heavy curtains, empty rooms

a history of losing myself

Recently, I tweeted about memory. About the strange succulence of dredging something old and unfamiliar up to the surface. Stuff that is unretrievable by neural links (stapled unceremoniously into the lather of our brains), these memories — hazy, billowing — have no physical matter. They might not be real. They are so far away.

When I wrote those tweets, I was remembering days that were already punched out of shape, irregular, perhaps beautiful (even if I didn’t have the language for lyricism). Eight or nine years old (that’s a guess, made accurately), wandering the halls of a darkened and largely abandoned country estate. The English countryside, somewhere above the heavy thighs of London. On days when I was sick or pretended to be, my mum — the person responsible for looking after this estate in the frequent absence of its aristocratic owners — would have to bring me along, pale, uncertain, self-involved.

It was my first proper introduction to the already-dead mausolea of the gentry, proper Turgenev style. Later I’d think about his Home of the Gentry, and its soiled and nostalgic invocation of the estate of Glafira Petrovna, the house which “had not yet gone wild, but seemed already to have sunk into that quiet repose which possesses everything on earth wherever there is no restless human infection to affect it.” He’s being coy, and romantic. This house, of my youth, I won’t name. But I did Google the address and made eyes at this tumbling, 18th-century manse and its big, glowering lids which blink silently at rolling, barely tamed fields and copses, dirt tracks and loosened iron gates. This was the place where, over a course of stitched-together days, I’d roam loose. No school (I didn’t enjoy it). No extremity. Just the rooms, chaotic and dark and empty, all suffused in the burnt-sugar of crystallized and muddy brown. A house inside of a cigar, the inside of an ash-tray. Thick, asthmatic curtains, dirty paintings of past and forgotten scions — stubby fingers, rosy cheeks, mildewed uniforms. It may as well have been submerged, making me a kind of diver, holding my breath.

Joseph Mallord William Turner. Sion Ferry House, Isleworth: Sunset 1805

It struck me as what Bernhard, in his Correction, calls an encounter with the Absolutely Other. For him, a mirroring. Rotheimer who detests the country pile where he was born (suffocating, obtuse, cold), and who finds acceptance in the most, human homes of those who live nearby. Contrast. The narrator, who is drawn to Rottheimer’s family estate, Altensam. Fascinated, pulled, by its massif of difference. When you come from a modest background, a thing like a country estate — lifeless, tumbling, grand — can seem like a portal, or a hole in the ground. A system of caves, a shipwreck, a destroyed fortress. If your own driveway takes a few seconds to walk, here is a road — a road — which takes minutes of slow, grinding work to overcome. Gravel spilling and spitting beneath frantic tyres. The house was hidden in its landscape, as if cloaked by forgetting. It is the spewing watercolour of J.W.M. Turner’s Sion Ferry House, from 1805. Weeping, fading. Forgotten.

Today, I couldn’t reassemble the arrangement of those rooms. Even if I tried. In my memory (close my eyes, concentrate hard), I remember a vast oven, a set of winding stairs, a set of vast, deep, plushly-soft ‘formal’ stairs. Above, a huge and yawning corridor, one end that was truncated by a towering set of windows (maybe the height of an ordinary house). This was sheathed in thick, pillowy curtains, cutting out the light. Go close and you’d glimpse the distances beyond; green fields, lolling horses. Perhaps this is where the ballroom was; itself another dust-sheet-covered space, confusing — alienating — in its unencountered dimensions. Large, echoing, mournful. Who knew that such vast spaces could seem so small, so cramped - and littered with shadow? I think of Xavier Mellery’s coffee-stained, deeply-rouged rooms, claustrophobic and nervous. The Staircase, The Doors.

Xavier Mellery’s The Staircase, 1899

Long gone were the days when people came here and had fun. Chairs (flaking) were stacked to one side. A series of wall-hugging paintings, huge in their splaying. Boughs, dark woodland, the flicker of Romanesque arms. To think of Sergei Vinogradov, painting at the turn of the century, into its early and faltering skin — who knew its days were numbered? — saw all of this rural abjection as a kind of romantic distance, a powdery imagining. Summer at the cottage.

For Tarkovsky, years later, an exile, at the edge of the Baltic sea. Sacrifice (he was dying while the film was being shot, killed by the toxins of Stalker), it is a clapboard house, riven by anger and insoluble fear. Dark. Oil. And ultimately, fatally, flammable.

Elsewhere, a games room. A box of toys, a train set that looped around the entire room. You could crawl under its legs (I did) and emerge somewhere in the middle. There were multiple stations, distant and far away. I found it curious and alienating. There was even an entire costume cupboard, even appropriate for my diminutive little size. So I’d be dressed up for this sprawling and welcome sick day (a solider, a rider, in khaki and black), and do my best not to disturb my mum who had actual things to get on with, preventing the house from subsiding into the throat of the land. So you get yourself lost, peering at the antiquities and trophies of a dynasty who — I suspected — were living their lives elsewhere, somewhere bigger and more furious. Who could feel at ‘home’ amongst all this ageing splendour? The cracking of rot. Wet sounds. Clouds of roving dust.

I never connected the dots, later. How I was trying to find an expression for this place. Turgenev, Goncharov, Gogol. If you then study anthropology (as an adult), and Russian literature, as I did, then you’re already looking for something Other and something specific, imagined. From a similar genre of the living-dead, I went to college and learned about tropical islands and tropical maladies and the people who caught them (from the people who brought them). I learnt about the Russian’s own obsession with obsolescence, the rural rot which existed beyond the luscious lap of Moscow and St. Petersburg, those brilliant and crystalline cities. For Gogol, it was Dead Souls and Chichikov’s creepy and clandestine plots among the many faded piles of the rural gentry. Petty, trivial, vain, oafish aristocrats in their sleepy homes with “cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner.” For Goncharov, it was the dilapidated home of the eponymous protagonist, and the faded, romanticized notion of his old childhood home in the country - a place that existed only as a dream, unassailable, inaccessible. There are no load-bearing walls in the worlds of our sleep.