Differential Structures

Christopher Burns

‘We both know the reasons.’ The mist was thick outside, turning trees in the park to ghosts, making the city noises hollow, condensing where it touched telephone wires, pavements, glass. It was, Savage speculated, like rain-forest mist. His imagination lifted him out of the room and its enclosed painful scene and into vistas of cloud rolling through cable-thick greenery where strange birds called.

‘Of course,’ Sarah said. And added, almost provocatively, ‘the heart has its reasons’.

‘Is that another allusion?’

She didn’t answer but drew on the cigarette. This was still the time when it was fashionable and mature to smoke, and in such a fashion. The silence was long and accusatory. Savage, feeling it was expected of him, looked out of the window through the weeping glass. This scene must have been played out thousands of times, he thought.

‘There must be precedents for this,’ he said. He made his voice lighter, more conciliatory. She would know its falseness. ‘You should be better than me,’ he said. ‘This kind of thing’s the bedrock of your interests.’

‘You’re the one who said that literature was flippant and that only myth was real.’

Savage spread his hands, deliberately posturing helplessness. She had not finished the first cigarette but she stubbed it out and almost immediately lit another one. Savage watched her with a kind of dazed detachment. He found the sudden appearance of a tip of flame at the end of the gold lighter almost magical. He realised that he had already cut himself off not only from her but from much else everyday life. Almost minute by minute the bonds were being struck open.

‘You’ll be away for years.’ Sarah said.

‘We’re independent people. We’ve each got good jobs. Economically you’ll be fine, socially there can’t be any problem.’

‘But personally?’

‘You’re an attractive woman.’

‘Get myself someone else you mean?’

‘Just think of the experience this will give you.’

‘Meaning what exactly?’

‘Come on, Sarah. You know what I mean. Literature’s your life, or your substitute for it. You’re a born novelist. Maybe not a good one, I can’t tell, but certainly as regards attitude. And willingness to transform every piece of personal life into a few paragraphs of prose. You should thank me.’

‘You bastard,’ she said with feeling.

He smiled.

‘The justifications you can conjure up!’

‘Let’s be reasonable ...’

‘Four years I’ve spent with you, and you talk as you’re a rocket jettisoning a spent fuel tank –’

Not a very good simile. If you’ll forgive a piece of lit. crit.’

‘As if we were all interchangeable, replaceable, the same as each other.’

‘Literature teaches the uniqueness of the individual. Anthropology teaches the lack of it.’

‘Very true,’ she said sarcastically.

There was another pause. Someone in a flat upstairs turned on a tap and water hummed and banged in the pipes. He wondered how the water tasted.

‘I thought I was special,’ she said quietly.

‘Special?’ He took the word and weighed it.

Sarah began a long, comprehensive and reasoned attack on his calling. It was evident that over the years she had built a battery of criticism and she now began to bludgeon him with it. Anthropology was arid, humourless, formulaic, reductionist. It dehumanished its subjects and its practitioners, too, became dehumanished, gradually stripping themselves of the capacity for deep and complex emotional response. In Savage all the weaknesses, all the symptoms were on show.

He noted that although she portrayed herself as a woman wronged she was very capable of producing a sustained and coherent argument. Another thing he noted (wryly) was that she was accusing him with variants of his own accusations to her. Over the years he’d said that literature, her kind of literature (literature with a capital ‘L’), was frivolous, self-indulgent, élitist. That its study was irrelevant and mandarin. That those who studied it were incapable of recognising the true richness of life, preferring instead the rarefied air of artificial heights.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘don’t take it so personally.’

‘Personally? How else can I take it if I don’t take it personally?’

‘This is not an important crisis,’ he said. ‘It won’t alter the history of the world. We both knew it was coming. You would never keep me away from my people just as I would never keep you away from your books. We’ve had some good times together, maybe learned a little from each other, and now it’s time to part. I’ll go away to my tribe; you’ll stay here with your teaching and your writing. That’s all. It happens all the time. It’s natural. Only literature gives it the false depth that you want to drown in.’

She put her hand over her eyes. ‘Christ,’ she said, ‘what we believe is tearing us apart.’

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in