In the latest blogpost looking at museums in novels, we look at James Baldwin's Another Country.
Eric saw her at once, standing near the steps, just beyond the ticket-taker. She was pacing in a small circle and her back, as he entered, was to him. She wore her loose brown raincoat and her head was covered with a matching hood; and she played with the tip, white bone in the shape of a claw, of her thin umbrella. The museum was crowded, full of the stale, Sunday museum stink, aggravated now, by the damp. He came through the doors behind a great cloud of windy, rainy, broad-beamed ladies; and they formed, before him, a large, loud, rocking wall, as they shook their umbrellas and themselves and repeated to each other, in their triumphant voices, how awful the weather was. Three young men and their two young girls, scrubbed and milky, gleaming with their passion for improvement and the ease with which they moved amongst abstractions, were surrendering their tickets and passing through the barrier. Others were on the steps, going down, coming up, stationary, peering at each other like half-blinded birds and setting up a hideous whirr, as of flying feathers and boastful wings. Cass, small, pale and old-fashioned in her hood, restlessly pacing, disenchantedly watched all this; she glanced indifferently toward the resounding ladies, but did not see him; he was still trying to get through, or around the wall. He looked toward the people on the steps again, wondering why Cass had wished to meet here; it was only too probable that these sacred and sterile halls contained, blocking a corridor or half-hidden by a spinning mass of statuary, someone that they knew. Cass, resignedly lit a cigarette half-turning in her small, imaginary cage. People now came crushing in through the doors behind him, and their greater pressure spat him past the ladies. He touched Cass on the shoulder.
At his touch, she seemed to spring. Her eyes came alive at once, and her pale lips tensed. And her smile was pale. She said. ‘Oh, I thought you’d never get here.’
He had surmounted a desperate temptation not to come at all, and had half-hoped that he would not find her there. She was so pale and seemed, in this cold, dazzling place, so helpless, that his heart turned over. He was half an hour late. He said, ‘Dear Cass, please forgive me, it’s hard to get anywhere in weather like this. How are you?’
‘Dead.’ She did not move, merely stared at the tip of her cigarette as though she were hypnotised by it. ‘I’ve had no sleep.’ Her voice was very light and calm.
‘You picked a strange place for us to meet.’
‘Did I?’ She looked unseeingly around; then looked at him. The blank despair in her face seemed to take notice, in the far distance, of him, and her face softened into sorrow. ‘I guess I did. I just thought—well, nobody’s likely to overhear us, and I–I just couldn’t think of any other place.’
He had been about to suggest that they leave, but her white face and the fact of the rain checked him. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. He took her arm, they started aimlessly up the steps. He realised that he was terribly hungry.
‘I can’t stay with you very long, because I left the kids alone. But I told Richard that I was coming out—that I was going to try to see you today.’
They reached the first of a labyrinthine series of rooms, shifting and crackling with groups of people, with bright paintings above and around them, and stretching into the far distance, like tombstones with unreadable inscriptions. The people moved in waves, like tourists in a foreign graveyard. Occasionally a single mourner, dreaming of some vanished relationship, stood alone in adoration or reverie before a massive memorial—but they mainly evinced, moving restlessly here and there, the democratic gaiety. Cass and Eric moved in some panic through this crowd, trying to find a quieter place; through fields of French impressionists and cubists and cacophonous modern masters, into a smaller room dominated by an enormous painting, executed, principally, in red, before which two students, a girl and a boy, stood holding hands.
‘Was it very bad, Cass? Last night?’
He asked this in a low voice as they stood before a painting in cool yellow, of a girl with a long neck, in a yellow dress, with yellow hair.
