The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Barrie Mencher



I bumped into him on Oxford Street! Yes, after all those years. How many? About fifty. You'll be surprised that I recognised him. After all, all I remembered was a scruffy teenage schoolboy, looking awed by the book he was reading in class. Yes, a text-book forsooth! It was Marlow. Well, that's what we called him. On account of the book he was reading. We were fortunate or unfortunate enough to have one of those Leavisite English Masters, and of course he was "doing" Conrad with us. I still don't know whether I should write "Marlow" or "Marlowe". Well, to tell the truth, I didn't recognise him; he recognised me. That's how it should be. People always mattered more to Marlow than Marlow mattered to them. That's how he was. I suppose that's why he was so interested in Literature, a subject I didn't much care for. But I rather liked Marlow nevertheless; and certainly our Leavisite teacher was a good one. He got us all more or less interested in the Conradian tale, though I'm afraid I've forgotten which one it was by now. Trouble was, the language was so damned difficult. No need for it. The whole thing could have been told with a much more reduced vocabulary and simpler syntax. And I don't believe the fact that the author was a foreigner was the reason. No, it was just pretentiousness.

Foreigners have difficulty learning foreign words. I should know, with my stammering



Anyway, this hand caught my sleeve and those curiously nervous but sometimes very direct eyes were looking into mine and, quietly, my name was pronounced. It didn't take long to re-establish contact, and we were genuinely glad to meet. The next thing was to arrange a more extended meeting, for I was on my way to a business meeting then, and there was no question of my missing that for a pleasant chat with an old classmate. So we arranged to meet a couple of days later at a quiet café he gave me the address of, where we could, he said, have a cup of tea and talk without interruption for as long as we liked. He said he had something particular he wanted to tell me.


It turned out that Marlow lived in London, as I didn't; and that he had been trying to become an author. That's to say a published one. But he never had any luck. I suppose his work was just not good enough, or not what was selling at the moment. I'm sure I don't know. The writing and publishing trade is a mystery to me, though I know there are fortunes to be made in it. Anyway, he'd given up by the time I met him, and that's why he wanted to talk to me so much. You see, whilst he had given up writing things down, out of sheer despair at not getting them published, the urge to tell stories or whatever hadn't left him. So all he could do was speak them, as it were. Find a willing listener and spout. Recipe for becoming a bore. I say the urge to tell stories but, as he explained it to me, it wasn't so much stories as ... Frankly I don't know what he was trying to say.


I met him as arranged, and, after a few polite exchanges, he got down to business. "You've heard of those children, haven't you," he said, "who were brought up by animals? Abandoned by their parents or just lost in the bush. Found by animals, like wolves or bears, and brought up as one of them? There are several well-attested cases. But I believe the children never survive in a human environment afterwards, or if they do they are permanently damaged."


At this point I began to believe the poor man was mad: for he began to giggle wildly. But he simmered down and, looking at me with enormous seriousness, asked me whether I liked the singing of Beniamino Gigli! I stared at him. "Gigli," he said. "You've heard of Gigli?"  "Of course, I have," I snapped. "But—"   "Well, what do you think of his singing?"  Wearily I told him that the man was long since dead, and that we were living in a later age of operatic performance, and that, though Gigli was, had been, etc. etc. Well, he cut me short again. "Gigli was the greatest tenor who ever lived."   "All right," I said. "So be it. I'm sure I don't know."


Marlow grew misty-eyed. "I heard a reissued opera, in which he starred, recently," he said. "Such rich, ringing tones. Such elasticity. How can he be dead? How can he?"  And then, with what you might call corny promptitude, he quoted: " sont les neiges d'antan?"


I was both impatient and troubled for him; but I decided to treat him without kid gloves. "Les neiges d'antan have long since melted," I said. "They will not come again, but other snow will fall. Same with the beautiful ladies the poet also had in mind. We die, you know."


He moved his tongue over his dry lips and murmured:  "Yes, I know."


"Well," I said, in a livelier tone, "what about those wild children?"


"Oh yes," he took me up, smilingly. "You know, they would have no sense of Time."


I confess this had not struck me before, but I didn't see it had any but an academic interest. And I wasn't sure he was right, anyway.


We were silent for a few moments. I wondered if this wasn't the end of the eccentric conversation. "I think I'd like another toasted teacake," he said. "Would you?"  I love toasted teacakes, so I said yes, glad to escape the weird intricacies of his mind, to tell the truth.


As we sat munching our teacakes and drinking deliciously sweet tea—it was a good café, I hasten to add—he took up the subject again.


