In Light Of Night — Michael Aliprandini
I. Daylight Shooting
The bus driver took the bendy road, with diligent speed and consummate skill, up from the port of Rinella and around the base of one of Salina’s volcanoes before descending to the famed Pollara Beach on the western side of the island. Ayla and I were together on this journey around Sicily yet also at times on separate journeys. I was looking out at the rugged Mediterranean landscape while she, tucked low beside me, one sweaty knee pressed against the seat in front of us, was immersed in one of my books. We both stank of sulfur because we’d coated ourselves in the pale green mud baths on the island of Vulcano the day before. This was our first trip as a couple.
She let the book drop into her lap, snapping my attention from the view out the window. I was about to make some banal comment about the vegetation reminding me of southern Arizona when I noticed her look of urgent upset. She budged away from me, ostensibly because our upper arms pressing together formed a meniscus of sweat.
“Has Louis-Ferdinand put a foot wrong?” I asked, for she was reading Journey to the End of the Night and had previously been enthusiastic. She paused, looking groggy and thirsty, and then came out with what would be a prescient verdict. She’d just read a passage that cast light on my character and worried that it might spell trouble for our future together. She demurred to tell me which passage it was. “Maybe you’ll recognize it when you read it.”
Not only was Ayla beautiful; beauty, intelligence, honesty, warmth all met in her. I trusted her judgment, was made curious by it. What’s more, my infatuation notwithstanding, I hadn’t lost all recourse to pragmatic thought. We’d both shown a willingness to adapt, and I was certain we could work out any troubles that came up. I’d already made some changes to my life and was falling over myself to make more. Equally important in that moment was the unintended flattery of her comment. There was truth about my character in a novel by Céline, whose reputation held him to be a scabrous, dark, acute diagnostician. Yes, please! (I’ve always liked hard, unflattering truths and relish applying them to myself, though there is, I admit, a tad less relish when others do the applying.) And that she too worked from the premise that literature could trace the nuances of a life and plumb its depths only made my dizzy feelings dizzier.
I often seem keen on missing the point.
The bus deposited us at the famed beach framed by tawny cliffs, lapped by scintillating waters. The coasts of Sicily were infested with small jellyfish that summer. As I swam with my head above water to better spot the languid beasts and make a current to keep them at bay, I was trying to do likewise for a now-energized sense of panic. She’d just announced that one of my qualities might bode the end of us. Wary of the sting, I started second-guessing her feelings for me and came to the conclusion that we’d probably call it quits when she left Italy for Turkey in a couple of weeks. Six months later—six months in which I met her parents, in which she returned to Turkey, in which I visited her in Turkey, in which we traveled around the country of Georgia together and at the end of which she agreed that I should follow her to Washington, D.C., where she was starting law school; six months in which I pulled up stakes in Italy and moved back stateside after eight years, found two jobs and a room in a squalid apartment; one night six months later, at the kitchen table of her apartment in Georgetown, she said she didn’t love me anymore. Right then I should have insisted that she point out the passage in Céline’s novel, but the idea didn’t break through the pulsing humiliation and I just reached for another of her Marlboro Lights. She asked if I was going to say anything. I wasn’t. I couldn’t find it in me to speak.
As hard as I’d fallen for Ayla, I only felt wretched for a day and semi-wretched for a week, and then I had made it through most of the layers of self-loathing and anger and confusion. I recovered much faster than I would have expected, whether to the credit of emotional resilience or emotional scarcity—or perhaps the resilience of scarce emotions. The most rotten part of the affair was being stuck in the United States until the following summer, when I accepted a teaching contract in Indonesia.
It turned out to be a short journey to the end of us, about eight months in total. Night fell and day would follow, though Céline knew from his war-time experiences that it was easier to get shot at during the day. When I started rereading his novel with Ayla’s gloomy forecast in mind, I was ready for daylight and its clarity. I was ready to be—I wanted to be—shot at.
