Profoundly addictive and unsettling, Ceridwen Dovey's In the Garden of the Fugitives is a masterful novel of duplicity and counterplay, as brilliantly illuminating as it is surprisingabout the obscure workings of guilt in the human psyche, the compulsion to create and control, and the dangerous morphing of desire into obsession.
Almost twenty years after forbidding him to contact her, Vita receives a letter from a man who has long stalked her from a distance. Once, Royce was her benefactor and she was one of his brightest protégées. Now Royce is ailing and Vita’s career as a filmmaker has stalled, and both have reasons for wanting to settle accounts. They enter into an intimate game of words, played according to shifting rules of engagement.
Beyond their murky shared history, they are both aware they can use each other to free themselves from deeper pasts. Vita is processing the shameful inheritance of her birthplace, and making sense of the disappearance of her beloved. Royce is haunted by memories of the untimely death of his first love, an archaeologist who worked in the Garden of the Fugitives in Pompeii. Between what’s been repressed and what has been disguised are disturbances that reach back through decades, even centuries. But not everything from the past is precious: each gorgeous age is built around a core of rottenness.
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Given our history, Vita, I'm aware you may decide not to read this. I turned seventy this past May, though I don't expect you to care. For me this long-anticipated leap year (MMXX, as the Romans would have written it) has brought unwelcome news. The rest of humankind advances bravely toward its future while I stew in sickness, and in my own nostalgia, as everybody warned would happen at this time of life. It's the craven need for absolution that has taken me by surprise. My thoughts are tuned ever more to Kitty, and to you. I am not a religious man, yet here I am, stuck in religious mode, coming to you as a supplicant.
I have something to propose, but I need to know you're still there, that you might be prepared to hear me out.
Since I broke off contact, I've thought about you often. Mostly unkindly. But there – I have thought about you.
You've timed your latest entreaty well, which I'm sure is no coincidence. I'm crawling towards the abyss of early middle age myself. In a few months I will turn forty, as you would know. I read your email and was reminded that you're one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me. I don't just mean the money. It was the quality of your attention. The generous yet questionable nature of it. Nobody has ever been so invested in me making good on whatever raw talent I once possessed – not even my parents, for their love was always unconditional. Yours came with strings attached.
My dear, your reply is more than I deserve. It made me light-headed, poised somewhere between apprehension and happiness.
I'll be clear about my proposal. Lately, I have begun excavating my memories of Kitty, a process that has been more than cathartic: it has been purgative, purifying. It has taken me a long time to look directly at all the images of her lodged in the undulations of my brain — for years I was stuck on a single, painful frame of her standing at the rim of Vesuvius, a fumarole within its core gently steaming behind her. That was the ending. In writing about her I am finally able to think instead of our beginning. All I need now is a receptive reader.
Perhaps you might like to do something similar for me and dig around in your own past, get rid of whatever it is that blocks you. Forgive me for saying it, but time is running out for you too. I have waited patiently until now for you to fulfill your early artistic promise. Under the right conditions, I believe it is still within your power to alchemize that potential into actual art. The rewards will be worth it; you know they always are with me. I am, if nothing else, an expert listener, something else we have in common.
My last voluntary contact with you, seventeen years ago – you could not have forgotten – was a letter saying I never wanted to hear from you again. A request you chose to ignore. I could not afford to vanish entirely, and risk losing those bonus cheques with your spidery signature that arrived every two years like clockwork. So there was never a clean break, you always knew where to find me. Once the cheques stopped arriving, exactly ten years after my graduation, the birthday cards continued, asking if I was flourishing.
You're not of a generation to have these reminders automated. I imagine you still keep a paper diary, ordered from the alumni association of our alma mater, with a dark maroon cover and the crest discreetly embossed on the top right corner. Only those in the know would recognise it: three open books, the Latin for 'truth' split into syllables across their pages.
These things mattered to you a great deal, I mean the signifiers of a person's educational lineage. I recall your college class ring – class of '71? '72? – most clearly. I'd seen those clunky gold rings on the pinkies of my male classmates, markers of East Coast boarding schools, modern-day royal seals. They were useful as beacons of what kind of boy to avoid. On your hand the sight of the ring filled me with pity. Those boys were parading their power in the present, but you were still clinging to old symbols, old associations, to tell you who you were.
I understand what you're asking of me. Mutual confession, the inside view.
I'm open to the idea, but for reasons of my own.
How wonderful to get you in stereo again, Vita. Rudely, I've not asked the basics. Are you well? Are your parents well? Are you still living in Mudgee, on the olive farm?
I write this from a very humid Boston. I have hardly left my air-conditioned townhouse this summer. Usually I escape to the house in Vermont, but the various commitments of dying — of what it does not matter — have kept me sweating it out here instead.
