Love and Death on Long Island

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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Praise for
Love and Death on Long Island

“Heartrending. Adair's realization of his chief character seems faultless…. The book is a startlingly precise miniature.”—
The Evening Standard
(London)

“Romantic and ruminative yet always precise, a comedy of longing propelled by a strong current of satirical observation.… De'Ath may be a creep, but he's also a true hero.”—David Denby,
New York
(on the film)

“Slyly erotic, erudite…. A beautifully executed pastiche.”—
Independent on Sunday
(UK)

“Beautifully crafted…. It's the smooth flow of the writing and the close attention to detail which make it such a delightful book to read. A perfectly faceted gem.”—
Time Out
(UK)

“A delicious comedy.”—
Time

By the same author

Fiction

The Holy Innocents

General
Hollywood's Vietnam
Alice Through the Needle's Eye
Myths & Memories
Peter Pan and the Only Children

Love and Death on Long Island

GILBERT ADAIR

Copyright © 1990 by Gilbert Adair
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced
in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without
permission in writing from the publisher, except by a
reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual
events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

First published in Great Britain in 1990
by William Heinemann Ltd.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America

FIRST AMERICAN EDITION

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Adair, Gilbert.
Love and death on Long Island / Gilbert Adair.
p. cm.
eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9605-7
I. Title.
PR6051.D287L68    1998

823′.914—dc21

98-22274

Grove Press
841 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

to Meredith Brody,
for being there

I do not know why I should have come to so abrupt a halt in the middle of the broad pavement of the street along which I had been walking an instant before with, to all outward appearance, not a care in the world. Conveniently, or perhaps this it was which caused me to stop there rather than elsewhere, the first thing I noticed as I stared about me in bafflement was a street sign attached to a low brick garden wall. It read ‘Fitzjohn's Avenue'. For the moment I felt quite disoriented, I was incapable of deciding whether or not I ought to register some little amazement at the fact that I was still in Hampstead, still at a sensible distance from home instead of halfway across London or dear knows where. Evidently I had stepped out at my own garden gate and, for one reason or another, a reason that may have had nothing in common with reason in any more abstract sense, had chosen not to stroll upwards towards the Heath as was my customary practice. Instead, I must have taken Frognal Rise and by some circuitous route of which I had only the very vaguest recollection – possibly by Church Row? – now found myself moving out of Hampstead altogether. I had left home, it's true, with no specific destination in mind, just an enervated conviction that I ‘had to get out', and it was no doubt when I reached that stretch of Fitzjohn's Avenue where it might be said to gather speed, as it were, like a current about to plunge headlong into the ocean of the metropolis that
lies beneath it, and when I knew, if only ‘unconsciously', that I had been following a longer and straighter path than was feasible within the snug, verdant maze of Hampstead proper, with all its lamplit ‘crescents' and ‘rises' and ‘rows', that an obscure territorial mechanism cautioned me to stop and take stock.

The pavements on both sides of the street were free of pedestrians and no traffic seemed to be travelling in either direction. Fitzjohn's Avenue is almost entirely residential, bordered by large and pleasant if sometimes slightly uncommunicative private houses with rambling and even derelict front gardens and red-brick walls high enough to hide from the undesired gaze of a passer-by all but their rooftops or low enough to expose the whole façade from driveway to chimney pots or else suddenly giving way to a slatted, charred-looking sort of fencing. Here and there, too, one passes a church, an orphanage or a convent school. But I had observed none of these, for as I descended the avenue at an uncommonly lively tread my observations had all been of a seethingly internal order. Only now did I view the need to consider my immediate surroundings as an imperative one.

The house in front of which I happened to be standing, and on whose garden wall was affixed the signpost that had caught my eye, differed from its neighbours in appearing tolerably new, certainly newly repainted; that combined with a vague Dutch or pseudo-Dutch style of architecture and a very unrambling rock garden lent it a queerly miniaturised look. Emphasising its toy like aspect was the number-sign nailed on to the gate. This had been contrived out of a single piece of varnished wood which reminded me of some old-fashioned painter's
palette (although the two shapes were in fact quite dissimilar) and on which was carved, in letters not numbers,
Forty-Three A
. There was, as I could not help thinking, something most definitely un-Hampstead in such arch and suburban artfulness.

It was, however, the garden itself to which my attention was drawn. It was laid out, naively symmetrically, with plants in pots and flowers in flowerbeds, to practically none of which I, a writer so often praised for my descriptive powers, could have put a name. But pride of place had been given by the house's occupiers to, of all improbable trees, a palm.

