The column: A palpable hit
A domestic dispute leads Howard Jacobson into a spot of social awkwardness, but harmony returns with a stinging rebuke from an old friend
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 30 January 1999
However, an event touching on my personal life has just occurred, of such a bewildering complexion, of such unexpectedness and high dramatic coloration, of such moral and psychological extravagance, that I must violate our unwritten agreement this once and allude to the circumstances that led up to it.
It began with a domestic. I had argued with my wife, my wife had argued with me, one of us had raised our voice - need I go on? A domestic is a domestic. These things happen. You know your Coleridge: "And to be wrath with one we love/Doth work like madness in the brain." One of my oldest friends used to fight the most savage battles with his wife - aerial encounters which left their house and garden looking like the plains of Agincourt - on the principle that the more blood they spilt the more they proved the strength of their attachment. That they divorced after five years of wrathful devotion only vindicates their argument. Who gets to five years these days? But I am already saying more than I meant to. Our domestic is relevant only in that we were supposed to be taking friends out to dinner shortly after but were not able to feel, in the circumstances, that we could keep the appointment. It was while I was charging blindly around Melbourne, leaving postponement notices under people's doors, that the "remarkable event" occurred.
You are wondering why I didn't use the phone? I couldn't find the phone.
Among those to whom I had to break the news that there would be no dinner overlooking the Bay in our company tonight, was the food writer Mietta O'Donnell. I mention her by name and reputation because these things are pertinent to my story. For many years, together with her partner, the photographer Tony Knox, Mietta O'Donnell ran the most sophisticated establishment in Australia - a chandeliered restaurant on one floor, a coffee house and club and cabaret and salon de the on another. Now you were in Bohemia, now you were in Versailles. If you happened to be a visiting musician or writer you were warmly welcomed at Mietta's, invited to try the best Australian wines, introduced to fellow practitioners, and perhaps given the opportunity to perform or read. Hospitality, is that what I'm describing? The word is too inflated. Yes, of course she could do the grande dame, but a gentle consideration was her speciality. She has always seemed able to read at once what your nervous system is in need of. She is a beautiful woman, fine-boned, exquisitely pale, soft-voiced, with still black Italian eyes. And that's what you realise you are in need of when you see her - her self-control. She quietens you, that's her great gift. She creates a space of calm around you. Recently, again with Tony Knox, she founded the Melbourne Song Recital Award. Not for any old singing. Not for belters. Not for old Wembley Stadium sperm chuckers like Pavarotti and Domingo. But for Art Song. The refinement of a singer alive to the subtleties of a poem and a single piano.
It was to this person that I ran first, an hour before we were due to meet, to say we weren't able, sorry. My distraction and my paleness - for I was paler tonight even than she was - alarmed her. For a moment she may have thought I was the bearer of terrible news. "Just an argument," I said. "A little too heated for us to dissemble across a dinner table, that's all. Sorry, sorry."
She shook her head. As if over the universal sadness of things. But also as if over my incorrigibility. I believe I felt put out. It wasn't as though I was always running white and breathless round to her place to say there'd been a domestic. Why, for all Mietta knew to the contrary, I lived in a country of the heart which did not even have a word for disagreement.
Was she blaming me? Without any information as to the rights and wrongs of the matter, was she assuming it was my fault?
However you explain it, what she did next astonished her as much as it astonished me. She raised her hand - that soft white considerate hand which had shown me to a table I do not know how many times - and slapped my face with it.
Imagine that! You arrive shaken at the door of a friend, you mention you have fallen out with your wife, and thwhack! It wasn't a hard slap, you understand. Its significance was entirely symbolic. But a slap on the face is a slap on the face. The fact that slaps on the face belong to an earlier phase in the history of strife between the sexes only added to the symbolism. Not only Mietta but the dark backward of time was paying me out. The Ghost of Domestics Past.
I gave a little gasp. "Oh!" I think I said. What else can you say? Then I fled.
By one of those dream-like coincidences that is always waiting when the world turns mad, I was no sooner back out on the street than I ran into John and Stephanie, the other friends we were to be dining with that night. I wasn't sure I had the courage to tell them of our troubles. What if Stephanie decided to slap my other cheek? What if John thought it appropriate to punch me on the nose?
A couple of days later, with peace aflutter at home, waiting only on the terms of treaty, I mentioned Mietta's slap. We laughed robustly over it. As I now realise Mietta must have known we would. Social tact, you see. Consideration so exquisite it stings
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