The Comedy of Maria

As Sebastian, the old writer, moved the brush through his hair, exposing beneath it miniature expanses of white and grey, he reflected that these hairs were an accurate representation of the books that he had written. Just as his hairs grew in a whiteness exposed each time he brushed through them, so his reputation increased unseen, in books purchased in secondhand book stores, decaffeinated chains and online book dealers, a sense of which reached him piecemeal and amounted to just one certainty: both his white hairs and reputation would continue to increase. So Sebastian had arrived at the stage of life where his name was doing the work for him. The sequence of novels he had written were on school syllabuses throughout Northern Europe, and were even sometimes read for pleasure; though in truth he had little to do with the young blade who had penned them. How nice of the younger him to provide financial assistance for the older eminence, indeed.

… Sebastian had arrived at the stage of life where his name was doing the work for him. The sequence of novels he had written were on school syllabuses throughout Northern Europe, and were even sometimes read for pleasure; though in truth he had little to do with the young blade who had penned them.

Brandy cognac; Bolivar cigars, worn corduroys and aged armchairs; those were the furnishings of his life in this faded townhouse. There he would amble about, pausing occasionally to bend over a table or exclaim, tijd voor een paffke, then raising one of his little stogies to his mouth. “Paffke” — little puff — in his native Dutch, though to be honest, Sebastian’s English father and immersion in the language from a young age had left him functionally bilingual. He had an abiding admiration for English culture and enjoyed visiting the country, where, as he often told his many friends, he felt safer.

Now to go with the dirty cognac and smoking cigar came a letter; an invitation to take up a visiting professorship from T_ College Dublin. He smoked. The position would commence that autumn and as such disrupt his plans of journeying to Mauritius for his grandson’s christening — which wouldn’t be the ultimate onbeschaamdheid,[1] his mid-sixties bones being as well not carted halfway round the world anyway. He thought about taking the post on; they wanted him to lecture on Dutch Literature, which he knew little about, and German literature, which he declined to. There had been a golden age of Dutch letters a while ago but up till now it had eluded him.

It was a funny business these lecture offers, and how they came, unsolicited, to older writers. To him it seemed nothing more than a final validation of his gymnasium teachers of the late forties. They had taught him Latin, manners, how to put a shelf up and sent him off out into the world. He had thanked them then, too. But for some reason the subsequent effect of all this was to render him a powerful intellectual presence. What did he know about Literature? It was as if they didn’t see that people like him knew so little about it, being too involved in the day-to-day business of writing themselves — were too deep in the system to see how it worked.

Or not; he looked out over the dishes filled with cheroots, the newspapers, the papered desk: there would be nothing coming here for a while. And while the situation here in Amsterdam was by no means disagreeable, life was likely to be just as pleasant in Dublin; it brought to mind a scene in a film he had seen long ago in which an onlooker, stood before two identical stone pillars, was asked which of them he preferred. C’est la même chose, he thought, then took up his pen to begin to write his letter of acceptance.

As the writer began his preparations for departure, a new and long-forgotten playfulness came over him, one alien to the young student moving along the University corridor in Dublin, sleep-deprived and showing the subliminal strains of recreational drug use; his weekend had been spent on the green fields far out of the city, drinking cups of Bovril with an attractively witch-faced girl named — he had forgotten her name. Just as he had forgotten to find time for the preparatory reading for this seminar; as such, he was now practising the correct look of painedness that would convince his Professor of the genuine psychic distress he had encountered trying to absorb the works of Kleist. The truth is the young man barely read German, though in fairness to him, that made little weather on the streets of Dublin these days.

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GLOSSARY OF TERMS

  1. Onbeschammdheid: An outrage, a travesty.

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