Authors: Philip Roth
He knew she knewâeverybody in the world knewâbut they might as well start having a good time. It's why they were there instead of at the Public Library.
“That,” he said, “is a novelist. The establishment roughneck.”
“And the man drinking with him?”
“That's a tough journalist with a tender heart. The novelist's loyal second, O'Platitudo.”
“Ah, I knew,” said Caesara, with the lilt, “I knew there would be more to Zuckerman than nice manners and clean shoes. Go on.”
“That is the
the half-wits' intellectual. The guileless girl is his leading lady, the intellectuals' half-wit. That's the editor, the Gentiles' Jew, and that man who is looking at you devouringly is the Mayor of New York, the Jews' Gentile.”
“And I had better tell you,” said Caesara, “in case he makes a scene, the man at the table behind him, looking furtively at you, is the father of my last child.”
“Is it really?”
“I know him by the sinking of my stomach.”
“Why? How is he looking at
“He isn't. He won't. I was his âwoman.' I gave myself to him and he'll never forgive me for it. He's not merely a monster, he's a great moralist too. Son of a sainted peasant mother who can't thank Jesus enough for all her suffering. I conceived a child by him and refused to allow him to acknowledge it. He waited outside the delivery room with a lawyer. He had papers demanding that the child bear his family's honored name. I would rather have strangled it in the crib. They had to call the police to get him to stop shouting and throw him out. All in the
Los Angeles Times.
“I didn't recognize him with the heavy glasses and the banker's suit. The Latin life force.”
She corrected him. “The Latin shit. The Latin devious lunatic and liar.”
“How did you get involved with him?”
“How do I get involved with the devious lunatics and liars? I work with the he-men in the movies, that's how. Lonely on location, in some ghastly hotel, in some strange place where you can't speak the languageâin this case, from my window the view was of two garbage cans and three rats crawling around. Then it starts to rain, and you wait on call for days, and if the he-man wants to charm you and see that you have a good time, and if you don't want to sit reading in your room for sixteen hours a day, and if you want somebody to have dinner with in this ghastly provincial hotelâ¦”
“You could have gotten rid of the child.”
“I could have. I could have gotten rid of three children by now. But I wasn't raised to get rid of children. I was raised to be their mother. Either that or a nun. Irish girls aren't raised for any of this.”
“You seem to the world to do all right.”
“So do you. This fame is a very crude thing, Nathan. You have to have more insolence than I do to pull it off. You have to be one of the great devious lunatics for that.”
“You never like to see your face on all the posters?”
“When I was twenty, I did. You can't imagine all the pleasure I got at twenty just looking in the mirror. I used to look at myself and think that it wasn't possible that somebody should have such a perfect face.”
“I'm a little tired of my face. I'm a little tired of what it seems to do to men.”
“What is that?”
“Well, it gets them to interviewing me like this, doesn't it? They treat me like a sacred object. Everyone is terrified to lay a finger on me. Probably even the author of
“But there must be those who can't wait to lay a finger on you just because you are a sacred object.”
“True. And my children are their offspring. First they sleep with your image, and after they've had that, they sleep with your makeup girl. As soon as it gets through to them that your you isn't the world's you, it's a grave disappointment to the poor fellows. I understand. How often can you get a thrill out of deflowering the kneeling nineteen-year-old novice of that touching first film, when she's thirty-five and the mother of three? Oh, the truth is that I'm really not childish enough any longer. It was exciting at twenty, but I don't see much point to it now. Do you? I may have reached the end of my wonderful future. I don't even enjoy anymore observing the despicable absurdities. It was a bad idea, coming here. My bad idea. We should go. Unless you're enjoying yourself too much.”
“Oh, being here has delighted me enough already.”
“I should say hello to my child's father. Before we go. Shouldn't I?”
“I don't know how those things work.”
“Do you think all present are waiting to see if I can do it?”
