Sunday, November 25, 2007

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman

The first of several half-thoughts.

It is a maturing process I am going through. Finally at the age of 33 it no longer appeals to me to be 'girly'(not in the sexist, derogative sense obviously - why is there not 'boyye'?). Someone once told me wisely to 'pick your battles' and now I have decided to pick my compromises. Some things are non-negotiable, as I told the PA at work after her tardiness made me late for my therapist's appointment: I leave the office every Friday at 1.50pm and no questions asked; I do what I have to do. I told her politely and genuinely to have a good time in Istanbul this weekend, but I did not say 'don't worry about being late'. Worry about it I say!

I did not battle with her - she is harmless and it would be pointless, but I did battle with another friend this week. There is a good phrase, if used fairly: "The intolerance of tolerance". I came up against it and recognised it this time. I was judged and found guilty for not being sexually liberal/available enough. One friend's sexually progressive or 'tolerant' ideas became a stick to beat me with.

I have a theory about people being right about something; that is, people having right-thinking, liberal or sensible ideas. It is all about how they deliver them to others that shows whether these 'correct' ideas are born out of a belief in justice or principally out of contempt for others. One 'correct and liberal' idea might give someone licence to feel contempt for a group of people who do not explicitly share those particular expressions of those ideas, so the very term 'liberal' or 'tolerant' comes into question.

As for general intolerance of what may objectively actually be stupid and therefore apparently deserving of punishment, I encountered a form of it in my life from my loving older sister: she is an exceedingly bright person who hates it when people around her do what she believes are indefensibly stupid things - in my case that would be getting too drunk and sleeping with a 45 year old married man, at age 23, in a distant city whilst her guest. She thought me extremely foolish and selfish and threw my things out of her apartment including my passport. I begged and pleaded and said sorry and she let me back in. She was right that I was stupid, but her reaction showed contempt for me. On Thursday night my friend of over 10 years came to stay with me in London from Nottingham. I say 'stay with me', although she arrived at 6.30am, and that is only because I persuaded her to get out of the hotel NOW and make her way to my house somehow or another, regardless of her stinking headache and the fact that I had to get up to go to work in an hour. By midnight the previous night I had begun to feel annoyed with her: she was supposed to have met me at 9.30pm and she had her phone switched off the entire night and I was considering calling the police. When I got an SMS just after midnight telling me she had got drunk and lost and she would call me in the morning, I concluded she had found another friend to stay with. Her message at 4.45am woke me up: She had awoken in a hotel alone, hungover and full of regret, wondering at what age she would grow out of this kind of mistake. My feeling was total love for her and that she must get here as soon as she could to be safe and with a friend. I understood only at that moment her loneliness. And knew it because I had been and was still her, but in my own way. And when my sister threw out my stuff ten years ago, her contempt for and frustration with a younger sibling at that moment obscured her knowledge of the loneliness that makes us all stupid. We have to pick our judgements carefully as well as our battles and our compromises.

For my mother's 65th birthday I bought her make-up and a book: my two favourite things! The book is a translation from the German - a collection of two novellas by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, called Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman. Zweig was considered an important writer in the 20s and 30s in Vienna. And he was yet middle-aged when he and his lover killed themselves. The book is a compelling meditation by a male author on the one impetuous, rash, passionate act that can change a woman's life irrevocably. The narrator - a bachelor - is staying in a hotel on the Riviera, and dines each day with the same collection of people - two couples and an elderly English woman. There are few guests at the hotel, so each watches the movements of the other and when an attractive young French man arrives and charms individually each member of the group, they can talk about nothing else over dinner. And then one morning he has gone, and later that evening there is a commotion in the complex. The paunchy middle-aged Monsieur, a married industrialist with two teenage daughters cannot find his wife. She is feared drowned or the victim of an accident. A little while later he emerges from their hotel apartment with a letter in his hand, and with great dignity calls off the search: his wife has left him he announces. Then he sits in a chair and begins to sob for perhaps the first time in his life, the narrator remarks. It is the maid who lets slip that Madame Henrietta's letter revealed that, at the age of 33, she had run off with the charming French man.

At dinner that evening the narrator's table is in uproar. The two German couples - in particular the husbands - declare themselves to be horrified and outraged that a married woman with two children could forsake her family to foolishly run off with a much younger man. They surmise that the elopement must have, cynically, been planned well in advance. The narrator disagrees: he finds himself defending Madame Henrietta - even in excess of what he feels - not only for her impetuous act but also against the idea that it was planned; it was the fruit of a coup de foudre (love at first sight) he insists. It was surely the first time she had felt love and for that he admired her act. The argument at table threatens to degenerate into full-scale and personal recriminations were it not at this point for the intercession of the elderly English woman who has remained quiet up until this moment. Calmly and politely she directs her words to the narrator solely; she challenges his bold defence of the act committed in the heat of passion on the grounds that if one takes this defence to its logical extreme one would be defending le crime passionnel - the violent murder of a spouse. The narrator, whilst continuing to stick by his original defence admires the English woman's mind and dignity. Over the next few days he finds that this hitherto very reserved lady seeks out his company and they exchange several intellectual ideas. He wonders that, were the age difference not so great, people would begin to suspect a sexual relationship between them! One day he receives a short letter from her, asking him to come to her room, as after much agonising she has decided that she would like to narrate to him an episode of her life that she has never shared with anyone before. He arrives at the appointed time and finds her agitated and vaguely distressed; after some hesitation she begins her story of the 24 hours that changed her life twenty years ago when at the age of 42 she 'saves' a young man from self-destruction...


Persephone said...

Oh, I want more. How fascinating - I must read this book. I am inspired by courageous and controversial acts of change.

To be loved at your most stupid, to be accepted at your worst, to be embraced at your most vulnerable – this is a wonder. I felt it once - it was like being wrapped in a gloriously soft, warm cashmere blanket.

Persephone said...

New post! New post!

Anonymous said...

Those people who see life in a « black and white » manner… I often question myself whether I should add the grey in their lives, or whether I should just ignore their arrogance: it seems to be the only way to be happy when you see things the way they do.