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Once, once somehow I lost both of them, a man was saying as he came out of the elevator that morning. He was alone. He flicked his eyes on me, off me. He had a furtive tinge and a swank black overcoat – I thought at once of Joseph Conrad, as he is in formal photographs, with the not-quite-Western eyes and virtuosic goatee.

Once I attended a christening at a farmhouse in a country far away. I saw a stack of white bread on a table in sunlight. It made me dream about Europe and history, dark mornings, other people’s wars, a glitter of exile. I myself had no history. I had kept safe, in the middle of my life, all my life. Kept away from endings. Other people had these. I envied them. It occurred to me other people each felt they were in the middle of their life too, not elements of history, but I didn’t believe it. The white bread was an indicator. Some history there. I’ve generally been a self-heeding person. I don’t even see the situation of others until long after, for instance when writing it down – look, even now, it’s only because I’ve got to that point in the white bread thesis where I’m glancing around for grips.

Once Conrad shot himself in the chest. I don’t know much about that. A friend of mine came near suicide because he could not stop smelling.

Once ‘wild in the grips of a god’ was given to me by a student translating Euripides on a mid-term exam. Those were the days.

Once Thomas Hardy was strolling on the heath with a telescope and he put the telescope to his eye. He saw a man in white on the gallows at Dorchester and at that moment the man dropped down and the town clock struck eight. ‘Faintly.’ A faint note from the town clock. A man has lost things.

Once I began wondering about history, endings, I couldn’t escape the feeling that we only call it an ending when things have gone wrong. Is this realism? A salty attitude. That moment in a film noir when a woman flips open her compact to refresh her lipstick. But maybe it’s just more entropic drift. That idiot wind keeps blowing, the sound of it can drive you mad.

Once I was waiting for the elevator in my building and Joseph Conrad came walking out.

Once the horses of Achilles, who were immortal horses and not supposed to bother with death or know what it was, got dragged onto the battlefield by Patroklos (Iliad, Book 17). Patroklos fought. Patroklos lost. The horses smelled Patroklos die. Rage foamed in them. They bent their heads and filthied their deathless manes in the dust.

Once you stare at white bread for a while you feel the grip go sharp through, sharp through you.

Once I had accepted that a glimpse of Joseph Conrad walking out of the elevator would not enter me into history, I thought to reverse the terms. I already had the overcoat and exilic tone, I gave my beard a nautical trim and spent four mornings emerging from the lift at random times. I practised a frisking glance. I moved with faint purpose. Whether there was no audience waiting, or one or two women with prams who pushed, or a solitary soul who reminded me of me – nobody reacted. Not one soul. It was hot in my coat.

Once you’ve grown up in a chemical manufacturing town you can recognise every known chemical compound. My friend who could not stop smelling would announce gravely, upon entering a room, what brand of floor cleaner they used. Burning pudding foamed in him. Lying on the kitchen floor in tears, he’d say he might as well die right there.

Once I dreamed of an animal, a curved silver animal, that had to be got out of my house. The business of eradication filled the dreamplot but it was just a blind. I woke without knowinghow or why. More seriously, I could not locate the animal – its species or its name – these questions went blank. The dream closed its lips.

Once I was embarked on the elevator experiment I had time and occasion to ponder inside and outside, those very different theatricalities. Entering the elevator (on the eighth floor where my own flat is) was a backstage moment, people still zipping their coats or turning to check their makeup in the mirrored parts of the walls. To exit on the ground floor was to step onstage: in the glare of the lobby, with its guards and armchairs, it was always the start of Act One.

Once you stare at white bread a while you begin to hallucinate its value.

Once Charles Hagberg Wright realized the Gorkys were going to be not just late but very late, did he try to get a conversational crackle going between Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? History is blank.

Once I encountered the term ‘counter-espionage’ I became confused about what ‘espionage’ was. How many sides can a piece of paper have? Why put a mirror behind your head? When I wish to report that I as Joseph Conrad never pick up the cheque in a restaurant, whose dossier do I put it in?

Once you add the adverbs, you start to get a grip.

Once I started speculating about inside and outside, there was clearly research to do in the opinions of Freud and Lacan on the psycho-pianoparts of everyday space. But I got not much further into it than the mirror behind Freud’s head would allow when I wearied of mumbo jumbo and quit. Or rather subsided into the ‘evenly suspended attention’ that Freud recommends for research in a clinical situation. And just at that moment an envelope dropped through my mail slot inviting me to a christening in a country far away. I saw I had a clinical situation at hand. I would send Joseph Conrad.

Once I decided on a double life, I read spy novels to get the skills. A spy needs a sense of humour. Ice is thin. I would be spying on myself. This was humorous.

Once I was weeping (again) over the silver animal, other secrets began to tremble in their places.I saw it was dusk in the room, guests dispersing, white bread as yet untouched, spoons and crumbs here and there over the cloth.

Once somehow, once somehow, actually on my second or third elevator emergence, I resolved to speak or murmur Joseph Conrad’s line. I couldn’t do it. The surfaces were all too glassy.