Ayla and I had met on a volunteer project based in a mountaintop village in Liguria. In exchange for a place to stay, we did manual labor to help restore some of the village’s stone houses. We carried bricks, we carried sacks of cement, we tore off rotting rooves, we varnished beams, and we had plenty of free time. Once we became a couple, there was the persistent question as to whether we could function outside the rarefied atmosphere of Baiardo. My initial interpretation was that our relationship foundered once it was exposed to a wider range of forces and stresses following my move back to the United States. That may be part of the truth, but any worthwhile investigation has to push into the bedrock of our characters and cultures.
Though at times I pondered the mystery of our end, I felt more compelled to sideline than solve it. My unwillingness to investigate was even stranger given that she’d left me a clue in a dark, scabrous, 435-page novel. What could be more tempting to a literary wonk like myself? And yet when I first read Journey to the End of the Night a few years after our break-up, I diligently read it on its own terms rather than attempting to pinpoint the passage that had tripped Ayla’s alarm. What struck me on that first reading was Céline’s lack of illusion about the miserable, splenetic human condition. No one was safe from his analysis…Nothing was sacred…Shit was more fortunate than we were, on some scores…In short, we were all fucked, and all the way down to the deepest levels.
My relationship with Ayla unraveled over two-thirds of 2006. Only fourteen years later did I finally decide to reread the novel in light of the episode on the bus, in light of her reading of me. This time around it would be less the mind in service of the text than the text in the service of the mind, more of a gloss on myself than on the book, a species of reader-response with very personal priorities, a move from damning generalities to damning specifics. Would I be mis-using literature by cherry-picking suggestive passages and applying them to personal quandaries? But isn’t literature, in part, a complicated guide to our complicated lives, or is that merely lip-service?
I read the same worn copy that Ayla had read: the 1983 New Directions edition, in the Ralph Manheim translation (The novel was originally published in 1932.) I write inveterately in my books, leaving numerous signs of my passage through. Ayla did not, or at least not in my books, so there were no easy clues to be gleaned. I believe she’d been around a third of the way through the novel when she’d let it drop into her lap. Nonetheless, I ransacked the entire text for clues and tentative answers, writing her initials beside each likely passage.
III. Investigation: Mainly Foreground
Ayla and I were an improbable couple from the beginning. We both had a passion for literature and cinema, for Russian culture and Turkish culture, for travel and good food. We’d both lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, and, before meeting her, I’d lived in Turkey for nearly three years. I’d say we both had a touch or more than a touch of what Céline called an incurable melancholy coupled with a bleak take on the human condition. Russian literature and history drew us in for a reason.
For the rest, we were a study in contrasts.
To begin with, there was the significant difference in our ages.1 I was almost ten years older, and the gap was further accentuated by her being twenty-three and just out of university when we met. Yet though I was older, I was also less mature and apparently lost in idealistic absurdities. At times Ayla reproached me for being naïve. I remember once criticizing US foreign policy and arguing that the United States shouldn’t be allowed to hold itself above international law, that its abuses in the latter half of the 20th century were flagrant and heinous and had little of the benevolent about them. Usually she was open to debate, and she was more talented at extemporizing. That time, though, she may have been bored with the argument or had a more astute grasp of realpolitik because she shut down discussion, snapping that international law was impossible to enforce.
