Read Zuckerman Unbound Online

Authors: Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (8 page)

Oh yes, and one last motive for writing you. Would you consider doing something as impulsive as accompanying me to Europe, say during semester break? I'm somewhat familiar with Switzerland (I have a secret numbered account in the largest Swiss bank) and would love to turn you on to some of the most surreal and moving experiences to be had in that country. We can visit the house in which Thomas Mann spent his last years. His widow and son still live there, in a town called Kilchberg in the canton of Zurich. We can visit the famous chocolate factories, the sound Swiss banking institutions, the mountains, the lakes, the waterfall at which Sherlock Holmes met his destiny—need I go on?

Not-so-crazy Julia

Numbered Acc't 776043

Dear Julia:

I am not so crazy either and will have to say no to your invitation. I'm sure you are a completely harmless person, but these are strange times, in America if not Switzerland. I wish I could be friendlier, since you sound friendly and affectionate yourself, not to mention playful and rich. But I'm afraid you'll have to go to the chocolate factories without me.


Nathan Zuckerman

Bankers Trust 4863589

Dear Nathan,

I was so sad to leave without saying goodbye. But when Fate changes horses the rider is carried along.

But this was a real letter, from someone he knew. Signed “C.” He found the envelope in his wastebasket. It had been mailed several days earlier in Havana.

Dear Nathan,

I was so sad to leave without saying goodbye. But when Fate changes horses the rider is carried along. And so I am here. Mary had always wanted us to meet, and I shall always feel that my life has been enriched by the moment—however brief—of knowing you.

Vague memories, nothing but memories.


“Vague memories, nothing but memories” was Yeats. “Fate changes horses” was Byron. Otherwise, he thought uncharitably, it looked to be the form letter. Even the intimate “C.” That stood for Caesara O'Shea, keeper of the screen's softest, most inviting lilt, of a languishing air so sad and so seductive that a Warner Brothers wit had accounted for the box-office magic thus: “All the sorrow of her race and then those splendid tits.” Two weeks earlier Caesara had come to New York from her home in Connemara, and on the phone Zuckerman had been summoned by his agent to be her dinner partner. More
booty. She had asked specifically for him.

“You'll know most of the people,” said André.

“And Caesara you should know,” Mary told him. “It's about time.”

“Why?” asked Zuckerman.

“Oh, Nathan,” said Mary, “don't look down your nose because she's a sex symbol to the hordes. So are you to the hordes, in case you haven't heard.”

“Don't be intimidated by the beauty,” said André. “Or the press. Everybody gets nasty or shy, and she's nobody to be afraid of. She's a very unassuming, gentle, and intelligent woman. When she's in Ireland all she does is cook and garden and sit at night and read in front of the fire. In New York she's content to walk in the park or just go out to a movie.”

“And she's had terrible luck with men,” said Mary, “men I'd like to murder, really. Listen to me about you and women, Nathan, because you're as bad as she is. I've watched you mismated three times now. You married the fey elfin dancer who you could crush with one finger, you had the neurotic society girl betraying her class, and as far as I could tell, this last one was actually a certified public saint. Frankly, how you picked that Mother Superior I'll never know. But then there's a little Mother Superior in you too, isn't there? Or maybe that's part of the act. Keeping the Kike at Bay. More Goyish than the Puritan Fathers.”

“Right to the heart of my mystery. Can't fool Mary.”

“I don't think you fool yourself. For God's sake, come out from behind all that disgusting highbrow disapproval of the fallen people having fun. What's the sense of it after that book? You've thrown all that professor-shit precisely where it belongs—now enjoy a real man's life. And this time with a certified
Do you really not know what you're getting in Caesara O'Shea? Aside from the most beautiful thing in creation? Dignity, Nathan. Bravery. Strength. Poetry. My God, it's the very heart of Ireland you're getting!”

“Mary, I read the movie magazines too. From the sound of it, her grandfather cut the turf to warm the hut of Mary Magdalene. I may be a comedown from all that.”

