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Authors: Nathanael West

Tags: #Fiction, #Classics

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BOOK: The Dream Life of Balso Snell
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Balso dreamt that he was a young man again, lurking in a corner of the Carnegie Hall lobby among the assembled friends and relatives of music. The lobby was crowded with the many beautiful girl-cripples who congregate there because Art is their only solace, most men looking upon their strange forms with distaste. But it was otherwise with Balso Snell. He likened their disarranged hips, their short legs, their humps, their splay feet, their walleyes, to ornament. Their strange foreshortenings, hanging heads, bulging spinesacks, were a delight, for he had ever preferred the imperfect, knowing well the plainness, the niceness of perfection.

Spying a beautiful hunchback, he suddenly became sick with passion. The cripple of his choice looked like some creature from the depths of the sea. She was tall and extraordinarily hunched. She was tall in spite of her enormous hump; but for her dog-leg spine she would have been seven feet high. Moreover, he could be certain that, like all hunchbacks, she was intelligent.

He tipped his hat to her. She smiled and he snatched her from the throng, crying as he took her arm:

“0 arabesque, I, Balso Snell, shall replace music in your affections! Your pleasures shall no longer be vicarious. No longer shall you mentally pollute yourself. For me, your sores are like flowers: the new, pink, budlike sores, the full, rose-ripe sores, the sweet, seed-bearing sores. I shall cherish them all. 0 deviation from the Golden Mean! 0 out of alignment!”

The Lepi [for so did he instantly dub her] opened her mouth to reply and exhibited one hundred and forty-four exquisite teeth in rows of four.

“Balso,” she said, “you are a villian. Do you love as do all villains?”

“No,” he answered, “I love only this.” As he spoke, he laid his cool white hands upon her beautiful, hydrocephalic forehead. Then, bending over her enormous hump, he kissed her full on the brow.

Feeling his lips on her forehead, Janey Davenport, [the Lepi] gazed out over the blue waves of the Mediterranean and felt the delight of being young, rich, beautiful. No-one had ever before forgotten her strange shape long enough to realize how beautiful her soul was. She had never before known the thrill of being subdued by a male from a different land from that of her dreams. Now she had found a wonderful poet; now she knew the thrill she had never known before…had found it in the strength of this young and tall, strangely wise man, caught like herself in the meshes of the greatest net human hearts can know: Love.

Balso took her home and, in the hallway of her house, tried to seduce her. She allowed him one kiss, then broke away. From her lips—overhung by a moist eye and under-hung by a heaving embonpoint—there came, “Love is a strange thing, is it not, Balso Snell?” He was afraid to laugh; he knew that if he even smiled the jig would be up. “Love,” she said, “is beautiful. You, Balso, do not love. Love is sacred. How can you kiss if you do not love?” When he began to unbutton, she said with a desperately gay smile: “Would you want some one to ask of your sister what you ask of me? So this is why you invited me to dinner? I prefer music.”

He made another attempt, but she fended him off. “Love,” she began again, “Love, with me, Mr. Snell, is sacred. I shall never debase love, or myself, or the memory of my mother, in a hallway. Act your education, Mr. Snell. Tumbling in hallways at my age! How can you? After all, there are the eternal verities, not to speak of the janitor. And besides, we were never properly introduced.” After half an hour’s sparring, he managed to warm her up a bit. She held him to her tightly for a second, capsized her eyeballs, and said: “If you only loved me, Balso. If you only loved me.” He looked her in the eye, stroked her hump, kissed her brow, protesting desperately: “But I do love you, Janey. I do. I do. I swear it. I must have you. I must! I must!” She shoved him away with a sad yet determined smile. “First you will have to prove your love as did the knights of old.”

“I’m ready,” Balso cried. “What would you have me do?”

“Come inside and I’ll tell you.”

Balso followed her into the apartment and sat down beside her on a couch.

“I want you to kill a man called Beagle Darwin,” she said with great firmness. “He betrayed me. In this hump on my back I carry his child. After you have killed him, I shall yield up my pink and white body to you, and then commit suicide.”

“A bargain,” Balso said. “Give me but your stocking to wear around my hat and I’m off to earn the prize.”

“Not so fast, my gallant; first I must explain a few things to you.