“I suppose it's the sort of thing some of them might wait up for.”
The confidence so dazzling to him at the Schevitzes' had all but disappeared; she looked less certain of herself now than any of the young models waiting out on the sidewalk with their boyfriends to get in and catch a glimpse of the likes of Caesara O'Shea. Still, she got up and walked across the restaurant to say hello to her child's father, while Zuckerman remained behind and sipped the champagne intended for her hairdresser. He admired that walk. Under the gaze of all those stargazers it was a true dramatic achievement. He admired the whole savory mixture, sauce and stew: the self-satirizing blarney, the deep-rooted vanity, the levelheaded hatred, the playfulness, the gameness, the recklessness, the cleverness. And the relentless beauty. And the charm. And the eyes. Yes, enough to keep a man on his toes and away from his work for a lifetime.
On the way out he asked, “How was he?”
“Very cold. Very withdrawn. Very polite. He falls back on the perfidious courtliness. Out of his depth, it's either that or the cruelty. Besides, it's not only the new young mistress he's with; there's also Jessica, Our Sacred Virgin of Radcliffe College. Daughter of the first lucky masochist who made a film in his arms. The innocent child isn't supposed to know yet what a twisted, disgusting, maggoty creature Father is.”
When they were back in the limousine she drew herself up straight inside the flame-colored veils and looked out the window.
“How did you get into all this?” he asked as they drove along. “If you were raised to be a nun or a mother.”
“âAll this,' meaning what?” she said sharply. “Show biz? Masochism? Whoredom? How did I get into all this? You sound like a man in bed with a prostitute.”
“Another twisted, disgusting, maggoty creature.”
“Oh, Nathan, I'm sorry.” She gripped his arm and held it as though they had been together all their lives. “Oh, I got into all this as innocently as any girl could. Playing Anne Frank at the Gate Theatre. I was nineteen years old. I had half of Dublin in tears.”
“I didn't know that,” said Zuckerman.
They were back at the Pierre. “Would you like to come up? Oh, of course you would,” said Caesara. No false modesty about her magic, but on the other hand, no swagger either: a fact was a fact. He followed her into the lobby, his face blurring out again as hers now caught the gaze of people leaving the hotel. He was thinking of Caesara starting at nineteen as the enchanting Anne Frank, and of the photographs of film stars like the enchanting Caesara which Anne Frank pinned up beside that attic bed. That Anne Frank should come to him in this guise. That he should meet her at his agent's house, in a dress of veils and beads and cockatoo feathers. That he should take her to Elaine's to be gaped at. That she should invite him up to her penthouse suite. Yes, he thought, life has its own flippant ideas about how to handle serious fellows like Zuckerman. All you have to do is wait and it teaches you all there is to know about the art of mockery.
The first thing he saw in her drawing room was a pile of brand-new books on the dresser; three were by himâpaperback copies of
Higher Education, Mixed Emotions,
Beside the books was a vase holding two dozen yellow roses. He wondered who they were from, and when she put down her shawl and went off to the bathroom he sidled over to the dresser and read the card. “To my Irish rose, Love and love and love, F.” When she came back into the room, he was in the wing chair that looked across the park to the towers on Central Park West, leafing through the book that had been open on the table beside the chair. It was by SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard, of all people. Called
The Crisis in the Life of an Actress.
“And what is the crisis in the life of an actress?” he asked.
She made a sad face and dropped into the settee across from him. “Getting older.”
“According to Kierkegaard or according to you?”
“Both of us.” She reached across and he handed her the book. She flipped through to find the right page. “âWhen,'” she read, “âshe'âthe actressââis only thirty years old she is essentially passÃ©.'”
“In Denmark maybe, in 1850. I wouldn't take it to heart if I were you. Why are you reading this?”
He wondered if it had come from “F.” along with the roses.
“Why shouldn't I?” asked Caesara.
“No reason. I suppose everybody should. What else have you underlined?”