Ayla was more mature in other ways, too. Before we started sleeping together, I hadn’t had many sexual experiences and I’d been celibate for the previous thirteen years. I’ve never been particularly carnal; a certain sexual austerity has always served me well, however out of step it is with human biology and a dominant strain of much contemporary culture. Ayla had grown up in a more conservative culture, but her parents were more educated, liberal, and secular than mine. She wasn’t inhibited by sex and didn’t have my family’s cumbersome Catholic baggage, hardly lightened by the Second Vatican Council. The first night we kissed, I backed off from having sex, saying I wasn’t ready. Drunk on wine and grappa after a dinner in one of Baiardo’s rustic eateries, we were tangled in frenzied erogenous groping on the grass of a deconsecrated church that had lost its roof in the earthquake of 1887. The setting, which included a spookily lit alcove containing a statue of the village’s patron saint, further complicated my already complicated desires. When I felt ready a week or so later, I explained my situation to Ayla, and she marveled at the length of my celibacy and said that she would never have been able to manage such abstinence. She was a patient and confident lover whom I surprised with my physical warmth and tactility. Until then I’d given her the impression of being some sort of alien who shrank from human touch.2
As our relationship gathered steam, my immaturity was also expressed in how I loved. Before Ayla, I had been rather dismissive of love and neither longing nor looking to meet anyone. Under her influence, I was converted into a very serious swain. Screw Kierkegaard, and screw pledging my heart until Easter or May Day! Once I had established that we could make space for solitary pursuits within our relationship, I started fantasizing about forever, with an intense ideation, proclaiming my love and floating the possibility of following her to the United States in the Fall. My hastiness startled her.3 She was by no means immune to romantic feelings, but she moved with more circumspection, trying to work me out and trying to work out if we could have a future together. Here, too, she was more of a realist. Initially, she may also have been expecting little more than a fling, limited in time and place.
Her realism aside, Ayla was not at all a hard person. She was tough-minded, but her character was both soft and firm and capable of a range of feelings. In part because of my austerity, in part because of my immaturity, my reputation is for being full of edges, or prickly, or just plain shitty. I have a tendency to spit venom with little warning, and it must have crossed Ayla’s mind whether she might ever be on the receiving end of such treatment, whether, at least in moments of high pique, I was thoroughly vicious, splenetic through and through. I remember finishing in that period Yevgenia Ginzburg’s memoir Journey Into the Whirlwind and being so devastated by her experiences of persecution under Stalin that I announced my intention to never be mean to anyone ever again. Ayla, sagely, responded: “Just try not being mean to Aldo,” Aldo being a skilled laborer who oversaw our day-to-day work in the village and often irritated me with his troglodyte ways. Had she understood that she was helping me overcome my nature, smoothing my edges?4 Hadn’t I fallen in love with her partly because she could remedy some of my defects? In the love sweepstakes, this is a most demanding role—and one that is difficult to imagine being in high demand.
Of course, I wasn’t aiming to throw myself over entirely, wasn’t aiming to betray my core identity. The goal was to accommodate each other, our flaws and quirks, our growth and maturation. Yet despite my assurances that I had it in me to be accommodating, it’s easy to see why Ayla might have had her doubts. For I am a solitary5 and restless6 man.
As a child, I’d often felt lonely and struggled to keep myself entertained—until I discovered books. Books led me to better books and in time to history and philosophy and art and archaeology and to experiences outside of books, in cinemas and museums, in travels around the world. Once my intellectual projects took shape, I realized that I would never be bored or lonely again and became zealous about guarding my solitude. I’ve long understood my most fundamental pursuits—reading, writing, visiting museums, watching movies, walking—as best done or only done alone. While I hold great store in discussing these experiences, discussion is always ancillary. Just as I need to prepare myself psychologically to be in company, so do I need to prepare myself, in solitude, for such discussions. I might have made a good monk if a belief in God weren’t requisite and the church fathers would have left me alone to figure out my own pagan-aesthetic creed. It is not self-denial for me to be alone; it is often self-denial for me to be with others.
