Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stefan Zweig, a Fox and the Chair He Sat In--Lesbian Times in London

I write to lift myself from a nest of pain. London at night is just a darker shade of gray. My dear one sleeps on, her days settling into her work at her desk at SOAS, and like at Fitzgibbon Falls, I scramble up our dinner so she will have hot food when she comes home. I have my own lesbian times here--and I say that because walking home from the Charles Dickens Museum yesterday, I thought every thing I do is lesbian because I am. When I am standing in Dicken's old house on Dougherty Street, gazing at the desk on which he wrote "Bleak House," or looking closely at the portrait of his daughter, Mamie, I think her name was, who never married and stayed with her father, standing in this small house with simple exhibits, hand written, nothing of the new archival displays techniques, just creaking old floors from 1802, and a kind and essential volunteer in a well worn oatmeal cardigan, a ginger colored man of a certain age, and small teeth, who shares his vast knowledge with me of simple Dickens' things, sometimes referring to his crib sheet, also written in hand, I stand there as a 70 year old lesbian with all that life behind my eyes saying thank you to the writer who worked and worked both on his pages and in his life to take on the needs of the human heart, with humor and later, in full recognition of the potential darkness of the coming new age. I think of his work for the emancipation of prostitutes, of his recognition of the hurt of a Jewish soul at his depictions of Fagin  and subsequent apology at a dinner party to a Jewish woman friend and his creation of another Jewish characterr in a later novel, an old poor man who befriends the innocent and helpless. What does it mean to stand there as a lesbian, this lesbian. To look for slippages of certainties--to ask about the absence of the portrait of the young actress for whom he left his wife late in his life, the missing counter voice to this preserved scene of his domestic life, the "invisible woman" says my sand haired Beatrice and so she remained, no signs of her anywhere-- to look for nuanced moments of touch and to record their missing, to see where the struggle lay, to find the moments where one kind of survival had to be traded for another, to feel deep love for the risks and wonders of the creative self, whole worlds brought into being with the press of family behind him on those desks, that looked so huge in the old photo I have pinned above my desk back in Melbourne, his last one, on which he lay his pen down before finishing, the simplest of all and to which he never returned, dying as I heard my guide's voice saying to two Japanese women, from hard work at 58 years of age, "heart attacks ran in his family." The door closes on his words and I am out on the street again, back in my own time outside a little four story house with simple windows and a small sign.

In the first week of our life here at 13 Tavistock Place, we walked to Foyle's Bookstore and with no specific author in mind, I browsed the shelves, seeing who would be among my companions here and there he was, Stefan Zweig, and his "The World of Yesterday." He will be with me in these reports from our days in Europe and so for now just some words from his preface to his good-bye to all the richness of life and the sorrows of history; he begins by apologizing for even thinking he should be at the center of any story:"nothing is further from my thought than to take so prominent a place unless it be in the role of a narrator at an illustrated lecture. Time gives the pictures;I merely speak the words which accompany them."  I thought of my moments at Brighton, where I stopped speaking and the faces of those women from several decades ago poured into the room, complex and brave, illustrating lesbian memory and a new cultural politics born for me from the decolonizing writings of thinkers like Albert Memi--which birthed the Lesbian Herstory Archives in the early 70s, of my Sea Colony mates, so deserving to be remembered as historical presences.

Wars and hatred were Zweig's history, the first half of the 20th century an unsurvivable catastrophe: "I know of no pre-eminence that I can claim, in the midst of a multitude, except this: that as an Austrian, a Jew, an author, a humanist and a pacifist, I have always stood at the exact point where these earthquakes were the most violent. Three times they have overthrown my house and my existence, severed me from the past and all that was, and hurled me with dramatic force into the void, into the 'I know now whither' which I know so well. but I do not regret this. The homeless man becomes free in a new sense...And so I belong nowhere, and everywhere am a stranger." He wrote this portrait of creative friends in 1939, the war still had killing years to go. There was no safety from memory. On February 23, 1942, I read, "Stefan Zweig and Elizabeth Charlotte Zweig, his wife, died by their own hands at Petropolis, Brazil. In his last message to this world he wrote: But after one's sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth. I salute all my friends! May ti be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before." I understand and yet long to know the thoughts of Elizabeth.

And now the fox--our moment of un-London as China Mielville would say. On one of the brief appearances of the sun here, La Professoressa and I made our way Regents Gardens, and there, as we walked among the green fields and shaped gardens with water fountains singing their appreciation of the monarchy, in the middle of the day with some other walkers ahead of us, a most beautiful fox appeared from the hedge in front of us--red-brown, full brush of a tail parallel with the ground, head like a drawing for a children's book, so fox perfect it was, he crossed the road with out a moment's hesitation, leaving us stunned by what we thought we had seen--a fox in full form heading for his other homes.

Before I give my darling her computer back, one more story about my day with the Dickens Museum. I had set off with my tourist map walking in what I thought was the right direction, towards Gray Inn Road, walking, walking and not getting any closer. My legs ached and I needed help. I stopped a professional looking woman and asked her for directions--we stood for a few minutes, no help--and she left--and then a slight young woman came over to me and asked if she could be of help. I told her of my quest and she said, come I will show you--but I walk so slowly I said, showing her my cane. It's ok--and so we set off. I learned she was a student from Thailand studying political science at SOAS, but getting weary of her studies. We walked and walked--finally I said, enough--you have gone so far out of your way. I will go into that bookstore and ask. Sadly she took her leave, apologizing. The women in Persephone Press tried to help and pointed me in the direction of one Rugby Street, by now I was going on sheer determination to find my Dickens and I trudged on, turning more corners and suddenly appeared my friend from Thailand--she had found the museum and set off to find me to take me there. We ran into each other arms like long lost lovers. I am so sorry, she kept saying. I made you walk such a long way, I am so sorry, she said as she held the door to the museum open. My name is Joan I said, and please do not be sorry--you are so generous. I am Chan, she said and I am sorry.    

1 comment:

  1. 'I have my own lesbian times here--and I say that because walking home from the Charles Dickens Museum yesterday, I thought every thing I do is lesbian because I am.'

    i love this i love this, yes, i agree, and i feel i want to be reminded that this is what it is, and to remind other lesbians too.
    ....i also like to say that all things in my little home are lesbian as well, because I am.
    lepa di belgrado