh connection. It makes me very happy to fall asleep at night knowing you are there with the past curled up in your head just like me.
©1999 by Antonia Logue. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.