“After listening to Beagle Darwin recite some of his poetry, I slept with him one night while my folks were visiting friends in Plainfield, New Jersey. Unfamiliar as I was with the wiles of men, I believed him when he told me that he loved me and wanted to take me to Paris to live in an artistic studio. I was very happy until I received the following letter.”

Here the Lepi went to a bureau and took out two letters, one of which she gave Balso to read.


Darling Janey:

You persist in misunderstanding me. Please understand this: It is for your own good that I am refusing to take you to Paris, as I am firmly convinced that such a trip can only result in your death.

Here is the way in which you would die:

In your pajamas, Janey, you sit near the window and listen to the gay clatter of Paris traffic. The highpitched automobile horns make of every day a holiday. You are miserable.

You tell yourself: Oh, the carnival crowds are always hurrying past my window. I’m like an old actor mumbling Macbeth as he fumbles in the garbage can outside the theatre of his past triumphs. Only I’m not old; I’m young. Young, and I never had any triumphs to mumble over; my only triumphs were those I dreamed of having. I’m Janey Davenport, pregnant, unmarried, unloved, lonely, watching the laughing crowds hurry past her window.

I don’t fit into life. I don’t fit into his life. He only tolerates me for my body. He only wants one thing from me, and I want, oh how I want, love.

The ridiculous, the ridiculous, all day long he talks of nothing else but how ridiculous this, that, or the other thing is. And he means me. I am absurd. He is never satisfied with calling other people ridiculous, with him everything is ridiculous—himself, me. Of course I can laugh at Mother with him, or at the Hearth; but why must my own mother and home be ridiculous? I can laugh at Hobey, Joan, but I don’t want to laugh at myself. I’m tired of laugh, laugh, laugh. I want to retain some portion of myself unlaughed at. There is something in me that I won’t laugh at. I won’t. I’ll laugh at the outside world all he wants me to, but I won’t, I don’t want to laugh at my inner world. It’s all right for him to say: “Be hard! Be an intellectual! Think, don’t feel!” But I want to be soft. I want to feel. I don’t want to think. I feel blue when I think. I want to keep a hard, outside surface towards the world, and a soft, inner side for him. And I want him to do the same, so that we can be secure in each other’s love. But with his rotten, ugly jokes he keeps me at arm’s length just when I want to be confiding and tender. When I show him my soft side he laughs. I don’t want to be always on my guard against his laughter. There are times when I want to put down my armor. I am tired of eternally bearing armor against the world. Love is a merging, not an occasion for intellectual warfare. I want to enjoy my emotions. I want, sometimes, to play the child, and to make love like a child—tenderly, confidingly, prettily. I’m sick of his taunts.

Pregnant, unmarried, and he won’t marry me. If I ask him to, he will laugh his terrible horse-laugh: “Well, my little bohemian, you want to get out of it, do you? Life, however, is Life; and the Realities are the Realities. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, you know.” He’ll tell his friends the story as a joke—one of his unexplainable jokes. All his smug-faced friends will laugh at me, especially the Paige girl.

They don’t like me; I don’t fit in. All my life I have been a misfit—misunderstood. The carnival crowds are always hurrying past my window. As a kid, I never liked to play in the streets with the other kids; I always wanted to stay in the house and read a book. Since my father’s death, I have no one to go to with my misery. He was always willing to understand and comfort me. Oh, how I want to be understood by someone who really loves me. Mother, like Beagle, always laughs at me. If they want to be kind it is, “You silly goose!” If they are angry, “Don’t be an idiot.” Only father was sympathetic, and he is dead. I wish I were dead.

Joan Higgins would know what to do if she were in my position—pregnant and unmarried. Joan fits into the kind of a life he and his friends lead better than I do. Like the time Joan said she had gone back to live with Hobey because it was such a bore looking for healthy men to sleep with. Joan warned me against him; she said he wasn’t my kind. I thought him just my kind, sad and a poet. He is sad, but with a nasty sadness—all jeers for his own sadness. “It’s the war. Everybody is sad nowadays. Great stuff, pessimism.” Still he is sad; if he would only stop acting we could be very happy together. I want so much to comfort him—mother him.

Joan’s advice would probably be for me to make him marry me. How he would howl. “Make an honest girl of you, eh?”


You can see the Café Carcas from the window. You are living in the Rue de la Grande Chaumiere, at the Hotel Liberia.

