Sonata for Second Fiddle

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • A Half of Two Lives: A Personal Memoir by Alison Waley
    Weidenfeld, 326 pp, £10.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 297 78156 1

Great sobs shook him. His whole body seemed buffeted, as in a gale at sea. Leaning back against a far bench, his head jerked down on his breast: ‘It is my turn to cry now,’ he cried between deep-rising sobs. My turn. My turn. My turn to cry. And I think my tears will never stop.’

I rose and flew to him, all but carried him to the armchair... Above us was a kitchen ceiling-rack on which May-the-maid had hung socks to dry ... With the damp woollen things I wiped his face – cheeks, eyes, matted hair – again and again; and then my own; our tears mingled in the damp wool. And soon I became aware that the pounding heart was quiet; tears continued to ease themselves from under the closed lids; but – he was asleep.

The writer, the faithful lover, is Alison Waley – at that time, 1955, Alison Grant Robertson. The man whose tears she wiped away with a sock was the remote and fastidious Oriental scholar, Arthur Waley. At the time of this incident he was about sixty years old, ‘one of the most retiring men on earth, a typical scholar, whose real life is spent among his books and documents and about whose personality the public knows practically nothing’. This is from an American interviewer, who was surprised to find that Waley’s recreation was skiing (or, as Osbert Sitwell puts it, ‘practising obsolete Esquimaux tricks’), but only as a lone figure on the high snow slopes. ‘His gesture was courtly in salutation,’ wrote Basil Gray: ‘he enjoyed conversation, but never spoke himself unless he had something to say.’ His voice was likened to an autumnal wind passing through the reeds.

It was accepted, however, by those who knew him that his emotional life was totally consumed by his passion for a woman ten years older than himself, Beryl de Zoete. Beryl was brilliant and energetic, a monster perhaps, making confident demands on life. She was an expert on the dance and magic drama of the East, and, what was more, a celebrated dancer herself, whereas Waley, the great translator, had never visited either China or Japan. To those who were not too much involved in her splendeurs et misères she seemed a good sort, but to Waley fell the exhausting task of providing a point of return. Whatever lovers she encouraged or discarded, she always, and most conspicuously, came back to him.

In Bloomsbury, where both of them lived, the contrast between these two pleased. The situation was accepted by circle on circle of distinguished friends, and when Arthur took a second mistress, a warm-hearted and perhaps rather tactless young journalist from New Zealand, it seemed best, as far as possible, to ignore her. Alison Grant Robertson had none of the qualifications (knowing the Stracheys, knowing the Farjeons, knowing the Sitwells) which would have recommended her. And she did not fit into the role for which Arthur’s friends had cast him. The part of serious Jews (Waley himself, Leonard Woolf, Mark Gertler) was to be in attendance on disaster, and to pick up the brilliant pieces. All that Alison could do, after she had separated from her husband, was to bring up her child and wait and hope for the times when Arthur needed reassurance, or sex, or home cooking, or wanted to be ferried about in her old Humber. To her this was happiness. Meanwhile, from the 1950s onwards, Beryl began to degenerate physically and mentally from an incurable nervous condition, which left her unrecognisable, ‘a puppet of darkened leather’, and, in the end, a twitching maniac. Arthur became her keeper. He had promised her that she would never have to go to hospital. Which of these three human beings, at this point, was the unluckiest?

Waley had translated from Po-Chü-i:

Between thirty and forty, one is distracted by the five lusts,
Between seventy and eighty one is prey to a hundred diseases ...

In 1962, when Beryl was dead and he had been half-paralysed in a car accident and his career was over, he consented at last to live with Alison in Highgate, and to be looked after. In May 1966, a month before his own death, they were married at Wood Green registry office. This was in defiance of a lifetime’s inhibition. ‘None of my friends believe in marriage – none of them,’ he had said.

All stories of love and death are worth telling, even if the right words don’t come easily. Alison Waley, although she is a poet, has been too close to what she calls ‘every tear, every pain, every certainty’ to record them with precision. Sincerity should be the same thing as clarity, but isn’t. Fortunately Hilary Spurling has provided an introduction to this book which is an excellent short study in its own right, and explains who everyone was and, as far as tact allows, what happened. She points out, for example, that Alison had no idea of the nature of Beryl’s disease and that this may account for some of the barely credible nightmarish descriptions – Beryl as a jealous tormentor, as a witch, even as a poisoner at her own tea-party.

These were moments of strain and high drama, but at the end of the story it is the minor cruelties that I remember best. Alison, ‘mad-glad to be alive’ and with such a generous readiness to admire, was, over a period of more than thirty years, implacably snubbed. Worse still, she was snubbed by artists in such matters who seem to have reserved for her their coarsest methods. At the Sesame Club she was asked to show her drawings to Edith Sitwell, who never returned them and forgot she had asked her to lunch. At a reading of Waley’s translations no one spoke to Alison at all and ‘any who made approach to me were dexterously diverted.’ At John Hayward’s it was made clear that she must not say anything to T. S. Eliot. Nor did her lover protect her. He refused to introduce her to friends, saying on one occasion: ‘One doesn’t introduce a child.’ When Beryl was abroad, he allowed her to spend Christmas with him, but, as it would have been unbecoming for a Cambridge agnostic to celebrate the day itself, they had to dine off one boiled egg each. When the Highgate house was made ready he refused at first to go there, and moved into a flat so repulsive that visiting Japanese scholars got up a subscription to improve his accommodation. Once Alison tried to discuss Beryl de Zoete, and was told: ‘It’s not very nice to play second fiddle, is it?’ This was a retort unworthy of the translator of the Analects. But if I feel pity and indignation, that is not at all what the writer intended. Her object in searching a long memory in her old age is not to justify herself, and certainly not to criticise Arthur Waley. It is to ‘preserve the truth’, not of facts, but of ‘the inexplicable thing’, her feelings, and to show that her life of love and sacrifice has been well spent.