The only respite from the heat outside comes late in the evening. If my energy permits I go walking on the Common, past the illuminated softball fields, all the way up to the spray pool at Frog Pond. A breeze comes off the river, or from the sea, it's hard to tell. Almost every night there's music drifting across the grass from the Bandstand.
Yesterday evening I felt so revived by my walk that I decided to treat myself to a late restaurant dinner. Since it's rare for me to have an appetite these days, I no longer mind dining out alone. The waitstaff were extra attentive. The sommelier spent time taking me through the cellar offerings. I couldn't manage dessert but I did have a glass of Sauternes, my favorite, as you know.
It made me think of our very first dinner together. Do you remember? I had ordered a bottle of Château d'Yquem to go with the warm pear sabayon. It was produced on Montaigne's family estate in Bordeaux, though in his day they amassed their fortune not from sweet wine but from salted fish, similar to the local delicacy Kitty and I used to eat in new Pompei.
You mentioned that you happened to be reading Montaigne's 'On Cannibals' in your social theory class, his reflections on a long-ago tribe's tradition of roasting and eating their enemies, even sending portions of the meal to absent friends and family members.
'Jungle takeout!' I laughed, and you looked uncomfortable. Montaigne, you told me, was the father of cultural relativism and recommended we suspend judgment of those cannibals. You paraphrased him: while we quite rightly judge their faults, we are blind to our own.
Even then it gave me a little chill of recognition.
The sommelier arrived at our table, and poured a neat spiral of wine for you to taste. I must have bored you to tears, going on about the two types of Botrytis cinerea infection in the grapes of the Bordeaux region. Gray rot, which ruins the grapes, and noble rot, which partially raisins the grapes and gives the dessert wine its concentrated flavor. Yet you made me feel as if it were the most interesting thing you'd ever heard.
Partially raisined is an apt description of my own appearance these days. I would like to think that, as with all humans who have not been blessed with good looks, my own rot is noble rather than gray. I have had less to lose to old age.
I am indeed still in Mudgee. My parents have passed away (cancer, heartbreak). I see your old habits of surveillance die hard, but I am almost flattered by such conscientious snooping, for who else would care?
Our first dinner in old Boston. You ordered me the halibut, made a fuss of telling me that its name derived from being eaten on ancient holy days, and it arrived before me glistening with tarragon beurre blanc. I had to disguise how little I liked it.
You were bald, or at least balding, or maybe only going grey. Tall. A mild squint. Or am I remembering you as uglier than is reasonable? Back then I saw you as nothing but middle-aged: I was looking at the world as a twenty-one-year-old does, in thrall to my own immortality.
Near the end of the meal, you recounted the story of your last visit to your father in Vermont before his death, when you were still at college yourself. How you'd known that he loved you because he left a glass of milk in the fridge for your midnight snack, as he had when you were younger.
I'd wondered why you couldn't pour it yourself, whether this was a tic peculiar to your relationship with him or some important clue to the entire culture. America and its traditions still mystified me, even in the fall of my senior year, when I could no longer claim to be a fresh transplant from other parts of the New World.
'Why do adults drink so much milk here?' I asked. In my dining hall, I'd watched grown men drink glass after glass of milk at dinner to wash down heaped plates of fried food.
But it was the wrong question, a rare slip-up for me. I was the queen of questions, unfailingly pitching them at the proper emotional register. Questions as presents to be opened.
You stirred in your seat, and a waiter appeared like a wraith to replace the linen napkin that had dropped to the floor. You would have preferred that I ask about your father. So I did.
I didn't have to fake my interest – I was interested, in your father, in you, in everything and everyone around me. Anything you can say about America is true, someone once said. You can never get to the bottom of the place, you can never pin the people down. Whatever it is you're up to here, Royce, you are still true to type in that regard. And so am I – an ever curious observer.
A touching detail, the glass of milk my father used to pour for me. I had forgotten it. There, you see, we can fill in each other's gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves.
Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues — photos, scrapbooks, journals — or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else's past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization? She didn't mean by this that we shouldn't try, but she did understand that in her work she would always be on the losing side of the battle against oblivion.
In the mail today was a save-the-date for my college class's fiftieth reunion next year. Fifty years. The received wisdom is that you should only attend a reunion if you've been a spectacular success or a spectacular failure, these being the states most attractive to others. The worst is to get stuck in the middling no-man's-land. That wisdom has held true in my experience, at least until my forty-fifth reunion a few years ago, when people seemed to have come full circle. They no longer cared what they had or hadn't made of their lives. Wealth was hardly mentioned — the sheen of it had worn off. Conversations were open, honest. Even those who had previously turned their backs on their college experience now felt wistful about those years.
At the Friday night barbecue several classmates, newly bereaved, asked my advice on how to live alone. We were being served lamb koftas by undergraduates working the reunions, just as you once did. In the courtyard lit with lanterns, I yearned for Kitty. Each time somebody tapped me on the shoulder I held my breath and hoped it might be her forever youthful ghost.
