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Authors: David Gilmour

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Sparrow Nights

S P A R R O W
nights

“In his latest novel,
Sparrow Nights
, David Gilmour has created a classic or textbook anti-hero…. Gilmour writes in a clear, concise, lapidary prose. In a literary landscape littered with victims, interlarded with heroes, it is refreshing, for once, to spend time with a character as unrepentant as he is unpleasant; a real bad egg.”
National Post
“Mordantly hilarious and dazzlingly written…. Even as Gilmour provides some of the familiar satisfactions—a caustically articulate narrator à la Humbert Humbert and an increasingly bleak and dangerous series of humiliating misadventures—he also manages to put a new twist or two into it…. Halloway may be a major-league jackass, not to mention a vandal and worse, but he’s a hugely entertaining one. As Humbert Humbert used to say, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
The Washington Post
“As engaging as anything he’s written…. Gilmour is not one to shrink from the sordid aspects of sex and death, and that he can spin such a tale with wit and economy of phrase is a tribute to his storytelling skill.”
Winnipeg Free Press
“With
Sparrow Nights
, David Gilmour joins the list of inspired modern monologists that begins with Dostoevsky and includes Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard and Céline…. [Gilmour] is a brilliant stylist capable of an extraordinary range of effects.”
Boston Review
“Like Jerzy Kosinski, Gilmour is able to carry readers deep into the mind of a self-rationalizing madman; it’s an exhilarating journey, expertly observed and quite disturbing.”
Publishers Weekly

for JESSE GILMOUR

 
I cannot get used to things that end.
–MARCEL PROUST
in a letter to a friend
C H A P T E R        
1

L
et me come back, just for a second, to Emma Carpenter. She had been introduced by the chairman at a cocktail party and I thought, there’s something wrong with her. She smells funny. Indeed she did, a kind of acrid odour, like a frightened animal, and it seemed very odd to me that such a sophisticated young woman would turn up at a gathering of professionals, smelling.

Later, when she was gone, I made a casual observation to a colleague, a Frenchman, who claimed not to have noticed anything at all. But then again, Serrault is always claiming not to understand the obvious. I think he fancies it makes him seem more complicated than the rest of us. And it does, of course.

I knew very little about her actually, and I tried to keep it that way. For all the modesty of my professional accomplishments, my failings at marriage, my childless life, the faded-away friendships, in spite of all these things, I was quite a happy man and I didn’t need a mess. I observed, however, that she wore black, rather cheap running shoes to class; that she had waited two years before applying to graduate school. I have no idea what she did in the meantime; probably a great deal of sex; there was something of that in her, a kind of propriety which, one suspected, protects a pornographic imagination. I don’t know. Perhaps in saying that, I am revealing more about myself than her.

I can tell you something else about Emma, since you’ve got me gossiping. As a favour to Serrault, to whom she had been assigned, I read a number of her undergraduate papers. They were perfectly satisfactory, but she was brighter in person than on paper. Something froze in her when she “wrote,” a ball of ice that appeared to melt almost entirely in conversation, where she could be shockingly direct. More about that later. She also had a surprising talent for mimesis. One day, in an unguarded moment, I overheard her referring to a conversation that had taken place the day before in the faculty lounge. A professor of linguistics had been going on and on, the way they do, and in recapping his remarks she had allowed herself a small imitation of his voice, which was like a door that needs oil. She delivered his nasal creak with such aplomb, to such a degree of perfection, that for a second the man in question seemed to materialize in front of us. What an effect it had! It was as if she had suddenly broken into fluent Arabic. It implied, this little party trick of hers, the presence of alien creatures within her slender frame, a notion that I found alarmingly erotic. But I didn’t pursue her. By fifty-one I had learned the hard way that slim attractive young women … Well, why go into it. You know perfectly well what I’m saying. Besides, I had other problems.

For example, one fall day I was sitting in my study. It was a beautiful day and I’d left the back door open. You could smell autumn in the garden, the scent of the leaves, the cool air so sweet, so beyond-this-world. It was as if in the fragrance alone I could possess again the finest, most elusive sensations of my childhood, the clarity of things felt and seen and smelt and heard—a bird singing in the yard, a schoolboy’s mechanical recitation:
porto, portas, portat
.

A yellow cat wandered in, purring and drooling and rubbing against my leg. I was writing a course description for the next year’s calendar when I heard a strange sound, an irregular pop like a cap pistol.
Pop, pop
. Then silence. Then pop. But no, it wasn’t a child’s toy, it was something else. For some reason it amused me to guess what it was, and I stopped working and listened carefully. It didn’t sound metallic, it sounded rather like … I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I’d heard it before. But somewhere else, in an entirely different framing. It belonged back there with the vivid garden smells. But what could it be?