The intention had doubtless been to contribute an inkling of exoticism to the dull, housebroken leafiness of NW3, to make of this poor solitary palm tree a synecdoche and symbol of the light and warmth and colour of which the British quotidian round is so starved. Yet its effect on me, as an uneasiness of spirit invested the matter with an intensity I could not explain, was completely the reverse. The presence of the palm, set to very moot advantage by a meandering string of little white pebbles that looped around its base and an arrangement of turquoise-and-yellow flowers so orderly it might have served as a pattern on a woman's blouse, only underscored how alien it was to its setting. It transported me no further southwards, nowhere more exotic or alluring, than Torquay, that insipid jewel of the ‘English Riviera' – Torquay of the palm-skirted putting greens and promenades. Its having been uprooted in this manner filled me with the same distaste and pity as would an elephant trained to stand up on its hind legs in a circus act.

Really, it was an inoffensive enough thing to encounter
on a Hampstead lawn, and no one else would have afforded it more than a glance. But it was there that I chanced to stop and, if not this, then something else would have allowed me to objectify my exasperation with the world and its ineradicable mediocrity, to pronounce, not precisely aloud, the anathema I had been harbouring inside of me since I left home: ‘All journalists be damned to Hell!'

I was born in the year of grace 193- and as a writer had been – somewhat to the surprise of my contemporaries at Cambridge, who had expected the greatest things of me – what is generally called a late developer. Orphaned during my final year, and made wealthy by the tragedy, I was of course without the incentive of any pressing material need to commit myself to literary expression of whatever variety or depth and, until the latter sixties, had brought out just a short, indifferently published study of the sixteenth-century Mannerist school of painting – the kind of thing that was no more and perhaps even a trifle less than might have been looked for in someone of such obvious brilliance. In every other respect, that period of my life remained as sketchy and enigmatic to those with whom I had formed close friendships at university, and there were few enough of them, as it did to the scarcely more numerous readers and critics and fellow writers (for if anyone deserved the ungrateful epithet of ‘writer's writer', it was I) who discovered what they judged to be talent of a quite extraordinary stamp in the series of four novels I wrote
in swift succession from 1969 to the middle of the next decade.

These four novels – which were frequently referred to, to my intense annoyance, as a tetralogy – shared the theme of sacrifice, a theme to which their author seemed to be ascribing an explicitly religious or at the very least otherworldly significance. In spite of that, they had conventionally been read (especially in France, where my stock was higher than in my native country and my work had been compared to Blanchot's) as allegories of the quasi-sacrificial act of writing itself and the correlative condition of perpetual and agonising incertitude that it induces in the writer. Of the four individual sacrifices chronicled in the novels not one is shown to have been justified.

Fastidiously textured, unlyrical and superficially uneventful save for the pivotal act, curiously timeless in atmosphere despite the occasional and, as some believed, rather intrusive allusion to the Holocaust, they were of personal inspiration only in the paradoxical sense that the equivocal convulsions of self-abnegation which made up their subject matter appeared to be mirroring, in what the French term a
mise en abyme
, my own self-effacing attitude to language as the externalisation of an interiority. (Lately, for example, one of my American exegetes had created something of a minor sensation in academic circles by demonstrating that not once in the entire corpus of my published writings, fictional and non-fictional, and even unto those extremely rare exchanges of dialogue that speckled my fiction, had I had recourse to the first person singular: in short, even when assuming the voice of one of my protagonists, I
had never brought myself to say ‘I' in print.) At any rate, they had enjoyed no commercial success whatsoever. In England, where an unprecedented shift in social mores had ended with the relaxing of censorship, their cold, demure narratives could not have seemed less of their own time. Even across the Channel their total absence of direct political engagement or ideological underlay would repel many a potential admirer.

The situation remained unaltered throughout the following ten years. I ceased to write – or, more exactly, to publish – and at the same time I wholly ceased to make my never very frequent and frankly merely dutiful attendances at theatrical first nights and private views. It was heard that I had married, that my wife was considerably older than I and without connections in the world of literature, and that I had more or less retreated to my house in Hampstead. As the years passed this or that was heard, that I had been travelling, that my only real friends, whom I sporadically visited, were a small coterie of Cambridge dons, that my wife had died – in truth, though, the world, with its own affairs to attend to, paid next to no attention to my doings. Like more writers than most people ever suppose, I had absolutely no public life, and both the world and I appeared to prefer it that way.

Yet these four novels of mine refused conclusively to go away. Little by little, in part because of intrinsic qualities that were great and durable enough to survive any lengthy period of neglect, in part because the passions of the two previous decades had quite cooled down, and in most part because of the subtle but indisputable nimbus of rarefaction that enhaloed my
work, the cachet that will ever be attached to an artist fallen silent in his prime and whose silence fascinates as an impertinent shunning of the world and the blandishments it holds out to those it deigns to regard as gifted, I returned to fashion. I was not, even then, widely read. No commuter ever selected one of my novels as the ideal ‘read' for a tedious journey by rail. But they were reissued in paperback form, as Modern Classics no less, and had appended to them introductions by some of the younger novelists – introductions that I thought moronic but was willing to accept as the price I had to pay to gain a new readership, an opportunity to which I was more alert than might have been predicted. There meanwhile came my way so many requests for translation rights that I had to call on the services of an agent. For the first time in my life I was making money out of my books.

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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