The riddle of Svengali is only a riddle because men, in particular, tend to caricature their position as the breadwinning yang with respect to the theatrical female yin, supposing that what lies on the far side of the sexual divide is love, while what lies to this side of it is money. But the idea of bread, no less than that of spectacle, is so naturally ramified in its symbolism that any attempt to cut it down to size renders it sterile. The cultivation of wheat, for instance, gave mankind the building material of straw as a byproduct, which, in turn—as the etymology of the word, a cognate of structure, suggests—gave us brick and architecture. Straw was mixed with clay, the substance from which Adam had been fashioned, which was worked like dough and baked like bread. Clay, incidentally, is what provides the nourishment for the Merlot grape—to this day cultivated by every productive chateau in Bordeaux—upon which viticulture is founded. Thus civilization, no less than Eve, is a man’s reality, flesh of his own flesh. And while, in the modern world, money may claim for itself the role of straw, there are other ingredients, including clay, that make up this reality.
One of the main points of interest to this side of the sexual divide is time. Even in the world as it is presently constituted, time is as powerful as money, arguably more powerful in its specific properties as motivator, conciliator, entertainer, and, last but not least, aphrodisiac. A man with unlimited free time on his hands is a Croesus, if only of the clepsydra, who can easily outbid any moneybags for the attention of most women, provided they are not altogether unspoiled, having just arrived from the Urals, or are not actually starving, having just arrived from the Sudan. His sundial is not gold, but on a sunny day it works as well as any. As a matter of fact, the watch on his wrist is almost certainly plastic, but what’s the good of an expensive man’s toy to a woman who never gets to see her husband?
In my own case, too, time was the means. I once heard it said of a man of influence that he had sought and attained earthly power through buffoonery; I was ideally placed to pursue conditional love through idleness. My various employments, narrowly ranged from the literary criticism of politics to political essayism in the books pages, had begun showing themselves as oddly lucrative, at least by the American standards of jobbing bookmanship. At that period of its development, some years before the proprietors of British newspapers, Australian and Canadian, agreed that highbrow was uncool and abandoned the costly pretence, the Times had been paying a pound per word, as compared with something like 20 cents at the New York Times.
Moreover, unlike the literary world of New York, London was still intellectually polyvalent then, each newspaper, broadsheet or tabloid, retaining an identity and a direction that ran athwart those of its nearest competitors. In the interstices, the lacunae, the grottoes, and even the occasional eminence, formed by these conflicting interests as by streams of prehistoric mud, one could comfortably nestle, expressing nearly any opinion, however extravagant or controversial, one wished to entertain on a given subject. If every writer is an aborigine with respect to whatever culture is coming in to displace his own, then one could say that, in those days, I still felt that Britain had not yet become an Australia.
All this good news saved my dignity and left me with a great deal of leisure on my hands, which I used to cook, to instruct, to whisper, to dress, to recite, to pontificate, to counsel, to digress, to propose, to expose, to travel, to cavort, to charm, to cajole, to admonish. At times I played Cupid, at times Psyche, often without so much as a change of costume between the acts. My clepsydra ran like trains under Mussolini, though perhaps there is no profit in this Italianate piece of grasping braggadocio.
Quite the contrary, if the point of literature were something other than naked plenitude, it would be far shrewder of me to have hinted that the secret of my success was some indefinable, magnetic element of my personality, adventitiously capable of bonding with some still less intelligible vulnerability in this or that woman, and to have let the matter rest there. But that would be an ogre’s subterfuge, not a diarist’s frankness. Yet equally, I cannot accept the contention that I was some kind of avid, prehensile schemer, in the manner of penitent mafiosi and memoir-writing ex officio obscurantists, because the most evident, and in the long term the most representative, quality of my character has been the marked propensity to indolence, a quality always useful, I repeat, in lovers, sometimes in writers, and occasionally even in generals, as in the notorious case of Field Marshal Kutuzov in the Great Patriotic War of 1812.
But then again, it is quite possible that the whole notion of human character is little more than a deliberate mystification, because—from what I have seen of them—people act out of character more often and far more enthusiastically than in. In part, this is the reason why the character lover, even in secondary or comic roles, to say nothing of a man reading for the part of jeune premier, cannot hope to find anything in books to help him bone up; indeed, if real-life personages are so untrustworthy, just how unreliable are fictional ones?
The Soviet terrorist poet Mayakovsky was mortally afraid of the sight of blood and wiped the door handle with a handkerchief before entering a room. The English cynic and scourge of human nature Swift had a phobia of excrement. And should anyone wish to argue that any of this makes sense in a Freudian way, it may be added that the Austrian pan-sexualist himself spent a good portion of his life chasing up a suite of dining-room furniture allegedly owing to him on the part of Mrs. Freud’s family.