“Some sell because the money gleams, and some because they are in terror of the grave, and some because their neighbors sold before. And some because there is a kind of joy in casting hope away, in losing joy, in ceasing all resistance, in at last opening one’s arms to the eternal flames.” Spoken by a merchant in W. B. Yeats’ play, The Countess Cathleen
“When men sell their souls, where do the souls go?” An unanswered question from Mary Oliver in Winter Hours
“Not enough Fausts are written. Every one should write one.” – Ludwig von Arnim (via Cotterill)
Prologue in the Publisher’s Office
The office looked like it might belong to a college president. It was a large corner room paneled in aged chestnut, with furnishings that seemed appropriately antique, but – upon inspection – looked far too comfortable and clean to have been anything but the best that recent money could buy. There were appropriate lamps, but they were not switched on. The oblique light coming through the four large six by six casement windows was tinted green by a fringe of overgrown ivy and nearby oak trees. This jade glow danced around the face of the large black woman at the desk and four paler faces on the sofa and chairs facing her. In front of the sofa was a coffee table set with a blue carafe and white china cups.
No air conditioner was visible and none of the windows were open, but the room was so cold that the warm coffee steamed like a furnace and an observer could almost see the breath vapor of the occupants of the room. Yet there were lush leaves on the trees, so it was not winter. Oddly, the seated bodies seem to be exuding visible heat in the way of very hot radiators or desert floors. The two people sitting on deep-buttoned brown leather couch were men and the two women sat in less comfortable-looking chrome and leather chairs on either side.
The woman at the desk was the founder of the Scratch House and before her sat her editors. Scratch House was an established published of quality books; they worked with authors and with manuscripts. But there were no documents or computers on the desk or coffee table and none of the editors had anything in their hands. An observer could have thought that this was odd. But, again, this might turn out to be the least odd thing about them.
They all seemed to mutely waiting for the black woman to speak. Their boss sat with her eyes closed and with a slight compression of her lips, as if she were searching for the right words. But her staff knew that this was not the problem. Lily always knew the right words. She was waiting until they were ready to hear them. She was waiting for their undivided attention.
Several minutes after the last coffee cup had been shifted, the last nose had been blown, the last set of glasses fished out of a pocket – after several minutes of complete silence – Lily opened her eyes, took her hands off the desolate desk and folded her them over each other on top of her capacious belly and spoke. “I spent last night looking over the stories that we have out there. All of them. And I was gravely disappointed. Gravely disappointed. We signed some very promising authors who either have delivered nothing or have brought forth tripe.” The group in front of her started fidgeting. Lily waited until they realized that she was not looking for a response and regained their composure.
“Don’t tell me they’re trying. I know they are trying. I know they want to write wonderful books, great books, but it is not working. They are making a muck of it. They are writing young adult novels even though they don’t always call them that. And don’t tell me young adult novels are popular – they have their place, for youngsters who are hoping to become adults, but what are adults who read them hoping for? And why on earth would adults write them for other adults? And, in any case, we do not publish young adult literature; it was not what we contracted for. It is not what we want. It is not what I want. These authors are either not paying sufficient attention to what they are doing or they have no idea what they are doing. And since we selected them based on our judgment as to their potential, I would prefer to think that the latter is not the reason.”
There was a long pause and the eyes closed again, very slowly. One could not imagine that anyone would close their eyes so slowly.
The large man with blond bushy hair and eyebrows with golden wings smiled and flittered his hands through the air and then back to the couch as if to denote their plush surroundings. “We appear to be in no danger of going out of business.” He seemed to think he made a joke, but no one laughed. No one else spoke or moved, and yet the inhabitants of the room exuded an expectation the person who had inserted such an inappropriate plop into the room should be the one to clean up his own droppings. He attempted to do this by changing direction. “It can’t be the terms of their contracts. For the most part, they got what they wanted. They signed off on what they wanted and got it. And they got some of it in advance, so they don’t really have any excuses.”
“Siegfried, you and I both know what the major problem is. They are distracted.” This came from the tall pale thin woman sitting far back in a black leather sling chair. “They have too much to distract them. They have no time to think. Even if they find time to write – and they almost always eventually do that since the downsides in those precious contracts you were talking about are so precipitous – it is drivel. I agree with Lily.” The other editors rolled their eyes just as little as if to acknowledge that, of course, she would agree with Lily. They would all always agree with Lily.
