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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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And mother—what would mother say? Mother would feel worse about my being unmarried than about my death. I could leave a note asking him, as a final favor, to write her and say that we were married. He would forget to write.

When I’m dead, I’ll be out of it all. Mother, Beagle—they will leave me alone. But I can’t blame my trouble on him. I got myself into this mess. I went to his room after he acted decently in mine. I was jealous of Joan; she had so much fun going to men’s rooms, and all that sort of thing. How childish Joan and her follies seem to me now.

When I’m dead the whole world as far as I am concerned—Beagle, mother—will be dead also. Or aussi: I came to Paris to learn French. I certainly learnt French. I wasn’t even able to tell him in French without turning my trouble into a joke.

What love and a child by the man I loved once meant to me—and to live in Paris. If he should come back suddenly and catch me like this, brooding at the window, he’d say: “A good chance for you to kill two birds with one stone, my dear; but remember, an egg in the belly is worth more than a bird in the bush.” What a pig he is! He thinks I haven’t the nerve to kill myself. He patronizes me as though I were a child. “Suicide,” he says, “is a charming affectation on the part of a young Russian, but in you, dear Janey, it is absurd.”

You scream with irritation: “I’m serious! I am! I am! I don’t want to live! I’m miserable! I don’t want to live!”

I’m only teasing myself with thoughts of suicide at an open window. I know I won’t do it. Mother will call me away: “Go away from that window—fool! You’ll catch your death-cold or fall out—clumsy!”


At the word “clumsy” you fall to your death in the gutter below the window.

Horrible, eh? Yes, Janey, it is a suicide’s grave that I saved you from when I refused to take you to Paris.




When Balso had finished reading, she handed him the other letter.


Darling Janey:

You did not take offence, I hope, at my letter. Please believe me when I say that I tried to make my treatment of your suicide as impersonal as possible. I did my best to keep the description of both our characters scientific and just. If I treated you savagely, I treated myself no gentler. It is true that I concentrated on you, but only because it was your suicide. In this letter I shall try to show, and so even the score, how I would have received your death.

You .once said to me that I talk like a man in a book. I not only talk, but think and feel like one. I have spent my life in books; literature has deeply dyed my brain its own color. This literary coloring is a protective one—like the brown of the rabbit or the checks of the quail—making it impossible for me to tell where literature ends and I begin.

I start where I left off in my last letter:

As Janey’s half-naked body crashed into the street, the usual crowds were hurrying to lunch from the Academies Colorossa and Grande Chaumiere; the concierge was coming out of the hotel’s side door. In order to avoid running over her body, the driver of a cab coming from the Rue Notre Dame des Champs and going toward the Square de la Grande Chaumiere, brought his machine to a stop with screaming brakes. The concierge, on seeing the cab stop suddenly, one wheel over the body of a tenant of his, ran up, caught the chauffeur by the arm, and called loudly for the police. No one had seen her fall but the driver of the cab; he, bursting with rage, called the concierge an idiot, and pointed to the open window from which she had jumped. A crowd gathered around the chauffeur and shouted at him angrily. A policeman arrived. He, too, refused to believe the cab-driver, although he noticed that the dead girl was in her pajamas. “What would she be doing in the street in her night-clothes if she hadn’t fallen from the window?” He shrugged his shoulders: “These American art students.”

Beagle, on his way to the Café Carcas for a drink, turned to see where so many people were running. He saw the gesticulating group around the cab and went back, grateful for any diversion on what had been such a dull morning. As he joined them he kept thinking of Janey’s announcement. “I’m pregnant.” It reminded him of another announcement of hers. “It’s about time I took a lover.” “I’m pregnant” demanded for an answer, Life, just as “It’s about time I took a lover” had been worthy of no less a reply than Love. She made a habit of these startling declarations: a few words, but freighted with meaning.

He knew what “I’m pregnant” meant; it meant canvassing his friends for the whereabouts of a doctor willing to perform the operation and writing frantic letters to the States for the necessary money. Through it all, Janey, having thrown the responsibility on him, would sit in one corner of the room: “Do with me what you will”—the groaning, patient, all-suffering, all-knowing, what has to be will be, beast of many burdens.

