Saturday, March 31, 2007

Reading Nan Robertson

In 1954, Guido met Nan Robertson in the Bahamas. (This was a year after my mother left him, with me in tow.) An English writer, she was living there with her husband. But she fell passionately and fatefully in love with Guido. 

Two years later, she was to end her life when Guido ended their relationship -- and many blamed Guido for her death. The truth is more nuanced -- she suffered from manic depression (bipolar disorder) nearly all her life and had attempted suicide several times over the years.

When she killed herself, she left behind a memoir of her romance with my father, intense, poignant and, ultimately, searing. Re-reading it, as I am now, she captures Guido exactly: his voice, his persona. In this passage, early into the memoir, she is beginning to realize that the extremes of light and dark are inextricably knit together in his being:

'You are almost a vegetarian’ said Guido one day when I threw the waste from cleaning fish over the dock where runners, a hamlet and grunts basked in the shade, saying ‘How terrible to have one’s friends taken away and returned in this state’. ‘Yes it is’. He was a vegetarian at times and not at others, the killer and not killer in him could never be reconciled. 
It was then I saw opposites curiously mingled in him for the first time; he had such an awareness of every angle that all things had their reverse sides; not only thoughts, but behavior; no one could be more orderly at times, or more chaotic at others. That this must also be carried into human relationships, turning the tenderest sympathy to disappointed bitterness was inevitable. 
Opposites met in Guido in painful conflict. Love and hate, courage and timidity; kindness and cruelty, softness and hardness, faith and doubt, economy and extravagance. Sometimes contemplative, at others active; he could be a philosopher or an outlaw, a soldier or a deserter, all equally wholeheartedly, veering from one to the other with giddy haste. 
His very expressive face, particularly the wide set, unfathomable eyes, changed with his changing moods; the medieval saint or the malicious gargoyle, with many variations between. Severe asceticism and barrack-room bawdiness. These were the inevitable components that were part of the whole; but never a thought mediocre or banal, never such a look.
Many characters lived in one Guido. The solitary hard thinking philosopher, old and wise, who has pulled the world to pieces and seen its folly. The athlete, young and enduring, despising all soft things and any human kindness. The healer who commands health and sleep. The mystic, seeing beyond the stars and into the hearts of people. The whistling carpenter, equal to any at a skillful day’s labor. The artist, offended by the least falseness or stupidity; impatient, knowing how things should be and how little they are, determined to change them, but never satisfied; appreciating, as artists do, the good worldly things, the lovely details and softness, the conviviality of confreres, scorn for the Philistine. Then the shadow of the unfairly treated little boy who wanted sympathy. Most of all, the lone fighter who could, and did, during the occupation, save the lives of many of his friends at great danger to himself. 
It was not until later that I saw the cruelly disappointed idealist who felt he had not found in me the equal he was seeking, then his lashes scourged like fire, to the hurt of both of us. In all these characters absolute honesty end integrity; no manners hiding himself, no deception of any kind; no shame and no regret.
(From Nan Robertson's unpublished memoir, Against the Grain.)

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