“Nathan,” said André, “I promise you, she'll be as unsure of herself as you are.”

“Who isn't,” replied Zuckerman, “aside from Mary and Muhammad Ali?”

“He means,” said Mary, “that you can be yourself with her.”

“And who's that?”

“You'll come up with something,” André assured him.

*   *   *

Her gown was a spectacular composition of flame-colored veils and painted wooden beads and cockatoo feathers; her hair hung in a heavy black braid down her back; and her eyes were her eyes. Serving herself the haddock mousse at dinner, she dropped a bit on the floor, making it easier for him to look directly into the celebrated Irish eyes and say things that made sense. Easier until he realized that maybe that was why she'd dropped it. Every time he turned her way, there was that face from those movies.

Not until after dinner, when they were able to move away from the other guests, and from the presumptuous intimacy of place cards inches apart, could they manage to speak intimately. It lasted only five minutes, but did not lack for fervor on either side. They had both read Ellmann's biography of Joyce and, from the sound of it, had never dared to confess the depths of their admiration for the book to anyone before; from the hushed tones, you might have thought that to do so was a criminal offense. Zuckerman revealed that he had once met Professor Ellmann up at Yale. They had actually met at a literary ceremony in New York where each had been awarded a prize, but he didn't want to appear to be trying to impress, given how hard he was trying.

His meeting Ellmann did the trick. He couldn't have come off better had it been Joyce himself. Zuckerman's temples were damp with perspiration, and Caesara had two hands drawn emotionally to her breasts. It was then that he asked if he could see her home later. She whispered yes, twice, mistily, then sailed in her veils across the room—she didn't want to appear oblivious to all the other guests she had been utterly oblivious to. So she put it.

Unsure of herself? A case could be made against that.

On the street, while Zuckerman waved to attract a cab a block away, a limousine pulled up. “Take me home in this?” Caesara asked.

Curled down beside him in the back seat, she explained that she could call day or night from Ireland and Mary was there to buck her up and tell her whom to hate and revile. He said he got much the same service in New York. She told him about all that the Schevitzes had done for her three children, and he told her about convalescing at their Southampton guest house after having nearly died of a burst appendix. He knew it sounded as though he had almost died of wounds incurred at Byron's side during the struggle for Greek independence, but talking to Caesara O'Shea in the velvety back seat of a dark limousine, you came out sounding a little like Caesara O'Shea in the velvety back seat of a dark limousine. Appendicitis as a passionate, poetic drama. He heard himself being awfully sensitive about the “slant of light” on the Southampton beach during his convalescent morning walks. On and on about the slant of light, when, according to an item in that day's paper, a certain scene in his book was considered responsible for the fifty percent increase in the sale of black silk underwear at smart New York department stores.

You'll come up with something, André had said. And this was it: the slant of light and my operation.

He asked whom she was named for, if anyone. Who was Caesara the First?

In the softest voice imaginable, she told him. “… for a Hebrew woman, the niece of Noah. She sought refuge in Ireland from the universal flood. My people,” she said, her white hand to her white throat, “were the first to be interred there. The first of the Irish ghosts.”

“You believe in ghosts?” And why not? What better question to ask? How the Movement should respond if Nixon mines Haiphong harbor? Haven't you been over that enough with Laura? Just look at her.

“Let's say the ghosts believe in me,” she replied.

“I can understand why they would,” said Zuckerman. And why not? Fun was fun. A real man's life.

Still, he made no attempt to embrace her, neither while she was curled girlishly in the back seat feeding him her gentle, harmless, hypnotic blarney, nor when she stood nobly before him at the doorway of the Pierre, a woman nearly his height, with her black braid and her heavy gold earrings and her gown of veils and beads and feathers, looking in all like the pagan goddess they made the sacrifices for in a movie of hers he'd seen at college. Perhaps he might have drawn her to him had he not noticed, on entering the car, a copy of
lying on the seat beside the driver. The mustached young man must have been reading to pass the time while Miss O'Shea was at dinner. A hip Smilin' Jack in sunglasses and full livery, his nose in Zuckerman's book. No, he wasn't about to impersonate his own hungering hero for the further entertainment of the fans.