As he pushed into the crowd, someone told him a girl had been killed. He looked where the chauffeur was pointing and saw the open window of their room. Then he saw Janey under the cab; he could not see her face, but he recognized her pajamas.

This was indeed a solution. The problem had been solved for him with a vengeance. He turned away and hurried up the street, afraid of being recognized. It had become impossible for him to take his drink at the Carcas. If he went there some friend would surely come to him with the news, “Beagle! Beagle! Janey has killed herself.” He wanted to go somewhere and prepare a reply. “Here today and gone tomorrow” would never do, even at the Carcas.

He went past the Carcas up the Rue Delambre to the Avenue de Maine. On this street he went into a café hardly ever visited by Americans and sat down at a table in the corner of an inside room. He called for some cognac and asked himself:

Of what assistance could I have been? Should I have gone down on my knees in the street and wept over her dead body? Torn my hair? Called on the Deity? Or should I gave gone calmly up to the policeman and said: “I’m her husband. Allow me to accompany you to the morgue.”

He ordered another cognac—Beagle Darwin the Destroyer. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and tossed off his drink.

She did it because she was pregnant. I would have married her, the fool. I hurt her when I made believe I didn’t understand her French. “Je suis enceinte.” My “what” was one of the astonishment, not the “what” of interrogation. No, it was not. You said “what” in order to humiliate her. What is the purpose of all your harping on petty affectations? Why this continual irritation at the sight of other peoples’ stupidities? What of your own stupidities and affectations? Why is it impossible for you to understand, except in terms of art, her action? She killed herself because she was afraid to face her troubles—an abortion or the birth of a bastard. Absurd; she never asked you to marry her. You do not understand.

He crouched over his drink, Tiger Darwin, his eyes half shut—desperate.

I wonder if she was able to avoid generalizing before she killed herself. I am sure it was not trouble, that was uppermost in her mind, but the rag-tag of some “philosophy.” Although I did my best to laugh away finita la comedia, I am certain that some such catch-word of disillusion was in her mouth when she turned the trick. She probably decided that Love, Life, Death, all could be contained in an epigram: “The things which are of value in Life are empty and rotten and trifling; Love is but a flitting shadow, a lure, a gimcrack, a kickshaw. And Death?—bah! What, then, is there still detaining you in this vale of tears?” Can it be that the only thing that bothers me in a statement of this sort is the wording? Or is it because there is something arty about suicide? Suicide: Werther, the Cosmic Urge, the Soul, the Quest, and Otto Greenbaum, Phil Beta Kappa, Age seventeen—Life is unworthy of him; and Haldington Knape, Oxford, author, man-about-town, big game hunter—Life is too tiresome; and Terry Kornflower, poet, no hat, shirt open to the navel—Life is too crude; and Janey Davenport, pregnant, unmarried, jumps from a studio window in Paris—Life is too difficult. 0. Greenbaum, H. Knape, T. Kornflower, J. Davenport, all would agree that “Life is but the span from womb to tomb; a sigh, a smile; a chill, a fever; a throe of pain, a spasm of volupty: then a gasping for breath, and the comedy is over, the song is ended, ring down the curtain, the clown is dead.”

The clown is dead; the curtain is down. And when I say clown, I mean you. After all, aren’t we all…aren’t we all clowns? Of course, I know it’s old stuff; but what difference does that make? Life is a stage; and we are clowns. What is more tragic than the role of clown? What more filled with all the essentials of great art?—pity and irony. Get it? The thousands of sweating, laughing, grimacing, jeering animals out front—you have just set them in the aisles, when in comes a messenger. Your wife has run away with the boarder, your son has killed a man, the baby has cancer. Or maybe you ain’t married. Coming from the bathroom, you discover that you have gonorrhoea, or you get a telegram that your mother is dead, or your father, or your sister, or your brother. Now get the picture. Outside, after your turn, the customers are hollering and screaming: “Do your stuff, kid! We want Beagle! Let’s have Beagle! He’s a wow!” The clowns down front are laughing, whistling, belching, crying, sweating, and eating peanuts. And you—you are back-stage, hiding in the shadow of an old prop. Clutching your bursting head with both hands, you hear nothing but the dull roar of your misfortunes. Slowly there filters through your clenched fingers the cries of your brother clowns. Your first thought is to rush out there and cut your throat before their faces with a last terrific laugh. But soon you are out front again doing your stuff, the same superb Beagle: dancing, laughing, singing—acting. Finally the curtain comes down, and, in your dressing room before the mirror, you make the faces that won’t come off with the grease paint—the faces you will never make down front.

