中短篇小说奖召集人：刘志荣（评论家，复旦大学中文系教授） 金 理（评论家，复旦大学中文系副教授）
陈 慧 （中山大学博雅学院）
谢 琰 （北京师范大学文学院）
钟 菡 （解放日报社）
钟 锦 （华东师范大学哲学系）
陈 斐 （中国艺术研究院）
A NEW PAIR
Like stiff whipped cream in peaks and tufts afloat,
The two on barely gliding waves approach.
One’s neck curves back, the whole head to the eyebrows
hides in the wing’s whiteness.
The other drifts erect, one dark splayed foot
lifted along a snowy hull.
On thin, transparent platforms of the waves
the pair approach each other, as if without intent.
Do they touch? Does it only seem so to my eyes’
perspective where I stand on shore?
I wish them together, to become one fleece enfolded,
proud vessel of cloud, shape until now unknown.
Tense, I stare and wait, while slow waves carry them closer.
And side does graze creamy side.
One tall neck dips, is laid along the other’s back,
at the place where an arm would embrace.
A brief caress. Then both sinuous necks arise,
their paddle feet fall to water. As I stare,
with independent purpose at full sail, they steer apart.
FOREWORD TO THE POEMS (1973)
I ,fugi, sed poteras tutior esse domi.
If publication is not the business of poets, then even more surely it is not self-exegesis. But since this collection must, after the fact of my published novels, have something of the air of an autobiographical footnote, I should like to say briefly where poetry sits in my writing life.
The so-called crisis of the modern novel has to do with its self-consciousness. The fault was always inherent in the form, since it is fundamentally a kind of game, an artifice that allows the writer to play hide-and-seek with the reader. In strict terms a novel is a hypothesis more or less ingeniously and persuasively presented—that is, first cousin to a lie. This uneasy consciousness of lying is why in the great majority of novels the novelist apes reality so assiduously; and it is why giving the game away—making the lie, the fictitiousness of the process, explicit in the text—has become such a feature of the contemporary novel. Committed to invention, to people who never existed, co events that never happened, the novelist wants either to sound "true" or to come clean.
Poetry proceeds by a reverse path; its superficial form may be highly artificial and invraisemblable, but its content is normally a good deal more revealing of the writer than is that of prose fiction. The poem is saying what you are and feel, the novel is saying what invented characters might be and might feel. Only very naive readers can suppose that a novelist’s invented personages and their opinions are reliable guides to his real self—that because Fanny Price represents Jane Austen’s idea of the highest moral good, then meeting Jane Austen herself would have been like meeting Fanny. I have myself got a little tired of being taken for an all-wise millionaire on a remote Greek island.
Of course some poets wear masks (though much more for rhetorical than for seriously deceitful reasons), and of course there is an autobiographical element in all novels. Nonetheless, I think there is a vital distinction. It is rather difficult to put one's private self into a novel; it is rather difficult to keep it out of a poem. A novelist is like an actor or actress onstage, and the private self has to be subjugated to the public master of a novel’s ceremonies. The primary audience is other people. A poet’s is his or her own self.
This may, I think, partly explain why some writers are poets and others novelists, and why excellence in both forms is such a rare thing. I suspect that most novelists are trying to camouflage a sense of personal inadequacy in the face of real life - a sentiment that is compounded in the act of creating fiction, the fabrication of literary lies, ingenious fantasies, to hide a fundamental psychological or sociological fault of personality. Some novelists - Hemingway is the classic instance - create a real-life as well as a literary persona in answer to this predicament. Most genuine poets have a much happier, or less queasy, relationship with their private self. At least they do not live, like most novelists, in permanent flight from the mirror.
At any rate I have always found the writing of poetry, which I began before I attempted prose, an enormous relief from the constant playacting of fiction. I never pick up a book of poems without thinking that it will have one advantage over most novels: I shall know the writer better at the end of it. I do not have to hope this is true of what follows. I know it is true—and know also how slender a justification mere personal truth is for writing. I mean my line of Martial preceding this foreword.
My great-uncle Dominic, the inventor, took me into the small workshop that stood between the back of his house and the large kitchen garden behind it. ‘This will amuse you,’ he said, pointing to a box-shaped contraption with what looked like a headlamp encased in it. 'It’s called a stroboscope. They are going to become very popular.’ He switched on an electric drill, and brought it into the flashing, acetylene-blue light of the contraption. With his free hand he adjusted the frequency of the flashing, and I watched, enchanted, as the drill-bit appeared to slow gradually down to a complete halt. ‘There, you see,’ he said, ‘it renders the most violent things harmless. Touch the drill, go on…’
Such was his solicitude, however, that before I had raised my small hand a fraction, he clutched it with his own. ‘Now let this serve as a lesson to you. Watch …’ He brought a piece of wood from the work-bench to the motionless drill-bit. A harsh rasping came as the one contacted the other, a flashlit spray of sawdust plumed out in a staggered curve, and in a trice the innocent piece of metal had bitten clean through the inch-thick piece of wood. ‘There you are. If something looks peaceful then leave it alone or else you get crucified. The stroboscope makes machines look still because it only illuminates one point in their cycle. Terrible accidents happen in factories where they have flickering neon lights.. . Now I must go and have a nap before Inge and I go out.'
