Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jewelled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
Her business was storytelling, but she was no ingenious queen in fear of the shroud brought in with the dawn, nor was she a naquibolmalek to usher a shah through the gates of sleep, nor an ashik, lover-minstrel singing songs of Mehmet the Conqueror and the sack of Byzantium, nor yet a holy dervish in short skin trousers and skin skull-cap, brandishing axe or club and making its shadow terrible. She was no meddah, telling incredible tales in the Ottoman court or the coffee-houses by the market. She was merely a narratologist, a being of secondary order, whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians. Sometimes also, she flew. In her impoverished youth she had supposed that scholarship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better. Two or three times a year she flew to strange cities, to China, Mexico and Japan, to Transylvania, Bogotá and the South Seas, where narratologists gathered like starlings, parliaments of wise fowls, telling stories about stories.
At the time when my story begins the green sea was black, sleek as the skins of killer whales, and the sluggish waves were on fire, with dancing flames and a great curtain of stinking smoke. The empty deserts were seeded with skulls, and with iron canisters, containing death. Pestilence crept invisibly from dune to dune. In those days men and women, including narratologists, were afraid to fly East, and their gatherings were diminished. Nevertheless our narratologist, whose name was Gillian Perholt, found herself in the air, between London and Ankara. Who can tell if she travelled because she was English and stolid and could not quite imagine being blasted out of the sky, or because, although she was indeed an imaginative being, and felt an appropriate measure of fear, she could not resist the idea of the journey above the clouds, above the minarets of Istanbul, and the lure of seeing the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the shores of Europe and Asia face to face? Flying is statistically safer than any other travel, Gillian Perholt told herself and surely at this time, only slightly less safe, statistically only a little less.
She had a phrase for the subtle pleasures of solitary air travel. She spoke it to herself like a charm as the great silver craft detached itself from its umbilical tube at Heathrow, waddled like an albatross across the tarmac and went up, up, through grey curtains of English rain, a carpet of woolly iron-grey English cloud, a world of swirling vapour, trailing its long limbs and scarves past her tiny porthole, in the blue and gold world that was always there, above the grey, always. ‘Floating redundant’ she said to herself, sipping champagne, nibbling salted almonds, whilst all round her spread the fields of heaven, white and rippling, glistening and gleaming, rosy and blue in the shadows, touched by the sun with steady brightness. ‘Floating redundant,’ she murmured blissfully as the vessel banked and turned and a disembodied male voice spoke in the cabin, announcing that there was a veil of water vapour over France but that that would burn off, and then they would see the Alps, when the time came. Burn off was a powerful term, she thought, rhetorically interesting, for water does not burn and yet the sun’s heat reduces this water to nothing; I am in the midst of fierce forces. I am nearer the sun than any woman of my kind, any ancestress of mine, can ever have dreamed of being, I can look in his direction and stay steadily here, floating redundant.
The phrase was, of course, not her own; she was, as I have said, a being of a secondary order. The phrase was John Milton’s, plucked from the air, or the circumambient language, at the height of his powers, to describe the beauty of the primordial coils of the insinuating serpent in the Paradise garden. Gillian Perholt remembered the very day these words had first coiled into shape and risen in beauty from the page, and struck at her, unsuspecting as Eve. There she was, sixteen years old, a golden-haired white virgin with vague blue eyes (she pictured herself so) and there on the ink-stained desk in the dust was the battered emerald-green book, ink-stained too, and second-hand, scribbled across and across by dutiful or impatient female fingers, and everywhere was a smell, still drily pungent, of hot ink and linoleum and dust if not ashes, and there he was, the creature, insolent and lovely before her:
not with indented wave,
Prone on the ground, as since, but on his rear,
Circular base of rising folds, that towered
Fold above fold a surging maze, his head
Crested aloft and carbuncle his eyes;
With burnished neck of verdant gold, erect
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass
Floated redundant: pleasing was his shape,
And for an instant Gillian Perholt had seen, brilliant and swaying, not the snake Eve had seen in the garden, nor yet the snake that had risen in the dark cave inside the skull of blind John Milton, but a snake, the snake, the same snake, in some sense, made of words and visible to the eye. So, as a child, from time to time, she had seen wolves, bears and small grey men, standing between her and the safety of the door, or her father’s sleeping Sunday form in an armchair. But I digress, or am about to digress. I called up the snake (I saw him too, in my time) to explain Dr Perholt’s summing-up of her own state.
In those days she had been taught to explain ‘floating redundant’ as one of Milton’s magical fusings of two languages ‘floating,’ which was Teutonic and to do with floods, and ‘redundant,’ which was involved and Latinate, and to do with overflowings. Now she brought to it her own wit, a knowledge of the modern sense of ‘redundant,’ which was to say, superfluous, unwanted, unnecessary, let go. ‘I’m afraid we shall have to let you go,’ employers said, everywhere, offering freedom to reluctant Ariels, as though the employees were captive sprites, only too anxious to rush uncontrolled into the elements. Dr Perholt’s wit was only secondarily to do with employment, however. It was primarily to do with her sex and age, for she was a woman in her fifties, past childbearing, whose two children were adults now, had left home and had left England, one for Saskatchewan and one for São Paulo, from where they communicated little, for they were occupied with children of their own. Dr Perholt’s husband also, had left home, had left Dr Perholt, had removed himself after two years of soul-searching, two years of scurrying in and out of his/their home, self-accusation, irritability, involuntary impotence, rejection of lovingly cooked food, ostentatious display of concealed messages, breathed phone-calls when Dr Perholt appeared to be sleeping, missed dinner engagements, mysterious dips in the balance at the bank, bouts of evil-smelling breath full of brandy and stale smoke, also of odd-smelling skin, with touches of alien sweat, hyacinths and stephanotis. He had gone to Majorca with Emmeline Porter and from there had sent a fax message to Gillian Perholt, saying he was a coward for doing it this way, but it was also done to save her, and that he was never coming home.