Siegfried tapped his knee as if impatient with statements of the obvious. “Well, Pauline – that’s stating the obvious. Everyone is distracted these days – time goes by and they haven’t the faintest idea of where it went. And they don’t seem to care. And, yes, they might meet their deadlines, but it hardly matters if…. Anyway, if our authors certainly could write better books, but they don’t seem care enough to give their full energy and attention to what they are doing – I concur with Lily’s analysis.” Now it was Pauline’s turn to roll her eyes. Of course he concurred with Lily. Lily was always right. The chubby man next to Siegfried seemed to be mulling it all over as he fiddled in his pockets, finally retrieving a small carved pipe which he did not light.
The black woman opened her eyes again. “I think that they do care. When everything quiets down, they care. But that doesn’t matter, anyway. We care. Not about them per se, perhaps, but they are boring me to tears and I care about that. And what I care about, you damn well better care about. We cannot keep putting out this junk. Siegfried may be right that we are in no danger of going out of business,” as she spoke she raised her right arm and pointed over her should at the bookcase behind her, “but we are in imminent danger of going out of this business. There are surely a number of reasons for the problem – but I agree with Pauline – at least in part. We are living in a world of proliferating distractions. And to make it worse, they are the distraction of an illusory world, a virtual world – not real life. And then they want to write about it. Creating an illusion of an illusion. They are at least one step too far removed. It’s like basing a novel on your dreams; it’s been tried, but it never works.” She paused and closed her eyes again.
“Ekphrasis.” Siegfried spit out the Greek term as if he were looking for a gold star. “It means. . . .”
“Yes” said Lily without opening her eyes. “We all know what it means. But this is worse than writing a piece of art about a piece of art – because their preoccupation is not someone else’s work of art, but their own vehicle of escape, the cab of an imaginary roller coaster. So the problem with all this distraction is not just that tends to take their lives less seriously, not just that it distances them from real life, not just that it leaves our folks without anything of substance to write about. The problem is more basic. They do not realize that all they have, all that they possess to barter with down there, all they have is time. And they are squandering it.” Lily opened her eyes. “And they cannot get more of that from us – even we cannot give them time.”
The cold room was silent. This was not a group that spent much time thinking or talking about what they could not do.
Siegfried broke the silence. “We can change the nature of their time. We can make it seem long or short. If we get nasty enough, we can make every moment seem like an eternity.”
“Or the opposite. Temporarily. With a deadline. A non-negotiable deadline – not just a penalty clause.” This came from the pudgy bald man dressed in tweeds and waving an unlit meerschaum pipe with one hand and a fountain pen with the other, making him look like a rather demented conductor trying to incite the other four to a rousing chorus.
Pauline tossed her head and her white curls reflected the green light in a way that made it seem as if there was ivy growing from her head. She gave a feminine sort of snort and added, “Maybe, Chas. But it would only be temporary. For no matter what you tell them, they all continue to believe that they have eternity.”
It was Chas’s turn to chuckle. “That is because it is eternity they want – and not just the eternity to write and rewrite the perfect book. Our deadlines make sure they know they won’t have that. They want the eternity of immortality. They think that we can give them a hard cover and a Library of Congress number and assurance that they will be a permanent member of the literary seraphim. They want to go on and on. And not just in the Library of Congress. I know there are some who hunger after things – money, women, power – those are just markers for eternity. And, of course, they have not learned the lesson of Swift’s Struldbruggs. They assume that eternity means eternal youth, so that they can enjoy all those markers and life itself – forever and ever.” The pipe circled high in the air again. “What they want is eternity and youth and what they need is a deadline and maturity.” He flipped his arms over each other so the pen and the pipe changed sides. “But maybe in the opposite order.” Everyone nodded and grimaced, agreeing while seeming to acknowledge that they had all made this point before many times. It was the way that things are, were, and probably always would be the looks on their faces seemed to say.
The black woman sat up in her chair signaling that she had heard enough from the peanut gallery. While gazing steadily at her audience, she reached down to open the bottom right-hand drawer on her desk. She pulled out a gray file folder and opened it carefully, centering in on the gleaming desktop in front of her. The others in the room straightened their backs and fastened their eyes on the mysterious folder and waited.