Under the lights of the hotel portico, with Smilin' Jack watching sideways from the car, he settled for shaking her hand. Mustn't confuse the driver about the hypothetical nature of fiction. Important to have that straight for the seminars back at the garage.

Zuckerman felt precisely the highbrow fool that Mary Schevitz had him down for. “After all you've been through,” he heard himself telling her, “you must be a little suspicious of men.”

With her free hand, she drew her silk shawl to her throat. “On the contrary,” she assured him, “I admire men. I wish I could have been one.”

“That seems an unlikely wish coming from you.”

“If I were a man, I could have protected my mother. I could have stood up for her against my father. He drank whiskey and he beat her.”

To which Zuckerman could only think to reply, “Good night, Caesara.” He kissed her lightly. Staggering to see that face coming up at his. It was like kissing a billboard.

He watched her disappear into the hotel. If only he
Carnovsky. Instead, he would go home and write it all down. Instead of having Caesara, he would have his notes.

“Look—” he called, rushing after her into the lobby.

She turned and smiled. “I thought you were hurrying away to see Professor Ellmann.”

“I have a proposal. Suppose we cut the crap, as best we can, and have a nightcap.”

“Both would be nice.”

“Where shall we try it?”

“Why not where all the writers go.”

“The New York Public Library? At this hour?”

She was close to him now, on his arm, heading back out the door to where the car was still waiting. The driver knew more than Zuckerman did about Zuckerman. Or about the lure of Miss O'Shea.

“No,” she said, “that place they all love so on Second Avenue.”

“Elaine's? Oh, I may not be the best person to show you Elaine's. The time I was there with my wife”—he had gone for dinner one evening with Laura, to see what it was all about—“we were seated as close to the lavatory as was possible without actually having the hand-towel concession. You're better off going with Salinger when he gets to town.”

“Salinger, Nathan, won't be seen anywhere but El Morocco.”

Couples filled the doorway waiting to get in, customers were lined up four deep at the bar waiting for a table, but this time the Zuckerman party was seated with a flourish of the manager's arms, and so far from the toilet that had he needed it in a hurry he might have been at a serious disadvantage.

“Your star has risen,” whispered Caesara.

Everyone looked at her while she pretended that they were still talking alone in the car. “People in line out on the street. You'd think it was a Sadean brothel,” she said, “instead of just somewhere where they stir up the mud. How I hate these places.”

“You do? Why did we come, then?”

“I thought it would be interesting watching you hate it too.”

“Hate this? To me it's a great night out.”

“I see that by the grinding jaws.”

“Sitting here with you,” Zuckerman told her, “I can feel my face actually blurring out. I feel like the out-of-focus signpost in a news photo of a head-on collision. Does this happen wherever you go?”

“No, not in the rain in Connemara.”

Though they hadn't yet ordered, a waiter arrived with champagne. It was from a smiling gentleman at a corner table.

“For you?” Zuckerman asked Caesara, “or me?” and meanwhile rose half out of his chair to acknowledge the generosity.

“Either way,” said Caesara, “you'd better go over—they can turn on you if you don't.”

Zuckerman crossed between the tables to shake his hand: a happy, heavyset man, deeply tanned, who introduced the deeply tanned woman with him as his wife.

“Kind of you,” said Zuckerman.

“My pleasure. I just want to tell you what a great job you've done with Miss O'Shea.”

“Thank you.”

“She only has to come on in that dress and she's got the room in the palm of her hand. She looks great. She's still got it. The tragic empress of sex. After all this time. You've done a wonderful job with her.”

“Who?” asked Caesara, when Zuckerman returned.


“What were you talking about?”

“The great job I've done with you. I'm either your hairdresser or your agent.”

The waiter uncorked the champagne and they raised their glasses to the corner table. “Now tell me, Nathan, who are the other famous people, aside from yourself? Who's that famous person?”

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