Beagle ordered another cognac and washed it down with a small beer. The saucers had begun to pile up before him on the table.

Well, Janey’s death is a joke. A young, unmarried woman on discovering herself to be pregnant commits suicide. A very old and well-known way out of a very old and stale predicament. The moth and the candle, the fly and the spider, the butterfly and the rain, the clown and the curtain, all could be cited as having prepared one [oh how tediously!] for her suicide.

Another cognac! After this cognac, he would go to the Café Carcas and wait for a friend to bring him news of Janey’s death.

How shall I receive the devastating news? In order to arouse no adverse criticism, it will be necessary for me to bear in mind that I come of an English-speaking race and therefore am cold, calm, collected, almost stolid, in the face of calamity. And, as the death is that of a very intimate friend, it is important that I show, in some subtle way, that I am hard hit for all my pretence of coldness. Or perhaps because the Carcas is full of artists, I can refuse to stop dreaming, refuse to leave my ivory tower, refuse to disturb that brooding white bird, my spirit. A wave of the hand: “Yes, really. You don’t say so?—quite dead.” Or I can play one of my favorite roles, be the “Buffoon of the New Eternities” and cry: “Death, what is it? Life, what is it? Life is of course the absence of Death; and Death merely the absence of Life.” But I might get into an argument unbecoming one who is lamenting the loss of a loved one. For the sake of the waiters, I will be a quiet, sober, gentle, umbrella-carrying Mr. B. Darwin, and out of a great sadness sob: “Oh, my darling, why did you do it? Oh why?” Or, best of all, like Hamlet, I will feign madness; for if they discover what lies in my heart they will lynch me.



“Beagle! Beagle! Janey has fallen from the window and is no more.”



“The girl you lived with is dead.”

“Poor Janey. Poor Beagle. Terrible, terrible death.” “And so young she was, and so beautiful…in the cold street she lay.”



“Bromius! Iacchus! Son of Zeus!”



“Don’t you understand, man? The girl you lived with is dead. Your sweetheart is dead. She has killed herself. She is dead!”



“Bromius! Iacchus! Son of Zeus!”



“He’s drunk.”

“Greek gods!—does he think we don’t know he’s a Methodist?”

“This is no time for blasphemy!”

“A little learning goes to the heads of fools.”

“Yes, drink deep of the Pierian spring or…”

“Very picturesque though, ‘Bromius! Iacchus!’ very picturesque.”



“‘0 esca vermium! 0 massa pulveris!’ Where is the rich Dives? He who was always eating? He is no longer even eaten.”



“A riddle! A riddle!”

“He is looking for a friend.”

“He has lost something. Tell him to look under the table.”



“He means the worms have eaten Dives; and that, in their turn dead, the worms have been eaten by other worms.”



“Or quick tell me where has gone Samson?—strongest of men. He is no longer even weak. And where, oh tell me, where is the beautiful Appollon? He is no longer even ugly. And where are the snows of yesteryear? And where is Tom Giles? Bill Taylor? Jake Holtz? In other words, `Here today and gone tomorrow.’”



“Yes, what he says is but too true. An incident such as the sad demise we are now considering makes one stop ‘midst the hustle-bustle of our work-a-day world to ponder the words of the poet who says we are ‘nourriture des vers!’ Continue, dear brother in sorrow, we attend your every word.”



“I shall begin all over again, folks.

“While I sit laughing with my friends, a messenger stalks into the café. He cries: ‘Beagle! Beagle! Janey has killed herself!’ I jump up, white as a sheet of paper, let us say, and shriek in anguish: ‘Bromius! Iacchus! Son of Zeus!’ You then demand why I call so loudly on Dionysius. I go into my routine.

BOOK: The Dream Life of Balso Snell
12.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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