Even travel, which is commonly undertaken in company, is made radically different by company. Before meeting Ayla, I had most often traveled alone and preached the virtues of solo travel as some sort of first principle. I’ve since taken many enjoyable trips with others, but traveling in company does mean your attention is often diverted away from local people and places. If I hadn’t been traveling alone around Syria in 1999, would I have been invited for tea in the house of a graverobber at the ancient Roman site of Apamea? Would I have accepted the invitation for dinner at the house of a young Turkish man whom I met on a street corner in Amasya and who, once we were seated for the meal, explained that he’d just been released from a mental hospital after electroshock therapy? Would I have wandered the souks of Sana’a looking for skewers of grilled liver, been measured for a custom-made jalabiya, and been nearly swept down the streets by a flash flood because I didn’t think it would rain so torrentially in the desert? I’ve since settled down, but between 1998 and 2012, I was a restless traveler, from how I moved around a room to how I moved around the world, and the rhythm was such that few could or would have wanted to follow. In that period, I lived in six countries, two of them twice, and travelled in another sixteen.
The thing about wanting to be alone, and saying how much you like being alone, is that people eventually start leaving you alone. Solitude can be denigrated as a barrier that shuts out the world or more generously described as a reserve of privacy, a distancing device, a means to keep mind and body cool and clear while tracking the world. The gregarious would have you believe that it is a state submitted to less by choice than because of a character flaw or extreme timidity. Solitary folk, the logic goes, long to spring themselves from their horrible, soiled cages and find a cure for the debilitating mange of loneliness and missed connections.7
By the time I met Ayla, I had lived in my determined, disciplined way for over a decade, more or less since my third year in university. The day after the lovefest began, she confided how unsure she’d been about my interest in her; she’d been contemplating leaving Baiardo earlier than planned in order to gauge my reaction. Through the medium of our relationship, for her and because of her, I became more adept at sharing myself. I was ready to enlarge my conception of how to live that included large spaces for being together and smaller spaces for being alone. After all, most people who have the same solitary pursuits don’t lead monastic lives. Ultimately, though, I may not have been convincing enough. I may have remained too private, too immature, too set in my ways, too restless. Perhaps she didn’t believe that she was enough to effect change or that anyone could be enough. The movies—and the books and notebooks and museums and trips—were much more than mild antidotes.8
In the end, she may have realized that I was a solo traveler on my journeys around the world and on my journeys through life. “You have a different heart,” two Turkish colleagues had once told me—and it wasn’t a compliment. Indeed. If I’d been in Ayla’s place, I most likely would have given up, too.
IV. Investigation: Mainly Background
The foregoing has mainly been foreground: two individuals fall in love and try but fail to stick together. Pivoting from the egocentric to the ego in context will make for a more complete picture. Ayla’s and my very different social backgrounds may not have determined the outcome of our relationship, but they certainly had bearing on it. Class and education were two of the more critical factors.
If you’d asked me as a young adult which socioeconomic class I belonged to, I would have said the middle class; articulating its influence on my views and attitudes, however, would have been beyond me. Even now I find it challenging to give a clear reckoning, not because it’s uncomfortable or taboo but because the coming to class consciousness—different than the pointing out of a few of its external markers—is something of a meta-operation. Class imbues our lives, and yet it’s easy to get carried away by the specificity of a life at the expense of its underlying positions, assumptions, and biases. I may also have resisted coming to terms with my broader circumstances for fear that they would undermine a belief in the sui generis individual. Such class unconsciousness may be a symptom unique to the middle class. Didier Eribon, in his illuminating memoir Returning to Reims, argues as much: “What strikes me as particularly undeniable is that the absence of the feeling of belonging to a class is characteristic of children of the bourgeoisie.”
Both my parents came from working class families. My father finished high school while my mother trained in a two-year university program to become a dental hygienist. He worked as a carpenter and in the copper mines of our Arizona town, she worked for several local dentists, and they owned a bar for many years as well. Through dint of hard work, they raised me in a solid, middle-class home. There are nineteen years between their first child and me, their last child, and five children in between; and, of course, I had a more pampered upbringing than my oldest siblings. It was at university that I learned to sling bourgeois and philistine as interchangeable insults, as labels to mock conventional attitudes and push back against my staid upbringing in order to give space to the more radical ideas I was being exposed to and wanted to integrate into my identity. Only a remark from one of my literature professors gave me pause in my hell-for-leather repudiation scheme. “Don’t mock the bourgeoisie,” Dr. Helms once said during a lecture. “It’s where most writers come from.”