Finally, I went to see. Opposite my back patio, across a narrow lawn and a screen of rose bushes, stood a ragged flagpole on the next property. For some reason the tenant had raised a German flag. I’m not partial to Germans (although I rather like the sound of a woman speaking the language softly), but that’s not the issue. The issue was the flag flapping. It snapped, it cracked in the wind. Abruptly I recalled where I’d heard it: at summer camp. Late in the afternoons, limp from the sun and swimming, I used to lie on the dock, the drops of water falling from my brown skin. They made stains on the sun-bleached wood like little countries on a map. Closing my eyes, I would listen to the sound of the waves lapping under the dock, the sound of a motorboat across the bay—and a flag flapping overhead. But I didn’t remember it being so loud. This was like a starter’s pistol.
Crack, crack, crack
.

I went back to my study and resumed work, but once you notice something like that, after a while it’s
all
you notice. Gradually my typing disintegrated, a sure sign I don’t like what I’m writing, that my body is fighting it. Really, what a racket! Finally I surrendered and went for a closer look. I walked around the block and stood in front of the offending property. The sunshine was dazzling. I stared at the front parlour hoping by the intensity of my feelings to bring its owner to the window, as one can sometimes awake a sleeper by resting one’s eyes on him for a protracted length of time. A stocky woman passed me on the sidewalk, a dog trotting at her side. Possibly a poor selection, but I looked to her as an ally. She nodded politely, deferring to my age I assume, but the
reason
I smiled at her didn’t register, distracted as she was by the log-dumping hound that bounced empty-headedly beside her. My stomach began to ache; acid dripped like the inside of a sweating cave. This was intolerable. Too many provocations. But what could I do? How do you tell someone to take down his flag? Especially a German. Since the collapse of the Wall and the creation of their own army, I’ve noticed a new emphasis on civil liberties,
chez eux
. One always knows where that leads. I could send a note, but I’ve learned that anyone considerate enough to be touched by such a gesture has generally nosed out the problem beforehand. So I decided simply to take care of the business myself.

A kind of calm came over me like those delicious moments in bed when you can feel a sleeping pill coming on. I worked the rest of the afternoon unbothered by the flapping—unbothered because I knew it had a finite lifespan. I wondered if I could trick myself into never hearing the flag by constantly pretending to be on the verge of cutting it down. But when I was awoken from my nap by the
whack, whack, whack
from my neighbour’s house—really, it sounded like a helicopter pad back there—I realized I’d been indulging in impotent philosophizing.

I went to dinner at my regular neighbourhood restaurant. I hesitated before ordering the mushroom risotto—I wanted to lose eight pounds in the event I met someone—but I went ahead anyway, assuming the adrenaline from the night ahead would burn it off. I treated myself to an expensive bottle of red wine, an American Cabernet, complex and elegant. After a glass I felt a comforting warmth as if I were no longer alone, as if a soft light had switched on inside me and was keeping me company.

I set the alarm for three in the morning, but I needn’t have. A light wind blew off the lake and after the second or third pop of my neighbour’s flag my eyes opened and I was wide awake. I sprang out of bed like a student on the first day of summer vacation. For a second I understood
in my blood
the lure of crime, its focus and clarity. I thought perhaps I should go back and give Dostoevsky another go. So overwritten, so talkative, like a Methedrine addict. But still, he was on to something. I went about my preparations with automatic precision. I showered and shaved. I brushed my teeth and gargled vigorously just in case I was arrested. I laid out a selection of knives: a paring knife, a steak knife. But they dissatisfied me and I went into a bottom drawer and fetched a rusting carpet cutter. Everything was so clear; the kitchen danced with light. (I really
must
give
Crime and Punishment
another whirl.) I turned on the radio, a Schubert piano sonata, I think, but it intruded on my thoughts. Silence again fell over the kitchen.

I turned out the light and after a moment’s pause I slipped into my backyard. A cricket stirred in the hedges. I opened the fence gate. I measured the steps to the flagpole in my head: one, two, three, four, five, up to eleven. I found the carpet cutter in my pocket, the metal sort of soapy-feeling. I slid the blade forward, the silence around me so complete you could hear the absence of sound. I took a series of rapid steps across the grass, slashed the rope with one stroke and left the flag floating like a corpse in the swimming pool.

C H A P T E R        
2

W
hen I say my career has gone very well, I mean of course within certain restrictions, the principal one being a rather low ceiling on my ambition. I’ve always been attracted to university campuses. I remember once as an undergraduate visiting the office of a French professor where I observed, indeed I
inhaled
(because I could smell them), shelf after shelf of books. How mysterious they were, how I desired the “it” I knew they contained. A dictionary of
ancien français
lay open on the floor; his work desk was a shuffle of papers with small, confident notations in the margins. How happy I would be, I thought, if only I had such an office to go to every day. To belong to a room like this—imagine.

It was more
that
really than an infatuation with ideas or an interest in exchanging them that drew me into this world. From my first day I loved university life and I never wanted to leave it. Indeed I haven’t.

