DAMFLASK — Ansgar Allen

“Every book a universe, metabolized, and at the mercy of time, entropy and chance.” —Yanina Spizzirri



It is nearly always too late, for you, Anna, you quote from other people, badly, as if the recent student, while as if the recent student had, as if their impatience with mourning had, is nearly, both, easy, revelation, for you.


Anna said nothing. She very seldom woke. Yet the child seemed friendly, the child seemed, and she, and she was doing well at school, it was a product of glands or something, and would pass. I lay in bed and listened.


In my sleep the ghosts were ordered and lay, the dead simultaneously talking about the lights in the wine of our nostrils: Yes I shall kill the moonlight, treading the air down easily. I was the brain went out, full of the courage of belief. I put down the instrument. Terror was working in this man’s head, comrades moving quietly behind him over the fires of the evening meal. I saw which moonlight glinted, that new tyranny of the dream, not an ordinary sleep, my skin, it was the uniform on me, but one I didn’t know, and I was fighting in this man’s head, total disintegration.


When I hesitated, for disturbing you so late, determined to keep a record of every, ‘Please come in’ at the towers of the Kremlin, our eyes were wet. We are all infected by this poison. Then he said: ‘I have disturbed you so late, because I have need of your advice.’ Teachers from your country, Comrade, teachers from your plain and simple, sat side by side without speaking, smoking, down in the lift, to my shame, remembering all the stories for one bad half-moment, open faces, open faces for one half-moment of open glasses of Russian tea. I hesitated, abstemiously, nodding as he listened.


I said: ‘We have some pretty optimistic Russians.’ My feeling is they won’t trouble to trust us. The main station half a mile away. The Bill on the defensive. He flicked the uniform. He flicked the Cypriot over, without comment. He flicked the small, poor houses, and replaced them in their boxes. Of the houses I visited this was the one which seemed to me to contain the real trouble, real misery. She said she had three small children. Scarcely furniture.


The point is the world’s crust has melted. I think, walking around, watching Ella, the world’s crust, on the edge of my bed I was thinking. Because of my slowness she would be wearing the world’s crust on the edge of my bed, looking severe, she would be wearing my slowness, sleeping with the world’s slowness, aware of each other’s existence, because of my slowness. I didn’t dislike this new person I was creating, I was thinking, watching Ella. I heard the crust, watching Ella, walking through the chaos, about my room, on the edge of my bed. I began to laugh because of the distance between what I was imagining and what in fact I was, bad-tempered because of my slowness, the world’s crust she would be wearing, I think, years later, creating axioms, smiling sardonically, simply because we need them.


During that period of three months when I wrote reviews of the lives of the middle-class, reading ten or more books a week, I made a discovery, a half-primitive discovery, which is the mask of corruption in this particular time. When I persisted, the often deceptive sharpness of form, the simplicity of style, a type of person, more or less in their present form for decades. Is it only the devil made of asbestos, or, ‘A first novel which shows a genuine minor talent.’ If I had been asked to review the lives of rootless talent, of a type of person, not yet admitted to general literate consciousness. If we knew the answer we would understand more of the relations between society and the talent it creates, the sharpness of style, the simplicity of form, a genuine minor devil, sullen, dispossessed, thrown into the feed. Comrade X looked exactly like this when he said, ‘One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to make that mask of bluff.’


There was skirmishing with the police, people losing their jobs, or going to prison, or being shot. She said, sarcastically: ‘My dear, if this weren’t England,’ and put down the receiver.


Sunk inside the conformity of free intellectuals, no attempt to really understand anything, I felt. ‘We are comforting each other.’ I knew well, some of them fine people, fine people I knew well. ‘Well?’ He said: ‘Every line of thought I pursue these days turns out to be in itself a danger’—liberal witch-hunts of one kind or another, dictatorships in the democracies, the blind walk of truth, of freedom. This sort of vision has been written up in the Western democracies, my friend. I walked out. Back down the stairs. Yesterday, for instance, he said: ‘To survive any evidence against it, systems, nations, economic blocks. A world where it would become ludicrous even to read the vision written for a free society. To know what we’ve been capable of ourselves?’ I sat, confused, fitting things together. ‘Perhaps I can’t take it.’ I know the belief seems to survive, one has read, one has to read. I leaned against the door frame, remarking: ‘I used to be able to work for hours at a stretch, now I can’t work for more than an hour without a break.’ One has to read, one has read. ‘Every line of thought I pursue these days turns out to be bleak and depressing. Perhaps I can’t take it either?’ He sat. ‘Well?’ I sat. He leaned. I leaned. Systems, nations, economic blocks. Against the door, the door against the frame. ‘Well?’ ‘Well?’


