Liesl had said little during the quarrel—or rivalry of egotisms, or whatever you choose to call it—but she caught me the following morning before the film crew arrived, and seemed to be in high spirits.
“So Magnus has come to the confessional moment in his life,” she said. “Its been impending for several months. Didn’t you notice? You didn’t? Oh, Ramsay, you are such a dunce about some things. If Magnus were the kind of man who could write an autobiography, this is when he would do it.”
“Magnus has an autobiography already. I should know. I wrote it.”
“A lovely book. Phantasmata: the Life and Adventures of Magnus Eisengrim. But that was for sale at his performance; a kind of super-publicity. A splendid Gothic invention from your splendid Gothic imagination.”
“That’s not the way he regards it. When people ask he tells them that it is a poetic autobiography, far more true to the man he has become than any merely factual account of his experience could be.”
“I know. I told him to say that. You don’t suppose he thought it out himself, do you? You know him. He’s marvellously intelligent in his own way—sensitive, aware, and intuitive—but it’s not a literary or learned intelligence. Magnus is a truly original creature. They are of the greatest rarity. And as I say, he’s reached the confessional time of life. I expect we shall hear some strange things.”
“Not as strange as I could tell about him.”
“I know, I know. You are obsessed with the idea that his mother was a saint. Ramsay, in all your rummaging among the lives of the saints, did you ever encounter one who had a child? What was that child like? Perhaps we shall hear.”
“I’m a little miffed that he considers telling these strangers things he’s never told to you and me.”
“Ass! It’s always strangers who turn the tap that lets out the truth. Didn’t you yourself babble out all the secrets of your life to me within a couple of weeks of our first meeting? Magnus is going to tell.”
“But why now?”
“Because he wants to impress Lind. He’s terribly taken with Lind, and he has his little fancies, like the rest of us. Once he wanted to impress me, but it wasn’t the right time in his life to spill the whole bottle.”
“But Ingestree suggested that Lind might do some telling, too. Are we to have a great mutual soul-scrape?”
“Ingestree is very foxy, behind all that fat and twinkling bonhomie. He knows Lind won’t tell anything. For one thing, it’s not his time; he’s only forty-three. And he is inhibited by his education; it makes people cagey. What he tells us he tells through his films, just as Ingestree suggested that Robert-Houdin revealed himself through his tricks. But Magnus is retired—or almost. Also he is not inhibited by education, which is the great modern destroyer of truth and originality. Magnus knows no history. Have you ever seen him read a book? He really thinks that whatever has happened to him is unique. It is an enviable characteristic.”
“Well, every life is unique.”
“To a point. But there are only a limited number of things a human creature can do.”
“So you think he is going to tell all?”
“Not all. Nobody tells that. Indeed, nobody knows everything about themselves. But I’ll bet you anything you like he tells a great deal.”
I argued no further. Liesl is very shrewd about such things. The morning was spent in arrangements about lighting. A mobile generator from Zurich had to be put in place, and all the lamps connected and hung; the riding-school was a jungle of pipe-scaffolding and cable. Kinghovn fussed over differences which seemed to me imperceptible, and as a script-girl stood in for Eisengrim while the lighting was being completed, he had time to wander about the riding-school, and as lunchtime approached he steered me off into a corner.
“Tell me about subtext,” he said.
“Its a term modern theatre people are very fond of. It’s what a character thinks and knows, as opposed to what the playwright makes him say. Very psychological.”
“Give me an example.”
“Do you know Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler?”
He didn’t, and it was a foolish question. He didn’t know anything about any literature whatever. I waded in.
“It’s about a beautiful and attractive woman who has married, as a last resort, a man she thinks very dull. They have returned from a honeymoon during which she has become greatly disillusioned with him, but she knows she is already pregnant. In the first act she is talking to her husband’s adoring aunt, trying to be civil as the old woman prattles on about the joys of domesticity and the achievements of her nephew. But all the time she has, in her mind, the knowledge that he is dull, timid, a tiresome lover, that she is going to have a child by him, and that she fears childbirth. That’s the subtext. The awareness of it thickens up the actress’s performance, and emphasizes the irony of the situation.”