I planned initially on a degree in English literature, but during my first year I fell in love with a tall, frizzy-haired philosophy student, Raissa Shestatsky. It was my first physical relationship and, my heavens, what a time I had of it, a blanket nailed over the window to keep out the sunlight, a swollen candle by the bed, the air thick with cigarette smoke and that raspberry incense she adored. In the afternoons we escaped the student cafeteria and came home to my flat and sometimes didn’t emerge for days. And yet how used to it one became too, and so quickly, the breathtaking sexual availability of a lovely young woman. As if one had a divine right to it.

But she was an adventuress, my Raissa. A young man of my era, perhaps any era, could never imagine a girl being like that. She had a quick appetite for the world, of which I was only a single morsel, and riding my bicycle to an early Chaucer seminar one morning I spotted her in the doorway of an apartment building. You can presume what happened next: the tearful interrogation, the galloping heart, the sweat-soaked sheets, the masochistic imaginings. I lost twenty pounds; I didn’t sleep, it seemed, for weeks on end. I smoked cigarettes and wept in the dark until I saw on the notice board an opening for students to study French language and literature at the University of Toulouse, four hundred miles south of Paris.

I signed up as if it were the Foreign Legion. But travel is never the escape one imagines. Quite the reverse, actually. By changing the landscape, one succeeds only in highlighting the familiar—in my case, a broken heart. Foolishly or heroically, I’m still not sure, I went daily to the poste restante to see if there was a letter from Miss Shestatsky. Often there was. Now that I was out of the country, it was safe to love me again. Once there was attached a black-and-white photograph of her, a stunning picture: she was sprawled in a beanbag chair, long-limbed and inviting. In a rush of emotion I showed it to the postal clerk, who asked me if it was my wife, and, my ears going hot, I said yes it was. From that day on, whenever I picked up my mail, he would flip energetically through the stack of brightly stamped letters saying, “Let’s hope there’s something from your lovely wife, eh?” Ah yes,
ma belle femme
. It shamed me and pleased me at the same time, although I had a sensation in my blood cells that she was gone for good, up to God knows what cunnilingual atrocities.

It was a grim patch indeed, a cold winter, the streets wind-whipped and empty. I must have imagined I was having some sort of literary adventure, that my friends at home were reading my letters aloud to each other and pouring over a map of France as if I were a character in a novel. I imagined Raissa hearing stories about me, rueing the day she’d betrayed me. But I was very lonely and when I’m lonely I can’t sleep, although the years have diminished that. Mostly I stayed awake till dawn, writing letters in an all night restaurant near the train yards. I can still see the snow shifting like lace over the railway tracks as I trudged home at daybreak. By the end I spoke quite good French. I talked to everyone, train workers, taxi drivers, crazy men, prostitutes, policemen, waiters, soldiers.

I had a little apartment near the university, a two-floor walk-up, and for a while a Spanish roommate, but we quarrelled about the gas bill and he moved out, insulted. So I was left to myself and my books. Exhausted from a night’s writing, the cold and talking to myself, I crawled into bed and read plays. I assumed it was the best way to learn the spoken language. (I realize now it would have been better to read comic books and watch a lot of television, but my snobbery, my sense of letting down my audience, wouldn’t permit that.) Near seven on those slate grey mornings a train chugged by my apartment window, cueing a profound sleep. It was as if I had been drugged. I turned off the light and smoked a final cigarette, staring up at the ceiling, returning to Raissa and a little room on Huron Street where I had made love to her one afternoon with her shirt still on.

It was dark when I awoke, always. While I still tell people I studied at the University of Toulouse, the truth is I attended very few classes. I couldn’t get out of bed until the six o’clock evening train hurtled past my window. Shivering, I descended into the street and quickly covered the block and a half to a
boulangerie
, where I bought my evening meal. Even then I was a creature locked in habit. Two eggs, a slice of ham, a
petit
loaf of bread and a package of Gitanes. The blue pack with the swirling gypsy. Perhaps she’d been sampling the product herself: the cigarettes were so strong that sometimes I had to lie down, overcome with nausea and toxicity.

It might have been better if my French had been a little more ragged. It distressed me to see some gaudy American student, freshly arrived in town, walking hither and yon with a pretty French girl while she practised her execrable English. It seemed rather unfair. But the person who commands the language commands the moment; I should have realized that sooner. As it was, I was relegated to the status of a well-meaning but rather dull foreigner, better than an Arab, but just. I met a girl at a student café on New Year’s Eve who took me to midnight mass and then back to her olive-scented room. But when I returned two nights later, I could see through the shutters a candle burning inside and, standing stock-still, I heard—over the beat of my heart—the sound of intimate murmurings
là-dedans!

Finally my sentence was up and I came home on a Russian ship. I phoned Raissa from a friend’s house and we made a rendezvous for that evening. She turned up in a baggy turtleneck sweater and blue jeans. She’d had enough of philosophy, she claimed, and she started to tell me why when suddenly, out of nowhere, I yawned. I think it surprised us both. Somewhere in those amblings through dead-of-night Toulouse she had dried up in my heart and blown away. I was free.

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