‘Yes.’ Her hood obscured her face; it was hot in the museum; she threw the hood back. Her hair was dishevelled on the brow and trailing at the neck: she looked weary and old. ‘At first, it was awful because I hadn’t realised how much I’d hurt him. He can suffer after all,’ and she looked at Eric quickly, and looked away. They moved away from the yellow painting and faced another one, of a street with canals, somewhere in Europe. ‘And—no matter what has happened since, I did love him very much, and he was my whole life, and he’ll always be very important to me.’ She paused. ‘I suppose he made me feel terribly guilty. I didn’t know that would happen. I didn’t think it could—but—it did.’ She paused again, her shoulders sagging with a weary and proud defeat. Then she touched his hand. ‘I hate to tell you that—but I must try to tell you all of it. He frightened me, too, he frightened me because I was suddenly terribly afraid of losing the children and I cannot live without them.’ She moved one hand over her brow, uselessly pushing up her hair. ‘I didn’t have to tell him; he didn’t really know, he didn’t suspect you at all, of course; he thought it was Vivaldo. I told him because I thought he had a right to know, that if we were going to—continue—together, we could begin again on a new basis, with everything clear between us. But I was wrong. Some things cannot be clear.’
The boy and girl were coming to their side of the room. Cass and Eric crossed over, to stand beneath the red painting. ‘Or perhaps some things are clear, only one won’t face these things. I don’t know. . . . Anyway I didn’t think he’d threaten me, I didn’t think he’d try to frighten me. If he were leaving me, if he were being unfaithful to me—unfaithful, what a word! I don’t think I’d try to hold him that way. I don’t think I’d try to punish him. After all—he doesn’t belong to me, nobody belongs to anybody.’
They began walking again, down a long corridor, toward the ladies. ‘He said these terrible things to me, he said that he would sue me for divorce , and take Paul and Michael away from me. And I listened to him, it doesn’t seem real. I didn’t see how he could say those things, if he ever loved me. And I watched him. I could he see that he was saying those things just to hurt me to hurt me because he’d been hurt–like a child. And I saw that I loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed for so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real. And I felt betrayed, I felt that I’d betrayed myself, and you, and everything—of value, everything anyway, that one aspires to become, one doesn’t want to be simply another grey, shapeless monster.’ They passed the cheerful ladies and Cass looked at them with wonder and with hatred. ‘Oh, God. It’s a miserable world.’
He said nothing, for he did not know what to say, and they continued their frightening promenade through the icy and angular jungle. The colours on the walls blared art them—like frozen music; he had the feeling that these rooms would never cease folding in on each other, that this labyrinth was eternal. And a sorrow entered him for Cass stronger than any love he had ever felt for her. She stood as erect as a soldier, moving straight ahead, and no bigger, as they said in the South, than a minute. He wished that he could rescue her, that it was within his power to rescue her and make her life less hard. But it was only love which could accomplish the miracle of making a life bearable—only love, and love itself mostly failed; and he had never loved her. He had used her to find out something about himself. And even this was not true. He had used her in the hope of avoiding a confrontation with himself which he had, nevertheless, and with a vengeance, been forced to endure. He felt as far removed from Cass now, in her terrible hour, as he was physically removed from Yves. Space howled between them like a flood. And whereas, with every moment now, Yves was coming closer, defeating all that water, and, as he approached, becoming more unreal, Cass was being driven farther away, was already in the unconquerable distance where she would be wrapped about by reality, unalterable forever, as a corpse is wrapped in a shroud. Therefore his sorrow, now that he was helpless, luxuriously stretched and reached. ‘You’ll never be a monster,’ he said, never.’ What’s happening is unspeakable, I know, but it can’t defeat you. You can’t go under, you’ve come too far.’
‘I think I know that I won’t be. But what I’m going to become—that I don’t see at all. And I’m afraid.’
They passed not far from a weary guard, who looked blinded and dazzled, as though he had never been able to escape the light. Before them was a large and violent canvas in greens and reds and blacks, in blocks and circles, in daggerlike exclamations; it took a flying leap, as it were, from the wall, poised for the spectator’s eyeballs; and at the same time it seemed to stretch endlessly and adoringly in on itself, reaching back into an unspeakable chaos. It was aggressively and superbly uncharming and unreadable and might have been painted by a lonely and bloodthirsty tyrant, who had been cheated of his victims. ‘How horrible,’ Cass murmured, but she did not move; for they had this corner, except for the guard, to themselves.