All I could recommend to my classmates as a tonic for loneliness was travel, but if you're not used to it, the vertigo of being in a strange place can make you feel as if you've paid for a seat in the boat on the River Styx and are heading toward the underworld's marshlands. Journeys need a point, a narrative arc. I was always traveling to be near Kitty, or to catch a glimpse of you.
I won't make it to my reunion next year. I've been agonizing over what to write as my personal entry for the yearbook. It will be my last message to my peers, yet when I think of what to say I keep lapsing into cliché. If I submit anything at all, perhaps it should be a sketch I once made of a mosaic skeleton on the wall of a villa outside Pompeii. The skeleton is reclining with a lurid, toothy grin as if at a feast, cup full. The Latin inscription reads Enjoy your life. Which made Kitty and me laugh at the time. How self-evident! But it is the only good advice the old have to give.
You've been waiting for me to respond to your prompt, haven't you? The bottle of Sauternes. The first of your unwanted gifts to me. It set off warning bells that the time I'd been spending with you was not quite kosher, not within the realm of normal interaction between an applicant to the Lushington Foundation and its founder.
It arrived near the end of my second-last semester of college. I'd cycled back from my final class of the week, following the salt trail along the path to avoid slick ice. The campus bus passed me and I glanced up at the resigned faces of my fellow Plaza residents, condemned to live in the ugly buildings far from the action of the main campus and the desirable dormitories along the river.
It was already dark, a December gloom, but as I flew along, the streetlights came on in unison and the snowbanks began to sparkle. Even on a bad day, in that world, at that age, everything meant something. I was at the centre of things.
I had been thinking about my seminar on narrative nonfiction cinema. Most of the other students wanted to be auteur filmmakers, inserting themselves into their documentaries as subject, character or guide, sometimes faux-heroic, sometimes as cheeky trickster figures. A confessional style of filmmaking was ascendant. It was the dawn of the age of baring it all.
I liked my classmates' work but I felt an ethical obligation to leave myself outof my films. No voice-over, no narration, no intrusion. Just observational footage. Film as an impersonal research instrument or an artist's scalpel making shapes from the world's putty.
'What about adding in some music?' someone in the class had suggested after I screened a montage of the wine farm footage I'd filmed the past summer in Paarl, near Cape Town. Close-ups of the vine stokkies in buckets of water, medium shots of them newly planted in the soil, wider panning shots of the vineyard landscape. I had held these shots for a very long time. The class had practically fallen asleep. The professor praised the attentiveness of the footage, though he too seemed puzzled by my refusal to include any scrap of my own positioning. During the break, he asked me kindly, 'Are you getting what you hoped you would out of this class?' The bottle was waiting for me at the front desk of my dormitory building. The store had sent it wrapped in clear cellophane. An ex-boyfriend with whom I remained friends was at the desk, examining the label with interest.
'From a secret admirer,' he said, handing it over.
I was aware that my eyes were watering from the cold. My mind was elsewhere, my stomach was empty, and there I was, holding a thirty-year-old bottle of wine.
I knew immediately it was from you.
Did I take some pleasure in seeing that my ex-boyfriend was intimidated by this expensive gift, that it made him wonder if there were things about me he'd overlooked? I had broken up with him because he said I wasn't adventurous enough in bed. He kept asking me to kiss with my mouth open wider, which frankly was exhausting. You kiss how you kiss.
My two roommates and I drank the wine with a reckless abandon that I encouraged. One of them, who knew something about the vintage, suggested I save it for a special occasion. But my mood had turned savage. Was this gift meant to be a tribute to my fieldwork on the wine farm the previous summer, a taste of the high life to take the edge off spending time around the poor? Or a reminder that I was on campus by invitation only, my financial aid package made possible by donations from committed alumni like you?
I needed you to give me a Lushington fellowship. At the information evening earlier in the semester, the room packed with girls like me with hungry eyes, I watched you closely. The eunuch wizard in a coven of clever witches. I could live for two years off the initial grant, buy a video camera of my own. And, we were told, if Fellows kept delivering according to certain metrics of performance, they would keep being rewarded, every two years for a decade – bonuses for proven career gains, pure and simple.
Yet I wasn't always going to play Eliza to your Henry, hoping one day to pass as a proper lady. So in the living room of our coveted senior suite (our own bedrooms around a communal area, the recompense for enduring years of bunk beds and room-shares), we drank the Sauternes straight from the bottle, passing it around like the end of a keg hose.
It was a Friday evening. The wine was too rich. It began to snow again, and instead of going out we ended up going to bed early. In the morning we stumbled sleepy-eyed downstairs to the dining hall to fill our trays with bagels and pink grapefruits sliced in half, taking our everyday abundance for granted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Garden of the Fugitives"
Copyright © 2018 Ceridwen Dovey.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Also by Ceridwen Dovey,
A Note About the Author,