02 July, 2007

The Large Glass

Wassail!

— Merry Christmas, replies Gawain, with a twinkle. We're on swift halves in St. Stephen's Tavern, just across from the Houses of Parliament, as a brief refreshment before continuing on to Westminster Cathedral. Gawain has been enjoying himself immensely—educating me on Cosimo Tura and Cima da Conegliano at the National, and before that reminiscing of his adventures in intimate Lisbon fado bars as we stroll down from Kensington to Trafalgar Square. Gawain is enthusiastic about everything, which makes the showing off of one's beloved city an even greater pleasure. And so we bond immediately. Much later, over several pints of Pride, he confides that he has never before spent twelve hours straight with another man—only with women. Good gracious—I've popped his amicitial cherry—withdrawn his homme du milieu!

*

We have seen Westminster Cathedral, where Gawain got particularly excited by a squamatic ceiling of golden tesserae; we are walking, beneath a bright grey sky, along Horseferry Road, down to the old river, rolling in glutinous ignorance of all the developments on this side and on that—towards the Blackfriars drinking-house, with its own marble fixtures and squamatic vaults, where we are due to meet my wife, and quaff several pints of Pride—

— How are we going to write about this? he asks. Gawain's English, allegedly acquired during teenage years, is terrifyingly idiomatic. He wants to do the 'man thing' of roughing each other up—locker-room towel-beatings, only with words. He wants me to laugh at his glabrity, his approaching senescence, his 'feel-good' blogging, perhaps—anything. (This is the truth about Sir Gawain—as far from chivalric delicacy as might be imagined. Here is a man so much more fascinated by women than by men, and yet wholly in his element with me, as if he has been too long deprived of serious male company. He speaks with great fondness of his old friends among the kshatriya Rajput.) I say I'll write something sentimental. He insists I leave a note at the end that it's all bullshit. Should I?

*

Gawain is constantly changing his glasses, but he cannot hide a very robust gaze, eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase. You do not see this at all in his picture, where with artful hands he masks the true shape of his physiognomy. Mrs. Roth remarks, too, that he is much more handsome in person. He is worried about his age, but there is no age at all in his eyes, and when he opens his mouth, his galvanized chatter operates just like the motion of his pupils, full of life.

Three fine black crows in silhouette, on the surface of a most beautiful inro, in a dark corner of the Japanese room on the first floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum, remind Gawain of the three ages of man. (He is preparing a post—I must not give away too much.) What happens when a man evolves? What does he lose, sacrifice, and in search or hope of what?

There are implicit themes in our interactions, alluded to, but never smothered with language. We are both struggling to get our bearings to one another, but there is no timidity, no caution or reserve—more of a sizing-up, like the noisy tuning of an orchestra, or the gestural jabs of boxers as they begin to square in the ring. The instruments, and the pugilists, are at ease with each other: they are playful and relaxed. We do not hesitate to touch each other, and when we part after the first day he kisses me roughly, abrading me with stubble, like my father used to do when I was little. But here is no paternalism. This is a question of age. My youth keeps cropping up in conversation, a leitmotif. He says that the Varieties reveal the interests of a younger man, not yet weathered by life. It is not an insult, though if I were insecure I might take it for one. He says I am lucky not to have experienced all the miseries that come with being in the world. I reply that it is the hardest thing of all for me not to be ashamed of my own youth. He feels old, and is gloomily resigned to a future when younger women have no longer any interest in him. That time has not arrived yet—he knows it. He is fascinated by the thought of a late Titian crippled by age, unable to paint, trading on name alone—important perhaps, but no longer capable of beauty.

Age is something that hangs over us both, a gentle and ambiguous threat, or at least a mild uncertainty, holding us together in opposition—an Ionic sort of bond. Never have I met a man so aggressively intelligent, and moreover so remarkable in character, for whom I feel so much warmth, and so little competition. It is the chemistry for a most perfect affection.


Note: a third-party account of our trip to the V&A by the accomplished sculptor Robert Mileham, whose quiet charm was quite the foil for Gawain; alas, our time together was far shorter, and future visits will, I trust, provide increasingly greater returns. Chris Miller comments, wittily. And finally Gawain himself.

8 comments:

paul said...

"He says that the Varieties reveal the interests of a younger man, not yet weathered by life."

Hrm. A few years back, on the way to a Bach concert, a friend of M-'s told me that I'd understand that Mozart was far better than Bach "when I got older."

Some people are very much tied the age that they are, and the psychological weight of it seems to inspire much balderdash.

Gawain said...

C, old man: you're overdoing the age thing. and besides, where is -- the parting punch? :)

paul: i didnt get mozart till i was in mid 30's. but i still would not dare suggest he was better than Bach. he certainly would not hear any such thing himself.

Robert said...

Purcell was pretty bloody good too. (G, young man, it was Beethoven that had the hearing problem). Life begins at 40... so I am only 17, in some respects that is the best age, one feels little different at 57. Same old stirrings, just become more illusory! Don’t kid yourself either way. C, expect a visit from the Bodleian.

paul said...

gawain: I was particularly peeved because I'd never make such a claim either way. They both have their peaks and troughs of transcendence and banality.

My appreciation for each of them has certainly deepened over the years, but I'd no sooner pick Aphrodite over Athena than Athena over Aphrodite.

I interpreted it as a (largely unconscious) conversational gambit, an intellectually unscrupulous way to assert psychological control and prop up an embattled ego. "Really, you think so? Well, you're young." is hardly the basis for an equal exchange of ideas.

One thing I've learned "as I've gotten older" is that I'm far more interested in finding peers than in exerting intellectual dominance.

Wolfie was certainly an egotistical little monster, but happily I don't have to have him over for dinner to enjoy to his music.

Conrad said...

Paul, obviously I cannot speak for your Mozartian friend, but in this case ego was not involved; Gawain was not criticising me, insulting me, or asserting 'intellectual dominance'. In fact he was highly--almost embarrassingly--complimentary about my writing.

paul said...

Conrad & Gawain: I certainly wouldn't presume to psychoanalyze . . . a mere reminiscence prompted by the poking of a personal vexation.

It sounds like a very interesting visit, and I was quite pleased to read the account. It's fascinating to see other aspects of those we know only through their words.

May said...

Conrad (and Paul whom I don't know): isn't it weird that I got the same impression as Paul about the relationship between you and that friend of yours not long ago? Now I have learned from experience, I won't leave a harsh comment -it is not my business.
And I am wrong, anyway.

chris miller said...

Certainly in my experience - "spending twelve straight hours" with anyone, male or female, is a rare event (unless it's twelve hours spent floating down a river, looking up at the sky)

And the only non riparian, non-sexual time that I can ever remember - was almost 30 years ago with a young painter/sculptor I had just met named Jeff Varilla .

Each of us had been through the galleries of the Art Institute so many times that we could recall each painting side by side along the walls -- and so we spent the entire night until daybreak comparing our mutual memories.
It was exhilarating -- and exhausting -- and I never did it again with anyone (but then -- I've also never again met anyone else who could do it.)

So I'm thinking - that this 12-hour day between C. and G. might end up being a very memorable -- and maybe even once-in-a-lifetime - experience for each of them -- and due to the bizarre nature of internet relationships -- I probably know as much about each of them as they know about each other.