Uncle Dominic was a man of extraordinary mildness. Family legend has it that his only retort to the irresponsible nurse in whose charge his son drowned forty-five years ago was, ‘If this sort of thing happens again you‘ll have to go.’ He made his fortune when the patent for a guidance device he had invented was purchased by an aeronautical company, which then adapted it for use in naval missiles. After the war he calculated that he had been instrumental in the deaths of some twenty thousand people. The fact haunted him. He wrote countless letters to the press warning scientists to guard their discoveries from the Military, and was much ridiculed for them. In an oddly inverted piece of folie de grandeur, he papered his workshop with the dead and wounded of Hiroshima, as if he had been personally responsible for the carnage. The projects he worked on became increasingly trifling, as his concern over their possible abuse grew more obsessive. That winter he had perfected a machine for feeding minced chicken, at twelve-hourly intervals, to Salome, his beloved Persian Blue, so that he and his second wife Inge could take short holidays without troubling the neighbours to look after the animal.
He had also built the prototype of a hair-plaiting device for Inge, and as we returned from the cold workshop to the warm house, we heard Inge shouting from the bedroom upstairs - ‘Come and get this wretched machine out of my hair. It’s stuck – ’ Uncle Dominic quickened his pace, then checked himself. ‘I mustn’t run,’ he said to me, ‘you go and help her.’
Inge, twenty-six years my great-uncle’s junior, sat at her dressing-table in a blue silk peignoir embroidered with tiny bright humming birds, the plaiting device sticking incongruously from her long golden hair. ‘Ah. Little Thomas,’ she said, ‘how sweet you are…’ I stood behind her disentangling the golden strands from the silver tines of the device as gently as I could. ‘None of his machines work these days,’ she whispered, as Uncle Dominic's footsteps approached the door.
He fell instantly asleep on the bed, while Inge had me brush her hair with her soft, ivory-handled hairbrush, and plait it with my own hands. I can remember wanting to tell her how lovely I thought she was, but having the courage only to let my all-licensed hands linger in that gleaming floss some moments longer than were necessary. She coiled the braid into a bun, and fixed it with two tourmaline pins. ‘Now go’, she said, ‘while I dress,’ and kissed me on my forehead.
I saw them off from the front entrance; my great-uncle immaculate in evening dress, black of his tall gaunt frame and the silver hair repeated in his tipped ebony stick; Inge's sable stole collecting the first white crystals of the frozen evening. ‘We won't be long,’ she called to me from the bottom of the marble steps, 'Anne-Marie will look after you. If Mr Morpurgo arrives before we do, then ... offer him a drink.’ She climbed into the car giggling at the thought, and they drove off to their cocktail party.
I sat on the living-room sofa drawing Christmas cards for them, while Anne-Marie - or Claire or Gabrielle - buffed silver knives and piled them on a salver where they gleamed like fish spilt from a net.
Mr Morpurgo, their dinner guest, did arrive before Dominic and Inge. He wore, as I remember, a yellow suit with pieces of brown suede clasping the shoulders and elbows. His face was a porous, piecemeal assemblage of unrelated features that could never agree on one expression. Smiles dissolved into scowls then into parodies of misery, swiftly, and with no apparent reason. He was the kind of man who awakens in children their first sensations of snobbery. I offered him a drink, and when he asked jovially if I was joining him, I declined with a delicious sense of disdain. He addressed me as ‘little man’, but I knew he had only been invited out of pity, because his wife had left him, and it was Christmas Eve, and he happened to live across the garden. He tried to flirt with the au pair, but she feigned ignorance of English. He put on a French accent, as if that would help, and she quickly found an excuse to leave the room. He wandered about picking up and examining ornaments from shelves, and when I intimated that the silver- and glass-framed wedding portrait of Dominic and Inge he'd pulled from its hook, was fragile and perhaps rather special to them, he made a great show of replacing it exactly as he’d found it, smirking at me while he did so. 'Whatever the little man says,’ he added, and in an attempt to amuse, clicked his heels together and saluted me.
The slam of the front door brought in Dominic and Inge, rosy-cheeked and vibrant from their cocktail party. As they greeted Mr Morpurgo, apologising for their lateness, I watched the powdery snow on Inge’s stole melting into tiny seed-pearls that clung, sparkling, to the wet tips of fur. The arrow-heads of her pale blue high-heels were rimmed with moisture , and l remember this pleasing me, because it meant the snow was settling.
At dinner, Mr Morpurgo tried to draw out my Uncle Dominic on the subject of his pacifism. ‘Go on, admit it,’ he kept saying, with what was presumably intended to be a roguish grin, ‘you’re deluding yourself. No real progress has ever been made in the name of peace or love. Greed, aggression and lust - that's what motivates people. We're beasts really - I'm one, I don't deny it. I organise my life and work accordingly. Stab your neighbour before he stabs you, that's the only way. Admit it, go on…’ Out of courtesy, Uncle Dominic made a token defence of his position; the lazy, tail-swishing defence a horse makes against a mildly irritating fly, and it seemed entirely proper to me that he should not waste energy doing battle with so unworthy an adversary.
After dinner he dozed on the living-room sofa, Salome dozing on his lap, while Inge and Mr Morpurgo played backgammon, quietly accusing one another of cheating, and giggling quietly so as not to wake Uncle Dominic. Mr Morpurgo risked a stab at his sleeping host – ‘That's how he preserves his illusions is it - by sleeping most of his life, and only waking up for the good bits?’ Inge smiled sadly at her husband, and said nothing.
As ever, no effort was made to send me to bed, although Mr Morpurgo twice expressed his amazement at ‘the little man's stamina’. I went, eventually, in the wake of Uncle Dominic who, roused by the bite of Salome's claws, declared himself a little sleepy, and retired, wishing us all a happy Christmas. When Inge came up to say goodnight, she let me unpin her hair, unfurl it, and separate the three golden locks which she rustled back into one dishevelled tress before returning to Mr Morpurgo.
I found myself very suddenly wide awake long before the dawn of Christmas Day. I left opening my stocking until my great-uncle and aunt would have woken, and I could open it on their bed, the quilt wrapped about my shoulders, while they received my tribute of delight in return for their generosity. Through my bedroom window the dark blue sky with its sprinkling of stars coaxed pale shades of silver from the snow-covered garden and surrounding houses. The snow on the garden was pristine, except for a dotted line that ran across the centre from our house to the one opposite, like the perforations between two stamps seen from their white, shiny backs.
I put on my slippers, went downstairs to investigate, and yes, parallel with two sets of snowed-over footprints leading out from the back door, past my great-uncle's workshop, was a set cut freshly into the crisp snow, the arrow-heads pointing back into our house.
The significance of these footprints remained in chrysalis within me until the recent death of my great-uncle reminded me of the occasion; though by then I, like everyone else except perhaps Uncle Dominic, knew all about Inge's affair. The sight thus provided me with no sorrowful descent into knowledge. It did, however, give rise to a tableau which now seems a peculiarly expressive coda to my Uncle Dominic's life.
The busy Christmas morning rituals on the day itself demanded I put the image of the footprints temporarily out of mind. At lunch, though, it rose once more from its suppression. The ten or twelve assembled relatives had finished eating, and we were leaning back in our chairs telling stories and sipping eiswein. Whether it was an excess of that extraordinary distillation of frost-corrupted grapes, or the air's intoxicating fragrance of tangerine peel, burnt brandy, and cigar smoke, or the way the candle flames were splintered and multiplied in the table's debris of silver cutlery and dishes, I don't know; but something released in me the image of those tracks again, catalysing a thought that seemed to me astoundingly clever, and well worth the immediate attention of the company.
‘Uncle Dominic,’ I called out in my shrill voice. The table hushed, and my great-uncle's eyelids opened a crack. ‘Your stroboscope is like snow. There were footprints leading to the back door this morning when l got up, and I've just thought…’ but to my chagrin the relatives at once resumed their conversations in unnecessarily loud voices. I piped louder, but my ingenious explanation - that all the action happens between the footprints, so that only the moments of stillness are made visible by the snow - was drowned by my relatives' voices that rose with mine, fell briefly at intervals when they thought I'd given up, then rose in chorus again as I persisted, so that all my Uncle Dominic was allowed to hear were the disjointed words that rang out during the brief pauses.
He looked perplexed for a moment, but made no attempt to hear more than the babble permitted, and soon let his eyelids drop again. I was finally silenced by Inge's mother who asked me, with a fatuous (though unreturned) grin at her daughter, whether I thought those footprints might have been Father Christmas's. Mortified by this snub, I fell into a sulk from which I did not recover until I had flown back to my parents, who worked in a place where Christmas is not celebrated, and where snow has never been seen.