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Attractions

 

We were holidaying in the south of France and travelling along the coast when Andrea and I decided we would have a meal in a restaurant that some friends had told us was great for fish. The place we were staying in was about thirty miles inland, and I think Andrea had been a little frustrated that I wouldn’t let lapse a little my pesco-vegetarianism. I would understand, she would say, if you didn’t eat any flesh at all, but since you are willing to eat fish, why not a little of the meat that was locally sourced and very tender. She would sometimes say this as she would put a piece of steak or beef into her mouth.  I couldn’t deny I wasn’t making the most of the region’s cuisine, but I had a sense that it wasn’t only my culinary habits that were annoying her; it was as though after four years together she was looking to find fault. She was bored in her job and knew that I was excited by mine: she was still working for the same publishing firm that had become increasingly commercially oriented, while I had recently taken a job in a small publishing house funded by someone whose crisis of conscience after years in finance manifested itself in promoting little known English language writers and also key but un-translated writers in other languages. As Andrea tucked into her meat dishes throughout the trip, this seemed consistent with her acceptance that it was the dog eat dog world her new managing director had told her it was. My eating of vegetables, and supporting the literary small fry, Andrea appeared to see as sanctimonious.

So it was that I proposed the St Tropez trip, and it was there, after dinner, and whilst we were having a drink, that we got talking to someone who asked Andrea if he could have a light: a man around our own age – mid-thirties – and, though British, looked like he might have been French. What did I mean by this? Perhaps no more than that his hair was shoulder length and swept back, his tan deep and his eyes happy to linger on passing women of whom he approved. My capacity for national stereotyping had often annoyed Andrea, as she would insist I had a bad habit of seeing the general in the particular. I tried to defend myself by saying many of these generalizations came from reading numerous foreign writers. Andrea usually read Anglo-American fiction.

As Joshua presumptuously took his drink to our table after Andrea offered him the light, and after we all talked for about twenty minutes on various subjects, he asked us what we did, and said he was glad that neither of us were academics, as he segued into a story of his own student years. He was in the first year of a degree course and one of the options available was called Art and Extremity in Literature. There was no reading list available at the time. The tutor who usually took the course had spent the year in the States, and wasn’t due to return until after registration and all the bureaucratic rigmarole had been sorted out.  The lecturer was by all accounts something of star at the university, and, so rumour insisted, was single-handedly responsible for the publication points the department had gathered in recent years.

Now Joshua explained that he had spent time reading extreme authors, but when the reading list came he discovered it be full of writers from the past: the Dostoyevskys, Kafkas, Camus, all that sort of stuff. Joshua was interested in cyberpunk and a little William Burroughs, a couple of novels by Kerouac. He went out and bought several of the books but could hardly get through more than a few pages of them.

Two weeks into the degree and the tutor still hadn’t returned. Joshua hoped the class would be cancelled. Instead the class was to be taken by one Dr Sarah Regent, a woman in her mid-thirties who specialised in an area of linguistics. Here she was, working with translations and with a classroom of students who (for Joshua had asked around) hadn’t read the books. The pleasures of a university education.

That first class went well enough, Joshua explained. It was a general introduction, quite in keeping with the introductory passages the students had tackled with more success than the tomes themselves. There was talk of Kafka being afraid of everything but death; of Dostoevsky having been dragged in front of a firing squad and given a last minute reprieve. The students talked excitedly about their own favourite authorial minutiae. Joshua, of course elaborated on the tragic death of Burroughs’ wife. The tutor explained how Kafka, with his simple, repetitive style, had often been misinterpreted in translation. The students left the class in a buzz of enthusiasm, promising that over the next week they would grapple with at least one of the books.

The following week the tutor arrived, a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in her hand, and said she hoped everybody had read the book. The students murmured in a way that yes or no couldn’t conclusively be interpreted as an answer. Once again, the topic drifted from the book and onto a general discussion; this time on the nature of crime and punishment. Joshua, who had seen a film version a couple of years previously, started the discussion through the issue of people who see themselves as above the law. The tutor, picking up on this theme, explained that to be above the law is impossible: in Lacanian psychoanalysis the law defines us. There is no above the law. Most of the students looked puzzled, but as they were asked no questions about the book, they were content to listen to an abstract theory about identity which may, or may not, have had anything to do with Dostoyevsky’s novel. It certainly bore little resemblance to the film, Joshua had thought. After the class, two or three students, along with Joshua, slipped their copies of Dostoyevsky into their bags, and went along to the cafe to discuss crimes and punishments, from Peter Sutcliffe to Rosemary West.

Though I initially found Joshua’s presence irritating, it was as if the further into the story he got, the more his physical presence disappeared, and I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t intrigued where he was going with the story, seeing in him a skilled narrator at work.