"It was not long ago that another of these children was discovered—"  I didn't know whether he was making the thing up or whether he really had read a report of it, but he was clearly under way with his story and I had no mind to interrupt. "Only she wasn't a child. She was a woman of about sixty-five who had been found by tribesmen somewhere in the wilds of Ethiopia, when she was a child, and had been living with them ever since, entirely unknown to the 'civilised' world. She was the daughter, it turned out, of a white woman and an African, being born about the time of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. It appears that the woman had abandoned her child, probably because of the disgrace, and that animals had nurtured it, just as in the case of Romulus and Remus and the many heroes and heroines of other stories found in myth and legend, and even works of anthropology."  Well, Marlow didn't know how long the child had lived with animals—jackals, I believe he said they were (which sounds pretty unlikely to me, but there we are)—but it was able to adjust to human society, and lived, as I say, according to Marlow's tale, a long life, till quite recently, entirely unknown to 'civilisation.'


"And then she heard this voice."  Marlow stopped dead and looked me straight in the eyes, with a sort of deadly earnestness. "This voice ... "  His own voice trailed away into silence; and I'll swear I saw tears rising in his eyes. "You won't understand!" he exclaimed (I thought angrily). "No one ever understands! Oh, they say they do. Everyone says they do. I tell you, I have sat in a church and heard the priest or minister or whatever other shallow hypocrite you care to call such, heard him say blandly: 'We are all going to die. But, take heart, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there is another life - WHEN WE CAN ALL START ALL OVER AGAIN!'  Fool! And he thinks we'll get to the end of that one, and start that one again!"


"Oh, come on, Marlow. We're not all bloody Buddhists, you know," I felt bound to interpose.


"No, and nothing else either!" he shouted. "Nothing else either! Nothing! Nothing! We are absolutely nothing! Me included."


Naturally the other patrons of the café were beginning to stare. "Come on, Marlow, my dear friend. Another toasted teacake?"


Fortunately for me, for both of us, he burst out laughing. "Yes," he said, "but not too well done."


When I got back to the table he was not so cheerful. He was shaking his head and muttering something about not being able to get his message across. I asked him what message that was and whether he thought he was a prophet or something. He was subdued. "Just that we are going to die," he said. It sounded feeble.


"Tell me more about the wild woman," I said.


Marlow brightened up. He clearly enjoyed the "act of creation". He was away on the wings of his fiction again, if it was fiction. He told me it was fact.


"This woman," he went on, "she heard a voice. It was like this. Her people were gradually, of course, being brought in from the outside. Soon the whole world will be inside. All the same. All the same gadgetry. Same standards of hygiene. Same McDonald's cuisine. You know. Well, of course, she was listening to the radio. Normally, they don't transmit grand opera to the remote villages; but somehow the old woman heard a recording of a 1934 performance of Pagliacci. Yes, with Beniamino Gigli in the leading role. What a voice! And then she heard it. Sailing out from the voices of the chorus came the pure, beautiful soprano voice of her mother. She knew it as well as if she had heard it only yesterday. Something took place in the depths of her complex human memory to trigger that recognition. It was her mother! She went wild with excitement. She demanded to be taken to Addis Ababa, to get more information. Nothing could stop her. She trekked for God knows how many miles. She rode on carts, at a snail's pace. She even found herself on a train for a time. Anyway she got there. She was at the broadcasting headquarters. She got through to the administrators. Her persistence was absolutely irresistible."


Marlow laughed a little hysterically. He was on the point of tears. "She couldn't," he whispered, "believe that her mother was dead."


I sat there, waiting for him to go on. "I suppose," I said finally, to bridge the awkward gap in his story, "I suppose she had no sense of time."


"None," he said, as though relating the most stupendous and awful fact. "None at all. They had thought her 'normal', but she wasn't. She didn't understand that the voice she had heard, a voice belonging to a young, healthy, perhaps quite beautiful woman, was no longer to be heard from the living body of anyone. It was simply a sound in the ether, as it were. A dead thing, too. Just as the body that had once contained it was dead."


"But was she?"  I quickly returned. "Was she dead? She needn't have been, perhaps. How long ago was it?"


Marlow shook his head. "That's not the point," he said. "Time is the point. Even if she were not dead, she would have been a haggard old woman. Her daughter, perhaps, only less haggard than she. This isn't a story about family relationships. It's a story about Time."


"I don't understand it," he went on. "I just don't understand it. We're here. We speak to each other. We breathe. We eat. We drink. We are alive. But we will be dead. Some day we will be dead. I hope we don't die horrifically. Nothing too long drawn-out. But we have no control. Unless we think of suicide. You, my friend, you have red cheeks. You look well. You are making a lot of money, yes? Well, I am not. I am driven almost mad with thoughts of death and of my own unworthiness. It was a mistake for you to meet me after all these years. I am hardly more than a ghost myself. We had better say goodbye now."


He got up from the table and walked across the room without looking back. I could do nothing but stare dumbfounded. Just before he reached the door he turned. "God be with you!" he called across, and went out into the street. I have heard nothing from him since.








Mencher, Barrie. “Time.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <>