Jonathan Steinberg

I was sitting on the uptown express on what used to be called the Lexington Avenue Line, and now has some alien number assigned to it by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, when a great truth (you get a lot for your 90 cents on the subway) was revealed to me. The truth came in a remark made by Heinrich von Kleist: ‘One could divide people into two classes, those who understand themselves by metaphor, and those who understand themselves by formula. Those who understand themselves by both are too few to make up a class.’ Suddenly I understood not only what I was doing there and why, but also what I had been doing for years. I belonged, of course, to the metaphor people and Kleist had made me see that mine was Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’. This is the story of Spencer Brydon, in his mid-fifties, who has spent 33 years abroad enjoying ‘the freedom of a wanderer, overlaid by pleasure, by infidelity’, running away from ‘the ugly things of his faraway youth’. The death of his two brothers had left him heir of two New York properties and he has come ‘home’ to attend to them, ‘or, expressing it less sordidly, he had yielded to the humour of seeing again his house on the jolly corner, as he usually and, quite fondly, described it, the one in which he had first seen the light.’

He also owns another house not quite so splendid but very lucrative. Another self, an alter ego, the billionaire that he might have become had he stayed in ‘monstrous’ New York, begins to emerge as he negotiates the contracts on his property development project. The house on the jolly corner he leaves empty of furniture, but filled with the ‘impalpable ashes of his long extinct youth, afloat in the very air like microscopic motes’. As the other property turns into an apartment block, Brydon finds himself obsessed with the idea that his alter ego is still in the empty house on the jolly corner and begins to spend his evenings walking the echoing corridors and standing in flickering candle-light in the dusty vacant spaces of his childhood. One terrible night he finds that the roles have been reversed. He had frightened the ghost: now the ghost begins to frighten him. He cannot escape, for the ghost confronts him, a grizzled, sad figure, face covered by his hands on one of which two fingers are missing. Brydon faints and awakes in the arms of the woman who, he now realises, had always loved both selves, the one he had become and the alter ego.

This was my story, the story of a New Yorker who had run away, who ‘had so long and consistently neglected everything’. Even at the age of 22, as a PFC in the US Army, I knew that I wanted to live in Europe, which the chances of army life had shown me, and that I was not going back to New York. I knew too, but did not admit it, that I was running away, just like Spencer Brydon.

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