The week after that, Joshua, said, the tutor came into the class, with Kafka under her arm and explained that the professor would not be returning from the States this semester. He had been offered another year’s contract. They discussed the nature of trials. The tutor asked the students what the word meant. They went through its meanings in French and German. The Trial, they agreed, was obviously a fascinating book, and they promised themselves they would all have to read it. They would have to: there was an essay on either Dostoyevsky or Kafka coming up.

The next week the tutor set the questions. One touched upon both books, the three other questions on Kafka and the impossibility of knowledge; Dostoyevsky and the inevitability of guilt; Kafka and the restlessness of thought. Joshua panicked. He asked around his friends and asked if any of them had read the books in question. Nobody had, though several knew what they were about. One acquaintance, though, said that a friend of his had done the course the previous year and had checked out a couple of books with detailed analyses.

So, after getting details through this acquaintance, Joshua went into the library and searched the shelves for the books. They were nowhere to be seen. He went up to the desk and asked if they were still available. The woman checked the computer and said they were taken out the previous Friday. That was the day the questions were set. When would the books be due back he asked.  She said the following Friday. That was too late Joshua said, and asked if there were any copies in the reserve book room. There weren’t.

Well, after the Friday class, which was all about the forthcoming essay, Joshua asked around the seven other members of the class who would now gather in the coffee room. Nobody, it seemed, had taken the books out. Joshua went back to his friend, and asked if the friend’s acquaintance could do him a favour: would there be any chance of working from this acquaintance’s essay? By the time Joshua received the essay it was Wednesday morning. Two days before the essay had to be handed in. He copied the essay down, word for word, in his own hand writing, no matter if the question asked had been slightly different to the one Regent had set.

Friday morning came, Joshua handed the essay in. It was on the question which touched on both books for which the person had received a straight B. Much of the hour was taken up with the nature of grades. What sort of grades would the students need for a 1st, a 2:1. After the class, as the students moved in the direction of the coffee bar, my friend said he would be along later; he was popping over to the library.

He sat by the seat near the returns desk, flicking through some new book on paralinguistic features. As he half expected, the tutor arrived carrying a number of books in her arms. She handed them over and briskly left. Joshua went up to the desk and asked if he could take the very same books out. Yes, there they were: books on Kafka and restlessness; Kafka and the impossibility of knowledge; Dostoyevsky and the inevitability of guilt. These weren’t the titles, Joshua explained, but that was the gist of them.

One of the features of the university teaching system, Joshua said, was the importance of one on one’s after the marking of the essays. The student would spend fifteen minutes with the tutor going over the work, pinpointing problems and strengths. The books would come in handy. Of course, Joshua, said, he didn’t read all the books any more than he had read Dostoyevsky or Kafka, but there were more than enough pencil markings in the text to spot the key areas. He took a pile of notes, more or less memorised them, and was all ready to go when he picked his essay up the following Thursday. The students would find their essays in the pigeonhole under their surname initial, then arrange a time that afternoon or the following day to discuss it with the tutor.

He looked at his grade. It was a healthy A-. He arranged to see the tutor at 3.00 in the afternoon. He was not worried; he might have been concerned had he known the cheating was only on his part, but the idea that both tutor and pupil had cheated lent the scenario something of a frisson, perhaps like that of a mutually adulterous affair.

He knocked on the door. She asked him to come in and take a seat. Joshua, who up until this point had said nothing of her looks, explained that she was slimly built with light-framed glasses, longish auburn hair in a bun, and on this particular occasion wore a black skirt and a white blouse. Her features were soft, her voice smooth. She was, Joshua added, much commented upon by the students. They went through the essay, stage by stage. It opened well, she explained. She liked the quote he had used at the beginning. She felt he had grounded the essay very quickly. She believed though that on page two he hadn’t grasped the essentials of Kafka’s similarity with Dostoyevsky. They are both writers who try to reintegrate the essential aspects of character against the inhumanity around them. Dostoyevsky’s optimism lies in that integration; Kafka’s pessimism is that he cannot trust himself to do so.  Words to that effect. This was remarkably similar to a passage in one of the books, but the professor looked at Joshua with no hint of quotation on her face. As she returned to the essay he returned to the indentation between her clavicle, the blouse’s top two buttons open. She quoted a passage of the essay which he was momentarily pleased with: then promptly hid a smirk. “All in all”, she concluded, “a fine piece of work.” Joshua said thank you, and closed the door quietly behind him.

It transpired that this wasn’t even the professor’s first year teaching the course. It was, as Joshua had noticed looking at the B essay he’d copied out, with her name at the top of the first page, her second year in a row. Obviously she had filled in the previous year also, mastering the techniques of deception more readily than the works to hand.