Gillian Perholt happened to be in her study when the fax began to manifest itself, announced by a twangling bell and a whirring sound. It rose limp and white in the air and flopped exhausted over the edge of the desk—it was long and self-exculpatory, but there is no need for me to recount it to you, you can imagine it very well for yourself. Equally, you can imagine Emmeline Porter for yourself, she has no more to do with this story. She was twenty-six, that is all you need to know, and more or less what you supposed, probably, anyway. Gillian watched the jerky progress and flopping of the fax with admiration, not for Mr Perholt’s fluency, but for the way in which agitated black scribbling could be fed into a machine slit in Majorca and appear simultaneously in Primrose Hill. The fax had been bought for Mr Perholt, an editorial consultant, to work from home when he was let go or made redundant in the banal sense, but its main user was Gillian Perholt, who received E-mail and story variants from narratologists in Cairo and Auckland, Osaka and Port of Spain. Now the fax was hers, since he was gone. And although she was now redundant as a woman, being neither wife, mother nor mistress, she was by no means redundant as a narratologist but on the contrary, in demand everywhere. For this was a time when women were privileged, when female narratologists had skills greatly revered, when there were pythonesses, abbesses and sibyls in the world of narratology, who revealed mysteries and kept watch at the boundaries of correctness.
On receiving the fax, Gillian Perholt stood in the empty study and imagined herself grieving over betrayal, the loss of love, the loss of companionship perhaps, of respect in the world, maybe, as an aging woman rejected for one more youthful. It was a sunny day in Primrose Hill, and the walls of the study were a cheerful golden colour, and she saw the room fill up with golden light and felt full of lightness, happiness and purpose. She felt, she poetically put it to herself, like a prisoner bursting chains and coming blinking out of a dungeon. She felt like a bird confined in a box, like a gas confined in a bottle, that found an opening, and rushed out. She felt herself expand in the space of her own life. No more waiting for meals. No more grumbling and jousting, no more exhausted anticipation of alien feelings, no more snoring, no more farts, no more trace of stubble in the washbasin.
She considered her reply. She wrote:
OK. Agree. Clothes in bales in store. Books in chests ditto. Will change locks. Have a good time. G.
She knew she was lucky. Her ancestresses, about whom she thought increasingly often, would probably have been dead by the age she had reached. Dead in childbed, dead of influenza, or tuberculosis, or puerperal fever, or simple exhaustion, dead, as she travelled back in time, from worn-out unavailing teeth, from cracked kneecaps, from hunger, from lions, tigers, sabre-toothed tigers, invading aliens, floods, fires, religious persecution, human sacrifice, why not? Certain female narratologists talked with pleasurable awe about wise crones but she was no crone, she was an unprecedented being, a woman with porcelain-crowned teeth, laser-corrected vision, her own store of money, her own life and field of power, who flew, who slept in luxurious sheets around the world, who gazed out at the white fields under the sun by day and the brightly turning stars by night as she floated redundant.
The conference in Ankara was called ‘Stories of Women’s Lives.’ This was a pantechnicon title to make space for everyone, from every country, from every genre, from every time. Dr Perholt was met at the airport by an imposing bearded Turkish professor, dark and smiling, into whose arms she rushed with decorous cries of joy, for he was an old friend, they had been students together amongst mediaeval towers and slow, willow-bordered rivers, they had a story of their own, a very minor sub-plot, a thread now tenuous, now stronger, but never broken, in the tapestry of both lives. Dr Perholt was angry at the blonde Lufthansa hostess who bowed gravely to the grey businessmen as they disembarked, Good-bye, sir and thank you, good-bye, sir and thank you, but gave Dr Perholt a condescending ‘Bye-bye, dear.’ But Orhan Rifat, beyond the airport threshold, was as always alive with projects, new ideas, new poems, new discoveries. They would visit Izmir with a group of Turkish friends. Gillian would then visit Istanbul, his city.
The conference, like most conferences, resembled a bazaar, where stories and ideas were exchanged and changed. It took place in a cavernous theatre with no windows on the outside world but well provided with screens where transparencies flickered fitfully in the dark. The best narratologists work by telling and retelling tales. This holds the hearer from sleep and allows the teller to insert him- or herself into the tale. Thus a fierce Swiss writer told the horrid story of Typhoid Mary, an innocent polluter, an unwitting killer. Thus the elegant Leyla Doruk added passion and flamboyance to her version of the story of the meek Fanny Price, trembling and sickly in the deepest English wooded countryside. Orhan Rifat was to speak last: his title was ‘Powers and Powerlessness: Djinns and Women in The Arabian Nights.’ Gillian Perholt spoke before him. She had chosen to analyse the ‘Clerk’s Tale’ from The Canterbury Tales, which is the story of Patient Griselda.
No one has ever much liked this story, although it is told by one of Chaucer’s most sympathetic pilgrims, the book-loving, unworldly Clerk of Oxford, who took it from Petrarch’s Latin, which was a rendering of Boccaccio’s Italian. Gillian Perholt did not like this story; that was why she had chosen to tell it, amongst the stories of women’s lives. What do I think of, she had asked herself, on receiving the invitation, when I think of ‘Stories of Women’s Lives,’ and had answered herself with a thrill and a shudder, Patient Griselda.
So now she told it, in Ankara, to a mixed audience of scholars and students. Most of the Turkish students were like students everywhere, in jeans and T-shirts, but conspicuous in the front row were three young women with their heads wrapped in grey scarves, and dotted amongst the young men in jeans were soldiers—young officers—in uniform. In the secular Turkish republic the scarves were a sign of religious defiance, an act of independence with which liberal-minded Turkish professors felt they should feel sympathy, though in a Muslim state much of what they themselves taught and cared about would be as objectionable, as forbidden, as the covered heads were here. The young soldiers, Gillian Perholt observed, listened intently and took assiduous notes. The three scarved women, on the other hand, stared proudly ahead, never meeting the speakers’ eyes, as though completely preoccupied with their own conspicuous self-assenion. They came to hear all the speakers. Orhan had asked one of them, he told Gillian, why she dressed as she did. ‘My father and my fiancé say it is right,’ she had said. ‘And I agree.’
The story of Patient Griselda, as told by Gillian Perholt, is this:
There was once a young marquis, in Lombardy, whose name was Walter. He enjoyed his life, and his sports—hunting and hawking—as young men do, and had no desire to marry, perhaps because marriage appeared to him to be a form of confinement, or possibly because marriage is the end of youth, and its freedom from care, if youth is free from care. However his people came and urged him to take a wife, perhaps, as they told him, because he should think of begetting an heir, perhaps because they felt marriage would steady him. He professed himself moved by their arguments and invited them to his wedding, on a certain day he fixed on—with the condition that they swore to accept this bride, whoever she might be.