“This was someone I was interested in. Faye Strauss. She wrote a promising first book. More than promising. Almost a decade ago. I remember thinking that this young woman looked at the world through the slats of a venetian blind, taking in whole strips of life in isolation and piling these observations on top of each other until her readers were forced to think hard about what was on the other side of that window. Of course, no one read the thing. Idiosyncratic. Simple language grappling with complicated ideas and not coming up with any answers. Nothing to make you feel good. And no vampires. Well, actually, people do change shape, but not in a titillating way. Her concepts were too hard for teenagers and on the surface seemed too simple to attract those wannabe literati who write Amazon raves. She got a few positive reviews in minor places, but the book never went anywhere. But she had something. Not anything you could easily categorize – it was as if she was taking the style of Hans Christian Andersen and using it to explain Kierkegaard… well, it is not easily described which is probably why no one talked about it much. The thing did get issued in paper, but never even went digital. And since then… nada. No book, no stories. As far as I can determine, there aren’t even any manuscripts floating around waiting for reject slips. This, this makes me sad, my friends.”
“But she wasn’t one of ours, was she?” Consuela emphasized the word ours as if it made all the difference in the world. Consuela spoke English with a British accent. In her colorful skirt and elaborate barrettes holding back her thick blue-black hair, she came across as an Indian colonial who happened to be Hispanic. The truth was that she had been educated in at a British school in Barbados.
The black woman stiffened. “They are all ours. At least potentially. And we certainly want all of the good ones. And this one is apparently not being claimed by anyone at this point. She had an option from her publisher for her next book, but it had a ten-year limit on it and that just passed. It seems that Ms. Strausse got married, had a child, and recently enrolled in a graduate program in comparative literature. Apparently this budding intellect has given up any idea of doing anything except what you all do,” she scanned the room with mild degree of scorn, “read other people. But there is one other thing that you people are supposed to do after all that reading, which is to get the best of them for us. I want Faye Strauss in a red folder.” The company authors had special blood-red folders, with contrasting deckled edge based on which editor was handling the account. “And I want her writing again. Whatever it takes. Does anyone but me know anything about this woman?”
All eyes had been fixated on the gray folder, and three pairs of eyes remain locked. Pauline looked up.
“I remember her. I ran into her when we were working with a man she was dating. Horne, his name was. Alan Horne. Anyway, he dropped her and I heard that she had married someone else. The only thing I remember about her was her red hair. She turns up in one of Horne’s stories as a kind of pathetic character, but most of his characters are rather pathetic. I never read her book, but he said Faye was good, and he was rather spare in his credit so he almost certainly meant it. Probably why he dropped her.” Pauline continued looking at her boss.
“I just told you. She is good. Or she was.” Lily clearly did not need confirmation from Pauline or Alan Horne.
Chas looked up. “What was the name of her book? Don’t remember the author, but maybe…”
Lily stared back at him. “Metamorphoses. Maybe you remember the original?” Lily was having fun now. Despite his donnish wardrobe and sharp mind, Chas had a shallow education.
Chas was silent enough for the embarrassment to be noted by all before Pauline spoke up, not to rescue him but to take the moment to assert herself as the better student. “Ovid. Yes, I remember that. She did a modern version of Ovid. People changed into animals and things. A group of related stories – she had published some of them before the book came out. ”
“OK. So since you’re the only one that seems to know anything about her, she’s yours. Go get her. Find out what it will take. Today is a good time. Marjorie will give you the notes on where to find her and some background information, but you’ll need to dig even deeper before you talk to her. The usual – persuade her that you know her better than anyone else on earth. Which will be easy if it’s true. Then do what you can to get her thinking about writing again and if that looks possible, lock her in. And read her book on the way – I just sent it to your gizmo along with everything we could get our hands on, published or not. Read carefully – it might help you to figure out what you need to do.”
“I was supposed to be in London tonight for the Booker announcement. I have a seat.”
“But Faye Strausse, my poor disappointed Pauline, is in America. Leave the new plum-colored gown in the closet. You will be in the United States where I am sure you can somehow tune in the BBC to find discover what the fraternity brothers decided about last year’s literature. When Faye Strausse is on the short list, you can go to London. Right now you’re going to Massachusetts. And you are going to read the Metamorphoses and meet Ms. Strausse. Then we will have a talk.”