The rest of the semester was spent with other supposed extreme writers. Again the books were half-attended to, with discussions ranging over personal identity, sexual politics and other issues which had more to do with the class’s general life than the books sitting in their laps. The second essay was due. The choice: writing on the nouveau roman and/or Magic Realism. On this occasion Joshua anticipated the questions and took the few books available on the subjects. It should be pointed out, he said, that this was a conservative English university. The grand tradition: literature as moral backbone proliferated. The library card allowed for nine books at one time. The bag groaned.

The following day, the tutor set the questions. Yet Joshua could see, occasionally catching her eye, she did so with less confidence than before. For this essay, she explained, the students would be given an extra week. Time enough, Joshua supposed, to take out the books he would by that stage have returned.

So Joshua wrote the essay based on some of the pencilled underlinings, returned the books within a week, and awaited the next tutorial. Dr Regent was this time more assertive, explaining in some details exactly what she expected from the essays. As she did so, she looked across at Joshua, turned away again and said, “I’m sure you by now will know what I’m looking for.”

As Joshua continued, I looked for a moment at Andrea, and saw her head tilted to one side, looking at Joshua as he talked, and oblivious to my momentary concentrated attention on her.

It was between the essay question and the marking that the university had a visitor. It was their star professor returning for a week to give several lectures in the country; one of which was to be at his own estranged establishment. Joshua went along, as did a couple of others from the course.

The lecture hall was almost full. Most of the department could be seen sitting along the front row. Quite a few had notebooks out. Perhaps there were a number of journalists there also. There was much chattering – this was the first time the professor had returned to the university since his American trip somebody said. In the professor walked, with Sarah Regent walking beside him.  There was clapping, even a few cheers. Dr Regent introduced him and, as she walked off the mini-stage, she brushed hands with the professor as he made his way up.

I asked what the lecture was on, and Joshua replied that it was something to do with the impossibility of texts. That all readings were provisional: the usual post-modern guff. Andrea wondered if therein lay the alibi.

Joshua looked at us and said: for what? For never getting round to reading the books in the first place? Yes. There was something in that. As if all the points he’d racked up were for alleviating fellow profs’ guilt complexes.

The star professor  was around forty five, lightly caramel-coloured, with thin yet still flowing brown hair which was swept back in a mane-like style. He wore colours which matched his skin tone and seemed like a man cosmetically given to the introspection bibliophilia demands. Now, Joshua said, what did he care whether the man was a charlatan or not. Yet something rankled. For all the slick presentation of the talk, for all the smooth physical presence, there was another thing that irritated Joshua. And it lay, he said, in that momentary touch of hands. It wouldn’t have bothered him had they been open lovers. He saw every day lovers arm in arm, hand in hand – and yes, some of them he would have liked to bed, and there were women that he did bed.

But what Dr Regent had done, in that briefest of hand gestures, was duplicate the intimacy he had created in that tutorial. Joshua had possessed that hour, its unique potential, and turned it over in his mind many, many times. The next essay he had seen less as a literary challenge (neither of them had obviously read the books), but instead as a flirtatious one. That potential, in that passing gesture, had been removed – and in its duplication, he believed, it had been betrayed.

After that, what could he do? How could he protect an ego so precariously balanced on a perverse seduction (a seduction so perverse it need never have been consummated; merely not slighted)? By confronting himself and questioning his egotism. He read the books. Crime and Punishment, The Trial, all of those listed on the course. And more than that, he read them with enthusiasm and with an awareness, or at least a hint of awareness, of the nuances of collapsed lives, of battered selves, of the impossible abstract potential in existence. After that, he bullied and harassed tutors when necessary (including Regent), and left after four years with his first class degree.

Andrea asked what he then decided to do with his life. Nothing he said, or at least nothing relevant to his degree. He worked for a couple of years in finance, worked as an entertainments manager on a cruise ship, taught English as a foreign language, and for the last two summers had been a lifeguard along the Cote’d’azur.  As he offered this brief summary of the last fifteen or so years of his life, I looked at him as if he might be a little mad, and wondered whether what he had offered was all a fiction: he seemed more like a character in a book I might be inclined to publish rather than a figure whom I thought I could believe. But as I looked from his tanned, assured and handsome face, to Andrea’s, I saw on hers that she was seeing him as neither a fool nor a work of fiction, but as a possibility, as someone who could have been a man she had dreamt of in moments when she slept beside me in London, frustrated with her job, irritated at what she saw as my hogging of the sheets, and vaguely resentful that I had continued doing meaningful work while she felt trapped in the mundane. I wondered how often Joshua charmed women with this story, and could see that Andrea’s looks and style could well-match the description he had used to describe Dr Sarah Regent. I felt an intense feeling of jealousy, perhaps not unlike that Joshua claimed he felt when the professor’s hand had very briefly touched Regent’s.

 

©Tony McKibbin