It was one of Walter’s peculiarities that he liked to make people swear in advance to accept unconditionally and without repining whatever he himself might choose to do.
So the people agreed and made ready for the wedding on the chosen day. They made a feast and prepared rich clothes, jewels and bedlinen for the unknown bride. And on the chosen day the priest was waiting, and the bridal procession mounted, and still no one knew who the bride was to be.
Now Griseldis or Grisilde or Grisildis or Grissel or Griselda was the daughter of a poor peasant. She was both beautiful and virtuous. On the day fixed for the wedding she set out to fetch water from the well; she had all the domestic virtues and meant to finish her housework before standing in the lane with the other peasants to cheer as the bridal procession wound past. Weddings make spectators—participating spectators—of us all. Griselda wanted to be part of the wedding, and to look at the bride, as we all do. We all like to look at brides. Brides and princesses, those inside the story, imagined from the outside. Who knows but Griselda was looking forward to imagining the feelings of this unknown woman as she rode past.
Only the young lord rode up, and did not ride past, but stopped, and made her put down her pitcher, and wait. And he spoke to her father, and said that it was his intention to make Griselda his wife, if her father would give his consent to her will. So the young lord spoke to the young woman and said he wanted to make her his bride, and that his only requirement was that she should promise to obey him in everything, to do whatever he desired, without hesitating or repining, at every moment of the day or night. And Griselda, ‘quakynge for drede’ as Chaucer tells us, swore that never willingly, in act or thought, would she disobey him, on pain of death—though she would fear to die, she told the young lord.
And then young Walter commanded immediately that her clothes should be taken off and that she should be clothed in the rich new garments he had prepared, with her hair dressed and her head crowned with a jewelled coronet. And so she went away to be married, and to live in the castle, and Chaucer tells us, he takes care to tell us, that she showed great qualities of judgment, reconciliation of disputes, bounty and courtesy in her new position, and was much loved by the people.
But the story goes inexorably on, past the wedding, into the ominous future foreshadowed by the pledge exacted and vouchsafed. And consider this, said Gillian Perholt at this point in the story: in almost all stories of promises and prohibitions, the promises and prohibitions carry with them the inevitability of failure, of their own breaking. Orhan Rifat smiled into his beard, and the soldiers wrote rapidly, presumably about promises and prohibitions, and the grey-scarved women stared fixedly ahead.
After a time, Chaucer says, Griselda gave birth to a daughter, although she would rather have borne a son; but everyone rejoiced, for once it is seen that a woman is not barren, a son may well come next. And at this point it came into Walter’s head that he must test his wife. It is interesting, said Gillian, that here the Clerk of Oxford dissociates himself as narrator from his protagonist, and says he cannot see why this testing seemed to be necessary. But he goes on to tell how Walter informed his wife gravely that the people grumbled at having a peasant’s daughter set over them, and did not want such a person’s child to be set above them. He therefore proposed, he said, to put her daughter to death. And Griselda answered that she and her child were his to do with as he thought best. So Walter sent a rough sergeant to take the child, from the breast. And Griselda kissed it good-bye, asking only that the baby should be buried where wild creatures could not tear it.
And after a further time, Griselda gave birth to a son, and the husband, still intent on testing, had this child too taken from the breast and carried away to be killed. And Griselda kept steadily to her pact, assuring him that she was not grieved or hurt; that her two children had brought her only sickness at first ‘and after, woe and pain.’
And then there was a lull in the narrative, said Gillian, a lull long enough for the young children who were secretly being brought up in Bologna to reach puberty, adolescence, a marriageable age. A lull as long as the space between acts III and IV of A Winter’s Tale during which Hermione the Queen is hidden away and thought to be dead, and her daughter, Perdita, abandoned and exposed, is brought up by shepherds, wooed by a Prince, and forced to flee to Sicily where she is happily reunited with her repentant father and her lost mother who appears on a pedestal as a statue and is miraculously given her life and happiness again by art. In the Winter’s Tale, said Gillian, the lovely daughter is the renewal of the mother, as the restoration of Persephone was the renewal of the fields in Spring, laid waste by the rage of Demeter, the mother-goddess. Here Gillian’s voice faltered. She looked out at the audience and told them how Paulina, Hermione’s friend and servant, had taken on the powers of witch, artist, storyteller, and had restored the lost queen to life. Personally, said Gillian, I have never been able to stomach—to bear—that plotted dénouement, which is the opposite of the restoration of Persephone in Spring. For human beings do not die and spring up again like the grass and the corn, they live one life and get older. And from Hermione—and as you may know already, from Patient Griselda—most of that life has been taken by plotting, has been made into a grey void of forced inactivity.
What did Griselda do whilst her son, and more particularly her daughter were growing up? The story gallops. A woman’s life runs from wedding to childbirth to nothing in a twinkling of an eye. Chaucer gives no hint of subsequent children, though he insists that Griselda remained true in love and patience and submission. But her husband had to excess Paulina’s desire to narrate, to orchestrate, to direct. He busied himself, he gained a dispensation from the pope to put away his wife Griselda, and to marry a young bride. The people muttered about the murdered children. But Walter, if we are to believe the story, went to his patient wife and told her that he intended to replace her with a younger and more acceptable bride, and that she must return to her father, leaving behind the rich clothes and jewels and other things which had been his gift. And still Griselda was patient, though Chaucer here gives her words of power in her patience which keep the reader’s sympathy, and fend off the reader’s impatience which might sever that sympathy.
Naked, Griselda tells her husband, she came from her father, and naked she will return. But since he has taken all her old clothes she asks him for a smock to cover her nakedness, since ‘the womb in which your children lay, should not, as I walk, be seen bare before the people. Let me not,’ says Griselda, ‘go by the way like a worm. In exchange for my maidenhead which I brought with me and cannot take away, give me a smock.’ And Walter graciously allows her the shift she stands in, to cover her nakedness.
But Walter thought of other twists to the intrigue, since every twist made his plotted dénouement more splendid and satisfactory. No sooner, it seemed, was Griselda back at home, than her husband was there, asking her to return to the castle and prepare the rooms and the feast for his new young bride. No one could do it better, he told her. You might think that the pact was over on her return to her father’s house, but this was not Griselda’s idea: patiently she returned, patiently she cooked, cleaned, prepared, made up the marriage bed.