Ayla was an only child. Her parents were both doctors, and not in the way that Céline was a doctor. They had significant social capital in Istanbul, and Ayla had explained that while not well-off on their own, they were well-off by extension, as a result of her grandmother’s wealth. It is a truism that sex and love can cut through class differences, but long-term relationships across classes do have their own special obstacles.9
Yet I don’t believe that my middle-class background was perforce a stumbling block for Ayla. The real problem was more likely my aversion to the ambitions at its core—a career path, steady raises, a 401k plan, further formal education. She may have wondered whether my life choices spelled a slip down the class ladder. After university, I hadn’t made the choices I’d been conditioned to make. I had been happy—thrilled—to earn extremely little as long as I had enough money and plenty of time to indulge my passions. Education—my literary education in particular—is to blame for my downfall.
I grew up nerdy in a slack-jawed town and did well in its rudimentary public schools before going to Arizona State University, where I studied literature. Despite pressure and encouragement to continue onto graduate school—all of my siblings completed their bachelor’s degree but went no further—I decided to move abroad instead. Ayla’s formal education befit her class, her aspirations, and her abilities. She was born and raised in Istanbul and studied at a private high school where illustrious figures like Orhan Pamuk had matriculated. She then went onto study literature at Harvard and law at Georgetown.
Ayla and I used education for distinctly different aims. Beyond whatever personal and professional satisfactions it provided her, education was one of the means to maintain her societal standing. For me instead it has been the map to living well while not being well-off, to living in contravention of most middle-class values and aspirations. Education is not for hallowed degrees. It is not to increase purchasing power and accumulate more and better. My aim was—and still is, I suppose—to earn access to a separate class based not on money or inherited social privileges but on cultural capital; an aesthetic class.
Towards the end of my university career, I started developing an ambivalent relationship to formal education. While deeply desirous of knowledge and the critical tools to analyze and reflect on it, I was also suspicious of the idea that such an education—I obviously intend a liberal arts education—is best or solely gained within institutions of higher learning, through official channels. I therefore pledged to organize my life around rigorous study in combination with equally rigorous experience, without being brought to heel by the demands of the workaday world; museums and theaters, cinemas and archaeological sites, city walks and nature walks, a suitcase of books and notebooks, would be my vaunted athenaeum. It was a compromise, with advantages and disadvantages, and one that I have yet to regret.
Judging from some of her reservations and infrequent but pointed intellectual dressing-downs, I assume that Ayla found my education (formal and informal) to be wanting and my ideas about education (specifically as they pertained to the virtues of autodidacticism) to be naïve. She wasn’t against informal education, but going by her own academic track, she would have it coupled with formal education lest it be superficial.10 Law school, for example, was going to take apart and then remake her entire mode of thinking. To guide oneself into such consequential learning would be rare, the province of truly exceptional minds.
Ayla wasn’t a snob about her Harvard degree. She was rather in the habit of downplaying it, saying that she could confirm the university’s reputation of being difficult to get into but a relatively easy ride thereafter. My tendency to use education and high culture as a means to set myself apart from the ghoulish philistines who didn’t read or read bad books, who squandered their lives in facile pursuits, may have come across as ridiculous to her, a pretension meant to obfuscate my middling and curtailed education in a gaseous Romantic view of the outsider aesthete-intellectual. “Foul affectations!” she might have said. What she did say when I weighed in on Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf as underdeveloped and less riveting than his other movies—Caché had been released the year before and I was working my way through his oeuvre—was that maybe I hadn’t understood it. Or, after sharing a short story of mine, she made a free-floating comment that must have been her verdict: “Don’t you sometimes read something and think its author just isn’t going to make it?”
