Still Life

by radimentary

It is written: the best praise is imitation. This is hopefully the first in a series of short stories in which I attempt to imitate the style and the insight of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Ian was a happy man. He was an artist, a writer, a philosopher at a small university. But although he was an academic Ian was not a particularly smart man, for it was the sort of time and field such that it was easy to land a “research job” simply by having liked the right authors and studied with the right people. He thought about truth, justice, aesthetics, freedom but all of this especially now that he was in love – in love with a woman who – he felt – deserved a man of the loftiest intellect and intentions. All of this was false to his nature, and made all the more eloquent and compelling in its falseness – without the shackles of honesty Ian was free to improvise lavishly, and though he was a very ordinary actor he took an extraordinary pleasure from this new-found hobby.

The woman’s name was Vivienne, and so while she was only one-quarter French by blood and barely spoke the language, at that without intonation like a regular Englishwoman, naturally for Ian her Frenchness had blossomed into an obsessive mysticism. Ian delighted in learning the language and lathered her name with his phony accent – of which he was quite proud – “Vee-vee-ENNE” – especially so in company, where he shared with everyone who cared to know that he’d spent a semester studying literature in Paris – “Pah – REE” – that his favorite novel was Camus’ l’Etranger – “l-ay-traun-JAIR” and that the French were privy to the secrets of the soul never encountered in the streets of London – “LON-dreh.”

As for herself, Vivienne found Ian delightful. Despite the freedom of the times, her strict upbringing and reserved nature retained in her a sort of cloistered innocence – and while for other girls innocence often waxes gregarious and vain Vivienne’s was tempered by a great humility. In the morning she saw herself in the mirror, plain, a girl of few words, not well-read and having barely graduated secondary school, with no means and parents long passed, and nevertheless she felt that God had been even-handed with her and that she could be happy in her small and private life. Thus it was easy for her to excuse Ian’s exaggerated regard for her grandmother’s home country and what her friends called his phony manner, when to Vivienne it was clearly an expression of his boyish energy. With him she could sit for hours, nodding to his incoherent musings on the secrets of the soul and it seemed there could be no one more genuine than this gentle giant of a man, who every day without fail picked her up from work on his bicycle with a gaggle of art supplies and notebooks bursting out of the basket, who sent her baskets of fruit engraved with an archaic French verse that she needed the internet to translate, who became so excited when Vivienne framed and set one of his paintings on her wall that he promptly knocked over her favorite – and only – vase.

After she graduated, Vivienne’s uncle had found her a position as a dance instructor at the local primary school. Although it would be unfair to say that Vivienne was a born dancer, she’d started young and had the natural patience to hone her art so that her dancing seemed to Ian passionate and effortless. Ian stood in awe of her grace, himself the never fully comfortable tallest child, having overshot his two brothers during boyhood in the one race which didn’t matter. Seeing Vivienne spin and fly across the gymnasium floor he felt like one of the few bumbling children in her class whose innate clumsiness even Vivienne’s gentle touch never managed to correct.

This is not to say that Ian himself could not dance. At first, he had been shy to join her, much happier to sit quietly beside and paint – the result was always such a jumble of colorful nonsense that Vivienne could not help but giggle. Ian insisted to no avail that this was impressionism, that the leaps and bounds of the brush corresponded not to physical deformities of hers but to the emotions each of her leaps and bounds effected in him.

Finally, one day she convinced him to join her, “Ian, what is that you always like to say, ‘Do not wait for judgment, it takes place every day?’ ”

And to this Ian found no answer except to nod gravely and repeat this favorite phrase of his in the original French, “N’attendez pas le Jugement dernier. Il a lieu tous les jours.”

They became a regular duo in that poorly-lit primary school gymnasium, with only the balmy summer air for company. Ian began almost incorrigibly clumsy, but he was redeemed by his energy and his total lack of fear – sometimes he perversely imagined how poetic an honor it would be to fall and break his leg on one of these nights, though he never left with more than a string of bruises. What at first was painful and embarrassing soon became an exhilarating pastime – at odd hours of the night his neighbors would hear his heavy footsteps in time with the tune of a waltz or tango. These days, he came home after dancing with only bruises of the ego from Vivienne’s gentle jibes, and he was overcome with a great sincerity to master dancing, for it seemed to him it would be a great disservice – nay a crime – to her and to love itself if he should fail to learn, now that Vivienne had invested time and effort into teaching him. It was this curious state of mind that led Ian to apply himself passionately, as he had been almost morally opposed to do in school, to practicing dance, so much so that more and more Vivienne would fatigue and leaf through his sketchbooks on a bench while Ian finished his exercises by himself.

For Ian the school gymnasium held a special significance because he had first seen – not met – Vivienne there through the gym window when she was performing a simple ballet with a few favorite students for another class. He was walking to the university on this one day – his bike was in the shop – and it is difficult to describe without drawing the reader’s incredulity the reaction Ian had that day on seeing her dancing through the window. While some men would describe love at first sight as a sort of nervous energy in the pit of the stomach and even more would dismiss the idea altogether, Ian’s reaction was to become seized with an unpleasant and ridiculous shaking that traveled slowly up his spine. In fact he lost his balance altogether and had to lean on a nearby telephone pole before he finally recovered his composure.

Every weekday morning for the next several weeks Ian would arrange to walk by the school at the same time, to the minute, his dirty leather shoes squeaking across the street, making a walk that was the better part of three miles in length long after his bike had been repaired. Afraid of being spotted and labelled a pedophile, he spent barely two minutes of his hour-long walk on that street and rarely caught a glimpse of that beautiful, perfect creature who had claimed his heart. Ian recognized the absurdity of his own position, compounded by the fact that the school was barely a quarter of the way from his apartment to the university, but stubbornly persisted in this plan. In fact it seemed to him that these hour-long walks transformed his normally mundane and barbed conversations with his coworkers – it was universally acknowledged that everyone in the department privately regarded each others’ work as nonsense – they became pleasant and compelling, and those questions of life, consciousness, and agency personally relevant.

Their first meeting was of smaller significance. One day Ian decided that the allotted waiting time had passed and it was his duty as an Englishman to confront her after school and declare to her his existence – which in his mind implied in itself his undying love. This happened almost exactly as planned and although Vivienne was shocked and amused by his meandering intellectual pattern of speech and how absolutely it clashed with his ungainly height, she blushed and gave an almost imperceptible nod. They seemed inseparable ever since.