And the bridal procession arrived at the castle, with the beautiful girl in the midst, and Griselda worked away in the hall in her poor clothes, and the feast was set, and the lords and ladies sat down to eat. Now indeed, apparently, Griselda was a belated spectator at the wedding. Walter called Griselda to him and asked her what she thought of his wife and her beauty. And Griselda did not curse her, or indeed him, but answered always patiently, that she had never seen a fairer woman, and that she both beseeched and warned him ‘never to prick this tender maiden with tormenting’ as he had done her, for the young bride was softly brought up and would not endure it.
And now Walter had his dénouement, the end of his story, and revealed to Griselda that his bride was not his bride, but her daughter, and the squire her son, and that all would now be well and she would be happy, for he had done all this neither in malice nor in cruelty, but to test her good faith, which he had not found wanting. So now they could be reconciled.
And what did Griselda do? asked Gillian Perholt. And what did she say, and what did she do? repeated Dr Perholt. Her audience was interested. It was not a story most of them knew beyond the title and its idea, Patient Griselda. Would the worm turn? one or two asked themselves, moved by Griselda’s image of her own naked flesh. They looked up to Dr Perholt for an answer, and she was silent, as if frozen. She stood on the stage, her mouth open to speak, and her hand out, in a rhetorical gesture, with the lights glittering on her eyeballs. She was an ample woman, a stout woman, with a soft clear skin, clothed in the kind of draped linen dress and jacket that is best for stout women, a stone-coloured dress and jacket, enlivened by blue glass beads.
And Gillian Perholt stared out of glassy eyes and heard her voice fail. She was far away and long ago—she was a pillar of salt, her voice echoed inside a glass box, a sad piping like a lost grasshopper in winter. She could move neither fingers nor lips, and in the body of the hall, behind the grey-scarved women, she saw a cavernous form, a huge, female form, with a veiled head bowed above emptiness and long slack-sinewed arms, hanging loosely around emptiness, and a draped, cowled garment ruffling over the windy vacuum of nothing, a thing banal in its conventional awfulness, and for that very reason appalling because it was there, to be seen, her eyes could distinguish each fold, could measure the red rims of those swollen eyes, could see the cracks in the stretched lips of that toothless, mirthless mouth, could see that it was many colours, and all of them grey, grey. The creature was flat breasted and its withered skin was exposed above the emptiness, the windy hole that was its belly and womb.
This is what I am afraid of, thought Gillian Perholt, whose intelligence continued to work away, to think of ways to ascertain whether or not the thing was a product of hallucination or somehow out there on an unexpected wavelength.
And just as Orhan rose to come to her help, seeing her stare like Macbeth at the feast, she began to speak again, as though nothing had happened, and the audience sighed and sat back, ill at ease but couneous.
And what did Griselda do? asked Gillian Perholt. And what did Griselda say and what did she do? repeated Dr Perholt. First, all mazed, uncomprehending, she swooned. When she revived, she thanked her husband for having saved her children, and told her children that her father had cared for them tenderly—and she embraced both son and daughter, tightly, tightly, and still gripping them fell again into terrible unconsciousness, gripping so tightly that it was almost impossible for the bystanders to tear the children from her grasp. Chaucer does not say, the Clerk of Oxford does not say, that she was strangling them, but there is fear in his words, and in the power of her grip, all her stoppered and stunted energy forcing all three into unconsciousness, unknowing, absence from the finale so splendidly brought about by their lord and master.
But of course, she was revived, and again stripped of her old clothes, and dressed in cloth of gold and crowned with jewels and restored to her place at the feast. To begin again.
And I wish to say a few words, said Gillian Perholt, about the discomfort of this terrible tale. You might suppose it was one of that group of tales in which the father or king or lord tries to marry his daughter, after his wife’s death, as the original Leontes tried to marry Perdita in the tale that precedes the Winter’s Tale, the tale of a man seeking the return of spring and youth and fenility in ways inappropriate for human beings as opposed to grass and the flowers of the field. This pattern is painful but natural, this human error which tales hasten to punish and correct. But the peculiar horror of Patient Griselda does not lie in the psychological terror of incest or even of age. It lies in the narration of the story and Walter’s relation to it. The story is terrible because Walter has assumed too many positions in the narration; he is hero, villain, destiny, God and narrator—there is no play in this tale, though the Clerk and Chaucer behind him try to vary its tone with reports of the people’s contradictory feelings, and with the wry final comment on the happy marriage of Griselda’s son, who
fonunat was eek in mariage,
Al putte he nat his wyf in greet assay.
This world is nat so strong, it is no nay,
As it hath been in olde tymes yoore.
And the commentator goes on to remark that the moral is not that wives should follow Griselda in humility, for this would be impossible, unattainable, even if desired. The moral is that of Job, says the Clerk, according to Petrarch, that human beings must patiently bear what comes to them. And yet our own response is surely outrage—at what was done to Griselda—at what was taken from her, the best pan of her life, what could not be restored—at the energy stopped off. For the stories of women’s lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies—the stories of Fanny Price, Lucy Snowe, even Gwendolen Harleth, are the stories of Griselda, and all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion.
Gillian Perholt looked up. The creature, the ghoul, was gone. There was applause. She stepped down. Orhan, who was forthright and kind, asked if she felt unwell and she said that she had had a dizzy turn. She thought it was nothing to worry about. A momentary mild seizure. She would have liked to tell him about the apparition too, but was prevented. Her tongue lay like lead in her mouth, and the thing would not be spoken. What cannot be spoken continues its vigorous life in the veins, in the brain-cells, in the nerves. As a child she had known that if she could describe the grey men on the stairs, or the hag in the lavatory, they would vanish. But she could not. She imagined them lusciously and in terror and occasionally saw them, which was different.
Orhan’s paper was the last in the conference. He was a born performer, and always had been, at least in Gillian’s experience. She remembered a student production of Hamlet in which they had both taken part. Orhan had been Hamlet’s father’s ghost and had curdled everyone’s blood with his deep-voiced rhetoric. His beard was now, as it had not been then, ‘a sable silvered,’ and had now, as it had had then, an Elizabethan cut—though his face had sharpened from its youthful thoughtfulness and he now bore a resemblance, Gillian thought, to Bellini’s portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror. She herself had been Gertrude, although she had wanted to be Ophelia, she had wanted to be beautiful and go passionately mad. She had been the Queen who could not see the spirit stalking her bedchamber; this came into her mind, with a renewed, now purely imaginary vision of the Hermione-Griselda ghoul, as she saw Orhan, tall, imposing, smiling in his beard, begin to speak of Scheherazade and the djinniyah.
‘It has to be admitted,’ said Orhan, ‘that misogyny is a driving force of pre-modern story collections—perhaps especially of the frame stories—from Katha Sarit Sagara, The Ocean of Story, to the Thousand and One Nights, Alf Layla wa-Layla. Why this should be so has not, as far as I know, been fully explained, though there are reasons that could be put forward from social structures to depth psychology—the sad fact remains that women in these stories for the most part are portrayed as deceitful, unreliable, greedy, inordinate in their desires, unprincipled and simply dangerous, operating powerfully (apart from sorceresses and female ghouls and ogres) through the structures of powerlessness. What is peculiarly interesting about the Thousand and One Nights in terms of the subject of our conference, is the frame story, which begins with two kings driven to murderous despair by the treachery of women, yet has a powerful heroine-narrator, Scheherazade, who must daily save her own life from a blanket vicarious vengeance on all women by telling tales in the night, tales in the bed, in the bedchamber, to her innocent little sister—Scheherazade whose art is an endless beginning and delaying and ending and beginning and delaying and ending—a woman of infinite resource and sagacity,’ said Orhan smiling, ‘who is nevertheless using cunning and manipulation from a position of total powerlessness with the sword of her fate more or less in her bedchamber hanging like the sword of Damocles by a metaphorical thread, the thread of her narrative, with her shroud daily prepared for her the next morning. For King Shahriyar, like Count Walter, has taken upon himself to be husband and destiny, leaving only the storytelling element, the plotting, to his wife, which is enough. Enough to save her, enough to provide space for the engendering and birth of her children, whom she hides from her husband as Walter hid his from Griselda, enough to spin out her life until it becomes love and happy-ever-after, so to speak, as Griselda’s does. For these tales are not psychological novels, are not concerned with states of mind or development of character, but bluntly with Fate, with Destiny, with what is prepared for human beings. And it has been excellently said by Pasolini the filmmaker that the tales in the Thousand and One Nights all end with the disappearance of destiny which ’s inks back into the somnolence of daily life.’ But Scheherazade’s own life could not sink back into somnolence until all the tales were told. So the dailiness of daily life is her end as it is Cinderella’s and Snow-White’s but not Mme Bovary’s or Julien Sorel’s who die but do not vanish into the afterlife of stories. But I am anticipating my argument, which, like my friend and colleague Dr Perholt’s argument, is about character and destiny and sex in the folk-tale, where character is not destiny as Novalis said it was, but something else is.
And first I shall speak of the lives of women in the frame story, and then I shall briefly discuss the story of Camaralzaman and Princess Budoor, which is only half-told in the manuscripts of the Nights …
Gillian Perholt sat behind the grey-scarved women and watched Orhan’s dark hooked face as he told of the two kings and brothers Shahriyar and Shahzaman, and of how Shahzaman, setting out on a journey to his brother, went back home to bid his wife farewell, found her in the arms of a kitchen boy, slew them both immediately, and set out on his journey consumed by despair and disgust. These emotions were only relieved when he saw from his brother’s palace window the arrival in a secret garden of his brother’s wife and twenty slave girls. Of these ten were white and ten black, and the black cast off their robes revealing themselves to be young males, who busily tupped the white females, whilst the queen’s black lover Mas’ud came out of a tree and did the same for her. This amused and relieved Shahzaman, who saw that his own fate was the universal fate, and was able to demonstrate to his brother, at first incredulous and then desperate with shame and wrath, that this was so. So the two kings, in disgust and despondency, left the court and their life at the same moment and set out on a pilgrimage in search of someone more unfortunate than themselves, poor cuckolds as they were.
Note, said Orhan, that at this time no one had attempted the lives of the queen and her black lover and the twenty lascivious slaves.
And what the two kings met was a djinn, who burst out of the sea like a swaying black pillar that touched the clouds, carrying on his head a great glass chest with four steel locks. And the two kings (like Mas’ud before them) took refuge in a tree. And the djinn laid himself down to sleep, as luck, or chance, or fate would have it, under that very tree, and opened the chest to release a beautiful woman—one he had carried away on her wedding night—on whose lap he laid his head and immediately began to snore. Whereupon the woman indicated to the two kings that she knew where they were, and would scream and reveal their presence to the djinn unless they immediately came down and satisfied her burning sexual need. The two kings found this difficult, in the circumstances, but were persuaded by threats of immediate betrayal and death to do their best. And when they had both made love to the djinn’s stolen wife, as she lay with opened legs on the desert sand under the tree, she took from both of them their rings, which she put away in a small purse on her person, which already contained ninety-eight rings of varying fashions and materials. And she told the two kings with some complacency that they were all the rings of men with whom she had been able to deceive the djinn, despite being locked in a glass case with four steel locks, kept in the depths of the raging roaring sea. And the djinn, she explained, had tried in vain to keep her pure and chaste, not realising that nothing can prevent or alter what is predestined, and that when a woman desires something, nothing can stop her.
And the two kings concluded, after they were well escaped, that the djinn was more unfonunate than they were, so they returned to the palace, put Shahriyar’s wife and the twenty slaves to the sword, replaced the female slaves in the harem, and instituted the search for virgin brides who should all be put to death after one night ‘to save King Shahriyar from the wickedness and cunning of women.’ And this led to Scheherazade’s resourceful plan to save countless other girls by substituting narrative attractions for those of inexperienced virginity, said Orhan, smiling in his beard, which took her a thousand and one nights. And in these frame stories, said Orhan, destiny for men is to lose dignity because of female rapacity and duplicity, and destiny for women is to be put to the sword on that account.
What interests me about the story of Prince Camaralzaman, said Orhan, is the activity of the djinn in bringing about a satisfactory adjustment to the normal human destiny in the recalcitrant prince. Camaralzaman was the beloved only son of Sultan Shahriman of Khalidan. He was the child of his father’s old age, born of a virgin concubine with ample proportions, and he was very beautiful, like the moon, like new anemones in spring, like the children of angels. He was amiable but full of himself, and when his father urged him to marry to perpetuate his line, he cited the books of the wise, and their accounts of the wickedness and perfidy of women, as a reason for refraining, ‘I would rather die than allow a woman to come near me,’ said Prince Camaralzaman, ‘Indeed,’ he said grandly, ‘I would not hesitate to kill myself if you wished to force me into marriage.’ So his father left the topic for a year, during which Camaralzaman grew even more beautiful, and then asked again, and was told that the boy had done even more reading, which had simply convinced him that women were immoral, foolish and disgusting, and that death was preferable to dealing with them. And after another year, on the advice of his vizir, the king approached the prince formally in front of his court and was answered with insolence. So, on the advice of the vizir, the king confined his son to a ruined Roman tower, where he left him to fend for himself until he became more amenable.
Now, in the water-tank of the tower lived a djinniyah, a female djinn, who was a Believer, a servant of Suleyman, and full of energy. Djinns, as you may or may not know, are one of the three orders of created intelligences under Allah—the angels, formed of light, the djinns, formed of subtle fire, and man, created from the dust of the earth. There are three orders of djinns—flyers, walkers and divers; they are shape-shifters, and like human beings, divided into servants of God and servants of Iblis, the demon lord. The Koran often exhorts the djinns and men equally to repentance and belief, and there do exist legal structures governing the marriage and sexual relations of humans and djinns. They are creatures of this world, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible; they haunt bathrooms and lavatories, and they fly through the heavens. They have their own complex social system and hierarchies, into which I will not divagate. The djinniyah in question, Maimunah, was a flyer, and flew past the window of Camaralzaman’ s tower, where she saw the young man, beautiful as ever in his sleep, flew in and spent some time admiring him. Out again in the night sky she met another flying afrit, a lewd unbeliever called Dahnash who told her excitedly of a beautiful Chinese Princess, the lady Budoor, confined to her quarters by her old women, for fear she should stab herself, as she had sworn to do when threatened with a husband, asking, ‘How shall my body, which can hardly bear the touch of silks, tolerate the rough approaches of a man?’ And the two djinns began to dispute, circling on leathery wings in the middle air, as to which human creature, the male or the female, was the most beautiful. And the djinniyah commanded Dahnash to fetch the sleeping princess from China and lay her beside Prince Camaralzaman for comparison, which was performed, within an hour. The two genies, male and female, disputed hotly—and in formal verse—without coming to any conclusions as to the prize for beauty. So they summoned up a third being—a huge earth-spirit, with six horns, three forked tails, a hump, a limp, one immense and one pygmy arm, with claws and hooves, and monstrously lengthy masculinity. And this being performed a triumphal dance about the bed, and announced that the only way to test the relative power of these perfect beauties was to wake each in turn and see which showed the greater passion for the other, and the one who aroused the greater lust would be the winner. So this was done; the prince was woken, swooning with desire and respect, and put to sleep with his desire unconsummated, and the princess was then woken, whose consuming need aroused power and reciprocating desire in the sleeping prince, and ‘that happened which did happen.’ And before I go on to recount and analyse the separation and madness of Camaralzaman and Budoor, the prince’s long search, disguised as a geomancer, for his lost love, their marriage, their subsequent separation, owing to the theft of a talisman from the princess’s drawers by a hawk, Princess Budoor’s resourceful disguise as her husband, her wooing of a princess, her wooing of her own husband to what he thought were unnatural acts—before I tell all this I would like to comment on the presence of the djinns at this defloration of Budoor by Camaralzaman, their unseen delight in the human bodies, the strangeness of the apprehension of the secret consummation of first love as in fact the narrative contrivance of a group of bizarre and deeply involved onlookers, somewhere between gentlemen betting at a horse-race, entremetteurs, metteurs-en-scène or storytellers and gentlemen and ladies of the bedchamber. This moment of narrative,’ said Orhan, ‘has always puzzled and pleased me because it is told from the point of view of these three magical beings, the prime instigator female, the subordinate ones male. What is the most private moment of choice in a human life—the loss of virginity, the mutual loss of virginity indeed, in total mutual satisfaction and bliss—takes place as a function of the desire and curiosity and competitive urgings of fire-creatures from sky and earth and cistern. Camaralzaman and Budoor—here also like Count Walter—have tried to preserve their freedom and their will, have rejected the opposite sex as ugly and disgusting and oppressive—and there in deepest dream they give way to their destiny which is conducted somewhere between comedy and sentimentality by this bizarre unseen trio—of whom the most redundant, from the point of view of the narrative, is also the largest, the most obtrusive, the most memorable, the horned, fork-tailed appallingly disproportioned solid earth-troll who capers in glee over the perfectly proportioned shapes of the two sleeping beauties. It is as though our dreams were watching us and directing our lives with external vigour whilst we simply enact their pleasures passively, in a swoon. Except that the djinns are more solid than dreams and have all sorts of other interests and preoccupations besides the young prince and princess …’
The soldiers were writing busily; the scarved women stared ahead motionlessly, holding their heads high and proud. Gillian Perholt listened with pleasure to Orhan Rifat, who had gone on to talk more technically about the narrative imagination and its construction of reality in tales within tales within tales. She was tired; she had a slight temperature; the air of Ankara was full of fumes from brown coal, calling up her childhood days in a Yorkshire industrial city, where sulphur took her breath from her and kept her in bed with asthma, day after long day, reading fairy-tales and seeing the stories pass before her eyes. And they had gone to see The Thief of Baghdad when she was little; they had snuffed the sulphur as the enchanted horse swooped across the screen and the genie swelled from a speck to a cloud filling the whole sea-shore. There had been an air-raid whilst they were in the cinema: the screen had flickered and jumped, and electric flashes had disturbed the magician’s dark glare; small distant explosions had accompanied the princess’s wanderings in the garden; they had all had to file out and hide in the cellars, she remembered, and she had wheezed, and imagined wings and fire in the evening air. What did I think my life was to be, then? Gillian Perholt asked herself, no longer listening to Orhan Rifat as he tried to define some boundary of credulity between fictive persons in the fictions of fictive persons in the fiction of real persons, in the reader and the writer. I had this idea of a woman I was going to be, and I think it was before I knew what sex was (she had been thinking with her body about the swooning delight of Camaralzaman and Princess Budoor) but I imagined I would be married, a married woman, I would have a veil and a wedding and a house and someone—someone devoted, like the thief of Baghdad, and a dog. I wanted—but not by any stretch of the imagination to be a narratologist in Ankara, which is so much more interesting and surprising, she told herself, trying to listen to what Orhan Rifat was saying about thresholds and veils.