I’ve reached the end of the journey to the end of the night. In the subsequent daylight, while reading the novel and analyzing my character, stung by a few of the possible truths, I’ve caught myself thinking: Yeah, go fuck yourself, Ayla! More often than not, though, hovering over the same possible truths, I’ve thought: You may just be right, and thank you for the insights.
Why did she fall out of love with me? I imagine it to be a complex of the reasons elaborated above and a couple of others that didn’t find correspondence in Céline’s novel. What intrigues me most is whether the passage in Journey to the End of the Night that provoked or clarified her concerns about me is among the passages I’ve cited. If I were to wager on a single passage, it would be the one that reads like a transcription of my being in that period, the one about the vice, the mania, of restlessness.6
Yeah, go fuck yourself—and thank you.
After we broke up, I returned to my natural state: to solitude and privacy, to fundamental pursuits, to the dimensions of space and time that correspond to the measure of a man—this man. In 2008 I settled in Italy, and a few years ago I bought a stone house in a tiny mountainside village in Lazio. Box by box my library arrives from Arizona, boxes of nuance, scripts of life alongside which or against which to position my own life, as the case may be.
Last night, reading a biography of Max Jacob, my dog beside me in bed, her front legs languidly charging through a dreamscape of the surrounding forests as she sniffed out traces of whiskery boar and treed dormice, I had a seizure of panic and dropped the book (If only it had been at the moment that Apollinaire’s head injury is recounted, Apollinaire reading—of course—in a trench in World War I, when fragments from a shell pierce his skull; but, alas, it was several chapters later.) Regardless, the book dropped into my lap as it dawned on me that Journey to the End of the Night hadn’t been the only Céline novel on my shelves in that epoch. What if Ayla had been reading Death on the Installment Plan instead?
- “If only I had met Molly sooner, when it was still possible to choose one road rather than another. Before that bitch Musyne and that little turd Lola crimped my enthusiasm. But it was too late to start being young again. I didn’t believe in it anymore. We grow old so quickly and, what’s more, irremediably.”
- “You amuse yourself as best you can when you’re short of friends and don’t often get a chance to go out, much less to emerge from yourself and fuck.”
- “Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment. Being in love is nothing, it’s sticking together that’s difficult. Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow. On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit…”
- “The woman who can turn our despicable nature to account has no difficulty in becoming our darling, our indispensable and supreme hope.”
- “An intense inner life suffices to itself, it can melt an icepack that has been building up for twenty years.”
- “I had started out as the restless type. Little by little, without realizing it, you begin to take your role and fate seriously, and before you know it, it’s too late to change. You’re a hundred percent restless, and it’s set that way for good…I was very fond of [Molly], but I was even fonder of my vice, my mania for running away from everywhere in search of God knows what, driven, I suppose, by stupid pride, by a sense of some sort of superiority.”
- “When you start hiding from people, it’s a sign that you’re afraid to play with them. That in itself is a disease. We should try to find out why we refuse to get cured of loneliness.”
- “When night came, I needed the erotic promiscuity of those splendid, welcoming creatures to restore my soul. The movies were no longer enough, that mild antidote was powerless to fight the physical horror of the factory. To survive, I needed lecherous tonics, drastic elixirs.”
- “It was obvious that my darling was going to leave me, flat and soon. I hadn’t found out yet that mankind consists of two very different races, the rich and the poor. It took me…and plenty of other people…twenty years and the war to learn to stick to my class and ask the price of things before touching them, let alone setting my heart on them.”
- “Study changes a man, puts pride into him. You need it to get to the bottom of life. Without it you just skim the surface. You think you’re in the know, but trifles throw you off. You dream too much. You content yourself with words instead of going deeper.”
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. Journey to the End of the Night. New York: New Directions, 1983.
Eribon, Didier. Returning to Reims. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents, 2013.
Michael Aliprandini is a freelance writer and editor living in the Italian countryside. His short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including Nude Bruce Review, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Counterclock, Crooked Arrow Press, and Columbia Journal. He is the assistant editor of Litro Magazine.