Once Freud understood how repression works he was surprised and saddened. Should we think of ourselves as always hiding a part of ourselves from ourselves? Yes.

Once you touched Thomas Hardy he recoiled, so a childhood playmate records. This peculiarity never left him. I doubt he offered to shake hands with Joseph Conrad when introduced to him in the drawing room of Charles Hagberg Wright on a January night of 1907. It was a dinner for the Gorkys, who were late.

Once white bread is placed on a table in sunlight, you can hardly smell anything else.

Once as a child I went to a birthday party at the house of the child across the street. Halfway through the party I left quietly, returned to my own house and stood in the front window watching the other house, sucking on the thought of how they would miss me.

Once (on Freud’s example) I relaxed re. counter-espionage, I could enjoy gazing down through the layers of myself at Joseph Conrad going about his faint preconscious tasks. Several ladies at the christening found his faintness attractive. Standing by the cake table chatting about the blue of the sea, the tumbling of the sea, redemption by sea, he did not let on, nor did I, how gloomy it made him to be the guy to go to for all this sea stuff, whereas Thomas Hardy published novel after novel on any topic he liked and they sold and kept selling.

Once I was telling Joseph Conrad about my silver animal dream and he started to sing, faintly, some verses of Heine. He sounded like a phonograph. I too had wept in my dream, I was reminded by the song.

Once the analysis is over, said Freud to H.D., the person is dead. And H.D. said, Which person?

Once I was shattering and read Lacan for help. Ce que je cherche dans la parolec’est la réponse de l’autre, I read. Ce qui me constitue comme sujet c’est ma question. I felt better already. Next came something something pour me faire reconnaître de l’autre, then a bit of French I couldn’t construe so I flipped to the footnotes and found ab1y 1b view ad w11t w111 ie. Ib ar1er ta d1b1 11d.

Once the party ended and I was clearing plates with the hostess I asked her about the white bread, its signifying supremacy, its itinerary as a fetish, I may even have quoted Lacan. She laughed. No, it was just a mistake. Her sister had misheard her on the phone, she’d been exasperated at first but then it didn’t matter, there were too many cakes anyway.

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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 7 · 2 April 2020

Anne Carson’s intriguing poem ‘1 x 30’ envisages, among many other things, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad attending a dinner party together in 1907 (LRB, 5 March). In my recent book Hardy, Conrad and the Senses, I mention that Hardy and Conrad met only three times, at dinner parties held in 1903, 1907 and 1920. A conjectured fourth meeting in 1917 has them sheltering from a Zeppelin attack, along with John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett, in J.M. Barrie’s flat in Adelphi Terrace, where they were later joined by George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. ‘We just heard a little pop in the distance,’ Hardy told Virginia Woolf when she interviewed him in 1926. ‘The searchlights were beautiful. I thought if a bomb now were to fall on this flat how many writers would be lost.’

The evidence for Conrad’s presence is dubious, though accepted by some scholars. It rests entirely on the recollection of William Lyon Phelps, in his autobiography of 1939, of what Barrie told him. ‘Suddenly a tremendous bomb fell from the sky and exploded on the pavement very close to their apartment,’ Phelps writes, which conflicts with Hardy’s account. Conrad’s letters do not record the visit. ‘Later in the evening,’ Bennett ends his journal entry for Wednesday, 25 July 1917, ‘Barrie brought along both Shaw and the Wellses by phone … The spectacle of Wells and GBS talking firmly and strongly about the war, in their comparative youth, in front of this aged, fatigued and silent man – incomparably their superior as a creative artist – was very striking.’ It is scarcely credible that if Conrad had been present, Bennett would not have mentioned him – he revered Conrad.

Although Galsworthy said that Conrad liked Hardy’s poetry, the few recorded comments each writer made about the other are nicely poised between praise and disparagement. Hardy said to Hamlin Garland in 1923 that Conrad was ‘a great writer, a very great writer, but he is not English in any sense’; while in 1908 Conrad complained to Galsworthy about ‘something in me that is unsympathetic to the general public – because the novels of Hardy, for instance, are generally tragic enough and gloomily written too – and yet they have sold in their time and are selling to the present day. Foreignness I suppose.’ Hardy declined to write an article for the commemorative issue of La Nouvelle Revue française devoted to Conrad on his death in 1924. It would seem hard to find two contemporary great writers less inclined to acknowledge each other directly. In the extraordinary list of literary figures who visited Hardy at Max Gate provided by Mark Ford in his excellent Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner, Conrad is conspicuous by his absence.

Hugh Epstein
Twickenham

Vol. 42 No. 8 · 16 April 2020

Hugh Epstein writes of Conrad and Hardy, ‘It would seem hard to find two contemporary great writers less inclined to acknowledge each other directly’ (Letters, 2 April). Well, there is also the case of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who for many years lived close to each other and apparently never met.

Niraj Shrestha
Ashburn, Virginia

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