The next day she had half a day to herself and went to the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, which all her Turkish friends assured her she should not miss, and met an Ancient Mariner. The British Council car left her at the entrance to the museum, which is a modern building, cut into the hillside, made unobtrusively of wood and glass, a quiet, reflective, thoughtful, elegant place, in which she had looked forward to being alone for an hour or two, and savouring her delightful redundancy. The ancient person in question emerged soundlessly from behind a pillar or statue and took her by the elbow. American? he said, and she replied indignantly, No, English, thus embarking willy-nilly on a conversation. I am the official guide, this person claimed. I fought with the English soldiers in Korea, good soldiers, the Turks and the English are both good soldiers. He was a heavy, squat, hairless man, with rolling folds between his cranium and his shoulders, and a polished gleam to his broad naked head, like marble. He wore a sheepskin jacket, a military medal, and a homemade-looking badge that said GUIDE. His forehead was low over his eye-sockets—he had neither brows nor lashes and his wide mouth opened on a whitely gleaming row of large false teeth. I can show you everything, he said to Gillian Perholt, gripping her elbow, I know things you will never find out for yourself. She said neither yes nor no, but went down into the hall of the museum, with the muscular body of the ex-soldier shambling after her. Look, he said, as she stared into a reconstructed earth-dwelling, look how they lived in those days, the first people, they dug holes like the animals, but they made them comfortable for themselves. Look here at the goddess. One day, think, they found themselves turning the bits of clay in their hands, and they saw a head and a body, see, in the clay, they saw a leg and an arm, they pushed a bit and pinched bit here and there, and there She was, look at her, the little fat woman. They loved fat, it meant strength and good prospects of children and living through the winter, to those naked people, they were probably thin and half starved with hunting and hiding in holes, so they made her fat, fat, fat was life to them. And who knows why they made the first little woman, a doll, an image, a little offering to the goddess, to propitiate her—what came first, the doll or the goddess we cannot know—but we think they worshipped her, the fat woman, we think they thought everything came out of her hole, as they came out of their underground houses, as the plants and trees come out in the spring after the dark. Look at her here, here she is very old, eight thousand years, nine thousand years before your Christian time-counting, here she is only the essential, a head and arms, and legs and lovely fat belly, breasts to feed, no need even for hands or feet, here, see no face. Look at her, made out of the dust of the earth by human fingers so old, so old you can’t really imagine.
And Gillian Perholt looked at the little fat dolls with their bellies and breasts, and pulled in her stomach muscles, and felt the fear of death in the muscles of her heart, thinking of these centuries-old fingers fashioning flesh of clay.
And later, he said, guiding her from figure to figure, she became powerful, she became the goddess in the lion throne, see here she sits, she is the ruler of the world now, she sits in her throne with her arms on the lion-heads, and see there, the head of the child coming out between her legs, see how well those old people knew how to show the little skull of the baby as it turns to be born.
There were rows of the little baked figurines; all generically related, all different also. The woman in rolls of fat on the squat throne, crowned with a circlet of clay, and the arms of the throne were standing lions and her buttocks protruded behind her, and her breasts fell heavy and splayed, and her emptying belly sagged realistically between her huge fat knees. She was one with her throne, the power of the flesh. Her hands were lion-heads, her head bald as the ancient soldier’s and square down the back of the fat neck as his was.
We don’t like our girls fat now, said the ancient one, regretfully. We like them to look like young boys, the boys out of the Greek gymnasium round the corner. Look at her, though, you can see how powerful she was, how they touched her power, scratching the shape into her breasts there, full of goodness they thought and hoped.
Gillian Perholt did not look at the old soldier whose voice was full of passion; she had not exactly consented to his accompanying narrative, and the upper layer of her consciousness was full of embarrassed calculations about how much Turkish cash she was carrying and how that would convert into pounds sterling, and how much such a guide might require at the end of this tale, if she could not shed him. So they trod on, one behind the other, she never turning her head or meeting his eye, and he never ceasing to speak into her ear, into the back of her studious head, as he darted from glass case to glass case, maneuvering his bulk lightly and silently, as though shod with felt. And in the cases the clay women were replaced by metal stags and sun-discs, and the tales behind her were tales of kings and armies, of sacrifice and slaughter, of bridesacrifice and sun-offerings, and she was helplessly complicit, for here was the best, the most assured raconteur she could hope to meet. She knew nothing of the Hittites or the Mesopotamians or the Babylonians or the Sumerians, and not much of the Egyptians and the Romans in this context, but the soldier did, and made a whole wedding from a two-spouted wine-jar in the form of ducks, or from a necklace of silver and turquoise, and a centuries-old pot of kohl he made a nervous bride, looking in a bronze mirror—his whisper called up her black hair, her huge eyes, her hand steadying the brush, her maid, her dress of pleated linen. He talked too, between centuries and between cases, of the efficiency of the British and Turkish soldiers fighting side by side on the Korean hillsides, and Gillian remembered her husband saying that the Turks’ punishments for pilfering and desertion had been so dreadful that they were bothered by neither. And she thought of Orhan, saying, ‘People who think of Turks think of killing and lasciviousness, which is sad, for we are complicated and have many natures. Including a cenain ferocity. And a certain pleasure in good living.’