Why don’t I fit in well at the Carcas? Joan would go big there. Why don’t they like me? I’m as good looking as she is, and as clever. It’s because I don’t let myself go the way she does. Well, I don’t want to. There is something fine in me that won’t let me degrade myself.


You see me come out of the café, laughing and waving my arms.


I hope he comes upstairs.


You see me turn, and come towards the hotel.


Just as soon as he comes in I’ll tell him I’m pregnant. I’ll tell him in, a matter-of-fact voice—casually. As long as I keep my tone casual he won’t be able to laugh.

“Hello darling, how are you this morning?”

“All right. Beagle, je suis enceinte.”

“You’re what?”

[Oh, damn my pronunciation, I spoilt it.] “I’m pregnant.” Despite your desire to appear casual you let a note of heartbreak into your voice. You droop.

“We’ll have a party tonight and celebrate.” I leave the room, shutting the door behind me, carefully.

Perhaps he’ll never come back…You run to the window—sick. You sit down and prepare to indulge your misery. Your misery, your misery—you roll, you grovel in it. I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant! You force the rhythm of this cry into your blood. After the first moments of hysterical anguish are over, you wrap your predicament around you, snuggling into it, letting it cover you completely like a blanket. Your big trouble shelters you from a host of minor troubles. You are so miserable.

You remember that “life is a prison without bars,” and think of suicide.

No one ever listens to me when I talk of suicide. The night I woke up in bed with him, it was no different. He thought I was joking when I said that I had frightened myself by brooding on death. But I told the truth. Death and suicide are never far from my thoughts. I said that death is like putting on a wet bathing suit. Now death seems warm and friendly. No, death is still like putting on a wet suit—shivery.

If I do it, I won’t leave a note behind for him to laugh at. Just end it, that’s all. No matter how I word a farewell note he will find something to laugh at—something to show his friends as a joke…

Mother knows I’m living with a man in Paris. Sophie wrote that everybody is talking about me. If I were to go home—even if I were not pregnant—mother would make an awful stink. I don’t want to go back to the States: a long dull trip followed by a long dull life teaching elementary school.

What can I expect from him? He’ll want me to have an abortion. They say that on account of the decreasing birth rate it is hard to get a competent doctor to do the operation. The French police are very strict. If the doctor killed me…

If I kill myself, I kill my body. I don’t want to destroy my body; it is a good body—soft, white, and kind to me—a beautiful, happy body. If he were a true poet he would love me for my body’s beauty; but he is like all men; he wants only one thing. Soon my body will be swollen and clumsy. The milk spoils the shape of a woman’s breasts after an abortion. When my body becomes ugly, he will hate me. I once hoped that having a child would draw him closer to me—make him love me as a mother. But mother for him is always Mammy: a popular Broadway ballad, Mammy, Mammy, my old Kentucky Home, put it all together, it spells Mother. He doesn’t see that Mother can mean shelter, love, intimacy. Oh, how much I want, I need, love.

If I wanted to make a squawk, mother would force him to marry me; but she would scold terribly and make a horrible scene. I’m too tired and sick to go through with a shotgun wedding.

Maybe I passed my period because of the wine—no, I know. Where did I read, “In my belly there is a tangled forest of arms and legs.” It sounds like his stuff. When he left, he said he’d give a party tonight in honor of the occasion. I know what kind of a party it will be. He’ll get drunk and make a speech: “Big with child, great with young—let me toast your gut, my dear. Here’s to the pup! Waiters, stand erect while I toast my heir.” He and his friends will expect me to join in the sport—to be a good sport.

He claims that the only place to commit suicide is on Chekov’s grave. The Seine is also famous for suicide: “‘midst the bustle of `Gay Paree’—suicide.” “She killed herself in Paris.” There is something tragic in the very thought. French windows make it easy; all you have to do is open the window and walk out. Every window over the third floor is a door into heaven. When I arrive there I can plead my belly—oh, how bitterly cruel the jest is. “Jest?” He would correct me—”not ‘jest,’ my dear, but joke; never, never say ‘jest.”

Oh, how miserable I am. I need love; I can’t live without someone to treasure and comfort me. If I jumped from the third floor I might cripple myself—lucky this room is on the fourth. Lucky? [Animals never commit suicide.]

BOOK: The Dream Life of Balso Snell
11.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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