There was an American in town looking for a room. Then I understood, I’ll have to listen to his troubles, an American on the loose in Europe, and he’ll have one of those awful American marriages. ‘There is nothing ordinary,’ I said. Black-listed, destined by nature. Nothing ordinary. He’ll be writing the American epic novel and he’ll be in psychoanalysis. ‘I want to be ordinary and normal’. ‘I want to get out of the complicated atmosphere,’ he said. I’ve been investigating the American. I have no time for people who haven’t experimented with hysteria. I have no time for people destined by nature for an unproblematic life. I nearly wrote: an American life.


She sits frowning at her hands. An hour in the chair, her chair. Again after an interval, she sits, frowning at her own deterioration into this possessive, mask-like attitude. A counterfeit attitude, past the age of forgotten hearing. The self, the chair, the hands, her jailor, the book. She says aloud, ‘Why this figure, this abject, over-hungry figure? Why the role of a possessed personality. Why this personality, this hysterical scene?’


We never learn, I know quite well. I met B., and learned nothing. I asked B., and learned nothing. ‘I’m glad,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m glad.’ She met B., and learned nothing, I met B. and learned nothing. ‘He’s going to come and live in the village,’ she said. ‘In the village I’ll have met B,’ I said, ‘and learned nothing.’ ‘I’m glad,’ she said. What fools we are. I met B. I went to have coffee with him. ‘What fools we are,’ B. said. ‘Yes,’ I said, we never learn.


At the bottom of the sand-trap, obedient, patient, long-suffering, the three of us now live. The largest ant-eater came back full of screams, groans. We slaughtered it, so as not to disturb the remaining insects, drunk in the heat. ‘No good,’ he said, ‘that is not a natural victim.’ His rifle swinging. ‘No, that is not a natural body.’ He stepped carefully over the round of sand. ‘The moral is,’ he said. ‘Please don’t,’ we said. The corpse of the ant-eater was headless. The jaws embedded in the body. The three of us now helpless in the sand-trap, tied together. His rifle halfway up by the sides of the pit.


‘I’ve got the attitude to money of someone, the lips of someone, and the house of someone. I’ve got the reason of someone wounded and the fancy of someone mirrored. I might just as well not be there at all,’ I said. ‘Then that’s the problem,’ he insisted. ‘You have the attitude of someone and the voice of someone, you have the money of someone and the trauma of someone, you have the abuse of someone and the tears of someone. You have the idea of someone to be rid of the burden of other people.’


She slides over the edge of the bed, gobs into her slippers. I go down and wipe the seas of water. There are new dreams coming, you will dream dreams more powerful before sleeping, and bear it, and feel the warmth of it. There is a cold feeling in the stomach, a lie, a habit, from moments, and forms, and variations of this guilt. I shall have to wipe all this water up.


The essence of this is, I’m conscious.


The blue notebook began with a sentence accusing his objector—an evasion. We didn’t realise how deeply the visit was turning everything into fiction as a means of concealing what happens, and turning fiction into what happens as a means of concealing a way of life, a politics, a mood of hostility. No amount of repeating phrases like, the father of, the mother of.


It was all finished. She saw him wince and felt pleasure. Miles of streets, his parody of the rake, the simplicity and ease of phrases and flesh. ‘You’re a psychiatrist, you say, a soul doctor, and you don’t understand the simplest of things about anyone.’


We became steadily more heavy-minded. I found a list and underneath I wrote: one doesn’t have to make lists of words. The words were a monstrous bit of logic-chopping. Those words afflicted people with a kind of pity for each other. We were weak, as if the very chemical structures of our bodies were hostile to them. The process of writing down the page allowed this question of art and human personality, of morality and amorality, of the army and the underground, and so on: call it lethargy, curiosity. But really what I discovered, though I didn’t know it, was that in describing any personality, all these words, no matter what, were stupidly dogmatic.


His dark abstracted gaze towards her was just a preference, he’s in a different phase. Anna saw his shoulders, her dark abstracted gaze exactly designated for his shoulders, at night. I lay in bed and listened.


Your education system is still in the custody of late, kept safe from the white man and his learning to follow, to quote from other people, to look for a while as if their historians might be strong enough to spend one year, or two years, in words not written down


I was so immersed in how it might be received, and in writing about how it might be received, that it was hard to write the novel: If the novel immersed the debate about the novel, and was so immersed in how it might be received, the novel might be immersed in its own idea.


‘Well, what’s the gossip?’ And why not? Left alone to think and experiment with life. When it rang she would say unforgivable things.


Not even moments of self-rebuke. Good night socialists on holiday, machine socialists on the Urals, exactly the same machine authorities in Yugoslavia. I met the same machine moments, the same arrogance. The international, logical, ‘feel’ of our conflict. Exactly the same marks of inspection.


When he reached the point, learning to use these words, not as something to be apologised for, but for an attitude that amounted to a different mood, the products, the people, the history, this age of compulsive cruelty enjoyed fantasies of saying, such a fool, such a fool.


Ansgar Allen is the author of several books, including the novellas, Wretch (Schism) and The Sick List (Boiler House Press, forthcoming June 2021).