“I understand. It seems obvious.”
“First-rate actors have always been aware of it, but dramatists like Shakespeare usually brought the subtext up to the surface and gave it to the audience directly. Like Hamlet’s soliloquies.”
“I’ve never seen Hamlet.”
“Do you think the circumstances of my own life really form a subtext for this film?”
“God only knows. One thing is certain: unless you choose to tell Lind and his friends about your life, it can’t do so.”
“You’re quite wrong. I would know, and I suppose whatever I do is rooted in what I am, and have been.”
It was never wise to underestimate Magnus, but I was always doing so. The pomposity of the learned. Because he didn’t know Hamlet and Hedda I tended to think him simpler than he was.
“I’m thinking of telling them a few things, Dunny. I might surprise them. They’re all so highly educated, you know. Education is a great shield against experience. It offers so much, ready-made and all from the best shops, that there’s a temptation to miss your own life in pursuing the lives of your betters. It makes you wise in some ways, but it can make you a blindfolded fool in others. I think I’ll surprise them. They talk so much about art, but really, education is just as much a barrier between a man and real art as it is in other parts of life. They don’t know what a mean old bitch art can be. I think I’ll surprise them.”
So Liesl had been right! He was ready to spill.
Well, I was ready to hear. Indeed, I was eager to hear. My reason was deep and professional. As an historian I had all my life been aware of the extraordinary importance of documents. I had handled hundreds of them: letters, reports, memoranda, sometimes diaries; I had always treated them with respect, and had come in time to have an affection for them. They summed up something that was becoming increasingly important to me, and that was an earthly form of immortality. Historians come and go, but the document remains, and it has the importance of a thing that cannot be changed or gainsaid. Whoever wrote it continues to speak through it. It might be honest and it might be complete: on the other hand it could be thoroughly crooked or omit something of importance. But there it was, and it was all succeeding ages possessed.
I deeply wanted to create, or record, and leave behind me a document, so that whenever its subject was dealt with in future, the notation “Ramsay says…” would have to appear. Thus, so far as this world is concerned, I should not wholly die. Well, here was my chance.
Would anyone care? Indeed they would. I had written an imaginative account of the life of Magnus Eisengrim, the great conjuror and illusionist, at his own request and that of Liesl, who had been the manager and in a very high degree the brains of his great show, the Soiree of Illusions. The book was sold in the foyers of any theatre in which he appeared, but it had also had a flattering success on its own account; it sold astonishingly in the places where the really big sales of books are achieved—cigar stores, airports, and bus stops. It had extravagantly outsold all my other books, even my Hundred Saints for Travellers and my very popular Celtic Saints of Britain and Europe. Why? Because it was a wonderfully good book of its kind. Readable by the educated, but not rebuffing to somebody who simply wanted a lively, spicy tale.
Its authorship was still a secret, for although I received a half-share of the royalties, it was ostensibly the work of Magnus Eisengrim. It had done great things for him. People who believed what they read came to see the man who had lived the richly adventurous and macabre life described in it; sophisticates came to see the man who had written such gorgeous, gaudy lies about himself. As Liesl said, it was Gothic, full of enormities bathed in the delusive lights of nineteenth-century romance. But it was modern enough, as well; it touched the sexy, rowdy string so many readers want to hear.
Some day it would be known that I had written it. We had already received at Sorgenfrei a serious film offer and a number of inquiries from earnest Ph.D. students who explained apologetically that they were making investigations, of one kind or another, of what they called “popular literature”. And when it became known that I had written it, which would probably not be until Eisengrim and I were both dead, then—Aha! then my document would come into its own. For then the carefully tailored life of Magnus Eisengrim, which had given pleasure to so many millions in English, French, German, Danish. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and had been accorded the distinction of a pirated version in Japanese, would be compared with the version I would prepare from Eisengrim’s own confessions, and “Ramsay says…” would certainly be heard loud and clear.
Was this a base ambition for an historian and a hagiologist? What had Ingestree said? In every artist there is something black, something savouring of the crook. Was I, in a modest way, an artist? I was beginning to wonder. No, no; unless I falsified the record what could be dishonest, or artistic, about making a few notes?