“What everybody underlines,” she said. “Everything that says âme.'”
“May I see?” He leaned over to take the book back.
“Would you like a drink?” said Caesara.
“No, thanks. I'd like to see the book.”
“You can look across the park from here up to where Mike Nichols lives. That's his triplex where the lights are. Do you know him?”
“Caesara, everybody knows Mike Nichols,” Zuckerman said. “Knowing Mike Nichols is considered nothing in this town. Come on, let me see the book. I never heard of it before.”
“You're making fun of me,” she said. “For leaving Kierkegaard out to impress you. But I also left your books out to impress you.”
“Come on, let me see what interests you so much.”
Finally she passed it back to him. “Well,
want a drink,” she said, and got up and poured herself some wine from an open bottle near the flowers. Lafite-Rothschildâalso from F.? “I should have known I was to be graded.”
“âAnd she,'” Zuckerman read aloud, “âwho as a woman is sensitive regarding her nameâas only a woman is sensitiveâshe knows that her name is on everyone's lips, even when they wipe their mouths with their handkerchiefs!' Do you know that?”
“I know that, I know things even less enchanting than that, needless to say.”
“Say it anyway.”
“No need. Except it isn't quite what my mother had in mind when she took me down from Dublin in my Peter Pan collar to audition for my scholarship at RADA.”
The phone rang, but she ignored it. F.? or G.? or H.?
“âShe knows that she is the subject of everyone's admiring conversation,'” Zuckerman read to her, “âincluding those who are in the utmost distress for something to chatter about. She lives on in this way year after year. That seems just splendid; it looks as though that would really be something. But if in a higher sense she had to live on the rich nourishment of their admiration, take encouragement from it, receive strength and inspiration for renewed exertionsâand since even the most highly talented person, and particularly a woman, can become despondent in a weak moment for want of some expression of genuine appreciationâat such a time she will really feel what she has doubtless realized often enough, just how fatuous all this is, and what a mistake it is to envy her this burdensome splendor.' The hardships,” said Zuckerman, “of the idolized woman.” He began turning pages again, looking for her markings.
“You're welcome to borrow it, Nathan. Of course you're also welcome to stay here and just proceed right on through.”
Zuckerman laughed. “And what will you do?”
“What I always do when I invite a man to my room and he sits down and starts reading. I'll throw myself from the window.”
“Your problem is this taste of yours, Caesara. If you just had Harold Robbins around, like the other actresses, it would be easier to pay attention to you.”
“I thought I would impress you with my brains and instead it's Kierkegaard's brain you're impressed with.”
“There's always that danger,” he said.
This time, when the phone began ringing, she lifted the receiver, then quickly put it back down. Then she picked it up again and dialed the hotel operator. “Please, no more calls until noonÂ â¦ Fine. I know. I
I have the message. Please, I'd just appreciate it if you'd do as I say. I have all the messages,
“Would you like me to leave?” asked Zuckerman.
“Would you like to?”
“Of course not.”
“Okay,” she said, “where are we? Oh. You tell me. What is the crisis in the life of a writer? What obstacles must
overcome in his relation to the public?”
“First, their indifference; then, when he's lucky, their attention. It's your profession having people look you over, but I can't get used to the gaping. I prefer my exhibitionism at several removes.”
“Mary says you won't even go out of the house anymore.”
“Tell Mary I never went out of the house much before. Look, I didn't go into this line of work so as to stir the masses to a frenzy.”
“What I set out to do? Oh, I was a good boy too in my Peter Pan collar, and believed everything Aristotle taught me about literature. Tragedy exhausts pity and fear by arousing those emotions to the utmost, and comedy promotes a carefree, lighthearted state of mind in the audience by showing them that it would be absurd to take seriously the action being imitated. Well, Aristotle let me down. He didn't mention anything about the theater of the ridiculous in which I am now a leading characterâbecause of literature.”