The lions of the desert were death to the peoples of Anatolia, said the old guide, as they neared the end of their journey, which had begun with the earth-dwellers and moved through the civilisations that built the sun-baked ziggurats, towards the lion-gates of Nineveh and Assyria. That old goddess, she sat on the lion-throne, the lions were a part of her power, she was the earth and the lions. And later the kings and the warriors tamed the lions and took on their strength, wore their skins and made statues of them as guardians against the wild. Here are the Persian lions, the word is Aslan, they are strength and death, you can walk through that carved lion-gate into the world of the dead, as Gilgamesh did in search of Enkidu his friend who was dead. Do you know the story of Gilgamesh, the old man asked the woman, as they went through the lion-gates together, she always in front and with averted eyes. The museum had arranged various real carved walls and gates into imaginary passages and courtyards, like a minor maze in a cool light. They were now, in the late afternoon, the only two people in the museum, and the old soldier’s voice was hushed, out of awe perhaps, of the works of the dead, out of respect perhaps, for the silence of the place, where the glass cases gleamed in the shadows.
See here, he said, with momentary excitement, see here is the story of Gilgamesh carved in stone if you know how to read it. See here is the hero clothed in skins and here is his friend the wild man with his club—here is their meeting, here they wrestle and make friends on the threshold of the king’s palace. Do you know Enkidu? He was huge and hairy, he lived with the beasts in the woods and fields, he helped them escape the trappers and hunters. But the trappers asked Gilgamesh the king to send a woman, a whore, who tempted Enkidu to leave the world of the gazelles and the herds and come to the king, who fought him and loved him. And they were inseparable, and together they killed the giant Humbaba—tricked and killed him in the forest. They trick and kill him, they are young and strong, there is nothing they cannot do. But then Gilgamesh’s youth and strength attract the attention of the goddess Ishtar-she was the goddess of Love, and also of War—she is the same goddess you know, ma’am, as Cybele and Astane—and when the Romans came with their Diana she was the same goddess—terrible and beautiful—whose temples were surrounded by whores—holy whores—whose desires could not be denied. And Ishtar wanted to marry Gilgamesh but he repelled her—he thought she would trick him and destroy him, and he made the mistake of telling her so, telling her he didn’t want her, he wanted to remain free—for she had destroyed Tammuz, he said, whom the women wailed for, and she had turned shepherds into wolves and rejected lovers into blind moles, and she had destroyed the lions in pits and the horses in battle, although she loved their fierceness. And this made Ishtar angry—and she sent a great bull from heaven to destroy the kingdom, but the heroes killed the bull—see here in the stone they drive their sword behind his horns—and Enkidu ripped off the bull’s thigh and threw it in the face of Ishtar. And she called the temple whores to weep for the bull and decided Enkidu must die. See here, he lies sick on his bed and dreams of death. For young men, you know, they do not know death, or they think of it as a lion or a bull to be wrestled and conquered. But sick men know death, and Enkidu dreamed of His coming—a birdman with a ghoul-face and claws and feathers—for the loathsome picture of death, you see, is from the vulture—and Enkidu dreamed that this Death was smothering him and turning him into the bird-man and that he was going to the Palace of the gods of the underworld—and there, Enkidu saw in this dream, there was no light at all and no joy and the people ate dust and fed on clay. There is a goddess down there too—here she is—Ereshkigal the Queen of the underworld. And both Gilgamesh and Enkdiu wept at this dream—it terrified them—it took away all their strength—and then Enkidu died, in terrible pain, and Gilgamesh could not be comforted. He would not accept that his friend was gone and would never come back. He was young and strong, he would not accept that there was death walking in the world. Young men are like that, you know, it’s a truth—they think they can defy what’s coming because their blood is hot and their bodies are strong.
And Gilgamesh remembered his ancestor, Uta-Napishtim who was the only man who had survived when the earth was flooded; they said he lived in the underworld and had the secret of living forever. So Gilgamesh travelled on and travelled on, and came to a mountain called Mashu, and at the mountain’s gate were the man-scorpions, demons you know, like dragons. We can pretend that this gate is the gate of the underworld—the Sumerian people, the Babylonian people, they made great solid gates to their buildings and built guardians into the gates. See here are lions, and here, at this gate, are genies—you say genies?—yes, genies,—there were good genies and bad genies in Babylon, they were called utukku and some were good and some were evil—the good ones were like these guardians here who are bulls with wings and wise faces of men—they are called shedu or lamassu—they stand here as guardians, but they could take other shapes, they walked invisibly behind men in the streets; every one had his genie, some people say, and they protected them—there is an old saying, ‘he who has no genie when he walks in the streets wears a headache like a garment.’ That’s interesting, don’t you think?
Gillian Perholt nodded. She had a headache herself—she had had a kind of penumbral headache, accompanied by occasional stabs from invisible stilettos or ice-splinters since she had seen the Griselda-ghoul, and everything shimmered a little, with a grey shimmer, in the space between the gate and the narratives carved in relief on the stone tablets. The old soldier had become more and more animated, and now began to act out Gilgamesh’s arrival at the gates of Mount Meshu, almost dancing like a bear, approaching, stepping back, staring up, skipping briskly from the courtyard to the space between the gateposts, raising his fingers to his bald skull for horns and answering himself in the person of the scorpionmen. (These are good genies, ma’am, said the old soldier parenthetically. The scorpion-men might have been dangerous ones, edimmu or worse, arallu, who came out of the underworld and caused pestilence, they sprang from the goddess’s bile, you must imagine terrifying scorpion-men in the place of these bulls with wings.) They say, Why have you come? And Gilgamesh says, For Enkidu my friend. And to see my father Uta-Napishtim among the gods. And they say, No man born of woman has gone into the mountain; it is very deep; there is no light and the heart is oppressed with darkness. Oppressed with darkness. He skipped out again and strode resolutely in, as Gilgamesh. She thought, he is a descendant of the ashiks of whom I have read, who dressed in a uniform of skins, and wore a skin hat and carried a club or a sword as a professional prop. They made shadows with their clubs on café walls and in market squares. The old soldier’s shadow mopped and mowed amongst the carved utukku: he was Gilgamesh annihilated in the dark; he came out into the light and became Siduri, the woman of the vine, in the garden at the edge of the sea with golden bowl and golden vats of wind; he became Urshanabi the ferryman of the Ocean, disturbed at the presence of one who wore skins and ate flesh, in the other world. He was, Gillian Perholt thought suddenly, related to Karagöz and Hacivat, the comic heroes and animators of the Turkish shadow-puppets, who fought both demons from the underworld and fat capitalists. Orhan Rifat was a skilled puppeteer: he had a leather case full of the little figures whom he could bring to life against a sheet hung on a frame, against a white wall.